Arnold Toynbee, in his “A Study of History” saw the French Revolution as the point when our civilisation stopped growing and started breaking down. By comparing numerous civilisations, Toynbee was able to identify the eruption of a class war as the common preliminary of social disintegration, and he explained that the explosion of civil violence was a result of the tyranny of the ruling class:
“The dominant minority is a perversion of the creative minority whose role of leadership it has inherited, and it embarks on a policy of social repression in order to impose by force the authority which it is no longer accorded in virtue of merit; the internal proletariat comprises that majority within a society which has formerly given its voluntary allegiance to a creative leadership, but which is now increasingly alienated from its own society by the coercive despotism of its corrupted masters…”
While the rhetoric of the French revolutionaries may support Toynbeeʼs view about their king, an English contemporary denied this was the truth. Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France made the opposite claim, stating:
They (the parliament of France) have seen the French rebel against a mild and lawful monarch, with more fury, outrage, and insult, than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper, or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession; their revolt was from protection; their blow was aimed at a hand holding out graces, favours, and immunities.
It was not the rulers, but the ruled, who had abused their trust.
“France, by the perfidy of her leaders, has disgraced the tone of lenient council in the cabinets of princes, and disarmed it of its most potent topics. She has sanctified the dark, suspicious maxims of tyrannous distrust, and taught kings to tremble at (what will hereafter be called) the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians. Sovereigns will consider those, who advise them to place an unlimited confidence in their people, as subverters of their thrones; as traitors who aim at their destruction, by leading their easy good-nature, under specious pretences, to admit combinations of bold and faithless men into a participation of their power.”
And he made it clear in “Thoughts of French Affairs” that this subversion of legal and constitutional government was inspired by private ambition:
“Formerly few, except the ambitious great, or the desperate and indigent, were to be feared as instruments in revolutions. What has happened in France teaches us, with many other things, that there are more causes than have commonly been taken into our consideration, by which government may be subverted. The monied men, merchants, principal tradesmen, and men of letters (hitherto generally thought the peaceable and even timid part of society), are the chief actors in the French revolution. But the fact is, that as money increases and circulates, and as the circulation of news, in politics and letters, becomes more and more diffused, the persons who diffuse this money, and this intelligence, become more and more important. This was not long undiscovered. Views of ambition were in France, for the first time, presented to these classes of men. Objects in the state, in the army, in the system of civil offices of every kind. Their eyes were dazzled with this new prospect. They were, as it were, electrified and made to lose the natural spirit of their situation. A bribe, great without example in the history of the world, was held out to them—the whole government of a very large kingdom.”
But he readily accepted there would be widespread support for the extinction of the monarchy throughout Europe.
“This system has very many partisans in every country in Europe, but particularly in England, where they are already formed into a body, comprehending most of the dissenters of the three leading denominations; to these are readily aggregated all who are dissenters in character, temper, and disposition, though not belonging to any of their congregations—that is, all the restless people who resemble them, of all ranks and all parties Whigs, and even Tories—the whole race of half-bred speculators;—all the Atheists, Deists, and Socinians;—all those who hate the clergy, and envy the nobility…”
Nor did he feel that the movement could be halted, declaring that the “Spread of Dangerous Opinions” and “The General State of Rottenness” would become so widespread as to be considered as normal, for under the heading “What is to be done?” he stated:
“It would be presumption in me to do more than to make a case. Many things occur. But as they, like all political measures, depend on dispositions, tempers, means, and external circumstances, for all their effect, not being well assured of these, I do not know how to let loose any speculations of mine on the subject. The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe, for ever. It has given me many anxious moments for the two last years. If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”
The real nature of the French Revolution is revealed by its principles, which Burke explained in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” as:
“The political dogma, which, upon the new French system is to unite the factions of different nations, is this,”
“That the majority, told by the head, of the taxable people in every country, is the perpetual, natural, unceasing, indefeasible sovereign; that this majority is perfectly master of the form, as well as the administration, of the state, and that the magistrates, under whatever names they are called, are only functionaries to obey the orders (general as laws or particular as decrees) which that majority may make—that this is the only natural government; that all others are tyranny and usurpation.”
And Burkeʼs denunciation of this ‘natural governmentʼ in his essay leaves no doubt that he considered this declaration by the people of their desire to be ruled by the ‘occasional will’ of the majority, to be the worst form of rule, unrestrained and unaccountable:
“All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust: and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.
This principle ought even to be more strongly impressed upon the minds of those who compose the collective sovereignty, than upon those of single princes. Without instruments these princes can do nothing. Whoever uses instruments in finding helps, finds also impediments. Their power is therefore by no means complete; nor are they safe in extreme abuse. Such persons, however elevated by flattery, arrogance, and self-opinion, must be sensible, that, whether covered or not by positive law, in some way or other they are accountable even here for the abuse of their trust. If they are not cut off by a rebellion of their people, they may be strangled by the very janissaries kept for their security against all other rebellion. But where popular authority is absolute and unrestrained, the people have an infinitely greater, because a far better founded, confidence in their own power. They are themselves, in a great measure, their own instruments. They are nearer to their objects. Besides, they are less under responsibility to one of the greatest controlling powers on earth, the sense of fame and estimation. The share of infamy, that is likely to fall to the lot of each individual in public acts, is small indeed; the operation of opinion being in the inverse ratio to the number of those who abuse power. Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. No man apprehends in his person that he can be made subject to punishment. Certainly the people at large never ought: for as all punishments are for example towards the conservation of the people at large, the people at large can never become the subject of punishment by any human hand.”
Burke made it clear that the democracy demanded by the French Revolution, and later adopted in principle throughout Europe and America, was a call for “shameless” and “fearless” rule.
The popular support for this form of government within the Western world revealed by the adoption of universal suffrage, means the majority of citizens no longer consider themselves loyal subjects, but individuals who recognise no authority but their own wishes, which is the rule of selfishness.
The French Revolution was not a protest against tyranny, but against authority. It marked the time when Authority stopped being the master and started being the servant of its charges. Which was a choice to abandon sense—sensible rule, where parents rule children—to choose nonsense—the rule by popular whim, where children rule parents.
Being ruled by the occasional will of the people, which is democracy, is to replace the rule of wisdom with the rule of wishes, and inevitably obtain social decline.