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A Philosopher's History of the French Revolution

1688, liberty was (re)invented. In England, having been brewing there for many centuries, with many setbacks.. (It had previously existed in ancient Greece, especially Athens.)

A hundred years later, Anglophiles in France wanted it too. They advocated liberty and explained why it was a good idea to the French.

Many Frenchmen were confused, impatient, angry, and ignorant. The French philosophers did not understand liberty as well as the English did, and the French peasants understood much less than that.

As the revolution began, most of England thought the French were finally catching up and becoming more like England. That's what the better French philosophers hoped for.

Unfortunately, the mainstream French approach had several crucial mistakes. Edmund Burke noticed these mistakes and wrote a book explaining them and also making accurate predictions about the violence that was to come. As William Godwin put it, "Mr Burke is entitled to great applause for having seen earlier than perhaps any other man the events the seeds of which were sown in the French revolution."

Burke was a lifelong advocate of reform in England. He would have liked France to have liberty too. But as Burke understood, there are different approaches to reform, some of which are effective, and some of which are ineffective or worse. Wanting liberty is not enough to get liberty; misguided approaches typically lead to disaster.

Burke carefully explained in his book that the French approach was not following the English lead, but instead was doing many things quite differently. Of particular note, the English way was to attempt gradual reforms; there should be no sweeping changes unless that is the only possible way forward. France had already been reforming; the King had implemented some reforms and was somehwat sympathetic to liberty, as were many of the aristocracy; so why, then, was there any revolution at all? The French Revolutionaries threw away progress in hand for unrealistic dreams of shortcuts to much larger progress.

Burke also explained that the French made mistakes in political philosophy. They didn't understand how important it was to build on existing traditions, and improve on existing political institions. They thought they could build new things that would be better, but that is folly for any new thing is bound to have its own problems; the way we get good things is not about sweeping away all existing institutions and doing it right once and for all, but about correcting errors.

Burke respected the value of the men and ideas that came before him, and hoped to do even better. Many of the French did not respect their existing ideas, and didn't see any value in them. Because they failed to understand the valuable parts of their existing system, they failed to incorporate those useful parts into their new system.

The French wanted fast progress, but shortcuts don't work. As Godwin explained, if you change a country overnight, but the populace does not understand the new way, they will simply follow their existing ideas and revert things back to the old ways. Reforms must come after knowledge; they must be understood first and implemented second. In this way, reforms happen easily, almost automatically, after most people already want them, instead of being a struggle, and there is no problem of reverting. This way has a further large advantage: if we have a new idea and implement it right away, it might be a mistake. If we first persuade most people in the country of the idea, then in all that discussion we may improve the idea or reject it; error correction happens in the persuasion phase.

Due to its mistakes, the French Revolution became a violent mess that set liberty back not only in France but also in the rest of Europe, and even in England where it disheartened many reformers and, due to a real danger of revolutionary violence, temporary suppression of open debate was deemed necessary.

Elliot Temple on September 24, 2010


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