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Ravenous fervor

Revolutions seem fun at first—until they turn against their own

Ravenous fervor

Robespierre being put to the guillotine after the French Revolution (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

“The revolution devours its children” (Jacques Mallet du Pan, 1749-1800).

“But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

An attempt at a lighthearted group text went badly recently when I said that my 93-year-old father had had a pleasant day in Philadelphia on his own: had walked to the Glenside station by himself, hopped on a train, disembarked at Jefferson station, milled around Chinatown, made no purchases, and returned home—total cost of the adventure, $2. One of the recipients texted back, “Cool, where’s Jefferson station?” I replied, “It’s the new name for Market East station,” then added a second later, “But they will have to rename it once more because Jefferson had slaves.”

All heck broke loose, and it took days to clean up the mess I had created by my insensitivity.

Revolutions at first are always fun. Life can get boring, after all, and zeal is fun. The Apostle Paul himself liked zeal: “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good” (Galatians 4:18).

Great was the disillusionment of naïve supporters of the overthrow of the Bourbons.

Ah, there’s the rub. Is the purpose good? Is it well thought out? For we know that it is sometimes not, for violence is its own intoxicant: “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together”(Acts 19:32). Don’t bother me with the facts! I’m trying to have a revolution here!

William Wordsworth was 19 when the French Revolution broke out, and he was caught up in its raw energy so reminiscent of the forces of Nature he idolized. Maybe you sexagenarians and septuagenarians will remember the heady Vietnam campus protest days captured to a T in Wordsworth’s poem:

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times, / In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways / Of custom, law, and statute, took at once / The attraction of a country in romance! / When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights /…Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, / Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! / But in the very world, which is the world / Of all of us,—the place where in the end / We find our happiness, or not at all!”

Great was the disillusionment of naïve supporters of the overthrow of the Bourbons when soon the bloodbath enlarged its embrace to swallow up not only Royalists but even moderate Girondists, and in the last, revolutionary architect Maximilien Robespierre himself. Oh bitter gods of Irony! Camille Desmoulins, pro-revolutionary journalist who finally saw the wrath of Dr. Guillotin’s razor, wrote bewildered to his wife from prison on execution eve: “It is marvelous that I have walked for five years along the precipices of the Revolution without falling over them. … I have dreamed of a Republic such as all the world would have adored. I could never have believed that men could be so ferocious and so unjust.”

Bewilderment must have been the Charlottesville City Council’s too when, after members had proudly conceived the idea of taking down offensive statues, they opened their meeting to the public and found it hijacked by leftist protesters who shouted them down.

And did Brown University think to have inoculated itself from ravenous fervor by its famously progressive public stands and a Native American and Indigenous Studies program? This very hour Pokanoket Native American tribes encamp on University grounds in Bristol, R.I., demanding the land’s return to them as their rightful ancestral home. Show us the bill of sale, they cry.

Wordsworth wrote a follow-up poem not so ebullient as the former:

“Domestic carnage now filled the whole year / With feast-days; old men from the chimney-nook, / The maiden from the bosom of her love, / The mother from the cradle of her babe, / The warrior from the field—all perished, all— / Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, / Head after head, and never heads enough / For those that bade them fall.”

But for my money the earlier poem showed the seeds of the problem best: that those who say our happiness must be found in “the very world … or not at all” have consigned themselves to the ravage of ravenous swords.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 09/14/2017 10:32 pm

    These things happen when we stop seeing God's image in our neighbors.

  • isabellarcher
    Posted: Thu, 09/14/2017 11:19 pm

    The Jefferson station comment sounds like a reasonable, and quite likely a true bit of speculation to me.  Hardly seems worth someone getting all puffer-fished up for days over it.  Hm.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 09/18/2017 05:38 am

    Insensitive is a key word.  It seems anytime one comes close to the truth and the other side reacts in fierce, often violent rage the first speaker is "insensitive".   

  • Trumpetly Speaking
    Posted: Mon, 09/18/2017 03:11 pm

    ...absolutely right to compare today's unrest to the French Revolution.  It seems we must hurt and punish rather than simply reform.  We crave the fight when words would suffice to bring the needed change.  And in the ensuing violence, the seeds are sown for the next revolution.  It never ends.  Thank you for your writing, Ms. Peterson.  I follow your thoughts and pray for calm in our country.