A Tale of Two Revolutions

By Ryan Thomas

Trump vs. Hillary? Few events in recent American history have been so compelling, so divisive, and so all absorbing as this recent election season. Certainly nothing in my lifetime has been as starkly illustrative as to the state of our country as “Election 2016.” We’ve all heard it a thousand times and quoted it a hundred, but let’s really take it to heart:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana1

A Tale of Two Revolutions

In 1775, thirteen seaboard colonies rebelled against the most powerful empire in the world, defeated their professional armies, and won their independence. By 1791, a mere 16 years later, they were a republic united under the rule of law, governed by one of the most extraordinary and influential documents in world history: America and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights—today a model for one-third of the governments of the world.

In 1789, across the Atlantic, a people rebelled against their tyrannical leaders, sent tens of thousands of men and women to the guillotine, went through four governments in 10 years, bathed a country in a sea of blood, and ended back in tyranny under the dictatorship of Napoleon: The French Revolution. (France has been through approximately eleven subsequent governments since 1799.)

What was the difference?

In 1790, just one year into the French Revolution, an Irish-born member of the English Parliament named Edmund Burke wrote “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”2 In it, he strongly condemned the Revolution and predicted with rather astonishing foresight where the Revolution would lead.

But how did Burke know? And what was the difference from the Revolution just across the Atlantic? (He had been understandingly supportive of the American Revolution.) And what does this have to do with America in 2016? And what does it have to do with you and me?

Here is Burke in 1790 discussing the French Revolution:

“But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”3

“It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”4

“Liberty does not exist in the absence of morality.”

The French Revolution failed and became a bloody disaster because feelings took the place of ideas, passion overrode principle, lust trod over law, and because the MANUAL (Scripture) for shaping virtue, building valor, and testing ideas was tossed aside and trampled upon. “Freedom” and feelings were exalted over wisdom and virtue. Ideas weren’t examined and feelings became the basis of actions.

To distill the difference between the respective revolutions down to a paragraph might be a bit of an oversimplification, but I shall try my hand at it nevertheless. For the one, wisdom and virtue were the test for feelings, the essence of policy, and the standard for action. For the other, feelings were the only wisdom and virtue. For the one, virtue was the universal value of chief importance. For the other, unhinged, unrestricted, unbridled freedom was the universal value of chief importance. For the one, virtuous law was the measure of men. For the other, self lawlessness was the measure of government.

Ideas have consequences. Ideas shape and determine every person, every family, every marriage, every society, every movement, (including the homeschool movement) every culture, and every nation.

Burke again: “History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites. . . .”5In light of Burke’s insight here, consider these “isms:”

Racism / Sexism
Fascism / Naziism
Marxism / Communism

All self-born, self-measured ideas about the superiority of self.

I’m not primarily alarmed that Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton was to be our next president. But I am alarmed that we’ve forgotten that ideas matter, that we’ve looked no further than our feelings for the depth of our ideas, that our ideas have lost all their moorings to wisdom and virtue, that the buzzword for virtue today is tolerance (which has nothing to do with virtue.) I am alarmed that our feelings have become our facts and that we know nothing of “the glory of kings.” (Prov. 25:2)

But I realize that I have to stop and think, as I am doing even now as I sit and type this: Am I any different? Am I seeking matters out deeply? Do I hold my own beliefs and ideas as the standard without searching deeply to “know wisdom”? Do we substitute our conservatism, our dogmatism, our religionism or our church-ism for searching out a matter deeply? Do we measure Truth by our beliefs or does Truth test and conquer our beliefs?

Young man or young woman (I am still myself young): Many are the people who want to change the world. Yet few there are who study to show themselves approved in the only currency of worthwhile change the world has ever known: Right ideas—or, in a word, truth. Guns don’t alter the world, wealth doesn’t alter the world, and power doesn’t really alter the world. Ideas alter the world!

One final dose of Edmund Burke

“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . .in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”6

Ryan Thomas is a husband, business owner, athlete, mountain climber, and part-time ministry leader, speaker, teacher, and a few other things in his spare time. After graduating from high school in 2006 (homeschooled), Ryan started a business that today has several employees and has enabled him to pursue ministry on a more full-time basis.

Ryan completed the advanced course at Ellerslie Leadership Training in Windsor, Colorado in 2013 and has since pastored (short term) an orphanage in Haiti, co-led a leadership development program for training camp counsellors, and led a pilot team for developing a discipleship school in New England.

1 The Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner’s, 1905), p. 284.

2 The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir, 3 vols (New York: George Dearborn, 1835), vol. 1, pp. 456-567. References to “Reflections” hereafter are to this edition.

3 Ibid. p. 565.

4 A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791, in The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir, vol. 1, p. 583.

5 Reflections on the French Revolution, p. 518.

6 Maxims, Opinions and Characters, Moral, Political, and Economical, from the Works of The Right Hon. Edmund Burke, 3rd edition (London: Wittingham and Arliss, 1815), pp. 175-6.

 

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