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Sunday, December 9, 2018

On Philosophers Who Demand Immediate Perfection

The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Alexis de Tocqueville points out in his book The Old Regime and the Revolution that the French Revolution was doomed because it was being led by philosophers whose learning came mostly from books and who had no experience of running an institution or a country. These philosophers demanded immediate perfection. They destroyed all the political and cultural institutions in France in order to make a new beginning. They naively believed that a great new nation can be built quickly by the ideas of “reason” alone.

Susan Dunn looks at Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution in her book Sister Revolutions: French Lightening, American Light. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2, “Revolutionary Leadership”:
Ultimately, the men who were attuned to change, who had insight into the movement of society, were not men of experience of power but rather men of imagination and vision: France’s men of letters. Whereas experienced politicians dismissed as a preposterous fantasy the idea of radically changing France’s political and social structure, intellectuals possessed the audacity and imagination to believe that people could transform French society. Only they had the creativity and vision to think that they could build, on top of the ruins of the old order, a just society. 
Here’s another passage from the chapter:
And yet, French men of letters went too far. Tocqueville deplored their plan to replace in one swift move complex and ancient institutions with abstract systems, with “simple and elementary rules.” The basic societal changes that took place may have been both inevitable and desirable, but Tocqueville thought it neither inevitable or desirable that they should be brought about through convulsive and traumatic means. It was the brutal and violent character of the Revolution, not its underlying political principles, aims, or vision, that Tocqueville condemned and for which he faulted, not politicians, but men of letters. He did not blame intellectuals for wanting to destroy the hated abuses of the Old Régime, he explained, but he did blame the naive, arrogant manner in which they went about this “necessary destruction.” 
The irony is that the philosophers who were the proponents of this total and sudden transformation of French society could not escape the fury of the Revolution. They too were consumed by the violence that swept France. 

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