Talleyrand was a French diplomat who survived all the way from before the Revolution to Napoleon’s reign. His biography is called Talleyrand: The Art of Survival.
Therein I read these words:
[Mirabeau’s] death left an ever-widening gulf between the throne and the radicals into which the nation was about to be violently swept. Talleyrand hoped that Louis XVI would see the danger and come to his senses….
On May 7, 1791, Talleyrand gave a remarkable speech. He who had sworn to uphold the Civil Constitution now defended freedom of conscience in non-juror priests. “It is time we recognize that freedom of opinion is not a hollow phrase in the Declaration of Human Rights, that it is a genuine freedom, a real possession no less sacred or inviolate than others, and must be protected.” That was his concept of liberty.
Liberty, alas, barely born, was struggling to survive. Those who had voted for the Declaration already needed reminding that freedom of speech extended to dissenters as well. We encounter this amazing stricture: “Let us hear no more of tolerance: this prevalent word is insulting and should be stricken from the vocabulary of a free and informed people.” Twentieth century talk.
Now you have read them too. A few thoughts:
I often hear it said that we are headed for or are in a time of trouble as a nation, but that, no, nothing like France, or Germany, or Russia would happen here. I ask, “Why not?”
Nothing like France, Germany, or Russia had happened in France, Germany, or Russia before France, Germany, and Russia happened either.
There is a poison in ideological, revolutionary thought that, to switch metaphors, builds its own momentum. When the cat has been released from the bag, when the dam breaks, when Pandora opens the box, there is no telling where the released energies will go and what they will carry away in their flood.
There is an intolerance in revolutionary righteousness that makes the Pharisees look like school marms.
When tolerance is the appeal of the relativist, you should know – because human nature does not change – that he will drop the facade as soon as he can.
We are witnessing that removing of the mask in our nation today. It is in the logic of revolution.
When everything is political, everything must be policed. The revolutionary wants everything to be political, therefore he wants everything to be policed.
I’ll say this: we’ve made it a lot more complicated than Russia and France did, and maybe also than Germany did. It’s going to be harder to convince any body on any side that freedom of speech is a good thing, partly because there have always been boundaries to that freedom. In the human condition, freedom always has to be defined and within that definition it has to be protected. If it isn’t, it won’t survive.
When it became an abstraction it became a political tool. There is a notion abroad that all censorship is bad. That is what led to the triumph of pornography in our culture. Now the pornographers aggressively censor those who disagree with them. They have to, because those who disagree with them don’t think they should have freedom of expression. That is why the sexual revolution cannot coexist with the principles of freedom that our country previously assumed.
It’s going to be harder to convince anyone on any side that they should not destroy property, that they should not injure people, that they should not silence people, that they should not manipulate information.
But when chaos erupts it leads to suppression and there are those who think they are prepared for that day. We’ll see. At least some of us will see.
What are we to do when it’s the end of the world as we know it and everybody starts to mind again?
I say, just keep doing what you were called to do in the first place. It takes a few years to tear down a sophisticated political system or social structure. It takes lifetimes to build them up. Both start with committed marriages and private property.
So commit yourself to your spouse, take good care of your property, share your resources with others in need, and pursue your vocation as an offering to God. Just like always. Just don’t delude yourself into believing that any status quo has ever stayed static in the history of the world.
At so many levels, to quote the ancient investment adage: No, this time things are not different. They never are. The faster things change, the more they reveal the unmoving center.