When we remember…that the French nation, excluded as it was from the conduct of its own affairs, lacking in political experience, shackled by ancient institutions and powerless to reform them when we remember that this was the most literary-minded of all nations and intellectually quickest in the uptake, it is easy to understand why our authors became a power in the land and ended up as its political leaders.
In England writers on the theory of government and those who actually governed co-operated with each other, the former setting forth their new theories, the latter amending or circumscribing these in the light of practical experience. In France, however, precept and practice were kept quit distinct and remained in the hands of two quite independent groups. One of these carried on the actual administration while the other set forth the abstract principles on which good government should, they said, be based; one took the routine measures appropriate to the needs of the moment, the other propounded general laws without a thought for their practical application; one group shaped the course of public affairs, the other that of public opinion.
Thus alongside the traditional and confused, not to say chaotic, social system of the day there was gradually built up in men’s minds an imaginary ideal society in which all was simple, uniform, coherent, equitable, and rational in the full sense of the term. It was this vision of the perfect State that fired the imagination of the masses and little by little estranged them from the here-and-now. Turning away from the real world around them, they indulged in dreams of a far better one and ended up by living, spiritually, in the ideal world thought up by the writers.
The French Revolution has often been regarded as a consequence of the American and there is no denying that the latter had considerable influence on it. But it was due less to what actually took place in the United States than to ideas then prevalent in France. To the rest of Europe the American Revolution seemed merely a novel and remarkable historical event; whereas the French saw in it a brilliant confirmation of theories already familiar to them. Elsewhere it merely shocked and startled; for the French it was conclusive proof that they were in the right. Indeed, the Americans seemed only to be putting into practice ideas which had been sponsored by our writers, and to be making our dreams their realities… Never before had the entire political education of a great nation been the work of its men of letters and it was this peculiarity that perhaps did most to give the French Revolution its exceptional character and the regime that followed it the form we are familiar with.
Our men of letters did not merely impart their revolutionary ideas to the French nation; they also shaped the national temperament and outlook on life. In the long process of moulding men’s minds to their ideal pattern their task was all the easier since the French had had no training in the field of politics, and they thus had a clear field. The result was that our writers ended up by giving the Franchman the instincts, the turn of mind, the tastes, and even the eccentricities characteristic of the literary man. And when the time came for action, these literary propensities were imported into the political arena.
When we closely study the French Revolution we find that it was conducted in precisely the same spirit as that which gave rise to so many books expounding theories of government in the abstract. Our revolutionaries had the same fondness for broad generalisations, cut-and-dried legislative systems, and a pedantic symmetry; the same contempt for hard facts; the same taste for reshaping institutions on novel ingenious, original lines; the same desire to reconstruct the entire constitution according to the rules of logic and a preconceived system instead of trying to rectify its faulty parts. The result was nothing short of disastrous; for what is merit in the writer may well be a vice in the statesman and the very qualities which go to make great literature can lead to catastrophic revolutions.
Alexis de Tocqueville is arguably one of the greatest political thinkers of the 19th Century. This passage is taken from his book, “Old Regime and the French Revolution,” one of the most insightful accounts of that great event in history. Unfortunately, he could complete only the first section before his death. De Tocqueville brings to his study of the French Revolution the same sharpness of mind, observation and intellect that characterised his earlier work, “Democracy in America”. The translation is by Stuart Gilbert.