Long Live the King

Jul 14, 2014

Today is Bastille Day in France, a holiday that commemorates the ambiguous legacy of July 14th 1789. This was the date when the people of Paris – or some of them - stormed the prison called La Bastille, and released a rather disappointing total of seven political prisoners. This rebellion led directly to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Authoritarian regimes everywhere have learned from these unfortunate events to keep their political prisoners in remote and inaccessible places. The old Bastille prison is long gone, but this is still a very significant site for Parisians who remember any history prior to yesterday’s lunch.

Bastille Day seems superficially similar to the Fourth of July: there are flags, there are fireworks, there are speeches – and everybody goes to the beach. BUT it’s really a very different kind of celebration. The Fourth is about national independence and patriotism, but the fourteenth was really a revolution of the poor against the rich, especially against the king and the aristocracy.

After Bastille Day in 1789 there was a period of anarchy called The Terror, symbolized by the guillotine. King Louis XVI was tried and executed, and France fell into chaos. I was talking to my French teacher about this, or rather she was talking to me while I tried to say as little as possible. 

We were discussing the old, unresolved question about how much power any one ruler should have. You may remember from college an English philosopher called Thomas Hobbes who in 1651 published a remarkable book called Leviathan, in which he argued that our only security lies in giving absolute power to one individual – a king, an emperor, a dictator – who will protect us from external threats and, just as important, from each other. Remove the absolute ruler and anarchy is the result. This is what happens on a smaller scale when a strict teacher steps out of the classroom for a moment and the kids explode into total disorder. In Thomas Hobbes’s view we were all unruly children who could not be trusted for a moment without strict supervision.

This is a very conservative argument, but it’s hard to avoid comparing the French Revolution with the Arab Spring that turned so quickly into winter.Repressive dictators fell all over the region, and look what happened next – the kids went wild. Plato had this all worked out a long time ago, and even Winston Churchill was skeptical about the benefits of popular rule. "The best argument against democracy," he grumbled, "Is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." In a newspaper interview, M. Roger de Prévoisin the leader of the Royalist Party of France, claimed that a king – a real king - would bring the whole disorderly country together and restore its former glory.

We’re not really supposed to even think about the subversive appeal of an absolute ruler, especially not if we are lucky enough to live in a democracy. But it’s one of those political conundrums that has not been solved in four hundred years, so at least it’s worth a moment of reflection, especially on Bastille Day. Order and freedom pull in opposite directions: there’s no getting around it, unless we find a way to change human nature.

Now I have to write an essay in the return of the monarchy for my French class next week, and I suppose this is it.

Happy Bastille Day.

Copyright: David Bouchier