I have been continuously obsessed with the French Revolution since I first learned about it in grade school. Only the Renaissance rivaled this event for me from that time forward, for in my youth I was an artist, and only halfway through college did I make a complete switch from art to writing. It is only in writing these lines that I have discovered why both of these moments in history have had such a lasting impact on me.
The Renaissance was pivotal in the development of the individual as a separate entity from the society in which a person lived. It was a moment in which primarily males began to learn and study for themselves, on their own terms, in which their intellectual pursuits became their own, and not bound by the Catholic Church’s traditions and dogmas and its control over knowledge. Although Italian Renaissance artists depicted religious scenes as required by the Church and other patrons, they also painted images and sculpted pieces that had classical heroes and myths as their subject. Men like Leonardo da Vinci educated themselves on an array of topics and learned their art from a master before becoming innovative talents and artistic geniuses in their own right. Two progressive, explosive events that helped shape this period and the future for all time were the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther’s attack on the Church’s grip on the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of the faithful, leading to the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.
These events fed into each other in that ordinary, non-scholastic individuals could now become literate and not rely solely on the teachings and ideas of others to become educated. What they eventually first became versed in was the Bible, which Luther claimed all people had the right to know firsthand and interpret as best as they knew how. With the birth of the printing press the Church began to gradually lose its monopoly on knowledge and what and how its believers learned. The Renaissance empowered people to become individuals, to have their own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and make them known despite the power of the Church to censor and censure them in various ways if it believed they were further attempting to weaken the Church’s power through their own ideas. The Church has always hated and feared change, for liberal ideas are the change that continually endangers its survival, and that of any restrictive, conservative ideology and institution that professes a belief in freedom but in practice continually seeks to undermine that freedom so as to keep minds closed and the tribe itself “pure” and intact.
The French Revolution, as with its American predecessor, initially attempted to empower the individual (here, specifically the bourgeoisie) through an inauguration of rights and freedoms that were constitutionally enshrined, hence politicizing the individual as a force against state tyranny (in this instance, the monarchy). The sweep and ferocity of the French Revolution, the blood bathing the streets, the people becoming a blind mob whose will devoured all those who stood in its way, the idealism eventually morphing into the Terror and a lust for power at every possible level and opportunity, all these things have held my mind with an allure that has not be dulled after almost thirty years.
I look upon the Renaissance as the generator of the concept of “the individual,” whose burgeoning consciousness marks him off as separate from the other members of the Church and his countrymen, making him “modern,” able to engage with the world on his own terms, owning his personhood, no longer having to believe in and abide by the oppressive ruling power of the Church because knowledge through the printed word was now freely available to him for his own edification provided he was literate and could pay for the book. The French Revolution, coming on the heels of the American, politicized this notion of the individual on the Continent by pronouncing and fighting for his natural and civil rights as a human being protected against the tyrannous measures of the state. It is, in many respects, these two periods we have to thank for the spreading of the ideas of freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of religious worship, among others, and the European movement toward the liberal ideals of democracy and the nation-state, despite the double-edged sword of nationalism that was born alongside the latter. No great idea, we must remember, arrives into this very human world without its often ugly, malicious handmaiden.
The rights and freedoms of the individual as a “political animal” have been oppressed and unshackled in turn as the pendulum swings with the sharpest of oscillations to the right and left for the last two centuries, and as the present historical moment has made abundantly clear, this will not change, as progress is always ever a thing in process, a becoming, and never complete, and we must stand strong against the tide when it comes rolling in against us, protecting our rights and those of our fellow citizens against those who wish to drown our freedom and our democracy in the violent seas of their ignorance and hate because they do not believe in liberty for all if that “all” is not identical to them in thought, belief, values, and appearance. Individual rights and freedoms may be sacred in secular terms but they are never absolute, and the rights of another should not be stripped or denied to protect the imaginary absolute value of the majority’s rights under any circumstances, no matter what community of people represents the majority.
The beauty of democracy is that it allows for individual thought and expression; I for one believe that this is the flower of true freedom, but when “the individual” becomes an ideology and is used as a weapon to defend absolutist perceptions of constitutional rights, as it has become in America on both sides of the political divide, each party and its internal subsets interpreting differently what rights and freedoms are absolutist in relation to others, then the inevitable decline and dissolution of the great American experiment is at hand, as it is now.
The humanism that flourished in the age of the Renaissance was based on a study of classical antiquity, providing an education in what became the humanities so as to create a citizenry that could fully and virtuously engage in civic life, thus fulfilling their role as members of the city-states and not just as an individual within that sphere, recalling the golden age of Athenian democracy. The French Revolution, in its own way, sought to give each individual a set of incontestable rights and freedoms as a constituent of the state, in service of protecting against government tyranny and aiding one’s pursuit of happiness and prosperity. At this point the fully modern individual was born, having obtained a political identity as a person in relation to the state.
It is the creation of the modern individual, with all its trappings, good and bad, that I believe has fascinated me since I was in elementary school and learned about these two historical events. It is because I believe being an individual, having the freedom and right to find one’s path and self in the world is fundamental to who we are as humans and must be protected and valued, as it creates and adds to the diversity and beauty of the world and human culture. It must not be taken for granted, but it also should not be an absolutist ideology that ultimately causes, as it has gravely begun to do so here, the moral fabric of society to decay and dissolve, for without a moral baseline there can be no true prosperity at all levels of society and the nation.