The escape from bondage is a biological imperative. No creature relishes captivity – least of all, man.
The story of Exodus is a metaphor for the human condition. Man is always longing to be free of whatever chains that he perceives are holding him back. Perhaps that’s why we all find the concept of revolution so appealing, so romantic. The revolt against tyranny, the dethroning of despotism, the war against abusive power, the protection of the weak and defenseless.
All these images seem to personify the manifestation of justice, brought about by the people and for the people. America was founded in the fires of revolution – our national origins make it difficult to separate the concept of revolution from a romantic feeling. Not all revolutions are created equal, however. The nostalgic enthrallment with revolution is quite different from patriotism. Politicians have exploited this romanticism in the past and continue to do so in order to emotionally resonate with voters.
While the concept of revolution likely taps into some universal & innate human need for freedom and the ability to manifest one’s own destiny, the reality is that certain revolutions throughout history were inspired by vastly different philosophies.
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The American revolution and more concretely, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, were based on the idea that the state exists to protect the rights of the individual. The language of natural rights in these documents is grounded in the Judeo-Christian conception of man being made in the image of God. The American foundation of natural rights shares its DNA with both Genesis and the Enlightenment.
The Founding Fathers’ philosophy was based on social contract theory articulated by political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and – most notably John Locke. Locke, unlike Thomas Hobbes, preferred an anarchistic, lawless state of nature to the tyrannical rule of an unchecked sovereign. Locke stringently advocated for the separation of powers in government almost a century before the American Revolution. Locke believed that the state existed to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. By this manner of reasoning, revolution is necessary when the government fails to protect the God-given rights of its citizens. John Locke is the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Both Locke and the Founding Fathers believed that the collective’s role is to nurture and defend the rights of the individual, and in doing so, the wellbeing of the collective is maximized through the optimization of each individual’s wellbeing. This is the philosophical DNA of the America revolution.
The French Had darker motives
The French Revolution’s philosophical DNA was much more inspired by Voltaire, in addition to Rousseau and Hobbes.
Voltaire despised conceptions of Judeo-Christian morality and viewed it as superstitious non-sense. He followed in the footsteps of Francis Bacon and opted for a more practical and materialistic morality, rooted in reality. Voltaire believe that man could, in theory, be perfected through the application of pure reason, devoid of superstition or religious bias. As with other moral systems that disdained the divine, Voltaire’s morality was largely hedonistic since virtue was considered outdated and obsolete.
Likewise, the French Revolutionaries loathed any religious expression or sentiment. They also placed total faith in the ability of science to solve all of mankind’s problems. This scientific fundamentalism is the exact same philosophy touted by the New Atheists, which include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris.
On July 14, 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. Religion was outlawed and the revolutionaries created the “Cult of Reason,” casting God out of heaven and replacing him with pure reason. Churches across France were transformed into Temples of Reason. The famed revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre felt such rituals were too close in nature to regular religion and so he had the leaders of the Cult of Reason executed in March of 1794. Just three months later, Robespierre was decapitated by the guillotine.
The untethering of morality to man being made in the image of God destroyed the basis for the natural rights of man and the Rouseau-Hobbsian notion of the collective will trumping the rights of the individual made it very easy for the revolutionary leaders to justify slaughtering anyone who got in their way. In this view, man was made to serve the collective – the state. The state was not made to serve man – the individual. The unflinching faith in reason and science and the rejection of Judeo-Christian morality did not lead to egalitarian utopias. It led to bloodshed.
The secular revolutions of the twentieth century were quite similar to the French Revolution. They lacked the American revolution’s grounding in the Judeo-Christian conception of man being made in the image of God and they also lacked the Lockian notion of a state tasked with preserving the rights of its citizens against the abuses of mob rule. Sadly, mankind didn’t learn from the lessons of the 18th century. It took hundreds of millions of lives before we learned the lessons of impulsive revolutions. These lessons have been largely forgotten by many Americans and, most disturbing of all, the younger generations seem to have never learned them in the first place…