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As I awoke this morning I was treated to a most light-hearted remembrance of Bastille day on NPR. Nothing is so merry, it seems, as stringing up a few “aristocrats” from light poles. Not that the jovial announcers at NPR are particularly to blame; their casual notice of what could be considered the political beginning of radical modernity is thoroughly typical of the complacency of our late modernity: an unquestioned secular rationalism, but without bearing any of the weight of reason’s responsibility. At least Lenin, a very conscious heir of the Jacobins, had some sense of the gravity of the decision by human beings to take over the sovereignty that had belonged to God. Now, however, reason rules with unbearable lightness.

Here are some thoughts I framed long ago, for the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the taking of the Bastille:

. . . The disconcerting suggestion that arises from a comparative reflection on the theoretical cores of the two Revolutions is the idea of human rights that informs the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 cannot be altogether severed from the logic of the Terror. The potential for unlimited radicalization seems to exist from the moment the rights of man are extracted from a framework defined by the laws of nature and nature’s God and made to stand on their own as assertions of human autonomy. The germ of the Terror, the dream of the regeneration of humanity by political means, may already be present in the radically modern idea of sovereignty that informs the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The political denial of an authoritative realm of meaning beyond politics appears barely separable from the absorption of all meaning into the political realm. Hobbes’ radical materialism, which accompanies his rejection of the priority of natural law to human rights, invites Rousseau’s idealism, or his craving for a comprehensive moral order not grounded in nature but created by human beings. If politics is all there is, then politics must be everything, it must hold the key to fulfilling not only the ordinary needs but even the deepest longings of humanity.

Those who propose to liberate human beings by reducing them to their naked individuality and destroying the bonds that connect them with principles understood to reside beyond human power risk arrogating to themselves the right to forge new and tighter chains. If there is no Truth above the People, then the People are led to create their own truth - in effect, of course, some revolutionary elite must create it in the name of the People, whatever the human cost. The violence of the Terror appears thus to spring from a theoretical violence to human nature . . .

On this 220th anniversary, I can still ask, is this violence still at work beneath the surface of our merry, easy-going late modern rationalism?

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