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Four Revolutions



I made San Antonio the destination of the trip I described over the two preceding posts because I wanted to attend a meeting of a group of admirers of Jacques Barzun there. Every second Sunday of the month they discuss his masterpiece, FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE, a history of western culture from 1500 to the present.

The discussion was stimulating and amusing. I am grateful to all those I met there.

I'll just convey some take-away thoughts now. Barzun defined "revolution" in a somewhat narrow way. Nowadays, if someone invents a new vacuum cleaner that can get the dust in the corners more easily than the older cleaners, he is likely to call it a revolutionary product.

Even aside from marketing, you can find in dictionaries broad definitions of revolutions such as this: "far-reaching and drastic change." Thus, the late Helen Gurley Brown is both credited with and blamed for contributions to a "sexual revolution," the Vatican II council is said to have worked a "revolution" in Catholic doctrine, and the development of steam engines in the 18th century is widely said to have set off the "industrial revolution." Although each of those events fits in its own way into the broad story Barzun is telling, he has a narrower use of the word "revolution" that does not cover any of those, much less the new vacuum cleaner.

A  revolution, as Barzun uses the term, is: "a violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea." Notice that the word "sudden" isn't part of that formula. A violent transfer of power and property can take a long time, and efforts to distinquish "revolutions" from "evolutions" by the duration of the one or the other are generically unimpressive. Dates like July 14, 1789 are convenient for memorialization, but are arbitrarily chosen from a chain of causes and effects stretching a long ways in both directions.

Notice also the final phrase of that definition. There are lots of violent transfers of power and properties in human history. Two nation-states can argue over a disputed piece of borderland and in time can come to blows over it. There is no difference in their "ideas" other than "our map is the right one," "no, our map is." Street gangs can argue over who gets to sell illegal drugs at the corner of Smith Drive and Main Street. The argument can lead to a violent transfer of power and property. Again, though, their ideas about what is happening aren't at issue.

A revolution as above defined is such a violent transfer "in the name of an idea."

There have by Barzun's count been four revolutions in this precise sense in the history of the west, 1500 to 2000:

1. A religious revolution, which you may if you wish date as early as 14th century England, when Wyclif translated the Bible into vernacular English in what Barzun calls a "heroic attempt" to recall the Church to its own primitive self, but which only crystallized when Luther nailed his theses to the door of a Church in 1517;

2. A monarchical revolution,  through which the kings of Europe, especially western Europe, separated themselves from Pope and Holy Roman Emperor on the one hand, and came to dominant the dukes and earls beneath them on the other hand, centering all political power in themselves, becoming at last true "monarchs" with an emphasis on the first syllable;

3. An individualist revolution, whereby in time some of those crowned heads empowered by the second revolution lost their connection with their shoulders, and we all came to regard ourselves as men, women, and children as the bearers of inalienable rights; and finally

4. A social or egalitarian revolution, through which the theme of emancipation has drowned all others. But emancipation from all restraint being impossible, this fourth revolution has brought the culture to the present impasse, where populations demand a combination of freedom with security that is "self-contradictory and probably unworkable."        

I find what Barzun says about the second item on this list especially intriguing, and I will speak to it further tomorrow.

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