Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

quantum_gamesWilliam Wordsworth wrote these words at the beginning of the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!

As the heads fell during the Terror, he wrote:

Domestic carnage, now filled the whole year
With feast-days, old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the busom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field – all perished, all –
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall.

The French Revolution was truly the end of western civilisation. It was the end of monarchy and aristocratic privilege and the beginning of democracy, but it was also the beginning of totalitarianism and the killing of large numbers of human beings by bureaucracy and fanaticism. Only the Nazis and Communists would rival Robespierre in the blood lust and crimes against humanity.

All too often, we think we can impose freedom by force as institutional religion has imposed “truth”. France still lives by the ideology in its weight of bureaucracy and langue de bois, reflected by the speech of men of the Church.

I fail to understand those who worship Napoleon under the pretext that he created modern Europe and a rational code of law. He was little other than the first modern dictator who conquered and bullied until he lost fairly on the battlefield of Waterloo. Power corrupts and no one can rule without guilt.

Certainly, the old French monarchy was exhausted and the Aristocracy was corrupt and self-serving. The Church was in a mess like everywhere else in the so-called Age of Reason. I live in France and Europe, and I fear for the future. They are no longer killing people. Thank goodness! But the soul of this continent has died. May we learn from history!

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19 Responses to Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

  1. Patricius says:

    As you know, I’m no fan of the Papacy but I have always felt rather bad for Pius VII in all his dealings with Napoleon, particularly his humiliation at Napoleon’s “coronation” service. As for Napoleon himself, my father once said that he had “little man syndrome.”

  2. Dale says:

    Excellent posting Fr Anthony. But I will slightly disagree with you on one minor point; although I believe that the French Revolution was a precursor of things to come, it was not the end of Western Civilization (anymore than the English Revolution of Cromwell), which, at least for me, is reserved for the battlefields of World War I.

    Of course, we do have the consolation of Burke’s “Observations”; perhaps not as philosophical as Boethius, but still a consolation.

  3. Neil Hailstone says:

    The French Revolution started off with commitments to fairness,good treatment for ordinary people, the reform of corrupt and oppressive institutions, liberty and free speech.

    It still surprises me how quickly that deteriorated into The Terror. Then, a few years later, finally a Dictator placing a crown on his own head. The Church in pre revolution France was hopelessly compromised on the side of the rich and powerful and suffered the consequences. There are always faithful and honest priests here and there and I’m sure that there were in France on the Eve of the Revolution.

    I expect most of the us here could write similarly concerning the Holy Orthodox Church on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.followed by the rapid descent into mass terror and murder.

    The Christian Church should always be on the side of the unjustly oppressed, the poor, the hungry and the sick. Currently Pope Francis is an example of leadership on these issues.

    In Anglo- Catholic and Holy Orthodox jurisdictions are we doing enough?

    • The Anti-Gnostic says:

      Pope Francis is on the side of the regnant democratic majorities, as his forebears were on the side of the regnant monarchs of their day.

      • Cujus regio, ejus religio…

      • Patricius says:

        I’ve long been of the opinion that public religion, manifestly Archbishops of Canterbury, popes, Dalai Lamas, &c is much like modern politics and that these people are all pigs feeding at the same trough. The pope may well be an humble individual who makes use of Ignatian spiritual exercises but what do we really know? Is humility genuine before cameras? Does shaking hands and smiling with Barack Obama, for example, mean anything? Or is it all spin, for shew, for the social networks, and for people to feel comfortable in some apparent “breakthrough.” If he were a real servant of God he’d say something damning about the Obama administration. And I’m not singling the pope out. We’ve all seen the pictures of Prince Charles’ meeting with Gerry Adams, which seemed to be cordial, with a lengthy handshake. It makes me sick.

        Do people have any conviction anymore?

    • Dale says:

      “The Christian Church should always be on the side of the unjustly oppressed, the poor, the hungry and the sick. Currently Pope Francis is an example of leadership on these issues”; call me a nutter, but I always thought the Church should be on no one’s side based upon poverty or wealth, the Church should side with those who pray, participate in the Sacraments, and believe in the old Faith; it should never be a question of one’s social or economic background. I recently did tell someone I could never be a Roman Catholic because I am middle-class, and their present fixation seems to be only for the economically poor (which is just so mind-numbingly sentimental that it really simply oozes).

      • Stephen K says:

        Dale, you are effectively reducing the Church, or the faith, or both, to religious pieties and acts of prayer, which amounts to, or is indistinguishable from, the political proposition that Church leaders and church members (i.e. the Church) should ‘stay out of politics’ or have no direct participation in the leavening of morality in society. The morality of a person is not something separate or unconnected to his or her religion, if he or she has one. And, in the Christian religion, the morality is and has always been – it seems – founded on this or that interpretation of the Gospels and the meaning behind Jesus’ words and deeds. That the interpretations and weightings have differed between groups is not surprising, but what it means is that if you say the Church should not be “on the side of anyone”, then you are simply giving one weighting rather than another.

        What does it mean to be “on the side” of someone? It generally means “to look out for their interests” or ‘to defend them when they are attacked”. It doesn’t necessarily have to also mean to do either if justice would not be served. But the important thing is that, in the material and natural world, the rich and powerful can take care of themselves, so to speak, and the poor and weak cannot. It’s a no-brainer, really. Whilst everyone can get down on their knees and pray, those who haven’t eaten properly or at all for a while will either not think of stopping the pursuit of bare survival or will not have the energy to do so. Think of the power exercised by those with means in the legal arena over those without, no matter how impartial the judges might wish to be. Very often, only people motivated by Christian love and sympathy (i.e. the Church) have been the ones to look out for the legitimate interests of the oppressed. And that the poor and weak are oppressed is also a no-brainer, because to be unable through poverty and the social problems that accompany it to participate with dignity in society is to have one’s ability to love severely impaired.

        Whilst what the great Rowan Williams called “making religion” answers a need in the human soul, it does not address directly every concern of the human soul or body. There is an old saying, “Everyone’s a conservative after dinner”. Yes indeed. When one’s belly is full, with a port or three before a warming fire, the problems and pangs of hunger and cold and despair seem that much more remote. Thus making religion – that you and I and many others like to do and see as important – is actually a luxury if only we knew it.

        If various Christian church leaders emphasise the ‘preferential option for the poor’, they can claim quite easily a mandate from the Gospels, and would appear to me to be rather like prophets from of old, calling the comfortable back to the imperatives of justice and repentance. There is never a question that being rich is a bad in itself, although how one became rich might be, and as we know, often is. The question is what the rich man or woman does with their life and their wealth, and it seems to me to be a distortion of the Christian faith or ethos (or both) to think the common call to pray to God satisfies every spiritual injunction to a common human dignity and restorative justice.

    • Linus Magister says:

      If you want the real causes of the French Revolution look no further than the weakness of Louis XVI in the face of almost complete financial and moral bankruptcy and disarray of his realms and estates – fostered by the ambitions of the Duke of Orleans – who owned most of arable land in France and who controlled agriculture and the economy more than we usually give him credit for – and his London creditors. The state machinery put in place by Louis XIV was not working anymore; absolutism ends in failure in the hands of weak kings. The old provincial estates and parlements were also in disarray after their suspension under the reign of Louis XV. The system doubtless demanded reform. Personally, I would have scrapped absolutism altogether and strengthened the federative aspect of the polity by consolidating power at the regional level – a semi-federal system of sorts. The trouble these days is that we associate Justice and that which Right with universal suffrage.

    • But isn’t it interesting that in the Vendee region the revolution was treated at first with indifference and then later opposed? Contributing factors in this probably include the fact that the gap between the nobility and the peasants was far smaller than in say… Paris, Orleans, or Versailles. The agrarian communities with their low-level nobility, local priests, and traditional way of life sided with those nobles and willingly volunteered to fight against the distant and invasive Parisian republican government.

  4. J.D. says:

    I agree with Dale here, the Church ought to be with those who pray and keep the old Faith regardless of economic or social status. Perhaps the leadership of various mainstream religions have always been more about politics than anything else and our 24/7 media culture just highlights this in a glaring way. I’m just thinking as I write this..

    At any rate I stick to praying the Office, both the Little Office and the Benedictine, praying the Jesus Prayer and occassionally going to Confession and Holy Communion. Other than that I’m beginning to think I need to disengage a bit.

    • ed pacht says:

      Um … Jesus knew people whose goal was indeed to pray and keep the old faith. That was at least the claim the Pharisees made for themselves. He, on the other hand, spent a lot of time with the poor and with sinners. Regardless of their protestations, they were deeply involved in the politics in what we might call a conservative direction. Might we and other ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ Christians be making the same error they did? At the same time, His was not a political message, not an effort to overthrow the social patterns or to disparage the rich for being rich, but a call to repentance, for amendment of life, and for the acceptance of forgiveness. There is no political program, of the ‘left’ or of the ‘right’ that has Our Lord’s endorsement, but there is an attitude of concern for the less fortunate that He called upon us, over and over again, to have in our hearts and express in our action. That is not optional.

      • Dale says:

        Many of the Pharisees were also not wealthy either. This whole the Church is for the poor song-and-dance tires, and it is almost always political. And if one thinks that the poor have no power…look how long Labour ran, into the ground, the British Empire. Voted into office by the poor.

      • ed pacht says:

        ….. and the church is for the ‘better classes’ is not political?

        It certainly is true that putting class against class is always disastrous —

        When the ‘rich’ are indifferent to the plight of the ‘poor’ or, worse yet, hostile to the poor, the Gospel is being ignored. It is, I think, exactly this attitude that Jesus references in the camel through the needle’s eye parable. If our property and possessions are not shared, all our piety does not make us Christ-like

        However, when the poor demand what the rich have as if it were their own, the ‘don’t covet’ commandment certainly comes into play.

        It is only when the Church consciously and intentionally considers both rich and poor that church members cease to stand in the way of God’s grace.

        I suggest James 2:1-9 as a strong and balanced approach.


        My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.

        For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;

        And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:

        Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

        Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

        But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

        Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?

        If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
        But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.

  5. Neil Hailstone says:

    Most historians would describe the Revolution as having several different causes. Certainly those to which you refer are included. I remember from studies long ago which included the reign of Louis XVI that his death was not lamented by ordinary people. As his coffin trundled through Paris there were no outpourings of grief but more in the way of indifference accompanied by derisive jeers and shouts of ‘Voila Les Plaisirs des Dames’

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