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Fear or Hope?

November 8, 2010

Today’s lecture sparked some interest in me at the notion of the French Revolution being either a legacy of hope or a legacy of fear. Each aspect seemed to make a considerable amount of sense to me. However, there was one aspect of the legacy of fear that really stood out to me: turmoil and violence. I began to question whether or not this was even a logical necessity of the revolution. Could the revolution have taken place without so much death? What should be the cost of the revolution in human lives? (And this is assuming that there should be any cost at all).

Part of me wants to believe that the French Revolution was not entirely a legacy of fear. I truly believe the ideas that everyone should have a freedom to experiment and that some social upheaval is necessary in order to make progress throughout political history. However, the extent to which social upheaval reaches is what really gets me. Moderate upheaval within a society shouldn’t always (or maybe ever) entail death – especially the sort of constant, massive death that is found taking place during the French Revolution. It seems like a lot of what the revolutionaries wanted to accomplish could have been accomplished without beheading so many people when we consider alternatives like imprisonment. So why all the death?

Since it doesn’t seem logical to me that all the guillotine killings were even necessary to the cause of the French revolutionaries, I believe that the deaths were in excess of the progression of the society as a whole. I truly believe that the true leaders of the French Revolution used the massive guillotine deaths as a way to set an example for people and install fear within them.  If this is true (and seems like a plausible possibility, at least to me) that means that the legacy of the French Revolution was actually taking away from ideas like equal opportunity and faith in human progress. If people are too afraid of getting their heads chopped off, how are they supposed to stand up for themselves and experiment on their own terms? Intentional death made to serve as a warning to the masses is not exactly what I would consider keeping faith in the progress of humanity – it’s more limiting it for the specific interest of those instigating the killings.


  1. britneyrupley permalink
    November 8, 2010 3:38 PM

    I like the argument that you are making, but in some ways I disagree. During the lecture the professor spoke a lot about the belief in tradition that Burke held. With this belief in tradition, one could see why the French Revolutionaries felt it was necessary to insist upon a violent means of upheaval. In the past, leaders have found that sometimes people are so resistant to change, even though in some cases change was in the best interest for them, that they do not want it to happen. When such resistance occurs, the only way for the leaders to cause the needed change is through violence and death. It isn’t pretty, but sometimes it is necessary. By the French Revolutionaries being insistent in their punishment, and their use of the guillotine, this caused the needed revolution for France which could only be down by instilling fear in all. Why yes, the people didn’t really get a chance to experiment with revolution themselves, in the eyes of Burke this was needed because the French Revolutionaries took over and did what they thought was need for the revolution to occur.

  2. Melissa Glassman permalink
    November 8, 2010 4:08 PM

    Although I understand the point you make that instilling fear within citizens may not lead to their to a progression, I disagree with the idea that the killings were unnecessary. I believe that the killings did as you said instill fear; however, they also acted as catalysts to the comprehension of what was about to “go down” or happen within the revolution. By presenting people with the acts of killing many become fearsome of the next events that will occur. Although, it is clearly never good when many people are murdered, these guillotines were meant to make a point, which is just what they did. Of course, as you mentioned, there are many alternatives to creating fear among people such as imprisonment; however, none of them come close to the finality of death. We live in fear of death each day and that is the end of it all.

  3. vdeepa permalink
    November 8, 2010 8:38 PM

    “If people are too afraid of getting their heads chopped off, how are they supposed to stand up for themselves and experiment on their own terms?” I think Burke actually makes a valid point here by pointing out the corruption behind the French Revolution. The leaders of the French Revolution were more about “their” terms that each person’s “own” terms. We often overlook this and concentrate on Burke’s inherent problem with equality as a natural right. However, Burke also indicates that the equality that was a motive of the French Revolution was not truly equality in application.

  4. arichnerjr permalink
    November 8, 2010 9:35 PM

    The French Revolutionaries, particularly their leaders, were pretty reprehensible and selfish in general. Besides all of the guillotining, there were plenty of atrocities across France during the period, notably in the Vendee region where over 200,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered (don’t forget that corrupt aristocrats made up a very small percentage of those murdered in total by the end of the Revolution). You would have to do some serious mental and moral somersaulting to justify the Reign of Terror and its surrounding events.

  5. ann900 permalink
    November 9, 2010 9:30 PM

    I would love to agree with you and say that death is not a necessity in Revolutions but there are too many people willing to stand up and fight for their country for that to be possible. As nice as it would be to just talk things out instead of violence, it needs to be taken to that level because of the dedication people have to their country. Just as we respect and thank the United States soldiers, other countries do the same. Because those people risk their lives to fight for our country. And isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that General Will does exist in modern society? That people are not self-centered and are coming together as one? Although we might not like to admit it, war shows the General Will of our country.

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