What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

A lesson for the world

At the same time when the third estate was invited to participate in the assembly of the nation, it was accorded an unlimited facility to express its complaints and declare its requests.

In the cities which were to send deputies to the Estates- General, the entire population was called upon to give its advice about the abuses to be corrected and the demands to be made. Anyone might express his grievance in his own way. The means were as simple as the political procedure was bold. Down to the Estates-General of 1614, in every town, and even in Paris, a large box was placed in the market place to receive the complaints and opinions of anyone, which a committee sitting at the Hotel de Ville was to sift and examine. Out of all these diverse remonstrances a document was drawn up which, under the humble title of “Grievances,” expressed with the greatest liberty and frequently with singularly bitter language the complaints of all and of each.

[. . .]

In 1789 the third estate to be represented in the Estates- General no longer consisted, as in 1614, of the urban bourgeoisie alone but of twenty million peasants scattered over the whole kingdom. Until then these had never taken any interest in public affairs; for them politics was not even the accidental memory of another age: it was, in every respect, a novelty. Thus ancient liberties were being extended to new people with their ancient effects in mind, and the results turned out to be the exact opposite of those of three hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, on a certain day, the church bells of every rural parish of France called the people to the market place. There, for the first time in the history of the monarchy, they were called upon to compose what was still called in the medieval fashion the cahier of grievances of the third estate.

In those countries where political assemblies are elected by universal suffrage, every general election must deeply involve the people unless their freedom of voting is a lie. But here not only a universal vote but a universal deliberation and inquest were to be taken. Every citizen of one of the greatest nations in the world was asked not what he thought of this or that particular problem but what he had to say against every law and every social and political institution of his country. I think that no such spectacle had ever been seen before.

All the peasants of France thus set themselves to recapitulate all their sufferings and their just complaints. The spirit of the Revolution, having excited the citizens of the towns, rushed now through a thousand rills, penetrating the rural population to its very depths. But there the form it assumed was different; it became peculiarly appropriate to those just affected by it. All of those general and abstract theories which filled the minds of the middle classes here took concrete and definite forms. In the cities the cry was for rights to be acquired; in the country it rose for wants to be satisfied.

When the peasants came to ask each other what their complaints should be about they cared not for the balance of powers, for the guarantees of political liberty, for the abstract rights of man or of the citizen. They dwelt at once on objects close to themselves, on burdens which each of them had had to endure. One thought of the feudal dues which had taken half of his last year's crops; another of the days he had been compelled to work for his landowner without pay. One spoke of the lord's pigeons, which had picked his seed from the ground before it sprouted; another of the rabbits which had nibbled his green corn. As their excitement rose with the common recitation of their miseries, to them all these evils seemed to proceed not so much from institutions as from a particular single person who still called them his subjects, though he had long ceased to govern them — who had privileges without obligations and who retained none of his political rights save that of living at their expense. And to see in him the common enemy was the passionate agreement that grew.

Providence, which seems to have resolved that the spectacle of our passions and of our misfortunes should be a lesson for the world, allowed the commencement of the Revolution to coincide with a great drought and an extraordinary winter. The harvest of 1788 was bad, and the first months of the winter of 1789 were marked by a cold of unparalleled severity — a frost, like that of the northern extremities of Europe, hardened the earth to a great depth. For two months the whole of France lay hidden under a thick fall of snow, like the steppes of Siberia. The air was icy, the sky lonely, dull, and sad. This accident of nature helped give a gloomy and sharp tone to human dispositions. All the grievances against the institutions and the rulers of the country were felt more bitterly amidst the frozen misery that prevailed.

And when the peasant went out from his darkening hut with its chilly fireplace, from his famished and cold family to meet some of his fellows and discuss their common condition, it seemed easy for him to do so: he fancied that he could easily, if he dared, put his finger on the source of all his wrongs.

— Tocqueville, The European Revolution, 1857 (unfinished second volume of The Ancient Regime and the Revolution); John Lukacs translation, Book I, Cha. VI.

Comments (5)

He could "put this finger on the source of all his wrongs" by touching his finger to his chest.

Here's part of the problem:

When the peasants came to ask each other what their complaints should be about they cared not for the balance of powers, for the guarantees of political liberty, for the abstract rights of man or of the citizen.

I have great sympathy with people who object to

the feudal dues which had taken half of his last year's crops; another of the days he had been compelled to work for his landowner without pay.

But the way to stop these undeniable injustices, if I may say something that may sound "propositional," is by way of the balance of powers and guarantees of political liberty. Not by mob rule.

This was some months before the period of mob rule. The French peasantry had precious little exposure to modern balance of power theorizing: to political philosophy of any kind, save perhaps some residue of Scholasticism. Political speculation, constitutional theorizing -- that sort of thing had only just recently penetrated to the middle class; for the most part it was still the province of aristocrats.

A few chapters earlier Tocqueville records this:

No sign that I can discover from this distance of time would show that the rural population was at all agitated. The peasant silently plodded onward in his wonted tract. This vast majority of the nation was quiet and unseen. Even in the towns the people remained aloof from the excitement of the upper classes and indifferent to the noise going on above their heads.

I can well imagine that it was the province of aristocrats. But aren't Tocqueville's words supposed to sound ominous--that this omni-grievance idea without other guidance was, in the end, a big problem?

Tocqueville's words definitely have an ominous aspect, but there is also a touch of wonderment at the remarkable ironies. Just look at this brilliant sentence: "In the cities the cry was for rights to be acquired; in the country it rose for wants to be satisfied." No one plotted this decisive shift in emphasis, from abstract political theory to gritty material grievance, from middle class speculations to democratic vengeance: but it happened nonetheless. And soon the bourgeois and aristocrats whose theories lit the fire would be consumed by it.

The general sense the reader of Tocqueville receives is of a man of deep feeling, really alive to history, whose humility and humane sympathy prevents him from rendering severe judgment in all but the most indisputable cases. He has no ax to grind; his purpose is to show the reader the pressures and lineaments of the history that so moves him.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.