A month ago President Trump went to Paris to commemorate Bastille Day with the toy-boy president of the French Republic. The respective republican governments both boast three item founding slogans; one is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”; the other is “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” While the America motto represents an early form of Western individualism, the French doggerel reflects the end result of decades of proto-collectivism developed in the salons and parlor rooms of intellectuals who could not fathom being denied power. And still, these seemingly disparate traditions share one common term that binds their place in the Western cultural legacy, Liberty.
Liberty, seemingly, implies liberation from something. The thirteen very different American colonies were liberated from taxation laws and the obligation to do business with the East India Company. The lack of universal social structures and the newness of the colonies made the break more palpable at the local level than it would have been if America had been one well established colonial organ. From what, then, did the French Revolution liberate France? Why it liberate France from every cultural and social structure that made one a Frenchman in the past thousand years.
Revolutionary and post-revolutionary France became a decade-long case study in the evolution of an individualistic society. Gone was the king, the noble patronage, trade associations, guilds, charities, parish vestries, episcopal conferences, and kind reference to any history that predated one’s birth. Nature abhors a vacuum and people abhor nullity. Rather than exist as intersections of various associations of society, Frenchmen now found themselves equality at the bottom of a new, two-tiered social system topped by the National Assembly. The Assembly precociously judged the orthodoxy and patriotism of every new and existing organization, giving them permission to exist according to its own adjudications. In the fullness of time Napoleon Bonaparte replaced the National Assembly as the progenitor of the French nation and hence of anything that might characterize the millions of newly individualized, lonely Frenchmen.
This has become the modern political paradigm throughout the Western world: the collective state and the lonely individual. Previous Western societies had their cliques, their rooted conflicts on matters of succession, ethnicity, and invasion of one group by another. This particular shift—often ascribed to the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment, but in fact a social legacy of the Reformation—was nothing short of a fundamental change in the way common folk looked at their place in society in relation to their new masters, who they wrongly thought to be themselves.
The French, German, and Scottish Enlightenments took place within the context of a coherent society, if one less coherent and bound than it had been two or three centuries earlier. While the Reformation discarded the concept of Apostolic Succession and denied the potency of bishops and priests to confect the hocus pocus of Sacraments, the Reformers retained the latent authority of teachers of the faith to interpret Scripture. Indeed, all mainline Reformed denominations, aside from the uniquely created Church of England, derived from the Scriptural exegesis and eisegesis of some preacher. In theory, the existing late medieval communities continued as they were, perhaps with different Sunday rituals and different beliefs. In practice, the substitution of a broader tradition with the views of singular teachers and the discardment of religious works gradually impoverished the places where the Reformation had any influence. Customs such as feasts, processions, veneration of relics, and pilgrimages belonged too much to ideas of penance and intercession for the new religious outlook. Plays about the Nativity, the Passion, and the Dormition came from spurious sources, left too much to the imagination, and failed to lean exclusively on the explicit words of vernacular Scripture. Guilds dedicated to providing Masses for the Dead could no more be tolerated than the doctrine of Purgatory, so people’s memories died when the people themselves died. Worst of all, the practice of public almsgiving and parish charity stank of salvation by works; and so the Christian religion no longer institutionally provided for the poor and destitute within a city or village. Layers of order peeled way as the Reformers lessened the define doctrines that could be justified with Scripture; practices, too, fell by the wayside. Preachers reduced the barriers between themselves and the faithful, and so also reduced the barriers between the faithful and the preachers’ teachings. It all vaguely resembles Jean Jacques Rousseau’s conviction that if not for the albatross of institutional society, all men left freely to their own dispositions would agree with Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Sixteen century religious savages were no more able to create a consensus opinion or govern themselves than were Rousseau’s eighteenth century savages. Permissibility for any idea or act of religion fell upon the judgment of the Reform party leader just as it fell upon the National Assembly two centuries later. The General Will of religion and state incarnate is nobly savage bureaucracy.
Today our elected governments and religious authorities exercise far more power over our actions and ideas than any Renaissance pope or Bourbon king ever did. Yet we can satisfy ourselves that they are of our own choosing and that they reflect a general consensus of equally able individuals. The consequence of the Reformation is not a liberated society, but rather one with fewer social safeguards and a much larger ruling class. The barren society left behind by the Reformation could be paraphrased by Robert Bolt’s invented defense of law by Saint Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Could it not?