When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

The Haunted Moral Imagination

I want clarify and expand upon a point I’ve made before: What is it that reactionaries truly fear?

More people died in the American Revolution than died in the French Reign of Terror. The British government killed more people in their suppression of the 1798 Irish bid for independence. The Catholic Inquisition in just one province of Spain had a death count that far exceeded the number killed in the entire French Revolution.

In criticizing revolution, such counter-revolutionaries were defending colonial empires and theocracies that were more violent and oppressive than any revolution in history. For example, the Catholic Church, that ancient bastion of traditionalism and conservative morality, ordered the death of millions over six centuries. At least, a revolution is typically a single event or short period of violence. Oppressive governments can extend such violence continuously generation after generation.

Reactionaries obviously haven’t minded violence. They are criticizing the ends, not the means. It is impossible to say the world is a worse place for most people because the revolutionary era happened with its ensuing democratic reforms. But it is far worse for the elite that once ruled without having to tolerate their power being questioned. Some reactionaries would claim that they fear the disruption of the social order. Really? Whose social order? Those who suffered under those regimes would have liked a bit of social order in their favor. No revolution ever happens in order to fight all social order. Only oppressive and violent social orders incite revolutions.

What is feared by the ruling elite and those aligned with it isn’t even necessarily overtly physical violence. The French Revolution started off fairly peaceful and moderate. But what the French revolutionaries wanted to take away from the ruling elite was their privilege over everyone else and their power to wantonly abuse those below them. The French Revolutionaries began with no desire to kill the king, take the land away from the rich, or abolish religion. They simply wanted a democratic society. It was only after that was denied and undermined by those in power, both domestic and foreign, that the revolutionaries eventually turned to more drastic measures.

If the reactionaries hadn’t fought against democracy, the French Revolution may have been more like the American Revolution. That is the main difference. In the American Revolution. the ruling elite mostly decided to fight on the side of the masses instead of against them. It was only later on that the American ruling elite co-opted power and suppressed the very people who fought for democracy.

So, what exactly is the fear that reactionaries have?

Edmund Burke wrote his famous passage about the French Queen and her demise. While untold numbers suffered in prisons and from starvation, Burke decried the end of an age of chivalry because the masses refused to chivalrously lay down and die. Thomas Paine offered an incisive response, even more famous:

“Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

To someone like Burke, a single queen or rather what she symbolically represented is worth more than the lives of thousands of people oppressed and thousands more dead because of that same despotic power. The personal is lost within Burke’s moral imagination. He complains about the supposed abstract ideals of revolutionaries while he himself gets lost in his own abstractions. The conservative moral imagination is haunted by its own imaginings.

His concern isn’t with the mere violent force that can be wielded by military and mob alike. Instead, he wishes to hold up the symbolism of power. When that symbolism is challenged, the entire symbolic order is challenged. If Burke understood nothing else, he understood the power of imagination. For the imagination to serve established power, social order must be enforced upon imagination. The true danger of revolutionaries isn’t that they threaten to bring bring down social orders but that they imagine new ones.