The English word ‘revolution’ is peculiar. In its normal political usage, it refers to the overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of an imagined or ideal political order, of which the old order fell short. It usually follows from a dramatic and wide-ranging shift in a community’s assumptions about human nature, human rights, or the nature of liberty and tyranny. So, in Marx, the revolution of the proletariat only occurs once the people has been stirred to political consciousness, realized that their liberties are infringed by capitalist economic arrangements, and organize to implement a new economic organization. Or to take another example, the recent uprisings in the Islamic world – in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen – have demonstrated palpably the challenge that changing sociopolitical assumptions among the world’s youth and middle classes pose to autocratic regimes. (It’s debatable whether all of these movements qualify as revolutions in the proper sense; for now, let’s set that aside.) ‘Revolution’ is, in this sense, a radical uprooting, an overturning: the advent of a new order.
Yet in a different context, ‘revolution’ means nearly the opposite. We speak of the earth’s revolutions around the sun and the revolution of the seasons; in the ancient world, the Peripatetics and Stoic philosophers understood cosmic history itself as a revolution, i.e. a continual cycle of growth and decay, death and rebirth. Among modern philosophers, Nietzsche latched onto this understanding of revolution in his famous doctrine, the Eternal Return of the Same – die ewige Wiederkunft des Gleichen – which held that, against Enlightenment notions of progress, man’s moral character is neither fixed nor improving, but is rather constantly in a state of flux, floating unanchored at sea, periodically drifting from its origin and returning back again. ‘Revolution’ is, in this sense, a re-rooting, a renaissance: homecoming.
Most intellectual historians agree that the twin revolutions of the late 18th Century, the American and the French, forged the world we now inhabit. Our democratic and liberal political assumptions, our social egalitarianism, our religious and philosophic worldview – all of these find their genesis in the assumptions of the French and American Revolutionaries. Nearly all scholars acknowledge that the former was a revolution in the first, political sense; but what about the second? Was the American Revolution a rejection of our European past and our English heritage, or rather a return to principles intimated in these traditions? Put differently, were our Revolutionary forefather motivated by a philosophic conception of the ideal society, or were they rather prudent statesmen, acting to preserve the liberties and privileges they enjoyed in the early half of the 18th Century?
To get at answers to these questions, I’ll be looking at one particular founder, John Adams, and specifically to his Discourses on Davila, a somewhat esoteric text, but nevertheless the key place where Adams records his critical reaction to the French Revolution. He find its violence abhorrent, its intellectuals hubristic, and its goals impracticable. The Jacobins’ designs stretched beyond the limits of human nature, Adams claims; their efforts to turn society on its head were doomed from the start.
By looking at Adams critique of an external revolutionary event, we can extrapolate certain general principles that likely guided his thinking as a leader of our own separation from England in 1776. More generally, by investigating Adams’ convictions about human nature and politics and how they influenced the founding generation, we can achieve a degree of intellectual and political autonomy in our own time. Prodding the roots of the modern mind and its assumptions gives us the tools to think critically about our own society, its direction, and its goals. In a time of partisan fragmentation and violent culture warring, we could use a strong dose of first principles debate, grounded in history. What sort of order was Adams working to create? And where did he draw the line between prudential politics and utopian folly? That’s what I’ll be studying this year.