Thursday, June 2, 2011

The French Revolution

After reading through each of the works regarding the French revolution, it is interesting to me that so many of them focus on distribution of property and power over others. Considering these pieces were written in a time when the Christian religions were extremely influential in politics as well as daily life, the articles spend very little time focusing on compassion and concern for others. Occasional references to slavery and the mistreatment of lower classes are completely overshadowed by issues of property and tradition in the main argument of Burke’s writings. However, he preys upon human compassion in his descriptions of the atrocities committed during the revolution (p. 51). He describes the change from light and life among the royal family to a life of darkness and death in prison. Based on this single example, he declares chivalry and the most ancient and revered traditions of Europe have died as a result of the revolution. He does not comment on the death and darkness experienced throughout the rest of France.

Interestingly, the supporters of the revolution exhibit far more consideration for the people of the country. They look at the sacrifice of the royalty as a tragedy but a tragedy incomparable to those suffered daily by the general population. Wollstonecraft writes of Burke, “ your tears are reserved . . . for the downfall of queens, whose rank . . . throws a graceful veil over vices that degrade humanity; whilst the distress of many industrious mothers, whose helpmates have been torn from them, and the hungry cry of helpless babes, were vulgar sorrows that could not move your commiseration, though they might extort an alms” (p.59). For Wollstonecraft, consideration of the poor, the abandoned, and the charity cases overwhelms any consideration of property. She succinctly dismisses Burke’s concerns by stating, “it is only the property of the rich that is secure; the man who lives by the sweat of his brow has no asylum from oppression” (p.59).

Wollstonecraft also dismisses the idea that charity from the rich can improve the plight of the poor. She reasons that equality and relationships built on “respect for justice and humanity” (p.58) are the only way to improve lives. “It is not by squandering alms that the poor can be relieved, or improved—it is the fostering sun of kindness, the wisdom that finds them employments calculated to give them habits of virtue, the meliorates their condition” (Wollstonecraft, p.63). The inequalities she notes among the monarchs and the citizens of France continue unabated around the world. The faces of wealth and poverty have changed, but the nature of it remains the same.

In many countries in Africa today, charity work is aimed at improvements akin to what Burke claims to be of upmost importance—property and correcting who holds the power. And yet work among the citizens of these countries shows that the greatest improvements in communities occur through relationships built by equal people that target job and industry improvements the poor can maintain on their own. For this reason, I think Burke’s argument focuses on the wrong issues. Even after several hundred years, lives are improved through relationships and equality among people—not through rules concerning the distribution of power and property.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah,

    Very good job in this daily of exploring, through specific textual passages, patterns of topics and themes, and your own experiences and observations in your travels, what Burke and Wollstonecraft are debating. Nicely done!