History, they tell us, is about the past. But the study of history shows an oft-repeated cycle of events. Since human beings have not changed over thousands of years, they have reacted time after time in the same way to events as we do today. The emphasis in the teaching of history in schools and universities has always tended to be on political history (monarchs, wars, treaties, laws) and has perhaps made us forget that history is about people like ourselves, trying desperately to get on with their lives in spite of what their rulers, neighbours, the climate, etc etc may throw at them.
Today’s world, at least for most of us, is an urbanised, industrialised one, with a sophisticated governmental, social, economic, legal, and educational system. We tend to forget that when the first urban civilisations developed in the Middle East over 5000 years ago they too had to develop systems parallel to our own in order to survive. They experienced the need to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to plan their environment, to evolve a legal code which enabled society to run efficiently. They were concerned not just with survival but with “getting on” in the world. They deplored the lack of discipline and respect in the “younger generation”. They despaired of the lack of interest in education in the young. They rejected malign “foreign” influence on their lifestyle. As states grew wealthy the “haves” competed with one another for bigger, better, and more beautiful possessions. The “have-nots” either strove to emulate their better-off neighbours or expressed their anger and resentment at those who had done better for themselves. Social classes evolved, usually based on wealth, privilege, birth, and ownership of property, (traditionally land).
Wars took place — sometimes through sheer “need” — at other times through sheer “greed”. Prosperity brought with it all sorts of problems — not least such questions as “who inherits your property after you’re gone?” I.e. — what happens to the share of the children of the original marriage if the mother dies and the father remarries, producing more children? (Pliny’s Letters Ist. Cent. AD).
Modern states have for the most part only just solved, over the last 150 years, the age-old problem of the fact that ownership of land gave one a higher status in society than ownership of, for example, a business. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has put status firmly in the ownership of business, money, and property generally . But has this “solution” made us any happier? Is the power conferred by economic status much different from that once obtained from land? Just how “democratic” is our system today, where on paper in most places everyone has equal rights?
Our ancestors spoke strange languages, wore funny clothes, did not have our present means of transport, communicated by speech and writing without electronic assistance. Yet they faced and tackled the same issues as ourselves in a parallel environment. Intricately carved ornaments and cave paintings of 40,000 years ago show manual and artistic skills even in the less sophisticated societies of that time.
We tend to regard present-day issues, whether personal, national, or international as unique to our current time and situation. This is only natural — and yet the same situations have been affecting people and society for thousands of years. Perhaps it should make us more optimistic when we realise that the human race has survived all this time in spite of such recurrent problem situations. On the other hand some folk may feel depressed that mankind has not yet solved such problems and driven them away for all time — “Will we never learn?”
A few points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that human intelligence over the last, for example, 10,000 years has not changed. Whether a culture is or was more sophisticated or less sophisticated has no relation to the IQ of its members. The second is that human society evolving from the basic family situation shares common elements equally with the early hunter-gatherers and with today’s urban dwellers. Concepts of acceptable behaviour and of right and wrong are permanently and universally valid. Thirdly, human personality, psychology — call it what you will — has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Many things have changed over the millennia — government in particular has evolved from the tribal assembly to that of the city state, through the nation state, to that of the international community (European Community). But what we tend to forget is that our generation didn’t invent the city, the nation, or even the “empire”. The process of urbanisation began between 4000 and 3000 BC – possibly in Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Indus Valley (north-west India), Iran (Persia), and Egypt. As these areas developed cities they evolved written, legal, government, economic, and religious systems on a par with our own. They handled diplomatic relations, international trade, war, employment, price and quality control, town planning, building standards (to name but a few), on a daily basis. Such areas as religion, recreation and social welfare were all catered for.
From 2000 BC this more sophisticated lifestyle began to spread to the fringes of Europe, with Cretan, Phoenician and Anatolian (Turkish) cultures creating “modern” systems and in particular international trade. By 700 BC in Greece urban areas (city states) began to grow, with a prosperity based on the manufacture and exchange of agricultural and other products. These cities were independent of each other and each set up colonies (mirror images of itself) all around the Mediterranean Sea. These cities — in particular Athens — began to gain a reputation for philosophy, literature, and above all experiments in government (democracy).
It is not always appreciated however that the “classical” Greeks in the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. went for their tertiary education to Egypt — providing a link between the early Middle Eastern cultures and Western Europe. (Links between the Cretan culture of 2000 BC and Egypt were strong and Crete influenced Mycenae and Greece).
In the centre of Italy the town of Rome began to expand from around 300 BC, over the centuries taking over Italy, Greece, North Africa, West Asia, and a great part of Western Europe (excluding Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia). This Roman culture produced an international language (Latin) which is still the basis of many European tongues, a legal system on which much modern European law is based, a government system which has been adapted right up to modern times. Many Roman concepts and ideas in themselves were borrowed from Greece.
One point about these cultures over the past 6000 years is that they faced the same problems as we do today. Since they had evolved writing systems we can follow their recognition of these issues which we are still coping with today and their attempts to solve them. Surviving written material is more limited from Egypt and Mesopotamia, much less limited from Greece and Rome. (Even there a vast amount of material was lost during the Dark Ages after Rome fell). Because of the greater amount of source materials is from Greek and Roman sources we tend to make the mistake of thinking that their civilization was in some way on a higher plane than older cultures such as Sumeria.
Nor should we think that urban cultures parallel to our own represent a higher level of intelligence. For example the Celtic tribes of the Upper Danube and Alpine areas had a more rural-based culture which in intellectual achievement was on a par with their neighbours and contemporaries in Greece and Rome. Although literate, they preferred to learn by heart, and to learn through live discussion and argument, rather than via books. This indicates to us that we will probably never learn the real capacity of cultures such as that of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 8000 BC. We tend to judge a culture by the amount and quality of three-dimensional material remains it leaves behind. Perhaps the fact that the science of archaeology evolved in the materialistic Victorian Era has a lot to answer for!
The time has come to jump just over 3000 years to a more modern European monarch, Henry VIII of England. In yesterday’s post (under same title) we saw how the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten became embroiled in matters of “religion”, an experience shared by his remote successor. The situation in each country was in some respects different. In Egypt the gods were worshipped on a local/national basis. There were differences of opinion between monarchs and high priests, but other nations and foreign policy would not necessarily come into the picture. In Western Christian Europe at the end of the Middle Ages the situation was very different.
When the Roman Empire dissolved and disintegrated during the Dark Ages a unifying force remained – Christianity as embodied in the Western Catholic Church, under a Pope normally based in Rome. This was a civilizing influence under which the evolving states of Western Europe had their being. In theory such an arrangement could keep states on peaceful terms with one another and provide a means of settling differences under Christian principles. Unfortunately theory and practice do not always coincide. The Church became involved in a more militant role in international politics. The Crusades were an example of how war could become an acceptable policy. The Norman invasion of England had the sanction of the Christian Church, as had the later Norman-English incursion into Ireland. As time went on Popes and monarchs were often related to each other and family ties were important in international policy.
England, being an island, naturally had a strong “go it alone” preference. A feature of th 16th. century was the growing wealth and power of emerging nations. France and Spain were major players. But physically small states like England, the Netherlands, and North German states were taking advantage of new opportunities created by the discovery of America to expand their wealth and power. Manufacture and trade were not an invention of modern times! Henry’s father, Henry VII had in the interests of peace and goodwill with Spain arranged a marriage between his son Arthur and a Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur died prematurely his younger brother Henry was expected to inherit his wife as well. (Such were royal marriages – more reminiscent of the cattle market than “Mills and Boone”).
Alongside this international and commercial scene were aspects of the Church. Henry VIII was a devout follower of religious practices. The Pope had awarded him the title of “Defender of the Faith”, which he retained to the end of his life – he was in no way a “Protestant”. But there was one aspect of the Church with which Henry did not agree. This was not theological but more administrative – namely the function of the Church as an international body with influence over international relations. England, like other emerging powers was developing an independent outlook. Matters came to a head when Henry responded to pressure from his advisors to remarry and hopefully produce a male heir, which was felt to be vital for England’s continued existence and safety. Since this would break the marriage-based alliance with Spain this was not acceptable to Church policy – or international policy.
Another aspect of the religious set-up was the monastic system. The enormous benefits brought to Europe by the civilizing influence of the monasteries were beginning to be looked at differently as the system was in a process of decline, no longer so necessary and not performing well. But another factor was that monastic administration rested in the hands of authorities in Rome. This went against the growing independent outlook prevalent in England. A third factor, which we have already mentioned in the case of Akhenaten was that the monastic establishments were wealthy and were endowed with large areas of land, which the monarch could use to buy loyalty from his supporters. This entailed a break with the Pope, as representing the international aspects of the Church.
Here a comparison with Akhenaten is timely. Henry had no major quarrel with the Church’s theology. Akhenaten on the other hand created a new theology, the worship of the Sun – Aten. Henry brought the system of churches, clergy, bishops, under his control, making the religious system in England subject to the Crown.. Akhenaten’s changes were of similar nature except that he abolished the traditional deities and replaced them with one God. The system worked in England – the main clash between Church and State in England which springs to mind is the fall of Archbishop Laud in Charles I’s day to parliamentary pressure. It worked because for years afterwards religious practices remained stable . Eventually in England Protestantism gained ground, and in the 1640’s Puritanism emerged for a time as a religious force. In Egypt a conservative people, while accepting apparently the Pharaoh’s system, returned to traditional practices as soon as the monarchy changed. So “hasten slowly” would appear to be the motto where religious changes were contemplated.
An interesting example of an attempt to introduce a new religion occurred in the course of the French Revolution when the government introduced for a time worship of “The Supreme Being”. The traditional Church had already “fallen from grace” so to speak, and this was a palliative, which was short-lived.
Akhenaten’s revolutionary reforms may be a reason why during his reign Egypt was under aggressive pressure from neighbouring states, perhaps not because their religious concepts were being threatened but taking advantage of internal unrest which was bound to exist in Egypt. In the case of England the links between Henry’s break with the Church’s international influence and opposition from the other European states can be easily assumed. Yet too much can be made of “religion” here. Spain’s opposition to England in the years to come, culminating in the Spanish Armada episode in 1588 would have been more due to the clash between England and Spain in the American trade than religious doctrine. Religion is so often a convenient scapegoat for other more mundane issues like trade and commerce.
People tend to be sensitive – and conservative- when it comes to changes in belief and practice being imposed from above – and it does not only apply to religion. Henry and his daughter Elizabeth “kept the brakes on” in matters of religious change. Henry’s son Edward VI, (Tutankhamun’s opposite number), Henry’s daughter Maty Tudor, and later James II forced the pace of change and created serious unrest, as happened in the case of Akenhaten.
Another issue involved could perhaps be best described as sovereignty. We will be looking at that in the third part of this post. This is where international combinations for diplomacy or commerce fit in.
What could these all have to do with one another? Be patient, and you will find out. History is a continuous process, with each event producing consequences which spread far and wide, over time and space. Again, situations arise over the millennia in nations which produce similar responses and consequences. Human response doesn’t vary from age to age. Nor do the basic problems communities face over time and space change much either.
We have all heard of Tutankhamun, the boy-king whose tomb seems to be better known than the young ruler himself today. No doubt the shortness of his reign accounts to some extent for this. Similarly his father Amenhotep IV has been a shadowy figure with reaction to his rule depriving future generations of historians of a source of interesting material. Sometimes there is a reverse reaction to a ruler’s actions Henry VIII performed similar deeds, provoking a stormy reaction which has given “grist to the historian’s mill”ever since. Which is better – obscurity or notoriety? Perhaps Henry was less lucky because now everybody is an “expert”on his deeds, whereas the students of Akhenaten have had to do some hard work over a century or so. If I may be excused a side-step, both monarchs were followed by “boy-kings” of limited survival periods but this is perhaps purely coincidental! Edward VI, Henry’s son, had a weak chest – Tutankhamun on the other hand is still the subject of debate on the question of “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
In the case of both Amenhotep, or Akhenaten as he is probably better known, it was religion which loomed large in his story. Egypt in the period we are looking at – around 2000 BC – had a religious system with a whole range of national, international, provincial, local deities serviced by priests, administrators, servants, tenants, and possessing wealth, temples, hospitals, educational establishments. Many aspects of this would be familiar to folk in Henry VIII’s day too. It could be said that the Pharaoh, as well as being the titular ruler of the state, had a prime responsibility for the army, defence, law and order, taxation, social and economic issues etc. Christian Europe of the sixteenth century was not all that different. In both periods clashes occurred between the religious establishment and the state as embodied in the Pharaoh/King. In Europe there was only Christianity embodied in two main groups – Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Eastern Church. In Egypt there was a vast range of gods and goddesses ranging from powerful gods like Amun to humble household spirits. The temple set-ups of the great gods provided a challenge to temporal authority. Also it could well be felt that such a multiplicity of expressions of religious feelings could well be condensed into a simple faith headed by one supreme Deity.
Such a religious set-up however, greater even than that of Amun, could have immense influence over the state. Amenhotep tackled the problem by establishing himself as the founder of the new faith, its creator. The new religion was to be centered around the Sun, with the Pharaoh as its manifestation, so to speak. The monarch changed his title to Tutankhaten, in honour of the Sun God Aten. Temples of the old gods were closed – no doubt their immense assets “nationalized” (Wonder why Henry VIII springs to mind)? It is a pity that subsequent Egyptian rulers deprived us of much knowledge of how this was done because it sounds virtually unbelievable. Perhaps the traditional gods were losing their ground with the people – perhaps the combined personality of the Pharaoh and the heat of the Sun were deemed to be insuperable – perhaps taxes to one combined religious establishment were lower than hitherto (or am I being cynical)? Anyway the new system was established and survived the rest of Akhenaten’s reign – and he too survived!
Apparently there was an immense freeing-up of art and culture during this period. Akhenaten established a new capital city – Amarna – and there must have been a great “breath of fresh air” in what had been a stuffy and traditionalist Egypt. Some scholars have suggested that Akhenaten was acquainted with Moses, who was also an exponent of the concept of One God. There is however a lack of evidence to this effect. It could well be that there was an underlying feeling that the multiplicity of deities was becoming too complex generally. Akhenaten was less successful in areas like foreign policy and Egypt’s territories and influence shrank during his reign. His son Tutankhaten on inheriting power changed his title to Tutankhamun – an indication that his counsellors had restored the old religion headed by the great god Amun. Not surprisingly political chaos reigned supreme for years as the old ways were restored. The great new capital Amarna was literally razed to the ground, with the foundations only being discovered in recent years. (It would almost seem that one “modern”king, Louis XIV knew all this. He called himself the Sun King and images of the sun dominated Versailles as they had dominated Amarna all those years earlier).
TO BE CONTINUED———
Such appeared to be the call from the people of England (as opposed to “Britain”) a few weeks ago. Now that the dust is at least partly settling it is a good time to look at things in a historical context.
First of all, did the English people really make that decision? Britain is, they say, a parliamentary democracy. But here we are reminded of the words of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the mid 1700’s -” democracy is dictatorship by the majority”. OK if, as some would have us believe, the majority is always right. But is it?
What do we mean by the majority? That is a very valid question in this case. The “majority” was small. We are told that the younger generation who would have supported maintaining the European connection didn’t for the most part turn out to vote! So where does that leave us? Again, something that surprises me is that it went on a 50/50 system. I would have thought that such plebiscites usually went on a two-thirds majority to prevent the sort of situation mentioned above.
Historically how does the vote measure up? Britain is an island, and islands historically claim the right to go it alone, manage their own affairs, pull up the drawbridge on foreign interference. Perhaps the larger half of Britain represented by England has a long and deep-rooted desire for independence and a suspicion of foreigners. I am minded of a poem by the Roman poet Horace almost 2000 years ago where he prays that heaven will protect the Emperor Augustus on his visit to the “Stranger-hating Britons”. Such long-standing traditions must be hard to break – and let us stop blaming the Anglo-Saxons who didn’t appear until much later!
Scotland, a virtual “peninsula” of England, has historically much stronger ties with the Continent, going back over centuries. Ireland also, an isolated island, likewise has long-standing European connections. It is possible that both Scotland and Ireland have regarded certain European countries as potential allies against their larger neighbor. England on the other hand has over the centuries cause to regard European countries, particularly from the south and east, as enemies (EG Scandinavia, Holland, France, Spain).
To look at a specific example of this we have only to consider the case of Henry VIII. Henry, in common with other European monarchs, had cause to resent an international system where hostile alliances could be made against them through link between the Pope of the day and other states. Far too much has been made of “religion” in looking at
Henry’s break with Rome. What we see here is an international situation where England’s independence and right to manage its own affairs was under threat.
An island nation has the advantage, given a strong navy, of being able to follow its own destiny without the constant apprehension of attack from a land-neighbor. Ithas the disadvantage of losing cultural and other contact with the rest of the world. When exposed to outside influences suspicion can set in and a phobia may even develop.
The Romans went through this phase as their Empire developed. Juvenal and other writers condemned the decline in traditional Roman standards brought in by Greeks and other races from the east. Sounds familiar?
A factor which may have played some part in the vote would be the growing “Middle Eastern” presence. Probably the last time this happened was around 5000 BC when the first farmers arrived among the hunter-gatherer inhabitants of Britain , coming also from “Middle Eastern” countries. Emigration and resulting tensions never stop, do they? Did they have a brexit vote then? Can’t take the word brexit seriously – still sounds like a new breakfast cereal!
No – not a new brand of photography – just a simple question – “Where is photography going? What sparked these random thoughts off was a recent article in that excellent UK journal “Black and White Photography”. The topic being covered was a “new” aspect of the noble art, photography with an i-phone. I became aware that now we can get all sorts of apps. to make our phone so much more sophisticated as a picture-taking instrument. When the cell-phone with camera facility came in some years ago it was hailed as the tool of everyone desirous of making pictures. No cost, since you had paid for a phone facility already, and able to be used by everyone regardless of skills. And after a couple of years of the development process good pictures could be achieved at the touch of a button. No bells and whistles. Now that is all changing.
The interesting thing is that this is the third time at least that photography has gone through the same sort of process. A few years ago photographers were going through a reaction to automated sophisticated cameras which produced a perfect picture with the minimum of effort. The challenge they said, had gone. Two answers emerged. One was the move back to the sort of camera so many started on about the age of six or eight. The Diana camera and others of the same ilk were sought in attics, cupboards, junk shops. The slightly fuzzy image, getting more so toward the edges, became the last word in “arty photography”. But before we knew where we were cameras were being manufactured and sold to produce the new image. Needless to say a few dollars would no longer meet the specifications.
Another attempt to get away from the perfect image was the pinhole camera. Now a pinhole camera was photography at its most basic – such as a shoebox with insulation tape around the lid to keep out the light’ a sheet of film at one end and a (literally) pinhole at the other. All producing interesting unpredictable effects, and putting the fun back into photography. But what happened? The same result – bye-bye shoebox and now you could buy a sophisticated manufactured item with a lens. Now surely the lens has no role in true pinhole photography?
So we have interesting opposing forces at work. Sophisticated technology producing perfection which becomes boring/undemanding, a move towards simplicity followed by “commercialism” bringing the sophistication back. And I am not blaming “commercialism”- manufacturers would not introduce the new lines if they did not believe we would fall for them. Has our affluent society produced a race of people with two opposing aspects – a desire for simplicity overcome by a desire for the latest, the “best”, the easiest?
What will our next answer to boring perfection be? Does this year’s model DSLR really take a “better” picture than last year’s? How do we define a “better”picture? Perhaps we should be limiting ourselves to being better photographers – I know I need to do that. Perhaps in five or ten years someone will invent “film”.
Humanity sometimes gives the impression of an obsession with age. Newspaper reports of things happening to people invariably seem to include the age of the person concerned. Fashion is dictated by age. In the social side of life age categories dominate. Did Shakespeare create the tendency with his often-quoted “Seven Ages of Man”? (It is perhaps significant that the ladies seem to have raised no objections to the title.) Shakespeare often tended to be a trend-setter.
In the early 19th. century a Danish prehistorian Thomsen carried Shakespeare’s concept a stage further, in looking at not individual Man, but Mankind. If we assume that a main difference between humankind and the animal kingdom was the ability to use tools, then the idea arose that the development of human civilization could be measured by developments in the tools being used. In Thomsen’s time the idea was that the history of mankind’s development could be divided into three areas. These were Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Soon however folk came along to make it more complicated – surprise, surprise! It was felt that the use of stone world-wide as a tool source came in three phases. These were Paleolithic (Old Stone), Mesolithic (Middle Stone), Neolithic (New Stone) Ages. In addition it was found that in certain parts of the world people did not use the more sophisticated bronze straight away, with its addition of tin to make it harder, but instead for a period (usually brief) made do with softer pure copper. So for them the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age appears between Neolithic and Bronze.
There are however significant weaknesses in this basically Three Age System. One complaint about learning History is its apparent obsession with Dates. But when it comes to putting dates on these periods of civilization we run into problems. Nowadays we are so used to instant reactions world-wide to change that we have problems with the concept that one part of the world might have adopted bronze while another culture some distance away might go on using stone for many hundreds of years thereafter. There are several reasons for this. Bronze required copper and tin (the latter a comparatively rare ore). The technology of finding and mining both and even more of smelting and processing was daunting. It often meant importing the ores which had to be paid for by goods in exchange. In fact international trade and navigation got a great boost when bronze came into use. Also if stone meets your needs effectively why get into bronze with all its complications – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The Iron Age leaves us with problems. Depending on where you were it could have been said to appear between 1500 BC and 500 BC. But communities in the Pacific Ocean were spared this innovation until the 1800’s AD. Again, it would be interesting to compare the use of iron in Roman times, say, with the use of iron in 1890 , and again in 2016.Between Roman and Victorian times iron was accompanied with timber, bronze, stone etc. But by the 19th.centurt the use of iron increased massively with the coming of steam-driven machinery, iron ships, utensils and items of all kinds. So did the European Iron Age begin around 500 BC or 1800 AD?
Another problem future archaeologists will have to contend with is the impact of new metals and technologies. From the beginning of the 20th. century aluminium and related light alloys have contended massively with iron. From the latter years of Victoria’s reign our tools have been driven by electric power – the Electric Age? If Communication is regarded as more important than the use of tools what about the Electronic or the Digital Age?
A side issue arising from the “Age” system of tracking the movement of culture is the assumption that each age marked an increase in basic human intelligence. If “necessity is the mother of invention” does that mean that as people evolve new methods of doing things they automatically become more intelligent? Humanity’s track record from the time bronze replaced stone doesn’t seem to bear this out. Conversely, did Robinson Crusoe become less intelligent when he had to go back to earlier ways? There seems to have been a Victorian concept that people who got together in cities, used metals, law, writing, political systems were in some way of superior intelligence to other communities still leading a more simple life. We still seem to be stuck in that materialistic groove. Until fairly recently in archaeology societies which produced the megaliths were regarded as inferior to the urban societies of, say, Sumeria and Egypt.
We could ask ourselves what is progress – how do we measure it? Medicine has made enormous advances, but the resulting increase in the world’s population has not been catered for by advances in agriculture and trade. Advances in military technology are not an acceptable answer to the population problem. Did the Bronze – Iron – Digital Ages produce answers?
In a recent post (Jan. 3rd.) we looked at the role ideals have played in historical events. Ideals evolve – they can be the culmination of the efforts of thinkers over thousands of years. We mentioned the concepts behind the English Civil War as being particularly significant in modern history, and not just in Europe. It was during this period (mid 1600’s) that the North American colonies were growing apace, and fretting under the heavy hand (relatively) of the mother country. So it is not surprising that in America by the mid 1700’s concepts of greater political freedom, less arbitrary rule, independence, were emerging. Philosophers abounded in the 18th. century – the “Century of Enlightenment”. Voltaire and Rousseau in France, Tom Paine in England were but a few examples. Concepts such as the Rights of Man, civil liberties, etc. were being thrashed out. By the 1770’s in America the die was cast and political discussion of ideals culminated in the use of force. Sad this – it is such fun to argue round the table over ideals – but there is another serious side of the coin when the ideals are taken seriously, and meet determined opposition. The resultant independent United States of America still broadcasts its ideals of that age to the world.
At the period in question France had a long-standing feud with England over trade, colonies and related matters, and somewhat perversely decided to throw in its weight with the American colonists, sending over armies to support the colonists, under such leaders as Lafayette. There was already in France a strong idealistic movement triggered by the writings of such thinkers as Rousseau and Tom Paine. Seemingly arbitrary royal rule, ill-treatment of the “lower orders” by nobility and Church, a desire for change, were opposed by a large element of “the powers that be”. Both officers and men who had sailed from France to support the American colonists often returned to France wondering what all the fuss was about in America – the situation was so much worse in France!
There is a romantic idea that the French Revolution occurred on July 14th. 1789 with the assault on the Bastille. In fact that event gained a lot of publicity in the media of the day. (You couldn’t trust the media then either!) The English poet Wordsworth reacted along the lines of – “WHAT BLISS IT WAS THAT DAY TO BE ALIVE – WHEN TO BE YOUNG WAS VERY HEAVEN”. But revolutions are not made nor are ideals achieved in a single day. As in England in the 1640’s it took several years before it had to be finally decided that the King was not going to reign as a constitutional monarch, and trial and execution proved the only alternative. As in England 150-odd years earlier internal dissent made strong government on military lines necessary to hold the country together, but in France the situation was exacerbated by the development of a concerted attack on the country by its neighbours, determined to reverse the spread of revolutionary ideals. Hence the rise of Napoleon, like Cromwell, the strong military man.
So “bye-bye” to high-flown ideals? Perhaps not – There is still hope. In both France (1815) and in England (1660) “Kings” were restored. But things were never the same again – England first and later France progressed to Parliamentary democracies, the latter emulating the former. The system spread and for all its defects is accepted by mature political societies world-wide.
Other countries have passed through parallel circumstances. Sometimes ideals flare up and fizzle out under outside force. In 1798 Ireland looked to be raising the French revolutionary banner of “Liberty, Equality. Fraternity” under French inspiration and support, but the movement died. Was America luckier than England and France in maintaining the momentum of its revolution? I think not – there was a form of delayed action until the American Civil War erupted in the 19th. century when issues connected with working out a “federal” system came ta head.
Hopefully mankind will never cease to have ideals. Achieving them can be a painful process. Perhaps it can be made less painful if we learn from the lessons of History – BUT WHO EVER “LEARNED FROM HISTORY?” (Now that could be a theme of its own).