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0105_001E The Ancien Regime Charles Kingsley

Lecture III -- The Explosive Forces

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There are races, alas! which seem, for the present at least, mastered by circumstances. Some, like the Chinese, have sunk back into that state; some, like the negro in Africa, seem not yet to have emerged from it; but in Europe, during the eighteenth century, were working not merely new forces and vitalities (abstractions which mislead rather than explain), but living persons in plenty, men and women, with independent and original hearts and brains, instinct, in spite of all circumstances, with power which we shall most wisely ascribe directly to Him who is the Lord and Giver of Life.

Such persons seemed--I only say seemed--most numerous in England and in Germany. But there were enough of them in France to change the destiny of that great nation for awhile--perhaps for ever.

M. de Tocqueville has a whole chapter, and a very remarkable one, which appears at first sight to militate against my belief--a chapter "showing that France was the country in which men had become most alike."

"The men," he says, "of that time, especially those belonging to the upper and middle ranks of society, who alone were at all conspicuous, were all exactly alike."

And it must be allowed, that if this were true of the upper and middle classes, it must have been still more true of the mass of the lowest population, who, being most animal, are always most moulded-- or rather crushed--by their own circumstances, by public opinion, and by the wants of five senses, common to all alike.

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But when M. de Tocqueville attributes this curious fact to the circumstances of their political state--to that "government of one man which in the end has the inevitable effect of rendering all men alike, and all mutually indifferent to their common fate"--we must differ, even from him: for facts prove the impotence of that, or of any other circumstance, in altering the hearts and souls of men, in producing in them anything but a mere superficial and temporary resemblance.

For all the while there was, among these very French, here and there a variety of character and purpose, sufficient to burst through that very despotism, and to develop the nation into manifold, new, and quite original shapes. Thus it was proved that the uniformity had been only in their outside crust and shell. What tore the nation to pieces during the Reign of Terror, but the boundless variety and originality of the characters which found themselves suddenly in free rivalry? What else gave to the undisciplined levies, the bankrupt governments, the parvenu heroes of the Republic, a manifold force, a self-dependent audacity, which made them the conquerors, and the teachers (for good and evil) of the civilised world? If there was one doctrine which the French Revolution specially proclaimed--which it caricatured till it brought it into temporary disrepute--it was this: that no man is like another; that in each is a God-given "individuality," an independent soul, which no government or man has a right to crush, or can crush in the long run: but which ought to have, and must have, a "carriere ouverte aux talents," freely to do the best for itself in the battle of life. The French Revolution, more than any event since twelve poor men set forth to convert the world some eighteen hundred years ago, proves that man ought not to be, and need not be, the creature of circumstances, the puppet of institutions; but, if he will, their conqueror and their lord.

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The Ancien Regime
Charles Kingsley

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