Bastille Day, From Myth to Fable

July 14, a date central to contemporary history
July 8, 2020 Updated: July 10, 2020

Every so often something happens in human history that has massive repercussions, implications and effects out of all proportion to what it seems to be in itself, and which might be described as a turning point in history or, indeed, one of the most important events in history. Such is Bastille Day.

There is an apocryphal story about Mao Zedong that when he was asked about whether the French Revolution had been successful, he replied that it was too early to say! That is always the danger in assessing contemporary or more recently historical phenomena; we have a sort of proximity bias. Because it is near us, therefore it must be important. We cannot turn on the news today without learning that some woman winning a tennis match is a historical moment or that some man running a tenth of a second faster is making history, or that a rock band is getting together again after 20 years, and this too is a history-making moment.

But Bastille Day truly is a history-making moment; one has to go back as far as the Reformation in Europe to think of something as significant. And bizarrely, perhaps the only contemporary event that matches it is—paradoxically—its opposite: The American Declaration of Independence. This is strange because the American Revolution is often seen as the precursor and inspiration for the French Revolution, as if one were the offspring of the other. And in some ways, of course, they are deeply connected. For example, the crushing debt the French government incurred supporting the American rebellion led quite directly to popular discontent at home because of its oppressive and iniquitous taxation system. (In passing, one notes that taxation, too, sparked the revolt of the colonies.)

Twin Revolutions?

However, the American Revolution was the opposite of the French Revolution in terms of the profound but different effects each produced: The Americans took on board democracy in that pragmatic way that the British did and do. Sure, the Bill of Rights and the other developments led to a different kind of democracy from the parent country, but given some solid principles to start with, the practicalities of democracies were worked out from the ground upward. This is quite different from the French Revolution (and the Continental mindset generally), which starts with theory and then attempts to make reality fit theory.

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States by Christy
“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” 1940, by Howard Chandler Christy. U.S. State Capitol. (Public Domain)

By the middle of the 20th century, America had become the most powerful empire in the world, superseding its British antecedent in much the same way that the Roman Empire superseded and became more powerful than the Greek, which preceded it.

But interestingly, who were the powers then—and now—standing against American dominance? Why of course, the children of the French Revolution: The Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 (not to mention Cuba, North Korea, et al.)–all stand against the USA! And behind their economic and military power, comes the most important thing of all: their philosophies, or philosophy, because for all the minor differences, the major thrust is clear. Here we have countries deriving their stand from the consequences of the French Revolution and its principles. Without the French Revolution as their model, could they have happened?

To put this metaphorically, the two revolutions spawned two siblings who are intent on destroying each other, but if we get more precise about it: The French sibling and philosophy is very much the Cain who resents and envies his brother Abel.

And that is why Bastille Day on July 14 is so central to contemporary history. In essence, it was the initial spark that became the conflagration that was the French Revolution. The Bastille itself was a Parisian fortress-prison that represented all that was wrong with the monarchy and the Estates of France. Here, one could arbitrarily be imprisoned by royal warrant and the basis for one’s imprisonment never disclosed.

Storming of the Bastille
“The Storming of the Bastille,” 1789, by Jean-Pierre Houël. Watercolor. National Library of France. (Public Domain)

In short, it was a model of perpetual injustice and the denial of basic rights and access to a fair trial. I hesitate to use the words “human rights” because these have become part of the mythology of this left-wing socialism (granted that these terms only emerged subsequently). But following the storming of the Bastille (in which, ironically, only seven prisoners were incarcerated at that time), in August of the same year (1789), the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and also made The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

prisoners being released on Bastille Day
Only seven prisoners were in the Bastille when it was seized. “People in the Castle of Bastille” by Par H. Jannin. Museum of the French Revolution, Vizille. (Public Domain)

The Great Heresy Lives Again

There we have it: The Rights of Man, the myth of the Age of the Enlightenment, is the myth that endures down to our own day, humanistic, secular, atheistic, and in every way utopian, misguided, and lost. And this myth has not been invented in our own day; it comes from a long, long way back. One primary manifestation of it was called, in the early Christian era, the Pelagian heresy: It’s fundamentally a belief in the perfectibility of human beings, and the accompanying notion that this can be achieved through education.

However, before considering this myth in a little more detail, let’s consider Bastille Day and its consequence in terms of classical history. For I often think that what uniquely happened in France between 1789 and 1815 (a mere 26 years) more or less exactly mirrors what happened in Rome over an 1,100-year period (discounting the continuation of the Eastern empire till A.D. 1453). Quite a time compression—but let’s not forget that the moderns like to go faster!

Arrest of the Governor of the Bastelle-1790
“Storming of the Bastille and arrest of the Governor M. de Launay, July 14, 1789,” 1790, by   Jean-Baptiste Lallemand. Museum of the French Revolution, Vizille. (Public Domain)

First, Rome is established and has kings—monarchs—who finally prove so bad (the last was called Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or “Tarquin the Proud,” which says it all) that they are replaced with a Republic. The Republic, throughout its long existence (over 500 years), is in an almost permanent state of war. Thus, eventually, the most successful military general of the Republic (Julius Caesar, passing to Augustus) converts it into an empire, which continues in the West for another 400 years.

Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh king of Rome, reigning from 535 B.C. until the Roman revolt in 509 B.C. (Public Domain)

We can see in this an exact parallel with France. First we have the kings and their increasing decadence. Then Bastille Day and the French Revolution, leading to the founding of a Republic lasting a decade which, while it lasts, seems also to be in a permanent state of civil war. But then the strong military commander, Napoleon, creates an empire, destined only to stumble in Russia and finally at Waterloo. However, the difference between the two scenarios, aside from the brief timespan of the French experience, lies in the overt philosophy—summed up in the phrase “Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort” (Liberty, fraternity, equality, or death)—which enabled the mythology to spread so widely, and way beyond the French borders.

French militia with heads on pikes on Bastille Day
Militia hoisting the heads of Jacques de Flesselles and the Marquis de Launay on pikes, after they were killed on July 14, 1879. The caption reads “Thus we take revenge on traitors.” Engraving, circa 1789. U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. (Public Domain)

We Are All Equal, Brothers

The key word in this is “égalité,” or what we now recognize as the equality movement. The liberty or freedom and brotherhood of man stuff is the window dressing that creates that warm, fuzzy feeling that politicized words are wont to do. Christianity itself would agree with liberty and brotherhood, as in St. Augustine’s formula “Love and do what you will,” which about covers it.

But equality? As Dorothy L. Sayers observed: “We cannot but be sharply struck by the fact that two of our favorite catch-words have absolutely no meaning in Heaven: There is no equality and there is no progress.” Furthermore, except in the two specific senses of equality of souls before God, and equality of treatment under the law, there is no equality to be found among human beings, and the idea that there could be goes against all experience and all human history.

The storming of the Bastille, then, was a moment in history which—because of the great repression of the people by the Court and the Church—enabled the great heresy, the great myth of human perfectibility (the Pelagian heresy) to be born again. Only whereas the Pelagian heresy hid under the cloak of Christianity, pretending it was Christianity before being exposed and rejected as a heresy, the resurfacing here was able to function by denying religion overtly. This was partly due to the Church itself having become corrupted, and partly because of the century’s prior devotion to Enlightenment “rationality.” But like Pelagianism (though denying spirituality), this revolution still liked to wear its clothes: Indeed, its “liberty” and “fraternity” were moral substitutes for loving one’s neighbor.

Epoch Times Photo
The Place de la Bastille and the July Column where the Bastille once stood. (This is a cropped version of the photo.) (Jean-Louis Zimmermann/CC BY 2.0)

The Fable of the Bastille

And so the events of the Bastille triggered a series of actions, and more importantly a mythology of equality and human perfectibility, that are with us today. But the mythology is false. Unlike the Greek or biblical myths, these stories reflect no profound spiritual, moral, or psychological truths. Over 200 years of modern history has demonstrated just how wrong they are. In fact, they are not mythological at all, as really understood; they are fables. And fables tend to be tales telling of immorality or foolishness at the heart of human behavior.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the works of the (ironically) socialist genius George Orwell, especially his two masterpieces, the fables of “Animal Farm” and “1984,” in which the hollowness and falsity at the heart of the equality (and communistic) worldview are exposed with ruthless precision. Those who know those works will surely recall in “Animal Farm” that wonderful expression: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Karl Marx’s theories rest on an ideology that people are only animals, and therefore a doctrine of “dog eat dog,” so aptly portrayed in George Orwell’s political satire “Animal Farm.” (Public Domain)

Then, in “1984,” we get an explanation of “Newspeak,” which is politically correct speech in which all “unorthodox” political ideas have been removed. This is something we have observed in all communist and socialistic states, and which we are observing now in our own Western countries: Language starts meaning the opposite of what it actually means!

Fanciful? Hardly. Following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, in 1793 the Committee of Public Safety was convened to run the country. And surprise-surprise, just when we had a government committed to “public safety,” so began the infamous Reign of Terror and the guillotine! Words began to mean the exact opposite of what they meant, and human beings became lost in a quagmire of dubious uncertainties.

Bastille Day may be celebrated as the liberation of the French people from dire oppression, which is true, but sometimes cures can be worse than the disease. In this instance, the events on Bastille Day unleashed a full-on European War, and its false philosophical basis has corroded world history ever since.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.