The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

A History Lesson for Janelle Harris

Posted on | April 15, 2011 | 13 Comments

“It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. . . . I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone.
“That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! . . .
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. . . .
“On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.
“On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests.”

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

As soon as I saw Instapundit’s link to a column titled, “Chivalry is dead, and you killed it, ladies,” Burke’s famous eulogy for the Age of Chivalry came to mind.

A great shame of modern education is that Burke’s philosophical reflections are now taught — when taught at all, which probably isn’t often — from excerpts in annotated anthologies, or studied from Cliff Notes. Students are presented with prefabricated interpretations of Burke’s meaning, rather than being required to puzzle it out for themselves. The result is a shallow understanding that deprives them of a full comprehension of Burke’s subtle meaning. It is far better to take the time to read the whole thing, to study the history of the French Revolution (including its philosophical influences), and patiently construe the larger signficance of the intended criticism.

What Burke denounced as a “barbarous philosophy” was the spirit of modern radicalism — Liberté, égalité, fraternité — that rejects all tradition and custom as oppressive superstition. The mob that invaded Versailles in October 1789, insulting the Queen whose honor Burke thought should be avenged by “ten thousand swords,” was acting in accordance with this radical “scheme of things,” wherein “a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman [and] a woman is but an animal.”

If a queen deserved no respect from the common rabble of Paris, Burke recognized, why should anyone be expected to obey any law, except the law of brute force? And why should anyone be expected to act on anything other than the most selfish motives?

It is remarkable that in his Reflections, published in November 1790, Burke so clearly foresaw the future course of events in France, describing how under this radicalism, laws could “be supported only by their own terrors.” And this, more than two years before the onset of the Reign of Terror!

What does this have to do, then, with the everyday rudeness bemoaned by Janelle Harris? Let’s take a look:

I passionately believe manners are the glue of society, the thin line that keeps us all from going ape you-know-what on each other in social settings and public arenas. Not that that line isn’t fraying. If you’ve stood in line at Walmart for any length of time or taken a ride on public transportation, it’s like being on the frontlines of how dismally bad manners have really gotten.

Preach it, sister! What Ms. Harris is talking about is the absence of deference — and deference is the soul of chivalry.

By deference, I mean the voluntary choosing of second place, the spirit that inspires a man to find honor in holding open the door and say, “By all mean, ma’am, after you!” We engage in deference when, as customers, we thank people for things that we’ve paid for, or as merchants, we thank customers for their patronage. We engage in deference by acknowledging our obligations to others, without regard for whatever others may owe us.

Deference, then, expresses the spirit of generosity, so that a courteous person attending a party will desist from argument — although believing himself to be in the right — if continuing the argument will be offensive to other guests. (This is why people who do “ambush interviews” at CPAC get on my last nerve: You are a guest at the event, and choose to abuse the hospitality of your hosts by attempting to score political points by embarrassing other guests? Scoundrel!)

“The unbought grace of life” requires us, when pushing a grocery-cart load into the checkout line at Wal-Mart, to notice that the person behind us is holding only one or two items: “Oh, here, you go ahead of me.”

It is “that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart” which informs the spirit of chivalry and courtesy, so that we aren’t all shoving ourselves to the front of the line, cutting off the other guy in traffic, and sitting on a crowded bus while ladies and old folks are forced to stand.

Yet there can be no dignity in obedience, if all we have to guide us is the prattle of radical sophisters about “The Rights of Man.” If the only basis for social distinction is “the general good,” as the National Assembly declared, who shall judge whether any such distinction accords with that principle? This philosophy is nothing less than an invitation to the Hobbesian nightmare, the war of all against all.

Nothing marks Burke as a true statesman more than this: He saw the radical seed, and anticipated its fatal fruit.

The prophetic nature of Burke’s warning was amply fulfilled. Only later did a thoughtful young woman see the danger in the sans-cullottic radicalism of Jean-Paul Marat. Was ever an assassin’s knife wielded more graciously than by Charlotte Corday?

Before that Revolution ran its course, it sent Robespierre himself to the guillotine — the same machinery of death that had already claimed Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday and so many thousands more.

Janelle Harris sees “the thin line” that separates civilization from savagery, but I wonder if she pauses to look back across two centuries and realize the extent to which the rudeness she sees all around her originated in the “barbarous philosophy” of those long-ago radicals?

Liberté! égalité! fraternité!

Be quiet and listen, and you can hear the sound even now, as if in the distance the wheels of a tumbrel were rumbling through the cobblestone streets, carrying a queen to her death.


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