Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays

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Author: G. K. Chesterton

Revolution by Snap Division

Now what general notion does the ordinary English boy, thus taught to utter one ignorance in one of two accents, get and keep through life about the French Revolution? It is the notion of the English House of Commons with an enormous Radical majority on one side of the table and a small Tory minority on the other; the majority voting solid for a Republic, the minority voting solid for a Monarchy; two teams tramping through two lobbies with no difference between their methods and ours, except that (owing to some habit peculiar to Gaul) the brief intervals were brightened by a riot or a massacre, instead of by a whisky and soda and a Marconi tip. Novels are much more reliable than histories in such matters. For though an English novel about France does not tell the truth about France, it does tell the truth about England; and more than half the histories never tell the truth about anything. And popular fiction, I think, bears witness to the general English impression. The French Revolution is a snap division with an unusual turnover of votes. On the one side stand a king and queen who are good but weak, surrounded by nobles with rapiers drawn; some of whom are good, many of whom are wicked, all of whom are good-looking. Against these there is a formless mob of human beings, wearing red caps and seemingly insane, who all blindly follow ruffians who are also rhetoricians; some of whom die repentant and others unrepentant towards the end of the fourth act. The leaders of this boiling mass of all men melted into one are called Mirabeau, Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and so on. And it is conceded that their united frenzy may have been forced on them by the evils of the old regime.

That, I think, is the commonest English view of the French Revolution; and it will not survive the reading of two pages of any real speech or letter of the period. These human beings were human; varied, complex and inconsistent. But the rich Englishman, ignorant of revolutions, would hardly believe you if you told him some of the common human subtleties of the case. Tell him that Robespierre threw the red cap in the dirt in disgust, while the king had worn it with a broad grin, so to speak; tell him that Danton, the fierce founder of the Republic of the Terror, said quite sincerely to a noble, "I am more monarchist than you;" tell him that the Terror really seems to have been brought to an end chiefly by the efforts of people who particularly wanted to go on with it—and he will not believe these things. He will not believe them because he has no humility, and therefore no realism. He has never been inside himself; and so could never be inside another man. The truth is that in the French affair everybody occupied an individual position. Every man talked sincerely, if not because he was sincere, then because he was angry. Robespierre talked even more about God than about the Republic because he cared even more about God than about the Republic. Danton talked even more about France than about the Republic because he cared even more about France than about the Republic. Marat talked more about Humanity than either, because that physician (though himself somewhat needing a physician) really cared about it. The nobles were divided, each man from the next. The attitude of the king was quite different from the attitude of the queen; certainly much more different than any differences between our Liberals and Tories for the last twenty years. And it will sadden of my friends to remember that it was the king who was the Liberal and the queen who was the Tory. There were not two people, I think, in that most practical crisis who stood in precisely the same attitude towards the situation. And that is why, between them, they saved Europe. It is when you really perceive the unity of mankind that you really perceive its variety. It is not a flippancy, it is a very sacred truth, to say that when men really understand that they are brothers they instantly begin to fight.

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Chicago: G. K. Chesterton, "Revolution by Snap Division," Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed April 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRAUDXAQR479HP9.

MLA: Chesterton, G. K. "Revolution by Snap Division." Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 25 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRAUDXAQR479HP9.

Harvard: Chesterton, GK, 'Revolution by Snap Division' in Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, trans. . cited in 1831, Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 25 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRAUDXAQR479HP9.