the french revolution as the turning point to modernity

The French revolution has been thought of as a separation point, between the feudal class societies of the past and the modern, democratic societies that we live with now. I’ve always had a vague appreciation for this fact, but nothing approaching understanding. 

Here is the quote that helped me start to put things together more coherently. 

France was also, potentially before 1789 and actually after 1793, the most powerful country in Europe. It may have been the wealthiest, though not per capita. With a population of some 24M the French were the most numerous of all European peoples under a single government. Even Russia was hardly more populous until after the partitions of Poland. The Germans were divided, the subjects of the Hapsburgs were of diverse nationalities, and the English and Scots together numbered only 10M. Paris, though smaller than London, was over twice as large as Vienna or Amsterdam. French exports to Europe were larger than those of Great Britain. It is said that half the gold pieces circulating in Europe were French. Europeans in the eighteenth century were in the habit of taking ideas from France..

What this suggests to me is that France was the pinnacle of European cultural development and so showed, before several other countries did, the unsustainable nature of European society. It’s rough balance between king and nobility and its class system with the clergy and other classes installed in hereditary (or at least unchallengeable) positions of power. 

If France was Europe’s collective future, it showed that such a future was riddled with contradictions. Sure enough, Europe was overwhelmed with revolutions in the years after the French Revolution. In my mind, we are very much living in the shadow of the French Revolution and all the excesses and innovations that it played with. 

Second, the above quote speaks to me in terms of the improbable. Even the wealthiest, most powerful, most “enlightened” country could be seized by revolution. These days, stability seems to be the watchword of most developed countries, but perhaps we may again confront a turning point at which the best examples of the old way of doings things is rendered obsolete. 


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