A Brief Outline of the Revolution

This is a brief  passage in the last chapter of "The Reign of Love", attempting to explain the intellectual atmosphere in which the ties of kinship were loosened.  Far from being a natural evolution, such as the development of Roman law on marriage and inheritance, the weakening and elimination of kinship ties was one small but important part of the Greater Revolution. 

The decay of kinship ties is not one of those natural developments that must occur in any organic societies.  Just as there is no one ideal form of government, there is no ideal structure of kinship and inheritance.  The law must always be adapted to changing circumstances, and the rule of primogeniture had lost most of its feudal significance in England before the end of the 17th century and never had any in America.  Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson worked relentlessly to undo whatever vestiges of the custom remained.  Jefferson’s animosity to primogeniture and entail can only be understood in the context of an intellectual revolution that had been brewing since at least the late 14th century.  

In its early phases, this revolution, under the guise of a restoration of classical learning and civilization, became known as the Renaissance, and, as it gathered steam and changed direction, new names were applied, such as Enlightenment and Modernism.  As in any lesser revolution—I am tempted to call them epicycles—motives and objectives shift, and yesterday’s radical is today’s conservative and tomorrow’s reactionary bigot.  John Locke and Adam Smith, whose theories were valuable weapons in the dissolution of Christian society, are now among the heroes of American conservatives, and Thomas Paine, once detested as an atheist radical, whose body was dug up and removed from consecrated ground, is now an eminently respectable Founding Father of the American Republic. In surveying the progress of this greater revolution, then, we must not be deceived into regarding the radicals of earlier generations as defenders of the old order, simply because they accepted private property, the classical tradition, or heterosexual monogamy as norms worth preserving.

There are many phases of this Great Revolution, many of them overlapping, others succeeding each other in a progression almost insensible to those who lived through the transitions.  At this point, I can only indicate several major phases as the revolutions against the religious order, the political order, the social and economic order, the moral order, and the biological order.  Each of them began by calling for the reform of ancient institutions, initially accusing the post-Medieval leadership classes of oppression and tyranny, and they culminate in open warfare against the very foundations of the institutions themselves.

The revolution against the religious order, for example, begins with a denunciation of papal tyranny and corruption, proceeds to the demolition of the episcopal hierarchy, and culminates in militant atheism and the abolition of Christianity.  Similarly, the revolution against the political order is, in the beginning, content with attacking the privileges of kings, before proceeding to destroy first all vestiges of feudalism and then all obstacles a reign of theoretical equality in which regional and local privileges are obliterated and even national boundaries become suspect.  Moreover, the crusade to abolish distinctions could not be content with the elimination of political privileges but went on to abolish social distinctions, including even such subtle indications of class as decent dress and polite manners.

The moral revolution, which facilitated the social revolution, was made in the name of liberating “the individual”—a creature invented by the revolution—from the shackles of religion, tradition, and social distinction.  And, since all individuals of every social class were to be equal, distinctions based on ethnicity, religion, and culture had to be ignored, the moral revolution led ineluctably to the biological revolution that abolished distinctions based on sex, sexual orientation, and even the sexual identity dictated at conception by the genes and after birth by the endocrine system.  

When we once accept the reality of the Greater Revolution, the epicycles—in which bishops were demoted, kings murdered, rich men robbed and taxed, women liberated, and normal human beings oppressed—are reduced to romantic episodes in the ruthless and mechanical progress of a driving force that the religiously inclined will be tempted to identify with the Anti-Christ.

One caveat before an unwary reader leaps to the conclusion that he should repudiate every change that has taken place since the death of Dante Alighieri:  Human beings are almost infinitely creative, and an infinitely merciful providence has made it possible for creatures as weak and foolish as Freemasons and Philosophes, Jacobins and communists, Classical Liberals and feminists to find meaning and create beauty.  A Catholic or Eastern Orthodox believer might smile at the follies and ignorance of some of the less disciplined Christian sects, but an honest Christian will not pretend that a good Baptist is less faithful than a rigorous Catholic.  

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

12 Responses

  1. Avatar Allen Wilson says:

    Considering your last paragraph, it must follow that we can’t be too judgemental of those, such as Jefferson or even perhaps Beethoven, who believed in some of the tenets of the revolution because that’s just what practically everybody believed in at the time, and who didn’t intentionally wage war against civilization or God, and those who, on the other hand, were self-conscious revolutionaries. Washington was a great and good man who just happened to be a Freemason.

    It may also be true that some of the changes that have come along since Dante would have come about anyway, even without the revolution, because they were necessary, but were corrupted by the revolutionary climate of the times in which they came about, and so obtained a destructive quality which they would not have had otherwise.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, right on both points. In the context of my discussion of the decay of kinship, I make the point that societies naturally change their rules in response to changing circumstances, and these responses are not necessarily of a revolutionary nature. I instanced Roman laws regulating marriage and the Married Women’s Property Acts, legislated in America by normal men. Once, however, these necessary responses are instrumentalized by revolution, they become like the bricks and stones picked up by rioters in the street.

    As tempting as it might be to condemn wholesale every rebellion against Medieval authorities, the institutions that incorporated those rebellions might be the source of serious thought, great art, and decent morality. As a quondam Episcopalian/Lutheran, I refuse to condemn Protestants out of hand. There is much good in their best theologians. Life ain’t ever simple, and the prime villains in the revolution–Pico, for example, found their way back.

  3. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    And to define this flow as anti-west is absurd. It’s a part of west culture, beginning from dispute about universals, from Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. As the Guelphs and Ghibellines will never agree about share of power and a form of state.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    We have a language problem here. The revolutionary movements I have tried to encapsulate in these brief paragraphs are not, as I have stated explicitly, a natural “flow.” They are not derived at all from either Thomas or William, and if anyone can tell me categorically what are the theoretical political differences that divide Guelphs and Ghibellines, I shall be eternally gratefully. The situation is so confused that there have been many writers on Dante who described him as a Ghibelline, which he most certainly was not.

    I posted these paragraphs, which are a preface to a discussion of the changes in kinship laws in England, to put the attack on primogeniture and entailment in a broader context and to distinguish between practical disagreements about inheritance–the fairness or unfairness of privileging first-born male heirs–from the arguments used by Locke, Jefferson, and the French Jacobins. A reader is obviously free to express impatience with the whole project–Who cares these days about entailment?–or embrace the ideology of revolution, but if a reader is willing to waste time on such questions, he ought to be willing to suspend judgment until he has thought them through or ascertained the point of what is being written.

  5. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    “there have been many writers on Dante who described him as a Ghibelline, which he most certainly was not.”
    …because Dante has blamed Papism

    Have the same writers described the difference between white and black Guelphs?

  6. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The question is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. If you want to understand these things, you must study Italian Medieval history, city by city. After a few years of desultory study, you will find that whatever principled differences there might have been in the beginning were instrumentalized by the leaders of factions and cities. As Florentine went Guelph, it was inevitable that dominant elements in Siena, Pisa, and Arezzo would become Ghibelline. The rural nobility had a good reason to gravitate to the imperial cause, since it was the source of honors and titles and since they were generally disliked and despised in the mercantile cities. Of course, every Guelph city had a Ghibelline party–one of the greatest Ghibelline leaders was the Florentine Farinata degli Uberti (note the Germanic name typical of the nobility) so memorably portrayed by Dante–and Ghibelline cities like Pisa had Guelphs, and Florentine fifth-columnists. If you understand the Tuscan mindset, you begin to see how neighboring cities were constantly at war, sometimes over the bones of a saint, while within teh cities neighborhoods and kindreds, who built defensive towers, were at war with each other. Once the Guelphs took over Florence, they split over a family feud that started in Pistoia–all over a wife named Bianca, hence the Whites. But much of the trouble lay with the ambitions of Corso Donati, a Guelph by background and experience, but he married the daughter of Farinata and sought alliances against teh Whites among the Ghibelline nobility. Of course, much of the struggle was the long conflict between the Donati and the Cerchi–the latter supported by Dante’s poetic mentor and friend, Guido Cavalcanti. Dante was himself a friernd of Corso’s brother, but Corso forced Dante’s exile and outlawry, while he was conveniently in Rome on diplomatic mission to the evil Boniface VIII. In exile, Dante tried to form an alliance of White Guelphs and Ghibellines but petty rivalries, ambitions, feuds, backbiting brought it all to nothing, and he puts in the mouth of his ancestor the advice he was giving himself: Make yourself a party of one.

    Why have I wasted time on this very simplified narrative? Simply to illustrate that while textbooks talk about the Guelphs as papalists and Ghibellines as imperialists, nothing could be farther from the truth by Dante’s time. And even when there was some truth, the conflict was more of a class war of nobles proud of their Germanic background in conflict with the businessmen nobodies who were taking over the Italian cities.

  7. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    First of all it’s a war inside of class of nobles and not specific italian phenomenon.

  8. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    The reason of war inside of class of nobles – “Primus inter pares”.
    It’s for the question of relevance.

  9. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I don’t think any useful purpose is being served by this distraction.

  10. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    Jefferson’s animosity to primogeniture and entail you described ONLY in the context of an intellectual revolution that had been brewing since at least the late 14th century. The conflict of the Guelphs and Ghibellines – just by family feud.
    Not bad, not bad.

  11. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I am grateful to Mr. Solodov for reminding me of the virtue of patience, but even a saint might on occasion find the hair shirt irksome. To be fair, I don’t think he has much grasp of English and thus would miss the opening sentence, “This is a brief passage in the last chapter of “The Reign of Love”, attempting to explain the intellectual atmosphere in which the ties of kinship were loosened” which makes it plain that this thumb-nail sketch was intended only to provide some intellectual context for social developments in kinship. Jefferson is mentioned necessarily because his attack on primogeniture, largely borrowed from Locke’s First Treatise on Government, will later be a focal point of discussion of legal changes in England and the US.

    The Guelph/Ghibelline conflict, which I declared irrelevant to this discussion, is a large historical subject about which most of what has been written in general works of history is misleading. To show how misleading they are, I pointed to dimensions of the problem that had nothing to do with the struggle between the Emperor and the Pope. I also wished to indicate very briefly that in anything involving Medieval history in Italy–but also Spain and Germany–one could not take high-altitude snapshots, since developments in Tuscany were not only quite different from what took place in Naples and Sicily, but were quite different even from Umbria. Even within Tuscany, rival cities–Lucca, Pisa, Siena, Florence, Arezzo–developed internally and externally in ways that do not always lend themselves to general statements. To gain even a simple understanding of Italian and thus Tuscan and thus Florentine history, one has to dig into first-hand and quasi-first-hand works such as, in the case of Florence, Dino Compagni, Machiavelli’s History, Guicciardini, Villani, before moving onto later interpretations by, for example, Villari, Brucker, and a host of Germans. Having gone this far, he can then give like treatment to, at least, Pisa and Siena, if not to Lucca, Arezzo, Genova…..

    If anyone, including of course Mr. Solodov, has any SPECIFIC and RELEVANT questions about Jefferson, primogeniture, entail or even the ramifications of the strife among Guelphs and Ghibellines, I shall try to take the time to answer.

  12. Avatar Konstantin Solodov says:

    I am also grateful to you, Mr. Fleming, for reminding me of the virtue of patience. But to spend time to understand your logic and your perception of life on the base of antic values as universal for history of mankind… sometimes that sort of things was interesting, sometimes dull, but it doesn’t give one very much.
    All the best to you and your small congregation. Adieu.