The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Epimenides.

How true that there is nothing dead in this Universe; that what we call dead is only changed, its forces working in inverse order! ‘The leaf that lies rotting in moist winds,’ says one, ‘has still force; else how could it rot?’ Our whole Universe is but an infinite Complex of Forces; thousandfold, from Gravitation up to Thought and Will; man’s Freedom environed with Necessity of Nature: in all which nothing at any moment slumbers, but all is for ever awake and busy. The thing that lies isolated inactive thou shalt nowhere discover; seek every where from the granite mountain, slow-mouldering since Creation, to the passing cloud-vapour, to the living man; to the action, to the spoken word of man. The word that is spoken, as we know, flies-irrevocable: not less, but more, the action that is done. ‘The gods themselves,’ sings Pindar, ‘cannot annihilate the action that is done.’ No: this, once done, is done always; cast forth into endless Time; and, long conspicuous or soon hidden, must verily work and grow for ever there, an indestructible new element in the Infinite of Things. Or, indeed, what is this Infinite of Things itself, which men name Universe, but an action, a sum-total of Actions and Activities? The living ready-made sum-total of these three, — which Calculation cannot add, cannot bring on its tablets; yet the sum, we say, is written visible: All that has been done, All that is doing, All that will be done! Understand it well, the Thing thou beholdest, that Thing is an Action, the product and expression of exerted Force: the All of Things is an infinite conjugation of the verb To do. Shoreless Fountain–Ocean of Force, of power to do; wherein Force rolls and circles, billowing, many-streamed, harmonious; wide as Immensity, deep as Eternity; beautiful and terrible, not to be comprehended: this is what man names Existence and Universe; this thousand-tinted Flame-image, at once veil and revelation, reflex such as he, in his poor brain and heart, can paint, of One Unnameable dwelling in inaccessible light! From beyond the Star-galaxies, from before the Beginning of Days, it billows and rolls, — round thee, nay thyself art of it, in this point of Space where thou now standest, in this moment which thy clock measures.

Or apart from all Transcendentalism, is it not a plain truth of sense, which the duller mind can even consider as a truism, that human things wholly are in continual movement, and action and reaction; working continually forward, phasis after phasis, by unalterable laws, towards prescribed issues? How often must we say, and yet not rightly lay to heart: The seed that is sown, it will spring! Given the summer’s blossoming, then there is also given the autumnal withering: so is it ordered not with seedfields only, but with transactions, arrangements, philosophies, societies, French Revolutions, whatsoever man works with in this lower world. The Beginning holds in it the End, and all that leads thereto; as the acorn does the oak and its fortunes. Solemn enough, did we think of it, — which unhappily and also happily we do not very much! Thou there canst begin; the Beginning is for thee, and there: but where, and of what sort, and for whom will the End be? All grows, and seeks and endures its destinies: consider likewise how much grows, as the trees do, whether we think of it or not. So that when your Epimenides, your somnolent Peter Klaus, since named Rip van Winkle, awakens again, he finds it a changed world. In that seven-years’ sleep of his, so much has changed! All that is without us will change while we think not of it; much even that is within us. The truth that was yesterday a restless Problem, has to-day grown a Belief burning to be uttered: on the morrow, contradiction has exasperated it into mad Fanaticism; obstruction has dulled it into sick Inertness; it is sinking towards silence, of satisfaction or of resignation. To-day is not Yesterday, for man or for thing. Yesterday there was the oath of Love; today has come the curse of Hate. Not willingly: ah, no; but it could not help coming. The golden radiance of youth, would it willingly have tarnished itself into the dimness of old age? — Fearful: how we stand enveloped, deep-sunk, in that Mystery of TIME; and are Sons of Time; fashioned and woven out of Time; and on us, and on all that we have, or see, or do, is written: Rest not, Continue not, Forward to thy doom!

But in seasons of Revolution, which indeed distinguish themselves from common seasons by their velocity mainly, your miraculous Seven-sleeper might, with miracle enough, wake sooner: not by the century, or seven years, need he sleep; often not by the seven months. Fancy, for example, some new Peter Klaus, sated with the jubilee of that Federation day, had lain down, say directly after the Blessing of Talleyrand; and, reckoning it all safe now, had fallen composedly asleep under the timber-work of the Fatherland’s Altar; to sleep there, not twenty-one years, but as it were year and day. The cannonading of Nanci, so far off, does not disturb him; nor does the black mortcloth, close at hand, nor the requiems chanted, and minute guns, incense-pans and concourse right over his head: none of these; but Peter sleeps through them all. Through one circling year, as we say; from July 14th of 1790, till July the 17th of 1791: but on that latter day, no Klaus, nor most leaden Epimenides, only the Dead could continue sleeping; and so our miraculous Peter Klaus awakens. With what eyes, O Peter! Earth and sky have still their joyous July look, and the Champ-de-Mars is multitudinous with men: but the jubilee-huzzahing has become Bedlam-shrieking, of terror and revenge; not blessing of Talleyrand, or any blessing, but cursing, imprecation and shrill wail; our cannon-salvoes are turned to sharp shot; for swinging of incense-pans and Eighty-three Departmental Banners, we have waving of the one sanguinous Drapeau–Rouge. — Thou foolish Klaus! The one lay in the other, the one was the other minus Time; even as Hannibal’s rock-rending vinegar lay in the sweet new wine. That sweet Federation was of last year; this sour Divulsion is the self-same substance, only older by the appointed days.

No miraculous Klaus or Epimenides sleeps in these times: and yet, may not many a man, if of due opacity and levity, act the same miracle in a natural way; we mean, with his eyes open? Eyes has he, but he sees not, except what is under his nose. With a sparkling briskness of glance, as if he not only saw but saw through, such a one goes whisking, assiduous, in his circle of officialities; not dreaming but that it is the whole world: as, indeed, where your vision terminates, does not inanity begin there, and the world’s end clearly declares itself — to you? Whereby our brisk sparkling assiduous official person (call him, for instance, Lafayette), suddenly startled, after year and day, by huge grape-shot tumult, stares not less astonished at it than Peter Klaus would have done. Such natural-miracle Lafayette can perform; and indeed not he only but most other officials, non-officials, and generally the whole French People can perform it; and do bounce up, ever and anon, like amazed Seven-sleepers awakening; awakening amazed at the noise they themselves make. So strangely is Freedom, as we say, environed in Necessity; such a singular Somnambulism, of Conscious and Unconscious, of Voluntary and Involuntary, is this life of man. If any where in the world there was astonishment that the Federation Oath went into grape-shot, surely of all persons the French, first swearers and then shooters, felt astonished the most.

Alas, offences must come. The sublime Feast of Pikes, with its effulgence of brotherly love, unknown since the Age of Gold, has changed nothing. That prurient heat in Twenty-five millions of hearts is not cooled thereby; but is still hot, nay hotter. Lift off the pressure of command from so many millions; all pressure or binding rule, except such melodramatic Federation Oath as they have bound themselves with! For ‘Thou shalt’ was from of old the condition of man’s being, and his weal and blessedness was in obeying that. Wo for him when, were it on hest of the clearest necessity, rebellion, disloyal isolation, and mere ‘I will’, becomes his rule! But the Gospel of Jean–Jacques has come, and the first Sacrament of it has been celebrated: all things, as we say, are got into hot and hotter prurience; and must go on pruriently fermenting, in continual change noted or unnoted.

‘Worn out with disgusts,’ Captain after Captain, in Royalist moustachioes, mounts his warhorse, or his Rozinante war-garron, and rides minatory across the Rhine; till all have ridden. Neither does civic Emigration cease: Seigneur after Seigneur must, in like manner, ride or roll; impelled to it, and even compelled. For the very Peasants despise him in that he dare not join his order and fight. (Dampmartin, passim.) Can he bear to have a Distaff, a Quenouille sent to him; say in copper-plate shadow, by post; or fixed up in wooden reality over his gate-lintel: as if he were no Hercules but an Omphale? Such scutcheon they forward to him diligently from behind the Rhine; till he too bestir himself and march, and in sour humour, another Lord of Land is gone, not taking the Land with him. Nay, what of Captains and emigrating Seigneurs? There is not an angry word on any of those Twenty-five million French tongues, and indeed not an angry thought in their hearts, but is some fraction of the great Battle. Add many successions of angry words together, you have the manual brawl; add brawls together, with the festering sorrows they leave, and they rise to riots and revolts. One reverend thing after another ceases to meet reverence: in visible material combustion, chateau after chateau mounts up; in spiritual invisible combustion, one authority after another. With noise and glare, or noisily and unnoted, a whole Old System of things is vanishing piecemeal: on the morrow thou shalt look and it is not.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30