Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: THAT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, THOUGH POLITICAL, PURSUED THE SAME COURSE AS A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTION, AND WHY. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER III.: THAT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, THOUGH POLITICAL, PURSUED THE SAME COURSE AS A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTION, AND WHY. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
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THAT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, THOUGH POLITICAL, PURSUED THE SAME COURSE AS A RELIGIOUS REVOLUTION, AND WHY.
ALL political and civil revolutions have been confined to a single country. The French Revolution had no country; one of its leading effects appeared to be to efface national boundaries from the map. It united and divided men, in spite of law, traditions, characters, language; converted enemies into fellow-countrymen, and brothers into foes; or, rather, to speak more precisely, it created, far above particular nationalities, an intellectual country that was common to all, and in which every human creature could obtain rights of citizenship.
No similar feature can be discovered in any other political revolution recorded in history. But it occurs in certain religious revolutions. Therefore those who wish to examine the French Revolution by the light of analogy must compare it with religious revolutions.
Schiller observes with truth, in his History of the Thirty Years’ War, that one striking effect of the Reformation was that it led to sudden alliances and warm friendships among nations which hardly knew each other. Frenchmen were seen, for instance, fighting against Frenchmen, with Englishmen in their ranks. Men born on distant Baltic shores marched down into the heart of Germany to protect Germans of whom they had never heard before. All the foreign wars of the time partook of the nature of civil wars; in all the civil wars foreigners bore arms. Old interests were forgotten in the clash of new ones; questions of territory gave way to questions of principle. All the old rules of politics and diplomacy were at fault, to the great surprise and grief of the politicians of the day. Precisely similar were the events which followed 1789 in Europe.
The French Revolution, though political, assumed the guise and tactics of a religious revolution. Some further points of resemblance between the two may be noticed. The former not only spread beyond the limits of France, but, like religious revolutions, spread by preaching and propagandism. A political revolution, which inspired proselytism, and whose doctrines were preached abroad with as much warmth as they were practiced at home, was certainly a new spectacle, the most strikingly original of all the novelties which were presented to the world by the French Revolution. But we must not stop here. Let us go further, and try to discover whether these parallel results did not flow from parallel causes.
Religions commonly affect mankind in the abstract, without allowance for additions or changes effected by laws, customs, or national traditions. Their chief aim is to regulate the concerns of man with God, and the reciprocal duties of men toward each other, independently of social institutions. They deal, not with men of any particular nation or any particular age, but with men as sons, fathers, servants, masters, neighbors. Based on principles essential to human nature, they are applicable and suited to all races of men. Hence it is that religious revolutions have swept over such extensive areas, and have rarely been confined, as political revolutions have, to the territory of one people, or even one race; and the more abstract their character, the wider they have spread, in spite of differences of laws, climate, and race.
The old forms of paganism, which were all more or less interwoven with political and social systems, and whose dogmas wore a national and sometimes a sort of municipal aspect, rarely traveled beyond the frontiers of a single country. They gave rise to occasional outbursts of intolerance and persecution, but never to proselytism. Hence, the first religious revolution felt in Western Europe was caused by the establishment of Christianity. That faith easily overstepped the boundaries which had checked the outgrowth of pagan systems, and rapidly conquered a large portion of the human race. I hope I shall exhibit no disrespect for that holy faith if I suggest that it owed its successes, in some degree, to its unusual disentanglement from all national peculiarities, forms of government, social institutions, and local or temporary considerations.
The French Revolution acted, with regard to things of this world, precisely as religious revolutions have acted with regard to things of the other. It dealt with the citizen in the abstract, independent of particular social organizations, just as religions deal with mankind in general, independent of time and place. It inquired, not what were the particular rights of French citizens, but what were the general rights and duties of mankind in reference to political concerns.
It was by thus divesting itself of all that was peculiar to one race or time, and by reverting to natural principles of social order and government, that it became intelligible to all, and susceptible of simultaneous imitation in a hundred different places.
By seeming to tend rather to the regeneration of the human race than to the reform of France alone, it roused passions such as the most violent political revolutions had been incapable of awakening. It inspired proselytism, and gave birth to propagandism; and hence assumed that quasi religious character which so terrified those who saw it, or, rather, became a sort of new religion, imperfect, it is true, without God, worship, or future life, but still able, like Islamism, to cover the earth with its soldiers, its apostles, and its martyrs.
It must not be supposed that all its methods were unprecedented, or all the ideas it brought forward absolutely original. On many former occasions, even in the heart of the Middle Ages, agitators had invoked the general principles on which human societies rest for the purpose of overthrowing particular customs, and had assailed the constitution of their country with arguments drawn from the natural rights of man; but all these experiments had been failures. The torch which set Europe on fire in the eighteenth century was easily extinguished in the fifteenth. Arguments of this kind can not succeed till certain changes in the condition, customs, and minds of men have prepared a way for their reception.
There are times when men differ so widely that the bare idea of a common law for all appears unintelligible. There are others, again, when they will recognize at a glance the least approach toward such a law, and embrace it eagerly.
The great wonder is not that the French Revolution employed the methods it did, and conceived the ideas it brought forth; what is wonderful and startling is that mankind had reached a point at which these methods could be usefully employed, and these ideas readily admitted.