Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Killing a King

On this date in 1793, King Louis XVI, "The Most Christian King" of France, was executed in Paris at the subsequently ironically renamed Place de la Concorde. The judicial murder of "The Most Christian King" has long been recognized as one of the truly decisive, no-turning-back moments of the French Revolution - that epic, world-historical, calamity that has ever since defined Western civilization's transition to modernity.

Among the Revolution's contemporaries, perhaps the most famous response to what the French Revolution had undone in terms of community and society and was consequently unleashing on the world was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared already in 1790. That was well before the Revolution's infamous "Reign of Terror," but already Burke had seen enough - notably, the events of October 4-5, 1789, when the Parisian mob invaded Versailles and forced the Royal Family to return with them to Paris. Already in that and other such events that were happening on the ground and in the constitutional disruptions being legislated in the Assembly, Burke recognized the inherent danger in the substitution of ahistorical, individualistic, Enlightenment abstractions in place of the more organic development and communitarian character of actually existing social structures and institutions that have traditionally bonded people together in societies.

In the 20th century, It was Albert Camus (1913-1960) who, in his book The Rebel (L'Homme révolté, 1951), famously analyzed the Revolution's frontal attack on both history and transcendence.  Camus called scandalous the presentation of the killing of the king as some great historical achievement. (Certes, c’est un répugnant scandale d’avoir présenté, comme un grand moment de notre histoire, l’assassinat public d’un homme faible et bon.) The central symbolic significance of the event for contemporary history, according to Camus, was how it sought to secularize our history and to remove from it ("dis-incarnate") the Christian God (Il symbolise la désacralisation de cette histoire et la désincarnation du Dieu Chrétien.)

And now, more than 200 years into the post-revolutionary epoch, we continue to live this drama.

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