Want a revolution? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“The Palace of Versailles helped us understand the French Revolution,” I wrote in 2006, after Esteban and I took a day-trip out of Paris to see the (in)famous home of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. “After a couple of hours we, too, felt like donning pitchforks.”

Here’s the digital-album page I made shortly after we got home:


Since then, I’ve of course learned that the French Revolution didn’t depend on a single factor (here’s the folk-song version, which also sort of makes me want to grab a pitchfork).

Yes, the king was incompetent and stunningly out-of-touch. But he alone was not to blame: The church was exempt from taxes, which were instead being passed on to — and extracted — from the poor. And although the middle-class (“bourgeoisie“) was becoming wealthy, the nobles made sure they remained powerless.

Add to this mixture a dash of economic stagnation, stir in a few foreign wars, and you have the perfect recipe for an indignant populace … and revolution. Right?

Nope, not entirely.

According to at least one historian, it wasn’t injustice or indignation that pushed the people of France over the edge; it was fear. I don’t know how I’d missed reading about la Grande Peur until today, but suddenly the French revolution made perfect sense. Throughout history, there’s never been a better motivator to collective action than fear.

225 years later, the fall of the Bastille is still echoing through Western culture. And as France celebrates today, I wonder: what lessons have we learned?

As impressive as military might may be …


Above and all remaining photos via mashable.com






… or as promising as drone warfare may seem …


… I still have hope that, two centuries from now, we’ll look back on this day and remember not fear, nor revolution, nor war — but peace. That is my hope for France, and for us all.


Joyeux 14 juillet.




  1. When I visited Versailles they were busy reflooring the Hall of Mirrors. A testament to the fame of the place. When it comes to the French revilution and its causes I can’t help thinking thatthe way we understand it has been persistently reframed through the lens of the present. Whatever that present may be. Our view back from the twenty first century certainly is very different from that of the twentieth. All; of course, flows from the intersection between the human condition and society.

    • Wonderful observation, Matthew! I hadn’t thought about the extent to which the “lens of the present” influences our understanding of history, but you’re absolutely right. Once again, I find myself wondering what future generations will make of it all, 200 years hence …

    • Thank you, busybee28! I shoot almost exclusively with a Panasonic GH2 and G6 these days; they have great image quality and lots of lens options, but are about 35% smaller and lighter than traditional SLRs. Just to be clear (and fair), though — the images of the parade on the Champs Élysées aren’t mine. Those were shot by a pro. Hope you had a wonderful Bastille Day, and happy travels!

  2. It’s a pattern throughout history: feeling extreme fear, we come up with some principles that are being trampled to justify fighting. It’s human nature.

    It’s also human nature for us to poop our pants. Our mommies teach us better. But who can teach us when it’s right to listen to fear, and when it’s not?

    • Who can teach us when it’s right to listen to fear, and when it’s not? Excellent question, Jim. I wish I knew the answer.

    • Using our hearts *and* our minds really would be revolutionary, wouldn’t it? Well said, as usual, Tom!

  3. I’m reminded of what the former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai said when asked what he thought about the effect of the French Revolution. He said that, “It is too early to tell”.

    This year’s défilé in the Champs Elysées was especially poignant marking as it did the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – another cataclysmic event caused, in part, by fear.

    I think the French author, journalist, and philosopher, Albert Camus, summed it up rather well, “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”

    • Thank you for these wonderful quotes and insights, Des. How poignant indeed that so much history should echo down the Champs Elysées on this anniversary … but how sad that we humans seldom seem to learn the lessons our history teaches us.

  4. This post seems especially apt this week, after the violence in Gaza and the horrific downing of the civilian jet. Makes me grateful for my blessed safe life in the middle of America. And also makes me want to visit Versailles, which I’ve never done. Thanks for yet another little virtual journey! XO, Pam

    • Only four days after your kind comment, the death toll has doubled in Gaza and yet another jet has disappeared from radar. Isn’t it sad, Pam, that in spite of all our advances in science and reasoning, our species has never managed to overcome the potential for violence that lurks inside our little monkey brains? Maybe that’s one reason why people build places like Versailles, to surround themselves with beauty and the illusion of safety. Sigh.

  5. Hmunro,
    I loved your photos and I share your interest pertaining to the French revolution. However, I believe that the French populous revolted not out of fear, but instead desperation. The bourgeoisie pressured the proletariat by starving them and collecting all the resources that they build or farmed. Since the monarchy and church counted as two thirds of the government power, they would outvote the people’s representatives. For the French populous at the time, they had to either revolt, or risk starvation. The French were so mad and desperate to end government rule, they tore down the Bastille brick by brick, only leaving a few bricks remaining. I think that the fear came during the era after the revolution: the “Reign of Terror”. This was the time that revolutionaries ruled France, and anyone who was suspected of being a sympathizer to the king could be sentenced to the guillotine. This, to me, was the time of greatest fear. Since the French now had something tangible to lose, everyone was scared for themselves and of each other. What do you think? Do you think the conditions were worse for the French before or after the revolution?

    • What do I think about the French Revolution? I wasn’t there, so I don’t have a personal opinion. 🙂 But I think it’s fair to argue that there were as many causes for the French Revolution as there were revolutionaries. As I wrote in my post, “the French Revolution didn’t depend on a single factor.” In fact, I touched on some of the very economic issues you discussed. That’s why I found it interesting that at least one historian was exploring fear as a significant contributor — it was a novel perspective I hadn’t considered before, but certainly it’s not the only explanation. As for whether the French were better off before or after any of their revolutions … well, I think I’ll defer that question to the French! Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to write your thought-provoking comment.

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