Revolution
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Syed Ali Zia Jaffery |

The force of history is very compelling; past greatly impinges upon the present. One can find credence in this claim. Nations don’t forget past glories and tragedies alike. These memories affect national psyche, and hence determine hostilities and animosities. As an example, we see Iranian defiance towards the West as regards its nukes is embedded in historical fears of foreign dominations. History would certainly have been different without some titanic revolutions. Indeed, Europe would have been different had there been no Napoleon.

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There would have been no Napoleon without the French Revolution, for he was the child of the revolution. We need not go into the magnitude and the importance of this great event of 1789. As the topic suggests, the piece attempts to shed light on Aristotle’s theory of revolution and the French Revolution. This would allow us to see how similar or dissimilar his theory was with actual revolution.  Was his theory in-line with the practical dynamics of the French Revolution? Other such questions would be addressed in the piece.

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Aristotle’s theory of revolution

 Poverty is the parent of all revolutions and crime.” Aristotle.

Revolutions, at the end of the day, bring about a change, usually a radical one in something. For the consumption of this paper, we need to look at a change in political order. Aristotle, who gave his ideas in fields ranging from metaphysics to ethics, also delved on political philosophy. His seminal work being Politics, which comprises of 8 books. Book V deals with the causes of revolution, and as to how various types of governments can quell revolts.  We would only focus on the causes though.

Aristotle considered that there are two kinds of revolutions. One type brings about or desires a change in regime. The other calls for a change in some elements within a regime.  Aristotle hinged his theory on what he called “factional conflict”.

Therefore, the factional conflict was primarily between the rich and the poor. Since all act in their interests, the common good is ignored. Aristotle did not mince his words while saying that, both democracies and oligarchies had inherent flaws.

This conflict was basically a power scuffle between the rich and the poor. The former believed that owing to their exorbitant material wealth, they deserved more political power. The latter opined that all citizens should have equal rights; thus political power ought to be distributed evenly.” And it is for this reason that, when either [group] does not share in the regime on the basis of the conception it happens to have, they engage in factional conflict” which can lead to civil war. Those who are virtuous remain away from these squabbles, but Aristotle said they were even otherwise far and few to impinge on politics.

Therefore, the factional conflict was primarily between the rich and the poor. Since all act in their interests, the common good is ignored. Aristotle did not mince his words while saying that, both democracies and oligarchies had inherent flaws.  However, he stated that democracies are more stable because they were only thwarted by rifts between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, oligarchies had to fend off both, factional conflicts, and also intra-ruling class bickering.

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Subsequently, Aristotle delved upon the reasons which propelled factional conflicts. He believed that there were reasons aplenty for these conflicts.  “The lesser engage in factional conflict in order to be equal; those who are equal, in order to be greater” This means that the rich, who were lesser in number wanted more political power. The poor on the other hand wanted greater political control owing to their size.  The propellants, however, were different. The lucrative appeal of public offices and the honor attached to them made political power all the more coveted.

A feeling of discrimination sets-in. We need not go into other elements of this theory, wherein he sheds light on as to how different regimes face revolutionary threats. However, since France was under Habsburg Monarchy, so his thoughts on how monarchies attract revolutions are worth mentioning.

Then the haughtiness of public officers added to the resentment of the people. There were socio-economic factors which in Aristotle’s opinion caused factional conflicts. Lopsided economic growth was identified as a very important incendiary force. This is very true if we look at modern history. The concentration of wealth in the infamous “22 Families” partly led to a mini-revolt against Field Marshal Ayub Khan. It all boils down to disproportionate growth and development. In simplest terms, laymen think that checkered growth is just an exclusionary phenomenon.

A feeling of discrimination sets-in. We need not go into other elements of this theory, wherein he sheds light on as to how different regimes face revolutionary threats. However, since France was under Habsburg Monarchy, so his thoughts on how monarchies attract revolutions are worth mentioning. Monarchs or monarchies are attacked because they themselves act disgracefully with their subjects. Revolts could also occur because of lust for power, perks, and profits.  Tyrants are thwarted more by foreign forces than domestic ones. Now, after looking at his stance on the causes of political change, we need to look at the causes of the French Revolution; this would help us put a theory and something real together.

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 The causes of the French Revolution

The events of 1789 were not only  Titanic for France, but also for Europe. It gave man new concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity. These three concepts became the mantra of the revolution. The causes of the revolution were multifarious, from socio-economics to the influence of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau. Let’s look at some of the main incendiary forces of the revolution.

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Social causes

The revolution in France was less of a revolt against despotism but against stark inequalities. On the eve of 1789, there was visible inequality in France. There were two classes: privileged and unprivileged. The former consisted of nobles and clergies. They made up just one percent of the entire population. However, despite their smallness, the nobles and the clergies occupied preponderant positions; they had a monopoly in all jobs and position of strength. The institution of the church became a bane. It was virtually a state within a state. Despotism was attributed to the church.  The ecstasy of wealth made the higher clergy lose their moral demeanors.

The commoners had to pay tithe tax to the church. This accounted for one-twelfth of their produce. There were other taxes, to include land tax (Taille) or the income tax. In sum, they were left with a handful of money to make ends meet.

The envious position enjoyed by the nobles and the clergies was a fair shot for the majority of the populace. They were known as the commoners. The clergies and nobles owned 40 percent of French property. There was a French maxim that “the nobles fight, the clergy pray and the people pay.” The underprivileged lived in a despicable condition. They were made to toil hard from dawn to dusk. Peasants were ill-treated; they are punished and fined extensively for any minute non-compliance. Then, a multitude of taxes saddled these commoners. All these taxes were very regressive in nature and became a bane for the poor. We need not go into the types of tax regimes, but what needs to be understood is that these measures added to the fury.

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The commoners had to pay tithe tax to the church. This accounted for one-twelfth of their produce. There were other taxes, to include land tax (Taille) or the income tax. In sum, they were left with a handful of money to make ends meet.  The situation was further exacerbated by a growth in population and inflation rate. There were under inflammatory elements. The system of administration was a rotten one. Louis XIV had reposed all powers in himself and hence acted like a despot.

The financial decline was at the heart of the revolution. The condition was deplorable because the privileged classes did not contribute much to the exchequer. Furthermore, the cost of wars was too heavy, be it the Seven years’ War or that of American independence. The financial crunch had an adverse impact on the poor.

He said “the sovereign authority is vested in my person, the legislative powers exist in myself alone…. National rights and national interests are necessarily combined with my own and only rest in my hands.” Such arrogance and proclivity towards tyranny did not help matters. He lost personal touch with the populace. The state machinery was used for him and his family. Administration collapsed due to overlapping jurisdictions. Laws were draconian in nature. These are certainly not mollifying factors, but those which lead towards revolutions.

The financial decline was at the heart of the revolution. The condition was deplorable because the privileged classes did not contribute much to the exchequer. Furthermore, the cost of wars was too heavy, be it the Seven years’ War or that of American independence. The financial crunch had an adverse impact on the poor.

Thus far, we have dwelt on some of the prime causes of the revolution. Now let us compare these causes with those that Aristotle identified.

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Revolution’s causes: Appraisal in light of Aristotle’s theory of revolution:

This paper has thus far looked at what and how Aristotle thought on revolution. Thereafter a succinct account of the makings of the French Revolution was made. Were the actual causes similar to what Aristotle thought about causes of political change? Let’s sift on a few things in the following paragraphs.

Aristotle boiled down his theory to factional conflicts between the rich and the poor. This is exactly what was happening in France; the commoners were embittered over the preponderant role of the influential nobles and clergies.

Aristotle defined revolution as an effort to change a regime or a few elements of it. The initial aim of the revolution in France was not to overthrow the Monarchy outright, initially, representation and equity were sought by the commoners.  Things changed later during the reign of the National Assembly in 1791. Thus we see a kind of a similarity between Aristotle’s thoughts on aims and the actual ones.

Aristotle boiled down his theory to factional conflicts between the rich and the poor. This is exactly what was happening in France; the commoners were embittered over the preponderant role of the influential nobles and clergies. Economic exploitations, the concentration of wealth and the haughty attitude of the monarch was typical of France on the cusp of the revolution. All these echoes in the theory of Aristotle. He gave kings advice to perpetuate their kingdom by limiting their power. Loius XVI lost his throne because he was not willing to limit his powers, as evidenced by few statements above.

Thus we find a lot of akin elements in Aristotle’s theory and the  French Revolutionary.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub Editor at Global Village Space.He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub-Editor at Global Village Space (GVS). He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs of South Asia.

1 COMMENT

  1. The rich also get preferential treatment in all social and economic activities and is also areson for divide between rich and poor

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