4 Lessons for your Life from The French Revolution
I have always been interested in history. I know others find history to be completely mind-numbing, but for me history is the account of humanities great experiments, a catalogue of our great triumphs and a recollection of our failures; lessons that we can learn from to guide our way to the future.
And so, this weekend, in those few moments of relaxation between my other writing projects, I turned on YouTube and went on a little adventure into the 1790’s-1800’s and experienced one of the great moments of social upheaval in the history of mankind. A true turning point in history; the French Revolution and the rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
To be as brief as possible, the French Revolution was a moment in history when the people of France rose up against their king and the elite classes of their country and demanded a voice in how society would be formed.
This was at a time when the masses had little to no voice. The decisions about state were handled by the aristocracy, landed ‘gentlemen’ who had the economic power, and the clergy, the church who held divine power. The rest, the people, could be out voted and disregarded.
Now, this system had been in place for a long time. The Ancien Regime was in place, not only in France, but all over Europe and it had held sway for hundreds of years.
So, what caused the problems?
The people were hungry and the King was out of touch. Economic times were hard and the King didn’t really know what he was doing or how to rule. So, the people started to demand more of a say in things. When the King and his ministers tried to side-step the people, disregarding them as had been the manner for kings, the people decided they would not be ignored.
And so, led by the great enlightenment ideals of Rousseau and Kant, among others, and the revolutionary rhetoric of Danton and Robespierre, the people decided to form their own government.
Then the King tried to run away.
The People’s Government announced him a traitor.
Then they cut off his head, his wife’s head, and declared the beginning of the French Republic.
The Revolution then devolved into a terror of blood as people denounced enemies of the Republic from every corner and the Guillotine was given steady work, taking the heads of nobles, clergy, and revolutionaries alike.
A great turning point in history, that ironically, as with Rome before, saw a King killed to set up a republic, only to end up being ruled by an emperor. And that emperor’s name was Napoleon Bonaparte. His conquests of Europe made him a French hero and altered the shape of continental politics and relations forever.
1. Heavy Lies the Crown
King Louis XVI — was out of touch with his people. He was a pudgy boy, raised in the lap of luxury and without any real concept of what it meant to be a king. He was not prepared to be king and so he lost his head.
The lesson here is that with leadership, you only have the power to rule if people follow. When people question and feel a misconnection, then you have no power to lead. Louis was working under the misconception that he was divinely anointed and his people would simply follow because that was the way it was.
History teaches us that, that didn’t work out well for Louis.
For us, we need to remember that the crown is heavy. Leadership is not such as prize as it is a responsibility. Louis didn’t understand his responsibility to his people, and whether he understood it or not, he was held accountable.
So before we go looking to lead people and expect people to follow us, we need to be well aware of our responsibility. Because once we take on the role, it’s ours and we need to live up to.
When Louis decided he couldn’t live up to it, there was no escape. Heavy lies the crown, and it cost Louis his head.
2. Don’t upset Passionate People
The Revolution was the mob. It was people sick of being hungry and tired of being ignored. They had anger and rage and that made them act. However, it was when the Revolution found its voice it truly became a movement that was capable of change. And it was Maximillian Robespierre who was that voice.
It was a great ironic moment when the king came to visit his college. Robespierre with great reverence offered an introduction in Latin to welcome the King. And the King showed little interest at all. He disrespected a man of great passion and fire. And it was almost poetic, that it was the same man who would not be ignored many years later as the announcement was made that Louis the XVI was a traitor to the people of France, and as such was to lose his head.
The King ignored the passionate French people as they called out to be heard, and as a result those impassioned voices turned into the very weapons that would destroy him.
The lesson from History:
Don’t upset passionate people — they actually get things done. So, when we have people in our organization who are passionate and really care, it is on us to make them feel valued. We don’t have to agree with them, but we should make sure they are heard, and we should be aware of what they are capable of. Hopefully for mutual benefit, but also, just in case they may be dangerous.
3. Once you Unleash the Tiger, It’s Hard to put the chain back on
The French Revolution was the product of centuries of oppression. It was not just the spur of the moment decision by a few talented rabble-rousers to depose a useless, thoughtless king. It was the built up tension of generations of powerlessness exploding in a bloody orgy of revenge, which turned into a blood bath of fear, paranoia and hate.
And once the terrible tiger of the French Revolution was unleashed, it was very hard to contain. Thousands of people died and that sparked revolts on both sides which led to a military coupe and then a war that toured the whole of Europe for a decade.
The Lesson from History:
Be weary of the thoughts and feeling you are repressing; they could be building up into something monumentally horrible.
Also, be careful of what you let slip. Here I think of some of the popular speech about refugees and so on. These words that border on hate could easily slip into much worse. We’ve seen something similar in Germany, 1930, and a Nationalist “hero” who made Germany great again by building ‘work camps’ (instead of walls).
I’m not saying it’s going that way, but we must be wary — once we unleash the tiger, it’s hard to put the chain back on.
4. Live by the Sword die by the Sword
And finally, for today, though there are hundreds of more lessons, if you live by the sword you must be prepared to die by the sword.
Maximillian Robespierre was the voice of the revolution. And he helped to fuel it and maintain his position within it through his powerful rhetoric and a steady stream of enemies offered up to the National Razor, the Guillotine.
He began to rule through fear.
It was the fear of the enemies of the Republic that kept him strong in power. He was needed as the great defender of the citizens of France. And when anyone got too powerful, or potentially dangerous, he was able to ‘get rid’ of them. Call them traitor and send them off to the Guillotine.
And how did Robespierre finally meet his end?
He was shouted down by the mob as a traitor, arrested, and after a failed suicide attempt, sent to his old friend the Guillotine.
He had used fear to keep control, but when those around him began to fear him, that’s when it was time for him to go.
Be ware of your methods for advancement. If you go stabbing people in the back, well then you should expect the same. If you let people down, then you should be wary of the same. And so on and so on. What goes around comes around. And if you are in a particularly dangerous job where you live by the sword, well then you must live in fear of swords.
History has many great lessons to teach us. Sometimes it’s worth taking time to learn some great lessons and use them as inspiration for our lives and our world.
The French Revolution was a time of huge change and terrible bloodshed. Perhaps the greatest lessons were those that changed the world forever. The divine right of kings and churches was challenged and the enlightenment changed the world forever.
But to recap:
- Heavy lies the crown — live up to your responsibilities.
- Don’t upset passionate people — they may use that passion against you.
- Be careful not to unleash the tiger — you may not be able to control it.
- And, live by the sword, die by the sword — what goes around comes around.
Four commonsense lessons worth remembering for your life.
All the best, and keep working towards your success.
If you enjoyed this, you may also like: Success Lessons From History, Rome.
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