Dorian Gray and Raymond Fosca are famous fictional characters renowned for miraculously being granted their wish to live forever without aging. But, whereas the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a self-indulgent sensualist, Simone de Beauvoir’s novel All Men Are Mortal depicts Raymond Fosca as someone dedicated to bettering the lives of his countrymen.
Raymond Fosca achieves immortal life when he drinks a magical elixir in the 1300s. Consequently he is still alive in the 1940s where the action in the book takes place. Fosca thought that if he could live forever he could implement utopian conditions in the Italian city-state that he ruled. He becomes disillusioned when years of idealistic projects fail to significantly alter the contentment of his subjects. His disillusionment turns into cynicism during the centuries that he travels around the world witnessing the promising beginnings and discouraging endings of socio/political movements and wars. Fosca laments : “If one lives long enough, one sees that every victory sooner or later turns to defeat.”
This theme is what intrigued me about Beauvoir’s book; the concept of someone living long enough to observe how highly touted social and political movements not only fail to live up to their promises but often do more harm than good. One such event that Fosca witnesses is the French Revolution. At its beginning, he watches the storming of the Bastille, but cannot share in the mob’s hopeful enthusiasm. He only feels cynicism.
It took William Wordsworth a few years to become disillusioned with the people’s revolt. The young Wordsworth traveled to Paris immediately upon graduating from Cambridge. He was still in that interim period before collegiate ideology becomes tempered by worldly skepticism, so the reader can understand his infatuation with the powerful egalitarianism that infected France at that momentous time. Certainly, it would have been difficult for someone barely 20 years old to resist any mass movement that promised liberty and equality.
However, Wordsworth would have been less naive had he read Edmund Burke’s insightful predictions regarding the consequences of France’s proposed overthrow of its monarchy. Burke held liberty in high esteem, but he knew how it could be misunderstood and misused. Liberty is one of those abstract concepts that make for a compelling slogan; agitating the passions and inspiring hope. But Edmund Burke was rightly suspicious of mass movements based on abstract concepts like liberty and equality. He was aware of their potential to create unrealistic expectations. The segment of Sir Kenneth Clark’s popular Civilisation series that addresses the French Revolution and the other rebellions that followed is aptly titled The Fallacies of Hope. This is a perceptive description of the failure of these revolutions to effect any lasting improvements in the general welfare of the masses.
The Jacobins, who foisted the French Revolution, knew that restructuring society involves the removal of traditions. But Edmund Burke realized that traditions are the glue that holds society together. Traditions are not implemented overnight, but gradually evolve over the ages, having stood the test of time. Arbitrarily eliminating traditions can put an entire society at risk, but those who attempt it are confident that they are replacing existing traditions with something better or equally effective. However, the history of social and political movements has repeatedly disproven this notion.
Religion is typically the principal tradition of an existing society. France’s new regime felt that the Christian religion would hinder the extreme measures it would have to take to implement equality throughout the land. In keeping with the anti-religious fervor of the Enlightenment, the “Cult of Reason” was created to take precedence over Christian beliefs. The new regime engaged in radically aggressive measures to prevent religious practices, even suppressing religious orders and confiscating and destroying church property. Edmund Burke adamantly opposed this stratagem not only because of his personal Christian beliefs but also because Christianity formed the very basis of European society, and European mores and institutions were an outgrowth of Christianity. If, like Raymond Fosca, one had witnessed centuries of socio/political activities and their outcomes, they would know that secularism is concomitant with egalitarianism, hence the furtive attempts to lessen the significance of Christianity in our day. But today’s social reformers operate on a more subtle level than the French Jacobins. Instead of outright attacks on Christianity, they cleverly attempt to convince the citizenry that all religions are equal in importance, and none has more value than any others. This trivializes religion and lessens the restraining influence that religiously-based convictions have on secular political agendas.
Those who toppled France’s monarchy firmly believed that equality of citizens would soon be achieved as a result of their initiatives. However, equality is not created by removal of the existing hierarchy because it is soon replaced with a new hierarchy, one that is rarely an improvement. Louis XVI and his courtiers were replaced by Maximilien Robespierre and the radical Jacobins. Robespierre, like today’s liberals, operated from the premise that the end justifies the means. The equality of all citizens was such an exalted goal that extreme measures were justified to achieve it, even the executions of those who were considered impediments to its implementation. Consequently, numerous members of the nobility, and even the king and queen were guillotined. Even private citizens who were perceived as possible hindrances to the regime’s policies were executed for the flimsiest of reasons. One particularly ill-fated victim was the 31 year old poet André Chénier who was guillotined during the final days of the revolution, and only three days before Robespierre himself met the same fate. The young poet’s tragedy greatly affected artists who portrayed his misfortune in various works. Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier is still being performed.
Realizing that life under Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was no improvement over the rule of Louis XVI, the French ended this bloody period in its history. Raymond Fosca would have witnessed the collapse of the revolution and its fateful aftermath: the installation of a dictator and the removal of the dictator. Then came the restoration of the monarchy; a second revolution that ended the restored monarchy, the implementation of various republics and, essentially, continuous changes in governments and philosophies that have been the story of France ever since.
The French Revolution is often subjected to a Marxist interpretation by historians. Much is made of the decadence of the reign of Louis XVI, the extravagance of Marie Antoinette and her court, and the wretched conditions the populace experienced under their monarchy. Admittedly, the horrors of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror are also emphasized, but the revolution is ultimately presented as an inevitable class struggle which was necessary to supplant monarchies with republics. The Enlightenment is often cited as inspiring the rebellion but although Enlightenment intellectuals preferred self-rule over monarchy, they neither envisioned nor intended a leveling of the aristocracy and the peasantry.
Raymond Fosca learned that auspicious political enterprises usually end up as dismally as previous rosy-sounding enterprises did. This is true whether conducted on a large scale, like the French Revolution, or on a small scale, like the 1960s counter culture. Leftist activist, Saul Alinsky, described those who foment these movements as having a desire “to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.” After witnessing centuries of the disastrous outcomes of failed attempts to change the world into “what they believe it should be”, Fosca would be dismayed to realize that so many still think it can be done.