Historical Causality

19 January 2009

Thomas Paine (29 January 1737 – 08 June 1809)

Thomas Paine (29 January 1737 – 08 June 1809)

A few weeks back I mentioned Francis Wheen’s book on Marx, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. (This particular post got more hits than any other post on my blog to date, which apparently was due to the fact that I sent a link to a fairly active Marxist list; since that time, no one has revisited this post.) now I am listening to Christopher Hitchens’ book Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man: A Biography. The books bear a certain superficial resemblance to the Wheen book. Both deal with a specific, high-profile work of a specific author, both are short, and both are primarily historical in approach. These resemblances are not due to blind chance, as each is part of a series titled “Books that Changed the World” published by Atlantic Monthly Press, so the hand of an editor is involved. In other words, their similarity is due to intelligent design.


The most interesting resemblance is that each author has chosen to write about a man and a book that, intellectually, is somewhat similar to himself. Francis Wheen wrote an ideological and disingenuous book about an ideological and disingenuous man, book and movement. Christopher Hitchens wrote an enlightened book about one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine. Hitchens and Paine both embody what Plutarch called “the purifying processes of reason” (in his Life of Theseus).

Despite the fact that I have immensely enjoyed this brief book on Thomas Paine and The Rights of Man, there were moments when I disagreed quite sharply with the author’s historical judgments and valuations. This is as it should be. One would learn nothing from a book with which one agreed with every detail. As I have maintained on several occasions, we do an author honor by criticizing him (or her) fairly. It is a matter of intellectual chivalry.


One passage in particular that inspired my disagreement caused me to think a little about my reaction, as it is the sort of thing that I have heard a great many times before. Recently when I was writing about Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror, I said, “Some are tolerant of history that plays to our facile assumptions; I would much rather have a history that challenges my assumptions.” I had the same reaction to a passage in Hitchens book in which he makes a parenthetical remark about French aid to the American independence struggle, and the consequences that this had:

This revenge, on the part of France, for her defeat in the Seven Years War, was to have momentous consequences. The expense of the French expedition provoked a crisis in the domestic exchequer, which was to lead Louis XVI to convene a fateful meeting of the Estates General. (p. 42)

The implication here is that French participation in the American War of Independence caused a financial crisis which in turn caused Louis XVI to convene the Estates General which in turn caused the French Revolution. This is an implication only, and few would be willing to unfold the whole vulgar movement of thought as I have laid it out above. But I think we must hold authors responsible for their implications. A textual implication is very much like the tone of voice and facial expression that an interlocutor employs when speaking to us, and we all know that a tone of voice and a facial expression can change or even invert the meaning of what is explicitly stated in words.


Now, Hitchens is not alone in making this suggestion. Indeed, one of the reasons that I paused to think about this passage is that I had heard similar things many times before, sometimes making the connection more explicit, sometimes making the connection less explicit, between French aid to the American independence struggle and the subsequent crisis in the French government, culminating in the French Revolution, the deposition and execution of the French royal family, and the Reign of Terror.

was the Reign of Terror a consequence of French aid to American revolutionaries?

Blame it on the Americans: was the Reign of Terror a consequence of French aid to American revolutionaries?

Ought I, as an American, to be held responsible (if only in part) for the fall of the French monarchy? Do Americans bear a burden of responsibility for the Reign of Terror? Someone might well advance and defend this thesis, and they might strengthen their argument by making the claim that the American Revolution opened a political Pandora’s Box and that the French in their revolution were simply following our lead and taking the revolutionary movement to its logical conclusion. hitchens2

I am not suggesting that Christopher Hitchens made this suggestion or defended this thesis. He did not. He simply made a parenthetical remark that implied a connection between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. But if we may follow the argument were it leads in regard to Hitchens’ historical implication, we can also draw the logical conclusions of an extrapolation of this implication.

The French monarchy in the final quarter of the eighteenth century was not a vigorous and vibrant institution. It was, on the contrary, a failing institution – perhaps a “failed kingdom” is the eighteenth century equivalent to the “failed states” of our own day. The French monarchy had opportunities to reform itself. It had many opportunities. Not only did it fail to reform itself, it pursued policies that were regressive and retrograde in the extreme. To make a connection between the French crown’s need for money and its calling the Estates General is to fail to account for failed financial system of the French monarchy and its failure to reform generally.

Here is one small example of the sort of thing I am talking about: more than one historian has suggested that if Turgot had been allowed to remain Comptroller General of France the French Revolution might never have taken place and the subsequent history of Western civilization would be unrecognizably different. If Turgot had had twenty years instead of two, ordinary Frenchmen might have seen in his reforms a reason to hope for a better future. But Turgot’s reforms were aborted, a mercantilist replaced Turgot, and ordinary Frenchmen, instead of losing hope, transferred their aspirations from king and court to revolutionary assembly, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, often referred to as Turgot (10 May 1727 – 18 March 1781)

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, often referred to as Turgot (10 May 1727 – 18 March 1781)

As I said, this is but one example of reform that was not pursued. Such examples could be multiplied at will by a scholar of French history. The important lesson to take away from this is that, of the many opportunities and chances that the French monarchy had, it pursued none of them. Perhaps no one reform would have been sufficient to avert the French Revolution. The point is well taken. By the same token, no single event – like the assistance of the American revolutionaries, which was taken for purely French motives, and not out of charity or a respect for the general opinion of mankind – would have been sufficient to trigger the French Revolution. For the French monarchy to save itself, it probably would have had to undertake a radical program of far-reaching reforms. It did not. As a result, it failed. In short, the French monarchy was not historically viable.

It would be nihilistic to maintain that there is no such thing as causality in history, and we certainly do not take this position. However, recognizing the role of causality in history and responsibly attributing it are two very different things. Historical causality is so complex, because so many interrelated factors are involved, that it is irresponsible to suggest a vulgar chain of causality without acknowledging the limitations of any such exercise. It is commonly attributed to Thucydides that, “history is philosophy teaching by examples” (Quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Ars Rhetorica, ch. 11, sect. 2). Exactly what lesson philosophy is teaching us, however, can be a matter of dispute. We would do well to proceed cautiously, lest we attribute to philosophy some lesson she had no intention to teach.

The very idea of historical responsibility (and of historical guilt) is highly problematic, and a matter of significant debate. To what extent can sons be held responsible for the sins of their fathers? Should we pay reparations for wrongs committed by our ancestors? How many generations should we go back in searching for wrongs? How is blame to be apportioned? How is compensation to be calculated? I do not mean to suggest that these questions are meaningless, only that, if valid, they are certainly difficult, and they represent the beginning of an inquiry and not an end point. To understand the lessons that philosophy teaches by example requires a considerable effort and attention to the details both of philosophy and its historical examples.


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One Response to “Historical Causality”

  1. Francis Wheen said

    I’m surprised to see that you think my book on Das Kapital “disingenuous”, and that you regard me as an uncritical Marxist sycophant. Can I suggest that you read it again, and that perhaps you should also look at my biography of Marx, published a few years ago by W W Norton? My reason for writing the biography, as I explained in the introduction, was that I wanted to rescue Marx from the idolaters as much as from the kneejerk excoriators. For too long he had been either an icon or a demon, and it seemed to me that the end of the Cold War (which supposedly also marked the moment when one needn’t bother reading him ever again) was a good time to dig him up from under the rubble of the Berlin Wall and assess him as one would any other brilliant but fallible Victorian thinker – neither god nor devil but someone who might still have some useful insights and critical methods. If you read my biography (and re-read the Das Kapital book) I think you’ll find to hard to substantiate your claim that I am uncritical. Even if you stick with that judgment, I do slightly resent the word “disingenuous”. Whether you agree with my assessment of Marx or not, it’s entirely sincere.

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