I am jealous of editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrrell for his having known the great French thinker/writer Jean-Francois Revel personally. Tyrrell’s tribute to the now-late Monsieur Revel on today’s web site is a must read. Brilliant, perceptive stuff (as usual), and written with a charming fondness.
Revel’s 1983 book How Democracies Perish has long sat on my bookshelf within easy reach. It must be admitted that he was too pessimistic about the ultimate triumph of republican nations in the face of the Communist threat. The first line of his book was a necessary warning, but fortunately incorrect as a prediction: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” But while our civilization was not and is not doomed, Revel’s diagnosis of its weaknesses was right on target. Hence the brilliantly concise and perspicacious opening line of the book’s second chapter: “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it.”
Revel was writing about the Communist enemy, but he could just as easily be warning against the wrong Western response to Islamic terrorists: “It is less natural and more novel that a stricken civilization [ours–QH] should… regale its friends and foes with reasons why defending itself would be immoral and, in any event, superfluous, useless, even dangerous.” And: “Self criticism is, of course, one of the vital springs of democratic civilization and one of the reasons for its superiority over other systems. But constant self-condemnation, often with little or no foundation, is a source of weakness and inferiority in dealing with an imperial power that has dispensed with such scruples.”
And so wisely on. Again, Revel was warning against Communism, and indeed one reason the West defeated Soviet Communism was because leaders like Reagan and Thatcher and Pope John Paul II heeded Revel’s warnings and followed his prescriptions for standing against the menace of the Evil Empire. It would be unjust to blithely remove Revel’s warnings from that anti-Communist context by minimizing the mortal threat he opposed and trying to shoehorn his words too freely into today’s war against the Islamo-terrorists.
Nevertheless, the lessons of the one fight are valuable for today’s fight as well. And so is Revel’s call for a heroic response. To end How Democracies Perish, Revel (in the book’s very last line) aptly quotes Achim d’Arnim thusly: “The history of the world begins anew with every man, and ends with him.”
Twas a good thing indeed that Jean-Francois Revel entered our history, and helped explain it to us.
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