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by William H. Benson

June 28, 2006

     Revolution is an overused word today.  Its root, “revolt”, refers to a violent confrontation against the existing powers, especially a king: the American, French, or Russian Revolutions.  But today a revolution describes any change, mild or otherwise—in industry, the economy, in transportation or in communication.

     The historian Jacques Barzun identified Western Civilization’s four great revolutions in his work From Dawn to Decadence.  The 17th century witnessed the religious revolution in which the many shades of Protestantism revolted against the unified Catholic Church, the many against the one.  The 18th century proved that the people could successfully revolt against the Kings of both England and France.

     The 19th century ushered in liberal thought—that individual human beings possessed rights of their own that were distinct and superior to the divine right that the kings for ages had claimed for themselves.  Beginning with Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason and ending with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, liberal thought freed the Western nations’ citizens.

     People of the 20th century who found themselves marginalized in society due to their gender, race, or class demanded a voice and their rights.

     And so we the living of today are all heirs and beneficiaries of those four revolutions, fought across the span of five centuries.  Barzun further identified a number of themes that runs through all of them.

     One is emancipation.  “The individual wields a panoply of rights, including the right to do ‘his own thing’ without hindrance from authority.  And any right is owed to all that lives: illegal immigrants, school children, criminals, babies, plants, and animals.  It requires more and more limitations in order to prevent my right from infringing yours.”

     Another theme is primitivism. “The longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture recurs again and again.  It is a main motive of the Protestant Reformation, it reappears as the cult of the Noble Savage, it warns against global warming, and it cries out, ‘Bring back the wolf!’.”

     David Denby, the writer and movie critic, in his book Great Books, said that “the women’s liberation movement is the only successful revolution of the twentieth century.”  That seems a startling, if not exaggerated, statement, and yet it very well may be true; there has been a change, perhaps even a revolution over the last three decades in which women are accepted in the work place and in positions of leadership.

     Denby wrote that “women are no longer dependent on men physically.  At their very luckiest, men and women exhibit a graciousness in their relations with one another that is something new on earth.  They are trying to make equality work.”

     Denby then quoted the French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, who in 1949 wrote, “those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being at rest.”  Now I take her words to mean that she equated marriage and being a housewife, and a mother with stagnation (her word).

     Although Beauvoir denigrated the typical female roles, she was wise enough to understand the costs.  She wrote, “I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty.”  Now that is interesting.

     As Americans we believe that liberty will produce happiness.  Did not Thomas Jefferson write of, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”?  We tend to see them as equal, or that liberty will inevitably lead to happiness.  But George Bush’s gamble in Iraq has proven that greater liberty need not necessarily result in greater happiness.

     Simone de Beauvoir understood the same for women—that happiness is so elusive that it is only found in its pursuit.  Women’s rights might mean emancipation in the work place and a lessening of the responsibilities at home, but to be liberated can be difficult, and it can be painful, and it does not always guarantee happiness.  Now that is a revolting thought.