Riddle me this: what do cheap champagne and the guillotine have in common? (Besides an obviously French provenance, of course.) If you answered, “they are both universal emblems and ritual seals upon humanity’s fanatical worship of its own God-alienated willfulness,” then you get the prize! If that assertion strikes you as daft, I can but humbly beg that you read on.
The guillotine was invented by the surgeon and physiologist Antoine Louis just in time for the bloody Reign of Terror during France’s glorious liberation from the barbarity of Pre-Enlightened thought. The mechanism was comparatively humane, swift, and above all equalizing: a king’s head could be severed as elegantly as a peasant’s, with no undue fanfare or honor paid to rank. Perhaps also there was something compelling about the spectacle of a machine snuffing out life; heads rolled before the indifferent and implacable Science embodied in the contraption on the scaffold. The conflict raging in 18th century France, therefore, was not a war of man against man, but of Ideals and Progress against the recalcitrance of those who resisted the new order. In any case, titillated mobs gathered daily to witness the executions, and the guillotine has been emblazoned forever in our collective imagination as the symbol of the world’s first rationalist utopian revolution.
Which leads to the main point: what exactly lies behind such a revolution? Such violent convulsions of the body politic don’t manifest ex nihilo; more ominously, they have a nasty habit of cyclically re-manifesting themselves over time. We would do well to note the defining characteristics of the mania, in order to find the real source of the trouble. To this purpose, here are four essential qualities of that dark “something” inside the human soul – the “something” symbolized and expressed through The Guillotine:
- The formulation of a solution to humanity’s ills, derived from humanist wellsprings: Reason, Expertise, Research, or Laws of Sociology. In the case of the French revolution, this was the upending of absolutist political theory and the intoxicating notion of a thoroughly secular social order; but the important factor is the origin of this panacea outside any reference to God.
- The application of the solution to all instances and circumstances – in other words, the Guillotine also stands for the triumph of policy over prudence. The new rule must be established and enforced everywhere without exception. A total solution is always one-size-fits-all, and all must be made to fit (even if a bit of trimming above the neck is required).
- The promise of better things to come. The Guillotine symbolizes the gateway to heaven on earth – a future condition in which humanity’s lot will be improved, so long as the total solution is implemented thoroughly enough. Utopian schemes are driven from ahead rather than behind; it is the vision of the new world ushered in by the chaotic transitional period that justifies and motivates upheaval.
- And finally, the clean break with all things Traditional. The past is a specter haunting the steps of the future; its claims to conscience and the warnings of experience must be silenced. France executed its King; in the twentieth century, ideologues urged the elimination of whole classes of society – or in the case of China, they burned two thousand years of Confucian culture on the pyre of Marxism within one generation.
There you have it: a portrait of revolutionary zeal over the last quarter of a millennium. What lies at the hidden heart of this mess? What could possibly fuel this quixotic desire to generate a purely human solution to humanity’s ills, impose it ruthlessly across the whole fabric of existence, usher in the Eschaton on our own terms and deflect Judgement from ourselves onto the “Past” instead? Hmmm… sounds to me like nothing new under the sun. Sounds like humans wanting to be as gods – relying on their own self-generated wills to declare and deliver happiness unto themselves and their offspring from generation to generation, etc. “Guillotine thinking” – marked by the four attributes above – is the very embodiment of fallen human willfulness. It is an easy task to trace the march of this godless will-to-power through the ensuing centuries; applying the criteria to current events is almost too sophomoric an exercise to waste (even digital) ink upon. And this is not intended as a socio-political cautionary tale, anyhow. Let’s get back to champagne instead.
What’s wrong with having popped some bubbly on New Year’s Eve? Perhaps nothing, in itself. But – if the reader’s patience will permit one last excursion into this dark wood – there is something insidious about our beloved ritual of making New Year’s Resolutions. I propose that this time-honored custom actually displays all the festering symptoms of “Guillotine thinking,” only applied to the individual rather than society as a whole.
- It generally involves identifying a problem or character flaw which can be “improved” by the application of purely human wisdom derived from pop psychology, the latest fitness app, the Scientology website, or what have you.
- This ad hoc oath-taking is meant to span the entire year ahead – as though one act of sheer cussed willpower can circumscribe all the complex terrain of life, including the unforeseen. Policy trumps prudence once again, and sets the stage for inevitable ironic failures by January 15th.
- The result of this elected Solution: progress and prosperity, what else? Let’s drink to that.
- And of course, the resolution is built upon the seductive promise that we can leave the “old year” – its debts, griefs, unfinished business, burning memories and aching frustrations, in the grave forever. Out with the old, in with the new.
Isn’t this the epitome of the glorified human will, bending the course of the future according to its own dictates? We invest ourselves as the petty tyrants of our own destinies, leaning on our own understanding and power of choice, striving to bring forth a new Adam – however unimaginatively conceived – through our own efforts. We seal the rite with a sip of champagne, mildly buzzed on our own hubris. Heads may not roll; there may be no Committee for Public Safety drawing up lists of those who have betrayed the Revolution; but the pattern of thinking is a microcosmic version of the same outrageous principles.
So, in this New Year, let’s fill up the fizzy and rather than steeling our souls to shape the future into an image of perfection based on will-power, let’s propose an alternative toast: thanks be to God for the past – the blessings that have lifted us up, the suffering that has hammered us down. Praise be to God for the future, which is in His hands, and not ours. May He grant us courage to face it, as it comes. And to each and every friend with whom you clink glasses – your fellows in the trenches – a promise that you will, by the grace of God, stand with them shoulder to shoulder through whatever the New Year may bring.
Amen, Alleluia, and Cheers!