One of my favourite English historians is the late Roy Porter, an exceptionally gifted writer who had the priceless ability to express complex historical and philosophical ideas in plain language. As with many other historians of his ilk, he challenged his readers to throw off the shackles of narrow thought and to think more deeply and question every aspect of the societies that we have created, and their impact upon the people living within them. My thoughts turned to Roy Porter, and in particular to his excellent book on “The Enlightenment,” yesterday as I listened to the appalling news coming from France of yet another mindless terrorist attack on Paris.
Whilst it is generally believed that the “age of Reason” as the enlightenment is sometimes known, began in England, it is often said that the French adopted its philosophies and innovations and took them to a new level. An argument that is well justified when one examines the scientific, literary and philosophical advances emanating from this beautiful country during what has become known as the “long 18th century” (1685-1815). John Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, written in England in 1689 provided a sound foundation for new and radical thinking, but it was the French “Philosophes”, and in particular Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot who encouraged freedom of thought and expression. So why, you may well ask, did yesterday’s atrocities make me think about Roy Porter and this particular period of history?
Put simply, those key individuals who were the driving force behind the enlightenment believed that humanity and civilization could be improved through rational change. This could only be achieved through the encouragement of open minds and unrestricted thinking, accompanied by respect for ideas which should be openly debated. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited with the expression “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!” Such a bold statement is clearly anathema to those pathetic and cowardly individuals who murdered innocent people in Paris, and those faceless individuals who support them and who are clearly frightened by any notion of rational and free thinking.
The emblem of the French Republic is often depicted above three words which clearly alarm those who attempt to inflict terror on the streets of Paris and elsewhere around the world. These three words – liberté, égalité, fraternité are a source of pride in a nation that through its emphasis on the creation of a secular society for its diverse and multi-ethnic population, has often stood against both tyranny and the restriction of free speech. Each of these words represents a challenge to the narrow minded individuals and organisations responsible for acts of terror. Liberté with its call for freedom of expression, movement and thought is the direct opposite of the efforts to control young minds and impose a warped propaganda to create hatred and intolerance. Without liberté to engage in creative and critical thought, philosophical and scientific development ceases and we would soon revert to the dark ages.
Égalité recognises the concept of respect which is required to give everyone the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society, regardless of their sex, age, ability, colour or religion. This is an idea that creates anxiety in the terrorist, who through some deluded notion sees himself as superior to others and regards tolerance as a weakness. Yet it is through the sustained efforts of individuals and organisations within our societies that the contributions of individuals that were denied in previous centuries have been recognised and enabled progress to be made in all facets of life.
Fraternité asserts that we are all brothers (and sisters) and have a duty to care for and respect each other. Fine examples of this have been seen in France over the past hours as individuals have put themselves in the path of danger to assist those strangers who have become the latest victims of an act of evil.
The people of Paris, along with all lovers of freedom and democracy have been terribly shaken by the violence inflicted upon its citizens and visitors over the past forty eight hours, but their courage and determination has not been diminished. Neither will those of us who love Paris and its commitment to freedom and culture be deterred from visiting. The French national anthem La Marseillaise is as stirring a song as one could ever hear. Yesterday I was greatly moved, though not surprised, to hear defiant Parisians singing this anthem at the site where so many had lost their lives. As a symbol of freedom and progress Paris has proven to be a source of inspiration to many in recent centuries. I am sure it will continue to set a fine example for the future.
Vive La France!
The words from the second verse of La Marseillaise seem particularly apt at present:-
Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés
Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage
Quels transports il doit exciter!
C’est nous qu’on ose méditer
De rendre à l’antique esclavage !