The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction


The French Revolution is tough to understand. I was raised in Texas and at no time was the subject discussed in any way deeper than “The French saw how wonderful freedom was in America and wanted a revolution of their own. It went disastrously because the French are untrustworthy and incompetent.”

I’ve long suspected that the full story was more complicated than that.

This admittedly very short introduction lays out the confluence of economic, political, and social problems that riled France a decade. These were the growing pains of coming into the modern world; of casting off feudal lordship in favor of representative democracy. Or at least France’s version of that concept.

The author’s thesis is that the ‘revolution’ was not one single event but was a time period of extreme social unrest and suffering that lasted from 1789-1802 ending with the ascent of Napoleon. With the consolidation of power behind Bonaparte, “the nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.”

This book didn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming competence on the subject but certainly drove home the complexity in any social upheaval. The revolution itself is a prism through which any number of ideas can be examined. Did it give birth to liberalism? The persistent wouldn’t-it-be-nice?-ism of communism? The modern world?

All of these thoughts and more can be re-examined through a careful study of the past.

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Quotes, July Pt.1

When you go out looking for quotes you suddenly start finding them everywhere. I’m breaking this monthly post in two this month because I already have so many.


The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”―William Blake

I didn’t look further into this quote but it struck me as a poetic (albeit, slippery) way of conveying the truism that the act of destruction is easier than creation. It’s slippery because to be more ‘wise’, at least in the way we use the word today, does not mean more able. It means smarter, and that throws my whole interpretation off.

“Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desire among people.” — Steven Pinker

This quote reinforces my long-standing inkling that political opinions are nothing more than a belief in how other people should behave. As always, it’s simpler and more effective to mind your own behavior first, and that’s where wisdom comes from.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”―Gabriel García Márquez

Sophisticated network computing dissolves the public, private, and the secret with each passing decade. In this post-privacy age, our three lives are blurring in such a haphazard manner that it’s tough to say we can ever take this idea for granted again. Our children may very well shrug at this notion and find it hopelessly simplistic.

“With social media extending your Radius of Envy out to every celebrity, and forcing even co-equal members of your cohort into self-promotional envy-production overdrive, comparisons to historical peasants or the advances of the Asian working class, will mean very little.”―Antonio García Martínez (

Careful what you pay attention to. It just might ruin your life. You’re not Kanye West but social media makes it easy to think that you could be, if only your Lotto ticket is scratched this week.

“A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”—Robert Frost

I’ve been guilty in being so caught up with sympathy for others that I neglect myself. This can be an admirable position but also untenable because if you don’t care for yourself then who is going to?

“To understand all may indeed be to forgive all, but no civilization can survive when the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgement. Otherwise, at the end of the line lies a pile of garbage: Hitler wasn’t evil, just insane.”—Stephen Carter

To be understanding while still knowing how and when to disagree with something or stand up for yourself. That middle ground is always so hard to find.

“You’re basically who you are from the start.”—David Lynch

Another vague inkling that I’ve had for a long time is bluntly clarified here: that personality is maddeningly consistent over time and so changing our bad habits and living up to our idealized self is tougher than we’d expect.

“With quitting anything, you have to have that gut feeling that turns into, you know, like a physical epiphany where you’re just like, ‘Oof, this is not good.’”―Dave Grohl

Personal change is always possible, but your emotions often have to lead the way. Rational decision making always sounds good but doesn’t necessarily stick without a deep visceral feeling to attach to it.

“Life teaches you really how to live it if you live long enough.”—Tony Bennett (reminiscing on what he wishes he had told Amy Winehouse)

This is from the documentary Amy, which is an inspiring but heartbreaking look at the life of Amy Winehouse. Her talent is obvious but no one in her day-to-day life treated her well. Only Tony Bennett comes out looking admirable—a man whom she admired greatly but unfortunately didn’t spend much time with—and his wise words close out the movie.

Awakening Progress

It’s strange to look back and think that for vast periods of human history little or no material progress was made for centuries at a time. We now take progress for granted and measure it in years and decades.

In what ways have we regressed over the years? How are we standing still? Can the gains we’ve seen over the past century continue? What technological advances we haven’t yet discovered will come to be as widely taken for granted as paper is now?

And as Seth Godin said, “There is no normal. Simply the relentless cycle of change.

Quotes, June 2018

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking, along with some additional commentary/context.


“Wars are a beacon to idealists and adventurers and thugs, but also to a kind of tourist, who is drawn to conflict for obscure personal reasons. Experienced reporters usually keep their distance from such people, because their naivete not only gets them in trouble; it can get others killed.”—Lawrence Wright

Amateur war reporters and vigilante humanitarians rarely consider the burden of stress they put on their family and the people who are responsible for saving them if they get captured by the enemy. Lawrence Wright’s long-read ‘Five Hostages’ brilliantly illustrated this.

“Stability breeds instability.”—Hyman Minsky

We get comfortable. Then we get lazy. Then the safety we’ve been taking for granted begins to crumble.

“Bitterness is really just amplified self-pity.” —Marc Maron

“The sun doesn’t measure it’s light by the shadows it casts.” —Aubrey Marcus

Our self-worth cannot purely be determined by the amount of influence that we carry.

“The purpose of thinking is so that our thoughts die instead of us.” —Alfred North Whitehead

Alone in the animal kingdom we are allowed to change our minds. Where would we be without the ability to formulate ideas and test them out?

“Human beings are very clever but they’re not wise.” —Dennis McKenna

“Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness.” —Theodore Dalrymple

If we cannot feel like we can voice our true thoughts anyplace then we will begin to self-censor. Censorship doesn’t have to be explicitly codified.

“Revenge is like politics: one thing always leads to another until bad has become worse, and worse has become the worst.” —Jonas Jonasson

You see this going on nationally today. I’ve heard that the Republican tax bill is punitive to blue territories and that Canada’s retaliatory tariffs target Trump-voting locales. The politics of resentment will only continue to get worse.

“Perhaps one reason revenge tends to run riot is that it is not framed by a recognition of some alternative. Revenge attaches to no scale of political concepts, values, or virtues.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain