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The Old Regime and the Revolution

The composition of the work and the argument of Book I
« Everthing that the Revolution did would have, I am certain, happened without her. »
(The Old Regime and the Revolution)

The framework of The Old Regime breaks with the traditional conception of historical writing by its refusal of narrative - this is made clear by the fact that in its composition, it is much more concerned with the logical organization of the argument than with respect for the chronology of events. Indeed, although the first part attempts to determine the nature and the exact impact of the French Revolution, the second and third parts (which only were separated by their author for the first reprinting of the text in October 1856) set out to methodically understand why the Revolution broke out in France rather than elsewhere, by successively researching its deepest causes. Tocqueville goes back before the reign of Louis XIV, as well as more recent causes that appeared in France beginning in 1750. Briefly, Tocqueville starts from the unprecedented nature of the event in order to determine the oldest causes followed by the events that triggered it, while keeping in mind the paradoxical idea to which his research has led him, i.e. that the Revolution, contrary to its stated ambitions, did not make a break with the past. Rather, it reinvested the new world with the administrative customs, manners and ideas of the Ancien Régime.   play sound extractlire l'extrait sonore  

« To understand both the Revolution and what it brought about, one must forget for a moment the France that we see before us, and go ask at the tomb of the France that no longer exists. This is what I am trying to do here. »
(The Old Regime and the Revolution)

In the first part of the book, Tocqueville thus attempts to determine the exact impact of the French Revolution that he defined in the following terms: its goal was to "abolish those political societies that, over several centuries, had reigned uninterruptedly over most European peoples, and which were ordinarily known as feudal institutions, in order to replace them with a simpler, more uniform social and political order based on equlity of conditions". And yet, although it was social and political in nature, the Revolution wanted to be seen as "universal", in the same way as a religious revolution, which explains why it had to struggle against other beliefs in order replace them with a revolutionary ideology, which had its origins in the Enlightenment. And yet, if the French Revolution, that "new religion, imperfect religion, without God", was so successful in France, it was because it was simply the logical extension of the long process of the disintegration of the feudal-based society which had been underway since the Renaissance throughout Western Europe. Having established this in the first part, Tocqueville then was in a position to relaunch his reasoning by clearly asking the two questions that would occupy him in the second and third parts. These were: "Why did the Revolution break out in France first, and why had it never ended?

J'suis du Tiers-état. Eau-forte coloriée, anonyme

"I'm the Third Estate."
Hand-colored etching, no date
© CHAN

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