The Cultural Background to the French Revolution

J.L. Carr describes how, in revolutionary France, the debonair delights of civilization were replaced by a more virtuous albeit often stale cultural climate.

In Graham Greene’s film The Third Man, Harry Lime, taking a trip on the Prater’s giant wheel high above the city of Vienna, discusses the moral issues raised by war and his own profiteering. War, he maintains, often produces cultural benefits. Compare Renaissance Italy with the Swiss Republic. Rent by bloodshed and turmoil, the former gave the world Leonardo and Michelangelo. Having enjoyed centuiies of peace, the latter produced the cuckoo-clock! It may be objected, of course, that to compare the Florentine Renaissance with Revolutionary France is to compare very different situations. Yet there is just enough similarity between those two situations to make the comparison partly valid. Both upheavals involved republicanism, classicism, the defence of freedom, and a surge of civic and national pride. Why, then, in one case did these ideals foster a cultural paradise and in the other a cultural desert? This is the question we propose to examine here.

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