Liberty and Violence: The Heritage of the French Revolution

Fall 2001

To many Americans, the French Revolution is but a distant memory of a barbaric time marked by brutal violence and bearing little relevance to 20th Century life. Yet many of the principles and ideals at the heart of the 1789 uprising are very much alive today. Was the Revolution one of history’s noblest moments, or one of its most atrocious? And what of the dual legacy of liberty and violence left to us today, 212 later? Is contemporary society any more virtuous or less vicious than its forbearers in its zealous pursuit of liberty?

Do you want to reflect on our own principles of government and human rights, many of which are mirrored in the ideals fought for by the French revolutionists? Do you want to better understand the extremes to which countries today go in pursuit of their own notions of liberty? If the ethical question of the relationship between violence and the fundamental rights of humans interests you and if you want the stimulation of being exposed to the incredible minds of five great writers, whose opinions sometimes conflict, please join us for this “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma” reading and discussion series.

Oklahoma City University invites participants to make these issues come “alive” in readings from political science, history and literature in this five-part series. At each session, a Humanities scholar will make a 30-40 minute presentation on the readings. Small group discussion will follow with experienced discussion leaders. At the end, everyone comes together for a brief wrap-up. Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to preregister and borrow the reading selections by calling Harbour Winn at 521-5472, emailing him at or dropping by OCU’s Walker Center 171. A brochure describing the series theme is also available.

The series will be held in Walker Center, Room 151, on the Oklahoma City University campus from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Tuesdays, beginning September 11 and continuing on alternate Tuesdays through November 6. “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma,” a cooperative project of the Oklahoma Library Association and the Oklahoma Humanities Council, provides books, materials, and services for this series. Funding for this series is provided by a grant from the Oklahoma Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.


9/11/2001 Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke develops the classical argument that the cause of liberty would have been better served by gradual reform rooted in historical precedent and traditional institutions. As one of the most prominent counterrevolutionaries, Burke’s more conservative position continues to influence us today. You may be surprised to find that his carefully reasoned position resonates within each of us to varying degrees.

9/25/2001 Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man

One of the great supporters of the cause of the American Revolution, Paine develops his impassioned justification of not only the French Revolution but of all revolutions. What are the implications for us today when we read of his praise of the American Revolution and we then reflect on the conflicts in our 2001 world? Paine’s optimistic prediction for the establishment of one great republic remains the belief of revolutionaries everywhere.

10/9/2001 Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

The best of times, the worst of times: so begins Dickens’ great novel that remains for most people the chief source of knowledge about the French Revolution. In fact, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most influential novels about history ever written. Dickens transforms the historical events and the bloody violence that accompanies them into an imaginative tale of love and redemption, a tale that closes with one of the most famous passages in all of literature.

10/23/2001 R.R. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution

Palmer’s very readable account of the dozen members of the Committee of Public Safety who governed France during the second year of the republic offers a historical account of the events that Dickens dramatizes. Exploring the upheaval of France, Palmer shows us the dominant views of the observers, the particulars of the Reign of Terror, and the effects the dual legacy of liberty and violence have had on our own and other democracies.

11/5/2001 Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat

This Tony Award-winning drama plummets us into perhaps the most spellbinding maelstrom of the felt-life of this historical period. On the surface, this play presents a drama that the notorious Marquis de Sade staged with the inmates of an insane asylum as a form of mental therapy. About the murder of the French Revolution’s Jean-Paul Marat, Weiss presents his view of what a revolution should seek to accomplish. There could be no more fitting climax for our series!