“Those who cannot remember the past,’ the philosopher George Santayana, famously said, ”are condemned to repeat it.” Literature is one way of “remembering” the past in a way that exceeds the limits of our own memory and experience. If there were one work of literature that might help us today to avoid repeating a violent and painful past it is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
For months now, across America and the world, the cries of the oppressed have been sounding. At first these cries were those of anguish, in the wake of the death of yet another Black man at the hands of those whose job it was to protect his life. Then the wailing turned to anger, looting, rioting, and burning came in waves, and righteous rage has given way to vengeance. Now, with mock beheadings by guillotine taking place in the streets, the eerie parallels of these months to the French Revolution and the Terror that followed it so long ago are even more poignant and profound.
The history of the French Revolution “remembered” by Dickens a century afterward in his novel, written as a warning to his own country not to repeat the tragic history of its neighbor, is one we would do well to recover and heed at this moment.
My chapter on A Tale of Two Cities in On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books1 centers on the virtue of justice. It is justice, of course, at the heart of the cries emanating from so many people these many months. Three years ago, when I was writing this chapter, racial tensions in this country were already (again) boiling over, erupting then in the tragic and violent Unite the Right Rally that took place not far from me at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I thought, as I wrote, that an examination of justice in light of the vicious excesses of the French Revolution could not be more timely.
I was wrong. It’s even timelier now.
Here is an adapted excerpt from that chapter. It reflects, I think, how much classic literary works can teach us about the problems we face today, and how they might save us from being condemned to the hell of repeating our errors again and again.
According to Aristotle, “justice is “the whole of virtue.”2 The most excellent person, Aristotle says, is the one whose virtue is perfected in relationship to others,3 and justice is always expressed “in relation to another person.”4 Justice is the mean, or moderation, between selfishness and selflessness. That mean has implications within political, economic, social, and racial realms, just as it has implications for the inner life of the soul. Justice orders a person within herself and as well as the lives of people together.5
Injustice, no matter how seemingly private, always has public consequences.
A Tale of Two Cities is the terrifying story of what happens to individuals, communities, and nations when injustice reigns. It is a story of extremes and of the havoc wreaked by such extremes, as the famous opening lines suggest:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….6
Excess, the novel shows, was both cause and symptom of the perilousness of the times. It was an age of superlatives, of disproportion, of absolutes, and of absolute power. Absolute power by its very nature is unjust7 for it lacks the relational proportionality that defines justice. Set in a time so full of injustice, A Tale of Two Cities dramatizes the horrible consequences that attend justice too long delayed. Peel back the layers of injustice, one wrong followed by another and another, and at the center one usually finds the original wound, long forgotten.
The vice that opposes the virtue of justice is anger. Anger in and of itself is not wrong, of course. The Bible tells us to “be angry and sin not,” (Eph. 4:26, KJV) making clear that anger itself is not sin. But excessive anger distorts justice into vengeance. Fueled by vengeance, the revolutionary mobs murder those in power they determine—or suspect or imagine or do not even imagine—have committed wrongs against the people.
Dickens’ brilliant prose mimics the relentless rhythms of the crowd’s cries and the brutal images of the mob possessed by the energy and power that fuel their vengeance, carrying the reader along vicariously within the chaos wreaked by injustice:
Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung …. the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.8
The treatment of prisoners by the mob defies rhyme and reason. Some arrested are freed only to be capriciously hacked to bits as they leave. One prisoner is released only to be stabbed on his way out, then helped by folks sitting atop the bodies of their murdered victims. It’s “an inconsistency as monstrous as anything in this awful nightmare.”9 Over four days, eleven hundred prisoners—which include men and women and children—are killed by the mobs.10
Yet, this is the crucial point that the narrative makes clear: there “could have been no such Revolution if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.”11 It is not mere injustice that brought about the Revolution, but excessive, inhumane, and prolonged injustice.
The novel’s vision exposes the truth that prolonged systemic injustice inevitably bears the bitter fruit of violence.
For more on Charles Dickens in CSR see: https://christianscholars.com/god-and-charles-dickens-recovering-the-christian-voice-of-a-classic-author/
- Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2018).
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Edited by Roger Crisp, revised Ed., Cambridge University Press, 2014), 81. BN.V.1.1130a8-10
- Aristotle, 81. BN.V.1.1130a8-10
- Aristotle, 81. BN.V.I.1129b26-28
- Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966) 65.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, (New York: Bantam Classic, 1989), 1
- Stephen Koch, “Afterword,” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, , 358.
- Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 208.
- Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 252.
- Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 251.
- Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 294-95.