Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lessons from the Scarlet Pimpernel

This week we celebrate our nation's independence, which was secured through the American Revolution.

But not all revolutions are cause to celebrate and not all have such happy endings.

"...that seething, bloody Revolution which was overthrowing a monarchy, attacking a religion, destroying a society, in order to try and rebuild upon the ashes of tradition a new Utopia, of which a few men dreamed, but which none had the power to establish."

It's France in 1792.  The French Revolution is in full-swing and will soon develop into the Reign of Terror, a period from 1793-1794 in which the radical, secular republic became more and more militaristic and authoritarian.  

In an effort to rid France of all traces of traditional aristocracy, anyone with relation to an aristocratic family of old was subject to the guillotine.  Bloodline alone made one guilty of a deadly crime.

In the name of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 people were killed, including as many as 2,000 priests--in an effort to de-Christianize the nation.

This is the setting of the fast-paced page-turner The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.  

A scarlet pimpernel is a small flower native to Britain.  It is also the alias adopted by a daring, crafty, and courageous Brit who, with his small comrade of devoted followers, helps those condemned to the guillotine to escape.

The central question of the novel is: Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?  Who is this brave hero?  As one of the main characters quaintly puts it:

"We seek him here, we seek him there.  Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.  Is he in heaven?--Is he in hell?  That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

A scarlet pimpernel
I will be very careful not to disclose the big reveal.  But it seems the shadowy figure of this gallant man and his enigmatic identity point to one of the main themes running through the novel: blindness.

It is indeed a blindness that leads a nation to condemn thousands of citizens--"guilty" only of their birth name--to death in the name of freedom.  But the blindness is even deeper: this bloodbath became a kind of sport and a crowd gathered daily for the great fun of watching the aristocrats sent to death.

"And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed its many victims--old men, young women, tiny children, even until the day when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful young Queen.  But this was as it should be: were not the people now the rulers of France?"

It is a blindness, too, to believe that man can be perfectly free by eliminating traditional authority.  In this world, man will never be fully free--man's freedom is naturally limited due to original sin and no amount of revolution or bloodshed will be able to overthrow those bonds.  

As Pope Pius VI wrote at the time of the French Revolution, "...what could be more insane than to establish among men this unbridled reason..."

It is the blindness that we are all prone to, due to our pride and prejudices, that allows the Scarlet Pimpernel to be successful.  Often his disguises are so unassuming and disparate to the popular notion of "hero," that he goes undetected by the authorities of the French Revolution...and even to those closest to him.

I highly recommend this book!  It was a short read and has history, romance, suspense, and action, all packed into one.

In recognizing the blindness rampant in the leaders of the French Revolution, as well as the main characters who fail to see the Scarlet Pimpernel right before them, one is compelled to examine the areas and relationships in one's own life that might need the light of truth.

...And it is a sobering reminder that, while our dear United States was founded on principles of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must always safeguard and protect the precious freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights--especially in the current times when certain, pivotal freedoms are in danger: the right to life for all, especially the unborn and the elderly, and religious freedom.

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