Colby Professor Keith Peterson’s lecture titled ‘We Have Never Been Revolutionary’ reinforced some of the questions about the nature of a revolution that have continually popped into my mind throughout this lecture series. Some lecturers have brought up the idea that we are in a constant state of revolution. If that is the case, what does being revolutionary even mean? Is the revolutionary state constant? If revolutions are a normal part of culture, how do we pick out which events are important?
Being a revolutionary means being involved in a political, social, or cultural change. The shift could be physical in terms of buildings or people. It could also be intellectual, involving new thoughts. It could be, and probably most often is, a combination of physical and intellectual changes. It seems to me that essentially being a revolutionary could mean anything.
With such a broad definition of revolutionary, something is always in a revolutionary state. Whether it is the field of climate science, a single political system, or the legacy of some great discovery, things that are undergoing a revolution are everywhere. As KP mentioned at the conclusion of his lecture, revolutionary impulses are real whether we give them a name or not. Along this line of thinking, the definition of a revolutionary does not matter, as the actions that come from a revolutionary mindset, whatever that may be, will occur whether they are given the strict parameters of some linguistical definition.
One way to study history is to look at the major changes or revolutions that have occurred in the past. If everything is a revolution, dissecting the pivotal moments becomes more difficult. After all, if this sea change was caused by that leader who was influenced by the ideas of that thinker who was raised in that place at a certain time, one is left with a perpetual chain of events with a confluence that results in revolution. Condensing this swirl down into a coherent series of causes and effects is no easy task. There is no simple answer to the question of how to document a revolution.
This slightly rambling post represents some of the questions that have plagued me throughout this lecture series. There seems to be no simple definition of a revolution or simple way of documenting one. I cannot seem to put into words some of the conclusions I have come to one week, and question them the next week when a new lecturer discusses a different facet of revolution. This complexity is what makes the lecture series so enjoyable, although it sometimes does make my brain hurt a bit. I have yet to come to a satisfactory conclusion about how historians should study and interpret revolutions of the past and how to actively and meaningfully contribute to current revolutions. It is hard to even know when a revolution is complete, as the information and/or legacy that it produced can be constantly reinterpreted. I guess we must continually reevaluate the state of revolutions past and present (and future) in order to try to comprehend the broad scope of what a revolution can achieve.