The Burghers of Calais

Auguste Rodin: Burghers of Calais.
Auguste Rodin: Burghers of Calais.
Auguste Rodin: Burghers of Calais.

Auguste Rodin, French sculptor (1840-1917), is best known to Americans as the creator of ‘The Thinker’ (Le Penseur), a man seated with his chin resting on the hand of an arm supported on his thigh.  Rodin was a sculptor of realism, prior to abstract impressionist sculpture, an artist who created things as they truly appeared.  The impact of his work came in the expression and feeling represented in the face and posture of his subject.

There is another famous Rodin sculpture, ‘The Burghers of Calais.’  This work depicted a medieval confrontation between England and France in the Hundred Years War.  The coastal city of Calais, France, was under siege by the combination of England’s Navy and Army.  Faced with starvation, the city met with the English forces to discuss surrender.  They were stunned to hear the terms: all of the citizens of Calais would be slaughtered.  Alternatively, six of the city’s leaders, Burghers, were to ‘volunteer’ and walk out of the fortified city with ropes around their necks; the implication clear that they were to be executed in order to obtain the sparing of their city.

The sculpture depicts the moment of realization by the wealthy leaders of the city that it would be them, and not the average citizens, who would pay the price.  Looking closely at the individual faces in the sculpture, you see the range of reactions: horror, disbelief, resignation, and the rare face of resolution.

The story goes on to say that these men were spared through the intervention of the English Queen who persuaded her husband, King Edward, to grant clemency.  That, however, is irrelevant to the object lesson here.

In the era of the Hundred Years War, political power resided in both the aristocracy and the wealthy.  Calais’ burghers were men who, because of their wealth and power, also controlled the local governance.  In the 19th century, the city of Calais commissioned Rodin to commemorate what seemed to be a heroic act.  Rodin, however, chose to depict the individual fear and misery.

Perhaps these leaders were altruistic.  Quite likely, however, they were coerced into surrendering themselves by the average citizens.  How might we apply this occurrence and this sculpture to our modern nation, our culture?

In medieval Calais, all the citizens lived within the fortifications of the city.  If those fortifications failed, every citizen was vulnerable.

In contrast, consider those who control political power within our country: they live in virtual fortified mansions.  Our legislators are protected by armed guards, security checkpoints, and exemption from laws that they levy upon the voters.  They discuss disarming the average citizen while demanding firearms for their own protectors.  They invite high-risk ‘refugees’ from Syria to come and reside among the average Americans, far from their own highly exempt congressional habitat.  If something bad happens, it won’t happen to them.

Ask yourself this: when the invaders succeed in besieging the American way of life (and they will), what are the chances that our legislators would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the survival of American citizens; what chance that they could be coerced into such a sacrifice?  What chance that they would be even inconvenienced before taxpayers had already paid in blood and sorrow?

When I was young and studying the French Revolution, I could not understand the anger of the average citizen, fomenting a rage sufficient to prompt the slaughter of the nobility, including their children.  The guillotine was the ultimate expression of their reaction to the upper classes that levied taxes for the sole purpose of ensuring their comfortable, insulated lives.

Now, as an older American citizen/voter/taxpayer,   I begin to understand:  our legislators, by gradual congressional fiat, are transforming themselves into a privileged class that has eerie similarities to the French aristocracy of the 1700’s.  France provided both of these confrontations: Calais and the French Revolution.

While I am sure that our legislators believe they deserve neither fate, I am also sure that the trend in ‘self-serving public service’ may lead to a similar denouement.  They have only partially protected themselves by replacing a ‘poorer class’ with an ‘entitlement class,’ setting up the Piñata on the Potomac, filled with support checks and food stamps.  They remain both answerable to, and vulnerable to, the citizens who actually pay taxes.

I would not be in the crowd that storms the modern Bastille or looks for a modern guillotine, but I would not get in their way.

Dennis Garvin