by Michael Angerer
It is somewhat surprising – and then, perhaps not – that the word ‘revolution’ is in itself quite unconventional: it was adopted partly from French and partly from Latin (as the Oxford English Dictionary reliably informs us) and can ultimately be traced back to the Latin revolvere, meaning ‘to revolve’; and, indeed, the word was first used in English around the end of the 14th century in this general sense, in order to describe the circular course of heavenly bodies or simply the passing of time.
And yet at virtually the same time, the word acquired the intuitively contradictory meaning of ‘change’ or ‘upheaval’, an addition that seems to have occurred in English before it did in French. One possible explanation for this may be the popular medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune: the idea is that Fate is constantly turning her wheel, and those who are on it – i.e., all of us – are revolving from the heights of happiness to the depths of depression. It is easy to see how our modern notion of revolutions fits into this model: necessary upheavals in the eternal passing of time.
As so many texts in this issue make clear, the need for a sudden and momentous upheaval is deeply engrained in the human psyche; it results from long-held frustration with the state of politics, or from a primal need to question the values and legitimacy of a pre-established status quo. There is, however, something of a consensus that revolutions in a concrete sense may well not last; the single assertion of a new – or old – idea will be subsumed into the endless flow of time.
Humans like to think of time as progress, punctuated by major upheavals that usher in new eras; but though great thinkers rage against it, it is somehow also comforting to remind ourselves that political, cultural or industrial revolutions, or even supposed paradigm shifts like the Renaissance, may ultimately be described in terms of medieval philosophy. We emerge from the dark ages and slowly traverse our own dark times towards a dark, uncertain future as Fortune gives her Wheel another turn.