The artificial constructs of the French Republican Calendar and the metric system

The first French Republic introduced two new ideas – a new calendar and the metric system – but only one of them stuck.

The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.

It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.

Pretty fascinating to think how parts of social life that we often take for granted – the calendar and time, measurement – have complicated social histories. It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way, as the rest of the discussion of the calendar demonstrates. Yet, once we are socialized into a particular system and may even passionately defend the way it is constructed without really knowing the reasons behind it, it can be very hard to conceive of a different way of doing things.

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