“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.”
Such were the words spoken by Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre and such are perhaps those that best encapsulate the essence of the man who would come to embody both moral incorruptibility and The Great Terror that stemmed from it.
In this piece I do not wish to critically examine the historical events surrounding Robespierre so much as the man himself, specifically his personal philosophy (which are, all to often, boiled down to mere catchphrases, cut-up from his speeches and collected writings). However, it is impossible to completely separate the man and his ideas from the events of the French Revolution and so, for those who are unfamiliar with all three – a brief primer.
Maximilien Robespierre, like many of the prominent members of the revolution, came from a middle class family. Born in Arras, Robespierre’s father was a lawyer, his mother, the daughter of a relatively successful town brewer and innskeeper. Young Maximilien’s early life was a comfortable and conventional one, though it was not without its difficulties. Chief among theses was the death of young Robespierre’s mother who, in 1764 perished giving birth to her fifth child. The child perished along with her. It was a event which had a tremendous effect upon Robespierre, filling the now disenchanted child with melancholy and sadness.
At the age of 11, Robespierre would demonstrate his burgeoning, yet already considerable, intellect by winning a scholarship to the Louis-le-Grand (a college which the famous geologist Élie de Beaumont would later described as being “-most fertile in great men-“). The boy from Arras exceeded all expectations and mastered all of his studies, especially Greek and Latin (he became so well known as a master of Latin that his colleges granted him the title “The Roman”). It was here that the child was introduced to the two major influence that would factor into his adult philosophy, Roman and Grecian Classicism and the collective works of The Enlightenment philosophers (namely J.J. Rousseau).
However, the most important event which young Robespierre would take part in at the school had little to do with academics; in 1775 King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, briefly visited the school. As was custom, a poem was recited for His Majesty’s pleasure – a poem recited by none other than young Robespierre himself. The king paid little mind.
After graduating from the Louis-le-Grand, Robespierre set up a modest legal practice in Arras. As a lawyer he was quite skilled, often deploying the Enlightenment ideals he’d read in his numerous books during a trial, and developed from the trade the perfunctory eloquence he would become famous for later on in life. Whilst not working at his practice he wrote poetry decently well, if not with any particular originality, was respectable and sociable but aloof; serious but constantly fussy about his appearance and very caring towards his family. By all accounts, a slightly eccentric, well-read but rather unremarkable person.
All that changed with the fulminate chaos that was The French Revolution.
In 1788 Robespierre, who had become popular for his writings and oratory within the Rosati, Arras’ literary society, gave a speech about the Estates-General, the legislative body of France which was comprised of the three estates, those being the 1st Estate (Clergy), 2nd Estate (Nobility), 3rd Estate (All other members of the realm, primarily middle-class and commoners). Robespierre argued that the Estates-General did not represent “The People of France,” and thus pushed for reform.
In 1789 Robespierre, after numerous publications and reformist public speeches to rally support, was elected Fifth Deputy of the 3rd Estate of Artois to the Estates-General (which had not met formally since 1614). At the same time, King Louis XVI argued with the aristocracy over taxation with the latter refusing to provide money to the monarch and threatening to revolt if the heavy financial burdens were not lifted. But it was not just the aristocracy that threatened to cast off the yolk of the woefully inadequate king, but also the peasantry, who grew just as restless under the oppressive taxation system and growing dirth of food and water. To allay fears and prevent a two-tiered insurrection, Louis XVI, under advice of his council, convened the Estates-General at Versailles on May 5, 1789. However, things did not go smoothly; though the nobles and the commoners both agreed largely on fiscal reform they could not come to a agreement on the manner in which voting should be conducted. The commoners wanted “one man, one vote” whilst the nobles wished to maintain their veto powers which allowed them to always be able to out-vote the commoners (despite the fact that the 3rd Estate accounted for 98 percent of the total population). At an impasse the meeting devolved into a raucous shouting match. The 3rd Estate would eventually meet in secret and take a vow to never disband until a new constitution was created and enforced; to this end the group adopted a new title – The National Assembly.
Shortly after this turning point, violence began to erupt throughout the capital; the monarchs powers had been curtailed which made resentful peasants violent and thoughtful members of the middle-class paranoid over the possibility of a military intervention. Rumors of a military coup and popular disdain for the Royal Family (specifically Marie Antoinette who had earned the nickname “Madame Deficit” for her lavish, thoughtless spending), the Aristocracy, Clergy and old order in general as well as the dismissal of Jacques Necker, financial adviser to the king and a beloved man of the people, whipped the commoners into a frenzy and on 14 July 1789, the medieval fortress-prison of The Bastille was stormed by the peasant National Guard. The prison guards and officers were ruthlessly slaughtered in the violent siege, their heads raised up on pikes like gory trophies.
The revolution was well on its way but Maximilien Robespierre was just getting started. During the course of the revolution, Robespierre joined and ascended to the top of the anti-royalist social fraternity known as the Jacobin Club (aslo known as, Society of the Friends of the Constitution). He would use the club as a power base, garner the title of Incorruptible, for his sexual indifference, refusal and denouncement of bribe-taking and general purity of principal, establish a short-lived new state religion, create the fundamental architecture for The Great Terror that would claim the lives of thousands of French citizens and, for a brief period of time, reign over all of France in a near autocratic capacity until his fall from power and subsequent execution at the hands of his revolutionary colleagues.
It is for the period known collectively as The Terror which the dainty, bespectacled Robespierre is most well known and it is this period which grants the most significant insight into his personal and political philosophy.
Though many modern critics of Robespierre have described him as a blood thirsty tyrant, this view of the man is historically inaccurate. Robespierre was not driven to execute thousands during The Terror due to some some sadistic pathology (like his contemporary, the bestial journalist and incendiary political radical, Jean-Paul Marat), rather Robespierre’s primary motivations seem to be duty to The People. However, The People, to whom Robespierre was not the French populace but rather a idealized populace utterly shorn of vice, violence and venality – this is one of the great through-lines of the man’s collective writings and speeches: the reference to X, not as X but rather, as X should be.
His fixation on The General Will can be starkly observed in much of his writing, such as his Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 21 April, 1793) where he writes,
“The principal human rights are those of providing for the preservation of existence and freedom.”
“The object of all political association is the maintenance of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man, and the development of all his faculties.”
It is obvious from these passages (and the document as a whole) that Robespierre believes strongly in the idea of Natural Rights, that there is a immutable essence to Man which is fundamentally good and just which has been perverted by the tyranny of the royal line, the clergy and the aristocracy. Freedom, for Robespierre, is the chief principal, that is, freedom from the first and second estates of the realm – the Enlightenment idea of a return to Man in his Natural State. This is founded upon thinkers such as Rousseau who believed that man was a fundamentally different creature in “a state of nature” as opposed to someone such as Hobbes who believed that man in his natural state lived a short and brutish life. Robespierre’s overarching philosophical project then, can be said to be a extension of Rousseauian naturalism, that is, to create sufficient conditions for a return to the Natural State of Man.
Robespierre’s universalist principals – “By sealing our work with our blood, we may see at least the bright dawn of universal happiness.” (Speech to the National Convention, February 5th, 1794) regarding freedom and nature, however, are in sharp contrast to his fervent French Nationalism.
“We must smother the internal and external enemies of The Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.” (Speech to the National Convention, February 5th, 1794)
Much like Stalin, Robespierre’s political philosophy is fraught with contradictions – he was against violence, yet for violence, he was for freedom, yet pushed for tyrannical show-trials, he was for naturalism, but forcefully attempted to artificially change the course of human nature. Perhaps most strikingly he equivocated virtue and terror as one in the same. Terror, in a time of societal upheaval, was virtue. Pity to traitors was treason itself.
Whilst he was correct that there is such a thing as human nature (most people, most of the time act in X way and behave in Y fashion to Z stimuli) and also correct that human nature could be (theoretically) changed, he failed to grasp the momentous undertaking such a feat would require for success. For instance, archaeological evidence provided via the Genographic Project suggests that Eurasian hunter-gatherers crossed over into the North Americas around 47,000–14,000 years ago – consider how little these groups changed after their resettlement! Up until the conquest of America the disparate descendants of these hunter-gathers had only the faintest glimmerings of civilization and thousands of years had to have passed to reach such a point and yet men such as Robspierre think that by sheer force of will, Man can collectively shred his innate and finely tuned biological impulses towards collective hierarchical cohesion – a total failure of biological-historical understanding.
Robspierre believed: Man is by nature good, but becomes corrupt through unjust institutions and laws; he is born free, but becomes a slave to injustice. All of society is merely a “social contract” and this contract may be changed, at any time, should the “General Will” deem it so. In essence, he unwittingly advocated for the absolute tyranny of the mob (a tyranny which characterized much of the Revolution). And how such lofty, egalitarian aspirations still echo in a nearly unaltered state, with the populist cries emanating from the modern world’s liberal democracies, words that Robspierre spake himself.
Despite his liberal and egalitarian trappings, Robspierre was not quite a populist in totality, for Rousseau’s dictum rang ever in his words and actions, “The spirit of the people may reside in an enlightened minority, who consequently have the right to act for the political advantage.” And who better to head up this “enlightened minority” than Robspierre himself – inheritor of Rousseau’s legacy? Thus, it was really “the spirit” of the people rather than the people themselves that was paramount, a sort of societal mysticism. Such beliefs follow naturally from his views on religion; he was not an atheist. He strongly believed that reason should ever be subordinate to faith (at all levels of The State) in some variation of a supreme-being as this belief was conducive to the good health of “The People.”
“[Robespierre remarking upon the goal of the revolution] What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men.”
Such is the philosophy of those who disregard the true Laws of Nature, those which are not subject to debate or contravention: inequality, brutal violence, suffering and death. Such is the philosophy and life of those who grant man some perfect placing in the ordering of the world, some immutable collective purity rather than acknowledging his proper place as a creature of adaptation and circumstance. Such is the philosophy of the transcendentalist-who-does-not-know-he-is-a-transcendentalist; who would gladly leave the earth in ashes to reach the glorious “moon.”
- The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre, by Norman Hampson (1974, Duckworth)
- Robespierre, by Colin Haydon, William Doyle (1999, Cambridge)
- Fatal Purity, by Ruth Scurr (2006, Macmillan)
- Maximilien Robespierre, Master of The Terror by Scott McLetchie (1983-1984)
- Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen by M. Robespierre (21 April, 1793)