Understanding the French Revolution

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What were the aims and motives of the people who made it? Why did attempts to stabilise successive political regimes fail?


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Why did the Revolution become so violent? What was its legacy, both for France and for world history? In short, how — if at all — are we to make sense of it?

Understanding the French Revolution - Albert Soboul - Google книги

Few subjects in history have generated more debate — and less consensus. For the prospective reader the many studies of the Revolution, all clamouring for attention, and each with their very different perspectives, constitute something of a minefield. A generation ago much of the historiography of French revolutionary studies focussed on Marxist and revisionist debates over whether or not the Revolution constituted a class conflict which resulted in the triumph of the bourgeoisie.

Much has changed since then. McPhee shows how new paths of research are uncovering hitherto neglected dimensions of the Revolution. He pays particular attention to the ways in which the Revolution impacted on the lives of the rural and urban poor, on women, and on slaves in the French colonies. He also weaves into his account close attention to the global ramifications of the Revolution. The book is structured as a clear narrative, sustained by a wealth of detailed knowledge, and punctuated by brief but vivid glimpses into the lives of a myriad of people whose lives were changed by the Revolution.

His approach is even-handed. McPhee poses two questions that aid our understanding: firstly, what motivated the people who fought either for or against the Revolution; and secondly, how did people of all kinds experience the Revolution? His narrative ranges from the epicentre of Paris, through the different regions of France, and on to the impact of the Revolution in Europe, the French colonies, and beyond. The only difficulty with this ambitious approach is that the sheer scale of events means it is often not possible within the narrative constraints to dwell as much on any one aspect as one might wish.

People and places have a tendency to appear, and abruptly disappear, in a potentially disconcerting fashion, like characters in Alice in Wonderland. McPhee goes a long way to mitigate the problem, however, by providing both a detailed index and a chronology. An additional bonus comes in the extensive and characteristically generous footnotes.

Readers who wish to know more about any particular subject will find in these notes a comprehensive guide to further reading that includes much cutting edge scholarship. The Revolution began in a spirit of enthusiasm, unity, excitement and exhilarating optimism. At the Festival of the Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the king took an oath to support the constitution.

The Revolution seemed over. Why then did the constitutional monarchy fail? Some historians, including Schama with his determinedly negative take on the Revolution, have argued that it was always bound to lead to anarchy, violence and terror.


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McPhee shows that there was no inevitability about the fall of the constitutional monarchy; it came about through a series of misjudged choices by leading protagonists. A pivotal chapter explores the fateful decision by the revolutionaries to impose an oath of loyalty to the constitution on the clergy, forcing them to choose between keeping faith with the Catholic Church and allegiance to the Revolution. If a personal point may be noted, the fact that the writer of these pages is himself a Catholic and in political sympathy strongly attached to the political theory of the Revolution, should not be hidden from the reader.

Such personal conditions have perhaps enabled him to treat the matter more thoroughly than it might have been treated by one who rejected either Republicanism upon the one hand, or Catholicism upon the other; but he [Pg ix] believes that no personal and therefore exaggerated note has been allowed to intrude upon his description of what is a definite piece of objective history lying in the field of record rather than in that of opinion.

Some years ago the paramount importance of the quarrel between the Church and the Revolution might still have been questioned by men who had no personal experience of the struggle, and of its vast results. To-day the increasing consequences and the contemporary violence of that quarrel make its presentation an essential part of any study of the period. The political theory upon which the Revolution proceeded has, especially in this country, suffered ridicule as local, as ephemeral, and as fallacious. It is universal, it is eternal, and it is true. It may be briefly stated thus: that a political community pretending to sovereignty, that is, pretending to a moral right of defending its existence against all other communities, derives the civil and temporal authority of its laws not from its actual rulers, nor even from its magistracy, but from itself.

But the community cannot express authority unless it possesses corporate initiative ; that is, unless the mass of its component units are able to combine for the purpose of a common expression, are conscious of a common will, and have something in common which makes the whole sovereign indeed.

Causes of the French Revolution

It may be that this power of corporate initiative and of corresponding corporate expression is forbidden to men. In that case [Pg 14] no such thing as a sovereign community can be said to exist. In that case "patriotism," "public opinion," "the genius of a people," are terms without meaning. But the human race in all times and in all places has agreed that such terms have meaning, and the conception that a community can so live, order and be itself, is a human conception as consonant to the nature of man as is his sense of right and wrong; it is much more intimately a part of that nature than are the common accidents determining human life, such as nourishment, generation or repose: nay, more intimate a part of it than anything which attaches to the body.

This theory of political morals, though subject to a limitless degradation in practice, underlies the argument of every man who pretends to regard the conduct of the State as a business affecting the conscience of citizens. Upon it relies every protest against tyranny and every denunciation of foreign aggression. He that is most enamoured of some set machinery for the government of men, and who regards the sacramental function of an hereditary monarch as in Russia , the organic character of a native oligarchy as in England , the mechanical arrangement of election by majorities, or even in a crisis the intense conviction and therefore the intense activity and conclusive power of great crowds as salutary to the State, will invariably, if any one of these engines fail him in the achievement of what he desires for his country, fall back upon the doctrine of an ultimately sovereign community.

If he defends the action of a native oligarchy against the leaders of the populace, he does so by an explanation more or less explicit that the oligarchy is more truly national, that is more truly communal, than the engineered expression of opinion of which the demagogues as he will call them have been the mouthpieces. Even in blaming men for criticising or restraining an hereditary monarch the adherent of that monarch will blame them upon the ground that their action is anti-national, that is anti-communal; and, in a word, no man pretending to sanity can challenge in matters temporal and civil the ultimate authority of whatever is felt to be though with what difficulty is it not defined!

Those words "civil" and "temporal" must lead the reader to the next consideration; which is, that the last authority of all does not reside even in the community. It must be admitted by all those who have considered their own nature and that of their fellow beings that the ultimate authority in any act is God.

Or if the name of God sound unusual in an English publication to-day, then what now takes the place of it for many an imperfect phrase , "the moral sense. Thus if there be cast together in some abandoned place a community of a few families so depraved or so necessitous that, against the [Pg 16] teachings of their own consciences, and well knowing that what they are doing is what we call wrong , yet they will unanimously agree to do it, then that agreement of theirs, though certainly no temporal or civil authority can be quoted against it, is yet unjustifiable.

Another authority lies behind. Still more evidently would this be true if, of say, twelve, seven decided knowing the thing to be wrong that the wrong thing should be done, five stood out for the right—and yet the majority possessed by the seven should be determined a sufficient authority for the wrongful command. But it is to be noted that this axiom only applies where the authority of the moral law God, as the author of this book, with due deference to his readers, would prefer to say is recognised and yet flouted.

If those twelve families do sincerely believe such and such a general action to be right, then not only is their authority when they carry it into practice a civil and a temporal authority; it is an authority absolute in all respects; and further, if, upon a division of opinion among them not perhaps a bare majority, nay, perhaps not a majority at all, but at any rate a determinant current of opinion—determinant in intensity and in weight, that is, as well as in numbers—declares an action to be right, then that determinant weight of opinion gives to its resolve a political authority not only civil and temporal but absolute.

Beyond it and above it there is no appeal. In other words, men may justly condemn, [Pg 17] and justly have in a thousand circumstances condemned, the theory that a mere decision on the major part of the community was necessarily right in morals. It is, for that matter, self-evident that if one community decides in one fashion, another, also sovereign, in the opposite fashion, both cannot be right. Reasoning men have also protested, and justly, against the conception that what a majority in numbers, or even what is more compelling still a unanimity of decision in a community may order, may not only be wrong but may be something which that community has no authority to order since, though it possesses a civil and temporal authority, it acts against that ultimate authority which is its own consciousness of right.

Men may and do justly protest against the doctrine that a community is incapable of doing deliberate evil; it is as capable of such an action as is an individual. But men nowhere do or can deny that the community acting as it thinks right is ultimately sovereign: there is no alternative to so plain a truth. Let us take it, then, as indubitable that where civil government is concerned, the community is supreme, if only from the argument that no organ within the community can prove its right to withstand the corporate will when once that corporate will shall find expression.

All arguments which are advanced against this prime axiom of political ethics are, when they are analysed, found to repose upon a confusion of thought. Thus a man will say, "This doctrine would lead my country to [Pg 18] abandon her suzerainty over that other nation, but were I to consent to this, I should be weakening my country, to which I owe allegiance.

The community of which he is a member is free to make its dispositions for safety, and is bound to preserve its own life. It is for the oppressed to protest and to rebel. Similarly, men think that this doctrine in some way jars with the actual lethargy and actual imbecility of men in their corporate action. It does nothing of the kind. This lethargy, that imbecility, and all the other things that limit the application of the doctrine, in no way touch its right reason, any more than the fact that the speech of all men is imperfect contradicts the principle that man has a moral right to self-expression.

That a dumb man cannot speak at all, but must write, is, so far from a contradiction, a proof of the truth that speech is the prime expression of man; and in the same way a community utterly without the power of expressing its corporate will is no contradiction, but a proof, of the general rule that such expression and the imposing of such decisions are normal to mankind. The very oddity of the contrast between the abnormal and the normal aids us in our decision, and when we see a people conquered and not persuaded, yet making no attempt at rebellion, or a people free from foreign oppression yet bewildered at the prospect of self-government, the oddity of the phenomenon proves our rule.

But though all this be true, there stands against the statement of our political axiom not a contradiction added, but a criticism; and all men with some knowledge of their fellows and of themselves at once perceive, first , that the psychology of corporate action differs essentially from the psychology of individual action, and secondly , that in proportion to the number, the discussions, the lack of intimacy, and in general the friction of the many, corporate action by a community, corporate self-realisation and the imposition of a corporate will, varies from the difficult to the impossible.

On this no words need be wasted. All men who reason and who observe are agreed that, in proportion to distance, numbers, and complexity, the difficulty of self-expression within a community increases. We may get in a lively people explosions of popular will violent, acute, and certainly real; but rare. We may attempt with a people more lethargic to obtain some reflection of popular will through the medium of a permanent machinery of deputation which, less than any other, perhaps, permits a great community to express itself truly.

We may rely upon the national sympathies of an aristocracy or of a king. But in any case we know that large communities can only indirectly and imperfectly express themselves where the permanent government of their whole interest is concerned. Our attachment, which may be passionate, to the rights of the Common Will we must satisfy either by demanding a loose federation of small, self-governing states, or submitting the central [Pg 20] government of large ones to occasional insurrection and to violent corporate expressions of opinion which shall readjust the relations between the governor and the governed.

All this is true: but such a criticism of the theory in political morals which lay behind the Revolution, the theory that the community is sovereign, is no contradiction. It only tells us that pure right cannot act untrammelled in human affairs and that it acts in some conditions more laboriously than in others: it gives not a jot of authority to any alternative thesis. Such is the general theory of the Revolution to which the command of Jean Jacques Rousseau over the French tongue gave imperishable [Pg 21] expression in that book whose style and logical connection may be compared to some exact and strong piece of engineering.

He entitled it the Contrat Social , and it became the formula of the Revolutionary Creed. But though no man, perhaps, has put the prime truth of political morals so well, that truth was as old as the world; it appears in the passionate rhetoric of a hundred leaders and has stood at the head or has been woven into the laws of free States without number. In the English language the Declaration of Independence is perhaps its noblest expression.

And though this document was posterior to the great work of Rousseau and through the genius of Jefferson was in some part descended from it, its language, and still more the actions of those who drafted and supported it, are sufficient to explain what I mean to English readers. Now with this general theory there stand connected on the one hand certain great principles without which it would have no meaning, and also on the other hand a number of minor points concerning no more than the machinery of politics.

The first are vital to democracy. The second, in spite of their great popularity at the time of the Revolution and of the sanction which the Revolution gave them, nay, of their universality since the Revolution, have in reality nothing to do with the revolutionary theory itself. Of these two categories the type of the first is the doctrine of the equality of man; the type of the second is the mere machinery called "representative.

The doctrine of the equality of the man is a transcendent doctrine: a "dogma," as we call such doctrines in the field of transcendental religion. It corresponds to no physical reality which we can grasp, it is hardly to be adumbrated even by metaphors drawn from physical objects. We may attempt to rationalise it by saying that what is common to all men is not more important but infinitely more important than the accidents by which men differ. We may compare human attributes to tri-dimensional, and personal attributes to bi-dimensional measurements; we may say that whatever man has of his nature is the standard of man, and we may show that in all such things men are potentially equal.

None of these metaphors explains the matter; still less do any of them satisfy the demand of those to whom the dogma may be incomprehensible.

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Its truth is to be arrived at for these in a negative manner. If men are not equal then no scheme of jurisprudence, no act of justice, no movement of human indignation, no exaltation of fellowship, has any meaning. The doctrine of the equality of man is one which, like many of the great transcendental doctrines, may be proved by the results consequent upon its absence. It is in man to believe it—and all lively societies believe it. It is certainly not in man to prove the equality of men save, as I have said, by negation; but it demands no considerable intellectual faculty to perceive that, void of the doctrine of equality, the conception of political freedom and of a community's moral [Pg 23] right to self-government disappear.

Now to believe that doctrine positively, and to believe it ardently, to go on crusade for that religious point, was indeed characteristic of the French. It required the peculiar and inherited religious temper of the French which had for so many hundred years seized and defined point after point in the character of man, to grow enamoured of this definition and to feel it not in the intellect, but as it were in their bones.

They became soldiers for it, and that enormous march of theirs, overrunning Europe, which may not inaptly be compared to their adventures in the twelfth century, when they engaged upon the Crusades, was inspired by no one part of the doctrine of political freedom more strongly than by this doctrine of equality. The scorn which was in those days universally felt for that pride which associates itself with things not inherent to a man notably and most absurdly with capricious differences of wealth never ran higher; and the passionate sense of justice which springs from this profound and fundamental social dogma of equality, as it moved France during the Revolution to frenzy, so also moved it to creation.

Those who ask how it was that a group of men sustaining all the weight of civil conflict within and of universal war without, yet made time enough in twenty years to frame the codes which govern modern Europe, to lay down the foundations of universal education, of a strictly impersonal scheme of administration, [Pg 24] and even in detail to remodel the material face of society—in a word, to make modern Europe—must be content for their reply to learn that the Republican Energy had for its flame and excitant this vision: a sense almost physical of the equality of man.

I don't really understand the French Revolution. What started it, and what stopped it?

The minor points which wove themselves into the political practice of democracy during the Revolution, which are not of its principles, and which would not, were they abstracted, affect its essence, are of quite another and less noble kind. I have taken as the chief of these the machinery of deputation or of "representation. The representative system had been designed for a particular purpose under the influence of the Church and especially of the monastic orders who invented it in the Middle Ages.

It had been practised as a useful check upon the national monarchy in France, and as a useful form of national expression in times of crisis or when national initiative was peculiarly demanded. In Spain it became, as the Middle Ages proceeded, a very vital national and local thing, varying from place to place. It is not surprising that Spain seeing that in her territory the first experiments in representation were made should have thus preserved it, popular and alive.

In England Representation, vigorous as everywhere else in the true Middle Ages, narrowed and decayed at their close, until in the seventeenth century it had become a mere scheme for aristocratic government. In France for nearly two hundred years before the Revolution it had fallen into disuse, but an active memory of it still remained; especially a memory of its value in critical moments when a consultation of the whole people was required, and when the corporate initiative of the whole people must be set at work in order to save the State.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the French, on the eve of the Revolution, clamoured for a revival of representation, or, as the system was called in the French tongue, "the States-General. In England democracy was not practised nor was representation connected with the conception of it. The nation had forgotten democracy as completely as it had forgotten the religion and the old ideals of the Middle Ages.

In those parts of Christendom in which this ancient Christian institution of a parliament had not narrowed to be the mask of an oligarchy or dwindled to be a mere provincial custom, its use had disappeared. The ancient function of Representation, when it had been most lively and vigorous, that is, in the Middle Ages, was occasionally to initiate a national policy in critical moments, but more generally to grant taxes. What a democratic parliament might do, no one in could conceive. There was indeed one great example of democratic representation in existence: the [Pg 26] example of the United States; but the conditions were wholly different from those of Europe.

No true central power yet existed there; no ancient central institution, no Crown nor any Custom of the City. The numbers over which American representative democracy then held power were not to be compared to the twenty-five millions who inhabited the French realm. And even so, most of what counted in their lives was regulated by a system of highly local autonomy: for they were as scattered as they were few, and the wisest and strongest and best were dependent upon slaves. In Europe, I repeat, the experiment was untried; and it is one of the chief faults of the French revolutionaries that, having been compelled in the critical moment of the opening of the Revolution to the use of election and representation, they envisaged the permanent use of a similar machinery as a something sacred to and normal in the democratic State.

True, they could not foresee modern parliamentarism. Nothing could be more alien to their conception of the State than the deplorable method of government which parliamentarism everywhere tends to introduce to-day. True, the French people during the revolutionary wars made short work of parliamentary theory, and found it a more national thing to follow a soldier being by that time all soldiers themselves , and to incarnate in a dictator the will of the nation. But though the French revolutionaries [Pg 27] could not have foreseen what we call "Parliamentarism" to-day, and though the society from which they sprang made short work of the oligarchic pretensions of a parliament when the realities of the national struggle had to be considered, yet they did as a fact pay an almost absurd reverence to the machinery of representation and election.

They went so far as to introduce it into their attempted reform of the Church; they introduced it everywhere into civil government, from the smallest units to the highest. They even for a moment played with the illusion in that most real of games which men can ever play at—the business of arms: they allowed the election of officers. They were led to do this by that common fallacy, more excusable in them than in us, which confounds the individual will with the corporate.

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A representative they thought could in some way be the permanent receptacle of his electorate. They imagined that corporate initiative was always sufficiently active, in no matter what divisions or subdivisions, to react at once upon the delegate, to guide him as may be guided a driven animal, or to command him as may be commanded a servant. It was in vain that Rousseau, the great exponent of the democratic theory upon which France attempted to proceed, had warned posterity against the possible results of the representative system: they fell into the error, and it possesses many of their descendants to this day.

Rousseau's searching mind perceived indeed [Pg 28] no more than the general truth that men who consent to a representative system are free only while the representatives are not sitting. But as is so often the case with intuitions of genius though he saw not the whole of the evil, he had put his finger upon its central spot, and from that main and just principle which he laid down—that under a merely representative system men cannot be really free—flow all those evils which we now know to attach to this method of government. What a rather clumsy epigram has called "the audacity of elected persons" is part of this truth.

The evident spectacle of modern parliamentary nations driven against their will into economic conditions which appal them, proceeds again from the same truth; the conspicuous and hearty contempt into which parliamentary institutions have everywhere fallen again proceeds from it, and there proceeds from it that further derivative plague that the representatives themselves have now everywhere become more servile than the electorate and that in all parliamentary countries a few intriguers are the unworthy depositories of power, and by their service of finance permit the money-dealers to govern us all to-day.

Rousseau, I say, the chief prophet of the Revolution, had warned the French of this danger. It is a capital example of his talent, for the experiment of democratic representation had not yet, in his time, been tried. But much more is that power of his by which he not only stamped and issued the gold of democracy as it had [Pg 29] never till then been minted. No one man makes a people or their creed, but Rousseau more than any other man made vocal the creed of a people, and it is advisable or necessary for the reader of the Revolution to consider at the outset of his reading of what nature was Rousseau's abundant influence upon the men who remodelled the society of Europe between and An explanation of Rousseau's power merits a particular digression, for few who express themselves in the English tongue have cared to understand it, and in the academies provincial men have been content to deal with this great writer as though he were in some way inferior to themselves.

For what is "working," i. The attainment of certain ends in that sphere. What are those ends in a State? If material well-being, then there is an end to talk of patriotism, the nation, public opinion and the rest of it which, as we all very well know, men always have regarded and always will regard as the supreme matters of public interest.

If the end is not material well-being, but a sense of political freedom and of the power of the citizen to react upon the State, then to say that an institution "works" though apparently not democratic, is simply to say that under such and such conditions that institution achieves the ends of democracy most nearly. In other words, to contrast the good "working" of an institution superficially undemocratic with democratic theory is meaningless. The institution "works" in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would, were it attainable, completely satisfy.

In order to appreciate what Rousseau meant to the revolutionary movement, it is necessary to consider the effect of style upon men. Men are influenced by the word. Spoken or written, the word is the organ of persuasion and, therefore, of moral government. Now, degraded as that term has become in our time, there is no proper term to express the exact use of words save the term "style.

Understanding the French Revolution

What words we use, and in what order we put them, is the whole matter of style; and a man desiring to influence his fellow men has therefore not one, but two co-related instruments at his disposal. He cannot use one without the other. The weakness of the one will ruin the other. These two instruments are his idea and his style. However powerful, native, sympathetic to his hearers' mood or cogently provable by reference to new things may be a man's idea, he cannot persuade his fellow men to it if he have not words that express it.

And he will persuade them more and more in proportion as his words are well chosen and in the right order, such order being determined by the genius of the language whence they are drawn. Whether the idea of which Rousseau made himself the exponent in his famous tract be true or false, need not further concern us in this little book. We all know that the difficult attempt to realise political freedom has attracted various communities of men at various times and repelled others. What English readers rarely hear is that the triumph of Rousseau depended not only on the first element in persuasion, which is vision, but also upon the second of the two co-related instruments by which a man may influence his fellows—to wit, style.

It was his choice of French words and the order in which he arranged them, that gave him his enormous ascendancy over the generation which was young when he was old. I have alluded to his famous tract, the Contrat Social , and here a second point concerning it may be introduced. This book which gave a text for the Revolution, the document to which its political theory could refer, was by no means as foreign observers have sometimes imagined the whole body of writing for which Rousseau was responsible.

To imagine that is to make the very common error of confusing a man with his books. Rousseau wrote on many things: his character was of an exalted, nervous and diseased sort. Its excessive sensibility degenerated with advancing years into something not distinguishable from mania. He wrote upon education, and the glory of his style carried conviction both where he was right and where the short experience of a hundred years has proved him to have been wholly wrong.

He wrote upon love, and half the lessons to be drawn from his writing will be condemned by the sane. He wrote upon botany at vast length; he wrote also upon music—with what success in either department I am incompetent to determine. He wrote upon human inequality: and though the sentences were beautiful and the sentiment just, the analysis was very insufficient and the historical conception bad. He wrote upon a project for perpetual peace, which was rubbish; and he wrote upon the government of Poland an essay which was a perfect masterpiece.

But when a great writer writes, each of his great writings has a life of its own, and it was [Pg 32] not any of these other writings of Rousseau, on love or botany, which were the text of the Revolution. The text of the Revolution was his Contrat Social. Now it is not too much to say that never in the history of political theory has a political theory been put forward so lucidly, so convincingly, so tersely or so accurately as in this short and wonderful book.

The modern publisher in this country would be ashamed to print it: not for its views which would now seem commonplace , nor for its excellence, which would ensure it a failure, but for its brevity. It is as short as a gospel, and would cover but a hundred pages of one of our serious reviews. A modern publisher in this city would not know what price to set upon such a work, and the modern reader in this country would be puzzled to understand how a great thing could be got within so narrow a compass.

A debate in Parliament or the libretto of a long pantomime is of greater volume.

Author's Response

Nevertheless, if it be closely read the Contrat Social will be discovered to say all that can be said of the moral basis of democracy. Our ignorance of the historical basis of the State is presumed in the very opening lines of it. The logical priority of the family to the State is the next statement. The ridiculous and shameful argument that strength is the basis of authority—which has never had standing save among the uninstructed or the superficial—is contemptuously dismissed in a very simple proof which forms the third chapter, [Pg 33] and that chapter is not a page of a book in length.

It is with the fifth chapter that the powerful argument begins, and the logical precedence of human association to any particular form of government is the foundation stone of that analysis. It is this indeed which gives its title to the book: the moral authority of men in community arises from conscious association ; or, as an exact phraseology would have it, a "social contract. It is indeed astonishing to one who is well acquainted not only with the matter, but with the manner of the Contrat Social , to remark what criticisms have been passed upon it by those who either have not read the work or, having read it, did so with an imperfect knowledge of the meaning of French words.

The two great counter arguments, the one theoretic the other practical, which democracy has to meet, stand luminously exposed in these pages, though in so short a treatise the author might have been excused from considering them. The theoretical argument against democracy is, of course, that man being prone to evil, something external to him and indifferent to his passions must be put up to govern him; the people will corrupt themselves, but a despot or an oligarchy, when it has satisfied its corrupt desires, still has a wide margin [Pg 34] over which it may rule well because it is indifferent.

You cannot bribe the despot or the oligarch beyond the limit of his desires, but a whole people can follow its own corrupt desires to the full, and they will infect all government. The full practice of democracy, therefore, says Rousseau, is better suited to angels than to men. As to the practical argument that men are not sufficiently conscious of the State to practise democracy, save in small communities, that plea also is recognised and stated better than any one else has stated it.

For there is not in this book an apology for democracy as a method of government, but a statement of why and how democracy is right. The silly confusion which regards a representative method as essentially democratic has never been more contemptuously dealt with, nor more thoroughly, than in the few words in which the Contrat Social dismisses it for ever; though it was left to our own time to discover, in the school of unpleasant experience, how right was Rousseau in this particular condemnation.

Exiguous as are the limits within which the great writer has finally decided the theory of democracy, he finds space for side issues which nowhere else but in this book had been orderly considered, and which, when once one has heard them mentioned, one sees to be of the most excellent wisdom: that the fundamental laws, or original and particular bonds, of a new democracy must come from a [Pg 35] source external to itself; that to the nature of the people for whom one is legislating, however democratic the form of the State, we must conform the particulars of law; that a democracy cannot live without "tribunes"; that no utterly inflexible law can be permitted in the State—and hence the necessity for dictatorship in exceptional times; that no code can foresee future details—and so forth.

It would be a legitimate and entertaining task to challenge any man who had not read the Contrat Social and this would include most academic writers upon the treatise to challenge any such one, I say, to put down an argument against democratic theory which could not be found within those few pages, or to suggest a limitation of it which Rousseau had not touched on. If proof were needed of what particular merits this pamphlet displayed, it would be sufficient to point out that in a time when the problem represented by religion was least comprehended, when the practice of religion was at its lowest, and when the meaning, almost, of religion had left men's minds, Rousseau was capable of writing his final chapter.

That the great religious revival of the nineteenth century should have proved Rousseau's view of religion in the State to be insufficient is in no way remarkable, for when Rousseau wrote, that revival was undreamt of; what is remarkable is that he should have allowed as he did for the religious sentiment, and above all, that he should have seen how [Pg 36] impossible it is for a selection of Christian dogma to be accepted as a civic religion.

It is further amazing that at such a time a man could be found who should appreciate that for the State, to have unity, it must possess a religion, and Rousseau's attempt to define that minimum or substratum of religion without which unity could not exist in the State unfortunately became the commonplace of the politicians, and particularly of the English politicians who succeeded him. Who might not think, for instance, that he was reading—though better expressed, of course, than a politician could put it—some "Liberal" politician at Westminster, if he were to come on such phrases as these with regard to what should be taught in the schools of the country?

The existence of a powerful God, beneficent, providential and good; the future life; the happiness of the good and the punishment of evil; the sanctity of the agreements which bind society together and of laws; while as for negative doctrines, one is sufficient, and that one is the wickedness of intolerance. Rousseau's hundred pages are the direct source of the theory of the modern State; their lucidity and unmatched economy of diction; their rigid analysis, their epigrammatic judgment and wisdom—these are the reservoirs from whence modern democracy has flowed; what are now proved to be the errors of democracy are errors against which [Pg 37] the Contrat Social warned men; the moral apology of democracy is the moral apology written by Rousseau; and if in this one point of religion he struck a more confused and a less determined note than in the rest, it must be remembered that in his time no other man understood what part religion played in human affairs; for in his days the few who studied religion and observed it could not connect it in any way with the political nature of man, and of those who counted in the intellect of Europe, by far the greater number thought political problems better solved if religion which they had lost were treated as negligible.

They were wrong—and Rousseau, in his generalities upon the soul, was insufficient; both were beneath the height of a final theory of man, but Rousseau came much nearer to comprehension, even in this point of religion, than did any of his contemporaries. As might be expected, the character of King Louis XVI has suffered more distortion at the hands of historians than has any other of the revolutionary figures; and this because he combined with that personal character of his a certain office to [Pg 38] which were traditionally attached certain points of view and methods of action which the historian takes for granted when he deals with the character of the man.

As any one thinking of a judge of some standing upon the English bench cannot but believe that he is possessed of some learning or some gravity, etc. The student will do well to avoid this error and its source, and to think of Louis as of a man who had been casually introduced, almost without preparation, into the office which he held. In other words, the student will do well, in his reading of the Revolution, to consider Louis XVI simply as a man, and his character as a private character. For this last of the long, unbroken line of Capetians possessed a character essentially individual.


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