Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
IV. The French Revolution
By Professor Robert Matteson Johnston
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION concentrates within the narrow space of five years, from the 5th of May, 1789, to the 9th of Thermidor, 1794, all that man can conceive as most dramatic, repulsive, uplifting, terrifying, glorious, and disheartening. There is never a happy medium about it, nothing balanced or discriminating; everything is extreme, human emotion rising to the most intense collective utterance at the pangs of starvation, of murder, of oppression, of tyranny, at the joy of decisive action and of climbing the heights whence liberty and betterment can be seen streaking the horizon with hope. That is why the Revolution fascinates the ordinary reader more than perhaps any other period of history. It sets before him the bounds of the sublime and of the ignoble, of all that lies undeveloped in himself never, in all probability, to find expression.
How extraordinarily difficult to interpret such a movement! Even Carlyle, with all his passionate humanity, fails to catch the figure of that unfortunate woman who tramped through the empty streets of Paris at dawn one gray autumn day, starvation and despair in her eyes, mechanically tapping her drum and lugubriously chanting: Du pain! Du pain! (Bread! Bread!) That distressing figure, poignant in all its naked emotions, was to uproot the Bourbons from Versailles, to make of Paris once more the capital of France, and by that deed to divert the whole current of French history from a channel of two centuries. And that is the contrast, the difficulty, at every point. Mirabeau is a venal and corrupt individual whose turpitude insistently pursues us, and yet at moments he is the statesman of grand vision whose eye unerringly pierces through the veil of time. Charlotte Corday is but a simple and quite unimportant young woman from the country; she drives a knife into Marats heart, and with that heroic gesture flashes light to the very depths of a terrific crisis.
A curious fact about the French Revolution, but not so strange as it would seem when one thinks the matter over, is that there should be no good history of it. The three outstanding books are those of Michelet, Carlyle, and Taine; and all three are destined to live long as masterpieces, intellectual and artistic; yet not one of them is wholly satisfactory to the present age, whether for its statement of facts, for its literary method, or for its mentality; while there is no sign at the present day that we are likely soon to get another great history of the Revolution. On the contrary, the tendency is for historians to concentrate their attention on the endless details or varied aspects of the movement, finding in each of these a sufficient object for the exercise of their industry and talents. Following that example, we may here perhaps best touch on the reaction between France and England in terms of the Revolution, and particularly in regard to those two famous books, Voltaires Letters on the English,1 and Burkes Reflections on the French Revolution.2
The early part of the eighteenth century witnessed a great change in the current of ideas in France. The death of Louis XIV, and the coming to power of Philippe Duc dOrléans as regent, dispelled all the old prestige of glittering Versailles, and gave France a wit and debauchee for ruler who cared nothing for pomp or etiquette. He enjoyed life after his own unedifying fashion; he gambled and encouraged stock exchange speculation; he relaxed the muzzle and let slip the courtiers leash with which Louis had curbed the great men of letters of his epoch. And immediately French writers dashed away into the boundless field of political satire and criticism. Montesquieu led off with his Lettres Persanes, in 1721, and Voltaire followed hard at his heels with his Letters on the English, in 1734. The hounds of spring were at winters traces.
Montesquieus violent arraignment of the old order passed only because he seasoned it more than generously with a sauce piquante that titillated the depraved taste of the Regent to a nicety. Voltaires book was in even worse case; it was immediately condemned, and an order was issued to arrest the author and imprison him in the Bastille. Voltaire had to fly for safety. And yet, to a modern reader, the Letters on the English doubtless seems a perfectly mild affair.
It is only by bearing in mind the conditions of political despotism that then existed in France that one can realize the boldness of the book. In it Voltaire gives his impressions of England in his supremely lucid style, but after the fashion of the man who throws a ball at some object from which he tries to catch it on the rebound. He is writing of England, but he is thinking of France; and in the customs and institutions of the former he seeks the examples from which he can measure those of his own country.
Voltaire is, on the whole, inclined to think well of the strange people whom he visited across the Channel, though he cannot avoid the conclusion that their philosophy, liberty, and climate lead straight to melancholia. England appears to him the land of contentment, prosperity, order, and good government. Monarchy is restrained by a well-balanced parliamentary system, and above all there is toleration in matters of faith and in matters of opinion. He frankly admires, and calls on his countrymen to copy, what seems to him the most admirable of models. It may be noted, however, that he is clearly nervous of strictly political questions, and he always prefers getting around to his plea for tolerance by the circuitous road of religion.
With Burke, more than half a century later, we get the strongest possible contrast. He admires nothing; he reprobates everything; he foresees the worst. For one thing, the Revolution had now actually broken out. Already its best aspects were becoming obscured, as disorder fast grew, and as the National Assembly deliberately adopted a policy of destruction to defeat Bourbon apathy and insouciance. France appeared to be threatened with anarchy, and that seemed to Burke more intolerable than the long-continued conditions of tyranny and misgovernment that were responsible for it. He was an old man, and more conservative than in his younger days. To him the glorious revolution of William of Orange and the Whigs seemed the perfect model, and the parliamentary institutions of Britain the ideal form of government. The disorders of Paris and the methods of the National Assembly shocked and wounded him, so he turned on them and rent them. He admitted, indeed, that he was not in a position to pronounce judgment: I do not pretend to know France as correctly as some others, and so he confined himself to the rôle of the advocate. His pleading against the Revolution echoed through the Courts of Europe, carried conviction in almost every quarter where doubt existed, and to this day remains the most effective indictment against the men who made modern France. The success of Burkes book was in part due to the fact that its publication was followed by the Reign of Terror, which seemed to prove the authors argument, but above all to its brilliant and noble, if somewhat too ample, style. Of this one example only will be given:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move inglittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendor, and joy. Oh! what a Revolution! And what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.3
Thus Burke proudly looked down on the miseries of France, while Voltaire had admiringly looked up to the prosperities of England. And we who come more than a century later, while recognizing their preeminence as men of letters, may perceive that as thinkers they were perhaps a little too near their objects. Burkes arguments are always admirable but unconvincing; while Voltaires often justified praise of the English reposes on an obvious failure to understand them.