Hilaire Belloc.

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countless other cases to the more practical minds of the
Revolution ; nor did it produce in him that reaction to-
wards common things which was so marked in Carnot,


and which, had at the end begun to appear in St. Just.
This appetite for arrangement evoked in his mind a char-
acter which must be mentioned later ; in his outer life
it gave him the neatness of dress which has so often
been justly insisted upon by the historians of the Ke volu-
tion. He pushed to some excess an amiable vice whereby
the care of the person was made the special social duty
of the old regime, and is still preserved in exaggerated
reverence by the social class of which he formed a mem-
ber. Moderate as was his expenditure at every period
of his life, he found the means for a careful wardrobe,
and devoted a regular portion of his time to its main-
tenance. In the variety of colours which the age per-
mitted he chose such as were best suited to his type and
presence, and, partly from a desire to avoid exaggeration,
partly from taste, he preferred the sober colours of the
contemporary fashion of his rank, a warm brown or olive
green for the colour of his coat. Later he ventured
upon the brighter colours of '93, and especially upon a
favourite light blue, which the accident of two dates has
rendered famous. In the careful elegance of his silk
stockings, in the buckles which, even after the change
of fashion in 1792, he continued to wear upon his shoes,
in his white stock and small lace wristbands, he displayed
at every point the general taste of his society, but,
that heightened by a far more scrupulous attention and
a somewhat greater choice than his neighbours could
show. It is evident that with such a taste he would
observe to a detail the conventions of the age in his
barbering. His brown hair, carefully brushed back and
standing fully outwards, was powdered with exact and
daily regularity, and it is related of him that in all the
vigils and alarms of the last years, even when those
street battles joined up whole days and made men forget
sleeping and waking, he was never seen unshaven till the
awful watch that ended his life.


Such habits were necessarily accompanied by an
erect figure, by a rapid though not decided step, and by
a certain slight vivacity in the movements of the head,
though he dealt as rarely as any other northerner in the
language of gesture, being restrained in every attitude
and careful to preserve his poise.

When you came to look at his face there was ap-
parent a peculiar character which engravers and sculptors
greatly exaggerated after his death, but which a study
of contemporary painting reduces to juster proportions ;
it consisted in the prominence of the facial bones and
a lack of softness in the contours. This measrre hard-


ness produced no very striking or violent effect, but it was
sufficiently emphatic to place him, when we call up the
great gallery which the Revolution affords, in the group
of over-keen, sharp-featured portraits wherein are found
also Siey^s, Jean- Bon, Camus, Couthon, and many other
dissimilar men united only in a common appearance of
emphasis and precision.

Such effects as this accident of leanness produced in
his expression were heightened by details that often
accompany its presence. Thus the cheek-bones were
high and formed the broadest part of his face. His
nose was short, delicate and quite without an arch, his
lips compressed and thin; and there was an insufficient
development of the jaw accompanied by a sharpness of
the chin, which, when his little constant smile was
absent, lent a somewhat false appearance of bitterness
to his appearance. The upper part of his face, that the
hollowness of his cheeks thus threw into relief, was
remarkable for a feature which the hair-dress of the
eighteenth century tended indeed to exaggerate, but
which yet was common to half the public men of the
time ; I mean the broad, high and retreating forehead
which seems to promise grasp and rapid reason, but
which ignores the mysteries and is unacquainted with


doubt. You may find it in every profile of all the
Bourbons, of Diderot, of Voltaire and even of Mirabeau.
For the rest his head was regular though somewhat
small, and such impressions as it might afford of in-
tellectual power, or rather alacrity, were increased by
an upward holding of it common to men of his inferior
stature. His words thus reached the whole of an
assembly, and the direction of his gaze, which was
commonly above the horizon, added to his carriage an
air of confidence that was hardly in keeping with the
attitude of his mind.

His eyes, whence most his self pierced outward, gave
immediate evidence of the homogeneity, sincerity and
circumscription as they did also of the half-unquiet of his
mind and of its unfittedness for reception. For the slight
prominence of their brows made them seem deeper set
and closer together than they really were, but this gave
no special effect of energy or profundity since their colour
and a physical weakness in their action modified or
destroyed their impression. They were peculiarly pale
and of a neutral greenish grey, not without light but
quite bereft of brilliance ; so far from possessing that
command which is common to the vision of those who
control parliaments, a nervous weakness that caused a
recurrent trembling in their lids compelled him to the
use of spectacles when he was at work or when (as was
his universal habit) he read his speeches. The expression
of these eyes of his was not unkindly, and it accentuated
the slight, smiling tension which was the common contour
of his lips ; but jji over-rajpid_glance that seemed to watch
upon^ every occasion, gave evidence of what became in
circumstances of danger an unbalancing habit of suspicion.
Then, too, he would often raise his forehead in wrinkles
when he spoke and play ajittle with his fingers. These
nervous faults that took away so much from his physical
capacity for dominion were repeated also in certain slight


movements of the lower face that gained upon him in
moments of irritation or of concentrated attention ; as
though the shght tremor from which his eyes suffered
provoked a sympathetic action in the facial muscles of
the jaw.

But it would be very ridiculous to make of these
symptoms a principal matter in the picture of Robespierre.
They were generally absent from his later, as they were
entirely from his earlier life, and they serve but as indica-
tions of the manner in which his temperament was
affected by an extreme success and a corresponding
danger, for either of which it was utterly unsuited. In
evidence of this it may be noted that his face was free
from the lines which constant anxiety or ceaseless
assiduity drew upon those of his contemporaries, nor
had he any marked development of such indications of
character, save in the furrows that flank the mouth and
that stand commonly for some perception of irony and
for a habit of self-control.

I will believe that his voice though somewhat weak
and possessing no wide range, yet had a power of very
varied modulation, was sympathetic and clear. It was
pitched to such a tenor that in the silence generally
accorded to him it reached with exact articulation to the
furthest recesses of the galleries in the Menus Plaisirs, or
even in the vast oval of the Manage. But whenever
a hubbub arose he was quite unable to meet it, and
would either endure till it had passed or succumb to it
as to a physical oppression. In the open air, when there
were no walls to make a sounding-board, he could hardly
be heard. In all this he differed widely from those whom
he supplanted, from Mirabeau and Danton, whose deep,
loud voices could fill an open arena, and in any closed
and violent debate could sound like large bells above a
gale. If there was any other thing to help the success
of his oratory beside the clarity of articulation and the


pitch to whicli I have aUuded, it lay in the reputation
that a small surrounding of friends had made for his
manner ; a reputation inherited from his half-literary
youth in college and at Arras, where it is indubitable
that he had exercised a permanent if exiguous charm,
and one that Carnot, Le Bas, Desmoulins or the Roberts
would certainly remember.

Such in general, then, is the picture one must take
with one in following his adventure and tragedy. A
figure slight but erect and sufficiently well filled, a little
dainty and always exquisitely fitted, not disdainful of
colour but contemptuous of ornament, he maintained to
the end those externals which had been the enamel of
the old society ; shaming, astonishing or irking the sick
slipshod of a Marat, the casual rough negligence of a
Danton, the dust of maps and floors that soiled a sleep-
less Carnot, the common tongue of a Hebert or the
guard-room coarseness of a Hanriot. We must see his
small, set and pointed, but open and somewhat lifted face
developing in the course of a stress for which he was not
made and which a nascent ambition could alone compel
him to suffer, some growing nervousness of manner. His
pale complexion upon whose temples and forehead the
veins would show, his blonde, grey-green, short-sighted,
luminous but weakening eyes, his lips compressed and
thin, but often set to an expression of advance or atten-
tion, his large retreating forehead, his reserve of gesture
— all these form the expression of which a voice some-
what high and tenuous but not without attraction was
the organ.

He passes up the Revolution as in his physical gait
he passed up the gangway of the parliament: rapidly,
but not over decidedly; lacking, apparently, the power
of controlling others, but with the constancy of attitude
that proceeds from strict limitations and with a singular
fixity of carriage, A man, with all this, absorbed in the


effort after form, possessed of a considerable literary am-
bition, pale, insufficient, exact, laborious, he does not seem
much more than the successful and locally prominent
county lawyer, a trifle pedantic but enjoying a sound con-
nection of justly admiring and somewhat unimpressive
friends ; one that, entering politics, might draft or criticise,
but that could hardly attract a general observation.

This he should have been, and such things he should
have done. What did he ?

He held first a group, then a great political machine,
then a sovereign assembly, and at last a nation, attentive.
He became the title and front of the republic : the kings
regarded him ; he put some fear into the priests ; the armies
converged upon his tenement; the general run of European
society stood aghast at his supposed enormities ; the most
generous, the most practical, and the most violent of the
great Reformers alike insisted upon his bearing their
standard ; he may become for the martyrs and prophets
of complete democracy an idol, as he has already become
their legend. Whence did this astonishing contrast be-
tween his native, probable career and his actual fate pro-
ceed ? It proceeded from the fact that his character
contained a something which the special nature of the
time craved, which it insisted upon and would not aban-
don. That something was but one factor of his whole
temperament, it might have lain dormant though it could
never have been atrophied, but certainly it would have
suffered neglect in ordinary times, and with that neglect
he would himself, in ordinary times, have remained

To discover this hidden and permanent part of him
which the Revolution deified, it is necessary to examine
what inner temper accompanied or gave rise to the exter-
nals I have described, and such a task I shall now under-
take : to show the mind that made this body.

The character of Robespierre is contained in these


two connected facts : First, that lie was a man of the old

r^crime divining nothing outside of it, undisturbed by

that germinating of the future which worked in and
troubled the great minds around him, and threw an
energy of travail into their splendid tragedy; secondly,
that he had to an inhuman, or (if the word be preferred)
to an heroic, degree the potentiality of intense conviction ;
for God had given him a kind of stone tabernacle within
the soul where he could treasure absolute truths and this
tabernacle remained impregnable.

Of these two qualities I would speak in their order.
It was uniquely because Robespierre was a man of the
old rc^gime that he received so unquestioningly the philo-
sophy which that world produced for its own destruction,
and his strict confinement to this society it was that made
him so universally accepted as the leader of its exodus.
Men full of the time to come suffered from the suspicion
that attaches to whatever is strange; Danton was too
much inspired by the future realities, the creations of
the revolution ; the Girondins were too much up in the
light outside their time and their world. But for Robes-
pierre every trick that wearies us now, every detail which
we reject as faded in colour or stilted in design, was part
of a political fortune. His long classical allusions, his
well-apportioned phrases, the symbolism that seems tinsel
to us now, were the very air of that time ; it was thought
a sound mark in a man that he should unconsciously
accept such habits always. They were to his generation
what wordy compromises, the allusive style, the pretence
of knowledge, and the jargon of science are to ours ; —
things which a man rejects to his interior and lasting
good, but to his immediate hurt; things which make
easy and successful the lives of those who do not perceive
or who are content to forget their triviality. Of such
advantage is it never to have passed the gates of one


It is a necessity proceeding from the very nature of
change that each period of a definite colour and temper,
while making an ideal perhaps of things long past,
despises the epoch immediately preceding it. So the
fifth century saw nothing but vileness in the sunset of
the gods, drew up a baleful legend to condemn the
memory of Julian, broke the statues in the gardens of
Lutetia, and threatened even our immemorial worship of
wells and trees. So the Renaissance neglected altogether
and left for dead the exquisite last of the Gothic ; planted
Goujon's caryatides upon the green walls of Philip
Augustus and dominated the roofless turrets and the
crumbling machicolations of the old Louvre under the
high pride of an Italian palace. So we, who retrace the
pointed windows, yearn for the perfumes, the visions
and the colours, and even in our every political creation
do but recreate — whether we know it or not — the middle
ages, are amused or more often disgusted by the great
century from which we sprang. But if we are to com-
prehend the Revolution which was the outcome of that
century, especially if we are to appreciate a character
so steeped in the influence of that time, it is necessary
to lose a little of this modern aversion and to love a little,
if we are to understand it, the generation which used
"Liberty" as a password or a talisman, and which by
the arms of America and France, by the economic science
of England created our own time.

What was that generation, and where can its influ-
ence still be found ?

I should be ungrateful to the forest of Marly and
to the stone basin hung with silence, were I to forget
the men whose shadows can still startle us at evening
or the impress of the great kings. The genius of these
woods does not pass, or if it passes, passes in a slow
transformation that infinitely exceeds the hurried move-
ments of men and that lives the slow life of the sacred


trees. It would seem as though the presence of the
dead were native to the undergrowth and the neglected
lawns, and as though whatever power preserves the past
in its peculiar places, worked with a greater mastery
under the veil of loneliness and sleep. Here the rare
echoes are returned as though from a grave space of
years, the springs have an older gaiety, the autumns a
sadness more majestic, the summers are more profound,
the winters have a more Saturnian brooding because
Time mingles with them all : and the half-forgotten
human minds from whose clear vision proceeded, and
in the framework of whose society was formed the chief
enterprise of politics, visit these places again, I think, for
their influence is certainly to be discovered here.

Nor here only : the courtiers whom Voltaire de-
lighted, the women whose eyes caught the new
enthusiasms of humanity, the swords and the youth
that were to marshal the great wars, are found — or
something more than their memories is found — wherever
the scrolled gates and the severe avenues still lead to
unspoilt manors. There is a great house by the pleasant
and misty Orge upon the way to Orleans, in whose noble
rooms or by the shores of whose wide and secret lake you
may discover that spirit alive ; there is in the meadows
of the Boutonne in the western Pastures, haunted and
alone, an inn where the Girondins held their table for an
evening as they went up towards Paris and their re-
public in the declining summer of '91 ; everywhere
France preserves, exterior to and higher than, the limits
of change, the walls and the gardens to which these men
can return.

By such influences my own childhood and youth
were in part surrounded. Even after a hundred years
something in the flesh remained of it. Remote and
secluded, there were characters which held to the
tradition: women from whom I heard of their fathers


in the guard of the Palace, and men strictly formed in
what had once been the new stoicism of the Emile and
fixed and anchored backwards to the legend of Diderot
and the hard crystal of the Encyclopaedia. I should,
then, be able to show what influences they were that
trained the early manhood of Robespierre ; what that
generation was whose every impress he received and of
whose salvation in Rousseau it was his in particular to
make an exalted and irrefragable creed.

Of that society, the heirs and executors of so vast
and changeful a past, the main imprint was leisure. By
which I mean, not the leisure which wealth or a secure
pride convey — pride was but in a powerless few, wealth
was rare and attached often to a mere office. I mean
that the entire framework of the old regime presupposed
and compelled repose and the spontaneous action of the
mind. The least instructed of the poor, the most un-
balanced and cynical of the rich alike moved in an
atmosphere of economic protection, of custom and of
set tasks. The eager competition that accompanies
the rare re-births of history, that spurred the twelfth
and the sixteenth centuries, that has enfevered and
exhausted our own generation, was absent even from the
conception of the men who preceded the Republic. And
if a large repose was the lot (as it was the lot) even of
wretched peasants who lacked bread and wine, still more
was it the moulding condition of the professional class
into which the vigour, the honesty, and the initiative of
the nation had gathered. There was thrown over them
as over the nobles, but over them with a more creative
effect, the invariable and perhaps beneficent effect of
ample room and quiet hours. In their art they pro-
duced or admired the mists of early morning, the faces
of young girls, the charming promises of April ; in their
music simple and enduring cadences, airs rather than
harmonies; in their letters, the subtle values of exact


phrase appeared. They enjoyed that unconscious agree-
ment with their mould, that plenitude of satisfaction
which, since it releases the mind from the rasp of effort,
fires it for direct creations, and fits it to overthrow the
very environment which it thinks eternal. Nothing in
the Revolutionaries more startles our moderns than this,
that they took for granted so much and had so many
dogmas. Yet it was partly the same spirit which forbade
even the fashions to change until the whole flood of
the new world had broken; just when that generation
was fullest of Nature, just then it would have seemed
to them rank madness to have grown a beard.

The Professionals then — to whom of course Robes-
pierre belonged — were compelled by the conditions of
their time to use intellects which no stress fatigued :
they sought principles, and leisure discovered philosophy.
The sentiment and the genial civilisation of their lives
made them accept that Philosophy as absolutely as they
accepted their social conventions.

Partly their education (classical, severe, scholarly,
instinct with Rome), but much more the huge moral
deficit of the time, the great social debt that demanded
payment, and by which Europe had swung out from
the normal, turned that Philosophy into the channel of
politics, and at last this phenomenon was apparent in the
rank where some great nobles, many squires and all the
lawyers mingled — that they had in their leisure returned
to the abstractions which are at the base of political
science. Their art and music had tinged those abstrac-
tions with a colour of sensitive affection; the spectacle
of a world visibly decaying from the effect of political
inequality had lent passion to their convictions, had
made them regard this faith of theirs as a kind of water
of youth, and their very conventionality had left the
mind free to create a new society upon the plan of their


This tide of influence threw up upon its crest the
fame and the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
With the mention of his name a long digression is
necessary, for it was he who cast into an exact mould
and forged into permanent form the demand of the
eighteenth century. It was given to him alone to
restate with exactitude and power the universal theory
of the State : it was of Rousseau dead that the genera-
tion of the Revolutionaries made themselves apostles,
and it was of Rousseau's formula that Robespierre in
especial made something, as it were, divine : a unique
and permanent revelation of the perfect state.

The state may be explained or left unexplained. It
commonly seems of little moment to the security of
its order and of less to the happiness of its citizens
whether its analysis be attempted or no, for it is evident
that our human nature makes (as it is made by) society,
and that we live in our own country as in a native and
necessary air. Nevertheless it will ever be the attempt
of men, since men are also reasonable, to develop and
maintain some explanation of their arrangements, and
to discover those first principles upon which obedience to
a rule and the nature and limits of political authority
are founded. And this attempt springs from two sources :
first, that the eager and doubtful mind of man, conscious
of the divine within it, and therefore malcontent with
the mysteries and limitations by which it is surrounded,
will not rest from attacking and resolving the disturbing
complexity of its environment ; this spontaneous force of
the intellect is the source of the social as of every other
philosophy, and is the prime and noblest mobile of political
inquiry. The second source of such a science is more
immediate and practical. It resides in the necessity
which change produces for some standard of continuity.
How is this new condition or that unusual combination


of circumstances to be met without a disarrangement of
our social tradition and without offence to that sense of
justice in whose satisfaction alone humanity can repose ?
We cannot answer these new questions unless we have
arrived at some clear principle from whose application to
the modern circumstance a special rule may be deduced.
Such and such an institution by its very age seems to have
introduced a new offence into living ; we are in danger of
confusing things and ideas, we are disturbed and feel a
necessity of correcting back to a normal outline the ex-
crescences of time. But in what measure are we to act ?
Are we in a particular case to abolish, to reform, or to
reinvigorate ? We cannot tell unless there have been laid
down some few clear absolutes by which the condition of
that institution may be judged. This practical need, the
need which gives rise to codes and is reflected in ritual
phrases, is the second origin of political theory, and so
true is it that humanity cannot finally escape its action

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 2 of 32)