Hilaire Belloc.

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that the very men who most affect to despise meta-
physical definitions, and who are most proud to pin
themselves to custom for the regulation of their country,
are themselves, in that sanctification of mere habit,
proposing a tremendous dogma of universal application
by which some few states have outlasted fevers, but a
hundred have been bled to death and finally de-

I have said that the eighteenth century of its nature
was impelled by the first of these forces ; it tended to
philosophise. Physical discoveries akeady sufficient to
excite were not yet so numerous nor so wide in range as
to confuse the deductive powers of the mind ; and, as I
have said, order and a kind of artificial quiet which
brooded over the ruins of the old world commanded the
minds of men for whom manual labour and economic
strain were alike unknown, to examine and define them-
selves. Moreover the period possessed this mark of high


abstraction, that its speculation covered all tlie field of
thought, and that no one was content till he had linked
up the various provinces of inquiry into a united system.
Locke that wrote of government, also made education a
hobby, and coloured all he wrote by his cold appreciation
of the sequence of ideas ; Rousseau that wrote of govern-
ment, also made education a hobby, and coloured all he
wrote by his instinctive and passionate regret for a lost

But if the eighteenth century would of itself, by its
quality of leisurely decay, have framed philosophies, and
in framing them would necessarily have devised for its
intellectual satisfaction a theory of the State, there was
also and especially present in it what I have called the
second source of political science. It was in extreme
need of a guide and standard for reform.

It is not a necessary accompaniment of secular change
that this need should be felt, though it is an invariable
effect of time that such a need should exist ; but our
western Europe by the great historical accident which
makes it the evident head of the world not only felt the
need of, but suffered the actual demand for, reform. It
not only knew that it was sick; it also conceived an
appetite for health. For our civilisation has, above all
others, great diversity of parts coupled with clear and
united memories; the soul of Europe is one, personal and (it
would seem) unaffected by time ; its body is differentiated
to excess, and bears a thousand marks of a changing
historical environment. From the complexity of its
structure and the variety of its origins proceed those
anomalies which threaten at great intervals to destroy it ;
but from its principle of unity and from its consciousness
of itself Europe perceives and combats the approach of
its own dissolution. The thread is never lost, the basis
of equilibrium is not forgotten. We preserved in the
darkness of the ninth century as in the troubling


glory of the sixteenth the terminology, the method of
thought, the mode of beauty, and the main conquests
of the mind which we had inherited through those
thousand years ; we have still in Europe one language,
and even our shrines are the same.

A hundred years ago it Avas not a local trouble of
invasion nor a passing mania for wasting our energies
in deserts, nor even the rebellion of a part against the
whole that threatened us, but something graver and more
universal. The whole fabric of Europe was in a dis-
location between its outer self and the ideas upon which
that self reposed. It is true to say that the supernatural
had never disappeared so nearly from the western mind
— yet never had the social institutions raised upon the
recognition of the supernatural absorbed more wealth
or supported a more dangerous luxury. Land was
owned as the Romans owned it, men thought of that
ownership as absolute — yet the terms, the expensive
formulae, the irritant conventions attaching to land were
still feudal, and an absolute dominion was dealt with as
though it were a tenure. The conceptions of punishment
and restraint were those of a society whose central organi-
sation, homogeneity, and facile communications permit a
certain mild and consistent pressure — yet the criminal
courts of Europe retained (though they tampered with)
the crude violence that accompanies insecurity and that
punishes by vengeance the palpable crimes of primitive
and isolated communities. A hundred examples might
be given of the tension which racked Europe as the
populations awoke to these anomalies. One more enor-
mous than all the rest overshadowed and menaced her.
We, the makers or the heirs of the Christian theory
and the Roman law, had lapsed into the grossest
form of inequality. A du*ect domestic power, mixed
and disguised here and there with an indirect and
economic control, gave to an ill-defined oligarchy the


privilege of an isolated control. Tiiat privilege was
accompanied always by ignorance of human conditions,
often by insolence, sometimes by a glaring contrast be-
tween the man and his pretensions — yet it coexisted with a
mode of thought that spoke of humanity in the general,
with a theory of jurisprudence drawn from the strict
egalitarianism of the Eoman Code, and commonly with
the political importance of the nobles.

The century at its very opening set out under the
guidance of Locke to perfect an instrument of remedy
which a hundred years of discussion had already freed
from custom and confusion. It formularised and made
familiar a prime theory of the State. Before its first
generation was grown old the educated and articulate
part of Europe had universally consented to repeat a
species of creed, to admire a rational basis for the State,
to give a reply in legal form to every question of political
right, and to every interpellation against authority. They
explained the machinery of society by the legal metaphor
of contract or mutual obligation, and deduced from this
definition the clearest ruleS for legislation and the most
logical excuses for the exercise of governmental power.

There still lingers in our academies a debate as' to
whether the men of the eighteenth century chose the
right metaphor wherein to express the fundamental
truths of politics. The debate is but an irrelevant and
tedious discussion of nomenclature, worthy of the atmos-
phere in which it flourishes. There exists a true theory
of the State which has everywhere been accepted, and is,
in many forms, the starting point of all political know-
ledge. We differ as to the best form of the executive ;
as to the best machinery for connecting that one function
with the whole ; as to the proper mode and extent of the
exercise of legislative power. We differ upon the reality and
value of local characteristics, and upon the practical effect
of special reforms; but we are agreed that sovereignty


must ultimately reside in tlie community, that subjection
to an equal law is the condition of citizenship, that the
governed are normally a part of government. These
truths, which the noblest of English documents has called
" self-evident," may be expressed as being part of the
nature of man, as being a reflection of the divine plan,
or they may be yet more precisely laid down and be
made capable of more exact deductions by the use of
mathematical or legal metaphors. But whether the
organic, the theological, or the contractual method be
used, the end is the same, though each is fitted to
special problems. They are all but indirect ways of pre-
senting what escapes direct definition : that there must
in a normal and living state be a circulation of power
from the individual to the community, and through the
executive of the community back to the individual again ;
that the moral right of government reposes upon an
implied consent, and that a state is in its fullest perfec-
tion only when the interior liberty or balance which
makes us self-dependent beings is in part transformed
into an exterior and civic liberty of the whole.

The men of the eighteenth century, inheriting a
certain tradition of phrase and needing something applic-
able and direct, used the legal expression of this truth,
and chose to express its nature by the parallel of a
CONTRACT of association or employment.

So insistent was the approaching call for change that
the precision of the terms in which politics should be de-
fined increased with every treatise : became the test of
every opinion. A standard of strict regularity and of
the utmost simplicity was felt in that time to be not
only consonant to the clarity of its thought, but necessary
to the terrible work which refused to be delayed. The
second generation of the century, the men whose activi-
ties coincided with the Seven Years' War and the
lethargy of France, the rise of the cabinet system in


England, had heard no other than the legal form of
social science, and would have regarded as merely bar-
barous other theories than that which now explained
so easily the nature of the State ; nor, however much they
differed upon the results of its application, could men of
the most opposite camps conduct even a quarrel save in
terms of the Social Contract.

The third generation, the men who had Louis XVI.
for a contemporary, came under an influence that
directed and in part produced the Revolution; for the
general philosophy and trend of the century was gathered
up, woven, stamped by the genius of Rousseau. The
nature of his influence is very commonly ignored, yet to
ignore it is to miss the very spirit of the Revolution.
Rousseau may be said to have grasped all the material
of the time and to have worked in it that mysterious
change whereby the inorganic clusters into organic form,
lives and can produce itself. The wit, the irony, the
indignations of the eighteenth century, the certitude also
that was at their root, he, whose wit was peevish and slight,
and whose indignation tearful, transformed from vague
inanimate passions into a kind of personality that could
will and do. Thus he who could be said to have
fashioned nothing yet created something, and without the
power to discover or to frame he had that rare inexplic-
able mastery by which breath is blown into the clay.

It is useless to ask whence such a peculiar force pro-
ceeded, as it is useless to analyse the poets. It is enough
to note the great evidences of it that appeared not only
in his work but in the vast effects which that work pro-
duced. In his sincerity, his backward yearning for a
past Eden, his inhuman sensitiveness at the contact of
the world, he had all the character of the men that
impel the origins of religions and he was found (after not
a little ridicule) to be the agent of a mission. Moreover,
all this chiefly shone in the talent peculiar to such rare


forerunners, for this prophet under the searching and
withering hght of an intense rationalism was granted
what none of those cynics or well-poised critics of his
had known — the living word. Those who least compre-
hend his influence are those who least apprehend the
value of his medium : the direct force and ultimate keen
edge of the French phrase. Men who profess astonish-
ment at the spell he threw over the nation are like for-
eigners who misread half our own history because they
cannot weigh the power that the Jacobean translation
of the Bible has exercised over the English race.

This man did many things to the innumerable youth
that succeeded and attempted to fulfil his plan. He
touched them with extravagant simplicities, filled them
with uncontrollable angers against injustice — angers that
blundered against the unnecessary balance of things. He
bequeathed to them, more than is fitted for the humour
and doubts of this world, an angry gift of tears. Most
ignorant of childhood, he propounded for them fantasies
of education in which the brooding evil of mankind was
passed aside, yet, child-like and a dreamer, he inspired
them with a power of vision. Because of him there
were landscapes in the Revolution, and Nature, her dis-
tances and her infinite moods, ran, from his sources,
through the tramping of their armies and the whirlwind
of their debates. But one thing in especial he did
beyond all these. In the shortest of his pamphlets, the
" Contrat Social," he fixed in little adamantine clauses the
political creed which men demanded.

That system has been identified with what we loosely
call democracy. The identification is inappreciative and,
on the whole, erroneous. What Rousseau wove together
as the ultimate political expression of his time was a body
of exact arid correlated assertion deduced from this prime
truth that what is common to all men is utterly beyond
the accidents by which they differ, as in mathematical


science one dimension is beyond and infinitely contains
the last — as a solid exceeds a plane. So the Church has
spoken of souls ; so the Empire had written of citizens.
Government to be government of right, proceeded from
the union of such units, which, but for their union, could
not be. That corporate entity, the Nation, had a Will, and
the expression of that Will was the Law. So Rousseau,
within limits that could afford to be exisfuous because the
material he used was imperishably hard, devised the
political formula that was to remould Europe.

Upon these postulates and by the trumpet of a
marvellous prose he proclaimed the Reform, and fixed
in the minds of his contemporaries definitions of political
right. As it was into a political channel that the public
need was more and more urgently directed, this political
Right soon seemed the whole of Right ; its establishment
and defence acquired the force and quality of a religion.
The whole community was to be, manifestly and ex-
plicitly, the Sovereign; the executive was to become
openly and by definition its servant ; the vague thesis of
equality, upon which jurisprudence reposed, was brought
with exactitude and vigour into every detail, and made a
test of every law ; the limits of individual liberty were to
be enlarged till they met for boundary the general liberty
of all.

And yet, as I have said, there did not flow from this
system the institutions which we associate with our
modern overtoppling states. He postulated no crude
machinery of majorities, he saw that government by
deliberation was free in proportion as the community
was limited and its life autarchic, growing its own corn.
He made a faith in God and in immortality the necessaries
of a happy nation. He wisely suspected representative
bodies, that commonly proceed from, that always tend
toward, and that can only vigorously coexist with pluto-
cracy. Alone of his time he had the intuition that self-


government demands uncliangeable and fundamental laws,
and by the unconscious vision of such minds he perceived
what history now proves of enduring societies, that such
a constitution was more lasting if it came from beyond the
wall and was imposed by an accepted "law-giver" who
could resfard the state from without and embrace it as a
whole. So Etruria gave Rome her religion and so the
forgotten message came from Crete to the Hellenes. He
presupposed no republic though he made of kingship
and all its parallels a magistracy ; and he admitted in his
age what his youth had denied and what all should per-
ceive in ideal systems, that men are a little too prone
to sin for such simplicity to preserve a facile existence.

Such was the development of political theory in the
eighteenth century, and such was the most famous
exponent of its system when, eleven years before the
opportunity for its application arrived, Rousseau that
had survived to read the Declaration of Independence,
died and became a god.

I have dealt at this length with the politics of the
time and with the organ they produced, because the
tragedy with which this book is concerned is political.
I return to the character of Robespierre and take up
again its main condition — that he was a man of the old
regime. A man so utterly the product of his day could
not but accept all this political standard as a mathe-
matical truth, nor could he help revering its exponent as
the seer and guide of a necessary change.

He took the first postulates of the " Contrat Social "
for granted, knowing well that every one around him did
the same. He deduced from them, and still deduced
with a fatal accuracy of process, with a fatal ignorance
of things, and with no appreciation of the increasing
chances of error, until his deductions had departed pro-
digiously from their starting point, and began to prove


themselves in every practical application absurd. The
resistance which such absurdities met he thought to be
a wilful rejection of strict logic, due to the corruption
of private motives or to the casuistry of wicked men.
In such a path, wholly of the mind and divorced from
reality, his being was absorbed.

When we say that _E,obesj)ierre was entirely a „man
of his time, it means, of course, far more than this accep-
tation of the one political creed. It means the bright
dress, the busy attitude, the Latin training, the pedantry
of classical allusion which I have already mentioned,
and which will appear very evidently in his actions. It
means also that there was inherited in him, and that
he was reminiscent of, the charm which clung like a
September mist to the society of even his rank — for that
rank was nearly noble. A certain bearing and manner,
a certain carefulness in his relations with the world, were
part of the toilet and the phraseology to which he had
been born. This, which the glory of the Revolution
obscures, it is imperative that any student of his life
should remember, for as the turbulence and frenzy of
'93 proceeded, his ordered figure almost shone against
a scene of so much disorder. His absorption in his own
rank and generation involved all this; but though he
must always be imagined coloured with the special habits
of his environment, it is yet the atmosphere of political
dogmatism whose origin I have examined at such length,
which must be chiefly retained when one considers him
in history. It was this political atmosphere that Robes-
pierre breathed, and thought the mere natural air of the
world. He was hardly born when the famous pen was
moulding the details of the " Contrat Social " ; when first
he could speak the lawyers of the country towns were
making it their talk. The stagnant security of provin-
cial life that never fails to exaggerate the characteristics
of its generation, that turns the social code into a deca-


logue, tliat solemnly retains the chance example of the
rich, and that ignores the cynicism with which a capital
can temper its enthusiasms ; the unlaughing temper of
a decaying family pride ; the effect of early scholastic
interests, and of college prizes, and of his masters' praise ;
the decent drawing-rooms of middling wealth ; the vague
but continual adulation of contented elders and obscure
women — all these make any man not possessed of dis-
quieting vigour sink into the hardest rut of his time, and
Robespierre long before his thirtieth year had taken
every phrase of the coming reform as unquestioningly as
a discovery in physical science or a new process in

Now there were in France, and for that matter
throughout Europe, thousands of men to whom the
accidents of that generation were as native, and its
political creed as unquestioned as they were to Robes-
pierre. What, then, lifted him out from all those
thousands whom in even mediocrity of "vision he largely
resembled ? It was the second and much rarer character
which I gave him at the head of this analysis : that what-
ever he held, he held it with incredible tenacity, and
that he had in his mind an impregnable fortress wherein
he preserved his convictions unalterable.

Those whom it is customary in soft times to call
fanatics are of two kinds. There is he who maintains
what he very well knows to be incapable of positive
proof, and very far from being a self-evident proposition
— as, that the Book of Mormon fell from heaven, that
Pinkish Elephants are alone of animals divine, or that
some chief or king is descended from a Bear, The
fanatic that would convince others of these truths will
sometimes threaten with the sword, or be at the pains
of working wonders to prove them ; but most commonly
it is by an earnest advocacy and by the power of insis-
tent repetition that he will convert his hearers to accept


his vision. It is his glory that the thing he premises
has in it something wholly unusual, and he praises it
as a chief virtue in his proselytes that they accept reality
by the channels of affection and appreciation rather than
by those of comparison and experience. Robespierre was
emphatically not of this kind.

But there is a second kind which has often, oddly
enough, a more irritant effect upon humanity than the
first. They attach themselves to some principle which is
or highly probable, or generally acceptable, or even self-
evident, and armed with this truth, which few care (and
sometimes none are able) to deny, they proceed to a
thousand applications of their rule which they lay down
as an iron standard, crushing the multiple irregularities
of living things. Of these it has been well said that
they go to the devil by logic. It is in their nature to
see nothing of the mysteries, and to forget that the
aspects of truth must be co-ordinated. They do not
remember that the Divine Nature in which all truths
are contained and from which all proceed, has not as
yet been grasped by the human mind, and they fail to
perceive at how prodigious a rate the probability of
divergence increases as deduction proceeds step by step
from its first base in principle. Yet so strong is the cur-
rent of deduction in us that when such fanatics most
disturb and torture us by their practical enormities we
are for ever reproaching ourselves with the unreason-
ableness of our instinctive opposition, and thinking, as
their system reposes on a truth and is consistent, that
therefore its last conclusions may not be denied ; and it is
this weakness in us that gives fanatics of the latter sort
their power. Of this kind were the lawyers of the later
middle ages, of this kind are the defenders of many
modern economic theories, and of this kind was Robes-

The man who believes in this fashion and who applies


his belief as this sort of conviction impels him, displays
many secondary characteristics which, when we have noted
them (and added some personal accidents to complete
the picture) will put before us in its larger lines the
singular temper of Robespierre. Thus he will have an
appearance of conceit or vanity, but that appearance will
be misleading; for it is not the ordinary man's simple
repose in self — it is his devotion to the obvious, his
knowledge that he is absolutely consistent, that makes
Robespierre an egotist. No man, almost, in history so
incessantly haunted his audience with his repeated per-
sonality — but he certainly imagined that he was but
emphasising the equality of men, the immortality of the
soul, and all the other connected dogmas of the perfect
State. He was infinitely suspicious and for ever seeing him-
self abandoned — but it was because he was quite certain
of his truths, and was convinced (generally with reason)
that others less single-minded than himself were acting
against what they knew to be political justice. It was
not he but justice that stood alone in the hall; his
opponents were opposing not him but self-evident and
conspicuous truth.

Again, this unique conviction destroyed humour and
proportion. Did he hear a gibe against his wearisome
insistence ? It seemed to him a gibe against the liberty
and the God whom he preached. He missed relative
values, so that he was iu politics like a man who in
battle has no sense of range ; he blundered unexpectedly
upon oppositions; he shot short or over the heads of
opponents. By as much as matters were removed from
his immediate handling he judged them wildly — I mean
in practical affairs. Thus his handling of the Jacobins
was admirable and uniformly successful, of the Parlia-
ment generally so, of the Provinces and Paris somewhat
uncertain, of foreign affairs puerile ; nor did he in any
single instance that I can recall perceive the ultimate and

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 3 of 32)