Terrorism, restlessness, and Bastille Day

The tantalizing lie of revolution is the idea that heaven-on-earth sits right around the corner, provided some hated class can be overthrown and then purged from public life.

"Storming of the Bastille" (1788) by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houel. [Wikipedia]

“There is a satanic quality to the French Revolution that distinguishes it from everything we have ever seen or anything we are ever likely to see in the future.” – Joseph de Maistre

With Francophiles throughout the world observing Bastille Day on Saturday, July 14th, some may feel it is poor taste to bring up Maximilien Robespierre. Maybe it is, but there can be no question that Robespierre’s story, embarrassing or no, is one of the foundation stones upon which modern France has been built. Nor can there be much doubt that an honest examination of democratic modernity’s problems entails a confrontation with Robespierre’s legacy.

In Hilaire Belloc’s estimation Robespierre is best understood as a tragic figure, “a man sincerely attached to the conception of an ideal democracy,” who was “incorruptible” in his pursuit of this democracy but who also, unfortunately, “lacked humility”. Less sympathetic observers would characterize Robespierre as the man who pioneered modern totalitarianism and state-orchestrated terror. Either way, the relative obscurity of this leader who liquidated so many of his countrymen in the name of Equality marks one of many debilitating blind spots in the modern mind. Even if the American leftist has never heard of him, he nonetheless owes Robespierre a great ideological debt, for it was Robespierre as much as anyone who propagated the conviction that evil comes from stifling institutions rather than from man’s sinful heart. As such he stands as the intellectual ancestor of later, seemingly disparate movements, from the Transcendentalists, to the Bolsheviks, to the hippies, to the antifa movement.

Perhaps the normalization of terrorism in France was already a fact the moment that the head of the Bastille’s governor was paraded through the streets on a pike, but that is a question to be debated by scholars of political theory. What can be safely said is that once l’ancien regime was overthrown and the anointed king stripped of his ancient sovereignty, radical changes necessarily had to follow. For hallowed certainties had been called into question, and forces had been set into motion that those leading the first wave of the Revolution – the liberalizing Girondins – proved unable to control.

After pushing the Girondins aside, the Jacobins were for a time able to ride the revolutionary tiger, thereby affording Robespierre and his colleagues the opportunity to experiment on France in accord with principles outlined in Robespierre’s Report On the Principles of Political Morality (1794):

If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time [both] virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs […] The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.

As for the Vendean peasantry and others who might not welcome revolutionary liberty, they would, in the memorable phrase of Robespierre’s favorite philosopher Rousseau, “be forced to be free.” As Robespierre himself put it, “Social protection is due only to peaceful citizens; there are no citizens in the Republic but the republicans.”

In other words, membership in the Republic depended upon one’s subscription to a specific democratic ideology rather than upon complex threads of history and culture. Since revolutionists could not agree about the precise nature of this ideology, the passage of time led to more and more people being excluded from the category of “true” – that is to say, politically-correct – Frenchman. Launay, the governor of the Bastille, was but the first of many to lose his head, from the royal couple to renowned scientist Antoine Lavoisier to the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne. In Robespierre’s France informers listened carefully to conversations, took note of what sorts of jokes their neighbors told, and kept an eye out for priests and nobles in hiding. The idea behind “the despotism of liberty against tyranny” was that tyrants (and their supporters) deserved to be tyrannized.

All this came to be known as the Reign of Terror, and was accompanied by an ambitious program of cultural reconstruction. Under the aegis of the all-powerful Committee for Public Safety, clergy were enjoined to swear loyalty oaths to the revolutionary state, the months of the year were renamed in accordance with rationalist criteria, and the reckoning of the year itself was shifted away from the nativity of Christ and onto the inauguration of the Republic. In an especially audacious move, the Catholic faith was formally replaced by a new Deist civic religion instituted through ceremonies in “The Temple of Reason” — i.e., Notre Dame Cathedral.

Robespierre admitted that his program was intense, even feverish, but such was to be expected from the birth-pangs of a new, democratic France and a new, democratic world:

In order to lay the foundations of democracy among us and to consolidate it, in order to arrive at a peaceful reign of constitutional laws, we must finish the war of liberty against tyranny and safely cross through the storms of the revolution: that is the goal of the revolutionary system which you have put in order. You should therefore still base your conduct upon the stormy circumstances in which the republic finds itself; and the plan of your administration should be the result of the spirit of revolutionary government, combined with the general principles of democracy.

Peacetime norms are all well and good – during peacetime. A very different approach is required during time of crisis. Robespierre’s plainly stated concern was that counter-revolutionaries and their foreign sponsors might take advantage of legal technicalities to avoid detection and punishment as they promoted their agenda. Meanwhile, since Robespierre claimed democracy to be the only valid form of government, his France automatically denied the legitimacy of all the other great nations of Europe. Naturally, then, Europe descended into a state of intense, long-term hostility. Just as other nations feared regime change sponsored by French revolutionary agents, so the French revolutionaries themselves lived in constant fear that a reactionary foreign power might meddle with French democracy. Not without reason, Robespierre came to see enemies everywhere, and the sense of emergency only let up when Robespierre himself was caught in the gears of his own state apparatus and carted down the path to the guillotine on July 28, 1794.

The most charitable way to think about Robespierre’s career is by grasping the half-truths which lie behind his agenda. A certain healthy fear of the law is indeed necessary for any social order, radical republican or otherwise, and even the most quixotic monarchists would admit that the old Bourbon regime had positively invited revolt through ineptitude, over-centralization, and self-absorption. And it is likewise true that the methods called for in holding together a functioning government in a time of chaos must be more assertive and decisive than those appropriate to running a stable, secured government.

Yet decadence calls for a spirit of renewal, not “creative destruction,” and there is never a time so tumultuous that all rules and restraint may be rightfully cast off. Nor can a revolutionary order ever arrive “at a peaceful reign of constitutional laws,” because the revolutionary can never be truly satisfied. After all, today the ideals of the French Revolution are enshrined in the platforms of most Western political parties, and enjoy the support of America’s preeminent authorities, from Hollywood to Harvard, from CNN to the CIA. Nonetheless, for so long as I can remember the revolutionary leftist has styled himself a plucky underdog, pitted against … who or what, exactly? Common sense? Human nature? Himself?

The tantalizing lie of revolution is the idea that heaven-on-earth sits right around the corner, provided some hated class – the aristocrats, or the clergy, or the capitalists – can be overthrown and then purged from public life. Each time the glorious new millennium fails to materialize, the revolutionary always adapts by finding new enemies to blame for the revolution’s failure to deliver on its extravagant promises. In the Jacobin era, the first enemy who blocked the path to limitless progress had blue blood; now the adversary to be terrorized has a blue collar, or a red neck, or floats in utero. And still the purges show no sign of coming to an end anytime soon.

It seems that the Augustinian dictum Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee is not only a central tenet of Christian spirituality, but also the beginning of political wisdom.

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About Jerry Salyer 54 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


  1. A good read.

    Many who still view the French Revolution favorably often ignore or seriously downplay the Reign of Terror and the aftermath.

  2. In defense of Max Robespierre. Not really nonetheless if we seek understanding of a major figure in French History we should look deeper. The author is correct about Rousseau. It was said Robespierre slept with the Emile under his pillow. The Emile is the prototype modern man, individualistic, slave to no one, self assured. Robespierre prior to the Revolution was a lawyer noted for his defense of the poor. He was against slavery and perhaps surprisingly the death penalty. “Robespierre took on a public role, calling for political change in the French monarchy. His ideal was the virtuous man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience. He gained a reputation for defending the poorest of society and earned the nickname ‘the incorruptible’ for his adherence to strict moral values” (from a biography). As head of The Committee for Public Safety he like many revolutionaries when convinced the revolution was threatened turned to bayonet musket and guillotine. My point is a man can have high ideals and good values although without “moral values” embedded by faith in Christ the Idea destroys the Reality. Conversely if we assume Reality is more important than Ideas the Reality we wish to protect is destroyed by jettisoning the very Idea designed to save it.

  3. The aristocratic and encyclopedic historian from the Tyrol, the late Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, reports that at the much-celebrated storming of the Bastille, only seven prisoners were to be found and liberated. “Four were forgers who quickly decamped, two were insane (they had been there only for observation), and one was a dissolute young man of noble descent […] he harangued the people with revolutionary phrases” (Leftism, Arlington House, 1974). This young man was the “materialistic-atheistic-totalitarian” Marquis de Sade, the “patron saint of all leftist movements,” whose many later writings are infamous.

    • That segment of history if true and presumably is otherwise it would have been debunked is fascinating. Most like myself thought hundreds. The Marquis apparently ingratiated himself with the new regime as did other ‘blue bloods’ who were useful such as military. His role as an advocate of Leftist ideals the bane of all trend toward the good leaves me with sense that Leftist is essentially in opposition to the Right better understood as righteousness, I love history for many reasons one is how much is learned that’s analogous and relevant to the present.

  4. “Membership in the Republic depended upon one’s subscription to a specific democratic ideology rather than upon complex threads of history and culture.”

    “Today the ideals of the French Revolution are enshrined in the platforms of most Western political parties, and enjoy the support of America’s preeminent authorities, from Hollywood to Harvard, from CNN to the CIA.”

    …Except that those very elites often turn a blind eye the democratic process, using bullying tactics to coerce those who disagree with their pet causes, and throwing temper tantrums when the rule of the majority is not to their liking.

  5. For Father Morello,
    Agreeing with your definition of the Left, von Kuehnelt-Leddhin used to quip: “Right is right, and left is wrong!”

    In his book he also recounts bits of de Sade’s life after the Bastille. Here are some points–As royalty, de Sade was formally released again by the National Assembly on April 2, 1790. His wife divorced the “monstrous man” and he, of course, felt “betrayed”. He got into local politics and was a leader of the Place Vendome section of Paris, becoming secretary after the September massacres in 1792. At the height of the Terror he was in danger of being guillotined, but the day Robespierre (a fellow and close-at-hand Republican) fell was the day that saved his life.

    In a summary paragraph we read that “de Sade was by no means solely responsible for the French Revolution”–…”His part was very similar to that of the German Leftist pseudoliberal intellectuals and artists who can be called collectively the spiritual Kerenskys of the decaying Weimar Republic.” (The author then digs in to a litany of Leftists beginning with Voltaire and Rousseau.)

    The book, “Leftism”, is fattened and densified with 200 pages of fine-print footnotes, and is followed by a later volume: “Leftism Revisited” (Regnery, 1990, another 150 pages of footnotes), and preceded by “Liberty OR Equality” (Caxton Press, 1952, 80 pages of microscopic footnotes: he was only getting started). The flap says he could read twenty languages and speak eight, etc. etc. etc. In one visit to the United States he shamed the airline into letting him bring his readings without any extra cost…he had asked if he could bring some books to read, they had said yes, and he showed up with a trunk almost as big as he was, with 365 books arranged in order. He explained, I’ll be traveling and speaking for a year, and I read one book each day.” For once, as a rare and still-living European intellectual, he got the attention he and his sidelined breed deserved.

  6. The French Revolution was one of those seminal events of history that took a very wrong tern and never fully recovered. The country regards itself as a Republic but still honors royal pretenders. Ceremonial dress and manners are almost completely from the monarchy. They officially separated Church and state in the 1890s but revere the past heroes of the Church. This sort of schizoid behavior has not served them well through foreign wars or domestic social change. Even now, a harsh brand of national populism is firmly entrenched in a number of areas. Ordinations are at a new low and church attendance confined mainly to the elderly. The future is not encouraging.

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