The Pathos of Politics – The French Revolution

The French Revolution

The French Revolution reinforced the role of the state. Authority was harder, more peremptory; control, more centralized. ~ American historian David Landes

The 7 Years’ War and American Revolutionary War put the French government deep in debt. It attempted to fill its coffers through regressive tax schemes.

On top of overtaxation, years of bad harvests and rising food prices in the 1780s inflamed popular resentment over the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and aristocracy. In 1788, a severe winter brought famine to the countryside, resulting in riots in Paris over the price of bread.

Desperate, King Louis XVI called for the Estates-General to convene. The Estates-General was a legislative body that had last met in 1614, 175 years prior.

The Estates-General was organized into 3 Estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners (peasants and a burgeoning middle class). The assemblage convened on 5 May 1789.

The first task was for each Estate to verify its members’ credentials. After doing so, the 3rd Estate (commoners) proceeded to declare themselves a National Assembly.

The Assembly convened in June 1789 with the radical purpose of drafting a new constitution. King Louis XVI futilely tried to thwart the meeting.

The finance minister, Jacques Necker, had earned the enmity of the French court for his overt manipulation of public opinion. On 11 July 1789, Necker publicly released an inaccurate account of the state’s debt, showing that the crown was not bankrupt as supposed. The king fired him for the deception.

Many Parisians presumed Louis’ was doing his utmost to act against the Assembly. When they heard the news of Necker’s dismissal, they openly rebelled.

Parisian paranoia was not without reason. The king appeared ready to use force to disband the Assembly.

On 14 July, the rebels overtook a well-stocked armory (Hotel des Invalides) and the medieval Bastille fortress in Paris, then used as a prison and ammunition depot. The storming of the Bastille became an iconic flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Civil authority deteriorated throughout the country as the spirit of popular sovereignty spread. Local militias formed. Granaries were robbed and manor houses overrun.

Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from cities throughout the country. Seeing the ascendant power of the 3rd Estate, a majority of the clergy joined the Assembly, as did many noblemen.

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good. ~ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

On 26 August 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. The Declaration was based upon natural law: rights held to be universal at all times, especially equal protection under the law.

Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law. ~ Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

The protections afforded in the Declaration did not apply to women or slaves. Slavery in France was outlawed in 1794. Universal suffrage for men (without property qualifications) was enacted in 1848. Women had to wait until 1945 for their chance to vote. Nature and natural law are not to be confused – the former is what is, whereas the latter is what patricians think the former ought to be.

The Declaration was submitted by French aristocrat General Lafayette, who had fought for the United States in its Revolutionary War. He was helped in its drafting by his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. The inspiration and much of the content of the Declaration emanated from the ideals of the American Revolution.

While rebellion intensified, the National Assembly continued to meet, eventually crafting a constitution in 1791 that established France as a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with an elected legislature, but still retained a royal veto and the ability to select ministers.

The attempt to govern failed altogether. Its legacy was an empty treasury, an undisciplined military, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot.

Food shortages worsened. In 1792 the radical faction – Jacobins – seized power.

They abolished the monarchy, proclaimed a republic, and began a Reign of Terror to eliminate political opposition.

It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! Let us be in revolution, because everywhere counter-revolution is being woven by our enemies. The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty. ~ proclamation of the French National Convention (5 September 1793)

Over 41,000 people were executed; 16,594 via the “National Razor” (guillotine). Many victims were nobility. The former king and queen were among them.

Louis XVI lost his head on 21 January 1793. His wife, Marie Antoinette, got the chop on 16 October 1793.

Maximilien Robespierre

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue. The government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. ~ Maximilien Robespierre

French lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) was a member of the Estates-General, the National Assembly, and the Jacobin Club. Influenced by Montesquieu and Rousseau, Robespierre opposed slavery and the death penalty while supporting universal male suffrage, equal rights (for men), and establishment of a republic.

Robespierre was an exceptionally eloquent and compelling speaker. In his speeches he often invoked moral virtues. Yet Robespierre was the mouthpiece of terror and became its effective leader. He was instrumental in creating a legal tribunal that functioned as a court of condemnation, without need of witnesses.

Understandably, paranoia infected French politics. Political infighting intensified.

The terror worm turned on Robespierre, who was condemned by his enemies on charges of tyranny. On 27 June 1794 he was arrested. The next morning, he was tried and his head lopped off.


The excesses of the Revolution abated. In 1795, a less radical constitution was enacted. Elected by the legislative assembly, a 5-man council became the executive branch, known as the Directory.

Despite the relative calm, the economy was still in shambles, and the country was still at war. State finances were in disarray. The government covered its expenses only through plunder and extortion of tributes from foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies that returned home would face exasperation in losing their livelihoods, while the ambitions of generals would be turned inwards, to domestic conquest.

The Directory turned out to be a nest of corruption. Its ineptness led to riots anew, which the army suppressed; led by Napoléon Bonaparte, who had his troops fire cannons on the Parisian mobs.

In reaction, royalists were elected in 1797. The Directory rejected the results and retained power.

On 9 November 1799, Napoléon staged a coup, which led to his dictatorship, and eventuated in his proclamation as emperor in 1804. Thus, Polybius’ karmic wheel of politics turned in France.

Immanuel Kant

There is only one innate right: freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law. ~ Immanuel Kant

Prussian speculative philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a dyed-in-the-wool republican libertarian. To Kant, politics was a practical facet of morality. Politics should be subsumed by ethical values, not define them.

Kant’s moral universe was grounded in reason. He was utterly un-utilitarian in rejecting the satisfaction of desires as a basis for morals. Hence, Kant’s system of ivory-tower abstractions was in a different ethical constellation than contemporaneous English and French philosophers.

In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so. ~ Immanuel Kant

To Kant, ethical examination establishes the justness of political actions. Justice must be universal and can only be brought about by law. A coherent political order must therefore be a legal order.

As in ethics, political policies ought to be based upon maxims capable as being formulated as universal laws.

Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law. ~ Immanuel Kant

Kant rejected any basis for a state to exist beyond granting freedom; an odd paradox, since the very nature of the state is to restrict freedom, especially certain forms of violence. Kant particularly argued that the welfare of people cannot be the basis of state power, as to do so would treat citizens as children (what is now called the “nanny state”); another odd paradox, as many adults act as wayward whelps.

Freedom was not the only basis for principles underlying a state. He also asserted equality, albeit in limited form.

Individuals must be treated equally under the law, without exception. Kant attacked feudal privilege and rejected slavery.

Kant’s equality was circumscribed to treatment under the law, not in participation. Kant regarded women as passive citizens, unfit to participate in political affairs.

For Kant, active citizens were those who were financially independent. Dependents were “passive”: unable to vote. Kant philosophically restricted voting rights to male property owners, as others could not be expected to retain their convictions, lacking tangible interests.

Republican government was Kant’s ideal form. He differentiated it from despotism, where the executive had law-making power. Kant also distinguished republicanism from democracy, which could be despotic by functioning on the basis of majority rule.

From such crooked wood as that which man is made of, nothing straight can be fashioned. ~ Immanuel Kant

Antithetical in his opinion of man’s nature and mankind’s potential, Kant believed that the history of humanity could be viewed as a progression toward morality and a perfect political constitution: the very premise which propelled the Age of Enlightenment. He asserted there was reason to believe that social evolution supported the ultimate goal of perpetual peace.

For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first. ~ Immanuel Kant

A philosophic idealist who barely pondered politics, Kant was unrepresentative of most German political thought.

The continued attraction to Kant owes to his attempt to construct a political philosophy based on what ought to be. It differs diametrically with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberalism, which rejected Kant’s paradoxical concept of imperfect humans evolving toward perfection.

With the recent exception of Rawls, Kant was the end of the line in the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Although a deep thinker, Kant’s politics were surprisingly naïve.

Edmund Burke

If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law. ~ Edmund Burke

Irish politician Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is generally considered the founder of modern conservatism, yet Burke expressed some liberal sentiments as well.

Burke was a prolific writer over the long course of a political career. The bulk of his writing was situational, not tracts of formulated political theory.

People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors. ~ Edmund Burke

A sentimental pragmatist who sometimes changed his mind, Burke had no coherent political philosophy, and had little knowledge about the history of philosophy. As is wont of conservatives, Burke revered tradition.

Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke’s statements often reflected an emotionality only tentatively tethered to rationality. This too is common with conservatives. Burke went as far as questioning whether a stable political structure could be established solely on the basis of reason. Burke thought that rationality had its limits in understanding society. He repeatedly stressed emotional needs – awe, superstition, ritual, and honor – to secure the loyalty and support of those on whom social stability depended.

Owing to the inconsistencies of human proclivities and the complexities of society, Burke dismissed the idea that a facile encapsulation of human nature or political philosophy was constructive. To Burke there were no simple answers, even as he clung to signpost sentiments.

Burke thought that the dignity of humans came through socialization. Obedience to society emanated not from self-benefit, or a promise, but because people saw themselves an integral part of it.

Unsurprisingly, Burke revived the idea of social contract, extending it into the metaphysical. Burke’s organic hypothesis was much different from Locke’s individualist conception.

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.

It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.~ Edmund Burke

Burke drew no clear line between society and the state, which serves as the guardian of civil virtues, and as noted, facilitates trade. Burke conceptually conjoined society, state, and government. In making the state out as the bearer of civilizations’ values, Burk’s idealization became characteristic of English idealists and Hegel.

This is by contrast with Hume and other utilitarians. The word expedience was often on Burke’s lips, but it hardly took the meaning of utility.

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. ~ Edmund Burke

Like Locke, Burke considered all authority a public trust. Otherwise, Burke dismissed other Lockeian fundamentals, including the notion of natural law and innate rights of an individual as a “metaphysical abstraction” that failed to account for different societies. Like all philosophers, Burke was selective in the abstractions he curried with favor. Burke’s bedrock conservatism shined with his esteem of social order as a value unto itself.

Good order is the foundation of all things. To be enabled to acquire, the people, without being servile, must be tractable and obedient. They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. ~ Edmund Burke

To ensure social stability, Burke considered continuity crucial, albeit allowing for incremental political evolution. This reflected a moderate conservative’s true colors, as contrasted to “stand-pat” conservatives, who resist change.

A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke emphasized community, but denied any corresponding equal rights, either economically or politically. Burke accepted inequities as natural and unavoidable in any society.

Burke was not beyond idealization. He stressed the societal need for an elite which enjoyed a privileged position because of its supposed contribution to the common good.

We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. It is natural to be so affected. ~ Edmund Burke

Despite, or perhaps because of, being from a lower social class, Burke venerated aristocracy. He never challenged the collective right of the aristocratic class to govern the British empire.

Burke did not deny human rights. Instead, he imagined what he thought was right and found himself contented with that.

Religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and all comfort. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke scoffed at the separation of church and state. Ladling medieval Catholic dogma, Burke practically united politics with religion.

The consecration of the state by a state religious establishment is necessary. ~ Edmund Burke

In its aftermath, Burke opposed the French Revolution. He thought that the revolutionaries, by their “cant and gibberish of hypocrisy,” created an ideology of savagery for the French people. Burke dismissed the French revolutionaries as zealots who never considered the long-term effects of what they did. He was more shaken by what happened to Marie Antoinette than the oppression of the people prior to the Revolution. Thomas Paine’s famous reply to this was that Burke “pities the plumage but forgets the dying bird.”

In contrast to the French Revolution, beginning in 1774, Burke expressed his support in the British parliament for the grievances of the American colonies over taxation without representation. The character of Americans – “this fierce spirit of liberty” – impressed him.

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke was skeptical of democracy. While admitting that it may be desirable theoretically, he insisted that in the Britain of his day it would be not only inept, but oppressive.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. ~ Edmund Burke

Burke opposed democracy because he thought the common man lacked the intelligence and breadth of knowledge needed and could be easily aroused to dangerous passions by demagogues. Burke also feared the tyranny of majority rule.

In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority. ~ Edmund Burke

From 1796, Burke criticized the oppression, exploitation, and misrule of India by the East India Company. To Burke, India was an ancient civilization whose traditions and customs were to be respected.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ~ Edmund Burke

William Godwin

Above all we should not forget that government is an evil, a usurpation upon the private judgment and individual conscience of mankind. ~ William Godwin

Seeds of anarchy and communism were sown by English social philosopher, novelist, and religious dissenter William Godwin (1756–1836). Godwin was an idealistic libertarian: an intellectual product of the Enlightenment who believed in the rationality of man, and hence the prospect of his perfection.

One of the prerogatives by which man is eminently distinguished from all other living beings inhabiting this globe of Earth, consists in the gift of reason. Perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species. ~ William Godwin

In 1793, with the French Revolution in full swing, Godwin published Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The first part of the book was an anarchist critique of the state, under the acknowledged sway of Burke. The rest of the book provides Godwin’s vision of how a society with minimal government might work, revealing Godwin’s utilitarian streak as well as his taste for anarchy.

Godwin advocated neither the abolition nor “communalization” of property. He considered property a sacred trust that should be at the disposal of those who need it.

The doctrine of the injustice of accumulated property has been the foundation of all religious morality. Its most energetic teachers have taught the rich that they hold their wealth only as a trust. ~ William Godwin

This was his communistic concession. Yet Godwin was no socialist. He was instead very much an individualist.

Everything understood by the term cooperation is in some sense an evil. ~ William Godwin

Godwin rejected conventional government as inherently tyrannical. He argued that social institutions fail because they impose norms which make it impossible to see things as they are.

Whenever government assumes to deliver us from the trouble of thinking for ourselves, the only consequences it produces are those of torpor and imbecility. ~ William Godwin