Earlier this morning I wrote about how odd it is that on the day before a US presidential election, I’m not thinking about either candidate, but about Maximilien Robespierre, the leading French Revolutionary advocate of the Terror. Alan Jacobs, I think, puts his finger on why Robespierre and what he stood for is so relevant to our time and place:
As the election has drawn nearer, I have seen (we all have seen) more and more articles, blog posts, and comments premised on the assumption that the writer’s political enemies really are enemies — wicked people bent on the destruction of all that is good and right in the world.
This is true. I mentioned last month while I was in France that I’d spoken to an expatriated American friend, who said that her parents back home were panicked about Obama winning re-election, and that her mother was literally afraid for her (my friend’s) soul because she voted for Obama in 2008. I’ve been back in the country for less than 48 hours, and I’ve already heard someone say, with an air of genuine panic, that if Obama wins on Tuesday, God knows what’s going to happen to our country.
I know a lot of this is the usual election season stupidity, and I also know that the left is no different from the right in this regard. If you think this is a false equivalence, sit down with a blue-state conservative sometime and ask them about it. Nevertheless, Jacobs is right in that there seems to be a much greater willingness in our political culture to see the political and cultural Other as not only wrong, but evil. I write on this theme from time to time, but boy, nothing brings it into such sharp relief as reading about how the paranoid Robespierre, a fanatical disciple of Rousseau, saw his nation as divided between the pure and the impure — with the existence of the impure as the only thing keeping the pure from achieving their due. For Robespierre and his allies, France was always only a few more severed heads away from paradise.
Here’s the thing about Robespierre: He was evil, but he wasn’t bad. I mean, he was a hardcore virtuecrat, and believed with all his heart in equality, and in helping the poor. He lived with an ascetic rigor that, had he been a monk, might have made a saint of him. He earned his nickname “The Incorruptible,” because he could not be bribed nor bought. What corrupted him — and corrupted him to the core — was his ideology. Funny, but reading from his writing, the infamous quote of Barry Goldwater’s — “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” — could have come straight from Robespierre. I am also reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous paradox:
Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic; I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Or, in the Jacobins’ case, it was the heads of their enemies — and eventually their friends — that rolled.
Why is it so difficult for people, all kinds of people, to deal with moral complexity in others? It may sound like a naive question, but seeing where demonizing others, and believing that the very existence of others is a radical affront to one’s own sense of well-being, leads to the guillotine. It starts somewhere. I once saw an exhibit showing how the medical profession in Germany laid the groundwork for the Holocaust by teaching Germans to think of the nation as a body, and “corrupting” influences in the nation as viruses preventing the body from being healthy. The German people came to believe that their natural state of their collective existence was “health,” and that health, in that sense, logically depended on ridding the body politic of disease. This is how they came to think of Jews, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and others not as people, but as pathogens.
This didn’t start with Robespierre, of course. But the fact that his motives were pure, and that he wanted many things that are, in the abstract, good, makes him an unforgettable example of how virtue, abstracted from common humanity and a sense of common sinfulness, can become unspeakable vice.
Another thing about Robespierre: when the King was led down the rue St-Honore to the guillotine on the Place de la Revolution, he passed by Robespierre’s quarters. Robespierre, who did more than anyone else to bring about the king’s execution, sat in that house with the windows closed, unwilling to look upon the result of his work (he was squeamish). Later, when he had arranged for Danton, once his dear friend and fellow Jacobin, to go to the guillotine, he sat inside his rooms on the rue St-Honore a second time. Danton, who had a booming voice, wailed as he made his way past Robespierre’s place; Robespierre had to have heard him, but he averted his gaze. As Robespierre must have reasoned, to have looked upon such Enemies Of The People and felt pity, and to risk being moved toward mercy, would have been a failure of principle. Or maybe it was flat-out cowardice: unlike Danton and many other prominent Jacobins, Robespierre always made sure he was never in a revolutionary situation in which his physical courage was tested.
One good way to bring about a real apocalypse is to think of our politics in terms of moral apocalypse. It is a perennial temptation of the righteous. Voegelin warned against “immanentizing the eschaton,” a fancy phrase that means trying to create heaven on earth. The phrase also carries within it a warning against separating the sheep from the goats, something that, within Christian theology, is granted only to Jesus Christ at the end of time.
You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart, said the poet. There is the seed of the only humane politics of virtue.