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Robespierre’s Two-Party System (and Ours)

Rod’s post on Jean-Paul Marat’s denunciation of his political enemies makes me think of two things. The first is an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau I published some years ago that concludes with these paragraphs:

As [the French Revolution] progressed, it came increasingly to be dominated by its more radical parties, until the most radical of all rose to power: the Jacobins. And foremost among the Jacobins came to be Maximilien Robespierre. As Paul Cohen explains, Robespierre’s “idol” was none other than Rousseau: from Rousseau he derived his whole rhetorical-ethical apparatus, especially its relentless division of the sheep from the goats. “There are only two parties in France,” he declared, “the people and its enemies,” the party of “corrupt men and that of virtuous men.” But as Robespierre’s Reign of Terror progressed, it began to frighten even those who had been enthusiastic at its inception; and as he saw his colleagues deviate from the true path — “there are not two ways of being free,” he insisted — the party of the goats grew ever larger, while that of the sheep inexorably shrank. More and more Jacobins found themselves peremptorily arrested, tried, and guillotined, in a terror which claimed to be the instrument of virtue: for, as Robespierre famously said, it may be that without virtue “terror is harmful,” but without terror “virtue is impotent.”

But how did Robespierre know that his way was the way of virtue? He knew because, like his idol and model Rousseau, he had attended to the testimony of his heart — indeed, this was how he discerned the few good citizens among the many bad: “I believe patriotism not to be a matter of party but of the heart.” One can see where this, inevitably, is headed: toward the paranoia of Rousseau, who came in the end to trust no one but himself, no heart but his own. Thus a caricature that appeared in 1795, showing a formally dressed man releasing the guillotine’s blade onto the neck of a solitary victim, with this caption beneath: “Robespierre guillotining the executioner, having guillotined all of France.”

It is the tragic culmination of Rousseau’s logic: since other people impede my achievement of virtue, in the very name of virtue they must be destroyed. In July 1794 the Jacobins who remained had little choice but to turn on Robespierre and execute him; he would have gotten each of them eventually. And Rousseau had said it all before him: “I publicly and fearlessly declare that anyone, even if he has not read my writings, who will examine my nature, my character, my morals, my likings, my pleasures, and my habits with his own eyes and can still believe me a dishonorable man, is a man who deserves to be stifled.” The child of pride is Terror.

But Rod’s post also makes me think about the extent to which our own political rhetoric resembles that of Marat and Robespierre — not nearly so extreme, mind you, or not yet, but traveling along the same road. 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.

As for me, I don’t think people who disagree with me — about abortion, politics, religion, literature, whatever — are, on balance, any more wicked than I am. I just think that on the points where we disagree they happen to be wrong. That shouldn’t be such a difficult distinction to keep in mind.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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