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Robespierre, Aspie?

After he finished Hibbert’s history of the French Revolution, my son Matthew, who has a very mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, said, “You know, I think there’s a case to be made that Robespierre was an Aspie.” “Oh?” The case that Robespierre had the autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome (basically, some degree of […]
Public ritual for Robespierre’s Cult of The Supreme Being

After he finished Hibbert’s history of the French Revolution, my son Matthew, who has a very mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, said, “You know, I think there’s a case to be made that Robespierre was an Aspie.”


The case that Robespierre had the autism spectrum disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome (basically, some degree of high-functioning autism) is built from what we know of Robespierre’s manner. All quotes below are taken from Hibbert’s book. For example:

1. Robespierre was extremely nervous and high strung.

2. He was very fastidious about his appearance.

3. “He rarely laughed, and when he did, the sound seemed forced from him, hollow and dry.” [Matthew doesn’t have this problem, but people with Asperger’s often sound, well, forced in their laughter, because they have trouble gauging emotion and its proper expression.]

4. “He appeared to be unremittingly conscious of his own virtues.” [This is key, because many Aspies are rather severe in their sense of order, and intolerant of anyone who doesn’t think and behave in what they consider to be the “correct” way.]

5. “But if [young Robespierre] joined in [his sisters’] games, it was usually to tell them how they ought to be played.” [Oh boy, yes, this is Aspie behavior.]

6. “… and when they asked [young Robespierre] for one of his pet pigeons he refused to give it to them for fear that they might not look after it properly.” [Oh boy x 2.]

7. At university, “He seems to have been a solitary student who made no intimate friends and was apparently content to spend most of his time alone in the private room with which his scholarship provided him.” [Aspies tend to be loners.]

8. According to his sister, the adult Robespierre “was almost completely uninterested in food, living mainly off of bread, fruit, and coffee.” [Aspies tend to eat simple diets, in part because of the predictability of a simple diet, and in part because sensory variety is unpleasant to them.]

9. He would lose himself in his work, sometimes forgetting that there were other people around him, or what had been going on around him. [Aspies are characterized by their intense focus on their work, or whatever occupies their attention at a given moment.]

10. He was not a carnal man, nor was he interested in ordinary pleasures. Even when he was the most powerful man in France, he kept his same spare rented rooms in the rue Saint-Honore, and didn’t use his position to make his life more lively or comfortable. The work, and living by virtue, was the thing.

Any one or two of these traits may occur in many people, but it’s the combination


of all of them in Robespierre that tips one off that he might have had Asperger’s. I hasten to add that Aspies are not doomed to become one of History’s Greatest Monsters! In the right context, Robespierre’s atypical neurological condition (assuming he was an Aspie) could have done a tremendous amount of good. Aspies, as we know, tend to make excellent engineers, surgeons, and data analysts, because their unusually logical minds, their ability to focus, and relative lack of emotionality are qualities suited to excellence in those fields.

But those same strengths can become huge liabilities when one has to deal with people — to be precise, when executing one’s responsibilities depends on having an ability to understand how and why people behave, and to work within those contexts. In other words, when one’s job requires emotional intelligence.

A friend of mine once worked for a brilliant man who was a catastrophically bad manager. My pal would talk to me about things that went on in his office, including the fallout from inexplicable decisions his boss would make, and I quickly became convinced that the boss was a hardcore Aspie. I learned that the boss had been a big success in a job that required analytical skills and laser-like focus, but when his success earned him a promotion to an administrative level, he was a rolling disaster, precisely because he had no idea how to deal with people, and stayed angry and frustrated because he assumed (it seemed to me from the descriptions) that the only reason why people would fail to Do The Right Thing was because they were either stupid or lacked a sense of virtue.

My friend couldn’t stand his boss, and I got that. Though it was cold comfort, I told him maybe he could have some mercy on his boss by realizing that this probably wasn’t a sign of the boss’s bad character; this is how he is wired neurologically. He probably has no idea what he’s doing — indeed, if he is an Aspie, it doesn’t occur to him at all that he’s doing anything wrong. He sees the world in terms of rules and logic. My friend agreed, but pointed out that a whole bunch of people in his company suffered because the man with authority over them had no idea how to deal with people, and assumed everything that went wrong in the office — often as the result of his own bad management — was the fault of his employees and their incomprehensible inability to Follow Proper Procedure.

After Matthew made his remark about Robespierre and Asperger’s, I thought of my friend’s descriptions of his boss’s utter impatience with the people under his management. That was Robespierre too; he could not understand why so many of the French refused to accept the clear logic of the Revolution. In his mind, it could only be because they lacked virtue.

Imagine that an intellectually gifted man who is neurologically formatted for logic, abstraction, and “virtue,” and against ordinary sensual pleasure, as well as having (again, because of his neurological wiring) a significant lack of emotional intelligence — imagine that man rising to the top of a revolutionary government, and given the power of life and death over masses of human beings. Imagine that he is given responsibility for bringing order to revolutionary confusion, and given the power to do so by any means necessary. It is entirely characteristic of that particular neurological orientation to reach conclusions such as this one, from Robespierre:

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?

Though it is always risky to analyze historical figures by speculating on their undiagnosed medical and psychological conditions, I think Matthew was onto something about Robespierre. Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading authorities on autism and autism spectrum disorders, has a good Five Books interview at The Browser today about autism. Excerpt:

Could you give us a brief introduction to your work?

I’m the director of the Autism Research Centre. We look at people on the autistic spectrum who might have classic autism or Asperger syndrome, which is the so-called high-functioning subgroup, and we try to understand those people at multiple levels, from psychology – how their mind works – through to the neural level – how their brain works – right through to the biochemical and ultimately the genetic level. So it’s multidisciplinary. There are scientists working here with very varied backgrounds, working collaboratively.

Tell me something about the theory of mind, an area you have done a lot of research into.

This is now quite an old theory, about 25 years old. It’s the idea that people with autism might have a specific difficulty in imagining other people’s thoughts and feelings, putting themselves into another’s person’s shoes, or taking on another person’s perspective.

A lot of research at the psychological level points to that as a specific area of difficulty, either that people on the autistic spectrum are not developing that ability at the age that you’d expect it – by pre-school – or they are just not developing it at all, or they aren’t using the usual parts of the brain for this function. Whatever the particular manifestation of the problem, it has a big impact on their communication and their ability to socialise.

Your first choice, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a fictional first-hand account of autism.

The main character is a young boy with Asperger syndrome. He’s completely confused by the social interactions of people in his community and in his family, but he’s also very precocious in mathematics. The book describes, albeit fictionally, the disconnect between his understanding of systems – in this case mathematical, numerical systems – and his major difficulties in understanding people.

Always remember, people: never hand an Aspie a guillotine.

Finally, there’s a scene in Hibbert’s book, toward the end of Robespierre’s reign, in which the villain declared that he had had enough of atheism, and that revolutionary France needed a moral revolution to complete its political and scientific revolutions. But Robespierre was not a Christian, nor did he support Christianity. He said that France needed a deistic “cult of the Supreme Being,” and, as head of the Convention, ordered a series of national festivals in celebration of the Supreme Being.

When the day for the first one came, many of the deputies were disgusted by the whole idea. Robespierre, who was so caught up in his own abstractions, delivered a speech for the occasion, and did not notice the low regard with which his pageant was held. Then he marched everyone off ceremonially to the Champ de Mars, the deputies’ “irritation plain to see

Most of them pretended not to hear the orders of the ushers of the Convention who vainly endeavoured to get them to march in proper military fashion. Some walked arm in arm with their neighbors; others nodded significantly towards the neat figure of Robespierre who strode on, twenty paces ahead of the rest, a crown of feathers on his head.

Yes. Precisely.

UPDATE:  Yesterday I bought a copy of “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution,” by British historian Ruth Scurr. In her introduction, she discusses how odd Robespierre was in his habits. He had tics. He spoke in strange ways, with pauses that were strangely long, and made people think he had finished his sentences [the point here is that he didn’t quite realize how he was being heard, and didn’t think about it]. And, crucially, he had trouble looking people in the eye, which was taken (mis-taken!) by some as a character flaw.

These are well-known symptoms associated with Asperger’s, most especially difficulty meeting the gaze of others. John Elder Robison wrote a good book, “Look Me In The Eye,” about his Asperger’s, taking as his title the trouble Aspies have meeting the gaze of others.

I’m looking forward to discovering through my reading how someone with so many challenges (to put it neutrally) rose to a position of such great power.