Virtue and Terror

Book Notes

This is one of those books that sits with you for a long while after you have finished reading it. If you don't know the circumstances happening at the time of the writing, or about the author, Maximilien Robespierre, himself, then the book might not linger.

If you recognize that the earlier works of Robespierre are what you want to hear from a leader, someone who is actively championing the underdog, the little guy, the poor, who believes in basic human rights for everyone, who actively fights against slavery; and then realize that the same man led the new government that overthrew the previous government and subsequently started murdering anyone who opposed the new government (or who was even suspected of opposing the new government), then you begin to recognize why the book is sticking with you for so long.

Yes, we want things to be fair. Yes, we want to be rewarded for our hard work. Yes, it would be great if everyone had an equal chance at opportunities. Yes, we want justice and equality.

But here we have a man who was against the death penalty, but argued strongly for the right of a government to execute, murder, anyone who opposed said government. You will have your Liberty by force, dammit.

Much of the justification he uses, yeah, I agree with. Some of it, not so much. This isn't a period in history that I paid strong attention to, though I wish I had, but from these kinds of writings. You can read about history, and yes, it reads like a story book. Then you read some of these works, you hear the words, you feel the emotions, and realize it wasn't a story, it happened, these were people. Suddenly, history becomes this absolutely fascinating saga about human nature. You can see how Robespierre played people, how our motivations are the same, how influence works, and how neuroscience has helped us understand many of these things.

We're still confusing creatures, but we have patterns. This book shows just how much they haven't changed.

I strongly recommend this book. It is a slow read.

Unformatted quotes that caught my attention:

The further crucial point to bear in mind is that, for Robespierre, revolutionary terror is the very opposite of war: Robespierre was a pacifist, not out of hypocrisy or humanitarian sensitivity, but because he was well aware that war among nations as a rule serves as the means to obfuscate revolutionary struggle within each nation.
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And this is what Robespierre aims at in his famous accusation to the moderates that what they really want is a ‘revolution without a revolution’: they want a revolution deprived of the excess in which democracy and terror coincide, a revolution respecting social rules, subordinated to pre-existing norms, a revolution in which violence is deprived of the ‘divine’ dimension and thus reduced to a strategic intervention serving precise and limited goals: Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that can follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? At that price, what people could ever have shaken off the yoke of despotism? For while it is true that a great nation cannot rise in a simultaneous movement, and that tyranny can only be hit by the portion of citizens that is closest to it, how would these ever dare to attack it if, after the victory, delegates from remote parts could hold them responsible for the duration or violence of the political torment that had saved the homeland? They ought to be regarded as justified by tacit proxy for the whole of society. The French, friends of liberty, meeting in Paris last August, acted in that role, in the name of all the departments. They should either be approved or repudiated entirely. To make them criminally responsible for a few apparent or real disorders, inseparable from so great a shock, would be to punish them for their devotion.
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The best way to approach it is via Freud’s reluctance to endorse the injunction ‘Love thy neighbour!’ –the temptation to be resisted here is the ethical domestication of the neighbour –for example, what Emmanuel Levinas did with his notion of the neighbour as the abyssal point from which the call of ethical responsibility emanates.
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Robespierre, in a true master stroke, assumes full subjectivization –waiting a little bit for the ominous effect of his words to take place, he then continues in the first-person singular: ‘I say that anyone who trembles at this moment is guilty; for innocence never fears public scrutiny.’ 16
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there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision, because, in such moments, innocence itself –exempting oneself from the decision, going on as if the struggle I am witnessing does not really concern me –is the highest treason.
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This is how Yamamoto Jocho, a Zen priest, described the proper attitude of a warrior: every day without fail one should consider oneself as dead. There is a saying of the elders that goes, ‘Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.’ This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand. 18
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Every legal order (or every order of explicit normativity) has to rely on a complex ‘reflexive’ network of informal rules which tells us how are we to relate to the explicit norms, how are we to apply them: to what extent are we to take them literally, how and when are we allowed, solicited even, to disregard them, etc. –and this is the domain of habit. To know the habits of a society is to know the metarules of how to apply its explicit norms: when to use them or not use them; when to violate them; when not to use a choice which is offered; when we are effectively obliged to do something, but have to pretend that we are doing it as a free choice (as in the case of potlatch).
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Recall the polite offer-meant-to-be-refused: it is a ‘habit’ to refuse such an offer, and anyone who accepts such an offer commits a vulgar blunder. The same goes for many political situations in which a choice is given on condition that we make the right choice: we are solemnly reminded that we can say no –but we are expected to reject this offer and enthusiastically say yes.
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To cast off the yoke of habit means: if all men are equal, then all men are to be effectively treated as equal; if blacks are also human, they should be immediately treated as such.
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Of course, radical bourgeois revolutionaries are aware of this limitation; however, the way they try to amend it is through a direct ‘terrorist’ imposition of more and more de facto equality (equal wages, equal health treatment …), which can only be imposed through new forms of formal inequality (different sorts of preferential treatments of the under-privileged).
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How are we to reinvent the Jacobin terror?
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Actually, what IS jacobian terror?
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Kant’s well-known thesis that Reason without Intuition is empty, while Intuition without Reason is blind: is not its political counterpart Robespierre’s dictum according to which Virtue without Terror is impotent, while Terror without Virtue is lethal, striking blindly?
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It is only such a radical stance that allows us to break with today’s predominant mode of politics, post-political biopolitics, which is a politics of fear, formulated as a defence against a potential victimization or harassment. Therein resides the true line of separation between radical emancipatory politics and the politics of the status quo: it is not the difference between two different positive visions, sets of axioms, but, rather, the difference between the politics based on a set of universal axioms and the politics which renounces the very constitutive dimension of the political, since it resorts to fear as its ultimate mobilizing principle: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state itself (with its burdensome taxation), fear of ecological catastrophes –such a (post) politics always amounts to a frightening rallying of frightened men.
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liberty consists in obeying laws voluntarily adopted, and servitude in being forced to submit to an outside will.
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All men born and domiciled in France are members of the political society called the French nation, in other words French citizens. That is what they are by the nature of things and by the main principles of the law of nations. The rights attached to this title depend neither on the fortune each individual possesses, nor on the amount of taxation to which he is subject, because it is not tax that makes us citizens; the quality of citizen only obliges him to contribute to the common expenditure of the state, according to his abilities. Now you can give laws to the citizens, but you cannot annihilate them.
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I ought only to answer with a word or two: the people, that multitude of men whose cause I am defending, have rights that come from the same origin as your own. Who gave you the power to take them away? General practicality,
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There is more: unless you do everything for liberty, you have done nothing. There are no two ways of being free: one must be entirely free, or become a slave once more. The least resource left to despotism will soon restore its power.
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The law, the public authority: is it not established to protect weakness against injustice and oppression? It is thus an offence to all social principles to place it entirely in the hands of the rich.
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Do you really believe in all honesty that a hard and laborious life produces more faults than softness, luxury and ambition? And
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Abuses are the work and the domain of the rich, they are the scourges of the people: the interest of the people is the general interest, that of the rich is a particular interest;
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It gives the citizens this astonishing lesson: ‘Be rich, whatever the cost, or you will be nothing.’
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To make laws to restore and establish the rights of your constituents. It is thus not possible for you to strip them of those same rights.
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It falls only to the essentially infallible Being to be immutable; to change is not just a right but a duty for any human will that has faltered. Men who decide the fate of other men are less exempt than anyone from this common obligation.
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it is necessary for surveillance by honest people to stand against the forces of ambitious and corrupt intriguers.
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It is in the nature of things that the march of reason should be slow and gradual.
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The most depraved government finds powerful support in the prejudices, the habits, the education of peoples.
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In a sort of despair, they want to hurl themselves into a foreign war, as if they hoped that the mere change brought about by war would bring us to life, or that order and liberty would eventually emerge from the general confusion.
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There are in revolutions movements contrary to liberty and movements that favour it, as in illnesses there are salutary crises and mortal ones. The favourable movements are those aimed directly against tyrants, like the Americans’ insurrection, or that of 14 July. But war on the outside, provoked, directed by the government in the circumstances we are in now, is a movement in the wrong direction, a crisis that could lead to the death of the body politic. Such a war can only send public opinion off on a false scent, divert the nation’s well-founded anxieties, and forestall the favourable crisis that attacks by enemies of liberty might have brought on.
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During a foreign war the people, as I said, distracted by military events from political deliberations affecting the essential foundations of its liberty, is less inclined to take seriously the underhand manoeuvres of plotters who are undermining it and the executive government which is knocking it about, and pay less attention to the weakness or corruption of representatives who are failing to defend it.
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The sort of man who would look with horror on the betrayal of the homeland can still be led by adroit officers to run its best citizens through with steel;
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I am enlightening it; to enlighten free men is to awaken their courage, to prevent that courage itself from becoming a stumbling-block to their liberty;
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I neither deny them nor believe them; for I have heard too many calumnies to believe denunciations that come from the same source and that all bear the imprint of bias or passion.
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Might you not also reproach us for having illegally smashed the mercenary scribblers, whose profession was to propagate fraud and blaspheme against liberty?
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Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? At that price, what people could ever have shaken off the yoke of despotism?
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For while it is true that a great nation cannot rise in a simultaneous movement, and that tyranny can only be hit by the portion of citizens that is closest to it, how would these ever dare to attack it if, after the victory, delegates from remote parts could hold them responsible for the duration or violence of the political torment that had saved the homeland? They ought to be regarded as justified by tacit proxy for the whole of society.
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M. Louvet himself generalized, in a very vague way, the accusation directed earlier against me personally; from this it seems certain that calumny had been doing its work in the shadows.
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To form an accurate idea of these events, the truth should be sought, not in the writings or slanderous speeches that have misrepresented them, but in the history of the recent revolution.
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So you only talk about dictatorship in order to exercise it yourself without any restraint; you only talk about proscriptions and tyranny because you want to proscribe and tyrannize.
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I renounce the just vengeance I would have a right to pursue against the slanderers; I ask that that vengeance be nothing more than the return of peace and the triumph of liberty.
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In every country where nature provides for the needs of men with prodigality, scarcity can only be imputed to defects of administration or of the laws themselves; bad laws and bad administration have their origins in false principles and bad morals.
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You need at least to subject to severe examination all the laws made under royal despotism and under the auspices of noble, ecclesiastical or bourgeois aristocracy; and so far you have no others at all.
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freedom of trade is necessary up to the point where homicidal greed starts to abuse it;
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Common sense indicates, for example, the truth that foodstuffs that are in no way essential to life can be left to untrammelled speculation by the merchant; any momentary scarcity that might be felt is always a bearable inconvenience; and it is acceptable in general that the unlimited freedom of such a market should turn to the greater profit of the state and some individuals; but the lives of men cannot be subjected to the same uncertainty. It is not necessary that I be able to purchase brilliant fabrics; but I do need to be rich enough to buy bread, for myself and my children. The merchant is welcome to retain goods coveted by wealth and vanity in his shops, until he finds the moment to sell them at the highest possible price; but no man has the right to amass piles of wheat, when his neighbour is dying of hunger.
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What is the first object of society? It is to maintain the imprescriptible rights of man. What is the first of those rights? The right to life.
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The first social law is therefore the one that guarantees all members of society the means to live; all the others are subordinate to that one; property was only instituted and guaranteed to consolidate it; it is primarily to live that people have property.
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No doubt if all men were just and virtuous; if cupidity were never tempted to devour the people’s substance; if the rich, receptive to the voices of reason and nature, regarded themselves as the bursars of society, or as brothers to the poor, it might be possible to recognize no law but the most unlimited freedom;
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Let the circulation of goods be protected throughout the whole Republic; but let the necessary measures be taken to ensure that circulation takes place. It is precisely the lack of circulation that I am complaining about. For the scourge of the people, the source of scarcity, is the obstacles placed in the way of circulation, under the pretext of rendering it unlimited. Does public subsistence circulate when greedy speculators are keeping it piled in their granaries? Does it circulate, when it is accumulated in the hands of a small number of millionaires who withhold it from the market, to make it more valuable and rare; who coldly calculate how many families must perish before the commodity reaches the release date fixed by their atrocious avarice?
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Ha! what sort of good citizen can complain of being obliged to act with probity and in broad daylight?
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I am well aware that when we examine the circumstances of some particular riot, aroused by the real or imagined scarcity of wheat, we sometimes recognize the influence of an outside cause. Ambition and intrigue need to start trouble: sometimes it is those same men who stir up the people, to find the pretext to slaughter it and to make liberty itself seem terrible in the eyes of weak and selfish individuals. But it is no less true that the people is naturally upright and peaceable; it is always guided by a pure intention; the malevolent can only stir it up by presenting a motive that is powerful and legitimate in its eyes.
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the greatest service the legislator can perform for men is to force them to be honest folk.
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do not forget that the source of order is justice; that the surest guarantor of public peace is the well-being of the citizens,
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It does not even occur to us that most are inevitably still connected with the prejudices on which despotism fed us.
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When a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature in relation to the tyrant. How can the tyrant invoke the social pact? He has annihilated it. The nation can still keep it, if it thinks fit, for everything concerning relations between citizens; but the effect of tyranny and insurrection is to break it entirely where the tyrant is concerned; it places them reciprocally in a state of war. Courts and legal proceedings are only for members of the same side.
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Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts.
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It is less a question of enlightenment than of avoiding voluntary blindness.
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Why is it that what seems clear to us at one time seems obscure at another?
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There was no need for a revolution, surely, to teach the universe that extreme disproportion between fortunes is the source of many ills and many crimes, but we are nevertheless convinced that equality of possessions is a chimera.
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Now, where public contributions are concerned, is there any principle more obviously derived from the nature of things and from eternal justice, than one that obliges the citizens to contribute to public expenditure progressively, in accordance with the size of their fortune, in other words in accordance with the advantages they draw from society?
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XIX. In any free state, the law above all should defend public and individual liberty against abuse of authority by those who govern. Any institution that does not assume the people to be good, and the magistrate corruptible, is itself depraved.
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XXXI. In both these cases, subjecting resistance against oppression to legal forms is the ultimate refinement of tyranny.
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XXXIII. Offences committed by people’s representatives should be severely and promptly punished. No one has the right to claim to be more inviolable than other citizens.
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The truth is that under the old empress, as under all women who hold the sceptre, it is men who govern.
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That country combines the ferocity of savage hordes with the vices of civilized peoples.
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Force can overthrow a throne; only wisdom can found a Republic.
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They say their authority is its work. No: God created tigers; but kings are the masterpieces of human corruption.
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Successes send weak souls to sleep; they spur strong souls on. Let
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If revolutionary government should be more active in its working and freer in its movements than ordinary government, does that make it less just and less legitimate? No. It is supported by the holiest of all laws: the salvation of the people; by the most indisputable of all entitlements: necessity.
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Yes! If it is accepted that there are moderates and cowards of good faith, why should there not be patriots of good faith, who are sometimes carried away by a praiseworthy sentiment to go too far?
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By sketching the duties of revolutionary government, we have marked the pitfalls that threaten it. The greater its power, the more free and rapid its action, the more it should be directed by good faith. On
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Let us raise our souls to the height of republican virtues and examples from antiquity. Themistocles7 had more genius than the Lacedaemonian general commanding the Greek fleet: however, when the general answered a much-needed piece of advice meant to save the country by raising his baton to strike him, Themistocles merely said ‘Strike then, but listen’, and Greece triumphed over the Asian tyrant.
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Punishing a hundred obscure and subordinate culprits is less useful to liberty than executing the head of a conspiracy.
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commerce the source of public wealth and not just the monstrous opulence of a few houses.
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We want in our country to substitute morality for egoism, probity for honour, principles for practices, duties for proprieties, the rule of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for fine wit, truth for brilliance, the charm of happiness for the boredom of luxury, the greatness of man for the pettiness of great men, a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for an amiable, frivolous and miserable people; in short all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and absurdities of monarchy.
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A democracy is not a state in which the people, continually assembled, manages all public business for itself, still less one in which a hundred thousand fractions of the people, through isolated, precipitate and contradictory measures, would decide the fate of the whole society: no such government has ever existed, and it could only exist to take the people back to despotism. Democracy is a state in which the sovereign people, guided by laws which are its own work, does for itself all that it can do properly, and through delegates all that it cannot do for itself.
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Thus, anything that tends to arouse love of the homeland, to purify morals, to elevate souls, to direct the passions of the human heart towards the public interest, should be adopted or established by you. Anything that tends to concentrate them on the abjectness of the personal self, to arouse crazes for small things and contempt for great ones, should be rejected or repressed by you.
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A nation is really corrupted when, having lost by slow degrees its character and its liberty, it moves from democracy to aristocracy or monarchy; that is the death of the body politic through decrepitude.
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From all of this we should deduce a great truth: that the character of popular government is to be trusting towards the people and severe with itself.
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If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is virtue and terror both: virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without which virtue is powerless.
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Nature’s law is that any physical and moral entity must provide for its own preservation;
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he would rather wear out a hundred red caps than perform one good act.
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Do we need to assert the rights of the people oppressed by the government? They speak only of respect for the law and obedience to the constituted authorities.
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The wish to forestall evil is always to them a reason for augmenting it. In the North the poultry were killed, depriving us of eggs, under the pretext that poultry eat grain. In the Midi, people wanted to uproot mulberry and orange trees, on the pretext that silk is a luxury product, and oranges unnecessary.
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Would you believe that in the areas where superstition has had most influence, not content with loading the operations concerning religion with all the forms most calculated to render them odious, they spread terror among the people by starting a rumour that all children under ten and all old people over seventy were going to be killed? That this rumour was spread particularly in former Brittany and in the departments of Rhine and Moselle?
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In perfidious hands all the remedies for our ills become poisons; whatever you can do, whatever you can say, they will turn it against you, even the truths we have just been developing.
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Thus, for example, after having planted the seeds of civil war everywhere, with the violent attack on religious prejudices, they will seek to arm fanaticism and aristocracy with the very measures that sound policy recommended to you in favour of freedom of religion.
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Democracy perishes through two excesses, the aristocracy of those who govern, or the people’s contempt for the authorities it has itself established, a contempt that results in each coterie, each individual appropriating public power, and brings the people, through excess of disorder, to annihilation or rule by a single individual.
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There are two powers on earth, reason and tyranny; wherever one is predominant, the other is banned. Those who denounce the moral strength of reason as a crime are therefore seeking to revive tyranny.
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Which is the more guilty, one who threatens its security through violence, or one who undermines its justice through seduction and perfidy? To mislead it is to betray it; to push it into acts contrary to its intentions and principles is to risk its destruction; for its power is based on virtue itself and on the confidence of the nation.
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Why do those who used to say: I declare to you that we are walking on volcanoes, believe today that they are walking on nothing but roses?
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Think about the end of the campaign; be afraid of internal factions; be afraid of the intrigues favoured by absence in a foreign land.
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There should be no question of hobbling the people’s justice through new forms; penal law ought necessarily to have something vague about it because, the current character of the conspirators being one of dissimulation and hypocrisy, justice needs to be able to grasp them in all forms.
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So the safeguard of patriotism lies not in the slowness or weakness of national law, but in the principles and integrity of those entrusted with it, in the good faith of the government, in the open protection it gives to patriots, and the energy with which it represses the aristocracy; in the public mind, and in certain moral and political institutions that, without hampering the workings of the law, offer a safeguard to good citizens and repress bad ones, through their influence on public opinion and on the direction of the revolutionary march; these will be proposed to you as soon as the most immediate conspiracies allow the friends of liberty time to draw breath.
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Let us not be mistaken: establishing an immense Republic on foundations of reason and equality, holding all the parts of this immense empire together with vigorous bonds, is not an enterprise that can be completed thoughtlessly: it is the masterpiece of virtue and human reason. A host of factions springs up inside a great revolution; how can they be repressed, if you do not subject all the passions to constant justice? Your only guarantor of liberty is rigorous observation of the principles and the universal morality you have proclaimed. If reason does not reign, then crime and ambition must reign; without it, victory is just an instrument of ambition and a danger to liberty, a lethal pretext misused by intrigue to lull patriotism to sleep on the edge of the precipice; without it, what is the very meaning of victory?
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know that every friend of liberty will always be trapped between a duty and a calumny; that those who cannot be accused of betrayal will be accused of ambition; that the influence of probity and principle will be likened to the strength of tyranny and the violence of factions; that your trust and your esteem will be certificates of proscription for all your friends; that the cries of oppressed patriotism will be called cries of sedition, and that, not daring to attack you in the mass, they will proscribe you singly in the persons of all good citizens, until the ambitious have organized their tyranny.
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