Notes on the French Revolution
Nature and Reason
The sovereign freedom of a state makes it externally independent of its neighbors, but internally renders it subject to the disciplines of strength, fruitful endeavor, justice and peace. The freedom of the different associations, institutions, and groups of which it is composed consists in remaining in control of their own rules of conduct: it cannot mean the freedom to disintegrate in internal strife. Finally the freedom of the citizens themselves, according to their different roles and stations in life, is but a proposition to each that he should pursue a mode of life which is appropriate to what he must do, and wishes to do. Freedom cannot authorize them to break ranks in disorder, it is the binding force against death, it is the defensive force against division.
In contrast, the political freedom of revolutionary doctrine utters without distinction one single appeal for the general liberation of every section of society, supposedly all equal, states, enterprises, persons, entirely without taking account of their different functions. The level of this indeterminate freedom is pitched so low that men bear no other label but that which they share with every plant or animal: individuality. Individual liberty, social individualism, such is the vocabulary of progressive doctrine. How ironical it is. A dog, a donkey, even a blade of grass are all individuals. Naturally, the jostling throng of disorganized "individuals" will willingly accept from the revolutionary spirits its dazzling promises of power and happiness: but if the mob falls for these promises, it is the task of reason to challenge them and of experience to give them the lie. Reason foresees that the quality of life will decline when the unbridled individual is granted, under the direction of the state, his dreary freedom to think only of himself and to live only for himself. Posterity when it pays the price will declare this prediction all too well justified. In close parallel to this, the critical mind of the future will challenge the libertarian aspirations of romanticism, and literary history will see clearly the damaging effect they had upon the poet and his work: enslavement, decomposition.
Thus we find, in politics as in art, the harmony of nature and reason. Criticism and logic, history and philosophy, far from being in conflict, come to the aid of each other. We have had to dwell on this point before. Foreign influences (English mainly) at work in reverse upon the French conservative spirit, tended to represent the principles of the Revolution as an expression of the rational, and the principles of reaction as the voice of the natural world. Abstract reason had erred. Experience, with its clear view of the concrete, rectified the spirit's error, embodying thus the triumph of practical good sense (mental error being the child of pure theory!). This amounted to saying that all theories are false, all generalizations suspect. With one accord we have rejected this contradictory system and refused to dismiss all ideas simply because they are ideas. This rejection applies equally to the gratuitous notion that some special honor is due to an undefined "idealism" which admits any old system of ideas if it seems to oppose reality. In fact reality and ideas are in no sense opposite or incompatible. There are ideas which are consistent with reality and these are the true ideas. There are realities which are consistent with the noblest ideas and these we call great men, beauty, sacred things. If contradiction we must establish, it is between true ideas and false ideas, between good reality and bad reality. No man of sense will condemn revolutionary ideas merely because they are abstract or generalized. Let us throw light upon this confusion.
Politics is not morality. The science and art of the conduct of the state is not the science and art of man's own conduct. What satisfies general man, can be profoundly disagreeable for the particular state. By losing its head in these metaphysical clouds, concentrating upon these insubstantial wraiths, the Constituent Assembly managed to overlook entirely the problem it was called upon to resolve. Its mind wandered and what followed is the proof.
Furthermore, as if it were not enough for the Assembly to use a pair of scales to measure out a gallon of water, it compounded the error by using false weights. From the standpoint of reason as invoked by itself, the general ideas of the Revolution are the antithesis of truth. In drawing up the French constitution, it felt inclined to speak of an ideal and absolute type of man in Article I of the Declaration of the Rights of Man: that they be born and live free and equal before the law. "What," exclaimed Frederic Amouretti,1 "a child five minutes old is a free man!" And, of course, it logically follows from the declaration that this infant has the same freedom as its mother and father!
In exactly the same way, if the Assembly was disposed, when dealing with a tangible entity called France, to reason in terms of political society in general, it should have avoided the pitfall of holding that the social group is an "association" of individual wills whose "aim" is to "conserve" "rights" (as Article 2 has it) since society is in being before the will to associate, since man is a part of society even before he is born, and since the rights of man would in any case be inconceivable without the existence of society. Any affirmation to the contrary, belied in nature, is totally untenable in reason. Whoever drafted such articles produced a mere collection of words without having examined what they meant. There is nothing more irrational.
Nor is it rational that all men should command everyone to be sovereign: this is yet another contradiction in terms so characteristic of the pure and unadulterated irrational. It is not rational that men should meet to elect their leaders, for leaders have to command and an elected leader is little obeyed; elected authority is an instrument which bears no relation to its intended function, an instrument first ridiculous then defunct. If it is not rational, it is contradictory, that the state, founded for the purpose of building unity amongst men, unity in time which we call continuity, unity in space which we call concord, should be legally constituted by competition and discord between parties which by their very nature are divisive. All those liberal and democratic concepts, principles of the revolutionary spirit, are no more than an essay in squaring the circle.
It should not be supposed that even at the outset the needle of reason failed to pierce the skin of revolutionary principle and expose its weakness. Its first critics were not just simple practical men like Burke whose sense of politics and history had been somewhat shocked. Good critical minds, clear vigorous spirits like Rivarol2 and Maistre, found intolerable the absurd because it was absurd; in the unreason of liberal and Jacobin they foresaw disasters to come; error and catastrophe.
The catastrophes they predicted came to pass. Revolutionary legality has broken up the family, revolutionary centralism has killed community life, the elective system has bloated the state and burst it asunder. While the enfeeblement of peaceful crafts has brought about the recession of the economy; five invasions, each more severe than the last, have demonstrated, both in defeat and in victory, despite the immense sacrifices of our nation, the total inadequacy of the New Spirit and the New State.
Of the three revolutionary ideas now written up on every wall, the first, the principle of political liberty, essence of the republican system, has destroyed not only the citizen's respect for the laws of the state which he regards as the commonplace expression of a passing whim (no whim is permanent), but also and above all his respect for those other laws, profound and solemn; leges naturae, offspring of nature's union with reason, laws in which the caprices of man or the citizen count for less than nothing. Oblivious, negligent and disdainful of these natural and spiritual laws, the French state threw discretion to the winds and exposed itself to the gravest dangers and corruptions.
The second of the revolutionary ideas, the principle of equality, essence of the democratic system, handed over power to the most numerous, that is to say the most inferior elements of the nation, to the least vigorous producers, to the most voracious consumers, who do the least work and the most damage.
The Frenchman is continually discouraged, if he is enterprising, by a meddling administration legally representative of the greatest number, but finds himself, if he is meek and humdrum, in receipt of the favors with which the same administration gratefully blesses his idleness, and so he has resigned himself to being an office parasite to such an extent that the flame of French national life burnt low and almost died because individuals are not helped to become people or rather because people are dragged down to the level of a herd of individual sheep.
Finally the third revolutionary idea, the principle of fraternity, the essence of cosmopolitan brotherhood, imposed on the one hand a limitless indulgence towards all men, provided they lived far enough away from us, were unknown to us, spoke a different language, or, better still, had a skin of different color. On the other hand this splendid principle allowed us to regard anyone, be he even fellow citizen or brother, as a monster and a villain if he failed to share with us even our mildest attack of philanthropic fever. The principle of universal fraternity which was supposed to establish peace among nations, has taken that frenzy of anger and aggression built by nature into the secret mechanism of that political animal, that political carnivore rather, called man, and turned each nation upon itself, upon its own compatriots. Frenchmen have been instructed in the arts of civil war.
And that is not all. The same ideas, distributed worldwide as French merchandise to all our customers, brought great harm to them and returned with interest upon our own heads.
1Joseph-François-Frederick Amouretti (1863–1903), like Maurras a Provençal; disciple of Mistral who led a movement (Le Felibrige) for the revival of the Provençal language. His passionate provincialism influenced both Barres and Maurras. He contributed frequently to the Cocarde when it was run by Barres.
2Antoine de Rivarol (1753–1801), man of letters, journalist, and pamphleteer, famous for the saying, "Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français" [If it's not clear, it's not French]. Respectfully received in England by Pitt and Burke.
Source: J.S. McClelland, ed., The French Right (From de Maistre to Maurras), trans. John Frears (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 251–55. Copyright © 1970 by J.S. McClelland. Translations by John Frears, Eric Harber, J.S. McClelland, and R.H.L. Phillipson © 1970 by Jonathan Cape Ltd. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.