Furthest Right

Thoughts on the Way of Providence in the French Revolution (Joseph de Maistre)

Chapter II of Considerantions on France by Joseph de Maistre

Every nation, like every individual, has a mission which it must fulfill. It would be futile to deny that France exercises a dominant influence over Europe, an influence she has abused most culpably. Above all, she was at the head of the religious system, and it was not without reason that her king was called most Christian: Bossuet has not over-stressed this point. However, as she has used her influence to pervert her vocation and to demoralize Europe, it is not surprising that terrible means must be used to set her on her true course again.

It is long since such an appalling punishment has been seen, visited on so many sinners. No doubt there are innocent people among the unfortunates, but they are far fewer than is commonly imagined.

All those who have worked to separate the people from their religious beliefs; all those who have opposed metaphysical sophistries to the laws of property; all those who have said, “Attack anything, so long as we gain by it”; all those who have meddled with the fundamental laws of the state; all those who have recommended, approved, favored the violent methods used against the king; even our restricted vision can perceive that all these have willed the Revolution, and all who willed it have most appropriately been its victims.

It is frightening to see distinguished intellectuals fall under Robespierre’s ax. From a humane standpoint they can never be too much mourned, but divine justice is no respecter of mathematicians or scientists. Too many French intellectuals were instrumental in bringing about the Revolution; too many approved and encouraged it so long as, like Tarquin’s wand, it cut off only the ruling heads. Like so many others, they said, A great revolution cannot come about without some distress. But when a thinker justifies such means by the end in view; when he says in his heart, A hundred thousand murders are as nothing, provided we are free; then, if Providence replies, I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims, where is the injustice? Would we judge otherwise in our own courts?

The details would be odious; but, among those who are called innocent victims of the Revolution, it is not much of a Frenchman whose conscience would not remind him:

Now you see the sad fruits that your faults have produced,
You can feel the blows that you yourselves have induced.

Our ideas on good and evil, on innocence and guilt, are too often affected by our prejudices. We frown on men who fight with daggers, but a duel with swords is considered honorable. We brand a man who steals a halfpenny from a friend, but think it nothing if he steals his wife. We pardon even if we do not make a virtue of all those flashy offenses involving great or likable qualities, above all those rewarded by success: whereas, the brilliant qualities which surround the guilty man blacken him in the eyes of true justice, for whom his greatest crime is the abuse of his gifts.

Every man has certain duties to perform, and the extent of these duties depends on his position in society and the extent of his means. The same action is by no means equally culpable when committed by two different men. Not to stray from our subject, the same act which results only from a mistake or a foolish characteristic in an obscure person, thrust suddenly into unlimited power, could be a foul crime in a bishop or a duke or a peer.

Indeed, some actions, which are excusable and even praiseworthy from an ordinary point of view, are fundamentally infinitely criminal. For example, if someone says, I have espoused the cause of the French Revolution in good faith, through a pure love of liberty and my country; I have believed in my soul and conscience that it would lead to the reform of abuses and to the general good, we have nothing to say in reply. But the eye of him who sees into every heart discerns the stain of sin; he discovers in a ridiculous misunderstanding, in a small puncturing of pride, in a base or criminal passion, the prime moving force behind those ambitions we wish to present to the world as noble: and for him the crime is compounded by grafting the falsehood of hypocrisy onto treason. But let us look at the nation in general.

One of the greatest possible crimes is undoubtedly an attack upon sovereignty, no other having such terrible consequences. If sovereignty resides in one man and this man falls victim to an outrage, the crime of lese-majesty augments the atrocity. But if this sovereign has not deserved his fate through any fault of his own, if his very virtues have strengthened the guilty against him, the crime is beyond description. This is the case in the death of Louis XVI; but what is important to note is that never has such a great crime had more accomplices. The death of Charles I had far fewer, even though it was possible to bring charges against him that Louis XVI did not merit. Yet many proofs were given of the most tender and courageous concern for him; even the executioner, who was obliged to obey, did not dare to make himself known. But in France, Louis XVI marched to his death in the middle of 60,000 armed men who did not have a single shot for their king, not a voice was raised for the unfortunate monarch, and the provinces were as silent as the capital. We would expose ourselves, it was said. Frenchmen – if you find this a good reason, talk no more of your courage or admit that you misuse it!

The indifference of the army was no less remarkable. It served the executioners of the king much better than it had served the king himself since it had betrayed him. It never showed the slightest sign of discontent. In sum, never have so many taken part in such a great crime (although no doubt in varying degrees).

It is necessary to add one important remark: it is that every offense committed against sovereignty, in the name of the nation, is always to a greater or lesser degree a national crime, since it is always to some degree the fault of the nation if any faction whatever is put in a position to commit the crime in its name. Thus, although no doubt not all Frenchmen have willed the death of Louis XVI, the immense majority of the people have for more than two years willed all the follies, injustices and offenses leading up to the catastrophe of January 21st.

Now, every national crime against sovereignty is punished swiftly and terribly; that is a law without exception. Not many days after the death of Louis XVI, someone wrote in the Mercure universel, “Perhaps it was not necessary go to so far; but since our legislators have taken this act on their shoulders, let us rally round them: let us smother all hatreds and question it no longer.” Good – it was not perhaps necessary to assassinate the king, but since the deed is done, let us talk of it no more and let us all be good friends. What madness! Shakespeare showed more understanding when he said:

“The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armour of the mind,
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest
The lives of many. The cease of majesty
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What’s near it with it.”

[Hamlet, Act III, Scene iii.] Each drop of Louis XVI’s blood will cost France torrents; perhaps four million Frenchmen will pay with their lives for the great national crime of an antireligious and antisocial insurrection, crowned by a regicide.

Where are the first national guards, the first soldiers, the first generals who swore an oath to the nation? Where are the leaders, the idols of that first guilty Assembly, for whom the epithet constituent will stand as a perpetual epigraph? Where is Mirabeau, where is Bailly with his “beautiful day”? Where is Thouret who invented the term “to expropriate”? Where is Osselin who reported to the Assembly on the first law proscribing the emigres? The names of revolutionary activists who have died a violent death would be numbered in the thousands.

Yet it is here that we can appreciate order in disorder; because it is evident, however little one reflects on it, that the great criminals of the Revolution can fall only under the blows of their accomplices. If force alone were to bring about what is called the counter-revolution and replace the king on the throne, there would be no means of doing justice. For a sensitive man, the greatest misfortune would be to judge the murderer of his father, relatives, and friends or even the usurper of his property. However, this is precisely what would happen in the case of a counter-revolution, as the word is understood, because the higher judges, by the very nature of things, would belong to the injured class, and justice, even when it was aimed only at punishment, would have the air of vengeance. Moreover, legitimate authority always retains some moderation in the punishment of crimes in which large numbers have been involved. When it executes five or six criminals for the same crime, this becomes a massacre; if it goes beyond certain limits, it becomes detestable. In short, great crimes unfortunately demand great punishments; and in this way it is easy to pass the limits when it is a question of crimes of lese-majesty and flattery becomes the executioner. Would the sacred sword of justice have fallen as relentlessly as Robespierre’s guillotine? Would all the executioners of the kingdom and every artillery horse have been summoned to Paris in order to quarter men? Would lead and tar have been melted in vast boilers to sprinkle on limbs torn by red-hot tongs? Moreover, how could different crimes be characterized? How could punishments be graduated? And above all how could punishments be imposed without laws? It might be said that some of the most guilty would have to be chosen and all the rest would have to be pardoned. This is precisely what Providence would not wish. Since it is omnipotent, it is ignorant of pardons produced by inability to punish. The great purification must be accomplished and eyes must be opened; the French metal, cleared of its sour and impure dross, must become cleaner and more malleable to a future king. Doubtless in times past Providence had no need to punish in order to justify its courses; but in this age, it puts itself within our range of understanding and punishes like a human tribunal.

There have been nations literally condemned to death like guilty individuals, and we can understand the reasons for this. If it was part of God’s designs to reveal to us his intentions with regard to the French Revolution, we should read the chastisement of the French as if it were a legal decree. But what should we understand beyond this? Is not this chastisement apparent? Have we not seen France dishonored by a hundred thousand murders? The whole territory of this fair kingdom covered with scaffolds? And this unhappy land drenched with the blood of its children through judicial massacres, while inhuman tyrants squandered it abroad in a cruel war, sustained in their own private interests? Never has the bloodiest despot gambled with men’s lives with so much insolence, and never has an apathetic people presented itself for butchering more willingly. Sword and fire, frost and famine, privations and sufferings of every kind, none of these disgust it with its punishment: everything that is laid down must accomplish its destiny: there will be no disobedience until the judgment is fulfilled.

Yet, in this cruel and disastrous war, there are points of interest, and admiration follows grief turn by turn. Let us take the most terrible epoch of the Revolution; let us suppose that, under the government of the diabolical Committee of Public Safety, the army by a startling change became suddenly royalist; let us suppose that it rallied the primary assemblies to its side and freely named the worthiest and most enlightened men to guide it in this difficult position; let us suppose, finally, that one of these representatives of the army rose and said:

“Brave and loyal soldiers, there are occasions when all human wisdom is reduced to choosing between different evils. It is no doubt hard to fight for the Committee of Public Safety, but it would be yet more disastrous to turn our arms against it. The moment the army meddles in politics, the state will be dissolved and the enemies of France, profiting from this period of disorder, will invade and divide it. We must act, not for the moment, but for the future: above all, the integrity of France must be maintained, and this we can do only by fighting for the government, whatever it may be; because by these means France, in spite of her internal dissensions, will preserve her military power and international influence. To press the point home, it is not for the government that we fight, but for France and for the future king, who will be indebted to us for an empire much greater perhaps than that found by the Revolution. It is therefore our duty to overcome the repugnance which makes us hesitate. Perhaps our contemporaries will calumniate our conduct, but posterity will do us justice.”

This man would have spoken very wisely. In fact, the army has appreciated this hypothetical argument without knowing it; and the terror on the one hand and immorality and extravagance on the other, have done precisely what a consummate and almost prophetic wisdom would have dictated to the army. Fundamentally, it can be seen that, the revolutionary movement once having taken root, France and the monarchy could be saved only by Jacobinism.

The king has never had an ally; although he was never imprudent enough to state the fact, it is quite evident that the coalition had no love for French territorial integrity. However, how was the coalition to be resisted? By what supernatural means could the European conspiracy be broken? Only the evil genius of Robespierre could achieve this miracle. The revolutionary government hardened the French spirit, by drenching it in blood: it heightened soldiers’ morale and doubled their power by a ferocious despair and contempt for life which derived from fury. The horror of the gallows, pushing the citizen to the frontiers, built up military strength in proportion as it destroyed the least internal resistance. Every life, all wealth, every power was in the hands of the revolutionary government; and this Leviathan, drunk with blood and success, the most appalling phenomenon ever seen and doubtless that ever will be seen, was both a frightful punishment of the French and the only means of saving France.

What were the royalists asking for when they demanded a counter-revolution such as they envisaged, that is to say, brought about suddenly and by force? They were asking for the conquest of France, and therefore for its division, the destruction of its influence and the abasement of its king, that is to say, perhaps three centuries of massacre, the inevitable result of such a breakdown of equilibrium. But our descendants, who will not bother themselves much with our sufferings and will dance on our graves, will laugh at our present ignorance; they will easily console themselves for the excesses that we have seen, and which have conserved the integrity “of the most beautiful kingdom after that of Heaven.”[Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, Dedication to Louis XIII.]

It seems that all the monsters spawned by the Revolution have worked only for the monarchy. Through them, the luster of victories has won the world’s admiration and has surrounded the name of France with a glory not entirely dimmed by the crimes of the Revolution; through them, the king will return to the throne with all his brilliance and power, perhaps even with an increase in power. And who knows if, instead of miserably sacrificing some of his provinces to obtain the right of ruling over the others, he will not be restored with the pride of power which gives what it can withhold? Certainly, less probable things have been seen to happen.

This same idea that everything works for the advantage of the French monarchy leads me to believe that any royalist revolution is impossible before the war ends; for the restoration of the Crown would weaken suddenly the whole machinery of the state. The black magic operating at this moment would vanish like a mist before the sun. Kindness, clemency, justice, all the gentle and peaceful virtues would suddenly reappear and bring back with them a certain general gentleness of character, a certain cheerfulness entirely opposed to the somber rigor of the revolutionary regime. No more requisitions, no more legal thefts, no more violence. Would the generals, preceded by the white flag, call revolutionary the inhabitants of the invaded areas who legitimately defended themselves? And would they enjoin them not to move on pain of being shot as rebels? These horrors, very useful to the future king, could not, however, be employed by him; he would then have only human means at his disposal. He would be on a level with his enemies; and what would happen at that moment of suspension which necessarily accompanies the transition from one government to another? I do not know. I am well aware that the great conquests of the French seem to put the integrity of the kingdom beyond dispute. (I even intend to touch here on the reason for these conquests.) However it still appears more advantageous to France and the monarchy that peace, and a glorious peace for the French, should be achieved by the Republic, and that, when the king returns to the throne, a stable peace should remove him from every kind of danger.

On the other hand, it is clear that a violent revolution, far from curing the people, would confirm them in their errors and they would never pardon the power that snatched their dreams from them. Since it was the people, properly speaking, or the masses, that the rebels needed to overturn France, it is evident that in general they have had to spare the people and that the heaviest burdens have had to fall first of all on the wealthy class. Thus the usurping power needs to weigh for some time on the people in order to disgust them with it. They have only seen the Revolution; they must feel it and enjoy, so to speak, its bitter consequences. Perhaps, at the moment when I write, this is not yet sufficiently the case….

Let us now glance at the outrageous persecution stirred up against the national religion and its ministers: it is one of the most interesting facets of the Revolution.

It cannot be denied that the French clergy was in need of reform; and, though I am very far from taking up the vulgar attacks on the clergy, nonetheless it appears to me incontestable that wealth, luxury, and a general tendency toward laxity had lowered this great body of men; that it was often possible to find under the surplice a man of the world rather than an apostle; and finally that, in the years immediately before the Revolution, the clergy had fallen, almost as much as the army, from the place it had occupied in public esteem.

The first blow aimed at the Church was the appropriation of its estates; the second was the constitutional oath; and these two tyrannical measures started the reformation. The oath screened the priests, if it can be so expressed. All who took it, save a few exceptions whom we can ignore, saw themselves led by stages into the abyss of crime and disgrace; opinion has only one view of these apostates.

The faithful priests, recommended to this same opinion by an initial act of firmness, won even more renown by the bravery with which they have been able to bear sufferings and even death in defense of their faith. The massacre of Carmes is comparable in its beauty to anything of this sort that ecclesiastical history can offer.

No more revolting tyranny can be imagined than that which expelled them from their country by thousands, against all justice and decency; but on this point, as in all the others, the crimes of the French tyrants became the weapons of Providence. It was probably necessary for French priests to be shown to foreign nations; they have lived among Protestant peoples, and this closeness has greatly diminished hatreds and prejudices. The considerable migration of the clergy, and particularly of the French bishops, to England especially seems to me a remarkable event. Surely words of peace will have been spoken and schemes of rapprochement formed during this remarkable reunion. Even if only common hopes were created, this would still be a great deal. If ever Christians draw together, as everyone asks them to, it seems that the impulse must come from the Church of England. Presbyterianism was a French, and consequently an exaggerated, creation. We stand too far away from the adherents of this insubstantial religion; there are no means of communication between us. But the Anglican Church, which touches us with one hand, touches with the other those whom we cannot approach; and although, from a certain point of view, it is exposed to attacks from the two sides, and although it presents the slightly ridiculous sight of a rebel who preaches obedience, it is nevertheless very valuable from another standpoint and can be seen as a catalyst, capable of combining elements incompatible of themselves.

The property of the clergy having been dissipated, no despicable motive can for a long time to come attract new members to it: so that everything combines to revive the clergy. There is reason to believe, moreover, that the contemplation of the work with which it is charged will give to it a degree of exaltation which raises men above themselves and makes them capable of great things.

Add to these circumstances the ferment of ideas in certain European countries, the inspiring opinions of several great men, and that kind of disquiet which is affecting religious people, especially in Protestant countries, and is pushing them along unwonted paths.

Notice at the same time the storm rumbling over Italy, Rome menaced as well as Geneva by the power that wants the destruction of all sects, and the national supremacy of religion abolished in Holland by a decree of the National Convention. If Providence deletes, it is no doubt in order to rewrite. I notice that when great systems of belief have established themselves in the world, they have been favored by great conquests in the formation of great sovereignties, and the reason can clearly be seen.

How indeed have these remarkable schemes which have baffled all human foresight come about in one day? In truth, there is a temptation to believe that political revolution is only a secondary object of the great plan which is developing before our eyes with such terrible majesty.

I talked, at the beginning, of the leadership that France exercises over the rest of Europe. Providence, which always fits means to ends and gives to nations, as to individuals, the instruments necessary to accomplish their destiny, has in this way given to the French nation two weapons and, so to speak, two hands with which to mold the world, its language and the spirit of proselytism that forms the core of its character; so that it has always the ability and the wish to influence other men.

The power, I almost said the royalty, of the French language is apparent; this cannot be seriously disputed. As for the spirit of proselytism, it is as obvious as the sun; from the dress designer to the philosopher, it is the foremost trait of the national character.

This proselytism is commonly ridiculed, and really it often merits it, particularly in the forms it takes, but fundamentally it has a function.

It is a constant law of the moral world that every function produces a duty. The Gallican Church was the cornerstone of the Catholic system or, more properly, since there is in truth only one system, the Christian system. Although perhaps they doubt it, the Churches opposing the universal Church exist only by virtue of it, being like those parasitic plants, those sterile mistletoes which draw their nurture from and weaken the tree that supports them.

From the fact that the action and reaction of opposing powers is always equal, the greatest efforts of the goddess of Reason against Christianity were made in France; the enemy attacked the citadel.

The French clergy should not therefore fall asleep; it has a thousand reasons for believing that it is called to a high destiny; and the same arguments that show it why it is suffering allow it also to believe itself fated for a crucial task.

In a word, if a moral revolution does not occur in Europe, if religious feeling is not strengthened in this part of the world, the social bond will be destroyed. Nothing can be predicted, and anything may be expected. But if any change for the better does come, either analogies, induction, and conjectural skills are useless or else it is France that is called to produce the change.

This is above all what leads me to believe that the French Revolution is a watershed in history and that its consequences of every kind will be felt far beyond the time of its outburst and the limits of its birthplace.

Political considerations confirm this view. How many European powers have deceived themselves over France! How many have dreamed up vain endeavorsl You who think yourselves free because you have no judges on this earth, never say: This suits me; DISCITE JUSTITIAM MONITE! What hand, at once severe and paternal, scourged France with every imaginable plague, and held sway with supernatural means by turning every effort of its enemies against themselves? Let no one come to speak to us of assignats and the power of numbers, for the possibility of assignats and of the power of numbers is itself the work of the supernatural. Moreover it is neither through paper money nor through numerical advantage that the winds guided the French ships and thrust back those of their enemies; that winter gave the French bridges of ice just when they needed them; that kings who impede them die conveniently; that they invade Italy without artillery, and that the most reputedly brave armies of the world, although equal in number, throw down their arms and allow themselves to be taken captives….

In fact, the punishment of the French breaks all the ordinary rules, as does also the protection accorded to France: but these two miracles combined serve to reinforce one another, and present one of the most astonishing sights of human history.

As events unfold, other and more wonderful reasons and relationships will show themselves. Moreover, I see only a fraction of those which a more perceptive insight could have discovered at this time.

The horrible effusion of human blood caused by this great upheaval is a terrible means, yet it is a means as much as a punishment, and can give rise to some interesting reflections.


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