Virtue and Terror (HUM303/HUM425)

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Perhaps the statement above is familiar but what follows below may not be. Maximillien Robespierre, provincial lawyer and revolutionary, inspired loathing and admiration during the last years of his life for his pivotal role in the French Revolution. His supporters named him “The Incorruptible,” while his detractors demonized him as a monster. In the end, he would die by the instrument of “virtue and terror,” the guillotine, which took so many royalist and counter-revolutionary heads.

For students of 425, consider the rationale for what we’ve been schooled to react towards as absolute irrationality: political violence. Recall the words spoken in Weather Underground: to do nothing is certain situations is in itself tacitly violent. Or think about the key event which laid the ground for the formation of the Red Army Faction, the American War in Vietnam. Or even consider the nature of Katharina’s murder of Totges– its motives and its relationship to a wider social context in West Germany.

For students of 303, reflect on the following passages in light of Orczy’s repeated condemnations of French Republicans. At issue is not so much the truth of the French Revolution, but a text which treats history as the basis of a fiction and thus fiction as a form of history.

“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?”

— Maximillien Robespierre


One thought on “Virtue and Terror (HUM303/HUM425)

  1. Ana Doria-Quesada

    “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”-Rousseau
    This is true from a social perspective and political action to free “men” is the stuff of history. But it is also true from a philosophical perspective. “Man”, meaning human kind, is born free but immediately becomes chained by the reality of life. The moment we are born we start to die. We search for the meaning of living by our choices. As social beings, we try to find the meaning of our individual lives in the context of society. As social beings everything we do, or don’t do, is a political act. In terms of tyranny and government, to act politically for the good of society, we make choices of action. Is terror a viable political choice of action? The Weather Underground members, the Red Army members believed so and in their actions shook the general public and the status quo of government out of their stupor but their actions also had a lot of collateral damage that in my view is unnecessary and counter productive. It is true that to do nothing is a form of violence but to combat violence with violence only brings violence, (as the example of Robespierre demonstrates) not necessarily change. I don’t think we are any more enlightened today by actions of terror than twenty, thirty or fifty years ago. I don’t think that much change has happened in terms of government and its tyranny through the violent political actions of groups such as the Red Arm and more recently the terrorist groups that struck the Twin Towers and the two Chechnian brothers at the Boston Marathon. I do think that much greater change happened through the civil disobedience non-viloent actions of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther KIng, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and the like. So, Robespierre’s quote is flawed because to imply that violent action is justified by it’s virtuous base, is to say that the ends justify the means. Islamic groups use this perspective to justify their violent actions towards what they call a “Imperialistic, western, oppressive, unvirtuous world” but continue to live in a very oppressive, misogynistic, class conscious, on the surface virtuous but in reality hypocritical, highly hierarchical society. They are not interested in changing anything about their society to benefit all the members of their society but their actions agains the “outside” world is to maintain the status quo of their own medieval, male oriented world. In my opinion, the real true, progressive, radical, creative political action is an individual one. As Sting says it in one of his best songs, “Men go crazy in congregations but only get better one by one”, the actions you take day by day in every instance of your life are the ones that make the most difference. To make a stand is not to shout from the mountain top to the masses but to silently refuse to move from a seat the majority has declared forbidden to you. That is a creative act. I think it was Picasso, in one of his lucid moments when he stepped outside his ego, that said: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” This is the Anarchist way, this is the only way to free ourselves from the chains Rousseau speaks of.

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