“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