On this edition of The Aidan Project, Aidan is joined once more by Jared Miracle, a cultural entomologist with an M.Ed. and a PhD. in anthropology from Texas A&M University. In this episode, Aidan and Jared discuss the infamous cat killings from The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton’s noted scholarly work on the cultural history of France. Why did early modern Europeans find cats to be completely deserving of such harsh treatment? Along with this incredible story and the wider context surrounding it, Aidan and Jared also discuss the mythical Mexican chupacabra, religion, Artificial Intelligence, and much more. You can follow Jared on Facebook (facebook.com/jaredmiraclewriter) and Twitter (@DocKungFu).
On this edition of The Aidan Project Podcast, Aidan is joined on the line from New York City by philosopher, Dr. Benedict Beckeld. In this episode, Aidan and Dr. Beckeld discuss a number of important issues, most notably Dr. Beckeld’s explanation of Donald Trump’s electoral success. Dr. Beckeld argues that oikophobia – a repudiation of one’s own culture – led to the rise of Trump. The good news is that ‘Western Decline’ is cyclical; the bad news is that there is no immediate sign of a reversal. Also discussed on the show: the ‘Regressive Left’, immigration, Islam, free speech, race riots in Sweden, Brexit, Milo, atheism, bodybuilding, and much more. Dr. Beckeld was born in Sweden to Brazilian and Jewish parents, but emigrated with his family to New York City as a teenager. Dr. Beckeld’s philosophy has thus far focused primarily on matters of aesthetics, ethics, contemporary culture, political philosophy and the philosophy of history. For more information on Dr. Beckeld, you can find him online at www.benedictbeckeld.com and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/benedictbeckeld
I can’t wait for all the conspirators to be liquidated.
The French Revolution is undoubtedly an epochal moment in the development of modern democratic principles. The question, therefore, regarding the role of violence in the Revolutionary process, to which modern democracy owes so much, is important. It is only natural to consider how a movement inspired by the Enlightenment can be made sense of when the modern understanding of terrorism is itself rooted within the French Revolution.
However, assessing the role of the violence is, perhaps surprisingly, uncompromisingly simple. The bloodshed, unwaveringly led by Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) during the Terror, served to emphatically enforce the general will. This fundamental explanation can be broken down further into three contributory factors. Firstly, the violence arose from a desperate desire to protect the Revolution at any cost. Secondly, it sought to purify the Revolution from the contamination of its enemies. Thirdly, as the Revolution encountered enemies at the gate, in addition to those being mercilessly suppressed within, the violence also served to mobile Revolutionary France’s war effort. Certainly, for the Revolution’s achievements to be sustained, blood had to be spilt.
The historiographical interpretation of the violence within the Revolution is commonly explained as having the overarching ambition of enforcing the general will, as perceived by George Mosse. This is a convincing summary of a Revolution which was longer sustained and more violent than any that came before it. This is not to say that the violence was part of a grand plan, as Stanley Hoffman explained. Considering the lack of experience the Revolutionaries had in governing, Hoffman’s explanation of a slide into violence is a persuasive understanding of the escalation from rhetoric to terror. Historians from the Jacobin or Marxist camps have drawn parallels between the achievements of Robespierre and Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin certainly recognised the value of terror from studying the French Revolution.
Robespierre’s writings form a treatise on the use of violence to enforce the general will. Robespierre saw violence as indispensable. His political opponents felt the same. The only divergence was which faction would triumph. The unleashing of the Terror and the September Massacres were not ideas discussed on the tennis court during that lofty day of June 20 1789. As the Revolution evolved, a hatred of foreign invaders, aristocrats, priests and prostitutes, combined with a failing bourgeois Assembly, gave rise to a truly murderous method of Revolution. Violence, explained Simon Schama, was the energising spring from which all the Revolutionaries drank.
The Revolution had to be protected, and a violent obsession with blood, death and sacrifice were essential components in its mentality. There could only be sanguinary consequences of such an obsession. When the Bastille was assailed in an act of mob violence on 14 July 1789, the fuse of violence had been lit. The symbolism of destroying a royal edifice, which had been assaulted in the desire for ammunition, and then annihilating its protectors, was obvious. The gloves of the Revolution were off, as, in fact, were the heads of its opponents. With the fall of the Bastille, further inspiration was given for additional instances of revolt.
Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789, the National Assembly had established committees to report on potential insurrectionary plots. Early optimism for rapid democratisation was foiled by political wrangling and a lack of co-operation by King Louis XVI (1754-1793), leading to a standoff between a new assembly and its intended constitutional monarch. Under pressure, the king’s only hope for exerting control lay with the army. With this in mind, on 10 August 1792, a 20,000 strong insurrectionary force launched an attack on the Tuileries. Resistance was brutally overcome. With the fall of the palace, came the fall of royal authority. The sans-culottes‘ involvement in the Revolution peaked with this show of force. Key as they were to the overthrow of the monarchy, the sans-culotes had also gained political power. The mob was afforded acquiescence for their goals because their inclination for violence served the Revolutionary desire for consolidating the general will.
The government moved to create a climate of fear, allowing them to engender a proclivity for violence from its supporters. Now no longer merely an unremarkable lawyer from northern France, Robespierre was playing a key role in an agitated Paris. Robespierre had switched from being an opponent of capital punishment to boldly declare, “Regretfully I speak this fatal truth – Louis must die because the nation must live.” Robespierre, on the eve of joining the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, wrote a catechism which stated that traitors and conspirators must be punished, and criminals who outraged liberty must be made a terrible example of. To protect the Revolution, Robespierre moved to purify the nation, balefully declaring after the attempted flight of the king:
What scares me, Gentlemen, is precisely which seems to reassure everyone else. Here I need you to hear me out, I say once again, what scares me is what reassures all the others: it is that since this morning, all our enemies speak the same language as us…look about you, share my fear, and consider how all now wear the same mask of patriotism.
Following the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793, a crisis emerged amidst military defeat, widespread rebellion, economic turmoil, and unhappiness among the sans-culotte. Robespierre was concerned about traitors in disguise, who he suspected were the true leaders of the opposition. Indeed, just a year on from the beginning of the Revolution, Robespierre’s paranoia had been noted within the Parisian press and by fellow deputies. What better way to purify than by violence, that cure-all remedy.
Robespierre’s view of purification did not arise from God. The basis for his quasi-religious doctrine arose from the philosophes, as noted by Francois Furet. To be sure, Montesquieu’s (1689-1755) writings on vertu deeply influenced Robespierre, who argued that terror wielded by the virtuous was the refuge of the poor. Robespierre’s desire was to purify the Revolution by removing its pollutants, although as the terror escalated, what constituted impure became more difficult to pinpoint. Ultimately, Robespierre understood that he owed his political power to the violence of the people. He needed their hands and sharp instruments to operate on France’s gangrenous limbs.
Another influential philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), wrote of his wish to see reform, though not revolution. Such philosophes believed that superior principles could be discovered in an era of progress; a world view with significant democratic implications. The impetus of the work of Rousseau promulgated an understanding that, if it were not for the traitors and criminals, division and conflict, themselves unnatural, would be avoided. With this understanding, there could be violent Revolution and yet no problem of a contradiction with Rousseau’s wish for peaceful reform.
The violence, meted out dispassionately as it was, certainly focused on its enemies. As far as Robespierre was concerned, a friend could quickly become an impurity to be eliminated. Antoine-Claire Thibaudeau (1765-1855), Robespierre’s fellow Montagnard, noted the death penalty of Robespierre’s former allies, Camille Desmoulins (1760-1794) and Georges Danton (1759-1794), was handed down simply “for having spoken of moderation”. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who had argued that the king should be exiled and not executed, was only spared the guillotine by a misplaced mark of chalk. To be sure, the greatest number of executions occurred in areas that were either home to federalism or blighted by civil war. Moreover, in departments which were not battlegrounds, there were no executions at all. To address the point still further, in several other districts, executions ran into less than double figures. In a time of war and Revolution, many innocent people were also slaughtered, but the violence rained down principally on the enemies of the Revolution.
To be sure, a potent Counter-Revolution was formed by forces from within and without France, who had their reasons to attempt to scupper the movement. Whilst the demise of Louis XVI pleased many within the Revolution, it led to the creation of many a foe, both in France and further afield. For those who were already against the Revolution, it strengthened their resolve. But resistance was not only futile, worse still, it gave the Revolutionaries greater impetus to enforce bloodier despotism. Mosse succinctly described the Committee’s mode of rule as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny” to target its enemies. For the most part, these enemies were real, though sometimes they were imagined. High spirits could occasionally mean there was little time for such distinctions. Through violence and the fear of violence, compliance was forced on an uneasy public, who were manipulated into being part of the Committee’s inclusive democracy.
Two rather mediocre attempts to assassinate Robespierre in late May 1794 led to the Committee responding with a streamlined Revolutionary tribunal. This updated dispensing of justice did not allow for a defending counsel, and a decision could be rendered on the grounds of the defendant’s moral disposition, guided by the jury’s conscience. If the accused were convicted, there could be no other punishment than death. When it came to purification, there was simply no time to waste. Writing to Robespierre back in November 1793, Collot d’Herbois (1749-1796), administering the Terror in Lyon, reported enthusiastically, “I can’t wait for all the conspirators to be liquidated.”
In the spring of 1792, to arrest a distracted internal scene of unrest and disunity, France had declared war. This brazen declaration sharpened many minds towards the Revolutionary cause. You are either with us, or against us. Threatened from within and menaced from abroad, violence was a prerequisite. The existential concern was not simply the threat of a foreign incursion causing a lack of prestige or a cessation of territory. The war had to be won to consolidate the political and social victories thus far gained. The role of this violence was to keep France on a nimble, patriotic, uncompromising war-footing. The French, for the most part, were suitably inflamed for the task at hand, and embraced war in the spirit of ‘conquer or die’. There was a pronounced increase in violence following the foreign invasion, with patriots afraid to leave Paris to fight for fear of a Counter-Revolution in the capital.
The ill-advised Brunswick Manifesto, which threatened a foreign invasion should Louis XVI be harmed, was an inadvertent incitement of Revolutionary enthusiasm. French patriots did not take kindly to this external meddling in their affairs. It was an ideal rallying call for violent opposition. The Revolutionaries utilised this feeling of resistance to whip up a violent response to enemies at home as well as abroad. Indeed, the French people were not wrong in suspecting that the king was a traitor. Louis XVI had begun to regard the work of the Assembly as merely a stop-gap. Furthermore, it was also widely believed that Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was betraying military secrets to Austria. The duplicitousness of the royal couple would ultimately lead to their deaths. All were equal under the purifying guillotine.
Supervising the levée, deputies on mission were sent out from Paris to the provinces. The deputies were tasked with overseeing a smooth process of conscription, but also with the responsibility for ensuring that any disloyalty within the army command would be flushed out. The representatives also played a part in unleashing violence on non-conformists. Indeed, to some, Revolutionary ambitions were alien concepts which offered little. Unconvinced peasants in the countryside were resentful of the attack on their way of life. Conscription served to push them over the edge. The government was not ready for the scale of the insurrection, where resistance to conscription transformed apathy into anger. Middling nobles, too, were also opposed to the changes within France, and the issue of toleration of Protestantism was an especially contentious issue. The violence employed by the Revolutionaries was not only about securing support from patriots, but also crushing those who were admonished as traitors.
The Committee of Public Safety were young men leading a Revolution with a perilously difficult task of controlling its direction. Akin to a scared child holding on desperately to the lead of a wild, snarling dog, violence and terror were the easiest solutions. Certainly, this method was effective. But, as with much in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Eventually, Robespierre’s autocracy lost touch with the nation. The regime believed they could simply unleash the Terror on its critics to remain in control. Eventually, the violence ceased to be effective. Its role to enforce the general will was no longer working – it had become Robespierre’s will, not the will of an increasingly cynical, exhausted France.
Looking to establish control, the Convention undertook stringent measures to bolster its power, with the result being the unleashing of extreme violence. Robespierre and his allies had protected the Revolution. They had purified the nation. And they had pushed the nation’s sons into total war to defend France. But on July 28 1794, the Robespierre faction with the Committee were themselves eliminated, thereby removing their enforcement of the general will. Indeed, much like a tatty wicker basket receiving a freshly severed head, the violence had served its bloody purpose.
Bibliography for V for Violence: The French Revolution
V. Erlenbusch, ‘Terrorism and revolutionary violence: the emergence of terrorism in the French Revolution’, Critical Studies On Terrorism, 8, 2015, pp.193-210.
H. Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1998).
J. Hardman, The French Revolution Sourcebook, (London: Arnold, 2002).
C. Hitchens, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography, (Tantor Audio, 2007), ch.2.
S. Hoffmann, ‘A Note on the French Revolution and the Language of Violence’, Past & Present, 116, 1987, pp.149-156).
G. Mosse, The French Revolution, iTunes University, University of Wisconsin Madison, 22 May 2012. Note: Originally recorded for the WHA radio series, University of the Air.
P. McPhee, French Revolution, 1789-1799, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
P. Pilbeam, ‘Revolution, Restoration(s) and beyond’, in M. Alexander (ed.), French History Since Napoleon, (London: Arnold, 1999).
R. Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, (London: Vintage, 2007).
D. Sutherland, The Modern Scholar: Liberty and Its Price: Understanding the French Revolution, (Recorded Books, 2009).
D.G. Wright, Revolution & Terror in France 1789-95, Second edition, (London: Longman, 1990).
A. Zamoyski, Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848, Audiobook edition, (Harper Collins, 2014).
In a recent podcast, I discussed the merits of concerns that the next United States President may turn Washington on its head and govern as a maniacal autocrat. I looked at the culture of the US and reached a conclusion about the likelihood of Trump ruling the States as a modern absolute monarch. This blog takes a look at absolute monarchy, investigating the limitations in practice of the man most associated with the term absolutism, Louis XIV of France.
The concept of absolutism is one in which the power of a territory is governed entirely by one person, and whether Louis XIV (1638-1715), King of France from 1643-1715, really claimed to be the state or otherwise, it is typical of the legend of his much-contested absolutism.(1) Regardless of the legend, and despite appearances (especially the incredible palace at Versailles which Louis fashioned for himself, and the fine work of his Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), to present Louis XIV in a positive light for the attention of future historians), Louis XIV and the state were not one and the same.(2)
Three key points demonstrate that, whilst acknowledging the tremendous personal authority of Louis XIV, it would not be accurate to say that this notorious ruler oversaw an absolute monarchy. Louis’ real power, beyond the propaganda, was inextricably linked with corruption, coercion and compromise. First and foremost, in order for Louis XIV to raise the funds necessary for the state to operate (especially due to his penchant for waging war and maintaining an extravagant court), a complicated system of collaborative tax generation was essential. Secondly, Louis worked alongside nobles for mutual gain, and was quite accustomed to bribe them for even greater mutual gain. Thirdly, Louis, rather than steamrolling state institutions, was obliged to operate within limits and had a sense of how far to push his luck.
A taxing business
Louis XIV sought gloire and to strengthen France’s defensive borders.(3) Doing so was not cheap, and required that the population be taxed accordingly. But without the luxury of today’s efficient system of tax collection, gaining the revenues from across his domain was no easy task. Louis’ expansive France, drunk as it was on war without and prestige within, necessitated regional partnerships to enable the king to receive his dues.(4) Louis was content to turn a blind-eye to blatant siphoning of funds by his entrusted noble middlemen, because his only concern was the depositing of the bulk of the livres to Versailles.(5)
A classic example of the compromise system of tax collection demonstrates that Louis’ power was rather less than absolute, even when met with a seemingly simple task of tax collection. In Burgundy, a coalition, representative of the province, ensured that tax was somewhat efficiently collected and paid on time. However, in Normandy, where no such coalition existed, whilst the king could demand more tax, and in theory had more unchallenged authority, there was no mechanism for enforcing his will nor effectively collecting the revenue.(6) It was Louis’ noble tax collectors that really filled his coffers, not absolutism.
The nobles’ peace prize
Following a period in which popular unrest had manifested itself in France, Louis XIV moved to strengthen the acquiescence of nobles. Far from securing real absolute power for himself, Louis granted positions in government office to members of the higher order, along with a share of his mystical prestige, to ensure they would remain onside in the advent of further instances of revolt.(7) With regional political power sufficiently strong, no central authority could smother it.(8)
Louis XIV was not able to exert all-encompassing power, so he moved the center of courtly operations to Versailles from Paris, insisting the sycophants and hangers on took residence there. Under his watchful eye at Versailles – which John Merriman called “sort of a Euro Disney for nobles” – Louis was able to influence his courtiers and have unlimited fluid compromise readily available on tap.(9) Indeed, Louis XIV was not endeared to the realities of the game he had to play, noting to Voltaire, “Every time I create an appointment, I create a hundred malcontents and one ingrate”, which is indicative not only of Louis’ discontent with the system but, more to the point, that Louis was nethertheless obliged to operate within such a system.(10)
Louis engaged in many faire des compromis to achieve his regal grip on France, and one in particular is especially illustrative of the wider point of the check of compromise on absolutism and why it was done. Louis, as a young prince, had seen first hand the Fronde rebellion (1648-1653), which, due to its chaotic, irreverential nature, made a strong impression on the future ruler.(11) In 1655, Colbert made sure not only to backtrack on plans to abolish the paulette (a tax levied by the French Crown), but instead continued to renew it in future years, in addition to also allowing further noble concessions. Colbert was conscious of not stirring up the ire of magistrates, who were consequently able to remain away from the direct, absolute control of the king.(12)
James B. Collins drew attention to Louis’ “intelligent compromise” with the various political and socio-economical realities of his regime, noting that regardless of the power Louis held in theory, he would not be able to enforce an overhaul of customary law.(13) Louis was aware of the difference between his theoretical and practical power, and did not seek to, nor could he in any case, enforce absolute obedience, subject as he was to France’s loisfondamentales.(14)
An indictment of the lack of real absolute power Louis had is that whilst his elaborate rule appeared on the surface as a show of strength, beyond the glamour of Versailles, there were judicial officers utilizing the legal system to gently chip away at royal authority. This contrived game of theoretical power and compromise would be unmasked in the future when truly challenged, with historical, revolutionary consequences.(15)
To be sure, judges were concerned about the influence of Louis XIV in wider matters beyond their own goals. But for there and then, their posts were more important than their principals, and they were content to oblige him, safe in the knowledge that not standing in the king’s way would reap them other benefits. The king got his way, but via pragmatic politics, not because of absolute rule.(16) As Jeremy Black neatly put it, “Louis’ domestic power rested on uncertain foundations”.(17)
It is clear that Louis XIV was not an absolute monarch; there were simply too many practical obstacles in play for this to have been possible. Louis relied on coalitions for tax collection, who acquiesced out of self-interest, not out of deference. Louis played the noble game, for as subservient as he wished to make the higher orders feel by giving them the run around in the halls of Versailles, he required their assistance as a conduit for his rule. Louis had seen how pushing even nobles too far could cause an angry backlash, and Louis could not bend the entire state to his will, because even a powerful force such as the King of France could not ignore or move beyond the customs of law that existed in his domain.
Louis was an absolute showman, but he was not an absolute ruler, nor could he have been. Louis XIV, though pragmatism and the acceptance of political and socio-economic realities,was able to rule France, wage wars and bask in the glory of doing so. However, he and the state were not one and the same. His reign was undoubtedly powerful and historically significant, and for the average Frenchman, he was for all intents and purposes, the absolute ruler of legend. But in reality, and especially when it came to the less average Frenchmen who were smart and/or noble enough to understand the game, he could only be as absolute as the mutual concessions of his rule allowed. It was peace for the king’s time, via absolute appeasement.
1 M. E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.304.
2 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.365.
3 W. Doyle. France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, (London: I.B. Taurus, 2013), ProQuest ebrary, p.23.
4 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (pp. 201-202).
5 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633.
6 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 201).
7 S. Miller, ‘Absolutism and class at the end of the Old Regime: The case of Languedoc’, Journal of Social History, 36, 2003, pp. 871-898, (p. 873).
8 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.41.
9 ‘European Civilization, 1648-1945’, Yale web site, http://oyc.yale.edu/transcript/571/hist-202, 8 September 2008, accessed on 5 November 2016. Note: this is transcript of a John Merriman lecture which is also available in audio form on iTunes University.
10 E. Knowles, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.475.
11 R. McCullough, Warfare, Coercion, Conversion and Counterinsurgency in Louis XIV’s France (Boston: Brill, 2007), ProQuest ebrary, p.53.
12 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 360-361.
13 J. Collins, ‘State Building in Early Modern Europe: The Case of France’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 603-633, (pp. 622-623).
14 S. Clark, State and Status, (Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), p.39.
15 J. Russell Major, From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles & Estates, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), p.366.
16 W. Beik, ‘The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 195-224, (p. 219).
17 J. Black, From Louis XIV to Napoleon : The Fate of a Great Power, (London: Routledge, 2001), ProQuest ebrary, p.34.