The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolutionby Dan Edelstein
Natural right—the idea that there is a collection of laws and rights based not on custom or belief but that are “natural” in origin—is typically associated with liberal politics and freedom. In The Terror of Natural Right, Dan Edelstein argues that the revolutionaries used the natural right concept of the “enemy of the human/i>
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Natural right—the idea that there is a collection of laws and rights based not on custom or belief but that are “natural” in origin—is typically associated with liberal politics and freedom. In The Terror of Natural Right, Dan Edelstein argues that the revolutionaries used the natural right concept of the “enemy of the human race”—an individual who has transgressed the laws of nature and must be executed without judicial formalities—to authorize three-quarters of the deaths during the Terror. Edelstein further contends that the Jacobins shared a political philosophy that he calls “natural republicanism,” which assumed that the natural state of society was a republic and that natural right provided its only acceptable laws. Ultimately, he proves that what we call the Terror was in fact only one facet of the republican theory that prevailed from Louis’s trial until the fall of Robespierre.
A highly original work of historical analysis, political theory, literary criticism, and intellectual history, The Terror of Natural Right challenges prevailing assumptions of the Terror to offer a new perspective on the Revolutionary period.
“The Terror of the Natural Right is both a rigorous archival account of the Terror and a study of our times….Calling on literature, political theory, legal history, mythology, and close reading of original sources, he provides a major reinterpretation of the Terror that challenges fundamental tenets of revisionist history and recent Marxist “bottom-up” studies of revolutionary violence. Furthermore, in drawing parallels between the Terror and the War on Terror, he sheds light on current international affairs, challenges recent theories of the state of exception, and demonstrates that the Revolution, far from over, can still captivate and enlighten like never before.”—L’Esprit Créateur
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THE TERROR of NATURAL RIGHTRepublicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution
By DAN EDELSTEIN
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIMAGINARY REPUBLICS
IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, republics existed primarily in books. To be sure, there was Casanova's Venice and Rousseau's Geneva, along with Bayle's United Provinces and a few others (the Swiss cantons, San Marino, and various northern Italian states), but to most observers, these governments were mostly aristocratic and, moreover, were increasingly sidelined to "the fringe of history." The vibrant republics that had inspired Renaissance theorists—Florence in particular—had either disappeared from the political scene or fallen into politico-economic slumber. When eighteenth-century authors wrote about republicanism, it was from a very different perspective than Machiavelli or Harrington: They were describing less a reality than an imagined past or future.
Even as imaginary entities, however, republics had a very real existence. Livy's Early History of Rome was taught in nearly all French collèges—those "nurseries [pépinières] of republicans," as Robespierre later called them—lighting up the minds of students with heroic scenes from a bygone world. "Everyone knows the history of this republic by heart," Jaucourt began his Encyclopédie article on the Roman Republic. Relegated to books, republics and their glorious citizens obtained a fantastical and alluring hue: Plutarch's generals and statesmen became imaginary models for adolescents. This romancing of republicanism had long worried defenders of monarchy: In Leviathan, Hobbes had expressly warned against "the Reading of the books of Policy, and Histories of the antient Greeks, and Romans; from which ... men have undertaken to kill their Kings, because the Greek and Latine writers ... make it lawfull, and laudable, for any man so to do." So concerned were the authorities of the University of Cambridge in 1627 that the new professor of classical history, Isaac Dorislaus, was corrupting the youth with his rousing discussions of Tacitus and the fall of the Roman Republic, they suspended him after only two lectures. Dorislaus would later eat his plate of vengeance cold, assisting the prosecution during the trial of Charles I.
If nothing new, these attachments to ancient republics became only exaggerated in the age of sensibilité. Where Don Quixote's aristocratic delusions stemmed from an overdose of chivalric romances, eighteenth-century readers seem to have experienced similar republican fantasies. While undoubtedly more bovaryiste than his contemporaries, Rousseau's republicanism derived much more, by his own account, from classical sources than his native city's traditions: "Ceaselessly occupied with Rome and Athens; living, so to speak, with their great men ... I believed myself to be Greek or Roman; I became the character whose life I read." Once over dinner he reenacted the famous gesture that earned Gaius Mucius his nickname of Scaevola—and nearly burnt his right hand in the process. After his revelation on the road to Vincennes to visit Diderot, Rousseau "converted" to a life of republican virtue, with a rapturous enthusiasm reminiscent of his earlier (and later) flights of fancy into the pays des chimères.
The regal splendor of eighteenth-century courts served only to accentuate the delusive nature of these republican fantasies. Louis-Sébastien Mercier depicted in exquisite and humorous detail how confusing it was to come of age in a world centered around a king but enamored with ancient republics:
The name of Rome is the first that caught my attention. As soon as I could grasp rudimentary ideas, I was told the story of Romulus and his she-wolf, and had the Capitol and Tiber described to me. The names of Brutus, Cato, and Scipio pursued me in my sleep; Cicero's familiar epistles were piled into my memory ... in such a manner that I was far away from Paris, a foreigner in her walls, living in Rome, which I have never seen, and probably never will.
As with Rousseau, it was primarily in Livy's airbrushed portrait of pre-imperial Rome that Mercier discovered the heroic world of republicanism. The spellbinding power of this lost Roman world led Mercier (as Hobbes before him) to ponder why, in an absolutist monarchy, students are not only permitted but encouraged to spend their formative years with republican authors who celebrate tyrannicidal acts:
It is certain that the study of Latin imparts a certain taste for republics, and that one wishes to restore the one whose great and long history one reads.... It is nonetheless in a monarchy that young people perpetually entertain these strange ideas, which they must quickly lose and forget, for their safety, success, and happiness; and it is an absolute king who pays professors to expound in all seriousness on the eloquent declamations against the power of kings; in such a way that a university student, when he finds himself in Versailles, and has some sense, cannot help but to think of Tarquin, of Brutus, of all the proud enemies of royalty. Then he nearly loses his head ... and it takes a while for him to acquaint himself with a country that has no tribunes, no decemvirs, no senators, and no consuls.
Republican fantasies, in Mercier's account, reveal themselves to be just that—the illusory dreams of an adolescent boy, who, in Mably's words, "ruined his mind reading the beloved history of the Greeks and Romans, who now only make good novel or theater heroes." These dreams were not restricted to boys: adolescent girls, most notably Manon Phlipon, the future Mme Roland, and Charlotte Corday, also indulged in Roman republican fantasies. Whether or not it was thought possible to create a republic in France, "the heroism of nascent republics" (to borrow Helvétius's phrase) did not cease to enchant. The few French subjects who would rather have been citizens of a French Republic even before 1789 also seem to have acquired their political views from books on Roman history: Camille Demoulins allegedly carried a copy of the abbé Vertot's Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la République romaine, a bastardized version of Livy, in his pocket as a schoolboy. As his later speeches and writings reveal, Desmoulins was very familiar with the classical-republican tradition: He was one of few Jacobins not to use "Machiavellian" as a synonym for "deceitful," but instead cited the Machiavelli of the Discorsi. Even revolutionaries, such as Saint-Just, who had revealed few republican feelings before August 10, 1792, burst into austere Roman discourse as soon as they made the switch.
While there may not have been a "republican party" in pre-revolutionary France, there certainly seems to have been a republican cultural imagination that would be fired up by revolutionary events, even if it did not contribute to their advent. But what are we to make of the fact that republicanism occupied the same lieu de mémoire as romanced, and often fanciful, histories of antiquity? To begin with, this close proximity obliges us to look at works of the imagination if we are to complete the eighteenth-century history of republicanism. This fictional context, however, also affects the way we study it: The "imaginary" life of republicanism was certainly much looser and freer than the traditional grammar and narrative of political thought demanded.
These imaginative reworkings of republicanism did not necessarily constitute "utopian" projections. The essential republican keywords (for example, virtue, corruption, murs, equality, liberty) remained present, as did the central institutions (notably religious festivals, pedagogical institutions, and citizen armies). The parts stayed the same: It was their relations that changed, and with them, the shape of the republican discourse and story. If the distinction between imaginary republics and utopian representations sometimes appears slim, as in the case of Fénelon's Boetica, the label "utopian" does not confer any advantages, at least for the present study: Not only does it trivialize the republican dimension of these political projects, but it also implies that contemporary readers could not have distinguished the clearly fantastical traits from the more relevant and familiar. As Dena Goodman emphasized, literature in the Enlightenment participated in the wider empirical trend of "experimentation." Under the cover of utopian states, authors could express ideas that were more subversive than fantastic. Fiction, for the philosophes, offered an opportunity to explore "possible worlds"—a Leibnizian notion that has recently regained favor in literary theory—that rested on certain fundamentally different premises, but that nonetheless obeyed logic and causality. This experimental strategy was famously employed in one of the most widely read works of the eighteenth century, Fénelon's Aventures de Télémaque, analyzed below. Through such literary, political, and philosophical texts, a cultural and legal imagination emerged that would inform the institutions and laws of the new French state, once the Revolution had made it possible to imagine the state anew.
The State of Nature and the Golden Age: From Montaigne to Fénelon
Where ancient Rome and the Peloponnesian city-states generally provided both the fodder and backdrop for eighteenth-century debates on political theory, a different classical referent lay at the heart of the more experimental and imaginative Enlightenment reworkings of classical republicanism: the myth of the golden age. A fixture of various cultural discourses in the early-modern period, this myth had also become associated with the condition in which the New World "savages" lived. Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals" was only the most famous text to invoke this Greek myth in reference to their "state of nature." Although this specific expression became current only with Hobbes, American societies were certainly perceived in Montaigne's time as living in a condition ruled by nature alone: The cannibales "are still in that happy state of desiring only as much as their natural needs demand." But unlike the Hobbesian version of the state of nature (discussed in the introduction), the inhabitants of this "âge doré" obeyed the laws of nature: "Natural laws, not yet bowdlerized by our own, command them." Montaigne was so impressed by their "primitive rules given by Nature" (in Virgil's words, which he quotes) that he compared the entirety of his Essais to their natural condition, in a prefatory text: "Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked."
As in Ovid's celebrated description of the golden age, the state of nature that Montaigne perceived in Brazil is defined primarily by negation: It knows neither writing nor arithmetic, riches nor poverty, contracts nor inheritances, agriculture nor metallurgy, wine nor wheat. Certain important differences with the classical referent do stand out: The inhabitants of the golden age were vegetarians, whereas the cannibales, of course, were not. They digested their enemies after vanquishing them in war, another unknown activity during the Age of Gold. Other differences are more subtle. Where Ovid had underscored the absence of laws and judges in the golden age, Montaigne added a more pointed political commentary: The cannibales had "no name for a magistrate or for political superiority." This insistence on the fact that sovereignty—a key political issue after the publication of Jean Bodin's Les Six livres de la République in 1572, eight years before the first edition of the Essais—was missing from the state of nature is reinforced at the end of the essay, when Montaigne relates two observations allegedly made by the cannibales who had been brought to France in 1562. Both concern the status of the sovereign: First, the visitors cannot understand why adult French men pay such homage to a mere boy (Charles IX, who was twelve at the time), and, second, they explain that the only power of command that exists in their society pertains to military expeditions and ceases entirely once the hostilities are over. While Montaigne does not comment on their remarks, they do not exactly paint a flattering portrait of French royal power.
The themes and arguments developed in "Des Cannibales" would be elaborated much more explicitly in the eighteenth century, yet already in Montaigne we may detect the antipolitical bent that would come to inform natural republicanism. Since individuals in this golden age–like state of nature respect natural laws, they have no need for a princeps legibus solutus (or "ruler above the laws," the juristic definition of a sovereign). At worst, sovereignty is reduced to law enforcement, in which case, it can be redefined as (and restricted to) a monopoly on violence, as it would be by the Physiocrats. At best, individuals can police themselves and others by appeals to "right reason" and virtue, as we will see with Fénelon's Boetica. Political power, in this case, would ideally vanish altogether. While the opposition between sovereignty and natural right could be used to argue against monarchic rule, as it would be by Montaigne's friend Etienne de la Boétie, in his Discours de la servitude volontaire, the more republican concepts of equality and liberty emerged here not so much in opposition to monarchical rule as in its absence. Since there is no need to pass laws or judgments, the citizens of a natural republic are not called on to participate in the expression of popular will ("positive liberty"). They would become "republicanized" only in a positive sense in response to the demythologizing of the state of nature by seventeenth-century theorists.
The State of Nature in Seventeenth-Century Natural Right Theory
By the time of Rousseau, it would once again become commonplace to describe the state of nature as "another universe, a real golden age" and to perceive Montaigne's "cannibals" as models of natural virtue. For many seventeenth-century authors, however, the New World did not appear in such a happy light. Indeed, given the complicated relations between natural right theory and European colonialism (discussed in the prologue), it was in the interest of the imperial powers to quite literally demonize indigenous peoples and to deny that they obeyed the laws of nature. This negative depiction of the New World "savages" did not necessarily lead theorists to recast the state of nature per se as violent and unvirtuous: Grotius, for instance, calls the American "Aborigenes ... a wild and savage People, without Laws, without Government, loose and dissolute," but still claims that "the first Men were created in a State of Simplicity.... They were rather ignorant of the Nature of Vice, than versed in the Knowledge of what was virtuous." While less rhapsodic than Montaigne's "Des Cannibales," this description nonetheless perpetuates the golden age topos of a naturally good, primitive human society, which may have been lawless but was not disorderly. But others found it only logical to identify these "first Men" with the "Aborigenes" discovered in the New World. Hobbes, most famously, invokes "the savage people in many places of America," who "have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner," as evidence that the state of nature was in fact a state of war and not a golden age at all.
Although it would be with Leviathan (1651) that the term and concept of a "state of nature" fully entered natural right theory, Hobbes's own definition tended to be greeted with skepticism. It was challenged notably by Pufendorf, who recognized the limitations of the state of nature, but nonetheless argued that in that state, "all Men are inclined to perform ... all those Duties which the Law of Nature directs." Only civil society could guarantee that men would actually perform their duties, but the insecurity characterizing Pufendorf's state of nature was still a far cry from the violence of Hobbes's state of war. Writing within a Christian theological framework, Pufendorf also considered the "Primitive State of Nature, before the Fall" to be a state of moral perfection, as opposed to the "Deprav'd State of Man," which followed. This reinscription of a perfect primitive state, where human society was determined purely by the laws of nature, would in turn facilitate the return to a golden age interpretation of the state of nature.
Excerpted from THE TERROR of NATURAL RIGHT by DAN EDELSTEIN Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.
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