Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolution Tradition

Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolution Tradition

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Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolution Tradition

For the Anglo-American world, Edmund Burke is the touchstone of counter-revolutionary thought, but in this volume, Christopher Olaf Blum shows that in attempting to vindicate the principles that had, at its best, animated the Old Regime, and in critiquing the institutions and beliefs associated with the New Regime, the French counter-revolutionary tradition is unparalleled. To understand adequately what Georges Bernanos called the “spiritual drama of Europe,” it is a tradition that must be grappled with.

Critics of the Enlightenment makes available new translations of representative selections from some of the leading French conservative thinkers of the nineteenth century: François de Chateaubriand, Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre, Fredéric Le Play, Émile Keller, and René de La Tour du Pin. The selections span much of the nineteenth century, from Chateaubriand’s 1814 pamphlet against Bonaparte to La Tour du Pin’s 1883 essay on the theory of the corporate state. The volume, therefore, not only includes responses of the French conservatives to the French Revolutions of 1789 through 1815, but also testifies to the continuing elaboration of this critique against the background of the troubled nineteenth century. Blum’s introduction sets these selections within the contexts of the events giving rise to them and the lives of their authors. The French political philosopher Philippe Bénéton supplies the book’s foreword.

Blum’s elegant translations of texts heretofore difficult or impossible to find in English allow Anglophone readers to profit from the counter-revolutionaries’ insights about social and cultural matters of perennial importance, such as the necessary roles of religion, family, and local communities within any larger political society—matters of pressing concern to the counter-revolutionaries of our own time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781932236255
Publisher: ISI Books
Publication date: 11/28/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 350
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

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ISBN: 1-932236-25-2

Chapter One


No, I shall never believe that I write upon the tomb of France. I cannot be persuaded that the day of mercy will not follow the day of vengeance. The ancient patrimony of the most Christian kings cannot be divided. The kingdom whose birth was the dying Rome's last great work will not perish. The events we have witnessed were not the work of men alone. The hand of Providence is visible throughout. God Himself marches openly at the head of the armies and sits at the councils of the kings. How, without divine intervention, are we to explain the extraordinary rise and the still more extraordinary fall of him who quite recently had the world at his feet? It has not been fifteen months since he was at Moscow, and now the Russians are in Paris. All trembled under his laws from the columns of Hercules to the Caucasus, and now he is a fugitive, on the run, without asylum. His power overflowed like the incoming tide and, like the tide, it has receded.

How are this madman's sins to be explained? We do not yet speak of his crimes.

A revolution, prepared by our moral corruption and errors, breaks out amidst us. In the name of the law, we overturned religion and morality; we renounced experience and the customs of our fathers; we defiled the tombs of our ancestors, the only solid basis for any government, to found upon uncertain reason a society with neither past nor future. Wandering in our own folly, having lost all clear idea of the just and the unjust, of good and evil, we passed through the diverse forms of republican government. We called the populace to deliberate in the streets of Paris about the great objects that the Romans discussed in the Forum after they cast down their arms and bathed themselves in the waves of the Tiber. Then they came out of their dens, these half-naked kings, soiled and beaten down by poverty, mutilated and deformed by their work, their only virtue the insolence of misery and the pride of rags. Fallen into such hands, the fatherland was soon covered with wounds. What remains of our fury and our dreams? Crimes and fetters!

Yet at least our principle was noble. Liberty must not be accused of the faults committed in her name. True philosophy is not the mother of the poisonous doctrines spread by the false wise men. Enlightened by experience, at last we have come to see that monarchical government is the only one that suits our land.

It would have been natural to recall our legitimate princes, but we believed our sins too great to be pardoned. We did not dream that the heart of a son of St. Louis is an inexhaustible treasury of mercy. Some feared for their lives, others for their riches. Above all, it would have cost human pride too much to admit that it had been deceived. So many massacres, upheavals, and miseries, only to return to the point from which we began! Passions were still high, and pretensions of all kinds could not renounce the chimera of equality, the principal cause of our ills. Weighty reasons pushed us forward, petty ones held us back, and public felicity was sacrificed to personal interest, justice to vanity.

Thus we wished to establish a supreme leader who was a child of the Revolution, a leader with the corrupt law at his origins who would protect corruption and make an alliance with it. Upright judges, firm and courageous, captains renowned for their probity and talents, had arisen amidst our travails, yet they were not offered a power their principles would have prevented them from accepting. We despaired of finding among the French a brow that would dare to wear the crown of Louis XVI. A stranger stepped forward. He was chosen.

Buonaparte did not announce his plans openly. His character was revealed only by degrees. Under the modest title of consul, he first accustomed independent minds not to be alarmed at the power they had given him. He appeased the true French by proclaiming himself to be the restorer of order, law, and religion. The wise were tricked, the far-seeing duped. The republicans saw Buonaparte as their work and as the popular leader of a free state. The royalists believed that he would play the role of Monck, and so were quick to serve him. Everyone placed his hopes in him. The brilliant victories of the brave French covered him with glory. Then he became drunk on success, and his tendency to evil began to show itself. The future will doubt whether this man was more guilty for the evil that he did than for the good that he could have done and did not do. Never did a usurper have an easier and more brilliant role to fill. With a little moderation he could have established himself and his line upon the greatest throne of the world. No one disputed the throne, for the generations born since the Revolution did not know our former masters and had only known travail and misery. France and Europe were spent. One only takes a breath after coming to rest; this rest we would then have purchased at any price. An adventurer had troubled the order of royal succession, made himself the heir to heroes, and profited in one day from the despoliation of genius, glory, and time; yet God did not wish that so dangerous an example be given to the world. Lacking the rights of birth, a usurper can only legitimate his pretensions to the throne through his virtues. In this case, Buonaparte had none in his favor but his military talents, and those were equaled, if not surpassed, by several of our generals. When Providence abandoned him and handed him over to his own folly, he was lost.

A king of France once said that if good faith had been banished from the company of men, it must be found in the heart of kings. This necessary quality of a royal soul was lacking in Buonaparte. The first known victim of the tyrant's perfidy was a royalist leader of Normandy. Monsieur de Frotté had the noble imprudence to attend a meeting to which he had been attracted by his trust in a promise. He was arrested and shot. A short time later, Toussaint l'Ouverture was similarly taken by treason in America and strangled in the castle where he had been imprisoned in Europe.

Soon a more famous murder disturbed the civilized world. Reborn were those barbarous times of the Middle Ages, those scenes found only in novels, those catastrophes that the civil wars of Italy and the politics of Machiavelli made known beyond the Alps. The foreigner, still not yet king, wished to have the bloody corpse of a Frenchman as a stepping-stone to the throne of France. And Great God, what a Frenchman! Everything was violated to commit this crime: the rights of men, justice, religion, humanity. The duke of Enghien was arrested in a time of peace on foreign soil and taken from the chateau of Offembourg. When he had left France, he was still too young to know it well. It was from the bottom of a postchaise, then, between two gendarmes, that he saw the soil of his fatherland as if for the first time, and that he traversed the fields made famous by his ancestors only to go to his grave. He arrived in the middle of the night at the dungeon of Vincennes. By the light of torches, under the vaults of a prison, the grandson of the Great Condé was declared guilty of having appeared on the battlefield: convicted of this hereditary crime, he was immediately condemned. In vain did he demand to speak to Buonaparte (O touching and heroic simplicity!); the brave young man was one of the greatest admirers of his murderer. He could not believe that a captain could wish to assassinate a soldier. Worn out with hunger and fatigue, he was taken into the bowels of the castle. There he found a newly dug grave. He was stripped of his clothing and to his chest a lantern was attached so that in the darkness the ball might be guided to his heart. He wanted to give his watch to his executioners and prayed them to transmit the last tokens of his memory to his friends; they insulted him with base words. The command to fire was given. Without witnesses, without consolation, in the middle of his fatherland, only miles from Chantilly and several paces from those old trees under which the holy king Louis gave justice to his subjects, in the prison in which Monsieur the Prince was held, the young, the handsome, the brave, the last offspring of the victor of Rocroi fell dead. He died as the great Condé would have died, and as his assassin will not die. His body was secretly buried, and Bossuet will not be reborn to speak above his ashes.

It remained to the one who had lowered himself beneath mankind by this crime to affect to place himself above mankind by his designs, to give as an excuse for a sin reasons incomprehensible to the vulgar, and to make an abyss of iniquity pass for the heights of genius. Buonaparte had recourse to that miserable self-confidence that fools no one. Not being able to hide what he had done, he made it public.

When the death sentence was heard in Paris, there was open horror. One asked by what right a Corsican had spilled the most beautiful and pure blood of France. Did he think it possible to replace by his half-African line the French line that he had just extinguished? The soldiers groaned: this name of Condé seemed to belong to them alone and to represent the honor of the French army. Our grenadiers had encountered several times the three generations of heroes in the melee, the prince of Condé, the duke of Bourbon, and the duke of Enghien. They had even injured the duke of Bourbon, but the sword of a Frenchman could never exhaust this noble blood: only a foreigner could cut it off at its source.

Every nation has its vices. The French vice is not treason, blackness, or ingratitude. The murder of the duke of Enghien, the torture and assassination of Pichegru, the war in Spain, and the captivity of the pope revealed in Buonaparte a nature foreign to France. In spite of the weight of our fetters, sensible to misery as well as to glory, we cried for the duke of Enghien, Pichegru, and Moreau, we admired Saragossa, and paid homage to a pontiff cast in irons. He who stole the states of the venerable priest who had crowned him, he who at Fontainebleau dared to strike the venerable pontiff with his own hand and to pull the father of the faithful by his white hairs, which he believed to be another victory: he did not know that there remained to the heir of Jesus Christ that scepter of reeds and that crown of thorns that would triumph, sooner or later, over the power of the evil one.

The time is coming, I hope, when the free French will declare by a solemn act that they took no part in these tyrannical crimes, that the murder of the duke of Enghien, the captivity of the pope, and the war in Spain were impious, sacrilegious, hateful, and, above all, anti-French actions, and that the shame of them should fall only upon the head of the foreigner.

Buonaparte profited from the horror that the assassination of Vincennes thrust upon us to cross the last step and to seat himself upon the throne.

Then began the great debauch of royalty: crime, oppression, and slavery marched step by step with folly. Every liberty died. Every honorable sentiment, every generous thought became a conspiracy against the state. If one spoke of virtue, he was suspect. To praise a beautiful action was an assault against the prince. Words changed meaning. A people who fights for its legitimate sovereign is a rebellious people. A traitor is a loyal subject. France was an Empire of lies: journals, pamphlets, discourses, prose, and verse all disguised the truth. If it rained, we were assured that it was sunny. If the tyrant walked among the silent people, it was said that he advanced among the acclamations of the crowd. The prince was all that mattered: morality consisted in devoting oneself to his caprice; duty was to praise him. Above all it was necessary to praise the administration when it made a mistake or committed a crime. Men of letters were forced by threats to celebrate the despot. They capitulated and praised him, and were happy when, at the price of several commonplaces about the glory of arms, they had purchased the right to emit a few sighs, to denounce a few crimes, to recall a proscribed truth! No book could appear without its ode to Buonaparte, like the stamp of slavery. In new editions of ancient authors, the censor removed all that he could find against conquerors, servitude, and tyranny, just as the Directory had corrected in the same authors everything that spoke of monarchy and kings. Almanacs were examined with care, and conscription was made into an article of faith in the catechism. There was the same servitude in the arts. Buonaparte had poisoned those ill with the plague in Jaffa, a painting therefore showed him touching these same plague-infested men with extreme courage and humanity. This was not the way that Saint Louis healed the sick who, with a moving and devout confidence, presented themselves to the royal hands. Do not speak of public opinion: his maxim is that the sovereign should arrange it each morning. The police, perfected by Buonaparte, had a committee charged with giving direction to minds, and at the head of this committee was a director of public opinion. Deception and silence were the two great methods employed to keep the people in error. If your children die on the battlefield, do you think that the police will tell you what has happened to them? They will conceal the events most important to the fatherland, to Europe, to the whole world. The enemies are at Meaux: you will learn it only by the flight of people from the countryside. They surround you with shadows. They play on your fears. They laugh at your sorrows. They disdain what you feel and think. You wish to raise your voice, a spy denounces you, a gendarme arrests you, a military commission judges you. They crush your head, and you are forgotten.

It was not enough to shackle the fathers; the children must also be disposed of. We saw tearful mothers run to the ends of the Empire to demand the sons that the government had taken from them. These children were placed in schools where, to the sound of the drum, they were taught irreligion, debauchery, disdain for domestic virtues, and blind obedience to the sovereign. Paternal authority, respected by the most hideous tyrants of antiquity, was treated as a prejudice and an abuse by Buonaparte. He wanted to make our sons into some sort of Mamelukes, without God, family, or fatherland. It seems that this universal enemy tried to destroy France's very foundations. He more greatly corrupted men, and did more evil to mankind in the short space often years, than did all the tyrants of Rome together, from Nero to the last persecutor of the Christians. The principles that served as the basis of his administration passed from his government into the different classes of society, for a perverse government introduces vice in its people, while a wise government brings virtue to fruition.


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Table of Contents

Selections Include:
François-René de Chateaubriand: On Buonaparte and the Bourbons
Louis-Gabriel-Amboise de Bonald: On Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux; Thoughts on Various Subjects; Observations upon Madame de Staël’s Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution; On the Agricultural Family, the Industrial Family, and the Right of Primogeniture
Joseph de Maistre: Reflections on Protestantism in its Relations to Sovereignty; On the Pope
Fredéric Le Play: Social Reform in France Émile Keller: The Encyclical of the 8th of December and the Principles of 1789 René de La Tour du Pin: Towards a Christian Social Order

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