“It is so sweet to devote oneself to one’s fellows that I do not know how there can be so many unfortunates still without support or defenders. As for me, my life’s task will be to help those who take pleasure in the pain of others. How happy I will be if my feeble efforts are crowned with success and if, at the price of my devotion and sacrifices, my reputation is not tarnished by the crimes of the oppressors I will fight!”
If you asked the average American citizen (not too politically engaged) what they don’t like about politicians, you’d probably get something along the lines that politicians are corrupt, will say anything to get elected, and can’t be trusted. If pressed a little harder, that citizen might mention that politicians have sold out to special interests and don’t really identify with the average man-on-the-street.
And to be honest, all of this is pretty much true. But it wasn’t always the case.
Robespierre was known even to his enemies as “the Incorruptible.” As a young lawyer, he opposed the death penalty on principle, and became poor himself defending clients who could not afford to pay him. As a politician during the French Revolution, he continually took up the cause of the oppressed-struggling for full suffrage for poor citizens, requiring that churches give to the poor instead of hoarding money to purchase more church property, reversing feudal privileges that had kept peasants in poverty for centuries. He was not a Christian in the traditional sense of the word, but he embraced the Christian teaching of “whatever you do unto the least of these brothers, so you do unto me.”
Moreover, Robespierre didn’t just advocate these programs so that he could get elected (in fact, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to legislate universal suffrage). He repeatedly risked his life in the tumult of Revolutionary France to support his concept of the Revolution-a Revolution that he hoped would not only dethrone the King and set up a democracy, but would usher in a new society that would “lead men to happiness through virtue, and to virtue by legislation founded on eternal principles of justice and so framed as to restore human nature to all its rights and all its dignity.”
Unlike most politicians, Robespierre actually believed what he was saying. Moreover, he believed it so much that he thought that anyone who disagreed with him was an enemy to the people. There was no room for compromise in his mind; any compromise would be giving up on the dream of “lead[ing] men to happiness through virtue.”
Likewise, there was no room in Robespierre’s mind for any of his opponents to be merely mistaken in their disagreement with him. The American founders may have written that they held basic truths about equality to be “self-evident”, but as evidenced by their own support for slavery, they didn’t really mean it. Robespierre meant it. To him, the way to achieve happiness and virtue was so self-evident that anyone who disagreed with him was not a fool, but an enemy to the people. The only way to bring justice to the people then is to eradicate those who would betray them-no matter who they were (Robespierre had many of his closest personal friends guillotined after they came to disagree with him politically).
You probably know the result of Robespierre’s fifteen months or so in power at the head of the French Revolution-several thousand people were guillotined. These victims included not only his political opponents, but also various persons convicted of producing “sour wine injurious to the health of citizens” and of exclaiming “A fig for the Nation!” Instead of creating what he hoped would be the perfect democracy, Robespierre produced instead a model in miniature of the 20th century totalitarian state. Like most violent revolutions, the French one ended badly-Robespierre was guillotined, Napoleon eventually took over and plunged all of Europe into a war that lasted for two decades.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this brief episode in history-the insufficiency of good intentions in politics (and in life), the necessity of extending charity to ones’ opponents, and the futility of assuming the ends justifies violent means. The most comforting one that I can come up with is that we’re lucky to have the politicians that we do. Yes, they’re corrupt and wholly owned by the special interests; yes, they don’t usually believe most of the things they tell us and thus are prepared to compromise the interests of the people; yes, these flaws are quickly leading us to bankruptcy. But their very corruption and lack of belief prevents them from going down the path of self-evident certainty that Robespierre traveled. We are blessed to be led by tiny men and women; there are dangers to being led by giants.
Robespierre was calm in his final hours; he was shot in the jaw when he was seized by the opposing faction, and went to the guillotine with only a bandage holding his face together. He had always suspected that when he died, he would be misunderstood by those that he was trying to save. From an earlier poem he had written before he came to power:
The just man’s torment, at his final hour,
The only pang he feels-and I shall feel-
Is the dark breath of calumny and blame
Breathed by a grimmer ghost than death itself
The hate of those for whom he gives his life.
We should always be asking ourselves, as we search for the justice that was Robespierre’s life goal, if we truly are with the oppressed, rather than merely seeking what we perceive to be in their interests. It’s possible to achieve a good for the oppressed and have them hate you for it-but it’s far more likely that you can achieve a good for the oppressed if you work with them rather than merely identifying yourself, with all your flaws and individual viewpoints, with them, as Robespierre did.
*The historical material for this post nearly all came from Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre, which is also the title of the post.