The first time I encountered the French was at the National Theatre in London...in a play by Georg Buchner entitled Danton's Death. Buchner was German, which means my encounter with the French was by way of two of their traditional enemies: however, Buchner himself was a revolutionary, so that partly mitigates the suspicious nature of my sources.
The play takes place in the heady days of the "Reign of Terror" Georges Danton has had second thoughts about the Reign of Terror and argues for a more moderate course. Robespierre is not happy about that, not one whit--and arranges to have Danton executed. (He would suffer a similar fate--more about that later).
Buchner puts these words in Robespierre's mouth:
...we have yet another faction to destroy. It is the opposite of the first. It wants to make us weak. It’s battle cry is ‘Mercy!’. And its tactic? To take away the weapons of the people and the strength of the people and deliver them, naked and cowed, into the hands of the kings of Europe. The weapon of the Republic is Terror. The strength of the Republic is virtue. Virtue because without it terror withers away, terror because without it virtue is powerless. Terror is a by-product of virtue, it is nothing less than swift, stern and unbending justice. People say that terror is the weapon of tyranny, and that our government therefore resembles a tyranny. Of course it does. But only as much as the sword in the hand of a fighter for freedom resembles the sword of a slave, fighting for a king. The despot rules his bestial serf through terror. As a despot he has that right. You are the founders of the Republic. You have the right to use terror to crush the enemies of liberty. The revolutionary government is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.
‘Have mercy on the royalists!’ some shout. Mercy for criminals? No! Mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for mankind. The protection of society is only for the peaceful citizen. In a Republic only republicans are citizens, royalists and foreigners are enemies. To punish the oppressors of mankind is a privilege; to pardon them, barbarism. Any sign of compassion is a sign of hope for England and Austria.
Buchner, Death of Danton, Act 1, Scene 3
Terror is a by-product of virtue. Hearing those words made me me decide to write a trope on the play. I suspect those who firebombed construction equipment at the site of construction of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, no doubt consider themselves virtuous in the extreme. So did those who drove airplanes into the World Trade Center, those who argue against building a Mosque at Ground Zero, as did the man who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma or the man who tried to bomb the Discovery Building in Maryland. There may be some who proudly embark on a terror campaign for the sheer fun of it, or because they wanted to prove their lack of virtue, but I'm at a loss to name one.
The reviewer at Permanent Revolution cited above remarked this about the play:
At the heart of Buchner’s play is not a parable about the “dangers of revolution”, but a drama about how comrades-in-arms, those who fought side by side in the revolution, can end up killing each other. What are the forces, tensions, class conflicts that lead even those who were friends from school days, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins for example, into such irreconcilable conflicts?I can buy that. On a far lower level, I watch people tear into each other in futile attempts to demonstrate how much more pure their motives are. The left is far better at this kind of self immolation than the right is. And that, too, is a lesson in Buchner's play. Robespierre's fate was the mirror image of Danton's.
My original plan had been to move into a little Victor Hugo, primarily so I could include a bit of Les Mis. But I think I'll leave that for a part II. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this little irony from my grad school days when I was ever so much more virtuous than I am now.