Sunday, September 5, 2010

Learning Virtue from the French (Shh... don't tell anyone).

Being too "French" got John Kerry into a lot of trouble, politically.  Funny thing, the French liked us way back when (or maybe it was that they were not all that fond of the  Brits).   I encountered both French and English when I went overseas for ten days in Mid-August.  I encountered the French twice::  last time first, I encountered them via De Gaulle Airport, where I got inexplicably routed en route from Heathrow to Boston.  I can't say I learned much there..except that for some reason the loos are  on a mezzanine floor rather than on the floor of the departure lounge.  Perhaps it has something to do with aromas...but I digress.

The first time I encountered the French was at the National Theatre 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.



Oh, this is great. ha

Terror as a by product of virtue.

Justice, swift and unyielding.

Wonderful essay Professor.

Alan said...

Nicely done.

seashell said...

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 Al Qaeda and Muslims.

seashell said...

Ooops, forgot the rest of the comment!@!!!@!~

I think I see where you going with this, although the virtue part seems troublesome, in 1794 and now. I mean, separating the heads of thousands of people from their bodies hardly defines virtuous in my book. Of course, I also have a hard time understanding those who complain of beheadings as used in one part of the world, all the while approving of the death penalty as used in the US, so maybe it's just me. :-)

Anyway, enjoyed the post. Thanks, amike.

Amike said...

My thinking is that very few perpetrators of vicious deeds think of themselves as anything else than virtuous. I love Lincoln's Second Inaugural on this point. "Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. Lincoln took less joy in winning than any leader about whom I've read. and he of course finished the speech with the magnificent "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting piece, among ourselves, and with all nations."

A little more then a month later, the virtuous John Wilkes Booth killed him. Sic Semper Tyrannis

Hope you'll join our little band of writers here, Seashell. I think you'll find us congenial company. :-)

Alan said...

AMike - I share your admiration for Lincoln's "...(taking) less joy in winning..." and would like to point out that the sentiment is not his alone.

Lao Tzu wrote this:

"Weapons are instruments of fear, they are not a wise man's tools.
He uses them only when he has no choice.
Peace and quiet are dear to his heart,
And victory no cause for rejoicing.
If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing."

Amike said...

Three cheers for Lao Tzu--make that four. It's a holiday.

seashell said...

In 2007, a history Professor suggested that it might be helpful to study the Jacobins worldview after storming the Bastille if one was interested in understanding the Bush administration after 9/11:

The Jacobins shared a defining ideological feature. They divided the world between pro- and anti-Revolutionaries — the defenders of liberty versus its enemies...One was either for the Revolution or for tyranny.

It was "a crusade for universal liberty", one that included war with the hostile European countries as well as 'traitors' on the domestic front, known forever after as the The Terror.

... believing that only they could save France from apocalyptic destruction, Jacobins could not conceive of legitimate dissent.

To defend the nation from its enemies, Jacobins expanded the government’s police powers at the expense of civil liberties, endowing the state with the power to detain, interrogate and imprison suspects without due process. Policies like the mass warrantless searches undertaken in 1792 — “domicilary visits,” they were called — were justified, according to Georges Danton, the Jacobin leader, “when the homeland is in danger.”

They even wore red, white and blue rosettes on their lapels to show their patriotism! And from Louis de Saint Just came their slogan, "No liberty for the enemies of liberty.”

On this principle, the Terror demonized its political opponents, imprisoned suspected enemies without trial and eventually sent thousands to the guillotine. All of these actions emerged from the Jacobin worldview that the enemies of liberty deserved no rights.

Backing up a claim I read at the start of the Iraq war, Prof. Furstenberg notes the origin of the word 'terrorist':

The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor of course to “Islamofascism.”

It referred to a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.

Apologies if you have already read this article. I found it fascinating, to say the least. And to think we renamed my favorite vegetable to 'Freedom Fries'. Harumph- more like Fries Warmed Over in my humble opinion. :-)

Bush’s Dangerous Liaisons, New York Times, Oct. 28, 2007.

Hope you'll join our little band of writers here, Seashell. I think you'll find us congenial company. :-)

Congenial and familiar! Would love to. Thanks, amike.

Anonymous said...

Reading this is taking a while. Terror is the product of virtue.

From my experience it is someone who feels they are powerless who will go to the greatest extremes against someone else. But virtue is not a feeling of powerlessness. It is a feeling of absolute certainty, again a feeling that can justify actions of the greatest extreme.

Thank you, amike.


seashell said...

Here's where I am as I stumble through the blood and guts of the 1790s, Richardxx. I think the French Revolutionaries grounded their virtue on the belief that for France, the cause of liberty now, and liberty in the future, trumped all else, even respect for individual lives if there was the slightest chance that those lives could somehow come between liberty and France. For the revolutionaries, there were only two scenarios in the future for France; either universal liberty or complete and utter destruction. They were determined that it would be liberty, an objective so completely principled and legitimate that in their eyes wiping out liberty's enemies could be nothing less than virtuous.

On the other hand, my fondest memories of France are of Nice and Monte Carlo and the beach boys serving champagne while I was sunning on the Mediterranean beach. Very fun, but hardly educational. :-)