Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: The Revolution and the Rôle of History - David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution
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II: The Revolution and the Rôle of History - Laurence L. Bongie, David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution 
David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution (2nd ed.), Foreword by Donald W. Livingston (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Revolution and the Rôle of History
History as a Weapon of Counter-revolution
We have examined at the beginning of chapter I the prevailing eighteenth-century view of history. Some further general considerations on the subject are necessary at this point, however, since it is especially at the time of the Revolution in France that history’s traditional rôle as the scientifically validating factor of all political speculation is seriously questioned.
Of course, with the conservatives, this traditional view of history’s function still largely prevails, and, in fact, becomes, if anything, more intense. History shows us the stable facts of human nature. It represents, in a hard physical sense, the unchanging “nature of things.” It has a certain Newtonian order to its predictably cyclical patterns of unfolding.
True enough, events in one century may differ from events in another: that is because of particular variations which characterize each nation and each century. One does not, therefore, become a helpless prisoner of the “science” of history; it does not repeat itself exactly. But history’s essential aspect is its constant similarity from century to century. Since the human heart and the human passions do not change, the present and the future must resemble the past. If this were not true then history would have no purpose; the past is not studied for its own sake. History has its “lessons” to teach. It is the science, admittedly imperfect, admittedly based on analogy, of human social behaviour. One must be just as empirically minded, just as anti-a priori in dealing with this science as with any other. When one speaks of a “revolution” in man’s form of government, for example, one must understand what can possibly be meant by such a term. A total change in the forms of man’s social organization is a distinct physical impossibility. It is as impossible as miracles are in the universe of Newton. Neither human nature nor the law of gravity can be repealed.
History is thus the ordered apprehension of the moral nature of things. It condemns in advance any over-optimistic attempts to achieve ideal or drastically rational political change. It tells us that what has never yet been witnessed in man’s behaviour in the past can hardly be expected to appear in the present or future. J.-H. Meister in 1790 sums up the view very clearly and with a certain irony not uncommon at this time in the writings of those who felt the reassuring weight of the centuries behind them as they attacked the impertinent a priorists:
It may be that a great moral transformation has recently occurred in the world and that a marvellous revolution has suddenly turned all order and principles upside down. Before that memorable moment occurred, however, if we managed to have any confidence at all in the more obvious teachings of history and the experiences of the human heart, would we not have acknowledged without hesitation that what influences most powerfully the will of man is the force of things and circumstances; that this supreme power is counterbalanced only by the force of the passions, and that only for a short time; that the passions in turn have more force than habits, and habits more than prejudices, and prejudices more than life’s ordinary interests, and these everyday interests more than the simple notions of justice and fitness; that, in short, of all the motives that determine our actions and our behaviour, the weakest of all is reason, no matter how splendidly logical it might be?
Now if the occult influence of some supernatural power had not magically transformed all of these relationships, could we really have imagined that the more or less haphazardly traced boundaries of a metaphysical notion are all that is needed to contain the volatile fluctuations of the human will and passions? . . .
Would we still be allowed to doubt that only a form of government that has never existed anywhere is incontestably the most perfect and most admirable? . . .
I have the greatest respect for pamphlet-philosophy revolutions, especially when they are backed by a coalition as terrifying as that formed by the rabble mob and the army; but no matter how decisive their progress may seem, I rather fear that a force which should never be overlooked must inevitably return, namely, the force of things and circumstances. . . .1
The reformer of society must bear in mind not only man’s unchanging passions in his lofty search for what is ideally right in government; he must pay attention also to more earthly matters, to what history, for example, has shown to be socially useful. Such is the opinion of the Abbé L.-S. Balestrier de Canilhac who in 1790 devoted well over a hundred pages of the Bibliothèque de l’homme public to a critically timed reprinting of Hume’s political essays2 and who subsequently provoked the angry protests of his fellow editor Condorcet by defending the historical empiricism of Burke against the a priorism of Thomas Paine:
Mr. Paine reasons in this work, like most of our modern legislators, in the manner of a simple philosopher, never departing from the principles of natural law and their most logical consequences. In contrast, Mr. Burke reasons in the manner of a wise politician who has made a study of men and of human passion’s social effects in large societies. . . .
In politics one must consider not only what is right, but also what is useful. Reason unaided teaches us natural law; but only experience combined with observation can inform us with any certainty on what is truly useful. No one questions that the people, strictly speaking, have the right to elect their kings, and even to depose them at will. It does not take a great philosopher to prove that truth; but it takes more than a philosopher to decide the question on the basis of utility, and one of the great principles of politics is that it is not always useful for the people to do what they have a right to do. The truths that regard our rights are immutable; those relating to utility vary according to circumstance, and the situation of the world is always changing. From this we do not conclude that government must be constantly in the process of changing its principles but rather that it must take care to modify them only with that same wise and unhurried gradualism observed by nature in her own operations.3
The eighteenth century had indeed witnessed the production of a good many rather long, geometrically assembled, highly indigestible ex professo treatises on natural law, most of which, when all was said and done, proved impeccably in many languages that man should be just. One sometimes has, on reading such productions, the classic impression of watching mountains give birth to mice. The Age of Reason also spoke a good deal of natural rights, but natural rights, too, the empirical politician might object, seldom appear to be more than tautological fictions: there are no natural rights as such, there are only the historical adjustments of different men’s conflicting claims. The reformer of society should be guided, then, by positive law rather than by so-called natural law. He should consult Hume and Montesquieu, not the reason of the Age of Reason. Cerutti, a member of the Assemblée législative and one of the warmest eighteenth-century admirers of Hume’s History (“the history of English passions, as written by human reason”) sums up the practical applications of this empirical view:
A principle is . . . the result of experience and calculation. Politics is not . . . an art based on sentiment, nor is it a systematic science. New ideas cannot . . . prevail over old ones solely by the fact that they are new. One does not become a legislator overnight. Those who scorn the notion of consulting the oracles of antiquity, those who look with pity on the Senate of Rome, the Areopagus of Athens, and the Parliament of England, the meditations of Montesquieu, the observations of Blackstone, the reflections of Hume, Robertson, Ferguson, and Delolme, may indeed be men of genius but their genius is most immature, most hasty, and, let us say the word, most infantile, if they dismiss in that way the wisdom of the ages.
All revolutions require courage; consequently, nothing hastens their progress more than the generous vitality of the young. But if youth excels in demolishing the present, it does not similarly excel in building the future. That is the work of maturity, of mature minds and mature ideas. Such maturity casts aside passions that are always extreme and always lacking in foresight, and concentrates instead on laying down solid foundations and on establishing proper limits.4
The counter-revolutionist Count Ferrand, future minister of Louis XVIII and another admirer of Hume’s Stuarts,5 gives in 1793 yet another conservative’s view of the rôle of history. History shows how human nature can be “modified” but can never be “changed.” Once he has a good understanding of the “nature of things,” the reformer will automatically avoid all abstractions and general principles which always appear simple, since they ignore difficulties but which are, in fact, invariably based on false hypotheses:
He will not aim at mere simplicity or single methods, because nature is no more simple in moral than in physical man, because the goals and ends of society are so complicated that it becomes impossible to operate it by means of simple mechanisms that would be inadequate and consequently dangerous.
Well convinced of these general truths, the reformer will examine the particular situation of the State, but without claiming the distinction of having made great discoveries concerning morality, the principles of government, or the notion of liberty. The more his understanding acquires the habit of observation, the more persuaded he will be that the science of government, so practical and embracing so many objects, demands more experience than any man can acquire in a single lifetime. He will therefore seek assistance from the experience of centuries past; he will draw riches from this inexhaustible common treasure which funds the needs of all men; he will not look upon the antiquity of an idea, of a custom, of a prejudice even, as an infallible mark of its blameworthiness; he will accept that there are good prejudices whose preservation is useful and whose destruction would be harmful; that such prejudices, inspired by the initial reaction of a sentiment that advises and assents even before judgement comes into play, must constitute a powerful moving force for the majority of people who are always more capable of feeling than of judgement; and, accordingly, that the more ancient the edifice needing repair, the greater the reverence with which he will approach it, like a holy place where the majesty of the centuries has deposited in the care of experience the practical science of morality and justice; like an age-old establishment that has witnessed the passing generations, whose august and beneficent antiquity advances toward eternity. He will sense that a government possessing these characteristics is a precious hereditary asset, entailed by ancestors to those who must in turn transmit it to the succeeding generations who will inherit it, possess it, and leave it behind as they do life and property; he will sense that in this way a political system is in perfect harmony with the order of the world; that since the functioning of the State imitates the functioning of nature, it is never made entirely new by what it acquires nor entirely old by what it conserves; . . . .6
It is not difficult to hear in the preceding passages echoes of Montesquieu, Hume, and Burke. It would, moreover, be a comparatively simple matter to find scores of similar passages in the works of other conservatives of the period, all with essentially the same message: the facts of human nature, the lessons of history and experience, the moral nature of things, the science of man, in short, cannot be ignored. Revolutionary innovators who disregard what the great historical empiricists have written, who make up new men and new constitutions with the scissors and paste of mere logic, are condemned in advance to failure: “When one contemplates their political levellings and symmetries,” writes Mallet du Pan, also a counter-revolutionary admirer of Hume, “one cannot help thinking of a band of lunatics attempting to line up the Alps in the pattern of Saint Peter’s colonnade.”7
Such being the case, what must one think of a “revolution” in the affairs of men or of those who claim to be placing man in an entirely new world where all the old problems, the old injustices will be eliminated? For the conservative the answer is not difficult: one has very little to think or to do except to wait and, perhaps, if circumstances permit, to smile ironically at such naïvely enthusiastic but completely wasted efforts. A “revolution” means exactly what it seems to mean etymologically: it is a wild and wasteful ride on a merry-go-round which, after going through the classical phases of saving everyone, ends up by, temporarily at least, enslaving everyone, and it ultimately leaves a nation in a social position much worse very often than the one it was in before the foolish political ride began. Revolutions go the full circle; they are “horizontal,” and we shall see that even in the Convention the hope of many of the more history-minded radical members was not that such a view was untrue but that somehow history could be deceived, that the merry-go-round could be stopped at a half-turn. “Revolutions,” one of them tells us, “do not follow a straight line, but progress in a circle. . . . Consequently, each step forward takes you in the direction of despotism, once you have reached the point that was diametrically opposite it. . . .”8
All revolutions consequently resemble each other. If one has studied those of the past in the works of a good historian one can predict with accuracy and profit the course of present or future revolutions:
After two thousand years, Roman history thus becomes useful to the man of genius who analyses political events, determines their causes, and discovers their basic elements. By adopting this method, Montesquieu, in one volume on the Romans, provided more food for thought than all of the historians before him who chronicled even the tiniest details of Roman history. The majority of historians are like those gamblers who note and talk about the number of wins and losses, whereas the mathematician analyses the basics of the game, determines the odds, and has no need to know the game’s events which, in a sense, he has predicted.9
So great are the resemblances between revolutions that the observer may be tempted even to believe that revolutionary leaders consciously imitate the actions of their predecessors. We shall see that extreme royalists did in fact make the charge that the French revolutionists were imitating, point for point, procedures of the seventeenth-century English revolution. Others seemed content with a less sinister account of similarities, explaining them as the unavoidable results of the “nature of things”:
. . . vanity, self-interest, the spirit of independence, terror. These did not appear for the first time in this revolution; they will all be found recorded in history and will always be reproduced in a thousand varied forms by all those who undertake to attack governments.
For convincing proof one has only to read Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, de Thou, Vertot, Hume, Velly, and in general any historian who has left us an account of the upheavals experienced by various empires.
These similarities have been so striking that it has been commonly thought that the leaders of the revolution had made a special study of all those in the past, and that they had pondered these long and hard in order to avail themselves of every means employed by their predecessors to ensure success in this difficult career . . .; it must be acknowledged, on the other hand, that a great many of these similarities arise almost entirely from the nature of things which . . . could not have failed . . . to present such frequent parallels.10
Although he was not above occasionally playing the very popular game of historical rapprochements or parallels himself, the celebrated lawyer, Joseph-Michel-Antoine Servan, perhaps the eighteenth-century French political thinker who most admired Hume,11 cautions that the sociology of revolutions is still in its infancy. It is undeniable, of course, that general laws governing human events exist: “No doubt,” Servan concedes, “if we consider the matter from a very elevated perspective, we have to agree that all moral and physical events result from general causes. But how useful is that finding? Apart from the fact that these causes are extremely difficult to apprehend, their application to particular cases is very frequently impossible. . . .”12 Montesquieu’s historical determinism, in particular, sometimes goes too far in making a science out of politics. The solution, although the end result still leads to political conservatism, lies in a Humian scepticism:
I have discovered in the political essays of Mr. Hume certain reflections which, though seemingly paradoxical, provide us with what strikes me as an intriguing truth:
“I am apt,” he writes, “to entertain a suspicion, that the world is still too young to fix many general truths in politics, which will remain true to the latest posterity. We have not as yet had experience of three thousand years; so that not only the art of reasoning is still imperfect in this science . . . , but we even want sufficient materials upon which we can reason. It is not fully known, what degree of refinement, either in virtue or vice, human nature is susceptible of.”13
What is the value of all these tantalizing analogies that come to mind when one compares the histories of mankind’s various revolutions? Servan answers this question with another analogy:
In conjecturing about the future, a man who possesses the greatest native sagacity, and who joins to it the most intense study and the widest experience, is rather like a traveller . . . who, by dint of practice and habit, can estimate fairly accurately the distance between himself and far-away objects, while a less experienced or less observant person will make serious mistakes; but this same man who, by observing the effects of light and shadow and by comparing the size of intermediate objects is able to determine with great accuracy the distance to a certain mountain, a city, or other such elevated objects, will never be able to guess the existence of any intervening crevasse that might impede his progress toward that mountain or city or even cause him to lose his life should he attempt to cross over it.
No matter how much we study we shall never learn more than a little of the present, far less of the past, and almost nothing, perhaps even nothing at all, of the future.
The torch of history is a magnificent figure of speech; it shows up well in a line of poetry or in a harmonious bit of prose, but when one attempts to reduce it to an exact truth, it turns out that this torch is little more than a dim candle. . . . History, in short, provides warning signals but not guidance; it is a light that alerts us to the dangers of a reef ahead, but it is not a chart and compass.14
Servan’s rather balanced if sceptical attitude is fairly rare among French thinkers of the Right at this time. We shall have occasion to cite various counter-revolutionary texts that betray a great deal more confidence in the prophetic value of history and draw, in minute detail, historical analogies intended to condemn the simple optimism and criminal tampering of the revolutionary leaders. This almost literal belief in historical parallels extended, moreover, well into the early nineteenth century and is effectively illustrated by the following anonymous and rather curious document purporting to be a history of the session of 1828, written in advance by the great Scottish prophet of prophets, David Hume.
The “editor” of the ultra work in question begins by telling his readers that he had intended at first to write his own history of the session, “when I noticed,” he goes on to say, “that it had already been written a long time in advance, and in the most exact detail, by David Hume, in his history of the Stuarts.”15 Happy at finding his work already done, the writer abandons his original project and begins to copy:
. . . I place before my readers an account of what has just occurred here, penned by a necessarily impartial hand. If by this striking parallel I am able to open the eyes of so many honest persons who are being deceived with fine phrases, I would be only too happy. . . .
They will see that in all times and in every country the progress of revolutions does not vary; that in this century of perfectibility, we have been at pains to invent nothing, and that we are merely slavish imitators of the seventeenth-century English. . . .
Could we not say today as the English royalists did in 1641: “Never was sovereign blessed with more moderation, with more justice, more humanity, or more honour? What pity that such a prince should so long have been harassed with suspicions, calumnies, and complaints! If there have been instances of abuse, is there no other way to prevent their return than by total abolition of royal authority? . . . Authority as well as liberty is requisite to government; and is even requisite to the support of liberty itself. What madness, while everything is so happily settled under ancient forms and institutions, to try the hazardous experiment of a new constitution, and renounce the mature wisdom of our ancestors for the crude whimsies of turbulent innovators!” (Hume, tome XIV). . . . The English historian gives us here the explanation of many fine speeches, the measure of many great men, and the key to many great mysteries.
Men are indeed the same in all centuries and in all places; the cunning of some exploits the passions or the credulity of others, and the vile motto of 1789: That’s my place if you don’t mind! has been and always will be that of all revolutions.16
The prime examples cited in the preceding note suggest the extent to which the idea that the French revolution paralleled the English revolution and paralleled it not only closely but, for many, identically, caught hold of the conservative imagination in revolutionary France. It is, in fact, through the counter-revolutionists’ all but total acceptance of this idea that the influence of Hume’s history had its effect from 1789 to 1800. For most Frenchmen of the time, no other history of the Stuart period existed; and Hume’s manner of relating the events of the English revolution, his frequent reflections on those events, the guaranty provided by his long-standing reputation for nearly superhuman impartiality were all factors which served to increase the authority of his account in support of the doctrines of the Right.
A careful examination of all types of rightist literature of this early counter-revolutionary period would show, I think, that Hume’s influence, though in some ways more subtle and diffused, is greater before the turn of the century than even the sensational but somewhat speculative impact of Burke. Burke’s shouting, cranky pamphlet on the Revolution caused more amusement than concern among those it was meant to annihilate. Jokes were made about the probable insanity or at least senility of this raving Englishman who had been considered a frank liberal in France until the appearance of his Reflections. Burke’s new tone could convince only those who wanted to be convinced. On the other hand, Hume’s Stuarts, widely read during the thirty years preceding the Revolution had had what we might call a subliminal influence even on the hostile, on those who did not want to be convinced and who were forced by the resulting intellectual tension to rewrite history in a more suitable form or to reject its authority altogether.
Through his popular description and analysis of the English revolution, Hume had helped to condition the minds and to form the prejudices, both negative and positive, of the generation which was to be so vitally concerned with similar events. He had provided in advance an almost irresistible set of categories to impose on France’s own revolutionary events—a formula of response most suited to conservatives, it is true, but which, even as late as the period in which Louis XVI was tried, a fair number of conventionnels, I will not say accepted, but at least felt obligated to consider. Mailhe’s report is only the most outstanding example of the need that was felt by many to formulate revolutionary activity in terms of the parallel activity which seventeenth-century England had witnessed.
The many conservative parallels, and there are almost none which do not make specific use of Hume, were not thus just the fashionable and flimsy games of idle pundits. In most cases, historical analogies were pointed out with deadly seriousness and were consciously intended to provoke or encourage a vigorous counter-revolutionary response. I will cite here one of the earliest of these rapprochements which, brief as it is, serves as a good example. It is revealed in an anecdote that we find in Soulavie’s Mémoires and though its author, Louis XVI’s brother, did not express it in the form of a published document, many documents published subsequently make a similar point:
On the day that M. Necker succeeded in doubling the representation of the third estate in defiance of the advice of the royal princes and the notables, the Comte d’Artois took down the portrait of Louis XV that was hanging in the King’s chambers and replaced it with a likeness of Charles I. And on the day that Louis XVI asked M. Necker to remain in the Ministry, the same day that the people of Versailles demonstrated by their rioting their support for M. Necker, M. d’Artois removed the excessively mute portrait and substituted for it a recently published engraving that showed King Charles I on the point of having his head chopped off by the executioner’s axe. This second hint had no greater effect than the first.17
Indeed, as Soulavie also suggests, there is perhaps good evidence to show that such rapprochements may have had, at least on Louis XVI, an effect opposite to that intended. But not all the parallels were conceived so brutally. Some were published to lend hope to the royalists in their darkest hour, to console them by showing that history was on their side, that all would come out right in the end and that they should therefore continue their faithful support of the counter-revolution. Others were quite obviously published to shame the revolutionaries, to humiliate the pride of those who ignorantly proclaimed that the bonds of history had been broken, that their revolution was new and without precedent. Pointing to the Stuart parallels, the royalist felt he could prove conclusively that the revolutionaries were not at all original; they were not even original in their crimes, and their wasted and bloody efforts would be condemned to futility once the whole sorry mess had gone the full circle. Some parallel makers, with their studied analogies, seem even to have cherished the rather sanguine hope of converting the radical enthusiasts to conservatism. Chateaubriand tells us, for example, that it is important to show there is nothing new under the sun since a man “well convinced that there is nothing new under the sun, loses his taste for innovations.”18
One last more general reason for the proliferation of parallels during this period should not be neglected. In addition to their polemical value, they obviously provided a certain intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction to the hundreds of amateur pamphlet-historians who sprang up everywhere and who found it understandably difficult to give immediate meaning to the confusion and chaos of contemporary events. For these, the obvious parallel with Stuart history furnished a readily available short-cut to the time perspective and allowed the chronicler of current happenings to speak with the borrowed authority of the ages. Here for the asking was a pre-fabricated dramatic structure ready to be imposed on events only an hour old. Here, Hume seemed to say, was the beginning, there was the middle, and finally, there would be the happy conclusion. Some parallels end, in fact, with wistful invocations to General Monk! The making of historical parallels was not new at this time nor has it entirely disappeared from serious modern historical literature. One would probably have difficulty finding, however, a period in history in which such analogies were more widely used and in which they had more real influence.
History as the Superstition of Slaves
If we turn now to the opinions of the Left on this matter we will see that the revolutionary ideologists disagreed passionately with the basic assumption on which such historical conservatism rested: namely, the idea of a stable human nature, of an inflexible moral “nature of things.”
True enough, if man at birth is shown to be a creature of innate principles, of unchanging passions, of totally predictable motivation, why then his range of potential behaviour would be strictly limited; nothing really new could ever be expected of him; his “original sin” would be the despair of all social reformers and all efforts to change and improve his form of social organization would be predestined to failure. But original sin, even in its naturalistic interpretations, had been driven out with the advent of Lockian epistemology. Man is not, Locke tells us, born with a human nature, his mind is a tabula rasa; his heart, too, others said, is a blank sheet. Man is merely what, not nature, but nurture makes him. Good education for the individual and for the society, good legislation, can change man, not overnight, of course, but at least in a generation. Thus the so-called nature of things is no longer a great stumbling block; history becomes bunk, and progress, even indefinite progress, becomes a real possibility.
No one, perhaps, argues the case for a rejection of history more cogently than the Abbé Sieyès:
Let us leave it to others to think that they must go back to barbaric times to find laws for civilized nations. We have no intention of becoming lost in a labyrinth of random searches through antiquated institutions and archaic errors. Reason is timeless and it is made for man; it is especially when reason speaks to man of what he holds most dear that he must listen to it with respect and confidence. . . .
Ask a clockmaker to make you a clock and take note whether he wastes any time extracting from the history of clockmaking, true or false, the different methods the industry in its infancy may have thought up for the measurement of time. . . .
We are always so eager to take advantage, for our own enjoyment, of the slightest improvements in the arts of luxury and commerce: do we then turn our backs in shameful indifference when it comes to improvements in the social art, this most important of all the arts, on whose expert arrangements depends the happiness of the human race?19
We should note that, with the eighteenth century’s empirical connotation for the word science, Sieyès prefers to speak of an art social and not a science sociale. The choice of words is highly significant for it is the conservative’s privilege to speak at this time of history as a sacred repository of all the empirical data from which could be derived a science of human nature. It is the conservative who speaks also of general psycho-physical laws governing with Newtonian regularity the processes of moral phenomena. Those who reject history are forced, on the other hand, and not without considerable embarrassment, to resort to an almost pre-scientific moral indeterminism and to claim, paradoxically for this monistic age, an almost spiritually independent status for man’s moral and political being:
Every day we witness the inane efforts of pedants confidently trying their hand at belittling philosophers who go back to first principles in their analysis of the social art. Useful, seminal meditations are viewed as nothing more than evidence of laziness by these pompous scholastics; and when a man of superior genius, as much from disgust as discernment, abandons the depressing chronicles of error bequeathed by our ancestors, mediocrity immediately sets about the material task of noting down assiduously every single page of history, seeing in the mere ability to read and transcribe a pre-eminent merit, as well as the answer to every question.
Unfortunately, the philosophers themselves, who in the course of this last century have rendered such signal service to the physical sciences, seem to lend credibility to this ridiculous presumption, as well as the authority of their own genius to these mindless declarations. Quite properly sickened by the systematizing mania of their predecessors, they devoted themselves single-mindedly to the study of facts, and proscribed all other methodologies; for this they deserved only praise. But when, leaving the physical sciences, they recommended and applied the same method to their study of the moral world, they were mistaken. Before prescribing a uniform treatment for all of the sciences, they should have examined their differences—both in essential nature and in subject matter.
Nothing is more sensible than the physical scientist’s determination to limit himself to observing and gathering facts, and to trying to discover their interconnections. The physicist’s object is to discover nature; and since he was not called upon to advise on or to shape the plan of the physical world, since the physical universe exists and continues on quite independently of his corrective meditations, he must obviously restrict himself to the experience of facts. Physics can be nothing other than knowledge of what is.
But the limits of science are not the same as the limits of art. Art takes bolder flight; it proposes to bend and accommodate facts according to our needs and enjoyment; keeping in view the benefit of mankind, it asks the question: what ought to be. . . .20
The historico-scientific method in politics, Sieyès affirms, leads not to science but to superstition. It is true that history can provide some useful information to the legislator who has a meditative turn of mind, but he must also look beyond mere facts. Most historical facts are, moreover, entirely unedifying:
Oh! if the road of experience is long for the physical scientist, at least it promises a useful journey; at least he can be certain that by continuing to advance along that road he will increase his store of knowledge. How different is the situation of the legislator! How heavily events must weigh on his spirit! How pressed he must feel to leave behind at last the appalling accumulation of past experience. . . .
Take care that your representatives are not influenced by the notion, already preached to excess by your learned philosophers, that morality, like the physical sciences, must be based on experience. . . .
Never has it been more urgent to restore to reason its full authority, to take back from the facts the power that, unhappily for the human race, they have usurped from reason. I am governed by such considerations and, yes, I shall give free rein to my complaints and my indignation against that multitude of writers who are obsessed with asking the past what we should become in the future, who are consumed with a desire to search through the debris of miserable traditions composed of irrationality and falsehoods in order to find the legislation needed to restore health to the social fabric; who stubbornly dig away in the archives, inspecting and compiling countless reports, reverently seeking out for purposes of worship even the most minute fragments, however doubtful their authenticity, however obscure and unintelligible these may be. And all in the hope of discovering what? Old certificates of title, as if in their gothic rapture they dream of calling upon the entire nation to show its proofs of worthy ancestry.21
Legislators will find nothing useful searching in historical archives; the true archives of man lie in his heart:
. . . the light of reason must finally be joined to the sentiment of liberty. We are capable of finding the way to social order on our own; and once on that road, we shall not be so ridiculously weak as to choose for our guides people who know only how to look backwards to the past. . . .
. . . let us hasten to abjure the superstition of slaves; let us cease our resistance to the light that surrounds us on all sides; and when the great day that is dawning for us comes, let us make clear to all that we are aware of our rights; let us not allow our Representatives who are charged with determining the destiny of twenty-six million people to debase themselves in vain quarreling, offering to a world that is watching the ridiculous and shameful spectacle of a theological rabble fighting over texts, competing on how best to tear reason apart, and, after much noise and uproar, achieving in the end nothing more than the profoundest nullity.22
There are thus no lessons from the past worth worrying about. History is largely irrelevant. It is not, for example, a valid argument to point out that certain political institutions deserve respect because they are old and therefore good. All human institutions are old, and despotism is perhaps the oldest of all. The French would be wrong to follow the examples of past generations or of other nations. They must have the ambition and courage to strike out on their own, to develop independently the ideal forms of political government, and to serve, finally, as a model for other nations and for future generations.
Thomas Paine in 1791 stresses this same need for emancipation from the tyranny of old historical adjustments: “Every age and generation,” he writes, “must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. . . . Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.”23 Paine’s own description of how he set about writing his highly influential pamphlet Common Sense is typical of this radical rejection of history: “I saw,” Paine wrote in 1792, “an opportunity in which I thought I could do some good, and I followed exactly what my heart dictated. I neither read books, nor studied other people’s opinions. I thought for myself.”24
The inventory of Robespierre’s Paris library seems to indicate that he too was not an avid reader of history.25 It is not too farfetched, moreover, to see in the Incorruptible’s famous diatribe on the philosophes an anti-history attitude, directed as much against their learning—which Robespierre seems to equate with sophistry—as against their religious disbelief. He praises Rousseau, on the other hand, for the purity of his doctrine, “drawn from nature and from the detestation of vice.”26 The virtue of unlettered patriots, he affirms, is to be contrasted with the craven neutrality of the once-celebrated intellectuals:
Generally speaking, the men of letters have disgraced themselves in this Revolution; to the eternal shame of intellect, it is the people’s reason that alone has made a contribution.
Blush with shame if you can,27 you vain little men! The miracles that will forever immortalize this period of human history have been wrought without you, and in spite of you; simple, honest good sense and unschooled genius have carried France to our present great heights that terrify your craven baseness and crush your nullity. While this artisan was displaying skillful knowledge of the rights of man, that scribbler of books, almost a republican in 1788, was stupidly defending the cause of kings in 1793; while this ploughman was spreading light in the countryside, the academician Condorcet—once a great geometer, they say, according to the men of letters, and a great man of letters, according to the geometers, but afterwards a cowardly conspirator scorned by every party—was working incessantly to obscure that light with his treacherous hotchpotch of mercenary rhapsodies.28
Ironically, Condorcet himself not long before, although he did not attack history per se, had assailed the old historians on much the same grounds:
Until now, modern history has been corrupted: at times because of the need to deal tactfully with established tyrannies, at other times because of partisan bias. . . .
. . . Even Voltaire, the greatest of modern historians, so outstanding in the moral portion of his historical writings, was not able in the political sections to give free rein to his genius. Obliged to spare one enemy of the human race in order to have the right to attack the other with impunity, he crushed superstition but opposed despotism only with the rules of personal justice and the cries of humanity; he reproached it for its crimes, but he left untouched in its royal hands the power to commit them.
We need, consequently, an entirely new history, one that is concerned essentially with the rights of man and with the vicissitudes that both the knowledge and the enjoyment of those rights have suffered over the centuries and in every place. . . .29
Other republicans had even more severe recommendations. The reading of history, some suggested, should be sternly limited; that of the ancients and that of one’s own country sufficed.30 That of one’s own country, agreed Mercier, provided it was first properly purged: “The history of France should be burned and begun afresh; it must be discarded along with all those massive tomes of jurisprudence and scholastic philosophy. . . .”31 In 1798, the idéologues in La Décade go even farther: “Every history book must be made over; every book dealing with political, civil, or criminal legislation must be rewritten; all books on moral philosophy, up until now uniformly tainted with mysticity, must be redone.”32
Once history was burned it could of course be rewritten along republican lines for those who still felt some need of it. We shall see that such revolutionary figures as Mirabeau, Brissot, Condorcet, Mme Roland, and others did indeed actively publicize Catherine Macaulay’s history of the English revolution as most suitable to replace the hated royalist account by Hume. For others, however, the history of former revolutions was totally irrelevant. Carra, speaking during the Convention debates on Louis XVI’s trial, exemplifies the new attitude:
I shall try to present to your enlightened wisdom the findings of broad common sense, dispassionately calculated comparisons, simple and straightforward ideas, reasoning grounded in the human heart’s inner conscience and in the intellect’s sense of morality. I shall not quote from history, because history offers nothing that compares to our Revolution . . . ; because history, as I have observed it since the beginning of the Revolution, has done nothing but lead kings and ministers astray in the way they have applied it to future events; because our Revolution, being the product of decisive advances in universal reason and politics, can have absolutely nothing in common with the revolutions of earlier times, nor can it suffer retrograde interpretations or the application of empirical data taken from history. Everything in our Revolution is new. . . .33
Everything was new in Carra’s revolution—a radical sentiment which was very neatly answered by Bancal who summed up in his reply the traditionalist defence of history: “. . . yes, everything is new, except for the human beings involved, who constitute the basic elements of a revolution, and who, no matter the country or the century, continue to be ruled by the passions.”34
Saint-Just even implies that holding to the old cyclical view of revolutions was part of the Girondist conspiracy. In his report of 1793 to the Committee of Public Safety concerning the Girondins arrested after 31 May and 1 June, he made the following accusation: “Every step taken by the prisoners led in the direction of restoring the monarchy. . . . These cunning men, cunning and depraved, sensed in the end that they should follow the people, convinced as they were that revolutions progress horizontally and that because of the excesses, the misfortunes, and the reckless actions that accompany them, revolutions eventually return to their starting point. . . .”35
Quite to the contrary, revolutions progress vertically not horizontally; they are the instruments of man’s moral ascent. To say that similar attempts had been made before and had necessarily failed, to identify the French revolution and the English revolution—these were counter-revolutionary ideas and a subtle form of treason: rather like pointing out that the total number of victims of the Bastille in all the centuries of its existence probably never equalled the number of prisoners confined in the Châtelet and the Abbaye during the first two or three glorious years of the reign of liberty.
[1. ]J.-H. Meister, Des premiers principes du système social appliqués à la Révolution présente, Nice, 1790, pp. 120-27.
[2. ]Bibliothèque de l’homme public ou analyse raisonnée des principaux ouvrages français et étrangers . . . par M. le Marquis de Condorcet . . . , M. de Peyssonnel . . . , M. Le Chapelier, et autres Gens de Lettres, Paris, 1790, I, tome 2. Balestrier was the major editor of this valuable compilation. See also his Politicon ou choix des meilleurs discours sur tous les sujets de politique traités dans la première assemblée nationale de France, Paris, 1792, and Manuel des autorités constituées, Paris, An IX.
[3. ]Ibid., 1791, IX. 247-48.
[4. ]Lettre de M. Cerutti adressée au café de Foix, in Oeuvres diverses de M. Cerutti ou recueil de pièces composées avant et depuis la révolution, Paris, 1792, II. 3-5; see also I. 4-7.
[5. ]See L’Esprit de l’Histoire ou Lettres politiques et morales d’un père à son fils, Paris, 1802, III. 400, 497-98.
[6. ]Antoine-François-Claude, Comte Ferrand, Le rétablissement de la monarchie Françoise, Liège, 1794, seconde édition, pp. 69-71.
[7. ]Correspondance politique pour servir à l’histoire du républicanisme français, par M. Mallet du Pan, Hambourg, 1796, p. xiii.
[8. ]See Opinion de L.-M. Revellière-Lépeaux, député de Maine-et-Loire, 7 janvier 1793.
[9. ]Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan, Des principes et des causes de la révolution en France, Londres, 1790, pp. v-vi.
[10. ]G.-M. Sallier-Chaumont de la Roche, Essais pour servir d’introduction à l’histoire de la Révolution française, Paris, 1802, p. 184.
[11. ]See, for example, Lettre à Monsieur Rabaut de Saint-Etienne sur l’humanité, par un aristocrate sans le savoir (April 1790), in Oeuvres choisies de Servan, Avocat Général au Parlement de Grenoble, Paris, 1825, III. 356-63; and, especially, Correspondance entre quelques hommes honnêtes, Lausanne, 1795, III. 136-78.
[12. ]Des révolutions dans les grandes sociétés civiles considérées dans leurs rapports avec l’ordre général, in Oeuvres choisies de Servan, V. 70.
[13. ]Ibid., pp. 76-77.
[14. ]Correspondance entre quelques hommes honnêtes, III. 72-78.
[15. ]Histoire abrégée de la session de 1828, écrite à l’avance par David Hume, Paris, 1829, Avis de l’éditeur, p. 3.
[16. ]Ibid., pp. 3-15. In his Analogies de l’histoire de France et d’Angleterre ou 1828 et 1640, Louis de Bonald also invites the French to study Hume at this time: “It is in the history of the last Stuarts, especially in that of the most unfortunate Stuart of all, that we must study our own history, that of our own times.” Those who felt in 1828 that there was no danger of revolution were especially urged to re-read the events of Charles I’s reign: “They will recognize in the two nations, for 1828 as for 1640, the same causes of revolution, the same means employed, the same effects. . . .” (See Oeuvres complètes de M. de Bonald, publiées par M. l’Abbé Migne, Paris, 1859, III. 913.) Joseph de Maistre, much earlier, had already included as the final chapter of his famous Considérations sur la France (1796) a similar “posthumous” work entitled “Fragment d’une histoire de la révolution française par David Hume.” That de Maistre considered it an important and integral part of his text is made clear in the following letter to de Bonald from Turin, 15 November 1819: “Everything you tell me in your last letter about the English Revolution compared to yours is perfectly true. I was right, therefore, to use it as the last chapter of my Considérations and even more right to be angry with that brute of a publisher who took it upon himself, by his own authority, to excise it from the latest edition.” (Oeuvres complètes, XIII. 192.) See also de Bonald’s letter to de Maistre in 1819: “That deplorable history is ours, point for point, and up to this stage the two revolutions were copied, one from the other.” (Ibid., XIV. 348.)
[17. ]Jean-Louis Giraud Soulavie, Mémoires historiques et politiques, VI. 312-13.
[18. ]François-René de Chateaubriand, Essai sur les Révolutions, in Oeuvres complètes de M. le vicomte de Chateaubriand, Paris, 1834, I. 202.
[19. ]Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, “Vues sur les moyens d’exécution dont les Représentans de la France pourront disposer en 1789,” in Collection des écrits d’Emmanuel Sieyès, édition à l’usage de l’Allemagne, Paris, pp. 8-10.
[20. ]Ibid., pp. 40-41.
[21. ]Ibid., pp. 42-45.
[22. ]Ibid., pp. 50-53.
[23. ]The Rights of Man, Part I, Everyman’s Library, p. 12.
[24. ]Ibid., Part II, p. 223, note 1.
[25. ]See G. Bapst, “Inventaire des bibliothèques de quatre condamnés,” La Révolution Française, July-December 1891, XXI. 534.
[26. ]“Sur les rapports des idées religieuses et morales avec les principes républicains et sur les fêtes nationales,” séance du 7 mai, 1794, in Oeuvres de Robespierre, ed. A. Vermorel, Paris, 1867, p. 324.
[27. ]At the risk of sounding facetious in defence of outworn perspectives, one might observe that it was no longer possible, thanks to the tidy efforts of this gentleman from Arras, for a good number of them to blush at this time.
[28. ]Ibid., p. 325.
[29. ]Sur l’instruction publique, “5ème mémoire,” in Bibliothèque de l’homme public, XI, tome 9, pp. 57-59.
[30. ]See J.-J.-G. Levesque, Essai sur la manière d’écrire et d’étudier l’histoire, Paris, An III, pp. 79-80.
[31. ]De J.-J. Rousseau considéré comme l’un des premiers auteurs de la Révolution, Paris, 1791, II. 194.
[32. ]See La Décade philosophique, littéraire et politique, XVII. 493.
[33. ]Discours contre la Défense de Louis Capet, Dernier Roi des Français, par le Citoyen Carra, député de Saône-et-Loire, prononcé à la séance du 3 janvier 1793.
[34. ]Discours et projet de décret de Henri Bancal, député du Puy-de-Dôme, p. 4.
[35. ]“Rapport sur les trente-deux membres de la Convention détenus en vertu du décret du 2 juin,” in Oeuvres complètes de Saint-Just, ed. Charles Vellay, Paris, 1908, II. 10.