The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Astraea Redux.

A paradoxical philosopher, carrying to the uttermost length that aphorism of Montesquieu’s, ‘Happy the people whose annals are tiresome,’ has said, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant.’ In which saying, mad as it looks, may there not still be found some grain of reason? For truly, as it has been written, ‘Silence is divine,’ and of Heaven; so in all earthly things too there is a silence which is better than any speech. Consider it well, the Event, the thing which can be spoken of and recorded, is it not, in all cases, some disruption, some solution of continuity? Were it even a glad Event, it involves change, involves loss (of active Force); and so far, either in the past or in the present, is an irregularity, a disease. Stillest perseverance were our blessedness; not dislocation and alteration, — could they be avoided.

The oak grows silently, in the forest, a thousand years; only in the thousandth year, when the woodman arrives with his axe, is there heard an echoing through the solitudes; and the oak announces itself when, with a far-sounding crash, it falls. How silent too was the planting of the acorn; scattered from the lap of some wandering wind! Nay, when our oak flowered, or put on its leaves (its glad Events), what shout of proclamation could there be? Hardly from the most observant a word of recognition. These things befell not, they were slowly done; not in an hour, but through the flight of days: what was to be said of it? This hour seemed altogether as the last was, as the next would be.

It is thus everywhere that foolish Rumour babbles not of what was done, but of what was misdone or undone; and foolish History (ever, more or less, the written epitomised synopsis of Rumour) knows so little that were not as well unknown. Attila Invasions, Walter-the-Penniless Crusades, Sicilian Vespers, Thirty–Years Wars: mere sin and misery; not work, but hindrance of work! For the Earth, all this while, was yearly green and yellow with her kind harvests; the hand of the craftsman, the mind of the thinker rested not: and so, after all, and in spite of all, we have this so glorious high-domed blossoming World; concerning which, poor History may well ask, with wonder, Whence it came? She knows so little of it, knows so much of what obstructed it, what would have rendered it impossible. Such, nevertheless, by necessity or foolish choice, is her rule and practice; whereby that paradox, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant,’ is not without its true side.

And yet, what seems more pertinent to note here, there is a stillness, not of unobstructed growth, but of passive inertness, and symptom of imminent downfall. As victory is silent, so is defeat. Of the opposing forces the weaker has resigned itself; the stronger marches on, noiseless now, but rapid, inevitable: the fall and overturn will not be noiseless. How all grows, and has its period, even as the herbs of the fields, be it annual, centennial, millennial! All grows and dies, each by its own wondrous laws, in wondrous fashion of its own; spiritual things most wondrously of all. Inscrutable, to the wisest, are these latter; not to be prophesied of, or understood. If when the oak stands proudliest flourishing to the eye, you know that its heart is sound, it is not so with the man; how much less with the Society, with the Nation of men! Of such it may be affirmed even that the superficial aspect, that the inward feeling of full health, is generally ominous. For indeed it is of apoplexy, so to speak, and a plethoric lazy habit of body, that Churches, Kingships, Social Institutions, oftenest die. Sad, when such Institution plethorically says to itself, Take thy ease, thou hast goods laid up; — like the fool of the Gospel, to whom it was answered, Fool, this night thy life shall be required of thee!

Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness; — shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of God? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities, — beautiful art, not only of revealing Thought, but also of so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper. — What wisest Philosophe, in this halcyon uneventful period, could prophesy that there was approaching, big with darkness and confusion, the event of events? Hope ushers in a Revolution, — as earthquakes are preceded by bright weather. On the Fifth of May, fifteen years hence, old Louis will not be sending for the Sacraments; but a new Louis, his grandson, with the whole pomp of astonished intoxicated France, will be opening the States–General.

Dubarrydom and its D’Aiguillons are gone forever. There is a young, still docile, well-intentioned King; a young, beautiful and bountiful, well-intentioned Queen; and with them all France, as it were, become young. Maupeou and his Parlement have to vanish into thick night; respectable Magistrates, not indifferent to the Nation, were it only for having been opponents of the Court, can descend unchained from their ‘steep rocks at Croe in Combrailles’ and elsewhere, and return singing praises: the old Parlement of Paris resumes its functions. Instead of a profligate bankrupt Abbe Terray, we have now, for Controller–General, a virtuous philosophic Turgot, with a whole Reformed France in his head. By whom whatsoever is wrong, in Finance or otherwise, will be righted, — as far as possible. Is it not as if Wisdom herself were henceforth to have seat and voice in the Council of Kings? Turgot has taken office with the noblest plainness of speech to that effect; been listened to with the noblest royal trustfulness. (Turgot’s Letter: Condorcet, Vie de Turgot (Oeuvres de Condorcet, t. v.), p. 67. The date is 24th August, 1774.) It is true, as King Louis objects, “They say he never goes to mass;” but liberal France likes him little worse for that; liberal France answers, “The Abbe Terray always went.” Philosophism sees, for the first time, a Philosophe (or even a Philosopher) in office: she in all things will applausively second him; neither will light old Maurepas obstruct, if he can easily help it.

Then how ‘sweet’ are the manners; vice ‘losing all its deformity;’ becoming decent (as established things, making regulations for themselves, do); becoming almost a kind of ‘sweet’ virtue! Intelligence so abounds; irradiated by wit and the art of conversation. Philosophism sits joyful in her glittering saloons, the dinner-guest of Opulence grown ingenuous, the very nobles proud to sit by her; and preaches, lifted up over all Bastilles, a coming millennium. From far Ferney, Patriarch Voltaire gives sign: veterans Diderot, D’Alembert have lived to see this day; these with their younger Marmontels, Morellets, Chamforts, Raynals, make glad the spicy board of rich ministering Dowager, of philosophic Farmer–General. O nights and suppers of the gods! Of a truth, the long-demonstrated will now be done: ‘the Age of Revolutions approaches’ (as Jean Jacques wrote), but then of happy blessed ones. Man awakens from his long somnambulism; chases the Phantasms that beleagured and bewitched him. Behold the new morning glittering down the eastern steeps; fly, false Phantasms, from its shafts of light; let the Absurd fly utterly forsaking this lower Earth for ever. It is Truth and Astraea Redux that (in the shape of Philosophism) henceforth reign. For what imaginable purpose was man made, if not to be ‘happy’? By victorious Analysis, and Progress of the Species, happiness enough now awaits him. Kings can become philosophers; or else philosophers Kings. Let but Society be once rightly constituted, — by victorious Analysis. The stomach that is empty shall be filled; the throat that is dry shall be wetted with wine. Labour itself shall be all one as rest; not grievous, but joyous. Wheatfields, one would think, cannot come to grow untilled; no man made clayey, or made weary thereby; — unless indeed machinery will do it? Gratuitous Tailors and Restaurateurs may start up, at fit intervals, one as yet sees not how. But if each will, according to rule of Benevolence, have a care for all, then surely — no one will be uncared for. Nay, who knows but, by sufficiently victorious Analysis, ‘human life may be indefinitely lengthened,’ and men get rid of Death, as they have already done of the Devil? We shall then be happy in spite of Death and the Devil. — So preaches magniloquent Philosophism her Redeunt Saturnia regna.

The prophetic song of Paris and its Philosophes is audible enough in the Versailles Oeil-de-Boeuf; and the Oeil-de-Boeuf, intent chiefly on nearer blessedness, can answer, at worst, with a polite “Why not?” Good old cheery Maurepas is too joyful a Prime Minister to dash the world’s joy. Sufficient for the day be its own evil. Cheery old man, he cuts his jokes, and hovers careless along; his cloak well adjusted to the wind, if so be he may please all persons. The simple young King, whom a Maurepas cannot think of troubling with business, has retired into the interior apartments; taciturn, irresolute; though with a sharpness of temper at times: he, at length, determines on a little smithwork; and so, in apprenticeship with a Sieur Gamain (whom one day he shall have little cause to bless), is learning to make locks. (Campan, i. 125.) It appears further, he understood Geography; and could read English. Unhappy young King, his childlike trust in that foolish old Maurepas deserved another return. But friend and foe, destiny and himself have combined to do him hurt.

Meanwhile the fair young Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty, the cynosure of all eyes; as yet mingles not with affairs; heeds not the future; least of all, dreads it. Weber and Campan (Ib. i. 100–151. Weber, i. 11–50.) have pictured her, there within the royal tapestries, in bright boudoirs, baths, peignoirs, and the Grand and Little Toilette; with a whole brilliant world waiting obsequious on her glance: fair young daughter of Time, what things has Time in store for thee! Like Earth’s brightest Appearance, she moves gracefully, environed with the grandeur of Earth: a reality, and yet a magic vision; for, behold, shall not utter Darkness swallow it! The soft young heart adopts orphans, portions meritorious maids, delights to succour the poor, — such poor as come picturesquely in her way; and sets the fashion of doing it; for as was said, Benevolence has now begun reigning. In her Duchess de Polignac, in Princess de Lamballe, she enjoys something almost like friendship; now too, after seven long years, she has a child, and soon even a Dauphin, of her own; can reckon herself, as Queens go, happy in a husband.

Events? The Grand events are but charitable Feasts of Morals (Fetes des moeurs), with their Prizes and Speeches; Poissarde Processions to the Dauphin’s cradle; above all, Flirtations, their rise, progress, decline and fall. There are Snow-statues raised by the poor in hard winter to a Queen who has given them fuel. There are masquerades, theatricals; beautifyings of little Trianon, purchase and repair of St. Cloud; journeyings from the summer Court–Elysium to the winter one. There are poutings and grudgings from the Sardinian Sisters-in-law (for the Princes too are wedded); little jealousies, which Court–Etiquette can moderate. Wholly the lightest-hearted frivolous foam of Existence; yet an artfully refined foam; pleasant were it not so costly, like that which mantles on the wine of Champagne!

Monsieur, the King’s elder Brother, has set up for a kind of wit; and leans towards the Philosophe side. Monseigneur d’Artois pulls the mask from a fair impertinent; fights a duel in consequence, — almost drawing blood. (Besenval, ii. 282–330.) He has breeches of a kind new in this world; — a fabulous kind; ‘four tall lackeys,’ says Mercier, as if he had seen it, ‘hold him up in the air, that he may fall into the garment without vestige of wrinkle; from which rigorous encasement the same four, in the same way, and with more effort, must deliver him at night.’ (Mercier, Nouveau Paris, iii. 147.) This last is he who now, as a gray time-worn man, sits desolate at Gratz; (A.D. 1834.) having winded up his destiny with the Three Days. In such sort are poor mortals swept and shovelled to and fro.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/carlyle/thomas/french_revolution/v1.2.1.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30