The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Make the Constitution.

Here perhaps is the place to fix, a little more precisely, what these two words, French Revolution, shall mean; for, strictly considered, they may have as many meanings as there are speakers of them. All things are in revolution; in change from moment to moment, which becomes sensible from epoch to epoch: in this Time–World of ours there is properly nothing else but revolution and mutation, and even nothing else conceivable. Revolution, you answer, means speedier change. Whereupon one has still to ask: How speedy? At what degree of speed; in what particular points of this variable course, which varies in velocity, but can never stop till Time itself stops, does revolution begin and end; cease to be ordinary mutation, and again become such? It is a thing that will depend on definition more or less arbitrary.

For ourselves we answer that French Revolution means here the open violent Rebellion, and Victory, of disimprisoned Anarchy against corrupt worn-out Authority: how Anarchy breaks prison; bursts up from the infinite Deep, and rages uncontrollable, immeasurable, enveloping a world; in phasis after phasis of fever-frenzy; — ‘till the frenzy burning itself out, and what elements of new Order it held (since all Force holds such) developing themselves, the Uncontrollable be got, if not reimprisoned, yet harnessed, and its mad forces made to work towards their object as sane regulated ones. For as Hierarchies and Dynasties of all kinds, Theocracies, Aristocracies, Autocracies, Strumpetocracies, have ruled over the world; so it was appointed, in the decrees of Providence, that this same Victorious Anarchy, Jacobinism, Sansculottism, French Revolution, Horrors of French Revolution, or what else mortals name it, should have its turn. The ‘destructive wrath’ of Sansculottism: this is what we speak, having unhappily no voice for singing.

Surely a great Phenomenon: nay it is a transcendental one, overstepping all rules and experience; the crowning Phenomenon of our Modern Time. For here again, most unexpectedly, comes antique Fanaticism in new and newest vesture; miraculous, as all Fanaticism is. Call it the Fanaticism of ‘making away with formulas, de humer les formulas.’ The world of formulas, the formed regulated world, which all habitable world is, — must needs hate such Fanaticism like death; and be at deadly variance with it. The world of formulas must conquer it; or failing that, must die execrating it, anathematising it; — can nevertheless in nowise prevent its being and its having been. The Anathemas are there, and the miraculous Thing is there.

Whence it cometh? Whither it goeth? These are questions! When the age of Miracles lay faded into the distance as an incredible tradition, and even the age of Conventionalities was now old; and Man’s Existence had for long generations rested on mere formulas which were grown hollow by course of time; and it seemed as if no Reality any longer existed but only Phantasms of realities, and God’s Universe were the work of the Tailor and Upholsterer mainly, and men were buckram masks that went about becking and grimacing there, — on a sudden, the Earth yawns asunder, and amid Tartarean smoke, and glare of fierce brightness, rises SANSCULOTTISM, many-headed, fire-breathing, and asks: What think ye of me? Well may the buckram masks start together, terror-struck; ‘into expressive well-concerted groups!’ It is indeed, Friends, a most singular, most fatal thing. Let whosoever is but buckram and a phantasm look to it: ill verily may it fare with him; here methinks he cannot much longer be. Wo also to many a one who is not wholly buckram, but partially real and human! The age of Miracles has come back! ‘Behold the World–Phoenix, in fire-consummation and fire-creation; wide are her fanning wings; loud is her death-melody, of battle-thunders and falling towns; skyward lashes the funeral flame, enveloping all things: it is the Death–Birth of a World!’

Whereby, however, as we often say, shall one unspeakable blessing seem attainable. This, namely: that Man and his Life rest no more on hollowness and a Lie, but on solidity and some kind of Truth. Welcome, the beggarliest truth, so it be one, in exchange for the royallest sham! Truth of any kind breeds ever new and better truth; thus hard granite rock will crumble down into soil, under the blessed skyey influences; and cover itself with verdure, with fruitage and umbrage. But as for Falsehood, which in like contrary manner, grows ever falser, — what can it, or what should it do but decease, being ripe; decompose itself, gently or even violently, and return to the Father of it, — too probably in flames of fire?

Sansculottism will burn much; but what is incombustible it will not burn. Fear not Sansculottism; recognise it for what it is, the portentous, inevitable end of much, the miraculous beginning of much. One other thing thou mayest understand of it: that it too came from God; for has it not been? From of old, as it is written, are His goings forth; in the great Deep of things; fearful and wonderful now as in the beginning: in the whirlwind also He speaks! and the wrath of men is made to praise Him. — But to gauge and measure this immeasurable Thing, and what is called account for it, and reduce it to a dead logic-formula, attempt not! Much less shalt thou shriek thyself hoarse, cursing it; for that, to all needful lengths, has been already done. As an actually existing Son of Time, look, with unspeakable manifold interest, oftenest in silence, at what the Time did bring: therewith edify, instruct, nourish thyself, or were it but to amuse and gratify thyself, as it is given thee.

Another question which at every new turn will rise on us, requiring ever new reply is this: Where the French Revolution specially is? In the King’s Palace, in his Majesty’s or her Majesty’s managements, and maltreatments, cabals, imbecilities and woes, answer some few:— whom we do not answer. In the National Assembly, answer a large mixed multitude: who accordingly seat themselves in the Reporter’s Chair; and therefrom noting what Proclamations, Acts, Reports, passages of logic-fence, bursts of parliamentary eloquence seem notable within doors, and what tumults and rumours of tumult become audible from without, — produce volume on volume; and, naming it History of the French Revolution, contentedly publish the same. To do the like, to almost any extent, with so many Filed Newspapers, Choix des Rapports, Histoires Parlementaires as there are, amounting to many horseloads, were easy for us. Easy but unprofitable. The National Assembly, named now Constituent Assembly, goes its course; making the Constitution; but the French Revolution also goes its course.

In general, may we not say that the French Revolution lies in the heart and head of every violent-speaking, of every violent-thinking French Man? How the Twenty-five Millions of such, in their perplexed combination, acting and counter-acting may give birth to events; which event successively is the cardinal one; and from what point of vision it may best be surveyed: this is a problem. Which problem the best insight, seeking light from all possible sources, shifting its point of vision whithersoever vision or glimpse of vision can be had, may employ itself in solving; and be well content to solve in some tolerably approximate way.

As to the National Assembly, in so far as it still towers eminent over France, after the manner of a car-borne Carroccio, though now no longer in the van; and rings signals for retreat or for advance, — it is and continues a reality among other realities. But in so far as it sits making the Constitution, on the other hand, it is a fatuity and chimera mainly. Alas, in the never so heroic building of Montesquieu–Mably card-castles, though shouted over by the world, what interest is there? Occupied in that way, an august National Assembly becomes for us little other than a Sanhedrim of pedants, not of the gerund-grinding, yet of no fruitfuller sort; and its loud debatings and recriminations about Rights of Man, Right of Peace and War, Veto suspensif, Veto absolu, what are they but so many Pedant’s-curses, ‘May God confound you for your Theory of Irregular Verbs!’

A Constitution can be built, Constitutions enough a la Sieyes: but the frightful difficulty is that of getting men to come and live in them! Could Sieyes have drawn thunder and lightning out of Heaven to sanction his Constitution, it had been well: but without any thunder? Nay, strictly considered, is it not still true that without some such celestial sanction, given visibly in thunder or invisibly otherwise, no Constitution can in the long run be worth much more than the waste-paper it is written on? The Constitution, the set of Laws, or prescribed Habits of Acting, that men will live under, is the one which images their Convictions, — their Faith as to this wondrous Universe, and what rights, duties, capabilities they have there; which stands sanctioned therefore, by Necessity itself, if not by a seen Deity, then by an unseen one. Other laws, whereof there are always enough ready-made, are usurpations; which men do not obey, but rebel against, and abolish, by their earliest convenience.

The question of questions accordingly were, Who is it that especially for rebellers and abolishers, can make a Constitution? He that can image forth the general Belief when there is one; that can impart one when, as here, there is none. A most rare man; ever as of old a god-missioned man! Here, however, in defect of such transcendent supreme man, Time with its infinite succession of merely superior men, each yielding his little contribution, does much. Force likewise (for, as Antiquarian Philosophers teach, the royal Sceptre was from the first something of a Hammer, to crack such heads as could not be convinced) will all along find somewhat to do. And thus in perpetual abolition and reparation, rending and mending, with struggle and strife, with present evil and the hope and effort towards future good, must the Constitution, as all human things do, build itself forward; or unbuild itself, and sink, as it can and may. O Sieyes, and ye other Committeemen, and Twelve Hundred miscellaneous individuals from all parts of France! What is the Belief of France, and yours, if ye knew it? Properly that there shall be no Belief; that all formulas be swallowed. The Constitution which will suit that? Alas, too clearly, a No–Constitution, an Anarchy; — which also, in due season, shall be vouchsafed you.

But, after all, what can an unfortunate National Assembly do? Consider only this, that there are Twelve Hundred miscellaneous individuals; not a unit of whom but has his own thinking-apparatus, his own speaking-apparatus! In every unit of them is some belief and wish, different for each, both that France should be regenerated, and also that he individually should do it. Twelve Hundred separate Forces, yoked miscellaneously to any object, miscellaneously to all sides of it; and bid pull for life!

Or is it the nature of National Assemblies generally to do, with endless labour and clangour, Nothing? Are Representative Governments mostly at bottom Tyrannies too! Shall we say, the Tyrants, the ambitious contentious Persons, from all corners of the country do, in this manner, get gathered into one place; and there, with motion and counter-motion, with jargon and hubbub, cancel one another, like the fabulous Kilkenny Cats; and produce, for net-result, zero; — the country meanwhile governing or guiding itself, by such wisdom, recognised or for most part unrecognised, as may exist in individual heads here and there? — Nay, even that were a great improvement: for, of old, with their Guelf Factions and Ghibelline Factions, with their Red Roses and White Roses, they were wont to cancel the whole country as well. Besides they do it now in a much narrower cockpit; within the four walls of their Assembly House, and here and there an outpost of Hustings and Barrel-heads; do it with tongues too, not with swords:— all which improvements, in the art of producing zero, are they not great? Nay, best of all, some happy Continents (as the Western one, with its Savannahs, where whosoever has four willing limbs finds food under his feet, and an infinite sky over his head) can do without governing. — What Sphinx-questions; which the distracted world, in these very generations, must answer or die!

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