The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

Prodigies.

To such length had the Contrat Social brought it, in believing hearts. Man, as is well said, lives by faith; each generation has its own faith, more or less; and laughs at the faith of its predecessor, — most unwisely. Grant indeed that this faith in the Social Contract belongs to the stranger sorts; that an unborn generation may very wisely, if not laugh, yet stare at it, and piously consider. For, alas, what is Contrat? If all men were such that a mere spoken or sworn Contract would bind them, all men were then true men, and Government a superfluity. Not what thou and I have promised to each other, but what the balance of our forces can make us perform to each other: that, in so sinful a world as ours, is the thing to be counted on. But above all, a People and a Sovereign promising to one another; as if a whole People, changing from generation to generation, nay from hour to hour, could ever by any method be made to speak or promise; and to speak mere solecisms: “We, be the Heavens witness, which Heavens however do no miracles now; we, ever-changing Millions, will allow thee, changeful Unit, to force us or govern us!” The world has perhaps seen few faiths comparable to that.

So nevertheless had the world then construed the matter. Had they not so construed it, how different had their hopes been, their attempts, their results! But so and not otherwise did the Upper Powers will it to be. Freedom by Social Contract: such was verily the Gospel of that Era. And all men had believed in it, as in a Heaven’s Glad-tidings men should; and with overflowing heart and uplifted voice clave to it, and stood fronting Time and Eternity on it. Nay smile not; or only with a smile sadder than tears! This too was a better faith than the one it had replaced: than faith merely in the Everlasting Nothing and man’s Digestive Power; lower than which no faith can go.

Not that such universally prevalent, universally jurant, feeling of Hope, could be a unanimous one. Far from that! The time was ominous: social dissolution near and certain; social renovation still a problem, difficult and distant even though sure. But if ominous to some clearest onlooker, whose faith stood not with one side or with the other, nor in the ever-vexed jarring of Greek with Greek at all, — how unspeakably ominous to dim Royalist participators; for whom Royalism was Mankind’s palladium; for whom, with the abolition of Most–Christian Kingship and Most–Talleyrand Bishopship, all loyal obedience, all religious faith was to expire, and final Night envelope the Destinies of Man! On serious hearts, of that persuasion, the matter sinks down deep; prompting, as we have seen, to backstairs Plots, to Emigration with pledge of war, to Monarchic Clubs; nay to still madder things.

The Spirit of Prophecy, for instance, had been considered extinct for some centuries: nevertheless these last-times, as indeed is the tendency of last-times, do revive it; that so, of French mad things, we might have sample also of the maddest. In remote rural districts, whither Philosophism has not yet radiated, where a heterodox Constitution of the Clergy is bringing strife round the altar itself, and the very Church-bells are getting melted into small money-coin, it appears probable that the End of the World cannot be far off. Deep-musing atrabiliar old men, especially old women, hint in an obscure way that they know what they know. The Holy Virgin, silent so long, has not gone dumb; — and truly now, if ever more in this world, were the time for her to speak. One Prophetess, though careless Historians have omitted her name, condition, and whereabout, becomes audible to the general ear; credible to not a few: credible to Friar Gerle, poor Patriot Chartreux, in the National Assembly itself! She, in Pythoness’ recitative, with wildstaring eye, sings that there shall be a Sign; that the heavenly Sun himself will hang out a Sign, or Mock–Sun, — which, many say, shall be stamped with the Head of hanged Favras. List, Dom Gerle, with that poor addled poll of thine; list, O list; — and hear nothing. (Deux Amis, v. c. 7.)

Notable however was that ‘magnetic vellum, velin magnetique,’ of the Sieurs d’Hozier and Petit–Jean, Parlementeers of Rouen. Sweet young d’Hozier, ‘bred in the faith of his Missal, and of parchment genealogies,’ and of parchment generally: adust, melancholic, middle-aged Petit–Jean: why came these two to Saint–Cloud, where his Majesty was hunting, on the festival of St. Peter and St. Paul; and waited there, in antechambers, a wonder to whispering Swiss, the livelong day; and even waited without the Grates, when turned out; and had dismissed their valets to Paris, as with purpose of endless waiting? They have a magnetic vellum, these two; whereon the Virgin, wonderfully clothing herself in Mesmerean Cagliostric Occult–Philosophy, has inspired them to jot down instructions and predictions for a much-straitened King. To whom, by Higher Order, they will this day present it; and save the Monarchy and World. Unaccountable pair of visual-objects! Ye should be men, and of the Eighteenth Century; but your magnetic vellum forbids us so to interpret. Say, are ye aught? Thus ask the Guardhouse Captains, the Mayor of St. Cloud; nay, at great length, thus asks the Committee of Researches, and not the Municipal, but the National Assembly one. No distinct answer, for weeks. At last it becomes plain that the right answer is negative. Go, ye Chimeras, with your magnetic vellum; sweet young Chimera, adust middle-aged one! The Prison-doors are open. Hardly again shall ye preside the Rouen Chamber of Accounts; but vanish obscurely into Limbo. (See Deux Amis, v. 199.)

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