The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 1

Rushing down.

We are now, therefore, got to that black precipitous Abyss; whither all things have long been tending; where, having now arrived on the giddy verge, they hurl down, in confused ruin; headlong, pellmell, down, down; — till Sansculottism have consummated itself; and in this wondrous French Revolution, as in a Doomsday, a World have been rapidly, if not born again, yet destroyed and engulphed. Terror has long been terrible: but to the actors themselves it has now become manifest that their appointed course is one of Terror; and they say, Be it so. “Que la Terreur soit a l’ordre du jour.”

So many centuries, say only from Hugh Capet downwards, had been adding together, century transmitting it with increase to century, the sum of Wickedness, of Falsehood, Oppression of man by man. Kings were sinners, and Priests were, and People. Open–Scoundrels rode triumphant, bediademed, becoronetted, bemitred; or the still fataller species of Secret–Scoundrels, in their fair-sounding formulas, speciosities, respectabilities, hollow within: the race of Quacks was grown many as the sands of the sea. Till at length such a sum of Quackery had accumulated itself as, in brief, the Earth and the Heavens were weary of. Slow seemed the Day of Settlement: coming on, all imperceptible, across the bluster and fanfaronade of Courtierisms, Conquering–Heroisms, Most–Christian Grand Monarque-isms. Well-beloved Pompadourisms: yet behold it was always coming; behold it has come, suddenly, unlooked for by any man! The harvest of long centuries was ripening and whitening so rapidly of late; and now it is grown white, and is reaped rapidly, as it were, in one day. Reaped, in this Reign of Terror; and carried home, to Hades and the Pit! — Unhappy Sons of Adam: it is ever so; and never do they know it, nor will they know it. With cheerfully smoothed countenances, day after day, and generation after generation, they, calling cheerfully to one another, “Well-speed-ye,” are at work, sowing the wind. And yet, as God lives, they shall reap the whirlwind: no other thing, we say, is possible, — since God is a Truth and His World is a Truth.

History, however, in dealing with this Reign of Terror, has had her own difficulties. While the Phenomenon continued in its primary state, as mere ‘Horrors of the French Revolution,’ there was abundance to be said and shrieked. With and also without profit. Heaven knows there were terrors and horrors enough: yet that was not all the Phenomenon; nay, more properly, that was not the Phenomenon at all, but rather was the shadow of it, the negative part of it. And now, in a new stage of the business, when History, ceasing to shriek, would try rather to include under her old Forms of speech or speculation this new amazing Thing; that so some accredited scientific Law of Nature might suffice for the unexpected Product of Nature, and History might get to speak of it articulately, and draw inferences and profit from it; in this new stage, History, we must say, babbles and flounders perhaps in a still painfuller manner. Take, for example, the latest Form of speech we have seen propounded on the subject as adequate to it, almost in these months, by our worthy M. Roux, in his Histoire Parlementaire. The latest and the strangest: that the French Revolution was a dead-lift effort, after eighteen hundred years of preparation, to realise — the Christian Religion! (Hist. Parl. Introd., i. 1 et seqq.) Unity, Indivisibility, Brotherhood or Death did indeed stand printed on all Houses of the Living; also, on Cemeteries, or Houses of the Dead, stood printed, by order of Procureur Chaumette, Here is eternal Sleep: (Deux Amis, xii. 78.) but a Christian Religion realised by the Guillotine and Death–Eternal, ‘is suspect to me,’ as Robespierre was wont to say, ‘m’est suspecte.’

Alas, no, M. Roux! A Gospel of Brotherhood, not according to any of the Four old Evangelists, and calling on men to repent, and amend each his own wicked existence, that they might be saved; but a Gospel rather, as we often hint, according to a new Fifth Evangelist Jean–Jacques, calling on men to amend each the whole world’s wicked existence, and be saved by making the Constitution. A thing different and distant toto coelo, as they say: the whole breadth of the sky, and further if possible! — It is thus, however, that History, and indeed all human Speech and Reason does yet, what Father Adam began life by doing: strive to name the new Things it sees of Nature’s producing, — often helplessly enough.

But what if History were to admit, for once, that all the Names and Theorems yet known to her fall short? That this grand Product of Nature was even grand, and new, in that it came not to range itself under old recorded Laws-of-Nature at all; but to disclose new ones? In that case, History renouncing the pretention to name it at present, will look honestly at it, and name what she can of it! Any approximation to the right Name has value: were the right name itself once here, the Thing is known thenceforth; the Thing is then ours, and can be dealt with.

Now surely not realization, of Christianity, or of aught earthly, do we discern in this Reign of Terror, in this French Revolution of which it is the consummating. Destruction rather we discern — of all that was destructible. It is as if Twenty-five millions, risen at length into the Pythian mood, had stood up simultaneously to say, with a sound which goes through far lands and times, that this Untruth of an Existence had become insupportable. O ye Hypocrisies and Speciosities, Royal mantles, Cardinal plushcloaks, ye Credos, Formulas, Respectabilities, fair-painted Sepulchres full of dead men’s bones, — behold, ye appear to us to be altogether a Lie. Yet our Life is not a Lie; yet our Hunger and Misery is not a Lie! Behold we lift up, one and all, our Twenty-five million right-hands; and take the Heavens, and the Earth and also the Pit of Tophet to witness, that either ye shall be abolished, or else we shall be abolished!

No inconsiderable Oath, truly; forming, as has been often said, the most remarkable transaction in these last thousand years. Wherefrom likewise there follow, and will follow, results. The fulfilment of this Oath; that is to say, the black desperate battle of Men against their whole Condition and Environment, — a battle, alas, withal, against the Sin and Darkness that was in themselves as in others: this is the Reign of Terror. Transcendental despair was the purport of it, though not consciously so. False hopes, of Fraternity, Political Millennium, and what not, we have always seen: but the unseen heart of the whole, the transcendental despair, was not false; neither has it been of no effect. Despair, pushed far enough, completes the circle, so to speak; and becomes a kind of genuine productive hope again.

Doctrine of Fraternity, out of old Catholicism, does, it is true, very strangely in the vehicle of a Jean–Jacques Evangel, suddenly plump down out of its cloud-firmament; and from a theorem determine to make itself a practice. But just so do all creeds, intentions, customs, knowledges, thoughts and things, which the French have, suddenly plump down; Catholicism, Classicism, Sentimentalism, Cannibalism: all isms that make up Man in France, are rushing and roaring in that gulf; and the theorem has become a practice, and whatsoever cannot swim sinks. Not Evangelist Jean–Jacques alone; there is not a Village Schoolmaster but has contributed his quota: do we not ‘thou’ one another, according to the Free Peoples of Antiquity? The French Patriot, in red phrygian nightcap of Liberty, christens his poor little red infant Cato, — Censor, or else of Utica. Gracchus has become Baboeuf and edits Newspapers; Mutius Scaevola, Cordwainer of that ilk, presides in the Section Mutius–Scaevola: and in brief, there is a world wholly jumbling itself, to try what will swim!

Wherefore we will, at all events, call this Reign of Terror a very strange one. Dominant Sansculottism makes, as it were, free arena; one of the strangest temporary states Humanity was ever seen in. A nation of men, full of wants and void of habits! The old habits are gone to wreck because they were old: men, driven forward by Necessity and fierce Pythian Madness, have, on the spur of the instant, to devise for the want the way of satisfying it. The wonted tumbles down; by imitation, by invention, the Unwonted hastily builds itself up. What the French National head has in it comes out: if not a great result, surely one of the strangest.

Neither shall the reader fancy that it was all blank, this Reign of Terror: far from it. How many hammermen and squaremen, bakers and brewers, washers and wringers, over this France, must ply their old daily work, let the Government be one of Terror or one of Joy! In this Paris there are Twenty-three Theatres nightly; some count as many as Sixty Places of Dancing. (Mercier. ii. 124.) The Playwright manufactures: pieces of a strictly Republican character. Ever fresh Novelgarbage, as of old, fodders the Circulating Libraries. (Moniteur of these months, passim.) The ‘Cesspool of Agio,’ now in the time of Paper Money, works with a vivacity unexampled, unimagined; exhales from itself ‘sudden fortunes,’ like Alladin–Palaces: really a kind of miraculous Fata–Morganas, since you can live in them, for a time. Terror is as a sable ground, on which the most variegated of scenes paints itself. In startling transitions, in colours all intensated, the sublime, the ludicrous, the horrible succeed one another; or rather, in crowding tumult, accompany one another.

Here, accordingly, if anywhere, the ‘hundred tongues,’ which the old Poets often clamour for, were of supreme service! In defect of any such organ on our part, let the Reader stir up his own imaginative organ: let us snatch for him this or the other significant glimpse of things, in the fittest sequence we can.

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