The Cost of Ideology

Saturday, June 10, 2006
John Kekes has a very good piece in City Journal in which he examines Robispierre's tender ministrations in bringing Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité to pass in the glorious French revolution. I am sure that many, if not most, Americans do, as Kekes notes, think fondly of that most unclean of all revolutions but Burke had its measure prior to Robespierre's ascension and could not have been much surprised in its devolution.

When Keke notes:
The ideology was the repository of the true and the good, the key to the welfare of humanity. Its enemies had to be exterminated without mercy because they stood in the way. As the ideologues saw it, the future of mankind was a high enough stake to justify any deed that served their purpose. As Loomis puts it, “[A]ll who played a role in the drama . . . believed themselves motivated by patriotic and altruistic impulses. All . . . were able to value their good intentions more highly than human life. . . . There is no crime, no murder, no massacre that cannot be justified, provided it be committed in the name of an Ideal.”
it is to presage a comparison between the French ideology and that of Communism, Nazism and Islamofascism. The Pan Arab socialists who thought they could ride the tiger of a fundamentalist Islam seem to have made a serious error. They might have reflected that the Jacobins enjoyed not just Robespierre but Napoleon after for all their troubles.

One might think that an ideology which worships Reason as its goddess would have a little better foresight.


David Thomson said...

I have long contended that the French should be ashamed of their so-called glorious revolution. It eventually gave birth to the totalitarian horrors of the Twentieth Century. Every radical group from the Nazis to the Communists are the bastard children of Robispierre and his buddies.

Did you ever wonder why the French are so goofy? Well, this is one of the primary reasons. One cannot be a rational and humane person---and still celebrate the French Revolution. Such an attempt will inevitably turn your brain into mush. Furthermore, I am convinced that the citizens of France will never get their act together until they ceremoniously renounce this evil event.

Skookumchuk said...

Villepin sleeps with Nappy's biography under his pillow in this, the year of our Lord 2006, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. It is hard not to just write them all off.

We see it on this side of the Atlantic also. A tragedy for Latin America was that Spain was in chaos for most of the 19th Century, during which time their intellectuals turned to France. Hey, let's make Mexico City and Buenos Aires imitations of Hausmann's Paris. Maybe OK visually, but they copied all the dirigiste nonsense along with it. We at least had the sense to stop after L'Enfant's architectural renderings.

The world has paid a heavy price for the French failure in many ways, large and small. I agree that when the French come to grips with this failure, the world will be a better place. But I'm not holding my breath.

Rick Ballard said...


I can understand coming up with liberté, fraternité, egalité contra Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes. The intellectual ferment which the explosion in natural science coupled with the German 'higher criticism' engendered allowed for a breadth of utopian speculation unlike any ever seen before.

I just don't understand why the vision of 'reason' espoused was, from the onset, so detached from observable reality. Calling wolves sheep and putting them to graze with the flock just hasn't worked out very well - and won't. Burke had it on the first pass.

Conservatives are like that.

As to the French, we'll see how long they leave the wolves alone - and what excuses they expound when they get rid of them.

Sissy Willis said...

The totalitarian impulse runs deep and dark in our species. The dustbin of history is filled with fiery-eyed idealists who saw the one true way and, rationalizing that ends justify the means, took it upon themselves to give thumbs up or down to mere mortals like ourselves.

There is no honor

truepeers said...

I am still mulling over this quote from the historican Marc Bloch that appears in a recent homage that Gallia Watch has translated:
"There are two categories of Frenchmen who will never understand the history of France: those who refuse to be moved by the memory of the consecration of Reims, and those who read without emotion the story of the celebration of the Federation.(1) It doesn't matter very much what their principles are. Their impermeability to the most beautiful outpourings of collective enthusiasm is enough to condemn them" (Strange Defeat, p. 646).
(1)The consecration of Reims refers to the crowning of the Kings of France in the city of Reims. The coronation had the blessings of the Pope, and was a sacred event.

The "Fête de la Féderation" took place on July 14, 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille and was an enthusiastic gathering of citizens and "federates" celebrating loyalty to the Constitution.

Rick Ballard said...

That's a nice piece, Sissy. I suppose if you count the Spartans the totalitarian urge does have quite a bit of history. 'Course, they weren't much in the idealism business.

I suppose it takes a Frenchman to murder for brotherhood.