To attack the French Revolution as a Catholic might seem a bit too easy. But then Hillaire Belloc was famously a great defender of the Revolution, and even Aelianus of Laodicea seems to agree with him up to a point. The French Revolution, it would seem, is a bit complicated.
Part of the complication has to do with the geography of France, situated between the Mediterranean “South” and the “North” of Germany, Britain etc. This is what makes France the ideal country; the French use both olive oil and butter in their cooking. In discussing the American Revoltution, I brought up Taylor’s thesis that as the ancient ideal of order became less and less tenable, modern ideals of order “colonized” older forms of legitimacy and transformed them. Now there are basically two modes of the modern ideal of political order, and what happens in the Revolution is that each of these two modes exploits a different element of French culture — one takes over the northern, “butter” element, the other the southern, “olive oil” element.
Charles De Koninck distinguishes the two basic modes of the modern ideal of political/moral order through two ways of denying the common good. The first mode, which he calls “personalist,” sees the common good as purely instrumental to the achievement of private goods. The second, which he calls “totalitarian,” turns the common good into the private good of a kind of quasi individual. He sees the second as coming after the first as a kind of effect:
Might there not be, between the exaltation of the entirely personal good above any good that is truly common on the one hand, and the negation of the dignity of persons on the other, a very logical connection which could be seen working in the course of history? […] The enslavement of the person in the name of the common good is like a diabolical vengeance, both remarkable and cruel, a cunning attack against the community of good […] The denial of the higher dignity which man receives through the subordination of his purely personal good to the common good would ensure the denial of all human dignity.
The “personalist” mode of the modern ideal of political order, the idea of order as a purely instrumental means to securing mutual benefit, comes first in time: is in large part a response to the havoc in Europe caused by the wars following the Protestant Reformation. In thinkers such as Grotius and Hobbes the modern political/moral order is used to legitimize an absolute state. The absolute monarch is necessary to keep social peace, and is legitimized by a founding “social contract” which has been once-for-all established. In France this idea is partially realized in Louis XIV, who abolishes an organic-hierarchical view of the state in favor of an homogenous bureaucratic one, but still exploits older views of the divine mission of the king.
But already in Locke this ideal of order is used as a justification for limited government. Politics becomes a kind of “economic” exchange between individuals who give up just as much as they need to secure their rights. In England this ideal of order “colonizes” the ideal of the “ancient law of the people;” the “ancient rights of parliament” are asserted, but given a new meaning. At the same time what Taylor calls the “public sphere” is formed: a sphere of “public debate” independent of political influence and entirely in “secular time,” in which society can come to a common mind about important matters. The public sphere becomes a “benchmark of legitimacy:”
Parliament, or the court, in taking its decisions ought to be concentrating together and enacting what has already been emerging out of enlightened debate among the people. […] By going public, legislative deliberation informs public opinion and allows it to be maximally rational, while at the same time exposing itself to its pressure, and thus acknowledging that legislation should ultimately bow to the clear mandates of this opinion. (Taylor, p. 189)
Now in France the movement toward limited government in the name of the “ancient law” was frustrated with the defeat of the Fronde. The defeat of the Fronde is followed by the rule of Louis XIV which settles on an absolutist version of the modern political ideal, but one that continues to use elements of older Catholic ideas of hierarchy. Absolutism precluded the “public sphere” developing in the way in which in did in England or Germany. Thus, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, the French “intelligentia” were in certain ways excluded from the Enlightenment culture of the North:
What the French lacked was threefold: a secularized Protestant background, an educated class which linked the servants of government, the clergy and the lay thinkers in a single reading public, and a newly alive type of university exemplified in Konigsberg in the east and in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the west. The French eighteenth-century intellectuals constitute an intelligentsia, a group at once educated and alienated; while the eighteenth-century Scottish, English, Dutch, Danish and Prussian intellectuals are on the contrary at home in the social world, even when they are highly critical of it […] Hence what we are dealing with is a culture that is primarily Northern European […] Most of the eighteenth-century French intelligentsia have the will to belong to [this culture], in spite of the differences in their situation. Indeed at least the first phase of the French revolution can be understood as an attempt to enter by political means this North European culture and so to abolish the gap between French ideas and French social and political life. (After Virtue, p. 37)
This “first phase” of the revolution is thus a “butter” and personalist phase. But it was followed by (and partially overlapped with) a second “olive oil” and totalitarian phase. This phase is influenced by Rousseau.
Rousseau can be partly seen as a reaction the the pusillanimity and pettiness of “enlightened self-interest.” The love of self for Rousseau must not merely be exploited to serve the general interest, it must be actually identified with the love of others. Taylor’s analysis is really good on this point:
In Rousseau’s language, the primitive instincts of self-love (amour de soi) and sympathy (pitié) fuse together in the rational and virtuous human being into a love of the common good, which in the political context is known as the “general will”. In other words, in the perfectly virtuous man, self-love is no longer distinct from love of others […] The goal is to harmonize individual wills, even if this can’t be done without creating a new identity, a “moi commun” (“common self ”) […] The law we love, because it aims at the good of all, is not a brake on freedom. On the contrary, it comes from what is most authentic in us, from a self-love which is enlarged and transposed into the higher register of morality. (p. 202)
The power of Rousseau’s position comes from the natural order of man to the common good, but Rousseau’s common good is not really common. It is totalitarian, as De Koninck puts it:
A good which is merely the good of the collectivity looked upon as a kind of singular […] would be common only accidentally; properly speaking it would be singular, or if you wish, it would differ from the singular by being nullius.
This totalitarian ideal of the common good fills Rousseau with hatred for the “personalist” or liberal ideal. To quote Taylor again:
If self-love is also love of humanity, how to explain the egoistic tendencies which fight in us against virtue? These must come from another motive which Rousseau calls “pride” (amour propre). So my concern for myself can take two different forms, which are opposed to each other, as good is to evil. (p. 202)
Where the [standard conception of the Enlightenment period] sees disengaged reason, which lifts us to a universal standpoint, and makes us impartial spectators, as liberating a general benevolence in us, or at least teaches us to recognize our enlightened self-interest, for Rousseau this […] strategic self, which is at one and the same time isolated and eager for others’ approval, represses ever further the true self. The struggle for virtue is that attempt to recover a voice which has been buried and almost silenced deep within us. What we need is the exact opposite of disengagement; we need rather a reengagement with what is most intimate and essential in ourselves… (p. 203)
This moral vision is taken over by the Jacobins. And it is used to “colonize” an “olive oil” ingredient of French culture. It takes advantage of Roman ideals of civic virtue and of fanciful popular resentment at the oppression of “Frankish barbarians.” This is perhaps what fooled Belloc. But of course the ancient notion of civic virtue is totally transformed by the Jacobins:
As Robespierre put in 1792: “The soul of the Republic is virtue, it’s the love of the fatherland, the magnanimous devotion which subsumes all particular interests in the general one.” In one sense, this was a return to an ancient notion of virtue, which Montesquieu had identified as the “mainspring” of Republics, “A continuing preference of the public interest over one’s own.” But it has been re-edited in the new Rousseauian terms of fusion. (Taylor, p. 204)
Now one problem with this phase of the Revolution is that, unlike the “butter” ideal of order, it cannot be realized in representative democracy:
For Rousseau […] political representation in its normal sense through elected assemblies was anathema. This is connected with his insistence on transparency. The general will is the site of maximum transparency, in this sense, that we are maximally present and open to each other when our wills fuse into one. (Taylor, p. 204)
Insofar as the general will only exists where there is real virtue, that is, the real fusion of individual and common wills, what can we say of a situation in which many, perhaps even most people are still “corrupt”, that is, have not yet achieved this fusion? Its only locus now will be the minority of virtuous. They will be the vehicles of the genuine common will, which is objectively that of everyone, that is, the common goals which everyone would subscribe to if virtuous. What is this minority supposed to do with this insight into its own correctness? Just let a corrupt majority “will of all” take its course through the working of certain formally agreed procedures of voting? What would be the value of this, for there can as yet by hypothesis be no true Republic where the will of all coincides with the general will? Surely the minority is called on to act so as to bring about the true Republic, which means to combat corruption and establish virtue. (Taylor, p. 206)
This is of course the justification for the reign of terror: the “diabolical vengeance” to which De Koninck referred. The corruption of the best is the worst.