Eric Voegelin vs. Hillaire Belloc on the French Revolution

The causes of the French Revolution are complex; nothing of what I wrote in my last post on them is uncontroversial. Take the influence of Rousseau for example. Here is Belloc’s view of Rousseau’s influence on the Revolution:

Such is the general theory of the Revolution to which the command of Jean Jacques Rousseau over the French tongue gave imperishable expression in that book whose style and logical connection may be compared to some exact and strong piece of engineering. He entitled it the Contrat Social, and it became the formula of the Revolutionary Creed […] no man, perhaps, has put the prime truth of political morals so well [… he] stamped and issued the gold of democracy as it had never till then been minted. No one man makes a people or their creed, but Rousseau more than any other man made vocal the creed of a people, and it is advisable or necessary for the reader of the Revolution to consider at the outset of his reading of what nature was Rousseau’s abundant influence upon the men who remodelled the society of Europe between 1789 and 1794.

Eric Voegelin in his History of Political Ideas dismisses this “high” view of Rousseau’s influence, and points to what he sees as far more important factors:

The causes of the Great Revolution are an intricate problem, but it seems that a saner view is coming to the fore after the era of monistic theories. Neither the writings of intellectuals nor the misery of peasants can be credited any longer with being the decisive factors, although they had contributory importance. The lot of peasants, admittedly miserable, was no worse than in other countries, but rather better. And the revolutionary literature, as for instance the political writings of Rousseau, was not so well known, and much too complicated, to exert a broad influence. Rousseau’s Contrat Social was little read up to the eve of the Revolution; it became better known then because the revolutionary movement had gotten underway and some of its formulas proved useful. The claim of the Parlement to represent the volonté publique probably had greater practical influence than the implications of Rousseau’s volunté générale, which are accessible only to persons very well trained in theory. The revolutionary atmosphere had its center in the friction over the financial state of the realm developing between the crown and the privileged estates on the one hand and the Tiers Etat as represented by Parlement on the other. The Fronde of the seventeenth century already shows the main outlines of this situation… (pp. 115-116)

Thus for Voegelin the Revolution was above all a rematch of the Fronde, whereas for Belloc it was a rematch of the Völkerwanderung. The advantage of the butter/olive oil account is that it shows how it could actually have been both.

11 thoughts on “Eric Voegelin vs. Hillaire Belloc on the French Revolution

  1. That’s interesting. I wonder what the “mature” Voegelin would have thought, particularly given the distancing he made from his analytical approach in the History… as he progressed through Order and History. It seems that a “refreshed” Voegelian analysis of the French Revolution (and many other historical events) would have taken greater account of consciousness as a possible source of disorder. And had Voegelin actually kept to his original plan of O&H, we might have gotten it — but by the time he got to the Ecumenical Age, it was clear that the projected forced march through history that was contemplated at the start was never going to come to pass.

    I wonder, if in a more limited and “material” way, Michael Burleigh hasn’t supplied something of a “Voegelian” analysis in his Earthly Powers. He was certainly more “in tune” to the “spiritual” forces of the Revolution than most historians — including Belloc.


    • I suppose it was a bit unfair on Voegelin to quote from an unfinished work; I haven’t read enough of him yet to have a clear view of his different phases. Thanks for the Burleigh tip–I’ve added Earthly Powers to my wishlist.


  2. This is a fascinating series of posts. This question is more directed to the American state, but, do you see a republican form of government as being at all compatible with a proper understanding of political order?

    I ask because I assume your objections to the American republic are directed more towards the common understanding of political order prevalent in America, rather than to the particular constitutional arrangement (except insofar as the latter is an outgrowth of the former). I also assume you would agree that a form of government might not be necessarily conducive to a false ideal of order even if it is not the best-ordered form.

    With that understanding, would you consider the American constitution as inherently distorting a proper understanding of order? Would you make that judgment of any republican government with a strong to predominant democratic element (eg, such as the Roman republic, or the modern French state)?


    • I don’t think a republican form of government–or even democratic one– is of itself enough to exclude a proper political order, but I think that in the context of modern America or France (as opposed to ancient Rome or Athens) the genesis of republican government is part of a larger process that does cement a false political order into people’s social life. That is, the American Constitution considered absolutely might not be all that bad, but considered in its actual effect in bringing about American society it’s bad. (The Austrian Constitution very explicitly excludes a proper understanding of political order (it was drafted by Hans Kelsen)).

      Nice to see your name show up here, by the way. I’m thinking of posting something on your Bellarminian defense of popular sovereignty; I’m beginning to think that elements of Bellarmine’s account can be integrated into a more De Koninckian doctrine of legitimacy…


  3. It seems that you would not object to the American Constitution per se at all, but to the theory that emerged before it and animated its age. I personally would identify the Declaration of Independence as the formal ratification of that theory. While the Constitution is compatible with a more natural view of the polity, the Declaration strongly indicates that political community is posterior to individuals, is made artificially by them, and exists only to safeguard their rights (which are also prior to itself). It is possible to reconcile the Declaration with a Thomistic understanding, but only by doing damage to the language and importing a lot of meanings that Jefferson clearly didn’t intend (in college, as you may recall, I tried to do this, in an attempt I remember with some embarrassment).

    I studied Kelsen in Law school—I didn’t know he drafted the Austrian Constitution. I saw his legal theory as a sort of halfway house between positivism and natural law—an attempt to avoid positivism without having to rely on the divine to explain where law comes from if we don’t make it all up. As such it is vaguely welcome after the rigid positivism that swept through jurisprudence before Kelsen, but ultimately unsatifying. He reminds me a bit of Berkeley, fighting his rivals by granting most of the field to them.

    I would be very interested to read something tying Bellarmine’s view of popular sovereignty into de Konnick. De Konick is foremost on my list of writers I wish I had time to delve into.


    • I’m glad to hear that you’ve changed your reading of the Declaration. I would agree that the Declaration is the explicit formulation of the modern view of political order, but I guess I would still agree with Taylor that the Constitution, and it’s success in real political life, were key to driving this view of political order into people’s social imaginary.


    • Not only did Kelsen draft the Austrian Constitution, but his draft was the basis for most of the modern constitutions in Europe (e.g. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.), and has far surpassed the American Constitution in terms of serving as the model constitution for 3rd world countries shifting toward democracy.

      I’d be interested to get both of your reactions on the New Hungarian constitution. It looked very very good from my cursory glance (explicitly recognizing St. Stephen of Hungary as the founder of the country, recognizing the country’s Catholic heritage, etc.).


        • I haven’t read the new Hungarian Constitution yet, but I know some American libertarian who dislike it because it allows the state more authority than is needed to merely protect individual rights; so I am favorably disposed to it. I also understand it changes the official name of the polity from “the Hungarian Republic” to simply Hungary, which is a welcome departure from this twentieth century mania for needlessly extending the names of countries.

          Pater Edmond, I still don’t quite see that the American Constitution is quite as influential in cementing an individualistic, contractual view of politics into American society as you do. The Declaration is enormously influential in that regard, and numerous state constitutions invoke the language of the Declaration; but the US Constitution lacks such a philosophical underpinning.

          The preamble’s opening words, “We the people,” strike me as an acknowledgment that government derives its legitimacy from the governed, and an establishment the United States of America is prior in concept to its constituent states. Nations are not (usually) established by God directly, but come about through the actions of men through history. In this preamble a new “more perfect union” is established which previously did not exist as a unitary polity, and by whom could this new polity be established, if not by “the people?” The fact that political communities do exist solely to secure private goods does not mean that political communities in no sense rest on the continued loyalty and identification of the members of that community.

          Put another way, polities come into being and pass away. The operative thing that brings them into being, it seems, is the identification with and loyalty to that polity of its members; the withdrawal of those (by gradual shift or sudden upheaval) seems to bring about a polity’s end. Rarely is the creation of a country so abrupt that the representatives of a broad collection of political communities meet and decide to establish a hybrid English common law folk cum revival of the Roman Republic, but America finds itself in this unusual position. Again, how else should the preamble read?


          • Well, I certainly agree that nations are not usually established directly by God, and that the people have an important role to play here — one of these days I’m hoping to post something on legitimation — but my point here is about the effect of the Constitution on the social imaginary. You agree that the Declaration is very influential in this regard, but it seems to me that the influence of the Declaration is dependent on the Constitution — which in the popular imagination is seen as an instantiation of the Declaration’s theory of government — and on the actual success of the Constitution in establishing a stable political order.

            As to how else it could have begun: I like the beginning of the 1934 Austrian “May Constitution,” which begins with an invocation of the ultimate source of political authority: “In the name of God, the Almighty, from whom all law [Recht, which can also mean legitimacy or right] is derived, the Austrian people receives for its Christian, German federal state, on a corporate-subsidiarist basis [auf ständischer Grundlage] this Constitution…”


      • Joel, I just perused the new constitution, and my initial enthusiasm is dampened somewhat.

        First, much of the language is aspirational, rather than structural, and difficult to enact or enforce. For example, Article XIII says “Property shall entail social responsibility.” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, and favor bulwarks against pure capitalism, but I don’t see what that sentence will mean in practice. It doesn’t rise above merely expressing a sentiment. In practice I fear it will either be treated as a rhetorical flourish to the right to property and limitation on public takings also established by Article XIII and ignored, or used to justify excessive public takings. This is just one example of eloquent language which does not directly concern the disposition of public authority or create enforceable legal rights or standards of behavior.

        This problem is shared by much modern constitution-writing, and ignores, I think, a key insight of our Constitution’s drafers (ably expressed by Madison): the chief protection of proper public order (including individual liberties) is an arrangement of public powers such that the easiest historic avenues to tyranny are foreclosed. Eg, the structure of separated institutions sharing powers and multiple veto points with divergent interest is far more effective at preventing tyranny than “parchment barriers” prohibiting tyrannical acts and leaving it at that. Put another way, a constitution entrusting all public authority to a dictator and enjoining the dictator not to use it tyrannically would be less likely to actually prevent the tyrant.

        Second, the document goes into far too much detail in the section on public finances. Anytime a constitution starts imposing budget limits based on one-half of gross domestic product, I think it has descended from the function of constituting the state into ordinary legislation. I also have qualms about the mechanism for a two-thirds majority of a unicameral Parliament to pass “cardinal” laws—I fear this document blurs the line between the constitution and ordinary law in a manner that will prove destabilizing.

        Finally, though I realize that the Parliamentary tradition is too well-established to be readily changed, I much prefer the Roman-influenced American system of multiple assemblies and institutions sharing powers to the Parliamentary democracy so much more common in Europe (which strikes me as more akin to the ancient Greek democracies—the people choose their governors, but so long as they keep public support a handful of governors have almost unchecked discretion and authority).

        On the positive side, there is much to admire in the language of the new constitution, and its cultural effect could potentially be hugely beneficial, depending on how it is effectuated over the next decade or so.


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