As distant as heaven is from earth, so is the true spirit of equality from that of extreme equality.
The French Revolution was as much the progenitor of modern totalitarianism as of modern democracy.
—CHARLES COULSTON GILLISPIE, 2004
In the troubled years leading up to the French Revolution, King Louis XVI frequently expressed regret over his having backed the American colonies in their rebellion against England. His principal motive had been to avenge the defeat suffered by his grandfather, Louis XV, in the French and Indian War—a debacle that cost France Louisiana and nearly all its other American holdings—and thereby regain some of France’s former glory. But while the outcome of the American Revolution may indeed have restored a measure of French prestige, it had also demonstrated that a working democratic republic could be established in defiance of a powerful monarchy. This lesson was not lost on the French people. They were avidly reading translations of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, sharing stirring tales of how General Lafayette and his eight thousand French troops had helped the tattered American revolutionaries prevail against regimented redcoats on the field of battle, and gossiping about Benjamin Franklin’s libidinous triumphs among the ladies of Parisian high society: Franklin, science and liberty personified, a buckskin-booted democrat adorned by his glittering wit, had become the most popular man in France.
Worst of all, France’s American adventure had run up debts that threatened to bankrupt the government. The beginning of the end came on July 13, 1788, when a freak summer storm pelted northern France with hailstones large enough to kill men and livestock, destroying crops just prior to harvest and driving up food prices until a loaf of bread cost a month’s wages. The coldest winter in living memory ensued. Desperate peasants, foraging at dawn for roots and bark to feed their families, stumbled over the corpses of neighbors who had died while pursuing the same desperate endeavor. These misfortunes climaxed a decade marked by crippling crop failures, caused in part by the 1783 eruption of an Icelandic volcano but blamed by conspiracy theorists on sinister government plots.
The bloated French nobility was ill-suited to deal with any such emergency. A hundred thousand aristocrats, deliberately rendered superfluous by their regent, lived tax-free amid a perpetual swirl of parties and amusements in Paris and at Versailles, and were about as much use in a crisis as peacocks in a house fire. Nor was Louis XVI capable of kindling much hope among his subjects. Corpulent, somewhat slow-witted, and habitually decked out in robes so splendid as to simultaneously summon up the delights of the dinner table, the hunt, and a starry night sky, Louis seemed more a waddling embodiment of excess than an agent of reform—an impression reinforced by the self-indulgent profligacy of his wife, Marie Antoinette, known popularly as “Madame Deficit.”
Louis was also, however, an honest and earnest man who understood that something had to be done. When all else failed he called a national election in order to reconstitute the Estates-General. This old parliament not having met for 175 years, historians consulted antiquated books to acquaint themselves with its rules of procedure. Once elected, representatives of the first estate (clergy, in vestments) the second (nobles, in colorful silks), and the third (bourgeoisie, artisans, and peasants, in black) marched to the opening session at Versailles on May 5, 1789, listened to dedicatory speeches, and then collapsed into confusion. Their first priority was to revise the old rules—otherwise the clergy and nobility, representing only 3 percent of the populace, could outvote the other 97 percent—but they could not agree on how to do so, and after a few weeks the king disbanded them. Representatives of the third estate, emboldened by a recent pamphlet by Abbé Sieyès titled What Is the Third Estate? (“It is the whole”), defiantly met in what is known to history as a tennis court (actually a handball court) and resolved to call themselves the National Assembly and to draft a constitution. The king acceded to their terms, but by then there was rioting in the streets of Paris. On July 14 a mob stormed the Bastille and seized its stores of gunpowder. Within days, peasants in the countryside were rising up to attack their masters and burn the ledgers listing their feudal dues and debts. In response, the National Assembly abolished the feudal system, passed a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that made all citizens equal before the law—it affirmed their right to “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression” and defined liberty, sensibly enough, as “freedom to do everything which injures no one else”—and enacted a constitution limiting monarchical powers. The king and his family were politely but firmly invited to quit Versailles for Paris, where they remained as virtual prisoners of the new government. The French Revolution had begun.
The Americans initially took an optimistic view. Thomas Jefferson, who as ambassador to Paris had a front-row seat to the gathering storm, wrote complaisantly to James Madison in May 1789 that “the revolution of France has gone on with the most unexampled success hitherto,” and a month later informed John Jay that “this great crisis being now over, I shall not have matter interesting enough to trouble you with as often as I have done lately.” He told his friend John Trumbull that “all danger of civil commotion here is at an end, and it is probable they will proceed to settle to themselves a good constitution, and meet no difficulty in doing it.” The French future looked so sunny that August found Jefferson preparing to return to America, having successfully petitioned Congress for a six-month leave of absence on grounds that, as he assured Paine, “Tranquility is well established in Paris, and tolerably so thro’ the whole kingdom; and I think there is no possibility now of any thing’s hindering their final establishment of a good constitution, which will in its principles and merit be about a middle term between that of England and the United States.”
Panglossian as such sentiments seem in retrospect, they were not unfounded. If the French reformers faced problems spared their American counterparts—lingering feudalism, grinding poverty, an inequitable and unpopular legal system, an alarmingly rigid and vertical class structure, deeply entrenched religious biases—they seemed to have got off to a good start in addressing them. Plus France was, after all, widely regarded as the most civilized and sophisticated society in Europe, with particular strengths in science and philosophy; surely, in such a nation, common sense would prevail. And perhaps it would have, had the nature of science and its implications for politics been more clearly understood in France. But this was not the case.
French science may not have lived up to the high esteem in which it held itself, but it was admirably organized, generously funded, and peopled by researchers of undeniable capacity. While scientific societies elsewhere struggled for funding, the French Academy of Sciences, sumptuously headquartered at the Louvre, nourished a galaxy of talent that other nations could only envy—men like Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry; Georges Cuvier, a pioneer in paleontology and comparative anatomy; Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who formulated a pre-Darwinian theory of biological evolution; and Pierre Simon de Laplace, creator of a prescient “nebular hypothesis” that envisioned how the solar system formed. Mathematicians today still make use of the Lagrangian function of Joseph Louis Lagrange, the Fourier transformation of Jean Baptiste Fourier, and the Poisson distribution of Siméon Denis Poisson; Fresnel lenses (after Augustin Jean Fresnel) are employed in modern automobile headlamps, and everyone who has ever changed an electrical fuse is familiar with the amp, named for André Ampère, the founder of electrodynamics.
Philosophically, France was the capital of the Western world. The gleaming rays of Descartes’ putatively pure reasoning had been refracted into warmer tones by latter-day Cartesians like Géraud de Cordemoy and Nicolas de Malebranche, who invoked God to bridge the mind–body gap; Blaise Pascal, who invoked a god of the heart as well as the mind; and Pierre Gassendi, who portrayed reason as an aspect of “spirit.” Montesquieu had set forth a separation-of-powers approach to government that influenced the American founders, while the encyclopedists Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert popularized Enlightenment ideals and called for reforms in public education. The encyclopedists’ purpose, Diderot wrote, was “to change the general way of thinking.”
All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings. We must ride rough-shod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them…. We have for quite some time needed a reasoning age when men would no longer seek the rules in classical authors but in nature.
Fine minds adorned French culture almost as conspicuously as did the bejeweled gowns and fantastic headdresses of the noblewomen at Versailles. It seemed that, as one modern historian has summarized the prevailing view, “Philosophers were engaged in a winning battle for progress. The world was changing, nothing was doing more than ‘philosophy’ to promote that change, and it was change for the better.”
Encouraged by all this seeming sensibleness, Thomas Paine wrote to George Washington in 1790, “I have not the least doubt of the final and complete success of the French Revolution.” Observing that “the countries the most famous and the most respected of antiquity are those which distinguished themselves by promoting and patronizing science, and on the contrary those which neglected or discourage it are universally denominated rude and barbarous,” Paine gazed approvingly on the “distinguished” scientific accomplishments of the French and felt assured that they would not descend into barbarity. Yet descend they did, into the bloodbaths of the Terror—their constitution suspended, their ringing declaration of the Rights of Man set aside, their press censored in the name of “the people.” What went wrong?
A great many answers to that question have been advanced, from the conspiratorial (the Revolution was led astray by the Illuminati, the Freemasons, or some other secret organization) to the cultural (Anglo-American traditions were somehow better suited to the emergence of liberal democracy), the religious (it being claimed, especially in England, that Protestantism better prepared a citizenry for political liberty than did Catholicism), and, more persuasively, the pragmatic: By declaring war on Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Spain, the French revolutionaries alienated their neighbors and depleted their own police and military forces, plunging the populace into paranoia and mob rule. But what emerges most clearly is that the French revolutionaries suffered two closely related misfortunes. First, they neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism—that the key to success is to experiment and to abide by the results—assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy. Second, they chose the wrong philosophy.
As the inheritors of an illustrious philosophical heritage, the French were more inclined than most to regard science as subordinate to philosophy.* Their thinkers were apt to prefer the Cartesian side of science, which involves reasoning from first principles, to the Baconian, which is inductive and experimental. To the Cartesians, science was a variety of rational philosophy, and experiments had less to do with acquiring new knowledge than with demonstrating the power of reason. To the Baconians, experiment was the font of true knowledge, and the grand constructs of the philosophers were castles built on sand.
French popularizers of both stripes, eager to acquaint the general public with the wonders of science, produced a rising tide of haute vulgarizations that quadrupled the annual rate of science book publication in France between 1715 and the end of the century. If the Cartesian side of science was too coldly rational to charm many readers, the science writers warmed it up by bringing God into the picture: The marvelous mathematical clockwork of the solar system reflected the glory of its creator. If Baconian science seemed too complicated, the science writers responded by humanizing the scientists themselves, with tales of astronomers searching for new worlds and brave naturalists gathering botanical samples in steamy jungles. Ambitious works like Abbé Pluche’s eight-volume Spectacle de la nature (Newtonian science sweetened with lovely engravings) and George Buffon’s thirty-eight volume Histoire naturelle (a common ancestry for man and apes?) enjoyed impressive success. But in reconciling science with older institutions, all such domesticated depictions underestimated the power of science to produce not only new knowledge but new ways of learning. To regard science as but a philosophy, bounded by the rules laid down by philosophers past, was to downplay both its creativity and its political implications.
Scientific knowledge is gained by conducting experiments and adjusting one’s hypotheses accordingly. In the process some hypotheses emerge as more productive than others—which is to say more efficient, useful, and true in the sense that a carpenter’s level is true—but none attains the status of certitude. Liberal democracies similarly are based on experimentation: Every election and every piece of legislation is an experiment, the outcomes of which are understood to be conditional and hence open to additional discussion and experimentation. The members of parties and factions in a liberal-democratic state may feel strongly that their views are superior to those of the others, but when defeated in an election are generally willing to let the other side give it a try, recognizing that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. From this spirit flow such liberal traditions as toleration for free speech and respect for the loyal opposition. Science applied to politics tempers reason with reasonableness, arriving at provisional conclusions, whereas philosophers can and do reason their way from self-evident propositions to unassailable results—as Descartes did, or thought he had done.
Philosophy, not science, drove the French Revolution. Revolutionary French thinkers initially drew on John Locke’s scientific empiricism, David Hume’s skepticism, Montesquieu’s practicality, and Voltaire’s wit (a sense of humor being, as George Santayana would remark, a sense of proportion), but the revolution soon devolved into the hands of radical firebrands like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat, who thought of liberté as but a means to imposing a monolithic state of egalité and whose shrinking circles of philosophical zealotry came to be rimmed in red. This misplaced rationality was combined with romanticism—a seemingly odd alliance that is actually quite common, rationality calling forth romanticism in much the same way that a fervent preacher of virtue by day may succumb to vice by night. The most reprehensible goals of French rationalists were glowingly endorsed in the romantic and wildly popular new works of a literally fantastic philosophe who reviled the scientific values of modesty and toleration. This was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of whom it was said that he “invented nothing, but he set everything on fire.”
“Rousseau is a strange figure,” notes the twentieth-century philosopher John Herman Randall Jr. “Uneducated, he wrote the most influential book ever written on education. Almost incapable of fulfilling any social duties whatsoever, he wrote the most powerful book ever written on the supreme duty of political obligation. Hating society and the company of men, he captured their imagination as few others ever have, and became the vogue in society.” A favorite philosopher among those who knew few others, Rousseau all but dominated French thought from 1760 on. He more than anyone else invented Romanticism—a Manichaean world view that champions sentiment over logic, caprice over common sense, instinct over civilization, and mysticism over clarity.
Born in Geneva, Rousseau was raised by an aunt and uncle. (His mother died shortly after giving birth and his father deserted him ten years later.) At sixteen he began a lifetime of solitary wandering, a circumstance he attributed to his unique and colorful individuality—he suggests in his Confessions that nature “broke the mold” after making him—but which more likely reflected the fact that few could long tolerate the companionship of a man whose habitual behavior was to wreak wanton damage, excuse himself from responsibility for his actions, and then lament his resulting unpopularity as the inexplicable lot of “the most sociable and loving of men…cast out by all the rest…alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor or friend, nor any company left me but my own.” While working as a servant Rousseau was confronted with evidence of his having stolen a valuable ribbon. He blamed an innocent maid, who was punished for his crime, then pardoned himself on grounds that because “she was present in my mind,” he naturally “threw the blame from myself on the first object that presented itself.” Over the years he profited from his affairs with wealthy women, all the while conducting an ongoing liaison with an illiterate servant girl, Thérèse Le Vasseur; the couple had five children, all of whom Rousseau immediately delivered to orphanages. (“From the first moment in which I saw her, until that wherein I write, I have never felt the least love for her,” Rousseau said of Le Vasseur. “The physical wants which were satisfied with her person were to me solely those of the sex.”) Diderot, one of Rousseau’s many short-term friends, soon concluded that he was “deceitful, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical and full of malice.” Voltaire called him “an inconsequential poor pygmy of a man, swollen with vanity.” Threatened with arrest in France and Switzerland for advocating democracy and denying the divine right of kings, Rousseau lived for three years in Motiers under the protection of Frederick the Great before the villagers became so disgusted with him that they threatened his life. He fled to England with the aid of David Hume, who found him lodging and a pension—whereupon Rousseau accused Hume of conspiring against him, grandly refused the pension, and abruptly returned to France. (Adam Smith wrote consolingly to Hume, “I am thoroughly convinced that Rousseau is as great a Rascal as you and as every man here believes him to be.”) Edmund Burke, who befriended Rousseau for a time but soon thought better of it, declared that he “entertained no principle, either to influence his heart, or guide his understanding, but vanity; with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness.” In the end Rousseau went unambiguously mad, dying in poverty in Paris at the dawn of the Revolution, a suspected suicide.
All of which played well with the sort of readers, never in short supply and amply represented in the street mobs of revolutionary Paris, who envision philosophers as lonely, misunderstood souls who wander an uncaring world thinking deep thoughts that only a few individuals are sensitive enough to appreciate. Rousseau theorized that his father’s reading to him from his late mother’s favorite books accounted for what he called “my odd, romantic notions of human life.” Odd they certainly were, and if a romance is “a baseless, made-up story…full of exaggeration or fanciful invention” (the Random House Dictionary definition) then Rousseau’s philosophy fills the bill. His political philosophy is founded on the baseless assertion that humans originally lived in a state of peaceful equality, from which happy status they eventually fell, owing to ill-advised innovations like toolmaking and property rights. In his On the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau embroiders this hypothesis with scraps of explorers’ tales about “savages” whose traditional way of life allegedly approximated the primordial state of nature. Most of these assertions are so far off the mark as to be laugh-out-loud funny. Rousseau writes that the inhabitants of the Venezuelan jungles live “in absolute security and without the smallest inconvenience…expos[ing] themselves freely in the woods…but no one has ever heard of one of them being devoured by wild beasts.” Man in the state of nature seldom gets sick and so “can have no need of remedies,” is sexually promiscuous but untroubled by jealousy, has no property and needs none: “I see him satisfying his hunger at the first oak, and slaking his thirst at the first brook; finding his bed at the foot of the tree which afforded him a repast; and, with that, all his wants supplied.”
Rousseau admits that his natural Man is hypothetical, abiding in “a state which no longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably never will exist.” He is contemptuous both of facts—“Let us begin then by laying facts aside”—and the books that contain them. “I hate books,” he declares. “They only teach one to talk about what one does not know.” Nevertheless we must somehow “have true ideas” about humanity’s primordial state, “in order to form a proper judgment of our present state.” And why must we do this? In order to figure out where civilization went astray. “Man is naturally good,” Rousseau asserts, “and only by institutions is he made bad.” Which institutions made him bad? Private property and civil society: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes.” Instead, humans foolishly fashioned fishhooks and arrows, donned clothing, captured fire, built huts for themselves…and the world went to hell.
An astonishingly large number of people still believe in Rousseau’s mythical prehistory. Books continue to be published that depict early humans as peaceful, communistic idlers corrupted by innovations such as agriculture, which one modern author calls “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” A few empirical findings may serve to alleviate this delusion.
Anthropologists and other social scientists studying preagricultural peoples have adduced fairly reliable evidence of their behavior, and the results do not look like Eden. Two-thirds of the hunter-gatherer societies they have examined were found to abide in a state of almost constant warfare, producing annual fatality rates of half a percent of the population—equivalent to the murder in New York City of a hundred persons a day. (The actual homicide rate in New York City is under three per day.) The Tahitians, regarded by nineteenth-century Europeans as dwellers in paradise, were so warlike that they found it necessary to maintain a military mobilization level exceeding that of the Soviet Union during World War II. The !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari, portrayed by Elizabeth M. Thomas in a widely read book, The Harmless People, killed one another between 1920 and 1955 at quadruple the rate of Americans in the fifties and sixties. The Murngin Aborigines in the 1880s lost nearly a quarter of their males to feuds and battles. Archeologists sifting through the crushed skulls and mutilated remains of the men, women, and children cast into mass graves at Crow Creek, South Dakota, seven hundred years ago, and near Talheim, Germany, seven thousand years ago, estimate that people back then were far more likely to meet a violent death than were the twentieth-century Europeans who suffered through two world wars. Exceptions are hard to find. The “gentle Tasaday,” a modern “Stone-Age tribe” that spawned a documentary film and a book, were genuinely peaceful—but they were also a fraud, perpetuated by the Philippine government’s director of indigenous peoples, who allegedly absconded with the funds he had raised for the protection of this nonexistent tribe.
As indifferent to their environment as to their neighbors, the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Europe and America evidently drove large game animals to extinction, switching to smaller game once there was nothing else left to sustain them. The hunters tended to be taller and more physically fit than their agrarian counterparts—a phenomenon that led Hollywood moviemakers to feature Apache and Comanche warriors over more settled peoples like the Pueblo—but that was because their weaker compatriots, whom agrarian societies could afford to sustain, were killed in battle or allowed to perish in infancy. As it happens, there is a political philosophy that celebrates warlike leaders who plunder agrarian settlements while happily sacrificing misfits among their own numbers: It is called fascism. It is thanks to agriculture, technology, science, and liberalism, rather than to Rousseau and the fascists, that so many puny, weak, eccentric, and otherwise encumbered individuals have contributed to civilization—people like Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcel Proust, and Stephen Hawking.
Ben Franklin was willing to strum Rousseau’s harp to the advantage of his diplomatic mission. His celebrity in France—which led him to write back to his sister that in Paris “my face [is] almost as well known as that of the moon”—sprang from his canny perception that he could encourage the French to support the American cause by playing on their romantic devotion to Rousseau. Franklin “seemed a living advertisement for the virtues of Rousseauistic simplicity, the product of a sylvan paradise far from the jaded artificiality of Europe,” notes one historian. He was anything but. Far from exemplifying the stoicism of the noble savage, Franklin was a gluttonous bon vivant who advised his friend John Paul Jones that the best way to learn French was to acquire a “sleeping dictionary,” by which he meant a French mistress; John Adams found Franklin’s life in Paris to be “a scene of continual dissipation.” No innocent, Franklin was so politically pragmatic as to be dogged by accusations of deviousness. Rather than living in a Rousseauistic state of equality with his fellow man, Franklin was a self-made media baron who had gained control of American newspapers, almanacs, and the postal service that distributed them, earning a fortune by his early forties. His famous inventions—bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod—were the work of a man committed to a materially better future, not a return to nature.
Rousseau regarded science and technology as ignoble, since they put power in human hands: Ironmongering makes men unequal; amber waves of grain are their misfortune; Europe, since it has some of the most productive mines and richest farmlands in the world, must be the world’s unhappiest continent. Science corrupts, and the Enlightenment ideal of applying scientific approaches to government is inhuman. “Throwing aside, therefore, all those scientific books,” Rousseau asks how society might be reformed were humankind to return to the peace and equality that he thinks it originally enjoyed. We cannot, he concedes, go home again: Abolishing science and technology would be a cure worse than the disease, and attempting to deconstruct society would run afoul of the fact that “men like me…can no longer subsist on plants or acorns, or live without laws or magistrates.” He does, however, proffer two remedies. One is to reform education, permitting children to develop in as “natural” a state as possible, free from booklearning and the memorization of facts. The other is to wield the power of government to hammer the population into a state of equality. Such is the popular will, Rousseau asserts, and “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he shall be forced to be free.”
Robespierre revered Rousseau, whom he was proud to have met during the latter’s final days in Paris. “Divine man!” Robespierre enthused. “I looked upon your august features [and] understood all the griefs of a noble life devoted to the worship of truth.” Like Rousseau, Robespierre was enamored of his own virtue—he enjoyed being called “The Incorruptible”—and viewed civic virtue as “the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government.” Its core, he thought, was “the love of equality,” a returning of society to the egalitarianism it enjoyed in Rousseau’s state of nature. A spellbinding orator, Robespierre seldom flew higher than when describing how wonderful France would be once all its inequalities had been mowed down. “What is the end of our revolution?” he asked, in February 1794.
We wish that order of things where all the low and cruel passions are enchained…. We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honor, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, the attractions of happiness for the ennui of sensuality, the grandeur of man for the littleness of the great, a people magnanimous, powerful, happy, for a people amiable, frivolous and miserable….