Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

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