By Sam Young

Paris in 1793 was a city gripped by uncertainty.

The revolution that ended Bourbon absolutism and established a constitutional monarchy had developed more rapidly than anyone could have predicted. Spiralling food prices, provincial uprisings and incursions by foreign armies led to unbearable tension in the capital. In September 1792, following an explosion of popular violence against suspected reactionaries, the monarchy was abolished. By January, the ex-king Louis was dead.

DavidBrutusSonsCorps

Republican leaders knew that instability required decisive leadership. In July 1793, the hard-line Montagnard wing of the Jacobin Club ousted the faltering Girondin faction and centralised power in the Committee of Public Safety, headed by the ‘incorruptible’ Maximilien Robespierre.

The Committee realised that the threat of violence alone was not enough to consolidate the Revolution. A form of unifying ideology was required. Here the Jacobins fell back on a word that was already widespread in political rhetoric: Vertu, or ‘Virtue’.

The philosophical concept of virtue has its origins in the Enlightenment. In her 2013 study Choosing Terror, Marisa Linton highlights the two key strands of ‘virtuous’ thought that developed over the eighteenth century.[1]

The first is a highly intellectual form of virtue referred to as classically republican. Popular with philosophers such as Montesquieu, this interpretation focuses on the merits of selfless patriotism in safeguarding the democratic republic (modelled on Ancient Greece or Rome). Virtue here represents the philosophical means to a political end: establishing specific intellectual principles upon which governments can base their style of rule.

The second strand is natural virtue. Commonly associated with Rousseau, natural virtue is a more emotional concept than its classical counterpart. It is a popular sentimental force aimed at promoting a ‘sublime level of happiness and fulfilment’ among the people through virtuous acts.[2] This process requires a personal moral development beyond the realms of high intellectualism.

Classical virtue of the first type was what drove the men of the Third Estate when they split from the crown in 1789. To them it remained a ‘high’ philosophical concept, endowing their revolutionary project with a sense of classical destiny steeped in Enlightenment tradition.

This is reflected in the visual art of the time: in August 1789 the Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David exhibited Les licteurs rapportent à Brutus les corps de ses fils (‘The lictors bring Brutus the bodies of his sons’), depicting the Roman republican leader who executed his own sons for plotting with royalists. Emphasising the themes of patriotic sacrifice for the classical-style state, David’s painting portrayed ‘classical republican’ virtue in a clear yet deeply intellectual style.

However, there was a limit to the practical use of lofty Enlightenment idealism. As crises multiplied and French politics edged towards hard-line republicanism, the semantic nature of virtue changed. By 1792 the Jacobins were advocating a form of virtue far closer to Linton’s ‘natural virtue’.

This strongly emotional sentiment was aimed at the streets rather than the drawing rooms of political clubs. Spread by propagandists such as Jean-Paul Marat, natural virtueFrench_revolution_guillotine_hulton_archive represented a ‘passionate commitment’ to the preservation of the patrie and the rooting out of all counter-revolutionary bodies.[3]

The populist appeal of natural virtue gave the Jacobins (or by 1793, the Montagnards) a method of winning support among ‘the urban workers’, particularly in Paris.[4] Virtue was propagandised as a semi-mystical force that existed within all honest republicans – a helpfully ambiguous definition that allowed the Montagnards to use it to popularise actions taken to preserve their power.

The 1793-4 Terror demonstrated this flexibility of meaning. Virtue became the order of the day, acting as the motivation behind the relentless political violence required to sustain Jacobin power. Robespierre summed up the use of natural virtue in the mechanism of terror on 5 February 1794:

‘The basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is monstrous; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing more than justice – swift, severe and inflexible.’[5]

Robespierre’s words clearly show the transition of virtue from a philosophical concept to a practical justification for state violence. Semantic ambiguity gave it political potential. From here, one can draw a line to later authoritarian regimes and their use of deliberately vague language to justify violence. For example, the Soviet propaganda machine made liberal use of the term ‘Class Enemy’, changing its meaning to suit the purging of particular social or ethnic groups.

This flexibility is what made Vertu so dangerous. What started out as a highly intellectual term was transformed into a political buzzword used to legitimise terror. The French Revolution introduced many new political ideas to Europe, but perhaps its most remarkable legacy was the realisation that the power of a single word can be virtually limitless.

Sam Young is currently studying for an MA in Modern History at Sheffield. He holds a BA French & History at the University of Nottingham, where he wrote his undergraduate dissertation on the use of ‘Virtue’ in French republican painting. He is currently researching for an MA dissertation on the creation of French-Algerian exile communities in 1960s France. Find him on Twitter: @Samyoung102

References

[1] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013).

[2] Linton, Choosing Terror, p. 38.

[3] Barrington Moore Jr., ‘Misgivings About Revolution: Robespierre, Carnot, Saint-Juste’, in French Politics and Society 16.4 (1998), pp. 17-36.

[4] Marisa Linton, ‘Robespierre and the Terror’, in History Today 56.8 (Aug. 2006), pp. 23-29.

[5] Quoted in Max Gallo, L’homme Robespierre: Histoire d’une solitude (1968), p. 318.

Images

Image 1: Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: ‘French Revolution Execution with Guillotine’ from the Hulton Archive, via Wikimedia Commons

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