Peace and Sacrifice
By KYLE HALL
A conversation between historical contemporaries with very different modern-day legacies, Mary Wollstonecraft and Maximilian Robespierre, set in the Reign of Terror, on the just foundation of the state and the balance between idealism and realism in governance. Throughout his political career, on and before his time on the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre repeatedly warned against the rise of a new Caesar who would come to take political power for himself. Despite his ouster and execution, his fears were ultimately vindicated with the rise of Napoleon and the rebirth of the French Empire. Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, one of history's most passionate and articulate defenses of the individual and political rights of women, helped spark a feminist movement whose implications are still being felt to this day. Inspired by Slavoj Žižek's Robespierre: Virtue and Terror and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
The year is 1794. Maximilian Robespierre, as always, is behind his desk. Tall and pale, his gauntly elegant frame is a testament to the strain his time as primarch of France has on his health. Ever the diligent public servant, he pours over the documents at his desk by candlelight, hands splotched with ink and constantly muttering to himself under his breath.
Caught up as he is in crafting his new France, free from the bonds of history and established in virtue, he doesn't notice the knock on the door, or the doorman who quietly pokes his head in.
"My lord?" No answer. "My lord!"
Robespierre looks up, clearly irritated at the interruption. What? What news?
The doorman bows his head nervously. "It is a woman, my lord. A crowd has gathered outside. The things she is saying- well, she is just a woman, nobody wanted to be hasty, but..."
Robespierre doesn't respond, briefly looks down at his work, and slowly stands, steely-faced. He sweeps out of the room without a sound. He walks out of his office, through the corridors of the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs, seat of the French Revolutionary government, and as he moves to the entranceway is greeted by an unusual spectacle: a woman, dressed in blue, waving her hands about and giving an extremely passionate speech in front of a several-hundred-person crowd that had gathered.
She, unlike Robespierre, is very tall, and clearly English.
"This regime is filthy! Violence only begets violence. This terror- it is wrong. How can it be the will of the people to kill so many of themselves? We should not be using torture and wanton execution, we should be using education and building social cohesion to create a better and more compassionate society."
Robespierre, always immaculate in his personal manners, walks up behind this fiery ideologue and coughs politely. She turns.
Excuse me, madam. I don't believe we've had the pleasure. Je suis Maximilien.
"I am Mary. But I already know you. You are France's bloody dictator. You have corrupted the people's revolution with violence and evil. You must denounce these ways, make penance for the harms you have done, and begin making meaningful progressive steps to reform society."
Robespierre blinks. It had been quite some time since anyone was stupid enough to say anything like this directly to his face, and his expression was frozen, torn between indignation and the self-indulgent delight of a born orator anticipating a challenge. A slow smile creeps across his face.
So. You think violence only begets more violence, yes? That after centuries of violent oppression the 3rd estate should be gentle with its oppressors. That the embedded injustice, the evils of the Ancien regime could be wiped clean with books and positive feelings? In the name of morality, I suppose, you would ask us to lay down arms. That it is wrong to inflict violence, that life is sacred- that the aggressor is always wrong, and the victim always to be pitied. That we should be gentle with the Monarchists who would see us dead and the revolution overturned given the barest chance. Is this accurate?
Mary knows she is being goaded, and does not take the bait. "I believe a society founded in virtue is preferable to one founded in terror- not because you owe courtesy to those who would do violence to you, necessarily, but because you owe it to the future of your society to set a positive precedent for posterity. The actions you take in these early days will be remembered by France forever, and therefore you should exhibit the highest moral fiber, and a true commitment to virtue so that the moral soul of our nation is insured against degradation in future generations. Is it not better to create an educated and informed society, to spread the values of our times to the younger generation, that we might grow as a nation towards a better future?"
The crowd murmurs appreciatively. “She kind of has a point, doesn't she?” one woman says. Most, however, are unwilling to say anything out loud.
The confident smile has at no point left Maximilien's face. It is so easy for those who have never had to face reality to speak of moral certainty!
He chuckles. As someone who has had no such luxury, let me share with you some wisdom that I have come upon in my time in the Committee of Public Safety, and the revolutionary years before.
The crowd falls dead silent.
I have three insights that I would like to share with you. Hard truths that I have been forced to face.
First- Morality is idealistic, and as such, inherently unrealistic. It is also arbitrary, or at least, something defined by society and not by the Supreme Being or natural law. They guide us towards virtue, not morality. For time beyond reckoning, we have been told that obedience to aristocracy is our moral place- that the humble and dutiful will go to heaven and that those who demand their rights are breaking from the social order. Now that we have shattered that old way, we are left without a moral anchor to guide our civic life.
That leads me to my second insight. Morality is contingent, not essential, but nearly inviolable once established and shattered forever once challenged. This is because it is forged in the most unquestionable, essential acts humankind can commit- violence. Everything that we do, while we live, is open to historical interpretation and reinterpretation. But violence is horrifyingly, unavoidably real, and the only language common to all minds and tongues. A government is legitimate when it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders, and such legitimacy is not forged lightly.
This is related to my third insight- that evil, an aversion to virtue- is more deeply embedded in society than any of us would like to admit. That although words and ideas can open our minds to virtue, they can also give canny opponents the clothing with which to hide their true malicious intentions. Our revolution is not so secure that monarchy cannot return, and unless we forge the virtues of our time in the language most profoundly understood in history, it will succumb to the inertia and fear, and the Monarchists will return.
Wollstonecraft is taken aback.
"You're a monster! You think society is forged in violence? That all we can do is commit new violence to protect ourselves from the world? Is that all there is? What an awful worldview. What gives you the right to make a decision like that for all France? Why must we suffer all this violence, all in the name of a better future that seems to be just as violent as the past we are so anxious to get away from!"
Robespierre shrugs. It is the duty of one who would assume the mantle of public leadership to see the world as it is, not as we wish it were. If you believe so strongly in morality, it must be disappointing to be so constantly frustrated by reality- I understand your indignation. But France and the revolution must be protected by those who are willing to do anything necessary to protect it, and it is as simple as that. Myself and the members of the Assembly and the Committee are doing what needs to be done, and France will thank us in posterity.
This time, it is Mary's turn to chuckle. "Trust me, Max- history is rarely sympathetic to the executioner. I wouldn't count on such fond recollection. I understand your intellectual argument there, and the values that you are drawing on, I really do. I don't know that I agree with your conclusion about morality, but I can understand the path to that conclusion. She turns to the crowd."
"But you here- What do you think? This man claims to speak in the interests of the masses. How have you enjoyed this Reign of Terror?" (Robespierre splutters, enjoyed??? Who said anything about enjoying anything- but Mary pretends not to hear) "I bet most of you have not. I would be willing to bet that most of you would prefer- in fact, I am sure- that you would prefer to go through a bit of a longer process toward building a virtuous society that doesn't involve such gratuitous use of the National Razor at the whim of this political spider."
“That seems reasonable to me,” one says. “Do we want our children to live like this?” asks another. The mutterings grow louder, and spread.
"But wait!" cries Robespierre. Do you not see? If we allow ourselves to relent, if we do not press our advantage now, before you know it we will have a new self-styled Emperor wasting the blood and treasure of France on foreign escapades, and the voice of the people will be silenced once again! Do not let yourselves be deceived!
The crowd hisses, and Mary rounds on him. "Quiet, snake! The people of France will no longer accept your arbitrary prosecution of justice and your delusions of historical grandeur. Tens of thousands have died already- when does your identity forging stop? When have we stopped forging morality and started ruling through bloody suppression? Please, this violence must stop! We must turn back before it is too late!"
Robespierre draws himself up to his full height- still diminutive, but with a fury of personality that belied his stature. "People of France! Rally to me, my people! Show this woman that we are committed to our historic quest, to free ourselves from the shackles of Ancien and to a society founded in virtue! Show her that she is wron-"
As if on cue, the crowd surges forward and surrounds him. Within moments, it has consumed him, and begins moving slowly towards the guillotine.
Wollstonecraft stands by, her face stony. As the mob moves away to exercise its primordial judgment on its one-time hero and protector, Robiespierre's patronizing chuckle rings in her ears.