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La pitié dangereuse, by Stefan Zweig

I don’t understand the title. Shouldn’t it be called ‘Beware of stupidity’? – ‘La bêtise dangereuse’?

Perhaps Zweig felt he had something significant to impart, a moral reflected by the title: in which case it turns to dust in the mouth of the narrator Hofmiller, a poor creature; or maybe Zweig was saying the opposite in contrasting Hofmiller with the noble Condor, with a layer of irony in the title and the weak-spirited narrator.

There’s a fair amount of suffering in the book, which slowed my reading of it. In the end it’s probably best to ignore the muddled didacticism of the title, and read the book as a sad story with no particular meaning.

La fin d’un monde, by Julien Green

A very easy read; reflective on the fate of France but not on his own ability as a celebrity to pull strings on behalf of people he knows.

Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution Française, ed. Furet & Ozouf (in part)

A 3kg lump with an intimidating title, this book is in fact a collection of rather charming (though scholarly) essays on topics in the history of the Revolution; almost Victorian in its anecdotal presentation. One thinks of books like Ch. Diehl’s Figures Byzantines.

Some of the articles are rich in interpretation but poor in circumstantial detail, leaving the reader to take the interpretation on trust. But though it’s okay, it hardly seems indispensable.

Read so far:

  • Préface
  • Campagne d’Italie
  • Coups d’état
  • La Révolution et l’Europe
  • Babeuf
  • Bonaparte
  • Carnot
  • Thermidoriens
  • Suffrage
  • Souverainté
  • Buchez

Thiers’s Révolution, vol IX

This volume exhibits a sharp decline in historical value. In its predecessor Thiers’s obsession with military details led to many longueurs, but now his desire to justify the Fructidor coup distorts his narrative out of any recognisable shape. In order to obtain any information at all, the reader needs all his wits to see beyond the propagandist presentation. But I shall persevere.

La condition humaine, by André Malraux

A little meandering at first, but an impressive story when it gets going.

Thiers’s Révolution, vol VIII

Thiers concludes the volume with a rather fine peroration which explains why, unlike many historians of the Revolution, he extends its period to cover the Thermidorean rule:

Twenty heroes, differing in character and talent but alike in youth and courage, were leading our troops to victory. Hoche, Kléber, Desaix, Moreau, Joubert, Masséna, Bonaparte, and a host of others were marching together. Their merits were discussed and compared, but not even the wisest man could look on them and distinguish the guilty from the unfortunate; no one could tell who would die of an unknown malady in the flower of youth; who would fall under an Islamic knife or under enemy fire; who would oppress his country’s freedom, or who would betray it: all were superb, pure, smiled on by fate, and full of prospects! So they seemed in that brief moment; and the life of nations as of individuals is but a succession of moments. Our peace and prosperity were being restored, and as for freedom and glory, we had them already! An ancient had said that happiness was not enough without glory, but both were our lot. Frenchmen – since then we have seen our freedom suffocated, our country invaded, our heroes executed or betraying their glory: but let us never forget those immortal days of liberty, grandeur and hope!

Evidently he places a lot of importance on military success.

For me much of the interest of the Thermidorean period lies in the fact that the populace had been relieved from the fear of terror and spies, and were free to express their views; and according to Thiers, they wanted the Bourbons back. The Thermidoreans themselves, though, former revolutionaries, had no intention of listening to the popular voice when it dissented from their own.

For my part, I suspect that France’s best prospect in 1789 had lain in a transition to constitutional monarchy, and that the constitutional monarchy imposed on it in 1814/15 was the best option: but the only virtue of monarchy is in its appeal to legitimacy. In 1796 the republic had a legitimacy of its own; a restored monarchy would have been violently reactionary; the people would soon have rued their decision; and the Bourbons would have turned a deaf ear to their second thoughts. A constitutional monarchy would have been a philosophical caprice rather than a practical political measure.

So, in moderating democracy sufficiently to keep monarchists from power, the Thermidoreans probably did the right thing, though I doubt they did it for the right motives.

This seems to me to be one of the periods when France had an opportunity to get on the right track. If the Thermidorean government has lasted, and the monarchists shown some maturity, France could have had an enlightened government which would have justified the claims the Revolution had been making for itself.

Writers on Napoleon often take their slant from whether they consider him a saviour or betrayer of the Revolution. I’m inclined to think that the Revolution was dead, and that Napoleon was the overthrower of a social democratic republic worthy of more respect than any of the Revolution’s phases.

Thiers is full of details – suffocatingly so in the military chapters – but is so tendentious that the reader never sufficiently trusts him to feel that he has been given enough information to frame his own judgement.

Recently abandoned: Le premier accroc coûte deux cents francs by Elsa Triolet

I’m afraid I didn’t find this very interesting either.

Esthétique du film by J. Aumont et al

Ennuyeux. I DNF’ed.

Thiers’s Révolution, vols VI&VII

Thiers’s sympathies are with the winning side. I quite warm to the Thermidoreans, who seem to have been well-intentioned and willing to retreat from their earlier (tyrannical) views while retaining what the Revolution had of value (though, of course, part of that was power for themselves). The change of heart which accompanied Robespierre’s fall is a small mystery calling for explanation (not, pace Mathiez, by identifying the social class of the protagonists).

It must be that few people really changed their views, but that the moral conviction of one side drained while that of the other grew. Probably soon into the Revolution most people could see that it was going wrong, but they were cowed and uncertain, left behind by the vocabulary and ideology of the day, and conscious that the tide was flowing against them; they kept their heads down; and as the terror developed they recovered their inner certainty, eventually regaining the confidence to express it.

This must be how it happened because for every person who changes his opinions there are ten whose convictions falter on one side and ten whose confidence grows on the other.

Les racines du ciel, by Romain Gary (ed. Imp. Nat. de Monaco)

(3 vols.) Nothing like as good as the other novels I’ve read by him. It’s hard to believe anyone doubted the identity of Gary with Émile Ajar. But really it goes on a bit with no great illumination and some tiresome obsessions.

A small pile of holiday reading

Terre des hommes, by Saint-Exupéry. Quite interesting apart from the homespun philosophy.

The magic mountain, by Thomas Mann. Dull. Tracey chose it to weigh down my panniers. I managed about 100 pages.

Napoléon, by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

Written as part of a trashy series.

Le silence de la mer, by Vercors

Written with grace and dignity, and casting an interesting light on a terrible time, but perhaps limited in its literary impact.

Recently baulked: Les racines du ciel, by Romain Gary (ed. Folio)

495 pages at 41 lines per page. Gary is a good author: an author to savour, not to peer at through a magnifying glass. (The first edition squeezed his text into 443 pages.) I’ve ordered a second-hand copy of an édition de luxe in 720 pages.

Histoire de la Révolution Française, vol II, by Thiers

An unpleasant slice of history served up with complacency. Louis – captive and in fear for his life – pretends adhesion to the constitution while preying for rescue at foreign hands; the Assembly meanwhile feigns adhesion to the constitution while forcing on Louis a bodyguard of his enemies and giving underhand support to republican uprisings.

Thiers makes more play than many historians of the powerlessness of the Assembly, exculpating them on the grounds that their hands were forced by the ‘people’, yet he shows almost no interest in analysing the popular forces or their motivation.

Most of the volume is given over to the power struggles within France, the rest to the defence against the Austro-Prussian invasion. I don’t think there is a single word about the social problems which were supposed to justify the Revolution. This is partly a reflection on Thiers, who takes a singularly narrow view, but it is probably also a reflection on the Revolution.

And it is worth casting a thought on the invasion. It’s hard to doubt that the main purpose was to enforce the right of absolute monarchs to impose their wills on their subjects. The visible descent of the Revolution into bloodletting was a legitimate concern, but justified intervention only to the same degree as the invaders would have intervened disinterestedly against massacres performed by their fellow-sovereigns.

As for whether a humanitarian invasion with clean hands could possibly have been admissible: it is hard to see, in the circumstances, that it could have done more good than harm; and history provides too few examples of benevolent interventions to allow an informed judgement on their natural consequences.

I read the first few pages of vol III, but the bloodletting and its hypocritical justifications are neither pleasant nor instructive to read about. I shall resume with vol VI.

Recently finished: The discovery of France by Graham Robb

Fairly interesting, but modern mass-market non-fiction always strikes me as aimed at readers on the verge of adulthood.

Moderate defenders of the French Revolution (such as Thiers) like to portray it as a liberal, controlled revolution which, left to its own devices, would have led to a a fair and stable government but which was driven to extremes by opposition from the Right. (Well, I suppose the trick of blaming tyranny on its opponents has been used too often to merit credence.) Certainly at each phase the people brought to the top were inclined to think that things had gone far enough: but they were never in control of events.

If the constitution of (say) 1791 had been a steady state, sincerely accepted by the parties given power by it, then it would be easy to argue that it was much preferable to the earlier despotism; but if it was the temporary position of a body in free fall, then opposition might have been justified on quite other grounds than support for absolute monarchy.

Cahiers de la Guerre by Marguerite Duras

At first, reading the autobiographical parts (the first 250 pages), it was a relief to read something felt and expressed as it should be; but the imaginative remainder was feeble.

Recently abandoned: Fortune de France by Robert Merle

Airport fiction.

History and politics. In reviewing Thiers below I sketch a view of the French Revolution: in short, that the king was granting power to the Assembly in return for their support in drawing revenue from the privileged orders; that what the Assembly was receiving it decided to illegally take; that it had the power to do so because of the king’s weakmindedness and a series of popular riots interpreted as support for the Assembly, but in reality unexplained, and driven partly by desperation, partly by Orleanist funding and rabble-rousing; that no sooner had it taken power than it found the masses no more tranquil than previously; and that the same dark forces which had seemed to support reformers soon devoured them. That the Assembly’s resistance to lawful government would have been justified if no legal course had been open, and if it had led to a stable and fairer government, and if this had been accomplished with little or no bloodshed: but that none of these applies.

All this may be true or false. History offers an account of events, an interpretation of the forces which gave rise to them, and a judgement on the actors. In these brief reviews I don’t narrate events because I’m commenting on the books I’ve read, agreeing or disagreeing with their interpretation and judgement, but with no need to repeat the factual content.

The question is sometimes asked of why history cannot be written of contemporary events. Of course there’s no point in telling people what they’ve recently read in the newspapers, nor in documenting it for posterity, who will be able to do a better job for themselves. But the analysis and judgement are still needed: that is what contemporary history should amount to. Do people do it?– Do they call it history? It would be interesting to record observations on contemporary political history in these pages.

Le temps retrouvé by Marcel Proust

(Audio book: about 8 of 12 CDs.) Sent me to sleep: is Proust an anagram?

Le rivage des Syrtes by Julien Gracq

I didn’t know what to make of this: political fiction? – an allegory? – an exercise in style? It didn’t make much impact in any guise. Knowing now that it’s a novel of surrealist intimacy doesn’t add to its appeal; but at least I read it without boredom.

Histoire de la Révolution Française (vol I of X) by Adolphe Thiers

Not hard to read, with a very simple vocabulary. At first I found Thiers quite sympathetic, even his view of the Revolution not being an obstacle, but his faults – the organic faults of French and Revolutionary historiography – become increasingly troubling. He cannot tell the facts straight: eg. ‘irritated by the king’s unjust resistance’. There are touches of unintentional Soviet-style humour when an account of the newfound social harmony shown on the Champ-de-Mars transitions into a condemnation of the ungrateful emigrants and religious dissentients.

A view of the Revolution (which I no longer hold). It seems to me that the exploitation of the poor by the rich in prerevolutionary France was quite enough to justify a revolution. Louis’s good intentions were no shield because he was so easily talked out of them by his courtiers. Had there been a rising from below, it would have to be judged from the wisdom and humanity of its results: but this is not what happened.

What happened instead is that reform was instituted from above, not through Louis’s generosity but under the pressure of a financial crisis. When the cahiers had been collected and the States assembled, it would have been very difficult for Louis to have stepped back and dismissed them while the finances remained unsettled. In these circumstances the tiers état was in a position of great power, and its duty was to use its position honestly and wisely.

Now, if Louis had dismissed the States, that would have put things back in their earlier position in which a revolution from below would have been justified; and such a revolution would have entailed an organisation of the popular party. So had Louis dismissed the States, it would not have been incumbent on them to meekly submit, to allow their organisation to be dissolved, and then to reorganise: as soon as they were justified in disobedience, they were justified in taking advantage of the organisation they had already been given.

But this again is not what happened. What happened is that as soon as they had been put together, the tiers état embarked on unconstitutional behaviour and bad faith. This showed itself in May ’89 in the discussion on the verification of powers (whether by head or by order, which the tiers wanted to have settled by order for fear of a harmful precedent for subsequent deliberations). Since the Assembly had been convoked with ill defined powers, and there was no agreement between the orders on what the procedures should be, it seems to me that the duty on their representatives was to seek clarification from the king (as the constituent authority) on what manner of voting was intended. As things stood, with the doubling of the tiers having been granted, the king could hardly have insisted on voting by order. If the question had been raised for both verification and deliberation together, then both parts of the question would have had to be answered, and it is likely that the king would have insisted on verification of powers by order as a sign of evenhandedness: but this question had no significance except insofar as it served as a precedent for the other.

Still again, this is not what happened. The tiers unilaterally declared themselves the duly formed governement, the other orders to be in contumacy, and set about passing decrees.

Illegality stepped in definitively on 20 June, when the king suspended the Assembly to set up the hall for a royal sitting. The length of the suspension may have been artificial, and perhaps the king was playing for time or simply wanting to make a show of authority; but after all, a couple of days’ suspension is hardly a serious grievance. It was then that the members swore the ‘tennis-court oath’ putting them above the legal powers of state. This must certainly be numbered amongst the most frivolous pretexts ever given for a revolution, though it has plenty of rivals.

From then on the Assembly declared its powers ever greater and payed ever less heed to the king, who in turn sulked ineffectively. The Assembly viewed itself as speaking for the People and based its legitimacy on sporadic riots by the Paris crowd, a dark force whose actions have not been explained and who certainly weren’t democratic reformers: meanwhile truer sources of legitimacy, such as refreshing the Assembly’s mandate, were shunned on feeble grounds.

The subsequent political history of the Revolution is almost inevitable: the king powerless to resist, alternately offering insincere submission and trying to break free until the conflict became fatal. But the successive tides of revolutionary fervour would have been hard to predict, and owing much to the crowd are still hard to understand.

There are some delicate chronological conjectures to perform in connection with the tennis-court oath. The closure of the great hall at Versailles was no serious grievance, and the behaviour of the tiers was illegal and irresponsible. Louis’s plan (under Necker’s guidance), it seems, had been to announce a constitution for the Assembly which would give the tiers all it wanted; but, by the time of his address (and subsequent to the tennis-court oath), Louis had been persuaded by his brothers and queen to take a harder line, and to impose an organisation which left a veto with the privileged orders; and this was the substance of the address he eventually gave. Necker resigned. The tiers rejected the address and continued as if it hadn’t been given; the king recalled Necker. The Assembly did not, as it should have done, make a composition with Louis, but treated him as a bystander.

If we knew that the king’s change of heart was a response to the tennis-court oath, then that, in my view, would put a great deal of guilt on the Assembly; whereas if we knew that he would have taken his family’s advice anyway, then that would do much to justify the mistrust the Assembly showed.

One feels that each side would justify its rather drastic measures on the grounds that ‘the other side started it’, and that since every step of the Revolution was presented as a response to an action taken by the other side, you end up tracing retaliations back to the egg like a Sicilian vendetta (or like the First World War). It seems though, that in absolute terms the Assembly started it: the king set the Assembly up to pursue reform, and the Assembly goaded him into opposition by its captious and illegal behaviour.

Against that it is impossible to feel any conviction that Louis would have stuck to his good intentions. Although he seems to have sought to be moderate and just, his frequent tergiversations (caused by bad advice and weakness of will) must have made his honesty look questionable.

This is what I thought after reading Thiers. The tiers seem to have been unduly panicky and not to have taken account of the strength of their position, which may have been enough to enable them to obtain their ends by legitimate means. But the spectre must have haunted them of the nobles coming to their senses and aligning with Louis, abandoning their privileges, and leaving the king with no need to appeal above their head.

Recently finished: Mont-Cinère by Julien Green

A cold novel: cold chiefly because of the lack of affection the characters inspire in the author, the reader, and each other: a numb tragedy.

Le drapeau blanc by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

Occasionally a slight preciousness reminds me of Lytton Strachey, but JLD’s writing has an irresistable good humour. He writes purely for the interest, with no attempt to analyse or explain.

In his last pages JLD seems to come off the fence in favour of Henry V on aesthetic grounds.

One gets the impression that the French political groupings were aligned according to the historical events they identified with – Tennis Court Oath, Austerlitz, reign of St. Louis – rather than any positive programme. Perhaps the Orleanists were thinking of the future; perhaps they were remembering good times.

Would Orleanist rule have lasted? What would have been its effects? For all his charm, JLD shows no interest in such questions.

Il neigait by Patrick Rambaud

A fictional account of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow: not a good subject: the reality is too horrible, and a novel must either gloss over it or be unbearable to read. I didn’t see any great literary merit, nor any arresting insights.

India Song by Marguerite Duras

I read the playscript after watching a DVD of the film. Tantalising and arresting, occasionally evoking Samuel Beckett with more humanity but less verbal beauty. I’d thought I’d found the film mystifying because of my imperfect command of the language, but even understanding the words it’s far from clear.

Talleyrand by G. Lacour-Gayet (abandoned)

(4 vols.). Meticulous and dull; makes Talleyrand despicable. I slogged through the first volume. This was one of the ‘douze meilleures oeuvres historiques’, which encourages no high opinion of the French historiography (or perhaps of the selection).

La vie devant soi by Romain Gary

(Book and audiobook (4CDs)). Racy and affecting. I read then I listened. The audiobook is especially good: charming street-urchin narration, lovely Jewish folk music (for which I subsequently bought the CD).

La loi by Roger Vailland


Histoire du XIXE siècle by Jules Michelet (abandoned)

The first few rhapsodic chapters, exalting butchers above assassins, are very bad. Browsing forwards I see the following character sketch of Pitt the Younger:

This grandson [of the finder of the famous diamond] was the very image of the good subject: severely hard-working, upright, with no vice except one! a single vice: hatred. This is what absorbed him, body and soul. It sums up his life: he hated.

p. 145. Michelet’s italics.

There seems to me to be a strain in French thought, appreciative of the Revolution, which is intellectually dishonest and morally unsatisfactory. I can’t even say that Michelet’s pages were well written. A common trait of these authors is the conviction that they hold a trump card. Defence of the fatherland/safeguarding the revolution is an argument which silences all objections, justifies all crimes. Like the ace of trumps it needs only to be laid to be decisive; unlike the ace of trumps, it can be laid as often as its holder wants. There are equally bad books in English, but they have never been received as classics (with the possible but unverifiable exception of Carlyle).

I was disappointed by Michelet. I looked back at Pieter Geyl’s French Historians for and against the Revolution. He calls Michelet ‘the greatest writer of them all, and in spite of his unbridled emotionalism, the greatest historian’, while finding in him ‘a state of mind that is impervious to criticism or to argument... [which] enabled Michelet to glorify the Revolution and the French people with unshaken ardour’ – a valid observation, but not one which sits well with the sentences which precede it.

Geyl is much harsher on Taine to the right than on Michelet to the left; but I have always felt some sympathy for Taine’s views, having only a slight knowledge of them and not imagining myself to be to the right of Geyl. Taine impartially condemned the Ancien Régime, the Revolution, and Napoleon. It is noticeable that people still write against Taine – eg. Mornet and Rudé. Who could be bothered to write against Michelet or Lamartine?

At the end of his essay Geyl remarks on the service history can render to the community, and concludes that ‘to some extent undoubtedly French historiography, in spite of the shortcomings that it is easier for the foreigner to detect than for the Frenchman to avoid, has succeeded in doing so’. This, most assuredly, is damning with faint praise.

For my part, I shall perhaps steer clear of the mid-19th century historians, though Thiers gets quite a favourable notice from Geyl (but was damnably long-winded). The historians of the Third Republic, when not in sway to the Action, seem to be made of better stuff than their predecessors. I shall look up Daniel Halévy in spite of Geyl’s equivocal remarks.

Saint-Germain ou la négociation by Francis Walder

This isn’t the most engaging of novels, and my enjoyment wasn’t helped by my viewing negociating tricks as small-minded and mean.

Mémoires secrets de la Régence by the Duc de Saint-Simon

(Audiobook: 7 CDs.) I understood it all except the occasional unexpected epiphet, which is said to be where much of the Duke’s literary skill lies.

Histoire et historiens by J. M. Bizière & P. Vayssière

A university textbook, so not something I expected much pleasure from. I was hoping to find interesting French historians; but a historian who merely relates the past is not of great interest to the authors, who are more concerned with historiology. Leibniz and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel, Vico and Croce, R.G Collingwood and Herbert Spencer, Husserl and Heidegger all troop dismally through, but there’s no mention of la Gorce for instance. The chapters on nineteenth century historians are interesting in spite of the authors’ near-distaste. The historians of that period were so deaf to the appeal of philosophy that there is nothing boring to be said about them.

The purpose of history. A quotation from Lytton Strachey:

What are the qualities that make a historian? Obviously these three – a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them, and a point of view. The two latter are connected, but not necessarily inseparable. The late Professor Samuel Gardner, for instance, could absorb facts, and he could state them; but he had no point of view; and the result is that his book on the most exciting period of English history resembles nothing so much as a very large heap of sawdust.

(Macaulay in Portraits in Miniature.)

As for Macaulay’s point of view, everyone knows it was the Whig one.

Some of the values assigned to history are these:

  • It is a source of powerful stories.
  • It provides a subject matter for men of letters.
  • It explains the present.
  • It explains the past.

When the historian is a storyteller, the intrusion of his opinions on politics or other matters is likely to irritate rather than please his readers.

The second reason above is never avowed, and unlikely to be welcomed by professional historians. But there are many gifted writers who have nothing very distinctive to say, for whom history is a frame on which to drape their literary talents. The historian then becomes a raconteur. Gibbon is an example. His ‘point of view’ – religious scepticism – adds spice to his writing, though Christian readers must find it tiresome, and if Gibbon’s opponents had themselves been tolerant and open-minded it would have been politer if he had been more reticent. If Gibbon’s political point of view had been evident it would have been a blemish.

The belief that history informs the present has been one of its commonest justifications, but I don’t attach much weight to it. Often a historian with a ‘point of view’ chooses a suitable period and investigates it with the aim of deriving support for his political creed; in other cases he studies a period for its own interest, but nonetheless draws predictable morals from it. It shames me to admit that I have ever seen any suasive force in productions of this sort. The sophisticated reader should discount the entire political content of a narrative written in confirmation of its author’s point of view.

The final reason is an important one, but entirely circular. You read a couple of books on the French Revolution (perhaps for the story), find it strange that things should have developed in such a way, and are soon propelled to reading a dozen more. When you find an author who makes sense of things, you are grateful for the enlightenment. If that is how you approach the subject, you will prefer historians who go in with an open mind; but if you seeking to be reassured of the superiority of your own opinions, you will think differently.

A point of view, then, is not an essential attribute for a historian. If Strachey found it so, that is much in keeping with the notion that historians are gentlemen of letters. The more one reads history to increase one’s understanding, the more one mistrusts the ‘point of view’.

It is noticeable that Bizière and Vayssière say nothing about whether the authors they discuss are enjoyable to read. I find contemporary French historians generally rather boring, even when they are illuminating.

I don’t see how history can exist as a subject without being made enjoyable. There is very little need to explain anything about the past, merely a desire to do so stemming from its interest. When the interest evaporates the whole subject loses its purpose.

Les mangeurs d’étoiles by Romain Gary

A black comedy, pleasantly readable all the way through, and very enjoyable in its last hundred pages.

Les origines intellectuelles de la Révolution Française by Daniel Mornet

When I received it I was alarmed to find it 500 large pages, and also to find it belonging to a series under the direction of Albert Mathiez and Georges Lefebvre. But I needn’t have worried, since the author’s introduction was enough to gain my confidence – at least in respect of tone, since nothing will make the pages smaller.

Mornet is erudite and has an instinctive sympathy for the currents of the period. He is not without wit:

D’Argenson tend vers une sorte de socialisme imposé et surviellé par une aristocratie qui n’en prendrait que ce qu’elle voulait.

At other times, though, his writing is a little constipated and academic. The book is a powerful and convincing treatise on the ideas of the Enlightenment authors as they bear on popular thought, though I don’t quite follow his conclusions.

It is based on an intimidating breadth of reading (or at least an intimidating number of references: 1500), nearly all from printed documents, and citing several books which I would like to read; but daunted by the knowledge that my own reading will only be enough to allow me to scratch the surface.

Mornet writes against Taine’s assertion that the Revolution was engendered by a ‘college-educated minority enclosed in an artificial world where it theorised’ from a few ‘eternal principles’. Mornet, on the contrary, holds that there was very little of this outlook in Enlightenment France, and that the intellectual tenor was hostile to religion but politically moderate. Taine’s view, we are to suppose, was based on a few selective quotations; and the Contrat Social, which might be mentioned in support of it, was in fact little read and uninfluential.

I suspect that there is an element of truth in this – and also a great deal of pleading. Mornet cites enough people as quoting the Contrat Social to undermine his claim that it had little influence.

He insists once or twice on the need to pay strict attention to chronology, as I think Namier was in the habit of doing: but such insistence always strikes me as dubious. Whenever there’s uncertainty in history it’s necssary to look at evidence from adjacent periods, even though such evidence has certain dangers. The historian who refuses to allow such reasoning takes on the aspect of a defence counsel who wants to reject unfavourable evidence on a technicality. Unfortunately historians often fall into the trap of viewing themselves as advocates rather than as impartial judges. Acton was a master of this: he would paint the gravity of the alleged offence in glowing colours; and when the reader was excitedly anticipating a towering denunciation, the lawyer would slip in to regret that the evidence was not sufficient to support a conviction on such a serious charge.

So if revolutionaries in the early ’90s were quoting the Contrat Social, then that is strong prima facie evidence that they read it and were influenced by it in the early ’80s. Indeed Mornet seems to confuse two different topics: the intellectual history of the ancien régime and the intellectual influences on the Revolution. The first of these might be studied without looking at anything written after 1787, as is Mornet’s self-imposed discipline; but the latter needs to investigate the ideas espoused by the revolutionaries and look for their origins. This, presumably, is what Taine did: he read accounts of the debates, seeing in them a sinister air of dogmatic theorising, and found instances of the same outlook in Enlightenment authors. Mornet tells us that that was not the true spirit of the Enlightenment, which I believe, but we are then left with the problem of where the ideas came from.

There is another danger in Mornet’s refusal to look beyond 1787: he is forced to view the Revolution as a single movement rather than as a collection of bedfellows who at first travelled together but soon found themselves incompatible. Surely Robespierre’s intellectual antecedents are not Malouet’s; perhaps if the Contrat Social had little influence, it was on Robespierre’s allies that that influence was felt. Perhaps Taine was not far from the mark on the origins of Robespierre’s thought, and Mornet close to the truth on Mounier’s.

A further argument Mornet has for setting aside radical political tracts is that they were obviously utopian and inapplicable to practical concerns. But precisely what Taine was alleging is that groundless utopianism was taken seriously as social comment; and it is only necessary to consider some of the debates in the National Assembly (for instance on the division of France into départements) to see that this was the case. Mornet should have said whether these tracts were obviously unrealistic in his own eyes, or in the author’s eyes, or in the eyes of contemporary readers; and he only needed to look round his own university to see people in thrall to equally unrealistic ideas. Even if the authors, as he implies, viewed their books as jeux d’esprit, there is every possibility that readers took them seriously (as illustrated by the anecdote I quoted previously from Morellet’s memoirs).

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