The concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘apocalypse’ have reappeared rather abruptly on our secularized horizons, yet they have never been completely absent: merely, one could argue, in retreat from our prevailing belief in ‘progress’. From meditations on a ‘last man’ in Victorian England to Günther Anders’ writings on the nuclear threat in the 1950s, from eighteenth-century literature on ruins to ISIS today, these themes seem to be inextricably bound up with Modernity and our experience of it.
‘Crisis, extremes and apocalypse’ is a new research network at the University of Oxford that seeks to shed light on and engage with themes that are more timely than ever. Indeed, these themes have a long history and include events from the French Revolutionary period. After hosting a workshop on ‘Rousseau, Freedom and the French Revolution’ in March, in April the network welcomed Marisa Linton from the University of Kingston to discuss the French Revolution and the ‘politics’ and ‘language’ of virtue in a talk on ‘Robespierre and the politician’s terror’. The Revolutionary era’s diffusion of power and obsession with transparency led all political members to fashion themselves as men of virtue.
As Camille Desmoulins boasted on 14 December 1793 to the Jacobin Club: ‘I was always the first to denounce my own friends; from the moment that I realized that they were conducting themselves badly, I resisted the most dazzling offers and I stifled the voice of friendship that their great talents had inspired in me.’ (Original French: François Aulard, ed., La Société des Jacobins: recueil des documents pour l’histoire de club des Jacobins, 6 vols, Paris, 1889-1897, vol.5, p.559.)
This pursuit of a ‘Republic of virtue’ thus compelled all political members to give constant performances of virtue that threatened to spiral out of control and into violence at any moment: every action was scrutinized and could be interpreted as suspicious, leading to a pervasive fear.
The network will be hosting Marisa Linton once again in late autumn 2017, alongside Olivier Tonneau and Sophie Wahnich, for a workshop on Saint-Just. Visit the network’s homepage or our Facebook page for updates!
– Audrey Borowski
An overview of Marisa Linton’s spring talk
Over 220 years since his death, Maximilien Robespierre continues to generate controversy over his role in the traumatic events of the French Revolutionary period known as the ‘Terror’ (1793-1794). Historians have repeatedly sought in Robespierre’s personality and motivation an explanation of the Terror. Marisa Linton argues that such interpretations can offer only a limited understanding: in order to comprehend both Robespierre and the Terror, we need to place his actions within the wider context of Revolutionary politics in the National Convention, paying close attention to the atmosphere in which politics were conducted. Most importantly, we need to take into account the extent to which political choices during the Terror were influenced by intense emotions on the part of the Conventionnels themselves – above all, the emotion of fear.
Marisa Linton uses ‘the politicians’ terror’, a term she first identified and used in her book Choosing terror: virtue, friendship and authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP, 2013), to throw new light both on Robespierre’s role in the Terror, and on the nature of the Terror itself. The politicians’ terror was the form of terror that Revolutionary leaders meted out to one another. The Revolutionary leaders were themselves ‘subject to terror’. This took two forms. Firstly, Revolutionary leaders were liable to arrest under the laws that enabled terror, as successive laws removed their parliamentary immunity and criminalised the ‘wrong’ political opinions. Secondly, they were subject to the emotion of terror. From the outset of the Revolution there was an expectation that Revolutionary politicians should be able to demonstrate authentic political morality (virtue). During the heightened atmosphere of 1793-1794, and against the backdrop of fears that France faced military defeat, any failure of Revolutionary politicians to demonstrate their political virtue could be seen as an indication that they were secret conspirators, motivated by financial and political corruption, and in league with the royalists and foreign powers to undermine the Revolution from within.
Marisa Linton then gave an extended account of the politicians’ terror, before going on to examine its role in one of the most iconic events of the Revolution – the arrest, trial and execution of Georges Danton and his group, the Dantonists, which took place just months before the fall of Robespierre himself. Listen to the full podcast of Marisa Linton’s talk, and look out for the workshop on Saint-Just.