The Clare Spark Blog

August 13, 2013

Victor Hugo’s “93” and Condorcet

Hugoquatrevingt-treize_The French Revolution at its most Jacobin extreme has been appropriated by Communists as a great bourgeois revolution that laid the groundwork for the absolutist morality of subsequent revolutions. This is a dangerous error for persons of libertarian beliefs, who also think kindly of progress, anti-racist policies, market economies, and feminism.

Hugo’s last novel, 93, published in 1874, lays out the moral quandaries of various factions in the French Revolution. It is notable that Ayn Rand admired this novel, and it affected her own We The Living (1937, see my blog https://clarespark.com/2011/01/12/ayn-rands-we-the-living/).

In my view, Hugo is aligned in this book that focuses on the moral quandary of the civil war in France (the French Revolution centered in Paris, as opposed by the rural Vendée), with the anti-capital punishment of the Marquis de Condorcet, whose advanced Enlightenment ideas have yet to be realized in our own times. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-Three and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marquis_de_Condorcet .

Here is a key passage in the Hugo novel in which a ci-devant aristocrat, a fighter for the Republic, Gauvain, argues with his beloved teacher Cimourdain, who has gone over to Robespierre, Danton, and Marat as they operated in the Committee for Public Safety.

[Cimourdain:] One day, the Revolution will be the justification of this Terror.

[Gauvain:] Beware lest the Terror become the calumny of the Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,—these are the dogmas of peace and harmony. Why give them an alarming aspect? What is it we want? To bring the peoples to a universal republic. Well, do not let us make them afraid. What can intimidation serve? The people can no more be attracted by a scarecrow than birds can. One must  not do evil to bring about good; one does not overturn the throne in order to leave the gibbet standing. Death to kings, and life to nations! Strike off the crowns; spare the heads! The Revolution is concord, not fright.  Clement ideas are ill-served by cruel men. Amnesty is to me the most beautiful word in human language. I will only shed blood in risking my own.  Besides, I simply know how to fight. I am nothing but a soldier. But if I may not pardon, victory is not worth the trouble it costs. During battle let us be the enemies of our enemies, and after victory, their brothers.

[Cimourdain:] Take care!

At the end, Hugo’s novel starts to look like Melville’s Billy Budd (not published until 1924, but written between 1886-91). The same moral quandary is revealed, and the Melville dénouement somewhat resembles the ending of the Hugo novel. Gauvain liberates his Royalist ancestor the ci-devant Marquis de Lantenac (only because the aristocrat risked his life to rescue three peasant tots in a fire), and after a strenuous argument with his conscience, subsequently offering his own life instead. Cimourdain, as a representative of the Jacobins, condemns the court-martialed Gauvain to the guillotine, but then takes his own life from remorse at having violated the higher law. (In Billy Budd, Captain Vere’s enigmatic last words as he lies dying from a shot from The Athée are “Billy Budd.”)

In the series Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Bobby Goren, often read as demonic by the critics, opposes capital punishment, but must serve the superiority of the Law above people. Read the interaction between Cimourdain and Gauvain, for it is a persistent theme in American culture. Even in our supposedly anti-Stalinist democracy, we struggle with the same paradox. And Hugo’s final published novel is a page-turner, and completely absorbing, free from the long digressions of Les Misérables.

La Torgue castle

La Torgue castle

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August 1, 2011

Alexander Hamilton’s rational voice of the People

Hamilton, Madison, Jay, a.k.a. “Publius”

[Update, 4-18-17: despite the efforts of some academics such as Stephen F. Knott, AH is the villainous Founder, responsible for big government and the rule of money. So say the Progressives and their progeny. The Broadway show “Hamilton” is an outlier, perhaps its message of upward mobility inspired the cast and writer.]

This is an excerpt from Hamilton’s Federalist paper #22, a synoptic review of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and an argument for a strong national government. I am choosing a passage that seems to me to be directly relevant to the current debate over extending the debt ceiling.

I will quote only a portion of this lengthy document, and then offer a short comment of my own regarding my own strong response to words that seemed to leap from the page, reassuring me about the need for a thoroughgoing education in republican political theory in all our schools, in this case, the potential peril of a forced consensus.

[Hamilton, #22:] “…The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number, will over-rule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.  And yet, in such a system, it is even fortunate when such compromises can take place: for, upon some occasions, things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impractibility of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savour of weakness; sometimes border on anarchy.

…The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.” [Hamilton’s emphasis. End excerpt, pp. 106, 110, The Federalist, edited by Max Beloff, 1948, second ed. 1987]

[My comment:] Hamilton’s remarks, though taken out of their immediate 18th C. context, seem applicable to the frustration all rational persons must feel as the prolonged debate over the debt ceiling may or may not culminate in some highly flawed, even “contemptible compromise,” so that government will not grind to a halt.  But what inspires me is the “elitist” Hamilton’s final remark affirming popular sovereignty. Throughout The Federalist Papers we find the same commitment to reason, specifically to concrete analysis of the material challenges that faced the new nation. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not appeal to “tradition” that had ever favored King and Church as the fountainhead of “legitimate authority.” Even though the men who argued for the Constitution were sharply at odds over some policies, they agreed that the American republican experiment was unprecedented, and the most enlightened in human history–a Novus ordo seclorum. Measures for educational reform, insofar as they construct a better curriculum, cannot ignore the fundamental rationalism and materialism of the Founders. “Live free or die,” is not merely the motto of New Hampshire; it is the very essence of American exceptionalism.

For more on Hamilton’s Federalist #22, see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/. The essential word here is rational. Hamilton was horrified by the mayhem of the French Revolution, and thought that the Constitution should protect us against mobs and demagogues. There is a strong implication in his view of popular sovereignty that education is crucial, that is, education in politics, rhetoric and its decoding, economics, and all the skills that would make for citizens, but not citoyens in the sense that Robespierre would have meant.

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