Citizens: You see before you the widow of Marat. I do not come here to ask your favors, such as cupidity would covet, or even such as would relieve indigence–Marat’s widow needs no more than a tomb. Before arriving at that happy termination to my existence, however, I come to ask that justice may be done in respect to the reports recently put forth in this body against the memory of at once the most intrepid and the most outraged defender of the people.
—Simonne Evrard Marat, to the Convention
The French Revolution traces a lineal descent direct from Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These men were contemporaries; they came to the same conclusions, expressing the same thought, each in his own way, absolutely independent of the other. And as genius seldom recognizes genius, neither knew the greatness of the other.
Voltaire was an aristocrat–the friend of kings and courtiers, the brilliant cynic, the pet of the salons and the center of the culture and brains of his time.
Rousseau was a man of the people, plain and unpretentious–a man without ambition–a dreamer. His first writings were mere debating-society monologs, done for his own amusement and the half-dozen or so cronies who cared to listen.
But, as he wrote, things came to him; the significance of his words became to him apparent. Opposition made it necessary to define his position, and threat made it wise to amplify and explain. He grew through exercise, as all men do who grow at all; the spirit of the times acted upon him, and knowledge unrolled as a scroll.
The sum of Rousseau’s political philosophy found embodiment in his book, “The Social Contract,” and his ideas on education in “Emile.” “The Social Contract” became the Bible of the Revolution, and as Emerson says all of our philosophy will be found in Plato, so in a more exact sense can every argument of the men of the Revolution be found in “The Social Contract.” But Rousseau did not know what firebrands he was supplying. He was essentially a man of peace–he launched these children of his brain, indifferently, like his children of the flesh, upon the world and left their fate to the god of Chance.
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Out of the dust and din of the French Revolution, now seen by us on the horizon of time, there emerge four names: Robespierre, Mirabeau, Danton and Marat.
Undaunted men all, hated and loved, feared and idolized, despised and deified–even yet we find it hard to gauge their worth, and give due credit for the good that was in each.
Oratory played a most important part in bringing about the explosion. Oratory arouses passion–fear, vengeance, hate–and draws a beautiful picture of peace and plenty just beyond.
Without oratory there would have been no political revolution in France, nor elsewhere.
Politics, more than any other function of human affairs, turns on oratory. Orators make and unmake kings, but kings are seldom orators, and orators never secure thrones. Orators are made to die–the cross, the torch, the noose, the guillotine, the dagger, awaits them. They die through the passion that they fan to flame–the fear they generate turns upon themselves, and they are no more.
But they have their reward. Their names are not writ in water; rather are they traced in blood on history’s page. We know them, while the ensconced smug and successful have sunk into oblivion; and if now and then a name like that of Pilate or Caiaphas or Judas comes to us, it is only because Fate has linked the man to his victim, like unto that Roman soldier who thrust his spear into the side of the Unselfish Man.
In the qualities that mark the four chief orators of the French Revolution, there is much alloy–much that seems like clay. Each had undergone an apprenticeship to Fate–each had been preparing for his work; and in this preparation who shall say what lessons could have been omitted and what not! Explosions require time to prepare: revolutions, political and domestic, are a long time getting ready. Orators, like artists, must go as did Dante, down into the nether regions and get a glimpse of hell.