Hilaire Belloc, born in France of a French father and an English mother, does not tell the history of the French Revolution in this relatively brief book. He analyses the causes, characters, events, and issues of the Revolution, including the military campaigns fought in France by the Revolutionaries against European monarchies. He offer character sketches, much as he did in his
, and argues that the Catholic Church has nothing to fear from democracy nor democracy from the Catholic Church.
His target audience is an English reader or student; perhaps one hostile to Catholicism based on centuries of prejudice. The book was published in 1911, just 61 years after the Restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England to a most hostile public and legislative response. Belloc attempts to explain the context of Catholicism in France after the Wars of Religion and after the Revolution to an audience not prepared for sympathy with Catholics or the hierarchy. His tone and style throughout the book is precise, measured, and even rather limited. Ultimately, I'm not sure his approach is effective.
Belloc in Chapter 1 begins with an explanation of the political theory of the French Revolution, hoping to help Englishmen, who should recognize it as their own, look past their country's history of the Napoleonic Wars:
The political theory upon which the Revolution proceeded has, especially in this country [England], suffered ridicule as local, as ephemeral, and as fallacious. It is universal, it is eternal, and it is true.
It may be briefly stated thus: that a political community pretending to sovereignty, that is, pretending to a moral right of defending its existence against all other communities, derives the civil and temporal authority of its laws not from its actual rulers, nor even from its magistracy, but from itself.
But the community cannot express authority unless it possesses corporate initiative; that is, unless the mass of its component units are able to combine for the purpose of a common expression, are conscious of a common will, and have something in common which makes the whole sovereign indeed.
It may be that this power of corporate initiative and of corresponding corporate expression is forbidden to men. In that case no such thing as a sovereign community can be said to exist. In that case "patriotism," "public opinion," "the genius of a people," are terms without meaning. But the human race in all times and in all places has agreed that such terms have meaning, and the conception that a community can so live, order and be itself, is a human conception as consonant to the nature of man as is his sense of right and wrong; it is much more intimately a part of that nature than are the common accidents determining human life, such as nourishment, generation or repose: nay, more intimate a part of it than anything which attaches to the body.
If that is the political theory of the French Revolution, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine would agree with it.
In Chapter 2 Belloc summarizes Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Contrat Social, which he calls the "text of the Revolution", emphasizing Rousseau's style and diction throughout:Nevertheless, if it be closely read the
Contrat Social will be discovered to say all that can be said of the moral basis of democracy. Our ignorance of the historical basis of the State is presumed in the very opening lines of it. The logical priority of the family to the State is the next statement. The ridiculous and shameful argument that strength is the basis of authority—which has never had standing save among the uninstructed or the superficial—is contemptuously dismissed in a very simple proof which forms the third chapter, and that chapter is not a page of a book in length. It is with the fifth chapter that the powerful argument begins, and the logical precedence of human association to any particular form of government is the foundation stone of that analysis. It is this indeed which gives its title to the book: the moral authority of men in community arises from conscious association; or, as an exact phraseology would have it, a "social contract." All the business of democracy as based upon the only moral authority in a State follows from this first principle, and is developed in Rousseau's extraordinary achievement which, much more than any other writing not religious, has affected the destiny of mankind.
It is indeed astonishing to one who is well acquainted not only with the matter, but with the manner of the
Contrat Social, to remark what criticisms have been passed upon it by those who either have not read the work or, having read it, did so with an imperfect knowledge of the meaning of French words. The two great counter arguments, the one theoretic the other practical, which democracy has to meet, stand luminously exposed in these pages, though in so short a treatise the author might have been excused from considering them. The theoretical argument against democracy is, of course, that man being prone to evil, something external to him and indifferent to his passions must be put up to govern him; the people will corrupt themselves, but a despot or an oligarchy, when it has satisfied its corrupt desires, still has a wide margin over which it may rule well because it is indifferent. You cannot bribe the despot or the oligarch beyond the limit of his desires, but a whole people can follow its own corrupt desires to the full, and they will infect all government.
In Chapter 3 "Characters of the Revolution", Belloc is merciless in his analysis of the characters and personalities of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Of the king he states:Few men are possessed of the eye, the subtle sympathy, the very rapid power of decision, and the comprehension of human contrasts and differences which build up the apt leader of an armed force great or small. Most men are mediocre in the combination of these qualities. But Louis was quite exceptionally hopeless where they were concerned. He could never have seen the simplest position nor have appreciated the military aspects of any character or of any body of men. He could ride, but he could not ride at the head of a column. He was not merely bad at this trade, he was nul. Drafted as a private into a conscript army, he would never have been entrusted with the duties of a corporal. He would have been impossible as a sergeant; and, possessed of commissioned rank, ridicule would have compelled him to take his discharge.
This lack did not only, or chiefly, betray itself in his inability to meet personally the armed crisis of a revolution; it was not only, or chiefly, apparent in his complete breakdown during the assault upon the palace on the 10th of August: it was also, and much more, the disastrous cause of his inability to oversee, or even to choose, military advisers. . . .
. . . From the beginning to the end of the movement, the whole of the military problem escaped him. . . .
Marie Antoinette presents to history a character which it is of the highest interest to regard as a whole. It is the business of her biographers to consider that character as a whole; but in her connection with the Revolution there is but one aspect of it which is of importance, and that is the attitude which such a character was bound to take towards the French nation in the midst of which the Queen found herself.
It is the solution of the whole problem which the Queen's action sets before us to apprehend the gulf that separated her not only from the French temperament, but from a comprehension of all French society. Had she been a woman lacking in energy or in decision, this alien character in her would have been a small matter, and her ignorance of the French in every form of their activity, or rather her inability to comprehend them, would have been but a private failing productive only of certain local and immediate consequences, and not in any way determining the great lines of the revolutionary movement.
As it was, her energy was not only abundant but steadfast; it grew more secure in its action as it increased with her years, and the initiative which gave that energy its course never vacillated, but was always direct. She knew her own mind, and she attempted, often with a partial success, to realise her convictions. There was no character in touch with the Executive during the first years of the Revolution comparable to hers for fixity of purpose and definition of view.
It was due to this energy and singleness of aim that her misunderstanding of the material with which she had to deal was of such fatal importance.
He likewise dissects the leaders of the Revolution: Mirabeau, La Fayette (sic), Dumouriez, Danton, Carnot, Marat, and Robespierre--the latter with surprising sympathy, attempting to absolve him from blame for the Reign of Terror.
Belloc breaks down the Revolution into six phases, briefly summarizes and then analyses the events in each phase:
From May 1789 to 17th of July 1789.
From the 17th of July 1789 to the 6th of Oct. 1789.
From October 1789 to June 1791.
From June 1791 to September 1792.
From the invasion of September 1792 to the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety, April 1793.From April 1793 to July 1794.
In his description of the military campaigns of the French Revolution, Chapter 5, he compares the initial success to the final defeat, with the first substantial mention of Napoleon Bonaparte:The Revolution would never have achieved its object: on the contrary, it would have led to no less than a violent reaction against those principles which were maturing before it broke out, and which it carried to triumph, had not the armies of revolutionary France proved successful in the field; but the grasping of this mere historic fact, I mean the success of the revolutionary armies, is unfortunately no simple matter.
We all know that as a matter of fact the Revolution was, upon the whole, successful in imposing its view upon Europe. We all know that from that success as from a germ has proceeded, and is still proceeding, modern society. But the nature, the cause and the extent of the military success which alone made this possible, is widely ignored and still more widely misunderstood. No other signal military effort which achieved its object has in history ended in military disaster—yet this was the case with the revolutionary wars. After twenty years of advance, during which the ideas of the Revolution were sown throughout Western civilisation, and had time to take root, the armies of the Revolution stumbled into the vast trap or blunder of the Russian campaign; this was succeeded by the decisive defeat of the democratic armies at Leipsic [Leipzig], and the superb strategy of the campaign of 1814, the brilliant rally of what is called the Hundred Days, only served to emphasise the completeness of the apparent failure. For that masterly campaign was followed by Napoleon's first abdication, that brilliant rally ended in Waterloo and the ruin of the French army. When we consider the spread of Grecian culture over the East by the parallel military triumph of Alexander, or the conquest of Gaul by the Roman armies under Cæsar, we are met by political phenomena and a political success no more striking than the success of the Revolution. The Revolution did as much by the sword as ever did Alexander or Cæsar, and as surely compelled one of the great transformations of Europe. But the fact that the great story can be read to a conclusion of defeat disturbs the mind of the student.
We must, then, approach our business by asking at the outset the most general question of all:
Please note that Belloc ends both the consideration of the phases of the Revolution and the military campaigns in 1794 with the fall of Robespierre, so he does not discuss the Thermidorean Reaction or The Directory, nor the French army's invasions of the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, etc. England was less involved in the military actions of the period Belloc covers; he notes at the conclusion of this chapter that the naval superiority of Britain's fleet was obvious, but not as consequential at this phase of the war: the heroism of Admiral Nelson was to come.
Image credit: Le Massacre des Carmes by Marie–Marc–Antoine Bilcocq
Finally, Belloc comes to his last argument, that democracy and Catholicism are not incompatible--and yet, the Catholic Church in France suffered greatly during phases of the Revolution--at first by focusing on the political theory of the French Revolution and the social doctrine of the Catholic Church:
"Was there a necessary and fundamental quarrel between the doctrines of the Revolution and those of the Catholic Church?"Those ill acquainted with either party, and therefore ill equipped for reply, commonly reply with assurance in the affirmative. The French (and still more the non-French) Republican who may happen, by the accident of his life, to have missed the Catholic Church, to have had no intimacy with any Catholic character, no reading of Catholic philosophy, and perhaps even no chance view of so much as an external Catholic ceremony, replies unhesitatingly that the Church is the necessary enemy of the Revolution. Again, the émigré, the wealthy woman, the recluse, any one of the many contemporary types to whom the democratic theory of the Revolution came as a complete novelty, and to-day the wealthy families in that tradition, reply as unhesitatingly that the Revolution is the necessary enemy of the Church. The reply seems quite sufficient to the Tory squire in England or Germany, who may happen to be a Catholic by birth or by conversion; and it seems equally obvious to (let us say) a democratic member of some Protestant Church in one of the new countries.
Historically and logically, theologically also, those who affirm a necessary antagonism between the Republic and the Church are in error. Those who are best fitted to approach the problem by their knowledge both of what the Revolution attempted and of what Catholic philosophy is, find it in proportion to their knowledge difficult or impossible to answer that fundamental question in the affirmative. They cannot call the Revolution a necessary enemy of the Church, nor the Church of Democracy.
So why is there such a lasting--and Belloc emphasizes that the conflict goes on in 1911 (six years after the official Separation of Church and State in France)--conflict and such grievances between the Catholic Church and the spirit of the Republic and democracy in France?
First he examines the condition of the Gallican Catholic Church under the Ancien Regime, under which anti-clerical disbelief was accepted and allowed, and the practice of the faith was weakening while the officials of the Church, the bishops and cardinals, were protected, worldly, and wealthy. I think Belloc errs though when he tries to compare monasticism during the reign of Henry VIII to the Catholic hierarchy in eighteenth century France. He also ignores the Vendee (as he mentioned the uprisings there only briefly in Chapter 5) and the massacres there. He places the blame for the conflict on the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the oaths required of priests and bishops because the politicians were wrong about the Catholic Church:
Had the Catholic Church been, as nearly all educated men then imagined, a moribund superstition, had the phase of decline through which it was passing been a phase comparable to that through which other religions have passed in their last moments, had it been supported by ancient families from mere tradition, clung to by remote peasants from mere ignorance and isolation, abandoned (as it was) in the towns simply because the towns had better opportunities of intellectual enlightenment and of acquiring elementary knowledge in history and the sciences; had, in a word, the imaginary picture which these men drew in their minds of the Catholic Church and its fortunes been an exact one, then the Civil Constitution of the Clergy would have been a statesmanlike act. It would have permitted the hold of the Catholic Church upon such districts as it still retained to vanish slowly and without shock. It proposed to keep alive at a reasonable salary the ministers of a ritual which would presumably have lost all vitality before the last of its pensioners was dead; it would have prepared a bed, as it were, upon which the last of Catholicism in Gaul could peacefully pass away. The action of the politicians in framing the Constitution would have seemed more generous with every passing decade and their wisdom in avoiding offence to the few who still remained faithful, would have been increasingly applauded.
If the French had known about Catholics in Ireland or England under the Tudors and the Stuarts, they wouldn't have made such a mistake. When the priests and a few bishops refused the oaths and the conflict inside and outside France ramped up in intensity, the massacres of September 1792 and the campaign of De-Christianization marked Catholic memories in France as surely as Irish memories of Cromwell:
There followed immediately a general attack upon religion. The attempted closing of all churches was, of course, a failure, but it was firmly believed that such attachment as yet remained to the Catholic Church was due only to the ignorance of the provincial districts which displayed it, or to the self-seeking of those who fostered it. The attempt at mere "de-christianisation," as it was called, failed, but the months of terror and cruelty, the vast number of martyrdoms (for they were no less) and the incredible sufferings and indignities to which the priests who attempted to remain in the country were subjected, burnt itself, as it were, into the very fibre of the Catholic organisation in France, and remained, in spite of political theory one way or the other, and in spite of the national sympathies of the priesthood, the one great active memory inherited from that time.
Belloc believes that this memory--and the opposite memory of supporters of the Republic perceiving Catholic intransigence--will take generations to fade.
Here is one of the examples of Belloc's measured and even rather limited approach, which I think fails. He devotes much more explanation to the weakness of the Catholic Church in France before the Revolution--eight paragraphs detailing the worldliness of the clergy, the "moribund condition of the religious life of France upon the eve of the Revolution", and the intertwining of the Church and the State--and but one paragraph to the great efforts to de-Christianize France. I think Belloc missed a great opportunity with his audience here: English public opinion had been sympathetic to the exiled French non-juring priests; English monks and nuns re-established the religious life in England after fleeing France. Belloc does not recount the September massacres; the changes in the calendar; he mentions the closing of churches but does not offer details about their desecration; he ignores the efforts to establish different cults of Reason and the Supreme Being: in short, in his dedication to the political theory of the French Revolution, Belloc passes over its abuses, injustices, and cruelties.