The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

5
The Concept of Virtue in Literature and Politics During the French Revolution of 1789: Sade and Robespierre

Gislinde Seybert

Ideal and reality part company, as they usually do, in the French Revolution of 1789, known as the Great Revolution. The contradictory ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, elaborated by the Age of Enlightenment, were to be transposed into practice in very different ways, and culminated in the period of Terror during which the Revolution devoured its offspring.

Two very different personalities representing literary and political life during the French Revolution were preoccupied with the concept of "virtue." Their divergent treatment of this concept is investigated here. The first personality is D.A.F. de Sade, descendant of a once-illustrious noble family and pursued by the parlements of the ancien régime which criminalized the young marquis for his sexual orgies. All his life he insisted on the professional title of homme de lettres (man of letters) and rightly so; the impact of his works was immense. The other is Maximilien Robespierre, an advocate and deputy elected by the inhabitants of Arras, who made his career as one of the most influential members of the Comité de salut public (Committee of Public Safety). Finally, shortly before his fall, he was elected president of the Convention.

With respect to the careers of these two figures, the concepts of social ascent and descent are highly questionable. Are the usual criteria of evaluation regarding social "descent" acceptable in the case of a member of the former aristocracy becoming a man of letters of historical importance? And what is social "ascent" worth if the powerful revolutionary leader ends up under the guillotine? Nevertheless, Sade and Robespierre present an interesting parallel in the political and cultural effects of their lives, both being implicated, by their deeds and work, in the problem of violence. So we could summarize the subject of this inquiry as follows: What connections between virtue and violence are to be found in the written testimonials of the two authors?


ROBESPIERRE AND THE REVOLUTIONARY RHETORIC OF VIRTUE

In the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was discussed

-51-

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