Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

13. A Philosophe, But Not Like the Others

Lamoignon de Malesherbes,1 born on 6 December 17212 and executed under the Terror on 3 Floréal, an II ( 12 April 1794), was both the Tiresias and the La Fontaine of his political milieu. He warned and prophesied in vain, while bringing an almost peasant shrewdness to intricate matters of public judgment. Steeped in erudition 3 and meticulous in his research,4 he despised the posture of pedantry and affected that of a country gentleman. "The greatest truths," he thought, "are ordinarily the simplest ones."5 Malesherbes was a principled man who could fearlessly hurl simple truths at the all-powerful from his bastion, the Cour des Aides, without forfeiting his tact and private good- naturedness. The scion of one of the most esteemed families of the legal nobility, he showed a healthy contempt for caste and pomp, but when he believed the privileges of his order could be useful to the nation, he defended them fiercely. Respectful of tradition, he could be contemptuous of its abuses and bold in demanding its modification.6

He did not share certain illusions of his fellow intellectuals about the shining benefits of a "philosophical century," for he perceived that some of its energies were vindictive or destructive. His many enthusiasms -- gardening and forestry, manufacturing, architecture, legal studies, the classics, the history of his country, travel, charity, vaudeville -- were rarely abstract. Tolerant almost to a fault, he dealt tactfully with all the fanaticisms of his age, deploring them but seldom rising to their bait except when they became uncommonly vicious. He found the bitter disputes of Jansenism and Molinism unappetizing, but "écrasez l'infame" was not his rallying cry.7 Often himself hailed as a philosophe, he found the partisan spirit of the gens de lettres distressing, because "a sectarian leader (chef de parti) loses his philosophical independence, being often obliged to sacrifice his own feelings to the interests of his party and to support the quarrels of those he blames and even scorns privately."8

Repeatedly, Malesherbes castigated the despotic impulses of the monarchy and its privileged agents, yet he revered royalty all his life.9 He believed in the virtues of aristocracy and ancient lineage -- "our respectable and venerable nobility"10 -- yet reviled the pretensions of "les grands."11 His sympathy with the "people" was genuine when he voiced their miseries in his remonstrances (he was cherished as a patriarch in the

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