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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robespierre in Paris, 1770
By George Henry Lewes (1817–1878)
 
‘The Life of Maximilien Robespierre’

HE led a life of honorable poverty, seclusion, and study,—the life that is led by thousands of young men both in England and in France. He occupied a small apartment au cinquième in the Rue St. Jacques. His slender means admitted of but very little of that dissipation with which young law students seek relief from their wearisome studies.  1
  Jurisprudence did not, however, wholly occupy him. He was in Paris, in the midst of its pleasures, its frivolities, its debates. Too poor to enjoy many of these delights, of a disposition naturally reserved and unsocial, he had little to interrupt his studies; so that when not attending lectures or bending over digests, he was walking along the quays or down the shady, dusty avenues of the Tuileries, meditating on the destinies of mankind, and striving, with the help of Rousseau and others, to solve the vexed problems which then agitated Europe.  2
  He was in Paris; yet not in its giddy vortex, not among its brilliant courtiers, not moving amid the rustling hoops of its court nor adding to the elegant frivolity of its salons. He was in its dark and narrow streets, amidst its misery and squalid rage. He fought no duels, sparkled at no suppers, was the hero of no bonnes fortunes. He was near enough to the court and the salons to know what passed there; far enough removed from them to feel some hatred at the distinction. He could see that the Great were only the Privileged, and had no real title to be an aristocracy. Any common observer might have seen that; but the serious, unfriended Robespierre saw it with terrible distinctness.  3
  Aristocracy had indeed fallen more completely than even kingship. If the nobles ever were the foremost, topmost men, they long had ceased to be so. A more finished grace of deportment, a more thorough comprehension of the futilities and elegances of luxurious idleness, and perhaps a more perfect code of dueling, might be conceded to them. If life were as gay and frivolous a thing as Paris seemed to believe, if its interests were none other than the ingenious caprices of otiose magnificence,—then indeed these were the topmost men, and formed a veritable aristocracy.  4
  But the brilliant fête was drawing to a close; and while the beams of morning made the rouged and fatigued cheeks of the giddy dancers look somewhat ghastly, there was heard the distant tramp of an advancing army, which told them that a conflict was at hand. Some heard it, and with reckless indifference danced on, exclaiming like Madame de Pompadour, “Après nous le Déluge!” Others resolutely shut their ears, and would not hear it.  5
  Since the last days of the Roman Empire, no such spectacle had been exhibited by society as that exhibited by France during the eighteenth century. To look at it from afar, as seen in books, how gay and brilliant it appears! What wit, what eloquence! What charming futilities, what amiable society! What laughter, what amusement! If man’s life were but a genteel comedy, acted before well-fed, well-bred, well-dressed audiences, this was a scene to draw forth all our plaudits. A Secretary of State at eighteen (M. de Maurepas) decides State questions with a bon-mot. A miserable negro page, Du Barri’s favorite, is thought fitted to become the governor of a royal château. Storms lower on the horizon: they are met with epigrams! Dandy abbés make their lacqueys repeat the breviary for them; and having thus discharged the duties of their office, set themselves with all seriousness to turning couplets, and to gaining the reputation of gallantry. Women of the highest rank go to hear mass; but take with them under guise of prayer-book some of those witty and licentious novels which are to be compared only to the ‘Satyricon’ of Petronius.  6
  These charming women “violated all the common duties of life, and gave very pleasant little suppers.” They had effaced the negative from the seventh Commandment, and made marriage, as the witty Sophie Arnould felicitously defined it, “the sacrament of adultery.”  7
  The treasury was drained to enrich favorites, and to supply splendid fêtes. “Sometimes,” says Louis Blanc, “there were cavaliers emulous of the preux de Charlemagne, who in sumptuous gardens, under trees upon which were suspended shields and lances, feigned a magic sleep, till the Queen appearing deigned to break the spell. Sometimes after reading of the loves of deer, these cavaliers took it into their heads to transform themselves into stags, and to hide themselves clothed in skins in the thickest part of the shady park. In the days when the nobility had manly passions, they amused themselves with tournaments which counterfeited war; now it was dancers who, mingling with the nobles, wore the colors of their ladies in fêtes counterfeiting tournaments!”  8
  What could France think of her aristocracy, while the highest people in the realm were objects of contempt? Her Queen, the lovely Marie Antoinette, whom France had welcomed with such rapture and such pride, what figure did she make in this dissolute court? Did she set an august example of virtue and of regal grandeur? Could hopes be formed of her? Alas, no! Young, ardent, quick-blooded, fond of pleasure, reckless as to means, careless of appearances, she was no longer the queen to whom a gallant Brissac, pointing to a jubilant crowd, could say, “Behold! they are so many lovers!” She had become the object of hatred. She had been imprudent, perhaps worse; and princely libelers had circulated atrocious charges against her. She had forgotten herself so far as to appear at the Bal de l’Opéra. She had worn a heron’s plume which Lauzun had taken from his hat to give her. It was said that dancing with Dillon, and thinking herself out of hearing, she had told him to feel how her heart beat; to which the King sternly replied, “Monsieur Dillon will take your word for it, madame!” This and more was said of her; and an irritated nation eagerly credited the odious reports which transformed their young Queen into a Messalina. That she was libeled, no one pretends to doubt; but then those libels were almost universally accredited.  9
  And the King? His great occupation was lock-making! His brothers were less innocently employed: the one devoting himself to intrigue, a shameless libeler and daring conspirator; and the other to flaunting at bals masqués.  10
  Thus were the great names of France illustrious only in the annals of debauchery or folly; and the people asked themselves, “Are these our rulers?” The few exceptions to the general degradation only make the degradation more patent. Nobles, heretofore so proud, were now ambitious of repairing their ruined fortunes by marrying the daughters of opulent financiers. The courts of justice were scandalized by trials for robbery, in which noblemen figured as criminals. Not only had they lost their self-respect, but they had also lost the respect of the nation.  11
  Seriousness and serious topics were by no means banished: they were only transformed into agréments. Philosophy was rouged and wore a hoop. It found ready admission into all salons. Ruddy lips propounded momentous problems; delicate fingers turned over dusty folios. The “high argument” of God’s existence and man’s destiny, the phenomena of nature, the deepest and most inscrutable of questions, were discussed over the supper table, where bons-mots and champagne sparkled as brightly as the eyes of the questioners. No subject was too arid for these savant-asses (to use Mademoiselle de Launay’s admirable expression): mathematics did not rebut them; political economy was charming; and even financial reports were read as eagerly as romances. And amidst this chaos of witticisms, paradoxes, and discussions, colonels were seated, occupied with embroidery or with parfilage; noblemen made love to other noblemen’s wives; while a scented abbé—
  “Fait le procès au Dieu qui le nourrit.”
  12
  Society never exhibited greater contrasts nor greater anarchy; old creeds and ancient traditions were crumbling away; and amidst the intellectual orgies of the epoch the most antagonistic elements had full play. D’Alembert, Lalande, Lagrange, Buffon, and Lavoisier, were jostled by Cagliostro, Mesmer, Saint-Martin, and Weishaupt: the exact sciences had rivals in the wildest chimeras and quackeries. Atheists proclaimed with all the fervor of conviction their faith in the eternal progress of humanity; skeptics who assailed Christianity with all the powers of mockery and logic were declared the apostles of the three fundamental principles of Christianity,—the principles of charity, fraternity, and equality. Voltaire attacked all sacred institutions, devoting himself to écraser l’infâme. Montesquieu examined with no reverent spirit the laws of every species of established government. Rousseau went deeper still, and struck at the root of all society by a production as daring as it was well-timed,—the ‘Discours sur l’Inégalité.’  13
  The gayety, frivolity, wit, and elegance of France, so charming to those who lived in the salons, formed as it were but the graceful vine which clustered over a volcano about to burst; or rather let me say it was the rouge which on a sallow, sunken cheek simulated the ruddy glow of health. Lying deep down in the heart of society there was profound seriousness: the sadness of misery, of want, of slavery clanking its chains, of free thought struggling for empire. This seriousness was about to find utterance. The most careless observer could not fail to perceive the heavy thunder-clouds which darkened the horizon of this sunny sky. The court and the salons were not France: they occupied the foremost place upon the stage, but another actor was about to appear, before whom they would shrink into insignificance; the actor was the People.  14
 
 
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