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Arts and Letters

Not Entirely Peaceful

The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748–1789, Robert Darnton, W.W. Norton, pp. 576, $45.00


Towards the end of this magisterial book, the summation or distillation of a lifetime of profound study, Robert Darnton tells us that the French Revolution is the most written about and studied event or period in all human history. Perhaps Nazi Germany will one day catch up, but in any case this fact imparts a certain anxiety to the non-specialist reviewer. It is not much of a consolation to him that even a specialist cannot now hope to master the secondary literature on the subject, for the non-specialist reviewer is bound to be an ignoramus by comparison. He tends to be at the mercy of the last book on it that he has read. How is he to know that he is not now in the hands of someone with an axe to grind or an arcane theory to propound?

Insofar as impressions are worth anything, the one given from the first page of this book is that it is written by an honest scholar with a genuine desire to understand the past on its own terms. It is not that he has no historiographical theory or general outlook; it is rather that he is not an ideologist who is more interested in his worldview than in the world.

For the author, men are not just vectors of forces who react like billiard balls on a baize table. They have thoughts, desires, motives, impulses, and it is these that explain their conduct. They may have them in common, of course, because they face circumstances in common and affect one another, but still it remains true that their mentalities are decisive in shaping events and reactions to events.

This does not mean that seemingly abstract forces are of no interest or significance to the author. The price of bread, very important in France where it was the staple, was important in creating an atmosphere of peace or agitation. It is an important social fact that most people, especially those most vulnerable to the effects of inflation, attribute rising prices to the machinations of ill-intentioned, rapacious persons (and sometimes they may be right, or partially right, to do so). But when inflation is attributed to human intention rather than to circumstances beyond the control of any individual, tempers rise and solutions—for example, price controls—are suggested that only make the situation worse.

Besides the effect of ideas in common and economic circumstances, Professor Darnton allows for chance to have its effects. The harvest before the storming of the Bastille was severely diminished by an extraordinary storm with hailstones large enough to kill horses, and the succeeding winter was the coldest in memory, perhaps in history. People froze to death and were buried in mass graves. To chronic poverty, then, was added hunger, the miseries of severe cold and the indignities of anonymous burial.

Interestingly, and very importantly, these meteorological disasters were not interpreted, as once they would have been, as God’s judgement on the wickedness of either the people or their governors, calling for repentance. The Enlightenment had done its work, or seeped through society, even to its lower levels. The advance of science and technology, as instantiated by Franklin’s lightning conductor and Montgolfier’s balloon, had persuaded people that supernatural explanations of extraordinary events were no longer necessary: reason and science would do. Such a change in fundamental outlook was not conducive to fatalism.

Had the harvest not been damaged, and had the price of bread not risen to unheard-of levels, had the winter been mild rather than cruel, might history have been different and the Revolution avoided? (I doubt that the present Cuban regime could have survived in a cold climate.) Of course, we can never know, but the possibility illustrates the irruption of chance—or at least of events beyond the control of man—on the course of human history.

Darnton’s book is polyphonic rather than straightforwardly unilinear or schematic, as in, say, the vulgar Marxist interpretation of the Revolution as shorthand for the replacement, for fundamentally economic reasons, of a feudal by a bourgeois regime. The Revolution was a newly formed river into which many tributaries flowed, for example the long desacralization of the crown. Had Louis XV been somewhat less devoted to his mistresses and somewhat more devoted to his religious duties, he might not have lost the respect and love of his people, who in 1744, when his life was in danger from an illness, prayed fervently for his recovery and dubbed him le Bien-Aimé, the Beloved. He squandered nearly all his political capital by his extravagance and concupiscence. His son, Louis XVI, in whom much hope was placed at his ascension to the throne, lost respect by his failure for seven years to produce a male heir (the maleness of the royal child was particularly important because of the Salic Law). His queen, accordingly, was believed to be sex-starved and therefore unfaithful. Whether she was or was not unfaithful was less important than that she was widely believed to be so: for, as Darnton repeatedly reminds us, rumor is an important historical fact and may affect events profoundly. This again is a rebuke to any coarsely monocausal explanation of great events in history.

Clearly it would be ridiculous to ascribe the whole of the French Revolution to the personal deficiencies of the two kings. But again it is conceivable that if they had been other than they were the course of events might have been different. The financial problems of the kingdom were both intractable and obviously crucial. The author is extremely good on how what had once been a secret matter for the king and his aristocratic council gradually became, through the period under review, a matter of public interest and concern. Darnton has read and digested a vast quantity of the published material of the time, and perhaps it will come as a surprise to many readers just how vigorous debate was in a supposedly absolute monarchy.

Freedom, then, is not simply a question of political arrangements or constitution; it is also a habit of the heart, and the Bourbon government never had the means to eliminate it once it had developed, thanks to figures such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. Indeed, members of the government learned that the old methods of ceremonial book-burning were counterproductive from their own point of view and only added to the avidity with whatever they burned was read, and the credit it was accorded. On the other hand, they also learned that once they stepped into the arena they were at a great disadvantage: those who express outrage have an intrinsic disadvantage vis-à-vis those who simply try to defend a policy or record.

The account of the pamphlet duel between Jacques Necker and Charles Alexandre de Calonne, both of whom tried to appeal to that new and fickle organism, public opinion, is fascinating. The very fact that they appealed to public opinion before the outbreak of the Revolution was highly significant. They were two men in charge, successively, of France’s treasury. Necker, the Swiss Protestant, was reputed to have put France’s chronically chaotic finances in order by the time Louis XV dismissed him. He claimed that, thanks to his prudence, there was then a surplus. By contrast, Calonne, an aristocrat, ran up deficits—or such, at any rate, was the common perception. But Calonne argued that Necker’s claimed surplus was nothing of the kind, and that he had concealed a deficit, indeed a huge one, so that the deficits that he, Calonne, ran up were only the continuation of Necker’s deficit. Clearly this is the kind of disagreement with which we are all lamentably familiar today. Whatever goes wrong is always the fault of the previous administration.

If I have one small criticism of Darnton’s book, it is that he describes such disputes but does not adjudicate them. Who was in the right, or more in the right, Necker or Calonne? Perhaps it is not possible to answer that question in the way that I should like. Perhaps the arcana of French eighteenth-century finances do not permit such an answer. But if so, I should like to have been told so.

The disputes between the crown and its ministers on the one hand, and the parlements on the other, are often presented as the latter’s struggle against the former’s despotism, but in fact, as this book explains very well, matters were more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. The parlements, in fact, wanted to preserve the privileges of the nobles and the church, while ministers such as Calonne tried, in a cautious and limited way, to extend the burden of taxation to the nobles and the church. Under the flag of liberty, the latter tried to preserve the grossly inequitable status quo, and their radical pose was exposed as hypocritical for all to see at the calling of the Estates General. Indeed, the most fiery of the radical opponents of reform, in the name of opposition to despotism, Jean-Jacques Duval d’Eprémesnil, soon revealed himself to be a ferocious reactionary. But the radical talk of the parlements was not without effect in creating what the author calls the “revolutionary temper,” by which he means not the access of fury that leads a baby to throw its toy out of the pram, but the temper, the general emotional and intellectual atmosphere, of the times.

Occasionally, one has a suspicion that the author leans rather too heavily on certain favorite contemporary sources such as the journal of Siméon-Prosper Hardy, albeit that these sources are extensive, detailed and vivid, but the author’s immense erudition soon dispels this suspicion. At the end, he provides a brilliant summary of what he considers the factors that caused the Revolution: an increasing attachment to liberty, especially of expression and opinion; patriotism and an increasing sense of national unity; indignation at the depravity, decadence, and dissoluteness of the aristocratic elite; an increasing value placed on personal virtue; a consequent increase in the propensity to moralize; disenchantment and desacralization of the monarchy; an increasing belief in the power of reason that made traditional power structures and privileges seem irrational; an increasing participation in and knowledge of political affairs, with a consequent resistance to taxation; and, finally, the violence of everyday life, including of punishments. (A revolution that starts with people dancing round the decapitated heads on a pole of hated people is perhaps destined for a near future that is not entirely peaceful.)

What is missing from this list is mass poverty and the hardship of daily life, often in the presence of displays of enormous wealth I think this will surprise most people. For Darnton, what was going through people’s minds was far more significant. I cannot praise this book too highly. With its help, we learn about the past and reflect on the present in equal measure.

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