Monday, June 16, 2014

A Voice of Reason



The Abbé Raynal was one of the Philosophes whose writings, during the Age of Enlightenment, inspired a change of thought that led to the French Revolution. The ideas he forwarded, against the monarchy, the Church, and the status quo, caused an uproar and he was obliged to flee France to avoid persecution.  When he returned after many years of exile, he found his native country embroiled in a war that shocked him and he wrote (perhaps co-wrote) a letter to the Assembly distancing the ideas of his and his fellow Encyclopedists from that of the radical political groups in Paris.

To set the scene:
When his letter was read to the Assembly in May 1971 Jean-Paul Marat's newspaper, l'Ami du Peuple, was misleading and inciting with lies, the government was divided, times were bad.  But, it was before the royal family's failed Flight to Varennes, before the September Massacres, before the King and Queen were beheaded, before circumstances got completely out of hand.  Oh, but if only his words had been heeded.

I quote excerpts from the Abbé's letter to the Assembly, as printed in Stanley Loomis' "Paris in the Terror":

"Returning to this capital after a long absence, my heart and thoughts are turned towards you.  You would have seen me before the feet of this august assembly if my age and infirmities allowed me to speak to you of the great things which you have done and of those other things which need be done in order to establish in this unhappy land that peace, liberty and happiness which it is your intention to procure for us."


"Not long ago I dared speak to kings of their duty.  Suffer me today that I speak to the people of its mistakes and to the people's representatives of the great dangers which menace us...  I shall not hesitate to say that I am profoundly grieved by the crimes which are covering our nation in mourning.  I am appalled to realize that I am one of those who, once battling against arbitrary power, may have given arms to license rather than to liberty..."  Here, speaking for the philosophes, he disavowed all association of these vanished men with the events that were currently taking place in France.  "You cannot, without falling into the greatest error, attribute to us the false interpretations which have been made of our philosophy."

"About to die, very soon to leave this great family whose happiness has been my life's most ardent wish, what do I see about me?  Religious dispute, fear on the part of some, tyranny and ambition on the part of others, a government which has become a slave to forces of the gutter and become a sanctuary for men who want alternately to dictate or to violate the law, soldiers without discipline, heads of state without authority, ministers without means, power over the state existing in certain clubs where gross and ignorant men pass judgment on political matters."

The Abbé's letter continued,
"Such, and I tell you the truth, is the real state of affairs in France.  I dare to tell you so not only because I must, but because I am eighty years of age, because no one here can accuse me of regretting the ancien régime, because in denouncing in your presence those citizens who have irresponsibly set fire to our kingdom or who have perverted public opinion by their writings [a reference to Marat and his newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple, among others] no one can accuse me of being insensible to the value of freedom of the press....  All France is now divided into two distinct groups: one, of decent people, moderate spirits who stand aside dumb and appalled, while that other group of violent men terrifies the nation and ferments a frightful volcano which vomits forth lava capable of destroying us all..."

"I have gathered all my strength to speak to you in the austere language of truth.  Forgive my zeal and the love which I have for my country should my remonstrances appear to free.  Believe in my ardent wished for your glory as well as in my deepest respect for you."

At points in the reading, the stenographer recorded "a great many murmurs."  At the end, the Center, the Left, and the Right sides of the room (Did you know that the political designations of Center, Left and Right had their origins in the French Revolution and according to where the most moderate, liberal and conservative members of the government sat?) responded with predictability - quiet consternation, jeers and cheers in that order.

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