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The Paradoxes of Saint-Just: From the Revolution as Restoration to the Revolution as Abyss

How does De la nature . . . shed light on Saint-Just's action, his revolutionary development? His conversion to the Terror and his anguish in the face of the glaciation of the Revolution?

Charles Nodier, the enthusiastic publisher of Institutions républicaines (1831), perhaps best described the paradox of Saint-Just: "The unfortunate Saint-Just . . . was not a heartless man . . . he had tenderness and even convictions from which our improved civilization recoiled in contempt . . . he believed, which is much stronger, in respect for one's forebears and in the cult of emotion . . . . He was an extremely backward philosopher compared to the age we live in ."[18] The Archangel of the Terror made a fetish of ancestors: "Age is what our country worships," he wrote in Institutions républicaines . Let us try to unravel this paradox.

The first element is that this young man, the very embodiment of the Revolution, based his action, strange as it may seem, on classical natural right. Though invoking nature may be in a critical relation to tradition, the idea of limitation peculiar to classical natural right, teleological thought, and an idea of right not based on subjective foundation makes this idea incompatible with the modern idea of revolution. With the logic of a philosophy of freedom and not of virtue, the modern idea of revolution involves a subjective conception of right while also aiming at an emancipation seen as infinite movement.

Now the assertion of natural sociality, positing an objective ahistorical order in the name of nature, the declared mistrust of the individual or general will, the repeated rejection of the contract as a model, the theory of the lawmaker—all these features put Saint-Just, a crafter of the modern world, in the ranks of the ancients. So his appeal to virtue takes on a certain sense. Though Saint-Just associated the revolution with the people, he uncoupled the founding of the Republic from the popular will and assigned the job and the monopoly to the lawmaker, the elected interpreter of nature. This is an odd doctrine in that Saint-Just professed an idea of natural right that tended toward egalitarianism and hence was more Christian than classical in inspiration. This paradox resulted from Saint-Just's anti-Rousseauism; claiming, unlike Rousseau, that "the Golden Age is behind us," and thus making himself vulnerable to Fichte's critique, Saint-Just could not have access to the dialectical view of history in Rousseau's second Discourse ; furthermore, he altered the idea of nature that in Rousseau had served as a critical hypothesis in the affirmation of a past reality that asserted itself as the truth of the earliest society. Dogmatizing Rousseau in this way, Saint-Just took away the


conflictual tension because, for him, the return to the "city" and the return to nature had to be merged.

The revolution is thought of more on the model of astronomy—which implies the idea of a return to an earlier position—than within the strictly political field, from the classical concept of stasis or of modern thinking about the upheavals leading to an idea of conflict and social division.[19]

But is this idea of revolution a modern idea? Doesn't Saint-Just fatally lack the muse of perfectibility? Divorced from the idea of freedom and married to nature, revolution is directed less at liberation or the invention of a new social order than at "renaturalization," the restoration of a natural order effaced by centuries of monarchical decay that is denounced in the judgment of the king as "a crime against nature." The aim of the revolution is to redirect society into the orbit of nature, returning to an order seen as natural, away from the new, and to set limits that are all the more constraining for they are seen as objective. "I do not sever the bonds of society, but society has severed all those of nature. I do not seek to institute novelties, but to destroy novelties."[20] This orientation to the past, this hatred of novelty, this "misoneism," helps explain the fundamentalist climate of this idea, which goes along with the Jacobin puritanism oscillating between the images of the hero and the saint. This does not appreciably change the image of the revolutionary; he appears less possessed by a passion for freedom than irresistibly attracted to the founding of an order that, although proclaimed in the name of the revolution, still displays all the features of a generalized codification of the forms of existence.[21]

There appears an even more striking paradox: not content to associate the revolution with a plan to restore nature, Saint-Just calls for the revolution to be accomplished without politics, even to be opposed to politics. "We should not be afraid of changes, the peril is merely in how they are affected, all the world's revolutions are part of politics. That is why they have been steeped in crimes and calamities. Revolutions that are born of good laws and that are conducted by skilled hands would change the face of the earth without shattering it."[22] Good laws? He means laws resting on nature.

Must we see in this surprising declaration of the young and doctrinaire Jacobin a resurgence of the Augustinian doctrine that identifies politics with evil? This would imply that Christianity's hold on Jacobinism—the distinctively Christian ways of thinking about politics—is more crucial than has usually been thought. Referring the cohabitation of men to a spontaneity of the social with, moreover, a placing of the polis beneath the societas , leads to the disparagement of politics. This lowering of the political sphere shows how much Saint-Just, despite his reference to classical natural right, fails both to acknowledge the dignity of politics and to recognize an uncircumventable constitutive dimension in the plural existence of men.

As demonstrated, the contradictions are numerous, but the essential con-


tradiction involves making the modern practice of revolution serve a premodern idea of rights and society.

Can we see here one of the roots of the Terror? The evils ascribed to politics must entail a downgrading of political mediation, even if Saint-Just declared, in his Sur la Constitution , that "natural polity" was not his aim. What else if not a twofold rejection of politics (the rejection of mediation or confusion with the logic of another order) was Saint-Just asserting when he wrote: "The principle of a republican government is virtue; the alternative is terror. What do people want who want neither virtue, nor terror?"[23] He called for a return to nature, and not humanity, as the destination of the city, and his conception of the revolution as the way to bring about this return fosters the illusion in which politics is confused with morality. It is important not to expose politics to an "overload" or to derail it by giving it a mission beyond its capacities—in this case, the reform of conscience or the diminution of selfishness. This was Kant's warning in 1793, when he distinguished between the political community and the ethical city, explicitly describing the dangers of a politics of virtue:

We may call a union among men with simple laws of virtue following these prescriptions, an ethical society; and, to the extent that these laws are public, we may call it order, that is, an ethical civil society (in contrast to a legal civil society) or an ethical community . . . . Every political state doubtless desires to exercise domination over minds according to the laws of virtue, for in cases where its means of coercion are insufficient, because the human judge cannot see into the minds of men, virtuous intentions could secure what is wished. But woe unto the lawmaker who wants to use force to secure a constitution for ethical ends, for not only would he thus create the opposite of this constitution, but he would also weaken his political constitution and remove all its solidity."[24]

Thus when Saint-Just initiated what seemed to us to be "a new march" with the plan of Institutions républicaines , an outbreak of Terror, and, one might say, a critique of Jacobinism from within, he does not elude the movement of a return to a prepolitical state of nature.[25] The idea of institution, in relation to a critique of the law—"obeying laws, that is not clear," wrote Saint-Just—again points to nature, to the will to reestablish a natural order with access to objectivity. But we cannot fail to observe a hardening in this Jacobin lawmaker determined to shape republican institutions so that an orientation to nature would be combined with an enduring mistrust. Hence, along with the enthusiasm for creating institutions goes the appeal to heroism, to "the soul of the republic": "The day when I am convinced that it is impossible to give the French people manners that are gentle, energetic, sensitive, and implacable against tyranny and injustice, I shall plunge a dagger into my heart."[26] The suicide of the hero opposes the death of nature.


A new and paradoxical movement is formed: starting from a fundamentalist plan to reestablish the city on natural foundations, Saint-Just couldn't deny himself an act of foundation or, more precisely, of self-foundation. The issue of the French Revolution becomes the issue of heroism. Viewed from political philosophy and not from romanticism, heroism is a constitutive dimension of the Revolution. Heroism is the Revolution's magnetic field. For want of recognizing the existence of the "central sun" (G. Bûchner), of measuring its energetic effects, the magnetization of consciences, according to Chateaubriand a "redoubling of life," the interpreter may fail to understand or even to think of the revolutionary. A modern Brutus, a regicide with the halo of his youth and his name, appearing suddenly on the public stage at the king's trial, Saint-Just exhibited the heroic experience par excellence, that of a rebirth.

Jules Michelet, who had read his Plutarch as well as Vico, had a political understanding of the Revolution. Furthermore, he did not separate this way of understanding from a consideration of heroism. Thus he knew better than anyone how to uncover the logic of heroism as an active, autonomous force in the Revolution. That is why he insisted on emphasizing the incessant commotion that Saint-Just's intervention provoked at the time of the king's sentencing. "This speech had an enormous effect on the trial . . . . Immature or not, exaggerated or not, it was powerful enough to set the tone for the whole trial. It determined the pitch; one continued to sing to the tune of Saint-Just."[27] It was the experience of a beginning, the start of the Republic, an appeal to the unknown, but also a beginning for Saint-Just, torn from the obscurity of a private citizen and suddenly propelled into the light of public space. "Who was to wield the sword . . . . A new man was needed, unshackled by any philanthropical precedent," wrote Michelet.[28]

Reading Saint-Just's speech, we see how this event indissolubly mingled the experiences of birth and founding, both necessarily connected with the death of the king. "The same men who will judge Louis have a republic to found: those who attach some importance to the just punishment of a king will never found a republic . . . . For me, I see no middle way: this man must reign or die . . . the mind that judges the king will be the mind that founds the republic. The theory of your judgment will be the theory of your magistratures."[29] Or again, "the revolution begins when the tyrant ends."[30]

But a question immediately arises concerning what Michael Walzer, drawing on the work of E. Kantorowicz, has rightly described as "public regicide," which he sees has the special feature of an attack on the inviolability of the monarchy, a transgression of the "sacred terror" of theologico-political origin which attaches to the twofold body of the king, both mortal and immortal.[31] Can we change the face of the earth without shattering it? Doesn't revolutionary action involve uncontrollable effects, all the more so as, in Saint-Just's case, it was not a matter of judging the king but of fighting


him and bringing him down like an enemy? Can one still cherish the illusion of returning to good laws, dependent on nature? Is not the revolutionary experience as a beginning, at the same time an exposure to unpredictability? Saint-Just himself did not fail to compare the revolution to birth: "We have opposed sword to sword, and freedom is founded; it has emerged from chaos and with man who cries at birth . . . . Everything begins thus under the sun."[32]

Did not the public regicide, an unprecedented rupture owing to the radicalness it required, ruin the very idea of nature? The revolution would leave the comforting shores of a return to the natural order and brave the tempests of freedom to take on the unknown of a new experience of freedom, as freedom to do good and evil. This is the change from a revolution of restoration to a revolution of the abyss. At the same time Saint-Just was seeking the point where the revolution must stop , "at the perfection of happiness and of public freedom by law." He voices his anxiety about the identity of the Revolution which from now on is problematic, that is, disguised, and about the vertiginous movement of freedom, for it is a movement toward the infinite. "We speak of the height of the revolution, who will fix it? It is movable."[33] Testing the impossible?

In the face of this gap, heroism in turn becomes a paradoxical experience. Though Saint-Just gazes with melancholy at "the beauty that is no longer" (Rome, Sparta), he still confesses to a metamorphosis of heroism, and very consciously draws on what P. Lacoue-Labarthe described concerning Hölderlin as a general crisis of imitatio , following the collapse of a tradition. "The disappearance of every rule and every model, of every codification in art."[34] And the poet, no stranger to revolutionary disorder, consumes himself "in the practically ex nihilo creation of a pure work or of a new art." On 25 April 1794, Saint-Just announced, "Have no doubt of it, everything around us must change and end, for everything around us is unjust; victory and freedom will cover the world. Scorn nothing, but imitate nothing of what has gone before us. Heroism has no models . It is thus, I repeat, that you will found a powerful empire with the boldness of genius and the power of justice and truth."[35]

In exactly the same speech, "Sur la police générale, sur la justice, le commerce, la législation et les crimes des factions," Saint-Just limns the portrait, the model of the revolutionary man, "the hero of good sense and honesty," meaning the privileged interpreter, perhaps even the guardian of the Revolution. "As his goal is to see the Revolution triumph, he will never find fault with it, but he condemns his enemies without involving himself with them, he does not violate the Revolution but illuminates it, and jealous of its purity, he is circumspect in speaking of it, out of respect."[36] With furious speed the cutting edge of the word regicide is followed by an homage to revolutionary exemplariness. This change of tempo displays the paradoxical trajectory of


heroism; the energy of the beginning, propelled by the initium , reverses itself and becomes testimony and force for stopping, becomes a limit imposed on revolutionary élan. A new image is drawn of the custodian of the criteria for good and evil, the judge of moderation and exaggeration. Heroism has no models; when the ground of nature is revealed, exposed to this vacuity, the hero immediately transforms himself into a model, into a force of impossible "modeling."

At this nodal point, the logic of heroism encounters the logic of democratic invention so well elucidated by Claude Lefort.[37] Deprived of the canon of nature, how can we then determine the line between liberty and license? After the unprecedented dismemberment of the social in and by the king's death—a proof of the vertigo vis-à-vis the unknown of a society that no longer turned to nature but was confronted by the new—after the loss of reference points, how to recodify, remake the criteria of the reference, redraw the identifying frames of reference, remake the body (Claude Lefort), if not by offering the body of the revolutionary hero as the incarnation of a new sacred thing, as the support for an identification, if not by connecting the power to an exemplary body?

The more Athenian than Spartan Camille Desmoulins, who loved to chortle at the gods and idols, said of Saint-Just that he "carried his head like the Blessed Sacrament." The echo comes back to us of Lucile Desmoulins's cry in Danton's Death , "Vive le roi!" hailed as the word of freedom by Paul Celan, who grew up with the writings of Pierre Kropotkin and Gustave Landauer.[38] Though Saint-Just, by creating his own myth, took part in the invention of what Stendhal called the "beautiful modern," and at this distance still exerts fascination, we should keep in mind the final lines of Michelet's 1869 preface to Le Tyran : "Happily, time passes. We are a bit less dim-witted. The rage for incarnation, carefully inculcated through Christian education, messianism, passes. At length we understand the counsel Anacharsis Clootz left when he died: 'France, be cured of individuals.'"

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