Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.

Eleven Hegel and the French Revolution: An Epitaph for Republicanism

The Politics of Virtue

The French Revolution looked to Hegel, and to many of his generation, as an attempt to recreate the conditions for social and political harmony which not only the Ancien Régime but all of postclassical culture had torn asunder. The revolutionaries, acting out of a desire to bring the doctrines of the philosophers down to earth, directed themselves against all traces of transcendence and other-worldliness. To bring about this reconciliation of the rational and the real, the radicals like Robespierre sought to recreate the kind of consensus and public spiritedness evinced by the ancient polis. The polis experience, at least as theorized by Rousseau, was based on a devotion to the general will at the expense of private interests and elevated the virtue of the citizen over and above those of the private man or bourgeois. "This will is not," Hegel tells us, "the empty thought of will . . . a mere symbol of willing; it is concretely embodied universal will [allgemeiner Wille], the will of all individuals as such."[46]

The reference here to the universal will is clearly an allusion to Rousseau's volonté générale that is at the basis of the social contract. The general will is the source of freedom because it is the creation of all, and hence no one is coerced to do anything he has not agreed to do. Each individual participates in the creation of the general will and, in doing so, does no more than obey rules that he has set down for himself. Since there are no a priori limitations on what the general will may in fact will, it satisfies the individual's desire for freedom. The general will is not only the source of freedom but of security because its dictates must be universally and impartially applicable to all who have contracted. It is, then, the only possible source of right since its dictates accord with both the principles of freedom and those of equity.

Rousseau conceived the social contract, then, as the substitution of one type of freedom for another. Natural (or what we would call "negative") freedom, the freedom to do as one likes, is exchanged for rational liberty, the


freedom to live by laws of one's own making. Our rights are the exclusive product of the general will, which must take the form of public civil law. But if we ask, What is it that this rational will wills?, What is the content of this will?, Rousseau can provide no satisfactory answer. There is the same kind of vacuity about the general will that Hegel thought he observed in Kant's Categorical Imperative except that it is more dangerous since Rousseau saw the general will as a public legal body. The general will is not universal in the Kantian sense, applicable to rational persons as such, but in the more limited sense of applicable to members of particular communities localized in time and place. The general will, Hegel writes in the Philosophy of History , is free when "it does not will anything alien, extrinsic, foreign to itself . . . but wills itself alone—wills the will."[47]

Hegel's reason for rejecting the Revolution's attempt to create the conditions necessary for the realization of the general will is precisely its lack of attention to the particularities of context and situation. Its abstractness and lack of content resulted in a "rage of destruction" that had "no inner significance or filling" anymore than "cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a draught of water." The claim that the general will is the only legitimate ground of society would not only abolish all existing institutions and hierarchies but would regard "all differences in talent and authority as being superseded." Nothing would be allowed to exist that is not a product of the general will. Even God, "the empty être suprème" of the radicals, is said to hover there "merely as an exhalation of stale gas." The culmination of the Revolution was, then, "the sheer horror of the negative" in which all the "determinate elements disappear with the disaster and ruin that overtakes the self in the state of absolute freedom."[48]

The argument being made here is that although the general will can abolish, it cannot create. It can destroy the Old Regime but cannot build a new one. The idea of the general will is that I am only free when I obey the laws that I have myself helped to create. But since the law is the outcome of a collective decision, it cannot be decided by me alone. If everyone is to be free, then everyone must at least participate in the decision-making process. There is no sense here as, say, with Hobbes of authorizing someone else to do the work. The idea of government by consent, what Hegel calls "a mere symbol of willing," is insufficient. Any halfway measure such as representative institutions would be a violation of my inalienable right to self-legislation. The result is to create a permanent and implacable opposition between the people and their government which will always appear to them as a corporate body, a "faction" interposing itself between them and the general will.

The problem with Rousseau's general will is that it remains too abstract to serve as an instrument for political reform. Indeed, its very abstractness, as I will show in a moment, makes it peculiarly susceptible to manipulation


by political demagogues. The general will specifies a set of procedures by which valid laws can be achieved; it says nothing about what the character of those laws should be. Rousseau apparently thought that this procedural formalism alone was sufficient to prevent abuse but, as subsequent events were to show, his agnosticism about the ends and purposes of law was to prove dangerously open-ended.

The inability of the Revolution to create a cohesive republican community is not only related to an empty conception of the common good but to an equally vacuous notion of civic virtue. Following Rousseau, the revolutionaries saw the new French Republic as based on an austere, self-sacrificing conception of virtue in which private goals were ruthlessly subordinated to the pursuit of the public good. The chief task of the Revolution became the construction of a Republic of Virtue. The question the revolutionaries had to confront, then, was this: What guarantee does the man of virtue, the republican citizen, have that he is really acting for the public good? What are the guarantees against self-delusion and hypocrisy?

The only standard that the man of virtue can provide of his own moral goodness turned out ultimately to be his own self-certainty or sincerity. Sincerity thus became the essence of virtue. But herein lies the difficulty. For if sincerity is the only criterion of moral worth, then citizens must be judged not according to the outcome of their deeds but by their subjective convictions alone or the "law of the heart." The result of this purely subjective conception of virtue was to unleash a relentless search to unmask those hypocrites who pursue their own private ends under the guise of public spiritedness. As Hegel depicts it, the Reign of Terror was nothing more than the working out on the public stage of this obsessive concern with inner purity:

Virtue is here a simple abstract principle and distinguishes the citizens into two classes only—those who are favorably disposed and those who are not. But disposition can only be recognized and judged of by disposition. Suspicion therefore is in the ascendant; but virtue, as soon as it becomes liable to suspicion, is already condemned . . . . Robespierre set up the principle of virtue as supreme, and it may be said that with this man virtue was an earnest matter. Virtue and Terror are the order of the day; for Subjective Virtue, whose sway is based on disposition only, brings with it the most fearful tyranny. It exercises its power without legal formalities, and the punishment it inflicts is equally simple—Death.[49]

One might, of course, wonder, why hypocrisy should be responsible for such a wave of violence and fanaticism. Hannah Arendt has argued that the desire to root out hypocrisy stems from the Revolution's own "favored simile" of itself as tearing the mask, the persona, off a corrupt French society to expose behind it the uncorrupted natural man. For a theorist like Arendt for whom politics is, literally, a kind of "play acting" where actors become


the roles and legal personae that they assume, this search for the natural or authentic man behind the mask is bound to be destructive.[50]

According to Arendt, the tragedy of the French (and later the Russian) Revolution stems from what could be called the fallacy of misplaced compassion. Just as Rousseau had seen compassion as the source of all morality, so did Robespierre and Saint-Just regard virtue as the ability to identify oneself immediately with the immense poverty and suffering of the majority of the French people. Compassion, which Rousseau had regarded as the capacity to enter into the suffering of another fellow creature, was turned into a more diffuse sense of pity that meant (in Arendt's terms) "to be sorry without being touched in the flesh."[51] Virtue thus becomes a purely subjective capacity to sympathize with the plight of an abstract other, whether that be the malheureux or the "wretched of the earth." Arendt traces the degeneration of the Revolution into despotism and terror back to this unusual capacity for moral sensitivity:

[E]ven if Robespierre had been motivated by the passion of compassion, his compassion would have become pity when he brought it out into the open where he could no longer direct it toward specific suffering and focus it on particular persons. What had perhaps been genuine passion turned into the boundlessness of an emotion that seemed to respond only too well to the boundless suffering of the multitude in their sheer overwhelming numbers. By the same token, he lost the capacity to establish and hold fast to rapports with persons in their singularity; the ocean of suffering around him and the turbulent sea of emotion within him . . . drowned all specific considerations, the considerations of friendship no less than considerations of statecraft and principle.[52]

The result of Robespierre's Republic of Virtue was to create a regime motivated by precisely the kind of "pious cruelty" that political realists like Machiavelli had warned against. For Arendt, as for Hegel, the greatest cruelties in history have been committed out of an excessive idealism and devotion to causes. This was certainly true during the French Revolution where a Reign of Terror was established to purge the nation of all those "enemies of the people" suspected of harboring impure thoughts. The Revolution became self-devouring when those men, like the members of the Committee of Public Safety, entrusted with the oversight of the common good, came to regard even their own motives as suspect. Under these circumstances the temptations to suspect and then denounce one's neighbors, friends, and associates became irresistible.

Hegel's critique of the French Revolution should be seen, then, as an epitaph for republicanism. The language of republicanism, as Montesquieu had demonstrated before him, belongs ineluctably to the past. The failure of the Revolution to create anything faintly resembling the Greek polis or the Ro-


man res publica stemmed from its utter lack of connectedness to the present. In its original form republicanism was animated by the goals of political comradeship, fraternity, and communal solidarity. But as the two greatest republican theorists of modernity, Machiavelli and Rousseau, acknowledged, these virtues could also be narrow, particularistic, and intolerant. Valuing public freedom above all else, republicanism was led to act with a kind of punitive zeal against all those who fail or refuse to participate in the corporate project. This zeal is in turn aggravated by a quasi-religious ethos that exalts courage, self-sacrifice, and military glory above all other endeavors. The attempt to recreate republicanism today is not just politically irresponsible; it is historically false.[53]

Eleven Hegel and the French Revolution: An Epitaph for Republicanism

Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.