Robespierre’s Passion – Literary Vanity

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His first and only passion was literary vanity. There never was the chief of a party, sect, or government who, when a crisis had arrived, was so incurably a rhetorician, and a rhetorician of the flattest, muddiest, and dullest kind. On the eve of the 9th Thermidor, when it was a question of conquest or annihilation, he brought to the tribune a prepared speech, which had been written over and over again. It had been polished and repolished; it was tawdry with false ornaments, glazed with academical varnish, heavily draped with the symmetrical antitheses, long-drawn out periods, exclamations, apostrophes, and all those other regulation trappings belonging to the business.

In one of the most celebrated and important of his reports I have counted 24 different figures of speech, imitations of Rousseau and other old writers of antiquity, some of them marvels of prolixity, addressed to the dead, to Brutus, to the young Bars, others to absent persons, to priests, to aristocrats, to the unhappy, to French women, others having for topics abstractions, as Liberty or Friendship. With a conviction which nothing could shake, and with supreme self-conceit, he believed himself to be an orator, because on all occasions he worked the old apparatus, and jerked it with the same old wires. Never is there to be found one single spontaneous accent in all this labored eloquence.

Here are all the worn-out receipts of an art long ago on the decline, references to Greek and Latin, Socrates and his hemlock, Brutus and his dagger, and a jumble of classical metaphors, as “the torch of discord,” “the ship of state,” and a mixing up of words with false attempts at style, exactly like those a shallow rhetorician would use when addressing the benches of his college. Occasionally Robespierre puts on an air of immense bravery, as befits a man who struts when on parade, but then again he pipes a feeble tune on a flute, because at that time it was supposed that he was overflowing with sweetness. — Tain’s Psychologie des Chefs Jacobins, in Revue des Deux Mondes.

The New York Times (New York, New York) Oct 5, 1884

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