What Defenders of French Revolution Meant by “Morality” or “Virtue”

GOVT 302 Essay Instructions

The defenders of the French Revolution wished, with Robespierre, “that morality may be substituted for egotism (self-interest).” This paper defines what the defenders of the French Revolution meant by “morality” or “virtue,” and evaluates their claims. It pays particular attention to how their morality is related to Christianity. Also, it pays particular attention to how their conception of republican virtue was similar to or different from that of America’s founders. Which regime do you believe was more virtuous, and why?

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What Defenders of French Revolution Meant by “Morality” or “Virtue” – GOVT 302

As the leader of the French Revolution, Robespierre set out the principles of morality on which any revolutionary government should be based especially in times of war. In his speech on these principles, Robespierre brought together the juxtaposing concepts of virtue and terror. The merging of these concepts led to the justification of the use of violence for the purpose of making the world a better place. According to Robespierre, the kind of society that he envisioned would be founded on the peaceful enjoyment of equality and justice. He further stressed that the fundamental principle of any democratic or popular government was simply virtue (Linton, 2015). He also believed that immorality was impolitic and that corrupt actions were counterrevolutionary (Tackett, 2016). Even though Robespierre’s perception of the key to a just government was virtue, his idea of virtue was neither soft or kind. The concept of virtue worked in conjunction with that of terror in situations that warranted violence.

            Robespierre’s depiction of the revolution was that it was a struggle between people who endeavored to base a republic on virtue and the people who were opposed to the same. While the French Revolution was based on virtue, the concept of terror was introduced as a survival mechanism in times of conflict (Linton, 2015). In such times, virtue would not be enough in ensuring the survival of the Republic. Robespierre echoed the aspirations of revolutionaries that the idea of the Republic should be founded on political virtue. To be politically virtuous at the time implied the abnegation of self, dedication to the public interest, and the lack of financial corruption or any other form of self-ambition (Tackett, 2016). While Robespierre agreed with many of the revolutionaries at the time, he differed with them in terms of authenticity. He believed that a revolutionary’s virtue should be genuine as opposed to just offering lip service. He criticized men who faked virtue as a way of fulfilling their self-interest.

            The concept of the Republic of Virtue had its basis on four interrelated elements. Firstly, it was a political system that emphasized on equality by ensuring that citizens participated in the promotion of virtue (Strauss & Cropsey, 2012). The Republic of Virtue was also a moral system that was founded on integrity, political transparency, selfness, and the opposition to corruption that was rampant in the previous regime (Strauss & Cropsey, 2012). The third element in the system was the emotional aspect of the Republic wherein citizens were connected by the love for and devotion to their community. Lastly, Robespierre made it clear that the Republic of Virtue was linked to terror and if necessary, it would be linked to violence (Strauss & Cropsey, 2012). In addition to that, Robespierre made distinctions between the two types of republican virtues- virtue as it related to the people and as it related to the government. While both virtues were necessary for a republic, the virtue of public functionaries and political leaders proved to be much more problematic. People in the political scene were much more predisposed to abusing their power for material benefit.

            Terror was not primarily a weapon meant to be used by the government against the people. On the contrary, the principal targets of Terror were public functionaries and members of the government. Terror was presented as a way through which the government could monitor its own activities as well as the activities of its agents. Robespierre claimed that when terror was employed in the cause of virtue, then it would be considered as a form of justice, however harsh it seemed (Linton, 2015). Hence, it is safe to conclude that the defenders of the French Revolution viewed terror as speedy and inflexible justice, and that they were willing to attain justice by any means necessary. In this case, questions arise as to whether being severely violent is morally acceptable even though the act is driven by good cause. The validation of terror and violence as a means of promoting justice has raised mixed reviews from critics. Based on various outcomes in the revolution as well as subsequent events, one can assume that acting in violence does not always inspire the idea and the achievement of virtue. During the French Revolution, the ideology of virtue became increasingly meaningless due to the state violence and coercion that came with the same. Later on his life, Robespierre started questioning whether virtue can be realized even though he did not doubt the principle of virtue.

At the center of the Revolution in Paris, Terror was directed towards public officials and politicians. Robespierre’s insistence on terror was paradoxical considering that he was opposed to the death penalty. His view on politics was that morality and politics were interrelated. The role of the revolution in regards to morality was a paradox because even though the revolution disapproved of sexual immorality, the role of any sort of religion was declining (Tackett, 2016). As a result, the revolution had removed any form of legal backing to the role of the church with regard to morality. This separation of the church from its role in reinforcing morality was not the case in the old regime. In the old regime, the church and the state had worked together to reinforce the moral code and the distinction between crime and sin was vague (Tackett, 2016). Still, there were Christian leaders who hoped that moral regeneration based on Christianity would take place.

The American Revolution and the French Revolution have both been described as having destroying the previous balance and relationship between the state and freedom. The American Revolution was fundamentally a struggle against monarchical and aristocratic power and an effort to attain the highest form of freedom (Rummel, 2015). In fact, both the French and the American revolutions were a revolt against the power of monarchs. The efforts of this revolution were enshrined in the American Constitution whose basic conception was that human beings pursue different, and often, selfish interests (Rummel, 2015). Since this conception of the American Constitution was abstract, it needed a supporting structure of rights that could guarantee that interests among people were balanced. If all the different interests shared the same rights, then the aggrandizement of any principles, one of them being that all human beings have certain rights that surpass the power of the government and hence limit it (Rummel, 2015).

The second principle upon which the American Constitution was founded was that governments have the tools to be tyrannical and they consequently need to be limited through checks and balances. Based on the highlighted principles of the American Constitution, the American Revolution and the French Revolution bared some similarities. In both situations, the revolutions frowned upon the abuse of power by the government and its agents. While the French Revolution used terror to inspire virtue and lack of self-interest, the American Revolution used the Constitution to ensure that power was not concentrated at one point. In both revolutions, there was particular emphasis on the need to deviate from self-ambition. The establishment of rights in the American Revolution was specifically targeted at managing self-interests. However, while the individual rights were essential in the American Revolution, the general will and the sovereignty of the people stood above individual rights (Rummel, 2015). For the Americans, no single interest could be entrusted with the government while the French used the state a tool that had no limit as long as social justice was achieved as part of the common will. The French were different from the Americans in that individual rights were not put into consideration because the community was given preference and precedence. The French Revolution was clearly the worse regime seeing that it created a bloodbath and led to violence. From this revolution, it can be determined that neglecting individual rights might not always foster patriotism and the spirit of virtue.

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In conclusion, the French Revolution was founded on political morality and virtue. Virtue related to putting the state above any self-interests. On the other hand, the regime was also characterized by terror which was used against those who went against the civil code. The use of terror to promote virtue remains a point of contest among philosophers. Interestingly, terror was primarily meant to be used against government officials who were tyrannical and corrupt. The French Revolution failed to achieve longevity due to its lack of consideration of individual rights as well as the use of violence.

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