The French Revolution brings a number of images to the Western mind. From Marie Antoinette’s infamous declaration of "Let them eat cake" to heroic images of storming the Bastille, the Revolution’s impact on society remains strong. Nonetheless, even noble causes can have a dark side. We see this in the horrendous "Reign of Terror" which saw many people brutally tortured and killed in a misguided quest for Utopia.

This is vividly seen in the life of Maxmillien Robespierre, a charismatic leader of a radical sect called the Jacobins. On the surface, Robespierre’s intentions seem benevolent and idealistic enough:

What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men. (1)

However, like so many other Utopian plans, Robespierre’s visions resulted in horrendous amounts of bloodshed. Attempting to abolish Christianity and replace it with a "Temple of Reason," Robespierre brutally persecuted and killed Christians, especially priests. His justification?

...the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror....the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue. (2)
Terror flows from virtue? Robespierre’s violent and cowardly attempts to persecute those whom he sees as a threat to "reason" is despotism of the most extreme sort. In addition, his hypocritical attempts to justify his actions by appealing to motives of liberty and equality are eerily reminiscent of similar instances in more recent centuries.

Anyone, even a heartless thief like Judas Iscariot, can appeal to noble motives in order to further their own agendas (see John 12: 4-6). Virtually every dictatorship in history has risen to power by promising to be champions for the poor and oppressed. Adolf Hitler rose to power because he convinced the German people that he could rescue them from devastating poverty. Similarly, Mao Tse Tung's "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" was designed to unite the working class and purge China once and for all of the influence of the bourgeoisie. As we well know, both of these endeavors left millions of people dead. In light of this, how does Robespierre’s "end justifies the means" rhetoric fit into the equation?

From a philosophical standpoint, Robespierre’s ideas sound a great deal like the school of thought that would later be known as Utilitarianism (although admittedly, it is a very extreme example). Founded by Jeremy Bentham and further articulated by John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism is a highly pragmatic philosophy which is primarily based on two tenets:

One of the key criticisms of Utilitarian thought is that it lacks a mechanism of protection from the "tyranny of the majority." For example: If slavery brings "happiness" to a larger portion of slaveholders than the slaves it brings misery to, does that make slavery morally justifiable? If having an adulterous affair brings "happiness" to a couple while it devastates the man’s wife, does that make it moral because two people are happy, while only one is miserable?

As I see it, this is very similar to Robespierre’s reasoning. Yet in the process, he reveals his own underlying hypocrisy. In his quest for "liberty, equality and eternal justice," he nonetheless resorts to the same brutal tactics as those whom the Revolution was designed to stifle. Ultimately, the "Bourgeoisie" are those who have the perceived upper hand in a society. However, history shows us that those who attempt to maintain that upper hand through violence and coercion will eventually fail. In lifting his hand against the church, Robespierre, like so many others, became a direct fulfillment of the words of Jesus:

"...upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18).


Work cited:

1. Robespierre, Maxmillien. "The Terror Justified." Speech to the National Convention, February 5, 1794. Quoted in Sherman, Dennis. Western Civilization: Sources, Images and Interpretations, Volume II: Since 1660. Sixth Edition. 2004, 2000, 1995. McGraw-Hill, New York, New York. p. 62.

2. Ibid.