The French Revolution

Revolutionary Philosophy
Revolutionary Tradition and Les Mis
 
Revolution 1789
 
People
--The Monarchy
--Desmoulins
--Robespierre
--Danton
--Marat
--Jacobins
--Sans-culottes
--Napoleon
 
Events
--Tennis Court Oath
--Fall of the Bastille
--October Days
--Varennes
--Declaration of War
--Palace Invaded
--Louis XVI
--Reign of Terror
-- Fall of Robespierre
--At war
--Napoleon
 
 
Timeline
 
1789 in Les Miserables
--The Terror
--The People
--The Students
--Revolutionary
--The Monarchy
--Philosophy
 
Monuments
--Elephant
--Bastille
--L'arc
--Place de Concord
--Pantheon
--Tuileries
--Notre Dame
--Elysées
 
Daily Sites
--Restraunts
--Cafes
--Street Names
--Guillotine
--Children's Names and Games
 
Works Consulted

 

There comes an hour when protest no longer suffices: after philosophy there must be action; the strong hand finishes what the idea has planned; Prometheus Bound begins, Aristogeiton completes; the Encylopédie enlightens souls, the 10th of August electrifies them. After Aeschylus, Thrasybulus: after Diderot, Danton. The multitudes have a tendency to accept a master. Their mass deposits apathy. A mob easily totalises itself into obedience. Men must be aroused, pushed, shocked by the very benefits of their deliverance, their eyes wounded with the truth, light thrown them in terrible handfuls.

An enormous fortress of prejudices, or privileges, of superstitions, of lies, of exactions, of abuses, of violence, of iniquity, of darkness, is still standing upon the world with its towers of hatred. It must be thrown down. This monstrous pile must be made to fall. To conquer at Austerlitz is grand; to take the Bastille is immense.

Les Miserables, Saint Denis, Book Thirteenth, Chapter III

 

This quote is packed with references to the Revolution and the time period preceding it known as the ancien regime. When Hugo writes "after philosophy there must be action" he is referring to the necessity of the French Revolution after the Enlightenment that came in the eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment men like Rousseau preached equality and education for all; these were very controversial views at a time when the church and aristocracy dominated society, and most of the population were peasants. Rousseau's contemporaries were just as contentious as he was. Voltaire hated religion and wanted to abolish the three Estates system that had been present in France for hundreds of years (the three estates were the aristocracy, the clergy, and the people: the first two Estates possessed all the power in France). Diderot, who Hugo mentions directly, oversaw the Encyclopédie project. This was the first encyclopedia and made information available to Frenchmen that had never had the opportunity to learn.

 

The Fall of the Monarchy, 10 August 1792 Image from Doyle

 

Portrait of Danton from Schama
These radical new ideas led to the events between 1789-1799. In 1789, members of the Third Estate declared that they were going to draw up a new constitution for France. This action mirrored Voltaire's desire to abolish the Estates; the Third Estate was assuming unprecedented power. On August 10, 1792, the "enlightened souls" that Hugo refers to in the above quote, stormed the royal residence (the Tuileries) in Paris and drove Louis XVI and his family from their home. France was declared a republic a month later. What Diderot had begun with the Encyclopédie, Danton put into effect on August 10 when he encouraged the people of Paris to storm the Tuileries.

 

Portrait of Desmoulins from Dowd.

 

Desmoulins in the Palais Royal on 12 July 1789. This speech was later credited as being the catalyst for the Fall of the Bastille. Image from Decaux.
The second half of the quote characterizes the ubiquitous mob that responsible for so much of the action of France's many revolutions. Hugo writes, "a mob easily totalises itself into obedience." This was the case throughout 1789-1799. The mob was obedient to Desmoulins when they stormed the Bastille, obedient to Danton when he asked for mass conscription during the war begun in 1792, and obedient to Napoleon when he declared himself the Emperor of France in the early 1800s. Desmoulins and Danton did "throw light in terrible handfuls" by awakening the people to their sufferings under both the monarchy and the government of the terror. Napoleon "threw light" at the people when he rescued them from the exhausting revolution and declared France an empire.

 

A present day view of the battlefield at Austerlitz, where Napoleon had the greatest victory of his career as a general.

 

A painting of the people of Paris storming the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Image from Decaux.

 

Hugo notes in the last part of this quote that all the histrionics of France's recent history have not ended the strife in the hearts of the French: "An enormous fortress of prejudices, or privileges, of superstitions, of lies, of exactions, of abuses, of violence, of iniquity, of darkness, is still standing upon the world with its towers of hatred. It must be thrown down." Hugo also predicts the uprising of 1832 when he writes, "This monstrous pile must be made to fall." He hints to his readers that the people of Paris will not lie dormant in the face of injustice. Finally he reminds us that mobs are a powerful force: "To conquer at Austerlitz is grand; to take the Bastille is immense." To be victorious over foreign troops as soldiers of Napoleon is good, but for the people of Paris to consolidate to topple the greatest symbol of absolutism in France is incredible. Hugo takes us through a century of French history in a few sentences, and his rich allusions give his writing depth and resonance.