Anne-Louis Girodet (1767 – 1824): François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand Contemplating the Ruins of Rome (1804)
Along with Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) rightfully takes his place as one of the most prominent of the early Catholic pro-monarchical Francophone critics of the French Revolution. Chateaubriand’s authorial career began in 1797 with the publication in England, where he had gone into exile, of his Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leur rapport avec la révolution française. Chateaubriand, like Maistre, had witnessed the Revolution directly and experienced its devastating effects personally. His younger sister died in a Jacobin dungeon; his elder brother and his sister-in-law lost their lives to the guillotine. Chateaubriand himself fell, seriously wounded, during the Siege of Thionville while fighting as a private soldier in the Émigré Army in late August 1792. He managed to make his way to Brittany, his home, from there to the sanctuary of Jersey, and finally to London where he commenced the impoverished ordeal of his long recuperation. The Essai, which runs to nearly six hundred pages, reveals its author’s erudition, which its successors such as The Genius of Christianity (1802) and The Martyrs (1809) would further attest. Chateaubriand proposes to study in detail the five revolutions that he can identify in antiquity and the seven in modernity with the twin aims of discovering the revolutionary causality and of applying that causality to an analysis of the French Revolution. Chateaubriand remarks that, according to the legends, Greek monarchy suffered a general catastrophe in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Even before Agamemnon’s ill-fated enterprise, however, the stories of Oedipus, of the Seven against Thebes, and even of Theseus suggest a crisis or weakening of kingship. The chaotic aftermath of the Greek victory in the Troad saw the demise of dynasties, such as that of the Atreids in Mycenae. Darkness descends over Hellas. When affairs once again emerge into the light, monarchy has vanished, its place taken by the turbulent poleis or as Chateaubriand calls them, not without prejudice, les républiques.
Chateaubriand makes the point, in his discussion of the historical poleis, that these democracies rarely in fact heeded the popular will. Rather, clever power-seekers manipulated opinion for selfish ends. Competition among power-seekers generated factionalism, which periodically broke out into open conflict. Laws intended to enrich the ruling class exacerbated the resentment of the poor against the rich. As Chateaubriand writes, “The poor in the state are infinitely more dangerous than the rich, and often they are worth less than them.” Chateaubriand never indicts the poor; he indicts those who create poverty. Once the difference between rich and poor exists, however, and especially when the manipulators have sabotaged the inherited social order, violent convulsion becomes inevitable. Chateaubriand cites the history of Athens from Codrus, the self-sacrificing last king of Attica, to Solon as a near-perpetual cycle of mobilized factions, tyranny, counter-tyranny, and, on exhaustion, attempts to repair political order through the writing of new constitutions. The Athenian project of acquiring an empire led to the city’s defeat and to decades of chaos until, at last, the Macedonian phalanx imposed a new order. A republic, in Chateaubriand’s assessment, is an inherently unstable type of polity.
No one, regrettably, has ever translated the Essai into English. Those who can handle French and who interest themselves in the irony that Reaction arises from Revolution will find a reward in examining it. Fortunately, Chateaubriand treated of the Revolution elsewhere, as in his autobiographical Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, composed in the last ten years of his life and issued after his death; and he alludes to the Revolution in the final section of The Genius of Christianity. The tableaux of revolutionary France that Chateaubriand paints in the Memoirs exercise a powerful compulsion over the reader, revealing as they do the anti-civilizational ferocity of an insurrectionist campaign to establish, all in the name of reason, the regime of liberté, égalité, et fraternité.