Excerpts from Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution’

Carlyle's French Revolution manuscript burning

It took me more than a month, but I’ve finally finished Thomas Carlyle’s epic poem/history of the French Revolution. Some people have commented to me that they tried to read this and could not get through it.

I do think that it’s worth going through, even if you have trouble with it. It helps to have some pre-existing familiarity with some of the major characters and events of the time period, because otherwise, it’s easy to get lost with all the mentions of characters and events all tumbled together in rambling oration.

What I got from this is a sense of what it might have been like to live through the events, without knowing what would happen in advance. Most history suffers from what Taleb calls the narrative fallacy. Carlyle treats the events as if neither he nor you know the inevitable outcome of events. This adds to the sense of chaos that isn’t usually present in histories of the French revolution, which, in today’s context, usually try to suffuse chaotic outbursts of violence with philosophical meaning that they did not actually possess.

Excerpts from the Homeric Tragicomedy

The work has some lovely images in it. On the fall of the Bourbons, Carlyle says:

 The oak grows silently, in the forest, a thousand years, only in the thousandth year, when the woodman arrives with his axe, is there heard an echoing through the solitudes, and the oak announces itself when, with a far-sounding crash, it falls.

Another aspect of the Revolution which is under-appreciated is the degree of hunger and economic chaos that came with the rise of Republicanism. People are always starving. Trade and specialization break down (adding additional context to the later works of Bastiat on economics). There are numerous outbreaks of backyard gun-smithing, because there’s nothing to do for anyone except to arm themselves to fight both internal enemies and foreigners.

Mobs of ill-kempt women are always emerging at first to harass the aristocratic remnants, and then their Republican replacements, for bread.


It is Spiritual Bankruptcy, long tolerated; verging now towards Economical Bankruptcy, and become intolerable.

The radicals urging for reform are incapable of actually addressing the problems that the society suffers due to social chaos.

The King’s Treasury is running towards the lees; and Paris ‘eddies with a flood of pamphlets.’ At all rates, let the latter subside a little!

To my eyes, it reminds me of our contemporary social environment, in which bloggers flood the minds of the general public to little avail.

And then as to Pamphlets– in figurative language; ‘it is a sheer snowing of pamphlets, like to snow up the Government thoroughfares!’ Now is the time for Friends of Freedom,; sane, and even insane.

Industrious labor becomes displaced by speculation. In come the political designers, all of whom have their own crankish ideas on how to remedy France’s terminal illness.

This is the Sieyes who shall be System-builder, Constitution-builder General, and build Constitutions (as many as wanted) skyhigh, — which shall all unfortunately fall before he get the scaffolding away.

A Constitution can be build, Constitutions enough a la Sieyes: but the frightful difficulty is that of getting men to come and live in them!

The French Republicans at times are quite reminiscent of libertarians of today. Constitutionalists, in Carlyle’s view, err in believing that political design is what matters more than political practice.

The Constitution, the set of Laws, or prescribed Habits of Acting, that men will live under, is the one which images their Convictions,–their Faith as to this wondrous Universe, and what rights, duties, capabilities they have there; which stands sanctioned therefore, by Necessity itself, if not by a seen Deity, then by an unseen one. Other laws, whereof there are always enough ready-made, are usurpations, which men do not obey, but rebel against, and abolish, by their earliest convenience.

Your Revolution, like jelly sufficiently boiled, needs only to be poured into shapes, of Constitution, and ‘consolidated’ therein?

France finds itself rocked by tumultuous debates, ruled by writers and editors, whose rhetorical conflicts can have no final resolution. When there is violence, in tends to be spasmodic, with no well-defined ends.

Great is Journalism. Is not every Able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it; though self-elected, yet sanctioned, by the sale of his Numbers? Whom indeed the world has the readiest method of deposing, should need be that of merely doing nothing to him; which ends in starvation!

People tend to hope that rebellion will result in better conditions for the people. Historians, of which Carlyle is no exception, tend to caution the hotblooded that most revolutions fail to meet their aims, especially when they succeed.

Reader, fancy not, in thy languid way, that Insurrection is easy. Insurrection is difficult: each individual uncertain even of his next neighbour; totally uncertain of his distant neighbours, what strength is with him, what strength is against him; certain only that, in case of failure, his individual portion is the gallows!

During the chaos, the men who profit the most are speculators and farmers alike:

Higher than all Frenchmen the domestic Stock-jobber flourishes,– in a day of Paper-money. The Farmer also flourishes: ‘Farmers’ houses,’ say Mercier, ‘have become like Pawn-brokers’ shops,’ all manner of furniture, apparel, vessels of gold and silver accumulate themselves there: bread is precious. The Farmer’s rent is Paper-money, and he alone of men has bread: Farmer is better than Landlord, and will himself become Landlord.

This sort of economic arrangement emerges during the crack-up boom which accompanies the death of all paper money regimes. In the cities, speculators win and lose fortunes. Outside the cities, the farmers make out much better than bandits.

Carlyle has a sage’s eye for dramatic events and dialogue. As Robespierre is executed in the same sky-blue robe that he wore to usher in his new secular religion:

A woman springs on the Tumbril; clutching the side of it with one hand; waving the other Sibyl-like; and exclaims: “The death of thee gladdens my very heart, m’envivre de joie;” Robespierre opened his eyes; “Sclerat, go down to Hell, with the curses of all wives and mothers!” — At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry;– hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!

In the end, even after the King-killing, and numerous revolutions, the problem of hunger remains with the People:

Unhappy Senators, unhappy People, there is yet, after all toils and broils, no bread, no Constitution. “Du pain, pas tant de longs discours, Bread, not bursts of Parliamentary eloquence!” so wailed the Menads of Maillard, five years ago and more; so wail ye to this hour.

Eliminating shams, according to Carlyle, does not necessarily build a self-supporting order to replace it:

Anarchy is destruction: a burning up, say, of Shams and Insupportabilities; but which leaves Vacancy behind. Know this also, that out of a world of Unwise nothing but an Unwisdom can be made. Arrange it, Constitution-build it, sift it through Ballot-Boxes as thou wilt, it is and remains an Unwisdom,– the new prey of new quacks and unclean things, the latter end of it slightly better than the beginning. Who can bring a wise thing out of men unwise? Not one.

As for the External form and fors of Life,– what can we say except that out of the Eater there comes Strength out of the Unwise there comes not Wisdom! Shams are burnt up; nay, what as yet is the peculiarity of France, the very Cant of them is burnt up. The new Realities are not yet come: ah no, only Phantasms, Paper models, tentative Prefigurements of such!

What is still stranger, we understand all Frenchmen have ‘the right of duel;’ the Hackney-coachmen with the Peer, if insult be given: such is the law of Public Opinion. Equality at least in death! The form of Government is by Citizen King, frequently shot at, not yet shot.

Vacuums expect to be filled.

Concluding thoughts

It was impossible for me to read this and not notice how closely modern American conservatism resembles French radicalism. The peculiar obsession of American conservatives with the written constitution and the notion of citizen equality is unmistakably French. The hopes that many radical modern conservatives have in rebellion are also paralleled by the hopes of French rebels.

After Jackson, and even before under Jefferson, America shifted closer to the ideals of the French radicals on the other side of the ocean than they did to the monarchist mother-country. This drift became more explicit as time went on.

Even today, we have an American magazine which some conservatives consider ‘moderate’ entitled Jacobin. The real Jacobins, per Carlyle, wore the scalps of their executed enemies and flayed the skins off of men and women alike, using the men’s skin as leather because female skin was too soft for serviceable material:

Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; not mentioned among the other miracles of tanning! ‘At Meudon,’ says Montgaillard with considerable calmness, ‘there was a Tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotined as seemed worth flaying of which perfectly good wash-leather was made.’ for breeches, and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality to shamoy; that of women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture!

We must notice that, under a régime of equality, the forces of justice do not spare women from the skinner’s knife, even though their hides make for poor material. Perhaps feminists ought to be careful about what they ask for in this world.

The darkly funny aspect of this is that whereas Holocaust Denial is an unforgivable sin for Americans, Terror-Denial and Terror-Minimization is part of the curriculum in American higher education. Perhaps even worse than the deaths at the guillotine are the deaths by starvation and malnutrition, caused by the political mismanagement of the Republican regime. Such deaths are common under leftist regimes always — Stalin’s gulag killed fewer than the famines, and Mao’s Red Guards killed fewer than the starvation that his policies caused.

We see this return to barbarism routinely when the left attains power, shortly before the factions auto-cannibalize.

It is just so in Venezuela today, as I write, and will be so again if the American Jacobins, those warriors de la justice sociale, achieve their ends.

Intellectuals like to think that ideas matter more than anything, and that designing order for a country is the most important and challenging part of maintaining order in that country. We saw this sort of conceit operating throughout the 2000s as the American foreign policy establishment attempted to remake the Middle East under a new order of Constitutions by force of arms.

One of the chief themes that Carlyle tries to communicate is the general fruitlessness of parliamentary debate as a means of solving existential problems within a nation. The nature of debate is that there are rarely real winners. When someone wins a debate by force of the pen, the loser can come back the week afterwards as fresh as ever. When someone wins a battle by the sword, the loser can’t just come back the week afterwards, because they’re dead.

It’s tempting to be drawn into Parliamentary-war, but there can be no lasting resolution to such wars, because they’re only rhetorical. A debate can feel as dramatic as a duel, but a duel has a clear resolution, whereas most debates do not.

When one considers that the problem of public order is not really a design problem, but instead a problem of maintaining public virtue with no means of enforcing it in a cosmic sense, as in it’s not possible for a human dictator to command that order using a magic wand, even if magic wands tend to be effective symbols of power, everything becomes much trickier.

The point that I draw from this epic is that for civilization to remain in place, the leaders must be Good, and the people must want to be Good and be overall oriented towards maintaining order. Once chaos begins to take hold, social coordination breaks down, and people begin to get into insoluble, dis-coordinated conflicts. Re-establishing order can take centuries if it becomes at all possible, and maintaining it becomes even more difficult.

5 thoughts on “Excerpts from Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution’

  1. Pingback: Excerpts from Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution’ | Reaction Times

  2. Funny you should bring up Holocaust denial. The bit about human leather was strikingly reminiscent of the myth that the Nazis made lampshades out of the skin of the Jews. Of course, that old wives’ tale was meant to drive home the point that the Nazis were the most evil regime that ever existed, the embodiment of a kind of evil that will again crawl out of the fog of the night if we don’t practice constant vigilance and privilege-checking and other exorcism rituals. But if that detail about quality French leather had been included in my high school history syllabus, I can’t help but imagine my teacher laughing it off as just one of those crazy tidbits of history from a strange time we can no longer imagine, existing too far in the past to menace us. The guillotine was invented to put people down humanely, after all.

  3. Pingback: Just Since Last Weekend in Henry Dampier | The Reactivity Place

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