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A Natural History of RevolutionViolence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789-1794$

Mary Ashburn Miller

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801449420

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801449420.001.0001

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Revolutionary Like Nature, Natural Like a Revolution

(p.164) Conclusion
A Natural History of Revolution

Mary Ashburn Miller

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter summarizes key themes and presents some final thoughts. It particularly focuses on the relationship between pro-revolutionary violence and nature in revolutionary rhetoric. During the Revolution, spontaneous violence was portrayed as inevitable, natural, and constructive of a new order. By comparing violence to storms and sublime tempests, and by invoking the language of Providence through their future-oriented justifications, the revolutionaries removed human agency from the revolutionary equation. The specific way in which revolutionaries crafted their narrative of violence was unique to the moment of the French Revolution, but rhetorical attempts to cloak responsibility and limit dissent can be found in nearly all moments of crisis.

Keywords:   French Revolution, natural history, natural world, revolutionary France, revolutionary violence

The period from 1793 to 1794 marked the height of the relationship between pro-revolutionary violence and nature in revolutionary rhetoric. Soon after the Jacobins fell from power, the terms “mountain” and “volcano” both shed many of their positive connotations; volcano again became a term that signified rampant and uncontrollable destruction, and Edme Petit called for the word “Mountain” to be banned from the Convention floor a mere month after Thermidor.1 A decree of 20 February 1795 mandated the dismantling of symbolic mountains across France, and two weeks later the saltpeter program came to an end.2 Revolutionary forces could still strike like thunderbolts or flow like torrents, but the purgative, restorative, and constructive connotations of these images were largely subsumed by other meanings. As cultural, social, and political contexts changed, so, too, did the basic analogies assumed by the metaphors.

The metaphorical relationship between the natural and political realms posited by revolutionary leaders unveils a French nation that, by the end of the eighteenth century, was deeply attuned not only to the natural world, but to a nascent scientific discourse that infused plays, songs, and even policy. The rhetoric of the French Revolution both affirmed the efforts of the Enlightenment to educate a broad public about the natural world, and extended that education despite the dissolution of some of the stalwart Old Regime institutions dedicated to natural knowledge. Instead, plays, poems, and songs carried on the popularizing traditions begun by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who sought to combine natural history with sentimental literature, and the physicist Perrin, who entertained audiences with a physics show (complete with a problem-solving pet spaniel) near the Boulevard du Temple throughout the 1780s.3 During the Revolution (p.165) French men and women could learn about the process of saltpeter extraction by attending a state-sponsored class taught by Antoine François de Fourcroy, but also by seeing a performance of Tissot’s Les Salpêtriers républicains or singing along with the rousing song “Saltpeter.”

The educational efforts of the eighteenth century had already succeeded in many respects, as leaders assumed a certain amount of knowledge among their audiences as they referred to electrical circuits or the miasmas around swamps. As Jean-François Féraud wrote in his 1787 dictionary of the French language, metaphors must “be just and natural, [and] … be understandable to the average reader.”4 The persistence of analogies to the processes of the natural world suggests that they were, in fact, transparent enough to the audience to make them tenable. What is more, those analogies were shared by popular societies throughout France that likewise referred to regenerative volcanic eruptions, lightning bolts that restored an atmospheric equilibrium, or the corruptive “exhalations” emitted by swamps.

Yet the patterns of use of these images demonstrate more than a society that could draw allusions to recent scientific discoveries. Between 1789 and 1794 the connotations of natural imagery changed (lightning transformed from an arbitrary weapon of despots to a symbol of directed, immediate, and purgative justice; the volcano shifted from an image of destruction to one of regeneration). As the simultaneous decrees of 14 Frimaire suggest, nature also became a rhetorical ally of the Revolution. Although in the wake of the 1792 September Massacres, the people had moved like a torrent (irresistibly, regeneratively) and embodied a providential purpose, as Prudhomme had suggested, it was nevertheless the people that were an agent of revolution. By 1794 nature itself was revolutionary, and vice versa: in May 1794, Barère proclaimed that France was revolutionary like nature, on the very day Robespierre suggested that nature had been returned from exile. At the Festival of the Supreme Being Robespierre preached that nature had reclaimed its splendor, and, less than a month later, Barère portrayed Vesuvius as operating on behalf of the Revolution. nature, rather than the people, became the revolutionary and providential force. nature became a space of particular providence, not just a regulating system.5

Revolutionary uses of natural metaphors therefore transformed the meanings of nature and revolution alike. While nature had, in eighteenth-century science and literature, been an exemplar of an ordered, beneficent, and self-regulating system, philosophers and naturalists attempted to strip the natural world of its superstitious connotations. D’Holbach had (p.166) tried to wrest lightning from the hands of gods and kings and render it a purely natural phenomenon, and the lisbon earthquake was treated as a necessary convulsion in the operations of the earth rather than a scourge of God. Miracles had no place in the naturalist worldview. Yet by the time Chaumette urged the Mountain to become a volcano in the fall of 1793, nature was not merely a model of good governance; it was an active participant in revolution, providing thunderbolts with which to “strike the heads of the prideful,” as Robespierre said in his speech on revolutionary government in Pluviôse.6 The lightning bolt’s function for Robespierre was clear: it was not a result of an electrical imbalance in the clouds. Instead, it was created to strike the prideful, just as lisbon’s bay was destined to drown Jacques the Anabaptist in Candide. neither Robespierre nor the French Republic nor the Committee of Public Safety were the bearers of such power; rather, that power was borne by an untrammeled force of nature, acting with a justification and a logic beyond the grasp of man.

These changing connotations force us to reconsider a number of assumptions about both revolutionary sovereignty and revolutionary violence. The natural history of the Revolution reveals a notion of governance in which human will and agency were often neglected. As chapter 2 demonstrated, the term “revolution” could be used to describe an event that was inevitable and destructive but was also benevolent and concerned with the public good. Revolution was not always a guarantor of individual agency or a product of human will, but instead was a part of the natural process of change. Indeed, Billaud-Varenne’s “revolutionary” government was modeled on nature and natural processes but was completely devoid of any will, or volonté, save that of the small coterie at its center. In fact, by 1793, nature seemed to have overtaken the general will as the legitimation of governance. letters encouraging legislators to hold fast to the “lightning bolt” of sovereignty even in the absence of a constitution flooded into the Convention in September and October 1793. Even revolutionary law was not created; it was discerned, descending from the mountaintop like the Mosaic Commandments. As Wordsworth would write, in 1805, about the Revolution, “To nature, then, power had reverted.”

The substitution of the general will and constitutional law with references to the natural world reinforces the conclusions reached by Dan Edelstein, who argues in his Terror of Natural Right that a “natural republicanism,” with nature alone as the source of law, was at the heart of Jacobin politics. In his rigorous and groundbreaking analysis of Jacobin political language of the Year II, Edelstein determines that appeals to constitutional (p.167) law and to the general will were replaced by calls for natural law and self-regulating institutions. In his words, “What set [the Committee of Public Safety members] apart from this [republican] tradition was their belief that natural right, rather than a constitution, should serve as the foundation for laws and moeurs.”7 natural law became the new source of legitimacy for the radical republic. Yet the insertion of the natural world into political life that I outline here suggests that natural law itself was inflected by eighteenth-century discussions of and inquiries into the natural world. That which Edelstein traces in part to the weakness of republicanism in the legal tradition in France, I attribute to the strength of the natural world in scientific and literary discourse.8

Whether approaching revolutionary language from the perspective of jurisprudence or of natural histories and responses to natural disasters, however, the recognition of this Jacobin move toward nature as a legitimation of revolutionary government challenges François Furet’s reading of Terror as nascent in the revolutionary obsession with the general will. Instead, the Terror seems to have escalated amid calls for nature to rule; it was, in fact, the removal of will and agency from revolutionary rhetoric that is emblematic of the most radical period of the Revolution. As a result, the narrative of natural history suggests a reassessment of the relationship between revolutionary leaders and the citizenry that is focused less on attempts to discern and represent the general will, and more on civic participation in extra-institutional venues.

As lequinio noted when he first used the image of the mountain, the natural world was a space that elites and the “common man” alike could relate to. Indeed, the natural world was the subject of much legislation: the use of previously restricted forests, the cultivation of fish ponds, and the draining of swamps all aimed to make nature more accessible and more productive for the French citizen. However, Roland’s suggestion that the legislator must build dams to restrain the torrents of the people after the September Massacres reveals his ideal of an enlightened leadership of, rather than by, the people. Robespierre used the language of nature to demonstrate a continued faith in the ability of leaders to control the passions of the people: he never abandoned his belief in the lightning rod, as demonstrated by his calls to hinder the volcanic eruption on 8 Thermidor.

Nature could be a way of excluding the people from politics even while maintaining the illusion that they were active participants. If the revolutionary wars were, in fact, the first “total wars,” as David Bell has argued, the saltpeter initiative is fascinating proof of a total requisition: even (p.168) French soil was called upon to serve the nation.9 In elevating salpêtriers to the status of soldiers, the Convention demonstrated its deep commitment to the idea of an entire nation in service. According to this logic, a nation was built not by reasoned participation at the polls but by the more visceral experiences of digging up earth for the war effort, taking part in festivals, or comprising the revolutionary “torrent” that the Festival of unity and Indivisibility praised.

Even as the will of the people was evacuated from the natural history of revolution, violence was integrated into that narrative. The notion that violence was an inherent part of the Revolution was a rhetoric born in the revolution itself, by the very actors taking part in it. It was not a way of de-legitimizing the Revolution, or a post-Thermidor attempt to exonerate Terrorists;10 rather, it was accepted as fact by louis XVI, who in his request for amnesties referred to the “damages that a great revolution always entails,” and by leftists stepping to the defense of the Glacièristes. In addition, the forward-looking justifications of violence so dominant in the Terror emerged early in the Revolution: as early as the spring of 1792, in the debates over the Glacière Massacres, violence that was born from the Revolution was considered necessary to the outcome of the Revolution. Violence was not legitimated based on vengeance alone, but rather was un-punishable because it was a product of “effervescence” and “secousses” that were an inherent part of revolutionary activity. With the September Massacres, and the assumption that the Revolution was not yet over, the justification of crowd violence was pushed forward, into the future: just as the lisbon earthquake could only be understood by an all-knowing and benevolent God, the task of judging the massacres was left to later generations and, in the meantime, covered with a “religious veil.” The rhetoric of the Glacière and September massacres not only made the people a natural and providential force, it made doubting the justice of their actions a counterrevolutionary (if not heretical) stance.

What is more, naturalized rhetoric turned the very spontaneity, disorder, and collectivity of crowd violence into proofs of its necessity and therefore of its justice. The naturalization of violence allowed for the creation of a rational ordered world whose order was paradoxically maintained by occasional outbursts of disorder. This finding turns some of the theories of violence established in the last thirty years on their heads; whereas theorists of violence, including Sergio Cotta, and historians of revolutionary violence, including Howard Brown, have made the distinction between order and spontaneity one of the primary differences between legitimate force and illegitimate violence, revolutionary rhetoric demonstrates that (p.169) spontaneity and untrammeled passion were, in fact, legitimizing factors in violent acts.11 Brown, in his recent illuminating study of violence in France between 1794 and 1802, suggested that there are two types of violence: communicative, which abides by certain socially and culturally conditioned rules, and solipsistic, which “is essentially an outburst of unregulated passion, a sudden anger unleashed, or a categorical refusal of the ‘other.’” Such violence, Brown continues, “achieves little more than a unilateral affirmation of the individual or group.”12 Yet, in many accounts of revolutionary violence, it was the apparent disorder, alleged unpredictability, and passion of the violent act that themselves made it “revolutionary,” and guiltless.13 As Brian Singer has argued, revolution problematizes such measures of “rational” violence by throwing into question the very societal rules by which a group is expected to operate.14 In fact, during the Revolution, spontaneous violence—far from being understood as anarchic or “solipsistic”—was portrayed as inevitable, natural, and constructive of a new order. Demonstrating that violence was spontaneous was the most effective way to make it “revolutionary” and legitimate.

Thus, by naturalizing revolutionary violence, its advocates also made it seem a necessary step in the regeneration and future progress of the Republic. understanding the violence of the Terror as inevitable was not an innovation of François Furet’s; rather, it was present in the very rhetoric of the revolutionaries themselves. By comparing it to storms and sublime tempests, and by invoking the language of Providence through their future-oriented justifications, they removed human agency from the revolutionary equation. In this regard, the natural history crafted by revolutionaries not only calls us to reconsider the rhetoric of the French Revolution; it asks us to examine the ways in which language is used to stifle action in any space or time. The specific way in which revolutionaries crafted their narrative of violence, invoking particular images derived from inquiries into the natural world throughout the Enlightenment, was unique to the moment of the French Revolution, but rhetorical attempts to cloak responsibility and limit dissent can be found in nearly all moments of crisis.

Analogies conceal even as they allude; they seek to make familiar what is otherwise unrecognizable. In conflating two events or phenomena, we may lose sight of the utter novelty of each one or miss the opportunity to assess responsibility and enact change. And in establishing a metaphorical relationship between manmade events and natural ones, we risk replacing agency with complacency. Invocations of the sublime natural world may have awed revolutionary audiences (Pithou de loinville described the (p.170) “sweet drunkenness” of the crowd at the Festival of unity and Indivisibility), but those who are awed by mystery are often condemned to stand complacently by in its midst, accepting what is occurring around them as both natural and necessary. In Arendt’s words, “So long as we talk in … biological terms, the glorifiers of violence can appeal to the undeniable fact that in the household of nature destruction and creation are but two sides of the natural process, so that collective violent action … may appear as natural a prerequisite for the collective life of mankind as the struggle for survival and violent death … in the animal kingdom.”15 In their allusions to the natural world, revolutionaries fused the realm of uncontrollable nature and inevitability with political action. Crafting a natural history of Revolution meant leaving individual agency, responsibility, and will as mute bystanders to the march of nature.

In a 1790 satire of revolutionary optimism, an anonymous pamphleteer resurrected Voltaire’s Pangloss and Martin to debate the virtues of the Revolution. For every problem raised by Martin—murders, fires, priests who had their throats slit, individuals who had lost all their belongings, the risk of civil war—the revolutionary Pangloss argued that all was, in reality, for the best.

Any time that there is [qu’il s’opère] a change in government, the passage from the old to the new is necessarily a moment of anarchy. What can go against [s’ensuivre contre] the change, if it is proven that it was necessary, indispensable, and that it took place for the good of the nation? … Because the sun causes pestilential exhalations to arise from an infectious cesspool, is its warmth any less beneficial? Do we not still owe to it the dews that fertilize the earth?16

Although the pamphlet mocked this thoroughgoing optimism, by late 1792 this language was not uncommon. Indeed, the Revolution seemed to cultivate a Panglossian attitude: revolutionary activity, even if violent, was ultimately for the best. This providential attitude, exemplified by Prudhomme’s comparisons between the Terror and a hailstorm or the September Massacres and the lisbon earthquake, relied on the vision of an ordered but secular universe made commonplace by eighteenth-century natural histories. The revolutionaries did not maintain that God was punishing the aristocrats for their sins (as, indeed, Joseph de Maistre would in his 1796 Considerations on France); nor did they require a deity to make sense of their sorrows. nature could provide all the theodicy they needed.

(p.171) With the (political and rhetorical) collapse of the Mountain, the vogue for images of nature as mechanisms for political change seemed to fade. Prudhomme himself apparently reversed his opinion on both the lisbon earthquake and the September Massacres, resurrecting the victims and responding with neither adoration of providence nor silence. In his 1797 Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs, des fautes, et des crimes commis pendant la Révolution française, he detailed the many atrocities that had taken place during the early Revolution, attributing them not to the providential masses but to a conspiratorial faction that manipulated the people. He included a list of the dead, inspired by lists generated in the wake of lisbon: “In the disaster of lisbon, 100,000 citizens of every age, rank, and sex died in a few minutes. A few months later, alphabetical lists of the names of the unfortunate victims were created, for the use of families who survived the physical revolution. Why not follow this example in regard to the political revolution in France?”17 Prudhomme continued to see an analogy between political and terrestrial revolutions, but this time without the redemption or justice he had lauded in the wake of the September Massacres. If the revolutionaries were Panglosses for much of the early years of the Revolution, by the end of 1794 France was a nation of Candides, weary of final causes and ready to cultivate their garden (even if they continued to search for saltpeter in it). (p.172)


(1.) Réimpression De l’Ancien Moniteur, Vol. 21 (Paris: au Bureau central, 1841), p. 759. 30 fructidor, Year II (16 September 1794).

(2.) Mountain dismantlement cited in Leith, Space and Revolution, p. 262; end of saltpeter program on 4 March 1795 noted in Multhauf, “The French Crash Program for Saltpeter Production,” p. 175.

(4.) Jean-François Féraud, “Métaphore,” Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (Marseille: Mossy, 1787–88). Ironically he made this assertion to argue against many metaphors drawing on the sciences, as he believed that the analogies would not be comprehensible to the average man. The revolutionary generation clearly disagreed.

(5.) The development of a natural “particular providence” suggests that, in making use of new notions about the natural world inherited from a century of naturalized study, and in manipulating the authority and order of the natural world that had been produced by natural histories, revolutionaries also reshaped understandings of the natural world. In the wake of Thermidor, as noted in chapter 5, the volcano’s purgative and constructive connotations were diminished; Maiken Umbach suggests that Goethe abandoned vulcanism as a result of the fiery destruction of the French Revolution (Umbach, “Visual Culture,” p. 129). The geologist Cuvier’s catastrophism, in which he envisioned the world as having endured many destructions only to start again, may well have been informed by his experiences in the Revolution. Roy Porter has demonstrated that, in the wake of the Revolution, the British naturalist G. H. Toulmin—who had previously held that destruction was a necessary part of terrestrial change—abandoned his geological pursuits in favor of prose and theology (p.204) (Porter, “Philosophy and Politics of a Geologist: G. H. Toulmin (1754–1817),” Journal of the History of Ideas 39.3 (1978): 435–450).

(8.) Ibid., p. 11.

(10.) See Mona Ozouf, “The Terror after the Terror: An Immediate History” in Baker, The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, Vol. 4, The Terror, pp. 3–18, in which she traces the roots of this debate to the Thermidorean period.

(11.) Sergio Cotta, Why Violence? A Philosophical Interpretation, trans. Giovanni Gullace (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1985); Howard G. Brown, Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007). See also Brown’s lucid article “Domestic State Violence: Repression from the Croquants to the Commune,” Historical Journal 42.3 (1999): 597–622, which applies Cotta’s theories to various French cases.

(13.) See also Anton Blok, who suggests that even “senseless” violence is not entirely irrational. Blok, “The Enigma of Senseless Violence,” in Meanings of Violence: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, ed. Göran Aijmer and Jon Abbink (Oxford: Berg, 2000), pp. 23–38.

(14.) Brian Singer, “Violence in the French Revolution: Forms of Ingestion/Forms of Expulsion,” in The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity, ed. Ferenc Féher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 150–168.

(16.) Le docteur Pangloss et le docteur Martin, ou tout est au mieux dans le meilleur royaume du meilleur des mondes possibles (“Constantinople”: n.p., 1790), p. 9.

(17.) Louis-Marie Prudhomme, Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs, des fautes, et des crimes commis pendant la Révolution française, Vol. 1 (Paris: rue des Marais, Year V [1797]), p. ii.