A Very Different French Revolution

Musée Carnavalet, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘The Tennis Court Oath, 1789’; oil sketch by Jacques-Louis David

Did a secret society bring about the French Revolution? In the classic fictional version of this widely believed conspiracy theory, Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo, a Masonic society known as the Illuminati gather in a ruined castle in 1770 and plot the overthrow of the French monarchy. Their leader, called the “Great Copt,” speaks of the day when “the monarchy is dead…religious domination is despised…social inferiority is extinguished.”

Dumas would have found a great deal to appreciate in Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas. Israel, a much-respected professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, does not present the French Revolution of 1789 as the result of a literal conspiracy. But he repeatedly characterizes it as the work of a “small minority” or “unrepresentative fringe” of disaffected Frenchmen who, in his view, consciously and deliberately sought to bring about the greatest political upheaval the Western world had ever seen. Israel does not contend that they belonged to a secret society. But he does argue that they shared a common creed, which they acted deliberately to realize. It is very much the same creed outlined by the Great Copt, although Israel would add sexual and racial inequality to the list of injustices his heroes sought to overthrow.

Israel makes this case in one of the most unusual histories of the French Revolution ever written. He calls it an “intellectual history,” but by this he does not mean that he has restricted himself to one part of the subject, and left the political, social, economic, and cultural histories of the Revolution to others. He means that only ideas matter for understanding how the Revolution came about, and what course it took. A particular set of ideas was its “sole fundamental cause,” and conflicts over these ideas drove it forward.

As a result, despite its great length, Revolutionary Ideas has surprisingly little to say about the most famous revolutionary events. The fall of the Bastille in July 1789, to which writers like Jules Michelet and Thomas Carlyle devoted many brilliant pages, flies by in two terse paragraphs. The “October Days” of 1789, in which angry Parisian crowds, led by market women, marched on the royal palace of Versailles, invaded Queen Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom, and forced King Louis XVI and the royal family to return to Paris with them, gets the same. The dramatic execution in January 1793 of King Louis, who just four years earlier had claimed a divine right to rule over France as its absolute monarch, is dispatched in two sentences.

Personalities also get short shrift. Previous historians and biographers have speculated endlessly about the psychology of the prim, tightly coiled Maximilien Robespierre, the fanatical Jean-Paul Marat, or the erratic, vainglorious Georges Danton, going back over their childhoods, inquiring into their sex lives, combing their…

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