John Kekes writes Why Robespierre Chose Terror, 'The lessons of the first totalitarian revolution' in City Journal.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Foregoing the usual gory details of the French Revolution, here are a few excerpts from Kekes' essay:
An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a God’s-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.
In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination. Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.
The source of Robespierre’s deepest convictions and of his certainty about them was his unquestioning commitment to an ideology he had largely derived from Rousseau, whom he regarded as “the tutor of the human race.” This ideology led him to believe that politics was an application of morality and that a good government was based on moral principles that ineluctably cause the interests of individuals to become indistinguishable from the general interest. Put another way, uncorrupted human beings intuitively recognize and act in the general interest. Any divergence between individual and general interest indicates the individual’s immorality and irrationality. If any individual fails to see that his true interests are the same as the general interest, he must be forced to act as if he did see it, for his own good.
But who are those uncorrupted human beings who know what is in the general interest? Robespierre answers: “There do exist pure and sensitive souls. There does exist a tender, but imperious and irresistible passion . . . a profound horror of tyranny, a compassionate zeal for the oppressed, a sacred love of one’s country, and a love of humanity still more holy and sublime, without which a great revolution is no more than the destruction of a lesser by a greater crime. There does exist a generous ambition to found on earth the first republic in the world. . . . You can feel it, at this moment, burning in your hearts; I can feel it in my own.” The plain message when the bombast is deflated is that, since the people have been corrupted, they cannot be trusted to know what is good for them, but he, Robespierre, knows, because he is uncorrupted.
And Kekes' concluding paragraph:
Castigating Robespierre more than 200 years after his death would have little point if he were not the prototype of the ideological frame of mind that is very much with us today. If we understand him, we understand that it is utterly useless to appeal to reason and morality in dealing with ideologues. For they are convinced that reason and morality are on their side and that their enemies are irrational and immoral simply because they are enemies. Negotiation with such people can succeed only if we have overwhelming force on our side and have shown ourselves unsqueamish about using it. Justifying its use to the electorate of a democratic country—used to thinking of politics as a process of reasonable negotiation and compromise—must involve showing in sickening detail the monstrosities committed in the name of the ideology. And that is the point of reminding ourselves of the crimes of the long-dead Robespierre.
Aside from the usual totalitarian descendants of Robespierre; Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, the Jihadists, et al., I can't help but view several other present day activities in shades of the same light. Although these others may not have resorted to violent means to their ideological end, they do exhibit some key elements of which Kekes has pointed out. "If we understand him, we understand that it is utterly useless to appeal to reason and morality in dealing with ideologues. For they are convinced that reason and morality are on their side and that their enemies are irrational and immoral simply because they are enemies." The Al Gore led aspect of the environmental movement appears firmly planted in this camp as does much of the Liberal anti-Bush crowd. Even many Federal Courts and their decisions seem to follow personal ideology rather than the Constitution.
But, never mind all that, we have the Christian Theocrats to defend ourselves against.