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The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution.

Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

The past few years have seen a bumper crop of writing on what was once a strangely neglected topic--the origins and character of republicanism in eighteenth-century and revolutionary France. Recent standouts in English include Michael Sonenscher's Before the Deluge (2007) and Sans-Culottes (2008), and Andrew Jainchill's Reimagining Politics After the Terror (2009). But for sheer ambition and verve, there is nothing quite like Dan Edelstein's The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution. Offering no less than a new explanation for the Reign of Terror, Edelstein brings to his enterprise a heady combination of disciplinary proficiencies and theoretical tools--alternately wearing "the hats," as he puts it, of "cultural historian, literary scholar, social scientist, and political theorist" while analyzing historical narratives in the manner of White and decoding political "myths" a la Barthes. Not every reader will be convinced that the "enduring mystery" of the Terror has been put to rest by The Terror of Natural Right. Still, Edelstein's dazzling display of historical imagination and energy is certain to unsettle all conventional understandings of the origins and meaning of Jacobinism.

Edelstein starts The Terror of Natural Right by announcing the discovery of a new species of republicanism, distinct from the neo-classical variants that John Pocock famously observed in Renaissance Italy, seventeenth-century England, and eighteenth-century North America. Rather than any classical model, the "natural republicanism" of the Jacobins was founded on modern theories of "natural right"--above all, the right permanently to dispose of anyone deemed an "enemy of the human race." That category had a long history behind it, mingling fear of the devil with loathing of all manner of "outlaws," from pirates, brigands, and bandits to tyrants. In the age of revolutions, however, now backed by the philosophical resources of Enlightenment naturalism, the idea of a hostis humani generis had it in it to provide a license for political murder on an unprecedented scale--in France, at any rate. The absence of any comparable episode of political terror in the American Revolution is a preoccupation throughout The Terror of Natural Right. What made the difference? Edelstein is not the first to point the finger at philosophic culprits. But what distinguishes his "secret history of natural republicanism"--to which the first part of The Terror of Natural Right is devoted--is the extraordinary breadth of the dragnet, which omits scarcely a leading figure of eighteenth-century French thought. There is no surprise in encountering Fenelon, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Mably, all purveyors of "imaginary republics" of one kind of another. But the ancestors of Robespierre and Saint-Just also include a host of more far-flung visionaries, evoking "gold ages" in the past, insular paradises abroad, or scientific utopias to come--Voltaire, Diderot, even the Physiocrats. All of these, in Edelstein's view, contributed something to the natural-republican "sensibility" that crystallized in the thought of Sylvain Marechal, a far more accurate bellwether of revolutionary republicanism than, say, Paine or Condorcet.

The origines lointaines of "natural republicanism" thus established, Edelstein turns in the second part of the book to its revolutionary career, focusing on the Reign of Terror above all. He canvasses the traditional explanations for the latter--popular violence from below, the struggle of elites from above, the pressure of counterrevolution from without--and finds them all insufficient to account for the killing spree with which the First Republic began its life. The necessary condition of possibility for the Terror, Edelstein argues, was the trial of Louis XVI, who was executed by a Convention invoking its natural right to rid the world of a hostis humani generis. All that remained was for the Jacobins, once in power, to extend exactly the same treatment the rest of the enemies of the First Republic. Only this can explain why the Jacobin response to resistance was "always death" (179). Indiscriminate killing was of course not the sole expression of actually existing "natural republicanism." Edelstein moves on to a fascinating analysis of the notorious "suspension" of the Constitution of 1793, which in his view was no mere expedient, but as fully an expression of Jacobin faith in a natural "republic-to-come" as was the Terror itself. But The Terror of Natural Right concludes by returning to the Terror, whose baleful legacies include not just the monstrous record of "totalitarian justice" in the twentieth century, but, already in the twenty-first, the Bush Administration's recourse to the category of hostis humani generis in its post-9/11 "war on terror." In the face of the recurrent temptation to judicial murder by modern rulers, Edelstein recommends the "lesser constitutional--and perhaps human--evil" of judicial "escape valves," on the model of the famous "Suspension Clause" of the Constitution of 1787, which later proved crucial to Lincoln's defense of the Union during the Civil War. After all, Edelstein concludes, it was Robespierre himself who warned that it was "much more dangerous to wage war with the law, not the sword, in hand." (274-5).

It has been some time since Jacobinsim has received this kind of attention in English--certainly since Patrice Higonnet's Goodness Beyond Virtue (1998), to whose attempt at post-Revisionist rehabilitation The Terror of Natural Right might be seen as a kind of delayed rejoinder. So lively and provocative a book is bound to gain a wide readership. The obvious starting point for critical appraisal is with the notion of "natural right" itself. A footnote early in the text warns the reader that Edelstein will be casting his net very widely indeed in this regard: "Throughout this book, I use the expression 'natural right' (without the definite article) to refer to the corpus and theory of both natural laws and rights" (15). In fact, what is striking about his presentation of "natural republicanism" is how very little it owed to either of these great traditions of thought. Again and again, Edelstein is obliged to note the distance that separated the Jacobins not just from the "laws of nature" as they were understood by Aristotle or Aquinas, but even, or especially, from modern natural rights theories, from Grotius onwards. As Edelstein tells it, far from making any important use of the conceptual instruments of rights theories, the Jacobins explicitly repudiated their very centerpiece, the idea of a consensual "contract" as a means of legitimizing political authority. Indeed, one of the great surprises of The Terror of Natural Right is Edelstein's insistence, in defiance of very widespread assumptions, that Robespierre and Saint-Just had very little in common with Jean-Jacques Rousseau--who, after all, was the greatest theorist of "natural right" in the French tradition. Actually, much the same can be said of the relation of the Jacobins to earlier republican thinking as well. Against the grain of a good deal of recent argumentation, Edelstein draws a sharp distinction between the "classical" republicanism of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Mably, and the "natural" outlook of Robespierre and Saint-Just, who appear to have had no time at all for the fine-grained analysis of constitutional design that was common to the thought of the former trio. "Virtue" itself, conventionally seen as the master-concept of the republican tradition, is sharply downgraded, in favor of "nature."

Surprisingly enough, the upshot of Edelstein's account of the "natural republicanism" is thus to demonstrate its isolation from both of the vanguard currents of political thought in the eighteenth century, natural rights theory and republicanism, classical or otherwise. There is no doubt about the Jacobins' embrace of naturalism (perhaps a more accurate term than "natural right'")--though their equally fierce attachment to the genuinely novel notion of "revolution" itself is curiously sidelined in The Terror of Natural Right. But Edelstein's own argument suggests that Jacobin appeal to "nature," far from being the climax of a long process of development, was closer to an act of intellectual and political desperation, a swerving away from the familiar signposts of political thought of the epoch. What, then, of the supposed ferocity of "natural republicanism" a la francaise? Hitler, Stalin, and the younger Bush can be set aside--only the contemporary comparison with the American Revolution has much historical traction here. Two responses suggest themselves. First, there is surely a touch of melodrama in the claim, repeated frequently in Terror of Natural Right, that the punishment for "enemies of the human race" was "always death" (see also 133, 141). In fact, for every person guillotined during the Reign of Terror, around thirty were imprisoned, most for short periods of time. Secondly, and more importantly, a full tally of what we might term (adapting the title of the book by Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein) "the cost of natural rights" obviously cannot confine itself to judicial killing alone. For the "natural right" that was most clamorously invoked during the half century of revolution that began in 1776 was not the millennial privilege of dealing death to one's enemies, but of course the right to "private property" Property, not self-defense, was the central token of natural rights theory after Grotius, the quintessential object of philosophizing and fighting alike in this epoch. But it is all but invisible in The Terror of Natural Right, reduced to a single fleeting reference. Is it necessary to add that the property whose possession was secured by the American Revolution included some 700,000 human beings? Or that the Constitution of 1787, far from offering any "escape valves" in this respect, bestowed another seventy years of life on chattel slavery in North America, before it ended in an episode of mass butchery as awful as anything produced by the French Revolution? The American Republic was indeed spared the lurid spectacle of public beheadings at its birth. But "natural right" had its terrors there as well.

Johnson Kent Wright

Arizona State University
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Author:Wright, Johnson Kent
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:1630
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