Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/577

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561
LITERARY NOTICES.

is the old, popular, easy way, which nearly all the English historians have followed until very recent times. In France, Montesquieu was probably the first great writer who saw that the schoolmaster's idea of history, as a series of dates, and the merely literary man's idea of history, like Carlyle's, as a succession of tableaux, were alike insufficient. Burckhardt, in his recent history of the "Italian Renaissance," seized the true idea; to discriminate, namely, the important lines of tendency in the given era, and to group the facts which bear upon each line, whether causally or consequentially. Burckhardt has pushed the method perhaps too far, making his work as much a group of essays as a history. But M. Taine keeps to clearly discriminable phases of the movements which made up the great Revolution; as indicated, for instance, in the book-divisions of these two volumes: I. "Spontaneous Anarchy"; II. "The Constituent Assembly"; III. "The Application of the Constitution"; TV. "The Jacobin Conquest."

We have dwelt thus long upon M. Taine's method because it is a feature which has been appreciated, so far as we know, by none of his critics in America—a country little given to historical studies; and, also, because that method is clearly associated with modern English philosophy. It remains to ask what M. Taine's conclusions are upon a theme which has occupied and baffled so many English historians before him.

As a visible thing the French Revolution began with the dearth of crops in 1788-'89. The "Reign of Terror" included the sixteen months from March, 1793, to July, 1791. The Revolution ended in October, 1795, with the suppression, by Napoleon, of the insurrection of the sections against the Convention. The present narrative includes the events of 1792. Under the old régime, two acres out of every five in France, as Voltaire expressed it, were in the hands of the clergy; and those two acres were generally the best of the five. A half of the peasant's earnings, or more, went to the church, the nobility, and the state. That was the substantial grievance which prepared the way for the Revolution. But other countries have had equally substantial grievances without any subsequent revolution. What, then, determined the Revolution of 1789?

By far the most important second cause, as a determinant, was a single book, Rousseau's "Contrat Social." That book was a triumph of the literary method in social science; it made the worse appear the better reason, and with such lucidity, such fatal persuasiveness, as even France had never known before. In a few words the orators—the mass of the people could not read—had made its principles familiar throughout Fiance. The "Social Contract" defines the modern citizen by "eliminating the differences which distinguish a Frenchman from a Papuan, a modern Englishman from a Briton in the time of Cæsar. The resulting essence is very meager: it is 'a being with a desire to be happy and the faculty of reasoning'"—after Jean Jacques Rousseau. The French agitators consider the nation as composed of twenty-six millions of equal, free, and independent entities of this description, without obligations, institutions, or history; and free at any moment to make a social contract, de novo, of their own. Physical oppression, followed by this intellectual hallucination, disintegrated the most elaborate social structure of modern times. The fabric stood after it had lost the power to sustain itself, awaiting the first chance shock to topple it over. That shock was given by the failure of the crops in 1788, and the consequent half-starvation of the laboring-classes. The Revolution, begun in moderation, went rapidly on to madness; the power fell into the vilest hands. The general course of events is summarized in M. Taine's comparison as follows:

"A workman, overtaxed, in misery and badly fed, takes to drink. After a few years his nervous system, already weakened by spare diet, becomes over-excited, out of balance. An hour comes when the brain, under a sudden stroke, ceases to direct the machine; each limb, acting separately and for itself, starts convulsively. Meanwhile, the man thinks himself a millionaire, or a king; he sings and shouts; he drinks more than ever. At last his face grows dark; radiant visions give way to monstrous phantoms; he sees nothing but menacing figures, murderers ready to cut his throat. Then