Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Rousseau and The Regicide of 1793

Execution of Louis XVI
Albert Camus, in The Rebel (Chapter: “The Regicides”), says that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract served the purpose of legitimizing the regicides, including that of Louis XVI in 1793. He notes that The Social Contract presents a magnified view of a new religion whose god is reason, confused with Nature, and whose representative on earth, in place of the king, is the people considered as an expression of the general will.

Rousseau attacks the traditional political system which was based on the divine rights of the king and dogmatically demonstrates that the privileges of the royalty are an outcome of the pact between the people and the king and therefore the general will has precedence. Camus says, “Until Rousseau’s time, God created kings who, in their turn, created peoples. After The Social Contract peoples create themselves, before creating kings. As for God, there is nothing more to be said for the time being. Here we have, in the political field, the equivalent of Newton’s revolution. Power, therefore, is no longer arbitrary, but derives its existence from general consent.”

By substituting the will of god himself with the will of the people, Rousseau deprived Louis XVI of his power, made him appear as a violator of the general will. The enemies of the monarchy were able to use his arguments to make the case that that Louis XVI has committed the ultimate crime of violating the general will and he must pay the ultimate price. Camus says that Rousseau gave rise to a new god, the will of the people, which is an expression of the eternal truth, and it is for this reason that the words like “absolute,” “sacred,” and, “inviolable,” are found very often in The Social Contract.

The French Revolutionary Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, who was elected as a deputy to the National Convention in 1792, spearheaded the campaign to execute Louis XVI. He was inspired by Rousseau's arguments in The Social Contract. In his famous speech, he argued that the royalty is a manifestation of the eternal crime of violating the general will of the people and every trace of it must be destroyed. Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay:
Saint-Just, therefore, postulates that every king is a rebel or a usurper. He is a rebel against the people whose absolute sovereignty he usurps. Monarchy is not a king, ‘it is crime’. Not a crime, but crime itself, says Saint-Just; in other words, absolute desecration. That is the precise, and at the same time, ultimate meaning of Saint-Just’s remark the import of which has been stretched too far*: ‘No one can rule innocently.’ Every king is guilty, because any man who wants to be king is automatically on the side of death. Saint-Just says exactly the same thing when he proceeds to demonstrate that the sovereignty of the people is a ‘sacred matter’. Citizens are inviolable and sacred and can only be constrained by the law which is an expression of their common will. Louis himself does not benefit by this particular inviolability or by the assistance of the law, for he is placed outside the contract. He is not part of the general will; on the contrary, by his very existence he is a blasphemer against this all-powerful will. He is not a ‘citizen’ which is the only way of participating in the new divine dispensation. ‘What is a king in comparison to a Frenchman?’ Therefore, he should be judged and no more than that. 
By taking advantage of the ideas invented by Rousseau, Saint-Just successfully charged the king with the crime of tyranny. He argued that the general will can forgive any crime, but not the crime of tyranny because such a crime is against the ultimate nature of things. With such arguments, Saint-Just blocked every egress for the king, except the one that led to the guillotine where the king met his fate on 21 January, 1793.

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