November 30, 2010

Dumas's Revolution

One of the reasons that I find the Count of Monte Cristo fascinating is its context. Villefort, the corrupt lawyer at the centre of the book, expresses an analysis of the French Revolution which is precise and fascinating in the light of today. He compares Robespierre and Napoleon thus:

The only difference consists in the opposite character of the equality advocated by these two men: one is the equality that elevates, the other is the equality that degrades; one brings a King in reach of the guillotine, the other elevates the people to a level with the throne. Observe... I do not mean to deny that both men were revolutionary scoundrels, and that the 9th Thermidor and 4th of April in the year 1814 were lucky days for France.
Pause there and consider what Villefort says because what he does is express a classical doctrine which has some interest. The French lawyer discusses the roles of Napoleon Bonaparte and Robespierre: he suggests to us that both were advocates of equality. Robespierre took down a King to the level of a criminal and had Louis executed by the Guillotine. That is easy enough to understand. His words about Napoleon though are more confusing, how did Napoleon elevate the people to a level with the throne. Unbundle those words and they become the signature of plebiscitory dictatorship: the reason Bonaparte did that is that his acclamation as Emperor depended upon them. They were elevated to a throne because they created his new title.

This perception on the part of Villefort of the two alternatives- Democracy and Tyranny- comes from a third perspective. Villefort is speaking here as a royalist, to other royalists. Implicit in his remarks therefore is that he likes neither alternative: both are signatures of equality and he seeks to reduce Napoleonic monarchy to Robespierran democracy. Equality though in Villefort's eyes is here opposite: I think what he means here is that Robespierre's equality is a means to execution, whereas Bonaparte's is a means to dictatorship. I think its fascinating to watch Villefort upon this dilemma both because of the interest of what he says and because it exposes how vulnerable he and we are to words. His stress on the difference between the two forms of government is lost in his stress on the same word- equality- that he uses to describe them. It reveals his argument is too clever: interestingly none of his interlocutors understand what he means. Perhaps that shows their stupidity, perhaps it demonstrates that Villefort's cleverness is really sophistry.


James Higham said...

In neither case was the good of the people any more than rhetoric. The French Revolution was the substitution of one master by an inferior version - at least Napoleon was quite a general.

Gracchi said...

The judgement of what is rhetoric and what isn't, I'll allow to more experienced judges than myself. I see no reason to doubt the sincerity of the revolutionaries- I think they were wrong in some of the ways that they acted but I don't see any reason to doubt that they believed they were right.