Narrative Summary of Critical Miscellanies (Vol. 1 of 3), Essay 1: Robespierre

Overview: This text delves into the life and political career of Maximilien Robespierre, a prominent figure in the French Revolution. It examines his early life and rise to power within the Jacobin Club, emphasizing his role in the tumultuous events leading up to the Reign of Terror. The essay analyzes Robespierre’s philosophical and political beliefs, exploring his relationship with Rousseau and his embrace of the concept of the “Sovereignty of the People.” It scrutinizes his complex interactions with other key figures, including Danton, Marat, and the Girondins. The text then examines the Reign of Terror itself, highlighting Robespierre’s involvement and the factors that led to his own downfall. It provides a nuanced and critical perspective on Robespierre’s actions, arguing that he was more a follower of events than a decisive leader.

Main Parts:

  • Robespierre’s Early Life and Rise to Power: This section covers his childhood, education, and early legal career in Arras. It highlights his early exposure to Rousseau’s philosophy and the impact it had on his views on democracy. The essay then details his involvement in the States-General and the National Assembly, showcasing his growing influence within the Jacobin Club.
  • The Reign of Terror: This section delves into the political climate of France following the fall of the monarchy. It explains the rise of the Committee of Public Safety and Robespierre’s role as a prominent member. The essay examines the power struggles between Robespierre, Danton, and the Girondins, analyzing the factors that led to the execution of Danton. It then explores the origins of the Reign of Terror and Robespierre’s responsibility for the infamous Law of Prairial, which led to an escalation of executions.
  • Robespierre’s Downfall: This section focuses on the events leading to Robespierre’s arrest and execution. It examines the growing tensions between Robespierre and his colleagues, culminating in the dramatic events of the Ninth Thermidor. The essay highlights the power struggles between the Convention, the Commune of Paris, and the Committee of Public Safety, concluding with Robespierre’s fatal attempt to resist his arrest. It ultimately concludes that his downfall was primarily due to his lack of decisive leadership and his inability to unite different factions.

View on Life:

  • Rousseau’s Democratic Idealism: Robespierre deeply embraced Rousseau’s philosophy of “Sovereignty of the People,” believing in the inherent goodness of the common man and the need for a society based on principles of equality and justice. He viewed any attempt to limit the power of the people as a betrayal of these ideals. However, his strict adherence to this philosophy ultimately hindered his ability to adapt to the complexities of real-world politics.
  • Moral Puritanism: Robespierre possessed a strong sense of morality and believed in uncompromising principles. This rigid adherence to his own standards often made him appear hypocritical, as he justified or ignored acts of violence that contradicted his own professed beliefs. His moralistic approach also fueled his suspicion and animosity towards those he perceived as corrupt or immoral.


  • The Fall of the Bastille: This pivotal event marked the beginning of the French Revolution and highlighted the power of the Parisian mob. Robespierre’s early speeches, advocating for the people’s right to revolt, demonstrate his understanding of the role of popular force in the revolutionary movement.
  • The Insurrection of the Tenth of August: The overthrow of the monarchy on August 10, 1792, intensified the revolutionary fervor and set the stage for the Reign of Terror.
  • The Trial and Execution of Louis XVI: This highly controversial event divided the revolutionary factions and highlighted the increasingly radical nature of the revolution.
  • The Purge of the Girondins: The expulsion of the Girondins from the Convention by the Parisian insurgents demonstrated the power of the Jacobins and marked the beginning of their dominance.
  • The Rise and Fall of Danton: Danton’s execution highlighted the ruthlessness of the Terror and the ever-shifting alliances within the revolutionary movement. It also illustrated Robespierre’s willingness to sacrifice even his closest allies in the pursuit of his own political goals.
  • The Feast of the Supreme Being: This elaborate festival, designed to promote a state-sanctioned deism, failed to achieve its intended goal of unifying the nation under a common belief system. It further demonstrated Robespierre’s lack of political acumen and his belief in the power of symbolic gestures.


  • Suppression of the Counter-Revolution: The revolutionary government faced numerous challenges from internal enemies, such as the counter-revolutionary forces in La Vendée and the Girondin factions, as well as external threats from the European coalition.
  • Stabilization of the Republic: The transition from a monarchy to a republic presented numerous challenges. The revolutionary government had to establish new institutions, redefine the roles of government, and create a system of law and order.


  • The Struggle Between the Convention, the Commune, and the Committees: The Revolution was marked by constant power struggles between these three bodies. The Committee of Public Safety, led by Robespierre and Billaud-Varennes, sought to maintain its authority, but faced challenges from both the Convention and the Commune.
  • The Conflict Between Robespierre and Danton: This clash of personalities and political philosophies played a pivotal role in the Reign of Terror. Danton advocated for moderation and a cessation of the Terror, while Robespierre believed in the continued need for revolutionary violence to achieve his goals.


  • The Rise and Fall of the Terrorist Regime: This narrative arc can be seen as the central plot of the essay. It begins with the rise of the Jacobin Club, continues through the emergence of the Committee of Public Safety, and culminates in Robespierre’s downfall and the end of the Reign of Terror. Key milestones include the fall of the Bastille, the insurrection of August 10, the execution of Louis XVI, the execution of Danton, and the events of Thermidor.

Point of View:

  • Historical Analysis: The essay presents a nuanced and critical view of Robespierre’s role in the Revolution. It avoids simplistic portrayals of him as either a saint or a monster, instead seeking to understand his motivations and the complex web of events that shaped his actions.
  • Focus on Political and Philosophical Beliefs: The essay delves deep into Robespierre’s philosophical and political beliefs, highlighting the influence of Rousseau on his thinking and the role of “Sovereignty of the People” in his actions.

How It’s Written:

  • Formal, Academic Tone: The essay is written in a formal, academic style, using precise language and historical references. It employs a clear and objective tone, avoiding emotional or judgmental language.
  • Example from the Text: “The author of the Law of Prairial had forgotten the minatory word of the sage to whom he had gone on a pilgrimage in the days of his youth. ‘All becomes legitimate and even virtuous,’ Helvétius had written, ‘on behalf of the public safety.’ Rousseau inscribed on the margin, ‘The public safety is nothing, unless individuals enjoy security.'” This passage exemplifies the essay’s use of scholarly analysis, drawing on quotations from historical figures to support its arguments.


  • Critical and Objective: The tone of the text is primarily critical and objective. The author examines Robespierre’s actions and beliefs with a discerning eye, avoiding romanticism or demonization. He presents a balanced perspective, acknowledging both Robespierre’s strengths and weaknesses.

Life Choices:

  • Embrace of Violence: Robespierre’s belief in the “Sovereignty of the People” and his commitment to achieving a republic based on equality and justice led him to condone and even support the use of violence to silence opposition and maintain control.
  • Pursuit of Power: While Robespierre claimed to be driven by selfless principles, his actions also suggest a desire for personal power. His pursuit of authority within the Jacobin Club and his attempts to consolidate his position within the revolutionary government demonstrate this ambition.


  • The Dangers of Dogma: Robespierre’s rigid adherence to his own beliefs and his inability to compromise led to his downfall. This highlights the dangers of inflexible ideology and the importance of adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.
  • The Perils of Unchecked Power: The Reign of Terror illustrates the dangers of unchecked power and the potential for even seemingly idealistic movements to devolve into tyranny.


  • Maximilien Robespierre: An austere and morally rigid figure, Robespierre was deeply influenced by Rousseau’s philosophy. He was a skilled orator and a popular figure within the Jacobin Club. However, he lacked the strategic brilliance and emotional intelligence to be an effective leader. He was driven by a desire to create a republic based on equality and justice, but his uncompromising beliefs led him to condone violence and ultimately contributed to his downfall.
  • Georges Danton: A charismatic and bold figure, Danton was known for his powerful speeches and his unwavering commitment to the revolutionary cause. He initially supported the Terror, but later advocated for moderation and a return to order. Danton’s execution illustrated the ruthlessness of the Terror and the ever-shifting alliances within the revolutionary movement.
  • Jean-Paul Marat: A radical journalist and political agitator, Marat was known for his inflammatory writings and his calls for violence against the enemies of the Revolution. He was a strong supporter of the Terror and played a significant role in fueling the public’s thirst for revenge.
  • The Girondins: A faction of moderate revolutionaries, the Girondins were known for their eloquent speeches and their commitment to constitutional government. They were opposed to the Jacobins’ more radical approach to the Revolution and were eventually expelled from the Convention.
  • The Hébertists: A radical faction within the Jacobin Club, the Hébertists advocated for atheism and the complete overthrow of the existing social order. They were eventually overthrown by the Jacobins and executed.


  • The Role of Power and Violence: The text explores the complex relationship between power, violence, and political ideals. It shows how the desire for power can corrupt even seemingly idealistic movements and how violence, while seemingly necessary in the pursuit of revolutionary goals, can ultimately lead to tyranny.
  • The Nature of Revolution: The text examines the dynamics of revolutionary movements, highlighting the clash of ideologies, the rise and fall of factions, and the role of popular force in shaping political change.
  • The Importance of Moral Restraint: Robespierre’s tragic downfall serves as a reminder of the importance of moral restraint and the dangers of unchecked ambition, even in the pursuit of noble ideals.


  • The Sovereignty of the People: This principle, derived from Rousseau’s philosophy, was central to Robespierre’s political ideology. He believed that the people’s will should be paramount and that any attempt to limit their power was illegitimate.
  • The Importance of Virtue: Robespierre believed that a republic could only be successful if it was founded on the principles of virtue and justice. He condemned corruption and self-interest, and he saw himself as a champion of the common good.

Intentions of the Characters in the text or the reader of the text:

  • Robespierre’s Intentions: Robespierre’s intentions are complex and often contradictory. He genuinely believed in the ideals of the Revolution, but his actions also suggest a desire for personal power and an unwillingness to compromise his beliefs.
  • Reader’s Intentions: The reader of this essay is likely seeking to understand the historical significance of Robespierre and the French Revolution. They may be interested in gaining insight into the complexities of revolutionary movements, the nature of political power, and the role of individuals in shaping historical events.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • “The Sovereignty of the People”: This phrase reflects Robespierre’s central belief in the power and legitimacy of the people’s will.
  • “The Terror”: This term refers to the period of extreme violence and repression that occurred in France during the Revolution.
  • “The Law of Prairial”: This infamous law, drafted by Robespierre, abolished all legal protections for individuals and gave the Revolutionary Tribunal unfettered power to convict and execute.
  • “Thermidor”: This refers to the month of July in the French revolutionary calendar and is commonly used to describe the events that led to Robespierre’s downfall.


  • Robespierre’s Love for Birds: The essay mentions Robespierre’s fondness for birds, suggesting a sensitive and sentimental side to his personality. This contrasts with his more rigid and authoritarian public image.
  • Robespierre’s Visit to Rousseau: The essay highlights Robespierre’s pilgrimage to meet Rousseau, showing his early admiration for the philosopher’s ideas on democracy and social justice.
  • Robespierre’s Coldness Towards Danton: The essay details the strained relationship between Robespierre and Danton, demonstrating Robespierre’s suspicion and ultimately his betrayal of his former ally.
  • The Feast of the Supreme Being: This anecdote showcases Robespierre’s attempt to promote a deistic religion as a unifying force for the nation. The failure of the festival highlights his lack of understanding of popular sentiment and his reliance on symbolic gestures.


  • The Power of Popular Force: The essay emphasizes the role of the Parisian mob in driving the Revolution forward, highlighting the importance of popular will in shaping political change.
  • The Importance of Moral Leadership: The essay argues that true leadership requires not only strength and vision but also moral restraint. Robespierre’s downfall serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition and the importance of ethical leadership.

Facts and Findings:

  • The Financial State of France in 1789: The essay details the French monarchy’s immense debt and its inability to manage its finances, highlighting the economic pressures that contributed to the Revolution.
  • The Role of the Committee of Public Safety: The essay explains the Committee of Public Safety’s functions and its role in controlling the revolutionary government.
  • The Law of Prairial: The essay provides a detailed analysis of the Law of Prairial, highlighting its oppressive nature and its role in escalating the Reign of Terror.


  • The Number of People Guillotined: The essay cites statistics on the number of people executed during the Reign of Terror, highlighting the law’s devastating impact.

Points of view:

  • The Jacobin Perspective: The essay explores the Jacobin Club’s role in the Revolution, presenting their views on the need for popular sovereignty and their commitment to achieving a republic based on equality and justice.
  • The Girondin Perspective: The essay contrasts the Jacobin perspective with that of the Girondins, who favored a more moderate approach to the Revolution.
  • The Author’s Perspective: The author offers a nuanced and critical perspective on Robespierre and the Revolution, avoiding simplistic generalizations and seeking to understand the complexities of historical events.


  • Historical Context: The essay provides a comprehensive historical context for understanding Robespierre’s life and actions. It examines the broader forces at play during the French Revolution, such as the economic crisis, the power struggles between different social classes, and the influence of philosophical ideas.
  • Psychological Analysis: The essay explores Robespierre’s personality and motivations, highlighting his moral idealism, his fear of power, and his inability to cope with the demands of leadership.
  • The Nature of Power: The essay delves into the nature of power and the dangers of its misuse. It highlights how the pursuit of power can corrupt even seemingly idealistic individuals and lead to destructive consequences.

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