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“The French Revolution” by Thomas Carlyle

by Annie Kapur 2 years ago in literature

First Impressions (Pt.5)

The various texts that are available on the French Revolution are very informative, but few are as close to a first-hand experience as Thomas Carlyle’s account of Edmund Burke’s Reflections. Within my readings of Thomas Carlyle’s “French Revolution” I have found a number of new philosophical questions that I had not before considered when reading it in parts previously. These philosophical questions include not only the main existential crises of life and death, memory and existence - but they also include the question of worth, requirement for living standards and the question of whether the new and changing world really needs feudalism. The royalist argument that spans quite a majority of the text seems to be focused on their requirement, their greed and the way in which their systems are in place to oppress the poor. There is a massive section purely on the aristocratic conspiracy to keep the poor fighting each other instead of fighting them and it is clear that through the storming of the Bastille that this is not working. The analysis of the newspapers during this time seem to change as well, through the death of Louis XV we get the aristocratic opinion and yet, after the storming of the Bastille the newspapers turn more towards those by Jean Paul Marat.

The first aspect is Paris as a city and France as a country with a population of people. In the majority of cases, Thomas Carlyle writes of France and Paris containing the greater number of the three populations: clergy, aristocrat and common man - the greatest being the common man. This means that in most places where Paris and France are personified, Thomas Carlyle seems to be talking as if they are a people and not necessarily a place. This is also true of the opposite. When Thomas Carlyle speaks of the richer of France, he normally refers to them as ‘aristocrat’ or simply ‘the rich’ thus taking away their status of French amongst the people of France and reducing the importance of the upper class in the country. He states:

In such circumstances, the Aristocrat, the unpatriotic rich man is packing up for departure.” (p.150)

The way in which Thomas Carlyle suggests that the collective aristocracy (by using the capital for ‘aristocrat’) is unpatriotic is done by referring to them as a completely separate entity to the actual people of Paris and France. Whereas, it is the opposite concern when it comes to the common man, woman and child of Paris:

“…the July twilight thicken(s); so must Paris, as sick children, and all distracted creatures do, brawl itself finally into a kind of sleep.” (p.163)

Paris is not only relative to the common man, but is also relative to the sick child and the animals that live there. This not only shows the reader what the real collective Paris and France actually contain, but it also diminishes the importance of the rich and upper classes more than the previous quotation on their unpatriotic actions.

The second aspect I noticed was that the royals are also separate from the richer classes and from the rest of France, mostly being referred to as ‘Royalty’ and so, making them a completely separate entity and showing the reader in fact, how divided France actually is. The royals are lumped together in one collective, as are the aristocrats who are conspiring against the poor and then we have ‘France’ and ‘Paris’ as a people, not a place. The people of Paris and France obviously have more favour over the other two. In the instance where the people of the city and country come to revolt, it is seen that ‘Royalty’ are unprepared and therefore, not as knowledgeable of life on the outside of their own bubble as they would’ve hoped:

“The plan of Royalty so far as it can be said to have any fixed plan, is still, as ever, that of flying towards the frontiers…” (p.327)

The royal class is not only unprepared but their plans are normally shaded so much in routine that even its own people have found a way around it. Whereas the royals are predictable in their approaches, the aristocrats are often machiavellian towards the poor, scheming and committing illegal acts in order to keep a separate society as much as physically possible:

“Is it Aristocrats secretly bribing? Aristocrats were capable of that. Only six months since, did not evidence get afloat that subterranean Paris - for we stand over quarries and catacombs, dangerously, as it were midway between Heaven and the Abyss, and are hollow underground - was charged with gunpowder which should make us ‘leap’?” (p.277)

It is clear from here that there is a plan from the aristocrats to get rid of the poor or silence the poor whilst the riots are starting and the revolution is on the way. Similar language is used to show the way in which the aristocrats keep things in order in Paris and France under the monarchy. It is the aristocrats that have jobs such as lawyers, guards etc. The quotation shows us the similarities and makes the reader aware of the fact that the aristocrats must keep royals in power in order to hold their social position. They know that the poor do not respect them and thus, the only way to maintain power is by force through the King:

“Here, as in that Commixture of the Four Elements did the Anarch Old, has an august Assembly spread its pavilion; curtained by the dark infinite of discords; founded on the wavering bottomless of the Abyss; and keeps continual hubbub…” (p.321)

Thirdly, there are a number of arguments relative to the collective aspect of France and Paris. These come mainly as strengths, powers and most importantly, majorities. It is the fact that there is a majority that the King and his men relent. However, it is also because of this same majority that we are introduced to the reign of terror from Robespierre. The first aspect in which the reader thinks about this is within the argument of transcendentalism that is presented by Carlyle as one of the main features of the philosophical realm of the revolution. He goes on to state that “The Beginning holds in it The End” (p.314) and most probably, that is a foreshadowing upon the reigns of Robespierre and others who took the revolution into their own hands. It is followed by these strange statements towards the revolution that make the reader question how pleasant it was for all of the estates involved. It is most obviously not supposed to be pleasant for the first two, but for the last one - it is liberation. The truth is, for the last one, it normally involved death and violence as well:

“The spirit of France waxes ever more acrid, fever-sick; towards the final outburst of dissolution and delirium. Suspicion rules all minds…” (p.338)

It is clear that as the revolution is expanding, so are the suspicions amongst individuals that have a certain post in the revolution. We see people not only turn against each other, but we also see that there are a number of public figures that are being watched carefully for any movement out of the revolutionary line. This is obviously thanks to the leaders of the revolution themselves, but it does show that the war will one day collapse in on itself through its leaders’ hypocrisy.

One more thing I noticed is the religious side that Carlyle takes upon this. Carlyle often makes these side comments about the Bible, allusions to the stories and often some philosophies on religion. But some of them are quotations that are there to make the reader question - even if it is existentially - what is worth living and dying for and what is worth believing in and not believing in when it comes to the revolution:

“He is without Heaven above him, or Hell beneath him; he has no God in the world.” (p.125).

This not only refers to the ‘exasperated France’ (p.127) with contempt for the employment amongst the legal system and government, but it also gives the reader an insight into the way in which Carlyle uses religion to form a basis for character. Most obviously a quotation from someone else referring to Jacques Necker, Carlyle goes on to say how machiavellian the ‘pretence-of-belief’ (p.125) is. This is mainly because the comment and the machiavellian aspect of the belief system are opposing sides of the same argument. The question is really whether the pretence worked if someone has made this comment. It is only with the death of Mirabeau that we are given a reason for the contradictory comments. The old France moving to the new is much like the way in which Mirabeau himself was a split human being - two faced towards the revolution:

“New Mirabeaus one heard not of: the wild kindred, as we said, is gone out with this its greatest. As families and kindreds sometimes do; producing, after long ages of untold notability, some living quintessence of all the qualities they had, to flame-forth as a man world-noted; after whom they rest as if exhausted; the sceptre passing to others. The chosen Last of the Mirabeaus is gone; the chosen man of France is gone. It was he who shook old France from its basis, and, as if with his single hand, had held it toppling there, still unfallen.” (p.348)

This quotation definitely shows the two-sided nature to Mirabeau, but in a softer light that referring to his religious values as a machiavellian pretence, alongside the King of France’s. In this, the reader sees the ‘old France’ as being changed by Mirabeau and, just as he is being found out as a possible traitor to the revolution, he dies and leaves the revolution as it is - stronger than ever. It is as if the anger towards Mirabeau himself as the prime revolutionary and the traitor to the revolution has both angered the revolutionary side and motivated them to now act upon their own behalf and not trust in a political figure that once belonged to another class and another time. It is suggested that the death of Mirabeau is actually the turning point for the country and the beginning of Modern France altogether.

In conclusion, my first impressions of this book have been mostly to do with the outbreak of the revolution more so than the undertaking. It is well known how the revolution went in terms of years, events and political figures - but in terms of the undertaking and what initially began it all, this book gives me a new insight and has changed my opinion slightly on the political values of each estate separately. Carlyle writes heavily about the philosophical retributions and the religious trials of the revolution which, unlike informative books today, keep the reader in the sphere of the time. It is both informative and entertaining, but most importantly - it is a very close first-hand account of one of the biggest wars in Western History.


Carlyle, T (2019). The French Revolution. UK: Oxford World's Classics.


Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

125K+ Reads on Vocal

IG: @AnnieApproximately

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