Robespierre on virtue and terror (1794)


On 18 Floreal (May 7th 1794) Maximilien Robespierre addressed the National Convention, summarised the course of the revolution and explained the relationship between virtue and terror:


“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution and the end toward which we wish to move. It is time to take stock of ourselves, of the obstacles which we still face, and of the means which we ought to adopt to attain our objectives…

What is the goal for which we strive? A peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved, not upon marble or stone but in the hearts of all men. We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings aroused; where ambition is the desire to merit glory and to serve one’s fatherland; where distinctions are born only of equality itself…

Where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice. Where the nation safeguards the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his fatherland. Where all spirits are enlarged by the constant exchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people. Where the arts are the adornment of liberty that ennobles them. And where commerce is the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous opulence for a few families.

In our country we wish to substitute morality for egotism, probity for honour, principles for conventions, duties for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of customs, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, the love of honour for the love of money… that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic, for all the vices and snobbishness of the monarchy.

We wish in a word to fulfil the requirements of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy… that France, hitherto illustrious among slave states, may eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model of all nations… That is our ambition; that is our aim.

What kind of government can realise these marvels? Only a democratic government… But to found and to consolidate among us this democracy, to realise the peaceable rule of constitutional laws, it is necessary to conclude the war of liberty against tyranny and to pass successfully through the storms of revolution. Such is the aim of the revolutionary system which you have set up…

What is the fundamental principle of democratic or popular government – that is to say, the essential mainspring upon which it depends and which makes it function? It is virtue: I mean public virtue… that virtue is nothing else but love of fatherland and its laws…

The splendour of the goal of the French Revolution is simultaneously the source of our strength and of our weakness. Our strength, because it gives us an ascendancy of truth over falsehood and of public rights over private interests. Our weakness, because it rallies against us all vicious men, all those who in their hearts seek to despoil the people… It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them.

Now, in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror… The basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror. Terror without virtue is murderous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice – it flows, then, from virtue.”