I am frequently asked to recommend the best book on ancient history or moral philosophy or the French Revolution, and, since I do not believe there is one best book on anything, I usually content myself with saying what not to read: Do not read Donald Kagan or Paul Rahe on the ancients; and do not read Martha Nussbaum or Mortimer Adler on anything.  With that caveat issued, a few cautious recommendations of a number of books might be made, accompanied by the warning that each of the writers has his biases and flaws.  Above all, readers should go to books written in the period that interests them—the historians, naturally, but also the poets and dramatists.  Do not rely on the synthesizers, even if they are great minds such as Arnold Toynbee rather than fat wallets such as Mortimer Adler.

The case of the French Revolution is very hard.  There are, of course, excellent monographs on the revolutionary army or the economy or the political infighting among revolutionary factions in Paris, written by such solid historians as Richard Cobb, George Lefebvre, Norman Hampson, and Alfred Soboul, among many others, but there is, in fact, no one good comprehensive book that reveals the full extent of the evil.  Most of the great older historians were, after all, liberals who wanted either to put the best face on the entire project or, at least, to prove that the excesses of the Terror did not stem from the principles of 1789.  Dickens and Carlyle both embraced the pleasing fantasy that it was the best of times and the worst of times, when it was, in fact, only the worst of times.  Among books in English, Sir Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, despite its many factual errors and partial judgments, offers the most sound conservative view of the Revolution, and it is a disgrace that, when so many liberal books are being reprinted, no foundation has devoted the resources to publishing an annotated and corrected edition of Scott.  Of books in French, the writings of Augustin Cochin are perhaps the most profound, but they are untranslated and out of print.

Conservatives, thus, have to settle for books written by honest and well-intentioned liberals.  Hilaire Belloc somewhere remarks that it was the posthumous fate of Charles I to have had no history written in his defense.  The earl of Clarendon, so often taken for a loyal supporter of the monarchy, was, in the beginning, a parliamentarian converted only reluctantly to the royalist cause, and whatever Stuart sympathies he might have had were alienated by Charles II’s ingratitude to himself and by James II’s seduction of his daughter.  When the moderate Clarendon is taken as an extreme loyalist, the effect is to make rabid anti-Stuart propaganda appear balanced and moderate.

There are few good conservative books on the Revolution; Belloc himself was quite mad on the subject and infected Chesterton with a high regard for Robes-pierre, who was, in addition to being a vindictive mass murderer, a contemptible pettifogger.

Of English liberal books on the Revolution, Lord Acton’s lectures are among the best: Sober, painstaking, honest, and coherent, they cover most of the important political movements and figures.  As a political interpreter, Acton is always judicious, hardly ever letting his admittedly aristocratic prejudices cloud his judgment.  If anything, it is his classical liberal philosophy that proves to be excess baggage.  As a Catholic, he once observed of himself, he was a good liberal, and his failure to grasp the full spiritual and social significance of the Revolution is manifest in his decision to concentrate on the power struggle in Paris at the expense of the social revolution, the war of the center against the countryside, and the campaign to destroy not only the Catholic Church but Catholics themselves.  

No time spent reading Acton can be wasted.  His limitations were those of his time and his liberal creed; his very real merits—his industrious reading and analysis of original documents, his balanced temperament, his ability to synthesize details into a coherent narrative—were his own.  The Liberty Fund and Stephen Tonsor (who has contributed a useful introduction) are both owed a debt of gratitude for bringing these lectures into print.

Of the French historians who have devoted themselves to the Revolution, none is completely satisfactory.  François Furet, who, in recent years, put revolutionary history back on the course of honesty and sanity, was a communist-turned-social-democrat, with little sympathy for the Church or for the dispossessed aristocrats.  The weakest parts of his great book on the revolutionary tradition, Revolutionary France, 1770-1880, are those devoted to the counterrevolutionary conservatives—though Furet is wise enough to crib enough quotations from Chateaubriand to enliven his otherwise uninspiring prose.  Charmless in style, Furet was a true academic historian with no gift for narrative.  He remains, nonetheless, a giant, and the circle of historians with whom he is associated, such as Mona Ozouf, are carrying on his initiative with great success.

It is Mona Ozouf, in fact, whose article on Hippolyte Taine has been borrowed to serve as the introduction to Liberty Press’s three-volume edition of Taine’s The French Revolution.  Best known as a literary critic and historian, Taine was a moderate constitutionalist in the tradition of Guizot.  As suspicious of popular despotism as was Alexis de Tocqueville (whose Ancien Régime may be a more important book than Democracy in America), the liberal Taine had much in common with the disgruntled English liberals who were his contemporaries, Fitzjames Stephen and Henry Sumner Maine.  Like them, he understood that authentic political liberty could only be secured in a nation that preserved its tradition of social order and shrunk from the diabolical abstractions of equality and fraternity.

Taine was best known as a literary critic, a disciple of Saint-Beuve, who admired the energy and spontaneity of Musset.  He was shaken to the core, however, by France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and by the insanity of the Paris commune.  He determined on writing what he hoped would be an objective account of France’s progress from the ancien régime to the France of his own day.  This was the genesis of the three-part plan of his Origines de la France Contemporaine.  A diabetic before the age of insulin, he lived to finish only the first two parts, the second of which (in three volumes) is devoted to the Revolution.  

Despite the somewhat mechanical rigor of his mind, Taine had a gift for the telling detail and for imaginative description, and, although some historians have complained that he piles anecdote upon anecdote, he understood very well that, in the case of the Revolution, the devil was truly in the details.  Reading his description of the September massacres, the grisly details of which I was previously familiar, I had to get up out of my chair and pace the floor, so disturbing was the cumulative force of the stories.  

To Taine’s great credit, he was not taken in by the myth of two revolutions: the British-style reformist revolution of 1789, followed by the Jacobin Terror caused by a few bad men who betrayed the spirit of 1789.  This pernicious myth—like the myth of the good Kerensky in 1917 or of England’s Glorious Revolution—blinds us to the realities of our own times, when socialists and Trotskyists complain that 60’s radicals betrayed the dream.  Trotsky was as foul as Stalin; Kerensky, a Marxist (albeit a gradualist); and the troublemakers of 1789—the followers of Sieyès, Mirabeau, Lafayette, Orléans—a set of plotters, free-masons, and rascals.  

Although, as Mona Ozouf points out, Taine’s view of the Revolution was soon rejected, it hit French intellectuals like a blockbuster.  Even in 1912, Irving Babbitt, who thoroughly disliked Taine for his critical philosophy, felt the aftershocks.  “It is hardly likely,” wrote Babbitt in his great work on French criticism,

that what one may term the legend of the Revolution will ever recover from the somber and concentrated energy of his attack.  It will not be easy for the Hugos and Michelets of the future to grow rhapsodic over the “giants of ’93.”

The neoclassical Babbitt naturally rejected Taine’s attempt to link the ruthlessly logical terrorists with the “classical tradition,” but he was (as Babbitt usually was) one-sided in his criticism.  It is precisely the formalist tradition of Descartes and the facile pseudoclassicism of Voltaire that prepared the minds of the Jacobin club.

Conservatives of every age would find much to object to in Taine’s philosophy, but one of the greatest of French conservatives, Maurice Barrès, inserts a wonderful portrait of the aging critic into his novel Les déracinés.  The courtly old man goes to visit a young admirer from Lorraine and takes him on a walk to Les Invalides (where Napoleon is buried), where he shows him a great plane tree, which he describes in beautiful detail, intimating (I am oversimplifying) that the organic interrelationship of parts is a better model for the young man and his provincial friends in Paris than the rootless individualism taught by the liberals.  

See what pure health it is in.  There is no predominance in its trunk, its branches, its leaves.  It is a rustling federation.  It is its own law, and it flourishes. . . . What a good lesson for rhetoric, and not only for the art of literate people but also what a guide for thinking.

For Barrès, Hippolyte Taine offered confirmation of his own provincialism, his attachment to the roots of his family and history in Lorraine; he also represented an alternative to the sterile rationality of all internationalisms.  The French Revolution was, among other things, a war of the center against the provinces, just as it was a war for an abstract international ideal of liberty, equality, and fraternity (identified by the Jacobins with France itself) that would destroy the real France.  As Furet understood, that revolutionary war has continued, breaking out in Russia in 1917, in the United States during the spasmodic episodes of the 1930’s, the 60’s, and in the current call for a global order of peace, justice, and democracy that will eradicate evil.  Robespierre, it seems, has the last laugh.


[The French Revolution, by Hippolyte Taine (Indianapolis: Liberty Press) 3 vols., $60.00]

[Lectures on the French Revolution, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Indianapolis: Liberty Press) 342 pp., $21.00]