Saint-Just’s Illusion – Interpretation and the Powers of Philosophy

Bernard Williams

In the first book that Marx and Engels wrote together, The Holy Family, there is a passage about the Jacobin leader Saint-Just, who was famous not only for the ruthlessness with which he helped to conduct the Terror, but for the intensity with which he urged on the Revolution ideals of civic virtue drawn from the ancient world: his demand, as he expressed it, that revolutionary men should be Romans. ‘There is something tragic,’ Marx and Engels wrote, ‘in Saint-Just’s illusion. On the day of his execution he saw hanging in the Hall of the Conciergerie the great tables of the Rights of Man, and with pride and self-esteem declared: “After all, it was I who did that.” But those tables proclaimed the rights of a man who could no more be the man of ancient society than his national-economic and industrial relationships could be those of antiquity.’

My aim is to start out from Saint-Just’s illusion, and by asking what made it an illusion, to raise a question about the interpretation of ethical political ideas, such as freedom, in different times and circumstances. That will lead us to some thoughts about moral philosophy and what it can do.

The idea which Marx and Engels put in that way, in terms of Saint-Just’s illusion, had been expressed before, notably by Benjamin Constant in his famous lecture twenty-five years earlier on ancient and modern liberty. Constant had claimed that the ancient conception of liberty revered by the Jacobins, a conception centred on notions of public dedication, had been systematically and catastrophically unsuited to a large modern and commercial society. What Marx and Engels called an ‘illusion’ Constant called a ‘mistake’. It was a mistake, very importantly, in several dimensions at once: in historical interpretation, in politics, and in ethical understanding as well.

First, in historical interpretation. We need not agree with Marx and Engels’s specific diagnosis of it to accept the general idea, common to them and to Constant, that the preconditions of political freedom vary with different social formations. Moreover, the extent to which a specifically political freedom can satisfy the need for freedom is itself something that varies with historical conditions. What is necessary for freedom and what is sufficient for it may reasonably and honourably be understood in different terms in different historical circumstances.

It is natural to put the thought like this. But how can we speak in this way of what is necessary or sufficient at different times for this one thing, freedom? What is this item that is differently understood at different times? If, as Constant said, the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns are not the same conception, what is the relation between those conceptions? It is clearly not just a matter of words: the Jacobins and their victims were not trapped by an unfortunate mistranslation from Greek or Latin. Nor is it a change of subject, like that which thirty years ago helped some to believe that if a colonised people became free from the colonisers, that process in itself would make each of its citizens free.

One obvious suggestion is that in order to understand the relations between ancient and modern liberty, we should look to a tradition, a historical narrative, in terms of which the earlier ideal was transmuted into the later. On such an account, it will be this transmutation that Saint-Just overlooked, and it seems he did do so, since he overlooked the world that must have contained it: as he memorably said in his condemnation of Danton, ‘the world has been empty since the Romans.’

A historical account is necessary, and in principle it could be enough. Yet it is hard to believe that these conceptions do not have some more intimate connection with each other than is revealed simply by giving a historical derivation. Indeed, how could the supposed revival of the ancient conception have been announced to modern people, above all by Rousseau, with such electrifying effect if it did not speak to something which in their actual circumstances they wanted under the name of freedom? At the root of both ancient and modern liberty there is one basic or primitive conception of freedom: this is freedom as power, action unimpeded, in particular, by other people. Some thinkers, such as Hobbes and, some of the time, John Stuart Mill, think that this is the conception of freedom, and that it contains all that one knows or needs to know about its value. But this is to identify the seed and the plant, or the rhythm and the dance; it does not get us very far in answering questions, such as that raised by Saint-Just’s illusion or mistake, about freedom as a political value.

As Ronald Dworkin has said, primitive freedom is not in itself a political value at all, perhaps not even a social one. A social value implies a social space in which that value can be intelligibly claimed, and to claim freedom must always involve more than simply claiming power. It is no news to anyone ever that people want the means to do what they want to do. If I make a claim in the name of freedom, then I must do more than say that I want power. I must provide some reason why specifically I should be able to do some certain thing to you, or you should not be able to do some certain thing to me.

The same point may be put in a perhaps less edifying way. There are only two ways of acquiring power, to claim it or to get it by using power you already have. Those two may indeed in many cases come to the same thing: but if they not come to the same thing, and you need, distinctively, to claim it, then you need something to claim it with, other than the power you have, and that must be something that others can understand as an assertion of value or right.

What is true, I believe, is that every conception of freedom as a social or political value is an elaboration in political or social terms of that primitive idea of freedom as power; it involves, for instance, an interpretation at the level of social experience and argument of the frustrations and resentments involved in the obstruction of power. The question of what is involved in what I have too easily called ‘an elaboration’ is of course enormous, and much philosophical and historical work is concerned with that question: work, for instance, on the varying conceptions of oneself as a public or a private person.

But it is not any further detail about this particular case, freedom, that concerns me here. For the present purpose, I want to retain from it three ideas. A value, in this case freedom, can take different social and political expressions at different times, and it is not simply a misunderstanding that refers these to the same value. Historical understanding is necessary to see how this can be so, but there is also an underlying primitive idea of which these social expressions are, as I put it, ‘elaborations’: though I suggested that, in this case at least, the primitive idea was not itself a social value. Last, we have the point that the social requirements in terms of which an expression is viable in one set of historical conditions may make it a disaster in another: that was the nature of Saint-Just’s illusion.

There is at least one other case in which social values that make a claim on people in different forms at different times can be seen as cultural elaborations of a primitive idea or universal set of conditions. This is justice, and the conditions are to be found in the quarrels, aggressions and demands for settlement of which (we may presume) Heracleitus spoke when he said: ‘If it were not for these things, they would not have known the name of justice.’ In this case, however, unlike the case of freedom, the way in which the basic or primitive situation is specified already introduces something that is nearer to being a social value.

The primitive core of the desire for freedom, I suggested, lies in the frustration of our aims by other people; the primitive core of justice lies in such things as a loss that demands recompense, or a good that needs to be shared, and these ideas already introduce the schema of a social value. At this level, it is a highly indeterminate value, and it has of course received a vast range of cultural elaborations. Some of the elaborations have been connected with one another by historical traditions, as in the case of freedom, but it is also true that every society, however exotic it may be from our point of view, and unconnected until modern times with Western history, displays some elaboration of justice, some social structures that must be understood in terms of those primitive demands.

When Constant said that Saint-Just made a mistake, he meant, as I mentioned earlier, not merely a historical but a political mistake; and Constant’s description of the mistake itself offered a political and an ethical argument. The argument is clear enough: the Jacobin policies aimed to make French society into something that no modern society could be, and so they inevitably led to human disaster. There is certainly no conflict between the historical diagnosis, on the one hand, and the political argument, on the other; indeed the argument gets its materials from the historical interpretation. However, the fact that this is so does mean that the political argument is of a rather special kind. The way in which it is special is well brought out by Marx and Engels in their suggestion that Saint-Just’s mistake was not merely a mistake but an illusion.

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