Danton

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 at 10:19 PM

"The Story of Civilization" Volume XI, "The Age of Napoleon", "As a leader he sacrificed everything to the end of preserving the Revolution from foreign attack and internal chaos. For these purposes he was willing to cooperate with anyone-- with Robespierre, Marat, the King, the Girondins, but Robespierre envied him, Marat denounced him, the King distrusted him, the Girondins were alarmed by his face and his voice, and shivered under his scorn. None of them could make him out, he organized war and negotiated for peace, he roared like a lion and talked of mercy, he fought for the Revolution and helped some royalists escape France."

""The tocsin we shall sound is not the alarm signal of danger; it orders the charge on the enemies of France. To conquer we have to dare, to dare again, always to dare-and France is saved! (De l'audace, encore de l'audace, tojours l'audace-et la France est sauvee!"

So spoke Danton in one of the most historic speeches in the history of France. When the rest of France was cowed in sudden apprehension and fear at the news that the Monarchies of Europe were united and invading France to defend traditional forms of rule, Danton roared like a lion and inspired France to continue fighting.

Danton loved wine, and women, he took bribes happily when they came his way. He helped refugees escape the guillotine and imprisonment during the Revolution. He was totally corrupt and completely incorruptible. Always loyal to the Revolution, he was contemptuous of and indifferent to its extremes and aware of its faults. No doubt he felt justified in taking bribes to save refugees to pay him for the danger it put him in. Yet there is little doubt that mercy as well as greed motivated him in doing so.

"Even so he continued to alienate the Committee by advocating mercy and peace--policies requiring the members to repudiate the Terror that had preserved them and the war that had excused their dictatorship. He urged an end to the killing; "Let us," he said, "leave something to the guillotine of opinion." He still planned educational projects and judiciary reforms. And he remained defiant. Someone told him that Robespierre planned his arrest; "If I thought he ahd even the idea of it," he answered, "I would eat his heart out.""

Only this entirely human man had the humanity and the manhood to lead the opposition to the Terror. In his end, Robespierre sent him to the guillotine. Then Robespierre made a speech saying that he had a list of traitors who would follow Danton to the Guillotine. Realizing that if a man like Danton could be sent to the Guillotine, no one was safe, the Convention sent Robespierre to the Guillotine and the Terror came to an end.

There is an excellent movie about these events aptly titled "Danton" with Gerard dePardieu in the title role. It is an excellent movie and dePardieu is one of my favorite French actors. I recommend it.

Men like Danton provide a problem to the political philosopher. Confucius said, raise up the straight and set aside the crooked and men will strive to be straight and avoid being crooked. Danton was 'crooked' in the sense of being open to bribes to do what he felt like doing anyway. He loved wine and women. He was hardly a model of personal integrity and virtue.

Yet his virtues far outweighed his faults. Rulers in choosing ministers must weigh these things carefully, and Citizens considering the actions of their leaders must also weight these things carefully. Life is not simple and simple rules do not always apply.

Men like Danton may come out more noble and admirable in the judgement of history than men like Robespierre, though Danton loved women, wine and bribes, and Robespierre was incorruptible except possibly by personal power.

Do not be eager to judge. In fact avoid doing so unless forced. No man's worth is easily measured. Delight in your own accomplishments and the positive things you do. Do not delight in the faults of others, for doing so only leads you away from seeing and improving on your own.

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