Freedom to kill for

Guillotine

There is a famous line, attributed to Voltaire and best known in a slightly misquoted form from S. G. Tallentyre’s biography “The Friends of Voltaire”, that runs like this:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

It is likely that Voltaire in fact never said those exact words and indeed, in “The Friends of Voltaire” the line is given not in verbatim, rather than simply to sum up his attitude at around 1770. There is no way of knowing if Voltaire would in fact have lived up to his now famous saying, as he died just eight years later and thus did not live to see the French Revolution that broke out in 1789.

The long and ever winding road that goes by the name of my dissertation has, as of late, taken me to the history of precisely that period, and reading up on Revolution and Terror has been a rather fascinating experience. Among other things, it has given me a newfound appreciation for Žižek’s controversial views on political violence — as perhaps most famously expressed in his 2009 book In Defense of Lost Causes. Reflecting upon Žižek’s insistence that the left should come to terms with la Terreur being a part of their history and heritage, I came to think that the truly interesting question about Voltaire is not whether he in fact would have been ready to die for someone’s right to express their opinion. If I had a chance to ask one question from Voltaire, I’d ask if he would have been ready to kill for it.

Because for Robespierre, the answer to this was clear — for him, there was no other way. In order for liberty, fraternity and equality to have a chance, a lot of people had to be repressed, and indeed, killed. Incidentally, this is also what Žižek has been arguing for, perhaps less the guillotine. We cannot have out freedoms, our rights and humanist ideals without really insisting upon them, without fighting for them — and pushing this insistence to its logical limit begs the question of dealing with violence.

Because, as Robespierre would no doubt have agreed, talk is cheap.

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12 thoughts on “Freedom to kill for

  1. I think if you asked the question that way to Robespierre, he most likely would have said:I cannot kill but I can only defend my right and ideals. I can take away what will threaten those ideals and the change. To kill is the will to take someone’s life. Zizek shows the very difference between killing and defending one’s ideals (what ever it takes). The intention is different. Killing is never a purely good act. Defending Robespierre’s ideal is.

  2. I see your point, but I’m not sure if the good intention is enough here. And in any case, my question to Voltaire would have been precisely this: would you be ready to defend this ideal of yours whatever it takes? It is often assumed that the highest commitment one can make is to pledge his or her life to it — which incidentally is also what Robespierre did (and unlike Voltaire, he actually was called up on this). So fine, you’re ready to die for what you believe in. But do you think that others should die for what you believe in? Especially when what you believe in has a lot to do with individual freedom and dignity?

    Or perhaps, to put the issue slightly differently, are the ends you pursue independent of the means you choose to achieve them?

  3. “Would you be ready to defend this ideal of yours whatever it takes?” is the right question to ask . I love this : Kill in order to preserve the freedom and dignity, to understand I think one needs to look at the montruous tyrant willing to take that freedom and dignity. The force of that representation, I think, is the measure for violence. In France, they had centuries to construct the monstruous sovereign.
    Are you working on a new project?

  4. No, I am not working on a new project, it is still my dissertation that keeps on taking me to very strange places.

    Anyhow, regarding violence – Žižek makes a point that Gandhi was in fact more violent than Hitler, insofar as his revolution was aimed at a complete dismantling of the British colonial state (and ended up dismantling the whole Empire). However, while Gandhi was certainly willing to die for his ideals, he was not willing to kill for them. The sovereign he was up against was no less monstrous than in France 1789, nor was he somehow less determined than Robespierre. Gandhi felt that fighting that monster in its own terms would turn him into one – and indeed, this is what happened with Robespierre.

  5. The imperialistic monster is very different from one that represent part of your body, the head, the father, the representant of God, the imaginary of the time about royalty was a construction that lasted for about 8 centuries before the French revolution.

  6. Are you then suggesting that because of that difference Robespierre was somehow more justified in killing than Gandhi would have been?

    However, this was not my initial point, anyway. I am not interested in judging Robespierre – as, to a large extent, we do owe our cozy and comfortable liberal position from which to put this criticism forward precisely to the very same French Revolution to begin with. It is an inescapable part of our own history and heritage, whether we like it or not. However, for Voltaire, it was not past rather than future, and this is what my question was about — would he have sanctioned not only giving one’s life for his ideals, but also taking those of others?

    Also, I would take an issue with your claim that “royalty was a construction that lasted for about 8 centuries before the French revolution.” It is precisely through the 1789 Revolution that it became possible to frame eight previous centuries as a monolithic period of feudal repression, and this view, although not wrong per se, risks essentializing Ancien Régime from the point of view of Revolution. What I have in mind is something like what Roger Chartier has said about Enlightenment being invented by Revolution rather than — as it has usually been seen — Revolution growing out of the Enlightenment.

  7. Thinking about Robespierre and everyone who were in it with him, rather than comparing him with others, and other situations, I prefer to ask myself :”why did they need to go that far?” As you say there is no point in judging his acts.

    I think you misunderstood what I was saying: the construction of the monstruous Other did not emerge in the Enlightment but it existed along with the creation of the monarchy. All along it was either praised or criticized. Before the Revolution, the uncontrollable free speech and press permitted to expose more effective monstruous images of royalty which greatly influenced the public opinion. And so on…

  8. Some more food for thought:

    Another major philosophical influence of the Revolution, Rousseau, was himself deeply influenced by 17th century French Augustianism (through Malebranche, Bayle and Arnauld). And now, consider this passage from St. Augustine’s De libero arbitrio, dealing with justified killing:

    Augustine: It follows that, since the master is killed by the slave as a result of this desire [to be free from fear], he is not killed as a result of a blameworthy desire. And so we have not yet figured out why this deed is evil. For we are agreed that all wrongdoing is evil only because it results from inordinate desire, that is, from blameworthy cupidity.

    Evodius: At this point it seems to me that the slave is unjustly condemned, which I would not dream of saying if I could think of some other response.

    Augustine: You have let yourself be persuaded that this great crime should go unpunished, without considering whether the slave wanted to be free of the fear of his master in order to satisfy his own inordinate desires. All wicked people, just like good people, desire to live without fear. The difference is that the good, in desiring this, turn their love away from things that cannot be possessed without the fear of losing them. The wicked, on the other hand, try to get rid of anything that prevents them from enjoying such things securely. Thus they lead a wicked and criminal life, which would better be called death.”

    Now, compare this with Rousseau’s famous distinction of amour de soi and amour-propre in the Preface to the Second Discourse:

    “[C]ontemplating the first and most simple operations of the human soul, I think I can perceive in it two principles, prior to reason, one of them [self-love as amour de soi] deeply interesting us in our own welfare and preservation, and the other [pity, pitié] exciting a natural repugnance at seeing any other sensible being, and particularly any of our own species, suffer pain or death.”

  9. I see it from this point of view: “The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity [i.e.one that took the rights away from the other]. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such a collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship” (C. Schmitt) There is no distinction between the public and private “enemy” in English. But there is a distinction in meaning: For example, in private R. loves L., loves the man, feels pity for him, in public R., representing a nation of tax payers, hates what L. who represents, the other collectivity, the non-tax payers.

  10. But now let us look at some statistics:

    Out all the people executed over the years of the Terror, estimated 75-80 per cent were commoners (estimates vary, of course, but not wildly). If you go by the distinction of taxpayers and non-taxpayers, the whole thing becomes unintelligible. Just for the reference, clergy lost their taxation rights in 1789, some two to three years before the Terror and they made up about 6 per cent of executions, aristocrats accounted for approximately 8 per cent of casualties, with the remaining 10-12 per cent being made up by people of the middle class.

  11. The thing with the COMPLEX French Revolution is that you can always find counter arguments. Yes of course what you say is right, but at the roots, the most important head that went under the razor was the one of the king. That was a truly ideological “cut”.

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