Sunday Taine Excerpt

by J.A. Myerson


From The French Revolution, Vol. II:
“Extravagant conceit and dogmatism, however, are not rare in the human species. These two roots of the Jacobin intellect exist in all countries, underground and indestructible. Everywhere they are kept from sprouting by the established order of things; everywhere are they striving to overturn old historic foundations, which press them down. Now, as in the past, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices, so many Brissots, Dantons, Marats, Robespierres, and St. Justs in embryo; only, for lack of air and sunshine, they never come to maturity. At twenty, on entering society, a young man’s judgment and pride are extremely sensitive. — Firstly, let his society be what it will, it is for him a scandal to pure reason: for it was not organized by a legislative philosopher in accordance with a sound principle, but is the work of one generation after another, according to manifold and changing necessities. It is not a product of logic, but of history, and the new-fledged thinker shrugs his shoulders as he looks up and sees what the ancient tenement is, the foundations of which are arbitrary its architecture confused, and its many repairs plainly visible. — In the second place, whatever degree of perfection preceding institutions, laws, and customs have reached, these have not received his approval; others, his predecessors, have chosen for him, he is being subjected beforehand to moral, political, and social forms which pleased them. Whether they please him or not is of no consequence. Like a horse trotting along between the poles of a wagon in the harness that happens to have been put on his back, he has to make best of it. — Besides, whatever its organization, as it is essentially a hierarchy, he is nearly always subaltern in it, and must ever remain so, neither soldier, corporal or sergeant. Even under the most liberal system, that in which the highest grades are accessible to all, for every five or six men who take the lead or command others, one hundred thousand must follow or be commanded. This makes it vain to tell every conscript that he carriers a marshal’s baton in his sack, when, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, he discovers too late, on rummaging his sack, that the baton is not there. — It is not surprising that he is tempted to kick against social barriers within which, willing or not, he is enrolled, and which predestine him to subordination. It is not surprising that on emerging from traditional influences he should accept a theory, which subjects these arrangements to his judgment and gives him authority over his superiors. And all the more because there is no doctrine more simple and better adapted to his inexperience, it is the only one he can comprehend and manage off-hand. Hence it is that young men on leaving college, especially those who have their way to make in the world, are more or less Jacobin, – it is a disorder of growing up. — In well organized communities this ailment is beneficial, and soon cured. The public establishment being substantial and carefully guarded, malcontents soon discover that they have not enough strength to pull it down, and that on contending with its guardians they gain nothing but blows. After some grumbling, they too enter at one or the other of its doors, find a place for themselves, and enjoy its advantages or become reconciled to their lot. Finally, either through imitation, or habit, or calculation, they willingly form part of that garrison which, in protecting public interests, protects their own private interests as well. Generally, after ten years have gone by, the young man has obtained his rank in the file, where he advances step by step in his own compartment, which he no longer thinks of tearing to pieces, and under the eye of a policeman who he no longer thinks of condemning. He even sometimes thinks that policeman and compartment are useful to him. Should he consider the millions of individuals who are trying to mount the social ladder, each striving to get ahead of the other, it may dawn upon him that the worst of calamities would be a lack of barriers and of guardians.”

Advertisements