Time, Terror, and the Classical Republican Tradition in Eighteenth-Century France

A Study in Intellectual History

  • Dustin van Boxtel MacEwan University


The tradition of classical republican thought has been connected with the Terror largely because its leading exponent—namely, Maximilien Robespierre—appears to use the language of classical republicanism to justify the Terror. But his use of this discourse is perplexing because, traditionally, classical republican thought operated on the plane of particularity and not universality. It held that all events in time, especially political events, were forever entangled in the ephemerality of the concrete. From this, it followed that abstract and universalist modes of thinking were wholly unsuited for the task of understanding human life and events as they actually occurred—that is, in the flux of time. What this means is that, for classical republicanism, no revolution could ever be universal or final. All revolutions must of necessity be particular and transitory because they take place in time and the essence of time is concrete-ness and mortality. In light of this glaring incongruity, the relationship between classical republicanism and the Terror requires clarification. Ultimately, the relationship between classical republicanism and the Terror is highly tenuous. Robespierre certainly spoke of two elements of classical republicanism—virtue and crisis—in a way that is reminiscent of the tradition, but two other indispensable elements are conspicuously absent from his utterances: time and particularity. Instead, Robespierre spoke of virtue and crisis within a discourse of Enlightenment that conceptualized the world in terms of nature’s universal goodness and history in terms of humanity’s progress. The result was not a republic of justice but the bloodbath known as the Terror.

Faculty Mentor: Kelly Summers

Department: History