[The following passage comes from “Centralisation,” a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, London, in 1867. I have excerpted it from the Project Gutenberg online version of Kingsley’s Literary and General Lectures and Essays. — George P. Landow

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hat purifying fire was needed. If we inquire why the many attempts to reform the Ancien Régime, which the eighteenth century witnessed, were failures one and all; why Pombal failed in Portugal, Aranda in Spain, Joseph II. in Austria, Ferdinand and Caroline in Naples — for these last, be it always remembered, began as humane and enlightened sovereigns, patronising liberal opinions, and labouring to ameliorate the condition of the poor, till they were driven by the murder of Marie Antoinette into a paroxysm of rage and terror — why, above all, Louis XVI., who attempted deeper and wiser reforms than any other sovereign, failed more disastrously than any — is not the answer this, that all these reforms would but have cleansed the outside of the cup and the platter, while they left the inside full of extortion and excess? It was not merely institutions which required to be reformed, but men and women. The spirit of “Gil Blas” had to be cast out. The deadness, selfishness, isolation of men’s souls; their unbelief in great duties, great common causes, great self-sacrifices — in a word, their unbelief in God, and themselves, and mankind — all that had to be reformed; and till that was done all outward reform would but have left them, at best, in brute ease and peace, to that soulless degradation, which (as in the Byzantine empire of old, and seeming in the Chinese empire of to-day) hides the reality of barbarism under a varnish of civilisation. Men had to be awakened; to be taught to think for themselves, act for themselves, to dare and suffer side by side for their country and for their children; in a word, to arise and become men once more.

And, what is more, men had to punish — to avenge. Those are fearful words. But there is, in this God-guided universe, a law of retribution, which will find men out, whether men choose to find it out or not; a law of retribution; of vengeance inflicted justly, though not necessarily by just men. The public executioner was seldom a very estimable personage, at least under the old Régime; and those who have been the scourges of God have been, in general, mere scourges, and nothing better; smiting blindly, rashly, confusedly; confounding too often the innocent with the guilty, till they have seemed only to punish crime by crime, and replace old sins by new. But, however insoluble, however saddening that puzzle be, I must believe — as long as I believe in any God at all — that such men as Robespierre were His instruments, even in their crimes.

In the case of the French Revolution, indeed, the wickedness of certain of its leaders was part of the retribution itself. For the noblesse existed surely to make men better. It did, by certain classes, the very opposite. Therefore it was destroyed by wicked men, whom it itself had made wicked. For over and above all political, economic, social wrongs, there were wrongs personal, human, dramatic; which stirred not merely the springs of covetousness or envy, or even of a just demand for the freedom of labour and enterprise: but the very deepest springs of rage, contempt, and hate; wrongs which caused, as I believe, the horrors of the Revolution.

It is notorious how many of the men most deeply implicated in those horrors were of the artist class — by which I signify not merely painters and sculptors — as the word artist has now got, somewhat strangely, to signify, at least in England — but what the French meant by artistes — producers of luxuries and amusements, play-actors, musicians, and suchlike, down to that “distracted peruke-maker with two fiery torches,” who, at the storm of the Bastile, “was for burning the saltpetres of the Arsenal, had not a woman run screaming; had not a patriot, with some tincture of natural philosophy, instantly struck the wind out of him, with butt of musket on pit of stomach, overturned the barrels, and stayed the devouring element.” The distracted peruke-maker may have had his wrongs — perhaps such a one as that of poor Triboulet the fool, in “Le Roi s’amuse” — and his own sound reasons for blowing down the Bastile, and the system which kept it up.

For these very ministers of luxury — then miscalled art — from the periwig-maker to the play-actor — who like them had seen the frivolity, the baseness, the profligacy, of the rulers to whose vices they pandered, whom they despised while they adored! Figaro himself may have looked up to his master the Marquis as a superior being as long as the law enabled the Marquis to send him to the Bastile by a lettre de cachet; yet Figaro may have known and seen enough to excuse him, when lettres de cachet were abolished, for handing the Marquis over to a Comité de Salut Public. Disappointed play-actors, like Collet d’Herbois; disappointed poets, like Fabre d’Olivet, were, they say, especially ferocious. Why not? Ingenious, sensitive spirits, used as lap-dogs and singing-birds by men and women whom they felt to be their own flesh and blood, they had, it may be, a juster appreciation of the actual worth of their patrons than had our own Pitt and Burke. They had played the valet: and no man was a hero to them. They had seen the nobleman expose himself before his own helots: they would try if the helot was not as good as the nobleman. The nobleman had played the mountebank: why should not the mountebank, for once, play the nobleman? The nobleman’s God had been his five senses, with (to use Mr. Carlyle’s phrase) the sixth sense of vanity: why should not the mountebank worship the same God, like Carriére at Nantes, and see what grace and gifts he too might obtain at that altar?

But why so cruel? Because, with many of these men, I more than suspect, there were wrongs to be avenged deeper than any wrongs done to the sixth sense of vanity. Wrongs common to them, and to a great portion of the respectable middle class, and much of the lower class: but wrongs to which they and their families, being most in contact with the noblesse, would be especially exposed; namely, wrongs to women.


Kingsley, Charles. The Ancien Regime. London: Macmillan and Co., 1902 Project Gutenberg [eBook #1335] Produced by David Price. Web. 23 June 2018.

Last modified 23 June 2018