Writing on the events preceding the Terror of the French Revolution, Augustin Cochin described a scene that might be familiar to us today. Indeed, there are many parallels. What follows is an excerpt (emphasis mine) from Organizing the Revolution: Selections From Augustin Cochin, edited and translated by our late friend Claude Polin and his wife, Nancy, and published by Chronicles Press. (Purchase the full book here.)
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[P]eople were persecuted—another practice of sects. Before the bloody Terror of ’93, in the republic of letters there was, from 1765 to 1780, a bloodless terror, for which the Encyclopedia was the Committee of Public Safety and d’Alembert the Robespierre. This terror swept away reputations just as the other chopped off heads. Its guillotine was slander, “infamy,” as it was then called. The term, originating with Voltaire, was used in 1775 in the provincial societies with legal precision. “To brand with infamy” was a well-defined operation, an entire procedure comprised of investigation, discussion, judgment and finally execution, which meant the public sentence of [being held in] “contempt,” another of those philosophical terms whose significance we no longer comprehend. And heads fell in great numbers: Fréron, Pompignan, Pallissot, Gilbert, Linguet, the Abbés de Voisenon and Barthélemy, Chabanon, Dorat, Sedaine, President de Brosses, Rousseau himself—and that is only to mention the men of letters, for the massacre was far greater in the world of politics.
Here we have all the apparent trappings of a vigorous, well-armed sect, enough to impress the enemy, and also arouse the curiosity of bystanders . . . For behind such high walls, we must expect to find a large town, and even a beautiful cathedral: one does not generally imagine fanaticism without faith, discipline without loyalty, excommunication without communion, opprobrium without strong, active convictions—no more than one imagines a body without a soul.
But this is the marvel: here, and only here, are we disappointed. This powerful defense mechanism defends nothing, nothing but a void and negations. Behind all of this there is nothing to love, nothing to grasp and become attached to. This dogmatic reason is just the negation of all faith; this tyrannical liberty the negation of all rules. I shall not dwell upon this reproach so often made of the philosophers, for they themselves admitted and glorified the nihilism of their ideal.
Indeed, what is oddest is that these two contradictory aspects were as readily admitted by the philosophers as by the uninitiated. Opinion, not fact, was the object of their discussion. “We are the human mind, reason itself,” proclaimed the philosophers, and in the name of this reason they dogmatized and excommunicated, which they called emancipating. “You are the void,” the uninitiated argued convincingly, “anarchy, negation, utopia; not only are you nothing, but you can be nothing but discord and dissolution,” and the next minute they were screaming murder and calling up the guards against the specter they claimed did not even have the right to exist and yet was strangling them. This is the duel between Martine and M. Jourdain. It began in Voltaire’s time and is enduring still, as you know.
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Forget the Washington Post's Pooterish "Democracy Dies in Darkness." The motto of the entire mainstream media is Voltaire's "Écrasez L'infâme!"
Imagine if Cochin had lived to witness the slander machine known as Twitter...
Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor. His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (nta.fm), and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).