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The King and the Crowd: Divine Right and Popular Sovereignty in the French Revolution Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly Stanford University We French cannot really think about politics or philosophy or literature without remembering that all this— politics, philosophy , literature—began, in the modem world, under the sign of a crime. A crime was committed in France in 1793. They killed a good and entirely likable king who was the incarnation of legitimacy. We cannot not remember that this crime was horrible. . . When we speak about writing, the accent is on what is necessarily criminal in writing. (Jean-François Lyotard, "Discussion Lyotard-Rorty" 583; quoted in Dunn 165) The condemnation ofthe king is at the crux ofour contemporary history. It symbolizes the secularization of our history and the disincarnation of the Christian God. (Albert Camus, The Rebel 120; quoted in Dunn 140) Susan Dunn makes a well-documented case that the death of Louis XVI was unconsciously understood, especially by the Jacobins, as a human sacrifice that was necessary for the founding of the republic. "Louis must die because the patrie must live," said Robespierre at the king's trial, and the representative Carra considered Louis "the source of corruption and servitude ... the fatal talisman ofall our ills" whose death would cause the people to be "regenerated in morality and virtue" (Dunn 15-37). The king was a monster and the source ofall the ills, and his death 68Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly had the power to alleviate those ills and regenerate the nation. This image of the king as sacrificial victim persisted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in French literature and politics, sometimes assimilating itself to the image of Jesus Christ who died for the sins of the world. Legitimist writers like Joseph de Maistre saw his death precisely in this light as a great Christian sacrifice that would do France and the world good (Dunn 28-37). The king as a sacred monster whose life causes all ill and whose death brings healing is the classic figure of the scapegoat or sacrificial victim identified by René Girard. Susan Dunn recognizes this but because she does not know Girard's mimetic theory she is not able to explain the significance of the scapegoat king. Her work is, indeed, as Conor Cruise O'Brien says in the foreword, a work ofdemonstration rather than argument, of evidence rather than interpretation. I offer a mimetic interpretation ofthe Jacobin claim that the death ofthe king was the human sacrifice that founded the republic, and an argument that a universally operative generative mechanism forged the historical events of the revolution.1 There is no essential difference between the sovereignty ofthe king and the sovereignty of the people. In both cases sovereignty arises from a metaphorical contract that threatens death to anyone who violates it. The royal metaphors are organic while the revolutionary metaphors are legal and rational, but they all express the sacrificial structure ofpolitical power. Revolutionary democracy imports the fiction ofrationality to obscure its sacrificial structure. The desire ofthe general will for contractual equality is a transformation of mimetic desire in search of a victim around which the bad violence ofmimetic rivalry can coalesce into the good violence of sacred order. Sovereignty, therefore, is structurally single and simple; it is violence transformed through the sacred into the powers oforder. Max Weber understood this in general ifnot in its particulars when he defined sovereignty as the monopoly of the means of violence within a single territory.2 1 Mimetic theory was discovered by René Girard. I have given an account of my understanding of it in 7Ae Gospel and the Sacred 129-52. The idea of a mechanism universally operative in human history isjustified in the emerging discipline ofevolutionary psychology. Such mechanisms are the result ofthe interaction ofgenetic and environmental factors in the process of evolution (see Robert Wright). 2 The precise quotation from Weber is as follows: "The state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a The King and the Crowd69 The transition from royal to popular sovereignty is a transformation of the basic pattern of victim and group. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 67-83
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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