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Apr 28, 2019

I knew little about Robespierre's early life before the revolution until I read a biography of him recently. What surprised me was his consistently exceptional academic performance from an early age. He was known to me only as a 'lawyer from Arras,' but I didn't know he was so talented to the point that he distinguished himself at France's best secondary school, the college Louis-le-Grand. Even there he supposedly had a reputation as a quiet, bookish boy who concentrated on his studies. After graduating with a Master of Arts and winning numerous prizes for his knowledge of the classics and Latin prose writing, Robespierre went on to pursue a three-year law degree at the Sorbonne. He won several other prizes in adulthood for essays. Apparently he was less successful initially as an orator than as a writer (rivals would mock his northern accent and his unattractive appearance). In the end, of course, he became the face of the revolution in its bloodiest period.

Robespierre's case gives weight to my very unscientific and speculative hypothesis that people who from an early age immerse themselves entirely in their studies for the sake of recognition, to compensate for their insecurities, etc. are lousy in power. Perhaps Max really was a selfless, incorruptible and compassionate man who genuinely cared for the well-being of peasants and sought to overhaul the old social order, ridden with contradictions and injustice. But his iron conviction seems to have been guided by a limitless reverence for the heroes of old. He was pragmatic enough to consider maintaining a constitutional monarchy rather than advocating a republic from the beginning, but he was unshaken in his belief in the ideal of the virtuous citizen. And he was so obsessed with Rousseau. I do wonder whether he really did meet or even see the citizen of Geneva as he claimed. I also wonder what kind of conversation they would be having wherever they are now.