Monday, 8 December 2008

Saintly, Just

One of the things that makes Saint-Just the true prototype of the twentieth-century dictator is that he would say things like: “You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.” What he intuited is that passivity is itself a kind of resistance, and in ways a more perilous one than opposition. Better to flush the passive out into activity, even contrary activity. Then at least you know where you are.

It does trouble me, actually, how sensible Saint-Just was: he did nothing by half-measures, but followed the logic of his principles to their blood-stained end. 'One does not make revolutions by halves,' he famously said. It is clearly a dangerous political and ethical policy, given the deathly places it leads, but there's a part of me that thinks: yes. If you're going to do a thing, then do it properly. This, I would say, is the residue of my Protestantism (the culture in which I was raised). Indeed, it approaches one sort of a definition of Protestantism, that it reacts against the human accomodations of Catholicism by saying: if you're going to have a relationship with God then do it properly. The problem is that this doesn't fit very well with how people actually are in the world. It's a very serious problem.

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