In a speech delivered in 1794, roughly one year after the execution of Louis XVI, Robespierre boldly declared Terror to be an ‘emanation of virtue’. In adapting the concept of virtue to Republican ends, Robespierre was drawing on traditions associated with ancient Greece and Rome. But Republican tradition formed only one of many strands in debates concerning virtue in France and elsewhere in Europe, from 1680 to the Revolution.
This collection focuses on moral-philosophical and classical-republican uses of ‘virtue’ in this period – one that is often associated with a ‘crisis of the European mind’. It also considers in what ways debates concerning virtue involved gendered perspectives. The texts discussed are drawn from a range of genres, from plays and novels to treatises, memoirs, and libertine literature. They include texts by authors such as Diderot, Laclos, and Madame de Staël, plus other, lesser-known texts that broaden the volume’s perspective.
Collectively, the contributors to the volume highlight the central importance of virtue for an understanding of an era in which, as Daniel Brewer argues in the closing chapter, ‘the political could not be thought outside its moral dimension, and morality could not be separated from inevitable political consequences’.
‘This fascinating book is likely to have a long-standing presence in the reading lists of students of French intellectual history…The philosophes certainly raised many questions about the possibility of secular virtue, and the contributions to this book reveal just how important such questions were.’
Madeleine Armstrong, Modern Language Review