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Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 31, Issue 3, 2021

Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century? Part II

Alexander Cook
Pages 179-196

Ideology or History as “Idéologie:” C. F Volney and the Uses of the Past in Revolutionary France

The French Revolution had a complex relationship with historical thought. In a significant sense, the politics of 1789 was built upon a rejection of the authority of the past. As old institutions and practices were swept away, many champions of the Revolution attacked conventional historical modes for legitimating authority, seeking to replace them with a politics anchored in notions of reason, natural law and natural rights. Yet history was not so easily purged from politics. In practice, symbols and images borrowed from the past saturated Revolutionary culture. The factional disputes of the 1790s, too, invoked history in a range of ways. The politics of nature itself often relied on a range of historical propositions and, as the Revolution developed, a new battle between “ancients” and ‘moderns’ gradually emerged amongst those seeking to direct the future of France. This article explores these issues by focusing on a series of lectures delivered at the École Normale in the Year III (1795), in the wake of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. The lectures, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, were designed to lay out a program for historical pedagogy in the French Republic. Their author, Constantin-Francois Volney (1757–1820), was one of a group of figures who sought, during these years, to stabilise French politics by tying it to the development of a new form of social science—a science that would eventually be labelled “idéologie.” With this in mind, Volney sought to promote historical study as an antidote to the political appropriation of the past, with particular reference to its recent uses in France. In doing so, he also sought to appropriate the past for political purposes. These lectures illustrate a series of tensions in the wider Revolutionary relationship with history, particularly during the Thermidorian moment. They also, however, reflect ongoing ambiguities in the social role of the discipline and the self-understanding of its practitioners.