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that the alarm excited by the French Revolution had produced in Mr Robison a degree of credulity which was not natural to him. The suspicion with which he seems to view every person on the continent, to whom the name of a philosopher can be applied, and the terms of reproach and contempt to which, whether as individuals or as bodies, they are always subjected, make it evident that the narrative is not impartial, and that the author was prepared, in certain cases, to admit the slightest presumption as clear and irrefragable evidence. When, indeed, he speaks of such obscure men as composed the greater part of the supposed conspirators, we have no direct means of determining in what degree he has been misled. But when we see the same sort of suspicion and abuse directed against the best known and most justly celebrated characters of the age, we cannot but lament the prejudices which had taken possession of an understanding in other matters so acute and penetrating.
Among the men engaged in public affairs, of whom Europe boasted during the last century, there was perhaps none of a higher character than Turgot, who, to the abilities of a statesman, added the views of a philosopher; was a man singularly patriotic and disinterested, distinguished by the virtues both of public and private life, and having,. indeed, no fault but that of being too good for the
times in which he lived. Yet Mr Robison has charged this upright and humane minister with an exercise of power, which would argue the most extreme depravity. He states, that there existed in Paris a combination under the direction of the Wits and Philosophers, who used to meet at the house of Baron D'Holbach, having for its object the dissection of the brains of living children, purchased from poor parents, in order to discover the principle of vitality. The police, he adds, interposed to put a stop to these bloody experiments, but the authors of them were protected by the credit of Turgot.
All this is asserted on the authority, it should seem, of some anonymous German publication. I will not enter on the refutation of a calumny with the fabrication of which Mr Robison is not chargeable, though culpable, without doubt, for having allowed his writings to become the vehicle of it. Truth and justice require this acknowledgment; and, in making it, I think that I am discharging a duty both to Mr Robison and myself:-It is a duty to Mr Robison, in as much as a concession made by a friend, is better than one extorted by an adversary; it is a duty to myself, because I should feel that I was doing wrong, were I even by silence to acquiesce in a representation which I believed to be so ill-founded and unjust.
* Proofs of a Conspiracy, &c. 4th Edit. Note, p. 584.
The Proofs of the Conspiracy, notwithstanding these imperfections, or perhaps on account of them, were extremely popular, and carried the name of the author into places where his high attainments in science had never gained admission for it. In the course of two years, the book underwent no less than four editions. It is a strong proof of the effect on the minds of men produced by the French Revolution; and of the degree in which it engrossed their thoughts, that the history of a few obscure enthusiasts in Bavaria or Wirtemberg, when it became associated with that Revolution, was read in Britain with so much avidity and attention.
The defects of the evidence were concealed by the prejudices and apprehensions which were then so general. The people of this country were disposed to believe every thing unfavourable to the French nation, but particularly to the philosophers. All might not be equally culpable, but to discriminate between them was not thought of much importance, and it was the simplest, if not the fairest way, to divide the demerit equally among the whole. The rhapsodies of Barruel had already prepared the public for such impartial decisions, and had held up every man of genius and talents, from Montesquieu to Condorcet, as objects of hatred and execration.
But whatever opinion be formed of the facts re
lated in the history of this conspiracy, it is certain
not in the visions of the German Illuminati, nor in the ceremonials of Free-masonry, that we are to seek for the causes of a revolution, which has shaken the civilized world from its foundations, and left behind it so many marks, which ages will be required to efface. There is a certain proportionality between causes and their effects, which we must expect to meet with in the moral no less than in the natural world; in the operations of men, as well as in the motions of inanimate bodies. Whenever a great mass of mankind is brought to act together, it must be in consequence of an impulse communicated to the whole, not in consequence of a force that can act only on a few. A hermit or a saint might have preached a crusade to the Holy Land with all the eloquence which enthusiasm could inspire; but if a spirit of fanaticism and of chivalry had not pervaded every individual in that age, they would never have led out the armies of Europe to combat before the walls of Jerusalem. Neither could the influence of a small number of religious or philosophic fanatics, sensibly accelerate or retard those powerful causes which prepared from afar the destruction of the French monarchy. When opposed to these causes, such influencé was annihilated; when co-operating with them, its effects were imperceptible. It was a force which could only follow those already in action; it was like "dashing with
the oar to hasten the cataract," or, "waving with a fan to give swiftness to the wind." *
It is, however, much easier to say what were not, than what were, the causes of the French Revolution; and in dissenting from Professor Robison, I will only remark in general, that I believe the principal causes to be involved in this maxim, That a certain relation between the degree of Knowledge diffused through a nation, and the degree of Political Liberty enjoyed by it, is necessary to the stability of its government. The knowledge and information of the French people exceeded the measure that is consistent with the entire want of political liberty. The first great exigency of govern ment, therefore, the first moment of a weak admi nistration, could hardly fail to produce an attempt to obtain possession of those rights, which, though never enjoyed, can never be alienated. Such an occasion actually occurred, and the revolution which took place was entire and terrible. This also was to be expected; for there seems to be among political institutions, as among mechanical contrivances, two kinds of equilibrium, which, though they appear very much alike in times of quiet, yet, in the moment of agitation and difficulty, are discovered to be very different from one another. The one is
Ferguson's Essay on Civil Society, Part III. Sect. 4.