Books by Scurr, Ruth

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity. London: Vintage Books, 2006. ISBN 0-09-945898-5.
In May 1791, Maximilien Robespierre, not long before an obscure provincial lawyer from Arras in northern France, elected to the Estates General convened by Louis XVI in 1789, spoke before what had by then reconstituted itself as the National Assembly, engaged in debating the penal code for the new Constitution of France. Before the Assembly were a number of proposals by a certain Dr. Guillotin, among which the second was, “In all cases of capital punishment (whatever the crime), it shall be of the same kind—i.e. beheading—and it shall be executed by means of a machine.” Robespierre argued passionately against all forms of capital punishment: “A conqueror that butchers his captives is called barbaric. Someone who butchers a perverse child that he could disarm and punish seems monstrous.” (pp. 133–136)

Just two years later, Robespierre had become synonymous not only with the French Revolution but with the Terror it had spawned. Either at his direction, with his sanction, or under the summary arrest and execution without trial or appeal which he advocated, the guillotine claimed more than 2200 lives in Paris alone, 1376 between June 10th and July 27th of 1793, when Robespierre's power abruptly ended, along with the Terror, with his own date with the guillotine.

How did a mild-mannered provincial lawyer who defended the indigent and disadvantaged, amused himself by writing poetry, studied philosophy, and was universally deemed, even by his sworn enemies, to merit his sobriquet, “The Incorruptible”, become an archetypal monster of the modern age, a symbol of the darkness beneath the Enlightenment?

This lucidly written, well-argued, and meticulously documented book traces Robespierre's life from birth through downfall and execution at just age 36, and places his life in the context of the upheavals which shook France and to which, in his last few years, he contributed mightily. The author shows the direct link between Rousseau's philosophy, Robespierre's inflexible, whatever-the-cost commitment to implementing it, and its horrific consequences for France. Too many people forget that it was Rousseau who wrote in The Social Contract, “Now, as citizen, no man is judge any longer of the danger to which the law requires him to expose himself, and when the prince says to him: ‘It is expedient for the state that you should die’, then he should die…”. Seen in this light, the madness of Robespierre's reign is not the work of a madman, but of a rigorously rational application of a profoundly anti-human system of beliefs which some people persist in taking seriously even today.

A U.S. edition is available.

May 2007 Permalink