Just because someone says something is so, it does not make it true.
Shortly before he was executed, Citizen Maximilien Robespierre, the terror of terrors, gave a speech which, these days, beggars belief.
The man who tore the monarchy from the heart of France in the days following the French Revolution of 1789 used his incredible powers of oratory to construct a terrifying reality.
But there’s this speech towards the end: a sign that the reality he was trying to construct was thinning and losing definition.
Robespierre was most put out when Jacques-Rene Hebert began closing Catholic churches and encouraging France to go pagan and worship the god of Reason. It was the guillotine for the atheist, but what to put in his place?
Robespierre had just the thing: the Festival of the Supreme Being.
His speech on the day of the Festival being was intended to be what we would term these days as key note: to set the tone for years to come. A speech with a central or determining principle.
“The day forever fortunate has arrived,” he told his countrymen, “which the French people have consecrated to the Supreme Being. Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice. He has watched tyranny, crime, and imposture reign on the earth.
“He sees at this moment a whole nation, grappling with all the oppressions of the human race, suspend the course of its heroic labors to elevate its thoughts and vows toward the great Being who has given it the mission it has undertaken and the strength to accomplish it.”
But just because he declared a crackpot post-revolutionary devotional day, did not make his words true. Robespierre’s effort to determine the future lasted only a few months. Roughly as long as his head stayed attached to his body..
The truly great key note speeches are given with utter integrity at a time when humanity stands at a fork in the road.
Like Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech.
It is an extraordinary piece of rhetoric from 1946, dwarfing any other speech I can think of: an eloquent cry from the heart of a man who has seen war on an unimaginable scale, and who is staring at the dark shadows of conflict once more, created by that Iron Curtain he names so aptly.
“Last time I saw it all coming,” he told Westminster College in Wisconsin on accepting an honorary degree, “and I cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. ….There never was a war in history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honored today; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.
“We surely, ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you, surely, we must not let it happen again.”
Don’t appease Russia, he cautioned: match the Soviet might. Today’s historians say that attitude prevented a third 20th century world war.
Two keynote speeches; two speeches intended to define the world as it stood: one facile and brittle, the other impassioned and underpinned by the darkest and most profound of experiences.
Never in the history of mankind have so many speeches jostled for our attention, as in this fast-paced, multi media, 21st century world. The key note speeches which set history sit amongst them, waiting for posterity to mark them with a fine quill pen.
Whose will stand out, I wonder?
Written for Side View’s weekend theme: