Why can it be said the "those who start a revolution are often consumed by its flames?" How does this quote especially apply to Robespierre?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Robespierre embodies the idea that a revolution's flames can be consuming.  Robespierre never made the distinction that the steps taken to achieve revolution are going to be fundamentally different when seeking to sustain its fervor in the establishment of a new order.  He never grasped that the same elements used to overthrow the monarchy had to be channeled in a different way in order to sustain the revolution in the form of political rule.  In this, Robespierre becomes consumed by his own revolutionary flames.

Part of Robespierre's character traits made him susceptible to being consumed by the revolution.  Described as "the Incorruptible," Robespierre assumed power and demonstrated a hardline stance towards those who were seen as enemies of the revolution.  Robespierre was adamant towards the idea that France would have to be "revolutionary until the peace."  Consistent with his "incorruptible" approach that saw any negotiation on this point as betrayal to the Revolution, Robespierre was quite direct in his intent:

The goal of the constitutional government is to conserve the Republic; the aim of the revolutionary government is to found it... The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death... These notions would be enough to explain the origin and the nature of laws that we call revolutionary ... If the revolutionary government must be more active in its march and more free in his movements than an ordinary government, is it for that less fair and legitimate? No; it is supported by the most holy of all laws: the Salvation of the People.  

Robespierre demonstrates that he is further consumed by the revolution's flames with similar statements such as "Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible."  Robespierre demonstrates that his embrace of violence and death in the name of his elusive ideal of "the revolution" is reflective of a perspective where there is little in way of pragmatism.  Robespierre became consumed with the flames of the revolution's destruction and temporary notions of power.  Robespierre was easily consumed with the flames of the revolution because he lacked the perspective and understanding that once power was achieved, it had to be wielded in a different manner than what the Revolution presented.  For Robespierre, power became a corrupting force, as opposed to a normalizing one.  It is in this regard where Robespierre clearly demonstrates that the flames of a revolution can be consuming and blinding the individual to sustaining the initial goals of revolutionary action.

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