A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

Ronald Schechter

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780226499574

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


We tend to think of terror as a bad thing, but this was not always the case. In eighteenth-century France the word “terror” had largely positive connotations. God was said to instill terror in the wicked, and rightly so, and theologians even saw terror as the proper stance for all human beings in the face of the Almighty. Monarchs who took the role of God’s deputies on earth likewise sought to impart terror, and to call a king “the terror of his enemies” was a way of praising him. Judicial theorists justified the public punishment of criminals by claiming that it brought terror to would-be criminals. Plays that prompted feelings of terror in their audiences received the praise of critics, and writers on aesthetics lauded terror as a prerequisite of “the sublime” in art. Doctors believed that terror could cure such illnesses as malaria, rabies, epilepsy and gout. In other words, terror was considered a good thing. All that changed with the French Revolution. The revolutionaries called for terror as “the order of the day,” but following the fall of the Committee of Public Safety in July 1794, detractors of that regime used the word “terror” to summarize the discredited regime. At that point the word itself lost its positive connotations, but in the larger history of the western world, that was not so long ago.