The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7

Author: Camille Desmoulins  | Date: 1788

Desmoulins

Better to Die Than Not Live Free*
(1788)

Everything gives umbrage to a tyrant. If a citizen have popularity, he is becoming a rival to the prince. Consequently, he is stirring up civil strife, and is a suspect. If, on the contrary, he flee popularity and seclude himself in the corner of his own fireside, this retired life makes him remarked, and he is a suspect. If he is a rich man, there is an imminent peril that he may corrupt the people with his largesses, and he becomes a suspect. Are you poor? How then! Invincible emperors, this man must be closely watched; for no one is so enterprising as he who has nothing. He is a suspect! Are you in character somber, melancholy, or neglectful? Then you are afflicted by the condition of public affairs, and are a suspect.

If, on the contrary, the citizen enjoy himself and have resultant indigestion, he is only seeking diversion because his ruler has had an attack of gout, which makes his majesty realize his age. Therefore he is a suspect. Is he virtuous andaustere in his habits? Ah! he is then a new Brutus with his Jacobin severity, censuring the amiable and well-groomed court, and he is a suspect. If he be a philosopher, an orator, or a poet, it will serve him ill to be of greater renown than those who govern, for can it be permitted to pay more attention to the author living on a fourth floor than to the emperor in his gilded palace? Such a one is a suspect.

Has one made a reputation as a warrior—he is but the more dangerous by reason of his talent. There are many resources with an inefficient general. If he is a traitor he can not so quickly deliver his army to the enemy. But an officer of merit like an Agricola—if he be disloyal, not one can be saved. Therefore, all such had better be removed and promptly placed at a distance from the army.

Tacitus tells us that there was anciently in Rome a law specifying the crimes of "lèse-majest." That crime carried with it the punishment of death. Under the Roman republic treasons were reduced to four kinds, viz.: abandoning an army in the country of an enemy; exciting sedition; the maladministration of the public treasury; and the impairment by inefficiency of the majesty of the Roman people.

But the Roman emperors needed more clauses, in order that they might place cities and citizens under proscription. Augustus was the first to extend the list of offenses that were "lèse-majest" or revolutionary, and under hissuccessors extensions were made until none was exempt. The slightest action was a state offense. A simple look, sadness, compassion, a sigh, or even silence became "lèse-majest" and disloyalty. One must needs show joy at the execution of a parent or friend lest one should perish. Citizens, liberty must be a great benefit, since Cato disemboweled himself rather than have a king. And what king can we compare in greatness and heroism to the Csar whose rule Cato would not endure? Rousseau truly says: "There is in liberty as in innocence and virtue a satisfaction one can only feel in their enjoyment and a pleasure which can cease only when they have been lost."

* Delivered in Paris in February, 1788. An early translation, revised for this collection.

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Chicago: Camille Desmoulins, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 91–93. Original Sources, accessed October 15, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M17DCB42S47FXF8.

MLA: Desmoulins, Camille. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. 7, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 91–93. Original Sources. 15 Oct. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M17DCB42S47FXF8.

Harvard: Desmoulins, C, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 7. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.91–93. Original Sources, retrieved 15 October 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M17DCB42S47FXF8.