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Shulim, J.I. (1977). The Birth of Robespierre as a Revolutionary: A Horneyan Psychohistorical Approach. Am. J. Psychoanal., 37(4):343-350.

(1977). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 37(4):343-350

Other Voices

The Birth of Robespierre as a Revolutionary: A Horneyan Psychohistorical Approach

Joseph I. Shulim, Ph.D.

The determination of the moment when an individual became a revolutionary is a difficult but extremely important problem in the etiology of the French Revolution. The historian has to discover when the individual had become so hostile toward the ancien régime that he was ready to use illegal or violent means, not for the restoration of a more pristine society of orders and of obsolete traditional institutions, but for the establishment of a new type of society and government altogether. It is possible to ascertain this crucial point of change in the lives of important individuals where, despite all the lacunae, enough documentary evidence exists. The historical figure himself was perhaps unaware at the time of this significant transformation in his life. The historian, however, may be able not only to discover the moment of change but also, perhaps, to venture an explanation. The latter requires a careful study of the developments in society as well as an application of the current theories of psychology and psychoanalysis. While psychoanalysis of the dead can only be conjectural—lacking the free contact and communication of patient and trained analyst—if used with great caution, the speculative conclusions can provide the historian with insights that are otherwise unattainable. If enough studies of this kind are made of other revolutionary leaders, general conclusions may be possible and new light shed on the origins and nature of the French Revolution.

The theoretical construct that I will apply in the attempt to explain Robespierre's motivations is that of Karen Horney. Horney shifted the emphasis from Freud's biological approach to the interaction between the individual and his environment (culture). She developed her theories on the basis of the nature of modern individualistic western civilization. While France of the ancien régime had not yet fully arrived at this stage of development, still having orders, ranks, and corps, the slight modification required in Horney's psychoanalytic theories does not affect her basic approach. I will, consequently, apply Horney's theories to Robespierre's biography through the elections to the Estates General in 1789.


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