By: August Bequai, Esq.*
“I declare, that having received from the people the mandate to defend its rights, I regard an oppressor him who interrupts me.”
From its recorded inception, civilization has rested on three classes for its functioning: priests, warriors, and lawyers. Their roles and functions have varied from civilization to civilization; frequently interchanging. In Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the priestly class often assumed at least two of these roles; this was not the case in Ancient Rome, Greece, India, or China.
Equally, throughout history, the forces of freedom and diversity have found themselves pitted off against the forces of autocracy; the latter favoring an absolutist mindset. With the pendulum swinging back and forth; often finding lawyers at the helm of the former. By the late 18th century, autocracy came to assume a secular absolutist mindset in the West; referred to as totalitarianism by such scholars as J.L. Talmon. Fast gaining adherents globally in the 20th century, i.e., Communism, Fascism, and extreme nationalism to the detriment of freedom and diversity.
Onset of the Totalitarian Mindset
Autocracy and dictatorships are no strangers to human history. They are found in every part of the world; there are ample examples of these throughout history. No society has been spared the pain. However, a new autocratic mindset emerged in the late 18th century; referred to now as totalitarianism. In part, the outgrowth of the writings of Hobbes, Helvetius, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other Western thinkers; further propelled by the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Further cemented in the late 19th century by the rise of Marxism, agrarian socialism, and various extreme nationalist movements.
These combined forces played no small part in unleashing the French Revolution (May 1789 to November 1799); which came to have a profound impact on world history beyond Europe. While espousing freedom and diversity, the French Revolution gave rise to a secular absolutist (totalitarian) mindset that came to view the common good as paramount to the rights of the individual. It propagated the view that rule by an enlightened elite was best for the common good; those who espoused freedom and diversity, were traitors to the common good. Such views had historically been confined to religious extreme movements.
No one personified this absolutist mindset during the French Revolution more than Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer by training turned revolutionary. For him, the Parliamentary system of government was a fraud; a plot against the common good. Lawyers were a tool of a corrupt elite to suppress the majority. Any legal system that espoused freedom and diversity, was to be crushed. Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler would take Robespierre at his word.
Robespierre was not alone in his thinking. Other French revolutionaries, like Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (a former law student), shared his views. For them freedom and diversity were “the art of human pride.” Political opponents were no more than vermin: enemies of the common good to be destroyed. For Robespierre and Saint-Just, the general will was one and indivisible; freedom and diversity would only serve to undermine it.
The True Believers
Unlike past dogmas that centered around religious movements, the French Revolution promised a secular heaven on earth. The rulers of this new compact would come from the ranks of a select enlightened elite. Lawyers were shunned as impediments to revolutionary change. The French Revolution would become a model for such groups as the Left SR, Bolsheviks, Fascists, and other secular dogmatists that followed.
The idea of a (secular) supreme leader also took hold under the French Revolution. Endowed with godly wisdom, he/she would enshrine the common good, free of legal restraints. A secular papacy, leading the masses. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao Zedong would master that role. The law and lawyers would play no real role in this totalitarian society; they were to be used as needed.
Freedom and diversity have been part of humanity since the dawn of history. The Ancient Greeks incorporated these precepts in their legal system. They were included in the Magna Carta (1215), English Bill of Rights (1689), Virginia’s Declaration of Rights (1776), U.S. Constitution (1789), and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). They are the pillars of modern democracy.
Likewise, lawyers are the guarantors of the law. Freedom and diversity would be merely talking points if lawyers failed in their duties. The absolutist mindset, if espoused by lawyers, can prove to be the nemesis of freedom and diversity. To quote Frank J. Cobb’s, “The Bill of Rights/…is the…guarantee of human freedom.” Absolutism its nemesis.
*Gus Bequai, Esq. is the editor in chief of Invictus. The views expressed are solely those of the Editor. They do not reflect the views of the Virginia State Bar or the Diversity Conference.