George Bernanos observed that the pursuit of justice can lay the world to waste. Such an observation seems peculiarly apt for a study of Robespierre; he pursued justice with a single-minded passion and the result was the Terror that grew out of the French Revolution. Ruth Scurr, who teaches at Cambridge University, tries to befriend as well as to understand him; a difficult task. As her title suggests, there was something inhuman in Robespierre’s pitiless incorruptibility — the “sea-green Incorruptible” as Carlyle called him — when compared with his fellow revolutionaries, such as Danton, Desmoulins and Marat.

In seeking to know Robespierre, we are forced to note the world he laid waste around him.

For the French, Robespierre is a problematic figure. In Arras, where he was born on 6 May 1758 and where he practised law until 1789, the year the Revolution began, there are no public memorials to him and few souvenirs. To his enemies (and posterity) he was the inventor of the Terror; to his friends he was a man of inflexible principle, devoted to the people and the Republic. There is no common ground. The author has produced a dispassionate yet sympathetic study that goes some way to penetrating the mystery surrounding this strange individual.

Robespierre undoubtedly had a troubled childhood. His mother died when he was six; his father, who came from a line of lawyers, the profession his son would later pursue, was feckless and absentee, so that the orphaned children were shared among their relatives. Aged eleven, the boy won a scholarship to the prestigious College Louis-le-Grand in Paris where Camille Desmoulins was a fellow pupil. According to the memories of his school contemporaries “there was nothing young about him”. Timid, austere and assiduous the young Robespierre was deeply influenced by his discovery of Rousseau; like Rousseau, according to Scurr, he was always “exceptionally self-absorbed”. The priggish, humourless boy spent many hours reading in the college’s magnificent library.

Back in Arras to follow the legal profession he led an entirely unremarkable life, living with his sister, avoiding amorous entanglements (although the author raises the possibility of a feminine interest there is no real proof that there ever was any), dabbling in sentimental poetry and entering a prize essay competition, which he did not win. Yet Robespierre’s stated conviction in an essay of 1784 — “A man of high principle will be ready to sacrifice to the State his wealth, his life, his very nature, everything, indeed, except his honour” — does foreshadow the future and provide a key to the inner workings of his mind. Written by someone else it could be dismissed as the rhetorical flourish of a young man out to impress; written by the young Maximilien de Robespierre it is a chilling forecast of his later life.

On 30 April 1789, he was chosen as one of the eight Arras representatives of the Third Estate and left for Paris. He was 31 and the five years remaining to him turned out to be more eventful than all that had gone before. The author deals briskly and lucidly with the events that led up to the Revolution; what is of interest is the formidable part that the unprepossessing young lawyer came to play in it. Madame de Stael wrote of Robespierre in 1789 that “his features were mean, his complexion pale, his veins a greenish hue”. His body language was also suspect: according to a contemporary “he never looked you in the face”. This is probably because Robespierre was already wholly absorbed by his inward vision of the new state and its total democracy, a vision with which he entirely identified. When the Bastille fell on 14 July that same year he commented that “the will of the people” had sanctioned it. Yet among all the fervid activity of those months and the many other articulate voices clamouring for change, he stood out, catching the eye of Mirabeau, the one man with the personality and the influence to save the monarchy, who said of him: “That man will go far. He believes everything he says.”

This distinguished Robespierre from his fellow revolutionaries: his inability to compromise, his inflexibility, his belief that he (and by extension, the people) must always be right, his animosity towards anyone who disagreed with him. In Paris he lived simply, indifferent to money and scorning bribes; if he had a weakness it was a certain vanity about his dress. Earlier than his fellows he realised that the death of the old aristocratic regime and the birth of the new democratic order, with its rallying cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity” could only be attained by abnormal means; if this meant violence, which he personally abhorred — at school he had been known to defend smaller boys against the bullies — so be it. From his power base in the Jacobin Club — the most powerful and extreme of the political clubs that had sprung up in 1789 to further the Revolution — he argued from clear principles to destructive effect.

This was noticeable in 1791 to an English visitor to Paris, who commented of him, “He is a stern man, rigid in his principles.” Unlike his Jacobin contemporaries Robespierre was not an atheist. Admitting to having been an indifferent Catholic in his youth he had become a kind of deist, supporting the idea of a Supreme (and largely remote) Being in whose voice of pitiless reason he was privileged to speak. This points to the influence of freemasonry; indeed his grandfather had been a founder of freemasonry in Arras and he himself was a mason. Ruth Scurr avoids addressing a subject so fraught with secrecy and suggestiveness.

Predictably, when in 1792 in a Jacobin-fomented uprising the Tuileries fell and the King, Louis XVI, became a prisoner, Robespierre believed that the people of Paris had “protected justice, equality and reason against their enemies”. The people’s justice spoke again in the September Massacres that followed, in which over a thousand people, including priests, children, prisoners and vagrants, were butchered to death. By 10 March 1793 the Revolutionary Tribunal had been reinstituted, terror was the order of the day and Robespierre had challenged those who spoke out against it with the words, “Citizens, do you want a revolution without a revolution?” The climax was the Law of 22 Prairial which sent people to the guillotine without defence or redress for “crimes” such as spreading false news, insulting morality, misleading the people and depraving the public conscience. Robespierre, the man of monstrous virtue, who had already sent his two friends, Danton and Desmoulins, to the guillotine without qualms, was its chief architect.

On 8 June 1794 the Festival of the Supreme Being was celebrated, an event that would be absurd if it were not so grotesque; and on 28 July 1794, its high priest, dressed in the same sky-blue coat he had worn for the festival, his face bandaged from a botched suicide attempt, was taken by tumbrel to the scaffold. He was still only 36. He had proclaimed that death was “the beginning of immortality”; now, forever attached to his name, is the ring of fear and death. The author has provided a detailed and compelling portrait of this most unappealing of men.

The Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution were not slow to study his strategies and follow his example; and more modern terrorists have also picked up his bloodied baton, equally certain that the end justifies any means, however destructive. Sir Christopher Wren, a rather different kind of architect, who had died a mere seventy years before Robespierre, had Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (“If you wish to know me, look about you”) as his epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral. In seeking to know Robespierre, we are forced to note the world he laid waste around him.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.