Ernest Belfort Bax

Jean-Paul Marat

Chapter I

Were we called upon to designate the best abused man in modern history, I think we should not be far wrong in assigning this place of honour, or dishonour, as the case may be, to the individual whose name heads this sketch. The following are only a few of the sobriquets which have been liberally showered upon him by almost every writer who has handled the subject of the French Revolution. M. Michelet styles him the “personification of murder;” Sir Walter Scott compares him to a “wolf;” most writers designate him as the “monster;” even Mr. Carlyle, who would treat the memory of the “Sea-green Incorruptible” himself with some degree of consideration, has no name for “this poor man Marat” but that of “dog-leech,” “obscene spectrum,” &c.

The Marat of tradition and of public opinion is, in fact, a mask, on which is depicted, in a rough and ready manner, all that is most hideous in human nature; it is made to carry in propria persona all the errors and shortcomings of the Revolution, magnified into crime by reaction and prejudice, much as the mask of the Greek actors displayed the human emotions, with the grave or gay, character delineated in broad strokes, detail being disregarded. Now I purpose in the ensuing pages to divest the name Marat, if only for awhile, of this grotesque suit of malevolence with which it has been enshrouded by the prejudice of public opinion and tradition, and to lay bare to English readers, as briefly as possible, the real man who bore this name – the Marat of history. I am led to this, firstly, by the desire of helping to rescue the memory of a man whom I believe to have been possessed of a moral earnestness and steadfastness of purpose rarely met with; secondly, to contribute, by this one instance of its worthlessness, to a healthy distrust and contempt for the world’s judgment and public opinion in its existing state.

I may as well say at once, that with the speculative opinions put forth by Marat I frequently differ, and although agreeing in certain of his conclusions, I conceive them to have been arrived at by a false method, which considerably diminishes their value. It is not the thinker so much as the man whom I honour in the present case. Of Marat in his former capacity I shall say a few words presently, after having laid before my readers a brief outline of his life.

Let us first of all glance at the personal appearance of this typical man of the Revolution. One of the most authentic portraits is probably that in the Chevremont collection, where the “people’s friend” is represented seated at his writing table, one hand grasping his pen, the other the Phrygian cap. The bust taken after death is probably less trustworthy than is usually the case with after-death-busts, owing to the violent nature of Marat’s death. The portrait by Boze is affirmed to be at once very trustworthy and characteristic; but the following description from the pen of one who knew him well, both in public and private life, may convey a better idea than any of them:–

“Marat was of short-stature, scarcely five feet high. He was nevertheless of a firm, thick-set figure, without being stout. The shoulders and bust were broad, the lower part of the body thin, the legs bowed, the arms strong, which latter he employed with much vigour and grace in speaking. Upon a rather short neck he carried a head of very pronounced character. His countenance was large and bony, the nose acquiline, the nostrils wide and somewhat depressed; the mouth was curled at one corner by frequent contraction; the lips were thin; the eyes of a greyish yellow colour, spirituel, animated, penetrating, serene, naturally soft, and even gracious, and conveying a look of great assurance. The beard was black, the hair brown, and négligé; he was accustomed to walk with head erect, rapidly backwards and forwards, in regular time (cadencé) His most usual attitude was with his arms firmly crossed upon his chest. In speaking in society he always appeared much agitated, and almost invariably ended the expression of a sentiment by a movement of his foot, which he thrust rapidly forward, stamping with it at the same time on the ground, and then rising on tiptoe, as though to lift his short stature to the height of his opinion. The tone of his voice was thin, sonorous, slightly hoarse, and of a ringing quality. A defect of the tongue rendered it difficult for him to pronounce clearly the letters c and s, to which he was accustomed to give the sound of g (in French). There was no other perceptible peculiarity, excepting a rather heavy mode of utterance; but the beauty of his thought, the fulness of his eloquence, the simplicity of his elocution, and the point of his speeches absolutely effaced this maxillary heaviness.”

After noticing his conduct in the tribune, the writer concludes his description thus:–

“He dressed in a careless manner; indeed, his negligence in this particular announced a complete ignorance of the conventionalities of custom and of taste, and one might almost say gave him an air of uncleanliness.” – Portrait de Marat par Fabre d’Eglantine.

The above may be taken as a perfectly impartial description, inasmuch as the author was far from a vehement partisan of Marat, in fact, was probably the reverse of prejudiced in his favour. Here then is the figure which historians have portrayed as, even in appearance, a semi-human monster, a hideous toad, &c.

Jean Paul Marat was born at Boudry, in the then Prussian principality, now the Swiss Canton of Neufchatel, on the 24th of May, 1743, of Jean Paul Marat, a native of Cagliari, in Sardinia, and of Louise Cabrol, of Geneva. His father was a medical man. Both parents were Calvinists. It is asserted that he had two brothers and two sisters, but of the precise number we have very little evidence. The central point in Marat’s moral character, his burning horror of injustice, and his vivid sympathy with the oppressed, seems to have been inherited, or at all events to have received its early development, from his mother, whose memory he, to the last, held in affectionate esteem. He relates that among his earliest recollections were those of visiting with her the poor of his native place, administering with his own hands the relief needed, and listening to the words of sympathy which fell from her lips. Marat received the advantage of an exceptionally good education, both general and scientific, in his father’s house. He states that he never cared for the ordinary games of children, and being naturally of a thoughtful and studious disposition needed little coercion from his tutors. There is one very characteristic incident connected with this period which I cannot forbear quoting in his own words:

“I was never chastised but once,” he writes, “and this time the sentiment of an unjust humiliation made such an impression on me, that it was found impossible to bring me again under the rod of my instructor. I refused food for, two whole days. At that time I was eleven years old, and the strength of my character may be estimated by this one incident. My parents not being able to bend my resolution, and the paternal authority finding itself compromised, I was locked up in my own room. Unable to resist the indignation which choked me, I opened the casement, and threw myself down into the street. So severely was I cut in the fall, that I bear the mark on my forehead to this day.” [1]

Marat was not quite sixteen when his mother died, and this proved the first great turning-point in his career; from henceforth the ties of home seem to have been broken for him, for with no other member of the family does he appear to have been in the same close intimacy as with her. The elder Jean Paul we may infer to have been of a somewhat cold disposition, or at all events too much absorbed in his studies readily to sympathise with a boy of Jean Paul’s sensibility.

Whether primarily influenced by these considerations, or as is perhaps more probable, by a desire no longer to be a burden on his father, whose circumstances, although sufficient to provide a thorough education for his son, we may presume were far from affluent, we find in the summer of 1759 our hero quitting his home on the banks of the Neufchatel Lake, to seek his fortune in the wide world; a world wherein the approaching convulsion was already gathering its forces; where the mediaeval civilisation was grasping its last real life-breath; where the Catholic and Feudal edifice was crumbling and tottering; where, in religion, in literature, in philosphy, as well as in political and social relations, all things were preparing for a great change – a change to which the French Revolution was merely the prelude, and through which we are even now passing, although as yet, far from its consummation; in short, the world of the Great Frederick, of Voltaire, Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists, and of the then embryonic, Sturm and Drang.

It was not as many might have imagined, the political and social aspect of things that first of all attracted young Marat’s attention in any prominent degree; but the, at the same time, rising scientific spirit of which the Principia of Newton was the Organon.

We may divide Marat’s life into three periods; the first, the period of childhood, closing with his quittal of the parental roof, in 1759. The second, the period of professional and scientific activity, from 1756 to 1789; the third, that to which both the others may be considered but as preparatory stages, the period of political and journalistic activity, from the publication of his Offering to the Country, in 1789 to his death in 1793.

Of the immediate destination of Jean Paul’s wanderings on first leaving his home we have no very certain evidence. We know, however, that he visited in turn most of the countries and capitals of Western Europe. He writes in the last year of his life “From the age of sixteen I have been absolute master of my conduct. I have passed ten years in London, one at Dublin, one at the Hague, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, nineteen in Paris, and have traversed the half of Europe;” a course probably in part necessitated by his professional avocations, of which we have various reports. According to one of these he was filling the chair of French language and literature in the University of Edinburgh in the year 1772. We have satisfactory evidence that he was offered an important professorship in the Académie des Sciences at Madrid about 1782, which it is alleged he was prevented from filling, owing to the machinations of Bailly.

Marat’s literary activity during the second half of this period of his life may be estimated by the following list of works (consisting, in the majority of cases, each of more than one bulky volume), written and published by him between 1770 and 1789:– A Philosophical Essay on Man, or the Laws and Mutual Action of the Body on the Soul, and of the Soul on the Body, in 3 volumes, by J.P. Marat, Doctor of Medicine, London, 1773; The Chains of Slavery, London 1774, 1 volume, 364 pages. Découvertes de M. Marat, Docteur en Medicine et Medecin des Gardes du Corps de Monseigneur le Comte d’Artois, sur le Feu, l’Electricité et la Lumière, &c., Paris, 1779. This work ran through two editions in one year. Recherches Physiques sur le Feu, do., do., Paris, 1782, one volume in 8vo., 202 pages; Plue Approbation et Privilège du Roi; sept planches en noir. This work is said to have appeared in translation at Leipsic, in conjunction with two others of Marat’s, in 1782. Decouvertes, de M. Marat, &., sur la Lumière, qui ont ete faites un très-grand nombre de fois sous les yeüx de MM. les Commissaires de l’Académie des Sciences, London and Paris, 1782, 1 volume in 8vo., 461 pages, &c.; Notions Elémentaires de l’Optique, Paris, 1784, 1 volume, 44 pages; Recherches sur l’Elecricité, 1 volume, in 8vo., 461 pages, Paris, 1782.; Mémoires sur l’Electricité Médicale, couronnes le 6 Août, 1783, par l’Académie Royale des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts de Rouen, 1 volume in 8vo., 111 pages, Paris, 1784; anon., Optique de Newton, Traduction Nouvelle. faite par M—, sur la dernière edition originale, ornée de 21 planches, et approuvée par l’Académie Royale des Sciences, Paris, 1787, 2 volumes in 8vo., tome 1eme, 192 pages, tome 2eme, 308 pages; Mémoires Académiques, ou Nouvelles Découvertes sur la Lumière, rélatives aux points importants de l’Optique, Paris, 1788, 1 volume, in 8vo., 324 pages, 10 planches. To these must be added An Essay on a Singular Disease of the Eyes, by MM.–M.D., at Nicholls’, St. Paul’s Churchyard, or Williams’, in the Strand (without date); and what may seem to many strangest of all, a novel, founded on a Polish subject, which, however, never saw the light until 1848, when it was published in the Siècle, as Un Roman de Coeur, par Marat, “l’Ami du Peuple”, as was alleged from the original manuscript. The above list may be regarded as including all the important non-political writings of which Marat was the author, and I think my readers will agree it is no insignificant array for a “dog-leech” or “marsh-frog” to produce.

To the Récherches sur l’Electricité, the Académie awarded the following high commendation:–

“True progress in physical science only being possible with the aid of experiment, all memoirs and treatises should be founded on experiments, correctly made and attested, to serve as a basis for the truths which it is their purpose to establish; such is the course the present author has adopted.”

Probably few persons are aware that among the number of Marat’s friends during his residence in London was the celebrated physicist, Franklin, with whom he used frequently to conduct optical experiments. In addition to the academical posts he at various times filled, he gained considerable reputation while in London in the medical profession, especially in curing diseases of the eyes, as we are informed by his widow in her preface to the posthumous edition of his political works.

This may have partly contributed to his appointment, in 1779, as physician to the bodyguard of the Comte d’Artois, a fact which is conclusive evidence of the futile nature of the charge of charlatanry certain historians have seen fit to bring against Marat in his medical capacity. As M. Bougeart observes, the court was not so empty of aspirants to an honourable position such as this as to render it necessary for one of the first noblemen in France to engage a charlatan in his service.

With his retirement from the Comte d’Artois’ employment, in 1787, we may consider the middle, or scientific period of Marat’s, life virtually to close. The first act of the great revolutionary drama was shortly to commence, and doubtless political and social considerations already occupied his thoughts, well nigh to the exclusion of all others.

I should not omit to mention that about this time he was attacked by an incurable internal malady, that nearly caused his death, and which, although the acuteness of the attack subsided, he well knew could only completely terminate with his existence.


1. Journal de la Republique, No.98. “I reflected at fifteen, observed at eighteen, and became a thinker at twenty. From the age of ten I had contracted a. studious mode of life; intellectual activity became a veritable necessity for me, even in illness, and my greatest pleasure I always found in meditation.” – Ibid.

Last updated on 15.7.2006