Jacobin recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.
In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.
Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”
Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!
The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.
Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.
I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.
It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.
What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.
Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.
But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.
Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris.
Finally — and even Aulard, the personal enemy of Robespierre, has had to note this — the Supreme Being did not wait for Robespierre’s sanction before being adored in the temples of Reason, by the same right, and at the same time, as Nature, Liberty, the Fatherland and Reason herself. We have a large number of speeches delivered in the temples of Reason. Pantheistic declarations — still more, atheistic ones — are the exception among them. We cannot pretend to know history better than those living at the time, who made history and lived through it; and they made no distinction between the two revolutionary cults, which they call indifferently by the same names. The Cult of the Supreme Being was in their eyes no more than a revised and amended sequel to the Cult of Reason. It was the same cult, the same institution, continued and improved.
It was Robespierre’s enemies, the former Hébertists and Dantonists, who, in order to justify their conduct on the 9th Thermidor, tried after the event to travesty their victim as a dictator who made use of the religious idea as a means of domination. It was they who first spoke of Robespierre’s “pontificate.” But must the “Incorruptible” always be judged on the evidence of his implacable enemies?
One simple observation reduces this slander to insignificance. Never was the alleged dictator more challenged, more opposed, more impotent than on the morrow of the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being! On the morrow of the Festival of the 20th Prairial, opposition to him raised its head even in the Committee of Public Safety. The festival itself, by the ease with which it lent itself to a perfidious interpretation of his intentions, fed this opposition, which had other causes than religious disagreements; but these causes were such that his opponents could not avow them all.
Curiously enough, those very historians who can only see the Cult of the Supreme Being through the eyes of the Thermidorians, will only look at the Cult of Reason through those of Robespierre. Carried away by the heat of the struggle against the Hébertists, Robespierre had represented their leaders as preachers of Atheism; and Atheism horrified him, not only because he believed in the social necessity of faith in God, but, above all, because he feared that to preach it to a people ill prepared for it might destroy the very foundations of moral life. Robespierre’s fears were exaggerated, his accusations ill-founded. The festivals of Reason were in no wise atheistic. Their organizers, whose ambitions were limited to replacing the Catholic Mass by a civic one believed that the crowd could not dispense with some sort of worship. They were, for the most part, no more advanced, no more secularists, in our sense of the word, than Robespierre himself; men of all parties had experienced a sort of “moral dismay” [effroi moral] at the suppression of every form of worship. This was the expression used by one of them, Baudot, a deputy of the Mountain.
The mistake of the historians further springs from the method, or rather absence of method, with which they have approached the study of. a question in which it is already so difficult to be impartial, since it is closely connected with our most intimate thoughts, and the bases of our way of life; up to the present the revolutionary cults have only been studied from the political, never from the religious, point of view. Historians, both of the Right and the Left, have only considered the Cult of Reason from the point of view of a party move. They have confused its history with that of the Hébertists. Similarly, they have made the Cult of the Supreme Being a chapter in the history of Robespierre and his party. They have denied that either of these cults was inspired by the religious sentiment, though they were at least as deeply animated by it as the old churches, which were already fossilized.
The mistake of the historians is to a certain extent comprehensible. The revolutionary cults were not like others. Belief in the supernatural was not the essential point in them. The religion of which they were the tangible expression is a religion without mysteries, revelation, or fetishes, a religion in which the act of faith and adoration applies not to a mystical object, but to the political institution in itself, the Patrie, as they called it — that is to say, to a just and fraternal society swayed by good laws, to the Fatherland conceived as the source and means of happiness, of moral as well as of material happiness. The revolutionary creed, being bound up with the Revolution itself, faithfully reflected the whole political life of that tragic period. The fact that it was actually directed towards a political object is no reason for refusing it a religious character. A faith which takes man as a whole, and raises him above the vulgarities of existence in order to make him capable of devotion and sacrifice even though it be concerned with a secular ideal, is a faith at least as worthy of respect as all those which have as their object some magic operation.
I am ashamed to insist upon this. But the view according to which Robespierre was the creator of the Cult of the Supreme Being cannot stand examination. The essential point of the revolutionary religion was the adoration of the Republic of Liberty and Equality, novel words of which the prestige was still unimpaired: the rest, the metaphysical side, was merely secondary. No doubt a certain conception of society is bound to be accompanied by a corresponding conception of the Universe. Political convictions act and react upon philosophic convictions, and vice versa. Now the great majority of members of the Convention, and almost all Frenchmen, unanimously believed in God. This did not prevent them from believing in the Fatherland — that Fatherland which meant to them far less their native soil than the ideal society in which the human race was one day to find refuge. By placing the republican cult under the protection of the Supreme Being, Robespierre was doing no more than interpret public feeling, and this was the reason for the enthusiasm which he aroused.
There was not the slightest novelty in the proposition which he submitted to the Convention on the 18th Floréal, Year II; not the slightest tinge of invention, or even of personal initiative. It was not on his motion that the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is prefaced to the Constitution voted in June 1793, was placed under the auspices of the Supreme Being. Ever since that date — that is to say, for a year past — the Supreme Being had been in the Constitution; it requires all Aulard’s passion to suppose that André Pomme, the deputy from Cayenne, who, as early as April 1793, demanded that the Supreme Being should be maintained in the preamble of the Declaration of the Rights of Man: that Andre Pomme was an agent of Robespierre. This is how Aulard puts it: [In April 1793] Robespierre did not yet dare to put himself forward and it was an obscure deputy for Cayenne, André Pomme, who sounded public opinion. His ill success postponed the Incorruptible’s scheme until he believed his opponents to have been suppressed or overawed.”3 So little was André Pomme a follower of Robespierre, that he abstained from the voting by roll-call on the impeachment of Marat, whereas Robespierre not only voted against it, but protested from the tribune against the accusation. Aulard’s hypothesis is nothing but a mere insinuation, destitute of all probability. How can he represent Robespierre, as early as April 1793, as cherishing not only the intention of establishing the Cult of the Supreme Being, but that of suppressing the Dantonists, when at that date Robespierre was still acting in concert with Danton, and his chief concern at the time was to combat the Girondins? Aulard, however, lays it down as a principle that Robespierre was a hypocrite, skillful at concealing his game!
But who has given him this information about Robespierre’s hidden motives? What clairvoyant? At any rate, the documents tell us nothing of the sort. Though André Pomme’s motion was not carried in April 1793, the Convention adopted it in June of the same year — that is to say, a year before Robespierre revived it on his own account in Floréal, Year II!
If Aulard had been less blinded by his preconceived theories, he would have grasped that in Floréal, Year II, far from initiating an independent course of action, Robespierre was doing nothing but interpret a wish definitely expressed by the Convention itself, a wish, moreover, urgently dictated by the political situation.
In Floréal, Year II, the Committee of Public Safety had just triumphed, not without difficulty, over the double opposition of the Dantonists and Hébertists, who were executed in Germinal. It was making efforts to prevent the return of the groups against which it had had to struggle for many months past. It was effecting the abolition of ministers, who were replaced by commissions subject to its control. It was placing the representatives on mission in closer subordination to itself, “in order,” as Couthon said on the 17th Germinal, “to maintain unity of action between them and recall them all to the center of government.” It was the means of effecting this unity of action which was exercising the minds of the Committee, as well as of the Convention itself. Now the representatives on mission complained in their correspondence that the measures dealing with worship were lacking in coherence and uniformity. They called for a general decree to regulate the conditions of the dechristianizing process and the establishment of republican festivals for the whole country. There should be unity not only in the government, but also in its executive measures, and, still more, in men’s hearts and minds throughout the country. The Committee of Public Safety decided to accede to the desire expressed so frequently by most of the representatives on mission. On the 17th Germinal, Couthon — not Robespierre; but, for Aulard, Couthon and Robespierre are one and the same person, like André Pomme and Robespierre just now-Couthon announced to the Convention that the Committee of Public Safety would shortly propose “a plan for a tenth-day festival dedicated to the Eternal, the comforting idea of which has not been taken from the people by the Hébertists.” Couthon’s words met with applause. Nobody raised the slightest objection.
In order to understand the joy with which the Convention hailed Couthon’s project, we should not only remember that the great majority of the Assembly held deistical opinions, but we should take into consideration the necessities arising out of the religious situation.
At that time dechristianization was already fairly advanced, but not complete. The representatives on mission had requested the priests to abjure their religion, and transformed the secularized churches into republican temples. By the aid of the people’s societies, they had endeavored to replace Sunday by Décadi (the tenth day), and to make the people forget the ancient Mass by means of a civic service. Their measures had not been prearranged. They were somewhat varied in character. In some places rest on the tenth day was made obligatory for ordinary members of the public under penalty of a fine. In others Sunday rest was tolerated. In some places the tenth day was celebrated under the auspices of the people’s society, in others the republican cult had the municipal officials as its priests. In some places republican missionaries, usually twelve in number, to recall the twelve apostles of the sans-culotte Jesus, were appointed to preach this gospel in the country districts. In others civic books of ritual were published, services for the decade, or ten-day week, or patriotic weekly devotions (such as Le Décadaire du haut-Rhin, the Documents de la Raison, etc.). In some places the martyrs of liberty were venerated — Marat, Chalier, Le Pelletier, and Brutus — in others this veneration was regarded as superstitious. Baptisms, marriages and burials were generally carried out with a lay ceremonial; but this ceremonial varied. The task was to remove these differences, to regulate and organize the republican worship which had so far grown up haphazard. It had also to be in some measure legalized. The Republican Calendar, instituted in October 1793, was a mere skeleton. Every tenth day had to be consecrated to some particular civic ceremony. It was necessary to distinguish national festivals from the ordinary tenth-day celebrations. There was room for reducing all these uncoordinated and desultory experiments to some system. Catholicism, men said to one another, would not be definitively vanquished unless it was replaced by a corresponding system, equally well coordinated, uniform and well regulated.
For several months past the Committee of Public Instruction had been repeatedly requested to draft a decree which should introduce into the celebration of civic festivals the order which they lacked. The Committee set to work. In Ventôse, Year II, Mathieu, a deputy for Oise, presented a completed draft on behalf of the Committee. He proposed to institute, on the one hand, five national festivals consecrated to the memory of the outstanding dates of the Revolution: July 14, August 10, October 6, January 21, May 31; and, on the other hand, as many special festivals as there were Décadis in the year. Each of these tenth-day festivals should be “placed under the auspices of the Supreme Being, and consecrated to one particular virtue.” It should consist of speeches and hymns, to take place in the “temples of Reason,” and of military and athletic exercises. Schoolmasters should be obliged to bring their pupils to them.
The Convention gave Mathieu’s report a hearing, and decided that his project should be submitted to the Committee of Public Safety, which should carry it into effect. It was indeed for the government, that is to say, the Committee of Public Safety, to say the last word on a matter of such importance. By the 17th Germinal Couthon announced, as we have seen, that the Committee of Public Safety had taken cognizance of Mathieu’s project, and was going to devise means for carrying it into effect.
This simple record shows us that, contrary to Aulard’s assertions, it was not Robespierre who proposed the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being on his own initiative. Robespierre’s enemies are left with the resource of claiming that the Convention, which ordered the Committee of Public Instruction to prepare a scheme for the tenth-day festivals, the Committee, which acted on these instructions, Mathieu, who handed in his report in the name of the Committee, and Couthon, who gave it the support of the Committee of Public Safety, were mere marionettes manipulated by the Pontiff from behind the scenes.
To the historian who takes his stand upon the documents, and is not inspired by hatred, the matter presents itself in a perfectly natural light. The Committee of Public Safety entrusted Robespierre with the report which had to be presented on the subject of the project drawn up by Mathieu, because, for several months past, Robespierre had been entrusted with all reports concerning general policy.
Robespierre confined himself to appropriating Mathieu’s project almost without a change, but he prefaced it with a long report, in which he defined and justified the aim which the Republic was trying to achieve by the institution of national festivals. Here again, he did no more than recall in a systematic form, ideas current at the time, which had frequently been voiced since the famous memorandum on public instruction composed by Talleyrand in the latter days of the Constituent Assembly; but he added importance to these well-worn ideas by his marvelous language and wonderful sincerity. He was never greater. His speech was listened to amid a truly religious silence, only interrupted from time to time by frenzied applause. This speech has all the force of a testament: not the testament of one man, but that of a whole generation, the generation which created the first Republic, and believed that by the Republic they were regenerating the world. For this reason it is worth while for us to pause over it for a moment.
The Revolution opens a new era in the history of humanity. This is the idea which Robespierre first brings into prominence! He sees in the Revolution at once the culminating point of all earlier progress and the point of departure for all progress in the future. In a few brief phrases he recalls the victories of the human intelligence:
The world has changed, and is bound to change again. What is there in common between that which is and that which was? Civilized nations have taken the place of savages wandering in the desert; fruitful crops have taken the place of the ancient forests that covered the globe. A world has appeared beyond the limits of the world; the inhabitants of the earth have added the seas to their immeasurable domain; man has conquered the lightning and averted the thunderbolts of heaven. Compare the imperfect language of hieroglyphics with the miracles of printing; set the voyage of the Argonauts beside that of La Pérouse; measure the distance between the astronomical observations of the wise men of Asia and the discoveries of Newton, or between the sketch drawn by the hand of Dibutade and the pictures of David.
What human reason has done for the knowledge and utilization of nature she must now accomplish for the happiness of societies, for there is a science of politics just as there is a science of the material world:
All has changed in the physical order; all must change in the moral and political order. One half of the world revolution is already achieved, the other half has yet to be accomplished.
To France belongs in some measure the honor, the mission, of accomplishing the political Revolution, overthrowing thrones which are now supported on nothing but “the league of the rich and of all subordinate oppressors.
And Robespierre is moved to hymn the praises of revolutionary France:
The French people appear to have outstripped the rest of the human race by two thousand years; one might even be tempted to regard them as a distinct species among the rest. Europe is kneeling to the shadows of the tyrants whom we are punishing.
In Europe a plowman or an artisan is an animal trained to do the pleasure of a noble; in France the nobles seek to transform themselves into plowmen and artisans, and cannot even obtain this honor.
Europe cannot conceive of life without kings and nobles; and we cannot conceive of it with them.
Europe is lavishing her blood to rivet the fetters on humanity; and we to break them.
Our sublime neighbors discourse gravely to the universe of the King’s health, amusements and travels; they insist upon informing posterity of the time at which he dined, the moment at which he returned from hunting, the happy soil which had the honor of being trodden by his august feet at each hour of the day, the names of the privileged slaves who appeared in his presence at the rising and the setting sun.
As for us, we shall make known to it the names and virtues of the heroes who died in the fight for liberty; we shall make known to it on what soil the last satellites of tyrants bit the dust; we shall make known to it the hour which sounded the death-knell of the oppressors of the world.
Yes, this delightful land which we inhabit, which Nature favors with her caresses, is made to be the domain of liberty and happiness; this proud and sensitive people are truly born for glory and virtue. O my country, had fate caused me to be born in a foreign and distant land, I should have addressed to heaven my constant prayers for thy prosperity; I should have shed tears of emotion at the story of thy combats and thy virtues; my eager soul would have followed with ardent anxiety every movement of thy glorious Revolution; I should have envied the lot of thy citizens, I should have envied that of thy representatives… O sublime nation! Receive the sacrifice of all my being; happy is be who is born in thy midst! Still happier he who can die for thy happiness!
But France will only fulfill her mission — namely, to deliver the world from kings and priests — if she applies the principles of strict justice in her own Government. For Robespierre, as for the philosophes of the eighteenth century, politics is merely a branch of morality, a morality in action.
“The sole foundation of civil society is morality!…Immorality is the basis of despotism, as virtue is the essence of the Republic.”
Robespierre then showed that all the crises of the Revolution had been caused by more or less avowed agents of despotism — that is to say, of crime: by “ Lafayette, who invoked the Constitution in order to restore the royal power”; by Dumouriez, “who invoked the Constitution in order to protect the Girondin faction against the National Convention”; by Brissot, who desired to turn the Constitution into “a shield to parry the blow which menaced the throne”; by “Hébert and his accomplices, who demanded the sovereignty of the people in order to slaughter the National Convention and annihilate the republican government”; by Danton, “indulgent to every crime, involved in every plot, promising protection to villains and fidelity to patriots; adroitly explaining away his treachery by the pretext of the public weal…” Coming to his real subject, Robespierre examined into the means of putting an end to these crises, and defined the principles which ought to guide the Convention, and with which it ought to imbue the souls of Frenchmen, so that they might at last become insensible to the snares of despotism.
Study the good of the country and the interests of humanity alone. Every institution, every doctrine which consoles and elevates men’s souls ought to be welcomed; reject all those which tend to degrade and corrupt them. Encourage and exalt all generous sentiments and great moral ideas which men have attempted to extinguish; draw together by the charm of friendship and the bonds of virtue those men whom there have been attempts to divide…
In other words, Robespierre put forward social utility as the test of doctrines, and advised the preaching of deism, not so much because it was a true doctrine, as because it was a doctrine of social utility. In extolling the social benefits of belief in God, he finds expressions which are not lacking in beauty:
You who lament a virtuous friend, you love to think that what is finest in him has escaped death! You who weep over the bier of a son or a wife, are you consoled by him who tells you that all that remains of them is base dust? Wretch expiring beneath the assassin’s blow, your last sigh is an appeal to eternal justice! Innocence on the scaffold makes the tyrant turn pale upon his. triumphal chariot: would it have this power if the tomb leveled the oppressor with the oppressed? Wretched sophist! By what right dost thou come and wrest the scepter of reason from innocence, to place it in the hands of crime, to encourage vice, to sadden virtue and to degrade humanity? The more richly a man is endowed with sensibility and genius, the more attached he is to ideas which expand his being and elevate his heart; and the doctrine of men of that stamp becomes that of the universe. Ah! Can such ideas be other than truths? At any rate I cannot conceive how nature can have suggested to men fictions more beneficial than all realities; and if the existence of God, if the immortality of the soul were but dreams, they would still be the finest of all the conceptions of human intelligence.
As if he foresaw that this adherence to deism would be used against him, and taken advantage of to represent him as a Christian in disguise and an intolerant person, Robespierre at once added:
I need hardly say that there is no question here of arraigning any particular philosophical opinions, or of denying that this or that philosopher may be virtuous, whatever his opinions may be, and even in spite of them, by virtue of a fortunate disposition or a superior intelligence. The point is to consider nothing but Atheism, in so far as it is national in character and bound up with a system of conspiracy against the Republic.
Ah! What does it matter to you, legislators, by what varied hypotheses certain philosophers explain the phenomena of nature? You may hand over all these subjects to their everlasting discussions: it is neither as metaphysicians nor as theologians that you have to consider them.
In the eyes of the legislator, truth is all that is useful and of practical good to the world.
This declaration, by which Robespierre upheld in principle the right of free thought, was not merely an oratorical precaution. A few days later, on the 26th Floréal, when one of his friends, the younger Julien, proposed at the Jacobins to expel atheists from the Republic, in accordance with Rousseau’s advice, Robespierre opposed it vigorously and with success.
Robespierre held to the idea of God; but he did so because this idea has a social value, for public morality appeared to him to depend upon it. We may remark that he never tried to define God or prove His existence. God appeared to him as a sort of verbal fetish for galvanizing moral ideas — a precious fetish, for the happiness of the masses is bound up with its preservation. And Robespierre recalled the devotion which this fetish had aroused in the past. He attacked the Encyclopedists, whom he regarded, with much reason, as bourgeois epicureans, very conservative in the sphere of social ideas. He contrasted them with their master Rousseau, who, for his part, loved the people without reservation.
He included in the sect of the Encyclopedists all those who betrayed liberty during the Revolution: the Girondins, the Dantonists, the Hébertists, who all, if he is to be believed, made a show of combating fanaticism, but in reality served its cause by their excesses as much as by their indulgence. For the purpose of beating down fanaticism, neither violence nor weakness is necessary in his eyes, but a clear-sighted firmness.
Fanatics, hope for nothing from us. To recall men to the pure cult of the Supreme Being is to strike a death-blow at fanaticism. All fictions disappear before the truth, and all follies collapse before Reason. Without compulsion, without persecution, all sects must mingle spontaneously in the universal religion of Nature. We shall counsel you, then, to maintain the principles which you have hitherto displayed. May the liberty of worship be respected, that reason may triumph indeed, but let it not disturb public order or become a means of conspiracy. If counter-revolutionary malignity is shielding itself beneath this pretext, repress it, and, for the rest, rely upon the might of principle and the innate force of things.
We see from this how Robespierre’s religious policy differed from that of the Exagérés. Robespierre and the Hébertists aimed at the same end: dechristianization. But they tended towards it by different means. The Exagérés wished to suppress all religious ceremonies, whether public or private, by the speediest means, and, if necessary, by violence. They closed the churches, arrested the priests or forced them to abdicate, and regarded every act of Catholicism as an offense or a crime, even if performed in private. Robespierre, on his side, censured the use of force; he desired that peaceable and sincere Catholics should be allowed to continue their practices, provided that these did not become a pretext for meetings, of aristocrats. He considered that the churches which had been closed should remain closed; he recognized the right of the communes to shut those which were still open; he was to applaud further suppression, provided that they were carried out without violence; but he invariably demanded that religious liberty should be respected, at least in private. Any Catholic demonstration of any kind, provided that it was not at the same time in any way aristocratic, did not seem to him a punishable offense. The activity of the Exagérés was above all a negative one. They were concerned rather with destroying Catholicism than with finding a substitute for it. They did, indeed, open temples of Reason, but they taught in them political truths rather than moral and transcendental ones. Robespierre, on his side, desired to carry out a positive work. He did not believe that civic preaching was enough to take the place of that Catholicism which had been suppressed. For him the moral and social point of view outweighed the political one. In his eyes Catholicism was not only an elaborate system of domination, an admirable machine for making slaves; it was also a rule, of life, a morality. And, as Robespierre understands it, the civic religion should also have its morality and rule of life. He believed that, in basing it upon the two social dogmas of the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, he was supplying it with one. Thus, he thought, the transition between the old and the new religion, between Catholicism and liberty, would be gently prepared. Thus the mass of the people, impregnated for centuries with the Catholic spirit, would rally definitively to the Republic.
Robespierre was so convinced of the superiority of his method of crushing the enemy that he saluted its final fall with enthusiasm:
Ambitious priests, do not wait for us to work for the restoration of your dominance; such an enterprise would indeed be beyond our power. It is you who have killed yourselves, and one can no more return to moral life than to physical existence. Besides, what is there in common between the priests and God? Priests are to morality what charlatans are to medicine. How different is the God of nature from the God of the priests! The God of nature knows nothing which resembles Atheism so much as priest-made religions. By dint of distorting the Supreme Being, they have destroyed Him, as much as in them lay; they have made of Him sometimes a ball of fire, sometimes an ox, sometimes a tree, sometimes a man, sometimes a king. The priests have created God in their own image; they have made Him jealous, capricious, greedy, cruel and implacable. They have treated Him as the Mayors of the Palace in olden days treated the descendant of Clovis, in order to reign in his name and put themselves in his place. They have relegated Him to heaven as to a palace, and have only brought Him down to earth in order to demand tithes, riches, honors, pleasure and power for their own profit. The real priest of the Supreme Being is Nature; His temple, the universe; His worship, virtue; His festivals, the joy of a great people gathered together beneath His eyes in order to draw close the sweet bonds of universal brotherhood and offer Him the homage of pure and feeling hearts.
The national festivals would form the common consciousness of the nation. Robespierre considers them the most powerful means of regeneration.
May they all tend to arouse those generous sentiments which are the charm and adornment of human life: enthusiasm for liberty, love of country and respect for law. May the memory of tyrants and traitors be held up to execration at them; may that of heroes of liberty and benefactors of humanity receive the just tribute of public gratitude; may they draw their interest, and their very names, from the immortal events of our Revolution, and even from the things dearest and most sacred to the heart of man; may they be beautified and distinguished by emblems suggesting their special objects. Let us invite nature and all the virtues to our festivals; let them all be celebrated under the auspices of the Supreme Being; let them be consecrated to Him, and let them open and close with a tribute to His power and goodness.
Finally, after pronouncing a eulogy on the young heroes Bara and Viala, he wound up his speech by proposing to the Convention a decree, which ran as follows:
- The French people recognizes the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.
- It recognizes that worship worthy of the Supreme Being consists in the practice of the duties of man.
- It places in the forefront of such duties those of detesting bad faith and tyranny, of punishing tyrants and traitors, of helping the unfortunate, of respecting the weak, of defending the oppressed, of doing to others all the good that lies within one’s power, and of being unjust to nobody.
- Festivals shall be instituted to recall to men the thought of the Godhead and the dignity of existence.
- These festivals shall borrow their names from the glorious events of our Revolution, from the virtues dearest and most useful to man, and from the greatest benefits of nature.
- The French Republic shall celebrate every year the festivals of July 14, 1789, August 10, 1792, January 21, 1793, May 31, 1793.
- It shall celebrate on every Décadi,4 or tenth day, the festivals of which the list follows:
To the Supreme Being and Nature.5
To the Human Race.
To the French People.
To the Benefactors of Humanity.
To the Martyrs for Liberty.
To Liberty and Equality.
To the Republic.
To the Liberty of the World.
To Love of Country.
To Hatred of Tyrants and Traitors.
To Glory and Immortality.
To Good Faith.
To Conjugal Fidelity.
To Paternal Love.
To Maternal Affection.
To Old Age.
To Our Ancestors.
The closing article of this draft decree fixed the 20th Prairial as the date of a festival to be celebrated in honor of the Supreme Being, and announced the maintenance of liberty of worship, but within narrow limits.
The decree was carried without discussion in the midst of great enthusiasm. The Convention ordered that Robespierre’s report should be translated into all languages, that 200,000 copies of it should be printed and sent to the communes, the armies and the people’s societies, there to be read out and posted up in all public squares and camps. A few days later, on the 23rd Floréal, by an order of the Committee of Public Safety, the following inscription was carved over the doors of the churches: The French People recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. The national agents were instructed to read out Robespierre’s speech in the republican temples on three consecutive tenth days.
Of all the festivals of the Revolution, the most popular and the most brilliant was certainly the Festival of the Supreme Being, celebrated in Paris and most of the great cities on the same day, the 20th Prairial, June 8.
In Paris, the great painter David was entrusted with the organization of the festival. He had outlined the plan for it from the tribune of the Convention, on the 18th Floréal, and had a good month to prepare for its execution.6
The sun shone radiantly that day. “A sea of flowers,” writes Michelet, “flooded Paris; roses and flowers of every kind were brought in from twenty leagues round, enough to decorate the houses and persons of a city of 700,000 souls.”
The drums beat a tattoo, the bells rang full peal, and then the cannon thundered. The citizens of the forty-eight sections repaired in groups to the Tuileries in two columns, six deep, women on one side and men on the other; between the two columns the young people’s battalion bore the banner of the section. The women carried flowers in their hands, the men boughs of oak. “The joy which beamed in every eye,” says Tissot, the brother-in-law of Goujon, “was of a calm, religious character; the women were in ecstasy.” Each section grouped itself round a post indicating its place in the Tuileries gardens.
At midday the Convention appeared in a body, its members wearing for the first time their official costumes, blue coats, knee-breeches, scarves and hats with tricolor plumes, each with a bunch of corn, flowers and fruit in his hands. They were led by Robespierre, who had been president of the Convention for four days. They took up their position on an amphitheater with its back against the palace. A band played a tune to greet their arrival. Robespierre gave the signal. Silence fell upon the vast multitude. He began to speak in praise of belief in God.
…He did not create kings to devour the human race; He did not create priests to harness us like groveling beasts to the chariot of kings, and to give the world an example of baseness, pride, perfidy, debauchery and lies; but He created the universe to show forth His power; He created men to help and love each other, and to attain to happiness by way of virtue…
When Robespierre had finished, singers from the opera performed the ode of Desorgues, set to music by Gossec:
Père de l’Univers, suprême Intelligence,
Bienfaiteur ignoré des aveugles mortels,
Tu révélas ton être à la reconnaissance,
Qui seule éleva tes autels!
[Father of the Universe, supreme Mind,
the unknown Benefactor of blind mortals,
Thou hast revealed thine essence to grateful hearts,
who alone raised Thine altars!]
The singers of the sections, to whom the hymns for the ceremony had been taught on the days previous by members of the National Institute of Music, mingled their thousand voices with the choir of musicians from the Opera.
Robespierre seized a torch and set fire to a monument of Atheism, set up in the midst of the great pond. A statue of Wisdom emerged from the ashes of Atheism. Robespierre once more ascended the tribune, and made a second speech: “The monster which the genius of kings vomited upon France has returned to nothingness. May all the crimes and misfortunes of the world disappear with it! Armed in turn with the daggers of fanaticism and the poison of Atheism, kings are for ever conspiring to murder humanity. Though they can no longer distort the Godhead by superstition in order to associate Him with their misdeeds, they endeavor to banish Him from the earth in order to reign there alone with crime.”
This eloquence, in the fashion of that virtuous and impressionable century, made the most vivid impression upon contemporary minds. La Harpe, the fashionable man of letters, wrote and congratulated Robespierre. Boissy d’Anglas compared the orator to “Orpheus teaching mankind the principles of civilization and morality.”
After a final hymn, the procession formed up; the first twenty-four sections at the head, the last twenty-four in the rear; between them the Convention, preceded by the National Institute of Music; and in the midst of the deputies, an immense car on the antique model, draped in red and drawn by eight oxen with gilt horns; on the car was a plow with a wheatsheaf and a printing press, both shaded by a tree of liberty. They moved off along the Seine towards the Champ de Mars, where the second part of the festival was to be carried out. As it passed before the Invalides, the soldiers maintained there at the expense of the Republic saluted the Convention by “raising their hands heavenwards and swearing together to die for liberty.”
On the Champ de Mars an immense symbolic mountain occupied the former site of the Altar of the Fatherland. The Convention, led by Robespierre, ascended to the top of it, where a tree of liberty spread its shade. The musicians and singers, several thousand in number, took up their position on the sides, men on the right and women on the left. The young people’s battalions surrounded the mountain, drawn up in square formation. The sections covered the plain. Incense was burnt. A trumpeter standing upon a pillar gave notice to the people when the chorus of the hymns was to be repeated in unison. Gossec conducted the music. A number of hymns were chanted, including the famous one by M. J. Chénier:
Dieu du peuple, des rois, des cités, des campagnes,
De Luther, de Calvin, des enfants d’Israël,
Toi que le Guèbre adore au fond de ses montagnes,
En invoquant l’astre du ciel.
Ici sont rassemblés sous ton regard immense
De l’empire français les fils et les soutiens.
[God of the people, of kings, of cities and of the country,
of Luther, of Calvin, and of the children of Israel,
Thou whom the fire-worshiper adores from the depths of his mountains,
calling upon the heavenly orb,
lo! here, beneath Thine all-embracing glance,
are assembled the sons and upholders of the French empire.]
This hymn, says Tissot, “produced a sort of inward thrill and religious absorption, which can hardly be, expressed, though one experienced them among 500,000 witnesses, all sharing in the same emotion.”
A hundred thousand voices repeated the chorus, which contained the following oath:
Avant de déposer nos glaives triomphants,
Jurons d’anéantir le crime et les tyrans.
[Before we lay aside our triumphant swords,
Let us take an oath to annihilate tyrants and crime.]
The men chanted the first verse, the women the next, and the chorus was taken up by the whole audience. Finally the girls tossed their flowers heavenwards, the young men drew their sabers, and the old men gave them their blessing. “A general discharge of artillery, expressive of the national vengeance, rang through the air, and all the citizens of both sexes, mingling their feelings in a fraternal embrace, ended the festival by raising to heaven this cry of humanity and civism: ‘Long live the Republic!’”7
Aulard would have it that, in presiding over this beautiful festival, Robespierre “really believed that he was inaugurating a new religion.”8 However, Aulard is obliged to admit that this was by no means the impression of contemporary observers. He knows that they did not have to wait for the 18th Floréal or the 20th Prairial to celebrate the Supreme Being. He observes, indeed, that the cult of the Supreme Being had been organized at Lunéville by the Jacobins “even before the proclamation of the Cult of Reason,”9 as if there ever had been an official proclamation of the Cult of Reason! He himself quotes several pieces of evidence establishing the fact that the decree of the 18th Floréal was hailed in the provinces “as the consequence of the ceremony of the 20th Brumaire,” that is to say, as the consequence of the Festival of Reason. Aulard even admits that “as a matter of fact, a large part of France seemed to be unaware of the religious revolution attempted by Robespierre.”10 A strange religious revolution, which contemporary observers did not notice, but which Aulard has been able to discover thanks to the pamphlets of the Thermidorians!
The truth is, that there was no religious revolution at that moment. The religious revolution had taken place in Brumaire, when the priests abdicated. In Floréal, Robespierre’s aim was to consolidate this religious revolution which was in process of completion, and in no way to provoke a fresh one. The aim which he set before him is known to us from the speech which he made on the 18th Floréal, which we have just analyzed. We also know it from a letter which Robespierre’s friend, Payan, national agent for the Commune of Paris, wrote him on the very day after the 18th Floréal: “This decree,” said Payan, “will rally the wavering and divided patriots in the departments to the same doctrine: it does not create a religion and a priesthood, but proves that the legislators do not desire to snatch from the people the comforting dogma of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.” To rally the divided patriots round a common doctrine and round the Government: such was the original aim which Robespierre set before him; and in this he was merely the organ of the Committee of Public Safety and of the Convention itself. Patriots were divided, or rather, had lost their bearings, owing to the double execution of the Dantonists and Hébertists. It was necessary to put an end to their doubts and hesitations, and provide them with a rallying-point. How? On the one hand, by proving to the more uncompromising of the dechristianizing party that the reign of the priests was over, and well over, and that national festivals, henceforth on an organized basis, were definitively to replace the abolished Catholic services; and, on the other hand, by causing the citizens, who but yesterday were Catholic, to forget their former religion by establishing festivals which would eclipse Catholic ceremonies alike in aesthetic magnificence and moral virtue.
This double aim was perfectly well brought out by Robespierre’s friend Payan in an address presented to the Convention in the name of the Commune on the 25th Floréal:
It is not a religion that you have created; it is a set of simple, eternal principles which the still vivid memory of atheistic superstition has enabled you to recall to men’s minds… In vain will ill-nature endeavor to persuade men that your innocent decree will make the hideous monster of fanaticism emerge from its bloodstained tomb; in his report the legislator who proposed it compared the position of priests with that of kings. According to this idea, which is quite a just one, there will not be a great number of citizens who will desire to be priests nowadays. Show me the man who does not prefer principles as simple and eternal as nature to a mystic, inexplicable cult; a just and beneficent God to the God of the priests.11
In other words, in the eyes of Payan, a faithful interpreter of Robespierre’s thought, the decree of the 18th Floréal had sounded the death-knell of Catholicism. The system of national festivals which he put in its place was not, properly speaking, a religion, for there would be no republican priests to celebrate the tenth-day services. What the Convention was instituting was no more than a political and social morality, but a lofty morality, preserving all the good effects of religion without its vices.
Robespierre might well believe that he had attained the object at which he aimed: namely, the rallying of patriotic Catholics and “philosophic” patriotism in a like adoration of the Republic and of God. Congratulations poured in to the Convention. The correspondence committee, which received addresses, declared that the decree of the 18th Floréal “aroused the universal acclamation of the people.”12
The most violent members of the dechristianizing party were not last to join in the applause. Lequinio, who in Brumaire had denied at Rochefort the existence of a future life, now delivered a most feeling eulogy of Robespierre’s report at the Jacobins. “Every phrase of it,” he said, “has met with applause. We should have liked to applaud it every time that it impressed upon our souls elevated sentiments worthy of liberty.” The poet Silvain Maréchal, one of the most convinced atheists who then existed, spoke in high praise of the festival of the 20th Prairial.13
If the dechristianizing party were as pleased as this, it was not, as has been insinuated, in order to flatter the dictator; they had serious grounds for satisfaction. The dechristianizing process was going on with renewed vigor. It looked, indeed, as if the allusion to the liberty of worship inserted in the decree of the 18th Floréal had only the force of a principle ad interim. It was after the 18th Floréal that “they proceeded to close the greater number of the churches.” Aulard makes the statement, and we may take his word.14 “Forced secularization of priests,” he repeats, “became in some places much more frequent than in the time of Hebert.”15 Aulard adds, it is true, that these churches were closed and these priests deprived of their priesthood, in the teeth of Robespierre’s opposition; but, as usual, he does not give the slightest shadow of proof in support of his insinuation. If Robespierre had really been the dictator and pontiff whom Aulard describes, he would no doubt have been able to hinder and check the irreparable fall of Catholicism. If he did not do so it was either because he was not a dictator, or because he did not wish to. We have no reason to doubt the feelings of aversion from priests which he expressed so loudly and so often. He was not one of those anti-clericals who will tear the priests limb from limb over a drink, and immediately afterwards avail themselves of their priestly functions. He had not been a practicing Catholic since his schooldays, to the great scandal of his clerical professors. Unlike Danton, he cannot be reproached with not having lived in accordance with his principles.
The truth is, that Robespierre blamed useless and harmful violence. The truth is, that he tried to rally Catholics to the Revolution, and to a large extent succeeded. The day after the festival of the 20th Prairial, his friend Payan said before the Commune of Paris: “All citizens were satisfied with the simple and natural worship offered to the Supreme Being. They regretted neither their priests nor their superstitions, they promised to cherish virtue and liberty, they believed they were paying their debt to the Godhead and to their country. The sentiment of fraternity united all hearts. . . .” This union, this reconciliation which Payan remarked in Paris, is proved by other witnesses to have prevailed in the rest of the country. In the pious city of Lyons the festival was celebrated amid general enthusiasm. The same was the case almost everywhere.
Far from having favored Catholicism, the decree of the 18th Floréal seemed to have dealt it the final blow, and to have completed the work so precipitately begun on 20th Brumaire. Foreigners were in no doubt about it. The royalist pamphleteer, Mallet du Pan, writes in his Mémoires: “The festival of the Supreme Being produced an extraordinary effect abroad; it was really believed that Robespierre would close the abyss of the Revolution.”16
Alas! Though Robespierre had succeeded in uniting the majority of Frenchmen in one self-same sentiment of patriotism, this instant was short, and his triumph knew no morrow. Slander, envy, fear and crime were to ruin his work and the very Republic itself.
The corrupt parliamentary envoys whom he had had recalled from their missions in the departments, and whom his inflexible probity threatened or annoyed, saw in the Festival of the Supreme Being a means of casting ridicule upon the law-giver whom they dreaded and hated. They were for the most part just as much deists as Robespierre himself, and when they had overthrown him they took care not to revoke the decree of the 18th Floréal, or repudiate the Supreme Being. Many ended, as was meet, by repenting and becoming zealously religious. But in the meantime they circulated a rumor that Robespierre was merely a Catholic in disguise, that his aim was to reinstate the Constitutional clergy, and use them as an instrument of domination. They called him a “pontiff” among themselves. A few of them, such as Bourdon of Oise and Lecointre, railed against him under their breath at the festival of the 20th Prairial. A few days later the members of the Committee of General Security were setting up the engine of war known as the affair of Catherine Théot, in the hope of compromising Robespierre with a harmless, pious old woman.17 In short, they set afoot the legend which has been only too successful, since it is repeated nowadays by some who are considered to be accredited historians.
This legend can now be estimated at its true value. I shall be rewarded for my trouble if I have convinced some of my readers that it is time to rehabilitate the statesman who, from the beginning of his political career to the end, had but one passion, a passion for the public weal, and who advanced towards the high ideal which he had set before him with a rectitude of mind and action which command admiration and warm the heart. Robespierre loved the people with a deep and disinterested love — the real people, horny-handed and warmhearted. He loved it even in its weakness and prejudices. He saw that in order to raise it to the level of the Revolution, and wean it from its superstitions, it was necessary to avoid a direct collision with its mentality, which was the growth of centuries, and to avoid shattering its fundamental beliefs at a single blow. He studied to present it with its necessary emancipation in the form least disturbing to its understanding. He spoke the only language comprehensible to it.
We may think what we like about Robespierre’s deism. I do not deny that it may be considered out-of-date and threadbare, but it served as an easy transition between an exclusive and tyrannical Catholicism and freedom of thought. It was a necessary stage. And how unjust it is, too, to blame Robespierre for his deism, without reproaching his opponents with it too, while extending to them, and particularly to Danton, with his dubious motives, an infinite indulgence. One cannot consider it a crime in Robespierre to have been of his age. We ought to give him credit, and great credit, for having always subordinated his religious to his social ideal. He loved God less than the people, and he loved God because he believed Him to be indispensable to the people.
1 As I have proved in my Origines des cultes révolutionnaires, Paris, Cornely, 1904.
2 See the essay on Robespierre and dechristianization in my book La Révolution et l’ Église.
3 Le Culte de la Raison, 2nd ed., p. 266.
4 This list was borrowed word for word from Mathieu’s previous report.
5 Observe the pantheistic formula: the Supreme Being and Nature.
6 Cf. Julien Tiersot, Les fêtes et les chants de la Révolution française, Hachette, 1908, Ch. VI.
7 Official report.
8 Le Culte de la Raison, p. 323.
9 Ibid., p. 333.
10 Ibid., p. 346.
11 Aulard, Culte de la Raison, p. 286.
12 The 14th Prairial (Moniteur, XX, 633). Cf. also the 7th Prairial (Moniteur, XX, 573).
13 In his Tableau des événements révolutionnaires, which appeared in the Year III.
14 Histoire politique de la Révolution, p. 480.
15 Culte de la Raison, p. 353>
16 Quoted by E. Hamel, Histoire de Robespierre, III, 544.
17 I have examined the affair of Catherine Théot in my Contributions à l’histoire religieuse de la Révolution. Alcan, 1906.