Estelle La Chatte (estellacat) wrote in revolution_fr,
Estelle La Chatte

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"Robespierre and the Religion of the Supreme Being"

*sighs* Make that three posts. Sorry for the clutter. >___<

Robespierre held to the idea of God, but because this idea has a social value, public morality seeming to him to depend on it. He never tried, let us remark, to define God, to prove God. God appears him as a sort of verbal mascot which loving moral idea, a precious mascot, the conservation of which the happiness of the crowds is attached to. And Robespierre retraces the devotions that the mascot provoked in the past. He attacks the Encyclopedists who he considers, with much reason, as epicurean bourgeois, very conservative in the domain of social ideas. To them he opposes his master Rousseau who, himself, loved the people without reservation.

            To the sect of the Encyclopedists he attaches all those who, in the Revolution, betrayed liberty, the Girondins, the Dantonistes, the Hébertistes, who all, to believe him, pretended to combat fanaticism, but in reality served its cause by their excesses as by their indulgences. To pull down fanaticism, what was needed, according to him, was neither violence, nor weakness, but a clear-sighted firmness.

            “Fanatics, hope for nothing from us. To recall men to the pure religion of the Supreme Being is to strike fanaticism a mortal blow. All fictions disappear before the Truth and all follies fall before Reason. Without constraint, without persecution, every cult should by itself be confounded in the universal religion of Nature. We will counsel you therefore to maintain the principles you have manifested until now. Let freedom of religion be respected, for the triumph of Reason itself, but let it not trouble public order and let it not become a method of conspiracy. If counter-revolutionary spite hid behind this pretext, repress there, and rest what remains on the power of principles and on the force of events themselves.”

            One can see her in what the religious politics of Robespierre differed from that of the Exagérés. Robespierre and the Hébertistes proposed the same goal: dechristianization. But they set about it in different ways. The Exagérés wanted to suppress by the most rapid of routes, if need be by violence, all religious ceremonies, public or private. They closed the churches, arrested the priests or forced them to abdicate, considered as an offense, as a crime, all acts of Catholicism, even accomplished in private. Robespierre, he blames the use of force, he wants sincere and tranquil Catholics to be permitted to continue their practices, as long as they were not a pretext for aristocratic gatherings. He esteems that the closed churches should remain closed, he recognizes the right of communes to close those which are still open, he will applaud new suppressions, as long as they take place without violence, but in any case, he asks that religious freedom be respected, at least in private. Any Catholic manifestation, if it is not at the same time, in some aspect, an aristocratic manifestation, does not appear to him a punishable offense. The work of the Exagérés was above all negative. They were much more preoccupied with destroying Catholicism than with replacing it. They opened many temples of Reason, but they taught in them less moral and transcendent truths than political truths. Robespierre, he wants to make a positive oeuvre. He does not believe that the civic prescription suffices to take the place of the suppressed Catholicism. The moral point of view, the social point of view overtakes the political point of view in him. Catholicism is not only a perfected system of domination, an admirable machine for making slaves to him; it is also a rule of life, morality. And Robespierre intends that civic religion should also have its morality and its rule of life. He believes to give it this in making it rest on the two social dogmas of the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Thus, he thinks, will be handled the transition between the ancient religion and the new, between Catholicism and liberty. Thus will the mass of population impregnated for centuries with a Catholic spirit be rallied definitively to the Revolution.

            Robespierre is so convinced of the superiority of his method to crush the enemy that he greets its definitive fall with enthusiasm:

            “Ambitious priests, do not expect therefore that we are working to reestablish your empire; such an enterprise would even be beyond our power. You have killed yourselves, and one does not return to moral life any more than physical existence. And besides, what his there between the priests and God? The priests are to morality what charlatans are to medicine. How different the God of nature is from the God of the priests! He knows nothing so much resembling atheism as the religions they have made. By force of disfiguring the Supreme Being, they annihilated what there is of him in them; they made him sometimes a fiery globe, sometimes a cow, sometimes a tree, sometimes a man, sometimes a king. The priests created God in their image; they made him jealous, capricious, avid, cruel, implacable. They treated him as the palace mayors used to treat the descendants of Clovis, to reign in his name and put themselves in his place. They relegated him to heaven as to a palace, and called him to earth but to ask to their profit from tithes, riches, honors, pleasures, and power. The true priest of the Supreme Being is Nature; his temple, the universe; his religion, virtue; his festivals, the joy of a great people gathered before his eyes to strengthen the sweet bonds of universal fraternity and to present to him the homage of sensitive and pure hearts.”

            The national festivals will form the common conscience of the nation. Robespierre considers them as “the most powerful method of regeneration”:

            “Let all tend to reawaken the generous sentiments which make the charm and ornament of human life, enthusiasm for liberty, love for the Patrie, respect for the laws. Let the memory of tyrants and traitors be vowed to execration there; let that of the heroes of liberty and the benefactors of humanity receive there the just tribute of public recognition; let them draw their interest and even their names in the immortal events of our revolution, and even in objects the most sacred and dearest to man’s heart; let them be embellished and distinguished by emblems analogous to their particular object. Let us invite to our festivals both nature and all the virtues; let all be celebrated under the auspices of the Supreme Being; let them be consecrated, let them open and let them finish by an homage to his power and his goodness.”

            Robespierre finally, after having praised the young heroes Bara and Viala, concluded in proposing to the Convention a decree which said:

            “I. The French people recognize the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.

            “II. They recognize that the religion worthy of the Supreme Being is the practice of man’s duties.

            III. They put in the first rank of these duties to detest bad faith and tyranny, to punish tyrants and traitors, to succor the unfortunate, to respect the weak, to defend the oppressed, to do to others all the good they can, and not to be unjust toward anyone.

            “IV. Festivals will be instituted to recall man to thoughts of the dignity of his being.

            “V. They will borrow their names from the glorious events of our Revolution, from the dearest and most useful virtues of man, and from the greatest generosities of nature.

            “VI. Every year the French Republic will celebrate the festivals of 14 July, 10 August 1792, 21 January 1793, 31 May 1793.

            VII. On the days of décadi it will celebrate the festivals whose enumeration follows:[1]

            To the Supreme Being and Nature.[2]

            To the Human Race.

            To the French People.

            To the Benefactors of humanity.

            To Liberty and Equality.

            To the Republic.

            To the Love of the world.

            To the Love of the Patrie.

            To that Hate of tyrants and traitors.

            To Truth.

            To Justice.

            To Modesty.

            To Glory and Immortality.

            To Friendship.

            To Frugality.

            To Courage.

            To Good Faith.

            To Heroism.

            To Disinterestedness.

            To Stoicism.

            To Love.

            To conjugal Faith.

            To maternal Tenderness.

            To filial Piety.

            To Childhood.

            To Youth.

            To the virile Age.

            To Old Age.

            To Misfortune.

            To Agriculture.

            To Industry.

            To our Ancestors.

            To Posterity.

            To Happiness.”


            The last articles of the decree project fixed the festival to be celebrated in honor of the Supreme Being for 20 Prairial and proclaimed the maintenance of freedom of religion, but within narrow limits.

            The decree was voted without discussion amid a great enthusiasm. The Convention ordered that Robespierre’s report be translated into every language, slated for 200,000 copies to be printed, sent to the communes, to the armies, to the popular societies to be read and displayed in all public places and in the camps. A few days later, 23 Floréal, a decree of the Committee of Public Safety ordered engraved on the front of the churches the inscription: “The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” National agents were charged with reading Robespierre’s discourse in the republican temples during the next three décades.

            Of all the festivals of the Revolution, the most brilliant, the most popular was certainly the Festival of the Supreme Being, celebrated in Paris and in most big cities the same day, 20 Prairial (8 June).

            In Paris, the great painter David had been charged with the organization of the festival. He had outlined the plan for it at the tribune of the Convention, 18 Floréal, and had had a long month to prepare its execution.[3]

            A radiant sun illumined the day. “A sea of flowers,” Michelet said, “inundated Paris: the roses from a twenty league radius were brought there and flowers of all sorts, what was needed to flower the houses and persons of a city of 700,000 souls.”

            The drums beat the call, the bells sounded in a volley, then the cannon thundered. The citizens of the forty-eight sections went in groups to the Tuileries in two columns, women on one side, men on the other, six in front; between the two columns, the battalion of adolescents went carrying the flag of the section. The women held flowers in hand, men oak branches. “The joy that radiated from all eyes,” said Tissot, Goujon’s brother-in-law, “was something calm and religious. The women were enraptured.” Each section grouped around a ranging-pole indicating its place in the Tuileries garden.

            At noon, the Convention appeared as a body, its members wearing their official costume for the first time, the blue coat, the short culottes, the sash and the hat with tricolor feathers, all with a bouquet of wheat, flowers, and fruits in hand. Robespierre who had presided the Convention for four days was at their head. They took their places in an amphitheatre adjacent to the palace. A musical corps greeted their coming by playing an air. Robespierre made a sign. There was silence in the immense crowd. He spoke and praised belief in God.

            “…He did not create kings to devour the human race; he did not create the priests to yoke us, like vile animals, to the chariot of kings, and to give the world the example of baseness, pride, perfidy, debauchery, and lies; but he created the universe to publish his power; he created men to help each other and to love each other mutually, and to arrive at happiness by the route of virtue…”

            When Robespierre had finished, the artists of the Opera executed Desforges’ hymn, set to music by Gossec.


            Father of the Universe, supreme Intelligence,

            Unknown benefactor of blind mortals

            You will reveal your being to the recognition

            Which lone will elevate your alters!


            The singers of the sections to whom the members of the Institute of Music had taught the hymns of the ceremony the preceding days mingled their thousands of voices with the choir of the musicians of the Opera.

            Robespierre took a torch and set fire to a monument of Atheism erected in the middle of the great basin. A statue of Wisdom emerged from the cinders of Atheism. Robespierre returned to the tribune and pronounced a second discourse: “It has returned into nothingness, this monster that the genius of kings had vomited onto France. Let all the crimes and misfortunes of the world disappear with it! Armed by turns with the daggers of fanaticism and the poisons of atheism, kings still conspire to assassinate humanity. If they can no longer disfigure the Divinity by superstition to associate it with their misdeeds, they endeavor to banish it from the earth to reign alone with crime.”

            This eloquence, fashionable in this virtuous and sensitive century, made the liveliest impression on contemporaries. La Harpe, the author in vogue, wrote to Robespierre to send him his felicitations. Boissy d’Anglas compared the orator to “Orpheus teaching men the principles of civilization and morality.”

            After a last hymn, the cortege was formed: the twenty-four first sections at the head, the twenty-four last at the end, between the two the Convention, the National Institute of Music preceding it, and, in the middle of the deputies, an immense chariot of the antique form, draped in red, pulled by eight golden-horned cows, upon the chariot a plow with a bundle of wheat and a printing press both shaded by the tree of liberty. They walked the length of the Seine toward the Champ de Mars where the second part of the festival would be executed. In passing before the Invalides, the military men who were fed there at the expense of the republic saluted the Convention “in lifting their hands to heaven and in swearing at the same time to die for liberty.”

            At the Champ de Mars, an immense symbolic Mountain occupied the old site of the alter to the Patrie. The Convention preceded by Robespierre mounted to the summit shaded by the tree of liberty. The musicians and the singers, numbering several thousand, took their place to the side, the men on the right, the women on the left. The broad battalions of adolescents surrounded the Mountain. The sections covered the plain.  Incense burned. On a column was mounted a trumpet to inform the people of the moment when the refrains of the hymns should be reprised in chorus. Gossec directed the music. Many hymns were heard, including M.-J. Chénier’s famous hymn:


            God of the people, of kings, of cities, of the countryside,

            Of Luther, of Calvin, of the children of Israel

            You whom the Gheber worships deep within his mountains,

                        In invoking the stars of heaven

            Here are gathered before your immense sight

            The sons and supports of the French empire.


            This hymn, Tissot said, “produced a sort of interior shivering and religious contemplation that one would not know how to express, even after having felt them amid five hundred thousand witnesses, all stricken by the same emotion.”

            One hundred thousand voices repeated the refrain which was an oath;


            Before setting down our triumphant swords

            Let us swear to annihilate crime and tyrants


            The men sang a verse, the women another, and the refrain was taken up be all those present. Finally, the girls tossed their flowers into the sky, the adolescents drew their sabers, the old men blessed them. “A general discharge of artillery, interpreter of national vengeance, resounded in the air and all the citizens and citizenesses, confounding their sentiments in a fraternal embrace, ended the festival in elevating toward the sky this cry of humanity and public-spiritedness: Long live the Republic![4]

[1] This enumeration was textually borrowed from Mathieu’s anterior report.

[2] Remark upon this pantheist formula: the Supreme Being and Nature!

[3] Cf. Julien Tiersot, The festivals and songs of the French Revolution, Hachette, 1908, chapter VI.

[4] Official minutes

Tags: discussion points, festival of the supreme being, mathiez albert, robespierre maximilien, translations

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