Cult of the Supreme Being
Culte de l'Être suprême
"The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul" (1794 print)
ClassificationDeism
RegionFrance
LanguageFrench
FounderMaximilien Robespierre
Origin7 May 1794 (1794-05-07)
Defunct28 July 1794 (1794-07-28)

The Cult of the Supreme Being (French: Culte de l'Être suprême)[note 1] was a form of theocratic deism established by Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution as the intended state religion of France and a replacement for its rival, the Cult of Reason, and of Roman Catholicism. It went unsupported after the fall of Robespierre and, along with the Cult of Reason, was officially banned by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

Origins

The French Revolution had occasioned many radical changes in France, but one of the most fundamental for the hitherto Catholic nation was the official rejection of religion. The first new major organized school of thought emerged under the umbrella name of the Cult of Reason. Advocated by radicals like Jacques Hébert and Antoine-François Momoro, the Cult of Reason distilled a mixture of largely atheistic views into an anthropocentric philosophy. No gods at all were worshipped in the Cult of Reason; the guiding principle was devotion to the abstract concept of Reason.[1]

Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794)

This rejection of all godhead appalled Maximilien Robespierre. Though he was no admirer of Catholicism, he had a special dislike for atheism.[2] He thought that belief in a supreme being was important for social order, and he liked to quote Voltaire: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him".[3] To him, the Cult of Reason's philosophical offenses were compounded by the "scandalous scenes" and "wild masquerades" attributed to its practice.[4] In late 1793, Robespierre delivered a fiery denunciation of the Cult of Reason and of its proponents[5] and proceeded to give his own vision of proper Revolutionary religion. Devised almost entirely by Robespierre, the Cult of the Supreme Being was authorized by the National Convention on 7 May 1794 as the civic religion of France.[6][7][8]

Religious tenets

Robespierre believed that reason is only a means to an end, and the singular end is virtue. He sought to move beyond simple deism (often described as Voltairean by its adherents) to a new and, in his view, more rational devotion to the godhead. The primary principles of the Cult of the Supreme Being were a belief in the existence of a god and the immortality of the human soul.[9] These beliefs were put to the service of Robespierre's fuller meaning, which was of a type of civic-minded, public virtue he attributed to the Greeks and Romans.[10] This type of virtue could only be attained through active fidelity to liberty and democracy.[11] Belief in a living god and a higher moral code, he said, were "constant reminders of justice" and thus essential to a republican society.[12]

On 7 May 1794, the National Convention established the Worship of the Supreme Being; the opening clauses of the Decree Establishing the Worship of the Supreme Being of the 18th Floréal of the Year II declared:[13]

He dedicated festivals to the Supreme Being, to Truth, Justice, Modesty, Friendship, Frugality, Fidelity, Immortality, Misfortune, etc. The Cult of the Supreme Being was based on the creed of the Savoy chaplain that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had outlined in Book IV of Emile.[citation needed]

Revolutionary impact

Robespierre used the religious issue to publicly denounce the motives of many radicals not in his camp, and it led, directly or indirectly, to the executions of Revolutionary de-Christianisers like Hébert, Momoro, and Anacharsis Cloots.[4] The establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being represented the beginning of the reversal of the wholesale de-Christianization process that had been looked upon previously with official favour.[14] Simultaneously it marked the apogee of Robespierre's power. Though in theory he was just an equal member of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre at this point possessed an unrivalled national prominence.[15]

Festival of the Supreme Being

The Festival of the Supreme Being, by Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1794)

To inaugurate the new state religion, Robespierre declared that 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794) (also the Christian holiday of Pentecost) would be the first day of national celebration of the Supreme Being, and future republican holidays were to be held every tenth day—the days of rest (décadi) in the new French Republican Calendar.[6] Every locality was mandated to hold a commemorative event, but the event in Paris was designed on a massive scale. The festival was organized by the artist Jacques-Louis David and François Joseph Talma and took place around a man-made mountain on the Champ de Mars.[16] Robespierre assumed full leadership of the event, forcefully—and, to many, ostentatiously[17]—declaring the truth and "social utility" of his new religion.[18] While earlier Revolutionary festivals were more spontaneous, the Festival of the Supreme Being was meticulously planned. Historian Mona Ozouf has noted how the "creaking stiffness" of the event has been seen by some to foreshadow "the sclerosis of the Revolution."[19]

Witnesses state that throughout the "Festival of the Supreme Being", Robespierre beamed with joy. He was able to speak of the things about which he was passionate, including virtue, nature, deist beliefs and his disagreements with atheism. The procession ended on the Champ de Mars. The Convention climbed to the summit, where a liberty tree had been planted.[a] Dressed in sky-blue coat and nankeen trousers, Robespierre delivered two speeches in which he emphasised his concept of a Supreme Being: there would be no Christ, no Mohammed.[20]

Someone was heard saying, "Look at the blackguard; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God". According to him: "Robespierre proclaimed to believe in the Supreme Being, and who only believed in the power of crime." Robespierre was also criticized by Vadier, Barère, Courtois and Fouché, members of the Committee of General Security. Joseph Fouché had predicted to him his approaching fall.[21] On 15 June, the president of the Committee of General Security, Vadier, on behalf of the two committees presented a report on a new conspiracy by Catherine Théot, Christophe Antoine Gerle and three others. He insinuated that Robespierre fitted her prophecies.[22] His speech caused much laughter in the convention. Many of her followers were also supporters or friends of Robespierre, which made it seem as if he was attempting to create a new religion, with him as its god. Robespierre felt ridiculed and demanded on the 26th that the investigation of Théot be stopped and Fouquier-Tinville replaced.[23] The deist Cult of the Supreme Being that he had founded and zealously promoted generated suspicion in the eyes of both anticlericals and other political factions, who felt he was developing grandiose delusions about his place in French society.[24][25]

Legacy

The Cult of the Supreme Being and its festival may have contributed to the Thermidorian Reaction and the downfall of Robespierre.[18] According to Madame de Staël, it was from that time he was lost.[26][27] With his death at the guillotine on 28 July 1794, the cult lost all official sanction and disappeared from public view.[28] It was officially banned by Napoleon on 8 April 1802 with his Law on Cults of 18 Germinal, Year X.[29]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ The word "cult" in French (culte) means "a form of worship", without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English: Robespierre intended it to appeal to a universal congregation.
  1. ^ The choirs were composed by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and François-Joseph Gossec, with lyrics from the obscure poet Théodore Désorgues.

References

  1. ^ Kennedy, p. 343: "Momoro explained, 'Liberty, reason, truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods ...'"
  2. ^ Scurr, p. 293.
  3. ^ Scurr, p. 294.
  4. ^ a b Kennedy, p. 344.
  5. ^ Kennedy, p. 344: "Robespierre lashed out against de-Christianization in the Convention ..."
  6. ^ a b Doyle, p. 276.
  7. ^ Neely, p. 212: "(T)he Convention authorized the creation of a civic religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. On 7 May, Robespierre introduced the legislation...."
  8. ^ Jordan, pp. 199ff.
  9. ^ Kennedy, p. 345.: "Robespierre followed a consistent line of argument...(that) God exists and that the soul is immortal."
  10. ^ Žižek, p. 111: "I [Robespierre] am talking about the public virtue that worked such prodigies in Greece and Rome, and that should produce far more astonishing ones in republican France ..."
  11. ^ Lyman, pp. 71–72.
  12. ^ Doyle, p. 276.: "[Robespierre] proclaim[ed] that the French people recognized the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. These principles, declared Robespierre to applause, were a continual reminder of justice, and were therefore social and republican." See also p.262: "[Robespierre] believed that religious faith was indispensable to orderly, civilized society".
  13. ^ Alpaugh, Micah (14 January 2021). The French Revolution: A History in Documents. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-350-06531-4.
  14. ^ Kennedy, p. 344.: "Robespierre's influence was such that the de-Chistianization movement rapidly slackened ..."
  15. ^ Doyle, p. 277.: "He seemed to be speaking for the Committee of Public Safety more and more, and was certainly better known in the country at large than any of his colleagues. At Orléans, as well as in Paris, the Festival of the Supreme Being took place to cries of "Vive Robespierre"."
  16. ^ Hanson, p. 95: "... [T]he Champ de Mars where David had created an enormous symbolic mountain."
  17. ^ Doyle, p. 277: "'Look at the bugger,' muttered Thuriot, an old associate of Danton. 'It's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God.'"
  18. ^ a b Kennedy, p. 345.
  19. ^ Ozouf, Mona. (1988). Festivals and the French Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0674298837. OCLC 16005069.
  20. ^ Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue by Otto Scott
  21. ^ David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 237
  22. ^ Schama 1989, p. 840.
  23. ^ R.R. Palmer (1970), p. 368
  24. ^ "Gueniffey : "Robespierre incarne d'une façon chimiquement pure l'idée de la table rase"". LEFIGARO. 16 June 2016.
  25. ^ "Man of the people".
  26. ^ Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine) (1818). Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy.
  27. ^ G. Rudé (1967) Robespierre, p. 127
  28. ^ Neely, p. 230: "The fall of Robespierre brought an end to the Cult of the Supreme Being with which he had been closely identified. The new civic religion... had not had a chance to win many converts."
  29. ^ Doyle, p. 389.

Bibliography

Further reading