Values of Revolutionary Culture

La Marseillaise is a remarkably bloodthirsty national anthem, marking the desire for revenge over those who oppressed the French citizenry. It is interesting that Rouget de Lisle was himself a royalist, not only because he composed this anthem in a revolutionary spirit, but also because of the incredibly violent nature of the lyrics:

Aux armes citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons.

To arms, citizens!
Form up your battalions
Let us march, Let us march!
That their impure blood
Should water our fields

These lyrics express a desire to repay blood with blood, which with the limited information about Rouget de Lisle provided, is strange because it would seem that himself, as a royalist, would be one of the ones whose blood would “water [the] fields.” It would seem that he took a great risk by refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the new constitution, and he narrowly escaped the guillotine.

The Cult of the Supreme Being by Robespierre at parts seems almost to contradict many of the events of the Reign of Terror. Robespierre says the Supreme Being “created men to help each other, to love each other mutually, and to attain to happiness by the way of virtue.” According to him, however, this only applies to those Frenchmen taking part in the revolution, and basically the opposite applies to the oppressors.

These references to the “Supreme Being” are the establishment of Deism as a state religion, meaning that Robespierre and many French revolutionists believed that there was a Supreme Being, or God, who created the universe but did not interact with it. The revolutionists believed that the Supreme Being was in favor of their movement and against all those who opposed it. This, again seems to be contradictory since a main tenet of deism is that the Supreme Being does not interact with the universe which He created.

These works by Rouget de Lisle and Robespierre show us that the values of revolutionary culture were geared primarily at attaining their goal of overthrowing the French monarchy and establishing a new order. They were not necessarily concerned with absolute consistency in their ideals, as is evident in the 40,000 people who were sent to the guillotine while revolutionists preached that the Supreme Being created man to “love each other mutually” and to seek enlightenment. Robespierre says “[m]ay all the crimes and all the misfortunes of the world disappear…Armed in turn with the daggers of fanaticism and the poisons of atheism, kings have always conspired to assassinate humanity.” This seems oddly reminiscent of the way the revolutionists handled their Reign of Terror; one could easily argue that there were a great many crimes and misfortunes inflicted on the world, and a great many assassinations were carried out at the guillotine.

3 thoughts on “Values of Revolutionary Culture

  1. I think your point about Robespierre separating those participating in the revolution and those not participating holds true for both of the documents. Not only did Robespierre say that the beneficial virtues sent by the Supreme Being are only applicable to those actively seeking out the revolution, but in addition La Marseillaise makes the distinction of values that those not playing a role do not have. It is the direct line “that their impure blood should water our fields” that displays those singing the song distancing themselves from the rest of French society, as they openly state that those not on their side are “impure” implying that they are the only real Frenchmen.

  2. When reading Rouget de Lisle’s anthem, the thing that struck me most was in fact the violent ways he depicts the French revolution should be and in fact is. Our national anthem is no where near as descriptive and bloody in its message. A song supporting the revolution, I would have thought to have been written by a actual supporter instead of a royalist trying to avoid death. Maybe this song was the reason Lisle actually avoid the guillotine as he was almost executed a year after writing the song and perhaps its existence spared his life.

  3. Robespierre and his followers as Deists view the Supreme Being as the great watchmaker in the sky that only overlooks the work he has created. All of the values that the revolutionaries share and believe are engraved in their moral character by the Supreme Being. As to whether the Supreme Being interacted with the revolutionaries, I believe their values, which are indeed in favor of their cause, are already embedded in the hearts all humans by design of the Supreme Being, himself. So the revolutionaries are not being told to fight by the Supreme Being but are rather fighting in his name.

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