The Cult of the Supreme Being

During the initial stages of the French Revolution there was growing support for the separation of church and state. Many of the contributing members of society from all social strata (the Third Estate), ranging from peasants at the lower end to merchants at the top, began to reject the Catholic Church because it was perceived as a tool of repression and subjugation. Several of the revolution’s leaders initially tried to completely distance French society from any degree of religious inclination. These “radical” thinkers of the age garnered a large amount of support for a new doctrine called the Cult of Reason, which incorporated atheistic views centered on the guiding concept of reason to help guide society’s operation.

Although the Cult of Reason gained an initial foothold in French society, one of the very outspoken and influential leaders of the Committee of Public Safety, Maximilian Robespierre, did not agree with the godless aspect of this new ideological framework. He instead developed his own religious system called The Cult of the Supreme Being. This construct differed from the latter in that it contained elements of religion, deism in particular, and argued that civic virtue and respect for fellow man would aptly serve the all-powerful “creator.” In the document, The Cult of the Supreme Being, Robespierre wrote, “The Author of Nature has bound all mortals by a boundless chain of love and happiness. Perish the tyrants who have dared to break it!” This quote demonstrates how Robespierre believed that humanity was designed to exist in a state of harmony and equilibrium, but certain evil individuals (tyrants) have polluted the system’s design by oppressing fellow men. Robespierre believed that it is the duty of all Frenchman to worship the Supreme Being by taking revolutionary actions to dethrone the tyrants, thus restoring the natural and intended state of nature that the Godhead had intended. He was able to justify revolutionary actions through this paradigm.


What do you believe are the pros and cons of a religious society?

Free Will in Fascist Italy

When Silone moves Bread and Wine into the city of Rome, the reader begins to understand the tensions between city and countryside life. On page 179, Silone writes about how Free Will, or the fear of lacking it, drives men to act against oppression. He describes that fear as the true reason for Pietro’s rebellion against the fascist state, promoting the freedom of man as a communist. This is an interesting form of motivation for a character that is suppose to be seen as a semi-autobiographical work. In the context of Italian history, a region which for the past 2,000 years had limited forms of free will, (between the establishment of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church or the city states of the Renaissance) there is very limited free will. Every simple decision on paper in Italy has a thousand different strings attached to choosing the outcome. Nothing is simple in this country, even in the time of the Fascist state, even though it is an improvement over previous regimes.

Pietro’s motivation to promote communism in order to regain free will is another interesting thought. Because Pietro had lived abroad, he understood the need to break with the USSR’s Stalinism and promote true communism. However, in order to have free will within a truly communist society, wouldn’t one have to sacrifice his “rights” for the greater good of the state? These internal conflicts within the characters of Bread and Wine add another dimension to Silone’s story of a simple man, attempting to free his country from the oppression of a dictator.

“Bread and Wine” by Ignazio Silone

Bread and Wine is a novel written by Italian author Ignazio Silone in 1935. It primarily deals with the betrayal of the Catholic Church in it’s agreement with Fascism, and the underground communist revolutionary movement in Italy at the time. The first half of the book follows the life of a recently returned socialist opponent of the regime, named Pietro Spina, but disguised as Don Paolo Spada. Spada is a priest and is sent to live in a small rural village, in order to regain his health. While in the village, he faces an internal battle between his adolescent religious feelings which return, and his current socialist revolutionary stance.

An interesting theme that runs throughout the text is the depiction of the Church’s persecution of those holy men who do not follow the party line. These men, most specifically portrayed by Don Benedetto, Spina’s childhood teacher and mentor, are shown to be dishonored by the official church but accepted by the peasants. In the scene where Spada is talking to Don Pasquale Colamartini, richest man in the small village, Colamartini states that Benedetto advised his daughter to not join the church, advice that was contradictory to the local pastor’s. While Colamartini does not wish to force his daughter to choose a path, he implies his agreement with Benedetto, who is not in favor with the Church, when he states that “there is no doubt that there have been very few saints [such as Benedetto] who have not been suspected and persecuted by the Church” (p.99).

This statement raises the interesting question on the beliefs of the Church on a rural level. While the Vatican’s deal with Fascism may have been criticized at the highest level, it is questionable whether rural societies, especially in Southern Italy, had developed to the extent that they would consider questions of faith. Rural societies in Europe have traditionally been depicted to have believe the words of the local pastor to be the truth of the gospel, especially since Catholic mass was usually conducted in Latin, which was not a common language. While this image had drastically changed by the early part of the 20th century, it must be remembered that Southern Italy was, and still is, one of the least developed regions in Western Europe. In conclusion, my query is regarding not only the ability of South Italian peasants ability to question and understand the Church’s compromise, but also their desire to question such a development in relation to their own lives. The latter is especially confusing as it must be acknowledged that Silone himself grew up in rural conditions, but he was also a dedicated communist and might have written with certain biases.