Moving away from Absolutism

France endured centuries of Absolute Monarchs that spent much of their kingdom’s wealth on lavish buildings, monuments, and other signs of status, while the common people, known as the third estate, remained poor, hungry and devoid of power.  Though the third estate lacked power through the traditional estate system, as the clergy and nobility could overrule their political ambitions, it consisted of 96% of the French population.  Because it held the overwhelming majority of the population, members of the third estate believed that they should hold more power over France’s decisions.  Thus power was subsequently moved away from absolute rulers, nobility, and clergy and towards the third estate.

One of the most profound demonstrations of this shift was the change from the state following Catholicism to supporting more general Deist practices.  Revolutionaries saw the clergy as a corrupt entity created to justify a Monarch as well as being a way to neutralize the common man’s power in the estate system.  Therefore, revolutionaries aimed to reduce its power by shifting France’s religion to Deism.  This meant that the clergy and nobility would have less power over the third estate.  Likewise, it meant that the third estate now had control over their own religious preferences and would not have to pay to the church.

Another shift away from the past Absolutist ways of France was the general condemnation of royalty.  Children were prohibited from receiving names of past kings such as Louis, Francis, or Henry.  Kings and queens where removed from games such as chess and cards.  The general attitude of disapproval of royalty was promoted by members of the third estate as they realized their power as their society’s majority.

France underwent a shift away from absolutism towards democracy.  Much of the government supported by the revolutionaries had roots to the Greek concepts of equality and free thought.  These ideas mixed with the third estate’s desire to have political input and led France in its modernization and ultimately its rejection of Absolutist practices.

Heads Would Roll, But That Wasn’t Enough

Just as Louis XIV  created symbols of his power as the absolute ruler of France, such as the palace of Versailles and even himself (he was the “Sun King” and claimed that he was the state/the state was him), so did the leaders of the French Revolution create their own symbols and culture in order to aid their overthrow of the monarchy and subsequent attempts to create a whole  new society.

In a pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate?, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote that the Third Estate was “everything.” He argued that because the Third Estate made up the vast majority of France’s people (about 96%), and because it was the only segment of the Estates-General that contributed to the maintenance and betterment of the state, that it therefore was the state. Here, Sieyès made the opposite claim as Louis XIV, but he makes his claim for the same reason: to show where the power of France should lay. Instead of making the king the symbol of France, Sieyès made the common people the symbol of the nation. This trend continued in some of the artwork of the revolutionary period, as common people were shown dressed in fine clothing and in improved health but also performing tasks that would be useful to both themselves and the greater good of the state.

When Maximilien Robespierre wrote about the Supreme Being, he did so not out of religious fervor (although that could have played a role) but because the revolutionaries needed another way to unite the diverse peoples of France. Robespierre asserted that the French Revolution would be supported by the Supreme Being, as He created man to seek liberty and punish tyrants. Robespierre cleverly wrote about the Supreme Being in a Deist manner that would allow both Catholics and people of a more agnostic/atheist persuasion to relate to Robespierre’s argument, and his version of the Supreme Being also enabled him to maintain the Enlightenment ideal of Reason without completely trampling religion into the dirt.

Fashion during the revolutionary period also took on an Enlightenment spin, as dressing in clothes inspired by ancient Greece became a trend. The French thought of the people of ancient Greece as great thinkers and writers, so they sought to emulate this society that placed a value on reason that they saw as being like France’s. Additionally, the first known democracy occurred in ancient Greece, and while France by no means became the paragon of democracy at that point, people of a revolutionary mindset wanted to invoke the Greeks as an example of a nation that placed a high value on liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Chopping off some elaborately coiffed heads could not transform France alone; alongside the political actions and ramifications of the revolution, revolutionary leaders changed the symbols and culture of France in order to unite the Third Estate in rejection of the old order.

Questions for your consideration:

How does Robespierre’s treatment of religion compare to or differ from that of other revolutionary leaders (such as those in the American Revolution or the Communist revolution in Russia)?

In what other ways did the revolutionaries of France use symbols to their advantage? What kinds of symbols do we and/or our leaders use in the U.S. today?

Do you agree that the political revolution in France would not have been possible had it not been accompanied by a cultural one as well?




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?

Religion in a Revolutionary Context

Religion remained the primary justification of the French Revolution by the citizens of the third estate. Robespierre, the leader of Public Safety, pushed both ideologies of Supreme “Reason” and “Being” in order to provide a more understandable means to motivate revolutionaries. The state religion at the time revolved around a Deist philosophy, the notion that there is no divine intervention and God is a clockmaker who merely wound up the springs of nature and set them into motion. Logically, because God cannot interrupt the flow of the human course, but simultaneously promoted particular virtues that the monarchy did not reflect, it became justified that it was their right to overthrow the atheistic monarch to perpetuate God’s will. Religious sentiments such as these are extremely powerful. When man and woman can be convinced that their violence is justified and the result will bring them higher fortunes, it is very difficult to stop them.

La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem composed during the French Revolution, contained very violent language that no one could find religiously justifiable without it’s context. Phrases such as “Their impure blood should water our fields”, paired with adjectives like “vengeful”, actually caused it to be banned by Napoleon and Louis XVIII due to its revolutionary implications. These documents reveal that revolutionary culture during the French Revolution was fueled by violence while simultaneously being justified in religious contexts.

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.