Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The Cult of the Supreme Being

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française Volume VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

In the meanwhile Robespierre couldn’t remain in this suspended state. The Revolution, France, and Europe awaited a word, a signal from him. His first grand act was a great mistake. During Floréal he proposed to the Convention, and had it adopt after a long, eloquent speech, the official recognition of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul. Yes, this was a decisive political mistake. Not that these deist affirmations shocked the reason of most Frenchmen: atheists and materialists were rare. Those who, like Danton, were to say before the revolutionary tribunal: “the void shall soon be my home” thought it politic to speak of God. It is also the case that materialist pantheism was able to accommodate the word “God” and interpret it. Those who were the most deist, like the former editor of the “Journal de la Montagne,” Laveaux, virtually confused God with “the order of nature.” And the Convention itself had decreed a Festival of the Supreme Being and Nature. Perhaps if socialism had arrived at a clear idea and a clear and profound self-awareness, it would have objected that the God external and superior to the world invoked by Robespierre to fulfill and put right human justice shattered human solidarity in space and time. It rendered justice to each of them individually, and all these separate souls, all these spirits whose destinies were fulfilled outside humanity seemed to reduce human society, since it was outside and above it that they found happiness and the right. But communism didn’t yet have its formula and it hadn’t been able to fashion a metaphysics of the world.

In addition, those who like Condorcet wanted no other Elysium than that which reason could create were only an infinitesimal minority and truly negligible. The great revolutionary crisis had exalted the sense of immortal life in many souls. The Christians who'd been invaded by the indifference of the century found in this trial the ardor of their faith. How many in the tumbrel that took them to the gallows sought out in the crowd the non-juring priest who had promised them a sign of eternal reconciliation. The revolutionaries as well, in whom the idea of immortality had been insinuated by Rousseau like a dim moral reverie, loved it with all the frenzy of endangered life. The gallows filled the city with the glow of immortality. In their last words and their despairing writings the Girondins attested to their faith in God and the immortal soul. From his prison cell Camille Desmoulins asked Lucile to send him Plato’s book on the immortality of the soul. To many spirits exalted by misfortune, by heroism and glory, immortality appeared to be the sublime rendezvous of the heroes of the centuries: Charlotte Corday, with an antique serenity, said that she was going to join on the Elysian Fields all those in all countries and all times who had died for freedom and the fatherland. The Christian paradise appeared to be eclipsed, like a kind of dark, intermediate zone, by the great light of the immortal glory that shone from ancient Rome and modern France. From Decius or Lucretius to Charlotte Corday, the Elysian Fields formed a shining avenue, continuous and serene, which the centuries of the Middle Ages hadn’t interrupted.

And Saint-Just, in the pained and superb cry which I quoted above, seemed to confuse the immortality of the spirit and the immortality of glory: “...the independent life I gave myself in the centuries and in the heavens.”

Even in the Convention’s decree there was not an abdication, but rather pride in reason and liberty. It seemed that God’s official recognition by revolutionary France added to God’s titles. And when in his “Institutions” Saint-Just speaks of the eternal and immortality one would think he is making even God’s judgment submit to the decrees of revolutionary thought.

“The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul...The immortal soul of those who died for the Fatherland; of those who were good citizens, who cherished their father and mother and never abandoned them, lies within the breast of the Eternal.”

Before even God, it is the Revolution that, for eternity, separates the good from the evil, and heaven is nothing but a kind of invisible Pantheon where God resides, but whose keys the Revolution holds, and it opens the doors to those whose foreheads it has marked with an immortal sign.

So if Robespierre’s act was dangerous and evil it’s not because there was a violent contradiction between the deist formulas it imposed on the spirit of the French people and the French people themselves. No; in the first place, in organizing a Festival of the Supreme Being, in promulgating a philosophical dogma and organizing a kind of religion, he appeared to seek to give himself new powers. He was, in fact, the head of the civil power. People might be led to think that he sought to become the leader of a religious power, and mistrust was awakened. In addition, the priests, ever alert for any ambiguity that could serve their purposes, went about saying that this Supreme Being was, after all, nothing but the God of Christianity. The Festival of the Supreme Being seemed to them a transition towards the official glorification of Jesus. And Robespierre revived counter-revolutionary hopes more than the “Vieux Cordelier” had.

Finally, Robespierre, after having crushed Hébertism as a faction, seemed to be taking posthumous revenge on the Hébertist spirit, a terrible threat for the survivors.

The Committee of Public Safety had allowed this to go on. But neither Billaud-Varenne, nor Collot d'Herbois, nor even Barère had approved this demonstration, in which Robespierre’s individual religious tendency was made visible. He hadn’t dared directly confront the problem. He hadn’t said to the thousands of men who had faith in him, “This is the road down which the Revolution must go.” No; he prepared the revolutionary relaxation by turning spirits towards ideas he considered great. It was through a religious and moral deviation that he wanted to calm the revolutionary fever. But this was a dark road. And Robespierre isolated himself, set himself apart at the critical moment when he should have been conciliatory, should have called to him all of the revolutionary forces with their mixture of good and bad.

From this point on hearts became embittered and turned away, and the leavening of worry and mistrust again fermented within the Revolution. It was on a splendid day in Prairial that Robespierre, president of the Convention, led the parade that bore the Revolution’s official recognition to God. The joy that shone from his face did not do so for long. Some murmurings, some outbursts from the deputies warned him of the hatreds and fears that existed. He marched a bit ahead of the Convention. “There goes the dictator! He wants to attract the people’s attention to himself alone! It’s not enough for him to be king; he wants to be God!”

Suddenly the abyss opened. It was necessary to strike again. Blood had to be spilled again. Yes, Robespierre wanted to strike. He wanted to warn his enemies who thought only of warning him. And death would circulate again through this closed circuit of mistrust and terror death.