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Nine The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political
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The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Critique of Political Reason

Was the "religious revolution" a popular movement to which Robespierre, the Jacobin Club, and the Convention added nothing apart from some terminological polish and a legally binding form, or was it a manipulative campaign of the political elite? As is well known, the first is Mathiez's position (which also inherently condones the whole movement). The second, the Aulard thesis, establishes a diametrically opposed explanation. In terms of the latter, it was the ominous représentants en mission (symbolically: Fouché) who initiated the turmoil.

Both of these one-sided interpretations face several unresolvable difficulties. In the Mathiez version, the radical novelty of the Cult of the Supreme Being has disappeared. Had the whole work already been done by the anonymous activists, his own hero's philosophical efforts to introduce a "moral world revolution" would be, by implication, reduced to empty rhetoric. Nor can the vehemence of Robespierre's political campaign against at least certain contingents of the movement be accounted for on these premises. In the Aulard scenario, the popular movement, of which he was the great historian, either remains an irrelevant symptom of the general upheaval or, at the very best, is reduced to an easy excuse for the introduction of Robespierre's new state religion, the function of which remains, for Aulard, on the whole mysterious.

I propose a third approach to the issue, the methodological bases of which I have set forth in The Frozen Revolution . It is modeled on the Jacobin elite's attitude toward the policy of the maximum général . The idea of a terroristic economic policy was equally promoted by (sometimes the same) popular


activists; it was similarly expropriated and, in a modified form, declared the official policy of the dictatorship by the political elite.[33] The maximum général was a nihilist scenario precisely in the sense that it displayed an enormous destructive power without the capacity of creating anything durable. At the same time, it was a popular initiative of great strength, especially in the very power bases of the dictatorship, the Parisian districts, which suffered most from the collapse of the economic policy of the Revolution.

The power center, the Montagne, the Club of the Jacobins, and Robespierre himself, were watching the new movement with utmost suspicion and jealousy. They were convinced, in a manner similar to the famous dictum of Saint-Just, that no positive legislation on economy, on this almost natural domain within society, is possible. Even the most resolute radicals, Robespierre above all, hated anarchism. In certain aspects, they always remained statesmen of the Enlightenment who wanted to usher in the era of the rule of reason. At the same time, they shared at least one feeling with the suspicious demagogues of social turbulence: an increasing disillusionment with the supposedly self-regulatory rationality of the market. But they were not prepared to relinquish even a part of their authority. When it turned out to be impossible to control the popular thrust for maximum général with fine speeches, they expropriated the main demand of the movement, made it state policy, thoroughly transformed it, and used the modified result as a powerful weapon for, among other uses, crushing dangerous agitators. Something frighteningly similar happened in the case of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

Right from the beginning, there had indeed emerged several, and widely heterogeneous, trends and motifs on the lower echelons of the revolutionary process which prepared the ground for the final showdown. A number of eminent scholars, old and new, have proved how a system of symbols and ceremonies had been accumulating during the revolutionary events, anniversaries, and festivities from the Feast of the Federation in 1790 onward. These symbols and ceremonies were initially only instinctively profane and political, instead of religious, but they gradually paved the way for a new cult.[34] Perhaps the philosophically deepest observation concerning the sociopolitical vacuum that needed to be filled with this new cult, a crucial testimony about the strong need for a new political religion, reaches us through centuries from the most unexpected quarters: from Madame de Staël. Her premise is that "Representative monarchies cannot succeed absolute monarchies but through the change of dynasty, republics cannot succeed monarchies but through the change of religion."[35] And although her final considerations were dictated by the experience of "the socail question" after Thermidor, at least certain sections of her thought would have found unhesitant support from the man whose head fell in Thermidor and who had always been a suspicious observer of the antipatriotism of the rich. Here is the conclusion drawn from the premise:


The unique interest of people in France is to acquire a sum of available money. They act with such agitation as those on a shipwrecked vessel would grab any plank that would bring them to the shore regardless of what happens to the crew. One defies the other, and no one offers assistance . . . . There is no longer even a hypocrisy of language in personal relationships. Personal interest is so highly exalted by all sorts of fears of which it is composed that mentioning virtue, sacrifice, devotion would, in a manner of speaking, produce the effect pedantry did in other times . . . . Under the reign of the Terror a sort of passion inhered in the barbarism that was exercised. Those people were ferocious animals who satisfied their instinct rather than greedy men who offered sacrifice to their interest. Whoever commits cruel acts these days in France is solely inspired by calculating what the gamble of this or that agent of the power can be. It is better to bail out your life than defend it . . . . No one listens to reason of any kind for the issue is invariably one of selfish motives . . . am I wrong therefore to believe that we have to look for aid in the religious ideas?[36]

It is not civil religion (whose best-known champion in the French Revolution was, typically, an American, Thomas Paine) that is at issue here, but the religious underpinning of the Revolution in the face of the destructive atomization by an unrestrained free market, which erodes all republican virtues and leaves only sheer, and in bad times ferocious, egoism in the arena. The common feature in Robespierre and Madame de Staël is that they both drew a surprisingly similar conclusion from the rationalizing fiasco of political reason as well as from the new problems unleashed by the very process of the Revolution. Both gradually came to realize that tinkering with new editions of the old religion is futile. Both believed therefore that, in contrast to the mere change of the forms of monarchy, what they called the "Republic" needed a change of religion. However, both knew that the free state is in reality linked with the free market, that the citizen is also an egoistic man. Will the Republic be anything else but the constant battlefield of egoistic interests if reason, whose other name is calculation, is the sole guide? Are egoists, ordinarily full of contempt for "spiritual powers" and "higher principles," capable of sacrifice, devotion, justice? Both asked the question, and they answered it in the negative. In addition, neither believed, for different reasons, that egoistic man can be altogether eliminated from the social arena. At this point, because Robespierre added the power of the terroristic state as a restrictive—protective measure against the uncontrollable fury of unrestrained egoism, whereas de Staël remained for her entire life a passionate enemy of the Terror, their ways parted. But their dilemma remained valid for the whole lifetime of the French Revolution as well as for other revolutions and for "republics" functioning in "normal" times. Their fundamental and irreconcilable difference on "the socially useful function of the salutary terror" had the further consequence that while de Staël made efforts to devise a


new religion for the Republic, but one which operates in the private sphere, Robespierre decided that the terroristic state is the adequate locus for a "religious revolution from above."

Robespierre faced an enormously complex problem during the months the idea of a religious revolution must have gradually been taking shape in his thoughts. As a young deputy of the Constituent Assembly, he had been in the forefront of the drive for the Civil Constitution. Although, as he was to admit later, he was always a bad Catholic and influenced by a philosophy whose Protestant dimensions were not particularly hidden, he still believed that the old religion, once sufficiently broken and humiliated, could be streamlined and used by the Revolution in a subaltern position. However, his illusions totally evaporated under the impact of Vendée and the evident uselessness of the constitutional church in channeling the counterrevolutionary sentiments. When the dechristianizing movement, both in spontaneous and organized forms, emerged in late 1793-early 1794, he immediately smelled anarchism and his term of accusation was atheism .

Robespierre emphasized several times, most emphatically in his crucial speech in Floréal on the Supreme Being, that he was not a metaphysician but a statesman with philosophical intent.[37] For him, every social trend that tended to destroy the old belief without creating a new one transpired as anarchist atheism, because it created a dangerous political—spiritual vacuum that, Robespierre firmly believed, would be filled with the spirit of Vendée. This is why the genuinely atheist Cloots and the anti-Christian but religiously mystical-minded Chaumette were uniformly accused of atheism, a charge which, if erroneous on philosophical grounds, was completely consistent in terms of a terroristic logic.

Although perhaps Rousseau's thunderous invectives against the idle disbelievers, the enemies of humanity, reverberated in Robespierre's charges of atheism with counterrevolutionary intent when he committed his list of accusation to paper, the atheist—anarchist (whose epitome was the despised Fouché) appeared to him as a modern type, one not identical with the aristocratic libertine.[38] Robespierre, who hated Diderot but who was to a degree familiar with his writings, could have encountered such a specimen in Rameau's Nephew . This new type of atheist was a gambler with ideas and commitments. His republican virtue was pure affectation or hypocritical theater behind which lurked either corruption (as in the case of Fabre Églantine) or a criminal lust for power. At any rate, the haughty atheist's superhuman challenge to God and the immortality of the soul was more than the attitude of a virtuous citizen and, as such, it was suspect.

The venture of expropriating the results, channeling the destructive energies, and reshaping the options of the popular movement in the positive form of the Cult of the Supreme Being could find very few constructive elements to build on among the debris left behind by the dechristianizers. It


shows Robespierre's mettle, indeed his tyrannical genius, that he extracted from this meager material, as well as from his own amateurish philosophical erudition, the project of a religious revolution. Mathiez believes otherwise. His thesis is that Robespierre added nothing but a new name to what had already been created by anonymous militants, namely, the Cult of Reason.[39] I will try to prove, first, that names do count and that the "Cult of Reason" was inadequate for Robespierre's own purposes; and second, that the "Supreme Being" was the only overarching term that could serve the Robespierrist "republic of virtue."

As we now see from the end result, the following principles were leading Robespierre in the masterplan of the new cult. First and foremost was that the Enlightenment, with its spirit of unshakeable trust in the omnipotence of reason, had proven inadequate in the storms of revolution. There had been just too many areas where reason's promises were self-confident but its actual performance catastrophic. Although reason remained one of our guides in Robespierre's view, it has an in-built penchant to be perverted into mere calculation; therefore it must be closely supervised. Furthermore, reason is lame without enthusiasm, which cannot be generated from rationality alone. The explicit ban on the mainstream of the Enlightenment in the speech of Floréal, the outburst against Diderot's more rational-than-enthusiastic patriotism, bears out the truth of this interpretation.[40]

Robespierre's second guiding principle was that the new religion must be political, not just civil (an idea he had inherited from Rousseau), and therefore that it must be a cult enforced by the Republic of Virtue. Political religion and "Republic" reciprocally presuppose each other. Without the republican power, the new cult could not maintain itself against the wave of anarchy. This is why in a special decree that was pushed through in the Convention, "the French people recognized the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul" in the same manner as parliaments recognize the existence of a new state.[41] On the other side, the Republic of Virtue would be lacking in moral foundations without the legally decreed idea of the Supreme Being. Robespierre provided a laconic maxim of moral politics or politicized morals: "Immorality is the basis of despotism, as virtue is the essence of the Republic . . . . "[42]

The third ground rule of the new cult was that it was not allowed to infract the organizational monolithism of démocratie dirigée . As far as we can ascertain from the interpretation given to it by Payan (who in the last period of the dictatorship following the fall of both ultras and citras emerged as the major translator of Robespierre's implicit intentions), it was a categorical decision of the center that the new political religion should have neither priests nor a separate institutional existence.[43]

Finally, the new cult was not meant to be the continuation of any traditional belief, dogma, or religion; it was arbitrarily created. This fact alone (of


which the new prophet was proudly aware) attested to the growing selfconfidence of the new revolutionary in handling the social world as an artifact, instead of a natural, and therefore unalterable, order.[44] The "artificially" created Cult of the Supreme Being had a single, explicitly political, task: to solve all the unresolved problems of the Revolution, the Republic of Virtue. Its functions can be derived from this assigment alone.

The first and overarching function has already been mentioned: to provide a moral grounding for the "Republic," which was never a technical term in Robespierre's vocabulary. Although for him both constitutional monarchy and aristocratic (Girondist) republic were variations on the same old theme, Republic writ large represented a completely new phenomenon in the moral and political history of humankind. This novel creation could not possibly rest on tradition (because the latter was one of servitude), nor could it be based on the self-interest of those who find the Republic more profitable than the rule of the prince. In fact, Robespierre's almost general suspiciousness toward his own former comrades-in-arms in the last months of the dictatorship, his growing obsession with the hydra of an internal counterrevolution, was rooted precisely in his experience (or perception) that the majority of them served the Republic for their own selfish interests. Mathiez, who endorsed his paranoid vision without reservation, provides a good summary of Robespierre's attitude:

Robespierre . . . showed that all the crises of the Revolution had been caused by more or less avowed agents of despotism—that is to say, of crime : by Lafayette, "who invoked the Constitution in order to restore the royal power"; by Dumouriez, "who invoked the Constitution in order to protect the Girondin faction against the National Convention"; by Brissot, who desired to turn the Constitution into "a shield to parry the blow which menaced the throne"; by "Hébert and his accomplices, who demanded the sovereignty of the people in order to slaughter the National Convention and annihilate the republican government"; by Danton, "indulgent to every crime, involved in every plot, promising protection to villains and fidelity to patriots; adroitly explaining away his treachery by the pretext of the public weal." . . . Robespierre examined into the means of putting an end to these crises, and defined the principles which ought to guide the Convention, and with which it ought to imbue the souls of Frenchmen, so that they might at last become insensible to the snares of despotism .[45]

"To imbue the souls of Frenchmen" and to make them "insensible to the snares of despotism" are terms of indoctrination the functions of which are manifold. But all of these functions can be grounded and fulfilled by the sacralizing of the political authority from which indoctrination emanates and which, in turn, draws its legitimacy from the end result of this indoctrination process.

For Robespierre, "the happiness of the people" was the major item on the political agenda. And without having ever heard the name of Immanuel


Kant, he was on this point, as on so many others, in a surprising harmony with Kant (of course, only within an overarching disagreement), who contended that while freedom unites, the quest for happiness divides.[46] Robespierre discovered the roots of this divisive impact of the quest for happiness in "egoism," and he was prepared to apply the sword of the Terror to the egoism of the rich, and even to restrain the poor with coercive measures. But he was too great a statesman to miss the point that force cannot survive on its own premises nor can it bring cohesion where division reigns supreme. State terrorism always needs a cementing doctrine that is religious or quasireligious in the sense that it is above criticism, not only in the public space but preferably also in the hearts of the people.

The moral and political corruption of a growing number of leading functionaries raised a new dilemma. It transpired for Robespierre not just as a morally dangerous phenomenon but also as a potential political threat because he, correctly, believed that the nouveaux riches could easily forget their youthful enthusiasm and make a quick compromise with one or another form of restored monarchy. But the moral purifier needs a great supervisory eye that sees into the hearts and spots the seeds of corruption before they become public acts. In an atmosphere of institutionalized political paranoia, it is very difficult to decide where enthusiasm ends and hypocrisy begins. Like all prophets, Robespierre also identified himself with his newly found deity and was increasingly convinced that he had the capacity of seeing into human hearts. He might therefore have honestly believed in his mission to establish a new cult. He might have also assumed that the new cult would make the virtuous ones, who for ontological reasons are eternally in minority, capable of such insight. At the same time, acting as the "great supervisory eye," he deliberately manipulated the apparatus of the revolutionary government and the Convention. Fanaticism and cynicism mingled in this system of political fundamentalism.

For the Cult of the Supreme Being was the crowning act of a long-term strategy initiated by Robespierre almost from the very beginning of the dictatorship. Its ultimate end was the creation of strictly defined moral maxims for a political establishment by making moral prescriptions into binding legal decrees, which is precisely the definition of political fundamentalism.[47] This is why I believe, in contrast to both Mathiez and Aulard, that the new cult was neither an improvisation by Robespierre nor a simple rebaptism of the inchoate initiatives of the popular movement that had given to itself various ad hoc apellations. Rather, it was the final act of the long-term strategy growing out of Robespierre's deep philosophical and political dissatisfaction with the rationalizing trend of the Constituent Assembly. Aulard sums up, in my view correctly, the major change introduced in the speech of Floréal (which was in fact an amendment to the never-enacted Montagnard Constitution of 1793). The speech, which grounded the decree on the Supreme


Being, left no right for the citizen other than "the right to goodness," that is, a uniform behavior strictly defined by the Supreme Being and its pontifex maximus .[48] This is tantamount to the elimination of the liberal heritage of 1789 insofar as it no longer tolerates the diversity of political and moral behavior. The famous gesture, pinpointed by Robespierrist and antiRobespierrist historians alike, of setting the allegorical statue of atheism on fire in the festivity of the Supreme Being was almost a quotation from the days of the Inquisition.

The second function of the new cult well reflects the carrot-and-stick nature of Robespierre's thought. On the one hand, the decree of the Convention by implication made religious skepticism punishable under the law. On the other hand, the new deity appeared in its prophet's own presentation as a utilitarian fiction: "[I]f the existence of God, if the immortality of the soul were but dreams, they would still be the finest of all the conceptions of human intelligence . . . . In the eyes of the legislator, truth is all that is useful and of practical good to the world." Mathiez then adds a highly revealing comment to these words: "Robespierre held to the idea of God; but he did so because this idea has a social value ."[49] The crucial question here reads as follows: What was the social value of the Supreme Being?

The inauguration of the Cult of the Supreme Being was meant to be the festivity of a covenant between the Supreme Being and the Republic of Virtue which, ironically, bore strong resemblances to a commercial contract with ironclad guarantees for the this-worldly partner. This combination of devotion and benefits had eminent pragmatic advantages. It provided the answer to the difficulties stemming from Robespierre's anthropological pessimism combined with political activism. Insofar as human beings, with the exception of a saintly minority, are irredeemably egoistic, the new religion can "imbue their hearts with virtues" if, and only if, it guarantees rewards for a virtuous life. There must be a mirror symmetry between "the only right to goodness" (which is, in actual fact, an imperative beyond appeal) and the absolute guarantee of the rewards of goodness, else the tyranny of goodness would become unbearable. The Supreme Being thus appeared as the god of distributive and retributive justice. What Foucault termed a "pastoral state" negotiated here a full circle: state-guaranteed rights and state-imposed penalties (actually, only one kind of penalty) appeared in a perfect metaphysical symmetry. The only loser was moral and political freedom.

The great political metaphysician solved a serious internal tension of his own vision of the world via the third function of the Cult of the Supreme Being. Put in the language of a later age that learned its lesson from him, the inauguration of the new cult meant the "end of prehistory," the onset of the "real history of humankind." Here is again his own testimony: "All has changed in the physical order; all must change in the moral and political order. One half of the world-revolution is already achieved, the other half has


yet to be accomplished."[50] The term world revolution must not of course be interpreted in the sense of a proto-Comintern. It is common knowledge that Robespierre was a rabid nationalist and an avowed enemy of the revolutionary crusade proposed by the Gironde. However, the nationalist streak of his own thought posed a very serious problem for the statesman living in the dawn of a universalist era. Unlike Cromwell, whose shadow he constantly dreaded, Robespierre could not possibly regard his nation's revolution as a domestic affair. His new political religion seemed to have provided him with an answer to this problem as well. France, the domicile of the Republic of Virtue resting on the Cult of the Supreme Being now emerged in his vision as the country of the elect, as an eternal paradigm. Once the great example had been set, it was a matter of other peoples' virtue and intelligence to imitate it. Both national pride and universalist aspirations seemed to have been satisfied in one stroke:

The French people appear to have outstripped the rest of the human race by two thousand years; one might even be tempted to regard them as a distinct species among the rest . . . . Yes, this delightful land which we inhabit, which nature favours with her caresses, is made to be the domain of liberty and happiness; this proud and sensitive people is truly born for glory and virtue. O my country, had fate caused me to be born in a foreign and distant land, I should have addressed to heaven my constant prayers for thy prosperity; I should have shed tears of emotion at the story of thy combats and thy virtues; my eager soul would have followed with ardent anxiety every movement of thy glorious Revolution; I should have envied the lot of thy citizens, I should have envied that of thy representatives.[51]

The Cult of the Supreme Being remained eternally buried under the debris of Thermidor. The European observers of the French Revolution, friends and foes alike, had enough of a task to interpret other aspects of its colossal heritage. This self-restraint seemed to be all the more appropriate since "the great teacher of the philosophy of state," as Hegel described Napoleon, for once untied the Gordian knot instead of cutting it. The paradigmatic solution of the problem, namely the separation of church and state , was first implemented by the Napoleonic concordat. But since the French Revolution could neither impose itself on Europe nor even consolidate itself on the domestic scene for almost a century, among its many unfulfilled promises, the one concerning secularization also remained an eternally postponed hope for much of the European world.

And this particular postponed expectation developed into a crucial political dilemma. For when people in sufficiently great numbers prove incapable of coping with the "alienness" of their self-created artifact, the free political state, they often take refuge in the sacralizing of the political. Our century, teeming with leftist and rightist scenarios of "redemptive politics," is almost


a textbook case of these trends. All of these attest to the existence of very strong limits set to the great hope of the Enlightenment: the absolute secularization of the political. But none "proves" that the very trend is futile. For this writer, the answer to the dilemma is the difficult combination of stubbornly maintaining and expanding the process of political secularization and simultaneously deflating the exaggerated hopes invested into such efforts. This is the philosophical and political "moral" of the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

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