The repercussions of the Atheist lead to anarchy and hysteria. As the Enlightenment writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau states in his influential book, The Social Contract:
If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: “As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better.”
This is the belief that spawned the French Revolution. “Man is born free,” Rousseau writes, “and everywhere he is in chains.”[i] This is a story beginning with a gluttonous king who served himself before his people. Then, the rise of the common man led to the empowerment of some of the vilest tyrants in history. A historical period known as the Reign of Terror then resulted in the execution of thousands of lives. The official policy of the day was called “Dechristianization,” which helped the political elite justify the murder of thousands of French men and women.
The Catholic King
During childhood, Little Louis XIV diligently studied textbooks written especially for him. He reminded himself that his duty for the day was to act God, and he asked himself every evening if he had succeeded with this calling. “Homage is due to kings,” his writing master told him, “they act as they please.” One of Little Louis’ mentors was a man by the name of Maréchal-Duc de Villeroi, who would repeatedly tell Little Louis his favorite rule of conduct, “Always hold the pot for anyone who stands firmly, and upset it over his head the minute his feet begin to slip.”[ii] When no one was corrupting this boy’s thoughts by telling him that he was a “visible divinity,” or something to that effect, he was often left unattended. He once nearly drowned in a pond due to the negligence of his servants. In short, the childhood of Little Louis was a mix of extreme overindulgence and extreme disregard.
Years passed, and by 1687, Louis had developed into exactly the type of man that may have been predicted. He had a deep conviction that he, being the King of France, had a “peculiar personal relationship with God.”[iii] Mme. De Maintenon, being his second wife, understood him quite well, providing some sober insight concerning the heart of her husband, saying
He wants to accommodate religion to himself, not himself to religion; he wishes to observe all its externals, but not its spirit. He will never miss a station or a penance, but he will never understand that it is necessary to humiliate himself and enter into the true spirit of penitence….He understands perfectly that he must confess in all good faith, and be scrupulous in fasting, almsgiving and so forth; but he doesn’t in the least understand that what he needs is conversion.[iv]
Louis’ thoughts on the matter are made quite plain upon inspection of his memoirs, written in the third person, “As he (the king) is of a rank superior to all other men, he sees things more perfectly than they do, and he ought to trust rather to the inner light than to information which reaches him from outside…occupying, so to speak, the place of God, we seem to be sharers of His knowledge as well as of His authority.” Furthermore, he writes, “It is for kings to make their own decisions, for no one else either dares or is able to suggest any that are as good or a royal as those which we make ourselves.”[v]
The lifestyle of Louis XIV was nothing less than extravagant. By the time he reached adulthood, his spoiled upbringing and narcissistic indulgences were deeply cultivated. His famous Château de Versailles, located about 15 miles west of Paris, housed ten thousand inhabitants. It required 60% of all taxed francs in order to support itself.[vi]
From his chefs to his royal barber, Louis had 500 personal attendants who had free board and lodging at Versailles.[vii] Biographer W. H. Lewis writes that, while the king was busy pampering himself, he had forgotten that it was the farmer, the tenant, and the laborer peasants who were the backbone of national wealth. While physically an adult, Louis remained largely the same spoiled child of de Villeroi. La lie du peuple, meaning, “the dregs of the nation,” was the term usually applied to [the peasant], both in private and sometimes even in official correspondence. Louis’ arbitrary tax system added to the humiliation of the peasantry. The primary tax, the Taille, had a negative effect on the attitude of the working-class as it was augmented as the primary means to fill the widening gap between government debt and expenditures. Also, the debt was collected quarterly rather than annually in order to disguise the crown’s increasing demands.[viii]
The salt tax, or, the Gabelle, was another harsh form of taxation, and one being quite expensive to collect. For the sake of this tax, the country was divided into five classes, and depending on class, the people were forced to buy excessive quantities of bad salts at excessive prices.[ix] Eventually, by 1666, various saints’ days were disregarded with the intention to stimulate the economy, denying the peasant the excuse to enjoy their holidays and forego some a chance to earn more money for the crown. But because the French regarded their saints in higher esteem than their king, the peasants continued to celebrate their holidays. The government watched in despair, taking no retaliatory actions in return.[x]
While the appetite of the peasants ranged from modest to starving, Louis was indulging at home in Versailles. One of his three-course meals included spiced duck, veal, and fried sheep’s testicles, which was apparently a commodity.[xi]
So, la lie du peuple were taxed to poverty while King Louis enjoyed both luxury and delicacy. Theatrically, all the while, there seemed to have been a spark of conflict, or, at least a spark of acknowledgement, within Louis’ heart. “The King knows the sufferings of his people,” Mme. De Maintenon notes in 1692, “nothing is hidden from him there, and he seeks all means of relieving them.”[xii] Unfortunately, for the people of France, the welfare of the monarchy came before that of the state. Louis XIV was a man who from the moment of cognizance was under the impression that it was his job to be sure that he was pampered before others were fed, mentally progressing from Louis XIV to Louis Le Grand, then stating perhaps his most memorable quote, “L’etat, c’est moi,” (i.e., “I am the state”). This exemplified his belief that he truly was godlike, if not God himself. Naturally, while Louis sowed his seeds of animosity among his subjects, the suppression of the peasants began to sprout into discontentment, frustration, and anger. By the end of the 18th century, these feelings would come into full bloom.
France had grown tired of its gluttonous kings. The tradition of the day meant servitude to the king’s life, the king’s wife, and the king’s law. Again, as the Enlightenment writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in his revered book The Social Contract, “If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: ‘As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better.’” The significance of this sentiment lies within the concept that man performs best when released from compulsion. “Man is born free,” Rousseau continues, “and everywhere he is in chains.” It was time for France to free itself from its chains. The French Revolution was begun.
The Compulsive People
France’s plea for such extreme change was quite understandable considering the economics of the day. It was a situation that inspired much unrest—from threats to cries to lynches—as most of France wanted rising bread prices to be controlled and affordable for the hungry common man.
By 1763, in addition to a starving populace and a gluttonous monarchy, the Seven Years War had greatly culminated across the Atlantic, further breaking the pride of the people while the French military suffered costly and humiliating defeats. In order to help fund the war, taxes and state borrowing were dramatically increased, but to very little avail.[xiii] In 1775, the problem culminated, as it was widely believed that the free market would fix itself, and so began the “Flour War” along with riots, arrests, and two public executions.[xiv] All of these grave shortcomings were occurring under the watch of the pudgy, shy, and naïve great-great-great grandson of the theatrical Louis XIV. This was the reign of Louis Capet—the reign of Louis XVI.
Although there were numerous crises occurring, politicians began to avoid their king when searching for answers to pressing problems. Upon being pressured to make healthy fiscal reforms, parliament turned to a new school of theorists—a group of men who called themselves “Economists.”[xv] The founder of the group was a former royal doctor called François Quesnay, whose work Tableau économique (1758) criticized bad tax systems, expenditure on decoration, lack of trade, and lack of freedom. Quesnay’s piece reinforced the political notions of Rousseau in economic terms, insisting that the country would produce capital more effectively with the removal of the monarchy. The idea was to release France from yet another set of chains. Surely, a hunger for change was a powerful driving force of the people, and the self-professed enlightened Deists were the ones whose ideas would quench the desires of the mob. A grand social experiment had been set in place to change the country.
On August 26th, 1989, the National Assembly of France produced a document that proclaimed the will of the people. The paper was called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and it was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment thinkers and American Revolutionaries, relying primarily on the fundamentals of Natural Law.
In its preambles, the Declaration states how France believed itself to possess the ability to proclaim itself free from the neglect and ignorance of her overseers, and she demanded more respect for her citizens through democracy. Within its seventeen brief articles, there may be found clear principles such as the belief that men are born free, and with equal rights, and that law is the expression of the general will, each right being granted and protected, “under the auspices of the Supreme Being.” The moment the Declaration was approved, a new question was being begged that had to do with the nature of a law that was based on general consensus. It was one man in particular who would exploit these newfound freedoms to their fullest degree, rising to leadership with the support of the masses.
His name was Maximilien de Robespierre, and he had risen through society’s ranks, from illegitimate child of northern France to distinguished lawyer of Paris. With the Revolution now well underway, this man of humble beginnings found himself prosecuting one of the most extravagant dynasties in history. He believed that Louis could not be judged by man, but that he had already been judged by nature, and even condemned by it. “After all,” he argued, “if Louis can still be put on trial, Louis can be acquitted; he might be innocent. Or rather, he is presumed to be until he is found guilty. But if Louis is acquitted, if Louis can be presumed innocent, what becomes of the Revolution?”[xvi]
Although Robespierre’s sentiments were greatly revered, “Louis Capet” received his trial. The defense attorney painted a portrait of a noble king that was subject to unfortunate circumstances, an argument that nearly persuaded a number of people. However, the votes concerning Louis’ condemnation were unanimous: 693 to 0. Votes for an appeals court were 424 to 283, the majority being against such a notion. And, after a long night of review concerning potential threats from the sansculottes and appropriate punishment for Louis, 288 votes were cast in favor of Louis’ imprisonment, 72 favored a delayed process of the death penalty, and 361 favored execution.
Finally, on Monday, January 21, 1793, the nearly expired figurehead was lead to the guillotine whose backdrop contained the empty pedestal once hosting his grandfather’s commemorative statue at the Place de la Concord. The irony was that the square was originally designed only a few years prior in honor of Louis XV.[xvii] Nevertheless, the zeitgeist had changed quickly, and the Place de la Concord was now a symbol of the Revolution, hosting a guillotine that had been prepared for Louis, as it was prepared many times before this moment for other criminals, victims, and suspects. As Louis XVI faced the crowd, his murmurs of innocence were muffled by the sound of rolling drums,[xviii] and along with Louis XVI vanished the monarchy of the ancien régime.
The Atheist Advocates
With King Louis gone, the momentum of the Revolution increased drastically. A statesman named Joseph Fouché declared that the only religion is that of universal morality. He managed to banish all other religions from being practiced in public. He then began to have all religious symbols removed, including symbols in graveyards, replacing crosses with the inscription, “Death is an Eternal Sleep,” believing that the Revolution and Christianity were unable to coexist.[xix]
This was the beginning of a new movement under the rule of the French Revolution, and it was called “dechristianization.” By this time, Jean-Baptist Carrier had already launched one of the most notorious episodes of the Revolution, and it would be remembered as “les noyades”—a French phrase, literally meaning, “the deaths by drowning.” On November 19th, some 90 priests were tied, forced in holed barges, and cast into the Loire River. Over the course of the following weeks, the process was repeated upon finding more people who were convicted of dubious crimes. In his book The Oxford History of the French Revolution, scholar William Doyle estimates the number of casualties of les noyades alone to be around 18,000.[xx] In retrospect, Jean-Baptist Carrier’s Christian name bears testimony to history’s sometimes bazaar sense of humor.
Soon after Carrier’s barbaric executions and Fouché’s remarks on universal morality, the Paris Commune approved dechristianization as its official policy. Over the course of the following weeks, the western calendar was transformed into secular terms, recalculating September 22nd, 1792, to the first day of Year 1 of the Republic, centering history on the year of the beginning of the revolution rather than the birth of Christ. So, upon declaring this change, the Revolution was already in the Year II. The week was increased to a ten-day period, withdrawing from the traditional week that was based on the Biblical creation of the universe.[xxi] Street names bearing the word “Saint” were changed to the name of “Marat,” honoring the life of the revolutionary writer and martyr called Jean-Paul Marat, who had been stabbed in his medicinal bathtub by the Girondin called Charlotte Corday, the scene being famously portrayed in the neoclassical painting by Jacques-Louis David. Furthermore, perhaps the most iconoclastic change during dechristianization was when Notre Dame Cathedral was renamed The Temple of Reason. France celebrated this birth of so-called Reason with a public ceremony of patriotic maidens draped in white cloth, marching towards the recently renamed Temple as the climax of the occasion hosted the first glimpse of the victorious red-capped Lady Liberty.[xxii]
Throughout all of these changes, Robespierre became frustrated and angry with his contemporaries, quoting Voltaire by saying, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”[xxiii] Robespierre understood that without religion, there is no law, and he was an outspoken critic of Atheists like Fouché, whom Robespierre openly chastised. Such criticism caused Fouché to become pale upon being confronted with his crimes against humanity and the two men soon thereafter became revolutionary enemies.[xxiv]
Concerning social issues, Robespierre promoted a sort of constrained liberty. He believed that it was necessary to permit private liberties, from the manner in which the people worshipped to the brand of pornography that they preferred. He personally believed that the former was something that was needed to keep a country firm while the latter would disappear like a common trend.[xxv] History would prove just the opposite.
Being elected as the president of the Convention only four days earlier, he was already exploiting his newly acquired powers. On the morning of the 20th of Prairial, the 8th of June and Pentecost Sunday of the Christian calendar, Robespierre impatiently awaited to publicly unveil his newest creation. From a room overlooking the Tuileries Garden located between the Louvre and the Place de la Concord, he watched as a crowd of nearly half a million Parisians filled the streets. Men, women, and children were joyously dressed with flowers in their hair. The guillotine had been tactfully moved from its normal position to the landmark once holding the Bastille before being moved even farther from the center of the city, partly to serve as a symbol of the Revolution, and partly because its pool of blood was beginning to pollute the city’s water supply.
At noontime on that beautiful summer day, dressed in a bright blue coat with a glorious tricolor sash, Robespierre was accompanied by similarly dressed deputies of the Convention before giving a speech in honor of the “Great Being.” France then watched as he set fire to a prop—an ugly, floppy, misshapen cardboard statue representing Atheism. Theatrically, another statue emerged from the flames, this one representing Wisdom and Reason. He declared supreme power of this so-called Goddess of Reason, and he would call his new religion the “Cult of Reason.”
All the while, Robespierre could hear some sarcastic comments from the deputies behind him, scoffing at the whole event. It caused Robespierre to interrupt the ceremony for a few moments to subdue the talking as discreetly as possible on his day of hope. A second speech was delivered in which Robespierre stated that, “The monster which the genius of kings had vomited over France has gone back into nothingness.” To end the ceremony, the crowd sang together with Robespierre a song to the Supreme Being. Cheers of “Vive la République!” rang aloud as the people marched down the Champ de Mars, which of course had recently been renamed the Champ de la Réunion.[xxvi] Ironically, on the day when Reason was declared master of the universe, one of the biggest fallacies of history was committed. Robespierre rejected Atheism only to replace it with the Cult of Reason. It was a distinction without a difference.
As the terror remained far from cured, the Law of the 14th of Frimaire was passed in a desperate attempt to indirectly reverse the tyranny of the assembly concerning dechristianization.[xxvii] The words of one angry protestor of the Revolution, who wanted to refuse all taxes, are remembered, as he said, “Since there’s no more king there are no more laws.”[xxviii] During the chaos, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès said to some of the members of the assembly, “They wish to be free, but they do not know how to be just.”[xxix] Although the Rights of Man and Citizen hailed education as a natural right, literacy rates dropped dramatically. In 1789, 50,000 pupils were attending colleges, but within a period of one decade, only about 13,000 were attending such facilities.[xxx]
Contrary to the hopeful theories concerning the removal of the monarchy in order to improve the country’s wealth, France became increasingly impoverished under the overly optimistic promises of the Revolution. Upon the destruction of the upper classes and the clergy, few specialized services and luxuries could be afforded without making deep ripples in supply and demand, such as the production of fine fabrics, causing the number of silk workshops in Lyons to fall by more than 50 percent from 1789 to 1799.
In addition to the clergy being deprived of their income, so were many of the laymen who had previously worked under the employment of such priests and monks—from builders to painters to gardeners. In an attempt to boost revenue, landlords began to increase rent by ten percent, figuring that there was no more need for the common man to tithe.
“Since there’s no more king there are no more laws.” – Anonymous French Protester.
With all of these culminating factors, Paris’ unemployment reached 10 percent, which probably would have been much higher but for so many people being executed at the guillotine. The city of Lyons had been destroyed and humiliated for being against the Revolution, its name being completely struck from all objects save for one monument that read, “Lyons made war on Liberty. Lyons is no more.”[xxxi] Between 1790 and 1806, the population of Lyons fell by over 30 percent, from 146,000 to 100,000, and the statistic is the product of more than just war, execution, and emigration because France’s suicide rate made a notable increase as well.[xxxii]
The climax of the Terror may be seen as the passing of the Law of the 22nd of Prairial (June 10th), which was an Orwellian ruling, causing even more people to be convicted and executed of dubious crimes against the Revolution.[xxxiii] It is a contrast to Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, that being a piece of legislation permitting the Huguenots some religious freedoms in France, they as Protestants being economic assets to the predominantly Catholic country.[xxxiv] Robespierre had become what he most hated: a spokesperson for the cause of tyranny, a mere man playing the role of God, and a man believing himself to be “Incorruptible.”
Political victory proved to be insufficient as France continued to separate itself from every part of its history, seeing religion as inseparable from the monarchy. Ironically, after the two extremes of the tyrannical kingship and the tyrannical Republic had expired, and after Robespierre had lost control of the Commune and France, he himself was sentenced to death by the guillotine—one of his most prescribed forms of execution. Soon after the sentencing, in a moment of despair, he tried to commit suicide by putting a bullet through his head.[xxxv]
Perhaps as that little piece of metal was shattering his jaw, Robespierre considered the scene where Charlotte Corday was sentenced to death before her compulsive executioner raised her decapitated head and slapped a cheek for the cheering crowd, causing her entire face to blush and the loud crowd to gasp and wonder if those executed by the guillotine could feel the pain of the blade.[xxxvi] Or perhaps he thought of Marie Antoinette’s son, Louis, as he was separated from his mother at a young age before she was executed, and he was held prisoner and sometimes beaten for saying his prayers before bed, and the Commune sending the boy a toy guillotine as part of his education.[xxxvii] Or perhaps he thought of his former colleagues such as Jacques-René Hébert or Georges-Jacques Danton, the latter being a Revolutionary who wished to find a compromise, asking for an end to Robespierre’s famous Reign of Terror.[xxxviii] Or perhaps, he thought of his good friend Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, who said, “No one can reign innocently,” these being the words that ultimately condemned Louis XVI at the trial before the King’s execution.[xxxix]
While Robespierre spoke against the tyranny of sadists like Fouché, Robespierre was actually not so different. During the final five months of Robespierre’s life, “2,217 people were guillotined in Paris; but the total condemned to death in the eleven months preceding Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was only 399.”[xl] Robespierre, although wounded by his own bullet, survived just long enough to die by the guillotine.
In April 1802, a month long celebration ensued as the Supreme Being was forgone, the calendar was restored, religion was reinstituted, and the Temple of Reason was renamed Notre Dame Cathedral. The seventy-year-old priest named Boisgelin, who performed the coronation of Louis XVI, delivered a public sermon. France then wept tears of joy for the death of the French Revolution, for the death of Atheism, and for the rebirth of Christianity.[xli]
The Repercussions of the French Revolution
Nearly four decades before the Revolution, Casanova writes in his autobiography that “the French Nation would be wiser if it were less intelligent.”[xlii] In 1984, nearly two centuries after the Revolution, Milan Kundera writes in his most celebrated book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.[xliii]
Kundera’s argument is reinforced by the ignorance of H.L. Mencken, who writes with glee how “Christian theology finally disappeared from the intellectual baggage of all really civilized men” during the 18th century.[xliv]
The stated motive of the Atheist is that Christianity is responsible for terror. Yet the official policy of the French Revolution was dechristianization, where an abundance of terror ensued. This is how the Atheist holds fast to a very hypocritical faith. He clings to his flawed, pet arguments, and ignores the repercussions. Throughout history, the Atheist has tried to reach utopia without God. But the Atheist remains ignorant of his own history.
[i] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social, 387 (GF Flammarion) (2001).
[ii] W. H. Lewis, The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV, 4-6 (Waveland Press) (1997).
[iii] Id. at 28.
[iv] Id. at 29.
[v] Id. at 30.
[vi] Id. at 40.
[vii] Id. at 49.
[viii] Id. at 65-6.
[ix] Id. at 70.
[x] Id. at 71.
[xi] Id. at 206.
[xii] Id. at 31.
[xiii] William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 57 (Oxford University Press) (2002).
[xiv] Id. at 21-2.
[xv] Id. at 57.
[xvi] Id. at 194-5.
[xvii] Encarta Encyclopedia.
[xviii] The Oxford History of the French Revolution at 196.
[xix] Id. at 259.
[xx] Id. at 257.
[xxi] Id. at 260.
[xxii] Id. at 261.
[xxiii] Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, 294 (Henry Holt & Co.) (2006).
[xxiv] Id. at 333.
[xxv] Id. at 151.
[xxvi] Id. at 326-7.
[xxvii] The Oxford History of the French Revolution at 264.
[xxviii] Id. at 226.
[xxix] Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution at 122.
[xxx] The Oxford History of the French Revolution at 399.
[xxxi] Id. at 254.
[xxxii] Id. at 399-403.
[xxxiii] Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution at 328.
[xxxiv] Encarta Encyclopedia.
[xxxv] History Channel.
[xxxvi] Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution at 276.
[xxxvii] Id. at 286.
[xxxviii] Encarta Encyclopedia.
[xxxix] Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution at 243.
[xl] Id. at 3.
[xli] The Oxford History of the French Revolution at 390.
[xlii] Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life, 130 (Willard R. Trask trans., The Johns Hopkins University Press) (1997).
[xliii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 4 (Michael Henry Heim trans., Harper Perennial) (2009).
[xliv] Treatise on the Gods at 247.