Reflections on the Revolution in France

OK, now that I have shamelessly pinched the title of Edmund Burke’s famous 1790 book, let me continue. Bastille Day, the French national holiday, was observed for the 220th time just recently in France. What happened on July 14, 1789 was to leave a lasting legacy on not only that nation but the world as well. How one views that legacy depends in part on where one stands on the political and ideological spectrum.

The Day of course refers to the storming of the fortress/prison in Paris by insurgents. It would unleash a trail of bloodshed and destruction, resulting in perhaps as many as 40,000 deaths before Napoleon came on the scene a decade later.

The Ancien Régime, as we know, was anything but perfect. Corruption and abuse of privilege in both the absolute monarchy and the powerful Catholic Church provided fertile soil for the revolution, along with widespread poverty and starvation amongst the masses.

Of interest is the Reign of Terror, infamously symbolised by the use of the guillotine. Louis XVI of course met his fate there, as did Marie Antoinette, Madame Roland, and many thousands of others. But this is part of the larger story of the war against religion and the secular assault on the nation which was such a defining feature of this revolution.

Historians debate how much influence the intellectuals, atheists and deists had on the revolution, but they certainly played their part. French Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu were no doubt influential, to say the least. The philosophes emphasised progress, reason and tolerance. They were often deists, and tended to have great contempt for the Catholic Church, as well as the much smaller groups, such as the Calvinists.

Reason, not revelation, would save the day, and France would flourish and progress when the church had withered away – with a little help from the revolutionaries. Thus Diderot could famously declare that “man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”.

The viciousness of some of these secular radicals is seen in the amount of blood that was shed, especially religious blood. Thousands of clerics were executed (perhaps as many as 5,000), with many tens of thousands forced to flee, or renounce their vows.

Numerous laws against religion were passed. Churches were closed, looted, and destroyed, and church properties were confiscated. People were forbidden from wearing crosses, church bells were not allowed to ring, religious processions were banned, and a secular war of terror was effectively unleashed on the French people.

Atheists and secularists had a field day, with enforced celebrations of secularism and reason, ransacking of churches, ceremonial iconoclasm, and other activities associated with the Cult of Reason. A secular cathedral was built, the Pantheon, in which the gods of reason, liberty and fraternity were worshipped.

There was even the creation of a new secular calendar, beginning from this period. All this culminated in a Goddess of Reason paraded through the streets, before being placed on the high altar of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 10 November, 1793.

All in all this was an incredible display of secularist rage and revolution. As mentioned, there were plenty of problems in both church and state which demanded serious attention prior to the Revolution, but for all the talk of tolerance and reason by the revolutionaries, there was plenty of intolerance and unreasonableness.

As historian Robert Royal notes, “Despite the admiration for Locke and Newton in France and the passionate talk of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the French Enlightenment harboured within it several kinds of authoritarianism and inequality. With few exceptions, the major Enlightenment figures in France essentially set up a Church of Reason that had its own forms of intolerance, excommunication, and inquisition.”

Like so many revolutionary movements, an action undertaken in the name of humanity actually resulted in a war on humanity. As Royal puts it, “Part of the denigration of everything except a certain type of reason entailed dismissiveness not only of the religion of the masses, but of the masses themselves”.

Or as Alister McGrath has written, “During the French Revolution, for the first time in modern history, the possibility of an atheist state was explored.” But it was a short lived experiment which fell far short of its ideals: “Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive.”

He continues, “The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose. It might well have a new god, a new saviour, and new saints. But it also had its own inquisition and began its own particular war of religion.”

Now I present this far-too-sketchy overview of the French Revolution for a reason. With the rise of an exuberant, even fanatical, form of atheism around the Western world, one wonders whether any parallels can be drawn here. One wonders if some of the new atheist enfants terribles – if they had their way – would be so inclined to also unleash their own reign of terror, their own anti-Christian purges.

Other atheist regimes did of course, such as under Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Indeed, when secularists seek to bring their own version of heaven to earth, bloodshed is a common result. They promise much, but deliver little. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy: “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”

Where the West is headed today is not altogether certain, but the path it is on is not looking all that good. One of the advantages of history, as Santayana reminds us, is to avoid its mistakes. Whether the West does so or not is a very good question indeed.

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12 Replies to “Reflections on the Revolution in France”

  1. Good article Bill, as per usual.

    As you mention, it was shortly after the ‘revolution’ that the athiest calender was instituted in France. They tried to get rid of the 7 day week – a relic from religion – and institute their own metric week of 10 days, as a nation based on ‘reason’ should. I believe it was 9 days work, 1 day rest.

    Suffice to say, it didn’t work. I think the idea puttered out within the first couple of years. I am unsure that the amount of reorganization necessary alone would be/was worth it, just to erase even the smallest religious traces in life.

    Tristan Ingle, Sydney.

  2. A good overview Bill. I think that there is a parallel to be drawn between the French Revolution and the revolution that is happening in the West and for our own home situation, and in our Australia.
    The only difference this time is that people today have the benefits of social welfare compared to the poor people of seventeenth and eighteenth century France. The revolutionaries in Australia today are much more subtle and have great cover behind a media that either hides their genda or presents it as somehting good. Sadly many are beguiled by the media oligarchs.
    Your CultureWatch is one good alternate form of media to awaken the people to their spiritual and cultural heritage and of the need for further researcha dn education that goes beyond the mass media whitewash on the secular agendas.
    Michael Webb

  3. The secular devotees of reason, progress, freedom and equality did not free the slaves in the French colonies. That job was left to Christians in the later Romantic Age, supposedly an age of irrational emotionality.

    It is instructive to observe today’s heirs of the Enlightenment, the Secular Humanists. They preach freedom but one of their publishing houses prints guides to X-rated porn. Where’s the freedom in addiction to porn? They preach dignity for women but excuse prostitution and porn. They also are very liberal on drug issues. Where’s the freedom in drug addiction? They claim to be in favour of the family but I have received a letter from a Humanist official defending consensual adultery (is there a slippery slope from consensual to non-consensual adultery?). And I have seen a Canadian Humanist extol the “virtues” of a bizarre family of bisexual men and women, plus children. This “scientific minded” fellow gave no indication of seriously following up with a study of outcomes, including the health of the children. As “critical thinkers” they also preach the importance of considering evidence in forming beliefs yet too often they themselves do not honour that principle. The evidence is in their journals.

    John Snowden

  4. Thanks Bill,
    A few historical observations on the French Revolution:
    1. The real background was not merely the philosophes (Diderot, Rousseau, etc), but the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. France thereby tore out the heart of its society: the Huguenots were the hard-working and productive ‘middle class’. Their eviction left France with an indolent and avaricious aristocracy on one hand, and a grindingly poor and increasingly malcontent and restless lower class. The aristocracy spent money with gay abandon, while the poor continued to suffer. There was no source of real wealth, since the wealth-producers had been either kicked out, or consigned to the galleys.

    2. The heirs of the Huguenots became hostile against the French government, and tended to succumb to the prevailing scepticism. One of these was Pierre Bayles, son of a Calvinist pastor. His writings from exile were full of trenchant criticism of and invective against persecution for conscience sake, and exercised a powerful influence against the later Bourbon monarchy, which the philosophes took up and exploited for their own purposes. For the latter both the Catholic God and the Calvinist God were reprehensible, and France would be better without either. That mentality continues to this day: the fountainhead of secular ideas – evolution, godlessness, exaltation of reason, the expanded role of government – all emanate from France.

    3. Never forget that the French Revolution, after all the terror and silliness was either nearing its end or over, produced dictatorships, first of Robespierre, then supremely of Napoleon, who engineered the first modern police state. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” rang the Revolution. Napoleon was all for the last two, but rather reticent about the first – to say the least. The subsequent history of revolutions have only confirmed that initial impression: they have a way of producing dictators.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  5. “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” -Diderot

    Wow this quote is pretty strong stuff. It’s easy to forget just how zealous many of those against God are, and what we are likely to see when the restraints are removed from such people.

    And isn’t it just a sign of the times how the whole world seems to be caught up in celebrating this stuff? At time when evil is called good and good is called evil.

    French Revolution, Industrial Revolution and now the Sexual Revolution – all were supposed to, in their own way, bring about ‘freedom’ for mankind, yet the result has been supreme captivity.

    Garth Penglase

  6. “Wow this quote is pretty strong stuff. It’s easy to forget just how zealous many of those against God are, and what we are likely to see when the restraints are removed from such people.”

    Easy to forget? Study your enemies and potential persecutors, and ensure that you don’t forget. During my youth I associated with Rationalist and Humanist groups, although I was not a committed member, mainly for political reasons. I assure you there are atheists in these sorts of groups who would like to see religion disappear from the face of the Earth. They are especially antagonistic to Christianity, although they go easy on people like Spong, probably because he is a termite. They are also two-faced, pretending to be tolerant and rational in public. They like to advertise themselves as “critical thinkers” but it is easy to catch them in their dogmatic slumbers. I was at a meeting of Humanists and Skeptics where a guest speaker, an honoured leader, ranted on about how Fundies were invading schools and destroying Australian culture (his very words). No evidence was offered for these sweeping libels. The best he could do was name a member in the audience who was expert in these matters. But all she came up with at a later meeting were unverifiable anecdotes about “Fundies” at her school. What struck me about this fellow’s rant was that the audience loudly applauded as if he had made a case. It dismally failed to critically examine his claims. Even a philosophy lecturer present couldn’t bring himself to call this fool to account. I tried, but couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

    These groups are also inclined to humbug. They like dismissing other people’s opinions on the grounds that they are based on anecdote, yet I attended a meeting where the members amused themselves for half an hour with negative anecdotes about religion. This was a case of petty double standards, of course, such as one commonly sees in life, but it was nevertheless amusing to watch critical thinkers strut their stuff.

    I really find these people a worry. During the early seventies I knew Humanists who only accepted abortion as a strictly limited practice. Now that abortion is in open-slather mode around the world with millions of unborn human beings being killed, I don’t see any Humanist protests. What happened to the cautious moderates? These people also promote voluntary euthanasia, duly regulated by the State. If it is institutionalised and it eventually slips into involuntary euthanasia (which the moderates do not endorse), will they be protesting? Are they protesting at euthanasia abuses in Holland where there is a strong Humanist presence? For people who promote “rational ethics” they are remarkably slack about the rational process of monitoring outcomes.

    John Snowden

  7. About the causes of the French Revolution,

    when you say:

    “Corruption and abuse of privilege in both the absolute monarchy and the powerful Catholic Church provided fertile soil for the revolution, along with widespread poverty and starvation amongst the masses”,

    Do you agree with those who claim that it is never the masses who cause revolutions? This point is often argued by conservatives like Pat Buchanan, Thomas Woods (in e-mails to me) and others, yet you seem to be following a less politically incorrect line about the cause of the French Revolution.

    Julien Peter Benney

  8. Thanks Julien

    I certainly do not claim to be an authority on revolution and revolutions, so my thoughts would only be tentative here. While there may be a groundswell of discontent among the masses, it seems that this usually needs to be harnessed, mobilised and led along by activist elites. Presumably both examples and counter-examples could be brought forward here. History buffs might like to help us out in this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. I watched a dvd at the end of last year which also discussed the Revolution but from a Free Masonry perspective and how many of the people orchestrating it were driven by the vision of the Masonry movement. They aimed to first show the people that they are caught up in structure and how bad order is so that everyone must strive towards a state of nirvana which, according to them, is chaos. They saw chaos as the most natural(perfect) state and that it was oppressed by the “evil” monotheists. Apparently that is what the statue of Liberty also represents, she’s a statue of that same Goddess of Reason that was seated on the high altar. In any case, this is definitely the spirit controlling the thought of the many today still, there is a striving to create as much chaos as possible, where everyone will be “happily” living in a chaotic, pagan world and controlled by the chaos creators.
    Servaas Hofmeyr

  10. Murray,

    a very interesting point about the Edicts of Nantes. I certainly did not know that it helped sow the seeds of the French Revolution: I assumed that only early academics could have done that if it was not the masses.

    However, when I read your story of the Huguenots I am reminded of the mass emigrations from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is clear to me that these emigrations deprived Europe of the conservative masses who were needed to maintain religiosity. They left behind two growing classes – workers and businessmen – neither sympathetic to religion.

    The result was that to a significant extent the story of twentieth-century Europe is of nations with religious politicians ruling over highly secular populations.

    I cannot imagine you could view such a situation as anything except inherently unstable. Europe’s present radical secularism seems to me a natural long-term result of such a situation.

    Julien Peter Benney

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