… the victims of the French Revolution. Today is 20th Brumaire in the year CCXXII. On this day in in Year Two, 10th November 1793 in the former calendar, the Festival of Reason was inaugurated in the Temple of Reason, before and afterwards known as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
When reading his description of the first Festival modern readers may find it difficult to share the outrage expressed by the highly partisan nineteenth century politician and historian of the French Revolution, denounced alike by Carlyle and Marx, Adolphe Thiers. The Catholic Church under the ancien régime was oppressive and parasitical, and the Festival can seem to modern eyes like nothing much worse than an embarrassingly amateur charity pageant run by the Women’s Institute:
The first festival of Reason was held with pomp on the 20th of Brumaire (10th of November) It was attended by all the sections, together with the constituted authorities. A young woman represented the goddess of Reason. She was the wife of Momoro, the printer, one of the friends of Vincent, Bonsin, Chaumette, Hebert, and the like. She was dressed in a white drapery; a mantle of azure blue hung from her shoulders ; her flowing hair was covered with the cap of liberty. She sat upon an antique seat, intwined with ivy and borne by four citizens. Young girls dressed in white, and crowned with roses, preceded and followed the goddess. Then came the busts of Lepelletier and Marat, musicians, troops, and all the armed sections. Speeches were delivered, and hymns sung in the Temple of Reason ; they then proceeded to the Convention, and Chaumette spoke in these terms :
“Legislators ! Fanaticism has given way to reason. Its bleared eyes could not endure the brilliancy of the light. This day an immense concourse has assembled beneath those Grothic vaults, which, for the first time, re-echoed the truth. There the French have celebrated the only true worship, that of liberty, that of reason. There we have formed wishes for the prosperity of the arms of the republic. There we have abandoned inanimate idols for reason, for that animated image, the masterpiece of Nature.” As he uttered these words, Chaumette pointed to the living goddess of Reason.
Whatever the semblance, nothing about the French Revolution was harmless. The Goddess Reason ascended her throne two months into the Terror. When the Catholic peasants of the Vendée were so ungrateful for the blessings of the Goddess as to attempt counter-revolution, Momoro, the man whose wife had played the role of the Goddess, was deeply involved in its brutal suppression. Chaumette, too, was one of the leading enragés, and soppy modern “liberals” inclined to praise the Cult of Reason as an ancestor of their own views might like to read more about its teachings regarding women. Neither Momoro nor Chaumette had long to enjoy their status as founders. By spring of the next year Robespierre decided to replace the Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. From then on it was the People’s Front of Judea scene from Life of Brian with real deaths. The Committee of Public Safety sent Momoro to the guillotine on 24th March 1794 and Chaumette followed him on 15th April. Robespierre himself fell from power in June and was guillotined in July.
A few paragraphs later Thiers describes “restraints” being imposed on a people that he thought were unprecedented in all prior history. They were not, alas, unrepeated in subsequent history:
If then we survey the state of France at this period, we shall see that never were more restraints imposed at once on that inert and patient part of the population on which political experiments are made. People dared no longer express any opinion. They were afraid to visit their friends, lest they might be compromised with them, and lose liberty and even life. A hundred thousand arrests and some hundreds of condemnations, rendered imprisonment and the scaffold ever present to the minds of twenty-five millions of French. They had to bear heavy taxes. If, by a perfectly arbitrary classification, they were placed on the list of the rich, they lost for that year a portion of their income.
Sometimes, at the requisition of a representative or of some agent or other, they were obliged to give up their crops, or their most valuable effects in gold and silver. They durst no longer display any luxury, or indulge in noisy pleasures. They were no longer permitted to use metallic money, but obliged to take and give a depreciated paper, with which it was difficult to procure such things as they needed. They were forced, if shopkeepers, to sell at a fictitious price, if buyers, to put up with the worst commodities, because the best shunned the maximum and the assignats : sometimes, indeed, they had to do without either, because good and bad were alike concealed. They had but one sort of black bread, common to the rich as to the poor, for which they were obliged to contend at the doors of the bakers, after waiting for several hours. Lastly, the names of the weights and measures, the names of the months and days, were changed ; there were but three Sundays instead of four ; and the women and the aged men were deprived of those religious ceremonies which they had been accustomed to attend all their lives.
It was a straight road from Revolutionary France to Soviet Russia, but if you look carefully the twisty paths from there to nearly all the “political experiments” and other horrors of the twentieth century can be discerned, including the two great wars remembered today.