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Secularism to mystic fanaticism 

in the French Revolution

Frederick Lauritzen

14th July 2023

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During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), secularism became a form of mystic fanaticism. This was the reason for which Robespierre, the Terror’s protagonist, was deposed in 1794.

 

Secularism (Fr. laicité) is a central contribution of France. It is the separation between religion and politics or rather the restriction of religion to the private and individual sphere. Beliefs are not meant to affect society. It has become an ideal for many political parties worldwide and plays a significant role, among others, in Turkey’s constitution, considered by some the most secular in the world (even more than France).

 

Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 introduced the notion of secularism into French law. The Constitution of France today includes this text. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, as published on the 20th August 1789, has the following preamble. 

 

En conséquence, l'Assemblée nationale reconnaît et déclare, en présence et sous les auspices de l'Être suprême, les droits suivants de l'homme et du citoyen.

 

Therefore, the National Assembly recognizes and declares, before and under the auspices of the Supreme Being the following rights of man and of the citizen.

 

The principle is metaphysical and religious. French secularism was then marked by its transformation into the cult of the Supreme Being (culte de l’être Suprême). It had its own priesthood, temples, baptism, and rites. The painter Jacques-Louis David choreographed the feast of the cult of Supreme Being on 8th June 1794. Philosophically the notion of Supreme Being is rather peculiar. Plato had said the Divine was beyond being, though Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would probably agree with the notion of Supreme Being.

 

On 15th June 1794, Vadier, president of the Committee of National Safety, revealed the existence of a conspiracy aimed at destabilising the Revolution. His act of accusation read before the Assembly is extraordinary. Vadier claimed that Catherine Theot had declared herself as a priestess of the cult of the Supreme Being. She was a “New Eve”. She was also the “Mother of God”. Apparently, the biblical prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah had predicted the arrival of Robespierre as a Messiah, a Saviour who would console the poor. Vadier had also found several cabalistic tracts and amulets during the perquisition of her meeting place at Place de la Contrescarpe, as well as a painting of the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, by Vigée Lebrun. Theot is an interesting case, since she had also been considered a prophetess before the revolution and had been consulted by the Duchess of Bourbon [whose palace in Paris is now the National Assembly].

 

Robespierre was implicated in the ‘Affaire Theot’ and executed on the 28th July 1794. It was the end of the Reign of Terror and of the French Revolution.

 

The fate of the reign of Terror was thus forever associated with secularism and its fanatical mystical degeneration. 

 

The control of  religion in society was dependent on the Committee of  Public Safety under the direction of Vadier. The event reveals a contradiction of such a form of secularism, in which a committee must supervise the interference of private belief in society. The key to this episode is Vadier, whose name has been forgotten since he sided with Babeuf against Napoleon, and therefore has become a footnote of history ever since 1796. He is buried beside the painter David in Brussels, both exiled, both connected with the Cult of the Supreme Being and the Prophetess Catherine Theot, the revolutionary mystic of the cult of the Supreme Being.

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