7.1.1. The Reign of Terror and the Cult of Reason



7.1.1. The Reign of Terror and the Cult of Reason

The French Revolution was a major event of the modern era, which marked the decline of monarchical power in Europe and set the bases for the future democratic systems. Between 1789 and 1799 France experienced all governance systems: it successively passed from absolute monarchy, based on the divine right of kings, to constitutional monarchy, where “the king reigns but does not rule,” and then to republic. The absolute monarchy that ruled France for centuries collapsed in only three years. French society went through an epic transformation as the feudal, aristocratic and religious privileges evaporated under the assault of the revolutionary liberal policies, while the old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to the Enlightenment principles of citizenship and equal rights.

For centuries, French society was divided into three estates: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (the common people). The relation between these three estates was highly disproportionate, the first two estates (the superior estates) being supported exclusively through the energy of the Third Estate (the inferior estate). While the Third Estate was lacerated by hunger and poverty, the Catholic Church was the largest landowner in France and Europe. The church was exempted from paying taxes to the government, but it was collecting its own taxes. It also kept the registers of births, deaths and marriages, being the only institution that offered hospitals and primary and secondary education.

The revolution started as a protest of the Third Estate against the Second Estate, the nobility, but it degenerated and turned extremely violent also against the First Estate, the church. In the autumn of 1789 the revolutionary government adopted a series of laws through which the monastic vows were abolished and all religious orders were dissolved. The monks and the nuns were encouraged to return to their private life and to get married. The Huguenots demanded the establishment of an anti-Catholic regime, while Enlightenment writings such as those of Voltaire denigrated Catholicism: “Our [religion] is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most blood-thirsty ever to infect the world.”813 On July 12, 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was adopted, a law that transformed all clerics into public servants belonging to the state. The regulatory document aimed to remove the Church of France from under the authority of the Papacy and bring it to the side of the revolution. Yet, only a fourth of the entire national clergy accepted the new regulation, while most Catholic leaders condemned the revolution and refused to support it.814 For this reason, the revolutionary masses identified the church with a counter-revolutionary force, which must be eradicated together with the royalty: the decapitation of Louis XVI paralleled the decapitation of Christianity, while the replacement of the monarchy with the republic went hand in hand with the replacement of religion with the philosophy of reason. The revolutionary trend turned quickly from anti-clericalism to atheism.

In September 1792 the National Assembly legalized divorce, contrary to the Catholic doctrine. Concurrently, the state took control over the registers of births, deaths and marriages to the detriment of the church. In Paris, between the 2nd and 4th of September, three bishops and more than 200 priests were massacred by the enraged mob. The gold and the silver of the places of worship were confiscated for supporting the war efforts.815 A law adopted on October 21, 1793, made all priests suspects of counter-revolutionary opinions, anyone protecting them being killed on the spot. On the 24th of October the Gregorian calendar – as an instrument decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 – was replaced by the French Republican Calendar, which abolished the Sabbath, the days of the saints and other references to the church. In November 1793 the council of Indre-et-Loire abolished even the French word dimanche (“Sunday”). Anti-clerical parades were held and the archbishop of Paris was forced to resign and replace his mitre with the reddish “hat of freedom.” Approximately 3,000 streets and places with religious names were renamed; for example, Saint Tropez became Héraclée. The newborns were no longer baptized and they received only non-religious names, while the religious holidays were banned and replaced with holidays that celebrated the harvest or other secular symbols.816

For more than 1,000 years the church used religion to inhibit freedom of thought; now the French revolutionaries used reason to eradicate religion. The French people went from one extreme to another. On the line initiated by the philosopher René Descartes more than a century before, the French Revolution emancipated man from the Christian revealed truth and placed him in the center of the Universe; man, through his autonomous reason, was capable of making his own laws, independently from divinity ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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