Sep 05

September 5: Religion and Terror

The Reign of Terror (1793)
and the Churches

Maximilian Robespierre

It was on this date, September 5, 1793, that an 11-month Reign of Terror began in France. Sometimes called the Red Terror, to distinguish it from the equally brutal but little-mentioned White Terror which followed it, the Reign of Terror lasted until the execution of Maximilian Robespierre on 28 July 1794. In less than a year, about 18,000 people were killed, an average of 55 a day. The massacres and beheadings were excessive, and supervised by the Committee of Public Safety, in which Georges Danton and Robespierre were influential members. Religious writers, when they speak of the French Revolution at all, are fond of pointing to the Terror as proof that people deprived of their religion turn into beasts with no moral compass. Is that true?

First, the Terror was not part of the French Revolution: the revolutionists had succeeded in 1789 – replacing a desperately brutal feudal system, a 90% illiteracy rate and the divine rule of kings with a republican government – and the men and women who had secured the freedom of France left the governing to others. The Terror took place four years after the French Revolution.

Second, anyone who is familiar with the history of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages may recall, if they were ever taught, that compared to the 50,000 slaughtered in a few days during the St. Bartholomew Massacre some 220 years earlier, or the quarter of a million Albigensian men, women, and children slain from 1211-1215, the Reds had a lot to learn from the Catholics about random murder.

Third, the Committee of Public Safety, supported by the people of Paris, was created to preserve the reformed government and to put down threats from inside the country. The clergy, in league with the nobles, were plotting the reversal of the Revolution. Robespierre took the lead and the Terror was installed to defeat the insurrection and to repel opportunistic foreign invaders, since this was in every sense a national emergency. And yet, less than 10% of those killed in the Terror were clerics – 67% belonged to the mostly republican working class.

The clerical-royalist conspiracies were real: the crowned heads of Europe wanted to smother democratic ideas in the cradle. The former French nobility wanted their inherited privilege returned. The Catholic Church was similarly addicted to unearned advantage, but they had also been made into employees of the state, and required to take a loyalty oath. Half of them refused and fought for the failure of republican government, enlisting the aid of foreign powers. As it is unlikely that foreign invaders would not demand a piece of France for their services, it was fortunate that the republican army defeated the Austrian, English, Prussian and Spanish invaders.

A contemporary French cartoon: the Third Estate (workers) is shown bearing the full burden of taxation. The nobility (left) leans unhelpfully on his labor; the clergy (right) gives token help.

Fourth, there was an internal quarrel between the Girondists and the Montagnards. Robespierre led the Montagnards to victory – but he not only believed in God and hated Atheism, he decreed the worship of God as the State religion, which alienated the populace. It was under the God-loving Robespierre that the despicable acts of the Terror took place. The Terror ended when Robespierre was overthrown and an appalled public demanded his execution.

Fifth, as soon as Robespierre fell, there was an equal and opposite reaction from the clerical-royalists: a White Terror to restore the monarchy. Perpetrated largely by Catholics, the displaced masters of France took revenge on the republicans, killing thousands without even the pretence of a trial. Eventually, more moderate men took over, but they also abolished Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being. With the resulting general indifference to religion, France became relatively tranquil and prosperous.

So not only were the greatest excesses of the Reign of Terror perpetrated under a man of God, but the reactionary clerical-royalists dipped their hands in blood, as well. France is a secular republic today because, unlike the US and some other nations, France knows what religious strife is really like.

NB: The facts of the Red Terror and the White Terror are related in the following sources: Cambridge Modern History Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Ernst Daudet, La Terreur blanche.. Quantin, 1878; Ernest Lavisse. Histoire de France Contemporaine. 10 vol., 1920-1922; Richard Lodge. A History Of Modern Europe From The Capture Of Constantinople,1453, To The Treaty Of Berlin, 1878. New York: Harper & Bros., 1898.

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Aug 26

August 26: Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1748)

It was on this date, August 26, 1740, that French paper-maker and chemist Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, was born, one of 16 children of a prosperous paper manufacturer. With his younger brother Jacques-Étienne, the Montgolfier brothers conducted experiments with paper and fabric bags filled with smoke and hot air, which eventually led to their co-invention of the first hot-air balloon. On 5 June 1783, they inflated a large linen bag with hot air. Ascending to 3,000 feet (1,000 metres) in the marketplace at Annonay, near Lyons, the flight lasted 10 minutes and covered more than a mile. On September 19 of that same year, the Montgolfier brothers set aloft another balloon, with a sheep, a rooster, and a duck as passengers, which landed safely about 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) from the launch site. Then, about a month later, on 21 November 1783, in the first untethered, manned flight by hot air balloon, the Montgolfiers sent Pilatre de Rozier and François Laurent, marquis d’Arlandes, as passengers in a balloon that sailed over Paris for 5.5 miles (9 kilometres) for about 25 minutes. This balloon, too, landed safely.

In recognition of their achievement, Étienne received the ribbon of St. Michael, Joseph was awarded a pension of 1,000 livres and King Louis XVI elevated their father Pierre to the French nobility (thereafter bearing the surname “de Montgolfier”) Among many additional honors bestowed on Joseph Montgolfier were membership in the Legion of Honor and appointment to the Institute of France. Thereafter, the brothers published books on aeronautics and continued their scientific careers: Joseph invented a calorimeter and the hydraulic ram, and Étienne developed a process for manufacturing vellum. Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier died on 2 August 1799, at age 54, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland; Joseph-Michel Montgolfier died at Balaruc-les-Bains, France, age 69, on 26 June 1810.

However, Joseph-Michel supported the French Revolution, and was appointed Administrator of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. The French astronomer Jérôme Lalande, a close friend, told Sylvain Maréchal, author of the Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Atheists, that Montgolfier was an Atheist—or, as Joseph Mazzini Wheeler put it in his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (1889), “A friend of Delambre and La Lande, he was on the testimony of this last an atheist.” Indeed, that venerable vetter of the virtuous, the Catholic Encyclopedia, conveniently mentions only Joseph-Michel’s pious brother!

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Aug 22

August 22: Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy (1862)

Claude Debussy

It was on this date, August 22, 1862, that French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy was born Achille-Claude Debussy, the eldest of five children, in St. Germain-en-Laye. A prodigy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10 and by 1902 his Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, 1892-94), inspired by the poem by French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, and the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), based on the drama by Belgian poet, essayist and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, were recognized worldwide. Some critics of his time described Debussy as “one of the greatest musicians of his generation.” Conversely, though he was clearly talented, his contemporaries thought Debussy argumentative and experimental, as he frequently favored dissonances and intervals, innovations that were frowned upon by the rigid teaching of the Academy. As one writer recalled, “When asked by a grumpily puzzled professor what ‘rules’ he followed, Debussy is said to have retorted, mon plaisir—‘whatever I please.’” Or, as Debussy once explained, “I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” He won the Prix de Rome in 1884 and was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1903.

Debussy often took his musical themes from such neo-pagans as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Maeterlinck and Charles Baudelaire, but also was influenced by Richard Wagner—every one of them a Freethinker. In fact, the composer was wholly without religious belief. In a 1911 interview, Debussy made this comment about his music for Le martyre de St. Sébastien, based on the play by Gabriele d’Annunzio:

Do you really think that my music is devoid of religious antecedents? Do you wish to put an artist’s soul under restraint? Do you find it difficult to conceive that one who sees mystery in everything — in the song of the sea, in the curve of the horizon, in the wind and in the call of the birds — should have been attracted to a religious subject? I have no profession of faith to utter to you: but, whichever my creed may be, no great effort on my part was needed to raise me to the height of d’Annunzio’s mysticism. I can assure you that my music was written in exactly the spirit as if it had been commissioned for performance in church. … Have I succeeded in expressing all that I felt? It is for others to decide. Is the faith which my music expresses orthodox? I do not know; but I can say that it is my own, expressed in all sincerity.*

Debussy died in Paris on 25 March 1918 at age 55. He had a secular funeral in Paris, during the German bombardment of the city. His body was moved the next year from Père Lachaise Cemetery to its current location, the small Passy Cemetery sequestered behind the Trocadéro, fulfilling Debussy’s wish to rest “among the trees and the birds.”

It was Claude Debussy who said,

I do not practice religion in accordance with the sacred rites. I have made mysterious Nature my religion. I do not believe that a man is any nearer to God for being clad in priestly garments, nor that one place in a town is better adapted to meditation than another. When I gaze at a sunset sky and spend hours contemplating its marvelous ever-changing beauty, an extraordinary emotion overwhelms me. Nature in all its vastness is truthfully reflected in my sincere though feeble soul. Around me are the trees stretching up their branches to the skies, the perfumed flowers gladdening the meadow, the gentle grass-carpeted earth, … and my hands unconsciously assume an attitude of adoration. … To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! … that is what I call prayer.**

* As quoted in Dancing in the Vortex : The Story of Ida Rubinstein (2001) by Vicki Woolfe, p. 56.
** As quoted in Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (1933) by Léon Vallas, p. 225.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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