“A kind of political religion”

Speaking of the French Revolution, it is somewhat odd that it was not the altars of the Fatherland, the cult of the Nation, or the revolutionary oaths and feasts that reminded Condorcet of a political religion, but the way the Constitution was treated by public education plans. The word was mentioned twice in his Cinq memoires sur l’instruction publique (1791). The first passage gives some vague criteria for the religious analogy:

“It has been said that the teaching of the constitution of each country should be part of national education there. This is true, no doubt, if we speak of it as a fact; if we just explain it and expound it; if, in teaching it, we limit ourselves to saying: This is the constitution established in the state and to which all citizens owe obedience. But if we say that it must be taught as a doctrine conforming to the principles of universal reason, or excite in its favor a blind enthusiasm which renders citizens incapable of judge her; if they are told: This is what you must worship and believe, then it is a kind of political religion that we want to create; it’s a chain that we prepare for the spirits, and we violate freedom in its most sacred rights, under the pretext of learning to cherish it. The goal of instruction is not to make men admire legislation ready-made, but to enable them to appreciate and correct it.”

The second passage is more of a historical argument:

“Let the example of England become a lesson for other peoples: there, a superstitious respect for the constitution or for certain laws to which they attribute national prosperity, a servile worship for a few maxims devoted to the interest of the rich and powerful classes are part of education, they are maintained by those who long for fortune or power, they have become a kind of political religion which makes it almost impossible to make progress towards perfecting the constitution and laws.”

In other words, the first modern suspect for being a “political religion” was something as apparently harmless as a sort of constitutionalism or legal traditionalism. This line of argument was not even rediscovered until the 20th century. Condorcet’s immediate posterity was more concerned with another “religious” threat: that of democracy. But more on that next time.

Condorcet Marie

Did the French Revolution have a secular religion?

Today is the 231th anniversary of the French Revolution, which makes it appropriate to ask once again whether there was anything like a secular religion in France after 1789. Religion there was, of course: first a reshaped, nationalized Catholicism, then a cult of the Fatherland, then worship of the Goddess of Reason, and finally that of the Supreme Being.

All these, however, were not “secular” in any sense of the word. No one had to “unmask” the real, religious nature of revolutionary ideology, for it proudly and openly declared itself religious. The altars, the vows, the feasts, the sanctuary of “all Gods” – these have never been secular in any sense of the word. It’s hard to see why Condorcet thought that calling the new plans of public education a “sort of political religion” was a denunciation. It was a religion indeed, and all revolutionary ideologues gladly acknowledged it was.

Those who thought that anything like a secular revolution may ever exist were completely mistaken. The bigger the revolution is, the more cults are needed. That is why it is almost impossible to tell how many deities were invented during the years of revolutionary frenzy. The Nation, the Fatherland, Reason, Virtues, Equality, Liberty, Humanity, Progress, and so on… None of which had any more reality than a Zeus or a Quetzalcoatl.

Which is exactly why it is a total misunderstanding to speak of anything this-worldly, secular, or merely political here. Just take a small tour at the Panthéon in Paris. And compare what you see to the allegedly “theocratic” visions of the counterrevolutionaries, for example that of the Temple at the end of Louis de Bonald’s Théorie de puovoir. Perhaps you can tell the difference; I have to admit I cannot.