—Napoleon Bonaparte in conversation circa 1808
Recently, Jacobin magazine published a piece by Harrison Fluss arguing that present day-left-wing radicals should “revisit” the Cult of the Supreme Being. He argues that the republican religiosity that Robespierre attempted to institute represents a positive alternative to both liberal tolerance and fanaticism, New Atheism and clericalism. In raising the need for such an alternative, he is asking a good question. Where he errs is, above all, in is in his lack of conviction. He wants to endorse the Cult of the Supreme Being without actually following the logic of such an endorsement to the end:
What we can learn from these figures is not so much the need to institute a new religion, but a very secular lesson about the relationship of belief and popular power.
These “lessons” in turn amount to reducing all beliefs–whether rationalistic and fundamentalist, dogmatic or skeptical—from propositions that are true or false to more or less tactically useful expressions of interest.
Even this crude pragmatism is immediately undermined by his attempts to defend Robespierre simultaneously from charges of cynicism and naivety, the upshot of which makes him appear guilty on both counts. If he didn’t actually believe in his deistic profession of faith, then he was indeed utilizing it and the credulity of other people in an instrumentalist manner. If he did in fact believe it though, saying that he was “really” just trying to fight the class struggle by other means is both untruthful regarding the facts and disrespectful to Robespierre as a person. At the very least, it shows a basic failure to understand what belief in a God, whether that of Abraham or of Spinoza, means and entails for those who have it. At the same time, to the extent that Robespierre really did in the Supreme Being, the cogency of the critique of his creed from both “the Left” and “the Right” is increased.
This self-defeating concern with individual intentions extends to Fluss’ explanation of why the Cult of the Supreme Being failed preempt the onset of Thermidor. The subjective feelings of certain factions of the Jacobins themselves, not the unpopularity of their ideas among ordinary people, is used as an explanation for their downfall:
Their cynical mockery and contempt for Robespierre’s earnestness contained the seeds for turning back all the popular gains the Jacobins had made up to this point… In Robespierre’s wake, the Directory replaced the Convention, and safeguarded the narrow property interests of the rich at the expense of the popular interests of the French plebs and sans-culottes.
Ignored in such summation is all the other materiel and ideological factors that served to make the Jacobin regime, unlike the succession of pre-Restoration governments that followed it, unendurable. From the Maximum law that suppressed wages to the forced extraction of food from the countryside by the People’s armies, from the suppression of popular folk customs to the violent persecution of non-juring priests, the Jacobins had left themselves open to attack from both the left and the right. If the Jacobins had been truly beloved by the French “plebs”, they would not have been betrayed and executed to jeers of the crowd in the capital itself by their erstwhile colleges. Ignored also is the extent to which the men of the Thermidor were themselves earnest republicans, not mustache-twirling opportunists.
More to the point: Fluss’ explanation supposes that if the Jacobins had only acted sooner, everything would have been better:
All of Robespierre’s efforts to heal the rifts of the nation around a new civic religion were too late.
As if any amount of time would have made his attempt to paper over real social antagonisms with Sub-Masonic theatrics any more convincing. Civic deism could not satisfy either the disciples of the philosophers or the children of the Church, and unlike the abbies and convents of the latter, it couldn’t be relied upon to provide the poor with bread and the sick with beds. At the end of the day, the Jacobins were allowed to rule only long as they could present themselves as the sole party capable of preserving the unity of the patria. As soon as it was clear that there were other, non-petit-bourgeois crank options available, the no longer endangered national unity could be reaffirmed by their overthrow. Flimsy pedagogical street shows couldn’t change this reality.
It is instructive to compare this confused, vacillating Jacobin enthusiasm with healthy Bonapartist anti-clericalism. The fleeting cult of the Supreme Being inherited the wind. By contrast, the imperfect compromise of the Concordat set the basic pattern of church and state relations France for the next century until the abolition of the Organic Articles in 1905 more or less completed annulment of the marriage between Rome and her eldest daughter. The Gallican heresy was crushed between the rising power of the modern state and the Ultramontane claims of Rome, making Jacobin civic deism a redundant novelty item. But this point can be more succinctly summed up by looking at just one of several interventions made by Napoleon in the culture wars of his day.
During the summer of 1805, several prefects, for their own “enlightened” reasons no doubt, sided with conservative bishops who called for a ban on dancing in front of churches. Despite his fixation with his plans to invade England, this development was deemed important enough for him to write a personal letter to Jean-Baptiste de Nompère de Champagney, the Minister of the Interior:
I don’t know where this will end. Is dancing now an evil? Do we want to return to the time when villagers were not allowed to dance?
If everything the bishops say is to be believed, we would have to ban balls, entertainments, fashions, and turn the Empire into one big convent…
Make it clear to them…that the civil authorities do not involve themselves in this kind of thing.
Emma Goldmann is incorrectly believed to have declared “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” But the emperor really did want the people to dance, even in front of churches if they so desired. Instead of seeking to found a new religion of his own, Bonaparte confined himself to siding with the people against the crotchety arrogance of the existing clergy. Or rather he chose to side with an older popular understanding of sacred space which conflicted with both the comparatively younger Tridentine concern for religious discipline and the bourgeois sobriety promoted by the enlightened, post-revolutionary bureaucracy. Significantly, Bonaparte doesn’t say the bishops couldn’t rail against dancing in front of churches. What he does do is make clear that they can’t expect the civil authorities to enforce such ecclesiastical edicts, which is what the prefects in question were apparently doing.
The Emperor’s own private religious opinions were mercurial to say the least. But whatever his own opinion of Christianity at any one time, what remained consistent was his insistence that the sphere of the state had a separate competence and dignity apart from the sphere of the church. He recognized intuitively that the neo-pagan civic religion dreamed of by Rousseau and his disciples was just that, something dreamed, as opposed to a necessity rooted in contemporary realities. The antique Greco-Roman fusion of politics and religion was as hopeless as the medieval synthesis of the same represented by the soon to be defunct Holy Roman Empire. The Jacobin attempt to replace the old absolutist marriage of church and state with a forced union of their own was thus a dead end. What was needed, Bonaparte realized, was more negotiated arrangements that guaranteed greater space for parties that, while superficially more conservative than Robespierre’s cult, were actually far more in keeping with the modern spirit.
This is not to advocate the copying of anyone’s specific solutions. History itself has already demonstrated the inadequacy of the details of Napoleon’s compromises. What remains potentially valuable however, is the Bonapartist attitude to the problems at hand. Instead of surrendering politics over to either the furies of the Enlightenment or those of traditional piety, a respectful (or if one prefers, suspicious) distance must be kept from both, the better to allow all to develop according to their respective vocations. The shared twin tenets of fanaticism everywhere, that the truth can be proved by sheer will power and that facts can be guaranteed by coercion, must be renounced; not out of mere indifferentism, but out of sense of duty to defend the prerequisites of a truly “public” order. Instead of aspiring to become the self-made popes of a new dispensation, we should strive to be humble watchmen along the borders between the sacred and the profane. Instead of clumsily forcing an answer to perennial questions, a discipline of listening. Instead of seeking to outdo the originality of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammed, an ethics of humble editorial custodianship. Jealous bourgeois possessiveness must give to demotic magnanimity. For if politics is to escape the cul-de-sacs of both liberalism and millenarianism, it must learn to earn its own bread, and let others do the same.