Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Theism of the French Revolution

In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it [emphasis mine], of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history, and the most consoling presage of its happiness. We look back, already, with astonishment, at the daring outrages committed by despotism, on the reason and the rights of man; We look forward with joy, to the period, when it shall be despoiled of all its usurpations, and bound for ever in the chains, with which it had loaded its miserable victims.

-- James Madison, 1792


Another title to this post could have been Robespierre Creationist!

American Vision produced a comical video attempting to slam atheists Dawkins and Harris with the horrors of atheistic regimes the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism. One main problem with their notion is that neither Nazism nor the French Revolution were atheistic.

The video singles out Maximilien Robespierre as the poster boy for Enlightenment influenced atheistic slaughter. But Robespierre was not an atheist but a firm believer in God. And, as I pointed out in this much read post, the French Revolution was declared according to a strikingly parallel set of principles/ideals as the American.

The French Revolution, like the US Revolution, appealed to a generically defined God. This shouldn't surprise us given that Jefferson, the author of the US's Declaration, was in France right before their revolution, helping to lay the philosophical grounds for it, assisting in writing the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The two documents, and hence the two revolutions, appealed, at base, to the same Enlightenment principles of God-given rights to liberty and equality. As the French document begins:

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

Articles:

1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.


As noted, Maximilien Robespierre was not an atheist but a devout worshipper of "the Supreme Being." And Robespierre's Supreme Being was, like the God of the US Founding, one who loved political liberty and hated tyranny. As he wrote in his "Cult of the Supreme Being":

"The day forever fortunate has arrived, which the French people have consecrated to the Supreme Being. Never has the world which He created offered to Him a spectacle so worthy of His notice. He has seen reigning on the earth tyranny, crime, and imposture. He sees at this moment a whole nation, grappling with all the oppressions of the human race, suspend the course of its heroic labors to elevate its thoughts and vows toward the great Being who has given it the mission it has undertaken and the strength to accomplish it."


Jefferson and Franklin coined the "motto" "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Dave Kopel traces it to an earlier Protestant thinker. However, such motto also perfectly describes Robespierre's "Supreme Being." And by the way, the "Supreme Being" was also one of George Washington's many generic terms for God. He once said:

“No Man has a more perfect Reliance on the alwise, and powerful dispensations of the Supreme Being than I have nor thinks his aid more necessary.”


The Biblical God, on the other hand, seems wholly unconcerned with political liberty, but rather SPIRITUAL liberty.

This isn't to say the two revolutions were identical events. No two historical events are identical. And there were some notable differences in ideology. For instance, the US was more influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and less by the French Enlightenment. Rousseau's "fingers" were more present in the French Revolution.

The ideological origins of the US Founding have been studied in great detail and seriously argued over. If we view the US Founding as a unique historical nexus, and look back in hindsight, we see many ideological tributaries flowing to and from it. Certainly there were tributaries of Christian thought flowing into that point. Jim Babka once detailed all of the Protestant historical documents that recognized subjects' rights to resist tyrannical kings. And Tom Van Dyke has stressed the idea of inherent natural rights can also be traced from our Founders, through various Christian natural law scholars to Aquinas. And Aquinas of course, traces back to the non-Christian Aristotle who was explicitly listed by our Founders (Jefferson in particular) as inspiration.

Yet, the Declaration is a generically theistic document with no discernible "Christian" content. That's not to say it is incompatible with Christianity. Just that it is "a-Biblical," not necessarily "anti-Biblical." Indeed, given America's Declaration of Independence so greatly influenced the French Revolution, the principles contained therein must have been compatible with the original principles of the French Revolution. Indeed, as noted, the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man was modeled after America's DOI, with Jefferson, America's Declaration's author, helping to write the French's original Declaration.

When arguing over the ideological origins of America's Founding, other historical events and documents are often offered as analogies. I therefore stress the closest historical analogy to the American Revolution is the French Revolution. And the most analogous document to America's DOI is the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man. That is, the ideas contained within the US's Declaration of Independence may bear *some* resemblance to, for instance, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay's Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, published in 1579 and the other documents of Protestant origin Jim Babka discussed here. But the US's Declaration's ideas are most similar to those in the French's Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Plus, the events which triggered the writing of those Protestant documents occurred some hundreds of years prior to the American Revolution. Even the Glorious Revolution in Great Britain occurred in 1688 almost one hundred years prior to America's Revolution. The French Revolution began in 1789, right when the US was ratifying its Constitution.

So those who want to contrast America's Revolution with the French's and then attempt to, by way of historical analogy, credit "Christian" sources with America's Founding ought to tread very carefully. An honest examination of the historical record shows the American and French Revolutions to be the closest historical analogies. At least, that's the way James Madison -- the father of America's Constitution -- saw it. (See above quotation.)

Thus, if we view the US's Founding as a historical nexus with ideological tributaries flowing to and fro, my point is simply the French Revolution took place slightly down river to the left. And then the waters got real rough over there, whereas in America, there was smooth sailing along the river...at least until 1861.

20 comments:

Pinky said...

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I guess I have to give your paper several readings if I am to catch what you are wanting to put out as your message to any readers.
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I think your repeated use of the word, revolution, in talking about America's Founding and the comparisons you make with the revolution that took place in France with such a heavy influence by the Jacobins tends to confuse the issues involved.
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But, the areas you're touching on are of serious importance to the neo-conservative movement we're presently experiencing in such great degree.
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You are opening a door and I'm sure you know it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Read the French Rights of Man carefully. Although "in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being," it is the National Assembly that "recognizes and proclaims, the following rights of man and of the citizen."

The document does not trace human rights to God. It asserts these rights, on their own standing.

Further on in the RoM, you'll find the abominible clause:

"Law is the expression of the general will."


Man's will. This is NOT "the laws of nature and of nature's God." It is man that is the measure of all things, it is man that is the arbiter of truth.

The excesses of the Fench Revolution were quite legal, y'see. They were "expressions of the general will."


I'll also add that Aquinas owed much to Aristotle, but cannot trace human rights to him, because Aristotle believed in natural inequality. The equality of man is certainly not "a-biblical" either, and although notions of political liberty are admittedly hard to tease out of the bible, you'll find Aquinas as a supporter of private property and also overthrowing an unjust king, as sovereignty is given by God to the people, who in turn gave it to their kings.

Pinky said...

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Tom, whenever anyone speaks in terms of absolute truths as you have just done here, I immediately become wary of whatever they express in regards to the abstract.
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Natural Rights are almost the hallmark of neo-conservatism and that is what the Reign of Terror was all about now, wasn't it? Did not they use "reason" to the extreme? Was not the Reign of Terror an outgrowth of the French Revolution? Didn't heads roll to the tune of "natural rights"?

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Tom Van Dyke said...

There is zero connection between neoconservatism and the French Revolution. Ryn is wrong, and is perverting history and philosophy in his jihad against his political opponents. Neo-cons would despise the French Revolution, following Edmund Burke.

Neither is Strauss' "natural right" the same thing as "natural rights," especially liberty and freedom as natural rights, which is neo-conism, but is not Strauss.

Pinky said...

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I'm surprised you seem to be linking neo-conservatism and the French Relationship as a result of anything I posted.
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My point was about "natural rights" and that the concept is related to both the Reign of Terror and neo-conservatism. In no way does that mean the neo-conservatism and the Reign of Terror are the same thing. No way.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Probably because you've used Claus Ryn's slur "Jacobin" about neo-cons several times before.

But I don't follow your point, not atall. There is no relation between the two things, just as I've argued that the French and American Revolution/Foundings had two very different bases for "rights," one from God, one from man himself.

Pinky said...

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Like I posted before, Tom. Provide a paper showing comparisons between the American War for Independence with the French Revolution and I will learn from you.
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Part of my learning process might be to take exception to any would be teacher in such a way that I am forced to see their reasoning.
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In the meantime, this bantering back and forth detracts from the thinking others may wish to pursue.
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I suspect you have a strong basis for what you're claiming and I, for one, would like to see how you unpack it. I'm sure you know what you're talking about. You usually don't go off half cocked.

Jonathan Rowe said...

John Adams and E. Burke, were, from what I have researched, two of the most notable thinkers who understood the ideological differences between the two early on. Not just Jefferson, but most of the Founders seemed to support the French Revolution and see it as a continuation of the American (that was the unofficial "Whig" position). Like Iraq and Vietnam most didn't start to have second thoughts until AFTER the mess happened.

Pinky said...

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But, according to Himmelfarb, when Burke was asked what he thought about it--within just a few months of the French Revolution--he voiced his fears for what turned prophetic about the resulting Reign of Terror.
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Man, left alone to his reason without a belief in traditional wisdom, ends up being a rapacious animal.
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And, in an aside to Tom, that is where the neo-conservatives are--figuring it all out according to their reasoning that there is some universal truth outside of history.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Phil, I simply asked was that you read the Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen for yourself. Carefully. What we can ascertain is that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, it does not trace the rights of man to God.

You must understand that I don't write to change minds, because that's impossible. You will change your mind yourself. Or not. I can only leave the trail of bread crumbs...

Pinky said...

Tom sez, "I simply asked was that you read the Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen for yourself."
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I read that in collitch a long time ago.
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Here's a quote from
this site that you might find interesting.
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"The French Déclaration on the other hand concentrates, not on history, but on reason; not on the faults of the monarch but on logical arguments."
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Isn't that a mark of neo-conservative thought? Am I wrong?
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Are you going to provide a paper on the comparison between those different revolutions?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

C'mon, Phil, you gotta work with me here. What did your last slave die of?

You can even find this on the Wiki:

"This day I heard from Laurence who has sent me papers confirming the portentous state of France—where the Elements which compose Human Society seem all to be dissolved, and a world of Monsters to be produced in the place of it..."---Edmund Burke, October 10, 1789 letter

"The French had shewn themselves the ablest architects of ruin that had hitherto existed in the world. In that very short space of time they had completely pulled down to the ground, their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures...[there was a danger of] an imitation of the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy...[in religion] the danger of their example is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism; a foul, unnatural vice, foe to all the dignity and consolation of mankind; which seems in France, for a long time, to gave been embodied into a faction, accredited, and almost avowed..."---Burke, February 9, 1990, speech before Parliament

Pinky said...

I'm quite interested in the subject; but, I'm thinking our discussion could violate the rules of this blog site.
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That's why I've asked you to provide a paper that ties things together with the American Founding.
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Should be easy...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Someday, not today. You already know all you want to know, Phil. You read the "Rights of Man" back in college and parroted from a paragraph on it from some dork's website. Thx for the link.

Should you ever comment on something I actually wrote or linked to, I'll find that of interest.

Pinky said...

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I took your advice and I read the entire text in the English Language.
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Thanks for recommending it.
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I think it's a great subject for discussion.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Cool. I'm sure your as repulsed by Robespierre's God as I am [see Jon's link].

Pinky said...

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I've had mixed feelings about Robespierre since I first learned of his ways thirty some years ago.
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I now think he exhibited some of the most important characteristics of what it is we call neo-conservatism today. And, he sets an example of what neo-conservatism brings to society. It is an extremely dangerous movement that foretells future failure and destruction for an otherwise unified society. Horrid.
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Catherine Delors said...

True, Robespierre hated atheism. However, some Revolutionaries (Heberts' followers, in particular) were atheists. Trying to ascribe any particular opinion to the "Revolutionaries" in general is doomed to failure since the French Revolution is characterized by a series of clashes among various and opposite schools of thought.

And true too, Robespierre and the Jacobins were quite the opposite of neocons in terms of foreign policy. Robespierre, after all, said that no one welcomed "armed missionaries."

http://blog.catherinedelors.com/2008/02/20/no-one-likes-armed-missionaries-or-what-the-french-revolution-could-teach-us.aspx

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ms. Delors, Robespierre's god of the "The Cult of the Supreme Being" is bloodthirsty and repulsive. I'd rather take my chances on atheism, which may or may not be as bloody, although in Revolutionary France, it was.

Pinky said...

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Yes, Catherine, I believe you are correct about the foreign policy aspect of neo-cons and the various leaders during the French Revolution.
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Those were different days. New nations and societies were in the building stages. New societies were not about world conquest--just the opposite.
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But, in the sense of absolute truths--that was my focus, and I believe that is where the neo-conservatives get their start.
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The fact that Robespierre was such a Man of Virtur is the kicker in my mind. I never can trust people that wear their virtue on their sleeves.
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