Maximilien Robespierre

Very, very slowly, the procession arrives at the foot of the Holy Mountain.  The Conventionnels climb it, and each finds his place on its flanks.  They all have to play their part in front of this long, immense, double column, with men on one side and women on the other.  The crucial moment has arrived.  When the Symphonie au pere de l’Univers erupts, the young girls throw their flowers, the mothers hold their babies up toward Robespierre, the sons unsheath their swords, which they put into their fathers’ hands, swearing only to use them for victory.

Occupied by the armies of Europe outside, chopped down by the butchers of the revolutionary tribunal on the inside, the capital escapes for the first time in months from the baseness of this time of proscriptions…  A lot of people cry and embrace each other in the fading light.

Spread out over the square, whose black soil has not yet finished absorbing the blood of its victims, the crowd feasts and sings.  It will take the whole night to break up…  In the pompous decor delivered up to relic and souvenir hunters, the Deputies can be heard to grumble:

“It’s not enough for him to be the master…  This fellow wants to be a god, as well!”

At nightfall, l’Incorruptible returns alone to the home of the Duplays who shelter him, from where he had left that morning, so full of happy exaltation.  His hosts are very simple people.  When he arrives in the little lodgement, they welcome him with cries of joy and congratulate him on this immense, this indescribable triumph.  Calm, impenetrable, Robespierre tells them in a low voice:

“You will not be seeing me for much longer, my friends…”

***

From 8 June, the day of the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre will have fifty more days to live.  As well as a premonition, it was an act of lucidity that he made with this prediction.  He knew, that day, that he was totally misunderstood by the Conventionnels.

For Robespierre, the sense and the aim of this festival were to replace the pagan, dry and materialistic cult of Reason by a religion which restored transcendance, a God, without Whom, no man worthy of the name, could live…

***

Right from the beginning of the Revolution, Robespierre had tried to stop the dechristianisation of France.  As a faithful disciple of Rousseau, whom he qualified as a “divine man”, he was sure that Man is a “religious animal”, incapable of durably banishing his spiritual needs.  He shared the feeling of the curate of Boissis-la-Bertrand who was willing to renounce his “mummeries”, that is to say, all formal aspects of the cult, but not his religion.  It is in this sense that Michelet was able to say of Robespierre:

“He had a priest’s temperament”.

***

The 8 June festival gives a fairly precise idea of the religion that Robespierre wanted, but did not have the time to develop.  Four days after the festival, perhaps disappointed by the attitude of the Conventionnels, he disappeared, only reappearing at the Convention one month later.  This was enough time for Fouche, Barras and his friends, to dig the hole into which he would fall on 9 Thermidor.  Stefan Zweig writes of Robespierre:

“You can’t pardon a man who has caused you so much fear.”

The 10 Thermidor, he is guillotined with his brother, Saint-Just, Couthon and seventeen of his friends…

***

What originally caused Robespierre’s downfall was the Deputies’ certainty that he wanted to install a new religion of which he would be the High Priest, and this enormous misunderstanding would be fatal to him.  It was not the god of the christian religion that he wanted to install, of course.  He most certainly wanted to radically end the christian institutions and abolish two thousand years of “perverted” christianism, to return to the spirit and the liturgy of the Roman Republic, the religion of Antiquity.  His ideal not only had the sense of political revolution, but also that of a fundamental cultural revolution.

This was his great dream.  He succeeded in giving it body for a few hours by getting five hundred thousand French people to live a day in the fashion of Antiquity.

It is for this reason that he was accused on 9 Thermidor of taking himself for a divinity, and was made to look ridiculous.  He would not have the time to correct this.  And everyone knows that, in France, you can die from being ridiculous…

***

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