This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.


The enlightenment in Europe was a self-conscious intellectual movement which broke from its earlier predecessor, the Renaissance, in that Enlightenment thinkers believed that knowledge would allow society to break free of its past.[1] In France, enlightenment thinkers, or Philosophes, found an audience among the literate public and topics of conversation about the role of government and the merits of democracy were now commonplace in French Salons, bookseller shops, literary societies, and coffee houses. This repartee of ideas between the Philosophes and their French audience created a ‘public sphere’, in which the ideas of the enlightenment integrated into long standing institutions of Ancien Regime society, including churches, courts, and universities.[2] Many ideas of the Enlightenment were influential in the ideology of the French Revolution, which valued liberal ideas in early stages of 1789-1792. Figures like Voltaire, Diderot, John Locke, and Montesquieu where held in high regard by revolutionaries, however, no philosophe is as connected to the French Revolution, and consequently the Reign of Terror, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau held a cult-like following in the decades leading up to 1789, but his image as a literary genius would evolve into a Christ-like figure in both the sense of his spirituality, and his rationale for government.

The emergence of the cult of Rousseau held two distinctive phases; the first, prior to the revolution, a dedicated literary following based around Rousseau’s earlier works Emile and La Nouvelle Heloise.[3] The second, a political cult based around Contract Social that was more a product of the French Revolution than it was of Rousseau. The father of the Romantic movement, Rousseau was attractive because of his appeal to emotions over reason, arguing that “Our natural feelings lead us to serve the common interest, while our reason urges selfishness. We have therefore only to follow feeling rather than reason in order to be virtuous.” [4] The early cult of Rousseau is significant as it shows the first emergence of the quasi-religious fanaticism that will become dominant during the Reign of Terror. It is no coincidence that many characters of the revolution can be counted as members of the literary cult of Rousseau. Prominent women Madame de Stael and Madame Roland wrote of their devotion to Rousseau prior to 1790. Other notable revolutionary figures such as Mirabeau, Sylvain Marechal, Babeuf, Charlotte Corday, the poet Roucher, and Committee of Public Safety member Bertrand Barere, were all followers of Rousseau before the revolution.[5] These “disciples” of the literary Rousseau exhibited an intense loyalty to the philosopher, and a stern hatred of his enemies and critics. [6] One follower wrote to Rousseau “I have your portrait-and I have placed it above the table which serves me as secretary, exactly as a believer places above her oratory the image of the saint for whom she has the most fervent devotion.”[7] However, the popularity of the cult of Rousseau in the 1780s says more about the cultural environment of France during this time than it does about the qualities of the philosopher himself. Rousseau’s ideas provided a pathway for Romantic expression. However, as the events of the Revolution unfolded, the cult of Rousseau would become part of the very fabric of the revolution.[8]

The political cult of Rousseau focuses on his work from The Social Contract from which arguments provided a channel of expression for revolutionary ideology.[9] As one historian notes, “Instead of Rousseau making the Revolution, it would seem that the Revolution made Rousseau, or at least his reputation as a political philosopher”[10] Rousseau’s popularity during the Revolution can be described as an impersonal mass phenomenon. Throughout revolutionary festivals and ceremonies, thousands of French paraded and sang hymns in the philosopher’s honor, but many only had a vague idea of who he was.[11] During the Terror, a hymn was sung during the ceremony concerning the worship of reason praising the philosopher, “Convenez en, mes bons amis: Rousseau vaut mieux que saint Pierre.”[12] Yet, the memory of Rousseau resonated throughout the revolution. A bust of Rousseau was given a place of honor in the National Assembly, a statue of the philosopher was erected, and a movement to transfer his remains to Paris was taken in earnest. [13] Ironically, few people participating in celebrations and religious ceremonies were familiar with the texts of the literary cult of Rousseau, and even fewer were familiar with his political works. However, this was not true of members of the revolutionary government who used the Contract Social as a framework for their political machinations. Many Republicans were inspired by the Contract Social, including Jean Paul Marat, Herault de Sechelles, and Camille Desmoulins, but perhaps the most devout follower of Rousseau was Maximillian Robespierre.[14] Robespierre believed that he was fulfilling the work of Rousseau saying of the philosopher, “Ah! if he had witnessed this revolution of which he was the precursor . . . who can doubt that his generous soul would have embraced with rapture the cause of justice and equality?”[15]


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