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Essay: The Promethean Nature of Laïcité

Sometimes you read a book, and seemingly invincible threads of conventional wisdom become unraveled. One such revelation emerged for me in Daniel Mornet's The Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution. Mornet astutely reveals that Enlightenment political thinking was not as influential within revolutionary ideology as we would assume. Mornet states that on the eve of 1789, no more than ten distinguished revolutionaries had read the political works of Rousseau. Perhaps the revolutionaries were not giants of political theory but simply hommes de lettres. Nevertheless, this shocking insight provoked me to contemplate Enlightenment thinking’s impact on the revolution with a greater focus on laïcité. In this article, I will illustrate how progressivism's interpretation within Enlightenment thinking manifests itself in laïcité by scrutinizing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.

Contrary to what one might expect, I will not reference great Enlightenment philosophers’ works, such as Candide, to discuss how Enlightenment thinking interprets progressivism. Instead, I will go back to Ancient Greece because if the Enlightenment is a product of Western thinking, I should question what progressivism is per Enlightenment in the origins of the Occident. To bolster this reasoning, Montesquieu's work on the separation of powers and Rousseau's social contract theory were adapted from the Ancient Greek interpretation of governance. Therefore, there's no better source to understand progressivism in Enlightenment philosophy than the myth of Prometheus.

In the myth, Prometheus – a Titan in Greek mythology known for his cleverness and sympathy for humanity – defied the supreme god Zeus by stealing fire (representing intellect) from Mount Olympus and giving it to humans. Angered by Prometheus’s rebellion and fearing humanity's increasing power and potential, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains to suffer for all eternity. Each day, an eagle would come to eat Prometheus’s liver, which would regenerate overnight. The story presents two fundamental revelations. First, the West seeks progress in the clash between God and people, meaning progress cannot coexist with an idea of deity. Secondly, in Western thinking, to champion humanity as Prometheus did means to be punished by God. Enlightenment thinking is an extension of this mentality; therefore, I characterize the Enlightenment’s temperament as Promethean.

Based on this framework, I now want to dwell on the relationship between enlightened (or Promethean) progressivism and laïcité, which I will further touch on when analyzing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. As previously stated, enlightened progressivism believes that humanity’s advancement depends on its clash against “Zeus,” whether this “Zeus” is God or a monarch. In other words, I want to emphasize that the driving force behind enlightened progressivism is the idea of struggle with any establishment or taboo. Thus, per Promethean progressivism, when it comes to the advancement in the science of politics and governance, the Church is among the establishments that must be opposed. This mentality is the core of laïcité, but what are the implications?

The impact of laïcité’s Promethean nature can be observed in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a controversial piece of legislation that defined the French State’s relationship with the Church until Bonaparte’s Concordat of 1801. The legislation reflects the revolution’s aim to subordinate the Church’s authority by attempting to integrate the revolution’s tenets, such as souveraineté populaire, l'État de droit, égalité, and nationalisme, into the religious sphere. For instance, Title I (Clause 4) states that any religious institution or citizen of France cannot oblige to the authority of a church whose essence is not Gallophile. The clause cements the employment of nationalism by revolutionaries to bolster the laïcité’s basis in French society. In other words, revolutionaries use nationalism to delegitimize any potential political mobilization against laïcité.

The logic behind this strategy resides in the reality that as much as revolutionaries are polarizing to set an apparent dichotomy between their forces and the establishment, they need to appeal to unifying inspirations, in this case, nationalism, to expand their social base and legitimize their purpose. Similarly, the legislation’s Title II (Clause 21), which requires the bishop-elect to take an oath of loyalty to the French state, its constitution, and its National Assembly, reflects the revolutionaries’ efforts to undermine the idea of the Church’s inviolability by glorifying the popular sovereignty concept. In a nutshell, when the legislation is scrutinized, we observe that the policy’s main goal is to integrate laïcité – which seeks the progress of political governance in the separation of the Church and State – into French sociopolitical norms. However, in the socially conservative French society at the time, this could be achieved with the mentioned tenets that allowed to ease the deepened social cleavages.

Beyond laïcité’s manifestation in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, it is worth touching on the macrocosmic implications of the revolutionaries’ embodiment of laïcité. Undoubtedly, the most vital implication is that it confined the revolution’s sphere of influence since opposition associated revolutionaries with atheism by skewing the laïcité’s purpose. For example, this atheistic association limited the revolution’s propagation across conservative spaces such as Italy. Unhelpfully, atheistic cults like the Cult of Reason emerged during the revolution and radicalized the understanding of laïcité in public space.

In conclusion, examining Enlightenment thinking, embodied as Promethean progressivism, and its connection to laïcité reveals a profound ideological underpinning of the French Revolution. Our critical analysis of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, demonstrates how the revolutionaries sought to redefine the relationship between the Church and the state, driven by the pursuit of progress and challenge to established authority. This essay has traced the roots of Enlightenment progressivism back to the myth of Prometheus, highlighting its intrinsic conflict with entrenched institutions and inclination toward struggle. Moreover, it has shed light on the macrocosmic implications of laïcité, demonstrating how it confined the revolution’s influence and gave rise to perceptions of atheism that limited its propagation. Radical interpretations, exemplified by the Cult of Reason, further complicated the narrative of laïcité during this transformative period. In essence, the French Revolution’s embodiment of laïcité, rooted in Enlightenment ideals, serves as a thought-provoking study of the interplay between progress, tradition, and the legacy of an era that sought to redefine political governance and religious influence.

Cover Art: Prometheus Bound -- Peter Paul Rubens Begun c. 1611-1612, completed by 1618

1 Comment

John Smith
John Smith
Apr 11

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was a vast legal overreach, but the Church brought it upon itself by so deeply and repeatedly interfering with French sovereignty. At least the law humbled them of it didn’t last.

As the only a small few men having read Rousseau, know that it only takes a small few possessing ‘ilm to wipe away the old order and bring on a new society. The determinants of the destiny of man consists of only two factors – will, and fortune. Many unfortunately possess a vast deficit in will, as well as a hesitant disbelief that fortune can truly favor them and aid them in bringing about justice for the people. That is why societies stay…

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