In 1849, during Napoleon III’s rise to power, Alphonse de Lamartine writes a small treatise—Atheism Among the People—adressed to his fellow Republicans. In a particular oft-translated section Lamartine compares the English and American revolutionaries to the French revolutionaries.
I have often asked myself, “Why am I a Republican?—Why am I the partizan of equitable Democracy, organized and established as a good and strong Government?—Why have I a real love of the People—a love always serious, and sometimes even tender?—What has the People done for me?” … And whenever I have thus questioned myself, I have thus answered myself:—“I love the people because I believe in God. For, if I did not believe in God, what would the people be to me?”—Atheism Among the People.
XVIII—A Nation Without a God.
I KNOW—I sigh when I think of it—that hitherto the French people have been the least religious of all the nations of Europe. What may be the cause of this I do not say; but certain it is that the nation has an immense progress to make in serious thought if she wishes to remain free.
If we look at the characters, compared as regards religions sentiment, of the great nations of Europe, America, and even Asia, the advantage is not for us. The great men of other countries live and die on the scene of history, looking up to Heaven,—our great men appear to live and die, forgetting completely the only idea for which it is worth living and dying—they live and die thinking only of the spectators of their actions, or at most, of posterity.
Open the history of America, the history of England, and the history of France; read and compare the great lives, the great deaths, the great martyrdoms, the great words at the hour when the ruling thought of life reveals itself, as it does in the words of the dying.
Washington and Franklin fought, spoke, suffered, ascended and descended in their political life always in the name of God, for whom they acted. The Liberator of America died, confiding to God the liberty of the people, and his own soul!
Strafford, who died for the constitution of his country, laid his head on the block with the words, “I thank my heavenly Master for enabling me to await this blow without fear, and for not permitting me to be dismayed by an instant of terror. I lay down my head on this block with as much composure as I ever laid it down to sleep.”
Sidney, the young martyr of a patriotism guilty of nothing but impatience, and who died to expiate his country’s dream of liberty, said to his jailer,—“I rejoice that I die innocent towards the king, but a victim, resigned to the King on high, to whom all life is due.”
The Republicans of Cromwell only sought the way of God, even in the blood of battles. Their politics were their faith,—their reign a prayer,—their death a psalm. One hears, sees, feels that God was in all the movements of these great people.
But cross the sea, traverse La Mancha, come to our times, open our annals, and listen to the last words of the great political actors of the drama of our liberty. One would think that God was eclipsed from the soul; that his name was unknown in the language. History will have the air of an atheist, when she recounts to posterity these annihilations, rather than deaths, of celebrated men in the greatest year of France! The victims only have a God; the tribunes and lictors have none.
Look at Mirabeau on the bed of death: “Crown me with flowers,” said he, “intoxicate me with perfumes. Let me die to the sound of delicious music”—not a word of God, or of his soul. Sensual philosopher, he desired only a supreme sensualism, a last voluptuousness to his agony.
Contemplate Madame Roland, the strong hearted woman of the Revolution, on the cart that conveyed her to death. She looked contemptuously on the besotted people who killed their prophets and sibyls. Not a glance towards Heaven! Only one word for the earth she was quitting—“O Liberty!”
Approach the dungeon door of the Girondins. Their last night is a banquet. Their only hymn, the Marseillaise!
Follow Camille Desmoulins to his execution. A cool and indecent pleasantry at the trial, and a long imprecation on the road to the guillotine, were the two last thoughts of this dying man on his way to the last tribunal.
Hear Danton on the platform of the scaffold, at the distance of a line from God and eternity. “I have had a good time of it; let me go to sleep.” Then to the executioner, “You will show my head to the people; it is worth the trouble!” His faith, annihilation; his last sigh, vanity; behold the Frenchman of this later age!
What must one think of the religious sentiment of a free people whose great figures seem thus to march in procession to annihilation, and to whom that terrible minister, Death itself, recalls neither the threatenings nor the promises of God!
The Republic of these men without a God has quickly been stranded. The liberty won by so much heroism and so much genius has not found in France a conscience to shelter it, a God to avenge it, a people to defend it against that atheism which has been called glory! All ended in a soldier and some apostate republicans travestied into courtiers. An atheistic republicanism cannot be heroic. When you terrify it, it bends; when you would buy it, it sells itself. It would be very foolish to immolate itself. Who would take any heed? the people ungrateful and God nonexistent! So finish atheist revolutions! —Bien Publique.
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