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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Rousseau, Napoleon, and the Politics of Religion

Rousseau’s teachings inspired not only the Jacobins who spearheaded the bloody French Revolution but also the dictator who came to power after the Jacobins had self-destructed: Napoleon. Early in his life, Napoleon was influenced by Rousseau’s teaching that religion is dangerous since it exists in competition with the state—religion promises happiness in the other world when the state is responsible for providing the means of achieving happiness in this world. At the beginning of the French Revolution, Napoleon, then a young artillery lieutenant, wrote, “Dear Rousseau why was it necessary that you have lived only for sixty years! For the interest of the virtue, you had had to be immortal.” Napoleon was as much influenced by the atheistic and anti-tradition political thought of the Enlightenment as the Jacobins were, but after Napoleon acquired power, he had a change of heart—he realized that if he tried to suppress religion, he would lose support of the people and then his government might be overthrown like the government of the Jacobins was; so he re-established the traditional practice of religion. Jean Chaptal, Napoleon’s minister for Internal Affairs said: "The boldest operation that Bonaparte carried out during the first years of his reign was to re-establish worship upon its old foundations.”

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