Terror Without Virtue is Powerless

Decoding Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme Being (June 1794)

  • Michelle La Vergne MacEwan University

Abstract

This paper will decode Maximilien Robespierre’s deistic cult, the Festival of the Supreme Being, a seemingly bizarre public ritual that was held at the height of the Great Terror on 20 Prairial Year II (June 1794). The Festival of the Supreme Being was staged by the Jacobin leader Robespierre, aided by the artist Jacques-Louis David, in an attempt to unify the French Republic’s citizenry during a particularly unstable time in the Revolution. Inspired by David's neo-classical masterpieces, such as The Oath of the Horatii, the festival used imagery from ancient Rome to emphasize the importance of civic virtue among a patriotic citizenry. A necessary counterpart to the Jacobins' campaign of terror against the Republic's myriad enemies, Robespierre's attempts to develop Parisians' civic virtue was designed to save the Republic by transforming passive subjects into active citizens. I will interpret this carefully orchestrated event as a parable of republican virtue by examining its use of classical symbols and the distinctive roles assigned to men, women and children in the festival.


Presented in absentia on April 27, 2020 at "Student Research Day" at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. (Conference cancelled)


Faculty Mentor: Kelly Summers


Department: History

Published
2020-04-27