A decade and a half ago I put forward a counterintuitive thesis about the religious origins of the French Revolution. Although the book underscored the importance of a century-long controversy resulting from the Bourbon monarchy’s attempt to suppress the “heresy” of Catholic Augustinians, or Jansenists, it did not argue that Jansenists made the French Revolution. Put briefly, the thesis was rather that the monarchy’s repeated need for papal authority to condemn Jansenism as a heresy eventually put it on the unpatriotic side of France’s Gallican liberties, which had long held the papacy to be subject to general councils and which Jansenists began to use in their own defense. By the mid-18th century””so the thesis went””a religious fight picked by the monarchy desacralized the monarchy in its own terms, sanctified the notion of national sovereignty in indigenous Gallican terms, and caused a schism within the Gallican Church that reappeared in more virulent form during the Revolution. It also produced Europe’s most anti-Christian enlightenment, which of course also inflected the course and character of the Revolution. The point was therefore not to dismiss the role of the French Enlightenment in the Revolution, but to enlighten the longer-term religious and political parameters within which that enlightenment assumed its peculiar character and could make its force felt.
In contrast to such an indirect and structural attempt to factor religion into an account of the “causes” of the French Revolution, a more frontal and totalizing approach might have reduced all causes to religious ones on the grounds that, whether they knew it or not, the revolutionaries were still within the paradigm of the redemption of time originally established by the Judeo-Christian tradition, just as they were acting on the notion of human “rights” originally postulated in medieval canon law and scholastic theology. The notion that human beings have intrinsic worth is not after all a self-evident or empirically verifiable proposition; by the standards of human justice itself, humanity cannot be judge and party in its own cause. If no such attempt was made in that book, it was due not only to the desire not to press the evidence beyond the obvious, but also to be taken seriously by the entire community of professional historians.
In comparison to this argument, the case for the ideas of the French Enlightenment as the chief cause of the Revolution is much easier to make.