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Posterity--an eighteenth-century answer to god and religion.

THE FRENCH philosophes of the eighteenth century had a big problem. They no longer believed in Christianity or the Holy Catholic Church. They had no time for revelation, ritual, or the priesthood. Heaven and hell were here on Earth and nowhere else. In their view, organized religion had to be vanquished but they wished to save the spirit of morality from the wreckage. And they thought that humans could be moral in seeking honor and glory. All of these topics were addressed in their Encyclopedie (published 1751 onwards) in articles by Denis Diderot (1713-84), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-80), Jean D'Alembert (1717-83), Baron D'Holbach (1723-89), and Jean-Francois Marmontel (1723-99), in which they all eagerly sought a rational substitute for religion. They believed that people didn't need religion--that the future benefits of behaving themselves and acting morally were motivation enough. Society in the future would be a better one when everyone sought their own good instead of being indoctrinated by a religious morality that perpetuated a medieval mentality. Thus, Marmontel in his Encyclopedie article on glory said: "Morality should take the example of theology, and fortify virtue against the scorn and ingratitude of men, by showing it in the distance a happier time and a juster world."

Diderot in particular considered posterity to be a worthy replacement for God and religion. In the absence of any heavenly reward for living a moral life, the only compensation for Diderot was the possibility of living forever in the memory of future generations. He argued: "Do you not see that the judgment of posterity anticipated is the sole encouragement, the sole support, the sole consolation of men in a thousand unhappy circumstances?" He concluded that "posterity for the philosopher is the other world of the man of religion." Also, "if our predecessors have done nothing for us, and if we do nothing for our descendants, it is almost in vain that nature wills that man should be perfectible." In this way, Diderot substituted the worship of God with a humanist regard for the future of humankind.

Carl Becker, in his book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), argues that the philosophes were creating a so-called Heavenly City in the future in place of Augustine's City of God. He also contends that they were more medieval in their thinking than they realized. However Becker provides no evidence that the philosophes used such terms or made such arguments. Moreover it is surely absurd to say that in looking forward to posterity they were also harking back to the Middle Ages, especially as they regarded posterity as being different and potentially better than the present. It would be truer to say that they rationalized the Christian ideal of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, by replacing it with the prospect of future generations having a better life than their ancestors. In this way of thinking, the human replaces the divine and we are more concerned about human posterity than about non-existent alien or supernatural beings.

H.G. Wells clarified this matter in a 1909 Royal Institution lecture called "The Discovery of the Future." Wells distinguished two types of mind: the first hardly thinks of the future at all, while the second thinks about it constantly and "of present things mainly in relation to the results that must arise from them." He continues:
   The former type of mind, when one gets
   it in its purity, is retrospective in habit, and it
   interprets the things of the present, and gives
   value to this and denies it to that, entirely in
   relation to the past. The latter type of mind is
   constructive in habit, it interprets the things
   of the present and gives value to this and that,
   entirely in relation to the things designed or

A "retrospectivist" turn of mind can therefore be distinguished from a "prospectivist" one. Only the latter really appreciates the value of posterity. Thus, the eighteenth century philosophes had a prospectivist viewpoint, which marked a distinct advance on the medieval thinking Becker attempts to pin on them.

Whereas retrospectivists dwell in the past, prospectivists aim to bring the past to the attention of future generations. The latter view is inclusive of all the achievements of humanity including religion. Prospectivists think about these things in relation to their future reception rather than simply recreating the past. They look forward to better things rather than looking to the past as always being preferable to the present or the future. Retrospectivists see the past as a golden age to be eternally reverenced rather than improved upon. Insofar as the Roman Catholic Church is against all change, it is retrospective in its thinking. It constantly recreates the past in the present without thinking of the future as being any different, let alone better. The prospective view would be to think about how future generations can benefit from knowledge of Catholicism--its merits as well as its faults. Thus, religion becomes more a matter of study and contemplation than rigid adherence and unquestioned devotion.

The philosophes' disregard for established religion and their regard for posterity influenced the French Revolution and its dechristianization movement, which led to the establishment of the Cult of Reason in 1792, intended to supplant the Roman Catholic Church entirely. Even Robespierre invoked the spirit of posterity in the following speech before the Jacobin Club:
   O posterity, sweet and tender hope of humanity,
   thou art not a stranger to us; it is for thee
   that we brave all the blows of tyranny; it is thy
   happiness which is the price of our painful
   struggles: often discouraged by the obstacles
   that surround us, we feel the need of thy consolations;
   it is to thee that we confide the task
   of completing our labors, and the destiny of all
   the unborn generations of men!

One might wonder how Robespierre could have sat at his desk signing away the lives of hundreds of innocent people and not considered how bad this would look to future generations. In the end it was his deism that prevented a wholehearted commitment to posterity. "Atheism is aristocratic," he declared, whereas "a great Being who watches over oppressed innocence, and punishes successful crime, is democratic through and through." Influenced by Rousseau's view of "civil religion" in the Social Contract, Robespierre established the Cult of the Supreme Being in 1794 to replace the Cult of Reason. Rousseau was his prophet and the Social Contract was his bible. He was the high priest of this movement that provided all the answers as far as he was concerned.

Under Robespierre's diktat, atheists were more in danger of the guillotine than Roman Catholic priests, whom he saw as being less of a threat to his views. He thought he was doing the work of God, just as Hitler thought that his persecution of Jews was what he called "God's work" Posterity didn't matter to Robespierre as long as he was intuitively confident that he was serving his god. However, his austere religion of virtue was markedly less popular with the Parisian public than the Cult of Reason. At the first Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre was so enthusiastic and full of himself that one of his colleagues exclaimed: "Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to be God!" This happened on June 8, 1794, and a mere seven weeks later on July 28, Robespierre had his own appointment with Madame Guillotine.

As Madame Roland (1754-1793) put it: "The cowards, they entered into a compromise with guilt! It was decreed that they should fall in their turn; but they fall ingloriously, pitied by no one, and with nothing to hope for from posterity, but its perfect contempt." She bravely and consistently protested against the excesses of the Reign of Terror and when she was guillotined in her turn, she famously remarked: "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!"

Robespierre's re-introduction of God worship paved the way for Napoleon to re-instate the Catholic religion by the Concordat of 1801. Only in 1905 did France return to the secular ideals of the Revolution when a policy of laicite (secularism) was established, and the rest is modern history.

Alistair J. Sinclair is a retired philosopher living in Glasgow, Scotland, and author of the book, What is Philosophy? (Dunedin Academic Press, 2008),
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Title Annotation:Historical Eye
Author:Sinclair, Alistair J.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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