Sylvain Maréchal

by Sanja Perovic
Lecturer in French
King's College London

Poet, scholar, atheist, freemason, playwright and journalist, Sylvain Maréchal was active in every phase of the Revolution. One of the chief editors of the revolutionary newspaper, Les Révolutions de Paris, Maréchal's republicanism, militant atheism and egalitarianism placed him at the center of modern debates about democratic society. It was not just his radicalism that made Maréchal unique. Using literature as a means of advancing social ideas, Maréchal attempted to develop new genres that would actively replace the religious imagination. Maréchal's most notable innovations combined fictional legislation with new biographical schemata, literary models for the life of the new man. His Almanach des Honnêtes Gens was the precursor to the revolutionary calendar, he co-wrote the Manifeste des égaux with Babeuf (1796) and published the Dictionnaire des athées anciens et modernes, taken over by the astronomer Lalande after his death in 1803. A lifelong atheist and proponent of regicide, Maréchal's more notorious writings include the hit play Le jugement dernier des rois (1793), which featured an exploding volcano killing Europe's monarchs, and a Culte et loix des hommes sans dieu (1798) a kind of ersatz bible for an atheistic sect. Maréchal is thus the perfect guide to understanding the impact of the radical literary sphere on the Revolution and vice versa. What kind of Revolution do we get with Maréchal as our guide?

Born in 1750 to a vintner in the Les Halles district of Paris, Maréchal first trained to be a lawyer but abandoned law once he realized that it was not about defending oppressed virtue. A stint as a librarian at the Bibliothèque Mazarine resulted in his first scholarly work, the seven volume Antiquitiés de Herculanum that put him in touch with such luminaries as the Chevalier de Jaucourt. His early years exemplified the range of subjects considered 'literary' in the eighteenth century and included erudition, belles-lettres, history, poetry and criticism. But literary fiction of a different kind was on his horizon. This was a poetic legislation in which a utopian re-organization of social space was reflected as a break and rupture with time. Converting to atheism at the age of twenty and re-baptizing himself the Berger Sylvain, Maréchal produced his first overtly atheistic work, the Fragmens d'un poème moral sur Dieu, in 1780. Here all the elements of a revolutionary rupture with the past are in place, down to the date and place of publication: À Athéopolis. L'an premier du règne de la raison. In 1784 he was dismissed from the Bibliothèque Mazarine for penning a parody of the bible, Le livre échappé au deluge.

On 8 January 1788, Maréchal's Almanach des honnêtes gens, a precursor of the revolutionary calendar, was burnt by the censor. Provocatively, Maréchal's calendar replaced the Christian saints with figures that ranged from Moses and Mahomet to Newton and Condamine. Even more daringly, it also erased the Christian organization of time in favor of consecrating the present as "l'an premier du règne de la raison." Crystallizing a new historical consciousness explicitly tied to breaking with the past and establishing new origins, this almanac contained all the innovations of the subsequent Republican calendar: the rationalization of religion (a ten day week, 'numerical' months), secular festivals based on the seasons and a new chronology. Interestingly, the censor inveighed as much against Maréchal's impiety as against his spirit of burlesque. In this calendar, kings, saints and heathens commingle. October 21 is dedicated to his father and August 15 - Maréchal's birthday - is the only day in the calendar left blank. This conspicuous blankness is the best expression of Maréchal's literary strategy. Alternating between militant atheism and comic exaggeration, Maréchal hid his identity under a series of literary masks.

Maréchal's first published works were imitations - of Gessner's Bergeries, of Montesquieu's Le Temple de Gnide and of a popular sixteenth century text, Le livre de tous les âges ou le Pibrac moderne. His 1788 Apologues des rois (because, as the epigraph states, to kings and women one can only speak in fables) featured instances of legal regicide. His 1791 Dame Nature à la barre d'Assemblée Nationale made clear his commitment to a concrete, and therefore radical equality, which included the redistribution of wealth. But it was not until Year II, with his Le jugement dernier des rois, that Maréchal was able to actively reflect and shape the sentiments of a wholly new public: that of a sovereign people.

For the revolutionaries, theater was the most important means of establishing the revolutionary public sphere and its model of participation. If, as Danton famously declared, Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro overturned the nobility and Marie-Joseph Chénier's Charles IX overturned the monarchy, then Le jugement overturned all theatrical conventions to stage the final break between the real and the ideal. Maréchal's play not only placed the people directly on stage but real monarchs - Catherine the Great, King George - some of whom were waging war against France, became objects of derision. In a complete reversal of the traditional roles of actor and spectator-king, the audience clapped an entire half hour at the sight of the enchained monarchs paraded on stage. Subsequently appearing in almost every major city in France, the play had a print run of around 20, 000 copies (6, 000 were destined for French troops). Indeed the need for this play was so acute that, when France suffered her worst military defeats and the inhabitants of Paris stripped the walls of their own buildings for saltpeter, the government sacrificed twenty pounds each of saltpeter and gunpowder to the play's pièce de résistance, the volcanic explosion at the end.

After this success, Maréchal was commissioned by Robespierre to contribute 36 Hymnes Décadaires, one for every week of the new calendar, to the new festive cycle to be inaugurated by the Festival of the Supreme Being. This fame was short-lived. Two of his one-act productions - an opera, with music by Grétry, based on the eponymous Fête de la rosière, and a farce entitled Denys le tyrant - were censored before they saw the light of day. By Year VIII contemporary literary critics concurred in rejecting Le jugement as a barbaric aberration, going so far as to label Maréchal a madman. Exiled from the literary establishment, Maréchal began the most productive phase of his literary career. His critical works include the Pensées libres sur les prêtres, Cultes et loix des hommes sans Dieu and Correctif à la gloire de Bonaparte, all published in Year VI, the Voyages de Pythagore and L'histoire universelle en style lapidaire (Year VII), the Dictionnaire des athées anciens et moderns (Year VIII) and the Projet d'une loi portant défense d'apprendre à lire aux femmes, Pour et contre la Bible and the roman noir La femme-abbé (Years IX and X). It could be said that Maréchal never lived more like a true 'philosophe' than under the 'bourgeois' Republic, testing the very limits of its tolerance.

The two texts featured in this corpus - L'âge d'or (1782) and the seven volume Voyages de Pythagores (1799) - represent the beginning and end of Maréchal's literary career. They allow us to gauge the Revolution's effect on its most militant advocate, the first writer to explicitly formulate the novelty of the Revolution as a "rupture in time" and thus as a new mode of historical action. L'age d'or belongs to what Mona Ozouf has more generally identified as the "festive Enlightenment." These pastoral texts, prototypes of the revolutionary festival, depict a golden age in which, outside of the periodic changes of the season and the natural celebrations of human life, nothing marked the hours. Instead, everyday was a festival in which the mutual acknowledgement of a shared freedom - and the absence of social distinction - was the substance of every gathering. In these stories, in which the Berger Sylvain appears, the traditional elements of Catholicism - temples, prayers, festivals, the importance of baptism and marriage - appear in service of a natural religion that celebrates Christian love even as it denies the religious terror of the afterlife. Rejecting transcendence, Maréchal's pastoral visions proclaim the materialist (and libertine) utopia of free desire. Out of this same utopia, comes an equally strong belief in love as a natural, and binding, sentiment. This pastoral vision became central to Maréchal's peculiar brand of anarchism that combined a commitment to the patriarchal family unit with a rejection of all but paternal authority as unnatural.

Sixteen years later, this utopian vision of a natural religion would be revisited in Voyages de Pythagores (1799), which coincided with a revival of interest in antiquity. Although this text had limited impact on the literary field, it influenced Les Primitifs, a utopian community of artists, including the young Charles Nodier and former students of the painter David, who adopted the dress and habits of Pythagoras as well as those of other ancients. Maréchal's model was the pre-revolutionary bestseller, Abbé Barthélemy's Le Voyage de Jeune Anacharsis, first published in 1788, which featured a fictional young man, descended from the Scythian sage of the same name, who travels the expanse of the Greek world from 363 to 337 B.C. From the literary perspective, Voyages de Pythagores belongs to the same genre. Although Pythagoras is a historical rather than fictional figure, he occupies a similar function: that of educating the reader through political and moral instruction. But if Maréchal's Voyages repeats the same theme, it repeats with a difference. Antiquity is used as a geographic site from which to diagnose the ailments of the contemporary post-revolutionary world. Several differences are worth noting.

First, Maréchal abandons the pretence of a purely 'objective' knowledge of antiquity. Pythagoras is used as a cover from which Maréchal critiques not just the present (a familiar enough move), but also the present's failure to reactivate the utopian horizon of the past. Such a subjective and personal treatment of antiquity suggests that antiquity as such no longer serves as an eternal norm. Antiquity has become a style, a mask, a costume used to critique a present thoroughly invaded by the experience of contemporary history. Second, Pythagoras is resurrected as an ideal figure for a failed enlightenment. Even at the time of Pythagoras, Maréchal argues, a true social enlightenment was not possible. Then - as now - a truly enlightened society can only constitute of the happy few who have divested themselves of all personal property to become a society of men without god (to cite another of Maréchal's texts from this period). Finally, Voyages de Pythagore exemplifies a more general revival of a 'Greek' style in the post-revolutionary period - one that rivaled the Roman antiquity favored by the state. Indeed, Pythagoras stands for a kind of anti-Bonaparte: a grand homme able to produce the social regeneration that the Revolution had failed to do. Perhaps the most impressive volume is the one dedicated to the laws of Pythagoras, written in maxims that combine a poetic sense of erudition with a scathing diagnosis of the Revolution's failure.

Maréchal died in Year XI (15 January 1803), rejected by the literary establishment. His last years were spent in the intimate circle of his wife, a devout Catholic, and his loyal friend, Mme. Gacon-Dufour, an accomplished femme de lettres. Yet it is also against such female readers that he would write his final piece of legislative fiction, the notorious Projet d'une loi portant défence d'apprendre à lire aux femmes (1801) reprinted four times in the nineteenth century. After the universal disdain that followed the publication of the Dictionnaire des athées anciens et modernes, Maréchal turned his pen against what he considered to be a feminization of the revolutionary imagination. He refused to accept the failure of literature to function as moral legislation, to take the place of religion. There is perhaps no more revealing epithet for Maréchal's failed literary career than his final desire - in his law against female literacy - to suppress the act of reading itself.


Dommanget, Maurice. Sylvain Maréchal: L'égalitaire "L'homme sans Dieu." Sa vie - son oeuvre (1750-1803) (Paris: Spartacus, 1950).

Fraisse, Geneviève. Reason's Muse: Sexual Difference and the Birth of Democracy, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Fusil, C.-A. Sylvain Maréchal ou L'Homme sans Dieu H.S.D. 1750-1803 (Paris: Plon, 1936).

Hamiche, Daniel. Le théâtre et la Révolution: La lutte de classes au théâtre en 1789 et 1793 (Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1973).