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How the French Revolution Gave Us the Cult of Genius


Benjamin Franklin acquired his claim to genius by literally wresting lightning from the sky. In 1779, he wrote to his daughter from France to complain that his image was everywhere—stamped on clay medallions, fashioned in all sizes, “set in lids of snuff boxes,” and “worn in rings.” The “numbers sold are incredible,” and these, together “with the pictures, busts, and prints, (of which copies upon copies are spread everywhere) have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.” Franklin boasted as much as he complained. But his sense of humor prevented the celebrity of genius from going to his head.

If Franklin felt a touch of uneasiness in confronting the idol of his genius, the sentiment proved well founded, above all in Europe. It was there, not at home, that Franklin was most likely to find a graven image of himself. It was there, not at home, that he was suspected of possessing supernatural powers, like a “new Prometheus,” who drew “fire” from the sky. And it was there, not at home, that Franklin was most effective at parlaying the celebrity of genius into political and diplomatic influence (to say nothing of success in the bedroom). In France, especially, Franklin was treated with the reverence that was becoming the genius’s due, fêted in life as America’s ambassador from 1778 to 1785, and regaled in death at his passing in 1790, amid the early euphoria of the French Revolution that had begun the previous year. When the newly convened National Assembly received word that Franklin had died, the revolutionary leader Mirabeau rose to proclaim three days of official mourning. “The genius that freed America and poured a flood of light over Europe” was no more, he lamented, this “hero of humanity” who “restrained thunderbolts and tyrants” was gone! Lauded at the rostrum and celebrated on the stage, this “avenger of humanity,” this “apostle of liberty,” this “rival of the gods” had earned the eternal gratitude of the French people by paving the way for the Revolution of 1789.

Or so it was claimed. Franklin’s actual role in precipitating the French Revolution was minimal, at best, and the same might even be said of his role in the American Revolution. “He has done very little,” John Adams observed dryly in a diary entry of 1779, lamenting the fact that “it is universally believed in France, England, and all Europe that [Franklin’s] electric wand has accomplished all this [American] revolution” on his own. Franklin was a “great genius,” Adams conceded, a fine philosopher, a man of science, a man of affairs. But of the Europeans’ belief, “nothing” could be more “groundless.”

Colored by envy and exaggerated by pique, Adams’s remarks nonetheless capture nicely an evolving myth that was of a piece with the evolving cult of genius: that the single individual could make history on his own. Once, not long before, the gods and Fate had been held to rule the world. And in the future, complex social forces and iron laws would be invoked to replace God’s providence. But in Europe, at the time of the French Revolution and for many decades thereafter, history was well imagined as the work of great men. Even in a country whose people stormed the Bastille en masse and marched to Versailles to remove the king and queen, the many revered the one.

Such reverence gave new impetus to the cult of genius that had developed in Europe for close to a century, allowing it to burst forth in spectacular new ways. The scale of the revolutionary celebrations was impressive, their claims about genius bold. And in their repeated insistence that exceptional individuals were the true motors of history, who had ushered in the glorious dawn of 1789, the revolutionaries worked to drown out the doubts of skeptics like Adams. Consolidating a myth of the genius’s political power that even their opponents would come to share, the revolutionaries elaborated a belief that would long outlive them. The genius could be a maker of revolutions, a leader of the people, a revolutionary man.

Amidst the upheavals of the Revolution, “Genius” took the place of kings on revolutionary playing cards, and the “genius of France” graced revolutionary coins, just as the genius of the emperors had once sealed the specie of Rome. Symbolically, the genius was usurping the place of sovereigns and claiming the right of kings.

That belief, that myth—whether celebrated in the Panthéon or bemoaned in counterrevolutionary phrases, such as “the Revolution is the fault of Voltaire”—highlights a way in which the revolutionary experience gave a new inflection to the cult of genius. By linking geniuses emphatically to politics and political change, the revolutionaries highlighted the capacity of extraordinary individuals not just to understand the world, but to change it. Only with the Revolution could a myth of revolutionary genius emerge, and with the propagation of that myth was born a possibility, still fledgling, but soon to be fulfilled: that genius might be used as the basis of political power, celebrated not only in death but in life, employed to justify an extraordinary privilege and license. The very possibility raised a question: What was the place of the genius in a free nation? To a regime that had declared liberty, equality, and fraternity as its founding ideals, it was not an idle concern.

In the early, heady days of the Revolution, the answer to the question seemed straightforward enough. “Nature has formed an intimate union between liberty and genius,” the playwright, poet, and politician Marie-Joseph Chénier observed in his report recommending the transfer of Descartes’s remains to the Panthéon. In Chénier’s view, Descartes’s exile and death in Sweden was a measure of the despotism of the Old Regime, a failure of recognition that he would later describe as a “crime against genius” requiring expiation and atonement. It was only natural to Chénier that a man whose “very existence marked out an extraordinary epoch in the history of the genius of men” should be honored as a friend of revolutions. Genius and liberty were one. The connection had long been implicit in the understanding of genius as a force that refused to bow to convention, to slavishly acquiesce to established rules, and already in the early eighteenth century, English commentators were making the connection explicit. Enlisting Longinus as an apologist for the Glorious Revolution that overthrew the despotism of the Stuarts in 1688, they cited with relish a line that the ancient himself had implied was already well established—the view that “democracy is the nurse-maid of genius,” and that freedom alone “has the power to foster noble minds.” Later in the century, the French Encyclopédie agreed, observing in its article on “genius” (génie) that “rules and laws of taste will only be obstacles to genius,” which “breaks them to steal from the sublime.” Before the sublime spectacle of the French Revolution, it was easy enough to conflate aesthetics and politics, envisioning genius as a revolutionary force for freedom that was capable of throwing off the shackles of tired formula and overturning arbitrary laws.

But genius was not only a liberator and breaker of rules, it was also a legislator. As Kant famously claimed in the Critique of Judgment, it “gives the rule to art.” To conflate aesthetics and politics once again, was it not evident that genius might lay down the law? Just like the sublime force that moved it, genius could induce the spirit of liberty or impose the awe of authority, eliciting reverence, terror, and the fear of death. And, as Diderot had speculated, giving new articulation to a venerable concern, duplicity, domination, evil, and crime might be the genius’s lot. Seen in this light, the “intimate union” between liberty and genius was not so clear. When it was revealed, after his remains had been safely laid to rest in the Panthéon, that Mirabeau was in truth a traitor who had entered into secret negotiations with the king, such thoughts were no longer mere conjecture. Mirabeau’s spirit was exorcised and his relics were removed, translated to a cemetery for criminals. The example of the fallen saint prompted suspicion and fear: Was not genius always a temptation? And what prevented those who possessed it from abusing its power? As none other than Maximilien Robespierre pointed out in the National Convention in answer to Fabre d’Églantine’s proposal to institute a festival of the genius as the first of the Revolution’s supplementary holidays, “Caesar was a man of genius,” but “Caesar was nothing but a tyrant.” Cato, by contrast, possessed virtue, and Cato was of “greater worth than Caesar.” Genius was no guarantee of justice or right conduct, Robespierre made clear, and for that reason, a “day of virtue should take precedence over the festival of the genius.”

Robespierre’s motion passed, and though it proved in the end to be moot, it did succeed in registering a concern about the place of genius in a republic, raising the specter of what one legislator described in the ensuing debates as an “aristocracy of the genius” (l’aristocratie du génie). Some might claim wishfully that “true genius” was always of the people. But those who sided with Robespierre feared otherwise, seeing in the consecration of a hierarchy of the intellect the prospect of a dangerous new form of inequality. At a moment when France had abolished the aristocracy of blood, would republicans and democrats really genuflect before a natural force that set men so dramatically apart?

Hulton Archive/Getty
Maximilien Robespierre

These republican debates had their analogues in Benjamin Franklin’s native United States, where a language of merit tended to take precedence over one of natural worth. But they played out with greater ferocity in Europe, where both the assertion of human equality—and the inveterate resistance to it—were more violent and insistent than in the young United States. What opponents of the French Revolution soon described as Robespierre’s “evil genius” (génie infernale)—and his monstrous facility with words—were put to the service of terrible crimes, with the guillotine giving chilling illustration, or so it seemed, to a point made by the great counterrevolutionary polemicist Joseph de Maistre. Maistre had said that “blood is the fertilizer of this plant called genius,” but he also believed that genius was a kind of “grace.” It followed that those who abused this divine gift were like fallen angels, satanic in their power.

Maistre was hardly a disinterested observer. But his Christian iteration of the venerable fear that the possessor of genius might be tempted and led astray—that the possessor might prove a man possessed—accorded well, ironically, with Robespierre’s more pagan concern that a man of genius like Caesar might challenge the republic and rule in corruption as a tyrant. The genius of France—like the modern genius himself—was suspended perilously between liberty and death. What powerful energy held it in place? What great life force would move it?

Darrin M. McMahon is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University. This piece was adapted and excerpted from Divine Fury: A History of Genius.