Godless in Paris
I am not become an Atheist, I assure you, by residing in Paris
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote these words in a letter to Joseph Johnson, her publisher, on 15 February 1793, after she had resided in Paris for two months. She had travelled to Paris with a commission to write a series of letters on the French Revolution.
Wollstonecraft had come to Paris at the beginning to the reign of Terror. A few months before her arrival, mobs had butchered aristocrats in their prisons, priests and nuns in convents and monasteries, supposedly on the order of Danton. The first few weeks of her stay had themselves been momentous: the King of France had been tried by the people, condemned to death and executed. She had the seen the king drive past her window on his way to his trial, just a couple of weeks after she had settled in Paris. But even without the growing atmosphere of terror Wollstonecraft would have found it hard to settle in Paris: her French, while good enough for reviewing and translation purposes, was not really up to making conversation, and she was here alone despite having originally planned to travel with friends. Perhaps it is not surprising that her first impressions should be negative, bordering on the depressive. It would not have been surprising either if she had begun to lose her faith.
Another factor in a possible - but not actual - loss of faith, was that her friends, the Girondins, were almost unanymously atheists. Condorcet and Grouchy were, as was Brissot, as were the Rolands.
Perhaps this was a Parisian thing, then, as Wollstonecraft's other republican foreign friend, Thomas Paine, was certainly not an atheist. In his Age of Reason, written during his incarceration at the Palais du Luxembourg, he not only deplores his friend's atheism, but attempts to convince them, through argument, that it is perfectly possible to follow the dictates of reason and the Enlightenment without falling to the extremes of atheism.
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This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.