Augustin Barruel (1741-1820): French Jesuit Priest, Antiphilosophe extraordinaire.
A Jesuit priest and prolific writer, Augustin Barruel reviled the Enlightenment and railed against the French Revolution. The Abbé Barruel is best known for his four-volume manifesto, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1797), in which he launched a virulent critique of the philosophe movement. Barruel’s thesis was that the “Jacobin storm” of the French Revolution masked a conspiracy orchestrated in secret by a powerful triumvirate of philosophes, Freemasons, and the Order of the Illuminati.
Barruel was born in Ardèche, France in 1741 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1756. In the early 1760s, Barruel was forced into his first exile from France during the suppression of the Jesuits in Europe. In 1764, Louis XV issued an arrêt that ordered the Jesuits to renounce their vows or suffer banishment; nine years later, Pope Clement XIV formally suppressed the order (it would be restored officially in 1814). Barruel returned to France after the signing of the suppression in 1773 and began a literary career.
In the years leading up to the French Revolution, Barruel’s writing was fueled by his experiences of political oppression and exile. When he returned to Paris, Barruel joined the editorial staff of the well known journal, Année littéraire, founded by Elie-Catherine Fréron in 1754. As many historians have underscored, the 1780s was a time of intense propaganda, and Barruel’s writings were largely inspired by – and have been read as – tracts of anti-philosophe thought. His first important work, Les Helviennes, ou lettres provinciales philosophiques (1781) decries the “obscene morality” of the philosophes, who “sanctioned hideous vices.” “Philosophism,” for Barruel, represents “the most vile, the most absolute, the most fatal egotism” (Les Helviennes).
Anarchy and rebellion are recurring themes in all of Barruel’s works. Barruel was forced to flee France a second time and seek refuge in England, where his antiphilosophe discourse became more robust after the extreme terror of the “September massacres” of 1792, when angry mobs began killing indiscriminately (including a group of priests who were political prisoners). During this second exile, Barruel served as almoner to the Prince de Conti in London, where he wrote his Histoire du clergé pendant la révolution française (1793). Having escaped the Terror, Barruel wrote with greater urgency to stop the spread of philosophie.
Barruel’s Mémoires, first published in London, was one of the most widely read books of its day. The four-volume work underwent several French editions by 1799 and was translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Russian. The four volumes of Mémoires elaborate on the thesis of a conspiracy in three parts: the antichristian, antisocial, and antimonarchical Revolution together formed “one continuous chain of cunning, art, and seduction, and intended to overthrow the altar, the ruin of the throne, and the dissolution of all civil society throughout Europe.” Barruel called these groups “sects” that joined in the deliberate goal “to subvert the whole fabric of the Christian religion.” He offered his readers a stark choice between monarchy and anarchy, between a regimented Christian society and a coalition “consummated by the proscriptions and the horrid massacres of the Jacobins.”
Despite his reactionary fervor, Barruel’s influence was far-reaching. Mémoires inspired the British statesman, Burke, Edmund who praised Barruel and accepted the thesis of conspiracy. Barruel also earned the admiration of John Robison, a Scottish professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh who had been working on his own conspiracy theory, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of the Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies (1797). Both Barruel and Robison were quoted extensively in sermons in England and even the United States. Reverend Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, cited Barruel in a sermon in New Haven on July 4, 1798, speaking against “an infectious virus” of “philosophism” that threatened the United States.
Bonaparte, Napoleon’s rise brought Barruel’s exile to an end. Napoleon wrested control of the Directory, the last stage of the Revolution, in the coup of 18 Brumaire (November 1799) that established the Consulate. In order to achieve stability, Napoleon put into practice a host of policies that significantly changed the landscape of political and religious life in France. These included all but quashing the Jacobin movement and removing several émigrés from the ranks of exile. In all, these measures permitted a religious tolerance that culminated in the signing of the Concordat with Pope Pius VII in July 1801. Napoleon’s agreement gave official sanction to the Roman Catholic Church and cleared the way for Barruel to return to France in 1802. Napoleon’s regime, however, also had the effect of silencing the voice of the religious right, including Barruel. Aside from one work that defended the Concordat, Du Pape et de ses droits religieux, à l’occasion du Concordat (1803), he published little. Barruel seems to have live out his remaining years in seclusion in Paris, where he died in 1820.
Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, 2005.
Darrin M. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, 2001.
Michel Riquet, Augustin de Barruel: Un jésuite face aux jacobins francs-maçons, 1741-1820, 1989.
John Patrick Walsh
College of Charleston