The French Revolution— Volume 3

Author: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine


"In Egypt," says Clement of Alexandria,[1] "the sanctuaries of the temples are shaded by curtains of golden tissue. But on going further into the interior in quest of the statue, a priest of grave aspect, advancing to meet you and chanting a hymn in the Egyptian tongue, slightly raises a veil to show you the god. And what do you behold? A crocodile, or some indigenous serpent, or other dangerous animal, the Egyptian god being a beast sprawling on a purple carpet."

We need not visit Egypt or go so far back in history to encounter crocodile worship, as this can be readily found in France at the end of the last century. — Unfortunately, a hundred years is too long an interval, too far away, for an imaginative retrospect of the past. At the present time, standing where we do and regarding the horizon behind us, we see only forms which the intervening atmosphere embellishes, shimmering contours which each spectator may interpret in his own fashion; no distinct, animated figure, but merely a mass of moving points, forming and dissolving in the midst of picturesque architecture. I was anxious to take a closer view of these vague points, and, accordingly, deported myself back to the last half of the eighteenth century. I have now been living with them for twelve years, and, like Clement of Alexandria, examined, first, the temple, and next the god. A passing glance at these is not sufficient; it was also necessary to understand the theology on which this cult is founded. This one, explained by a very specious theology, like most others, is composed of dogmas called the principles of 1789; they were proclaimed, indeed, at that date, having been previously formulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

* The well known sovereignty of the people.

* The rights of Man.

* The social contract.

Once adopted, their practical results unfolded themselves naturally. In three years these dogmas installed the crocodile on the purple carpet insides the sanctuary behind the golden veil. He was selected for the place on account of the energy of his jaws and the capacity of his stomach; he became a god through his qualities as a destructive brute and man-eater. — Comprehending this, the rites which consecrate him and the pomp which surrounds him need not give us any further concern. — We can observe him, like any ordinary animal, and study his various attitudes, as he lies in wait for his prey, springs upon it, tears it to pieces, swallows it, and digests it. I have studied the details of his structure, the play of his organs, his habits, his mode of living, his instincts, his faculties, and his appetites. — Specimens abounded. I have handled thousands of them, and have dissected hundreds of every species and variety, always preserving the most valuable and characteristic examples, but for lack of room I have been compelled to let many of them go because my collections was too large. Those that I was able to bring back with me will be found here, and, among others, about twenty individuals of different dimensions, which — a difficult undertaking — I have kept alive with great pains. At all events, they are intact and perfect, and particularly the three largest. These seem to me, of their kind, truly remarkable, and those in which the divinity of the day might well incarnate himself. - Authentic and rather well kept cookbooks inform us about the cost of the cult: We can more or less estimate how much the sacred crocodiles consumed in ten years; we know their bills of daily fare, their favorite morsels. Naturally, the god selected the fattest victims, but his voracity was so great that he likewise bolted down, and blindly, the lean ones, and in much greater number than the fattest. Moreover, by virtue of his instincts, and an unfailing effect of the situation, he ate his equals once or twice a year, except when they succeeded in eating him. — This cult certainly is instructive, at least to historians and men of pure science. If any believers in it still remain I do not aim to convert them; one cannot argue with a devotee on matters of faith. This volume, accordingly, like the others that have gone before it, is written solely for amateurs of moral zoology, for naturalists of the understanding, for seekers of truth, of texts, and of proofs — for these alone and not for the public, whose mind is made up and which has its own opinion on the Revolution. This opinion began to be formed between 1825 and 1830, after the retirement or withdrawal of eye witnesses. When they disappeared it was easy to convince a credulous public that crocodiles were philanthropists; that many possessed genius; that they scarcely ate others than the guilty, and that if they sometimes ate too many it was unconsciously and in spite of themselves, or through devotion and self-sacrifice for the common good.

H. A. Taine, Menthon Saint Bernard, July 1884.



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Chicago: Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, "Preface," The French Revolution— Volume 3, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in The French Revolution—Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Taine, Hippolyte Adolphe. "Preface." The French Revolution— Volume 3, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in The French Revolution—Volume 3, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Taine, HA, 'Preface' in The French Revolution— Volume 3, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The French Revolution—Volume 3, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from