The Traveling Humanist: The Panthéon in Paris, France

I was once walking along West Nanjing road in Shanghai at ten o’clock in the evening when I ran across an old French acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in several years. We were both pleasantly surprised to bump into each other in such unexpected circumstances and we immediately changed our respective plans in order to go out for a drink.  Over the ensuing drink I learned that he had moved to Shanghai a few years before. When I asked why, he replied: “if I were a devout Muslim I would live in Mecca—I am a devout capitalist, so I live in Shanghai.”

This long preamble serves only to provoke the question: if you are a devout humanist, where do you live? (and yes, I realize that the juxtaposition of “devout” and “humanist” indeed seems a bit strange, as does the idea of communist Shanghai being a capitalist mecca, but these are strange times.)

If you are a member of the American Humanist Association because you’re a humanist who actually lives in the United States then you may have already recognized that, unfortunately, the United States is not necessarily the best place for a humanist to reside, as I pointed out in a piece I wrote here a couple of years back. As an American humanist who has long lived abroad, I must say that many of the discussions that grace this publication make me increasingly glad to have made my life elsewhere. I truly empathize with your plight and staunchly support the association’s efforts to promote humanist causes in the United States, but I am also increasingly dismayed and even surprised that these efforts are necessary. In most of Europe, and certainly in France, where I live (and hold dual citizenship), much of what you have to put up with seems incomprehensible and even antediluvian (if you’ll excuse the biblical reference). There are anti-humanists here but despite their occasional muckraking, they are very much in the minority.

This brings me to the point: Could you use a break? How about a good holiday destination for a long-suffering American humanist?  Where might you visit?  I suggest coming to Paris.

Of course, you don’t need to be a humanist to visit Paris. You could be a Franciscan friar and still love the city (although the whole vow of poverty thing would put a crimp in your vacation). Humanists, though, may have even greater reason to come. I am biased, since I have lived here most of my life, but after all, this is where the Enlightenment started, where those wonderful humanist ideals that had so much to do with the founding of the United States were born and where the separation of church and state extends to prohibiting children from wearing visible crosses in public schools (as well as headscarves, yarmulkes, etc.).

If you are able to visit Paris, I strongly suggest that you put together a delightful itinerary without reference to your humanist ideals (for that matter, you really do have to visit Notre Dame despite whatever anticlerical sentiments you may have). There is one place, though, that you should include on your route because you are a humanist, and that is the Panthéon.

The Panthéon in Paris is a fascinating building that mirrors France’s attitudes and history with respect to humanism. It was originally initiated under Louis XV as a church devoted to Saint Genevieve, the patron Saint of Paris, who supposedly calmed the population when Attila the Hun threatened the city in 451. Her prayers were seemingly fervent enough to curry God’s favor and turn Attila away (the rest of Europe apparently wasn’t pious enough and suffered a different fate). Its construction was delayed and when the revolutionaries took power in 1789 they decided that Paris had entirely too many churches for them to put up with a new one. They therefore decided that in keeping with humanist ideals of the revolution, the erstwhile church would be transformed into a place in which great people would be celebrated, thus transforming the edifice into a “secular temple,” in their words.

Over the ensuing years, the Panthéon vacillated back and forth between the divine and the profane as France itself shuttled between republics, monarchist restorations, and empire. Kings and emperors turned it back into a church while republicans (in the philosophical sense, not the GOP sense) kept trashing the statues of saints and rededicating it to humanist ideals. After the fall of the second empire the pantheon was finally and irrefutably proclaimed a temple to humanity upon the inhumation of that great humanist, Victor Hugo, in 1885.

Today, the Panthéon represents a very unique building, one with ties to both religion and humanism. Of course there are monuments to great people that do not rely on divinities to inspire awe—consider the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials—but the Panthéon was first designed to glorify God and then adapted to pay homage to human beings. As such, it has a very different feel to it. When you enter, it clearly seems to be a church, an impression that is enhanced by the fact that the original artwork representing St. Genevieve and the hunnish hordes was never removed, yet there are no crosses, no altars, no pews or candles or organs. The most striking thing in the building is the world’s best-known and first public example of Foucault’s pendulum, erected by Foucault himself in 1851. It is suspended from the inside of the dome and swings back and forth proving incessantly that no gods drive the sun’s chariot across the skies (note that as I write this, restoration work has led to the temporary removal of the pendulum).

It is in the crypt, though, that even a humanist can feel impelled to pay homage, for beneath the Panthéon are the tombs of some truly great human beings. Besides Hugo, there is Voltaire, that crafty humanist icon and wit. There are great figures from science, including Nicolas de Condorcet and, of course, Pierre and Marie Curie (she is, alas, the only woman honored with “Panthéonisation,” although the wife of Berthollet can be found there as well out of respect for their wish to be entombed together). The plaque near Louis Braille’s sarcophagus is of course in braille and near Zola’s is a plaque proclaiming the famous prelude to his fight against anti-Semitism—”J’Accuse!” One can also contemplate the resting place of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, without whose ideas the United States would undoubtedly have been founded under very different terms.

One of the latest individuals to have been “panthéonised” was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Christo, and any number of other adventures that thrilled me immeasurably when I learned French and devoured everything I could find of his. And speaking of French writers, there is also a plaque honoring the incomparable Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose body was never found after he disappeared into the sky on one last mission during the Second World War.

I have increasingly heard stories of “atheist congregations” in the United States, as atheists feel a need to benefit from the strong community aspects of church life in American culture. That isn’t really an issue here, since social life doesn’t revolve around churches in France, but history often does. Churches do inspire awe, they are humbling, and are perhaps designed to make one feel small in the presence of God. The Panthéon has a similar effect but is devoted to an altogether humanist ideal: feeling awe in the presence of human greatness. Where a church belittles humankind in comparison to an abstract divinity, the Panthéon celebrates humanity: one inspires submission, the other emulation. Otherwise put, it’s worth a visit.

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  • Georgine

    Wonderful fresh view on celebrating human greatness. Thanks!

  • Gretchen Mann

    Lovely! J’habite deux pas du Panthéon et je suis très émue chaque fois je le vois.