Un « moment protestant » de l’Institut de France : le concours sur la Réformation de 1802

Three days before the Concordat was signed, on 5 April 1802, The Class of Moral and Political Sciences of the National Institute launched a prize contest entitled: “What was the influence of Luther’s Reformation upon the political state of the European nations and the progress of the Enlightenment?” The chosen topic represented an overt challenge to the First Consul’s religious politics. Among the seven competitors, only one supported Catholicism. Having already got rid of the “ideologues” in the Tribunat, Bonaparte went on to reorganize the Institute in January 1803, thereby suppressing the Class of Moral Sciences. It was the newly established Class of History and Ancient Languages that now selected the winner, allotting the prize to Charles de Villers, a French emigrant who had settled in Göttingen and befriended Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Villers, whose book on Kant’s philosophy criticizing materialism and sensualism met a poor reception at the Institute, was this time highly appreciated for his antipapist Essay on the Spirit and Influence of the Reformation by Luther (later translated by James Mill), where he emphasized the political and economic superiority of Protestant countries. An antidote to Chateaubriand’s Catholic Génie du Christianisme, Villers’s Essay was a great success in Germany and Britain, and the issue of hot debate in France, as long as the imperial censure allowed it. The controversy initiated by the Institute’s prize contest and Villers’s opus raged on throughout the entire nineteenth century and beyond. Its echoes can be found in Edgar Quinet, Max Weber, and, more recently, Alain Peyrefitte.