Purity as a Revolutionary Concept
in the French Revolution
BECAUSE the politically significant features in the concept of purity—the dehumanization and demonization of persons deemed impure—have come to light in preceding chapters, this chapter and the next will give less detail about the social background of the concepts of purity and impurity. The present chapter, the last on a Western society, will attempt to bring out new elements in the Western tradition produced by a major revolutionary situation, as well as significant continuities with the past.
WARS OF RELIGION
In comparing eighteenth-century usage with that of the sixteenth century, one notices a sharp decline in the sexual connotations of purity. Purity has now become essentially a secular term, often no more than a rather general indicator of approbation. Its religious origin has all but vanished also. According to a major scholarly dictionary, the first substantive use of pur occurs in Montesquieu in 1721. Later, after 1792, it spread widely during the Revolution to denote a person entirely given over to a cause, a doctrine. 1 Unfortunately this dictionary gives no specific reference to any text by Montesquieu, and leafing through his major works I failed to come upon any remarks that would support this claim.
Nevertheless, there is an essay by Rousseau that shows the notion of purity to be common intellectual coin by the middle of