Mesmerism, named after Franz Mesmer is the 18th century term for the therapeutic process which helps the free flow of an invisible “magnetic fluid” throughout the body. Proper flow is indicative of a healthy individual. If you are experiencing physical or even mental distress you do not have the proper flow within. Franz Mesmer used several different techniques including electrocution to facilitate healing. Now, I’m not really interested in advocating mesmerism since it’s mostly nonsense but it did have a very curious affect on society leading up to the French Revolution.
The discovery of gravity and electricity among other scientific theories in this era convinced many that there are invisible energies at work everywhere. For people in this time it wasn’t too preposterous to think an analogous human variant of this energy could exist. At first, the French academic institutions were not convinced and dismissed mesmerism from any serious study. Eventually, the French royal commission conducted a number of experiments in 1784 and concluded there was no evidence of its existence or efficacy of the animal magnetic fluid, and that its effects derived from either the imaginations of its subjects or charlatanry.
Mesmer claimed the academe and by extension the government did not want what was best for its people. But the popularity of mesmerism did penetrate the parliament, over half of which supported Mesmerists. They saw the ‘suppression’ of this panacea by the French establishment, as a clear example of the government acting against the common interest of its people. Mesmerism was perceived as the most humanitarian movement of their age, who could oppose it?
This antiestablishment undercurrent of mesmerism began to attract the radical philosophers, scientists, and pseudo scientists of French society. A snowball effect began to occur and more radicals were joining the cause. People of lower social standing believed they were suppressed, even being conspired against, by the government because their views were not taken seriously. To ignore mesmerism was to deny a cure to all the ills of society. The popularity of science at the time gave validity to mesmerism because it was considered to be a scientific political theory. If politicians and society underwent mesmerism, their bodies would be healed therefore, their morality would be improved and by extension politics would be perfected. It is safe to say one reason why mesmerism did not lead to the revolution directly but began several years later was because many revolutionaries considered undergoing mesmerism as an ineffective process for change.
I find it interesting that a popular yet inaccurate belief played a role in the revolution which is seen as a major turning point in the history of Western democracy. Bear with me but what if we replaced mesmerism with the 9/11 conspiracy movement? Even if we assume it is entirely wrong, its increasing popularity may be a factor in uniting those who would normally disagree. In the end it wasn’t mesmerism which played a role in the French revolution as much as it was the idea of the French establishment acting against the interest of its people. According to a recent poll, over a third of US citizens believe the government was involved with the attacks on 9/11. Just a thought…
“Nothing is True and Everything is Permitted”
To learn more about mesmerism check out: Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France