Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: HOW IRRELIGION BECAME A GENERAL RULING PASSION AMONG FRENCHMEN IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, AND OF THE INFLUENCE IT EXERCISED OVER THE CHARACTER OF THE REVOLUTION. - The Old Regime and the Revolution
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CHAPTER XIV.: HOW IRRELIGION BECAME A GENERAL RULING PASSION AMONG FRENCHMEN IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, AND OF THE INFLUENCE IT EXERCISED OVER THE CHARACTER OF THE REVOLUTION. - Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution 
The Old Regime and the Revolution, trans John Bonner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856).
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HOW IRRELIGION BECAME A GENERAL RULING PASSION AMONG FRENCHMEN IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, AND OF THE INFLUENCE IT EXERCISED OVER THE CHARACTER OF THE REVOLUTION.
EVER since the great revolution of the sixteenth century, when the spirit of free inquiry was evoked to decide which of the various Christian traditions were true and which false, there had constantly appeared, from time to time, inquisitive or daring minds which disputed or denied them all. The train of thought which in the time of Luther had expelled from the Catholic fold several millions of Catholics drove a few Christians every year out of the pale of Christianity. Heresy had been followed by unbelief.
It may be said generally that in the eighteenth century Christianity had lost a large portion of its power all over Europe; but in most countries it had been reluctantly abandoned rather than violently rejected. Irreligion had spread among sovereigns and wits, but it had made no progress among the middle classes and the people; it was a fashionable caprice, not a popular opinion. “A vulgar error prevails in Germany,” says Mirabeau in 1787, “to the effect that the Prussian provinces are full of atheists. The truth is, that, if there are a few freethinkers here and there, the people are as religious as any nation in the world, and among them fanatics are quite common.” He adds that it is a pity Frederick II. does not authorize the marriage of Catholic priests, and allow married ecclesiastics to retain their rank and functions: “This measure, I venture to say, would be worthy of so great a man.” In France irreligion had become a passion, general, ardent, intolerant, oppressive; but nowhere else.
The scenes that took place in France were without precedent. Established religions had often been violently attacked, but the fury which assailed them was always inspired by zeal for some new religion. Even the false and detestable religions of antiquity met with no violent or general opposition until Christianity arose to supplant them. Previous to that event they had died of old age, quietly, in the midst of doubt and indifference. In France the Christian faith was furiously assailed, but no attempt was made to raise up another religion on its ruins. Ardent efforts were made to eradicate from men’s souls the faith that was in them, and leave them empty. A multitude of men engaged warmly in this ungrateful work. Absolute infidelity, than which nothing is more repugnant to man’s natural instincts, or produces more discomfort of soul, appeared attractive to the masses. It had formerly given rise to a sickly languor: it now engendered fanaticism and propagandism.
The accidental coincidence of several leading writers, impressed with a sense of unbelief in Christianity, is not sufficient to account for this extraordinary event; for why should all these writers, without exception, turn their attention to this quarter in preference to others? How did it happen that not one out of all of them took the opposite side? Why was it that, unlike their predecessors, they found a ready ear and a predisposition in their favor among the people? The answers to these queries must be sought in peculiarities of time and place; in the same direction, too, we must look for the secret of the success of these writers. Voltaire’s spirit had long existed in the world, but Voltaire’s reign never could have been realized except in France during the eighteenth century.
Let us first acknowledge that the church in France was not more open to attack than elsewhere. Fewer vices and abuses had in fact crept into the French Church than were seen in many foreign churches; the French clergy were more tolerant than their predecessors or their neighbors. The real causes of the phenomenon are to be found rather in the state of society than in that of the Church.
In searching for them, we must carefully keep in view the proposition established in the last chapter, namely, that the opposition aroused by the faults of government, being excluded from the political world, took refuge in literature, whereby men of letters became the real chiefs of the party that was to overthrow all the social and political institutions of the country.
That point established, the question presents itself in another form. It is not, What were the faults of the Church of that day as a religious institution? but, Wherein was it an obstacle to the progress of the Revolution, and an inconvenience to the writers who were its chief leaders?
The fundamental principles of the Church were at war with those which they desired to see prevail in the civil government of the country. The Church was founded on traditions: they professed the greatest contempt for all institutions claiming respect in virtue of their antiquity. It recognized a higher authority than individual reason; they allowed of no appeal from reason. It clung to the notion of a hierarchy; they insisted on leveling all ranks. The two could never come to an understanding, unless both admitted that political and religious societies, being essentially different, can not be governed by like principles; and as they were far from any admission of this kind, it seemed to the reformers absolutely necessary to destroy the religious institutions of the time in order to reach the civil institutions, which were constructed on their basis and model.
The Church was, moreover, the first of all political bodies, and the most odious, though not the most oppressive. It had become a political body in defiance of its vocation and its nature; it shielded vice in high places, while it censured it among the people; it threw its sacred mantle over existing institutions, and seemed to demand for them the immortality it expected for itself. Attacks upon such a body were sure of public sympathy.
Besides these general reasons, the writers of the day had particular, and, so to speak, personal motives for directing their first attack against the Church. The clergy represented that portion of the government which was nearest and most diametrically opposed to them. Other authorities made themselves felt from time to time; but the Church, specially intrusted with the superintendence of ideas and the censorship of letters, was a daily thorn in their side. It opposed them when they stood forth on behalf of the general liberties of mankind, and consequently they were driven, in self-defense, to attack it as the outwork of the place they were assaulting.
The Church, moreover, appeared the weakest and most defenseless of all the outworks which lay before them. Its power had declined as that of the sovereign had gained strength. Once his superior, then his equal, it was now merely his subordinate. The pair had exchanged gifts; the Church had been glad to give its moral influence in return for the use of the physical power of the sovereign. He enforced submission to the Church, it taught respect for the crown. It was a dangerous bargain, so near revolutionary times, and sure to be disadvantageous to the power which relied on faith, not force.
Though the kings still styled themselves eldest sons of the Church, they were not particularly dutiful. They took far better care of their own authority than of that of the Church. They did not allow it to be openly molested, but neither did they prevent, insidious and covert attacks upon it.
The species of constraint laid upon the enemies of the Church increased instead of diminishing their power. Oppression sometimes checks intellectual movement, but as often it accelerates it; it invariably happens that such a censorship of the press as then existed multiplies its power a hundred fold.
Authors were persecuted sufficiently to warrant complaint, but not to justify terror. They labored under inconveniences, which goaded them on to the struggle without overwhelming them. Prosecutions against them were almost always noisy, slow, and fruitless; they were better calculated to encourage than to repress free speech. A thoroughly free press would have been safer for the Church.
“You think our intolerance,” Diderot wrote to Hume in 1768, “more favorable to intellectual progress than your unrestricted liberty: D’Holback, Helvetius, Morelet, and Suard, are not of your opinion.” The Scotchman was, however, in the right; he had the experience of a freeman. Diderot judged like a man of letters, Hume like a statesman.
If I ask the first American I meet, either at home or abroad, whether he considers religion to be of service to law and social order, he will answer unhesitatingly that civilized society, especially if it be free, can not exist without religion. Respect for religion is in his eyes the best safeguard for political stability and private security. Those who know least about government know this much. There is no country in the world where the boldest political doctrines of the eighteenth century philosophers have received so general a practical application as in America. But, notwithstanding the unlimited freedom of the press, their infidel doctrines have never made any progress there.
As much may be said of the English. Our irreligious philosophy was preached to them before our philosophers were born; it was Bolingbroke who completed Voltaire’s education. Throughout the eighteenth century infidelity had famous champions in England.p Able writers, profound thinkers, embraced its cause. But they won no victories with it, because all who had any thing to lose by revolutions hastened to the support of the established faith. Even men who mixed in French society, and did not reject the doctrines of our philosophers, considered them dangerous. Great political parties, such as exist in every free country, found it to be their interest to espouse the cause of the Church; Bolingbroke was seen to join hands with the bishops. Animated by this example, and encouraged by a consciousness of support, the clergy fought with energy in their own defense. Notwithstanding the vice of its constitution, and the abuses of all sorts which teemed within its organization, the Church of England stood the shock unmoved; writers and speakers sprang forth from its ranks, and defended Christianity with ardor. Infidel theories were discussed, refuted, and rejected by society, without the least interference on the part of government.
But why need we seek illustrations abroad? Where is the Frenchman who would write such books as these of Diderot or Helvetius at the present day? Who would read them? I might almost say, Who knows their titles? We have had experience enough of public life, incomplete as it has been, during the last sixty years, to lose all taste for this dangerous style of literature. See how each class in turn has learned, at the rough school of revolutions, the necessity of respecting religion. The old nobility were the most irreligious class of society before 1789, and the most pious after 1793; the first attacked, they were the first to recover. When the middle classes were struck down in the midst of their victory, they in their turn drew toward religion. Respect for religion gradually made its way into the breast of every one who had any thing to lose by popular disorders, and infidelity disappeared or lay hidden in the general dread of revolution.
Very different was the state of society toward the close of the old regime. Politicians were out of practice, and were so ignorant of the part which religion plays in the government of empires, that infidelity found proselytes among those who were the most vitally interested in the maintenance of order and the subordination of the people. Nor yet proselytes alone, but propagandists, who made an idle pastime of disseminating impiety.
The Church of France, which had up to that time been prolific in great orators, sank under the desertion of those whom a common interest should have rallied to its side, and made no sign. At one moment it seemed as though it would have compromised for the retention of its wealth and rank by the sacrifice of its faith.
The assailants of Christianity being as noisy as its adherents were mute, the latter began to fear that they were singular in their opinions, and, dreading singularity more than error, they joined the crowd without sharing its creed. Thus the whole nation was credited with the sentiments of a faction, and the new opinions seemed irresistible even to those whose conduct was the main secret of their imposing appearance. The phenomenon has been often witnessed since in France, in connection not only with religion, but with very different matters.
No doubt an extensive influence was exercised over our Revolution by the general discredit into which religious creeds had fallen at the close of the eighteenth century. Its character was moulded, and a terrible aspect imparted to its physiognomy by this peculiar circumstance.
I have endeavored to trace the effects produced by irreligion in France, and I am satisfied that it was by unsettling men’s minds, rather than by degrading their hearts or corrupting their morals, that it led them into such strange excesses.
When religion fled from men’s souls, they were not left void and debilitated, as is usually the case; its place was temporarily occupied by ideas and feelings which engrossed the mind and did not allow it to collapse.
If the men of the Revolution were more irreligious than we are, they were imbued with one admirable faith which we lack: they believed in themselves. They had a robust faith in man’s perfectibility and power; they were eager for his glory, trustful in his virtue. They had a proud reliance in their own strength; and though this often leads to errors, a people without it is not fit for freedom. They had no doubt but that they were appointed to transform society and regenerate the human race. These sentiments and passions had become a sort of new religion, which, like many religions which we have seen, stifled selfishness, stimulated heroism and disinterestedness, and rendered men insensible to many petty considerations which have weight with us.
I have studied history extensively, and I venture to affirm that I know of no other revolution at whose outset so many men were imbued with a patriotism as sincere, as disinterested, as truly great. The nation exhibited the characteristic fault, but likewise the characteristic virtue of youth, or, rather, the virtue which used to be characteristic of youth; it was inexperienced, but it was generous.
For all this, infidelity produced immense evil.
Throughout most of the political revolutions that the world had experienced, the assailants of civil laws had respected religious creeds. In like manner, the leaders of religious revolutions had rarely undertaken to alter the form and character of civil institutions, and to abolish the whole framework of government. In the greatest social convulsions there had thus always remained one solid spot.
When the French Revolution overthrew civil and religious laws together, the human mind lost its balance. Men knew not where to stop or what measure to observe. There arose a new order of revolutionists, whose boldness was madness, who shrank from no novelty, knew no scruples, listened to no argument or objection. And it must not be imagined that this new species of beings was the spontaneous and ephemeral offspring of circumstances, destined to perish when they passed away; it has given birth to a race which has spread and propagated throughout the civilized world, preserving a uniform physiognomy, uniform passions, a uniform character. We found it in existence at our birth; it is still before us.
[Note p, page 187.]Frederick the Great says in his Memoirs, “The Fontenelles, the Voltaires, the Hobbeses, the Collinses, the Shaftesburys, the Bolingbrokes—all these great men dealt a deadly blow to religion. Men began to examine what they had stupidly adored. Intellect overthrew superstition. Fables that had long been believed fell into disgust. Deism made many converts. If Epicureanism was fatal to the idolatrous worship of the pagans, Deism was equally fatal to the Judaical visions of our ancestry. The liberty of thought which reigned in England was very favorable to the progress of philosophy.”