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CHAPTER II.: ENGLISH STUDIES AND INFLUENCES. - John Morley, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XXI (A Biographical Critique of Voltaire by John Morely) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XXI.
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ENGLISH STUDIES AND INFLUENCES.
Voltairism may be said to have begun from the flight of its founder from Paris to London. This, to borrow a name from the most memorable instance of outward change marking inward revolution, was the decisive hegira, from which the philosophy of destruction in a formal shape may be held seriously to date. Voltaire landed in England in the middle of May, 1726. He was in the thirty-third year of his age, that earlier climacteric, when the men with vision first feel conscious of a past, and reflectively mark its shadow. It is then that they either press forward eagerly with new impulse in the way of their high calling, knowing the limitations of circumstance and hour, or else fainting draw back their hand from the plough, and ignobly leave to another or to none the accomplishment of the work. The narrowness of the cribbed deck that we are doomed to tread, amid the vast space of an eternal sea with fair shores dimly seen and never neared, oppresses the soul with a burden that sorely tries its strength, when the fixed limits first define themselves before it. Those are the strongest who do not tremble beneath this gray ghostly light, but make it the precursor of an industrious day.
The past on which Voltaire had to look back was full of turmoil, contention, impatience, and restless production. François Marie Arouet was born in 1694, so feeble in constitution that, as in the case of Fontenelle, whose hundred years surpassed even Voltaire's lengthy span, his life was long despaired of. His father was a notary of good repute for integrity and skill, and was entrusted with the management of their affairs by several of the highest families in France. His mother is supposed to have had some of the intellectual alertness which penetrated the character of her son, but she died when he was seven years old, and he remained alone with his father until 1704, when he was sent to school. His instructors at the Collège Louis-le-Grand were the Jesuits, whose wise devotion to intellectual education in the broadest sense that was then possible, is a partial set-off against their mischievous influence on morals and politics. The hardihood of the young Arouet's temper broke out even from the first, and we need not inquire minutely what were the precise subjects of education of a child, whom his tutor took an early opportunity of pointing out as the future coryphæus of deism in France. He used to say in after life that he had learnt nothing worth learning. A lad who could launch infidel epigrams at “his Jansenist of a brother,” and declaim a poem in which so important a hero as Moses figures as an impostor, was of that originality of mental turn on whose freedom the inevitably mechanical instruction of the school cannot be expected to make any deep or decisive impression. The young of this independent humor begin their education where those of less energetic nerve hardly leave off, with character ready made.
Between a youth of bold, vivacious, imaginative disposition, and a father of the temperament proper to a notary with many responsibilities, there could be no sympathy, and the two were not long in coming to open quarrel without terms. The son was taken out by his godfather, the Abbé Châteauneuf, into that gay world which presently became the infamous world of the regency, where extraordinary sprightliness and facility in verse gained him welcome and patronage. We need waste no words on the corruption and intellectual trifling of the society into which Voltaire was thus launched. For shallowness and levity, concealed by literary artifice and play of frivolous wit which only makes the scene more dreary or detestable, it has never been surpassed. There was brightness in it, compared with the heavy brutality and things obscene of the court of Louis XV., but after all we seem to see over the brightness a sort of foul glare, like the iridescence of putrefaction. Ninon de l'Enclos, a friend of his mother's, was perhaps the one free and honest soul with whom the young Arouet had to do. Now extremely old, she still preserved both her wit and her fine probity of intellect. She had always kept her heart free of cant, from the time when she had ridiculed, as the Jansenists of love, the pedantic women and platonic gallants of the Hôtel Rambouillet, down to her rejection of Madame de Maintenon's offer of an invitation to the court, on condition of her joining the band of the devout. The veteran Aspasia, now over eighty, was struck by the brilliance and dazzling promise of the young versifier, and left him a legacy for the purchase of books.
The rest of the society into which Voltaire was taken was saturated with a spirit of reaction against the austere bigotry of the court, and bad and miserable as such austerity is, the rebellion against it is always worse and more miserable still. The licence seems not to have been of the most joyous sort, as indeed licence protesting and defiant is not apt to be. The Abbé Chaulieu, a versifier of sprightly fancy, grace, and natural ease, was the dissolute Anacreon of the people of quality who during the best part of the reign of Louis XIV. had failed to sympathize with its nobility and stateliness, and during the worst part revolted against its gloom. Voltaire at twenty was his intimate and his professed disciple. To this intimacy we may perhaps trace that remarkable continuity of tradition between Voltaire and the grand age, which distinguishes him from the school of famous men who were called Voltaireans, and of whom the special mark was that they had absolutely broken with the whole past of French history and literature. Princes, dukes, and marquises were of Chaulieu's band. The despair and fury of the elder Arouet at such companions and such follies reproduce once more a very old story in the records of youthful genius. Genius and fine friends reconcile no prudent notary to a son's hatred for law and the desk. Orgies with the Duke of Sully, and rhyming bouts with Chaulieu, have sunk into small size for us, who know that they were but the mischievous and unbecoming prologue of a life of incessant and generous labor, but we may well believe that such enormities bulked big in the vision of the father, as portents of degradation and ruin. We have a glimpse of the son's temper towards the profession to which his father had tried so hard to bind him, in the ironical definition, thrown out long afterwards, of an avocat as a man who, not having money enough to buy one of those brilliant offices on which the universe has its eyes fixed, studies for three years the laws of Theodosius and Justinian so as to know the custom of Paris, and who at length having got matriculated has the right of pleading for money, if he has a loud voice. The young Arouet did actually himself get matriculated and acquire this right, but his voice proved so loud that his pleadings were destined to fill wider courts than those of Paris.
Arouet the elder persuaded Châteauneuf's brother, who was a diplomatist, to take into his company the law-student who had made verse instead of studying the laws of Theodosius. So the youth went to the Hague. Here he straightway fell into new misadventure by conceiving an undying passion, that lasted several weeks, for a young countrywoman whom he found in Holland. Stolen interviews, letters, tears, and the other accustomed circumstances of a juvenile passion on which the gods frown, were all discovered. The ambassador sent the refractory boy back to his father, with full details and documents, with results on the relations of the pair that need not be described.
In the autumn of 1715 Louis XIV. died, and the Regent D'Orleans reigned in his stead. There presently appeared some pungent lines, entitled “Les j'ai vu,” in which the writer recounted a number of evil things which he had seen in the state—a thousand prisons crowded with brave citizens and faithful subjects, the people groaning under rigorous bondage, the magistrates harassing every town with ruinous taxes and unrighteous edicts; j'ai vu, c'est dire tout, le Jésuite adore. The last line ran that all these ills the writer had seen, yet was but twenty years old. Voltaire was twenty-two, but the authorities knew him for a verse-writer of biting turn, so they treated the discrepancy of age as a piece of mere prosopopœia, and laid him up in the Bastille (1716). As a matter of fact, he had no hand in the offence. Even amid these sombre shades, where he was kept for nearly a year, his spirit was blithe and its fire unquenchable. The custom of Paris and the Codes were as little handled as ever; and he divided his time between the study of the two great epics of Greece and Rome, and the preparation of what he designed to be the great epic of France. He also gave the finishing strokes to his tragedy of “Œdipe,” which was represented in the course of the following year with definite success, and was the opening of a brilliant dramatic career, that perhaps to a mortal of more ordinary mould might alone have sufficed for the glory of a life.
The next six years he divided between a lively society, mostly of the great, the assiduous composition of new plays, and the completion of the “Henriade.” His fibre was gradually strengthening. By the end of this period, the recklessness of the boyish disciple of Chaulieu had wholly spent itself; and although Voltaire's manner of life was assuredly not regular nor decorously ordered, now nor for many years to come, if measured by the rigid standard on which an improved society properly insists, yet it was always a life of vigorous industry and clear purposes. For a brief time his passion for the Maréchale de Villars broke the tenacity of his diligence, and he always looked back on this interruption of his work with the kind of remorse that might afflict a saint for a grave spiritual backsliding. He was often at the country seats of Sully, Villars, and elsewhere, throwing off thousands of trifling verses, arranging theatricals, enlivening festivals, and always corresponding indefatigably; for now and throughout his life his good sense and good-will, his business-like quality and his liking for his friends, both united to raise him above the idle pretences and self-indulgence of those who neglect the chief instrument of social intercourse and friendly continuity. He preferred the country to the town. “I was born,” he says to one, “to be a faun or creature of the woods; I am not made to live in a town.” To another, “I fancy myself in hell, when I am in the accursed city of Paris.” The only recommendation of the accursed city was that a solitude was attainable in it, as in other crowded spots, which enabled him to work better there than in the small and exacting throng of country-houses. “I fear Fontainebleau, Villars, and Sully, both for my health and for Henry IV.; I should do no work, I should over-eat, and I should lose in pleasures and in complaisance to others an amount of precious time that I ought to be using for a necessary and creditable task.”
Yet there was even at this period much of that marvellous hurrying to and fro in France and out of it, which continued to mark the longer portion of Voltaire's life, and fills it with such a busy air of turmoil and confusion, explaining many things, when we think of the stability of life and permanence of outward place of the next bright spirit that shone upon Europe. Goethe never saw London, Paris, nor Vienna, and made no journey save the famous visit to Italy, and the march at Valmy. Voltaire moved hither and thither over the face of Europe like the wind, and it is not until he has passed through half of his life that we can begin to think of his home. Every association that belongs to his name recalls tumult and haste and shrill contention with men and circumstance. We have, however, to remember that these constant movements were the price which Voltaire paid for the vigor and freedom of his speech, in days when the party of superstition possessed the ear of the temporal power, and resorted without sparing to the most violent means of obliterating every hardy word and crushing every independent writer. The greater number of Voltaire's ceaseless changes of place were flights from injustice, and the recollection of this may well soothe the disturbance of spirit of the most fastidious zealot for calm and orderly living. They were for the most part retreats before packs of wolves.
In 1722 the elder Arouet died, to the last relentlessly set against a son, not any less stubborn than himself, and unfortunately a great deal more poetical. About the same time the name of Arouet falls away, and the poet is known henceforth by that ever famous symbol for so much, Voltaire; a name for which various explanations, none of them satisfactory, have been offered, the latest and perhaps the least improbable resolving it into a fanciful anagram.
Industrious as he was, and eager as he was for rural delights and laborious solitude, Voltaire was still pre-eminently social. His letters disclose in him, who really possessed all arts, the art of one who knew how to be graciously respectful to the social superiors who took him for a companion, without forgetting what was due to his own respect for himself. “We are all princes or poets,” he exclaimed jubilantly on the occasion of one of those nights and suppers of the gods. Such gay-hearted freedom was not always well taken, and in time Voltaire's eyes were opened to the terms on which he really stood. “Who is the young man who talks so loud?” called out some Chevalier Rohan, at one of these sprightly gatherings at the house of the Duke of Sully. “My lord,” the young man replied promptly, “he is one who does not carry about a great name, but wins respect for the name he has.” A few days afterwards the high-spirited patrician magnanimously took an opportunity of having a caning inflicted by the hands of his lackeys on the poet who had thrown away this lesson upon him. Voltaire, who had at all events that substitute for true physical courage which springs up in an intensely irritable and susceptible temperament, forthwith applied himself to practise with the small-sword. He did his best to sting his enemy to fight, but the chevalier either feared the swordsman, or else despised an antagonist of the middle class; and by the influence of the Rohan family the poet once more found himself in the Bastille, then the house of correction at the disposal and for the use of the nobles, the court, and the clergy. Here for six months Voltaire, then only representing a very humble and unknown quantity in men's minds, chafed and fretted. The pacific Fleury, as is the wont of the pacific when in power, cared less to punish the wrong-doer than to avoid disturbance, knowing that disturbance was most effectually avoided by not meddling with the person most able to resent. The multitude, however, when the day of reckoning came, remembered all these things, and the first act of their passion was to raze to the ground the fortress into which nearly every distinguished champion of the freedom of human intelligence among them had at one time or another been tyrannically thrown.
On his release Voltaire was ordered to leave Paris. A clandestine visit to the city showed him that there was no hope of redress from authority, which was in the hands of men whose pride of rank prevented them from so much as even perceiving, much more from repairing, such grievance as a mere bourgeois could have: as if, to borrow Condorcet's bitter phrase, a descendant of the conquering Franks, like de Rohan, could have lost the ancient right of life and death over a descendant of the Gauls. And this was no ironic taunt; for while Voltaire was in the Bastille, that astounding book of the Count of Boulainvilliers was in the press, in which it was shown that the feudal system is the master-work of the human mind, and that the advance of the royal authority and the increase of the liberties of the people were equally unjust usurpations of the rights of the conquering Franks.
Voltaire was no patient victim of the practice which corresponded to this trim historic theory. In a tumult of just indignation he quitted France, and sought refuge with that stout and free people, who had by the execution of one king, the deposition of another, and the definite subjugation of the hierarchy, won a full liberty of thought and speech and person. A modern historian has drawn up a list of the men of mark who made the same invigorating pilgrimage. “During the two generations which elapsed between the death of Louis XIV. and the outbreak of the Revolution, there was hardly a Frenchman of eminence who did not either visit England or learn English; while many of them did both.” Among those who actually came to England and mixed in its society besides Voltaire, were Buffon, Brissot, Helvétius, Gournay, Jussieu, Lafayette, Montesquieu, Maupertuis, Morellet, Mirabeau, Roland and Madame Roland, Rousseau. We who live after Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Scott, have begun to forget the brilliant group of the Queen Anne men. They belong to a self-complacent time, and we to a time of doubt and unsatisfied aspiration, and the two spirits are unsympathetic. Yet they were assuredly a band, from Newton and Locke down to Pope, of whom, taking them for all the qualities which they united, in science, correct judgment, love of letters, and taste, England has as good reason to be proud as of any set of contemporary writers in her history.
Up to this moment Voltaire had been a poet, and his mind had not moved beyond the region of poetic creation. He had beaten every one once and for all on the ground of light and graceful lyric verse, “a kind of poetry,” says a French critic whose word in such a matter we can hardly refuse to take, “in which Voltaire is at once with us the only master and the only writer supportable, for he is the only one whom we can read.” He had produced three tragedies. His epic was completed, though undergoing ceaseless labor to the file. Two lines in his first play had served to mark him for no friend to the hierophants:
And the words of Araspe in the same play had breathed the full spirit of the future liberator:
Such expressions, however, were no more than the vague and casual word of the esprit fort, the friend of Chaulieu, and the rhymer of a dissolute circle, where religion only became tinged with doubt, because conduct had already become penetrated with licence. More important than such stray words was the “Epistle of Uranie” (1722), that truly masculine and terse protest against the popular creed, its mean and fatuous and contradictory idea of an omnipotent God, who gave us guilty hearts so as to have the right of punishing us, and planted in us a love of pleasure so as to torment us the more effectually by appalling ills that an eternal miracle prevents from ever ending; who drowned the fathers in the deluge and then died for the children; who exacts an account of their ignorance from a hundred peoples whom he has himself plunged helplessly into this ignorance:
Though called “The For and Against,” the poet hardly tries to maintain any proportion between the two sides of the argument. The verses were addressed to a lady in a state of uncertainty as to belief, of whom there were probably more among Voltaire's friends of quality than he can have cared to cure or convert. Skepticism was at this time not much more than an interesting fashion.
The dilettante believer is indeed not a strong spirit, but the weakest, and the facts of life were by this time far too serious for Voltaire, for that truth to have missed his keen-seeing eye. It is not hard to suppose that impatient weariness of the poor life that was lived around him, had as large a share as resentment of an injustice, in driving him to a land where men did not merely mouth idle words of making reason their oracle, their tripod, their god, but where they had actually systematized the rejection of Christianity, and had thrown themselves with grave faith on the disciplined intelligence and its lessons. When he returned, while his poetic power had ripened, he had tasted of the fruit of the tree of scientific reason, and, what was not any less important, he had become alive to the central truth of the social distinction of all art and all knowledge. In a word, he was transformed from the penman into the captain and man-at-arms. “The example of England,” says Condorcet, “showed him that truth is not made to remain a secret in the hands of a few philosophers, and a limited number of men of the world, instructed, or rather indoctrinated, by the philosophers; smiling with them at the errors of which the people are the victims, but at the same time making themselves the champions of these very errors, when their rank or position gives them a real or chimerical interest in them, and quite ready to permit the proscription, or even persecution of their teachers, if they venture to say what in secret they themselves actually think. From the moment of his return, Voltaire felt himself called to destroy the prejudices of every kind, of which his country was the slave.”
It is not difficult to perceive the sorts of fact which would most strike the exile's attention, though it would be rash to suppose that things struck him in exact proportion to their real weight and the depth of their importance, or that he detected the connection subsisting among them at their roots. Perhaps the first circumstance to press its unfamiliarity upon him was the social and political consequence of the men of letters in England and the recognition given to the power of the pen. The patronage of men of genius in the reign of Anne and part of the reign of the first George had been profuse and splendid. The poet who had been thrown into prison for resenting a whipping from a nobleman's lackeys, found himself in a land where Newton and Locke were rewarded with lucrative posts in the administration of the country, where Prior and Gay acted in important embassies, and where Addison was a Secretary of State. The author of “Œdipe” and the “Henriade” had to hang ignobly about in the crowd at Versailles at the marriage of Louis XV. to gain a paltry pittance from the queen's privy purse, while in England Hughes and Rowe and Ambrose Philips and Congreve were all enjoying amply endowed sinecures. The familiar intercourse between the ministers and the brilliant literary group of that age has been often painted. At the time of Voltaire's exile it had just come to an end with the accession to supreme power of Walpole, who neither knew anything nor cared anything about the literature of his own time. But the usage was still new, and the men who had profited and given profit by it were alive, and were the central figures in the circles among which Voltaire was introduced by Bolingbroke. Newton died in 1727, and Voltaire saw his death mourned as a public calamity, and surrounded with a pomp and circumstance in the eye of the country that could not have been surpassed if he had been, not a geometer, but a king who was the benefactor of his people. The author of “Gulliver's Travels” was still a dignitary in the state church, and there was still a large association of outward power and dignity with literary merit.
In so far as we consider literature to be one of the purely decorative arts, there can be no harm in this patronage of its most successful, that is its most pleasing, professors by the political minister; but the more closely literature approaches to being an organ of serious things, a truly spiritual power, the more danger there is likely to be in making it a path to temporal station or emolument. The practical instinct, which on some of its sides seems like a miraculously implanted substitute for scientific intelligence in English politics, has led us almost too far in preserving this important separation of the new church from the functions and rewards of the state. The misfortunes of France since the Revolution have been due to no one circumstance so markedly as to the predominance which the man of letters has acquired in that country; and this fatal predominance was first founded, though assuredly not of set design, by Voltaire.
Not less amazing than the high honor paid to intellectual eminence was the refugee from the city of the Bastille likely to find the freedom with which public events and public personages were handled by any one who could pay a printer. The licence of this time in press and theatre has been equalled only once or twice since, and it has never been surpassed. From Bolingbroke and Swift down to the author of “The Golden Rump,” every writer who chose to consider himself in opposition treated the minister with a violence and ferocity, which neither irritated nor daunted that sage head, but which would in France have crowded the lowest dungeons of the Bastille with victims of Fleury's anger and fright. Such licence was as natural in a country that had within ninety years gone through a violent civil war, a revolutionary change of government and line, and a half-suppressed dispute of succession, as it would have been astonishing in France, where the continuity of outward order had never been more than superficially ruffled, even in the most turbulent times of the factious wars of the League and the Fronde. No new idea of the relations between ruler and subject had ever penetrated into France, as it had done so deeply in the neighboring country. No serious popular issues had been so much as stated. As Voltaire wrote, in the detestable times of Charles IX. and Henry III. it was only a question whether the people should be the slaves of the Guises, while as for the last war, it deserved only hisses and contempt; for what was de Retz but a rebel without a purpose and a stirrer of sedition without a name, and what was the parliament but a body which knew neither what it meant nor what it did not mean? The apologies of Jesuit writers for the assassination of tyrants deserve an important place in the history of the doctrine of divine right; but they were theoretical essays in casuistry for the initiated few, and certainly conveyed no general principles of popular right to the many.
Protestantism, on the other hand, loosened the conception of authority and of the respect proper for authority, to a degree which has never been realized in the most anarchic movements in France, whose anarchy has ever sprung less from a disrespect for authority as such, than from a passionate and uncompromising resolve in this or that group that the authority shall be in one set of hands and not another. Voltairism has proved itself as little capable as Catholicism of inspiring any piece that may match with Milton's “Areopagitica,” the noblest defence that was ever made of the noblest of causes. We know not whether Voltaire ever thought much as to the history and foundation of that freedom of speech, which even in its abuse struck him as so wonderful a circumstance in a country that still preserved a stable and orderly society. He was probably content to admire the phenomenon of a liberty so marvellous, without searching very far for its antecedents. The mere spectacle of such free, vigorous, many-sided, and truly social and public activity of intellect as was visible in England at this time was in itself enough to fix the gaze of one who was so intensely conscious of his own energy of intellect, and so bitterly rebellious against the system which fastened a gag between his lips.
If we would realize the impression of this scene of free speech on Voltaire's ardent spirit, we need only remember that, when in time he returned to his own country, he had to wait long and use many arts and suffer harassing persecutions, before he could publish what he had to say on Newton and Locke, and in other less important respects had to suppress much of what he had most at heart to say. “One must disguise at Paris,” he wrote long after his return, “what I could not say too strongly at London”; and he vaunts his hardihood in upholding Newton against René Descartes, while he confesses that an unfortunate but necessary circumspection forced him to try to make Locke obscure. Judge the light which would come into such a mind as his, when he first saw the discussion and propagation of truth freed from these vile and demoralizing affronts. The very conception of truth was a new one, as a goddess not to be shielded behind the shades of hierophantic mystery, but rather to be sought in the free tumult and joyous strife of many voices, there vindicating her own majesty and marking her own children.
Penetrating deeper, Voltaire found not only a new idea of truth as a something rude, robust, and self-sufficient, but also what was to him a new order of truths, the triumphs of slow-footed induction and the positive reason. France was the hotbed of systems of the physical universe. The provisional and suspensive attitude was intolerable to her impetuous genius, and the gaps which scientific investigation was unable to fill were straightway hidden behind an artificial screen of metaphysical phantasies. The Aristotelian system died harder in France than anywhere else, for so late as 1693, while Oxford and Cambridge and London were actually embracing the Newtonian principles, even the Cartesian system was forbidden to be taught by decrees of the Sorbonne and of the Council of the King. When the Cartesian physics once got a foothold, they kept it as firmly as the system which they had found so much difficulty in displacing. It is easy to believe that Voltaire's positive intelligence would hold aloof by a certain instinct from physical explanations which were unverified and incapable of being verified, and which were imbrangled with theology and metaphysics.
We can readily conceive the sensation of freshness and delight with which a mind so essentially real, and so fundamentally serious, paradoxical as this may sound in connection with the name of the greatest mocker that has ever lived, would exchange the poetized astronomy of Fontenelle, excellently constituted as Fontenelle was in a great many ways, for the sure and scientific discoveries of a Newton. Voltaire, in whatever subject, never failed to see through rhetoric, and for rhetoric as the substitute for clear reasoning he always had an aversion as deep as it was wholesome. Nobody ever loved grace and form in style more sincerely than Voltaire, but he has shown in a great many ways that nobody ever valued grace and form more truly at their worth, compared with correctness of argument and precision and solidity of conclusion.
Locke, instead of inventing a romance of the soul, to use Voltaire's phrase, sagaciously set himself to watch the phenomena of thought, and “reduced metaphysics to being the experimental physics of the soul.” Malebranche, then the reigning philosopher in France, “astonished the reason of those whom he delighted by his style. People trusted him in what they did not understand, because he began by being right in what they did understand; he seduced people by being delightful, as Descartes seduced them by being daring, while Locke was nothing more than sage.” “After all,” Voltaire once wrote, “we must admit that anybody who has read Locke, or rather who is his own Locke, must find the Platos mere fine talkers, and nothing more. In point of philosophy, a chapter of Locke or Clarke is, compared with the babble of antiquity, what Newton's optics are compared with those of Descartes.” It is curious to observe that de Maistre, who thought more meanly of Plato than Voltaire did, and hardly less meanly than he thought of Voltaire himself, cried out that in the study of philosophy contempt for Locke is the beginning of knowledge. Voltaire, on the other hand, is enchanted to hear that his niece reads the great English philosopher, like a good father who sheds tears of joy that his children are turning out well. Augustus published an edict de coercendo intra fines imperio, and like him, Locke has fixed the empire of knowledge in order to strengthen it. Locke, he says elsewhere, traced the development of the human reason, as a good anatomist explains the machinery of the human body; instead of defining all at once what we do not understand, he examines by degrees what we want to understand; he sometimes has the courage to speak positively, but sometimes also he has the courage to doubt. This is a perfectly appreciative account. Locke perceived the hopelessness of defining things as they are in themselves, and the necessity before all else of understanding the reach of the human intelligence; the impossibility of attaining knowledge absolute and transcendent, and the limitations of our thinking and knowing faculties within the bounds of an experience that must always be relative. The doubt which Voltaire praised in Locke had nothing to do with that shivering mood which receives overmuch poetic praise in our day, as the honest doubt that has more faith than half your creeds. There was no question of the sentimental juvenilities of children crying for light. It was by no means religious doubt, but philosophic; and it affected only the possibilities of ontological knowledge, leaving the grounds of faith on the one hand, and practical conduct on the other, exactly where they were. His intense feeling for actualities would draw Voltaire irresistibly to the writer who, in his judgment, closed the gates of the dreamland of metaphysics, and banished the vaulting ambition of a priori certainties, which led nowhere and assured nothing. Voltaire's keen practical instinct may well have revealed to him that men were most likely to attribute to the great social problem of the improvement of mankind its right supremacy, when they had ceased to concentrate intellectual effort on the insoluble; and Locke went a long way towards showing how insoluble those questions were, on which, as it chanced, the most strenuous efforts of the intellect of Europe since the decline of theology had been concentrated.
That he should have acquired more scientific views either upon the origin of ideas, or the question whether the soul always thinks, or upon the reason why an apple falls to the ground, or why the planets remain in their orbits, was on the whole very much less important for Voltaire than a profound and very vital sentiment which was raised to supreme prominence in his mind, by the spectacle of these vast continents of knowledge newly discovered by the adventurous yet sure explorers of English thought. This sentiment was a noble faith, none the less firm because it was so passionate, in the ability of the relative and practical understanding to reach truth; a deep-rooted reverence for it, as a majestic power bearing munificent and unnumbered gifts to mankind. Hence the vivacity of the annotations which about this time (1728) Voltaire affixed to Pascal's famous “Thoughts,” and which were regarded at that time as the audacious carpings of a shallow poet against a profound philosopher. They were in truth the protest of a lively common sense against a strained, morbid, and often sophistical, misrepresentation of human nature and human circumstance. Voltaire shot a penetrative ray through the clouds of doubt, out of which Pascal had made an apology for mysticism.
From this there flowed that other vehement current in his soul, of energetic hatred toward the black clouds of prejudice, of mean self-love, of sinister preference of class or order, of indolence, obstinacy, wanton fancy, and all the other unhappy leanings of human nature, and vexed and fatal conjunctures of circumstance, which interpose between humanity and the beneficent sunbeams of its own intelligence, that central light of the universe. Hence, again, by a sufficiently visible chain of thought, his marked disesteem for far-sounding names of brutal conquerors, and his cold regard for those outward and material circumstances in the state of nations, which strike the sense, but do not touch the inward reason. “Not long ago,” he writes once, “a distinguished company were discussing the trite and frivolous question, who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, or Cromwell. Somebody answered that it was undoubtedly Isaac Newton. This person was right; for if true greatness consists in having received from heaven a powerful understanding and in using it to enlighten oneself and all others, then such an one as Newton, who is hardly to be met with once in ten centuries, is in truth the great man. . . . It is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, not to those who enslave men by violence; it is to him who understands the universe, not to those who disfigure it, that we owe our reverence.” This may seem trite to us, as the question which suggested it seemed to Voltaire, but we need only reflect, first, how new this was, even as an idea, in the France which Voltaire had quitted, and, second, how in spite of the nominal acceptance of the idea, in the England of our own time there is, with an immense majority not only of the general vulgar but of the special vulgar who presume to teach in press and pulpit, no name of slight at once so disdainful and so sure of transfixing as the name of thinker.
The discovery of the New World did not fire the imagination and stir the thought of Europe more intensely than the vision of these new worlds of knowledge kindled the ardor of the receptive spirit which had just come into contact with them. But besides the speculative aspects of what he saw in England, Voltaire was deeply penetrated by the social differences between a country that had been effectively, if only partially, transformed from feudalism, and his own, where feudalism had only been transformed into a system more repressive than itself, and more unfit to conduct a nation to the free and industrious developments of new civilization. It is a remarkable thing that, though Voltaire's habitual companions or patrons had belonged to the privileged class, he had been sufficiently struck by the evils incident to the privileged system to notice the absence of such evils in England, and to make a clear attempt, though an insufficient one, to understand the secret of the English immunity from them. One of the worst curses of France was the taille or capitation-tax, and the way in which it was levied and assessed. In England, Voltaire noticed, the peasant has not his feet bruised in wooden shoes, he eats white bread, is decently clad, is not terrified to increase the number of his stock, or to roof his dwelling with tiles, lest his tax should be raised next year. Again, he placed his finger on one of the circumstances that did most to spoil the growth of a compact and well-knit society in France, when he pointed to the large number of farmers in England with five or six hundred pounds sterling a year, who do not think it beneath them to cultivate the earth which has made them rich, and on which they live in active freedom. De Tocqueville, the profoundest modern investigator of the conditions of French society in the eighteenth century, has indicated the eagerness of every man who got a little capital to quit the country and buy a place in a town, as doing more harm to the progress of the agriculture and commerce of France than even the taille itself and the trade corporations.
Voltaire perceived the astonishing fact that in this country a man because he is a noble or a priest was not exempt from paying certain taxes, and that the Commons, who regulated the taxes, though second to the Lords in rank, were above them in legislative influence. His acute sight also revealed to him the importance of the mixture of ranks and classes in common pursuits, and he records with admiration instances of the younger sons of peers of the realm following trade. “Whoever arrives in Paris from the depths of a remote province with money to spend and a name in ac or ille, can talk about 'a man like me, a man of my quality,' and hold a merchant in sovereign contempt. The merchant again so constantly hears his business spoken of with disdain that he is fool enough to blush for it; yet I am not sure which is the more useful to a state, a thickly-bepowdered lord who knows exactly what time the king rises and what time he goes to bed, and gives himself mighty airs of greatness while he plays the part of a slave in a minister's anteroom; or the merchant who enriches his country, gives orders from his counting-house at Surat or Cairo, and contributes to the happiness of the globe.” It is easy to conceive the fury which these contrasts drawn from English observation would excite among the personages in France who happened to get the worst side in them, and there was assuredly nothing surprising in the decree of the parliament of Paris (1734), which condemned the “Letters on the English” to be publicly burned, as scandalous and contrary alike to good manners and the respect due to principalities and powers.
The English reader of the “Letters” is naturally struck by the absence of any adequate account of our political liberties and free constitutional forms. There is a good chapter on Bacon, one on inoculation, and several on the Quakers, but on the civil constitution hardly a word of large appreciativeness. Not only this, but there is no sign that Voltaire either set any due or special value on the popular forms of the Hanoverian time, or clearly understood that the liberty, which was so amazing and so precious to him in the region of speculative and literary activity, was the direct fruit of that general spirit of freedom, which is naturally engendered in a people accustomed to take an active part in the conduct of its own affairs. Liberty in spirituals was adorable to him, but for liberty in temporals he never seems to have had more than a very distant and verbal kind of respect; just because, with all his unmatched keenness of sight, he failed to discover that the English sturdiness in the matter of civil rights was the very root and cause, not only of that material prosperity which struck him so much, and of the slightness and movableness of the line which divided the aristocracy from the commercial classes, but also of the fact that a Newton and a Locke were inwardly emboldened to give free play to their intelligence without fear of being punished for their conclusions, and of the only less important fact that whatever conclusions speculative genius might establish would be given to the world without interposition from any court or university or official tribunal. Voltaire undoubtedly admired the English for their parliament, because the material and superficial advantages that delighted him were evidently due to the system, which happened to be parliamentary. What we miss is any consciousness that these advantages would not have been what they are, if they had been conferred by an absolute sovereign; any recognition that political activity throughout a nation works in a thousand indirect but most potent ways, and is not more to be prized for this, than for its direct and most palpable consequences. In one place, indeed, he mentions that the honor paid to men of letters is due to the form of government, but his language betrays a wholly inadequate and incorrect notion of the true operation of the form of government. “There are in London,” he says, “about eight hundred people with the right of speaking in public and maintaining the interests of the nation. Some five or six thousand pretend to the same honor in their turn. All the rest set themselves up to judge these, and everybody can print what he thinks. So all the nation is bound to instruct itself. All talk is about the governments of Athens and Rome, and it becomes necessary to read the authors who have discussed them. That naturally leads to love of polite learning.” This is to confound a very trivial accident of popular governments with their essence. If culture thrives under them — a very doubtful position — it is not because voters wish to understand the historical allusions of candidates, but because the general stir and life of public activity tends to commove the whole system. Political freedom does not produce men of genius, but its atmosphere is more favorable than any other to their making the best of their genius in the service of mankind.
Voltaire, in this as in too much besides, was content with a keen and rapid glance at the surface. The reader may remember his story of meeting a boatman one day on the Thames, who seeing that he was a Frenchman, with a too characteristic kind of courtesy, took the opportunity of bawling out, with the added emphasis of a round oath, that he would rather be a boatman on the Thames than an archbishop in France. The next day Voltaire saw his man in prison with irons on and praying an alms from the passers-by, and so asked him whether he still thought as scurvily of an archbishop in France. “Ah, sir,” cried the man, “what an abominable government! I have been carried off by force to go and serve in one of the king's ships in Norway. They take me from my wife and my children, and lay me up in prison with irons on my legs until the time for going on board, for fear I should run away.” A countryman of Voltaire's confessed that he felt a splenetic joy that a people who were constantly taunting the French with their servitude were in sooth just as much slaves themselves; “but for my own part,” says Voltaire, “I felt a humaner sentiment, I was afflicted at there being no liberty on the earth.”
This is well enough as a comment on the abomination of impressment; yet we feel that there is behind it, and not here only but generally in Voltaire, a sort of confusion between two very distinct conceptions, that both in his day and ever since have been equally designated by the common name of civil liberty. The first of these ideas is a mere privative, undoubtedly of sovereign importance, but still a privative, and implies absence, more or less complete, of arbitrary control from without, of interference with individual action by authority, of any pretension on the part of any organized body to hinder any member of the society from doing or abstaining from doing what may seem right in his own eyes, provided he pays a corresponding respect to the freedom of his fellows. Freedom in this sense Voltaire fully understood, and valued as profoundly as it deserves to be valued. Political liberty, however, has not only a meaning of abstention, but a meaning of participation. If in one sense it is a sheer negative, and a doctrine of rights, in another sense it is thoroughly positive, and a gospel of duties. The liberty which has really made England what it so delighted and stimulated and inflamed Voltaire to find her, has been quite as much of the second kind as of the first; that liberty which consists in a national habit of independent and watchful interest in the transaction of the national affairs by the persons most concerned in them; in a general consciousness of the duty of having some opinion on the business of the state; in a recognition on the part of the government that the balance of this opinion is necessary as a sanction to any policy, to which the effective force of the state is applied. It is true that this public participation in public concerns has sometimes been very dark and blind, as it has often been in the highest degree enlightened, but for good or for evil it has been the root of the matter.
It may at first sight be astonishing to find that, while Voltaire was impressed only in a vague and general way with the free variety of theological opinion which Protestantism had secured for England, the sect which made a sort of mark on his mind was that which conceived the idea that Christianity has after all something to do with the type and example of Christ. We know how laughable and monstrous the Quaker scheme has appeared to people who have been steeped from their youth upwards in elaborate systems of abstruse metaphysical dogma, mystic ceremonies, hierarchic ordering, and profuse condemnation of rival creeds. Voltaire's imagination was struck by a sect who professed to regard the religion of Christ as a simple and austere discipline of life, who repudiated ritual, and held war for the worst of anti-Christian practices. The forms and doctrines of the established church of the country he would be likely to take merely for so much of the common form of the national institutions. He would simply regard it as the English way of narrowing the mind and consolidating the social order. Gibbon's famous sentence was not yet written, which described all religions as equally true in the eyes of the people, equally false in the eyes of the philosopher, and equally useful in the eyes of the magistrate. But the idea was the idea of the century, and Voltaire would justly look upon the Anglican profession as a temporarily useful and statesmanlike settlement. He praised its clergy for the superior regularity of their manners. “That indefinable being, who is neither ecclesiastic nor secular, in a word, who is called abbé, is an unknown species in England; the clergy here are all prigs, and nearly all pedants. When they learn that in France young men notorious for their debauchery, and raised to preferment by the intrigues of women, pursue their amours publicly, amuse themselves by the composition of gallant verses, give every day prolonged and luxurious suppers, and rise from them to implore the enlightenment of the holy spirit, boldly calling themselves the successors of the apostles—why, then our English thank God that they are Protestants.”
If, however, in the face of a young and lively French graduate, bawling theology in the schools in the morning and in the evening singing tender songs with the ladies, an Anglican divine is a very Cato, this Cato is a downright gallant before a Scotch Presbyterian, who assumes a grave step and a sour mien, preaches from the nose, and gives the name of harlot of Babylon to all churches in which some of the ecclesiastics are so fortunate as to receive an income of fifty thousand livres a year. However, each man takes whatever road to heaven he pleases. If there were one religion in England, they would have to fear its despotism; if there were only two, they would cut one another's throats; but there are thirty; so they live peaceably and happily together.
In the Quakers Voltaire saw something quite different from the purely political pretensions and internecine quarrels of doctrine of the ordinary worldly sects. It is impossible to say how much of the kindliness with which he speaks of them is due to real admiration of their simple, dignified, and pacific life, and how much to a mischievous desire to make their praise a handle for the dispraise of overweening competitors. On the whole there is a sincerity and heartiness of interest in his long account of this sect, which persuades one that he was moved by a genuine sympathy with a religion that could enjoin the humane and peaceful and spiritual precepts of Christ, while putting away baptism, ceremonial communion, and hierophantic orders. The nobility of the social theories of the Society of Friends would naturally stir Voltaire even more deeply than their abstention from practices that were in his eyes degrading superstitions. He felt that the repugnance to lower the majesty of their deity, by taking his name upon their lips as solemn ratification of their words, had the effect of elevating the dignity of man, by making his bare word fully credible without this solemn ratification. Their refusal to comply with the deferential usages of social intercourse, though nominally based on the sinfulness of signs of homage to any mere mortal, insinuated a consiousness of equality and self-respect in that mere mortal who was careful to make no bows and to keep his hat on in every presence. Above all, Voltaire, who was nowhere more veritably modern or better entitled to our veneration than by reason of his steadfast hatred of war, revered a sect so far removed from the brutality of the military régime as to hold peace for a first principle of the Christian faith and religious practice. “The reason why we do not go to war,” his Quaker says, “is not that we are afraid of death, but because we are not wolves, nor tigers, nor dogs, but Christian men. Our God, who has bidden us love our enemies and suffer evil without complaint, assuredly has no mind that we should cross the sea to go and cut the throats of our brothers, because murderers in red clothes and hats two feet high enlist citizens, making a noise with two little sticks on an ass's skin tightly stretched. And when, after victories won, all London blazes with illuminations, the sky is aflame with rockets, and the air resounds with the din of bells, organs, cannon, we mourn in silence over the slaughter that causes all the public joy.”
Voltaire, let us add, was no dilettante traveller constructing views and deducing theories of national life out of his own uninstructed consciousness. No German could have worked more diligently at the facts, and we may say here, once for all, that if it is often necessary to condemn him for superficiality, this lack of depth seldom at any time proceeds from want of painstaking. His unrivalled brilliance of expression blinds us to the extreme and conscientious industry that provided matter. The most illustrious exile that our free land has received from France in our own times (Hugo), and assuredly far more of a giant in the order of imagination than Voltaire, never had intellectual curiosity enough to learn the language of the country that had given him twenty years of shelter. Voltaire, in the few months of his exile here acquired such an astonishing mastery over English as to be able to read and relish an esoteric book like “Hudibras,” and to compass the enormously difficult feat of rendering portions of it into good French verse. He composed an essay on epic poetry in the English tongue, and he wrote one act of “Brutus” in English.
He read Shakespeare, and made an elaborate study of his method. He declares that Milton does as much honor to England as the great Newton, and he took especial pains not only to master and appreciate the secret of Milton's poetic power, but even to ascertain the minutest circumstances of his life. He studied Dryden, “an author who would have a glory without blemish, if he had only written the tenth part of his works.” He found Addison the first Englishman who had written a reasonable tragedy, and Addison's character of Cato one of the finest creations of any stage. Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Congreve he esteemed more highly than most of their countrymen do now. An act of a play of Lillo's was the base of the fourth act of “Mahomet.” Rochester, Waller, Prior, and Pope, he read carefully and admired as heartily as they deserved. Long after he had left England behind, he places Pope and Addison on a level for variety of genius with Machiavelli, Leibnitz, and Fontenelle; and Pope he evidently for a long while kept habitually by his elbow. Swift he placed before Rabelais, calling him Rabelais in his senses, and, as usual, giving good reasons for his preference; for Swift, he says justly, has not the gayety of Rabelais, but he has all the finesse, the sense, the variety, the fine taste, in which the priest of Meudon was wanting. In philosophy, besides Locke, there is evidence that he read something of Hobbes, and something of Berkeley, and something of Cudworth. Always, however, “harassed, wearied, ashamed of having sought so many truths and found so many chimeras, I returned to Locke; like a prodigal son returning to his father, I threw myself into the arms of that modest man, who never pretends to know what he does not know, who in truth has no enormous possessions, but whose substance is well assured.”
Nor did Voltaire limit himself to the study of science, philosophy, and poetry. He plunged into the field of theology, and mastered that famous deistical controversy, of which the seed had been sown in the first half of the seventeenth century by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the correspondent of Descartes and the earliest of the English metaphysical thinkers. Lord Herbert's object was to disengage from revelation both our conceptions of the one supreme power, and the sanctions of good and bad conduct. Toland, whom we know also that Voltaire read, aimed at disengaging Christianity from mystery, and discrediting the canon of the New Testament. In 1724 Collins published his “Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion,” of which we are told that few books ever made a greater noise than this did at its first publication. The press teemed with vindications, replies, and rejoinders to Collins' arguments during the whole of Voltaire's residence in England. His position was one which no modern free-thinker would dream of making a central point of attack, and which hardly any modern apologist would take the pains to reply to. He maintained that Jesus Christ and the apostles trusted to the prophecies of the Old Testament for their credentials, and then he showed, or tried to show, in various ways, that these prophecies would not bear the weight which was thus laid upon them. We may be sure that Voltaire's alert curiosity would interest him profoundly in the lively polemical ferment which this notable contention of Collins' stirred up.
Woolston's discourses, written to prove that the miracles of the New Testament are as mythical and allegorical as the prophecies of the Old Testament, appeared at the same time, and had an enormous sale. Voltaire was much struck by this writer's coarse and hardy way of dealing with the miraculous legends, and the article on “Miracles” in the “Philosophical Dictionary” shows how carefully he had read Woolston's book. We find references to Shaftesbury and Chubb in Voltaire's letters and elsewhere, though they are not the references of an admirer, and Bolingbroke was one of the most influential and intimate of his friends. It is not too much to say that Bolingbroke was the direct progenitor of Voltaire's opinions in religion, and that nearly every one of the positive articles in Voltaire's rather moderately sized creed was held and inculcated by that brilliant and disordered genius. He did not always accept Bolingbroke's optimism, but even as late in the century as 1767 Voltaire thought it worth while to borrow his name for a volume of compendious attack on the popular religion. Bolingbroke's tone was peculiarly light and peculiarly well-bred. His infidelity was strictly infidelity for the upper classes; ingenious, full of literature, and elegantly supercilious. He made no pretence to theological criticism in any sense that can be gravely admitted, but looked at the claims of revelation with the eye of a polished man of the world, and met its arguments with those general considerations of airy probability which go so far with men who insist on having plausible opinions on all subjects, while they will not take pains to work to the bottom of any.
Villemain's observation, that there is not one of Voltaire's writings that does not bear the mark of his sojourn in England, is specially true of what he wrote against theology. It was the English onslaught which sowed in him the seed of the idea, and eventually supplied him with the argumentative instruments, of a systematic and reasoned attack upon that mass of doctrinal superstition and social abuse, which it had hitherto been the fashion for even the strongest spirits in his own country to do no more than touch with a cool sneer or a flippant insinuation, directed to the private ear of a sympathizer. “Who, born within the last forty years,” cried Burke, “has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Chubb, and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers? Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?” This was very well, but hundreds of thousands of persons born within those last forty years had read Voltaire, and Voltaire had drawn from the armory of these dead and unread Free-thinkers the weapons which he made sharp with the mockery of his own spirit. He stood on the platform which they had constructed to stretch forth his hand against the shrine and the image before which so many credulous generations had bowed down. It was in this most transformed shape among others that at length, late and changed, but directly of descent, the free and protesting genius of the Reformation made its decisive entry into France.
It is easy to cite proofs of the repudiation by Protestant bodies of the Protestant principle, to multiply instances of the narrow rigidity of their dogma, and the intolerance of their discipline. This method supplies an excellent answer as against Protestants who tax Catholics with the crime of persecution, or the crime of opposing intellectual independence. It cannot, however, touch the fact that Protestantism was indirectly the means of creating and dispersing an atmosphere of rationalism, in which there speedily sprang up philosophical, theological, and political influences, all of them entirely antagonistic to the old order of thought and institution. The whole intellectual temperature underwent a permanent change, that was silently mortal to the most flourishing tenets of all sorts. It is futile to ask for a precise logical chain of relations between the beginning of a movement and its end; and there is no more direct and logical connection between the right of private judgment and an experiential doctrine of psychology than there is between experiential psychology and deism. Nobody now thinks that the effect is homogeneous with its cause, or that there is any objective resemblance between a blade of wheat and the moisture and warmth which fill and expand it. All we can see is that the proclamation of the rights of free judgment would tend to substitute reason for authority and evidence for tradition, as the arbiters of opinion; and that the political expression of this change in the civil wars of the middle of the seventeenth century would naturally deepen the influence of the new principle, and produce the Lockeian rationalism of the end of that century, which almost instantaneously extended from the region of metaphysics into the region of theology.
The historian of every kind of opinion, and the student of the great chiefs of intellectual movements, habitually do violence to actual circumstances, by imparting too systematic a connection to the various parts of belief, and by assuming an unreal degree of conscious logical continuity among the notions of individual thinkers. Critics fill in the frame with a completeness and exactitude that had no counterpart in the man's own judgments, and they identify him with a multitude of deductions from his premises, which may be fairly drawn, but which never at all entered into his mind, and formed no part of his character. The philosophy of the majority of men is nothing more shaped and incorporate than a little group of potential and partially incoherent tendencies. To stiffen these into a system of definite formulas is the most deceptive, as it is the most common of critical processes. A few persons, with an exceptional turn for philosophy, consciously embody their metaphysical principles with a certain detail in all the rest of their thinking. With most people, however, even people of superior capacity, the relation between their ground-system, such as a critic might supply them with, and their manifestations of intellectual activity is of an extremely indirect and general kind.
Hence the untrustworthiness of those critical schemata, so attractive for their compact order, which first make Voltaire a Lockeian sensationalist, and then trace his deism to his sensationalism. We have already seen that he was a deist before he came to England, just as Lord Herbert of Cherbury was a deist, who wrote before Locke was born. It was not the metaphysical revolution of Locke which led to deism, but the sort of way in which he thought about metaphysics, a way which was immediately applied to theology by other people, whether assailants or defenders of the current opinions. Locke's was “common-sense thinking,” and the fashion spread. The air was thick with common-sense objections to Christianity, as it was with common-sense ideas as to the way in which we come to have ideas. There was no temperament to which such an atmosphere could be so congenial as Voltaire's, of whom we cannot too often repeat, considering the vulgar reputation he has for violence and excess, that he was in thought the very genius of good sense, whether or not we fully admit M. Cousin's qualification of it as superficial good sense. It has been said that he always speaks of Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza like a man to whom nature has refused the metaphysical sense. At any rate he could never agree with them, and he never tried to find truth by the roads which they had made. It is true, however, that he shows no sign of special fitness for metaphysics, any more than he did for physical science. The metaphysics of Locke lay undeveloped in his mind, just as the theory of evolution lies in so many minds at the present time. There is a faint informal reference of other theories to this central and half-seen standard. When metaphysical subjects came before him, he felt that he had this for a sheet-anchor, and he did not greatly care to keep proving it again and again by continued criticism or examination. The upshot of his acquaintance with Locke was a systematic adherence to common-sense modes of thinking; and he always betrayed the faults and shortcomings to which such modes inevitably lead, when they are brought, to the exclusion of complementary ideas, to the practical subjects that comprehend more than prudence, self-interest, and sobriety. The subject that does beyond any other comprehend more than these elements is religion, and the substantial vices of Voltaire's objections to religion first arose from his familiarity with the English form of deism, and his instinctive feeling for its method.
The deism of Leibnitz was a positive belief, and made the existence of a supreme power an actual and living object of conviction. The mark of this belief has remained on German speculation throughout its course, down to our own day. English deism, on the contrary, was only a particular way of repudiating Christianity. There was as little of God in it as could well be. Its theory was that God had given each man the light of reason in his own breast; that by this reason every scheme of belief must be tried, and accepted or rejected; and that the Christian scheme being so tried was in various ways found wanting. The formula of some book of the eighteenth century, that God created nature and nature created the world, must be allowed to have reduced theistic conception to something like the shadow of smoke. The English eighteenth-century formula was, theistically, nearly as void. The Being who set the reason of each individual on a kind of judicial bench within the forum of his own conscience, and left him and it together to settle belief and conduct between them, was a tolerably remote and unreal sort of personage. His spiritual force, according to such a doctrine, became very much as if it had no existence.
It was not to be expected that a sovereign dwelling in such amazingly remote lands as this would continue long with undisputed authority, when all the negative forces of the time had reached their full momentum. In England the reaction against this strange absentee government of the universe took the form which might have been anticipated from the deep hold that Protestantism had won, and the spirituality which had been engendered by Protestant reference to the relations between the individual conscience and the mystic operations of faith. Deism became a reality with a God in it in the great Evangelical revival, terrible and inevitable, which has so deeply colored religious feeling and warped intellectual growth in England ever since. In France, thought took a very different and much simpler turn. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that it took no turn at all, but carried the godless deism of the English school to its fair conclusion, and dismissed a deity who only reigned and did not govern. The whole movement had a single origin. There is not one of the arguments of the French philosophers in the eighteenth century, says a very competent authority, which cannot be found in the English school of the beginning of the century. Voltaire, who carried the English way of thinking about the supernatural power into France, lived to see a band of trenchant and energetic disciples develop principles which he had planted, into a system of dogmatic atheism. The time came when he was spoken of contemptuously as retrograde and superstitious: “Voltaire est bigot, il est déiste.”