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CHAPTER V.: WAR AGAINST INTOLERANCE. - 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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WAR AGAINST INTOLERANCE.
In examining the Voltairean attack upon religion we have to remember that it was in the first instance prompted, and throughout its course stimulated and embittered, by antipathy to the external organization of the religion. It was not merely disbelief in a creed, but exasperation against a church. Two distinct elements lay at the bottom of Voltaire's enmity to the peculiar form of monotheism which he found supreme around him. One of them was the intellectual element of repugnance to a system of belief that rested on miracles and mysteries irreconcilable with reason, and was so intimately associated with some of the most odious types of character and most atrocious actions in the Old Testament, which undoubtedly contains so many of both. The other was the moral element of anger against the expounders of this system, their intolerance of light and hatred of knowledge, their fierce yet profoundly contemptible struggles with one another, the scandals of their casuistry, their besotted cruelty. Of these two elements, the second was, no doubt, if not the earlier in time, at least the stronger in intensity. It was because he perceived the fruit to be so deadly, that Voltaire laid the axe to the root of the tree. It is easy to say that these poisonous Jesuitries and black Jansenisms were no fruit of the tree, but the produce of a mere graft, which could have been lopped off without touching the sacred trunk. Voltaire thought otherwise, and whether he was right or wrong, it is only just to him to keep constantly before us the egregious failure of Catholicism in his day as a social force. This is a fact as to which there can be no dispute among persons with knowledge enough and mental freedom enough to be competent to have an opinion, and Voltairism can only be fairly weighed if we regard it as being in the first instance no outbreak of reckless speculative intelligence, but a righteous social protest against a system socially pestilent. It was the revival of the worst parts of this system in the cruelty and obscurantism which broke out after the middle of the century, that converted Voltaire into an active assailant of belief. But for that he would pretty certainly have remained tranquilly in the phase of deism of which some of his early verses are the expression. Philosophy is truly, as Callicles says in the Gorgias, a most charming accomplishment for a man to follow at the right age, but to carry philosophy too far is the undoing of humanity.
Voltaire no doubt deliberately set himself to overthrow the Catholic theology, as well as the ecclesiastical system which was bound up with it, and he did so for the very sufficient reason that it has always been impossible for men to become indulgent in act, while they remained fanatical in belief. They will not cease to be persecutors, he said, until they have ceased to be absurd.1 The object was to secure tolerance, and tolerance could only be expected as the product of indifference, and indifference could be spread most surely by throwing the fullest light of reason and common sense on the mystical foundations of revealed religion. To stop short at the inculcation of charity and indulgence was to surrender the cause; for how should the mere homilies of a secular moralist soften those whom the direct injunctions of a deity and his inspired apostles, their own acknowledged masters, failed to make charitable? It was essential that the superstitions in which intolerance had its root should be proved detestable and ridiculous. When men had learned to laugh at superstition, then they would perceive how abominable is the oppressive fanaticism which is its champion.
It is hardly possible to deny the service which Protestantism rendered in preventing the revolution from Catholicism to scientific modes of thought from being that violent, abrupt, and irreconcilable breach, which we now observe in France and Italy, when we remember that the cause of toleration was systematically defended in England by men who as systematically defended the cause of Christianity. The Liberty of Prophesying, in which the expediency of tolerance was based on the difficulty of being sure that we are right, was written by one of the most devout and orthodox divines; while the famous Letters on Toleration (1689), in which the truly remarkable step is taken of confining the functions of civil government to men's civil interests and the things of this world, were the work of the same Locke who vindicated the Reasonableness of Christianity.1 The English Deists pressed home in a very effectual way the deduction of universal freedom of speech from the first maxims of Protestantism, and their inference was practically admitted.2 Hence there was no inseparable association between adherence to the old religious ideas and the prohibition of free speech in spirituals, and on the other hand there was no obligation on the part of those who claimed free speech to attack a church which did not refuse their claim.
In France the strictly repressive policy of the church in the eighteenth century, sometimes bloody and cruel as in the persecution of the Protestants, sometimes minutely vexatious as in the persecution of the men of letters, but always stubborn and lynxeyed, had the natural effect of making it a point of honor with most of those who valued liberty to hurl themselves upon the religious system, of which rigorous intolerance was so prominent a characteristic. The Protestant dilution of the theological spirit seems thus to be in the long run a more effective preparation for decisive abandonment of it than its virulent dissolution in the biting acids of Voltairism, because within limits the slower these great transformations are in accomplishing themselves, the better it is for many of the most precious and most tender parts of human character. Our present contention is that the attitude of the religionists left no alternative. It is best that creeds, like men who have done the work of the day, should die the slow deaths of nature, yet it is counted lawful to raise an armed hand upon the brigand who seeks the life of another.
Voltaire to the end of his course contended that the church only was to blame for the storm which overtook her teaching in the later years, when his own courageous attack had inspired a host of others, less brilliant but not any less embittered, to throw themselves on the reeling enemy. The cause of the inundation of Europe by the literature of negativism and repudiation was to be sought first of all in the fierce theological disputes which revolted the best of the laity. Of this violent revulsion of feeling Voltaire himself was the great organ. He furnished its justification, and nourished its fire, and invested it with a splendid lustre. Even when with the timidity of extreme age he seemed to deprecate the growing ferocity of the attack, he still taunted the clerical party with their own folly in allowing a mean and egotistic virulence to override every consideration of true wisdom and policy. “Now,” he wrote in 1768, “a revolution has been accomplished in the human mind, that nothing again can ever arrest. They would have prevented this revolution, if they had been sage and moderate. The quarrels of Jansenists and Molinists have done more harm to the Christian religion than could have been done by four emperors like Julian one after another.”
It cannot be too often repeated that the Christianity which Voltaire assailed was not that of the Sermon on the Mount, for there was not a man then alive more keenly sensible than he was of the generous humanity which is there enjoined with a force that so strangely touches the heart, nor one who was on the whole, in spite of constitutional infirmities and words which were far worse than his deeds, more ardent and persevering in its practice. Still less was he the enemy of a form of Christian profession which now fascinates many fine and subtle minds, and which starting from the assumption that there are certain inborn cravings in the human heart, constant, profound, and inextinguishable, discerns in the long religious tradition an adequate proof that the mystic faith in the incarnation, and in the spiritual facts which pour like rays from that awful centre, are the highest satisfaction which a divine will has as yet been pleased to establish for all these yearnings of the race of men. This graceful development of belief, emancipated from dogma and reducing so many substantial bodies to pale shades, so many articles once held as solid realities to the strange tenuity of dreams, was not the Christianity of Voltaire's time, any more than it was that of the Holy Office. There was nothing resembling the present popularity of a treatment which gives generals so immense a preponderance over particulars—somewhat to the neglect of the old saying about the snare that lies hidden in generals, many persons being tolerably indifferent about the dolus so long as they can make sure of the latet. He attacked a definite theology, not a theosophy. We may, indeed, imagine the kind of questions which he would have asked of one pressing such a doctrine on his acceptance; how he would have sought the grounds for calling aspirations universal, which the numerical majority of the human race appear to have been without, and the grounds for making subjective yearnings the test and the measure of the truth of definite objective records; how he would have prayed to be instructed of these cravings, whether they spring up spontaneously, or are the products of spiritual self-indulgence, and also of the precise manner in which they come to be satisfied and soothed by the momentary appearance of a humane figure far off upon the earth; how he would have paused to consider the intelligibility of so overwhelming a wonder as the incarnation having been wrought, for the benefit of so infinitesimally small a fragment of mankind. We can imagine this and much else, but Voltaire would never have stirred a finger to attack a mysticism which is not aggressive, and can hardly be other than negatively hurtful.
If any one had maintained against Voltaire that the aspirations after a future life, the longing for some token that the Deity watches over his creatures and is moved by a tender solicitude for them, and the other spiritual desires alleged to be instinctive in men, constitute as trustworthy and firm a guide to truth as the logical reason, we may be sure that he would have forgiven what he must have considered an enervating abnegation of intelligence, for the sake of the humane, if not very actively improving, course of life to which this kind of pietism is wont to lead. He might possibly have entertained a little contempt for them, but it would have been quiet contempt and unspoken. There is no case of Voltaire mocking at any set of men who lived good lives. He did not mock the English Quakers. He doubtless attacked many of the beliefs which good men hold sacred, but if good men take up their abode under the same roof which shelters the children of darkness and wrong, it is not the fault of Voltaire if they are hit by the smooth stones shot from his sling against their unworthy comrades. The object of his assault was that amalgam of metaphysical subtleties, degrading legends, false miracles, and narrow depraving conceptions of divine government which made the starting-point and vantage-ground of those ecclesiastical oppressors, whom he habitually and justly designated the enemies of the human race. The evil and the good, the old purity and the superadded corruptions, were all so inextricably bound up in the Catholicism of the eighteenth century, that it was impossible to deal a blow to the one without risk of harm to the other. The method was desperate, but then the enemy was a true Chimæra, a monster sodden in black corruption, with whom in the breast of a humane man there could be no terms.
The popes during the Voltairean period were above the average in virtue and intelligence, but their power was entirely overshadowed by that wonderful order that had assumed all effective spiritual supremacy for something like two centuries. Nor was this order the only retrogressive influence. The eighteenth century was the century not only of the Sacré Cœur, but of the miracles of the dead Abbé Paris, transactions in which Jansenist emulated Jesuit in dragging men and women into the deepest slough of superstition. A Roman augur fresh from the inspection of the sacrificial entrails would have had a right to despise the priests who invented an object for the adoration of men in the diseased and hideous visions of Marie Alacoque. The man who sells rain to savages may also be held to add to the self-respect of the race, if you contrast him with the convulsionnaires and the fanatics who were transported by their revolting performances.
France is the country where reactions are most rapid and most violent. Nowhere else can the reformer count so surely on seeing the completion of his reform followed so instantly by the triumph of its adversaries. The expulsion of the Jesuits, under circumstances of marked and uncompromising harshness, was not consummated, before the tide of religious bigotry flowed in from the opposite shore, and swelled to a portentous height. The exultation of the philosophers at the coming fall of their old foes was instantly checked by the yet worse things which befell them and their principles at the hands of new enemies. The reign of the Jansenists was speedily pronounced more hateful than the reign of the Jesuits. Various accommodations were possible with heaven, so long as the Jesuits had credit, but the Jansenists were pitiless.
The parliament or supreme judicial tribunal of Paris was Jansenist, mainly out of political hatred of the Jesuits, partly from a hostility, very easily explained, to every manifestation of ultramontane feeling and influence, partly from a professional jealousy of the clergy, but partly also because the austere predestinarian dogma, and the metaphysical theology which brought it into supreme prominence, seem often to have had an unexplained affinity for serious minds trained in legal ideas and their application. The Jesuits had systematically abstained as far as possible from purely speculative theology. Suarez is pronounced one of the greatest writers in speculative ethics and jurisprudence; but in the technical metaphysics of theology the Jesuits with all their literary industry did not greatly care to exercise themselves. Their task was social and practical, and as confessors, directors, preachers, and instructors, they had naturally paid less attention to abstract thought than to the arts of eloquence, address, and pliancy. Then, too, in doctrine they had uniformly clung to the softer, more amiable, more worldly, less repulsive, interpretation of the eternally embarrassing claims of grace, election, free-will. The Augustinian, Calvinistic, or Jansenist view of the impotence of will and the saving importance of grace is the answer of souls eager to feel immediate individual contact with a Supreme Being. The Jesuits and their power represented extremely different sentiments, fundamentally religious, but still fundamentally social also, the desire of men for sympathetic and considerate guidance in conduct, and their craving for such a unity of the external ordering of the faith as should leave them undistracted to live their lives. The former concentrated feelings upon the relations of men directly and immediately with a Supreme Being; the latter upon their relations with this Being only mediately, through their relations with one another, and with the church to which a measure of divinity had been attributed. Hence the decline of the Jesuits assumed the form of a depravation of morals, while the Jansenists held more and more tightly to a narrow and bigoted correctness of belief. The parliament was willing to resist a Molinist archbishop and his satellites, when they refused burial to all who should die without having received a certificate of conformity to the famous bull Unigenitus, which proscribed Jansenist opinion. But none the less for this was it bent on suppressing the common enemy, who despised the bull and the Five propositions, Molina and Jansenius, Archbishop Beaumont and Quesnel, all equally. Voltaire's natural sagacity made him alive to the fact, which perhaps remains as true now as then, that the professional and middle classes are a worse enemy of liberal opinion and are more intolerant than the remnants of the old aristocratic orders. He says to d'Alembert, “You are right in declaring yourself the enemy of the great and their flatterers; still, the great protect one upon occasion, they despise the Infamous, and they will not persecute philosophers; but as for your pedants of Paris, who have bought their office, as for those insolent bourgeois, half fanatics, half imbecile, they can do nothing but mischief.” He had not learnt to look away from both classes, professional and aristocratic alike, to that third estate where the voice of the reformer has always found the first response. Still what he said was true as against the lawyers, whose vision perhaps never extends beyond the improvement of that mere surface of order with which their profession is concerned. The Parliament of Paris was the eager ally of the bigots of the court in 1757, in fulminating deadly edicts against the Encyclopaedia and all concerned in its production or circulation. In 1762, the year of the publication of “Émile” and the “Contrat Social,” not all the influence of Rousseau's powerful protectors could prevent the launching of a decree of arrest against him. Bloodier measures were not wanting.
In 1762 Morellet had published under the title of a Manual for Inquisitors a selection of the most cruel and revolting portions of the procedure of the Holy Office, drawn from the “Directorium Inquisitorium” of Eymeric, a grand inquisitor of the fourteenth century. The cold-blooded cruelties of the regulations, which were thus brought into the light of the eighteenth century, created the most profound sensation among the rapidly increasing adherents of tolerance and humanity. Voltaire was intensely stirred by this resuscitation of horrors that he mistook for dead. It made the same impression upon him, he said, as the bleeding body of Cæsar made upon the men of Rome. But he soon found that it was an error to impute a special cruelty to the spiritual power. Malesherbes, in giving Morellet the requisite permission to print his “Manual,” had amazed his friend by telling him, that though he might suppose he was giving to the world a collection of extraordinary facts and unheard-of processes, yet in truth the jurisprudence of Eymeric and his inquisition was as nearly as possible identical with the criminal jurisprudence of France at that very moment. This was very soon to be proved.
The bigots, infuriated by the blows which were destroying the Jesuits, hunted out against heretical enemies some forgotten portions of this terrible jurisprudence. A Protestant pastor, Rochette, was hanged for exercising his functions in Languedoc. The Catholics on the occasion of the arrest of Rochette were summoned by sound of tocsin, and three young Protestants, who were brothers, fearing massacre in the midst of the agitation, took up their arms: for this offence they were convicted of rebellion, and had their heads struck off. It became painfully clear how great a mistake it was to suppose the clergy touched with some special curse of cruelty. Then, as usually, for good or for evil, they were on about the same moral level with an immense number of laymen, and were not much more than the incarnation of the average darkness of the hour. If Eymeric's procedure only copied the ordinary criminal jurisprudence, the bigotry of the ecclesiastics was accurately reflected in the bigotry of the secular tribunals. The Protestant Calas was broken on the wheel (1762), because his son had been found dead, and some one chose to say that the father had killed him, to prevent him from turning Catholic. There was not the smallest fragment of evidence, direct or indirect, for a single link in the chain of circumstances on which the unfortunate man's guilt depended; while there were many facts which made the theory of his guilt the most improbable that could have been brought forward. The widow and the children of Calas were put to the torture, and eventually fled to Geneva to take refuge with Voltaire. During the same year the same tribunal, the Parliament of Toulouse, did its best to repeat this atrocity in the case of Sirven. Sirven was a Protestant, and his daughter had been with perfect legality snatched away from him, and shut up in a convent, there to be better instructed in the faith. She ran away, and was found at the bottom of a well. Sirven was accused of murdering his daughter, and he only escaped the wheel by prompt flight. His wife perished of misery amid the snows of the Cévennes, and he joined the wretched family of Calas at Geneva, where the same generous man furnished shelter and protection.
In the north of France the fire of intolerance burnt at least as hotly as in the south. At Abbeville a crucifix was found to have been mutilated in the night. Two lads of eighteen, to one of whom Frederick gave shelter in Prussia, were accused under cover of the sacrilege, and La Barre was condemned by the tribunal of Amiens, at the instance of the bishop, to have tongue and right hand cut off, and then be burnt alive; a sentence that was presently commuted by the Parliament of Paris to decapitation (1766). There was no proof whatever that either of the two youths was in any way concerned in the outrage. The bishop of the diocese had issued monitory proclamations, and conducted a solemn procession to the insulted crucifix. The imagination of the town was kindled, and the sacrilege became the universal talk of a people growing more and more excited. Rumor ran that a new sect was being formed, which was for breaking all the crucifixes, which threw the host on the ground and cut it with knives. There were women who declared that they had seen these things. All the horrible stories were revived which had been believed against the Jews in the middle ages. A citizen took advantage of this fierce agitation to gratify a private grudge against a relative of La Barre. He set inquiries on foot among the lowest persons for proof that the youth had been concerned in the original crime. By one means or another he got together material enough to support an indictment. Proceedings once begun, a crowd of informers rose up. It was deposed that La Barre and d'Etallonde had passed within thirty yards of the sacred procession without removing their hats, that La Barre had spoken irreverently of the Virgin Mary, that he had been heard to sing unseemly songs and recite ribald litanies. This testimony, given with a vagueness that ought to have proved it legally valueless, was the fruit of the episcopal monitory, which as at Toulouse in the case of Calas, virtually incited the dregs of the people to bring accusations against their superiors, and menaced a man with the pains of hell if he should refuse to put his neighbor in peril of his life. The tribunal, as excited as the witnesses and the rest of the public, relied on a royal ordinance of 1682, directed against sacrilege and superstition, and designed to put down sorcery. In the sentence inflicting so bloody a punishment, the offence was described as consisting in singing abominable songs against the Virgin Mary. To exact such a penalty for such a delinquency was to make human life a mere plaything for the ignorant passion of the populace and the intellectual confusion of the tribunals.
These atrocities kindled in Voltaire a blaze of anger and pity, that remains among the things of which humanity has most reason to be proud. Everybody who has read much of the French writing of the middle of the eighteenth century is conscious from time to time of a sound of mocking and sardonic laughter in it. This laugh of the eighteenth century has been too often misunderstood as the expression of a cynical hardness of heart, proving the hollowness of the humanitarian pretensions in the midst of which it is heard. It was in truth something very different; it was the form in which men sought a little relief from the monotony of the abominations which oppressed them, and from whose taint they had such difficulty to escape. This refrain, that after all a man can do nothing better than laugh, apparently so shallow and inhuman, in reality so penetrated with melancholy, we may count most certainly on finding at the close of the narration of some more than usually iniquitous or imbecile exploit of those in authority. It was when the thought of the political and social and intellectual degradation of their country became too vivid to be endured, that men like Voltaire and d'Alembert would abruptly turn away from it, and in the bitterness of their impotence cry that there was nothing for it but to take the world and all that befalls therein in merriment. It was the grimacing of a man who jests when he is perishing of hunger, or is shrinking under knife or cautery. Thus d'Alembert having given Voltaire an account of the execution of the unfortunate La Barre, in words that show how intensely his own narrative was afflicting him, suddenly concludes by saying that he will add no more on this auto-da-fé, so honorable to the French nation, for it made him ill-humored, and he meant only to mock at whatever might happen. But Voltaire could not rest thus. The thought of so hateful a crime, perpetrated by a tribunal of justice, clothed him in the shirt of Nessus. All aflame, he wrote to d'Alembert with noble impetuosity:
“This is no longer a time for jesting: witty things do not go well with massacres. What? These Busirises in wigs destroy in the midst of horrible tortures children of sixteen! And that in face of the verdict of ten upright and humane judges! And the victim suffers it! People talk about it for a moment, and the next they are hastening to the comic opera; and barbarity, become the more insolent for our silence, will to-morrow cut throats juridically at pleasure. Here Calas broken on the wheel, there Sirven condemned to be hanged, further off a gag thrust into the mouth of a lieutenant-general, a fortnight after that five youths condemned to the flames for extravagances that deserved nothing worse than Saint Lazare. Is this the country of philosophy and pleasure? It is the country rather of the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Why, the Inquisition would not have ventured to do what these Jansenist judges have done.” When he had received d'Alembert's letter, ending as we have seen, his remonstrance waxed vehement: “What, you would be content to laugh? We ought rather to resolve to seek vengeance, or at any rate to leave a country where day after day such horrors are committed…. No, once more, I cannot bear that you should finish your letter by saying, I mean to laugh. Ah, my friend, is it a time for laughing? Did men laugh when they saw Phalaris' bull being made red-hot?”
This revival in the tribunals of Paris and the provincial towns alike, of the ignorant fanaticism and the unscientific jurisprudence of the most unenlightened times, was the more bitter and insupportable from the new light which shone around such horrors. Beccaria's treatise “On Offences and Penalties” had just been translated into French by Morellet, and furnished a strange commentary upon the atrocities of Toulouse and Abbeville. It seemed, men said, as if at every striking vindication of the rights of humanity the genius of cruelty broke its chains, and, to prove the futility of all such vindications, inspired new acts of barbarism and violence. The philosophic group had yielded to a premature exultation, and in their inexperience supposed that they who planted the tree should see the gathering-in of the fruit. The reign of reason was believed to be close at hand, and this belief made the visible recrudescence of fanatical unreason signally unsupportable. It is a high honor to Voltaire and his disciples that the trial did not prove too strong for their faith, and that when they saw how far too sanguine they had been, they were more astonished than they were discouraged, and their energy redoubled with the demands made upon it. The meaner partisans of an orthodoxy which can only make wholly sure of itself by injustice to adversaries, have always loved to paint the Voltairean school in the character of demons, enjoying their work of destruction with a sportive and impish delight. They may have rejoiced in their strength so long as they cherished the illusion that those who first kindled the torch should also complete the long course and bear the lamp to the goal. When the gravity of the enterprise showed itself before them, they remained alert with all courage, but they ceased to fancy that courage necessarily makes men happy. The mantle of philosophy was rent in a hundred places, and bitter winds entered at a hundred holes, but they only drew it the more closely around them. At the very last Voltaire seems to have seen something of the vast space which every ray of light has to traverse before it reaches the eye of the common understanding. “I now perceive,” he wrote the year before his death, “that we must still wait three or four hundred years. One day it cannot but be that good men win their cause; but before that glorious day arrives how many disgusts have we to undergo, how many dark persecutions, without reckoning the La Barres, of whom from time to time they will make an auto-da-fé.” To speak thus was to recognize the true character of the revolution, and the many elements which go to the transformation of an old society. To speak thus, too, was to mark the true character of the sincere lover of human progress, the soul of steadfast patience and strong hope, mingled with many a pang for the far-off and slowcoming good.
It was a natural thing to identify the Jesuits with the strongest part of the old society, because their organization was both the strongest and most striking of its external supports. Their suppression, though not to be dispensed with except on the condition of an ultimate overthrow of morality and an extinction of intellectual light, had one effect which the statesmen of the time could hardly be expected to see, and which has not been enough considered. Just as the papacy by the fourteenth century had become more and more exclusively a temporal power, so the Jesuits by the middle of the eighteenth had become more and more a commercial power. They were a powerful trading corporation, and it was as merchants, rather than as casuists and directors of conscience, that they finally came into collision with secular authority in France, Portugal, and Spain. Now since the revival of the order it has been exclusively engaged in the contest for spiritual supremacy, and for as much of temporal power as has seemed essential to its security. This, however, is only one of the evils which counterbalance the advantages of every progressive measure; for, alas, when the statesman believes most confidently that he has advanced by a league, a very few years show him or others that his league was after all no more than an ell or two.
The reactionary outburst of fanaticism for which the humiliation of the Jesuits was a signal, only showed how well founded the Voltairean allegations as to the depraving effects of the existing system of religion had really been. It was the verification of all that Voltaire ever said against the system, and demonstrated both the virulence and the tenacity of the influences which Catholicism in the days of its degradation had exerted over the character of the nation. It was most illogical to expect a people who had been bred in the Catholic tradition suddenly to welcome its enemies. If Catholicism had trained men up to the temper which seeks the light and loves it, how should it have deserved animosity? Nearly all lovers of improvement are apt in the heat of a generous enthusiasm to forget that if all the world were ready to embrace their cause, their improvement could hardly be needed. It is one of the hardest conditions of things that the more numerous and resolute the enemies of reform, then the more unmistakably urgent the necessity for it. It was just because the cruelty, persecution, and darkness, in the last ten years of the reign of Louis XV. were things possible, that the onslaught upon Catholicism was justifiable and praiseworthy. They showed the depth and strength of the forces of the old society, and they foreshadowed the violence which marked its dissolution. If people had remembered in 1789 how few years separated them from the wide-spread fanaticism which darkened the last days of Voltaire, they might have calculated better how few years separated them from the Napoleonic Concordat.
No permanent transformation of a society, we may be sure, can ever take place until a transformation has been accomplished in the spiritual basis of thought. Voltaire may have distinctly seen this and formulated it to himself, or not; in any case, he steered his own course exactly as he would have done if he had seen it. As M. Guizot expresses it, the separation between the spiritual and temporal orders was never real in Europe except in the eighteenth century, when for the first time the spiritual order developed itself entirely apart from the temporal order. Thus Voltaire acquiesced without murmur or reproach in the conditions of political absolutism, and the disgrace and ruin which the nullity of the government brought upon his country in the Seven Years' War, keenly as he felt it, yet provoked no thought of temporal changes. His correspondence in that fatal time is marked by a startling apathy about public events, and even Rossbach seems not to move him to seek its causes. If we compare his joyful enthusiasm at the accession of Turgot to power in 1774, we can have no doubt that this strange numbness of feeling was only the silence of a wise man despairing of saying or seeing anything useful, and not the criminal folly of a bad citizen to whom the welfare of his country is not dear. The disasters of France were as serious to him as to any one else, as may be plainly seen under the assumed philosophy with which his vivacious spirit loved to veil real feeling; but the impossibility of doing anything, even of taking a part in the process with which we English are so familiar as the forming of public opinion, drove him for consolation to the field where he was certain of doing efficient work. Writing in 1761, a year of crushing national loss, he says to one of the oldest and most intimate of his correspondents: “There is nothing to laugh at in all this. I am struck to the heart. Our only resource is in the promptest and most humiliating peace. I always fancy, when some overwhelming disaster arrives, that the French will be serious for six weeks. I have not yet been able to disabuse myself of this notion.” Voltaire was penetrated by the spirit of action, and he perceived and regretted that the organization of France did not permit of the effective action of private individuals in the field of politics. There are lines in the “Henriade” extolling the freedom of England, and he sometimes indulges in the commonplaces of a literary republicanism; but turning to the portion of his works which his editors have classified as political, we scarcely find much beyond the documents, and they are important and interesting enough, still not truly political, that relate to the various affairs of Calas, La Barre, and others, in which he exposed the atrocities of the tribunals. So far as they come into the region of politics at all, it is only to assail the overt and direct injustice done to society by the institutions, privileges, and pretensions of the Church. He constantly attacks in a great variety of forms the material mischief inflicted on society by the vast numbers of monks, mendicant or other; their unproductive lives, the burden of their maintenance weighing upon more industrious subjects, the restriction of population occasioned by their celibacy. The direct refusal of the clergy in 1750 to consent to pay their share of the taxes like other citizens, though owning as much as a fifth of all the property in the realm, moved him to insist in a vigorous pamphlet that the distinction in a kingdom between spiritual and temporal powers is a relic of barbarism; that it is monstrous to permit a body of men to say, Let those pay who work, we ought not to pay because we are idle; that superstition inevitably tends to make bad citizens, and therefore princes ought to protect philosophy which destroys superstition.
Voltaire's task, however, was never directly political, but spiritual, to shake the foundations of that religious system which professed to be founded on the revelation of Christ. Was he not right? If we find ourselves walking amid a generation of cruel and unjust and darkened spirits, we may be assured that it is their beliefs on what they deem highest that have made them so. There is no counting with certainty on the justice of men who are capable of fashioning and worshipping an unjust divinity, nor on their humanity so long as they incorporate inhuman motives in their most sacred dogma, nor on their reasonableness which they rigorously decline to accept reason as a test of truth.
It is necessary to admit from the point of view of impartial criticism, that Voltaire had one defect of character, of extreme importance in a leader of this memorable and direct attack. With all his enthusiasm for things noble and lofty, generous and compassionate, he missed the peculiar emotion of holiness, the soul and life alike of the words of Christ and Saint Paul, that indefinable secret of the long hold of mystic superstition over so many high natures, otherwise entirely prepared for the brightness of the rational day. From this impalpable essence which magically surrounds us with the mysterious and subtile atmosphere of the unseen, changing distances and proportions, adding new faculties of sight and purpose, extinguishing the flames of disorderly passion in a flood of truly divine aspiration, we have to confess that the virtue went out in the presence of Voltaire. “To admire Voltaire,” cried a man who detested him, “is the sign of acorrupt heart, and if anybody is drawn to his works, then be very sure that God does not love such a one.” The truth of which that is so vehement a paraphrase amounts to this, that Voltaire has said no word, nor even shown an indirect appreciation of any word said by another, which stirs or expands the emotional susceptibility, indefinite exultation, and far-swelling inner harmony, which de Maistre and others have known as the love of God, and for which a better name, as covering most varieties of form and manifestation, is holiness, deepest of all the words that defy definition. Through the affronts which his reason received from certain pretensions both in the writers and in some of those whose actions they commemorated, this sublime trait in the Bible, in both portions of it, was unhappily lost to Voltaire. He had no ear for the finer vibrations of the spiritual voice.
This had no concern in the fact that he hated and despised, and was eager that others should hate and despise, the religious forms that ruled France in his day. The Christianity which he assailed was as little touched as Voltairism itself with that spirit of holiness which poured itself around the lives and words of the two founders, the great master and the great apostle. The more deeply imbued a man was with this spirit, the more ardently would he crave the demolition of that Infamous in belief and in practice, which poisoned the stream of holiness in its springs, and shed pestilence along its banks, and choked its issues in barrenness and corruption.
The point where the failure of this quality in Voltaire was especially a source of weakness to his attack, is to be found in the crippling of his historic imagination, and the inability which this inflicted upon him of conceiving the true meaning and lowest roots of the Catholic legend. The middle age between himself and the polytheism of the empire was a parched desert to him and to all his school, just as to the Protestant the interval between the apostles and Luther is a long night of unclean things. He saw only a besotted people led in chains by a crafty priesthood; he heard only the unending repetition of records that were fictitious, and dogmas that drew a curtain of darkness over the under standing. Men spoke to him of the mild beams of Christian charity, and where they pointed he saw only the yellow glare of the stake; they talked of the gentle solace of Christian faith, and he heard only the shrieks of the thousands and tens of thousands whom faithful Christian persecutors had racked, strangled, gibbeted, burned, broken on the wheel. Through the steam of innocent blood which Christians for the honor of their belief had spilled in every quarter of the known world, the blood of Jews, Moors, Indians, and all the vast holocausts of heretical sects and people in eastern and western Europe, he saw only dismal tracts of intellectual darkness, and heard only the humming of the doctors, as they served forth to congregations of poor men hungering for spiritual sustenance the draff of theological superstition.
This vehement and blinding antipathy arose partly from the intense force with which the existing aspect of Catholicism recalled all that was worst, and shut out all that was best in its former history. One cannot fairly expect the man who is in the grip of a decrepit tyrant, to do absolutely full justice to the seemly deeds and gracious promises of his tormenter's youth. But partly also this blindness arose from the fact that Voltaire measured the achievements of Catholicism by the magnitude of its pretensions. He took its supernatural claims seriously, and his intelligence was exasperated beyond control by the amazing disproportion and incongruity between these claims and the most conspicuous of the actual results. Those who have parted company with a religion, as Voltaire had parted company with Christianity, can only be counted upon to award the well-earned praise to its better part, after they have planted themselves stably on the assumption that the given religion is a human and natural force like another.
The just, historic calm on which our modern prides himself, is only possible in proportion to the mature completeness with which he takes for granted, and believes that those to whom he speaks will take for granted, the absence of supernatural intervention in the processes of religious action and development. He is absolutely undisturbed by the thought of that claim, which was omnipotent until Voltaire came to do deadly battle with it, of Christianity to be a crowning miracle of divine favor, which should raise men to be only a little lower than the angels, and should be the instrument for pouring out upon them an ever-flowing stream of special and extraordinary grace. It is not until the idea has dropped out of our minds of the great fathers of the Church as saints, that we are free to perceive what services they rendered as statesmen, and it is only when men have ceased to dispute whether Christianity was a revelation, that they have eyes to see what services it has rendered as a system. But in Voltaire's time, if Catholicism was justified historically, it was believed dogmatically, and therefore was to be attacked dogmatically also. The surrender of the written legend has never hindered its champions from taking ground which implied some esoteric revelation, that proves to be some special interpretation of the written legend. So long as the thinker is busy disproving the position that a man who happens to live on a certain part of the globe is a being of such singular and exceptional consequence in the universe as to be held worthy by supreme heavenly powers of receiving a miraculous message and the promise of this and that unspeakable privilege in indescribable worlds to come, so long he is not likely to weigh very fairly the effects of the belief in such power, messages, and privileges, on the education and advancement of this world. The modern historic justice which is done to Catholicism is due to the establishment of a series of convictions that civilization is a structure which man by his own right arm has raised for himself, that it has been exposed to many an era of storm and stress, and to manifold influences which have been perpetually destroying portions of the great edifice, adding fresh parts, modifying the old, by an interminable succession of changes, resounding and volcanic, or still and imperceptible; that the danger of destruction was never so terrible as in the days of the dissolution of the old Roman society; that in this prolonged crisis the Christian Church emerged, first by its organization and the ability of some of its chiefs, and next by the attraction of legends that harmonized with the needs of a dark, confused, and terror-stricken time; that the many barbarous and absurd articles of belief incorporated in the Christian profession by the sophists of the East, received from time to time humane modification in the hands of the wiser churchmen of the West, whose practical judgment was perpetually softening down the crude, savage, unilluminated doctrines which had naturally sprung up in the dismal age when the Catholic system acquired substance and shape. A just recognition of all these things is only easy to one whose expectations from humanity are moderate, who perceives how tardy and difficult is the accomplishment of each smallest step in the long process, and how helpful are even the simplest beliefs of rude times in transforming men from vagrant animals into beings with a consciousness of fixed common relations towards some object of common worship, and so planting the first germs of social consolidation and growth.
Voltaire was, from the circumstances in which he was placed, too busy proving the purely human origin of Catholicism to have a mind free to examine how much, if we suppose it to be of purely human origin, it has done for those who accepted it. Perhaps we ought rather to praise than blame him for abstaining from planting himself at the historic point of view, before settling the previous question whether the historic point of view is permitted in considering the religious movements of Europe. Until Voltaire and others had divested the current religion of its supernatural pretensions, it was impossible for any thinker, who declines to try to take the second step before he has already taken the first, to survey the operations of such a religion as a merely secular force. This surely is a field of thought where no serious inquirer could content himself with a mere working hypothesis. If the supernatural claims of Catholicism are well founded, then the historic method of treating it is either a frivolous diversion or else a grave and mischievous heresy. The issue being of this moment, everybody who studies the philosophy of history with effect must have made up his mind in one way or the other. Voltaire had made up his mind very definitely, and the conclusion to which, for adequate or inadequate reasons, he came in this matter was one of the most influential agencies in preparing men's minds for the construction and general reception of a sounder historical philosophy than was within his own reach. That he did not see the deduction from his work is a limitation of vision that he shares with most of the men to whom it has fallen to overthrow old systems, and clear the ground on which the next generation has raised new.
Having said thus much on the general causes and conditions of Voltaire's attack, we may next briefly examine his method. A brief examination suffices, because, like all his contemporaries, he was so very imperfectly acquainted with the principles of scientific criticism, and because his weapons, though sharp and deadly enough for their purpose, are now likely to become more and more thoroughly antiquated. In criticism he was, as has often been remarked, the direct descendant of Bayle. That is, his instruments were purely literary and dialectical. He examined the various sacred narratives as if he had been reviewing a contemporary historian. He delights in the minute cavils of literary Pyrrhonism, and rejoices in the artifice of imposing the significance of the letter, where his adversaries strove for interpretation of the spirit. As if, for instance, anything could be more childish than to attack baptism by asking whether Christianity consists in throwing water on the head, with a little salt in it. He is perfectly content with the exposure of a fallacy in words, without seeking to expose the root fallacy of idea. Nothing short of the blindest partisanship can pretend to find in this a proper or adequate method. The utmost that can be said, and no just historian ought to forget to say it, is that it was not more improper nor inadequate than the orthodox method of defence. Bayle's commentary on the words, “Compel them to come in,” would not satisfy the modern requirements of scriptural exegesis, but it was quite good enough to confound those who contended that the text was a direct warrant and injunction from heaven for the bitterest persecution on earth. But the unfair parry of unfair thrust, extenuate it as we may, count it inevitable as we may, even reckoning up such advantages from it as we can, and in the present case they were enormous, can never be any pattern or masterpiece of retort; and it is folly to allow admiration for the social merit of Voltaire's end to blind us to the logical demerit of his means. It is deliberately to throw away the advantage of our distance from the contest, and to sell for a momentary self-indulgence in the spirit of party the birthright of a free and equitable historic vision. Let men not fail to do justice to the gains of humanity won by the emancipation of the eighteenth century; but we shall be worse off than if they had never been transmitted, if they are allowed to bind us to approve of every detail of the many movements by which the final triumph was obtained.
The key to his method of attack is given us in a sentence in one of his letters to d'Alembert. “It is never by means of metaphysics,” he says, “that you will succeed in delivering men from error; you must prove the truth by facts.” In other words, the sublime abstract reasoning of a Spinoza will do far less to dispel the narrow ideas, unfounded beliefs, and false restrictive conceptions which cripple the human intelligence so long as it is in bondage to a theological system, than a direct disproval of the alleged facts on which the system professes to rest. It is only by dealing immediately with these that you can make the repulse of error a real question, substantially interesting to ordinary men. Always remembering that Voltaire's intelligence was practical rather than speculative, and, besides this, that from the time when he commenced his attack in earnest the object which he had at heart was the overthrow of a crushing practical institution, we may agree that in such a humor and with such a purpose the most effective way of harassing so active and pestilent a foe was to carry the war into the enemy's quarters, and to use those kinds of arguments which the greatest number of men would be likely to find cogent. We may complain that Voltaire never rises from the ground into the region of the higher facts of religion; and this is quite true. It would have been controversially futile if he had done so. There was no audience in those times for the discussion of the higher facts; and the reason of this was that the spiritual instructors and champions themselves thrust into the front place legends, miracles, and the whole of the peculiarly vulgar part of the theological apparatus, which it would have been as absurd to controvert metaphysically, as it would be to try to elevate a Gold-coast negro from his fetish worship by the transcendental parts of Plato.
It nearly always happens that the defenders of a decaying system, when they find themselves surrounded by the wholly uncongenial atmosphere of rationalistic method, fall back, not on the noblest, but on the ignoblest parts of their system. Distressed by the light, they shrink hurriedly into darkest recesses of the familiar caves, partly because they have a sense of especial security in a region that they know so well, and partly because they have misgivings lest the surrender of articles or practices in which they only half believe, should by too stringent process of logical compulsion lead to the destruction of others in which they believe with all their hearts. Such tactics may or may not be politic, but we can at least be quite certain that they tend neither to elevation of religion, nor discovery of truth, nor profit and sincerity of discussion. If a set of doctrines be attacked from many quarters in an unworthy manner, and taken at their worst instead of at their best, we may be quite sure that this is as much due to the defenders as to the assailants. It was not Voltaire's fault that the controversy turned on issues which a more modern opponent would not care to dispute. He is constantly flippant and trivial, and constantly manifests gross irreverence, but it was the writers whom he was combating, writers like Sanchez of the Stercorists, who had opened frivolous and unbecoming questions that could hardly be exposed with gravity. He was making war on an institution, and it was not his concern to fight on ground which his adversary had never thought, and was too blind and demoralized to be able to think, of taking up. It was not his fault that the upholders of the creed he attacked made a stand upon the letter of sacred documents, upon prophecy and miracle and special intervention, upon the virtues of relics and the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius. The same wise man who forbade us to answer a fool according to his folly, also enjoined upon us to answer a fool according to his folly, and the moral commentator agrees that each prescription is as sage as its contradictory.
If truth means anything it was worth while to put to rout the distortions of truth with which the Church lowered the understanding of its votaries. If truth means anything, then it was worth while to reply to the allegation that the history of the Christian Church is a long witness of the goodness of heaven and the ever-present guidance of its heavenly founder, by a record of the actual facts; of the simplicity, equality, absence of multiplied rites, orders, and dogmas, among the primitive members of the congregation, and of the radical differences between the use of apostolic times and of times since; of the incurable want of authority for all those tales of demons being cast out, pious inscriptions in letters of gold found graven on the hearts of martyrs, and the rest, which grow rare in proportion as we draw nearer to the times when the evidence for them would have been preserved; of the infamous character of many Christian heroes, from Constantine downwards, and of the promptitude with which the Christians, as soon as ever they had power, dyed their hands in the blood of their persecutors; of the stupefying circumstances that after a revelation was made to the human race by no less a prodigy than the incarnation of supreme power in a mortal body, and the miraculous maintenance of this event and its significance in the tradition, doctrine, and discipline of the Catholic church, yet the whole of Asia, the whole of Africa, all the possessions of the English and Dutch in America, all the uncivilized Indian tribes, all the southern lands, amounting to one-fifth part of the globe, still remain in the clutches of the demon, to verify that holy saying of many being called but few chosen.
It may be said that this kind of argument really proves nothing at all about the supernatural origin or character of the Christian revelation, for which you must seek the responses not of ecclesiastical history but of the human heart. And that may be a fair thing to say, but then this contention of the new revelation being only a message to the heart has only been heard since Voltaire thrust aside the very different contention of his day. Those various beliefs were universally accepted about the progress of the Church, which were true in no sense whatever, literal or spiritual, mystical or historical. People accepted traditions and records, sacred and profane, as literal, accurate, categorical declarations and descriptions of a long series of things done and suffered. Moreover, the modern argument in favor of the supernatural origin of the Christian religion, drawn from its suitableness to our needs and its divine response to our aspirations, must be admitted by every candid person resorting to it to be of exactly equal force in the mouth of a Mahometan or a fire-worshipper or an astrolater. If you apply a subjective test of this kind, it must be as good for the sincere and satisfied votaries of one creed, as it is for those of
any other. The needs and aspirations of the Mahometan would not be satisfied by fetishism or polytheism, nor those of the developed polytheist by totem worship. It would be ridiculous for so small a minority of the race as the professors of Christianity to assume that their aspirations are the absolute measure of those of humanity in every stage. The argument can never carry us beyond the relativity of religious truth.
Now the French apologist a hundred years ago dealt in the most absolute possible matter. Christianity to him meant a set of very concrete ideas of all sorts; any one who accepted them in the concrete and literal form prescribed by the Church would share infinite bliss, and any one who rejected them, whether deliberately or from never having been so happy as to hear of them, would be infinitely tormented. If this theory be right, then Voltaire must naturally be abhorred by all persons who hold it, as a perverse and mischievous hinderer of light. If it be wrong, and we must observe that from its terms this is not one of the marvellously multiplying beliefs of which we hear that they may be half wrong and half right, then Voltaire may take rank with other useful expellers of popular error. Everybody must admit how imperfect is all such treatment of popular error; how little rich, how little comprehensive, how little full. Yet the surgeon who has couched his patient's cataract has surely done a service, even if he do not straightway carry him to enjoy the restored faculty on some high summit of far and noble prospect.
Voltaire's attack was essentially the attack of the English deists, as indeed he is always willing enough to admit, pursued with far less gravity and honest search for truth, but, it is hardly necessary to say, with far more adroitness, rapidity, and grace of manner than any of them, even than Bolingbroke. As we have seen, he insisted on throwing himself upon the facts in the records that are least easily reconciled with a general sense of probability and evidence, as gradually developed in men by experience. He placed the various incidents of the Bible, the interpretation of them by the Church, the statement of doctrine, the characters of prominent actors, in the full light of common experience and of the maxims which experience has made second nature. “I always speak humanly,” he says mockingly, “I always put myself in the place of a man who, having never heard tell either of Jews or Christians, should read these books for the first time, and not being illuminated by grace, should be so unhappy as to trust unaided reason in the matter, until he should be enlightened from on high.”
It is superfluous to detail the treatment to which he subjected such mysteries of the faith as the inheritance of the curse of sin by all following generations from the first fall of man; the appearance from time to time, among an obscure oriental tribe, of prophets who foretold the coming of a divine deliverer, who should wash away that fatal stain by sacrificial expiation; the choice of this specially cruel, treacherous, stubborn and rebellious tribe, to be the favored people of a deity of spotless mercy and truth; the advent of the deliverer in circumstances of extraordinary meanness and obscurity among a generation that greeted his pretensions with incredulity, and finally caused him to be put to death with ignominy, in spite of his appeal to the prophets and to the many signs and wonders which he wrought among them; the rising of this deliverer from the dead, the ascription to him in the course of the next three or four centuries of claims which he never made in person, and of propositions which he never advanced while he walked on the earth, yet which must now be accepted by every one who would after death escape a pitiless torment without end; the truly miraculous preservation amid a fiery swarm of heresies, intricate, minute, subtle, barely intelligible, but very soul-destroying, of that little fragile thread of pure belief which can alone guide each spirit in the divinely appointed path. Exposed to the light, which they were never meant to endure, of ordinary principles of evidence founded on ordinary experience, the immortal legends, the prophecies, the miracles, the mysteries, on which the spiritual faith of Europe had hung for so many generations, seemed to shrivel up in unlovely dissolution. The authenticity of the texts on which the salvation of man depends, the contradictions and inconsistencies of the documents, the incompatibility between many acts and motives expressly approved by the holiest persons, and the justice and mercy which are supposed to sit enthroned on high in their bosoms, the forced constructions of prophecies and their stultifying futility of fulfilment, the extraordinary frivolousness of some of the occasions on which the divine power of thaumaturgy was deliberately and solemnly exerted,—these were among the points at which the messenger of Satan at Ferney was permitted sorely to buffet the Church. What is the date of the Apostles' Creed? What of the so-called Athanasian Creed? How were the seven sacraments instituted one after another? What was the difference between the synaxis and the mass? And so forth through many hundreds of pages.
Along with rationalistic questions in scriptural and ecclesiastical history, are many more as to doctrine, and the assumption on which doctrine rests; questions as to the Trinity, as to redemption by the shedding of innocent blood, as to the daily miracle of transubstantiation, as to the resurrection of the body, as to the existence of an entity called soul independently of that matter which, apart from miracle, seems an inseparable condition of its manifestation. His arguments on all these subjects contain a strange mixture of shallow mockery and just objection. The questions which he suggests for the doctors as to the resurrection of the body may serve for an example. Among them are these:
“A Breton soldier goes to Canada. It happens by a not uncommon chance that he falls short of food; he is forced to eat a piece of an Iroquois whom he has killed over night. The Iroquois had fed on Jesuits for two or three months, a great part of his body had thus become Jesuit. So there is the body of the soldier with Iroquois, Jesuit, and whatever he had eaten before, entering into it. How then will each resume exactly what belongs to him?” “In order to come to life again, to be the same person you were, you must have a lively and present recollection; it is memory that makes your identity. Having lost memory, how are you to be the same man?” Again, “considering that only certain material elements are proper for the composition of the human body, where is earth enough to be found to remake all the bodies needed for so many hundreds of generations? And supposing that by a prodigious miracle the whole human race could be resuscitated in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where are all the spirits meanwhile?”
Another very favorite mode of approaching the beliefs, incidents, and personages of Jewish and Christian history was to show that they had counterparts in some pagan fables or systems, in the books of Chinese philosophers or Brahminical sages. The inference from this identity or correspondence between some Judaical practices and myths, and the practices and myths of Arabians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hindoos, was that they were in all cases equally the artificial creations of impostors preying on the credulity of men, “the first prophet or diviner having been the first rogue who met the first fool.” It is curious to observe how the modern argument from constantly extending discoveries in comparative mythology tends to the demolition of the special pretensions of Judaical myths of all sorts, by the very opposite inference to that on which the Voltairean school rested. Voltaire urged that as these myths resembled one another in this and that important feature, therefore they were all equally spurious, false, and absurd. The modern, on the contrary, would hold them all equally genuine, equally free from the taint of imposture in priest or people, and equally faithful representations of the mental states which produced and accepted them. The weakening of the particular sanctity and objective reality of any one form of these common primitive ways of thinking about the action of non-human agents would be just as strong, whether we take the new or the old view of the generation of myths, but the difference of the effect of the two views upon the justice and fertility of historic spirit is immeasurable. There is no sign, however, that Voltaire was ever seriously conscious of the importance of a right consideration of the mental conditions of primitive peoples. This study had been commenced in his own time by de Brosses, the inventor of the term fetishism, and pronounced by competent modern authorities to have been a powerful and original thinker upon the facts of the infancy of civilization. Yet Voltaire treated the speculations of this industrious inquirer with the same ignorant contempt and scorn that the theological enemies of geology were once accustomed to bestow on men who chipped bits of rock and cherished fossils. Oddly enough, Voltaire's carelessness and want of thought on these matters left him with that very theory of the nature of the development of cultivation, on which the theological school insists to this day as against the scientific ethnologists. The question is whether the earliest men were savages, or partially civilized; in other words, whether civilization has consisted in a certain uniform progression from a state a little above the brutes, or whether the savage is not a being who has degenerated from a partial degree of civilization. The progression theory was no doubt in a general way a characteristic doctrine of the men of the eighteenth century, for which de Maistre, an ardent and most ingenious advocate of the degeneration theory, reviled them with his usual heartiness. Yet his eagerness to depress revelation by exalting natural theology led Voltaire to the essentially theological position that the earliest men had a clear and lofty idea of a Supreme Being, and a ready appreciation of justice and charity in their relations with one another, until the vile ambition of priestly and prophetic impostors succeeded in setting upon their necks the yoke of systems which corrupted the heart and conscience, and sophisticated a pure and simple faith.
He did not hold that men were conscious of the one God as they were conscious of light, or that they had perceptions of such a being, as they had perceptions of the ground they tilled. The idea was derived by process of natural logic from the contemplation of astonishing natural effects, of harvest and dearth, of fair days and tempests, of benefactions and scourges. They saw all these things and felt the work of a master. Just as in each community there were men who by the force of their reason found out that triangles with the same base and of the same height are equal, and others who in sowing and reaping and tending their flocks perceived that the sun and moon returned pretty nearly to the point from which they had started, and that they never travelled beyond a certain limit to north or south, so there was a third man who considered that men, animals, stars could not have made themselves, and who saw that therefore a Supreme Being must exist; while a fourth, struck by the wrongs that men inflicted on one another, concluded that if there exists a being who made the stars, the earth and men, such a being must confer favor on the virtuous, and punishments on the wicked. This idea, Voltaire declares, is so natural and so good that it was most readily embraced. The various forms of revelations were only so many corruptions of that simple, serviceable, and self-proving monotheism, and so were the conceptions of polytheism. He had no notion that monotheism is a later development of the theological spirit than polytheism. Unable to deny that the Greeks and the Romans, about whom he knew so little and talked so much, had plurality of gods, he drew a distinction between one Supreme Being and all the rest, and contended that you may search all their records in vain for a single fact or a single word to counterbalance the many passages and monuments which attest their belief of the sovereignty of the one deity and his superiority over all the rest. We do not know whether this was a fortuitous kind of growth in his own mind, or whether it was a scrap of recollection from the painstaking pages in which Cudworth had worked at the establishment of that explanation of polytheism. Voltaire too often writes on these weighty subjects, as if trusting to a memory that snatched effectively at plausible theories, while losing much of their evidence and all their deeper bearings.
It would be not a little extraordinary, if we did not constantly remember that Voltaire's strength did not lie in speculation or systematic thought, that he saw none of the objections to this account of things, and that he was content with so limited an observation of the facts. If de Brosses had magnanimously suffered himself to be cheated in the transaction of the fourteen cords of wood, Voltaire would perhaps have read his book candidly, and if he had read it otherwise than with a foregone resolution to despise it, he would have come upon a number of circumstances entirely fatal to his smooth theory that many gods are always subordinate to the one, because he would have had to consider those states of the human mind in which there are no spiritual gods at all, but in which every object whatever is invested with volition and power. In one place he shows something like a recognition of the true nature of the process. “I have always been persuaded,” he says in a letter to Mairan, “that the phenomena of the heavens have been in the main the source of the old fables. Thunder was heard on the inaccessible summit of a mountain; therefore there must be gods dwelling on the mountain, and launching the thunder. The sun seems to speed from east to west, therefore he has fine coursers. The rain does not touch the head of one who sees a rainbow, so the rainbow is a token that there will never again be a deluge.” But then Voltaire was no systematic thinker, and thus there was no security that any given right idea which came into his mind would either remain present to him, or would be followed up and placed along with other ideas in a scientific order. Apart from this, however, it is extraordinary that Voltaire's extreme acuteness did not suggest to him the question, how it was that the artless and clear belief in one God became more and more obscured by the growing multitude of other gods, just in proportion as the primitive tribes became more civilized in all the arts of life. If the nomad progenitors of the Greeks had only one god, how was it that, as knowledge, social feeling, love of beauty, and all the other ennobling parts of man became more fully developed, the power of superstition waxed greater, and temples and images were multiplied?
Again, the theologist might, consistently with his deliberate principle of resort to the miraculous, contend that this first conception of a single supreme power, in the fact of the existence of which he is entirely at one with Voltaire, was directly implanted by a supernatural force. But Voltaire, debarred from such an explanation as this, was driven silently to assume and imply the truly incredible position that the rudest savages, being what we know them, urgently occupied in the struggle for means of subsistence, leading lives purely animal, possessed of no vocabulary for any abstract idea, should yet by one leap of natural logic have risen to one of the very highest pinnacles of speculation, and both felt and expressed the idea of cause in the most general and comprehensive of all its forms. Surely this assumption, measured by any of those standards of experience or probability to which he professed to appeal, was as much of a miracle as those which he so decisively repudiated.
In one of his letters Voltaire declared that Locke was the only reasonable metaphysician that he knew, and that next to him he placed Hume. Did he ever read, we may wonder, that masterly essay on the “Natural History of Religion,” where Hume not only combats with his usual vigor and effectiveness the idea of the belief in one omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent spirit being the primary religion of men, and shows that polytheism precedes monotheism, but also traces the origin of all religion to its rudiment, in that “universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious?” The greater the knowledge we acquire of the spiritual rudiments of primitive people, the more certainly is it established that the idea of theism as the earliest and most elementary belief, which Voltaire had picked up from Bolingbroke and Pope, is untenable, and that Hume has been more and more fully warranted in saying that the only point of theology on which the consent of mankind is nearly universal is that “there is an invisible, intelligent power in the world, but whether this power be supreme or subordinate, whether confined to one being or distributed among several, what attributes, qualities, connections, or principles of action, ought to be ascribed to these beings, concerning all these points there is the widest difference in the popular systems of theology.” This might be placing natural theology very low, but Hume at any rate placed it where he did and described it as he did, because he had knowledge enough of the condition of various nations in various parts of their history, and was sufficiently penetrated with a cautious and scientific spirit, to abstain from the unsupported and purely metaphysical conjectures of men like Voltaire and Rousseau. Well might the keen-eyed de Maistre describe him from the Catholic point of view as the most dangerous and the guiltiest of all those pestilent writers,—the one who employed most talent with most coolness to do most mischief.
If Voltaire had studied Hume, moreover, he might have learned how futile and inappropriate it is in the long run to examine a religion otherwise than in its most fundamental and comprehensive general ideas, and how narrow and superficial would every philosophic appreciation ultimately find what he called refutation by facts. For his own immediate purpose, which was to cover the Church and its creed with ridicule, the method of collecting all the ludicrous, immoral and inconsistent circumstances in the Scriptures and their current interpretation, was, as we have already said, a weapon potent enough. Voltaire, however, not only did not use, he never understood nor perceived, the fact that a religion rests for its final base on a certain small number of ideas, or that it is only by touching these, by loosening the firmness of their hold, by revealing their want of coherency and consistency with other accepted ideas, that we can expect to shake the superstructure. For example, if only the official exponents of religion had not been so firmly bent on making the feeblest of all their ramparts into their very citadel, it would have been a very small thing to urge the truly singular quality of such miracles as those of the water made wine at Cana, of the cursing of the barren fig-tree, of the unfortunate swine who rushed violently down a steep place and were choked. These were legends that from the right point of view of religion were not worth defending, any more than from the right point of view of truth they were worth attacking. The details of the use of a supernaturally conferred power may best be let alone, until the probability of the existence and bestowal of such power has been discussed and decided. The important issue and matter of vital concern turned upon the general idea of the miraculous; yet this was what Voltaire, perhaps from an instinctive consciousness of the little capacity he possessed for genuine speculation, postponed to the really secondary purpose of disparaging particular cases of miraculous performance.
We are now touching what, before Hume, was the central defect of the eighteenth-century attack, judged philosophically rather than practically. The movement was a reaction against a certain set of ideas which had been incorporated in the Christian system, as that system was elaborated by the oriental sophisters. Yet the exact conflict between the old ideas and the new was never conceived, much less was it expressed, in clear comprehensive formulas. Consequently the most general terms for the debate were neither sought nor found, and hence the oppressive narrowness, the stifling want of free air, throughout the controversy. The truth or falsehood which it is good for us to discover in connection with a religion resides not in detail, but in the largest general ideas of the subject. These draw all else along with them. Let us take an illustration from a characteristic of the anti-Christian attack which has already been mentioned. The Voltairean school, as we have before observed, habitually derided the sacred importance attached by the Church in all ages, from Saint Paul downwards, to the practice of continence. But there is no sign, so far as the present writer's knowledge goes, that they ever were near perceiving the origin of that superstition lying deep down for so many centuries in the human mind. The sanctity of continence was only one product of the old far-spreading conviction of all the evil and unholiness essentially inherent in matter. This conviction, which has itself a history and genesis well worth tracing; probably accounts for more of the peculiar manifestations contained in Christianity than any one principle of belief besides. From this metaphysical idea sprang the whole theory of asceticism; it had much to do indirectly with the first establishment of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ; it entered into the triumph of indispensable grace. The speculative origin of practices and sentiments which the heads of the western Church valued, modified, and sagaciously used for ecclesiastical or political reasons, ought never to be lost sight of, because their duration has depended on the circumstance of the original speculative idea remaining deeply sunk, though not often put into articulate form, in the minds of the faithful, and of all others whom these practices and sentiments have influenced. One key to the central movement of the eighteenth century is the dispersion of this association of evil and corruption from matter. There was energetic and triumphant progress in the discovery of the laws of matter; in their most stupendous, over-whelming, and majestic order. There was a steady tendency to resolve mental manifestations into functions of matter. There was a general inclination to forget those depressing facts connected with the decay and dissolution of matter, which, in the dismal times when the Church was founded, had been thrust into a prominence so humiliating to human dignity. The general movement was carried too far by extreme spirits, but on the whole it was a salutary and much-needed protest against the limitation of knowledge within airy cloudlands where no true knowledge was to be reached, and of emotion within transcendental aspirations where the deep reality of human relations faded into dim distance.
It is only when controversy is conducted with reference to ground ideas of this kind, that the parties to it can be sure of being on the same plane, and, if they are not on the same plane, one of the least mischiefs is that their arguments fly over one another's heads. Voltaire failed, partly from want of historic knowledge, partly from insufficient depth of nature, to see what these ground ideas were, against which he was fighting. Thus, to take another instance, he failed to see that the belief in the exertion of supernatural power, even on occasions which struck him as so frivolous, and in a manner undoubtedly incompatible with justice, was merely an incidental result of a profoundly rooted idea of the closeness, constancy, and mixed holiness and majesty, of the relations between man and an awful being other than man, endowed with powers denied to us, and animated by motives inscrutable to us. He chose, if we are not wrong in using a term that may imply much conscious deliberation, to identify his own conception of deity with the conception of deity in the first four centuries of the Christian era, simply because the object of each was called by a common name. He found that the actions attributed to the Supreme Being whom the Church revered, were unworthy of a personage endowed with the qualities which he ascribed to a supreme power, in his own version of that culminating conception. He was thus never on the same plane of thought or argument, but he never was near finding this out. The God whom he conceived was incapable, from the very nature attributed to him by his worshippers, of the various transactions, lofty and mean, sublime and puerile, described in the documents on which Catholicism relied, and the tradition by which it corroborated and interpreted them. The ground idea of the belief in the miraculous was an extremely anthropomorphic notion of a divinity, possessed of complete power, but using it in obedience to motives which finite understandings cannot pretend to fathom or measure. Such a notion was the natural growth of the human mind, amid such a set of circumstances as attended the development and establishment of Christianity. Men sat in darkness, forlorn and without hope, and it is not hard for us to imagine the exultation with which some greater spirit would produce, and all others would embrace, the idea of this misery and darkness being no more than an outer accident, the mysterious and incomprehensible dispensation of a divine being, ever alive to the destinies of men, but holding them in the hollow of an unseen hand, and guiding them in ways that are not as our ways; ever remote from corporeal vision, but operating at a multitude of points on the spirit of each man through grace, and finally, by a consummating miracle repeated daily some thousands of times, severing this spirit from the probation of flesh, and prolonging its existence independently of the body through all eternity in modes of being, none the less real for being impossible to conceive. To Voltaire this was unspeakable foolishness. The prodigies of grace, of the resurrection of the body, of the incarnation of divinity, were inconsistent with the qualities which he imputed to the creator of the universe, and hence he contented himself with mocking at them; the real state of the case was simply that a number of influences had drawn men aside from that conception of the creator, with which such prodigies were not inconsistent, but were on the contrary logically and inseparably associated.
This failure to rise to the highest ideas involved in the great debate explains, along with much besides, two striking facts connected with it. It explains the intense acerbity of the conflict, and the flaming depth of the chasm which divided and divides the two camps in France. For the best natures are most violently irritated and outraged by mocking and satiric attack upon the minor details, the accidents, the outside of the objects of faith, when they would have been affected in a very different way by a contrast between the loftiest parts of their own belief and the loftiest parts of some other belief. Many persons who would listen to a grave attack on the consistency, reasonableness, and elevation of the currently ascribed attributes of the Godhead, with something of the respect due to the profound solemnity of the subject, would turn with deaf and implacable resentment upon one who should make merry over the swine of Gadara.
The same circumstance, secondly, explains the absence of permanent quality about all that Voltaire wrote upon religion. For instance, men who sympathize with him in his aims, and even for their sake forgive him his method, who have long ago struck the tents under which they once found shelter in the lands of belief, to whom Catholicism has become as extinct a thing as Mahometanism, even they will turn with better chance of edification to the great masters and teachers of the old faith, than to the fiery precursor of the new. And why, if not for the reason that while he dealt mainly with the lower religious ideas, or with the higher ideas in their lowest forms, they put these into the second place, and move with an inspiring exultation amid the loftiest and most general conceptions that fine imaginations and a soaring reason could discover among the spiritual treasures of their religion. They turned to the diviner mind, and exercised themselves with the weightiest and most universal circumstances of the destiny of mankind. This is what makes their thought and eloquence of perpetual worth, because the circumstances with which they deal are perpetually present, and the elements of life and character to which they appeal perpetually operative. The awful law of death, the impenetrable secret of the first cause, the fierce play of passion and universal distribution of pain, the momentariness of guilt and eternity of remorse, the anguish of bereavement that chokes and rends, the hopeless inner desolation which is the unbroken lot of myriads of the forlorn of the earth,—these ghostly things ever laying siege to the soul were known to a Bossuet or a Pascal, and resolved by a series of ideas about the unknowable power and the government of the world, which are no longer the mighty weapons of exorcism they once were, but they are at any rate of due magnitude and proportion, sublime, solemn, never unworthy. We touch the hands of those who have walked with the Most High, and they tell us many moving wonders; we look on faces that have shone in rays from the heaven of noble thoughts; we hear solemn and melodious words from men who received answers from oracles that to us are very mute, but the memory of whose power is still upon us. Hence the work of these glowing mortals lives even for those to whom their faith is dead, while the words that Voltaire wrote on religion are lifeless as the Infamous which they so meritoriously slew. As we have said, he never knew the deeper things of Catholicism. This is what he wrote about the immortal Dante: “Everybody with a spark of good sense ought to blush at that monstrous assemblage in hell of Dante and Virgil, of Saint Peter and Madonna Beatrice. There are to be found among us, in the eighteenth century, people who force themselves to admire feats of imagination as stupidly extravagant and as barbarous as this; they have the brutality to oppose them to the masterpieces of genius, wisdom, and eloquence, that we have in our language. O tempora, O judicium!” To which prodigy of criticism we can only exclaim with the echo, O tempora, O judicium!
Let us see shortly what was Voltaire's own solution of those facts of life with which religion has to deal. The Catholic solution we know, and can definitely analyze and describe; but the vagueness of Voltairean deism defies any attempt at detailed examination. We can perceive a supernatural existence, endowed with indefinable attributes, which are fixed subjectively in the individual consciousness of each believer, and which therefore can never be set forth in a scheme of general acceptance. The Voltairean deist — and such persons exist in ample numbers to this day — hardly ever takes the trouble to reconcile with one another the various attributes which he imputes at various times to some great master power of the universe. There is scarcely one of these attributes to which, when it comes to be definitely described, he does not encounter affronting contradiction in the real occurrences that arise from time to time to search and try all our theories, deistical, or other. The phenomena of moral and physical evil on the earth, and the arrival of disasters which make no discrimination between their victims, are constantly dealing sore blows to the conceptions which the deist loves to erect in moments of optimistic expansion, of the clemency, justice, and illimitable power of a being who governs the universe, and is a something outside and independent of it. These optimist conceptions, vague, unverified, free of definite relations with any moral or social system, and furnishing no principle of active human association as the Catholic idea of deity had done, constitute the favorite religion or religiosity of those classes in all modern countries, which have found the Voltairean kind of objection to the Christian revelation insuperable, and which are so fortunate as to enjoy a full measure of material prosperity. To these classes the black side of life is strange and a matter of hearsay; and hence the awkwardness of reconciling their complacent theory with the horror of facts is never forced upon them. In their own happiness they love to superadd the luxury of thankfulness to the bounty of a being to whom they owe all, and to swell the tide of their own emotions by meditation on his infinite and unspeakable perfections. Proof they require none, beyond the loveliness and variety of external nature, the innocence and delight of all young creatures, the order of the seasons bearing us their copious fruit, the vivid intelligence and serviceable power of man, who is the divinely appointed recipient of all these multitudinous favors. Hence in proportion as this sort of deism stirs the soul of a man, the more closely are his inmost thoughts reserved for contemplation of the relations between the Supreme Being and his own individuality. It is a creed which is specially adapted for, and has been generally seized by, those with whom the world has gone very well, owing to their own laudable exertion, and who are inclined to believe that the existing ordering of society is fundamentally the best possible. It is the superlative decoration of optimism.
The mass of men, those who dwell in dens and whose lives are bitter, have never, in spite even of Rousseau's teaching, accepted deism. An opportunity for trying the experiment had occurred in the fourth century, and the lesson should not be forgotten. Deism had been the prevailing opinion in religion, but, as the most instructive of all the historians of the dissolution of the empire observes, it was generally felt that deism did not supply the void occasioned by the absence of the multitude of sympathetic divinities of the pagan system. Its influence was cold and inanimate. The common people are wont to crave a revelation, or else they find atheism a rather better synthesis than any other. They either cling to the miraculously transmitted message with its hopes of recompense, and its daily communication of the divine voice in prayer or sacrament, or else they make a world which moves through space as a black monstrous ship with no steersman. The bare deistic idea, of a being endowed at once with sovereign power and sovereign clemency, with might that cannot be resisted and justice that cannot be impugned, who loves man with infinite tenderness, yet sends him no word of comfort and gives him no way of deliverance, is too hard a thing for those who have to endure the hardships of the brutes, but yet preserve the intelligence of men.
A bald deism has undoubtedly been the creed of some of the purest and most generous men that have ever trod the earth, but none the less on that account is it in its essence a doctrine of self-complacent individualism from which society has little to hope, and with which there is little chance of the bulk of society ever sympathizing. In truth, one can scarcely call it a creed. It is mainly a name for a particular mood of fine spiritual exaltation; the expression of a state of indefinite aspiration and supreme feeling for lofty things. Are you going to convert the new barbarians of our western world with this fair word of emptiness? Will you sweeten the lives of suffering men, and take its heaviness from that droning piteous chronicle of wrong and cruelty and despair, which everlastingly saddens the compassionating ear like moaning of a midnight sea; will you animate the stout of heart with new fire, and the firm of hand with fresh joy of battle, by the thought of a being without intelligible attributes, a mere abstract creation of metaphysic, whose mercy is not as our mercy, nor his justice as our justice, nor his fatherhood as the fatherhood of men? It was not by a cold, a cheerless, a radically depraving conception such as this, that the Church became the refuge of humanity in the dark times of old, but by the representation, to men sitting in bondage and confusion, of godlike natures moving among them under figure of the most eternally touching of human relations, a tender mother ever interceding for them, and an elder brother laying down his life that their burdens might be loosened.
We have spoken of Voltairean deism, and the expression is a convenient one to distinguish from the various forms of mystic theology, which gloomily disclaim any pretence to be rational, the halting-place of spirits too deeply penetrated with the rationalistic objections of Voltaire to accept revelation, and either too timorous or too confident to acquiesce in a neutral solution. It is unjust, however, to attribute to Voltaire himself a perfect adherence to the deistical idea. For the first half of his life there is no doubt that it floated in his mind, as in so many others, in a random manner, as the true explanation of the world. His introduction to the teaching of Newton would give a firmer shape to such a belief. He has indeed told us that it was so. He mentions that in the course of several interviews he had with Doctor Samuel Clarke in 1726, this philosopher never pronounced the name of God without a curious air of awe and self-collection, and he commemorates the impression which the sight of this habit, and reflection upon its significance, made upon him. Still it was not a very active or vital element of belief with him even then, but rather of the nature of the sublimest of poetic figures.
Clearly this kind of expression means very little, and has no source in the deeper seats of the writer's feeling. A considerable number of Voltaire's deistical ejaculations, and on these occasions he threw into them a measure of real unction, may be fairly traced to the extraordinary polemical utility of an idea of spotless purity, entire justice, inexhaustible mercy, as an engine of battle against men who in the sacred name of this idea were the great practitioners of intolerance and wrong.
To have a conception of perfect goodness was a manifest convenience in confronting men who were to be proved masters of badness. But when the pressure of circumstance forced Voltaire to seek in earnest for an explanation of the world, which he had formerly been content to take in an easy way upon trust, then the deism, which had been barely more than nominal at best, was transformed into a very different and far sincerer mood. It would obviously be a gross blunder from a logical point to confound optimism with deism, but it is clear that what shook Voltaire's conviction of the existence of a deity was the awakening in him of a keener sense of the calamities that afflict the race of man. Personal misfortunes perhaps had their share. It was after the loss of Madame du Châtelet, and after the rude dispersion of his illusions as to Frederick, when he barely knew whither to turn for shelter or a home, that the optimism which he had learnt in England began to lose its hold upon him. We must do him the justice to add that he was yet more sensible of disasters which affected others. The horrid tide of war which devastated Europe and America, the yet more hateful tide of persecution for opinion which swept over France, and the cruel maladministration of justice which disgraced her tribunals, stirred all that was best in him to the very depths. The only non-dramatic poem of his which has strength, sincerity, and profundity of meaning enough firmly to arrest the reader's attention, and stimulate both thought and feeling, is that fine and powerful piece which he wrote on the occasion of the great earthquake of Lisbon. Here he threw into energetic and passionately argumentative verse the same protest against the theory that whatever is is best, which he afterwards urged in a very different form in the “refined insolence” of Candide. He approaches more nearly than a quarter of a century before he would have thought possible, to the deep gloom of the Pascal against whose terrible pictures he had then so warmly protested. He sees mankind imprisoned in a circle of appalling doom, from which there is no way of escape. Unlike Pascal, he can find no solution, and he denounces that mockery of a solution which cries that all is well in accents stifled with lamentation. He protests against the delusion of forcing the course of the world's destiny into a moral formula, that shall contain the terms of justice and mercy in their human sense.
He equally refuses, though not in terms, to comfort himself by the reflection that, in default of a better, the current ragged theory of the providential government of the universe, because it may be possible, must be true. He can find no answer, and confesses his belief that no answer is to be found by human effort. Whatever side we take, we can only shudder; there is nothing that we know, nothing that we have not to fear. Nature is mute, and we interrogate her in vain; the book of destiny is closed to our eyes.
He abandons Plato and rejects Epicurus. Bayle knows more than they, as, with the balance in his hand, he teaches men to doubt; wise enough, great enough, to be without a system.
In a note he adds to this glorification of Bayle, whom he styles the advocate-general of the philosophers — the thinker in whose pages all opinions are set forth, all the reasons which shake them and all which uphold are equally investigated, while he abstains from giving any conclusions. Elsewhere he explains that when he describes reason as having made immense progress in Germany, he does not refer to those who openly embrace the system of Spinoza; but the good folk who have no fixed principles on the nature of things, who do not know what is, but know very well what is not, these are my true philosophers.
It would not be difficult to find a score of passages in which the writer assumes or declares certainty on this high matter to be attainable, and to be entirely in one direction. His opinions undoubtedly shifted with the veering of his moods, but on the whole these axioms of suspense mark the central point to which they constantly tended to return, and at which they rested longest. That dark word, Shut thine eyes and thou shalt see, opened no road for him. The saying that the Most High may be easily known, provided one does not press for definition, offered no treasure of spiritual acquisition to the man who never let go, even if he did not always accurately appreciate, Locke's injunction to us to be careful to define our terms. We cannot label Voltaire either spiritualist or materialist. The success with which he evades these two appellations is one of the best available tests of a man's capacity for approaching the great problems with that care and positive judgment, which are quite as proper to them as to practical affairs or to physical science.
Thus with reference to the other great open question, he habitually insisted that the immortality of the soul can never possibly be demonstrated, and that this is why it has been revealed to us by religion, which is perhaps Voltaire's way of saying that it is no near concern of his. Sometimes he argued from considerations of general probability. The brutes feel and think up to a certain point, and men have only the advantage over them of a greater combination of ideas; the more or less makes no difference in kind. “Well, nobody thinks of giving an immortal soul to a flea; why should you give one any the more to an elephant, or a monkey, or my Champagne valet, or a village steward who has a trifle more instinct than my valet?” Again, he retorted significantly on those who contended with a vehemence of prejudice known in some places even to this day, that belief in the immortality of the soul is an indispensable condition of probity: as if the first Jews accepted that dogma, and as if there were no honest men among them, and no instruction in virtue.
In fine, then, we search Voltaire in vain for a positive creed, which logic may hold in coherent bonds, or social philosophy accept as a religious force. The old word about his faith must be pronounced true. It remains a creed of negation. But still, be it always understood, negation of darkness. And this inevitably leads in the direction of the day. It was an indispensable step in the process of transition. Men, it is constantly being said since the violent breaking-up of French society, will never consent to live on no better base than articles of denial and formulas of suspense, for are not the deepest parts of human character moved by strong yearning for relationship with the unknowable? It may be so, and if it be, the Voltairean movement was the great instrument in leading, not merely a scanty group of speculative intellects, but vast bodies, large nations, of common folk to perceive, or dimly to conjecture, that this object of adoration which their eyes strain after is unknowable, and that there is no attainable external correlative of their deep desire. Voltaire never went so far in the direction of assertion as Rousseau, and he never went so far in the direction of denial as Holbach. And, whatever we may say generally of the horror of the world for the spirit that denies, all that was best and most truly progressive in French society during the eighteenth century, Turgot and Condorcet no less than Beau-marchais, showed itself content to follow him in this middle path. His appreciation of religion was wanting in a hundred vital things, just as some may say that Luther's was, but it contained the one idea which the deepest spirit of the time prompted men to desire, the decisive repudiation of the religious notions of the past. We must call this negative, no doubt, but no word should frighten us away from seeing how much positive aspiration lay underneath. When men are in the mood of France a century and a quarter since, when all that an old civilization has bestowed on them of what is best and strongest, rises up against all that the same civilization has bequeathed to them of what is pestilent and dangerous, they are never nice critics. They do not decline a reinvigorating article of faith, because it is not a system, nor do they measure a deliverer by syllogism. The smallest chink may shine like light of the sun to prisoners long held in black and cavernous recesses.
When Bayle's Dictionary came out, we read, so great was the avidity to have sight of it, that long before the doors of the Mazarin library were open, a little crowd assembled in the early morning of each day, and there was as great a struggle for the first access to the precious book, as for the front row at the performance of a piece for which there is a rage. This was the beginning of an immense impulse of curiosity, eager to fill the vacuum occasioned by the slow subsidence of the old religion, which had once covered not only faith, but science, history, dialectic, and philosophy, all in a single synthesis. It was this impulse which Voltaire both represented and accelerated. In these periods of agitation, men forgive all to one who represents without compromise or diminution their own dominant passions. Vehemence of character counts for more than completeness of doctrine, and they crave a battle-cry, not a dissertation. They need to have their own sentiment aggressively presented, and their own defects of boldness or courage at once-rebuked and supplemented by a leader whose purpose can never be mistaken, and whose words are never nipped by the frost of intellectual misgiving. All through the century there was slowly growing up an inner France, full of angry disgust against the past. Its germ was the crowd eager to read Bayle. Its outcome was the night of the fourth of August, 1789, when the civil order of society was overthrown between a sunset and a dawn. Voltaire, as we have seen, studiously abstained from any public word upon things political, but it was he who in the long interval between these two events held men by a watchword to which the political decay of the country gave such meaning, that of hatred to the old. And there was no such steadfast symbol of the old as the Church, to him and his school a lurid beacon on a monster-haunted shore.
Voltaire's selection of the Church as the object of his attacks marks an important difference between him and the other great revolutionary precursor. Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar was perfectly willing to accept the cultus of Christianity, even when he had ceased to accept its dogma. He regarded all particular religions as so many salutary institutions, all good so long as they were the organs for a due service of God. He actually celebrated mass with more veneration after the acquisition of his new principles, than he had been accustomed to do when he supposed that the mass was an occasion of personal divine presence. This kind of teaching was clearly to perpetuate and transfix forever the form of religion which each country, or any given set of men in it, might possess. It was to stereotype belief, as it is stereotyped among the millions in the East. Whence was reform to come, whence any ray of new light, whence a principle of growth and activity for the intelligence of men? How on these terms is truth to win the battle at a single point? This was the beginning of a fatal substitution of bland emotional complacency for robust cultivation of the reason, and firm reverence for its lessons as the highest that we can learn. Voltaire no doubt did in practice many a time come to terms with his adversary while he was yet on the way with him; but disagreeable as these temporizings are to us who live in an easier day, they never deceived any one, nor could they ever be mistaken for the establishment of intellectual treason as a principle, or of philosophic indifference as a climax. As has been said, though he writes in the midst of the old régime, in the face of the Bastille, and with the fetters of the enemy in some sort actually upon him, he still finds a thousand means of reaching you. He is always the representative of reason, and never of sentimentalism. He was not above superficial compromises in matters of conduct, and these it is hard or impossible to condone; but at any rate he is free from the deeper and more penetrating reproach of erecting hypocrisy into a deliberate doctrine.
We do not know how far he ever seriously approached the question, so much debated since the overthrow of the old order in France, whether a society can exist without a religion? He says in one place that to believe God and spirits corporeal is an old metaphysical error, but absolutely not to believe in any god would be an error incompatible with wise government. But even this much was said for the sake of introducing a taunt against the orthodox, who by a strange contradiction had risen up with fury against Bayle for believing it possible that a society of atheists could hold together, while they insisted with just as much violence that the empire of China was established on a basis of atheism. His natural sagacity would most likely have shown him that this is one of the sterile problems, with which the obstructive defender of things as they are tries to draw the soldier of improvement away from his strongest posts. Whether a society can exist without religion or not, at least its existence as a structure for whose duration we can be anxious, must depend on the number of men in it who deal honestly with their own understandings. And, further, is no man to be counted to have a religion who, like Voltaire, left great questions open, and put them aside, as all questions, that must from the limitations of human faculty eternally remain open, well deserve to be put aside? Must we ever call an unknown God by one name? Are there so few tasks for one on earth, that he must strain all his soul to fix the regimen of high heaven?
Voltaire, there is every reason to think, did in an informal kind of way suppose in the bottom of his heart that there is nothing in human nature to hinder a very advanced society from holding perfectly well together, with all its opinions in a constant state of analysis. Whatever we may think of it, this dream of what is possible, if the activity of human intelligence were only sufficiently stimulated and the conditions of social union were once so adjusted as to give it fair play, unquestionably lies at the root of the revolutionary ideas with all those who were first stirred by Voltaire rather than by Rousseau. Condorcet, for instance, manifestly depends with the firmest confidence upon that possibility being realized. It is the idea of every literary revolutionist, as distinguished from the social or economic revolutionist, in France at the present day. The knowledge that this was the case, added to the sound conviction that men can never live by analysis alone, gave its fire to de Maistre's powerful attack, and its immense force to Burke's plea for what he called prejudice. But the indispensable synthesis need never be immovably fixed, nor can it soon again be one and single for our civilization; for progress consists in gradual modifications of it, as increase of knowledge and unforeseen changes in the current of human affairs disclose imperfections in it, and wherever progress is a law the stages of men's advance are unequal. Above all, it is monstrous to suppose that because a man does not accept your synthesis, he is therefore a being without a positive creed or a coherent body of belief capable of guiding and inspiring conduct.
There are new solutions for him, if the old are fallen dumb. If he no longer believes death to be a stroke from the sword of God's justice, but the leaden footfall of an inevitable law of matter, the humility of his awe is deepened, and the tenderness of his pity made holier, that creatures who can love so much should have their days so shut round with a wall of darkness. The purifying anguish of remorse will be stronger, not weaker, when he has trained himself to look upon every wrong in thought, every duty omitted from act, each infringement of the inner spiritual law which humanity is constantly perfecting for its own guidance and advantage, less as a breach of the decrees of an unseen tribunal, than as an ungrateful infection, weakening and corrupting the future of his brothers. And he will be less effectually raised from inmost prostration of soul by a doubtful subjective reconciliation, so meanly comfortable to his own individuality, than by hearing full in the ear the sound of the cry of humanity craving sleepless succor from her children. That swelling consciousness of height and freedom with which the old legends of an omnipotent divine majesty fill the breast, may still remain; for how shall the universe ever cease to be a sovereign wonder of overwhelming power and superhuman fixedness of law? And a man will be already in no mean paradise, if at the hour of sunset a good hope can fall upon him like harmonies of music, that the earth shall still be fair, and the happiness of every feeling creature still receive a constant augmentation, and each good cause yet find worthy defenders, when the memory of his own poor name and personality has long been blotted out of the brief recollection of men forever.
Corr. Œuv. lxxxv, p. 249.
It was to the last-named book, one may suppose, that Voltaire referred, when he asked how it was that Locke, after having so profoundly traced the development of the human understanding, could so degrade his own understanding in another work. (Dict. Phil. s. v. Platon. Œuv. lvii, p. 369.)
See Collins's Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing, prefixed to the “Grounds and Reasons of Christianity.”
Poëme sur le Désastre de Lisbonne. Œuvres, xv, p. 53.