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CHAPTER VII.: THE PHILANTHROPIST OF FERNEY. - 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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THE PHILANTHROPIST OF FERNEY.
Voltaire, as we have seen, took possession of Ferney in 1758, and he lived here almost without a break for something like twenty years. His estate was a feudal seigniory in the district of Gex, on the very frontier of Switzerland, but in France, though enjoying immunity from French taxation. He built a new manor-house, and in his capacity of lord of the manor replaced the dilapidated little church of the estate by a new one, very small, very plain, and about which, notwithstanding its famous inscription of which he so often boasted,—”Deo erexit Voltaire,”—much more noise has been made, than so simple and natural a proceeding at all calls for. Madame Denis kept house for him, and according to the Paris gossips of the time, on an extravagant scale, which often produced ruptures between the two. Guests were incessant and the hospitality ungrudging. He complained during the Seven Years' War of the embarrassment of being a Frenchman, when he had to entertain daily at dinner Russians, English, and Germans. He protests that he is weary of being hotel-keeper in general for all Europe, and so weary was he at one time of this noisy and costly post, that the establishment was partially suspended for upwards of a year. One of the most generous of Voltaire's many generous acts was his reception into his house of a child who had no other claim on him than that of being the great-granddaughter of the uncle of Corneille. A soldier ought to succor the niece of his general, he said. He took the liveliest interest in the little maid's education, though she appears to have been a sulky pupil, and eventually he married her with due dower to one Dupuits. The bustle and expense of his establishment became greater than ever, and in the spring of 1768 Paris was as much electrified by news of a revolution at Ferney, as she has been since by some revolutions in her own streets. Madame Denis and the two Dupuits had suddenly made their way to Paris, and for a year and a half Voltaire was left in peace, part of which he employed sensibly in having his house cleaned from cellar to garret,—a bit of news which is handed down to our times, since, according to Grimm, the domestic arrangements of the manorhouse at Ferney interested at that moment more or less every court in Europe. In the autumn of 1769 Madame Denis returned, and with her the old stir and extravagance were resumed, for Voltaire was one of the best-humored of men to his family and friends, and could deny his niece nothing. We have more than one description of this too immortal niece. They are all equally unflattering. Her homeliness of appearance amounted to the ugliness that is bitter. She was destitute of wit, and had a vulgar soul. Born to be the insipid gossip of a bourgeois circle, says one charitable writer, but having by chance the first man in the nation for an uncle, she learned to chatter about literature and the theatre, as a parrot learns. She wrote a comedy; but the players, out of respect for Voltaire, declined to act in it. She wrote a tragedy; but the one favor which the repeated entreaties of years could never wring from Voltaire was that he would read it. She had histrionic as well as dramatic ambition, and here worked a miracle, for her representation of “Mérope” once drew floods of tears from some English ladies. Her affectation of intellect had not cooled the reality of simple sensation, and if she loved art, she was said not to despise gallantry. At any rate, though she was only sixteen years younger than her uncle, she needed continual festivities and crowds of guests.
Ferney was rather a difficult spot for a woman with a passion for the hum of cities. For five months in the year, says Voltaire, my deserts are, on the admission of Russians, worse than Siberia itself; we see thirty leagues of mountain, snow, and precipices: it is Naples in summer, Lapland in winter. One year he marks with word of bitterness snow falling thick in the middle of May. Four feet of snow in the courtyard constituted a normal winter state. He commemorates with enthusiasm how one day, through these four feet of snow, he saw porters bringing him a hamper of champagne from a friend; for the more generous sort of Burgundy with which he ordinarily recruited himself had fallen short, and he had been reduced to the humble vintage of Beaujolais.
Yet in the midst of a thousand discomforts and hardships we never hear him wishing to be back in Paris. It remained to him the accursed city, as it had been before his journey to England. He always thought with horror of its cabal, intrigue, frivolity, and sovereign indifference to the ruin of the kingdom and the shedding of innocent blood. There can be no doubt that this wise exile prolonged his days. He was constantly complaining of illness, and he passed months at a time in bed, which may in truth have been the best possible preservative of life for one of his temperament. Yet in spite of this avoidance of society, this passion for his study, the man of ordinary capacity, with no more than an ordinary working day, may marvel how amid so many distractions the master of the house contrived to write so many scores of pieces, large and small, and so many hundreds of letters, grave and gay. Of these letters nearly seven thousand are already in print, and M. Beuchot, most carefully informed of all Voltaire's editors, thinks there are likely to be quite as many more still in undiscovered existence. Ferney was the centre of the most universal and varied correspondence
that any one man has ever carried on. Frederick the Great was not the only crowned head with whom Voltaire interchanged royal communication. Catherine II. of Russia, of Anhalt-Zerbst by birth, was the helpful patroness of Diderot and d'Alembert, and was always eager to hear some word from the patriarch of their encyclopædic church, only praying him not to think her too importunate. Christian VII. of Denmark apologizes for not being able at a stroke to remove all the obstacles that lie in the way of the civil liberty of his subjects. Gustavus III. of Sweden is elated by the thought that Voltaire sometimes casts a glance on what is going on in the North, and protest that this is their greatest encouragement to do as well as they can in all ways. Joseph II. would fain have called at Ferney, while travelling incognito through France, but fear of his mother's displeasure held him back, the high and devout nature of Maria Theresa always finding Voltaire's mockery of sacred things deeply repugnant, as we may easily believe.
Besides sovereigns who wrote to him as to an equal, every young aspirant to literary distinction, however unknown and obscure, sought a criticism from Ferney. Twenty years before he settled down here, Voltaire had been consulted by Vauvenargues, and had replied with words of painstaking and generous counsel. It was always the same with him. No young author ever solicited advice in vain, and he was never sparing either of trouble or praise. The Marquis of Chastellux sent him a copy of his “Félicité Publique,” and was raised to the seventh heaven by a letter of thanks, in which Voltaire tells him: “I covered the margin of my copy with notes, as I always do when a book charms and instructs me; I even took the liberty of not always sharing the author's opinion. I am very old and very feeble, but such reading makes me young again.” And the letter contains a large number of points where he thinks the author in error.
Besides kings and the writers of books, plain men also besought his dictum on high matters. “A burgomaster of Middleburg,” he informs Madame du Deffand, “whom I do not know, wrote to me a little while since, to ask me in confidence whether there is a God or not; whether, in case there be one, He takes any heed of us; whether matter is eternal; whether it can think; whether the soul is immortal; and begging me to answer by return of post.” One may suspect that a little coloring is added here by the master hand, but the substantial facts are probable enough. He corresponded with cardinals, marshals of France, and bishops, and he corresponded with Helvétius and with Diderot, who, greatly to the indignation of the business-like patriarch, had a bad habit of leaving letters to answer themselves. If two cavalry officers fell to disputing over the messtable as to the propriety of using some bit of old French, it was to Ferney that the reference was instantly made. We get an idea of the kind of imperial authority which attached to Voltaire's judgment, from the eagerness with which Turgot sought, without revealing his name, an opinion from Ferney as to the worth of a translation with which he lightened the heavy burden of his intendance at Limoges, a translation of the “Eclogues” and fourth book of the “Æneid” into French metric verse. “They say,” wrote Turgot, “that he is so busy with his ‘Encyclopædia,’ as neither to speak nor to write to any one.” If Turgot could have seen Voltaire's correspondence for 1770, he would have found out how far this rumor was from the truth, and in fact he did get an answer to his own letter; but it can hardly have been very much more satisfactory than silence would have been, for Voltaire, while profuse in praise of the fidelity and spirit of the translation, unfortunately did not detect that it was meant for anything more ambitious than simple prose with enthusiasm in it. As Turgot especially valued in the patriarch his “superb ear,” the blow was as sharp as it well could be. He was little concerned or surprised on learning the fallacious reasoning of the poet in political economy. “Reasoning,” he adds, “has never been Voltaire's strong point.” And that was true in matters of abstract science, but he was an unrivalled popularizer of the results of other people's reasoning, from Newton's “Principia” down to Middleton's “Free Enquiry,” and this popularization was what the conditions of the time caused to be most ardently demanded. The proof of the demand we may see in the extraordinary respect and curiosity, or dislike and alarm, with which Voltaire for the twenty crowning years of his life was regarded throughout the whole of civilized Europe.
It is impossible to read the multitudinous volumes of Voltaire's correspondence, and they are being added to every two or three years, with entire satisfaction. They are wittier than any other letters in the world. For lightness, swiftness, grace, spontaneity, you can find no second to them, at however long an interval. But they abound in many things which are disagreeable in the letters of an old man who had so true an interest in the spread of virtue, knowledge, and the other conditions of human dignity. These, however, may be passed over as the innocent and unconscious unseemliness of a very gay nature living in a very free age. It is less easy to banish the unpleasant impressions with which we find him playing the equivocal part of being all things to all men. One would have been pleased to have a little more stiffness, a little less pliancy of phrase. We would not go through the world insisting on grim Puritanic earnestness at every moment of a man's life, but Voltaire's lively complaisance with all sorts of unworthy people is something worse than unedifying. One can hardly help sympathizing with d'Alembert's remonstrance, “You have rather spoiled the people who persecute us. 'Tis true you have had greater need than anybody else to keep them quiet, and that you have been obliged to offer a candle to Lucifer to save yourself from Beelzebub, but Lucifer has only grown the prouder, without Beelzebub growing the less malignant.” The truth probably is that Voltaire did not always take much thought of Lucifer or Beelzebub. For one thing, he was, as we have said more than once, intensely sympathetic by temperament, and in writing to a friend, or even an acquaintance only, he was for the moment animated by a lively good will and anxiety to be in harmony with his correspondent. There was nothing false in these purring pleasantries, with which he amused all correspondents alike. They came as naturally from his mobile and genial constitution, as an equality of prosaic moroseness comes from persons of fundamentally different constitutions. For another thing, the old fashion of his youth never dropped away from him, and the elaborate courteousness and friendly ardor of manner, which he had learned among the aristocratic friends of the days of the Regency and afterwards at Paris and Versailles, did not desert him in the solitudes of the Jura. He was to the last a man of quality, as well as a crusher of the Infamous, and to the last he kept up the tone of one who had been a gentleman of the chamber to one king, and court-chamberlain to another. Voltaire's temperament and earliest surroundings fully explain what was a more public, as well as more serious, falling away from the rigorous integrity which men are now accustomed to demand from the leaders of unpopular causes. His sins in this order are nearly as numerous as his public acts. Rousseau, perhaps we may say without breach of charity, as much from vanity as principle, prefixed his name to all that he wrote, and he paid the penalty in a life of wandering and persecution. Voltaire in his later days as invariably sheltered himself behind the anonymous, and not only disclaimed works of which it was notorious that he was the author, but insisted that his friends should impute them to this or that dead name. Nobody was deceived. While he got unwelcome credit for a multitude of pieces that were not his own, assuredly nothing really his ever failed to be set down to its true author. We can only say that this was the evil practice of the time, and that Voltaire was here little worse than Turgot and many another man of general virtuousness, to whom the ferocity of authority would not even allow freedom enough to plead for tolerance, much less to utter uncertified opinion. “Time,” said d'Alembert, apologizing for some whiff of orthodoxy which Voltaire scented in one or two articles in the “Encyclopædia,” “will make people distinguish what we thought from what we said.” Condorcet, as we know, deliberately defended these deceptions, which did not deceive, while they did protect. He contended that if you rob a man of his natural right of publishing his opinions, then you lose your own right to hear the truth from the man's lips. Undoubtedly all laws admit that duress introduces new conditions into the determination of what is right and wrong in action, or at least that it mitigates pains and penalties, and the position of every claimant for free speech was in those days emphatically a position of duress. The choice lay between disavowal on the one hand, and on the other abstention from proclaiming truths by which only society could gain the freedom it so much needed; between strict anonymity and leaving the darkness unbroken. And we must remember that disingenuous tricks to conceal authorship were not assuredly so unpardonable, when resorted to as protectives against imprisonment, confiscation, and possible peril of life, as they are now among ourselves, when they serve no more defensible purpose than sheltering men who have not the courage of their opinions, against one or two paltry social deprivations.
The monstrous proceedings against La Barre, and the ease with which in this and numerous other cases the jurisprudence of the tribunals lent itself to the cruelty of fanatics, no doubt excited in Voltaire a very genuine alarm for his own safety, and probably with good reason. We know that he could not venture to visit Italy, in consequence of his just fear lest the Inquisition should throw their redoubtable foe into prison, and the parliaments of Toulouse and Abbeville had perpetrated juridical murders as iniquitous as any of the proceedings of the Holy Office. And though it is easy and right for the young, who live in a time when you are not imprisoned or hanged or decapitated for holding unpopular opinions, to call out for manliness to the uttermost in these things, one must make allowance for an occasional fit of timorousness in a man of eighty, whom nature had never cut out for a martyr. Yet more than once, these fits committed Voltaire to acts which were as great a scandal to the devout as to the atheists. That he should rebuild the ruinous little chapel of his estate was not much more remarked, than it would be for a Protestant landlord to subscribe to repair the Catholic church on an Irish property containing only Catholic tenants. The gorgeous ceremony with which in his quality of lord he commemorated its opening, made everybody laugh, not excepting the chief performer, for he actually took the opportunity of lifting up his voice in the new temple and preaching a sermon against theft. The bishop of Annecy in Savoy, his diocesan, was furious at this mockery, and urged the minister at Paris to banish Voltaire from France. In order to avert the blow, Voltaire tried to make a nominal peace with the Church by confessing, and participating in the solemnity of an Easter communion (1768). The bishop wrote him a long letter of unctuous impertinences, to which Voltaire replied by asking very tartly why the discharge of so ordinary a duty called for this insolent congratulation. The philosophers of Paris were bitterly scandalized, and some of them wrote to the patriarch of the sect to remonstrate. Even d'Alembert, his own familiar friend, could not refrain from protest. Voltaire could give no better reasons for his strange lapse than we may hear given every day in our own country, by men who practise hypocritical compliances for the sake of a little ignoble ease, and thus perpetuate the yoke. He owed an example to his parish, as if the example of feigning a belief which he repudiates could be a good example for one to set in any parish. It was very well to shirk these observances in Paris, because there in the tide of business one finds an excuse or is not missed, but in the country no such excuse offers itself. One must stand well with the curé, be he knave or dunce. One must respect the two hundred and fifty timorous consciences around one. And so forth, down that well-worn list of pleas by which men make anxiety about the consciences of others a substantial reason for treachery to their own. Voltaire, besides all these, honestly added the one true reason, that he did not mean to be burned alive, and that the only way of making sure against such a fate was to close the lips of spies and informers.
The bishop knew perfectly well that the squire, who had made his Easter communion in so remarkable manner in 1768, was the author of the “Philosophical Dictionary,” of which a brand-new edition, amended and revised, made its appearance in 1769; and he appears to have forbidden the priest of Ferney to confess or administer the eucharist to the chief of the flock. Voltaire was at once seized with a fever, and summoned the priest to administer ghostly comfort. The priest pleaded the horrible rumors of the world as to the damnable books of which the sick man was alleged to be the author. Voltaire replied by warning him very peremptorily that in refusing to administer the viaticum he was infringing the law, and the consequence was that he did duly receive the viaticum, after which he signed a solemn act in the presence of a notary, declaring that he pardons his various calumniators; that “if any indiscretion prejudicial to the religion of the State should have escaped him,” he seeks forgiveness from God and the State; and finally he forgave the bishop of Annecy, who had calumniated him to the king, and whose malicious designs had come to naught. The priest and notary afterwards falsified this amazing declaration so as to appease the bishop, and came to Voltaire praying him not to betray them. “I prove to them,” he says, “that they will be damned, I give them something to drink, and they go away delighted.” A younger philosopher of his school remarks with his accustomed gravity on this most singular transaction, that the satisfaction of forcing his priest to administer by fear of the secular judges, and of insulting the bishop of Annecy in a juridical manner, cannot excuse such a proceeding in the eyes of the free and firm man, who weighs calmly the claims of truth and the requirements of prudence, when laws contrary to natural justice render truth dangerous and prudence indispensable. To which reflection we may perhaps add another, suggested by the cruel experience of the Church in France within five and twenty years from Voltaire's impious communion, that if any order, secular or spiritual, constrains its adversaries under penalties to the commission of base acts, then if the chances of time should ever transfer the power to the other side, that order has only itself to blame for whatever wrong may mark the retaliation. There is no more dangerous policy in affairs of state than to strip your opponent of self-respect, and this the descendants of the persecutors found out to their extreme cost, when in 1793 they had to deal with the descendants of the persecuted.
One other curious piece of sportiveness in his dealings with the Church deserves to be noticed. In the year 1770 the post of temporal father of the order of Capuchins for the district of Gex became vacant. Voltaire applied for it and the general at Rome, perhaps listening to a word from Ganganelli, or else from the Duchess of Choiseul, sent to Ferney the letters patent conferring upon its patriarch this strange dignity, and also affiliating him to the order. What were Voltaire's motives in so odd a transaction, it is not very hard to divine. Probably, he thought even this humble office would be some protection against persecution. Then it gave him an opportunity of harassing his enemy, the bishop of Annecy. Thirdly, it amused that whimsical element of farce and mischief which was always so irrepressible in him, from the early days when he is said to have nearly damned his own play by appearing on the stage as the high-priest's train-bearer, and burlesquing that august person's solemn gait. Voltaire filled his letters with infinite pleasantries about the new Capuchin, and seemed as much pleased at the idea of wearing the cord of Saint Francis, as he had been with the gold key of a Prussian chamberlain. One of his first enjoyments was to write letters to his episcopal foe, signed with a cross and his name:
“Voltaire, Capucin indigne.” A story is told by Grimm of a visitor arriving at Ferney, and being greeted by the patriarch with the news that he would find his host a changed man. “One grows a bigot in one's old age; I have a habit of having some pious work read to me when I sit down at table.” And in fact, some one began to read a sermon of Massillon, Voltaire throwing in exclamations on the beauty, eloquence, imagination of the preacher. Suddenly after three or four pages, he called out “Off with Massillon!” and launched forth during the rest of the meal with his usual verve and fanciful extravagance of imagination. It is profoundly unedifying, but not the less characteristic.
Voltaire, there can be little doubt, never designed a social revolution, being in this the representative of the method of Hobbes. His single object was to reinstate the understanding in its full rights, to emancipate thought, to extend knowledge, to erect the standard of critical common sense. He either could not see, or else, as one sometimes thinks, he closes his eyes and refuses for his part to see, that it was impossible to revolutionize the spiritual basis of belief without touching the social forms, which were inseparably connected with the old basis by the strong bonds of time and a thousand fibres of ancient association and common interest. Rousseau began where Voltaire left off. He informs us that in the days when his character was forming, nothing which Voltaire wrote escaped him, and that the “Philosophical Letters,” that is, the “Letters on the English,” though assuredly not the writer's best work, were what first attracted him to study, and implanted a taste which never afterwards became extinct. The correspondence between Voltaire and the prince of Prussia, afterwards the great Frederick, inspired Rousseau with a passionate desire to learn how to compose with elegance, and to imitate the coloring of so fine an author. Thus Voltaire, who was eighteen years his elder, gave this extraordinary genius his first productive impulse. But a sensibility of temperament, to which perhaps there is no parallel in the list of prominent men, impelled Rousseau to think, or rather to feel, about the concrete wrongs and miseries of men and women, and not the abstract rights of their intelligence. Hence the two great revolutionary schools, the school which appealed to sentiment, and the school which appealed to intelligence. The Voltairean principles of the strictest political moderation and of literary common sense, negative, merely emancipatory, found their political outcome, as French historians early pointed out, in the Constituent Assembly, which was the creation of the upper and middle class, while the spirit of Rousseau, ardent, generous, passionate for the relief of the suffering, overwhelmed by the crowding forms of manhood chronically degraded and womanhood systematically polluted, came to life and power in the Convention and the sections of the Commune of Paris which overawed the Convention.
“It will not do,” wrote d'Alembert to Voltaire as early as 1762, “to speak too loudly against Jean Jacques or his book, for he is rather a king in the Halles.” This must have been a new word in the ears of the old man, who had grown up in the habit of thinking of public opinion as the opinion, not of markets where the common people bought and sold, but of the galleries of Versailles. Except for its theology, the age of Louis XIV. always remained the great age to Voltaire, the age of pomp and literary glory, and it was too difficult a feat to cling on one side to the Grand Monarch, and to stretch out a hand on the other to the “Social Contract.” It was too difficult for the man who had been embraced by Ninon de 1'Enclos, who was the correspondent of the greatest sovereigns in Europe, and the intimate of some of the greatest nobles in France, to feel much sympathy with writings that made their author king of the Halles. Frederick offered Rousseau shelter, and so did Voltaire; but each of them disliked his work as warmly as the other. They did not understand one who, if he wrote with an eloquence that touched all hearts, repulsed friends and provoked enemies like a madman or a savage. The very language of Rousseau was to Voltaire as an unknown tongue, for it was the language of reason clothing the births of passionate sensation. Emile only wearied him, though there were perhaps fifty pages of it which he would have had bound in morocco. It is a stale romance, he cries, while the “Social Contract” is only remarkable for some insults rudely thrown at kings by a citizen of Geneva, and for four insipid pages against the Christian religion, which are simply plagiarized from Bayle's centos. The author is a monster of ingratitude and insolence, the arch-scoundrel and chief of charlatans, the lineal descendant of the dog of Diogenes the cynic, and other evil things not readily to be named in a polite age. Partly no doubt this extreme irritation was due to the insults with which Jean Jacques had repulsed his offers of shelter and assistance, had repudiated Voltaire's attempts to defend him, and had held up Voltaire himself as a proper object for the persecutions of Geneva. But there was a still deeper root of discrepancy, which we have already pointed out. Rousseau's exaggerated tone was an offence to Voltaire's more just and reasonable spirit, and the feigned austerity of a man whose life and manners he knew, assumed in his eyes a disagreeable shade of hypocrisy. Besides these things, he was clearly apprehensive of the storms which Rousseau's extraordinary hardihood had the very natural effect of raising in the circles of authority, though it is true that the most acute observers of the time thought that they noticed a very perceptible increase of Voltaire's own hardihood, as a consequence of the example which the other set him.
The rivalry between the schools of Rousseau and Voltaire represents the dead-lock to which social thought had come; a dead-lock of which the catastrophe of the Revolution was both expression and result. At the time of Voltaire's death there was not a single institution in France with force enough to be worth a month's purchase. The monarchy was decrepit; the aristocracy was as feeble and impotent as it was arrogant; the bourgeoisie was not without aspiration, but it lacked courage and it possessed no tradition; and the Church was demoralized, first by the direct attack of Voltaire and the not less powerful indirect attack of the “Encyclopaedia,” and second by the memory of its own cruelty and selfishness in the generation just closing. But Voltaire's theory, so far as he ever put it into its most general form, was that the temporal order was safe and firm, and that it would endure until criticism had transformed thought and prepared the way for a régime of enlightenment and humanity. Rousseau, on the contrary, directed all the engines of passion against the whole temporal fabric, and was so little careful of freedom of thought, so little confident in the plenary efficacy of rational persuasion, as to insist upon the extermination of atheists by law. The position of each was at once irrefragable and impossible. It was impossible to effect a stable reconstitution of the social order until men had been accustomed to use their minds freely, and had gradually thrown off the demoralizing burden of superstition. But then the existing social order had become intolerable, and its forces were practically extinct, and consequently such an attack as Roussseau's was inevitable, and was at the same time and for the same reasons irresistible. To overthrow the power of the Church only was to do nothing in a society perishing from material decay and political emasculation. Yet to regenerate such a society without the aid of moral and spiritual forces, with whose activity the existence of a dominant ecclesiastical power was absolutely incompatible, was one of the wildest feats that ever passionate sophist attempted.
If, however, it must be admitted that each of these two famous destroyers was attempting an equally desperate task, it is the contention of these pages that Voltaire was the more right and far-sighted of the two in his perception of the conditions of the problem. We have now for various adequate reasons acquired the habit of looking upon the Church and speaking of it, as an organization outside of society, or at least as a separate organization and independent integer within. The truth is that in a Catholic country like France before the Revolution, the Church more than the secular order actually was the society, as it had been, though to a far wider degree, throughout Europe in the days of Hildebrand and Innocent. That is to say, it furnished the strongest of the ideas, sentiments, hopes, and associations which bound men together in a single community. The monarchy, the nobles, the old historic French tradition, the various bodies and processes of law, were swept away by the Revolution, virtually never to return in spite of the transient appearances to the contrary. The Church was swept away also, but only for a year or two; and so little effectual was the Revolution, which was in fact Rousseau's Revolution, in permanently modifying its position, that those Frenchmen at the present day who most soberly judge the future of their country and look deepest into its state, clearly perceive that the battle to be fought in the order of ideas is a battle between the new moral and social ideas of the workmen, and the old moral and social ideas which Catholicism has implanted in the breasts of the peasants, and on which the middle class privately and unconsciously lean for the support of their own consciences, though they may have put away Catholic dogma. We may see here, once more, the help which Protestantism gave to the dissolution of the old society, by the increased room it gave, apart from the specific influence of a more democratic dogma, for that gradual intellectual expansion throughout a community, which for those who have faith in the reasoning faculty is the one sure secret of social advance. The subjection of the spiritual power to the temporal, which has commonly followed the establishment of the Protestant communion, has very likely retarded the final disappearance of many ideas which foster anti-social tendencies; but the subjection of the spiritual power in such a set of circumstances has the effect of softening shocks. Protestantism in the sixteenth century, if it could have been accepted in France, would have been a more edifying dissolvent than Voltairism was in the eighteenth; but it is certain that the loosening of theological ideas and the organization connected with them and upholding them, was the first process towards making truly social ideas possible, and their future realization a thing which good men might hope for. Napoleon, the great organ of political reaction, knew what he was about in paying writers for years to denigrate the memory of Voltaire, whose very name he abhorred.
In saying, however, that Rousseau's attack was inevitable, we have perhaps said that it was indispensable; for where a society is not able to resist an assault upon its fundamental conditions, we may be tolerably sure that the time has arrived when either these conditions must be dispersed, or else the society must fall into rapid dissolution. We may refute Rousseau's sophisms as often and as conclusively as we please, and may dwell as forcibly as we know how upon the untold penalties which France has paid, and is still doomed to pay, for whatever benefits he may have bestowed on her. But after all this, the benefits remain, and they may be briefly set down as two in number. In the first place he spoke words that can never be unspoken, and kindled a hope that can never be extinguished; he first inflamed men with a righteous conviction that the evils of the existing order of things reduced civilization to a nullity for the great majority of mankind, and that it cannot for ever be tolerable that the mass should wear away their lives in unbroken toil without hope or aim, in order that the few may live selfish and vacuous days. Rousseau presented this sentiment in a shape which made it the “negation of society;” but it was much to induce thinkers to ask themselves, and the bondsmen of society to ask their masters, whether the last word of social philosophy had been uttered, and the last experiment in the relations of men to one another decisively tried and irrevocably accepted. Second, by his fervid eloquence and the burning conviction which he kindled in the breasts of great numbers of men, he inspired energy enough in France to awaken her from the torpor as of death which was stealing so rapidly over her. Nobody was more keenly aware of the presence of this breath of decay in the air than Voltaire was. It had seized such hold of the vital parts of the old order, that, but for the fiery spirit and unquenchable ardor of the men who read Rousseau as men of old had read the gospel, but for the spirit and ardor which animated the Convention, and made it alike in the tasks of peace and the tasks of war one of the most effective and formidable assemblies that the world has ever beheld, we do not see what there was to stop France from sinking lower and lower into impotence, until at last the powers who vainly threatened the republic with partition, might in the course of time actually have consummated the threat against the monarchy. This may seem impossible to us who live after the Revolution and after Napoleon; but we must remember the designs of partitioning Prussia in the middle of the century, the accomplishment of a partition of the Italian possessions of the house of Austria in 1735, and the partition of Poland; and why was France to be eternal, any more than the Byzantine Empire, or the power of the house of Austria, or the power of Spain, had been eternal? It was the fire kindled by Rousseau's passion that saved her; for even of the Constituent, which was Voltairean, the very soul was Mirabeau, who was Rousseauite.
It will be seen that in one sense Rousseau was a far more original personage than his first chief and inspirer. He contributed new ideas, of extremely equivocal and perilous character, but still new, to the multitudinous discussions which were throwing all the social elements into confusion. These ideas might indeed have been found substantially in the writings of previous thinkers like Montaigne and Locke; but Rousseau's passion invested them with a quality which was virtually to constitute them a fresh and original force. Voltaire contributed initiative and a temperament, which made his propagation of ideas that were not new, as important a fact in social if not in intellectual history, as if he had been possessed of superlative gifts in speculation. This has also to be remembered when we think of comparing him with Diderot, who, while his equal in industry, was greatly his superior both in fresh simplicity of imagination, and in grasp and breadth of positive knowledge. Whoever will take the trouble to turn over some of the thirty-five volumes of the “Encyclopædia,” may easily see how that gigantic undertaking (1751–1765), in which Voltaire always took the most ardent and practical interest, assisted the movement that Voltaire had commenced. It seemed to gather up into a single great reservoir all that men knew, and this fact of mere mechanical collocation was a sort of substitute for a philosophic synthesis. As Comte says, it furnished a provisional rallying-point for efforts the most divergent, without requiring the sacrifice of any points of essential independence, in such a way to secure for a body of incoherent speculation an external look of system. This enterprise, the history of which is a microcosm of the whole battle between the two sides in France, enabled the various opponents of theological absolutism, the Voltaireans, Rousseauites, atheists, and all other sorts and conditions of protesting men, to confront the Church and its doctrine with a similar semblance of organic unity and completeness. The “Encyclopædia” was not simply negative and critical. It was an unexampled manual of information, and was the means of spreading over the country some knowledge of that active scientific culture, which was producing such abundant and astonishing discoveries. The two streams of dissolvent influences, negative criticism on the one hand, and positive knowledge and scientific method on the other, were led into a single channel of multiplied volume and force. There was no real nor logical connection between the two elements, and while one of them has daily grown less serviceable, the other has daily grown more absorbingly powerful, so as now to be itself the effective indirect substitute for that direct negative criticism, with which the Encyclopædic design had once thrown it into alliance.
Diderot, the third chief of the attack, does even fuller justice than Rousseau to Voltaire's share in stimulating thought and opening the mind of France; and in spite of the extravagance of its first clause, there is a glimpse of true discrimination in the characteristic sentence—“Were I to call him the greatest man nature has produced, I might find people to agree with me; but if I say that she has never yet produced, and is never likely to produce again, a man so extraordinary, only his enemies will contradict me.” This panegyric was specially disinterested, because Voltaire's last years had been not least remarkable for his bitter antipathy to the dogmatic atheism and dogmatic materialism of that school with which Diderot was most intimate personally, and with whose doctrines, if he did not at all times seem entirely to share them, he had at any rate a warmer sympathy than with any other system of that negative epoch, when every chief thinker was so vague positively, so weak constructively, and only the subalterns, like d'Holbach and Helvétius, presumed to push on to conclusions.
The story of Voltaire's many long-sustained and unflagging endeavors to procure whatever redress might be possible for the victims of legal injustice, has been very often told, and mere commemoration of these justly renowned achievements may suffice here. “The worst of the worthy sort of people,” he once said, “is that they are such cowards. A man groans over wrong, he shuts his lips, he takes his supper, he forgets.” Voltaire was not of that temper. He was not only an extremely humane man; extraordinary vividness of imagination, lack of which is at the root of so much cruelty, and unparalleled sympathetic quality, thinness of which explains so much appalling indifference, animated him to a perseverance in protecting the helpless, which entitles him to a place by the side of Howard and the noblest philanthropists. There were three years in which the chief business of his life was to procure the rehabilitation of the name of the unfortunate Calas, and the payment of a money recompense to his family. He agitated the whole world with indignation and pity by means of narratives, pleas, short statements and long statements, passionate appeals and argumentative appeals. Powerful ministers, fine ladies, lawyers, men of letters, were all constrained by his importunate solicitations to lend an ear to the cause of reason and tolerance, and to lift up an arm in its vindication. The same tremendous enginery was again brought into play in the case of Sirven. In the case of La Barre and his comrade d'Etallonde, his tenacity was still more amazing and heroic. For twelve years he persevered in the attempt to have the memory of La Barre rehabilitated. One of the judicial authorities concerned in that atrocious exploit, struck with horror at the thought of being held up to the execration of Europe by that terrible avenger, conveyed some menace to Voltaire of what might befall him. Voltaire replied to him by a Chinese anecdote. “I forbid you,” said a tyrannical emperor to the chief of the tribunal of history, “to speak a word more of me.” The mandarin began to write. “What are you doing now?” asked the emperor. “I am writing down the order that your majesty has just given me.” There was a something inexorable as doom about Voltaire's unrelenting perseverance in getting wrong definitely stamped and transfixed. If he did not succeed in obtaining justice for the memory of La Barre, and in procuring for d 'Etallonde free pardon, at least he never abandoned the endeavor, and he was just as ardent and unwearied in the twelfth year, as he had been while his indignation was freshly kindled. He was more successful in the case of Lally. Count Lally had failed to save India from the English, had been taken prisoner, and had then in a magnanimous way asked his captors to allow him to go to Paris to clear himself from various charges, which the too numerous enemies he had made were spreading against his character and administration. The French people, infuriated at the loss of their possessions in India and Canada, were crying for a victim, and Lally, after a process tainted with every kind of illegality, was condemned to death by the parliament of Paris (1766) on the vague charge of abuse of authority, exactions, and vexations. The murdered man's son, known in the days of the Revolution as Lally Tollendal, was joined by Voltaire in the honorable work of procuring revision of the proceedings; and one of the last crowning triumphs of Voltaire's days was the news brought to him on his dying bed, that his long effort had availed.
The death of Lally is the parallel in French history to the execution of Byng in the history of England, and, oddly enough, Voltaire was very actively occupied in trying to avert that crime of our government, as well as the crimes of his own. He had known Byng when he was in England. Some one told him that a letter from Richelieu, who had been Byng's opponent at Minorca, would be useful, and Voltaire instantly urged the Duke to allow him to forward a letter he had, stating Richelieu's conviction of his defeated enemy's bravery and good judgment. Voltaire insists that this letter turned four votes on the court-martial. He informs a correspondent, moreover, of the fact that Byng had instructed his executor to express his deep obligation both to Voltaire and Richelieu. Humanity is erroneously counted among commonplace virtues. If it deserved such a place, there would be less urgent need than, alas, there is, for its daily exercise among us. In its pale shape of kindly sentiment and bland pity it is common enough, and is always the portion of the cultivated. But humanity armed, aggressive, and alert, never slumbering and never wearying, moving like ancient hero over the land to slay monsters, is the rarest of virtues, and Voltaire is one of its master-types.
His interest in public transactions in his latest years was keener than ever. That fruit of Polish anarchy, the war between Russia and Turkey which broke out in 1768, excited his imagination to a pitch of great heat, and the despatch in the spring of 1770 of a squadron from Cronstadt, for the so-called liberation of Greece, made him weep for joy. He implored Frederick not to leave to Catherine alone the burden of so glorious a task. Superstition had had seven crusades; was it not a noble thing to undertake one crusade to drive the barbarous Turks from the land of Socrates and Plato, Sophocles and Euripides? Frederick replied very sensibly that Dantzic was more to him than the Piræus, and that he is a little indifferent about the modern Greeks, who, if ever the arts should revive among them, would be jealous to find that a Gaul by his “Henriade” had surpassed their Homer; that this same Gaul had beaten Sophocles, equalled Thucydides, and left far behind him Plato, Aristotle, and the whole school of the Porch: — which was, perhaps, not quite so sensibly said.
The successes of Russia against Turkey in 1770 roused the anxiety of Austria and Prussia, and the solution of what we know as the Eastern question was indefinitely postponed by the device of partitioning Poland (August 5, 1772), the alternative to the acquisition of the whole of that country by Russia, the least civilized of the three powers. Of this memorable transaction Voltaire heartily approved, and he gave thanks that he had lived to see “such glorious events.” He insisted, decidedly against the king's will, that Frederick had devised the scheme, for he found it full of genius, and to all seeming he discerned none of the execration which the event he had just witnessed was destined to raise in his own country in years to come. His friendship with two of the chief actors may have biassed his judgment; but Voltaire seldom allowed, indeed by the conditions of his temperament he was unable to allow, personal considerations of this kind to obscure his penetrating sight. He may well have thought the partition of Poland desirable, for the reasons which a statesman of to-day may find adequate: the country's hopeless political anarchy, its crushing material misery, the oppressive power of the Church, the inevitable and standing peril to Europe of the existence of such a centre of conflagration. It is worth remarking that Rousseau was much more keenly alive to the gravity of the event, that he protested against what had been done, and that his influence has been one of the main causes of the illogical sympathy of democratic Europe for one of the most pestilent of aristocratic governments.
The accession of Turgot to power in 1774 stirred an ardent sympathy in Voltaire. Like the rest of the school, he looked upon this as the advent of the political messiah, and he shared the extreme hopes of that great and virtuous man's most sanguine lieutenants. He declared that a new heaven and a new earth had opened to him. His sallies against the economists were forgotten, and he now entered into the famous controversy of the free trade in grain with all his usual fire. His fervor went too far for the sage minister, who prayed him to be somewhat less eager in alarming uninformed prejudice. Still he insisted on hoping all things.
When it proved that one man alone, “qui no chercha le vrai que pour faire le bien,” was no match for the mountain torrent of ignorance, prejudice, selfishness, and usage, and Turgot fell from power (May, 1776), Voltaire sunk into a despair for his country, from which he never arose. “I am as one dashed to the ground. Never can we console ourselves for having seen the golden age dawn and perish. My eyes see only death in front of me, now that M. Turgot is gone. It has fallen like a thunderbolt on my brain and my heart alike. The rest of my days can never be other than pure bitterness.”
The visit to Paris was perhaps a falsification of this prophecy for a moment. In 1778, yielding either to the solicitations of his niece, or to a momentary desire to enjoy the triumph of his renown at its centre, he returned to the great city which he had not seen for nearly thirty years. His reception has been described over and over again. It is one of the historic events of the century. No great captain returning from a prolonged campaign of difficulty and hazard crowned by the most glorious victory, ever received a more splendid and farresounding greeting. It was the last great commotion in Paris under the old régime. The next great commotion which the historian has to chronicle is the ever-memorable fourteenth day of July, eleven years later, when the Bastille fell, and a new order began for France, and new questions began for all Europe.
The agitation of so much loud triumph and incessant acclamation proved more violent than Voltaire's feeble health could resist, and he died, probably from an over-dose of laudanum, on the thirtieth of May, 1778. His last writing was a line of rejoicing to the young Lally, that their efforts had been successful in procuring justice for the memory of one who had been put to death unjustly. How far Voltaire realized the nearness of vast changes we cannot tell. There is at least one remarkable prophecy of his, in the well-known letter to Chauvelin :— “Everything that I see appears the throwing broadcast of the seed of a revolution, which must inevitably come one day, but which I shall not have the pleasure of witnessing. The French always come late to things, but they do come at last. Light extends so from neighbor to neighbor, that there will be a splendid outburst on the first occasion, and then there will be a rare commotion. The young are very happy; they will see fine things.” A less sanguine tone marks the close of the apologue in which Reason and Truth, her daughter, take a triumphant journey in France and elsewhere, about the time of the accession of Turgot. “Ah, well,” says Reason, “let us enjoy these glorious days; let us rest here, if they last; and if storms come on, let us go back to our well.” Whether this meant much or little none can know. It would be shallow to believe that such men as Voltaire, with faculty quickened and outlook widened in the high air to which their fame raises them, really discerned no more than we, who have only their uttered words for authority, can perceive that they discerned. Great position often invests men with a second sight whose visions they lock up in silence, content with the work of the day.