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Voltaire & Religious Intolerance

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Source: Toleration and Other Essays by Voltaire. Translated, with an Introduction, by Joseph McCabe (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912).


It seems useful, in presenting to English readers this selection of the works of Voltaire, to recall the position and personality of the writer and the circumstances in which the works were written. It is too lightly assumed, even by many who enjoy the freedom which he, more than any, won for Europe, and who may surpass him in scepticism, that Voltaire is a figure to be left in a discreetly remote niche of memory. “Other times, other manners” is one of the phrases he contributed to modern literature. Let us genially acknowledge that he played a great part in dispelling the last mists of the Middle Ages, and politely attribute to the papal perversity and the lingering vulgarity of his age the more effective features of his work. Thus has Voltaire become a mere name to modern rationalists; a name of fading brilliance, a monumental name, but nothing more.

This sentiment is at once the effect and the cause of a very general ignorance concerning Voltaire; and it is a reproach to us. We have time, amid increasing knowledge, to recover the most obscure personalities of the Middle Ages and of antiquity; we trace the most elementary contributors to modern culture; and we neglect one of the mightiest forces that made the development of modern culture possible. I do not speak of Voltaire the historian, who, a distinguished writer says, introduced history for the first time into the realm of letters; Voltaire the dramatist, whose name is inscribed for ever in the temple of the tragic muse; Voltaire the physicist, who drove the old Cartesianism out of France, and imposed on it the fertile principles of Newton; Voltaire the social reformer, who talked to eighteenth-century kings of the rights of man, and scourged every judicial criminal of his aristocratic age; Voltaire the cosmopolitan, who boldly set up England’s ensign of liberty in feudal France. All these things were done by the “flippant Voltaire” of the flippant modern preacher. But he can be considered here only as one of the few who, in an age of profound inequality, used the privilege of his enlightenment to enlighten his fellows; one of those who won for us that liberty to think rationally, and to speak freely, on religious matters which we too airily attribute to our new goddess, Evolution.

The position of Voltaire in the development of religious thought in Europe is unique. Even if his words had no application in our age, it merits the most grateful consideration. Trace to its sources the spirit that has led modern France and modern Portugal to raise civic ideals above creeds, and that will, within a few decades, find the same expression in Spain, Italy, Belgium, and half of America. You find yourself in the first half of the nineteenth century, when, in all those countries, a few hundred men, and some women, maintained a superb struggle with restored monarchs and restored Jesuits for the liberty that had been wrested from them; and you find that the vast majority of them were disciples of Voltaire. Go back to the very beginning of the anti-clerical movement; seek the generators of that intellectual and emotional electricity which, gathering insensibly in the atmosphere of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, burst at last in the lurid flashes and the rolling thunders of the Great Revolution. On the religious side, with which alone I am concerned here, that devastating storm was overwhelmingly due to the writings of Voltaire. Rousseau, it is true, gave to the world his simple Deistic creed, and with sweet reasonableness lodged it in the minds of many; Diderot and d’Holbach and La Mettrie impressed their deeper scepticism with a weight of learning. But Voltaire was the oracle of Europe. “I have no sceptre, but I have a pen,” he once said to Frederick the Great. And when, in his later years, he poured out from his remote château on the Swiss frontier the flood of satires, stories, sermons, dialogues, pamphlets, and treatises which ate deep into the fabric of old Europe, his pen proved mightier than all the sceptres of its kings. To ignore Voltaire is to ignore history.

My object, however, in introducing to English readers these few characteristic specimens of his anti-clerical work is not solely to bespeak some gratefulness for the toleration and freedom which he enforced on a reluctant world, or to gratify a simple curiosity as to the character of his power. These are not dead words, not ashes of an extinct fire, which we disinter; for the world is not dead at which they were flung. If they cause resentment in the minds of some, the publication will be the more justified. But before I explain this paradox, let me show how the works came to be written, and written in such a way.

The life of Voltaire, which some conceive as a prolonged adolescence, has a very clear and instructive division into adolescence, manhood, and ripe age. All the works given in this volume belong to the last part, but we must glance at the others. François Marie Arouet was born, in the very comfortable bourgeois family of a staid Parisian notary, in 1694. He became a precocious, sharp-eared boy. His godfather was an abbé, a kind of ecclesiastic—not usually a priest—in the France of the time who drew his income from the Church, and therefore felt more entitled than the ordinary layman to scoff at its dogmas and ignore its morals. He could plead the example of his bishops. Several of these abbés visited the home of the Arouets, and gave little “Zozo” his first lessons in Biblical criticism. In the great college of the Jesuits he learned to articulate his scepticism. In his seventeenth year he set out on the career of letters. The kindly abbé, who, having answered to God for him at the baptismal font, felt bound to guide his fortunes, introduced him to one of the most brilliant and dissolute circles in Paris. It was a kind of club of abbés, nobles, writers, etc., and in it he would rapidly attain that large and peculiar knowledge of the Old Testament which appears in his writings. He sparkled so much at the suppers of the Epicureans, and earned such reputation, that he was put in the Bastille for certain naughty epigrams, which he had not written; and he was exiled for another epigram, on a distinguished sinner, which he had written. In the pensive solitude of the Bastille he changed his name to Voltaire.1 He emerged bolder than ever, wrote tragedies and poems and epigrams, was welcomed in the smartest salons of Paris, and behaved as a young gentleman of the time was expected to behave, until his thirty-first year.

In 1726 he was, through the despotic and most unjust action of a powerful noble, again put in the Bastille, and was then allowed to exchange that fortress for the fogs of London. Up to this time he had no idea of attacking Church or State. He had, in 1722, written a letter on religion—in the vein, apparently, of some of Swinburne’s unpublished juvenilia—which a distinguished writer of the time, to whom he read it, described as “making his hair stand on end”; it was, however, not intended for circulation. But experience of England, for which he contracted a passionate admiration, and which (as Mr. Churton Collins has shown) he studied profoundly, sobered him with a high and serious purpose. He met all the brilliant writers of that age in England, and took a great interest in the religious controversy which raged over Anthony Collins’s Discourse. He returned to France in 1729, vowing to win for it the liberty and enlightenment he had enjoyed in England. The splendid English Letters which he wrote with that aim, and was afraid to publish, leaked out in 1734. The book was burned by the hangman, and he had to retire once more, for letting France know how enlightened England was in the days of George I.

I pass over twenty years of his strenuous and brilliant career. He wrote his most famous tragedies and histories; he made an ardent study of, and introduced to France, the new science of Isaac Newton, whose funeral he had witnessed in London; he was banished from his country for smiling at Adam and Eve; he deserted France for Germany, and then quarrelled with Frederick the Great; he tried liberal Switzerland, and found that it gave you liberty only to attack other people’s dogmas; and in 1760 he settled at Ferney, since the shrine of Continental Rationalism, on the frontier, so that he could talk to Calvinists from the French side, and cross the border, if need were, to talk to France. But France was at his feet. For eighteen years more he showered his rain of publications on it. Even in those illiterate days some of his publications sold 300,000 copies. And when at last, in 1778, he was tempted to revisit Paris, the roar of delight, of esteem, of abject worship, overwhelmed him, and he died in a flood of glory.

To those last twenty years of his life belong the anti-Christian works reproduced in this volume. He was now a man of mature judgment, vast erudition, and grave humanitarian purpose. The common notion in England of Voltaire’s works, as superficial gibes thrown out by the way in a brilliant career, is sheer nonsense. His command of history was remarkable; and he had, for the time, a thorough grasp of science and philosophy. His arguments for the existence of God will compare with those of the ablest lay or clerical theologians of his time. His knowledge was defective and inaccurate because all knowledge was defective and inaccurate in the eighteenth century, when research was only just beginning to recover from its long ecclesiastical paralysis. No man in France had a larger command of such knowledge as the time afforded, and the use he made of it was serious and high-purposed. It is only the superficial who cannot see the depth below that sparkling surface; only the insensible who cannot feel the strong, steady beat of a human heart behind the rippling laughter.

Écrasez l’infame—“Crush the infamous thing”—the battle-cry which he sent over Europe from the Swiss frontier, was but a fiery expression of his love of men, of liberty, of enlightenment, and of progress. Read the stories of brutality in the guise of religion that are told in these pages—stories which ran into Voltaire’s day—the stories of “religious” processions and relics and superstitions, the story of how this ignorant credulity had been imposed on Europe, and how it was maintained by sceptical priests, and say, if you dare, that the phrase was not a cry of truth, sincerity, and humanity. There was even a profoundly religious impulse in his work. A clerical friend once confided to me that he found a use in Voltaire. It seemed that, when inspiration for the Sunday sermon failed, he fell upon my “atheistic friends,” Voltaire and Rousseau, and the French Revolution they brought about. He was amazed to hear that they believed in God as firmly as, and much more reasonably than, he and his colleagues did. Voltaire’s aim was a sincere effort to rid pure religion of its morbid and abominable overgrowths.

Very good, you say; but why not have set about it more politely? For two plain reasons. First, because the character of his opponents fully justified him in directing his most scathing wit upon them. The Jesuits, whom he chiefly lashed, were in his own time ignominiously expelled by nearly every Catholic Power in Europe, and were suppressed by the Pope. The other clergy were deeply tainted with scepticism in the cities, and befogged with dense ignorance in the provinces. One incident will suffice to justify his disdain. His latest English biographer, S. G. Tallentyre, who is not biassed in his favour, says that it is most probable, if not certain, that while the Catholic authorities were burning his books in Paris, and shuddering at his infidelity, they were secretly tempting him, with the prospect of a cardinal’s hat, to join the clergy. It is certain that they invited him to do religious work, and that, at the height of his anti-clerical work, he received direct from the Pope certain relics to put in a chapel he had built for his poor neighbours. Could a prince of irony restrain himself in such circumstances? The other reason is the character of the dogmas and practices he assailed. Read them in the following pages.

It is true that there are passages in Voltaire which none of us would, if we could, write to-day. The taste of the eighteenth century, still fouled by the Middle Ages, is not the taste of the twentieth. Besides some longer passages which have been omitted from the Treatise on Toleration, as will be explained, a few lines have been struck out or modified here and there in one or two of the works in this selection. Let me not be misunderstood, however. They are mainly words of the Old Testament, and comments inspired only by those words, that have been omitted. In the eighteenth century one could quote and comment in public on these grossnesses. Indeed, by some singular mental process, which Voltaire alone could characterise, the books containing these crudely sexual passages are still thrust into the hands of children and of confined criminals by the joint authority of Church and State in England; and grave bishops and gentle women say that they are the Word of God.

And this brings me to the last point that I desire to touch before I introduce, one by one, the works contained in this volume. Why reproduce at all, in the twentieth century, these fitting scourges of the superstitions of the eighteenth? I have said that they deserve to be reproduced for their historical interest and for the great part they have played in the history of Europe; but there is another reason. I have an idea that, if Voltaire were alive in England to-day, he would write with more scathing irony than ever. I imagine him gazing with profound admiration at that marvellous picture of the past which science and archæology have given us, and then asking at what date in the nineteenth century we ceased to dispute about consubstantiality and transubstantiation, took the gilt off our Old Testament, and elevated our bishops to the rank of citizens. I then fancy him peeping into the fine schools of London or Manchester, and learning that the first educational authorities in England still set children to learn about Adam and Eve, the Deluge, the Plagues of Egypt, and the remarkable proceedings of Joshua and David and the rest. I try to conceive him studying the faces of learned judges and professors, as they listen gravely to the reading of the Bible and the creeds in church on Sundays, or reverently handle the book in court. I picture his amazement as he learns that this England, which he thought so enlightened, still, at the dictation of its bishops, retains the most abominable divorce law in the civilised world; or hears preachers and social students seriously expressing concern for the future of Europe on account of the decay of docility to the clergy. What would he have written on such a situation?

The satire of Voltaire is not out of place in modern England. As long as the Bible is, however insincerely, pressed on us as the Word of God, and retained in our schools, we are compelled to point out in it features which make such claims ludicrous. As long as the clergy maintain that their rule in the past was a benefit to civilisation, and therefore its decay may be a menace to civilisation, we are bound to tell the ugly truth in regard to the past. As long as educated men and women among us profess a belief in the magic of transubstantiation and auricular confession and miracles, and the uneducated are encouraged to believe these things literally, the irony of Voltaire is legitimate. Christian bodies have, of late years, made repeated attempts to induce our leaders of culture to profess the Christian faith. The issue has been to make it clear that the great majority of our professors, distinguished writers, and artists hold either the simple theism of Voltaire or discard even that. The doctrines attacked here by Voltaire are wholly discredited. Yet they are still the official teaching of the Churches (except of the Congregationalists); they are largely enforced on innocent children, and they are literally accepted by some millions of our people. I see no reason to refrain from letting the irony of Voltaire fall on them once more.

The reader must not, however, conclude at once that the following pages are so many red-hot charges into the tottering ranks of mediæval dogmas. My aim has been to illustrate the versatility of Voltaire’s genius, and to exhibit his own sincere creed no less than his most penetrating scourges of what most educated men in his time and ours regard as utterly antiquated delusions. There are pages here that might receive a place of honour in the most orthodox religious journals of England; other pages in which the irony is so subtle and the temper so polite that, without the terrible name, they would puzzle many a clergyman. In the Questions of Zapata, however, and in parts of one or two other essays, I have given specimens of the Voltaire who was likened to Antichrist.

The selection opens with the Treatise on Toleration, which has a mainly historical interest, and illustrates the finest side of Voltaire’s work and character. It shows him as a profound humanitarian, putting aside, in his seventieth year, his laughter and his comfort to take up the cause of an obscure sufferer, and shaking France, as Zola did in our time, with his denunciation of a judicial crime. The story of the crime is told in the essay itself; but it is not told, or in any way conveyed, that, but for the action of the aged rationalist, not a single effort would have been made to secure redress. His splendid action on that and a few similar occasions has been held by critical students of his career to atone for all his errors. Many Protestants who scoff at “Voltaire the scoffer” may learn with surprise that his noble and impassioned struggle earned for them the right to live in Southern France. The treatise was published in 1763. I have omitted a number of lengthy and learned notes and one or two chapters which are incidental to the argument and of little interest to-day.

The three Homilies—those On Superstition, On the Interpretation of the Old Testament, and On the Interpretation of the New Testament—are selected from five which Voltaire wrote in 1767, with the literary pretence that they had been delivered before some liberal congregation at London in 1765. The second of these Homilies is one of the most effective indictments of the Old Testament, considered as an inspired book. Nowhere in rationalistic literature is there an exposure of the essential humanity of the Old Testament so condensed yet so fluent, so original in form, comprehensive in range, and unanswerable in argument. It was published, it is believed, in 1767, though the first edition is marked 1766. Its humour it malicious from the first line, as the “Dr. Tamponet” whose name is put to it was really an orthodox champion of the Sorbonne. It is in this short diatribe that I have chiefly made the modifications of which I have spoken. It was Voltaire’s aim to show that the coarseness of many passages of the Old Testament is quite as inconsistent with inspiration as its colossal inaccuracy and its childlike superstition. An English translation, similarly modified, of the Questions of Zapata was made by an anonymous lady, and published by Hetherington, in 1840. In the present translation some of the paragraphs are omitted, and the numbering is therefore altered.

The Epistle to the Romans, another specimen of Voltaire’s most deadly polemic, is a just and masterly indictment of the papal system. It was issued in 1768, and very promptly put on the Index by the outraged Vatican. But it penetrated educated Italy, and had no small share in the enlightenment which has ended in the emancipation of the country. The exquisite imitations of sermons which follow contain some of Voltaire’s most insidious and delicate irony. The Sermon of the Fifty was written and published in 1762.

The volume closes with the famous poem which Voltaire wrote, in the year 1755, when he heard that an earthquake had destroyed between 30,000 and 40,000 people in Portugal. It was one of the chief festivals of the Catholic year, the Feast of All Saints (November 1), and the crowded churches were in the very act of worship, when the ground shook. In a few minutes 16,000 men, women, and children were slain, and as many more perished in the subsequent fires and horrors. Voltaire was at Geneva, and the horrible news threw him into the deepest distress. The poem into which he condensed his pain and his doubts is not a leisurely and polished piece of art. It has technical defects, and is unequal in inspiration. Should we admire it if it were otherwise? But it is a fine monument to his sincerity and just human passion, and it contains some phrases that became proverbial and some passages of great beauty. I have altered the structure of the verse—the original is in rhymed hexameters—only in order that I could more faithfully convey to those who read only English the sentiments and, as far as possible, the phrasing of Voltaire. One allusion that recurs throughout needs some explanation. Browning’s “All’s right with the world” was a very familiar cry in the eighteenth century. The English Deists, and J. J. Rousseau in France, held obstinately to this most singular optimism. Although Rousseau made a feeble and friendly reply to the poem, it proved a deadly blow to his somewhat fantastic teaching on that point.

Immediately preceding this poem I have given a translation of Voltaire’s philosophical essay, Il faut choisir. This was written by him in 1772, six years before his death, and is the most succinct expression of his mature religious views. It is really directed against his atheistic friends at Paris, such as d’Holbach. Condorcet said of it that it contained the most powerful argumentation for the existence of God that had yet been advanced. Its remarkable lucidity and terseness enable us to identify his views at once. He did not believe in the spirituality or immortality of the soul, but he had an unshakable conviction of the existence of God. It is sometimes said that the Lisbon earthquake shook his theism. This is inaccurate, as a careful comparison of the two works will show. He never believed that the supreme intelligence was infinite in power, and the haunting problem of evil always made him hesitate to ascribe more than limited moral attributes to his deity. His one unwavering dogma—it does not waver for an instant in the poem—is that the world was designed by a supreme intelligence and is moved by a supreme power. Had he lived one hundred years later, when evolution began to throw its magical illumination upon the order of the universe and the wonderful adaptation of its parts, his position would clearly have been modified. As it was, he, with constant sincerity, avowed that he could not understand the world without a great architect and a prime mover of all moving things. In all his works the uglier features of the world, which, unlike many theists, he steadfastly confronted, forbid him to add any other and warmer attributes to this bleak intelligence and mysterious power.

J. M.

[1 ]Probably adopting a name which is known to have existed among his mother’s ancestors. But it is curious that “Voltaire” is an anagram of his name—Arouet 1 (e) j (eune) — if u be read as v and j as i.

Last modified April 13, 2016