Voltaire, by John Morley



THE activity of the foremost men of the eighteenth century in the composition of history is too remarkable a circumstance, not to deserve some attempt at explanation. There were historians in previous ages, but in the eighteenth century there was both in France, and afterwards in England, a special and extraordinary development in this direction. Partially no doubt this was due to the general movement of curiosity, the widespread desire for all kinds of knowledge, which was in the air. Men were emancipating themselves from the trammels of an authority which had not widened the limits of inquiry in the same proportion as human faculties had strengthened, and, amid the universal expansion of intelligent interest and the eager scrutiny of all the objects of knowledge which the new dawn was baring to sight, it was not possible that the order of political and social facts in former epochs should be neglected. This, however, does not sufficiently explain why such a man as Hume betook himself to the composition of history, or why Gibbon found himself best able to attack Christianity by tracing some of the most important parts of its annals, or why Voltaire, who lived so entirely and intensely in the present, should have thought it worth while to give so much labor to presentation of the past. It is a striking fact, which must be something more than an accident, that the best secular histories which remain from this period, one of them the most striking monument in historical literature, were written by the most marked assailants of reigning superstition.

Was it not, indeed, to be expected that as the dark clouds of an absorbing consciousness of the supernatural cleared away, men of understanding would be more and more drawn towards study of human action, and that the advance of society under purely natural and positive conditions would immediately seize a foremost place among the objects of experiential inquiry? It is too constantly maintained by persons with something of a vested interest in darkness, that those who do not worship the gods are indifferent to the happiness of men. Yet the history of intellectual progress would seem to show that it was not until the commencement of a rapid decline in the acceptance of terrorist and jealous deities and incomprehensible dogmas, that serious attention was given to some of the subjects in which a sound knowledge is among the most indispensable conditions of the advancing welfare of men. For instance, as soon as the hold of ancient versions of the supernatural was loosened over the stronger spirits, by the middle of the century there instantly took place an astonishing development of activity in the physical sciences. The interest of historic and economic studies was at least as pressing. Becoming aware that men had made their own world, thinkers found the consideration of the process by which this world is made, and the order of society established and developed, forced upon them with an entirely new significance. The dry bones of the ancient valley of annalists and chroniclers were made to live, and the great work of the reconstruction of the past was begun, with an alertness and perseverance that has not been surpassed even in an age of far purer and juster historical intelligence. It was quite reasonable that the conviction of each act in the universe, from the crash of an empire to the fall of a sparrow to the ground, being due to an arbitrary and inscrutable decree, should prevent the rise of history from the level of annals into the region of philosophy. The decay of this theory of the government of the universe was as reasonably the cause of a new mode of looking at the long records of the race, and we find ourselves moving in a day of historical masterpieces.

Voltaire has told us the circumstances under which he was led to approach the philosophy of history. Madame du Châtelet, whose mind would fain have reached every kind of knowledge, but who was especially apt for metaphysics and geometry, had conceived an aversion for history. "What does it matter to me," she would ask, "a French woman living on my estate, to know that Egil succeeded Haquin in Sweden, and that Ottoman was the son of Ortogrul? I have read with pleasure the history of the Greeks and the Romans; they offered me certain great pictures which attracted me. But I have never yet been able to finish any long history of our modern nations. I can see scarcely anything in them but confusion; a host of minute events without connection or sequence, a thousand battles which settled nothing. I renounced a study which overwhelms the mind without illuminating it." To this frank statement of the case, to which so many thousands of persons in all epochs would so heartily subscribe, Voltaire replied by pointing out that perhaps the study of history would be no waste of time, if by cutting away all the details of wars, as tedious as they are untrustworthy, all the frivolous negotiations which have been nothing but pieces of purposeless cheating, all the minute incidents which stifle great events, and by retaining those which paint manners, you made of this chaos a general, and well-arranged picture; in short, if you tried to disengage from the concourse of events the history of the human mind. Not all the faults of execution ought to blind us to the merit of this notion of the true way of studying history, or to the admirable clearness of vision with which Voltaire, not only in this but in all his other historical pieces, adhered to his own two leading principles; first, that laws, arts, manners, are the chief matter and concern of history; and second, that "details which lead to nothing are in history what baggage is to an army,impedimenta,for we must look at things in large, for the very reason that the human mind is small and sinks under the weight of minutiae." Minutiae ought to be collected by annalists, or in some kind of dictionaries where one might find them at need. In this last point Voltaire, as might be expected, was more just than Bolingbroke, who had said somewhat petulantly that "he had rather take the Darius whom Alexander conquered for the son of Hystaspes, and make as many anachronisms as a Jewish chronologer, than sacrifice half his life to collect all the learned lumber that fills the head of an antiquary." The antiquary's is a vocation like another, and the highest kind of history can only flourish on condition that the humbler ancillary kind flourishes also, and that there are patient and scrupulous men to mark the difference between Darius Codomannus and Darius the son of Hystaspes.

We may say that three kinds of men write history: the gazetteer or annalist, the statesman, and the philosopher. The annalist's business is to investigate and record events, and his highest merits are clearness, accuracy, and simplicity. The political historian seeks the superficial and immediate causes of great transactions, and he serves us by mixed penetration and soundness of judgment. The historical philosopher is concerned only with groups of events, the changes and movements that transform communities, and with the trains of conditions that lead to such movements. The majority of historians, from the illustrious Bacon down to the compiler of a manual, illustrate the first kind. Thucydides and Tacitus, among the ancients, a Machiavelli or a Finlay, among moderns, may illustrate the second kind. As Voltaire was sometimes gazetteer and sometimes statesman, so Montesquieu took the statesman's point of view in his reflections on the decline of Rome, and that of the philosopher in the Spirit of Laws. It is the statesman or man of the world, who, after recounting Caesar's failure on one occasion to comply with the etiquette of the senate, proceeds to make the following reflection, that "we never offend men more, than when we shock their ceremonies and usages: seek to oppress them, and that is sometimes a proof of the importance you attach to them; but shock their customs, and that is always a mark of contempt." It is the philosopher, feeling for the causes of things and their order, who being led to inquire into the spirit or meaning of Laws, understands such an inquiry to involve a comparative investigation of the relations between laws and physical climate, the quality of ground, situation and extent of territory, the mode of life of the people, agricultural, hunting, or pastoral; between laws and the freedom of the constitution, the religion, wealth, trade, moral ideas, and manners, of the inhabitants; above all, historically, between laws and their origin and the order of things on which they were first founded.

In a similar way we may divide Voltaire's historical pieces into two main classes. Indeed, if we count the "Annals of the Empire," which he wrote to please the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha, he may rank also under the third remaining head among the annalistic historians. This, however, is too unsatisfactory a piece of work for us to care either to classify or to remember it. The subject was not of his own selection, he knew comparatively little about it, his materials were extremely scanty and imperfect, and he composed it at a time when his whole mind was violently perturbed by his recent quarrel with Frederick, and torn by anxiety where he should find a home in rest and freedom. It was the only work he ever wrote, for which he perhaps had no heart, and the least observant reader will notice how vast a difference this made in the temper of its composition. Indeed, Voltaire was not born to be a simple chronicler. The realistic and practical leanings of his intellect naturally gave him a distaste for the collection of mere uninterpreted and unapplied facts. His clear comprehensiveness, the product of a vigorous imagination with strong sense, as naturally impelled him to group circumstances, and to introduce the widest possible generality among them. He has one of the peculiar gifts of the historian, as distinguished from the gazetteer, of throwing rapid glances over a wide field on the suggestion of a minor fact as he passes by it, and of converting what to others would be the mere unconsidered trifles of narrative into something possessed of its due measure of vitality and significance. He fills his pages with reflections that are usually not brought from very far depths, but which are almost always lively, just, and in real matter. Perhaps this is not an unmixed good, for it is not unconnected with an extraordinary evenness and light facility of style, which tends to draw the reader somewhat too rapidly and too smoothly over ground that had been rugged enough to the actual travellers. It tends therefore tacitly to plant a false impression about the tardiness, difficulty, peril, and infinitely varied possibilities of the social movements which are history's object and material. Perhaps a reader has a better idea of the true manner in which events march, from Comines or Clarendon, than from all the elegance and manifold graces of Voltaire, and we sometimes feel inclined to repeat de Maistre's angry demand for that grave and unhasting dignity which is the life of history.

We have already noticed one of the differences between Voltaire and Rousseau, which arose from the predominance of sentiment over reason in the latter. In the present connection another fact well worth noticing is that Rousseau was entirely wanting in either taste or serious regard for history. The past seems to have been to him a kind of blurred tablet, confused and indecipherable, interposed between the vision of men and the only thought or knowledge which it is good for them to possess. Voltaire's reading of this tablet was inadequate enough, in many respects it was even a grave distortion of the truth; but with that sound sense in which Rousseau was so absolutely deficient, he felt how irrational it was, in the first place, to shut our eyes deliberately to the course and meaning of all the foregone action of the race, and, in the second, to leave unattacked and unturned the strong position which the traditional parables of the past and their undisturbed interpretation conferred upon the champions of orthodoxy and absolutism. Rousseau, being a sentimentalist, appears to have discerned nothing of this. His ideas all involved a breach with the past, as Voltaire's did, but Voltaire deserves credit for perceiving that, to make this effective, you must at least find out as well as you can what the past was.

For his four works in the class of political history he had the best attainable authorities and material, and no one was ever more diligent in putting them to the best possible use.1 His acute sense, strengthened by contact with the world and its most active personages, made him what we may almost call prematurely scientific in his demand for adequate evidence and proof. It is rather striking, for example, to find him anticipating more recent objections to the trustworthiness of Tacitus, pointing out the extraordinary improbabilities in his account of Tiberius, Nero, and the others. There is all the difference, he says, between a faithful historian equally free from adulation and hatred, and "a malicious wit who poisons everything through the medium of a concise and energetic style." Are we to believe, he asks elsewhere, on the story of a man who lived long after Tiberius, that this emperor, nearly eighty years old, who had up to that time been decent almost to austerity, yet passed all his time in debaucheries hitherto unknown, and so monstrous as to need new names for them? And in the same way he questions the alleged atrocities of Nero and Caligula, as well as the motives imputed to Domitian by Tacitus for the frequency with which he sent to inquire after the health of Agricola. These historic doubts sprang from none of the political judgment or feeling which propounds them in more modern times, but purely from scientific incredulity. "History," he once wrote, "is after all nothing but a parcel of tricks that we play the dead." He did not hold this slightly splenetic theory, in which assuredly there is a painful truth, to absolve him from the duty of doing what he could to belie it, and to make history as correct and as faithfully representative of actual occurrences, as careful inquiry from those most likely to know the characters of the most prominent actors could make it. In the composition of the "Siècle de Louis XV." he had of course the advantage of knowing all these leaders of the public activity personally and at first hand, while if he had not that advantage to the same extent in the "Siècle de Louis XIV.," he at least mixed on intimate terms with many who had been intimate with the court of the great monarch. For the history of Russia he was amply provided with documents and authentic narratives from the Russian court, at whose solicitation he undertook a work which was the first full introduction of that hitherto barbarous and unknown country to the literature of civilized Europe. His letters to Schouvalof, the imperial chamberlain, attest the unremitting industry with which he sought for every kind of information that might be useful to him. "That enlightened spirit which now reigns among the principal nations of Europe, requires that we should go to the bottom, where in former times a historian barely thought it worth while to skim the surface. People wish to know how a nation grew together; what was its population before the epoch of which you treat; the difference in the number of the regular army then and in former times; the nature and growth of its commerce; what arts have sprung up within the country, and what have been introduced from elsewhere and been perfected there; what used to be the ordinary average revenue of the state, and what it is now; the birth and extension of its navy; the proportion in numbers between its nobles and its ecclesiastics and monks, and between the latter and the cultivators of the soil, etc." Even importunities of this kind continued over a space of some years, and the copious responses which they brought never consoled Voltaire for not having made the journey to the Russian capital in his proper person. "I should have learnt more from you in a few hours of conversation," he wrote to Schouvalof, "than all the compilers in the world will ever teach me." In writing the "History of Charles XII. of Sweden," one of the most delightful of his books, the art of which is none the less because it is so little ostentatious and striking and seems so easy, he had procured a large quantity of material from Fabrice, who knew the Swedish king during his detention at Bender and subsequently, and met Voltaire in London. This material was supplemented in later years by information picked up at Lunéville from the ex-Polish king Stanislaus, who was indebted to Charles for his sovereignty, that true doros adoros. "As for the portraits of men," Voltaire declared, "they are nearly all the creations of fancy; 'tis a monstrous piece of charlatanry to pretend to paint a personage with whom you have never lived." Napoleon, in the memorable campaign of 1812, coming to various places which Voltaire had occasion to describe in his "History of Charles XII.," found his account weak and inaccurate, and threw it aside in favor of Adlerfeldt. This was to be expected from the very merit of the book; for how should a picture, painted in large for the general instruction of the world, satisfy the minute requirements of strategical topography? It was precisely Voltaire's object to separate history from geography, statistics, anecdote, biography, tactics, and to invest it with an independent character and quality apart from all these.

It is another of the distinctions of his new method of writing history that, with the exception of the book on Charles XII., he throws persons and personal interests into a second place, as being no more than instruments or convenient names for critical turning-points in the large movements of peoples. In the narration of the rise of Russia to a place among civilized nations, the character of Peter the Great inevitably comes into marked prominence, because when a population lies on the stagnant level of barbarism, the first man who summons them to undertake the task of national elevation constitutes an element of paramount importance in their annals. In proportion, however, as they rise to the fulfilment of this surpassing work, the importance of the heroic individual diminishes; as the national self-consciousness and collective powers become greater, the figure of the individual shows less.

Voltaire was always conscious, though not so clearly as writers are now, of the great historical principle that besides the prominent men of a generation there is a something at work underneath, a moving current on whose flood they are borne. He never fixed this current by any of the names which now fall so glibly from our lips — tendency of the times, tenor of public opinion, spirit of the age, and the like, by which we give a collective name to groups of sentiments and forces, all making in what seems to be a single direction. But although unnamed, this singular and invisible concurrence of circumstance was yet a reality to him. The age was something besides its heroes, and something besides its noisiest and most resounding occurrences. His divisions of the great epochs of humanity are undoubtedly open to much criticism, because the principles on which he drew the dividing lines have lost their force in new generations. It was to be expected that they would do so; and his four great epochs were not likely to remain the four great epochs of a posterity, which has partially learnt the lesson that he had not learnt at all, that perfection in the fine arts is not the highest mark of an age in which humanity may glory. Nevertheless, we are bound to recognize that a new way of regarding human action, as well as a new way of composing history, was being introduced by a writer whose first paragraph declared that he proposed to himself a greater object than an account of the life of Louis XIV.; that he designed to paint for the instruction of posterity, not the actions of a single man, but the spirit of men; and that while all periods must be alike to one who only desires to fill his memory with facts, discrimination among them cannot be dispensed with for one who thinks.

Hence also the propriety of discrimination among the various kinds of fact which are at the historian's disposal, and in this order Voltaire's whole soul revolted against the reigning practice and prescription. "I would rather have details," he wrote to one of his intimates so early in his career as 1735, "about Racine and Despréaux, Molière, Bossuet, Descartes, than I would about the battle of Steinkirk. There is nothing left but the names of men who led battalions and squadrons. There is no return to the human race from a hundred engagements; but the great men I have spoken of prepared pure and ever-lasting pleasures for mortals still unborn. A canal-sluice, a picture by Poussin, a fine tragedy, a truth established, are all of them things a thousand times more precious than the whole mass of annals of the court, and than all the narratives of campaigns." From this and from a multitude of other passages, as well as from his actual compositions, we perceive that the activity of a court and the manœuvres of an army were no longer in Voltaire's eyes the fit substance of history. One reason for this might be his lively sense of the impossibility of knowing the character and motives of people with whom one has not lived, or the real cause of even the most momentous intrigues and negotiations in which one has not taken a personal share. A still deeper reason would be his most rational conviction that these matters are only of moment to us for their larger results and unmistakable outcome, and from the profoundly true and important principle that the progress of intellectual enlightenment, material prosperity, and moral elevation is not only a feature in the history of a nation, but does itself constitute that history, while all records of other transactions in the course of its annals, achievements in diplomacy, feats of arms, revolutions in policy, have no true historic value, except for the light they shed upon this economic, intellectual and moral progress, and are not worth studying except in that light. We may see the immediate effects of Voltaire's influence most markedly of all in Gibbon, but in a less important shape in the general account of the Middle Ages which Robertson contributed to his "History of Charles V." (1769), and which remained for many years the most instructive piece that our literature possessed upon the character and spirit of the feudal system and other features of the Middle Ages. Adam Ferguson's "Essay on the History of Civil Society" (1767) bears traces of the same influence. In both of these cases much also must be added for the kindred authority of Montesquieu. One has some hesitation in adding Hume to the list in the present connection, because his history, the composition of which extended from 1752 to 1763, ought perhaps to be counted rather the direct and independent outcome of the French philosophic spirit, than of the French historic spirit which itself proceeded from the philosophy; and because, moreover, Hume, as a historian, has some of Voltaire's most serious defects, without that breadth and size which constituted his greatest merit, though it is needless to point out how many merits Hume had of his own. It is worth remarking that in some pages which he wrote on Hume's History, Voltaire gave it a joyful welcome, as might be expected, and particularly to those parts which we now esteem most lightly, such as the contemptuous account of Cromwell.

To return, however, to the point from which we have digressed. One very direct consequence of the historical principle we have described, and of the way in which it was illustrated in the histories of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., and most of all in the "Essay on Manners," was the degradation of war from the highest to the lowest place among the objects of the historian's regard. War began for the first time to be systematically considered and treated as a mere instrument and means, and not as one of the most serious of social ends. We can never honor Voltaire too long nor too deeply for the vehemence and sincerity of his abhorrence of the military spirit. Nowhere do we feel more distinctly that he marked the end of the mediæval temper, than in his noble protests against the glory of bloodshed. The great orators of the Church to the very last donned the robes of their most sumptuous rhetoric, when they were called to consecrate the virtues of the victorious soldier. The pages of the Old Testament supplied them with a hundred baleful heroes to whom they might liken their warrior, and a hundred cruel and bloody tropes with which they might decorate the funeral oration. So long as the atrocities of the Hebrew chiefs and people, their treacheries and slaughters, were held sacred and celebrated with unction, it was not likely that the voice of the peacemaker could make itself heard.

Voltaire not only held up these demoralizing records to the odium they deserve; he directly taxed the clergy with their failure to discharge the very highest part of their failure to discharge the very highest part of their duty. Of the five or six thousand sermons of Massillon, he asked, are there a couple where you could pick out a word or two against the scourge and crime of war? Bourdaloue preached against impurity, but what sermon did he ever direct against the murder, rapine, brigandage, and universal rage, which desolate the world? "Miserable physicians of souls, you declaim for five quarters of an hour against the mere pricks of a pin, and say no word on the curse which tears us into a thousand pieces! Philosophers and moralists, burn your books: so long as the caprice of a handful of men will cause the massacring in all loyalty of thousands of our brothers, the part of the human race which is devoted to heroism will contain all that is most frightful in human nature. What concern to me are humanity, benevolence, modesty, temperance, gentleness, wisdom, piety, so long as half an ounce of lead shatters my body, and I die at twenty in torments unspeakable, surrounded by five or six thousand dead or dying, while my eyes, opening for the last time, see the town I was born in delivered to fire and sword, and the last sounds that reach my ears are the shrieks of women and children expiring in the ruins — and the whole for the pretended interests of a man that we do not know?" His rebuke to Montesquieu is still more distinctively modern. The author of the "Esprit des Lois" had said that among societies it sometimes happens that natural defence possibly involves the necessity of attack, when a nation perceives that a longer peace would place another nation in a position to destroy it. "If ever there was a war evidently unjust," Voltaire replies, "it is that which you propose; it is to go and kill your neighbor for fear your neighbor should be in a condition to attack you; that is to say, you must run the risk of ruining your country, in the hope of ruining without reason some other country. If your neighbor grows too powerful during a time of peace, what hinders you from growing powerful like him? If he has made alliances, make alliances on your side. If, having less religion, he has all the more manufacturers and soldiers for it, imitate him in so sage an economy. If he drills his sailors better, drill yours too; all that is perfectly just. But to expose your people to the most horrible misery, in the idea, which is so often chimerical, of crushing your dear brother, the most serene bordering prince —! 'twas never for a president of a pacific order to give you such a piece of counsel." The book in which this sound view of justice and expediency in the dealings of nations with one another was pressed upon the attention of France, was published in 1764, five years before the birth of the man who turned the tide back, and made the international policy of France a synonym both for iniquity and folly. On the 15th of August, 1769, Voltaire concluded his letter to d'Alembert with his usual vivacity: "Adieu; my compliments to the devil, for it is he who governs the world." If he had known that, while he was writing, Napoleon Bonaparte had come into the world, and could at the same time have foreseen the newcomer's destiny, he might have said the same thing more seriously. Voltaire never played the sentimentalist. He knew that there are complexities of affairs which only the sword can cut. But he was the first influential writer who deliberately placed war among retrograde agencies, and deliberately dwelt upon peaceful industry as the true life of nations.

Diplomacy and its complex subterranean processes, which have occupied so extremely disproportionate a space in written history, and which are in acted history responsible for so much evil, were in the same way informally relegated to the region of inhuman occupations. Its methods were the tortuous and depressing methods of the same past, which had made the many the playthings and unhappy instruments of the few, and had never interrupted the triumphant manœuvres of craft and subtlety by a whisper for the claims of humanity and justice. Voltaire scarcely ever speaks of negotiations between contending powers without a shrewd thrust, half contemptuous and half angry. The plain where some negotiations took place in the struggles among the descendants of Charles the Great is still called the Field of Lies; a name, he says, that might well be common to most spots where men have negotiated. And this represents his general tone in speaking of a branch of activity which may interest the professional diplomatist in all its details, but which, as he thought, can only concern the historical student in its results. Here Voltaire represented a marked tendency, which waxes stronger as societies grow more penetrated with popular forces, to divest diplomacy of a professional quality, and to throw the adjustment of the relations between nations as entirely as possible into the hands of plain men of firm and upright character, and full knowledge of the special matters at issue.

It is, however, when we come to the ground idea of the "Essay on Manners"2 that we feel the full breath of the modern spirit, and perceive that at length we are nearing the wide expanse of the sea. There we emerge absolutely from the narrow conception of universal history, with which Bossuet had familiarized men's minds in the "Discourse on Universal History." This famous piece, which has had at least as much praise as it merits, if we are to consider reason as well as eloquence, was fundamentally and in substance no more than a bit of theological commonplace splendidly decorated. Bossuet indeed spoke of "the concatenation of human affairs," but only in the same sentence with "the sequence of the counsels of God." The gorgeous rhetorician of the Church was not likely to rise philosophically into the larger air of universal history, properly so called. His eloquent discourse is a vindication of divine foresight, by means of an intensely narrow survey of such sets of facts as might be thought not inconsistent with the deity's fixed purpose to make one final and decisive revelation to men. No one who looks upon the vast assemblage of stupendous human circumstances, from the first origin of man upon the earth, as merely the ordained antecedent of what, seen from the long procession of all the ages, figures in so diminutive a consummation as the Catholic church, is likely to obtain a very effective hold of that broad sequence and many-linked chain of events, to which Bossuet gave a right name, but whose real meaning he never was even near seizing. His merit is that he did in a small and rhetorical way, what Montesquieu and Voltaire afterwards did in a truly comprehensive and philosophical way; he pressed forward general ideas in connection with the recorded movements of the chief races of mankind. For a teacher of history to leave the bare chronicler's road so far as to declare, for example, the general principle, inadequate and overstated as it is, that "religion and civil government are the two points on which human things revolve," even this was a clear step in advance — and to dismiss the long series of emperors from Augustus to Alexander Severus in two or three pages was to show a rare sense of large historic proportion. Again, Bossuet's expressions of "the concatenation of the universe," of the interdependence of the parts of so vast a whole, of there coming no great change without having its causes in foregoing centuries, and of the true object of history being to observe in connection with each epoch those secret dispositions of events which prepared the way for great changes, as well as the momentous conjunctures which more immediately brought them to pass — all these phrases seem to point to a true and philosophic survey. But they end in themselves, and lead nowhither. The chain is an arbitrary and one-sided collection of facts. The writer does not cautiously follow and feel after the successive links, but forges and chooses and arranges them after a pattern of his own, which was fixed independently of them. A scientific term or two is not enough to disguise the purely theological essence of the treatise.

Bossuet's Discourse is moreover constructed wholly on the theory that a special revelation was delivered to the Jews, and in tracing their course we have fast hold of the chain by which it has pleased heaven to communicate to earth all the truths we possess as to the highest things. Such a conception stifles a modern reader. The first pages of the "Essay on Manners," sometimes placed separately as the "Philosophy of History," prove that we have escaped from the cave. The chosen people fell into rank with other peoples, that equally supposed themselves to be chosen by their own peculiar gods. They lose the towering pre-eminence in virtue and light and divine favor with which their own records and Bossuet's interpretation had so splendidly invested them. We find that their pretensions were not unique, but universal among nations in such a stage; that their virtues were not singular, though some of their vices seem so. In a word, if some of Voltaire's details are crude and rudimentary, at least he has the merit of showing to his unaccustomed readers what vast epochs of time, what uncounted multitudes of men, what varied movements of the human spirit, surround the little speck of Judaism.

The bulk of the "Essay" was composed in 1740, but it is probable that this preliminary examination of other oriental nations, their practices, institutions, and religious ideas, was suggested by Montesquieu's memorable book, which appeared in 1748, some years before the publication of the "Essay on Manners." It is in point of execution much less satisfactory than what follows, for Voltaire's knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was inadequate, and he fell into various errors which his adversaries happily possessed scholarship enough to expose. In the modern provinces of the book, which constitute the important part of it, he was much more entirely at home in his subject. Here his familiarity with detail, considering the vast quantity of his other employments, is extremely surprising, and perhaps in no other book of equal generality have there been discovered so few serious inaccuracies, though none have encountered more hostile critics.

Prejudice, alas, spares truth and light no more when it narrows the vision of a free-thinker, than when it distorts the faculty of the devout. Being a reaction against Bossuet's unreasonable exaltation of the Jews and their history, Voltaire's conception of the place due to them partook of the inevitable fault of all reactions, and left out of sight considerations which it is eminently unscientific not to remember. "You never find," he says, "a generous action in the annals of the Hebrews; they knew neither hospitality nor liberality nor clemency. Their sovereign bliss is to practice usury with foreigners, and this spirit of usury is so rooted in their hearts, that it is the continual object of the figures they employ in the eloquence which is peculiar to them. Their glory is to deliver to fire and slaughter the small villages of which they may be able to take possession. They assassinate their masters when they are slaves, and they never know how to pardon when they are victorious; they are the enemies of the human race." This is as great an exaggeration on one side, as Bossuet's exaltation of them and their deeds was on the other side. We ought to admit what abominable traits the character and history of this race unfortunately present, without forgetting how much is owing to them for preserving in its sublimest shape and investing with the most deeply impressive images and associations, that idea of monotheism which, if destined to be superseded by other ideas more commensurate with the limits of human intelligence, must still be counted the germ of much that is purest and loftiest and most inspiring among the ideals of western civilization.

The same kind of extreme prejudice which drove Voltaire into maintaining of the Jews, not that they were a people whom we should do very ill either to imitate or admire, but nothing less than that they were the enemies of the human race, found vent in such assertions as that if any one could have restored the empire to its strength, or at all events retarded its fall, that man was the Emperor Julian. A historian may justly contend, if he thinks that the evidence warrants him, that Julian belongs to the type of virtuous reactionists, just as we may say it of Wesley or the chiefs of the Tractarians. But to make such an assertion as that the repression of Christianity after the middle of the fourth century, even supposing it to have been possible of achievement, could have given back to the rapidly declining empire a strength of which all the roots were lifeless, was to falsify history for the sake of exalting the name of an apostate. A Roman aristocrat, blind to the real operation and comparative value of the forces at work, might be pardoned for holding Christianity guilty of the general dissolution around him; but it was a strange phantasy for a philosopher of the eighteenth century to suppose that the Christian system, in the shape which it had assumed by Julian's time, did not offer principles of firmer association, than the mere rites of a paganism which was spontaneously decaying with a rapidity that increased day by day. There is no stronger illustration of the twist which polemical fury may give to the most acute intelligence, than this belief of Voltaire's, that an organization which had attracted to itself every able and statesmanlike intellect of the time, could do less for the regeneration of the empire than the initiated disciple of Platonist theurgy.

His account of the history of the Church is composed in the same vein, and we may see where Gibbon, who was a reader of Voltaire, drew the inspiration of the solemn sneer with which he sapped solemn creed. "So many frauds, so many errors, so many disgusting absurdities," says Voltaire, "with which we have been inundated for seventeen hundred years, have been unable to do any harm to our religion. It is unquestionably divine, since seventeen centuries of imposture and imbecility have not destroyed it." Voltaire thought as ill as possible of the century to which he belonged; we cannot therefore charge him with the inconsistency which marks some of his most prominent disciples, who while they accepted such an account of the vileness of the Church as he had given them, did not scruple to believe that, as if by miracle, seventeen centuries of steady depravation were per saltum to be followed by an eighteenth and other centuries of boundless virtue and enlightenment. Still it is wonderful that he should have been able to appreciate the admirable character of the best sovereign of the thirteenth century, Louis IX., and to describe his motives and his achievements so generously, and yet should never have thought of the education and surrounding spiritual conditions by which such a character had been formed. If the power of Catholicism for evil was so great and decisive, it would have been reasonable to suppose that it had some share also in moulding to good those who came forth from it the very flower of humanity. But Voltaire did not know how much a man is the product of a system operating on, and with, the individual predisposition, or he would not have chidden St. Louis for remaining on the level of the prejudice of his time, instead of changing the spirit of his age. How should St. Louis have risen from the prejudice of his age, when it was exactly that prejudice which had formed him, and of which he represented the worthy side?

Even without this inconsistency, the fundamental error is bad enough. We get very wearied of the persistent. identification of the Church throughout the dark ages with fraud and imposture and sinister self-seeking, when we have once learned, what is undoubtedly the most important principle in the study of those times, that it was the churchmen who kept the flickering light of civilization alive amid the raging storms of uncontrolled passion and violence. The truth is that Voltaire never realized civilization as an organism, which if not surrounded with the proper conditions of life will perish, and which will prosper and wax stronger exactly in proportion as it is nourished. That the light was more than once very near sinking in the West under the waves of barbarism, as it has actually sunk in the eastern portions of the empire, seems to have been an all-important fact which he either never saw, or which, if he saw it, never impressed him as assuredly it ought to have done.

This is the more curious, as he was able to perceive, in a way in which it were much to be wished that more recent historians might show an equal discernment, that we ought to use the terms of civilization, with all their complex and accumulated associations, in an extremely modified sense in speaking of the centuries between the fifth and the thirteenth, just as it is the gravest mistake to suppose that, because you can express the results of the various contests of those times in terms of philosophy, therefore the actors in any one of them were both conscious of its most general bearings, and were animated by large and philosophical inclinations. For example, after he has told us how William the Conqueror sent to the Pope Harold's battle-standard and a small portion of the small treasure that an English king might possess in those times, he proceeds to reduce the transaction to what he conceived to be its true proportions, in the following manner: "Thus," he says, "a barbarian, the son of a harlot, the murderer of a legitimate king, shares the plunder of this king with another barbarian; for if you take away the names of duke of Normandy, king of England, and pope, all is reduced to the action of a Norman brigand and a Lombard receiver of plunder." This being the case, the secular possessors of power being so rude, petty, and barbarous, their contests being "those of bears and wolves," their rapacity and violence being tempered by few of those ideas of justice which form the bonds of society in its more advanced stages, it ought to have struck even the most ardent enemy of ecclesiastical pretensions as a thing in the highest degree unphilosophical, to pour all the ill epithets of usurpation upon the virtuous efforts of the great churchmen, who were least touched by the spirit of violence, to take away as much power as they could from barbarous princes and nobles, who were most impregnated with that and all other dark spirits. The smaller the difference between the least moral and the most moral orders in a community, the more desirable it is that the order with even a small advantage should acquire as much power as possible; for the reason that so near an approach to equality in morals is most likely to occur when the average is low, and when therefore the need to prevent it from falling any lower is most urgent. Granting that the ecclesiastics were only slightly the superiors of the barbarous laymen, this is all the better ground for rejoicing that they succeeded in converting their ascendency of moral idea into an ascendency of political fact.

In short, Voltaire's great panorama, magnificent as it is and most royally planned, is not drawn in lines and with color that explain the story or lay bare the principles of its progress. The plan is imposed from without, just as in Bossuet's case, not carefully sought from within the facts themselves. What is meant then by the assertion that Voltaire's "Essay" is one of the foundations of modern history? If he gives no explanation of the course of history, none to himself probably, and none to us assuredly, what is his merit? This: that he has fully placed before us the history which is to be explained; that he has presented the long external succession of facts in their true magnitude and in a definite connection; that he did not write a history of France, or of the papacy, or of the Mahometan power, or of the crusades, but that he saw the advantage, as we see the unavoidable necessity, of comprehending in a single idea and surveying in a single work the various activities, the rise and fall of power, the transference from one to another of political predominance, the contributions to the art of living, among the societies which were once united in a single empire. The history of each of these societies, England, France, Spain, Italy, the Byzantine Empire, is followed in relation to the history of Europe, which is indeed composed of these co-ordinate parts. The movement of communities since the dissolution of the Roman Empire is exhibited in a collective form, and that it should be exhibited and accepted in this form was obviously a preliminary step to an organic treatment of the multiplied laws of social physics.

"There are some events," he wrote in a note to his best poem, "which have effects, and others which have none. It is with the chain of events as it is with a genealogical tree, where we perceive branches that become extinct at the first generation, and others that continue the race. Many events remain without any filiation. It is thus that in every machine there are effects necessary to the movement, while others are indifferent, following the operation of the first, and leading to nothing. The wheels of a vehicle serve to make it go; but whether they raise a little more or a little less dust, the journey is accomplished equally. Such is the general order of the world, that the links of the chain are not deranged by a little more or a little less of irregularity." The figures in this passage serve adequately to describe his own treatment. We see in the "Essay" the lines of the genealogical tree, but we do not learn the laws of the transmission of qualities from one stock to another; we see the links of the chain, but not the conditions which fastened each to the other; conditions, indeed, only to be grasped through a scientific study of human nature which Voltaire had never made; and finally we see the towering car drawn slowly along a devious road by sweat and strain of millions, but we know not why it went by this road rather than another. In a word, the inner machinery of societies and of their movement remains as far from our sight as it ever was. The study of those economic and material forces which have so profound an influence upon social transformations, was in its infancy, and the Economists, who really saw that there are definite laws regulating the play of these forces, unfortunately mixed up with their speculations a number of chimerical fancies, which Voltaire was too acute to accept, but not patient enough to sift. In this respect he is as defective as Gibbon, in whose book, so justly famous for its splendid breadth of conception and industrious elaboration of detail, we have much of that meagre philosophy which consisted in the exposure of falsehood, but little of the true science which shows us the numerous organs of society in connection with their actual play and function. Neither Gibbon nor Voltaire made any contribution, nor seems to have been aware of the importance of contributing, to that study of the fundamental conditions of the social union, which Aristotle commenced, and which both Bodin in the sixteenth century and Montesquieu in the eighteenth had so meritoriously continued. Nevertheless, it was much to lead men to study the history of modern Europe as a whole, and we may say of Voltaire in connection with history what he said of Corneille in connection with tragedy —"It is so great a merit to have opened the career, and inventors are so much above other men, that posterity pardons their greatest faults."

1. The dates of the publication of Voltaire's historical works are these: Charles XII., 1731; Siècle de Louis XIV., 1752 (a portion of it in 1739); Annales de l'Empire, 1753-54; Essai sur les Mœurs, 1757 (surreptitiously in 1754); Histoire de Russie, Pt. I in 1759, Pt. II in 1763; Précis du Siècle de Louis XV., 1768; Histoire du Parlement de Paris. 1769.

2. Mœurs, is untranslatable by any single English word. The full title is "Essai sur les Mœurs et l'Esprit des Nations, et sur les principaux faits de l'Histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu' à Louis XIII."


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