WHEN the right sense of historical proportion is more fully developed in men's minds, the name of Voltaire will stand out like the names of the great decisive movements in the European advance, like the Revival of Learning, or the Reformation. The existence, character, and career of this extraordinary person constituted in themselves a new and prodigious era. The peculiarities of his individual genius changed the mind and spiritual conformation of France, and in a less degree that of the whole of the West, with as far-spreading and invincible an effect as if the work had been wholly done, as it was actually aided, by the sweep of deep-lying collective forces. A new type of belief, and of its shadow, disbelief, was stamped by the impression of his character and work into the intelligence and feeling of his own and the following times. We may think of Voltairism in France somewhat as we think of Catholicism or the Renaissance or Calvinism. It was one of the cardinal liberations of the growing race, one of the emphatic manifestations of some portion of the minds of men, which an immediately foregoing system and creed had either ignored or outraged.
Christianity originally and generically at once awoke and satisfied a spiritual craving for a higher, purer, less torn and fragmentary being than is permitted to sons of men on the troubled and corrupt earth. It disclosed to them a gracious, benevolent and all-powerful being, who would one day redress all wrongs and recompense all pain, and who asked no more from them meanwhile than that they should prove their love of Him whom they had not seen, by love of their brothers whom they had seen. Its great glory was to have raised the moral dignity and self-respect of the many to a level which had hitherto been reached only by a few. Calvin, again, like some stern and austere stepson of the Christian God, jealous of the divine benignity and abused open-handedness of his Father's house, with word of merciless power set free all those souls that were more anxious to look the tremendous facts of necessity and evil and punishment full in the face than to reconcile them with any theory of the infinite mercy and loving kindness of a supreme Creator. Men who had been enervated or helplessly perplexed by a creed that had sunk into ignoble optimism and self-indulgence, became conscious of new fibre in their moral structure, when they realized life as a long wrestling with unseen and invincible forces of grace, election, and fore-destiny, the agencies of a being whose ways and dealings, whose contradictory attributes of unjust justice and loving vindictiveness, it was not for man, who is a worm and the son of a worm, to reconcile with the puny logic of human words, or the shallow consistency of human ideas. Catholicism was a movement of mysticism, and so in darker regions was the Calvinism which in so many important societies displaced it. Each did much to raise the measure of worth and purify the spiritual self-respect of mankind, and each also discouraged and depressed the liberal play of intelligence, the cheerful energizing of reason, the bright and many-sided workings of fancy and imagination. Human nature, happily for us, ever presses against this system or that, and forces ways of escape for itself into freedom and light. The scientific reason urgently seeks instruments and a voice; the creative imagination unconsciously takes form to itself in manifold ways, of all which the emotions can give good account to the understanding. Hence the glorious suffusion of light which the ardent desire of men brought over the face of Europe in the latter half of the fifteenth century. Before Luther and Calvin in their separate ways brought into splendid prominence their new ideas of moral order, more than two generations of men had almost ceased to care whether there be any moral order or not, and had plunged with the delight of enchantment among ideas of grace and beauty, whose forms were old on the earth, but which were full of seemingly inexhaustible novelty and freshness to men, who had once begun to receive and to understand all the ever-living gifts of Grecian art, architecture, and letters. If the Reformation, the great revival of northern Europe, was the enfranchisement of the individual from bondage to a collective religious tradition that had lost its virtue, the Renaissance, the earlier revival of southern Europe, was the admission to participate in the noblest collective tradition of free intellect which the achievements of the race could then hand down.
Voltairism may stand for the name of the Renaissance of the eighteenth century, for that name takes in all the serious haltings and shortcomings of this strange movement, as well as all its terrible fire, swiftness, sincerity, and strength. The rays from Voltaire's burning and far-shining spirit no sooner struck upon the genius of the time, seated dark and dead like the black stone of Memnon's statue, than the clang of the breaking chord was heard through Europe, and men awoke in new day and more spacious air. The sentimentalist has proclaimed him a mere mocker. To the critic of the schools, ever ready with compendious label, he is the revolutionary destructive. To each alike of the countless orthodox sects his name is the symbol for the prevailing of the gates of hell. Erudition figures him as shallow and a trifler; culture condemns him for pushing his hatred of spiritual falsehood much too seriously; Christian charity feels constrained to unmask a demon from the depths of the pit. The plain men of the earth, who are apt to measure the merits of a philosopher by the strength of his sympathy with existing sources of comfort, would generally approve the saying of Dr. Johnson, that he would sooner sign a sentence for Rousseau's transportation than that of any felon who had gone from the Old Bailey these many years, and that the difference between him and Voltaire was so slight that "it would be difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them." Those of all schools and professions who have the temperament which mistakes strong expression for strong judgment, and violent phrase for grounded conviction, have been stimulated by antipathy against Voltaire to a degree that in any of them with latent turns for humor must now and then have even stirred a kind of reacting sympathy. The rank vocabulary of malice and hate, that noisome fringe of the history of opinion, has received many of its most fulminant terms from critics of Voltaire, along with some from Voltaire himself, who unwisely did not always refuse to follow an adversary's bad example.
Yet Voltaire was the very eye of eighteenth-century illumination. It was he who conveyed to his generation in a multitude of forms the consciousness at once of the power and the rights of human intelligence. Another might well have said of him what he magnanimously said of his famous contemporary, Montesquieu, that humanity had lost its title-deeds, and he had recovered them. The fourscore volumes which he wrote are the monument, as they were in some sort the instrument, of a new renaissance. They are the fruit and representation of a spirit of encyclopædic curiosity and productiveness. Hardly a page of all these countless leaves is common form. Hardly a sentence is there which did not come forth alive from Voltaire's own mind, or which was said because some one else had said it before. His works, as much as those of any man that ever lived and thought, are truly his own. It is not given, we all know, even to the most original and daring of leaders, to be without precursors, and Voltaire's march was prepared for him before he was born, as it is for all mortals. Yet he impressed on all he said, on good words and bad alike, a marked autochthonic quality, as of the self-raised spontaneous products of some miraculous soil, from which prodigies and portents spring. Many of his ideas were in the air, and did not belong to him peculiarly; but so strangely rapid and perfect was his assimilation of them, so vigorous and minutely penetrative was the quality of his understanding, so firm and independent his initiative, that even these were instantly stamped with the express image of his personality. In a word, Voltaire's work from first to last was alert with unquenchable life. Some of it, much of it, has ceased to be alive for us now in all that belongs to its deeper significance, yet we recognize that none of it was ever the dreary still-birth of a mind of hear says. There is no mechanical transmission of untested bits of current coin. In the realm of mere letters, Voltaire is one of the little band of great monarchs, and in style he remains of the supreme potentates. But literary variety and perfection, however admirable, like all purely literary qualities, are a fragile and secondary good which the world is very willing to let die, where it has not been truly begotten and engendered of living forces.
Voltaire was a stupendous power, not only because his expression was incomparably lucid, or even because his sight was exquisitely keen and clear, but because he saw many new things, after which the spirits of others were unconsciously groping and dumbly yearning. Nor was this all. Fontenelle was both brilliant and far-sighted, but he was cold, and one of those who love ease and a safe hearth, and carefully shun the din, turmoil, and danger of the great battle. Voltaire was ever in the front and centre of the fight. His life was not a mere chapter in a history of literature. He never counted truth a treasure to be discreetly hidden in a napkin. He made it a perpetual war-cry and emblazoned it on a banner that was many a time rent, but was never out of the field.
This is the temper which, when the times are auspicious, and the fortunes of the fight do not hurry the combatant to dungeon or stake, raises him into a force instead of leaving him the empty shadow of a literary name. There is something in our nature which leads men to listen coolly to the most eager hints and pregnant innuendoes of skepticism, on the lips of teachers who still in their own persons keep adroitly away from the fiery darts of the officially orthodox. The same something, perhaps a moral relish for veritable proofs of honesty, perhaps a quality of animal temperament, drives men to grasp even a crudity with fervor, when they see it wielded like a battle-axe against spiritual oppression. A man is always so much more than his words, as we feel every day of our lives; what he says has its momentum indefinitely multiplied, or reduced to nullity, by the impression that the hearer for good reasons or bad happens to have formed of the spirit and moral size of the speaker. There are things enough to be said of Voltaire's moral size, and no attempt is made in these pages to dissemble in how much he was condemnable. It is at least certain that he hated tyranny, that he refused to lay up his hatred privily in his heart, and insisted on giving his abhorrence a voice, and tempering for his just rage a fine sword, very fatal to those who laid burdens too hard to be borne upon the conscience and life of men. Voltaire's contemporaries felt this. They were stirred to the quick by the sight and sound and thorough directness of those ringing blows. The strange and sinister method of assault upon religion which we of a later day watch with wondering eyes, and which consists in wearing the shield and device of a faith, and industriously shouting the cry of a church, the more effectually to reduce the faith to a vague futility, and its outward ordering to a piece of ingeniously reticulated pretence; this method of attack might make even the champions of prevailing beliefs long for the shrewd trusts, the flashing scorn, the relentless fire, the downright grapples, with which the hated Voltaire pushed on his work of "crushing the Infamous." If he was bitter, he was still correct. If he was often a mocker in form, he was always serious in meaning and laborious in matter. If he was unflinching against theology, he always paid religion respect enough to treat it as the most important of all subjects. The contest was real, and not our present pantomimic stage-play, in which muffled phantoms of debate are made to gesticulate inexpressible things in portentously significant silence. The battle was demoralized by its virulence. True; but is this worse than to have it demoralized by cowardice of heart and understanding, when each controversial man-at-arms is eager to have it thought that he wears the colors of the other side, when the theologian would fain pass for rationalist, and the freethinker for a person with his own orthodoxies if you only knew them, and when philosophic candor and intelligence are supposed to have hit their final climax in the doctrine that everything is both true and false at the same time?
A man like Montaigne, as has been said, could slumber tranquilly on the pillow of doubt, content to live his life, leaving many questions open. Such men's meditations, when composed in the genial literary form proper to them, are naturally the delight of people with whom the world goes fairly well materially, who have sensibility enough to be aware that there are unseen lands of knowledge and truth beyond the present, and destinies beyond their own; but whose sensibility is not intense and ardent enough to make wholly unendurable to them unscrutinizing acquiescence in half-thoughts and faint guesses, and pale unshapen embryos of social sympathy. There are conjunctures when this mingling of apprehension and ease, of aspiration and content, of timorous adventure and reflective indolence is the natural mood of even high natures. The great tides of circumstance swell so tardily that whole generations, that might have produced their share of skilful and intrepid mariners, wait in vain for the full flood on which the race is borne to new shores.
Nor assuredly is it well for men that every age should mark either a revolution, or the slow inward agitation that prepares the revolution, or that doubters and destroyers should divide between them all admiration and gratitude and sympathy. The violent activity of a century of great change may end in a victory, but it is always a sacrifice. The victory may more than recompense its cost. The sacrifice may repay itself a thousand-fold. It does not always repay itself, as the too neglected list of good causes lost, and noble effort wasted, so abundantly shows. Nor in any case is sacrifice ever an end. Faith and order and steady strong movement are the conditions which everything wise is directed to perfect and consolidate. But for this process of perfection we need first the meditative, doubting, critical type, and next, the dogmatic destroyer. "In counsel it is good to see dangers," Bacon said; "and in execution not to see them, except they be very great." There are, as history instructs us, eras of counsel and eras of execution; the hour when those do best who walk most warily, feeling with patience and sagacity and painstaking for the new ways, and then the hour of march and stout-hearted engagement.
Voltaire, if he adroitly or sagely preserved his buckler, felt that the day was come to throw away the scabbard; that it was time to trust firmly to the free understanding of men for guidance in the voyage after truth, and to the instincts of uncorrupted benevolence in men for the upholding of social justice. His was one of the robust and incisive constitutions, to which doubt figures as a sickness, and where intellectual apprehension is an impossibility. The old-fashioned nomenclature puts him down among skeptics, because those who had the official right to affix these labels could think of no more contemptuous name, and could not suppose the most audacious soul capable of advancing even under the leadership of Satan himself beyond a stray doubt or so. He had perhaps as little of the skeptic in his constitution as Bossuet or Butler, and was much less capable of becoming one than de Maistre or Paley. This was a prime secret of his power, for the mere critic and propounder of unanswered doubts never leads more than a handful of men after him. Voltaire boldly put the great question, and he boldly answered it. He asked whether the sacred records were historically true, the Christian doctrine divinely inspired and spiritually exhaustive, and the Christian church a holy and beneficent organization. He answered these questions for himself and for others beyond possibility of misconception. The records were saturated with fable and absurdity, the doctrine imperfect at its best, and a dark and tyrannical superstition at its worst, and the Church was the arch-curse and infamy. Say what we will of these answers, they were free from any taint of skepticism. Our lofty new idea of rational freedom as freedom from conviction, and of emancipation of understanding as emancipation from the duty of settling whether important propositions are true or false, had not dawned on Voltaire.
He had just as little part or lot in the complaisant spirit of the man of the world, who from the depths of his mediocrity and ease presumes to promulgate the law of progress, and as dictator to fix its speed. Who does not know this temper of the man of the world, that worst enemy of the world? His inexhaustible patience of abuses that only torment others; his apologetic word for beliefs that may perhaps not be so precisely true as one might wish, and institutions that are not altogether so useful as some might think possible; his cordiality towards progress and improvement in a general way, and his coldness or antipathy to each progressive proposal in particular; his pygmy hope that life will one day become somewhat better, punily shivering by the side of his gigantic conviction that it might well be infinitely worse. To Voltaire, far different from this, an irrational prejudice was not the object of a polite coldness, but a real evil to be combated and overthrown at every hazard. Cruelty was not to him as a disagreeable dream of the imagination, from thought of which he could save himself by arousing to sense of his own comfort, but a vivid flame burning into his thoughts and destroying peace. Wrongdoing and injustice were not simple words on his lips; they went as knives to the heart; he suffered with the victim, and was consumed with an active rage against the oppressor.
Nor was the coarse cruelty of the inquisitor or the politician, who wrought iniquity by aid of the arm of flesh, the only kind of injury to the world which stirred his passion. He had imagination enough and intelligence enough to perceive that they are the most pestilent of all the enemies of mankind, the sombre hierarchs of misology, who take away the keys of knowledge, thrusting truth down to the second place, and discrowning sovereign reason to be the serving drudge of superstition or social usage. The system which threw obstacles into the way of publishing an exposition of Newton's discoveries and ideas was as mischievous and hateful to him as the darker bigotry which broke Calas on the wheel because he was a Protestant. To check the energetic discovery and wide propagation of scientific truth, he rightly held to be at least as destructive in the long run to the common weal, as the unjust extermination of human life; for it is the possession of ever more and more truth that makes life ever better worth having and better worth preserving. And must we not admit that he was right, and that no age nor school of men nor individual has ever been mortally afraid, as every good man is afraid, of inflicting any wrong on his fellow, and has not also been afraid of extinguishing a single ray from the great sun of knowledge?
It is well enough to say that in unscientific ages, like the twelfth century for instance, the burner of books and the tormentor of those who wrote them did not feel either that he was doing an injustice to man or a mischief to truth. It is hard to deny that St. Bernard was a good man, nor is it needful that we should deny it; for good motives, owing to our great blindness and slow enlightenment, have made grievous havoc in the world. But the conception of justice towards heretics did not exist, any more than it existed in the mind of a low type of white man towards a black man, or than the conception of pity exists in the mind of a sportsman towards his prey. These were ages of social cruelty, as they were ages of intellectual repression. The debt of each to his neighbor was as little felt as the debt of all to the common faculties and intelligence. Men owed nothing to man, but everything to the gods. All the social feeling and intellectual effort and human energizing which had made the high idea of God possible and real, seemed to have expended themselves in a creation which instantly swallowed them up and obliterated their recollection. The intelligence which, by its active straining upwards to the light, had opened the way for the one God, became itself forthwith identified with the chief of the devils. He who used his reason was the child of this demon. Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. The times when such was the universal idea of the rights of the understanding were also the times when human life was cheapest, and the tiny bowl of a man's happiness was spilled upon the ground with least compunction.
The companionship between these two ideas of disrespect for the rights of man, and disrespect for reason or the highest distinction of man, has been an inseparable companionship. The converse is unhappily only true with a modification, for there have been too many men with an honorable respect for a demonstration and a proper hospitality towards a probability, who look on the rights of man, without disrespect indeed, but also without fervor. To Voltaire reason and humanity were but a single word, and love of truth and passion for justice but one emotion. None of the famous men who have fought that they themselves might think freely and speak truly have ever seen more clearly that the fundamental aim of the contest was that others might live happily. Who has not been touched by that admirable word of his, of the three years in which he labored without remission for justice to the widow and descendants of Calas: "During that time not a smile escaped me without my reproaching myself for it, as for a crime." Or by his sincere avowal that of all the words of enthusiasm and admiration which were so prodigally bestowed upon him on the occasion of his last famous visit to Paris in 1778, none went to his heart like that of a woman of the people, who in reply to one asking the name of him whom the crowd followed, gave answer, "Do you not know that he is the preserver of the Calas?"
The same kind of feeling, though manifested in ways of much less unequivocal nobleness, was at the bottom of his many efforts to make himself of consequence in important political business. We know how many contemptuous sarcasms have been inspired by his anxiety at various times to perform diplomatic feats of intervention between the French government and Frederick the Second. In 1742, after his visit to the Prussian king at Aix-la-Chapelle, he is supposed to have hinted to Cardinal Fleury that to have written epic and drama does not disqualify a man for serving his king and country on the busy fields of affairs. The following year, after Fleury's death, when French fortunes in the war of the Austrian succession were near their lowest, Voltaire's own idea that he might be useful from his intimacy with Frederick, seems to have been shared by Amelot, the secretary of state, and at all events he aspired to do some sort of active, if radically futile, diplomatic work. In later times when the tide had turned, and Frederick's star was clouded over with disaster, we again find Voltaire the eager intermediary with Choiseul, pleasantly comparing himself to the mouse of the fable, busily striving to free the lion from the meshes of the hunter's net.
The man of letters, usually unable to conceive loftier services to mankind or more attractive aims to persons of capacity than the composition of books, has treated these pretensions of Voltaire with a supercilious kind of censure, which teaches us nothing about Voltaire, while it implies a particularly shallow idea alike of the position of the mere literary life in the scale of things, and of the conditions under which the best literary work is done. To have really contributed in the humblest degree, for instance, to a peace between Prussia and her enemies in 1759, would have been an immeasurably greater performance for mankind than any given book which Voltaire could have written. And, what is still better worth observing, Voltaire's books would not have been the powers they were, but for this constant desire of his to come into the closest contact with the practical affairs of the world. He who has never led the life of a recluse, drawing an income from the funds and living in a remote garden, constructing past, present, and future out of his own consciousness, is not qualified either to lead mankind safely, or to think on the course of human affairs correctly. Every page of Voltaire has the bracing air of the life of the world in it, and the instinct which led him to seek the society of the conspicuous actors on the great scene was essentially a right one. The book-writer takes good advantage of his opportunity to assure men expressly or by implication, that he is their true king, and that the sacred bard is a mightier man than his hero. Voltaire knew better. Though himself perhaps the most puissant man of letters that ever lived, he rated literature as it ought to be rated, below action; not because written speech is less of a force, but because the speculation and criticism of the literature that substantially influences the world make far less demand than the actual conduct of great affairs on qualities which are not rare in detail, but are amazingly rare in combination; on temper, foresight, solidity, daring; on strength, in a word, strength of intelligence and strength of character. Gibbon rightly amended his phrase when he described Boethius not as stooping, but rather as rising, from his life of placid meditation to an active share in the imperial business. That he held this sound opinion is quite as plausible an explanation of Voltaire's anxiety to know persons of station and importance as the current theory that he was of sycophantic nature. Why, he asks, are the ancient historians so full of light? "It is because the writer had to do with public business; it is because he could be magistrate, priest, soldier; and because if he could not rise to the highest functions of the state, he had at least to make himself worthy of them. I admit," he concludes, "that we must not expect such an advantage with us, for our own constitution happens to be against it;" but he was deeply sensible what an advantage it was that they thus lost.
In short, on all sides, whatever men do and think was real and alive to Voltaire. Whatever had the quality of interesting any imaginable temperament, had the quality of interesting him. There was no subject which any set of men have ever cared about, which, if he once had mention of it, Voltaire did not care about likewise. And it was just because he was so thoroughly alive himself, that he filled the whole era with life. The more closely one studies the various movements of that time, the more clear it becomes that, if he was not the original centre and first fountain of them all, at any rate he made many channels ready and gave the sign. He was the initial principle of fermentation throughout that vast commotion. We may deplore, if we think fit, as Erasmus deplored in the case of Luther, that the great change was not allowed to work itself out slowly, calmly, and without violence and disruption. These graceful regrets are powerless, and on the whole they are very enervating. Let us make our account with the actual, rather than seek excuses for self-indulgence in pensive preference of something that might have been. Practically in these great circles of affairs, what only might have been is as though it could not be; and to know this may well suffice for us. It is not in human power to choose the kind of men who rise from time to time to the supreme control of momentous changes. The force which decides this immensely important matter is as though it were chance. We cannot decisively pronounce any circumstance whatever an accident, yet history abounds with circumstances which in our present ignorance of the causes of things are as if they were accidents.
In this respect history is neither better nor worse than the latest explanation of the origin and order of the world of organized matter. Here, too, we are landed in the final resort at what is neither more nor less than an accident. Natural selection, or the survival of the fittest in the universal struggle for existence, is now held by the most competent inquirers to be the principal method to which we owe the extinction, preservation, and distribution of organic forms on the earth. But the appearance both of the forms that conquer and of those that perish still remains a secret, and to science an accident and a secret are virtually and provisionally the same thing. In a word, there is an unknown element at the bottom of the varieties of creation, whether we agree to call that element a volition of a supernatural being, or an undiscovered set of facts in embryology. So in history the Roman or Italo-Hellenic empire, rising when it did, was the salvation of the West, and yet the appearance, at the moment when anarchy threatened rapidly to dissolve the Roman state, of a man with the power of conceiving the best design for the new structure seems to partake as much of the nature of chance as the non-appearance of men with similar vision and power in equally momentous crises, earlier and later. The rise of a great constructive chief like Charlemagne in the eighth century can hardly be enough to persuade us that the occasion invariably brings the leader whom its conditions require, when we remember that as concerns their demands the conditions of the end of the eighth century were not radically different from those of the beginning of the sixth, yet that in the earlier epoch there arose no successor to continue the work of Theodoric. We have only to examine the origin and fundamental circumstances of the types of civilization which rule western communities and guide their advance, to discern in those original circumstances a something inscrutable, a certain element of what is as though it were fortuitous. No science can as yet tell us how such a variation from previously existing creatures as man had its origin; nor, any more than this, can history explain the law by which the most striking variations in intellectual and spiritual quality within the human order have had their origin. The appearance of the one as of the other is a fact which cannot be further resolved. It is hard to think in imagination of the globe as unpeopled by man, or peopled, as it may at some remote day come to be, by beings of capacity superior enough to extinguish man. It is hard also to think of the scene which western Europe and all the vast space which the light of western Europe irradiates, might have offered at this moment, if nature or the unknown forces had not produced a Luther, a Calvin, or a Voltaire.
It was one of the happy chances of circumstance that there arose in France on the death of Louis XIV., a man with all Voltaire's peculiar gifts of intelligence, who added to them an incessant activity in their use, and who besides this enjoyed such length of days as to make his intellectual powers effective to the very fullest extent possible. This combination of physical and mental conditions so amazingly favorable to the spread of the Voltairean ideas was a circumstance independent of the state of the surrounding atmosphere, and was what in the phraseology of prescientific times might well have been called providential. If Voltaire had seen all that he saw, and yet been indolent; or if he had been as clear-sighted and as active as he was, and yet had only lived fifty years, instead of eighty-four, Voltairism would never have struck root. As it was, with his genius, his industry, his longevity, and the conditions of the time being what they were, that far-spreading movement of destruction was inevitable.
Once more, we cannot choose. Those whom temperament or culture has made the partisans of calm order, cannot attune progress to the stately and harmonious march which would best please them, and which they are perhaps right in thinking would lead with most security to the goal.
Such a liberation of the human mind as Voltairism can be effected only by the movement of many spirits, and they are only the few who are moved by moderate, reflective, and scientific trains of argument. The many need an extreme type. They are struck by what is flashing and colossal, for they follow imagination and sympathy, and not the exactly disciplined intelligence. They know their own wants, and have dumb feeling of their own better aspirations. Their thoughts move in the obscurity of things quick but unborn, and by instinct they push upwards in whatever direction the darkness seems breaking. They are not critics nor analysts, but when the time is ripening they never fail to know the word of freedom and of truth, with whatever imperfections it may chance to be spoken. No prophet all false has ever yet caught the ear of a series of generations. No prophet all false has succeeded in separating a nation into two clear divisions. Voltaire has in effect for a century so divided the most emancipated of western nations. This is beyond the power of the mere mocker, who perishes like the flash of lightning; he does not abide as a centre of solar heat.
There are more kinds of Voltaireans than one, but no one who has marched ever so short a way out of the great camp of old ideas is directly or indirectly out of the debt and out of the hand of the first liberator, however little willing he may be to recognize one or the other. Attention has been called by every writer on Voltaire to the immense number of the editions of his works, a number probably unparalleled in the case of any author within the same limits of time. Besides being one of the most voluminous book-writers, he is one of the cheapest. We can buy one of Voltaire's books for a few pence, and the keepers of the cheap stalls in the cheap quarters of London and Paris will tell you that this is not from lack of demand, but the contrary. So clearly does that light burn for many even now, which scientifically speaking ought to be extinct, and for many indeed is long ago extinct and superseded. The reasons for this vitality are that Voltaire was himself thoroughly alive when he did his work, and that the movement which that work began is still unexhausted.
How shall we attempt to characterize this movement? The historian of the Christian church usually opens his narrative with an account of the deprivation of human nature and the corruption of society which preceded the new religion. The Reformation in like manner is only to be understood after we have perceived the enormous mass of superstition, injustice, and wilful ignorance, by which the theological idea had become so incrusted as to be wholly incompetent to guide society, because it was equally repugnant to the intellectual perceptions and the moral sense, the knowledge and the feelings, of the best and most active-minded persons of the time. The same sort of consideration explains and vindicates the enormous power of Voltaire. France had outgrown the system that had brought her through the middle ages. The further development of her national life was fatally hindered by the tight bonds of an old order, which clung with the hardy tenacity of a thriving parasite, diverting from the roots all their sustenance, eating into the tissue, and feeding on the juices of the living tree. The picture has often been painted, and we need not try to paint it once more in detail here. The whole power and ordering of the nation were with the sworn and chartered foes of light, who had every interest that a desire to cling to authority and wealth can give, in keeping the understanding subject.
And, what was more important, there had been no sign made in the nation itself of a consciousness of the immense realms of knowledge that lay immediately in front of it, and still less of any desire or intention to win lasting possession of them. That intellectual curiosity which was so soon to produce such amazing fruits was as yet unstirred. An era of extraordinary activity had just come to a close, and the creative and artistic genius of France had risen to the highest mark it attained until the opening of our own century. The grand age of Louis XIV. had been an age of magnificent literature and unsurpassed eloquence. But, in spite of the potent seed which Descartes had sown, it had been the age of authority, protection, and patronage. Consequently all those subjects for which there was no patronage, that is to say the subjects which could add nothing to the splendor and dignity of the church and the pageantry of the court, were virtually repressed. This ought not to blind us to the real loftiness and magnanimity of the best or earlier part of the age of Louis XIV. It has been said that his best title to the recollection of posterity is the protection he extended to Molière; and one reason why this was so meritorious is that Molière's work had a markedly critical character, in reference both to the devout and to the courtier. The fact of this, undoubtedly the most durable work of that time, containing critical quality, is not of importance in reference to the generally fixed or positive aspect of the age. For Molière is only critical by accident. There is nothing organically negative about him, and his plays are the pure dramatic presentation of a peculiar civilization. He is no more a destructive agency because he drew hypocrites and coxcombs, than Bousset was destructive or critical because he inveighed against sin and the excess of human vain glory. The epoch was one of entire loyalty to itself and its ideas. Voltaire himself perceived and admired these traits to the full. The greatest of all overthrowers, he always understood that it is towards such ages as these, the too short ages of conviction and self-sufficience, that our endeavor works. We fight that others may enjoy; and many generations struggle and debate, that one generation may hold something for proven.
The glories of the age of Louis XIV. were the climax of a set of ideas that instantly afterwards lost alike their grace, their usefulness, and the firmness of their hold on the intelligence of men. A dignified and venerable hierarchy, an august and powerful monarch, a court of gay and luxurious nobles, all lost their grace, because the eyes of men were suddenly caught and appalled by the awful phantom, which was yet so real, of a perishing nation. Turn from Bousset's orations to Bois-Guilbert's "Détail de la France;" from the pulpit rhetorician's courtly reminders that even majesty must die, to Vauban's pity for the misery of the common people; from Corneille and Racine to La Bruyère's picture of "certain wild animals, male and female, scattered over the fields, black, livid, all burnt by the sun, bound to the earth that they dig and work with unconquerable pertinacity; they have a sort of articulate voice, and when they rise on their feet, they show a human face, and, in fact, are men." The contrast had existed for generations. The material misery caused by the wars of the great Louis deepened the dark side, and the lustre of genius consecrated to the glorification of traditional authority and the order of the hour heightened the brightness of the bright side, until the old contrast was suddenly seen by a few startled eyes, and the new and deepest problem, destined to strain our civilization to a degree that not many have even now conceived, came slowly into pale outline.
There is no reason to think that Voltaire ever saw this gaunt and tremendous spectacle. Rousseau was its first voice. Since him the reorganization of the relations of men has never faded from the sight either of statesmen or philosophers, with vision keen enough to admit to their eyes even what they dreaded and execrated in their hearts. Voltaire's task was different and preparatory. It was to make popular the genius and authority of reason. The foundations of the social fabric were in such a condition that the touch of reason was fatal to the whole structure, which instantly began to crumble. Authority and use oppose a steadfast and invincible resistance to reason, so long as the institutions which they protect are of fair practicable service to a society. But after the death of Louis XIV., not only the grace and pomp, but also the social utility of spiritual and political absolutism passed obviously away. Spiritual absolutism was unable to maintain even a decent semblance of unity and theological order. Political absolutism, by its material costliness, its augmenting tendency to repress the application of individual energy and thought to public concerns, and its pursuit of a policy in Europe which was futile and essentially meaningless as to its ends, and disastrous and incapable in its choice of means, was rapidly exhausting the resources of national well-being and viciously severing the very tap-root of national life. To bring reason into an atmosphere so charged was, as the old figure goes, to admit air to the chamber of the mummy. And reason was exactly what Voltaire brought; too narrow, if we will, too contentious, too derisive, too unmitigatedly reasonable, but still reason. And who shall measure the consequence of this difference in the history of two great nations; that in France absolutism in Church and State fell before the sinewy genius of stark reason, while in England it fell before a respect for social convenience, protesting against monopolies, benevolences, ship-money? That in France speculation had penetrated over the whole field of social inquiry, before a single step had been taken towards application, while in England social principles were applied, before they received any kind of speculative vindication? That in France the first effective enemy of the principles of despotism was Voltaire, poet, philosopher, historian, critic; in England, a band of homely squires?
Traditional authority, it is true, had been partially and fatally undermined in France before the time of Voltaire, by one of the most daring of thinkers, and one of the most acute and skeptical of scholars, as well as by writers so acutely careless as Montaigne, and apologists so dangerously rational as Pascal, who gave a rank and consistency to doubt even in showing that its seas were black and shoreless. Descartes' "Discourse on Method" had been published in 1637, and Bayle's "Thoughts on the Comet," first of the series of critical onslaughts on prejudice and authority in matters of belief, had been published in 1682. The metaphysician and the critic had each pressed forward on the path of examination, and had each insisted on finding grounds for belief, or else showing the absence of such grounds with a fatal distinctness that made belief impossible. Descartes was constructive, and was bent on reconciling the acceptance of a certain set of ideas as to the relations between man and the universe, and as to the mode and composition of the universe, with the logical reason. Bayle, whose antecedents and environment were Protestant, was careless to replace, but careful to have evidence for whatever was allowed to remain. No parallel nor hint of equality is here intended between the rare genius of Descartes and the relatively lower quality of Bayle. The one, however high a place we may give to the regeneration of thought effected by Bacon in England, or to that wrought by the brilliant group of physical experimentalists in Italy, still marks a new epoch in the development of the human mind, for he had decisively separated knowledge from theology, and systematically constituted science. The other has a place only in the history of criticism. But, although in widely different ways, and with vast difference in intellectual stature, they both had touched the prevailing notions of French society with a fatal breath.
The blast that finally dispersed and destroyed them came not from Descartes and Bayle, but directly from Voltaire and indirectly from England. In the seventeenth century the surrounding conditions were not ripe. Social needs had not begun to press. The organs of authority were still too vigorous, and performed their functions with something more than the mechanical half-heartedness of the next century. Long familiarity with skeptical ideas as enemies must go before their reception as friends and deliverers. They have perhaps never gained an effective hold in any community, until they have found allies in the hostile camp of official orthodoxy, and so long as that orthodoxy was able to afford them a vigorous social resistance. Voltaire's universal talents made one of the most powerful instruments for conveying these bold and inquisitive notions among many sorts and conditions of men, including both the multitude of common readers and playgoers in the town, and the narrower multitude of nobles and sovereigns. More than this, the brilliance and variety of his gifts attracted, stimulated, and directed the majority of the men of letters of his time, and imparted to them a measure of his own singular skill in conveying the principles of rationalistic thought.
The effect of all this was to turn a vast number of personages who were officially inimical to free criticism, to be at heart abettors and fellow-conspirators in the great plot. That fact, combined with the independent causes of the incompetency of the holders of authority to deal with the crying social necessities of the time, left the walls of the citadel undermined and undefended, and a few of the sacred birds that were still found faithful cackled to no purpose. It has often been said that in the early times of Christianity its influence gave all that was truest and brightest in color to the compositions of those who were least or not at all affected by its dogma. It is more certain that Voltaire by the extraordinary force of his personality gave a peculiar tone and life even to those who adhered most staunchly to the ancient ordering. The champions of authority were driven to defend their cause by the unusual weapons of rationality; and if Voltaire had never written, authority would never, for instance, have found such a soldier on her side as that most able and eminent of reactionaries, Joseph de Maistre. In reply to the favorite assertion of the apologists of Catholicism, that whatever good side its assailants may present is the product of the very teaching which they repudiate, one can only say that there would be at least as much justice in maintaining that the marked improvement which took place in the character and aims of the priesthood between the Regency and the Revolution, was an obligation unconsciously incurred to those just and liberal ideas which Voltaire had helped so powerfully to spread. De Maistre compares Reason putting away Revelation to a child who should beat its nurse. The same figure would serve just as well to describe the thanklessness of Belief to the Disbelief which has purged and exalted it.
There is another kind of opinion that is as little merciful in its own way as either of the two others, and this is the scientific or cultured opinion. Objections from this region express themselves in many forms, some of them calm and suggestive, others a little empty and a little brutal. They all seem to come to something of this kind: that Voltaire's assault on religion, being conducted without even the smallest spark of religious spirit, was therefore necessarily unjust to the object of his attack; and did the further mischief of engendering in all on whom his influence was poured out a bitterness and moral temerity which is the worst blight that can fall upon the character either of a man or a generation: that while truth is relative and conditional, and while belief is only to be understood by those who have calmly done justice to the history of its origin and growth, Voltaire carelessly, unphilosophically, and maliciously handled what had once possessed a relative truth, as if it had always been absolutely false, and what had sprung from the views and aspirations of the best men, as if it had had its root in the base artifices of the worst: that what ought to have gone on, and would have gone on, as a process of soft autumnal dissolution, was converted by the infection of Voltaire into a stained scene of passion and battle: that assuming to possess and to furnish men with a broad criticism of life, he left out of life its deepest, holiest, and most exalting elements, as well as narrowed and depraved criticism, from its right rank as the high art of stating and collating ideas, down to an acrid trick of debate, a thing of proofs, arguments, and rancorous polemic.
It is certain that there is much truth in this particular strain of objection to Voltaire's power and his use of it, or else it would not have found mouthpieces, as it has done, among some of the finest spirits of the modern time. But it is the natural tendency of the hour rather to exaggerate what weight there really is in such criticism, which, though claiming to be the criticism of temperance and moderation and relativity, does not as a matter of fact escape the fatal law of excess and absoluteness even in its very moderation and relativity. In estimating an innovator's method, all depends on the time and the enemy; and it may sometimes happen that the time is so out of joint and the enemy so strong, so unscrupulous, so imminently pernicious, as to leave no alternative between finally succumbing, and waging a war of deliverance for which coming generations have to bear the burdens in feuds and bitterness; between abridging somewhat of the richness and fulness of life, and allowing it all to be gradually choked up by dust and enwrapped in night. For let us not forget that what Catholicism was accomplishing in France in the first half of the eighteenth century, was really not anything less momentous than the slow strangling of French civilization. Though Voltaire's spirit may be little edifying to us, who after all partake of the freedom which he did so much to win, yet it is only just to remember what was the spirit of his foe, and that in so pestilent a presence a man of direct vision may well be eager to use such weapons as he finds to his hand. Let the scientific spirit move people to speak as it lists about Voltaire's want of respect for things held sacred, for the good deeds of holy men, for the sentiment and faith of thousands of the most worthy among his fellows. Still there are times when it may be very questionable whether, in the region of belief, one with power and with fervid honesty ought to spare the abominable city of the plain, just because it happens to shelter five righteous. There are times when the inhumanity of a system stands out so red and foul, when the burden of its iniquity weighs so heavy, and the contagion of its hypocrisy is so laden with mortal plague, that no awe of dilettante condemnation nor minute scruple as to the historic or the relative can stay the hand of the man whose direct sight and moral energy have pierced the veil of use, and revealed the shrine of the infamous thing. The most noble of the holy men said long ago that "the servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves." The history of the churches is in one of its most conspicuous aspects the history of a prolonged outrage upon these words by arrogant and blasphemous persons, pretending to draw a sacred spirit from the very saint who uttered them. We may well deplore that Voltaire's attack, and every other attack of the same sort, did not take the fair shape prescribed by the apostle to the servant of the Lord, of gentleness, patience, and the instruction of a sweet and firm example. But the partisans of the creed in whose name more human blood has been violently shed than in any other cause whatever, these, I say, can hardly find much ground of serious reproach in a few score epigrams. Voltaire had no calm breadth of wisdom. It may be so. There are moments which need not this calm breadth of wisdom, but a two-edged sword, and when the deliverers of mankind are they who "come to send fire on the earth."
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14