Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire.
1. VOLTAIRE'S THEOLOGY
Voltaire has perhaps earned a greater amount of fame amongst those who have never read a line of his works, than any other author of modern times, yet the number of his readers is probably diminishing, and it is hardly likely that they should ever increase.
His poetry was never likely to be pleasing to foreigners. His history has been superseded by later and more elaborate investigations, though we do not think that either the Essai sur les Moeurs or the Siècle de Louis Quatorze has been replaced by works of equal merit. His contributions to physical philosophy were rather those of a propagandist than those of a discoverer, and though historically important, were intrinsically of little value. His personal connection with an infinite variety of remarkable men in every class of life gives much interest to his correspondence, but it requires great collateral knowledge of a subject of which very little is known, even to the majority of educated men—the detailed history of the eighteenth century—to appreciate their value.
If he had written nothing besides all this, if he had been nothing more than an historian, a poet, a reformer in physical science, and the correspondent of a variety of remarkable people, he would never have acquired the immense and questionable reputation which surrounds his name. The thing by which Voltaire is distinguished from other men, the performance which has marked him out from all the rest of the world, and has invested his name with a celebrity altogether peculiar to itself, is no doubt his bitter, enduring, and systematic attack upon Christianity.
Of the intellectual enemies with whom Christianity had to deal in its infancy we know little or nothing. We know of the writings of Celsus and Julian just as much as Origen and Cyril have chosen to tell us, and no more. The rest of their works have altogether perished. No man ever has heard, or ever will hear, what the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate had to say for themselves. The victory of Christianity over its antagonists was only too complete; for in order to be sure that a controversy has reached its proper termination, it is essentially necessary to know what was said on both sides. So long as one side only can be heard, you can never be quite sure that you fully understand the case at issue.
Till the days of Voltaire Christianity had never been attacked openly, avowedly, and on anything like equal terms, in Western Europe. Montaigne, Bayle, and some other writers of the same kind veiled their hostility to Christianity by an assumed modesty as to the different functions of reason and faith, or by seeking, as Hobbes did, to rationalise it. The English Deists in the early part of the eighteenth century introduced a different mode of attack, of which Voltaire is the great representative. Its specific characteristic is downright, uncompromising, bitter hostility, arising from heartfelt dislike and dissent. Voltaire was no mere speculator or philosopher. He was, above all things, a controversialist, a propagandist, a man who had an immediate practical object in what he wrote.
A few lines in Condorcet's life of him—one of the most unsatisfactory accounts of a great man, by the way, that ever pretended to be a biography—set his feelings on this point in a sufficiently striking light. 'His zeal against a religion which he regarded as the cause of the fanaticism which has desolated Europe since its birth, of the superstition which had brutalised it, and as the source of the mischief which these enemies of human nature still continued to do, seemed to double his activity and his forces. "I am tired," he said one day, "of hearing it repeated that twelve men were enough to establish Christianity. I want to show them that one will be enough to destroy it."'
That such was his object, and that he did in fact exhaust the resources of his genius upon it for many years, with effects of which we are still far from having seen the end, is sufficiently notorious, but we doubt whether the particular nature of the means by which he tried to effect his object is nearly so well known. The works of which the titles at least are in every one's mouth are far from expressing such sentiments. They are not to be found in the best known of his plays or histories. They form a separate class of his voluminous writings, and are included under the two heads of philosophy and literature, which in one of the most manageable editions of his works fill three volumes containing respectively 1602, 1828, and 1708 octavo pages, containing fifty lines to the page, and printed in small type. Of course many other matters besides his attacks on Christianity are included in this ample section of his works. Without professing to have read the whole of the 5000 and odd pages in question, we will try to give some account of the general nature of their theological, metaphysical, and moral doctrines, and of the style and temper in which they are written.
The following is a rough classification of his principal works on these subjects. The largest by far, and the one of which the title is most generally known, is the Dictionnaire Philosophique, which in the edition already referred to fills very nearly the whole of a volume of 1828 pages. In a commoner edition it fills four ordinary octavos. It is a collection of speculations upon every conceivable subject, beginning with an article on the Alphabet, and ending with one on Zoroaster. Part of it was left in manuscript at the author's death. Other parts were published in his lifetime in various forms. The original title of the most important work so published was Questions à des Amateurs sur l’Encyclopédie.
Next in size to this, is the book called Examen important de Lord Bolingbroke, which professes to be an abstract 'of the most eloquent, the most profound, the deepest, and the strongest book yet written against fanaticism.' The preface goes on to say that 'this précis of the doctrines of Lord Bolingbroke, which are collected at large in the six volumes of his posthumous works, was addressed by him, a few years before his death, to Lord Cornbury. This edition is much larger than the first. We have collated it with the MS.' To this the editors of the Kehl edition of Voltaire append a note: 'On peut croire que tout cela est suppose, ainsi que la date de 1736. L'ouvrage est de 1767, temps où l’on ne pouvait encore defender la cause de l'humanite contre le fanaticisme qu'avec beaucoup de précaution.' This is worth notice, because almost every one of Voltaire's religious or anti-religious works is written under some false name or other. The book is a very rapid and condensed sketch of the rise of Judaism and of Christianity as Voltaire conceived of them.
There are besides a smaller essay called Dieu et les Hommes, and a Histoire de l’Établissement du Christianisme. Some notes on the different books of the Bible and on the apocryphal Gospels may also be referred to this division of Voltaire's works.
The rest of his writings on religion are to the last degree fragmentary, and are all short, although their aggregate bulk is enormous. One large division of them is composed of dialogues and conversations, which fill a thin octavo volume, and discuss all manner of moral and religious subjects. They are thirty-one in number, two being more elaborate than the rest. Of these, one set is called L'A, B, C, and is supposed to be a translation from the English; indeed one of the interlocutors is English, and many of his opinions are, no doubt, intended to represent those which Voltaire regarded as characteristic of this country. The other is a dialogue between Euhemerus and Callicrates, two Syracusan philosophers of the age of Alexander.
There are besides a great number of isolated tracts, of which the following are a few of the more remarkable: Traité de Métaphysique, addressed to the Marquise du Chatelet, a very short treatise, for it fills only thirty-four pages; Le Philosophe Ignorant, which is something of the same kind, and of much the same length, though written forty years afterwards; Il faut prendre un Parti, ou le Principe d'Action, which goes again over the same ground; a criticism on Pascal; a tract called Les Questions de Zapata. It would, however, be endless to give the names of them all.
Besides the writings which treat avowedly of the great moral and religious questions which he discussed so sedulously, novels were a wonderful instrument of propagandism in Voltaire's hands. It is almost superfluous to give the names of some of them. Every one has read Candide, Zadig, L'Inginu, and Micromégas, though some of the others are less well known. The curious Histoire de Jenni (Johnny) is remarkable for giving in a condensed form, and perhaps for the fiftieth time, a summary of Voltaire's conception of things human and divine, which on this occasion is fathered on Sherlock, from whom the novel is said to be translated.
Condorcet's life of Voltaire contains a characteristic remark on these books, which shows, among other things, how profoundly practical Voltaire's object was in all that he wrote, and how keenly he was sensible to the pleasure of propagating his views even amongst those who were far from being able to appreciate them. 'Few books of philosophy are more useful [than novels]; they are read by frivolous people, who are alarmed or repelled by the bare name of a philosopher, and whom nevertheless it is important to snatch from prejudices, and to set against the large number of persons interested in their defence. The human race would be condemned to eternal errors if, in order to set it free from prejudice, it was necessary for it to study and meditate the proofs of truth. Happily natural justness of spirit is sufficient for simple truths, which are also the most necessary. It is enough, then, to find a means of fixing the attention of idle people, and especially of engraving these truths in their memory. This is the great use of philosophical romances.'
To attempt anything like a detailed criticism of these works would be not only an endless, but a useless task. They repeat the same things over and over again, with so much persistency, and such an inexhaustible variety of phrase and illustration, that the pith of their common teaching on most points of any importance may be extracted with comparatively little trouble from any one of them.
For instance, Voltaire's view of the nature of the soul is set out in the following amongst other places in his works:
1. Traité de Métaphysique, ch. v.
2. De I'Ame, par Soranus, Médecin de Trajan.
3. Lettres de Memmius à Cicéron, XIII.-XV.
4. Il faut prendre un Parti, X.-XII.
5. Lucrétius et Posidonius, Dialogue II.
6. Cusu et Km, Dial. III.
7. Sophronimus et Adelos.
8. L'A, B, C, 2d Dialogue.
9. Dictionnaire Philosophique, art. 'Ame,' and many others.
10. Les Oreilles du Comte Chesterfield, etc. etc.
In each of these, and in many other parts of his works, the same theory is presented in various forms, but always to the same effect, and often with the same illustrations. This tendency to repeat himself was, no doubt, the natural consequence of the practical character of his undertaking. As the apostle of a new faith, he was mindful of some, at least, of the apostolic maxims. He was instant in season and out of season. He taught here a little, and there a little, line upon line, and precept upon precept.
His teaching, however, is in substance compact, and if his religious creed, positive and negative, were reduced to the form of propositions, it would have to be thrown into some such form as the following:—
It is morally certain, if it is not actually demonstrated, that there is a God.
There is a conflict of evidence as to the moral character of God, but the evidence in favour of his being just and benevolent preponderates so much, as to render probable any hypothesis which would justify a belief in it.
The belief in a future state of rewards and punishments is such a hypothesis, which is one evidence in favour of its truth. Moreover, it may be said to be physically possible, suggested by facts, highly important if true, and at all events exceedingly useful. It is thus prudent to act on the hypothesis of its truth.
This, in a few words, is the positive side of Voltaire's creed. We do not think that any one who will take the trouble to read his works fairly and candidly, will be able to doubt that it was honestly formed and sincerely held. The negative side of his creed relates to the truth of Christianity, and may without injustice be summed up by saying that he held that the gospel history was a contemptible imposture and falsehood from beginning to end; that the four gospels as we have them were forgeries, written long after the events which they profess to relate, by persons who knew very little about those events; that the whole of the Old Testament was a collection of fables; that the Jews were amongst the most hateful and contemptible of the human race; that the Bible was full of immoral precepts and of bad examples; that the establishment of Christianity was procured by fraud and violence, and that it was on the whole a grievous injury to the human race; that it was the cause of endless bloodshed and violence about trifles, and of a chronic distortion of the moral sentiments;—in a word, that it was an enemy to human happiness and virtue, and that until it was finally rejected and replaced by Deism, men would never be happy or good.
We cannot of course examine one by one the different items, positive and negative, of this system, but we will try to show concisely what was their place in Voltaire's mind. As to the positive side of his creed, his belief in God, at least in the latter part of his life, rested entirely on the argument from design, which he regarded as equivalent in force to a demonstration. At an earlier period he seems to have attached weight to Clarke's quasi-geometrical argument upon the subject, but he afterwards changed his mind about it (compare Traité de Métaphysique, ch. ii., with Le Philosophe Ignorant, ch. xiii. and following). The following passage gives in a very few words the latest form of his opinion: 'J'admets cette intelligence supreme sans craindre que jamais on puisse me faire changer d'opinion. Rien n'ébranle en moi cet axiome: tout ouvrage démontre un ouvrier.' He expressed this belief in endless forms, ranging from the most solemn to the most farcical, and he proved the sincerity with which he held it by stating on every occasion, and in the broadest manner, every objection to it of which he could bethink himself; but nevertheless he appears never to have abandoned it, or to have failed to connect it with the other doctrines to which we have referred.
The positive side of his religion, which is restated perhaps on a hundred different occasions, is well and shortly summed up in a tract purporting to be a homily on atheism, and professedly preached to a private society of friends in London in 1763. The following extracts convey the pith of it:
'Let us set bounds to our insatiable and useless curiosity; let us attach ourselves to our true interest. Is the supreme artisan who has made the world and ourselves our master? Is he benevolent? Do we owe him gratitude?'After answering the first question in the affirmative he goes on to the question of evil.
'Evil deluges the world. What are we to infer from it according to our weak reasonings?After discussing and rejecting the alternatives of atheism, manicheism, devil-worship, and optimism, he deals thus with the theory of a future life.
'What side then remains for us to take? Must we not take that which was embraced in India, Chaldaea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome by all the sages of antiquity, that of believing that God will make us pass from this unhappy life to a better which will be the development of our nature? For, after all, it is clear that we have gone through different sorts of existences already. We existed before a new disposition of organs formed us in the womb, our being was for nine months very different from what it was before—infancy differs from the condition of an embryo, mature age has nothing in common with infancy—death may introduce us to a different form of existence. That is only a hope, cry the poor wretches who feel and reason; you send us back to Pandora's box; evil is real, and hope may be an illusion; misfortune and crime besiege the life which we have, and you speak to us of a life which we have not, which perhaps we shall not have, and of which we have no idea.'To this he answers,
'We do not know what it is which thinks in us, and therefore we cannot know whether this unknown being will not survive our body. It is physically possible that there may be in us an indestructible monad, a hidden flame, a particle of divine fire which exists eternally under a variety of forms. I will not say that this is demonstrated, but without wishing to deceive mankind, one may say that we have as many reasons to believe as to deny the immortality of the thinking being. . . . This ancient and general opinion is perhaps the only one which can justify Providence. We must recognise a God who rewards and punishes, or recognise none at all. I do not see that there can be a middle way. Either there is no God, or God is just. We have an idea of justice—we, whose intelligence is so limited. Now can this justice be wanting to the supreme intelligence? We feel how absurd it is to say that God is ignorant, weak, or false. Shall we dare to say that he is cruel? It would be better to keep to fatal necessity, it would be better to admit an inevitable destiny, than to believe in a God who had created a single creature to make it wretched.
'I am told that God's justice is not ours. I should as soon say that the equality of twice two and four is not the same thing to God and to me. What is true is in my eyes, as it is in his. . . . There are not two ways of being true. The only difference probably is that the supreme intelligence comprehends all truths at once, whilst we drag ourselves slowly towards a few. If there are not two sorts of truth in the same proposition, how can there be two sorts of justice in the same action? We can comprehend the justice of God only by our own idea of justice. It is as thinking beings that we know justice and injustice. God, who thinks infinitely, must be infinitely just. . . . This doctrine seems to be a cry of nature to which all the ancient nations listened. There are amongst all nations, who use their reason, universal opinions which seem to be imprinted by the master of our hearts. Such is the persuasion of the existence of a God and of his merciful justice, such are the first principles of morality common to the Chinese, to the Indians, and to the Romans, which have never varied, though our globe has been upset a thousand times.'In order to bring this remarkable quotation within limits, we have been obliged to omit a good many side hits at the Jews for not having amongst them the doctrine of a future life, which interfere with the main argument; but the quotation itself gives in a short compass, what every page of Voltaire's works shows to have been his sincere belief.
It is difficult, for obvious reasons, to give any equally emphatic specimen of the negative side of Voltaire's speculations, but the following passage sums up his theory of Christianity shortly, and in a manner which, considering the nature of the subject, is perhaps not needlessly offensive. It occurs in a dialogue called Le Dîner du Comte Boulainvilliers.
'The most probable inference, from the chaos of histories of Jesus written against him by the Jews, and in his favour by the Christians, is that he was a well-meaning Jew', who wished to get influence with the people, like the founders of the Rechabites, the Essenes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Judaites, the Herodians, the Joannists, the Therapeutae, and so many other single sects set up in Syria, which was the country of fanaticism. It is probable that, like all those who chose to be the heads of sects, he got some women on his side, that several indiscreet discourses against the magistrates escaped him, and that he was cruelly put to death. Whether he was condemned in the reign of Herod the Great, as the Talmudists say, or under Herod the Tetrarch, as some of the gospels say, is of very little importance. It is certain that his disciples were very obscure till they had met some platonists in Alexandria, who supported the dreams of the Galilaeans by the dreams of Plato. The common people of those days were mad about demons, evil spirits, obsessions, possessions, and magic, like savages at the present day. Nearly all illnesses were possessions of bad spirits. The Jews from time immemorial had thought of casting out devils with the root barath put under the nose of the sick, and by certain words attributed to Solomon. Tobit drove away devils by the smell of a broiled fish. This was the origin of the miracles of which the Galilaeans boasted.
'The Gentiles were fanatical enough to agree that the Galilaeans could work these fine miracles, for they thought they could do so themselves. They believed in magic, like the disciples of Jesus. If a certain number of rich people recovered by natural causes, they were sure to declare that they had been cured of the headache by enchantment. They said to the Christians, You have fine secrets, and so have we; you cure by words, so do we; you have no advantage over us.
'But when the Galilaeans, having formed a numerous populace, began to preach against the religion of the state; when, after having demanded toleration, they ventured to be intolerant; when they wished to raise their new fanaticism on the ruins of the old fanaticism, then the priests and the Roman magistrates were horrified at them; then they suppressed their audacity. What did the Galilaeans do? They forged, as we have seen, a thousand works in their favour; from being dupes they became cheats, they became forgers, they defended themselves by the most unworthy frauds,' not being able to employ other arms, until the time when Constantine, who was made emperor by their money, set their religion on the throne. Then the wretches became sanguinary. I venture to say that, from the Council of Nice to the sedition of the Cevennes, not a single year has passed in which Christianity has not shed blood.'This extract, short as it is, contains the pith of Voltaire's theory of the history of Christianity. As he says, in another part of the same dialogue, 'L'enthousiasme commence, la fourberie achève. II en est de la religion comme du jeu. On commence par être dupe, on finit par être fripon.' It must not be supposed that this general trenchant theory is unsustained by argument. On the contrary, there are to be found in various parts of Voltaire's writings most of the destructive arguments of the modern antagonists of Christianity.
The works both of Strauss and Renan assume to a considerable extent, that Voltaire, and other writers on the same side, in the eighteenth century, got the best of the controversy in which they were engaged, to the extent, at all events, of disproving the truth of the gospel history. It is needless to describe his arguments at length. They were the standard arguments which always have been, and always will be, raised against the Bible, and which always have been encountered by much the same replies.
Nothing is more remarkable in religious controversy, than the fact that arguments which can scarcely be distinguished from each other, appear to produce a totally different effect, and to have a totally different degree of persuasive power, in different ages of the world. There is, however, undoubtedly a progress of opinion, by which an estimate of the result of controversies comes gradually to be formed amongst competent judges; and after reading volume after volume of objection and reply, all directed to the same points, it is difficult not to indulge a hope, which experience warrants rather better than it may seem to do at first sight, that at last some definite result may be reached, some permanent estimate may be formed of the real value of common arguments, for and against the topics on which men dispute so fiercely.
Be this how it may, it is not our intention to say anything on the merits of this momentous controversy, though we may observe in passing that, wherever the truth may lie, and whatever may be the real importance of Voltaire's objections to Christianity, no one in these days can accept as true his account of its origin and establishment. Nothing but passionate personal hatred could have induced him to regard such an explanation as the one referred to above as anything approaching to a competent explanation of the facts. That Christianity produced an immense moral change in the world, that this change was, in the main at least, an unspeakable blessing to mankind, and that the same is true not only of the morals, and generally speaking of the dogmatic system of Christianity, but also of its ecclesiastical institutions, are propositions which no one in these days would deny, and least of all those who agree most heartily in Voltaire's negative results.
2. VOLTAIRE'S STYLE
In substance, Voltaire's charges against Christianity are identical with those which have been preferred by many other writers, but the style of the attack was peculiarly his own, and has had more to do with the reputation of the attack itself, and with the effect produced by it, than any other circumstance connected with it. Its most striking peculiarity, and that which immediately presents itself to the mind of every one who has even the slightest and most transient acquaintance with Voltaire, is its audacious wit. The 'scoffs' of Voltaire have passed into a sort of proverb. It would be impossible to say how far he really deserved the infamy with which he has usually been almost overwhelmed on this subject, without going at length into the substantial merits of the controversy.
It is impossible to criticise him fairly on the supposition that he was altogether wrong in the general views of which he made himself the advocate. It is, indeed, often said, that even if he was right, either on the whole, or at all events in a considerable degree, it was nevertheless a grave offence against common decency, and the ordinary and most sacred feelings of mankind, to discuss such subjects in such a tone.
There is a good deal to be said upon this. In the first place, if he was right at all, he was right not merely in renouncing but in hating Christianity, and in seeking by the most effectual practical means to destroy its influence. This was the gist of his anti-Christian writings, and it cannot be doubted that if a doctrine is false, pernicious, and ridiculous in itself, no mode of attack can be so powerful as that of showing it in its true colours. Ridicule is not an unfailing test of truth, but many things are ridiculous, simply because they are not only false but absurdly false.
In so far, then, as Voltaire's ridicule embodied and pointed his arguments, in so far as it was substantially no more than a way of contending that the doctrines which he attacked really were incoherent, incredible, and absurd, the charge which ought to be brought against him is that of mistaking the object of his attack, not that of attacking in a wrong way. In other words, he is to blame, not for ridiculing what he did not believe, but for not believing what he ought to have believed.
As an instance in which the ridicule embodies a powerful argument we may take a short extract, made as inoffensive as is consistent with showing what we mean, from a strange farce called Saul and David, which is printed amongst Voltaire's works, and to which he alludes several times in his correspondence. In two cases he repudiates it with indignation, though in each case he grounds his repudiation on his fear of the consequences of being regarded as the author, but he refers to it twice in his letters to Madame du Deffant (11th October 1763, and 7th August 1769) with a sort of complacency which amounts to a half admission.
The death-bed of David is thus described.
'David. Ma dernière heure arrive; il faut faire mon testament et pardonner en bon Juif à tous mes ennemis. Salomon, je vous fais roi juif, souvenezvous d'être clément et doux; ne manquez pas, dès que j'aurai les yeux fermés, d'assassiner mon fils Adonias, quand même il embrasserait les cornes de l'autel.The point about Adonijah is calumnious, for it does not appear from the Old Testament that David had anything to do with his murder, and the point about Shimei is exaggerated. Moreover, the logical importance of proving that David died in the commission of the most hideous crimes may be contested. If, however, any one wants to be convinced of that fact, it can hardly be doubted that this performance of Voltaire's is calculated to impress it upon him in a manner not likely to be forgotten. By simply repeating in modern language a story to which we had been accustomed in its archaic dress, its moral character is shown more emphatically than it could be by any quantity of argument.
'Salomon. Quelle sagesse! quelle bonté d'âme! Mon père, je n'y manquerai pas sur ma parole.
'David. Voyez-vous ce Joab qui m'a servi dans mes guerres, et à qui je dois ma couronne? Je vous prie au nom du Seigneur de le faire assassiner aussi, car il a mis du sang dans mes souliers.
'Joah. Comment, monstre! je t'étranglerai de mes mains; va, va, je ferai bien casser ton testament, et ton Salomon verra quel homme je suis.
'Salomon. Est-ce tout, mon chèr père? n'avez-vous plus personne à expédier?
'David. J'ai la mémoire mauvaise: attendez; il y a encore un certain Seméi qui m'a dit autrefois des sottises; nous nous raccommodâmes; je lui jurai par le Dieu vivant que je lui pardonnerais; il m'a très bien servi, il est de mon conseil prive; vous êtes sage, ne manquez pas de le faire tuer en traître.
'Salomon. Votre volonté sera exécutée, mon cher père.
'David. Va, tu seras le plus sage des rois, et le Seigneur te donnera mille femmes pour récompense. Je me meurs! Que je t'embrasse encore! Adieu.'
A similar criticism may be made on the whole of Candide. It is not, of course, an answer to Leibnitz, but it is a most effectual way of showing that, if true, Leibnitz's theory is of as little practical importance as the question of the existence of matter. You add nothing to our knowledge, and take nothing from our perplexities, by telling us that the world which we see is the best of all possible worlds. Whether I am to complain of the world, or to complain of the nature of things, and the limits of possibility which prevent the world from being any better than it actually is, is in reality a mere question of words, which may be decided by the taste of the person who uses them.
Another observation, which will apply to a good deal of Voltaire's wit, and will more or less excuse a considerable part of it, is that he was obviously one of that very small class of men who are honestly afraid of their own sensibility. He could not persuade himself that he really did believe in anything till he had divested it of every artificial attraction whatever, and reduced it to the very driest, hardest, and most naked residuum to which it was capable of being reduced. Most men like their beliefs, especially upon subjects which concern the strongest and deepest feelings of their nature, to be tenderly used. They do not like to throw their religion, their love, or their enthusiasm, of whatever kind, into dry and harsh forms of speech. They prefer that it should be more or less veiled, and invested with the charms of mystery. This is utterly repugnant to the feelings of a different class of minds. There are men in whom the intellect is so much more vigorously developed than the other parts of their nature, and who nevertheless feel what they do feel so deeply, that they cannot trust their own sincerity as to any opinion which they may hold, unless, and until, they have tried the experiment of reducing it to the barest and least attractive shape, and have ascertained that, even in that shape, it still appears to them to be true. Something of this temper is to be perceived in several of the great writers of the eighteenth century. Butler, for instance, appears to be continually afraid of being led away by his feelings, and accordingly he never, or hardly ever, gives full swing to them, or allows himself to express his views unreservedly. No one shows this tendency in so marked a form as Voltaire. He carried it to an extent which has surrounded his name, in the estimation of the great mass of mankind, with what approaches to infamy.
After making whatever allowances are due on these heads, it must be owned that a great part of Voltaire's writings is calculated to excite a feeling of disgust, even in those who are not easily shocked. His love for laughter, of whatever kind, and on whatever subjects, sometimes assumes the character of a St. Vitus's dance. He jokes as if he could not help it. For instance, the essay called II faut prendre un Parti, great part of which is written in the most serious tone, begins and ends with buffoonery.
This is the beginning of it—
'Ce n'est pas entre la Russie et la Turquie qu'il s'agit de prendre un parti; car ces deux Etats feront la paix tôt ou tard sans que je m'en mêle. . . . Je ne prendrai point parti entre les anciens parlements de France et les nouveaux, parce que dans peu d'années il n'en sera plus question, ni entre les anciens et les modernes, parce que ce procès est interminable; ... ni entre les opéras bouffons français et les italiens, parce que c'est une affaire de fantaisie. Il ne s'agit ici que d'une petite bagatelle, de savoir s'il y a un Dieu; et c'est ce que je vais examiner très-sérieusement et de très-bonne foi, car cela m'intéresse et vous aussi.'The greater part of the discussion which follows, and which is not long, is quiet and decent enough; but at the close of it a variety of different characters —an Atheist, a Pagan, a Manichee, a Jew, a Turk, and a Deist—are introduced, each of whom delivers a more or less burlesque oration. At last a citizen exhorts them all to live in peace, in a speech of which the following few lines are a favourable specimen.
'Nous exhortons les primitifs nommés quakers à marier leurs fils aux filles des théistes nommés sociniens, attendu que ces demoiselles étant presque toutes filles des prêtres, sont très-pauvres. Non-seulement ce sera une fort bonne action devant Dieu et devant les hommes, mais ces mariages produiront une nouvelle race qui, représentant les premiers temps de l'église chrétienne, sera très-utile au genre humain.'This is singularly poor fun, considered merely as fun, and it is impossible to say that it either embodies any argument, good or bad, or that it can be regarded as in any way whatever a test of truth. It is mere impertinence, and has no other tendency than one as bad as Voltaire's most severe critics can assign to it. His writings are full of this indecency, and there can hardly be two opinions about its character, intellectual and moral.
In some of his writings, however, his characteristic tendency to laugh on every possible occasion takes a far more unpleasant form than that of unseasonable impertinence. He is often, as in the Pucelle, exceedingly dirty, without any sort of excuse. At times he falls even a step lower. A certain number of his speculations may be charged with that specially revolting form of indecency in which it appears to be the author's object to disgust his readers by throwing in their faces every fact which common decency leads men to keep in the background. Though he is not so foul as Swift, there is still much in Voltaire which recalls Swift's ferocious obscenity. For obvious reasons it is impossible to illustrate this tendency; but we may observe that, whenever he has occasion to discuss the nature of the soul, Voltaire dwells on the difficulty of assigning the moment when it can first be said to exist, in a manner which is positively loathsome, especially when it pleases him to set it off with a grin, as it often does.
If, however, it is permitted to give an opinion on the style of Voltaire's polemics as a whole, and apart from their inexcusable faults and blemishes, we should be inclined to think that there is in the present day more risk of underrating than of overrating his powers of thought. He has been so long held up to execration, as a scoffer and a blasphemer, that people are a little apt to forget how very large a portion of the opinions which they hold universally, and almost unconsciously, were in his time startling novelties, advanced in the teeth of the most vehement opposition.
Since Voltaire's time, and to a great extent under the influence of the movement in which he took the most prominent part, the position of Christianity in the world has greatly changed. The Christianity which we know is a very different thing, and occupies a very different position in human affairs, from the Christianity which he attacked. We are in the habit of regarding Christianity as a religion, a system of belief and a form of worship adopted freely by those who like it, because they like it, and as far as they like it. The object of his hatred was a form of government punishing all who opposed it, forbidding the expression of any opinions hostile to itself, and asserting the right to rule over and control all collateral exertions of the intellect. The practical difference between the two things is enormous; but the more modern conception is so familiar to us, that we are apt to forget the immense importance of the change which has occurred since Voltaire's time, and to underrate the importance of the part which he took in bringing it about.
The established official theory throughout the greater part of Europe, and especially in France, with regard to Christianity, was, in Voltaire's day, that theology was the Queen of the Sciences, and the very foundation of the whole social system on which all legitimate power was founded, and by which all human knowledge and speculation was to be measured and controlled. It was against this claim that Voltaire so energetically rebelled, and it can hardly be denied in good faith that he made good his case, and that though he certainly did not succeed in exploding Christianity as an opinion, or in giving a satisfactory account of it from a philosophical or historical point of view, he did succeed in reducing it to the position of a congeries of analogous systems of opinions, any or all of which may be held within the circle of lay life, but none of which can claim to be its foundation and sovereign.
The difference between the condition of things in which human society is regarded as consisting of many states in one church, and that in which it is regarded as consisting of many states comprising many churches, is enormous. It constitutes nearly the whole difference between the mediaeval and the modern world, and may be expressed by saying, that in the one case the Church, and in the other the State, are substantive and adjective respectively. The change from the one condition to the other was no doubt gradual and partial, but Voltaire did more than any single man to bring it about in his own time and country. There is now no part of Europe in which the ecclesiastical view of things and the political power of the clergy is in any degree comparable to what it was a hundred years ago.
The consideration of what Voltaire did in this matter is the best introduction to the consideration of what he failed to do. He failed altogether to destroy Christianity as a system of belief, and indeed the exaggerated violence and mistaken mode of attack which he adopted, did a good deal towards causing that powerful reaction in its favour, which is still in full progress.
The tacit verdict upon the whole subject of a very large section of those whom he addressed, may be described as being somewhat to the following effect: You have succeeded amply in showing us that no theological system is so true that it can properly be made the basis of lay government. You have also succeeded in bringing out, in a form which, if exaggerated, is certainly forcible and pointed in the highest degree, the standing objections to all theology, and this has had the effect of lowering the tone of all theologians, and of reducing by many degrees, not the fervour of religious feeling, but the distinctness, the force, and the systematic character of religious belief, especially amongst the more cultivated sections of European society, but you have by no means disposed of religion. Your account of Christianity is altogether incredible, besides being obviously as one-sided, as unfair, and in many respects as inaccurate, as any account of it from the opposite point of view can be. On the whole the result is that, though you, and others like you, have brought about a change in the religious atmosphere of the world, you have left its religious belief unaltered, though weaker. The specific doctrines remain pretty much where they were, though the force of the objections to the whole system, the existence of which, to some extent, has been always admitted by all thinking men, has been increased.
One of the most remarkable effects of Voltaire's influence upon the course of theological thought since his time, is to be found in the immense impulse which the reaction against him has given to the defence of Christianity, on historical and emotional grounds. Although history was in some respects Voltaire's forte, and although the Essai sur les Moeurs and the Siècle de Louis XIV. are in some respects the best of his works, there can be no doubt that the historical side of his polemical writings is their weakest side.
Many things may be said about Christianity, but it is perfectly obvious that, as a mere question of history, he has not spoken of it with any tolerable recognition of the advantages which it has bestowed on mankind. The principal, it might almost be said the only fact upon which he insists in relation to its history, is the supposed fact that it was the cruel oppressor of the human race, the persecutor of all who dissented from it. This is so false that it is hardly worth while to insist upon its falsehood. Christianity in his day had been the ruling moral power in this part of the world for about fourteen hundred years, and although it is perfectly true that in the course of that long history many crimes had been committed in connection with the Christian religion, nothing can be more false, than the assertion which he continually makes, that hardly a year had passed in the whole of that time in which Christianity had not shed blood.
Let every one, for instance, look at the history of England from the time when Christianity was first introduced into it till our own times. We have had our full share of bloodshed, but very little of it has had much to do with Christianity. Nothing can be more irrational and unphilosophical, than to set down to the charge of religion every convulsion in which religious questions were indirectly brought into prominence. The Wars of the Roses caused more bloodshed than was ever caused in this country by religion. The religious element in the civil wars of the seventeenth century was only one element of many, and the atrocious ferocity, of which the Irish were alternately the victims and the perpetrators, had more to do with the antagonism between a stronger and a weaker race than with the controversy between rival creeds.
It is, moreover, perfectly obvious to every competent observer that to treat religious controversies with the contempt which Voltaire on all occasions displayed for them, is merely to show ignorance and shallowness. Mankind feel the deepest interest in religious controversy, because no subject possesses greater or more legitimate interest for them. It is no doubt true that by mixing up philosophy and religion, it often happens that a verbal puzzle is turned into a symbol and battle-cry. But the thing signified may be none the less important because the symbol itself is a barely intelligible subtlety.
To develop these and several other lines of thought, which have now become almost commonplaces, was the most natural and obvious way of answering Voltaire, and much of the historical speculation of the last century has shown the traces of the general desire to do so.
De Maistre was perhaps the first conspicuous protester against his views, and by far the most successful parts of his works are those in which he argues against the thin, shallow, unsympathising view of history which was the natural and almost necessary companion of Voltaire's theology and philosophy. Later efforts in the same direction are too well known to require notice, for it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the distinctive peculiarity of historical research in our own century, has been the continual effort to enter into, and sympathise with, the thoughts and feelings, and especially the religious thoughts and feelings, of past ages of the world.
Voltaire's persistent determination to set aside and to trample upon the mystical emotional side of religion, for this is the true object and meaning of a great proportion of his language on such topics, has no doubt had a great deal to do with the revival of that side of Christianity of which we have seen so much, and are to see so much more. He has been regarded as a man morally and spiritually blind, because he viewed, as no better than so many delusions, things which others declared themselves to be able to see.
Hardly anything can convey a stronger lesson of the effects of heaping ridicule upon what is usually regarded as sacred than the result of Voltaire's attacks on Christian mysticism. The practical effect of his ridicule has been rather to diminish than to increase the weight of his arguments, except with those who were on his side, apart from them. If he had been calmer and graver, and if he had realised what, as a fact, is the weight and value of religious feelings, and allowed for their existence, whilst he denied that they ought to exist, or were founded on a true perception of facts, his influence would have been much greater in the long run. The late Mr. Cecil, if we are not mistaken, used to say, in reference partly to Voltaire and partly to Gibbon, that the last and most terrible device of Satan, would be the raising up of a really fair and candid antagonist to Christianity, who would state without ridicule or exaggeration the real objections to it. There was a great deal of truth, though it was very oddly expressed, in this curious remark.
There is one point in Voltaire's religious speculations which is frequently overlooked, but which is not the less important on that account, as it ought in fairness to be owned that a great deal of his influence is due to it. We refer to the genuine, though rather querulous, tone of piety which continually displays itself in various parts of his voluminous speculations, notwithstanding their waywardness, levity, and occasional buffoonery. To be resigned to the will of God is no doubt a great thing, but some degree of faith in the existence and in the goodness of God is shown by feeling aggrieved and injured, as well as merely pained, at the misfortunes of life.
Voltaire did, at all events, believe in his Maker enough to feel morally shocked by the miseries of mankind. There is something, for instance, in his famous poem on the earthquake at Lisbon, very like those parts of the Psalms which protest against the miseries of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked. There is true piety in the following noble lines:—
C'est l'orgueil, dites-vous, l'orgueil séditieux,On reading such lines as these, with the conviction of their entire sincerity, it is difficult not to remember that the bitter complaints and eager remonstrances of Job were more genuine, more pious, and more acceptable than the orthodox theodicies of his pious friends. With all his faults, there was a true vein of piety in the man who could write the lines we have quoted, and with them we will conclude our observations on Voltaire's style.
Qui prétend qu'étant mal nous pourrions être mieux.
. . . . . . . . . .
Je désire humblement, sans offenser mon maître,
Que ce gouffre enflammé de soufre et de salpêre
Eût allumé sea feux dans le fond des déserts.
Je respecte mon Dieu, mais j'aime l'univers;
Quand l'homme ose gemir d'un fléau si terrible,
II n'est point orgueilleux, hélas! il est sensible.
. . . . . . . . . .
Non, ne me presentez plus à mon coeur agité
Ces immuables lois de la nécessité,
Cette chaîne des corps, des esprits et des mondes.
O rêves des savans, ô chimères profondes!
Dieu tient en main la chaîne et n'est point enchaîné;
Par son choix bienfaisant tout est déterminé;
Il est libre, il est juste, il n'est point implacable.
Pourquoi donc souffrons-nous sous un maître équitable?
Voilà le nœud fatal qu'il fallait délier,
Guérirez-vous nos maux en osant les nier?
Ou l'homme est né coupable et l'on punit sa race,
Ou ce maître absolu de l'être et de l'espace,
Sans courroux, sans pitié, tranquille, indifférent,
De ses premiers décrets suit l'éternel torrent;
Ou la matière informe à son maître rebelle
Porte en soi des défauts nécessaires comme elle,
Ou bien Dieu nous éprouve et ce séjour mortel
N'est qu'un passage étroit vers un monde éternel.
Nous essuyons ici des douleurs passagères,
Le trépas est un bien qui finit nos misères,
Mais quand nous sortirons de ce passage affreux
Qui de nous prétendra mériter d'être heureux?
Quelque parti qu'on prenne on doit frémir sans doute;
Il n'est rien qu'on connaisse, et rien qu'on ne redoute.
La nature est muette, on l'interroge en vain;
On a besoin d'un Dieu qui parle au genre humain:
Il n'appartient qu'à lui d'expliquer son ouvrage,
De consoler le faible et d'éclairer le sage.
. . . . . . . . . .
UN JOUR TOUT SERA BIEN, voilà notre espérance:
TOUT EST BIEN AUJOURD'HUI, voilà l'illusion;
Les sages me trompaient et Dieu seul a raison.
Humble dans mes soupirs, soumis dans ma souffrance,
Je ne m'élève point contre la Providence.
Sur un ton moins lugubre on me vit autrefois
Chanter des doux plaisirs les séduisantes lois.
D'autres temps d'autres mœurs; instruit par la vieillesse,
Des humains égarés partageant la faiblesse,
Dans une épaisse nuit cherchant à m'éclairer,
Je ne sais que souffrir et non pas murmurer.
3. VOLTAIRE AS A MORALIST
The interest of Voltaire's theological speculations, and the character of the attack he made on Christianity, depend, to a very great extent— it would be hardly too much to say that they depend principally— on the ethical conclusions which are attached to them; for though it is undoubtedly true that religion and morality may be divorced, and that it is possible to conceive of forms of worship altogether unrelated to morals, yet the great interest of theological speculation, in our own age of the world, lies in its bearing, real or supposed, upon morality.
The great charge always preferred against infidelity, both in the last century and in our own times, is its connection with immorality. Nothing can be more interesting than to consider calmly, and as impartially as may be, the question how far this charge was well founded. It would require much boldness of assertion to profess to be acquainted with all Voltaire's utterances upon any important subject. He treated almost everything which he had occasion to deal with at all under almost every form; but the following are the parts of his works from which our notions of his views as to the theory of ethics are taken: Traité de Métaphysique, ch. viii. and ix.; Le Philosophe Ignorant, xxxi.-xlviii.; several of his Dialogues, in particular Dialogue viii. of the volume of Dialogues, and Dialogues iii. iv. xi. and xiii. of the series called L'A, B, C; several articles in the Philosophical Dictionary; and, amongst the poems, the Discours en vers sur I'Homme and the Poème sur la Loi Naturelle. Besides this, every part of his writings is full of moral reflections of different kinds, which are almost always based substantially on the same principles.
The first observation which suggests itself upon these writings is that Voltaire never appears to have treated the subject of morality at length, or with anything like a full appreciation of its various difficulties and intricacies. It was a sort of necessity of his nature to be provided, on all the subjects which principally interested him, with a theory which admitted of being stated in a short, striking, and emphatic form; but it was not his way to think out in a systematic manner difficult and intricate subjects. The longest exposition of his ethical views which we have met with is to be found in the Philosophe Ignorant, which was written late in life; but there is also a pretty full statement of them in the latter part of the Traité de Métaphysique, written many years before, though not published in his lifetime.
We will begin with the latter. It forms the conclusion of a short treatise on metaphysics, which Voltaire always treats as including theology and ethics. His theory, as stated in this place, is that man is not merely sociable, like other animals, but also naturally benevolent to a certain extent. His benevolence, however, would not be a sufficient foundation for society on any considerable scale. 'Pride is the principal instrument with which this fine edifice of society has been built;' and he proceeds to point out, exactly in the spirit and almost in the words of Mandeville, how pride was the great spur by which men were prompted to make sacrifices for the common good,
'Il ne fut pas difficile de leur persuader que s'ils faisaient pour le bien commun de la société quelque chose qui leur coûtait un peu de leur bien-être, leur orgueil en serait amplement dédommagé. ... On distingua donc de bonne heure les hommes en deux classes; la première les hommes divins qui sacrifient leur amour propre au bien public; la seconde les misérables qui n'aiment qu'eux-mêmes; tout le monde voulut et veut être encore de la première classe, quoique tout le monde soit dans le fond du cœur de la seconde.'Envy was necessary to reinforce pride, and did so effectually. Such are the great working forces of all society. In order that society might get on at all, some kind of laws were necessary, just as all games imply rules. The laws varied in various places; but everywhere those who obeyed them were called virtuous, those who disobeyed, vicious:
'Therefore' (he concludes), 'virtue and vice, moral good and moral evil, are in every country that which is useful or injurious to society; and in all times and places he who sacrifices most to the public will be called the most virtuous. It appears then that good actions are only actions which are advantageous to us, and crimes actions which injure us. Virtue is the habit of doing things which please men, and vice the habit of doing things which displease them.'The things which please one man displease another; still 'God has given man certain sentiments of which he can never rid himself, and which are the eternal bonds and first laws of the society in which he foresaw that men would live.'
Thus adultery and other sexual crimes are permitted in many nations; 'but you will not find one in which it is permitted to break one's word, for society can subsist between adulterers, but not between people who pride themselves on deceiving each other.'
To ask whether vice and virtue are purely relative to mankind, is as absurd as to ask whether heat and cold, bitter and sweet, are relative to mankind. Moral good and evil are relative to us as much as pain and pleasure. God has not carried his views for men beyond the point of providing them with instincts and passions, the play of which would form society. He has established no laws at all, and no morality. Laws and morals are human devices for human convenience. If any one says, 'My happiness. consists in preying on society, in killing, robbing, or libelling, and therefore on your theory I can do as I please,' 'Je n'ai autre chose à dire a ces gens-là sinon que probablement ils seront pendus.'
It is highly probable that the crimes committed here on earth in no way interest the Deity. 'God has put men and animals on the earth, and it is for them to conduct themselves as well as they can. Woe betide the flies which fall into the spiders' webs!' It is much to be wished that God had given men positive laws, but as this is not the case we must do as well as we can; and if any one will 'abandon himself unreservedly to the fury of his unbridled desires,' we must rely on law and public opinion, on his own pride which cannot bear general contempt, and 'is perhaps the greatest check which nature has laid on human injustice,' and, above all, 'on the universal sentiment called honour, of which the most corrupt cannot rid themselves, and which is the pivot of society,' to keep him in order.
In his later works on the same subject, and especially in the Philosophe Ignorant, he dwells rather on the universality of morality than on the other topics just mentioned. He goes to the edge of saying that morality is innate and instinctive.
'La notion de quelque chose de juste me semble si naturelle, si universellement acquise par tous les hommes, qu'elle est indépendante de toute loi, de tout parti, de toute religion. . . . L'idée de justice me paraît tellement une vérité du premier ordre a laquelle tout l'univers donne son assentiment que les plus grands crimes qui affligent la société humaine sont tous commis sous un faux prétexte de justice.'He further says,
'Je crois que les idées du juste et de l'injuste sont aussi claires, aussi universelles que les idées de santé et de maladie, de vérité et de fausseté, de convenance et de disconvenance.It is difficult, no doubt, to define the limits of . what is and what is not just, yet the things themselves are perfectly distinct and clear. 'Ce sont des nuances qui se mêlent, mais les couleurs tranchantes frappent tous les yeux.' So decided was Voltaire on this point that he went to the length (a very unusual length with him) of contradicting Locke upon it. Locke dwells, and certainly with some exaggeration, on the moral differences between different nations and ages, in order to attack the notion that we have innate practical principles of a moral kind. Voltaire argues that we have no innate practical principles, but he says,
'Au lieu de ces idées innées chimériques, Dieu nous a donné une raison qui se fortifie avec l'âge, et qui nous apprend à tous quand nous sommes attentifs, sans passion, sans présage, qu'il y a un Dieu, et qu'il faut être juste.'
From Locke he passes to Hobbes, and observes, 'C'est en vain que tu étonnes tes lecteurs en réussissant presque à leur prouver qu'il n'y a aucune loi dans le monde que des lois de convention; qu'il n'y a de juste et d'injuste que ce qu'on est convenu d'appeler tel dans un pays.'
It would, he says, be as unjust to murder a man in a desert island as to murder him in England. He charges Hobbes with confounding power and right, and concludes, 'Quiconque étudie la morale doit commencer a réfuter ton livre dans ton coeur; mais ton propre coeur te réfutait encore davantage; car tu fus vertueux ainsi que Spinosa,' etc.
Voltaire, as we have already observed, refers to ethical questions in other parts of his works, but, so far as we are aware, the passages just quoted give a fair view of his most characteristic opinions upon them, and there would be little use in adding to their number.
The poem Sur la Loi Naturelle is to precisely the same effect as the passages in the Philosophe Ignorant, though it brings forward the fact of conscience somewhat more fully.
The poem called Discours en vers sur l’Homme, which challenges comparison with Pope's Essay on Man, and appears to us much inferior to it, concludes with a prolonged denunciation of asceticism which does not occur in the extracts already given; and the Dialogues only put Voltaire's own views into the mouths of various interlocutors— a conventional savage, for instance, who states them to a theologian, as if they were obvious first truths, transparent to every unsophisticated mind, and a certain Englishman (A) who was the leading personage in the Dialogues called L'A, B, C.
It must, however, be observed, that the theory to be met with in the Traité de Métaphysique, which, as we said, considerably resembles Mandeville in part, though not in its full extent, would seem to have made far less impression on Voltaire, and to have occupied a much less important place in his mind, than the theory of the immutability and universality of morality, which is developed in the Philosophe Ignorant, and which he never misses an opportunity of stating in various forms and on all possible occasions.
Ethical speculations may generally be tested by seeing how far they answer the three questions— What is the nature of the distinction between moral good and evil? How are particular people in particular cases to know the one from the other? Why should men do good and not evil? Tried by this test we do not think highly of Voltaire's moral speculations, for he does not give a satisfactory answer to any one of these questions, nor, as it appears to us, does he in the least degree appreciate the great difficulties with which each is encumbered; yet there can be no doubt that he ought to have had clear and satisfactory views upon each of them, as the whole gist and point of his attack on all established forms of religion was that they were immoral.
To take these questions in turn. In what does the difference between moral good and moral evil consist? They are, we are told, entirely relative to men. Moral good is that which pleases men, moral evil that which displeases them; virtue is the habit of acting in such a way as to please, and vice the habit of acting in such a way as to displease them. This may be, and perhaps is, no more than a way of stating the well-known Benthamite proposition about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, though it is not an accurate way of stating it; but if this is what Voltaire meant— and indeed, upon any hypothesis as to his meaning— it is very difficult to reconcile such a view with the answer which he gives to the second of the three questions suggested above, How am I to know what is right?
Upon this point he says, over and over again, You are to know by the unanimous consent of mankind, all of whom attach to moral obligations the same meaning and the same importance. Surely no one will assert that all mankind know what courses of conduct will promote the general happiness of mankind, but whoever tries to combine the Benthamite conception of the nature of morality, with the doctrine that positive morality — that is to say, moral rules in fact accepted as such — are universal, notwithstanding superficial variations, must maintain this theory. Utilitarianism does not in terms contradict the theory of a universal instinctive agreement of all mankind on moral subjects. It is imaginable, that all men might instinctively know what courses of conduct would promote the general happiness of the race, just as it is imaginable, that they might instinctively know the differential calculus, but, in fact, there is as little evidence in favour of the one as there is in favour of the other proposition.
It would be unjust to Voltaire to suppose that this had not struck him. It seems, indeed, that he did appreciate the difficulty which we have pointed out more or less confusedly, and he tried to avoid it by a device which, when examined, appears altogether ineffectual for this purpose. As we have seen, he divides morality into two parts, of which one is universal, whilst the other changes indefinitely at different times and places; almost all positive rules on particular subjects—such, e.g., as the rules which regulate the relation of the sexes—belonging to the variable, and those which enjoin justice or truth in general terms belonging to the constant part, and these general rules, he observes, are far the more important of the two.
To us this appears very like saying that though all the parts of two systems of morality are different, the wholes which are made up of those parts are identical. Justice, in the wide sense of the word in which he generally uses it, cannot be better defined than in the famous words of the Roman law. It is 'constans et perpetua voluntas suum cuique tribuendi.' And its leading maxims are 'honeste vivere, alium non laedere, suum cuique tribuere.' Now if it be true, as Voltaire says, that different nations at different times have different views as to what constitutes an honourable way of life, or injury to another, and as to what is one's own property, it will follow that they mean different things by the word justice, which is only a collective name for the habit of practising all the virtues in question.
If the matter is fully considered, it will appear, we think, that it is not true that any general system of morality is universally recognised amongst men, at all times and in all places, but that, on the contrary, every age and country has its own system or systems differing it may be slightly from each other in practice, but nevertheless constructed upon principles between which there is and always will be a small and irreconcilable discrepancy. For instance, the practical rules which flow from the ascetic and from the social ideal of human life do not in common cases differ very widely in practice; but the colour, so to speak, of the systems is different, and this will be perceived by every one who is at all accustomed to take a broad view of them. We think that Voltaire greatly underrated the importance of these differences, and that the fact that he did so, was one of several reasons which prevented him from appreciating fairly the nature and degree of the resemblances which exist between the moralities of different times and places.
As to the third great branch of morality, the question of sanctions, Voltaire is thoroughly unsatisfactory; he is, indeed, even more unsatisfactory than is usual with writers of his way of thinking. The question of sanctions is the great difficulty of every one who speculates on morality from the purely secular point of view, which, by the way, Voltaire did not. He says in so many words that he cannot answer the question, Why, if I can keep within the law, should I not be a villain if I please? Bentham avoids the question, though he contributes something to its solution by classifying the sanctions which are capable of being applied to human conduct. Mr. Mill treats it as being a difficulty which applies to all systems alike, which it no doubt is; and Comte and his disciples, as far as we understand their views, fall more or less into the elephant and tortoise difficulty.
Appropriate education and other influences are to erect a new spiritual power, which is to wield almost immeasurable moral power over men's minds. In other words, people are gradually to become good by the power of teaching. Yes, but suppose that they will not? Under the mask of gaiety Voltaire answers this question in the lamest possible way. 'Je n'ai autre chose à dire à ces gens-là' —the determined and avowed bad men— 'sinon que probablement ils seront pendus.'
He must surely have felt, when he wrote it, that this was not true, and not in the smallest degree like the truth. Make criminal law so severe as to hang every one who systematically follows his own private interest, and systematically ignores the interests of all the rest of the world, and you would turn the world into one vast place of execution. Law proper is of very subordinate importance, and of necessarily diminishing importance as a moralising agent. It can only restrain people from gross and stupid offences which no bad man of the least ingenuity would ever desire to commit.
Admitting then that he answers that infinitesimally small minority of wicked men who cannot prey upon society without cutting throats, picking pockets, and forging bills of exchange, Voltaire by his own admission has nothing whatever to say to the man who says, 'I shall make my own enjoyment the one object of my life; I shall gratify every passion I feel without the faintest regard for my neighbour's interests, and I shall violate every law, human and divine, and every principle of morality, wherever I think that the advantage to be gained by doing so is not counterbalanced by the danger of punishment.' It must be owned that this is a considerable and most important gap in the moral theories of a man who regarded himself, and not by any means unjustly, as the principal leader of a moral and religious revolution.
It is true that he makes a sort of attempt to provide a substitute for the penal sanctions of morality, by reference to what he regards as the reasons why men are moral in fact—namely, pride, and the fear of contempt. In this he repeats the unsatisfactory paradoxes of Mandeville, which probably never satisfied any one, and which, it would appear, did not continue to satisfy Voltaire himself.
In the latter part of his life he appears to have inclined rather to the view of morality which regards all moral questions of importance as clear in themselves, and which looks upon the conscientious sanction as the real reason for being moral. This is a far more amiable frame of mind than the one which displays itself in the Traité de Métaphysique, but it is not an intellectually complete or strong one. Quis custodiet? What is the guarantee of conscience? Such as it is, this view is vigorously stated in the poem called La Loi Naturelle, which was published together with the one on the earthquake at Lisbon.
The following lines are a fine example of that vein of natural piety which certainly did exist in Voltaire, and which had perhaps more to do with his popularity than many people suppose.
Sur son Dieu, sur sa fin, sur sa cause première,A little farther on he goes the full length of regarding conscience as the direct voice of God.
L'homme est-il sans secours à l'erreur attaché?
Quoi! le monde est visible et Dieu serait caché?
Quoi! le plus grand besoin que j'aie en ma misère
Est le seul qu'en effet je ne puis satisfaire!
Non; le Dieu qui m'a fait ne m'a point fait en vain,
Sur le front des mortels il mit son sceau divin.
. . . . . . . . . .
La morale uniforme en tous temps, en tout lieu,
A des siècles sans fin parle au nom de ce Dieu,
C'est la loi de Trajan, de Socrate et la vôtre,
De ce culte éternel la nature est l'apôtre;
Le bon sens la reçoit, et les remords vengeurs
Nés de la conscience en sont les défenseurs;
Leur redoutable voix partout se fait entendre.
Jamais un parricide, un calomniateur,Such sentiments as these, and the two peculiarities which characterise every line of Voltaire's moral speculations—his passionate belief in universal morality, and his persistent determination to regard morality as a branch of religion, and to connect it in the most intimate manner with the doctrine of the existence of God—explain many things in Voltaire's writings which are continually overlooked, and are, in point of fact, the key to a great part of his sentiments.
N'a dit tranquillement au fond de son cœur:
'Qu'il est beau, qu'il est doux d'accabler l'innocence,
De déchirer le sein qui nous donna naissance!
Dieu juste, Dieu parfait! que le crime a d'appas.'
Voila ce qu'on dirait, mortels, n'en doutez pas,
S'il n'etait une loi terrible universelle
Que respecte le crime en s'elevant contre elle.
Est-ce nous qui creons ces profonds sentiments?
Avons-nous fait notre ame? avons-nous fait nos sens?
. . . . . . . . . .
Le ciel fit la vertu, l'homme en fit l'apparence.
II peut la revetir d'imposture et d'erreur;
II ne peut la changer: son juge est dans son coeur.
It would be altogether a mistake to regard him as a systematic philosopher bent on thinking out the theory of any of the great subjects which specially attracted his attention, and capable of appreciating, and determined to solve, their various difficulties. What he did was to collect as it were into a focus the opinions of the great thinkers of his age, and to mould them into a passionate protest against its official creed. In such an undertaking a man must have a standing-ground which either really is, or at all events appears to him to be, impregnable to all antagonists. The standing-ground occupied by Voltaire, as by others in somewhat similar situations, was a belief in God, and an immutable universal morality, testified of by conscience, and, as he thought, trampled on and set at nought by the establishments which he assailed so fiercely.
Those who can see nothing in him but a blasphemous scoffer ought to bear in mind not merely the fact that he held these views, as we should say, with more sincerity than logic, but that he acted upon them vigorously when the occasion arose, as in the famous case of Calas. But though this ought not to be forgotten, it was equally true that his morality was not only rhetorical, but also singularly partial. He was very indulgent to a large class of vices, although those which he abhorred and withstood were no doubt sufficiently detestable. His own life in many particulars was, as all the world knows, open to abundance of charges. The net result of his ethical doctrines is, that of a sermon against cruelty, intolerance, and fanaticism, and in favour of mutual kindness amongst men. He preaches in every possible tone, from the most frivolous to the most solemn and pathetic; but when all is said and done, he is a preacher and a rhetorician, and not a philosopher or a legislator.
4. VOLTAIRE AS A METAPHYSICIAN
Thus far we have tried to give some sort of notion of the position of Voltaire as a moralist and a theologian, and have pointed out the fact that he ought to be regarded in the light, not of a philosophical and impartial inquirer into truth, but rather in that of the most eager, vehement, and able, of all the advocates who distinguished themselves in that great cause, the pleading of which was the chief literary, philosophical, and religious event of the eighteenth century. We think that the more his works are studied the more will the truth of this criticism be appreciated, but there is perhaps, no part of his endless writings in which it is so manifest as in his metaphysical works. They are mixed up, like everything else that he wrote, except indeed his historical and poetical works, with all sorts of other matter, and are made the texts of an infinite number of disquisitions on all sorts of subjects.
His metaphysical position may be defined very shortly. He played Moses to the Aaron of the great English writers of the early part of the eighteenth century, and above all to Locke and Newton in their respective spheres. Locke, however, was his great standard authority upon all metaphysical subjects. He says of him in one place, 'La métaphysique n'a été jusqu'a Locke qu'un vaste champ de chimères: Locke n'a été vraiment utile que parce qu'il a resserré ce champ ou l'on s'égarait. Il n'a eu raison, et il ne s'est fait entendre que parce qu'il est le seul qui se soit entendu luimême.'
This is only one instance of an admiration which was continually expressed with almost fanatical earnestness. Metaphysics, according to Voltaire's way of using language, included all the great subjects of human interest. He almost invariably speaks of theology, ethics, and all that we should now call psychology, as being branches of metaphysics; he appears, in short, to have meant by the word, a general all-embracing system of philosophy, which either answered, or else declared to be unanswerable, all the principal questions of speculation.
The most systematic exposition of his views on this subject is to be found in his Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton, written about 1735, and published in 1738. A good deal of it is repeated in the Traité de Métaphysique and the Philosophe Ignorant. The order in which Voltaire arranges the different elements of his philosophy in this work, is singularly opposed to that which our modern views of things would suggest. Instead of proceeding from simple to difficult subjects, he begins at the other end. Thus the first chapter is on the being of God, which is established by physical arguments such as these. 'If the world is finite, if there is a vacuum, matter does not exist necessarily. It has, therefore, received its existence from a free being. If matter gravitates, which is demonstrated, it appears not to gravitate naturally, as it is naturally extended; it has then received gravitation from God. If the planets turn in one direction rather than another in a non-resisting space, the hand of their creator must have directed their course in that direction with absolute liberty.'
He states the atheistical theory of the infinity of the universe, of motion being a fixed quantity, and of the impossibility that anything should come of nothing, or return to nothing, and refers to Samuel Clarke's demonstration of the existence of God for an answer to it. He afterwards states Newton's views about space and time in the abstract, and gives an account of Clarke's controversy with Leibnitz as to space and time, the necessity of the existence of matter, and other such topics. In succeeding chapters he states the views of Newton and Clarke as to free will in God and free will in man, and goes into an elaborate account of his own views on that subject, which ends in giving his countenance, on the whole, to Locke's theory, which practically makes liberty no more than the absence of restraint upon power.
He then goes on to the question of the nature of morality, and from thence to the question of the nature of the soul, and on this subject he states the principal views which have been held by philosophers as to its essence, and as to the manner in which it is united to the body. He refers, here as elsewhere, to the well-known passage in Locke's essay in which Locke says that he did not see why God might not have given the faculty of thought to matter, as well as the faculties of movement, gravitation, vegetation, and the like, and he says that he had heard that Newton had told Locke that he was of the same opinion.
Voltaire then gives an account of the various sytems which had been invented to account for thought, of which he mentions four: (1) The material theory according to which ideas are impressed on the understanding like a stamp upon wax. This, he says, was rather a rough instinct than a calculation. (2) The theory that body and soul are two totally dissimilar entities, which have nothing in common, and which nevertheless God has created to act on each other. This, he supposes, is the one most commonly received. (3) The theory of Malebranche, which interposed God between the body and the soul, so that when any material object affected the body, God created a corresponding feeling in the soul; and when the soul wanted to act on the body, God did whatever the will required. This is the famous theory of seeing and doing all things in God. (4) The preestablished harmony of Leibnitz, according to which the soul and the body are two clocks, which always keep time exactly, though independent of each other.
He proceeds from this to the elements of matter, to the question whether there is or is not an original matter, whether there are monads such as were imagined by Leibnitz and what Leibnitz meant by them, and to the various controversies as to force. It is after this metaphysical introduction that he arrives at Newton's discoveries in optics, in the theory of gravitation, and in astronomy.
It will be seen from this short account of Voltaire's exposition of metaphysics that he was, in the sense in which the word is used by the positivists of our own days, emphatically a metaphysician, though he was a metaphysician who had got to the length of feeling uneasy as to the value of the method which he employed, and well aware that, if used at all, its results must be very largely tempered with doubt. So far indeed as our acquaintance with his voluminous works will enable us to judge, the whole history of his mind was the history of the progress of metaphysical doubt as to the possibility of metaphysics. Much more confidence in metaphysical processes is shown in the Philosophic de Newton than in the Philosophe Ignorant or the Dictionnaire Philosophique.
In many men such a process would have led to scepticism, but Voltaire was as far from being a sceptic as any man who ever lived. One of the most characteristic features of his mind is the absence from it of all sympathy with a general spirit of doubt and indecision. No reproach is more common than that of scepticism, nor is there any one which is so often made unjustly. The sceptic is a man who denies the possibility of knowledge, and not, as the common use of the word would appear to imply, a man who regards particular doctrines, and especially particular religious doctrines, as doubtful in themselves. It would surely be an abuse of language to describe a man as sceptical about the history of China, because he was clearly of opinion that his own knowledge of that subject was so slight and vague as to be practically worthless. Voltaire's scepticism, such as it was, was all of this kind.
He thought that men knew nothing definite about the nature of their own souls, about the question whether the soul did or did not survive the body, and if so under what conditions, about the freedom of the will, the nature and ultimate constitution of matter, and many other topics of the same sort. Yet he was firmly convinced that men have a great variety of perfectly trustworthy knowledge on other subjects. He thought that the existence of God was morally certain; that there was a universally acknowledged morality which was one great proof of God's existence; and that there was a moral certainty that all that is distinctive in the Christian history, and in the theology founded upon it, was false.
He also believed without the least hesitation in the lessons taught by physical science, and in many parts of his works does his utmost to refute the common assertion, that mathematics contain mysteries which afford a warrant for the theological mysteries which he refused to believe. This is the very antithesis to scepticism. It is extreme, unhesitating, uncompromising confidence in the power of the human mind, to say what it will and what it will not believe, what it will affirm, what deny, and what doubt, and for what reasons.
In considering his specific opinions in the former part of this article, the tendency of his mind towards fixed definite views has sufficiently appeared. The manner in which he dwelt, with continually increasing vigour of assertion, on the universality of morals, on their plainness, and on the primary and almost exclusive importance of the conscientious sanction in enforcing them, is a good illustration of this. The progress of his views on free will is another. In the account of Newton's philosophy (ch. ii.) he says:
'Il paraît donc probable que nous avons la liberté d'indifférence dans les choses indifférentes. Car qui pourra dire que Dieu ne nous a pas fait ou n'a pas pu nous faire ce présent? Et s'il l'a pu, et si nous sentons en nous ce pouvoir, comment assurer que nous ne l'avons pas?'In the succeeding chapters, however, of the same work, he admits that there are great difficulties in the way of believing in a liberty of indifference, and he states no less than fifteen, with extraordinary point and force in chap, v., which contains a page and a half. He appears, however, to have been terrified at the doctrine towards which he was drifting.
'Il faut convenir' (he says) 'qu'on ne peut guère répondre que par une éloquence vague aux objections contre la liberté, triste sujet sur lequel le plus sage craint même de penser. Une seule réflexion console; c'est que quelque système qu'on embrasse, à quelque fatalité qu'on croit toutes nos actions attachées, on agira toujours comme si on était libre.'In the Traité de Métaphysique he still clung to the doctrine of free will, though he had brought it into a singular shape which might be called obscure for him. It appears to be adapted from Locke's theory that liberty consists in the power of suspending action to give time for deliberation. After stating the well-known argument, 'L'entendement agit nécessairement; la volonté est déterminée par l'entendement, donc la volonté est déterminée par une volonté absolue, donc l'homme n'est pas libre,' he proceeds to say that, at bottom, this is a sophism.
He admits that the will cannot choose anything which the understanding does not represent to it as being pleasant; but he says: 'C'est en cela même que consiste sa liberté, c'est dans le pouvoir de se déterminer soimême à faire ce qui lui paraît bon; vouloir ce qui ne lui. ferait pas plaisir, est une contradiction formelle, et une impossibilité. L'homme se détermine à ce qui lui semble le meilleur, et cela est incontestable, mais le point de la question est de savoir s'il a en soi cette force mouvante, ce pouvoir primitif de se déterminer ou non.'
Later in life he gave up the whole theory of free will. Thus, in Le Philosophe Ignorant (ch. xiii.) he says: 'L'homme est en tout un être dépendant comme la nature entière est dépendante; il ne peut être excepté des autres êtres.' He adds: 'L'ignorant qui pense ainsi n'a pas toujours pensé de même, mais enfin il est contraint de se rendre.' He expresses the same opinion with his usual terseness, in an article on liberty in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, in a little dialogue, the gist of which is, that liberty is nothing else than the power to do what one pleases, which would be more accurately expressed by saying that liberty is nothing but the absence of any restraint, which would prevent us from doing what, but for that restraint, we should wish to do. My liberty to walk down the Strand consists in the fact that, wishing under all the circumstances of the case to do so, I am able to do as I wish.
Voltaire says himself of the gradual change in his opinions (Phil. Ign. ch. xiii.):
'Cette question sur la liberté de l'homme mintéressa vivement; je lus des scolastiques, je fus comme eux dans les ténèbres; je lus Locke et j'apercus des traits de lumiere; je lus le traité de Collins, qui me parait Locke perfectionné; et je n'ai jamais rien lu depuis qui m'ait donné un nouveau degré de connaissance.'This is a remarkable passage, as it shows how pertinaciously Voltaire thought on these topics. He had read both Locke and Collins before he wrote his account of Newton's philosophy, in which the subject is first discussed, and in which he describes as sophisms the very arguments which at last prevailed with him. This work was published in 1738. The Traité de Métaphysique seems to have been written some time later, and the Philosophe Ignorant and the Dictionnaire Philosophique were amongst his latest works.
Whatever else may be said about the doctrines of free will and necessity, there can be no question that the latter doctrine is the one towards which minds which are at once dogmatic, and impatient of anything which cannot be distinctly imagined, naturally gravitate. It is characteristic of the practical character and the substantial earnestness which underlay Voltaire's superficial levity and persiflage that he should have gradually worked his way to this opinion, having held a very different one when he was forty-four years of age, and one of the most distinguished writers and thinkers of his generation. It is also highly characteristic of him that, whilst he maintained, and yet gradually modified his own opinion, he should have stated with perfect fairness, and in the most terse and pointed manner, the very objections to his opinion which afterwards made him change it.
His theory as to the soul implies a further illustration of the truth of these remarks. It is a point on which he does not vary. His view from first to last was that the soul may be a mere faculty, resulting from the disposition of the bodily organs, and ceasing when they are thrown out of gear; but that it also may be an independent unit, which may survive the body, and retain its consciousness and capacity of enjoyment and suffering. The way in which these two sets of ideas balanced each other in Voltaire's mind, and the practical inference which he drew from them, are perfectly and most characteristically illustrated by two passages in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, which, according to their author's practice, condense into a few lines reflections which he had been applying, arranging, rearranging, and clearing up for much more than half a century. They appear to us to be as characteristic of the deepest and most habitual thoughts of the man as anything he ever wrote.
In the article 'Ame,' sect, viii., he says:
'Pauvre pédant, tu vois une plante qui végète, et tu dis végétation, ou même âme végétative; tu remarques que les corps ont et donnent du mouvement, et tu dis force; tu vois ton chien de chasse apprendre sous toi son métier, et tu cries instinct, âme sensitive; tu as des idées combinées, et tu dis esprit.
'Mais de grâce qu'entends-tu par ces mots 1 Cette fleur végète, mais y a-t-il un être réel qui s'appelle vegetation? Ce corps en pousse un autre; mais possède-t-il en soi un être distinct qui s'appelle force? Ce chien te rapporte une perdrix; mais y a-t-il un être qui s'appelle instinct? . . .
'Si une tulipe pouvait parler, et qu'elle te dit: Ma végétation et moi nous sommes deux êtres joints évidemment ensemble, ne te moquerais-tu pas de la tulipe?'The last illustration ought, one would think, to have raised in Voltaire's mind the precise point which, so far as we are aware, he always misses in relation to this subject. It is precisely the power of speech, or rather the power which speech implies— the power, that is, of regarding ourselves and other things as distinct realities, knowable and namable, which is the specific peculiarity of a rational being, and which gives us the idea of a soul, obscure as that idea certainly is. If a tulip could speak, it might no doubt speculate about itself as men do; but as it cannot speak, we do not regard it as a self. It is because we cannot say whether, and how far, animals do speak and think, that we do not know specifically what to think of them.
Voltaire's ignorance of the difficulties connected with the whole subject of etymology may be inferred from his articles in the Dictionnaire Philosophique headed 'A. B. C and 'Langues.' Be this as it may, the extract just given states shortly the extreme point of Voltaire's oscillations in the direction of the materialism of his age.
The following extract from the article 'Dieu' shows how far his mind swung in the other direction, and is on the whole more in harmony with the habitual tone of his writings than the other. In sect. v., 'De la nécessité de croire un Etre suprême,' he is arguing against atheism:
'La philosophie, selon vous, ne fournit aucune preuve d'un bonheur à venir. Non, mais vous n'avez aucune démonstration du contraire. Il se peut qu'il y ait en nous une monade indéstructible qui sente et qui pense sans que nous sachions le moins du monde comment cette monade est faite. La raison ne s'oppose pas absolument à cette idée, quoique la raison seule ne la prouve pas. Cette opinion n'a-t-elle pas un prodigieux avantage sur la vôtre? La mienne est utile au genre humain, la vôtre est funeste. . . .
'Dans le doute où nous sommes tous deux, je ne vous dis pas avec Pascal, prenez le plus sûr. Il n'y a rien de sûr dans l'incertitude. Il ne s'agit pas ici de parier mais d'examiner; il faut juger, et notre volonté ne détermine pas notre jugement. Je ne vous propose pas de croire des choses extravagantes pour vous tirer d'embarras; je ne vous dis pas: Allez à la Mecque, baisez la pierre noire pour vous instruire; tenez une queue de vache à la main; affublezvous d'un scapulaire; soyez imbécile et fanatique pour acquérir la faveur de l'Etre des êtres. Je vous dis: Continuez à cultiver la vertu, à être bienfesant, à regarder toute superstition avec horreur ou avec pitié; mais adorez avec moi le dessein qui se manifeste dans toute la nature, et par conséquent l'auteur de ce dessein, la cause primordiale et finale de tout; espérez avec moi que notre monade, qui raisonne sur le grand Être éternel pourra être heureuse par ce grand Être même. Il n'y a point là de contradiction. Vous ne m'en démontrerez pas l'impossibilité; de même que je ne puis vous démontrer mathématiquement que la chose est ainsi. Nous ne raisonnons guère en métaphysique que sur des probabilités; nous nageons tous dans une mer dont nous n'avons jamais vu le rivage. Malheur à ceux qui se battent en nageant! Abordera qui pourra; mais celui qui me crie, Vous nagez en vain, il n'y a point de port, me décourage et m'ôte toutes mes forces.'These illustrations are meant rather to show in what manner, and for what purpose, and in what tone, Voltaire speculated upon metaphysical subjects, than to give anything claiming to be a systematic account of his metaphysical doctrines, if indeed he can be properly reckoned amongst the great thinkers of the eighteenth century upon such topics. Such as they are, they appear to us to prove that as a theologian or moralist, or as a metaphysician, which in his case were three aspects of one character, he always displayed the same disposition in various ways. He was never a mere speculator or theorist, but always had in view definite practical results, towards the attainment of which he was impelled principally by his indignation against the general condition of things.
Perhaps the most general doctrine which can fairly be ascribed to him is, that the great fault of the order of things in which he found himself, was an unreasonable and presumptuous confidence in supposed knowledge, leading people to overlook or deny their real ignorance and weakness, and to undervalue that which they ought to have regarded as their strength. Hence the main stress of all his intellectual efforts was towards lowering the tone of those who made the greatest pretensions to knowledge, and insisting to the utmost on the slightness of our materials for profitable thought, upon the topics which interest us, as human beings, most deeply. It is true that in all that he wrote, there is the strangest possible contrast between the confidence, not to say the arrogance, of the process, and the humility of the result—between his passionate confidence in human reason, and the timid and melancholy conclusions to which the instrument in which he so entirely trusted conducted him. But this, after all, was only an accidental contrast, not an essential inconsistency.
The most interesting question which a retrospect on his speculations suggests, relates to his influence on the subsequent history of his nation. There is no more common opinion than that Voltaire was one of the principal authors of the French Revolution, and the scandals which attended that tremendous event have, no doubt, done more than any mere criticisms to cover his name with the discredit which attaches to it. Of course it cannot be doubted that his influence over his own generation operated powerfully on the course of events which culminated in the Revolution; but we cannot believe that the repulsive features of that series of events can be justly ascribed to his influence, except to an extent much more limited than the language commonly used upon the subject would suggest.
The two great blots on the French Revolution are the horrible barbarity and fanaticism with which many of its scenes were accompanied, and its anti-religious character; but we greatly doubt whether Voltaire's influence contributed much to either of these things. That irreligion may be as fanatical as any form of religious belief whatever, is an indisputable truth, which no doubt was frequently illustrated in the course of the Revolution, but the whole temper of Voltaire's works is utterly opposed to such a state of mind.
A fanatical Voltairian is an inconceivable being, for such a person would be fanatically in favour of a set of opinions far too complicated and qualified to excite any vehement emotion. How could any one be fanatically attached to the doctrines that there is in all probability a God whom we must regard on the whole as just and benevolent, and that there are grounds on which we may hope for a future state of existence preferable to the present one?
Moreover, the whole tone of Voltaire's mind, the constant burden of his works, is as much opposed to every sort of cruelty and violence as any writings can be opposed to any turn of mind whatever. In his preface to Alzire he says with great truth, 'On retrouvera dans presque tous mes ecrits cette humanité qui doit être le premier caractère d'un être pensant.' Nor was his humanity of that ferocious and passionate kind of which the proper motto is 'fraternity or death.' Few things would have a stronger tendency to repress this ferocious sensibility than a study of Voltaire's works, and sympathy with the whole tone of mind which produced them.
Besides this, it should be observed that no one knew better than Voltaire the ferocious side of the French character, or had a worse opinion of it. The brutalities of the 'Comité de Salut Public'; the massacres of September 1792; the atrocities practised in La Vendee (on both sides), at Lyons, and in many other places, are not isolated facts in French history, showing themselves for the first time in a generation corrupted by Voltaire.
Not to dwell upon the consideration that the furious mobs of Paris and of other places by whom these iniquities were perpetrated, and who had been left by the government and the clergy in a state of the most abject ignorance, could hardly have been debauched by reading books the very titles of which most of them would have been unable to decipher, it may be as well to remember that in the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the wars between the Burgundians and Armagnacs at an earlier period, just as much ferocity was displayed whenever the people became excited, and that the Legitimists— who, if they had had the chance, would have flayed Voltaire alive with pleasure— were themselves every bit as cruel and ferocious, whenever and wherever they got the upper hand, as their opponents. There was not much to choose between the Terreur Blanche and the Terreur Rouge, and it would be difficult to find in any author stronger denunciations of the temper of mind which led to both sets of crimes than are to be found in every part of Voltaire's writings.
With the irreligious aspect of the French Revolution Voltaire's works had no doubt a closer connection. No doubt his persistent denunciations of every form of Christianity produced a marked effect on the history of the Revolution. No doubt his constant ridicule of all objects of popular reverence contributed largely to that ignorant self-sufficiency, which was one of the worst features of the revolutionary period.
It would, however, be most unjust to confine our observations to the bad side of Voltaire's antagonism to religion. He was the antagonist, not only of Christianity in general, but more particularly of that special form of it, which was in his days dominant in France; and it is impossible to deny, with any appearance of truth, that if he failed (as no doubt he did) in the attempt to pull up Christianity by the roots, and to destroy its influence amongst mankind, he succeeded triumphantly in compelling the particular Christian Church with which he was concerned, to change its position entirely with reference to temporal affairs, to change its position, though it could not well change its tone, as to spiritual affairs, and to accept an utterly different position in the world from that in which he found it.
When Voltaire was young, the theory of the French monarchy, and of the greater part of Europe, as to the foundations of civil society and the natural relations between the Church and the State, was the theory of Bossuet. The theory of Locke was the rising heresy of the day. There is at present hardly an important country in Europe in which this is not altogether reversed, in which the State has not become the substantive and the Church the adjective, religious equality the rule, and privilege, not to speak of persecution, the exception; in which, in a word, men have not come to treat religion practically as a matter of opinion, and not as a system by which opinion is to be governed.
No one writer contributed so powerfully to this result as Voltaire, no event contributed to it so powerfully as the French Revolution; and in so far as Voltaire's writings gave this character to the Revolution, they gave it a good character, and not a bad one, and they have met so far, not with failure, but with marked and increasing success. How far his incautious and indecent way of expressing himself may have contributed to that part of the Revolution which he would have been the first to condemn, we do not inquire; but all just critics ought to admit that he would have advocated precisely those parts of the Revolution which have been blessings to mankind, and reprobated those which disgraced its progress, and that in doing so he would have acted in perfect consistency with the whole tenor and character of his career.
Fraser’s Magazine, November 1867.