Essai sur les Moeurs (by Voltaire)
The calibre of any one generation can hardly be better tested than by the views, which prevailed amongst its leading men of the generations which preceded it; and this is one of the many reasons which gives to general histories their great importance and interest. When we read a book which either is or has been a popular general history, we learn not merely particular facts of more or less interest and value, but we discover what views of their predecessors appeared natural to our predecessors, and this is in itself a most valuable piece of knowledge. In this point of view, Voltaire's Essai sur les Moeurs is, perhaps, hardly less interesting to the present generation than it was to those for whom it was written. It is a book typical of the age and of its author; and even now, after making from its intrinsic value all the deductions which increased knowledge and experience suggest, it is, for almost all practical purposes, the best—as, indeed, it is almost the only—book of the kind. Its extraordinary compression makes it difficult to give shortly any adequate, notion of its contents, but it is possible to describe its general character and method. It was originally written for Madame du Chatelet, Voltaire's mistress, known to the readers of Mr. Carlyle's Frederic II. as “the Divine Emilie:”—
‘You wish (says the author in opening his work) to overcome the disgust that you feel at modern history since the fall of the Roman Empire, and to get a general notion of the nations which inhabit and desolate the earth. You seek in this immense matter only what it is worth your while to know —the spirit, the manners, and the usages of the principal nations, proved by facts of which it is not permitted to be ignorant.In short, Voltaire's plan was to boil down, as it were, all modern history into a very small compass, and to show shortly and pointedly what is the general result to be deduced from it. In the execution of this plan he begins by a short and pungent attack on the Old Testament. The chief points which he makes are that there is evidence that the world itself and human society are much older than the Old Testament, according to the interpretation of it then accepted, supposed them to be—that Jewish history ought not to be taken as the root of the history of the whole human race—and that both the characters and writing of the Jews showed marks of human infirmity. In order to do justice to this part of the book, which was naturally regarded at the time of its composition with the utmost horror, it is right to remember the circumstances under which it was written. A fair writer in the present day, even if he were not a Christian, would no doubt take a very different view of the Jews, of their history, and of their literature; but his readers, though Christians, would take a very different view of history and science from that which was held by any considerable body of Christians, especially by Roman Catholics, in Voltaire's time. In the present day, geological theories infinitely surpassing anything advanced by Voltaire are held without reproach by Church dignitaries; and such questions as those raised by Sir Charles Lyell's recent book on the probable antiquity of the so race are discussed upon their merits, and without the feeling that the establishment of the views of the scientific inquirer will of necessity be fatal to Christian belief. It is but justice to Voltaire to recognise the truth, that those who in the present day have the greatest horror of his name hold many opinions for holding which he was held in horror. They may not draw the inference which he drew from the fact that the world is more than six thousand years old, but they believe the fact, and if they had been living in his time they would, no doubt, have refused to believe it.
The heretical prologue to the Essai sur les Moeurs is the least interesting part of it. Its real interest is to be found in the attempts made by Voltaire to carry out his immense plan. He goes over the history of the whole world, selecting, with reference to every country in succession, such matters as appear to him instructive or characteristic, and giving a rapid, compressed sketch of them, stripped of all detail, and owing its value exclusively to the vigour of the style and to the interest of the subject-matter. The effect of this is surprising. The reader goes on from one striking sketch to another. His attention is constantly kept alive, and is rewarded at every page by something which, oft, he knew it before or not, he had never, seen put in so vigorous and lively a form. By degrees, the whole history of modern Europe, from the days of Charlemagne to the middle of the seventeenth century, passes before his eyes, and impresses on his mind a picture which is too crowded to be quite distinct, but which it is nevertheless extremely pleasant to contemplate. The Essai sur les Moeurs is a little—a very little — longer than Mr. Trollope's North America, and it claims, not without considerable plausibility, to give the net result of the history of the world for about a thousand years. It is a curious question why such an enterprise appeared possible to Voltaire, and why his attempt to achieve it earned universal applause; whereas, in our own days, such an undertaking would be received with universal ridicule. No doubt early schemes are usually more comprehensive than later ones. It is in the early stages of national existence that great institutions are founded, and it is in the early stages of inquiry that comprehensive literary schemes are carried out. In the middle ages, a complete education involved a degree of knowledge of all arts and sciences which, in relation to the existing sum total of knowledge, was no doubt considerable. Even in Voltaire's time, omniscience upon particular branches of knowledge was far from being such a chimera as it is now. The history of Europe for the preceding one thousand years was then what it now is, as far as the possibility of ultimately writing it was concerned. The original authorities were in existence, and were capable of being collected; but in the absence of the study which has been expended upon it for the last century, especially during the last two generations, its complexity, its intricacy, and its meaning were most imperfectly appreciated, and therefore it was by no means so hopeless an enterprise then as it would be now to try to collect into one book all that had been said on the subject which was worth saying. When the subordinate parts of so great a subject as the history of England, for instance, have been examined in minute detail by such writers as Palgrave or Hallam, the business of a general historian is simplified in one way, but in another his difficulties are greatly increased. He feels himself on much firmer ground, but he is made aware of the existence of a vast variety of questions which earlier writers did not handle, and he learns to see connexions and relations, formerly unsuspected, between matters which appear at first sight independent of each other. The Essai sur les Moeurs may be described as an admirable summary of the substantial results of historical investigation up to the middle of the eighteenth century. It states, correctly enough for the purposes of a general view, the leading facts of the vast period of history over which it ranges, and it draws from them, not unfairly, such inferences as bare facts of that kind suggest. It leaves untouched the more subtle and accurate theories which history may be made to support, and its extent is of course incompatible with any attempt to be picturesque. On the other hand, every page of it is full of interest, and though it may contain errors of detail, its principal assertions are true, and the general outline which it draws affords to this day far the best chart of European history that at present exists. If it were not for the obvious objections attaching to Voltaire's name, and to his specific religious views, it would form a text-book which might serve as an incomparable introduction to almost every special branch of historical study.
The interest which the Essai sur les Moeurs derives from these great merits must, with most readers, be subordinate to that which belongs to it as a highly characteristic specimen of the thoughts and beliefs of the generation which must be regarded as the immediate progenitor of the state of society in which we at present live. The Essai sur les Moeurs represents what the first man of that age regarded as the net result of human history after it had been duly sifted and purged of useless or fabulous details. This was, as it were, the historical capital lying ready in a fixed available form for investment in practical pursuits, such as politics. It was the contribution of the most influential and thoughtful of all Frenchmen to the discharge of the tremendous tasks which the course of events had laid upon his country and generation. There can be few more interesting questions in their way than the questions, What did Voltaire suppose the history of mankind to prove? What in his eyes was the result of it all? What lessons did he believe it to afford for the guidance of his contemporaries?
In the first place, it is bare justice to a man who has met with little justice either from his friends or his enemies, to say that he seems to have been deeply impressed with the importance of these questions, and that he studied history, not merely as an occupation, or with a view to the gratification of his own curiosity—as was apparently, the case with Gibbon, a greater historian, though a far less considerable man—but because he did really believe that history might be made to teach valuable lessons to the human race, and because he had a genuine wish, though in some ways a very odd one, to benefit mankind. In every part of the book the moral of the story which he is telling is kept in view. No doubt Voltaire was as much pleased with the brilliancy of his own logic as a boy with a sharp pocket-knife, and this is the principal ground of the accusations of flippancy and heartlessness which are so often poured upon him. This, however, was a small matter after all. He was a man of very warm feelings, and had a hearty admiration for characters which appeared to him to deserve it; nor can it be said that the objects of his admiration were unworthy. It would be difficult, for example, to find a juster or more discriminating account of St. Louis than that which is contained in the Fifty-first Chapter of the Essai sur les Moeurs:—
‘Louis IX. (he says) appeared a prince destined to reform Europe if it could have been reformed; to make France triumphant and well governed, and to be in everything a model to men. His piety, which was that of an anchorite, deprived him of no royal virtue. A wise economy did not interfere with his liberality. He reconciled profound policy with exact justice, and is, perhaps, the only sovereign who deserves that praise; prudent and firm in counsel, intrepid in war without rashness, as compassionate as if he had always been unhappy. It is not given to man to carry virtue further.’This is not the way in which mere scoffers write. Those who would stigmatize Voltaire as such overlook, or are ignorant of, many of the most striking features of his histories. His religious belief, as far as it went, was perfectly sincere, and he was far from being blind to the good which religious institutions have done in the world. The following passages are very characteristic, though few readers would perhaps recognise them, in the first instance, as Voltaire's:-
‘It was long a consolation to the human race that there were such asylums (monasteries) open to all those who wished to avoid the oppressions of the Gothic and Vandal governments. Almost every one except the lords of castles was a slave. Men escaped tyranny and war in the gentle cloisters. The feudal laws of the West, it is true, forbade a serf to be received as a monk without his lord's leave, but the convents knew how to evade the law. The little knowledge which remained amongst the barbarians was perpetuated in the monasteries.’
. . . .
It cannot be denied that there have been great virtues in monasteries. There is hardly a monastery which does not contain admirable souls which are an honour to human nature. Too many writers take pleasure in seeking out the disorders and vices by which these asylums of piety have been sometimes soiled. It is certain that secular life has always been more vicious, and that the greatest crimes have not been committed in monasteries. Such as have, have attracted more attention from their contrast with the rules.’
The following criticism on the Papal power is still more remarkable. It occurs in the chapter on Henry II. and Becket:
‘The interest of the human race requires a check on the power of sovereigns for the protection of the people. This religious check might, by general agreement, have been put in the hands of the Popes. . . . These pontiffs, by interfering in temporal quarrels only to appease them, by warning kings and peoples of their duties, by rebuking their crimes, by reserving excommunications for great atrocities, would have been always regarded as the images of God upon earth; but men are reduced for their defence to the laws and morals of their country — laws often despised, and morals often corrupted.’These are characteristic passages, and others of the same sort might easily be cited to prove that the popular estimate of Voltaire, as a mere enemy to religion and religious establishments, is very unfair; but there can be no question that his conception of the general result of human history is to the last degree stern and forbidding. Apart from occasional exceptions, he seems to have looked upon the history of modern Europe with intense contempt. Take, for instance, the following:—
‘The impudent charlatanry of the physicians was thus as great as the imbecility of Louis XI., and his imbecility was equal to his tyranny. This portrait is not only that of this monarch, but that of nearly all Europe. The history of these times needs to be known only that it may be despised. If princes and private persons had not some interest in instructing themselves in the revolutions of so many barbarous Governments, reading history would be the worst way of employing one's time.’This contempt for past times in general was backed up by a contempt even more hearty for the people at large. M. Louis Blanc has taken some trouble in the first volume of his History of the French Revolution to collect, from his letters, proofs of the aristocratic sympathies of Voltaire; but the following passage, which escaped his notice, stands alone for its passionate and eloquent disdain:—
‘Stop for a moment by the unburied corpse of this great Emperor, Henry IV. [of Germany], more wretched than our Henry IV., King of France. Search the source of so many humiliations and misfortunes on one side, so much audacity on the other, so many horrors reputed to be sacred, so many princes sacrificed to religion — you will find that the sole origin of it is the common people. It is they who set superstition in motion. It was for the blacksmiths and wood-cutters of Germany that the Emperor appeared barefooted before the Bishop of Rome; the common people, slaves of superstition, will that their masters also shall be its slaves. When you have allowed your subjects to be blinded by fanaticism, they force you to appear a fanatic like themselves; and if you shake off the yoke which they carry and love, they revolt. You thought that if the chains of religion, which ought to be light, were hard and heavy, your people would be all the more submissive. You are mistaken; they use those chains to shackle you on the throne, or to make you descend from it.’This fierce and bitter contempt for the mass of mankind, combined with the notion that their history was as contemptible as themselves, is one of the most prominent characteristics of the Essai sur les Maurs. It is closely connected with, and related to, the general religious theory which pervades the book. Though a perfectly sincere Deist, Voltaire appears to have disbelieved the existence of a Providential government of the world, not only in the narrow sense in which it is asserted by those who regard as a Providential interposition on their behalf every combination of circumstances which happens to favour their own party or their own views, but also in the broader sense of the word—in the sense of those who believe that human affairs are so arranged as to work together towards great, and, on the whole, beneficial results. In every part of the book two thoughts are continually recurring. First, that general causes are at work throughout the world, and give to its history its specific character; and, next, that the special facts which occur in virtue of these general causes are whimsically absurd and unmeaning. Sydney Smith's well known observation about the toucan is something in Voltaire's vein:-“What is the use of a bird with a beak a foot and a half long, looking for insects all over South America, and barking like a puppy dog?"
‘It is a great proof (says Voltaire, speaking of the Janissaries) of the oddities of this world, that most of these proud enemies of the Christians were the children of oppressed Christians. A greater proof of the fatal and invincible destiny by which the Supreme Being chains together the events of the universe is that Constantine built Constantinople for the Turks, as Romulus founded the Capitol for the Pontiffs of the Catholic Church.’So, in describing the suppression of Christianity in Japan, he says, “When we think of a Portuguese captain called Moro, and a Dutch captain called Kokbeker, producing such strange events in Japan, we are convinced of the fatality which disposes of nations.” To the same effect is the remark on St. Louis—“The ruins of Carthage saw the death of a Christian king who came to fight the Mussulmans in a country into which Dido had introduced the gods of Syria.” An observer, more witty than reverent, once observed that many of the events of the world appeared to him to suggest the notion of an ironical Providence; and the phrase happily sums up one of the chief inferences which Voltaire drew from his historical inquiries. “Fatality”—often “invincible fatality”—is one of his favourite expressions. It is a very remarkable circumstance that not only the notion of a progressive improvement in human affairs, but the notion of anything like unity in history, is almost, if not altogether, unknown to Voltaire. The history of the world, with certain exceptions, appears to him a history of vice and folly:—
‘In going over the history of the world, we see weaknesses punished, and great crimes successful. The universe is a vast scene of brigandage abandoned to fortune. . It must be confessed that this history in general is a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes, amongst which we have seen some virtues, some happy times, as we discover habitations here and there in savage deserts.’The wider and deeper inquiries of our own age have made language like this appear not only false, but antiquated. A calmer, more sympathizing, and better instructed study of past times, has taught us to understand the meaning of many things which to Voltaire appeared mere fits of general madness. Indeed, we find a difficulty in understanding how he came to judge his fellow-creatures so furiously, and to view their institutions with so fierce a mixture of contempt and hatred. The answer is to be found principally in the character of the times in which he lived. They were not, perhaps, worse than other times, but they certainly presented, especially in France, the most striking contrast that the world has ever seen between the theories which prevailed amongst the few and the principles which were put in practice upon the many. It was the contrast between the philosophers—who as yet had not had to put their shoulders to the wheel, and whose theories enjoyed the advantages of bachelors' wives and old maids' children—and the government, which never had been good, and had, by the middle of the eighteenth century, become detestable, that inspired Voltaire with passionate indignation against this world and its governors, natural and supernatural. No less pungent medicine would ever have roused a great European nation to the point of breaking with the past altogether, and making a clean sweep of all its institutions, good, bad, and indifferent. That such an event had to happen in order that modern Europe might go on at all is a fact which no one in these days will seriously dispute; and Voltaire's historical works, as well as other matters, ought to be criticized with reference to it. They were not mere historical or philosophical productions. They must, to a great extent, be regarded as party pamphlets intended to produce a specific effect. The Essai sur les Moeurs is, to a considerable degree, a reply to the Discours sur l’Histoire Universelle, and the Politique tirée de l'Ecriture Sainte, of Bossuet. It is the vehement assertion of the case against existing institutions and constituted authorities; and it would be bold, indeed, to deny either that such a case existed, or that it was then a matter of the first necessity that it should be stated in the most conspicuous and peremptory way.
It is curious to guess what sort of continuation to the Essai sur les Moeurs Voltaire would write if he could in the present day revisit the world for that purpose. Though the most influential innovator that the world ever saw, the account given above of his work sufficiently shows that he had many points of sympathy with those who, in our days, are the enemies of innovation. His horror of the common people would, no doubt, have been aggravated in the highest degree by the incidents of the Revolution; and the sudden and almost supernatural increase of all kinds of knowledge would have made the sort of omniscience which was his forte a manifest foible. He would have found it necessary to take the lower place in respect of numerous subjects on which he used to dogmatize. Of the millions of men who might be astonished on revisiting the world, not one can be mentioned whose astonishment would be more complete. The concluding chapter of the Essai sur les Moeurs is an attempt to extract from the whole book the gist and pith of the lesson which it teaches. There is something almost affecting in the incapacity of the writer to find out what comes of all that he has been saying. He makes remark after remark, all more or less, pungent and brilliant, but none hitting the point. He is like a man guessing at a riddle. He sees that the story which he has told means something, that it points to some broad conclusion, that its intricacy, confusion, and incompleteness suggest he knows not what. Standing where we do, we can see a few steps further into the dark mystery, and catch some tones running through its subtle and intricate music, which were probably inaudible to him; but with all our increased knowledge, the riddle, which he tried to solve with surpassing vigour and animation is still beyond the reach of human genius.
Saturday Review, July 4, 1863.