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Title: Voltaire
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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_Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, _Edinburgh_.


The edition to which the references are made in the following pages is
that published by Baudouin in 1826, in seventy-five volumes. This
edition is to be distinguished from that known as the first Baudouin
edition, published 1824-34, in ninety-seven volumes. The extent of the
difference between them, which is entirely in favour of the more
voluminous form, may be seen in M. Quérard’s _Bibliographie
Voltairienne_ (p. 107). The large number of complete and elaborate
editions of Voltaire’s works, which were undertaken and executed in the
years between the overthrow of the Empire and the overthrow of the
Monarchy in 1830, is one of the most striking facts in the history of






   Importance of Voltaire’s name                                     1

   Catholicism, Calvinism, and the Renaissance                       1

   Voltairism the Renaissance of the eighteenth century              4

   His power the result of his sincerity, penetration, and
     courage                                                         6

   Different tempers proper for different eras                      11

   Voltaire’s freedom from intellectual cowardice                   12

   And from worldly indifference to truth and justice               13

   Reason and humanity only a single word to him                    15

   His position towards the purely literary life                    17

   Enervating regrets that the movement had not a less
     violent leader                                                 19

   The share of chance in providing leaders                         20

   Combination of favourable circumstances in Voltaire’s
     case                                                           22

   Occasion and necessity of the movement                           24

   Age of Lewis XIV. entirely loyal to its own ideas                25

   Subsequent discredit of these ideas                              26

   Preparation for abandonment of the old system by
     Descartes and Bayle                                            29

   Voltaire continues the work, not wholly to the disadvantage
     of the old system                                              31

   No ascetic element in the Voltairean revolt                      33

   Why primarily an intellectual movement                           34

   The hostile memory of Christians for it                          37

   Comte’s estimate of it                                           37

   The estimate of culture                                          40

   Some pleas on the other side                                     40



   Significance of the journey to England                           44

   His birth and youthful history                                   45

   Ninon de l’Enclos, Chaulieu, and the Regency                     46

   Manner of life from 1716                                         49

   Affront from the Chevalier de Rohan                              53

   Leaves France                                                    54

   Had previously been no more than a vague _esprit fort_           56

   Le Pour et le Contre                                             57

   Freethinking a reality in England                                58

   Condorcet’s account of the effect of England upon Voltaire       59

   Social and political consequence of men of letters               59

   Evil effect of this in France                                    60

   Freedom of speech                                                61

   Newton’s discoveries                                             65

   Their true influence on Voltaire                                 67

   Locke                                                            67

   Profound effect of Lockian common-sense on Voltaire              70

   Contrast between social condition of England and France          73

   Voltaire’s imperfect appreciation of the value and working
     of a popular government                                        76

   Confounds two distinct conceptions of civil liberty              79

   A confusion shared by most of his countrymen                     79

   The Church of England                                            82

   The Quakers                                                      84

   Voltaire’s diligence in study of English literature              86

   And in mastering one side of the deistical controversy           88

   Through the influence of the deists on Voltaire, the genius
     of Protestantism entered France                                91

   Limited consistency of Voltaire’s philosophy                     93

   English deism contrasted with that of Leibnitz and with
     the atheism of D’Holbach                                       95



   Most just way of criticising character                           98

   Some traits in Voltaire                                          99

   Acquaintance with the Marquise du Châtelet                      101

   Her character                                                   103

   Voltaire’s placableness                                         105

   His money transactions                                          107

   The life at Cirey                                               111

   His attempts in physical science                                116

   Literature his true calling                                     117

   Qualities of his style                                          119

   Significance of literature as a profession                      125

   Voltaire’s dramatic art                                         126

   Not deliberately art with a purpose                             126

   His plays a prolongation of the tradition of the great age
     of Lewis XIV.                                                 129

   His criticism on Hamlet                                         132

   Merits of the French classic drama                              134

   Voltaire compared with Corneille and Racine                     136

   His ideas of dramatic renovation                                140

   His Roman subjects                                              141

   His enlargement of dramatic themes                              143

   Failure in comedy                                               144

   Arising from want of deep humour                                145

   The Pucelle: offends two modern sentiments                      147

   Its true significance                                           148

   Peculiarity of the licence of the eighteenth century            149

   Sophisms by which it was defended                               149

   Contempt for the middle ages                                    152

   The Henriade                                                    153



   Death of Madame du Châtelet                                     158

   Voltaire and the court                                          158

   He goes to Berlin                                               161

   Character of literary activity in Prussia                       161

   The two movements of which Voltaire and the king were
     chiefs                                                        162

   Character of Frederick the Great                                166

   Breaking up of the European state-system in 1740                171

   The first shock in 1733                                         172

   Frederick raises international relations into the region of
     real matter                                                   174

   The situation defined                                           175

   Two conceptions of progress                                     177

   From which of them the result of the Seven Years’ War
     is seen to be truly progressive                               180

   The Jesuits                                                     181

   Their repulse after the humiliation of Austria                  182

   Frederick’s probable unconsciousness of the ultimate bearings
     of his policy                                                 184

   His type of monarchy                                            186

   He sprang doubly from the critical school                       188

   Other statesmen affected by this school                         188

   Injustice of stamping Voltaire’s influence as merely
     destructive                                                   191

   Frederick the Great and France                                  193

   Voltaire’s life at Berlin                                       194

   Maupertuis                                                      196

   Collision between him and Voltaire                              198

   The Diatribe of Doctor Akakia                                   199

   Voltaire’s departure from Berlin                                201

   The Frankfort episode                                           202

   Unfortunate revelations in the Hirschel affair                  206

   Relations between Frederick and Voltaire henceforth             207

   Voltaire fears to return to Paris                               210

   Geneva                                                          211

   The critical school not specially insensible to the picturesque 212

   Voltaire buys Ferney (1758)                                     215



   (1) _Conditions of the Voltairean attack_.

   Two elements underlying Voltaire’s enmity to Christianity       216

   Failure of Catholicism as a social force                        217

   Utility of Protestantism in softening the transition            218

   Compared with repression of free debate in France               219

   Voltaire did not assail modern theosophies                      221

   The good inextricably bound up with the bad in the old
     system                                                        224

   Jesuits and Jansenists                                          225

   Voltaire declared the latter to be the worst foes               227

   Morellet’s Manual for Inquisitors                               228

   A reflex of the criminal jurisprudence of the time              229

   Cases of Rochette, Calas, and Sirven                            229

   Of La Barre                                                     230

   Fervour of Voltaire’s indignation                               232

   Protests against cynical acquiescence                           233

   Disappointment of the philosophers, and their courage           235

   The reactionary fanaticism a proof of the truth of Voltaire’s
     allegations                                                   237

   Necessity of transforming spiritual basis of thought            238

   Voltaire’s abstention from the temporal sphere                  239

   His chief defect as leader of the attack                        241

   Crippling his historic imagination                              243

   The just historic calm impossible, until Voltaire had
   pressed a previous question                                     245

   (2) _His method_.

   His instruments purely literary and dialectical                 248

   Leaves metaphysics of religion, and fastens on alleged
     records                                                       250

   The other side fell back on the least worthy parts of their
     system                                                        251

   Hence the narrow and literal character of Voltaire’s
     objections                                                    252

   His attack essentially the attack of the English deists         255

   Rationalistic questions in scriptural and ecclesiastical
     records                                                       257

   In doctrine                                                     258

   Argument from comparison with other myths                       259

   His neglect of primitive religions                              260

   His conviction that monotheism is the first religious
     form                                                          261

   Difficulties which he thus passed over                          264

   Hume’s view                                                     266

   Voltaire did not assail the general ideas of Christianity       267

   Such as the idea of evil inherent in matter                     270

   And the idea of a deity as then conceived                       271

   Hence the acerbity of the debate                                273

   And the want of permanence in Voltaire’s writings compared
     with Bossuet or Pascal                                        274

   His criticism on Dante                                          275

   (3) _His approximation to a solution_.

   Voltairean deism                                                276

   Never accepted by the mass of men                               278

   Nor is it likely to be accepted by them                         279

   Voltaire’s imperfect adherence to the deistical idea            280

   Reasons for this                                                282

   Does not accept belief in the immortality of the soul           286

   Asserts less than Rousseau, and denies less than
     Diderot                                                       287

   A popular movement begun by Bayle’s Dictionary                  288

   Compromising method of Rousseau                                 290

   Voltaire’s view of an atheistical society                       291

   His belief in the social sufficiency of an analytic spirit      292

   Synthesis necessary, but more than one is possible              293



   Extraordinary activity in historical composition in the
     eighteenth century                                            295

   Explanation of it                                               296

   Circumstances under which Voltaire thought about the
     philosophy of history                                         297

   The three historical styles                                     299

   Voltaire’s histories of two kinds                               301

   Rousseau’s disregard for history                                302

   Voltaire’s acute sense                                          303

   His diligence in seeking authentic materials                    305

   Throws persons and personal interests into the second place     307

   Changed view of the true subject matter of history              308

   War always an object of Voltaire’s antipathy                    311

   His distrust of diplomacy                                       315

   Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History                        316

   Introduction to the Essay on Manners                            318

   Irrational disparagement of the Jews                            319

   Panegyric on the Emperor Julian                                 320

   False view of the history of the church                         322

   Avoids the error of expressing barbarous activity in terms
     of civilisation                                               323

   Real merit of Voltaire’s panorama                               325

   He was not alive to the necessity of scientifically studying
     the conditions of the social union                            326



   His life at Ferney                                              329

   Madame Denis                                                    329

   His vast correspondence                                         333

   Consulted by Vauvenargues, Chastellux, Turgot, and
     others                                                        334

   Complaisance of his letters                                     336

   Sophistical defence of the practice of denying authorship       339

   Voltaire’s just alarm for his own safety                        340

   His Easter communion of 1768                                    341

   Further proceedings with the Bishop of Annecy                   342

   Voltaire made temporal father of the Capucins of Gex            344

   Voltaire’s influence on Rousseau                                345

   Difference between their respective schools                     347

   Their rivalry represents the social dead-lock of the time       348

   Voltaire the more far-sighted of the two                        350

   Two signal effects of Rousseau’s teaching                       352

   Diderot and the Encyclopædia                                    354

   Voltaire’s constant efforts to secure redress for the victims
     of wrong                                                      357

   Calas, Sirven, La Barre                                         357

   Count Lally                                                     358

   Admiral Byng                                                    359

   His interest in the pretended liberation of Greece              360

   In the partition of Poland                                      361

   In the accession of Turgot to power                             362

   Visit to Paris and death                                        363

τὰ μὲν γὰρ σωφρόνων ἤθη σφόδρα μὲν εὐλαβῆ καὶ δίκαια καὶ σωτήρια,
δριμύτητος δὲ καί τινος ἰταμότητος ὀξείας καὶ πρακτικῆς ἐνδεῖται.... τὰ
δ’ ἀνδρεῖά γε αὖ πρὸς μὲν τὸ δίκαιον καὶ εὐλαβὲς ἐκείνων ἐπιδεέστερα,
τὸ δ’ ἐν ταῖς πράξεσι διαφερόντως ἴσχει. πάντα δὲ καλῶς γίγνεσθαι τὰ περὶ
τὰς πόλεις, τούτοιν μὴ παραγενομένοιν ἀμφοῖν, ἀδύνατον.—_Politicus_, 311 A.

πότερον τοὺς ἀνδρείους θαῤῥαλέους λέγεις, ἢ ἄλλο τι;
Καὶ ἴτας γε, ἔφη, ἐφ’ ἃ οἱ πολλοὶ φοβοῦντας ἰέvαι.—_Protagoras_, 349 E.



When the right sense of historical proportion is more fully developed in
men’s minds, the name of Voltaire will stand out like the names of the
great decisive movements in the European advance, like the Revival of
Learning, or the Reformation. The existence, character, and career of
this extraordinary person constituted in themselves a new and prodigious
era. The peculiarities of his individual genius changed the mind and
spiritual conformation of France, and in a less degree of the whole of
the West, with as far-spreading and invincible an effect as if the work
had been wholly done, as it was actually aided, by the sweep of
deep-lying collective forces. A new type of belief, and of its shadow,
disbelief, was stamped by the impression of his character and work into
the intelligence and feeling of his own and the following times. We may
think of Voltairism in France somewhat as we think of Catholicism or the
Renaissance or Calvinism. It was one of the cardinal liberations of the
growing race, one of the emphatic manifestations of some portion of the
minds of men, which an immediately foregoing system and creed had either
ignored or outraged.

Christianity originally and generically at once awoke and satisfied a
spiritual craving for a higher, purer, less torn and fragmentary being,
than is permitted to sons of men on the troubled and corrupt earth. It
disclosed to them a gracious, benevolent, and all-powerful being, who
would one day redress all wrongs and recompense all pain, and who asked
no more from them meanwhile than that they should prove their love of
him whom they had not seen, by love of their brothers whom they had
seen. Its great glory was to have raised the moral dignity and
self-respect of the many to a level which had hitherto been reached only
by a few. Calvin, again, like some stern and austere step-son of the
Christian God, jealous of the divine benignity and abused
open-handedness of his father’s house, with word of merciless power set
free all those souls that were more anxious to look the tremendous facts
of necessity and evil and punishment full in the face, than to reconcile
them with any theory of the infinite mercy and loving-kindness of a
supreme creator. Men who had been enervated or helplessly perplexed by a
creed that had sunk into ignoble optimism and self-indulgence, became
conscious of new fibre in their moral structure, when they realised life
as a long wrestling with unseen and invincible forces of grace,
election, and fore-destiny, the agencies of a being whose ways and
dealings, whose contradictory attributes of unjust justice and loving
vindictiveness, it was not for man, who is a worm and the son of a worm,
to reconcile with the puny logic of human words, or the shallow
consistency of human ideas. Catholicism was a movement of mysticism, and
so in darker regions was the Calvinism which in so many important
societies displaced it. Each did much to raise the measure of worth and
purify the spiritual self-respect of mankind, and each also discouraged
and depressed the liberal play of intelligence, the cheerful energizing
of reason, the bright and many-sided workings of fancy and imagination.
Human nature, happily for us, ever presses against this system or that,
and forces ways of escape for itself into freedom and light. The
scientific reason urgently seeks instruments and a voice; the creative
imagination unconsciously takes form to itself in manifold ways, of all
of which the emotions can give good account to the understanding. Hence
the glorious suffusion of light which the ardent desire of men brought
over the face of Europe in the latter half of the fifteenth century.
Before Luther and Calvin in their separate ways brought into splendid
prominence their new ideas of moral order, more than two generations of
men had almost ceased to care whether there be any moral order or not,
and had plunged with the delight of enchantment among ideas of grace and
beauty, whose forms were old on the earth, but which were full of
seemingly inexhaustible novelty and freshness to men, who had once
begun to receive and to understand all the ever-living gifts of Grecian
art and architecture and letters. If the Reformation, the great revival
of northern Europe, was the enfranchisement of the individual from
bondage to a collective religious tradition that had lost its virtue,
the Renaissance, the earlier revival of southern Europe, was the
admission to participate in the noblest collective tradition of free
intellect which the achievements of the race could then hand down.

Voltairism may stand for the name of the Renaissance of the eighteenth
century, for that name takes in all the serious haltings and
shortcomings of this strange movement, as well as all its terrible fire,
swiftness, sincerity, and strength. The rays from Voltaire’s burning and
far-shining spirit no sooner struck upon the genius of the time, seated
dark and dead like the black stone of Memnon’s statue, than the clang of
the breaking chord was heard through Europe, and men awoke in new day
and more spacious air. The sentimentalist has proclaimed him a mere
mocker. To the critic of the schools, ever ready with compendious label,
he is the revolutionary destructive. To each alike of the countless
orthodox sects his name is the symbol for the prevailing of the gates of
hell. Erudition figures him as shallow and a trifler; culture condemns
him for pushing his hatred of spiritual falsehood much too seriously;
Christian charity feels constrained to unmask a demon from the depths of
the pit. The plain men of the earth, who are apt to measure the merits
of a philosopher by the strength of his sympathy with existing sources
of comfort, would generally approve the saying of Dr. Johnson, that he
would sooner sign a sentence for Rousseau’s transportation than that of
any felon who had gone from the Old Bailey these many years, and that
the difference between him and Voltaire was so slight, that ‘it would be
difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.’ Those of
all schools and professions who have the temperament which mistakes
strong expression for strong judgment, and violent phrase for grounded
conviction, have been stimulated by antipathy against Voltaire to a
degree that in any of them with latent turns for humour must now and
then have even stirred a kind of reacting sympathy. The rank vocabulary
of malice and hate, that noisome fringe of the history of opinion, has
received many of its most fulminant terms from critics of Voltaire,
along with some from Voltaire himself, who unwisely did not always
refuse to follow an adversary’s bad example.

Yet Voltaire was the very eye of eighteenth-century illumination. It was
he who conveyed to his generation in a multitude of forms the
consciousness at once of the power and the rights of human intelligence.
Another might well have said of him what he magnanimously said of his
famous contemporary, Montesquieu, that humanity had lost its
title-deeds, and he had recovered them. The fourscore volumes which he
wrote are the monument, as they were in some sort the instrument, of a
new renascence. They are the fruit and representation of a spirit of
encyclopædic curiosity and productiveness. Hardly a page of all these
countless leaves is common form. Hardly a sentence is there which did
not come forth alive from Voltaire’s own mind, or which was said because
some one else had said it before. His works as much as those of any man
that ever lived and thought are truly his own. It is not given, we all
know, even to the most original and daring of leaders to be without
precursors, and Voltaire’s march was prepared for him before he was
born, as it is for all mortals. Yet he impressed on all he said, on good
words and bad alike, a marked autochthonic quality, as of the
self-raised spontaneous products of some miraculous soil, from which
prodigies and portents spring. Many of his ideas were in the air, and
did not belong to him peculiarly; but so strangely rapid and perfect was
his assimilation of them, so vigorous and minutely penetrative was the
quality of his understanding, so firm and independent his initiative,
that even these were instantly stamped with the express image of his
personality. In a word, Voltaire’s work from first to last was alert
with unquenchable life. Some of it, much of it, has ceased to be alive
for us now in all that belongs to its deeper significance, yet we
recognise that none of it was ever the dreary still-birth of a mind of
hearsays. There is no mechanical transmission of untested bits of
current coin. In the realm of mere letters, Voltaire is one of the
little band of great monarchs, and in style he remains of the supreme
potentates. But literary variety and perfection, however admirable, like
all purely literary qualities, are a fragile and secondary good which
the world is very willing to let die, where it has not been truly
begotten and engendered of living forces.

Voltaire was a stupendous power, not only because his expression was
incomparably lucid, or even because his sight was exquisitely keen and
clear, but because he saw many new things, after which the spirits of
others were unconsciously groping and dumbly yearning. Nor was this all.
Fontenelle was both brilliant and far-sighted, but he was cold, and one
of those who love ease and a safe hearth, and carefully shun the din,
turmoil, and danger, of the great battle. Voltaire was ever in the front
and centre of the fight. His life was not a mere chapter in a history of
literature. He never counted truth a treasure to be discreetly hidden in
a napkin. He made it a perpetual war-cry and emblazoned it on a banner
that was many a time rent, but was never out of the field.

This is the temper which, when the times are auspicious, and the
fortunes of the fight do not hurry the combatant to dungeon or stake,
raises him into a force instead of leaving him the empty shadow of a
literary name. There is something in our nature which leads men to
listen coolly to the most eager hints and pregnant innuendoes of
scepticism, on the lips of teachers who still in their own persons keep
adroitly away from the fiery darts of the officially orthodox. The same
something, perhaps a moral relish for veritable proofs of honesty,
perhaps a quality of animal temperament, drives men to grasp even a
crudity with fervour, when they see it wielded like a battle-axe against
spiritual oppression. A man is always so much more than his words, as we
feel every day of our lives; what he says has its momentum indefinitely
multiplied, or reduced to nullity, by the impression that the hearer for
good reasons or bad happens to have formed of the spirit and moral size
of the speaker. There are things enough to be said of Voltaire’s moral
size, and no attempt is made in these pages to dissemble in how much he
was condemnable. It is at least certain that he hated tyranny, that he
refused to lay up his hatred privily in his heart, and insisted on
giving his abhorrence a voice, and tempering for his just rage a fine
sword, very fatal to those who laid burdens too hard to be borne upon
the conscience and life of men. Voltaire’s contemporaries felt this.
They were stirred to the quick by the sight and sound and thorough
directness of those ringing blows. The strange and sinister method of
assault upon religion which we of a later day watch with wondering eyes,
and which consists in wearing the shield and device of a faith, and
industriously shouting the cry of a church, the more effectually to
reduce the faith to a vague futility, and its outward ordering to a
piece of ingeniously reticulated pretence; this method of attack might
make even the champions of prevailing beliefs long for the shrewd
thrusts, the flashing scorn, the relentless fire, the downright
grapples, with which the hated Voltaire pushed on his work of ‘crushing
the Infamous.’ If he was bitter, he was still direct. If he was often a
mocker in form, he was always serious in meaning and laborious in
matter. If he was unflinching against theology, he always paid religion
respect enough to treat it as the most important of all subjects. The
contest was real, and not our present pantomimic stage-play, in which
muffled phantoms of debate are made to gesticulate inexpressible things
in portentously significant silence. The battle was demoralized by its
virulence. True; but is this worse than to have it demoralized by
cowardice of heart and understanding, when each controversial
man-at-arms is eager to have it thought that he wears the colours of the
other side, when the theologian would fain pass for rationalist, and the
free-thinker for a person with his own orthodoxies if you only knew
them, and when philosophic candour and intelligence are supposed to have
hit their final climax in the doctrine that everything is both true and
false at the same time?

A man like Montaigne, as has been said, could slumber tranquilly on the
pillow of doubt, content to live his life, leaving many questions open.
Such men’s meditations, when composed in the genial literary form proper
to them, are naturally the delight of people with whom the world goes
fairly well materially, who have sensibility enough to be aware that
there are unseen lands of knowledge and truth beyond the present, and
destinies beyond their own; but whose sensibility is not intense and
ardent enough to make wholly unendurable to them unscrutinizing
acquiescence in half-thoughts and faint guesses, and pale unshapen
embryos of social sympathy. There are conjunctures when this mingling of
apprehension and ease, of aspiration and content, of timorous adventure
and reflective indolence, is the natural mood of even high natures. The
great tides of circumstance swell so tardily, that whole generations
that might have produced their share of skilful and intrepid mariners,
wait in vain for the full flood on which the race is borne to new

Nor assuredly is it well for men that every age should mark either a
revolution, or the slow inward agitation that prepares the revolution,
or that doubters and destroyers should divide between them all
admiration and gratitude and sympathy. The violent activity of a century
of great change may end in a victory, but it is always a sacrifice. The
victory may more than recompense its cost. The sacrifice may repay
itself a thousand-fold. It does not always repay itself, as the too
neglected list of good causes lost, and noble effort wasted, so
abundantly shows. Nor in any case is sacrifice ever an end. Faith and
order and steady strong movement are the conditions which everything
wise is directed to perfect and consolidate. But for this process of
perfection we need first the meditative, doubting, critical type, and
next, the dogmatic destroyer. ‘In counsel it is good to see dangers,’
Bacon said; ‘and in execution not to see them, except they be very
great,’ There are, as history instructs us, eras of counsel and eras of
execution; the hour when those do best who walk most warily, feeling
with patience and sagacity and painstaking for the new ways, and then
the hour of march and stout-hearted engagement.

Voltaire, if he adroitly or sagely preserved his buckler, felt that the
day was come to throw away the scabbard; that it was time to trust
firmly to the free understanding of men for guidance in the voyage after
truth, and to the instincts of uncorrupted benevolence in men for the
upholding of social justice. His was one of the robust and incisive
constitutions, to which doubt figures as a sickness, and where
intellectual apprehension is an impossibility. The old-fashioned
nomenclature puts him down among sceptics, because those who had the
official right to affix these labels could think of no more contemptuous
name, and could not suppose the most audacious soul capable of advancing
even under the leadership of Satan himself beyond a stray doubt or so.
He had perhaps as little of the sceptic in his constitution as Bossuet
or Butler, and was much less capable of becoming one than De Maistre or
Paley. This was a prime secret of his power, for the mere critic and
propounder of unanswered doubts never leads more than a handful of men
after him. Voltaire boldly put the great question, and he boldly
answered it. He asked whether the sacred records were historically
true, the Christian doctrine divinely inspired and spiritually
exhaustive, and the Christian church a holy and beneficent organization.
He answered these questions for himself and for others beyond
possibility of misconception. The records were saturated with fable and
absurdity, the doctrine imperfect at its best, and a dark and tyrannical
superstition at its worst, and the church was the arch-curse and infamy.
Say what we will of these answers, they were free from any taint of
scepticism. Our lofty new idea of rational freedom as freedom from
conviction, and of emancipation of understanding as emancipation from
the duty of settling whether important propositions are true or false,
had not dawned on Voltaire.

He had just as little part or lot in the complaisant spirit of the man
of the world, who from the depths of his mediocrity and ease presumes to
promulgate the law of progress, and as dictator to fix its speed. Who
does not know this temper of the man of the world, that worst enemy of
the world? His inexhaustible patience of abuses that only torment
others; his apologetic word for beliefs that may perhaps not be so
precisely true as one might wish, and institutions that are not
altogether so useful as some might think possible; his cordiality
towards progress and improvement in a general way, and his coldness or
antipathy to each progressive proposal in particular; his pygmy hope
that life will one day become somewhat better, punily shivering by the
side of his gigantic conviction that it might well be infinitely worse.
To Voltaire, far different from this, an irrational prejudice was not
the object of a polite coldness, but a real evil to be combated and
overthrown at every hazard. Cruelty was not to him as a disagreeable
dream of the imagination, from thought of which he could save himself by
arousing to sense of his own comfort, but a vivid flame burning into his
thoughts and destroying peace. Wrong-doing and injustice were not simple
words on his lips; they went as knives to the heart; he suffered with
the victim, and consumed with an active rage against the oppressor.

Nor was the coarse cruelty of the inquisitor or the politician, who
wrought iniquity by aid of the arm of flesh, the only kind of injury to
the world which stirred his passion. He had imagination enough and
intelligence enough to perceive that they are the most pestilent of all
the enemies of mankind, the sombre hierarchs of misology, who take away
the keys of knowledge, thrusting truth down to the second place, and
discrowning sovereign reason to be the serving drudge of superstition or
social usage. The system which threw obstacles into the way of
publishing an exposition of Newton’s discoveries and ideas was as
mischievous and hateful to him, as the darker bigotry which broke Calas
on the wheel because he was a Protestant. To check the energetic
discovery and wide propagation of scientific truth, he rightly held to
be at least as destructive in the long run to the common weal, as the
unjust extermination of human life; for it is the possession of ever
more and more truth that makes life ever better worth having and better
worth preserving. And must we not admit that he was right, and that no
age nor school of men nor individual has ever been mortally afraid, as
every good man is afraid, of inflicting any wrong on his fellow, and has
not also been afraid of extinguishing a single ray from the great sun of

It is well enough to say that in unscientific ages, like the twelfth
century for instance, the burner of books and the tormentor of those who
wrote them, did not feel either that he was doing an injustice to man or
a mischief to truth. It is hard to deny that St. Bernard was a good man,
nor is it needful that we should deny it; for good motives, owing to our
great blindness and slow enlightenment, have made grievous havoc in the
world. But the conception of justice towards heretics did not exist, any
more than it existed in the mind of a low type of white man towards a
black man, or than the conception of pity exists in the mind of a
sportsman towards his prey. These were ages of social cruelty, as they
were ages of intellectual repression. The debt of each to his neighbour
was as little felt, as the debt of all to the common faculties and
intelligence. Men owed nothing to man, but everything to the gods. All
the social feeling and intellectual effort and human energizing which
had made the high idea of God possible and real, seemed to have
expended themselves in a creation which instantly swallowed them up and
obliterated their recollection. The intelligence which by its active
straining upwards to the light had opened the way for the one God,
became itself forthwith identified with the chief of the devils. He who
used his reason was the child of this demon. Where it is a duty to
worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of
heat. The times when such was the universal idea of the rights of the
understanding, were also the times when human life was cheapest, and the
tiny bowl of a man’s happiness was spilt upon the ground with least

The companionship between these two ideas of disrespect for the rights
of man, and disrespect for reason or the highest distinction of man, has
been an inseparable companionship. The converse is unhappily only true
with a modification, for there have been too many men with an honourable
respect for a demonstration and a proper hospitality towards a
probability, who look on the rights of man, without disrespect indeed,
but also without fervour. To Voltaire reason and humanity were but a
single word, and love of truth and passion for justice but one emotion.
None of the famous men who have fought that they themselves might think
freely and speak truly, have ever seen more clearly that the fundamental
aim of the contest was that others might live happily. Who has not been
touched by that admirable word of his, of the three years in which he
laboured without remission for justice to the widow and descendants of
Calas: ‘_During that time not a smile escaped me without my reproaching
myself for it, as for a crime_.’ Or by his sincere avowal that of all
the words of enthusiasm and admiration which were so prodigally bestowed
upon him on the occasion of his last famous visit to Paris in 1778, none
went to his heart like that of a woman of the people, who in reply to
one asking the name of him whom the crowd followed, gave answer, ‘_Do
you not know that he is the preserver of the Calas?_’

The same kind of feeling, though manifested in ways of much less
unequivocal nobleness, was at the bottom of his many efforts to make
himself of consequence in important political business. We know how many
contemptuous sarcasms have been inspired by his anxiety at various times
to perform diplomatic feats of intervention between the French
government and Frederick the Second. In 1742, after his visit to the
Prussian king at Aix-la-Chapelle, he is supposed to have hinted to
Cardinal Fleury that to have written epic and drama does not disqualify
a man for serving his king and country on the busy fields of affairs.
The following year, after Fleury’s death, when French fortunes in the
war of the Austrian succession were near their lowest, Voltaire’s own
idea that he might be useful from his intimacy with Frederick, seems to
have been shared by Amelot, the secretary of state, and at all events he
aspired to do some sort of active, if radically futile, diplomatic work.
In later times when the tide had turned, and Frederick’s star was
clouded over with disaster, we again find Voltaire the eager
intermediary with Choiseul, pleasantly comparing himself to the mouse of
the fable, busily striving to free the lion from the meshes of the
hunter’s net.

The man of letters, usually unable to conceive loftier services to
mankind or more attractive aims to persons of capacity than the
composition of books, has treated these pretensions of Voltaire with a
supercilious kind of censure, which teaches us nothing about Voltaire,
while it implies a particularly shallow idea alike of the position of
the mere literary life in the scale of things, and of the conditions
under which the best literary work is done. To have really contributed
in the humblest degree, for instance, to a peace between Prussia and her
enemies in 1759, would have been an immeasurably greater performance for
mankind than any given book which Voltaire could have written. And, what
is still better worth observing, Voltaire’s books would not have been
the powers they were, but for this constant desire of his to come into
the closest contact with the practical affairs of the world. He who has
never left the life of a recluse, drawing an income from the funds and
living in a remote garden, constructing past, present, and future, out
of his own consciousness, is not qualified either to lead mankind
safely, or to think on the course of human affairs correctly. Every page
of Voltaire has the bracing air of the life of the world in it, and the
instinct which led him to seek the society of the conspicuous actors on
the great scene was essentially a right one. The book-writer takes good
advantage of his opportunity to assure men expressly or by implication
that he is their true king, and that the sacred bard is a mightier man
than his hero. Voltaire knew better. Though himself perhaps the most
puissant man of letters that ever lived, he rated literature as it ought
to be rated below action, not because written speech is less of a force,
but because the speculation and criticism of the literature that
substantially influences the world, make far less demand than the actual
conduct of great affairs on qualities which are not rare in detail, but
are amazingly rare in combination,—on temper, foresight, solidity,
daring,—on strength, in a word, strength of intelligence and strength of
character. Gibbon rightly amended his phrase, when he described Boethius
not as stooping, but rather as rising, from his life of placid
meditation to an active share in the imperial business. That he held
this sound opinion is quite as plausible an explanation of Voltaire’s
anxiety to know persons of station and importance, as the current theory
that he was of sycophantic nature. Why, he asks, are the ancient
historians so full of light? ‘It is because the writer had to do with
public business; it is because he could be magistrate, priest, soldier;
and because if he could not rise to the highest functions of the state,
he had at least to make himself worthy of them. I admit,’ he concludes,
‘that we must not expect such an advantage with us, for our own
constitution happens to be against it;’ but he was deeply sensible what
an advantage it was that they thus lost.[1]

In short, on all sides, whatever men do and think was real and alive to
Voltaire. Whatever had the quality of interesting any imaginable
temperament, had the quality of interesting him. There was no subject
which any set of men have ever cared about, which, if he once had
mention of it, Voltaire did not care about likewise. And it was just
because he was so thoroughly alive himself, that he filled the whole era
with life. The more closely one studies the various movements of that
time, the more clear it becomes that, if he was not the original centre
and first fountain of them all, at any rate he made many channels ready
and gave the sign. He was the initial principle of fermentation
throughout that vast commotion. We may deplore, if we think fit, as
Erasmus deplored in the case of Luther, that the great change was not
allowed to work itself out slowly, calmly, and without violence and
disruption. These graceful regrets are powerless, and on the whole they
are very enervating. Let us make our account with the actual, rather
than seek excuses for self-indulgence in pensive preference of something
that might have been. Practically in these great circles of affairs,
what only might have been is as though it could not be; and to know this
may well suffice for us. It is not in human power to choose the kind of
men who rise from time to time to the supreme control of momentous
changes. The force which decides this immensely important matter is as
though it were chance. We cannot decisively pronounce any circumstance
whatever an accident, yet history abounds with circumstances which in
our present ignorance of the causes of things are as if they were

In this respect history is neither better nor worse than the latest
explanation of the origin and order of the world of organised matter.
Here too we are landed in the final resort at what is neither more nor
less than an accident. Natural selection, or the survival of the fittest
in the universal struggle for existence, is now held by the most
competent inquirers to be the principal method to which we owe the
extinction, preservation, and distribution of organic forms on the
earth. But the appearance both of the forms that conquer and of those
that perish still remains a secret, and to science an accident and a
secret are virtually and provisionally the same thing. In a word, there
is an unknown element at the bottom of the varieties of creation,
whether we agree to call that element a volition of a supernatural
being, or an undiscovered set of facts in embryology. So in history the
Roman or Italo-Hellenic empire, rising when it did, was the salvation of
the West, and yet the appearance at the moment when anarchy threatened
rapidly to dissolve the Roman state, of a man with the power of
conceiving the best design for the new structure, seems to partake as
much of the nature of chance, as the non-appearance of men with similar
vision and power in equally momentous crises, earlier and later. The
rise of a great constructive chief like Charlemagne in the eighth
century can hardly be enough to persuade us that the occasion invariably
brings the leader whom its conditions require, when we remember that as
concerns their demands the conditions of the end of the eighth century
were not radically different from those of the beginning of the sixth,
yet that in the earlier epoch there arose no successor to continue the
work of Theodoric. We have only to examine the origin and fundamental
circumstances of the types of civilisation which rule western
communities and guide their advance, to discern in those original
circumstances a something inscrutable, a certain element of what is as
though it were fortuitous. No science can as yet tell us how such a
variation from previously existing creatures as man had its origin; nor,
any more than this, can history explain the law by which the most
striking variations in intellectual and spiritual quality within the
human order have had their origin. The appearance of the one as of the
other is a fact which cannot be further resolved. It is hard to think in
imagination of the globe as unpeopled by man, or peopled, as it may at
some remote day come to be, by beings of capacity superior enough to
extinguish man. It is hard also to think of the scene which western
Europe and all the vast space which the light of western Europe
irradiates, might have offered at this moment, if nature or the unknown
forces had not produced a Luther, a Calvin, or a Voltaire.

It was one of the happy chances of circumstance that there arose in
France on the death of Lewis XIV. a man with all Voltaire’s peculiar
gifts of intelligence, who added to them an incessant activity in their
use, and who besides this enjoyed such length of days as to make his
intellectual powers effective to the very fullest extent possible. This
combination of physical and mental conditions so amazingly favourable to
the spread of the Voltairean ideas, was a circumstance independent of
the state of the surrounding atmosphere, and was what in the phraseology
of præscientific times might well have been called providential. If
Voltaire had seen all that he saw, and yet been indolent; or if he had
been as clear-sighted and as active as he was, and yet had only lived
fifty years, instead of eighty-four, Voltairism would never have struck
root.[2] As it was, with his genius, his industry, his longevity, and
the conditions of the time being what they were, that far-spreading
movement of destruction was inevitable.

Once more, we cannot choose. Those whom temperament or culture has made
the partisans of calm order, cannot attune progress to the stately and
harmonious march which would best please them, and which they are
perhaps right in thinking would lead with most security to the goal.

Such a liberation of the human mind as Voltairism can only be effected
by the movement of many spirits, and they are only the few who are moved
by moderate, reflective, and scientific trains of argument. The many
need an extreme type. They are struck by what is flashing and colossal,
for they follow imagination and sympathy, and not the exactly
disciplined intelligence. They know their own wants, and have dumb
feeling of their own better aspirations. Their thoughts move in the
obscurity of things quick but unborn, and by instinct they push upwards
in whatever direction the darkness seems breaking. They are not critics
nor analysts, but when the time is ripening they never fail to know the
word of freedom and of truth, with whatever imperfections it may chance
to be spoken. No prophet all false has ever yet caught the ear of a
series of generations. No prophet all false has succeeded in separating
a nation into two clear divisions. Voltaire has in effect for a century
so divided the most emancipated of western nations. This is beyond the
power of the mere mocker, who perishes like the flash of lightning; he
does not abide as a centre of solar heat.

There are more kinds of Voltaireans than one, but no one who has marched
ever so short a way out of the great camp of old ideas is directly or
indirectly out of the debt and out of the hand of the first liberator,
however little willing he may be to recognise one or the other.
Attention has been called by every writer on Voltaire to the immense
number of the editions of his works, a number probably unparalleled in
the case of any author within the same limits of time. Besides being one
of the most voluminous book-writers, he is one of the cheapest. We can
buy one of Voltaire’s books for a few half-pence, and the keepers of the
cheap stalls in the cheap quarters of London and Paris will tell you
that this is not from lack of demand, but the contrary. So clearly does
that light burn for many even now, which scientifically speaking ought
to be extinct, and for many indeed is long ago extinct and superseded.
The reasons for this vitality are that Voltaire was himself thoroughly
alive when he did his work, and that the movement which that work began
is still unexhausted.

How shall we attempt to characterise this movement? The historian of the
Christian church usually opens his narrative with an account of the
depravation of human nature and the corruption of society which preceded
the new religion. The Reformation in like manner is only to be
understood after we have perceived the enormous mass of superstition,
injustice, and wilful ignorance, by which the theological idea had
become so incrusted as to be wholly incompetent to guide society,
because it was equally repugnant to the intellectual perceptions and the
moral sense, the knowledge and the feelings, of the best and most
active-minded persons of the time. The same sort of consideration
explains and vindicates the enormous power of Voltaire. France had
outgrown the system that had brought her through the middle ages. The
further development of her national life was fatally hindered by the
tight bonds of an old order, which clung with the hardy tenacity of a
thriving parasite, diverting from the roots all their sustenance, eating
into the tissue, and feeding on the juices of the living tree. The
picture has often been painted, and we need not try to paint it once
more in detail here. The whole power and ordering of the nation were
with the sworn and chartered foes of light, who had every interest that
a desire to cling to authority and wealth can give, in keeping the
understanding subject.

And, what was more important, there had been no sign made in the nation
itself of a consciousness of the immense realms of knowledge that lay
immediately in front of it, and still less of any desire or intention to
win lasting possession of them. That intellectual curiosity which was so
soon to produce such amazing fruits was as yet unstirred. An era of
extraordinary activity had just come to a close, and the creative and
artistic genius of France had risen to the highest mark it attained
until the opening of our own century. The grand age of Lewis XIV. had
been an age of magnificent literature and unsurpassed eloquence. But, in
spite of the potent seed which Descartes had sown, it had been the age
of authority, protection, and patronage. Consequently all those subjects
for which there was no patronage, that is to say the subjects which
could add nothing to the splendour and dignity of the church and the
pageantry of the court, were virtually repressed. This ought not to
blind us to the real loftiness and magnanimity of the best or earlier
part of the age of Lewis XIV. It has been said that the best title of
Lewis XIV. to the recollection of posterity is the protection he
extended to Molière; and one reason why this was so meritorious is that
Molière’s work had a markedly critical character, in reference both to
the devout and to the courtier. The fact of this, undoubtedly the most
durable work of that time, containing critical quality, is not of
importance in reference to the generally fixed or positive aspect of the
age. For Molière is only critical by accident. There is nothing
organically negative about him, and his plays are the pure dramatic
presentation of a peculiar civilisation. He is no more a destructive
agency because he drew hypocrites and coxcombs, than Bossuet was
destructive or critical because he inveighed against sin and the excess
of human vainglory. The epoch was one of entire loyalty to itself and
its ideas. Voltaire himself perceived and admired these traits to the
full. The greatest of all overthrowers, he always understood that it is
towards such ages as these, the too short ages of conviction and
self-sufficience, that our endeavour works. We fight that others may
enjoy; and many generations struggle and debate, that one generation may
hold something for proven.

The glories of the age of Lewis XIV. were the climax of a set of ideas
that instantly afterwards lost alike their grace, their usefulness, and
the firmness of their hold on the intelligence of men. A dignified and
venerable hierarchy, an august and powerful monarch, a court of gay and
luxurious nobles, all lost their grace, because the eyes of men were
suddenly caught and appalled by the awful phantom, which was yet so
real, of a perishing nation. Turn from Bossuet’s orations to
Boisguillebert’s _Détail de la France_; from the pulpit rhetorician’s
courtly reminders that even majesty must die, to Vauban’s pity for the
misery of the common people;[3] from Corneille and Racine to La
Bruyère’s picture of ‘certain wild animals, male and female, scattered
over the fields, black, livid, all burnt by the sun, bound to the earth
that they dig and work with unconquerable pertinacity; they have a sort
of articulate voice, and when they rise on their feet, they show a human
face, and, in fact, are men.’ The contrast had existed for generations.
The material misery caused by the wars of the great Lewis deepened the
dark side, and the lustre of genius consecrated to the glorification of
traditional authority and the order of the hour heightened the
brightness of the bright side, until the old contrast was suddenly seen
by a few startled eyes, and the new and deepest problem, destined to
strain our civilisation to a degree that not many have even now
conceived, came slowly into pale outline.

There is no reason to think that Voltaire ever saw this gaunt and
tremendous spectacle. Rousseau was its first voice. Since him the
reorganisation of the relations of men has never faded from the sight
either of statesmen or philosophers, with vision keen enough to admit to
their eyes even what they dreaded and execrated in their hearts.
Voltaire’s task was different and preparatory. It was to make popular
the genius and authority of reason. The foundations of the social fabric
were in such a condition that the touch of reason was fatal to the whole
structure, which instantly began to crumble. Authority and use oppose a
steadfast and invincible resistance to reason, so long as the
institutions which they protect are of fair practicable service to a
society. But after the death of Lewis XIV., not only the grace and pomp,
but also the social utility of spiritual and political absolutism passed
obviously away. Spiritual absolutism was unable to maintain even a
decent semblance of unity and theological order. Political absolutism by
its material costliness, its augmenting tendency to repress the
application of individual energy and thought to public concerns, and its
pursuit of a policy in Europe which was futile and essentially
meaningless as to its ends, and disastrous and incapable in its choice
of means, was rapidly exhausting the resources of national well-being
and viciously severing the very tap-root of national life. To bring
reason into an atmosphere so charged, was, as the old figure goes, to
admit air to the chamber of the mummy. And reason was exactly what
Voltaire brought; too narrow, if we will, too contentious, too derisive,
too unmitigatedly reasonable, but still reason. And who shall measure
the consequence of this difference in the history of two great nations;
that in France absolutism in church and state fell before the sinewy
genius of stark reason, while in England it fell before a respect for
social convenience, protesting against monopolies, benevolences,
ship-money? That in France speculation had penetrated over the whole
field of social inquiry, before a single step had been taken towards
application, while in England social principles were applied, before
they received any kind of speculative vindication? That in France the
first effective enemy of the principles of despotism was Voltaire, poet,
philosopher, historian, critic; in England, a band of homely squires?

Traditional authority, it is true, had been partially and fatally
undermined in France before the time of Voltaire, by one of the most
daring of thinkers, and one of the most acute and sceptical of scholars,
as well as by writers so acutely careless as Montaigne, and apologists
so dangerously rational as Pascal, who gave a rank and consistency to
doubt even in showing that its seas were black and shoreless.
Descartes’s Discourse on Method had been published in 1637, and Bayle’s
Thoughts on the Comet, first of the series of critical onslaughts on
prejudice and authority in matters of belief, had been published in
1682. The metaphysician and the critic had each pressed forward on the
path of examination, and had each insisted on finding grounds for
belief, or else showing the absence of such grounds with a fatal
distinctness that made belief impossible. Descartes was constructive,
and was bent on reconciling the acceptance of a certain set of ideas as
to the relations between man and the universe, and as to the mode and
composition of the universe, with the logical reason. Bayle, whose
antecedents and environment were Protestant, was careless to replace,
but careful to have evidence for whatever was allowed to remain. No
parallel nor hint of equality is here intended between the rare genius
of Descartes and the relatively lower quality of Bayle. The one, however
high a place we may give to the regeneration of thought effected by
Bacon in England, or to that wrought by the brilliant group of physical
experimentalists in Italy, still marks a new epoch in the development of
the human mind, for he had decisively separated knowledge from theology,
and systematically constituted science. The other has a place only in
the history of criticism. But, although in widely different ways, and
with vast difference in intellectual stature, they both had touched the
prevailing notions of French society with a fatal breath.

The blast that finally dispersed and destroyed them came not from
Descartes and Bayle, but directly from Voltaire and indirectly from
England. In the seventeenth century the surrounding conditions were not
ripe. Social needs had not begun to press. The organs of authority were
still too vigorous, and performed their functions with something more
than the mechanical half-heartedness of the next century. Long
familiarity with sceptical ideas as enemies must go before their
reception as friends and deliverers. They have perhaps never gained an
effective hold in any community, until they have found allies in the
hostile camp of official orthodoxy, and so long as that orthodoxy was
able to afford them a vigorous social resistance. Voltaire’s universal
talents made one of the most powerful instruments for conveying these
bold and inquisitive notions among many sorts and conditions of men,
including both the multitude of common readers and playgoers in the
towns, and the narrower multitude of nobles and sovereigns. More than
this, the brilliance and variety of his gifts attracted, stimulated, and
directed the majority of the men of letters of his time, and imparted to
them a measure of his own singular skill in conveying the principles of
rationalistic thought.

The effect of all this was to turn a vast number of personages who were
officially inimical to free criticism, to be at heart abettors and
fellow-conspirators in the great plot. That fact, combined with the
independent causes of the incompetency of the holders of authority to
deal with the crying social necessities of the time, left the walls of
the citadel undermined and undefended, and a few of the sacred birds
that were still found faithful cackled to no purpose. It has often been
said that in the early times of Christianity its influence gave all that
was truest and brightest in colour to the compositions of those who were
least or not at all affected by its dogma. It is more certain that
Voltaire by the extraordinary force of his personality gave a peculiar
tone and life even to those who adhered most staunchly to the ancient
ordering. The champions of authority were driven to defend their cause
by the unusual weapons of rationality; and if Voltaire had never
written, authority would never, for instance, have found such a soldier
on her side as that most able and eminent of reactionaries, Joseph de
Maistre. In reply to the favourite assertion of the apologists of
Catholicism, that whatever good side its assailants may present is the
product of the very teaching which they repudiate, one can only say that
there would be at least as much justice in maintaining that the marked
improvement which took place in the character and aims of the priesthood
between the Regency and the Revolution,[4] was an obligation
unconsciously incurred to those just and liberal ideas which Voltaire
had helped so powerfully to spread. De Maistre compares Reason putting
away Revelation to a child who should beat its nurse. The same figure
would serve just as well to describe the thanklessness of Belief to the
Disbelief which has purged and exalted it.

One of the most striking features of the revolution wrought by Voltaire
is that it was the one great revolt in history which contained no
element of asceticism, and achieved all its victories without resort to
an instrument so potent, inflexible, and easy, but so gravely dangerous.
Such revolts are always reactions against surrounding corruption and
darkness. They are the energetic protests of the purer capacities and
aspirations of human nature; and as is the inevitable consequence of
vehement action of this sort, they seem for a while to insist on nothing
less than the extirpation of those antagonistic parts which are seen to
have brought life into such debasement. With this stern anger and
resolve in their hearts, men have no mind to refine, explain, or
moderate, and they are forced by one of the strangest instincts of our
constitution into some system of mortification, which may seem to clear
the soul of the taint of surrounding grossness. In such exalted mood,
there is no refuge but in withdrawal from the common life into recesses
of private conscience, and in severest purification of all desires.
There are not many types of good men even in the least ascetic or least
reactionary epochs, to whom this mood, and its passion for simplicity,
self-applied rigour, minute discipline, firm regulation, and veritable
continence of life, do not now and again recur, in the midst of days
that march normally on a more spacious and expansive theory.

There was, however, no tinge of ascetic principle in Voltairism. Pascal
had remarked that relaxed opinions are naturally so pleasing to men,
that it is wonderful they should ever be displeasing. To which Voltaire
had thus retorted: ‘On the contrary, does not experience prove that
influence over men’s minds is only gained by offering them the
difficult, nay the impossible, to perform or believe? Offer only things
that are reasonable, and all the world will answer, We knew as much as
that. But enjoin things that are hard, impracticable; paint the deity as
ever armed with the thunder; make blood run before the altars; and you
will win the multitude’s ear, and everybody will say of you, He must be
right, or he would not so boldly proclaim things so marvellous.’[5]
Voltaire’s ascendency sprung from no appeal to those parts of human
nature in which ascetic practice has its foundation. On the contrary,
full exercise and play for every part was the key of all his teaching,
direct and indirect. He had not Greek serenity and composure of spirit,
but he had Greek exultation in every known form of intellectual
activity, and this audacious curiosity he made general.

Let us remember that Voltairism was primarily and directly altogether an
intellectual movement, for this reason, that it was primarily and
directly a reaction against the subordination of the intellectual to the
moral side of men, carried to an excess that was at length fraught with
fatal mischief. Are our opinions true, provably answering to the facts
of the case, consistent with one another; is our intelligence radiant
with genuine light and knowledge; and are we bent more than all else on
testing and improving and diffusing this knowledge and the instruments
for acquiring it? The system to which this was the powerful
counter-formula, even in its least dark shapes, always reserved a large
class of most important facts from the searching glare of that scrutiny
which Voltairism taught men to direct upon every proposition that was
presented to them.

For many centuries truth had been conceived as of the nature of a Real
Universal, of which men had full possession by the revelation of a
supreme divinity. All truth was organically one; and the relations of
men to something supernatural, their relations to one another, the
relations of outward matter, were all comprehended in a single
synthesis, within which, and subject to which, all intellectual movement
proceeded. An advancing spirit of inquiry dissolved this synthesis; and
the philosophers, as distinguished from the steadfast and single
students of science, ceasing to take it for granted as an indisputable
starting-point that truth was an assured possession, went off on two
different lines. Men of one cast of mind fell into doubt whether truth
was a reality after all, and the discovery of it accessible to mankind.
Thinkers of a different cast accepted this doctrine of the impotence of
the human understanding to discover knowledge and prove truth, but they
proceeded to the retrograde inference that therefore the ancient
tradition of knowledge actually contains that approved truth, which had
just been pronounced unattainable. This oblique mode of regaining a
position of which they had been by their own act dispossessed, was
impossible for so keen and direct a spirit as Voltaire’s. However filled
his mind may have been with the false notions of the Tribe, of the
Market, and above all of the Cave, at all events it was more free than
most, certainly than most of those subalterns of the schools, from the
Idols of the Theatre, and from either kind of that twofold excess, ‘one
sort of which too hastily constitutes sciences positive and hierarchic,
while the other presents scepticism and the pursuit of a vague inquiry
that has no limit.’[6]

The consequence of this peculiarity, call it a destructive and blind
narrowness, or call it a wise and justly-measured openness of mind, as
we may choose, has been that Voltaire has been condemned with unsparing
severity by three of the most influential schools of modern opinion.
Every one who has a system to defend is the enemy of the famous man who
destroyed the reigning system of his day, with engines that seem to
point with uncomfortable directness against all other systems. Every one
who thinks that we have turned over the last leaf of the book of
knowledge, whatever the inscription that he may find written upon it,
naturally detests the whole spirit and impulse of one who felt all his
life that he and his generation were the first band of men who had
shaken off their chains, and ascended to the light of the sun and the
contemplation of some portion of an inexhaustible universe of realities.
Hence, the partisans of the Christian religion, in any of its forms,
have dealt unrelenting contempt and hatred to the foe who did more than
any one else to reduce their churches, once so majestically triumphant,
to their present level, where they are forced under various guises and
with much obsolete pretension to plead for the tolerance of rational
men, on the comparatively modest ground of social fitness. Their
hostility, we may agree, is not very astonishing, when we reflect on the

Many of those, however, who have least hope of any future revival of the
ancient creed, and who least regret its fall, are even less hostile to
the Jesuits than they are to Voltaire. Comte, for example, who
elaborated a doctrine with a corresponding system of life deduced from
it, and the central principle of whose method of social action and
movement is to destroy by replacing, has adjudged an emphatically
secondary place to Voltaire’s claims on our good-will.[7] Nor ought
this seriously to surprise us, when we consider that Voltaire trusted to
the individual to replace for himself, by the motion of his own
faculties, the old collective tradition of action and belief; and that
he showed himself too keenly alive to the curses of that empire of
prejudice, authority, social fixity, which he devoted his life to
overthrowing, to lend any help to the restoration of a similar reign
with changed watchwords. He is perhaps the one great Frenchman who has
known how to abide in patient contentment with an all but purely
critical reserve, leaving reconstruction, its form, its modes, its
epoch, for the fulness of time and maturity of effort to disclose. It
has been the fatal quality of the genius of his countrymen, from
Descartes down to Comte, to decline to rest on an uncompleted
interpretation of experience, and to insist on a hasty supplement of
unconcluded analysis by what is virtually an à priori synthesis.
Voltaire deserves no special praise for this abstention from a
premature reconstruction; for it probably was not so much the result of
deliberate persuasion that we must wait on the time, as of an inability
to conceive of need for a cultus and a firm ordering of our knowledge,
as prime demands of human nature and essential conditions of stable
progress. Whatever value we may set on this sage reserve, the fact that
Voltaire had no scheme for replacing the scheme which he destroyed,
accounts very amply for the disparagement of him by those who think
almost any fabric of common and ordered belief better for men, than the
seeming chaos of intricate and multitudinous growths which now
overspread the field of European opinion. And does it not involve us in
a defective conception of the way in which human progress accomplishes
itself, to place in our calendar of benefactors, supposing us to compose
a calendar, only those who have built up truth, to the exclusion of
those who have with pain and labour helped to demolish impudent error?
Has Jericho always fallen without the blasts from the seven trumpets? It
is sufficiently demonstrated from history that false opinions vanish
spontaneously, without a direct blow struck; that a system of belief,
corroborated in the breasts of the multitude by all the authority of a
long tradition, sanctified to the powerful few by dignity or emolument,
entrenched with a strength that seems inexpugnable among the ordinances
and institutions and unwritten uses of a great community, will
straightway succumb from inherent want of life and courage?

There is a third kind of opinion, that is as little merciful in its own
way as either of the two others, and this is the scientific or cultured
opinion. Objections from this region express themselves in many forms,
some of them calm and suggestive, others a little empty and a little
brutal. They all seem to come to something of this kind: that Voltaire’s
assault on religion, being conducted without any smallest spark of the
religious spirit, was therefore necessarily unjust to the object of his
attack, and did the further mischief of engendering in all on whom his
influence was poured out a bitterness and moral temerity which is the
worst blight that can fall upon the character either of a man or a
generation: that while truth is relative and conditional, and while
belief is only to be understood by those who have calmly done justice to
the history of its origin and growth, Voltaire carelessly,
unphilosophically, and maliciously, handled what had once possessed a
relative truth, as if it had always been absolutely false, and what had
sprung from the views and aspirations of the best men, as if it had had
its root in the base artifices of the worst: that what ought to have
gone on, and would have gone on, as a process of soft autumnal
dissolution, was converted by the infection of Voltaire into a stained
scene of passion and battle: that assuming to possess and to furnish men
with a broad criticism of life, he left out of life its deepest,
holiest, and most exalting elements, as well as narrowed and depraved
criticism, from its right rank as the high art of stating and collating
ideas, down to an acrid trick of debate, a thing of proofs, arguments,
and rancorous polemic.

It is certain that there is much truth in this particular strain of
objection to Voltaire’s power and his use of it, or else it would not
have found mouthpieces, as it has done, among some of the finest spirits
of the modern time. But it is the natural tendency of the hour rather to
exaggerate what weight there really is in such criticism, which, though
claiming to be the criticism of temperance and moderation and
relativity, does not as a matter of fact escape the fatal law of excess
and absoluteness even in its very moderation and relativity. In
estimating an innovator’s method, all depends on the time and the enemy;
and it may sometimes happen that the time is so out of joint and the
enemy so strong, so unscrupulous, so imminently pernicious, as to leave
no alternative between finally succumbing, and waging a war of
deliverance for which coming generations have to bear the burdens in
feuds and bitterness; between abridging somewhat of the richness and
fulness of life, and allowing it all to be gradually choked up by dust
and enwrapped in night. For let us not forget that what Catholicism was
accomplishing in France in the first half of the eighteenth century, was
really not anything less momentous than the slow strangling of French
civilisation. Though Voltaire’s spirit may be little edifying to us, who
after all partake of the freedom which he did so much to win, yet it is
only just to remember what was the spirit of his foe, and that in so
pestilent a presence a man of direct vision may well be eager to use
such weapons as he finds to his hand. Let the scientific spirit move
people to speak as it lists about Voltaire’s want of respect for things
held sacred, for the good deeds of holy men, for the sentiment and faith
of thousands of the most worthy among his fellows. Still there are times
when it may be very questionable whether, in the region of belief, one
with power and with fervid honesty ought to spare the abominable city of
the plain, just because it happens to shelter five righteous. There are
times when the inhumanity of a system stands out so red and foul, when
the burden of its iniquity weighs so heavy, and the contagion of its
hypocrisy is so laden with mortal plague, that no awe of dilettante
condemnation nor minute scruple as to the historic or the relative can
stay the hand of the man whose direct sight and moral energy have
pierced the veil of use, and revealed the shrine of the infamous thing.
The most noble of the holy men said long ago that ‘the servant of the
Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient,
in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves.’ The history of
the churches is in one of its most conspicuous aspects the history of a
prolonged outrage upon these words by arrogant and blasphemous persons,
pretending to draw a sacred spirit from the very saint who uttered them.
We may well deplore that Voltaire’s attack, and every other attack of
the same sort, did not take the fair shape prescribed by the apostle to
the servant of the Lord, of gentleness, patience, and the instruction
of a sweet and firm example. But the partisans of the creed in whose
name more human blood has been violently shed than in any other cause
whatever, these, I say, can hardly find much ground of serious reproach
in a few score epigrams. Voltaire had no calm breadth of wisdom. It may
be so. There are moments which need not this calm breadth of wisdom, but
a two-edged sword, and when the deliverers of mankind are they who ‘come
to send fire on the earth.’



Voltairism may be said to have begun from the flight of its founder from
Paris to London. This, to borrow a name from the most memorable instance
of outward change marking inward revolution, was the decisive hegira,
from which the philosophy of destruction in a formal shape may be held
seriously to date. Voltaire landed in England in the middle of May,
1726. He was in the thirty-third year of his age, that earlier
climacteric, when the men with vision first feel conscious of a past,
and reflectively mark its shadow. It is then that they either press
forward eagerly with new impulse in the way of their high calling,
knowing the limitations of circumstance and hour, or else fainting draw
back their hand from the plough, and ignobly leave to another or to none
the accomplishment of the work. The narrowness of the cribbed deck that
we are doomed to tread, amid the vast space of an eternal sea with fair
shores dimly seen and never neared, oppresses the soul with a burden
that sorely tries its strength, when the fixed limits first define
themselves before it. Those are the strongest who do not tremble
beneath this gray ghostly light, but make it the precursor of an
industrious day.

The past on which Voltaire had to look back was full of turmoil,
contention, impatience, and restless production. François Marie Arouet
was born in 1694, so feeble in constitution that, as in the case of
Fontenelle, whose hundred years surpassed even Voltaire’s lengthy span,
his life was long despaired of. His father was a notary of good repute
for integrity and skill, and was entrusted with the management of their
affairs by several of the highest families in France. His mother is
supposed to have had some of the intellectual alertness which penetrated
the character of her son, but she died when he was seven years old, and
he remained alone with his father until 1704, when he was sent to
school. His instructors at the College Louis-le-Grand were the Jesuits,
whose wise devotion to intellectual education in the broadest sense that
was then possible, is a partial set-off against their mischievous
influence on morals and politics. The hardihood of the young Arouet’s
temper broke out even from the first, and we need not inquire minutely
what were the precise subjects of education of a child, whom his tutor
took an early opportunity of pointing out as the future coryphaeus of
deism in France. He used to say in after life that he had learnt nothing
worth learning. A lad who could launch infidel epigrams at ‘his
Jansenist of a brother,’ and declaim a poem in which so important a hero
as Moses figures as an impostor,[8] was of that originality of mental
turn on whose freedom the inevitably mechanical instruction of the
school cannot be expected to make any deep or decisive impression. The
young of this independent humour begin their education where those of
less energetic nerve hardly leave off, with character ready made.

Between a youth of bold, vivacious, imaginative disposition, and a
father of the temperament proper to a notary with many responsibilities,
there could be no sympathy, and the two were not long in coming to open
quarrel without terms. The son was taken out by his godfather, the abbé
Châteauneuf, into that gay world which presently became the infamous
world of the regency, where extraordinary sprightliness and facility in
verse gained him welcome and patronage. We need waste no words on the
corruption and intellectual trifling of the society into which Voltaire
was thus launched. For shallowness and levity, concealed by literary
artifice and play of frivolous wit which only makes the scene more
dreary or detestable, it has never been surpassed. There was brightness
in it, compared with the heavy brutality and things obscene of the court
of Lewis XV., but after all we seem to see over the brightness a sort of
foul glare, like the iridescence of putrefaction. Ninon de l’Enclos, a
friend of his mother’s, was perhaps the one free and honest soul with
whom the young Arouet had to do. Now extremely old, she still preserved
both her wit and her fine probity of intellect. She had always kept her
heart free of cant, from the time when she had ridiculed, as the
Jansenists of love, the pedantical women and platonic gallants of the
Hôtel Rambouillet, down to her rejection of Madame de Maintenon’s offer
of an invitation to the court, on condition of her joining the band of
the devout. The veteran Aspasia, now over eighty, was struck by the
brilliance and dazzling promise of the young versifier, and left him a
legacy for the purchase of books.

The rest of the society into which Voltaire was taken was saturated with
a spirit of reaction against the austere bigotry of the court, and bad
and miserable as such austerity is, the rebellion against it is always
worse and more miserable still. The licence seems not to have been of
the most joyous sort, as indeed licence protesting and defiant is not
apt to be. The abbé Chaulieu, a versifier of sprightly fancy, grace, and
natural ease, was the dissolute Anacreon of the people of quality who
during the best part of the reign of Lewis XIV. had failed to sympathise
with its nobility and stateliness, and during the worst part revolted
against its gloom. Voltaire at twenty was his intimate and his professed
disciple.[9] To this intimacy we may perhaps trace that remarkable
continuity of tradition between Voltaire and the grand age, which
distinguishes him from the school of famous men who were called
Voltaireans, and of whom the special mark was that they had absolutely
broken with the whole past of French history and literature. Princes,
dukes, and marquises were of Chaulieu’s band. The despair and fury of
the elder Arouet at such companions and such follies reproduce once more
a very old story in the records of youthful genius. Genius and fine
friends reconcile no prudent notary to a son’s hatred for law and the
desk. Orgies with the Duke of Sully, and rhyming bouts with Chaulieu,
have sunk into small size for us, who know that they were but the
mischievous and unbecoming prologue of a life of incessant and generous
labour, but we may well believe that such enormities bulked big in the
vision of the father, as portents of degradation and ruin. We have a
glimpse of the son’s temper towards the profession to which his father
had tried so hard to bind him, in the ironical definition, thrown out
long afterwards, of an _avocat_ as a man who, not having money enough to
buy one of those brilliant offices on which the universe has its eyes
fixed, studies for three years the laws of Theodosius and Justinian so
as to know the custom of Paris, and who at length having got
matriculated has the right of pleading for money, if he has a loud
voice.[10] The young Arouet did actually himself get matriculated and
acquire this right, but his voice proved so loud that his pleadings were
destined to fill wider courts than those of Paris.

Arouet the elder persuaded Châteauneuf’s brother, who was a diplomatist,
to take into his company the law-student who had made verse instead of
studying the laws of Theodosius. So the youth went to the Hague. Here he
straightway fell into new misadventure by conceiving an undying passion,
that lasted several weeks, for a young countrywoman whom he found in
Holland. Stolen interviews, letters, tears, and the other accustomed
circumstances of a juvenile passion on which the gods frown, were all
discovered. The ambassador sent the refractory boy back to his father,
with full details and documents, with results on the relations of the
pair that need not be described.

In the autumn of 1715 Lewis XIV. died, and the Regent D’Orleans reigned
in his stead. There presently appeared some pungent lines, entitled _Les
j’ai vu_, in which the writer recounted a number of evil things which he
had seen in the state—a thousand prisons crowded with brave citizens and
faithful subjects, the people groaning under rigorous bondage, the
magistrates harassing every town with ruinous taxes and unrighteous
edicts; _j’ai vu, c’est dire tout, le Jésuite adoré_. The last line ran
that all these ills the writer had seen, yet was but twenty years
old.[11] Voltaire was twenty-two, but the authorities knew him for a
verse-writer of biting turn, so they treated the discrepancy of age as a
piece of mere prosopopœia, and laid him up in the Bastille (1716). As a
matter of fact, he had no hand in the offence. Even amid these sombre
shades, where he was kept for nearly a year, his spirit was blithe and
its fire unquenchable. The custom of Paris and the Codes were as
little handled as ever; and he divided his time between the study of the
two great epics of Greece and Rome, and the preparation of what he
designed to be the great epic of France. He also gave the finishing
strokes to his tragedy of Œdipe, which was represented in the course of
the following year with definite success, and was the opening of a
brilliant dramatic career, that perhaps to a mortal of more ordinary
mould might alone have sufficed for the glory of a life.

The next six years he divided between a lively society, mostly of the
great, the assiduous composition of new plays, and the completion of the
Henriade. His fibre was gradually strengthening. By the end of this
period, the recklessness of the boyish disciple of Chaulieu had wholly
spent itself; and although Voltaire’s manner of life was assuredly not
regular nor decorously ordered, now nor for many years to come, if
measured by the rigid standard on which an improved society properly
insists, yet it was always a life of vigorous industry and clear
purposes. For a brief time his passion for the Maréchale de Villars
broke the tenacity of his diligence, and he always looked back on this
interruption of his work with the kind of remorse that might afflict a
saint for a grave spiritual backsliding. He was often at the country
seats of Sully, Villars, and elsewhere, throwing off thousands of
trifling verses, arranging theatricals, enlivening festivals, and always
corresponding indefatigably; for now and throughout his life his good
sense and good will, his business-like quality and his liking for his
friends, both united to raise him above the idle pretences and
self-indulgence of those who neglect the chief instrument of social
intercourse and friendly continuity. He preferred the country to the
town. ‘I was born,’ he says to one, ‘to be a faun or creature of the
woods; I am not made to live in a town.’ To another, ‘I fancy myself in
hell, when I am in the accursed city of Paris.’[12] The only
recommendation of the accursed city was that a solitude was attainable
in it, as in other crowded spots, which enabled him to work better there
than in the small and exacting throng of country-houses. ‘I fear
Fontainebleau, Villars, and Sully, both for my health and for Henry IV;
I should do no work, I should over-eat, and I should lose in pleasures
and in complaisance to others an amount of precious time that I ought to
be using for a necessary and creditable task.’[13]

Yet there was even at this period much of that marvellous hurrying to
and fro in France and out of it, which continued to mark the longer
portion of Voltaire’s life, and fills it with such a busy air of turmoil
and confusion, explaining many things, when we think of the stability of
life and permanence of outward place of the next bright spirit that
shone upon Europe. Goethe never saw London, Paris, nor Vienna, and made
no journey save the famous visit to Italy, and the march at Valmy.
Voltaire moved hither and thither over the face of Europe like the wind,
and it is not until he has passed through half of his life that we can
begin to think of his home. Every association that belongs to his name
recalls tumult and haste and shrill contention with men and
circumstance. We have, however, to remember that these constant
movements were the price which Voltaire paid for the vigour and freedom
of his speech, in days when the party of superstition possessed the ear
of the temporal power, and resorted without sparing to the most violent
means of obliterating every hardy word and crushing every independent
writer. The greater number of Voltaire’s ceaseless changes of place were
flights from injustice, and the recollection of this may well soothe the
disturbance of spirit of the most fastidious zealot for calm and orderly
living. They were for the most part retreats before packs of wolves.

In 1722 the elder Arouet died, to the last relentlessly set against a
son, not any less stubborn than himself, and unfortunately a great deal
more poetical. About the same time the name of Arouet falls away, and
the poet is known henceforth by that ever famous symbol for so much,
Voltaire; a name for which various explanations, none of them
satisfactory, have been offered, the latest and perhaps the least
improbable resolving it into a fanciful anagram.[14]

Industrious as he was, and eager as he was for rural delights and
laborious solitude, Voltaire was still pre-eminently social. His letters
disclose in him, who really possessed all arts, the art of one who knew
how to be graciously respectful to the social superiors who took him for
a companion, without forgetting what was due to his own respect for
himself. We are all princes or poets, he exclaimed jubilantly on the
occasion of one of those nights and suppers of the gods. Such
gay-hearted freedom was not always well taken, and in time Voltaire’s
eyes were opened to the terms on which he really stood. ‘_Who is the
young man who talks so loud?_’ called out some Chevalier Rohan, at one
of these sprightly gatherings at the house of the Duke of Sully.[15]
‘_My lord_,’ the young man replied promptly, ‘_he is one who does not
carry about a great name, but wins respect for the name he has._’ A few
days afterwards the high-spirited patrician magnanimously took an
opportunity of having a caning inflicted by the hands of his lackeys on
the poet who had thrown away this lesson upon him. Voltaire, who had at
all events that substitute for true physical courage which springs up in
an intensely irritable and susceptive temperament, forthwith applied
himself to practise with the small-sword. He did his best to sting his
enemy to fight, but the chevalier either feared the swordsman, or else
despised an antagonist of the middle class; and by the influence of the
Rohan family the poet once more found himself in the Bastille, then the
house of correction at the disposal and for the use of the nobles, the
court, and the clergy. Here for six months Voltaire, then only
representing a very humble and unknown quantity in men’s minds, chafed
and fretted. The pacific Fleury, as is the wont of the pacific when in
power, cared less to punish the wrong-doer than to avoid disturbance,
knowing that disturbance was most effectually avoided by not meddling
with the person most able to resent. The multitude, however, when the
day of reckoning came, remembered all these things, and the first act of
their passion was to raze to the ground the fortress into which nearly
every distinguished champion of the freedom of human intelligence among
them had at one time or another been tyrannically thrown.

On his release Voltaire was ordered to leave Paris. A clandestine visit
to the city showed him that there was no hope of redress from authority,
which was in the hands of men whose pride of rank prevented them from so
much as even perceiving, much more from repairing, such grievance as a
mere bourgeois could have: as if, to borrow Condorcet’s bitter phrase, a
descendant of the conquering Franks, like De Rohan, could have lost the
ancient right of life and death over a descendant of the Gauls.[16] And
this was no ironic taunt; for while Voltaire was in the Bastille, that
astounding book of the Count of Boulainvilliers was in the press, in
which it was shown that the feudal system is the master-work of the
human mind, and that the advance of the royal authority and the increase
of the liberties of the people were equally unjust usurpations of the
rights of the conquering Franks.[17]

Voltaire was no patient victim of the practice which corresponded to
this trim historic theory. In a tumult of just indignation he quitted
France, and sought refuge with that stout and free people, who had by
the execution of one king, the deposition of another, and the definite
subjugation of the hierarchy, won a full liberty of thought and speech
and person. A modern historian has drawn up a list of the men of mark
who made the same invigorating pilgrimage. ‘During the two generations
which elapsed between the death of Lewis XIV. and the outbreak of the
Revolution, there was hardly a Frenchman of eminence who did not either
visit England or learn English; while many of them did both.’[18] Among
those who actually came to England and mixed in its society besides
Voltaire, were Buffon, Brissot, Helvétius, Gournay, Jussieu, Lafayette,
Montesquieu, Maupertuis, Morellet, Mirabeau, Roland and Madame Roland,
Rousseau. We who live after Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Scott, have
begun to forget the brilliant group of the Queen Anne men. They belong
to a self-complacent time, and we to a time of doubt and unsatisfied
aspiration, and the two spirits are unsympathetic. Yet they were
assuredly a band, from Newton and Locke down to Pope, of whom, taking
them for all the qualities which they united, in science, correct
judgment, love of letters, and taste, England has as good reason to be
proud as of any set of contemporary writers in her history.

Up to this moment Voltaire had been a poet, and his mind had not moved
beyond the region of poetic creation. He had beaten every one once and
for all on the ground of light and graceful lyric verse, ‘a kind of
poetry,’ says a French critic whose word in such a matter we can hardly
refuse to take, ‘in which Voltaire is at once with us the only master
and the only writer supportable, for he is the only one whom we can
read.’[19] He had produced three tragedies. His epic was completed,
though undergoing ceaseless labour of the file. Two lines in his first
play had served to mark him for no friend to the hierophants:

    Nos prêtres ne sont point ce qu’un vain peuple pense;
    Notre crédulité fait toute leur science.[20]

And the words of Araspe in the same play had breathed the full spirit of
the future liberator:

    Ne nous fions qu’à nous; voyons tout par nos yeux:
    Ce sont là nos trépieds, nos oracles, nos dieux.[21]

Such expressions, however, were no more than the vague and casual word
of the _esprit fort_, the friend of Chaulieu, and the rhymer of a
dissolute circle, where religion only became tinged with doubt, because
conduct had already become penetrated with licence. More important than
such stray words was the Epistle to Uranie (1722), that truly masculine
and terse protest against the popular creed, its mean and fatuous and
contradictory idea of an omnipotent God, who gave us guilty hearts so as
to have the right of punishing us, and planted in us a love of pleasure
so as to torment us the more effectually by appalling ills that an
eternal miracle prevents from ever ending; who drowned the fathers in
the deluge and then died for the children; who exacts an account of
their ignorance from a hundred peoples whom he has himself plunged
helplessly into this ignorance:

   Je ne reconnais point à cette indigne image
        Le dieu que je dois adorer;
        Je croirais le déshonorer
   Par une telle insulte et par un tel hommage.[22]

Though called The For and Against, the poet hardly tries to maintain any
proportion between the two sides of the argument. The verses were
addressed to a lady in a state of uncertainty as to belief, of whom
there were probably more among Voltaire’s friends of quality than he can
have cared to cure or convert. Scepticism was at this time not much more
than an interesting fashion.

The dilettante believer is indeed not a strong spirit, but the weakest,
and the facts of life were by this time far too serious for Voltaire,
for that truth to have missed his keen-seeing eye. It is not hard to
suppose that impatient weariness of the poor life that was lived around
him, had as large a share as resentment of an injustice, in driving him
to a land where men did not merely mouth idle words of making reason
their oracle, their tripod, their god, but where they had actually
systematised the rejection of Christianity, and had thrown themselves
with grave faith on the disciplined intelligence and its lessons.
Voltaire left a country where freedom of thinking was only an empty
watchword, the name for a dissipated fashion. It was considered
free-thinking if a man allowed himself to regard the existence of the
Five Propositions in Jansenius’s book as a thing indifferent to the
happiness of the human race.[23] He found in England that it was a
far-spreading reality, moulding not only the theological ideas, but the
literature, manners, politics, and philosophy, of a great society.
Voltaire left France a poet, he returned to it a sage. Before his
flight, though we do not know to what extent he may have read such
history as was then accessible, he had been actively productive only in
the sphere of the imaginative faculties, and in criticism of the form
and regulation proper to be imposed upon them. When he returned, while
his poetic power had ripened, he had tasted of the fruit of the tree of
scientific reason, and, what was not any less important, he had become
alive to the central truth of the social destination of all art and all

In a word, he was transformed from the penman into the captain and
man-at-arms. ‘The example of England,’ says Condorcet, ‘showed him that
truth is not made to remain a secret in the hands of a few philosophers,
and a limited number of men of the world, instructed, or rather
indoctrinated, by the philosophers; smiling with them at the errors of
which the people are the victims, but at the same time making themselves
the champions of these very errors, when their rank or position gives
them a real or chimerical interest in them, and quite ready to permit
the proscription, or even persecution, of their teachers, if they
venture to say what in secret they themselves actually think. From the
moment of his return, Voltaire felt himself called to destroy the
prejudices of every kind, of which his country was the slave.’[24]

It is not difficult to perceive the sorts of fact which would most
strike the exile’s attention, though it would be rash to suppose that
things struck him in exact proportion to their real weight and the depth
of their importance, or that he detected the connection subsisting among
them at their roots. Perhaps the first circumstance to press its
unfamiliarity upon him was the social and political consequence of the
men of letters in England, and the recognition given to the power of the
pen. The patronage of men of genius in the reign of Anne and part of the
reign of the first George had been profuse and splendid. The poet who
had been thrown into prison for resenting a whipping from a nobleman’s
lackeys, found himself in a land where Newton and Locke were rewarded
with lucrative posts in the administration of the country, where Prior
and Gay acted in important embassies, and where Addison was a Secretary
of State. The author of Œdipe and the Henriade had to hang ignobly
about in the crowd at Versailles at the marriage of Lewis XV. to gain a
paltry pittance from the queen’s privy purse,[25] while in England
Hughes and Rowe and Ambrose Philips and Congreve were all enjoying amply
endowed sinecures. The familiar intercourse between the ministers and
the brilliant literary group of that age has been often painted. At the
time of Voltaire’s exile it had just come to an end with the accession
to supreme power of Walpole, who neither knew anything nor cared
anything about the literature of his own time. But the usage was still
new, and the men who had profited and given profit by it were alive, and
were the central figures in the circles among which Voltaire was
introduced by Bolingbroke. Newton died in 1727, and Voltaire saw his
death mourned as a public calamity, and surrounded with a pomp and
circumstance in the eye of the country that could not have been
surpassed if he had been, not a geometer, but a king who was the
benefactor of his people.[26] The author of Gulliver’s Travels was
still a dignitary in the state church, and there was still a large
association of outward power and dignity with literary merit.

In so far as we consider literature to be one of the purely decorative
arts, there can be no harm in this patronage of its most successful,
that is its most pleasing, professors by the political minister; but the
more closely literature approaches to being an organ of serious things,
a truly spiritual power, the more danger there is likely to be in making
it a path to temporal station or emolument. The practical instinct,
which on some of its sides seems like a miraculously implanted
substitute for scientific intelligence in English politics, has led us
almost too far in preserving this important separation of the new church
from the functions and rewards of the state. The misfortunes of France
since the Revolution have been due to no one circumstance so markedly as
to the predominance which the man of letters has acquired in that
country; and this fatal predominance was first founded, though assuredly
not of set design, by Voltaire.

Not less amazing than the high honour paid to intellectual eminence was
the refugee from the city of the Bastille likely to find the freedom
with which public events and public personages were handled by any one
who could pay a printer. The licence of this time in press and theatre
has only been once or twice equalled since, and it has never been
surpassed. From Bolingbroke and Swift down to the author of The Golden
Rump,[27] every writer who chose to consider himself in opposition
treated the minister with a violence and ferocity, which neither
irritated nor daunted that sage head, but which would in France have
crowded the lowest dungeons of the Bastille with victims of Fleury’s
anger and fright. Such license was as natural in a country that had
within ninety years gone through a violent civil war, a revolutionary
change of government and line, and a half-suppressed dispute of
succession, as it would have been astonishing in France, where the
continuity of outward order had never been more than superficially
ruffled, even in the most turbulent times of the factious wars of the
League and the Fronde. No new idea of the relations between ruler and
subject had ever penetrated into France, as it had done so deeply in the
neighbouring country. No serious popular issues had been so much as
stated. As Voltaire wrote, in the detestable times of Charles IX. and
Henry III. it was only a question whether the people should be the slave
of the Guises, while as for the last war, it deserved only hisses and
contempt; for what was De Retz but a rebel without a purpose and a
stirrer of sedition without a name, and what was the parliament but a
body which knew neither what it meant nor what it did not mean?[28] The
apologies of Jesuit writers for the assassination of tyrants deserve an
important place in the history of the doctrine of divine right; but
they were theoretical essays in casuistry for the initiated few, and
certainly conveyed no general principles of popular right to the many.

Protestantism, on the other hand, loosened the conception of authority
and of the respect proper for authority, to a degree which has never
been realised in the most anarchic movements in France, whose anarchy
has ever sprung less from a disrespect for authority as such, than from
a passionate and uncompromising resolve in this or that group that the
authority shall be in one set of hands and not another. Voltairism has
proved itself as little capable as Catholicism of inspiring any piece
that may match with Milton’s Areopagitica, the noblest defence that was
ever made of the noblest of causes. We know not whether Voltaire ever
thought much as to the history and foundation of that freedom of speech,
which even in its abuse struck him as so wonderful a circumstance in a
country that still preserved a stable and orderly society. He was
probably content to admire the phenomenon of a liberty so marvellous,
without searching very far for its antecedents. The mere spectacle of
such free, vigorous, many-sided, and truly social and public activity of
intellect as was visible in England at this time, was in itself enough
to fix the gaze of one who was so intensely conscious of his own energy
of intellect, and so bitterly rebellious against the system which
fastened a gag between his lips.

If we would realise the impression of this scene of free speech on
Voltaire’s ardent spirit, we need only remember that, when in time he
returned to his own country, he had to wait long and use many arts and
suffer harassing persecution, before he could publish what he had to say
on Newton and Locke, and in other less important respects had to
suppress much of what he had most at heart to say. ‘One must disguise at
Paris,’ he wrote long after his return, ‘what I could not say too
strongly at London;’ and he vaunts his hardihood in upholding Newton
against René Descartes, while he confesses that an unfortunate but
necessary circumspection forced him to try to make Locke obscure.[29]
Judge the light which would come into such a mind as his, when he first
saw the discussion and propagation of truth freed from these vile and
demoralising affronts. The very conception of truth was a new one, as a
goddess not to be shielded behind the shades of hierophantic mystery,
but rather to be sought in the free tumult and joyous strife of many
voices, there vindicating her own majesty and marking her own children.

Penetrating deeper, Voltaire found not only a new idea of truth as a
something rude, robust, and self-sufficient, but also what was to him a
new order of truths, the triumphs of slow-footed induction and the
positive reason. France was the hotbed of systems of the physical
universe. The provisional and suspensive attitude was intolerable to her
impetuous genius, and the gaps which scientific investigation was
unable to fill, were straightway hidden behind an artificial screen of
metaphysical phantasies. The Aristotelian system died harder in France
than anywhere else, for so late as 1693, while Oxford and Cambridge and
London were actually embracing the Newtonian principles, even the
Cartesian system was forbidden to be taught by decrees of the Sorbonne
and of the Council of the King.[30] When the Cartesian physics once got
a foothold, they kept it as firmly as the system which they had found so
much difficulty in displacing. It is easy to believe that Voltaire’s
positive intelligence would hold aloof by a certain instinct from
physical explanations which were unverified and incapable of being
verified, and which were imbrangled with theology and metaphysics.

We can readily conceive, again, the sensation of freshness and delight
with which a mind so essentially real, and so fundamentally serious,
paradoxical as this may sound in connection with the name of the
greatest mocker that has ever lived, would exchange the poetised
astronomy of Fontenelle, excellently constituted as Fontenelle was in a
great many ways, for the sure and scientific discoveries of a Newton.
Voltaire, in whatever subject, never failed to see through rhetoric, and
for rhetoric as the substitute for clear reasoning he always had an
aversion as deep as it was wholesome. Nobody ever loved grace and form
in style more sincerely than Voltaire, but he has shown in a great many
ways that nobody ever valued grace and form more truly at their worth,
compared with correctness of argument and precision and solidity of
conclusion. Descartes, Fontenelle had said, ‘essaying a bold flight,
insisted on placing himself at the source of all, on making himself
master of the first principles of things by a certain number of clear
and fundamental ideas, having thus only to descend to the phenomena of
nature as necessary consequences; Newton, more timid or more modest,
began his advance by resting on phenomena in order to ascend to the
unknown principles, resolved to admit them, however the combination of
the results might present them. The one starts from what he understands
clearly to discover the cause of what he sees: the other starts from
what he sees, to discover its cause, whether clear or obscure.’ Caution
and reserve and sound method had achieved a generalisation more vast and
amazing than the boldest flight, or most resolute reasoning downwards
from a clearly held conception to phenomena, could possibly have
achieved. This splendid and unrivalled discovery was probably expounded
to Voltaire by Dr. Samuel Clarke, with whom he tells us that he had
several conferences in 1726,[31] and who was one of the ablest of the
Newtonians. He had no doubt learnt the theory of vortices from the
Jesuits, and clear exposition was the only thing needed to convert him
to the new theory, which shines by its own light, and must, in an
unbiassed intelligence with the humblest scientific quality, have
extinguished every artificial explanation. One of the truest signs of
the soundness of Voltaire’s intellectual activity was that his glad
reception of the Newtonian doctrine of attraction did not blind him to
the signal service and splendid genius of Descartes. That loud-shouting
yet feeble-footed enthusiasm, which can only make sure of itself by
disparaging the object of a counter-enthusiasm, had no place in an
intellect so emphatically sincere and self-penetrative. He prefaces his
account of the system of attraction by a hearty and loyal appreciation
of the propounder of the system of vortices.[32]

The acquisition of the special theory of attraction was in itself less
important for Voltaire, than the irresistible impulse which it would
give to the innate rationality or positivity of his own mind. It fitted
him to encounter with proper freedom not only vortices, but that
tremendous apparatus of monads, sufficient reason, and pre-established
harmony, with which Leibnitz then overawed European philosophy. ‘O
Metaphysics!’ he cried, ‘we have, then, got as far as they had in the
time of the earliest Druids!’[33]

Locke’s essay impelled him further in the same path of patient and
cautious interrogation of experience; for the same method which
established gravitation presided over the birth of the experiential
psychology. Newton instead of elaborating a system of vortices, or
another, out of his own consciousness, industriously and patiently
waited on the phenomena. Locke, too, instead of inventing a romance of
the soul, to use Voltaire’s phrase, sagaciously set himself to watch the
phenomena of thought, and ‘reduced metaphysics to being the experimental
physics of the soul.’[34] Malebranche, then the reigning philosopher in
France, ‘astonished the reason of those whom he delighted by his style.
People trusted him in what they did not understand, because he began by
being right in what they did understand; he seduced people by being
delightful, as Descartes seduced them by being daring, while Locke was
nothing more than sage.’[35] ‘After all,’ Voltaire once wrote, ‘we must
admit that anybody who has read Locke, or rather who is his own Locke,
must find the Platos mere fine talkers, and nothing more. In point of
philosophy, a chapter of Locke or Clarke is, compared with the babble of
antiquity, what Newton’s optics are compared with those of
Descartes.’[36] It is curious to observe that De Maistre, who thought
more meanly of Plato than Voltaire did, and hardly less meanly than he
thought of Voltaire himself, cried out that in the study of philosophy
contempt for Locke is the beginning of knowledge.[37] Voltaire, on the
other hand, is enchanted to hear that his niece reads the great English
philosopher, like a good father who sheds tears of joy that his
children are turning out well.[38] Augustus published an edict _de
coercendo intra fines imperio_, and like him, Locke has fixed the empire
of knowledge in order to strengthen it.[39] Locke, he says elsewhere,
traced the development of the human reason, as a good anatomist explains
the machinery of the human body: instead of defining all at once what we
do not understand, he examines by degrees what we want to understand: he
sometimes has the courage to speak positively, but sometimes also he has
the courage to doubt.[40] This is a perfectly appreciative account.
Locke perceived the hopelessness of defining things as they are in
themselves, and the necessity before all else of understanding the reach
of the human intelligence; the impossibility of attaining knowledge
absolute and transcendent; and the limitations of our thinking and
knowing faculties within the bounds of an experience that must always be
relative. The doubt which Voltaire praised in Locke had nothing to do
with that shivering mood which receives overmuch poetic praise in our
day, as the honest doubt that has more faith than half your creeds.
There was no question of the sentimental juvenilities of children crying
for light. It was by no means religious doubt, but philosophic; and it
affected only the possibilities of ontological knowledge, leaving
the grounds of faith on the one hand, and practical conduct on the
other, exactly where they were. His intense feeling for actualities
would draw Voltaire irresistibly to the writer who, in his judgment,
closed the gates of the dreamland of metaphysics, and banished the
vaulting ambition of a priori certainties, which led nowhere and assured
nothing. Voltaire’s keen practical instinct may well have revealed to
him that men were most likely to attribute to the great social problem
of the improvement of mankind its right supremacy, when they had ceased
to concentrate intellectual effort on the insoluble; and Locke went a
long way towards showing how insoluble those questions were, on which,
as it chanced, the most strenuous efforts of the intellect of Europe
since the decline of theology had been concentrated.

That he should have acquired more scientific views either upon the
origin of ideas, or the question whether the soul always thinks, or upon
the reason why an apple falls to the ground, or why the planets remain
in their orbits, was on the whole very much less important for Voltaire,
than a profound and very vital sentiment which was raised to supreme
prominence in his mind, by the spectacle of these vast continents of
knowledge newly discovered by the adventurous yet sure explorers of
English thought. This sentiment was a noble faith, none the less firm
because it was so passionate, in the ability of the relative and
practical understanding to reach truth; a deep-rooted reverence for it,
as a majestic power bearing munificent and unnumbered gifts to mankind.
Hence the vivacity of the annotations which about this time (1728)
Voltaire affixed to Pascal’s famous Thoughts, and which were regarded at
that time as the audacious carpings of a shallow poet against a profound
philosopher. They were in truth the protest of a lively common sense
against a strained, morbid, and often sophistical, misrepresentation of
human nature and human circumstance. Voltaire shot a penetrative ray
through the clouds of doubt, out of which Pascal had made an apology for
mysticism. Even if there were no direct allusions to Locke, as there
are, we should know from whom the writer had learnt the art of insisting
on the relativity of propositions, reducing them to definable terms,[41]
and being very careful against those slippery unobserved transitions
from metaphor to reality, and from a term used in its common sense to
the same term in a transcendental sense, by which Pascal brought the
seeming contradictions of life, and its supposed pettiness, into a light
as oppressively glaring as it was artificial. ‘These pretended
oppositions that you call contradictions are necessary ingredients in
the composition of man, who is, like the rest of nature, what he is
bound to be.’[42] And where is the wise man who would be full of despair
because he cannot find out the exact constitution of his thought,
because he only knows a few attributes of matter, because God has not
disclosed to him all his secrets? He might as well despair because he
has not got four feet and two wings.[43] This sage strain was the
restoration to men of their self-respect, the revival of that
intelligence which Pascal had so humiliated and thrust under foot. It
was what he had seen in England of the positive feats which reason had
achieved, that filled Voltaire with exultation in its power, and
confidence in the prospects of the race which possessed such an
instrument. ‘What strange rage possesses some people, to insist on our
all being miserable! They are like a quack, who would fain have us
believe we are ill, in order to sell us his pills. Keep thy drugs, my
friend, and leave me my health.’[44]

From this there flowed that other vehement current in his soul, of
energetic hatred toward the black clouds of prejudice, of mean
self-love, of sinister preference of class or order, of indolence,
obstinacy, wanton fancy, and all the other unhappy leanings of human
nature, and vexed and fatal conjunctures of circumstance, which
interpose between humanity and the beneficent sunbeams of its own
intelligence, that central light of the universe. Hence, again, by a
sufficiently visible chain of thought, his marked disesteem for
far-sounding names of brutal conquerors, and his cold regard for those
outward and material circumstances in the state of nations, which strike
the sense, but do not touch the inward reason. ‘Not long ago,’ he writes
once, ‘a distinguished company were discussing the trite and frivolous
question, who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, or
Cromwell. Somebody answered that it was undoubtedly Isaac Newton. This
person was right; for if true greatness consists in having received from
heaven a powerful understanding and in using it to enlighten oneself and
all others, then such an one as Newton, who is hardly to be met with
once in ten centuries, is in truth the great man.... It is to him who
masters our minds by the force of truth, not to those who enslave men by
violence; it is to him who understands the universe, not to those who
disfigure it, that we owe our reverence.’[45] This may seem trite to us,
as the question which suggested it seemed to Voltaire, but we need only
reflect, first, how new this was, even as an idea, in the France which
Voltaire had quitted, and, second, how in spite of the nominal
acceptance of the idea, in the England of our own time there is, with an
immense majority not only of the general vulgar but of the special
vulgar who presume to teach in press and pulpit, no name of slight at
once so disdainful and so sure of transfixing as the name of thinker.

The discovery of the New World did not fire the imagination and stir the
thought of Europe more intensely, than the vision of these new worlds of
knowledge kindled the ardour of the receptive spirit which had just come
into contact with them. But besides the speculative aspects of what he
saw in England, Voltaire was deeply penetrated by the social differences
between a country that had been effectively, if only partially,
transformed from feudalism, and his own, where feudalism had only been
transformed into a system more repressive than itself, and more unfit to
conduct a nation to the free and industrious developments of new
civilisation. It is a remarkable thing that though Voltaire’s habitual
companions or patrons had belonged to the privileged class, he had been
sufficiently struck by the evils incident to the privileged system to
notice the absence of such evils in England, and to make a clear
attempt, though an insufficient one, to understand the secret of the
English immunity from them. One of the worst curses of France was the
taille or capitation-tax, and the way in which it was levied and
assessed. In England, Voltaire noticed, the peasant has not his feet
bruised in wooden shoes, he eats white bread, is decently clad, is not
terrified to increase the number of his stock, or to roof his dwelling
with tiles, lest his tax should be raised next year. Again, he placed
his finger on one of the circumstances that did most to spoil the growth
of a compact and well-knit society in France, when he pointed to the
large number of farmers in England with five or six hundred pounds
sterling a year, who do not think it beneath them to cultivate the earth
which has made them rich, and on which they live in active freedom.[46]
The profoundest modern investigator of the conditions of French society
in the eighteenth century has indicated the eagerness of every man who
got a little capital to quit the country and buy a place in a town, as
doing more harm to the progress of the agriculture and commerce of
France than even the taille itself and the trade corporations.[47]

Voltaire perceived the astonishing fact that in this country a man
because he is a noble or a priest was not exempt from paying certain
taxes, and that the Commons who regulated the taxes, though second to
the Lords in rank, were above them in legislative influence.[48] His
acute sight also revealed to him the importance of the mixture of ranks
and classes in common pursuits, and he records with admiration instances
of the younger sons of peers of the realm following trade. ‘Whoever
arrives in Paris from the depths of a remote province with money to
spend and a name in _ac_ or _ille_, can talk about a man like me, a man
of my quality,’[49] and hold a merchant in sovereign contempt. The
merchant again so constantly hears his business spoken of with disdain
that he is fool enough to blush for it; yet I am not sure which is the
more useful to a state, a thickly-bepowdered lord who knows exactly what
time the king rises and what time he goes to bed, and gives himself
mighty airs of greatness while he plays the part of a slave in a
minister’s ante-room; or the merchant who enriches his country, gives
orders from his counting-house at Surat or Cairo, and contributes to
the happiness of the globe.[50] It is easy to conceive the fury which
these contrasts drawn from English observation would excite among the
personages in France who happened to get the worst side in them, and
there was assuredly nothing surprising in the decree of the Parliament
of Paris (1734), which condemned the Letters on the English to be
publicly burnt, as scandalous and contrary alike to good manners and the
respect due to principalities and powers.

The English reader of the Letters is naturally struck by the absence of
any adequate account of our political liberties and free constitutional
forms. There is a good chapter on Bacon, one on inoculation, and several
on the Quakers, but on the civil constitution hardly a word of large
appreciativeness. Not only this, but there is no sign that Voltaire
either set any due or special value on the popular forms of the
Hanoverian time, or clearly understood that the liberty, which was so
amazing and so precious to him in the region of speculative and literary
activity, was the direct fruit of that general spirit of freedom, which
is naturally engendered in a people accustomed to take an active part in
the conduct of its own affairs. Liberty in spirituals was adorable to
him, but for liberty in temporals he never seems to have had more than a
very distant and verbal kind of respect; just because, with all his
unmatched keenness of sight, he failed to discover that the English
sturdiness in the matter of civil rights was the very root and cause,
not only of that material prosperity which struck him so much, and of
the slightness and movableness of the line which divided the aristocracy
from the commercial classes, but also of the fact that a Newton and a
Locke were inwardly emboldened to give free play to their intelligence
without fear of being punished for their conclusions, and of the only
less important fact that whatever conclusions speculative genius might
establish would be given to the world without interposition from any
court or university or official tribunal. Voltaire undoubtedly admired
the English for their parliament, because the material and superficial
advantages that delighted him were evidently due to the system, which
happened to be parliamentary. What we miss is any consciousness that
these advantages would not have been what they were, if they had been
conferred by an absolute sovereign; any recognition that political
activity throughout a nation works in a thousand indirect but most
potent ways, and is not more to be prized for this, than for its direct
and most palpable consequences. In one place, indeed, he mentions that
the honour paid to men of letters is due to the form of government, but
his language betrays a wholly inadequate and incorrect notion of the
true operation of the form of government. ‘There are in London,’ he
says, ‘about eight hundred people with the right of speaking in public,
and maintaining the interests of the nation. Some five or six thousand
pretend to the same honour in their turn. All the rest set themselves up
to judge these, and everybody can print what he thinks. So all the
nation is bound to instruct itself. All talk is about the governments of
Athens and Rome, and it becomes necessary to read the authors who have
discussed them. That naturally leads to love of polite learning.’[51]
This is to confound a very trivial accident of popular governments with
their essence. If culture thrives under them—a very doubtful position—it
is not because voters wish to understand the historical allusions of
candidates, but because the general stir and life of public activity
tends to commove the whole system. Political freedom does not produce
men of genius, but its atmosphere is more favourable than any other to
their making the best of their genius in the service of mankind.

Voltaire, in this as in too much besides, was content with a keen and
rapid glance at the surface. The reader may remember his story of
meeting a boatman one day on the Thames, who seeing that he was a
Frenchman, with a too characteristic kind of courtesy, took the
opportunity of bawling out, with the added emphasis of a round oath,
that he would rather be a boatman on the Thames than an archbishop in
France. The next day Voltaire saw his man in prison with irons on and
praying an alms from the passers-by, and so asked him whether he still
thought as scurvily of an archbishop in France. ‘Ah, sir,’ cried the
man, ‘what an abominable government! I have been carried off by force to
go and serve in one of the king’s ships in Norway. They take me from my
wife and my children, and lay me up in prison with irons on my legs
until the time for going on board, for fear I should run away.’ A
countryman of Voltaire’s confessed that he felt a splenetic joy that a
people who were constantly taunting the French with their servitude,
were in sooth just as much slaves themselves; but for my own part, says
Voltaire, I felt a humaner sentiment, I was afflicted at there being no
liberty on the earth.[52]

This is well enough as a comment on the abomination of impressment; yet
we feel that there is behind it, and not here only but generally in
Voltaire, a sort of confusion between two very distinct conceptions,
that both in his day and ever since have been equally designated by the
common name of civil liberty. The first of these ideas is a mere
privative, undoubtedly of sovereign importance, but still a privative,
and implies absence, more or less complete, of arbitrary control from
without, of interference with individual action by authority, of any
pretension on the part of any organised body to hinder any member of the
society from doing or abstaining from doing what may seem right in his
own eyes, provided he pays a corresponding respect to the freedom of his
fellows. Freedom in this sense Voltaire fully understood, and valued as
profoundly as it deserves to be valued. Political liberty, however, has
not only a meaning of abstention, but a meaning of participation. If in
one sense it is a sheer negative, and a doctrine of rights, in another
sense it is thoroughly positive, and a gospel of duties. The liberty
which has really made England what it so delighted and stimulated and
inflamed Voltaire to find her, has been quite as much of the second kind
as of the first; that liberty which consists in a national habit of
independent and watchful interest in the transaction of the national
affairs by the persons most concerned in them; in a general
consciousness of the duty of having some opinion on the business of the
state; in a recognition on the part of the government that the balance
of this opinion is necessary as a sanction to any policy, to which the
effective force of the state is applied. It is true that this public
participation in public concerns has sometimes been very dark and blind,
as it has often been in the highest degree enlightened, but for good or
for evil it has been the root of the matter.

The great Frenchmen, who have been most characteristically French, while
valuing all and envying many of the best products of our liberty, may be
said generally to have failed entirely to detect that the salt of
English character, in days when it had more robustness than we can see
just now, sprung from the double circumstance of every man being at
liberty to have, and being inclined to take the trouble to have, an
opinion about the method and doings of his government; and of so many
men being called upon in high capacity or low, in an important function
or an obscure one, to take an independent and free share in controlling
or initiating the doings of their government. Take Montesquieu, for
example. He came to England just when Voltaire quitted it, and studied
carefully those political facts which his countryman had so neglected.
Yet he saw no deeper into the spirit of our institutions than to fix on
the constitutional balance of powers as the great secret of our freedom
and order. And Montesquieu, in spite of this, was wiser than most of his
contemporaries, for he at least saw the worth of constitutional freedom,
if he failed to see other ingredients of still more importance. French
statesmen and publicists have been systematically blind to the great
truth that there is no royal road to national well-being, and that
nations will deliberately put away happiness from themselves, unless
such happiness comes to them in a given way. The Physiocrats, who were
with all their shortcomings the most nearly scientific social thinkers
France possessed, could rise to no higher conception of a national life
than the supreme authority of a wise and benevolent monarch, giving good
gifts to his subjects. Turgot, with all the breadth and sagacity of his
genius, when five-and-forty years after our present date he came into
power, austerely clung to the same disastrous idea of passing reasoned
laws, in the shape of the beneficial edicts of an absolute power.
Voltaire, in the same way, never rose above the simple political
conception of an eastern tale, a good-tempered despot with a sage
vizier. In politics, then, he failed to carry away from England the very
essence and principle of our institutions, with which it was so much
more important that his countrymen should be familiarised than that they
should follow inoculation.

It may at first sight be astonishing to find that, while Voltaire was
impressed only in a vague and general way with the free variety of
theological opinion which Protestantism had secured for England, the
sect which made a sort of mark on his mind was that which conceived the
idea that Christianity has after all something to do with the type and
example of Christ. We know how laughable and monstrous the Quaker scheme
has appeared to people who have been steeped from their youth upwards in
elaborate systems of abstruse metaphysical dogma, mystic ceremonies,
hierarchic ordering, and profuse condemnation of rival creeds.
Voltaire’s imagination was struck by a sect who professed to regard the
religion of Christ as a simple and austere discipline of life, who
repudiated ritual, and held war for the worst of anti-christian
practices. The forms and doctrines of the established church of the
country he would be likely to take merely for so much of the common form
of the national institutions. He would simply regard it as the English
way of narrowing the mind and consolidating the social order. Gibbon’s
famous sentence was not yet written, which described all religions as
equally true in the eyes of the people, equally false in the eyes of
the philosopher, and equally useful in the eyes of the magistrate. But
the idea was the idea of the century, and Voltaire would justly look
upon the Anglican profession as a temporarily useful and statesmanlike
settlement. He praised its clergy for the superior regularity of their
manners. ‘That indefinable being, who is neither ecclesiastic nor
secular, in a word, who is called _abbé_, is an unknown species in
England; the clergy here are all prigs, and nearly all pedants. When
they learn that in France young men notorious for their debauchery, and
raised to preferment by the intrigues of women, pursue their amours
publicly, amuse themselves by the composition of gallant verses, give
everyday prolonged and luxurious suppers, and rise from them to implore
the enlightenment of the holy spirit, boldly calling themselves the
successors of the apostles—why, then our English thank God that they are

If, however, in face of a young and lively French graduate, bawling
theology in the schools in the morning and in the evening singing tender
songs with the ladies, an Anglican divine is a very Cato, this Cato is a
downright gallant before a Scotch presbyterian, who assumes a grave step
and a sour mien, preaches from the nose, and gives the name of harlot of
Babylon to all churches in which some of the ecclesiastics are so
fortunate as to receive an income of fifty thousand livres a year.
However, each man takes whatever road to heaven he pleases. If there
were one religion in England, they would have to fear its despotism; if
there were only two, they would cut one another’s throats; but there are
thirty; so they live peaceably and happily together.[54]

In the Quakers Voltaire saw something quite different from the purely
political pretensions and internecine quarrels of doctrine of the
ordinary worldly sects. It is impossible to say how much of the
kindliness with which he speaks of them is due to real admiration of
their simple, dignified, and pacific life, and how much to a mischievous
desire to make their praise a handle for the dispraise of overweening
competitors. On the whole there is a sincerity and heartiness of
interest in his long account of this sect, which persuades one that he
was moved by a genuine sympathy with a religion that could enjoin the
humane and peaceful and spiritual precepts of Christ, while putting away
baptism, ceremonial communion, and hierophantic orders. The nobility of
the social theories of the Society of Friends would naturally stir
Voltaire even more deeply than their abstention from practices that were
in his eyes degrading superstitions. He felt that the repugnance to
lower the majesty of their deity, by taking his name upon their lips as
solemn ratification of their words, had the effect of elevating the
dignity of man, by making his bare word fully credible without this
solemn ratification. Their refusal to comply with the deferential usages
of social intercourse, though nominally based on the sinfulness of
signs of homage to any mere mortal, insinuated a consciousness of
equality and self-respect in that mere mortal who was careful to make no
bows and to keep his hat on in every presence. Above all, Voltaire, who
was nowhere more veritably modern or better entitled to our veneration
than by reason of his steadfast hatred of war, revered a sect so far
removed from the brutality of the military régime as to hold peace for a
first principle of the Christian faith and religious practice. The
reason why we do not go to war, his Quaker says, is not that we are
afraid of death, but because we are not wolves, nor tigers, nor dogs,
but Christian men. ‘Our God, who has bidden us love our enemies and
suffer evil without complaint, assuredly has no mind that we should
cross the sea to go and cut the throats of our brothers, because
murderers in red clothes and hats two feet high enlist citizens, making
a noise with two little sticks on an ass’s skin tightly stretched. And
when, after victories won, all London blazes with illuminations, the sky
is aflame with rockets, and the air resounds with the din of bells,
organs, cannon, we mourn in silence over the slaughter that causes all
the public joy.’[55]

Voltaire, let us add, was no dilettante traveller constructing views and
deducing theories of national life out of his own uninstructed
consciousness. No German could have worked more diligently at the facts,
and we may say here, once for all, that if it is often necessary to
condemn him for superficiality, this lack of depth seldom at any time
proceeds from want of painstaking. His unrivalled brilliance of
expression blinds us to the extreme and conscientious industry that
provided matter. The most illustrious exile that our free land has
received from France in our own times, and assuredly far more of a giant
in the order of imagination than Voltaire, never had intellectual
curiosity enough to learn the language of the country that had given him
twenty years of shelter. Voltaire, in the few months of his exile here
acquired such an astonishing mastery over English as to be able to read
and relish an esoteric book like Hudibras, and to compass the enormously
difficult feat of rendering portions of it into good French verse.[56] He
composed an essay on epic poetry in the English tongue, and he wrote one
act of Brutus in English.

He read Shakespeare, and made an elaborate study of his method. He
declares that Milton does as much honour to England as the great Newton,
and he took especial pains not only to master and appreciate the secret
of Milton’s poetic power, but even to ascertain the minutest
circumstances of his life.[57] He studied Dryden, ‘an author who would
have a glory without blemish, if he had only written the tenth part of
his works.’[58] He found Addison the first Englishman who had written a
reasonable tragedy, and Addison’s character of Cato one of the finest
creations of any stage.[59] Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Congreve he
esteemed more highly than most of their countrymen do now. An act of a
play of Lillo’s was the base of the fourth act of Mahomet. Rochester,
Waller, Prior, and Pope, he read carefully and admired as heartily as
they deserved. Long after he had left England behind, he places Pope and
Addison on a level for variety of genius with Machiavel and Leibnitz and
Fontenelle;[60] and Pope he evidently for a long while kept habitually
by his elbow. Swift he placed before Rabelais, calling him Rabelais in
his senses, and, as usual, giving good reasons for his preference; for
Swift, he says justly, has not the gaiety of Rabelais, but he has all
the finesse, the sense, the variety, the fine taste, in which the priest
of Meudon was wanting.[61] In philosophy, besides Locke, there is
evidence that he read something of Hobbes, and something of Berkeley,
and something of Cudworth.[62] Always, however, ‘harassed, wearied,
ashamed of having sought so many truths and found so many chimeras, I
returned to Locke; like a prodigal son returning to his father, I threw
myself into the arms of that modest man, who never pretends to know what
he does not know, who in truth has no enormous possessions, but whose
substance is well assured.’[63]

Nor did Voltaire limit himself to the study of science, philosophy, and
poetry. He plunged into the field of theology, and mastered that famous
deistical controversy, of which the seed had been sown in the first half
of the seventeenth century by Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the
correspondent of Descartes and the earliest of the English metaphysical
thinkers.[64] Lord Herbert’s object was to disengage from revelation
both our conceptions of the one supreme power, and the sanctions of good
and bad conduct. Toland, whom we know also that Voltaire read, aimed at
disengaging Christianity from mystery, and discrediting the canon of the
New Testament. In 1724 Collins published his Discourse on the Grounds
and Reasons of the Christian Religion, of which we are told that few
books ever made a greater noise than this did at its first publication.
The press teemed with vindications, replies, and rejoinders to Collins’s
arguments during the whole of Voltaire’s residence in England.[65] His
position was one which no modern free-thinker would dream of making a
central point of attack, and which hardly any modern apologist would
take the pains to reply to. He maintained that Jesus Christ and the
apostles trusted to the prophecies of the Old Testament for their
credentials, and then he showed, or tried to show, in various ways,
that these prophecies would not bear the weight which was thus laid upon
them. We may be sure that Voltaire’s alert curiosity would interest him
profoundly in the lively polemical ferment which this notable contention
of Collins’s stirred up.

Woolston’s discourses, written to prove that the miracles of the New
Testament are as mythical and allegorical as the prophecies of the old,
appeared at the same time, and had an enormous sale. Voltaire was much
struck by this writer’s coarse and hardy way of dealing with the
miraculous legends, and the article on Miracles in the Philosophical
Dictionary shows how carefully he had read Woolston’s book.[66] We find
references to Shaftesbury and Chubb in Voltaire’s letters and elsewhere,
though they are not the references of an admirer,[67] and Bolingbroke
was one of the most influential and intimate of his friends. It is not
too much to say that Bolingbroke was the direct progenitor of Voltaire’s
opinions in religion, and that nearly every one of the positive articles
in Voltaire’s rather moderately sized creed was held and inculcated by
that brilliant and disordered genius. He did not always accept
Bolingbroke’s optimism, but even as late in the century as 1767 Voltaire
thought it worth while to borrow his name for a volume of compendious
attack on the popular religion.[68] Bolingbroke’s tone was peculiarly
light and peculiarly well-bred. His infidelity was strictly infidelity
for the upper classes;[69] ingenious, full of literature, and elegantly
supercilious. He made no pretence to theological criticism in any sense
that can be gravely admitted, but looked at the claims of revelation
with the eye of a polished man of the world, and met its arguments with
those general considerations of airy probability which go so far with
men who insist on having plausible opinions on all subjects, while they
will not take pains to work to the bottom of any.

Villemain’s observation that there is not one of Voltaire’s writings
that does not bear the mark of his sojourn in England, is specially true
of what he wrote against theology. It was the English onslaught which
sowed in him the seed of the idea, and eventually supplied him with the
argumentative instruments, of a systematic and reasoned attack upon that
mass of doctrinal superstition and social abuse, which it had hitherto
been the fashion for even the strongest spirits in his own country to do
no more than touch with a cool sneer or a flippant insinuation, directed
to the private ear of a sympathiser. Who, born within the last forty
years, cried Burke, has read one word of Collins, and Toland, and Chubb,
and Morgan, and that whole race who called themselves Freethinkers? Who
now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?[70] This was very
well, but hundreds of thousands of persons born within those last forty
years had read Voltaire, and Voltaire had drawn from the armoury of
these dead and unread Freethinkers the weapons which he made sharp with
the mockery of his own spirit. He stood on the platform which they had
constructed, to stretch forth his hand against the shrine and the image
before which so many credulous generations had bowed down. It was in
this most transformed shape among others that at length, late and
changed, but directly of descent, the free and protesting genius of the
Reformation made its decisive entry into France.

It is easy to cite proofs of the repudiation by Protestant bodies of the
Protestant principle, to multiply instances of the narrow rigidity of
their dogma, and the intolerance of their discipline. This method
supplies an excellent answer as against Protestants who tax Catholics
with the crime of persecution, or the crime of opposing intellectual
independence. It cannot, however, touch the fact that Protestantism was
indirectly the means of creating and dispersing an atmosphere of
rationalism, in which there speedily sprang up philosophical,
theological, and political influences, all of them entirely antagonistic
to the old order of thought and institution. The whole intellectual
temperature underwent a permanent change, that was silently mortal to
the most flourishing tenets of all sorts. It is futile to ask for a
precise logical chain of relations between the beginning of a movement
and its end; and there is no more direct and logical connection between
the right of private judgment and an experiential doctrine of
psychology, than there is between experiential psychology and deism.
Nobody now thinks that the effect is homogeneous with its cause, or that
there is any objective resemblance between a blade of wheat and the
moisture and warmth which fill and expand it. All we can see is that the
proclamation of the rights of free judgment would tend to substitute
reason for authority, and evidence for tradition, as the arbiters of
opinion; and that the political expression of this change in the civil
wars of the middle of the seventeenth century would naturally deepen the
influence of the new principle, and produce the Lockian rationalism of
the end of that century, which almost instantaneously extended from the
region of metaphysics into the region of theology.

The historian of every kind of opinion, and the student of the great
chiefs of intellectual movements, habitually do violence to actual
circumstances, by imparting too systematic a connection to the various
parts of belief, and by assuming an unreal degree of conscious logical
continuity among the notions of individual thinkers. Critics fill in the
frame with a completeness and exactitude that had no counterpart in the
man’s own judgments, and they identify him with a multitude of
deductions from his premisses, which may be fairly drawn, but which
never at all entered into his mind, and formed no part of his character.
The philosophy of the majority of men is nothing more shaped and
incorporate than a little group of potential and partially incoherent
tendencies. To stiffen these into a system of definite formulas is the
most deceptive, as it is the most common, of critical processes. A few
persons, with an exceptional turn for philosophy, consciously embody
their metaphysical principles with a certain detail in all the rest of
their thinking. With most people, however, even people of superior
capacity, the relation between their ground-system, such as a critic
might supply them with, and their manifestations of intellectual
activity, is of an extremely indirect and general kind.

Hence the untrustworthiness of those critical schemata, so attractive
for their compact order, which first make Voltaire a Lockian
sensationalist, and then trace his deism to his sensationalism. We have
already seen that he was a deist before he came to England, just as Lord
Herbert of Cherbury was a deist, who wrote before Locke was born. It was
not the metaphysical revolution of Locke which led to deism, but the
sort of way in which he thought about metaphysics, a way which was
immediately applied to theology by other people, whether assailants or
defenders of the current opinions. Locke’s was ‘common-sense thinking,’
and the fashion spread. The air was thick with common-sense objections
to Christianity, as it was with common-sense ideas as to the way in
which we come to have ideas. There was no temperament to which such an
atmosphere could be so congenial as Voltaire’s, of whom we cannot too
often repeat, considering the vulgar reputation he has for violence and
excess, that he was in thought the very genius of good sense, whether or
no we fully admit M. Cousin’s qualification of it as superficial good
sense. It has been said that he always speaks of Descartes, Leibnitz,
and Spinoza, like a man to whom nature has refused the metaphysical
sense.[71] At any rate he could never agree with them, and he never
tried to find truth by the roads which they had made. It is true,
however, that he shows no sign of special fitness for metaphysics, any
more than he did for physical science. The metaphysics of Locke lay
undeveloped in his mind, just as the theory of evolution lies in so many
minds at the present time. There is a faint informal reference of other
theories to this central and half-seen standard. When metaphysical
subjects came before him, he felt that he had this for a sheet-anchor,
and he did not greatly care to keep proving it again and again by
continued criticism or examination. The upshot of his acquaintance with
Locke was a systematic adherence to common-sense modes of thinking; and
he always betrayed the faults and shortcomings to which such modes
inevitably lead, when they are brought, to the exclusion of
complementary ideas, to the practical subjects that comprehend more than
prudence, self-interest, and sobriety. The subject that does beyond any
other comprehend more than these elements is religion, and the
substantial vices of Voltaire’s objections to religion first arose from
his familiarity with the English form of deism, and his instinctive
feeling for its method.

The deism of Leibnitz was a positive belief, and made the existence of a
supreme power an actual and living object of conviction. The mark of
this belief has remained on German speculation throughout its course,
down to our own day. English deism, on the contrary, was only a
particular way of repudiating Christianity. There was as little of God
in it as could well be. Its theory was that God had given each man the
light of reason in his own breast; that by this reason every scheme of
belief must be tried, and accepted or rejected; and that the Christian
scheme being so tried was in various ways found wanting. The formula of
some book of the eighteenth century, that God created nature and nature
created the world, must be allowed to have reduced theistic conception
to something like the shadow of smoke. The English eighteenth-century
formula was, theistically, nearly as void. The Being who set the reason
of each individual on a kind of judicial bench within the forum of his
own conscience, and left him and it together to settle belief and
conduct between them, was a tolerably remote and unreal sort of
personage. His spiritual force, according to such a doctrine, became
very much as if it had no existence.

It was not to be expected that a sovereign dwelling in such amazingly
remote lands as this would continue long with undisputed authority, when
all the negative forces of the time had reached their full momentum. In
England the reaction against this strange absentee government of the
universe took the form which might have been anticipated from the deep
hold that Protestantism had won, and the spirituality which had been
engendered by Protestant reference to the relations between the
individual conscience and the mystic operations of faith. Deism became a
reality with a God in it in the great Evangelical revival, terrible and
inevitable, which has so deeply coloured religious feeling and warped
intellectual growth in England ever since. In France, thought took a
very different and much simpler turn. Or perhaps it would be more
correct to say that it took no turn at all, but carried the godless
deism of the English school to its fair conclusion, and dismissed a
deity who only reigned and did not govern. The whole movement had a
single origin. There is not one of the arguments of the French
philosophers in the eighteenth century, says a very competent authority,
which cannot be found in the English school of the beginning of the
century.[72] Voltaire, who carried the English way of thinking about the
supernatural power into France, lived to see a band of trenchant and
energetic disciples develop principles which he had planted, into a
system of dogmatic atheism. The time came when he was spoken of
contemptuously as retrograde and superstitious: ‘_Voltaire est bigot, il
est déiste_.’



On the whole, the critic’s task is perhaps less to classify a type of
character as good or bad, as worthy of so much praise or so much
censure, than to mark the material out of which a man has his life to
make, and the kind of use and form to which he puts his material. To
begin with, the bald division of men into sheep and goats is in one
sense so easy as not to be worth performing, and in another sense it is
so hard as only to be possible for some being with supernatural insight.
And even were the qualities employed in the task of a rarer kind than
they are, the utility of the performance is always extremely slight,
compared with that other kind of criticism which dwells less on the
final balance of good or evil, than on the first innate conditions of
temperament, the fixed limitations of opportunity, and the complex
interplay of the two with that character, which is first their creature
and then their master. It is less the concern of criticism to pronounce
its man absolutely rich or absolutely poor, than to count up his talents
and the usury of his own which he added to them. Assuredly there ought
to be little condonation of the foibles, and none at all of the moral
obliquities, of the dead, because this would mean the demoralisation of
the living. But it is seriously to overrate the power of bald words and
written opinion, to suppose that a critic’s censure of conduct which a
thousand other agents, from the child’s hornbook up to the obvious and
pressing dictates of social convenience, are daily and hourly
prescribing, can be other than a work of supererogation, which fixes the
mind on platitudes, instead of leading it on in search of special and
distinctive traits.

It would be easy to pour overflowing vials of condemnation on many sides
of Voltaire’s character and career. No man possessed of so much good
sense ever fell so constantly into the kinds of error against which good
sense particularly warns men. There is no more wearisome or pitiful leaf
in the biographies of the great, than the tale of Voltaire’s quarrels
with ignoble creatures; with a wrecked soul, like J. B. Rousseau (whom
the reader will not confound with Jean Jacques); with a thievish
bookseller, like Jore; with a calumnious journalist, like Desfontaines;
with a rapacious knave like Hirschel; and all the other tormentors in
the Voltairean history, whose names recall vulgar, dishonest, and
indignant pertinacity on the one side, and wasteful, undignified fury on
the other. That lesson in the art of life which concerns a man’s
dealings with those who have shown patent moral inferiority, was never
mastered by Voltaire. Instead of the silence, composure, and austere
oblivion, which it is of the essence of strength to oppose to unworthy
natures, he habitually confronted the dusty creeping things that beset
his march, as if they stood valiant and erect; and the more unworthy
they were, the more vehement and strenuous and shrill was his contention
with them. The ignominy of such strife is clear. One thing only may
perhaps be said. His intense susceptibility to vulgar calumny flowed
from the same quality in his nature which made unbearable to him the
presence of superstition and injustice, those mightier calumnies on
humanity. The irritated protests against the small foes of his person
were as the dregs of potent wine, and were the lower part of that
passionate sensibility which made him the assailant of the giant
oppressors of the human mind. This reflection does not make any less
tedious to us the damnable iteration of petty quarrel and fretting
complaint which fills such a space in his correspondence and in his
biographies, nor does it lessen our regret at the havoc which this fatal
defect of his qualities made with his contentedness. We think of his
consolation to a person as susceptible as himself: ‘There have always
been Frérons in literature; but they say there must be caterpillars for
nightingales to eat, that they may sing the better:’ and we wish that
our nightingale had devoured its portion with something less of tumult.
But it may do something to prevent us from giving a prominence, that is
both unfair and extremely misleading, to mere shadow, as if that had
been the whole substance. Alas, why after all should men, from Moses
downwards, be so cheerfully ready to contemplate the hinder parts of
their divinities?

The period of twenty years between Voltaire’s departure from England and
his departure for Berlin, although often pronounced the happiest time of
his life, is very thickly set with these humiliating incidents. To us,
however, they are dead, because though vivid enough to Voltaire—and it
is strange how constantly it happens that the minor circumstance of life
is more real and ever-present to a man than his essential and abiding
work in it—they were but transitory and accidental. Just as it does
little good to the understanding to spend much time over tenth-rate
literature, so it is little edifying to the character to rake among the
private obscurities of even first-rate men, and it is surely a good rule
to keep ourselves as much as we can in contact with what is great.

The chief personal fact of this time was the connection which Voltaire
formed with the Marquise du Châtelet, and which lasted from 1733 to
1749. She was to him that important and peculiar influence which, in one
shape or another, some woman seems to have been to nearly every foremost
man. In Voltaire’s case this influence was not the rich and tender
inspiration with which women have so many a time sweetened the lives and
glorified the thought of illustrious workers, nor was he bound to her
by those bonds of passion which have often the effect of exalting the
strength and widening the range of the whole of the nature that is
susceptive of passion. Their inner relations hardly depended on anything
more extraordinary or more delicate than the sentiment of a masculine
friendship. Voltaire found in the divine Emily a strong and active head,
a keen and generous admiration for his own genius, and an eagerness to
surround him with the external conditions most favourable to that steady
industry which was always a thing so near his own heart. They are two
great men, one of whom wears petticoats, said Voltaire of her and of
Frederick. It is impossible to tell what share vanity had in the
beginning of a connection, which probably owed its long continuance more
to use and habit than to any deep-rooted sentiment. Vanity was one of
the most strongly marked of Voltaire’s traits, and to this side of him
relations with a woman of quality who adored his genius were no doubt
extremely gratifying. Yet one ought to do him the justice to say that
his vanity was only skin-deep. It had nothing in common with the greedy
egotism which reduces the whole broad universe to a mere microcosm of
pygmy self. The vanity which discloses a real flaw in character is a
loud and tyrannical claim for acknowledgment of literary supremacy, and
with it the mean vices of envy, jealousy, and detraction are usually in
company. Voltaire’s vanity was something very different from this
truculent kind of self-assertion. It had a source in his intensely
sympathetic quality, and was a gay and eager asking of assurance from
others that his work gave them pleasure. Let us be very careful to
remember that it never stood in the way of self-knowledge,—the great
test of the difference between the vanity that is harmless, and the
vanity that is fatuous and destructive.

It has been rather the fashion to laugh at the Marquise du Châtelet, for
no better reasons perhaps than that she, being a woman, studied Newton,
and had relations called tender with a man so little associated in
common opinion with tenderness as Voltaire. The first reason is
disgraceful, and the second is perhaps childish. Everything goes to show
that Madame du Châtelet possessed a hardy originality of character, of
which society is so little likely to have an excess that we can hardly
ever be thankful enough for it. There is probably nothing which would
lead to so rapid and marked an improvement in the world, as a large
increase of the number of women in it with the will and the capacity to
master Newton as thoroughly as she did. And her long and sedulous
affection for a man of genius of Voltaire’s exceptional quality,
entitles her to the not too common praise of recognising and revering
intellectual greatness as it deserves. Her friendship for him was not
the semi-servile and feebly intelligent solicitude which superior men
have too often the wretched weakness to seek in their female companions,
but an imperial sympathy. She was unamiable, it is true, and possessed
neither the delicacy which a more fastidious age requires in a woman,
nor the sense of honour which we now demand in a man. These defects,
however, were not genuinely personal, but lay in the manners of the
time. It was not so with all her faults. To the weak and dependent she
was overbearing, harsh, mean, and even cruel. A fatuous caprice would
often destroy the domestic peace and pleasure of a week. But nothing was
suffered to impede the labour of a day. The industry of the house was

It is said, and it was said first by one who lived with them for some
time, and has left a graphic account of the interior of Cirey, that she
made Voltaire’s life a little hard to him.[73] There were many
occasional storms and short sullen fits even in these high regions of
science and the finer tastes. Yet such stormful scenes, with great
actors as with small, are perhaps more painful in description than they
were in reality; and Voltaire was less discomposed by the lively
impetuosity of a companion like Madame du Châtelet, than he would have
been by the orderly calm of a more precise and perfectly well-regulated
person. A man follows the conditions of his temperament, and Voltaire’s
unresting animation and fire might make him feel a certain joy of life
and freedom in the occasional contentiousness of a slightly shrewish
temper. We cannot think of him as ever shrinking, ever craving for
repose, as some men do as for a very necessity of existence. The health
of your friend, wrote Madame du Châtelet to D’Argental in 1739, is in so
deplorable a state that the only hope I have left of restoring it is in
the turmoil of a journey[74]. A tolerably frequent agitation was a
condition of even such health as he had, to one of Voltaire’s nervous
and feverish habit.

Let it be said that his restlessness never took a form which involved a
sacrifice of the happiness of other people. It was never tyrannical and
exigent. There are many, too many, instances of his angry impatience
with persons against whom he thought he had cause of offence. There is
not a single instance in which any shadow of implacableness lurked for
an enemy who had repented or fallen into misfortune; and if his
resentment was constantly aflame against the ignoble, it instantly
expired and changed into warm-hearted pity, when the ignoble became
either penitent or miserable. There are many tales of the readiness with
which his anger was appeased. Any one will suffice as a type. On some
occasion when Voltaire was harassed by a storm of libels, and happened
to be on good terms with the police, a distributor of the libels was
arrested. The father, an old man of eighty, hastened to Voltaire to pray
for pardon. All Voltaire’s fury instantly vanished at the first appeal;
he wept with the old man, embraced him, consoled him, and straightway
ran to procure the liberation of the offender[75]. An eye-witness
related to Grimm how he happened to be present at Ferney when Voltaire
received Rousseau’s Lettres de la Montagne, and read the apostrophe
relating to himself. His face seemed to take fire, his eyes sparkled
with fury, his whole frame trembled, and he cried in terrible tones—‘The
miscreant! the monster! I must have him cudgelled—yes, I will have him
cudgelled in his mountains at the knees of his nurse.’ ‘Pray, calm
yourself,’ said the bystander, ‘for I know that Rousseau means to pay
you a visit, and will very shortly be at Ferney.’ ‘Ah, only let him
come,’ replied Voltaire. ‘But how will you receive him?’ ‘Receive him
... I will give him supper, put him in my own bed, and say, There is a
good supper; this is the best bed in the house; do me the pleasure to
accept one and the other, and to make yourself happy here[76].’ One does
not understand the terrible man, without remembering always how much of
the hot generosity of the child he kept in his nature to the last. When
the very Jesuits were suppressed with circumstances of extreme
harshness, he pitied even them, and took one of their number permanently
into his household[77].

The most important part of a man’s private conduct after that which
concerns his relations with women and his family, is generally that
which concerns his way of dealing with money, because money in its
acquisition and its dispersion is the outward and visible sign of the
absence or of the presence of so many inward and spiritual graces. As
has often been said, it is the measure of some of the most important of
a man’s virtues, his honesty, his industry, his generosity, his
self-denial, and most of the other elements in keeping the difficult
balance between his care for himself and his care for other people.
Voltaire perceived very early in life that to be needy was to be
dependent; that the rich and poor are as hammer and anvil; that the
chronicles of genius demonstrate that it is not by genius that men
either make a fortune or live happy lives. He made up his mind from the
beginning that the author of the French epic would not share the poverty
and straitened lives of Tasso and Milton, and that he for his part would
at any rate be hammer and not anvil.[78] I was so wearied, he wrote in
1752, of the humiliations that dishonour letters, that to stay my
disgust I resolved to make what scoundrels call a great fortune.[79] He
used to give his books away to the printers. He had a small fortune from
his father; he is said to have made two thousand pounds by the English
subscriptions to the Henriade; and he did not hide his talent in the
ground, but resorted skilfully to all sorts of speculations in stocks,
army contracts, and other authorised means of converting one livre into
two while you sleep. He lent large sums of money, presumably at handsome
interest, to the Duke of Richelieu and others, and though the interest
may have been handsome, the trouble of procuring it was often
desperate.[80] Yet after much experience Voltaire came to the conclusion
that though he had sometimes lost money by bankers, by the devout, by
the people of the Old Testament, who would have had many scruples about
a larded capon, who would rather die than not be idle on the sabbath,
and not be thieving on the Sunday, yet he had lost nothing by the great
except his time.[81]

It is easy to point a sneer at a high priest of humanity jobbing in the
funds. Only let us remember that Voltaire never made any pretence of
being a high priest of humanity; that his transactions were
substantially very like those of any banker or merchant of to-day; and
that for a man who was preaching new opinions it was extremely prudent
to place himself out of the necessity of pleasing booksellers or the pit
of the theatre on the one hand, and on the other to supply himself with
ready means of frequent flight from the ceaseless persecutions of
authority. Envious scribes in his lifetime taunted him with avarice, and
the evil association still clings to his memory now that he is dead.
One can only say that good and high-minded men, who never shrank from
withstanding him when in fault, men like Condorcet for example, heard
such talk with disdain, and set it down to the disgraceful readiness of
men to credit anything that relieves them from having to admire[82]. The
people who dislike prudence in matters of money in those whose
distinction is intellectual or spiritual, resemble a sentimental lover
who should lose his illusions at sight of his mistress eating a hearty
meal. Is their lot, then, cast in the ethereal fluid of the interstellar

At all events Voltaire had two important gifts which do not commonly
belong to the avaricious; he was a generous helper alike of those who
had, and those who had not, a claim upon him, and he knew how to bear
serious losses with unbroken composure. Michel, the receiver-general,
became bankrupt, and Voltaire lost a considerable sum of money in
consequence. His fluency of invective and complaint, which was simply
boundless when any obscure scribbler earned a guinea by a calumny upon
him, went no farther on the occasion of this very substantial injury
than a single splenetic phrase, and a harmless quatrain:

   Michel au nom de l’Eternel,
   Mit jadis le diable en déroute;
   Mais, après cette banqueroute,
   Que le diable emporte Michel!

It has been fairly asked whether a genuine miser would content himself
with a stanza upon the man who had robbed him.[83] His correspondence
with the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha shows him declining to accept the
thousand louis, which she had sent as a fee for the composition of the
Annales de l’Empire.

Much has been made of the bargaining which he carried on with Frederick,
as to the terms on which he would consent to go to Berlin. But then the
Prussian king was not one with whom it was wise to be too nice in such
affairs. He was the thriftiest of men, and as a king is a person who
lives on other people’s money, such thrift was in his case the most
princely of virtues. Haggling is not graceful, but it need not imply
avarice in either of the parties to it. The truth is that there was in
Voltaire a curious admixture of splendid generosity with virulent
tenacity about half-pence. The famous quarrel with the President de
Brosses about the fourteen cords of firewood is a worse affair.
Voltaire, who leased Tourney from him, insisted that De Brosses had made
him a present of the fourteen cords. De Brosses, no doubt truly,
declared that he had only ordered the wood to be delivered on Voltaire’s
account. On this despicable matter a long correspondence was carried on,
in which Voltaire is seen at his very worst; insolent, undignified,
low-minded, and untruthful.[84] The case happily stands alone in his
biography. As a rule, he is a steady practitioner of the Aristotelian
μεγαλοπρέπεια, or virtue of magnificent expenditure.

The truly important feature of the life which Voltaire led at Cirey was
its unremitting diligence. Like a Homeric goddess, the divine Emily
poured a cloud round her hero. There is a sort of moral climate in a
household, an impalpable, unseizable, indefinable set of influences,
which predispose the inmates to industry and self-control, or else relax
fibre and slacken purpose. At Cirey there was an almost monastic rule.
Madame Grafigny says that though Voltaire felt himself bound by
politeness to pay her a visit from time to time in her apartment, he
usually avoided sitting down, apologetically protesting how frightful a
thing is the quantity of time people waste in talking, and that waste of
time is the most fatal kind of extravagance of which one can be
guilty[85]. He seems to have usually passed the whole day at his desk,
or in making physical experiments in his chamber. The only occasion on
which people met was at the supper at nine in the evening. Until then
the privacy of the chamber alike of the hostess, who was analysing
Leibnitz or translating Newton, and of the unofficial host, who was
compiling material for the Siècle de Louis XIV., or polishing and
repolishing Mahomet, or investigating the circumstances of the
propagation of fire, was sacredly inviolable.

The rigour of the rule did not forbid theatrical performances, when any
company, even a company of marionettes, came into the neighbourhood of
the desolate Champagne château. Sometimes after supper Voltaire would
exhibit a magic lantern, with explanatory comments after the showman’s
manner, in which he would convulse his friends at the expense of his
enemies.[86] But after the evening’s amusement was over, the Marquise
would retire to work in her chamber until the morning, and, when morning
came, a couple of hours’ sleep was the only division between the tasks
of the night and the tasks of the day. Two splenetic women have left us
a couple of spiteful pictures of Madame du Châtelet, but neither of her
detractors could rise to any higher conception of intellectual effort
than the fine turn of phrase, the ingenious image, the keen thrust of
cruel satire, with which the polished idle of that day whiled away
dreary and worthless years. The translator of Newton’s Principia was not
of this company, and she was wholly indifferent to the raillery,
sarcasm, and hate of women whom she justly held her inferiors. It is
much the fashion to admire the women of this time, because they contrive
to hide behind a veil of witty words the coldness and hollowness of
lives which had neither the sweetness of the old industrious domesticity
of women, nor the noble largeness of some of those in whom the
Revolution kindled a pure fire of patriotism in after days. Madame du
Châtelet, with all her faults, was a far loftier character than the
malicious gossips who laughed at her. ‘Everything that occupies society
was within her power, _except slander_. She was never heard to hold up
anybody to laughter. When she was informed that certain people were bent
on not doing her justice, she would reply that she wished to ignore it.’
This was surely better than a talent for barbing epigrams, and she led a
worthier life at Cirey than in that Paris which Voltaire described so

   Là, tous les soirs, la troupe vagabonde,
   D’un peuple oisif, appelé le beau monde,
   Va promener de réduit en réduit
   L’inquiétude et l’ennui qui la suit.
   Là sont en foule antiques mijaurées,
   Jeunes oisons et bégueules titrées,
   Disant des riens d’un ton de perroquet,
   Lorgnant des sots, et trichant au piquet.
   Blondins y sont, beaucoup plus femmes qu’elles,
   Profondément remplis de bagatelles,
   D’un air hautain, d’une bruyante voix,
   Chantant, dansant, minaudant à la fois.
   Si par hasard quelque personne honnête,
   D’un sens plus droit et d’un goût plus heureux,
   Des bons écrits ayant meublé sa tête,
   Leur fait l’affront de penser à leurs yeux;
   Tout aussitôt leur brillante cohue,
   D’etonnement et de colère émue,
   Bruyant essaim de frélons envieux,
   Pique et poursuit cette abeille charmante[87].

It was not the fault of Madame du Châtelet that the life of Cirey was
not the undisturbed type of Voltaire’s existence during the fifteen
years of their companionship. Many pages might be filled with a mere
list of the movements from place to place to which Voltaire resorted,
partly from reasonable fear of the grip of a jealous and watchful
government, partly from eagerness to bring the hand of the government
upon his enemies, and most of all from the uncontrollable restlessness
of his own nature. Amsterdam, the Hague, Brussels, Berlin, the little
court of Lunéville, and the great world of Paris, too frequently
withdrew him from the solitary castle at Cirey, though he never failed
to declare on his return, and with perfect sincerity, that he was never
so happy anywhere else. If it was true that the Marquise made her poet’s
life a little hard to him, it is impossible to read her correspondence
without perceiving that he, too, though for no lack of sensibility and
good feeling, often made life extremely hard for her. Besides their
moral difference, there was a marked discrepancy in intellectual
temperament, which did not fail to lead to outward manifestations.
Voltaire was sometimes a little weary of Newton and exact science, while
the Marquise was naturally of the rather narrow turn for arid truths
which too often distinguishes clever women inadequately disciplined by
contact with affairs. She and Voltaire both competed for a prize offered
by the Academy for essays on the propagation of fire (1737). Neither of
them was successful, for the famous Euler was a competitor. The second
and third prizes were given to two obscurer persons, because their
essays were Cartesian, that is to say, they were scientifically
orthodox. The two philosophers of Cirey also took part, and on different
sides, in the obstinate physico-mathematical controversy which Leibnitz
had first raised towards the close of the seventeenth century, as to the
measure of moving forces[88]. The Marquise, under circumstances of
equivocal glory and with much angry buzzing, with which one has now no
concern[89], published her analysis of Leibnitz in 1740, and sided with
him against Newton and Descartes. In the notice which Voltaire wrote of
his friend’s book he gave a marvellously simple and intelligible account
of the issue of the special controversy of _vis viva_[90], but he
remained Newtonian, and in 1741 presented a paper to the Academy of
Sciences, disputing the Leibnitzian view[91].

Voltaire was not merely one of those ‘paper philosophers,’ whose
intrusion into the fields of physical science its professional followers
are justly wont to resent. He was an active experimenter, and more than
one letter remains, containing instructions to his agent in Paris to
forward him retorts, air-pumps, and other instruments, with the wise
hint in one place, a hint by no means of a miser, ‘In the matter of
buying things, my friend, you should always prefer the good and sound
even if a little dear, to what is only middling but cheaper[92].’ His
correspondence for some years proves the diligence and sincerity of his
interest in science. Yet it is tolerably clear that the man who did so
much to familiarise France with the most illustrious of physicists, was
himself devoid of true scientific aptitude. After long and persevering
labour in this region, Voltaire consulted Clairaut on the progress he
had made. The latter, with a loyal frankness which Voltaire knew how to
appreciate, answered that even with the most stubborn labour he was not
likely to attain to anything beyond mediocrity in science, and that he
would be only throwing away time which he owed to poetry and
philosophy.[93] The advice was taken; for, as we have already said,
Voltaire’s self-love was never fatuous, and the independent search of
physical truth was given up. There is plainly no reason to regret the
pains which Voltaire took in this kind of inquiry, not because the study
of the sciences extends the range of poetic study and enriches verse
with fresh images, but because the number of sorts of knowledge in which
a man feels at home and is intelligently cognisant of their scope and
issues, even if he be wholly incompetent to assist in the progress of
discovery, increases that intellectual confidence and self-respect of
understanding, which so fortifies and stimulates him in his own special
order of work. We cannot precisely contend that this encyclopædic
quality is an indispensable condition of such self-respect in every kind
of temper. It certainly was so with Voltaire. ‘After all, my dear
friend,’ he wrote to Cideville, ‘it is right to give every possible
form to our soul. It is a flame that God has intrusted to us, we are
bound to feed it with all that we find most precious. We should
introduce into our existence all imaginable modes, and open every door
of the soul to all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of feelings. So long
as it does not all go in pell-mell there is plenty of room for

To us, who can be wise after the event, it is clear that if ever man was
called not to science, nor to poetry, nor to theology, nor to
metaphysics, but to literature, the art, so hard to define, of showing
the ideas of all subjects in the double light of the practical and the
spiritual reason, that man was Voltaire. He has himself dwelt on the
vagueness of this much-abused term, without contributing anything more
satisfactory towards a better account of it than a crude hint that
literature, not being a special art, may be considered a kind of larger
grammar of knowledge.[95] Although, however, it is true that literature
is not a particular art, it is not the less true that there is a mental
constitution particularly fitted for its successful practice. Literature
is essentially an art of form, as distinguished from those exercises of
intellectual energy which bring new stores of matter to the stock of
acquired knowledge, and give new forces to emotion and original and
definite articulation to passion. It is a misleading classification to
call the work of Shakespeare and Molière, Shelley and Hugo, literary,
just as it would be an equally inaccurate, though more glaring piece of
classification, to count the work of Newton or Locke literature. To take
another case from Voltaire, it would not be enough to describe Bayle’s
Dictionary as a literary compilation; it would not even be enough to
describe it as a work of immense learning, because the distinguishing
and superior mark of this book is a profound dialectic. It forms men of
letters and is above them.[96]

What is it then that literature brings to us, that earns its title to
high place, though far from a highest place, among the great humanizing
arts? Is it not that this is the master organon for giving men the two
precious qualities of breadth of interest and balance of judgment;
multiplicity of sympathies and steadiness of sight? Unhappily,
literature has too often been identified with the smirks and
affectations of mere elegant dispersiveness, with the hollow niceties of
the virtuoso, a thing of madrigals. It is not in any sense of this sort
that we can think of Voltaire as specially the born minister of
literature. What we mean is that while he had not the loftier endowments
of the highest poetic conception, subtle speculative penetration, or
triumphant scientific power, he possessed a superb combination of wide
and sincere curiosity, an intelligence of vigorous and exact
receptivity, a native inclination to candour and justice, and a
pre-eminent mastery over a wide range in the art of expression.
Literature being concerned to impose form, to diffuse the light by which
common men are able to see the great host of ideas and facts that do not
shine in the brightness of their own atmosphere, it is clear what
striking gifts Voltaire had in this way. He had a great deal of
knowledge, and he was ever on the alert both to increase and broaden his
stock, and, what was still better, to impart of it to everybody else. He
did not think it beneath him to write on Hemistichs for the
Encyclopædia. ’Tis not a very brilliant task, he said, but perhaps the
article will be useful to men of letters and amateurs; ‘one should
disdain nothing, and I will do the word Comma, if you choose.’[97] He
was very catholic in taste, being able to love Racine without ignoring
the lofty stature of Shakespeare. And he was free from the weakness
which so often attends on catholicity, when it is not supported by true
strength and independence of understanding; he did not shut his eyes to
the shortcomings of the great. While loving Molière, he was aware of the
incompleteness of his dramatic construction, as well as of the egregious
farce to which that famous writer too often descends.[98] His respect
for the sublimity and pathos of Corneille did not hinder him from noting
both his violence and his frigid argumentation.[99] Does the reader
remember that admirable saying of his to Vauvenargues; ‘_It is the part
of a man like you to have preferences, but no exclusions_?’[100] To this
fine principle Voltaire was usually thoroughly true, as every great
mind, if only endowed with adequate culture, must necessarily be.

   Nul auteur avec lui n’a tort,
   Quand il a trouvé l’art de plaire;
   Il le critique sans colère,
   Il l’applaudit avec transport.[101]

Thirdly, that circumfusion of bright light which is the highest aim of
speech, was easy to Voltaire, in whatever order of subject he happened
to treat. His style is like a translucent stream of purest mountain
water, moving with swift and animated flow under flashing sunbeams.
‘Voltaire,’ said an enemy, ‘is the very first man in the world at
writing down what other people have thought,’ What was meant for a
spiteful censure, was in fact a truly honourable distinction.

The secret is incommunicable. No spectrum analysis can decompose for us
that enchanting ray. It is rather, after all, the piercing metallic
light of electricity than a glowing beam of the sun. We can detect some
of the external qualities of this striking style. We seize its dazzling
simplicity, its almost primitive closeness to the letter, its sharpness
and precision, above all, its admirable brevity. We see that no writer
ever used so few words to produce such pregnant effects.[102] Those
whom brevity only makes thin and slight, may look with despair on pages
where the nimbleness of the sentence is in proportion to the firmness of
the thought. We find no bastard attempts to reproduce in words deep and
complex effects, which can only be adequately presented in colour or in
the combinations of musical sound. Nobody has ever known better the true
limitations of the material in which he worked, or the scope and
possibilities of his art. Voltaire’s alexandrines, his witty stories,
his mock-heroic, his exposition of Newton, his histories, his dialectic,
all bear the same mark, the same natural, precise, and condensed mode of
expression, the same absolutely faultless knowledge of what is proper
and permitted in every given kind of written work. At first there seems
something paradoxical in dwelling on the brevity of an author whose
works are to be counted by scores of volumes. But this is no real
objection. A writer may be insufferably prolix in the limits of a single
volume, and Voltaire was quite right in saying that there are four times
too many words in the one volume of D’Holbach’s System of Nature. He
maintains too that Rabelais might advantageously be reduced to
one-eighth, and Bayle to a quarter, and there is hardly a book that is
not curtailed in the perfecting hands of the divine muses.[103] So
conversely an author may not waste a word in a hundred volumes. Style is
independent of quantity, and the world suffers so grievously from the
mass of books that have been written, not because they are many, but
because such vast proportion of their pages say nothing while they
purport to say so much.

No study, however, of this outward ease and swift compendiousness of
speech will teach us the secret that was beneath it in Voltaire, an eye
and a hand that never erred in hitting the exact mark of appropriateness
in every order of prose and verse. Perhaps no such vision for the
befitting in expression has ever existed. He is the most trenchant
writer in the world, yet there is not a sentence of strained emphasis or
overwrought antithesis; he is the wittiest, yet there is not a line of
bad buffoonery. And this intense sense of the appropriate was by nature
and cultivation become so entirely a fixed condition of Voltaire’s mind
that it shows spontaneous and without an effort in his work. Nobody is
more free from the ostentatious correctness of the literary precisian,
and nobody preserves so much purity and so much dignity of language with
so little formality of demeanour. It is interesting to notice the
absence from his writings of that intensely elaborated kind of
simplicity in which some of the best authors of a later time express the
final outcome of many thoughts.

The strain that society has undergone since Voltaire’s day has taught
men to qualify their propositions. It has forced them to follow truth
slowly along paths steep and devious. New notes have been struck in
human feeling, and all thought has now been touched by complexities that
were then unseen. Hence, as all good writers aim at simplicity and
directness, we have seen the growth of a new style, in which the rays of
many side-lights are concentrated in some single phrase. That Voltaire
does not use these focalising words and turns of composition only means
that to him thought was less complex than it is to a more subjective
generation. Though the literature which possesses Milton and Burke need
not fear comparison with the graver masters of French speech, we have no
one to place exactly by the side of Voltaire. But, then, no more has
France. There are many pages of Swift which are more like one side of
Voltaire than anything else that we have, and Voltaire probably drew the
idea of his famous stories from the creator of Gulliver, just as Swift
got the idea of the Tale of a Tub from Fontenelle’s History of Mero and
Enegu (that is, of Rome and Geneva). Swift has correctness, invention,
irony, and a trick of being effectively literal and serious in absurd
situations, just as Voltaire has; but then Swift is often truculent and
often brutally gross, both in thought and in phrase. Voltaire is never
either brutal or truculent. Even amid the licence of the Pucelle and of
his romances, he never forgets what is due to the French tongue. What
always charmed him in Racine and Boileau, he tells us, was that they
said what they intended to say, and that their thoughts have never cost
anything to the harmony or the purity of the language[104]. Voltaire
ranged over far wider ground than the two poets ever attempted to do,
and trod in many slippery places, yet he is entitled to the same praise
as that which he gave to them.

Unhappily, one of the many evil effects which have alloyed the
revolution that Voltaire did so much to set in motion, has been both in
his country and ours that purity and harmony of language, in spite of
the examples of the great masters who have lived since, have on the
whole declined. In both countries familiarity and slang have actually
asserted a place in literature on some pretence that they are real; an
assumed vulgarity tries to pass for native homeliness, and, as though a
giant were more impressive for having a humped back, some men of true
genius seem only to make sure of fame by straining themselves into
grotesques. In a word, the reaction against a spurious dignity of style
has carried men too far, because the reaction against the dignified
elements in the old order went too far. Style, after all, as one has
always to remember, can never be anything but the reflex of ideas and
habits of mind, and when respect for one’s own personal dignity as a
ruling and unique element in character gave way to sentimental love of
the human race, often real, and often a pretence, old self-respecting
modes of expression went out of fashion. And all this has been defended
by a sort of argument that might just as appropriately have been used by
Diogenes, vindicating the filthiness of his tub against a doctrine of
clean linen.

To follow letters, it is important to observe, meant then, or at least
after Voltaire’s influence rose to its height, it meant distinctly to
enter the ranks of the Opposition. In our own time the profession of
letters is placed with other polite avocations, and those who follow it
for the most part accept the traditional social ideas of the time, just
as clergymen, lawyers, and physicians accept them. The modern man of
letters corresponds to the ancient sophist, whose office it was to
confirm, adorn, and propagate the current prejudice. To be a man of
letters in France in the middle of the eighteenth century was to be the
official enemy of the current prejudices and their sophistical defenders
in the church and the parliaments. Parents heard of a son’s design to go
to Paris and write books, or to mix with those who wrote books, with the
same dismay with which a respectable Athenian heard of a son following
Socrates. The hyper-hellenistic collegian need not accuse us of
instituting a general parallel between Socrates and Voltaire. The only
point on which we are insisting is that each was the leader of the
assault against the sophists of his day, though their tactics and
implements of war were sufficiently unlike. To the later assailant the
conditions of the time made the pen the most effective instrument. The
clergy had the pulpit and the confessional, and their enemies had the

It was during the period of his connection with Madame du Châtelet, that
is in the active literary years between his return from England and his
removal to Berlin, that Voltaire’s dramatic talent was most
productive.[105] He is usually considered to hold the same place
relatively to Corneille and Racine that Euripides held relatively to
Æschylus and Sophocles. It is not easy to see what is the exact point of
analogy on which the critics agree, beyond the corresponding place in
the order of chronological succession, and such parallels are not really
very full of instruction. If we are to draw any parallel at all, it must
be between the Greek and Racine. The differences between Euripides and
his predecessors are not those between Voltaire and his predecessors.
There may be one common peculiarity. Each made the drama an instrument
for the expression not merely of passion, but of speculative and
philosophical matter, and this in each case of a sceptical kind in
reference to the accepted traditions of the time. But apart from the
vast superiority of the Greek in depth and passion and dramatic
invention, in Voltaire this philosophising is very much more indirect,
insinuatory, and furtive, than in the marked sententiousness of
Euripides. There are critics, indeed, who insist that all Voltaire’s
poetic work is a series of pamphlets in disguise, and that he ought to
be classified, in that jargon which makes an uncouth compound pass
muster for a new critical nicety, as a tendency-poet.[106]

To accept this would simply be to leave out of account the very best of
Voltaire’s plays, including Mérope, Sémiramis, Tancrède, in which the
most ingenious of men and critics would be at a loss to find any
tendency of the pamphleteering kind. Voltaire’s ever-present sense of
congruity prevented him from putting the harangue of the pulpit or the
discourse of the academic doctor upon the tragic stage. If the clergy
found in ‘Mahomet,’ for instance, a covert attack on their own religion,
it was much more because the poet was suspected of unbelief, than
because the poem contained infidel doctrine. Indeed, nothing shows so
clearly as the strange affright at this and some other pieces of
Voltaire’s, that the purport and effect of poetry must depend nearly as
much upon the mind of the audience as upon the lines themselves. His
plays may be said to have led to scepticism, only because there was
sceptical predisposition in the mind which his public brought to them;
and under other circumstances, if for instance it had been produced in
the time of Lewis XIV., the exposure of Mahomet would have been counted
a glorification of the rival creed. Indeed, Pope Benedict XIV. did by
and by accept Voltaire’s dedication of the play, whether in good faith
or no we cannot tell, on the express ground that it was an indirect
homage to Christianity. Men with a sense of artistic propriety far
inferior to Voltaire’s, are yet fully alive to the monstrosity of
disguising a pamphleteer’s polemic in the form of a pretended drama.

In choice of subject Voltaire, we may believe, was secretly guided by
his wish to relax the oppressive hold of religious prejudice. Religion,
we cannot too fully realise, was the absorbing burden of the time. There
was no sort of knowledge, from geometry onwards, on which it did not
weigh. Whatever work Voltaire set himself to, he was confronted in it by
the Infamous. Thus in accordance with the narrow theory of his time, he
held Mahomet to be a deliberate and conscious impostor, and in
presenting the founder of one great religion in this odious shape, he
was doubtless suggesting that the same account might be true of the
founder of another. But the suggestion was entirely outside of the play
itself, and we who have fully settled these questions for ourselves, may
read ‘Mahomet’ without suspecting the shade of a reference from Mecca to
Jerusalem, though hardly without contemning the feebleness of view which
could see nothing but sensuality, ambition, and crime, in the career of
the fierce eastern reformer. The sentiments of exalted deism which are
put into the mouth of the noble Zopire were perhaps meant to teach
people that the greatest devotion of character may go with the most
unflinching rejection of a pretended revelation from the gods. This
again is a gloss from without, and by no means involves Voltaire in the
offence of art with a moral purpose.

Zaïre was the first play in which French characters appeared upon the
tragic stage. The heroine, the daughter of Lusignan, has been brought
up, unconscious of her descent, in the Mahometan faith and usage.
Consider the philosophy of these lines which are given to her:

    La coutume, la loi plia mes premiers ans
    A la religion des heureux musulmans.
    Je le vois trop; les soins qu’on prend de notre enfance
    Ferment nos sentimens, nos mœurs, notre croyance.
    J’eusse été près du Gange esclave des faux dieux,
    Chrétienne dans Paris, musulmane en ces lieux.
    L’instruction fait tout; et la main de nos pères
    Grave en nos faibles cœurs ces premiers caractères,
    Que l’exemple et le temps nous viennent retracer,
    Et que peut-être en nous Dieu seul peut effacer.[107]

This of course implied the doctrine of Pope’s Universal Prayer, and
contains an idea that was always the favourite weapon for smiting the
over-confident votaries of a single supernatural revelation. Locke had
asked whether ‘the current opinions and licensed guides of every country
are sufficient evidence and security to every man to venture his great
concernments on? Or, can these be the certain and infallible oracle and
standards of truth which teach one thing in Christendom, and another in
Turkey? Or shall a poor countryman be eternally happy for having the
chance to be born in Italy? Or a day-labourer be unavoidably lost
because he had the ill-luck to be born in England?[108] This was exactly
the kind of reasoning to which Zaïre’s lines pointed; and Voltaire was
never weary of arguing that the divine lay outside of the multitudinous
variety of creeds that were never more than local accidents. Neither,
however, in Zaïre nor anywhere else is the law of perfect dramatic
fitness violated for the sake of a lesson in heterodoxy. With Voltaire
tragedy is, as all art ought to be, a manner of disinterested
presentation. This is not the noblest energy of the human intelligence,
but it is truly art, and Voltaire did not forget it. It would be
entirely unprofitable to enter into any comparison of the relative
merits of Voltaire’s tragedies, and those either of the modern romantic
school in his own country, or of the master dramatists of our own. Every
form of composition must be judged in its own order, and the order in
which Voltaire chose to work was the French classic, with its appointed
conditions and fixed laws, its three unities, its stately alexandrines,
and all the other essentials of that special dramatic form. Here is one
of the many points at which we feel that Voltaire is trying to prolong
in literature, if not in thought, the impressive tradition of the grand
age. At the same moment, strangely enough, he was giving that stir to
the opinion of his time, which was the prime agent in definitely
breaking the hold of that tradition. It is no infidelity to the glorious
and incomparable genius of Shakespeare, nor does it involve any
blindness to the fine creation, fresh fancy, and noble thought and
imagery of our less superb men, yet to admit that there is in these
limits of construction a concentration and regularity, and in these too
contemned alexandrines a just and swelling cadence, that confer a high
degree of pleasure of the highest kind, and that demand intellectual
quality only less rare than that other priceless and unattainable
quality of having the lips touched with divine fire. It is said,
however, that such quality does not produce acting plays, but only
dramatic poems: this is really laughable if we remember first, that the
finest actors in the world have been trained in the recitation of these
alexandrines, and second, that as large and as delighted an audience
used until within some twenty years ago to crowd to a tragedy of
Corneille or Racine, seen repeatedly before, as to a bran-new
vaudeville, never to be seen again.

‘We insist,’ said Voltaire, ‘that the rhyme shall cost nothing to the
ideas; that it shall neither be trivial nor too far-fetched; we exact
rigorously in a verse the same purity, the same precision, as in prose.
We do not permit the smallest licence; we require an author to carry
without a break all chains, and yet that he should appear ever
free.’[109] He admitted that sometimes they failed in reaching the
tragic, through excessive fear of passing its limits. He does justice,
if something less than English justice, to the singular merits of our
stage in the way of action.[110] Shakespeare, he says, ‘had a genius
full of force and fertility, of all that is natural and all that is
sublime.’ It is even the merit of Shakespeare—‘those grand and terrible
pieces that abound in his most monstrous farces’—that has been the
undoing of the English stage.[111]

Even the famous criticism on Hamlet has been a good deal misrepresented.
Voltaire is vindicating the employment of the machinery of ghosts, and
he dwells on the fitness and fine dramatic effect of the ghost in
Shakespeare’s play. ‘I am very far,’ he goes on to say, ‘from justifying
the tragedy of Hamlet in everything: it is a rude and barbarous
piece.... Hamlet goes mad in the second act, and his mistress goes mad
in the third; the prince slays the father of his mistress, pretending to
kill a rat, and the heroine throws herself into the river. They dig her
grave on the stage; the gravediggers jest in a way worthy of them, with
skulls in their hands; Hamlet answers their odious grossnesses by
extravagances no less disgusting. Meanwhile one of the characters
conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his stepfather drink together
on the stage; they sing at table, they wrangle, they fight, they kill;
one might suppose such a work to be the fruit of the imagination of a
drunken savage. But in the midst of all these rude irregularities,
which to this day make the English theatre so absurd and so barbarous,
there are to be found in Hamlet by a yet greater incongruity sublime
strokes worthy of the loftiest geniuses. It seems as if nature had taken
a delight in collecting within the brain of Shakespeare all that we can
imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, with all that rudeness
without wit can contain of what is lowest and most detestable.’[112]

If one were to retort upon this that anybody with a true sense of poetry
would sacrifice all the plays that Voltaire ever wrote, his
eight-and-twenty tragedies, and half-score of comedies, for the
soliloquy in Hamlet, or King Henry at Towton Fight, or ‘Roses, their
sharp spines being gone,’ there would be truth in such a retort, but it
would be that brutal truth, which is always very near being the most
subtle kind of lie. Nature wrought a miracle for us by producing
Shakespeare, as she did afterwards in an extremely different way for
France by producing Voltaire. Miracles, however, have necessarily a very
demoralising effect. A prodigy of loaves and fishes, by slackening the
motives to honest industry, must in the end multiply paupers. The
prodigy of such amazing results from such glorious carelessness as
Shakespeare’s, has plunged hundreds of men of talent into a carelessness
most inglorious, and made our acting stage a mock. It is quite true
that the academic rule is better fitted for mediocrity than for genius;
but we may perhaps trust genius to make a way for itself. It is
mediocrity that needs laws and prescriptions for its most effective
fertilisation, and the enormous majority even of those who can do good
work are still mediocre. We have preferred the methods of lawless
genius, and are left with rampant lawlessness and no genius. The very
essence of the old French tragedy was painstaking, and painstaking has
had its unfailing and exceeding great reward. When people whose taste
has been trained in the traditions of romantic and naturalistic art, or
even not trained at all except in indolence and presumption, yawn over
the French alexandrines, let them remember that Goethe at any rate
thought it worth while to translate Mahomet and Tancrède.

An eminent German writer on Voltaire has recently declared the secret of
the French classic dramaturgy to be that the drama was a diversion of
the court. ‘The personages have to speak not as befits their true
feelings, their character, and the situation, but as is seemly in the
presence of a king and a court; not truth, nature, and beauty, but
etiquette, is the highest law of the dramatic art.’[113] This may
partially explain how it was that a return to some features of the
classic form, its dignity, elevation, and severity, came to take place
in France, but no explanation can be at all satisfactory which reduces
so distinct and genuine a manner of dramatic expression to a mere
outside accident. Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, treated their tragic
subjects as they did, with rigorous concentration of action, stately
consistency of motive, and in a solemn and balanced measure, because
these conditions answered to intellectual qualities of their own, an
affinity in themselves for elegance, clearness, elevation, and a certain
purified and weighty wisdom. It is true that they do not unseal those
deep-hidden fountains of thought and feeling and music, which flow so
freely at the waving of Shakespeare’s wand. We are not swiftly carried
from a scene of clowns up to some sublime pinnacle of the seventh
heaven, whence we see the dark abysses that lie about the path of human
action, as well as all its sweet and shadowed places. Only let us not
unjustly suppose that we are deciding the merits of the old French
dramaturgy, its severe structure and stately measure, by answering the
question, which no English nor German writer can ever seriously put, as
to the relative depth and vision in poetic things of Shakespeare and
Voltaire. Nor can we be expected to be deeply moved by a form of art
that is so unfamiliar to us. It is not a question whether we ought to be
so deeply moved. The too susceptible Marmontel describes how on the
occasion of a visit to Ferney, Voltaire took him into his study and
placed a manuscript into his hands. It was Tancrède, which was just
finished. Marmontel eagerly read it, and he tells us how he returned to
the author, his face all bathed in tears. ‘Your tears,’ said Voltaire,
‘tell me all that it most concerns me to know.’[114] The most
supercilious critic may find this very Tancrède worth reading, when he
remembers that Gibbon thought it splendid and interesting,[115] and that
Goethe found it worth translating. One could hardly be convicted now of
want of sensibility, if all Voltaire’s tragedy together failed to bathe
one’s face in tears, but this is a very bad reason for denying that it
has other merits than pathos.

We cannot, indeed, compare the author of Zaïre and Tancrède with the
great author of Cinna and Polyeucte, any more than in another kind we
can compare Gray with Milton. Voltaire is the very genius of
correctness, elegance, and grace, and if the reader would know what this
correctness means, he will find a most wholesome exercise in reading
Voltiare’s notes on some of the most celebrated of Corneille’s
plays.[116] But in masculine energy and in poetic weightiness, as well
as in organ-like richness of music, Voltaire must be surely pronounced
inferior to his superb predecessor. There is a certain thinness
pervading the whole of his work for the stage, the conception of
character, the dramatic structure, and the measure alike. Undoubtedly we
may frequently come upon weighty and noble lines, of fine music and
lofty sense. But there is on the whole what strikes one as a fatal
excess of facility, and a fatal defect of poetic saliency. The fluent
ease of the verse destroys the impression of strength. ‘Your friend,’
wrote Madame du Châtelet once of her friend, ‘has had a slight bout of
illness, and you know that when he is ill, he can do nothing but write
verses.’[117] We do not know whether the Marquise meant alexandrines, or
those graceful verses of society of which Voltaire was so incomparable a
master. It is certain that he wrote Zaïre in three weeks and Olympic in
six days, though with respect to the latter we may well agree with the
friend who told the author that he should not have rested on the seventh
day. However that may be, there is a quality about his tragic verse
which to one fresh from the sonorous majesty and dignified beauty of
Polyeucte, or even the fine gravity of Tartufe, vibrates too lightly in
the ear. Least of all may we compare him to Racine, whose two great
tragedies of Iphigénie and Athalie Voltaire himself declared to mark the
nearest approach ever made to dramatic perfection.[118] There is none of
the mixed austerity and tenderness, height and sweetness, grace and
firmness, that blend together with such invisible art and unique
contrivance in the poet whose verses taught Fénelon and Massillon how to
make music in their prose. To this Voltaire could only have access from
without, for he lacked the famous master’s internal depth, seriousness,
and veneration of soul. We know how little this approach from without
can avail, and how vainly a man follows the harmonious grace of a style,
when he lacks the impalpable graces of spirit that made the style live.
It is only when grave thoughts and benignant aspirations and purifying
images move with even habit through the mind, that a man masters the
noblest expression. De Maistre, to whom Voltaire’s name was the symbol
for all that is accursed, admitted the nobleness of his work in tragedy,
but he instantly took back the grudged praise by saying that even here
he only resembles his two great rivals as a clever hypocrite resembles a
saint.[119] Malignantly expressed, there is in this some truth.

It was one of the elements in the plan of dramatic reform that sprang up
in Voltaire’s mind during his residence in England, that the subjects of
tragedy should be more masculine, and that love should cease to be an
obligatory ingredient. “It is nearly always the same piece, the same
knot, formed by jealousy and a breach, and untied by a marriage; it is a
perpetual coquetry, a simple comedy in which princes are actors, and in
which occasionally blood is spilt for form’s sake.”[120] This he counted
a mistake, for, as he justly said, the heart is but lightly touched by a
lover’s woes, while it is profoundly softened by the anguish of a mother
just about to lose her son. Thus in Mérope we have maternal sentiment
made the spring of what is probably the best of Voltaire’s tragedies,
abounding in a just vehemence, compact, full of feeling at once exalted
and natural, and moving with a sustained energy that is not a too common
mark of his work. It was the same conviction of the propriety of making
tragedy a means of expressing other emotions than that which is so apt
to degenerate into an insipidity, which dictated the composition and
novel treatment of the Roman subjects, Brutus and La Mort de César. Here
the French drama first became in some degree truly political. His
predecessors when they handled a historic theme did so, not from the
historic or social point of view, but as the illustration, or rather the
suggestion, of some central human passion. In the Cinna of Corneille the
political bearings, the moral of benevolent despotism which Bonaparte
found in it, were purely incidental, and were distinctly subordinate to
the portrayal of character and the movement of feeling. In Brutus the
whole action lies in the region of great public affairs, and of the
passions which these affairs stir in noble characters, without any
admixture of purely private tenderness. In La Mort de César we are
equally in the heroics of public action. Rome Sauvée, of which the
subject is the conspiracy of Catiline, and the hero the most eloquent of
consuls or men—a part that Voltaire was very fond of filling in private
representations, and with distinguished success—is extremely loose and
spasmodic in structure, and the speeches sound strained even when put
into Cicero’s mouth. But here also private insipidities are banished,
though perhaps it is only in favour of public insipidities. It is
impossible to tell what share, if any, these plays had in spreading that
curious feeling about Roman freedom and its most renowned defenders,
which is so striking a feature in some of the great episodes of the
Revolution. We cannot suspect Voltaire of any design to stir political
feeling. He was now essentially aristocratic and courtly in his
predilection, without the smallest active wish for an approach to
political revolution, if indeed the conception of a change of that kind
ever presented itself to him. He was indefatigable in admiring and
praising English freedom, but, as has already been said, it was not the
laudation of a lover of popular government, but the envy of a man of
letters whose life was tormented by censors of the press and the
lieutenant of police. Perhaps the only approach to a public purpose in
this fancy for his Roman subjects was a lurking idea of arousing in the
nobles, for whom we must remember that his dramatic work was above all
designed, not a passion for freedom from the authority of monarchic
government, but a passion of a more general kind for energetic
patriotism. Voltaire’s letters abound with expressions of the writer’s
belief that he was the witness of an epoch of decay in his own country.
He had in truth far too keen and practical and trained an eye not to see
how public spirit, political sagacity, national ambition, and even
valour had declined in the great orders of France since the age of the
Grand Monarch, and how much his country had fallen back in the race of
civilisation and power. We should be guilty of a very transparent
exaggeration of the facts, if any attempt were made to paint Voltaire in
the attitude and colours of one transcendentally aspiring to regenerate
his countrymen. But there is no difficulty in believing that a man who
had lived in England, and knew so much of Prussia, should have seen the
fatal enervation which had come upon France, and that with Voltaire’s
feeling for the stage, he should have dreamt, by means of a more austere
subject and more masculine treatment, of reviving the love of wisdom and
glory and devotion in connection with country. In a word, the lesson of
La Mort de César or of Brutus was not a specific admonition to slay
tyrants, or to execute stern judgments on sons, but a general example of
self-sacrificing patriotism and devoted public honour.

It is often said that Voltaire’s Romans are mere creatures of parade and
declamation, like the figures of David’s paintings,[121] and it is very
likely that the theatre infected the French people with that mischievous
idea of the Romans, as a nation of declaimers about freedom and the
death of tyrants. The true Roman was no doubt very much more like one of
our narrow, hard, and able Scotchmen in India, than the lofty talkers
who delighted the parterre of Paris or Versailles. Unluckily for truth
of historical conception, Cicero was, after Virgil, the most potent of
Roman memories, and a man of words became with modern writers the
favourite type of a people of action. All this, however, is beside the
question. Voltaire would have laughed at the idea of any obligation to
present either Romans or other personages on the stage with realistic
fidelity. The tragic drama with him was the highest of the imaginative
and idealistic arts. If he had sought a parallel to it in the plastic
arts he would have found one, not in painting, which by reason of the
greater flexibility of its material demands a more exact verisimilitude,
but in sculpture. Considered as statuesque figures endowed with speech,
Brutus, Caesar, and the rest are noble and impressive. We may protest as
vigorously as we know how against any assimilation of the great art of
action with the great art of repose. But we can only criticise the
individual productions of a given theory, provided we for the moment
accept the conditions which the theory lays down. All art rests upon
convention, and if we choose to repudiate any particular set of
conventions, we have no more right to criticise the works of those who
submit to them than one would have to criticise sculpture, because
marble or bronze is not like flesh and blood. Within the conditions of
the French classic drama Voltaire’s Romans are high and stately figures.

Voltaire’s innovations extended beyond the introduction of more
masculine treatment. Before his time romantic subjects had been regarded
with disfavour, and Corneille’s Bajazet was considered a bold
experiment. Racine was more strictly classic, and dramatists went on
handling the same ancient fables, ‘Thebes, or Pelops’ line, or the tale
of ‘Troy divine,’ just as the Greeks had done, or just as the painters
in the Catholic times had never wearied of painting the two eternal
figures of human mother and divine child. Voltaire treated the classic
subjects as others treated them, and if Œdipe misses the depth,
delicate reserve and fateful gloom of the Greeks, Mérope at any rate
breathes a fine and tragic spirit. But his restless mind pressed forward
into subjects which Racine would have shuddered at, and every quarter of
the universe became in turn a portion of the Voltairean stage.
L’Orphelin de la Chine introduces us to China and Genghis-Khan, Mahomet
to Arabia and its prophet, Tancrede to Sicily; in Zulime we are among
Moors, in Alzire with Peruvians. This revolutionary enlargement of
subject was significant of a general and very important enlargement of
interest which marked the time, and led presently to those contrasts
between the condition of France and the imaginary felicity and nobleness
of wilder countries, which did so much to breed an irresistible longing
for change. Voltaire’s high-minded Scythians, generous Peruvians, and
the rest, prepared the way along with other influences for that curious
cosmopolitanism, that striking eagerness to believe in the equal
virtuousness and devotion inherent in human nature, independently of the
religious or social form accidentally imposed upon them, which found its
ultimate outcome, first in an ardent passion for social equality, and a
depreciation of the special sanctity of the current religion, and next
in the ill-fated emancipating and proselytising aims of the Revolution,
and in orators of the human race.

It has usually been thought surprising that Voltaire, consummate wit as
he was, should have been so markedly unsuccessful in comedy. Certainly
no one with so right a sense of the value of time as Voltaire himself
had, will in our day waste many hours over his productions in this
order. There are a dozen of them more or less, and we can only hope that
they were the most rapid of his writings. Lines of extraordinary
vivacity are not wanting, and at their best they offer a certain
bustling sprightliness that might have been diverting in actual
representation. But the keynote seems to be struck in farce, rather than
in comedy; the intrigue, if not quite as slight as in Molière, is too
forced; and the characters are nearly all excessively mediocre in
conception. In one of the comedies, Le Dépositaire, the poet presented
the aged patroness of his youth, but the necessity of respecting current
ideas of the becoming prevented him from making a great character out of
even so striking a figure as Ninon de l’Enclos. La Prude is a version of
Wycherly’s Plaindealer, and is in respect of force, animation, and the
genuine spirit of comedy, very inferior to its admirable original.
L’Indiscret is a sparkling and unconsidered trifle, L’Ecossaise is only
a stinging attack on Fréron, and L’Enfant Prodigue, though greater pains
were taken with it, has none of the glow of dramatic feeling. The
liveliest of all is La Femme qui a Raison, a short comedy of situation,
which for one reading is entertaining in the closet, and must be
excellent on the stage. It is very slight, however, and as usual verges
on farce.

This inferiority of Voltaire’s ought not to astonish any one who has
reflected how much concentrated feeling and what profundity of vision go
to the production of great comedy, and how in the mind of the dramatist,
as in the movement of human life, comedy lies close to portentous
tragedy. The author of the Bourgeois Gentilhomme and L’Avare was also
the creator of the Misanthrope, that inscrutable piece, where, without
plot, fable, or intrigue, we see a section of the polished life of the
time, men and women paying visits, making and receiving compliments,
discoursing upon affairs with easy lightness, flitting backwards and
forwards with a thousand petty hurries, and among these one strange,
rough, hoarse, half-sombre figure, moving solitarily with a chilling
reality in the midst of frolicking shadows. Voltaire entered too eagerly
into the interests of the world, was by temperament too exclusively
sympathetic and receptive and social, to place himself even in
imagination thus outside of the common circle. Without capacity for
this, there is no comedy of the first order. Without serious
consciousness of contrasts, no humour that endures. Shakespeare,
Molière, and even Aristophanes, each of them unsurpassed writers of mere
farce, were each of them, though with vast difference of degree, master
of a tragic breadth of vision. Voltaire had moods of petulant spleen,
but who feels that he ever saw, much less brooded over, the dark
cavernous regions of human nature? Without this we may have brilliant
pleasantry of surprise, inimitable caricature, excellent comedy of
society, but of the veritable comedy of human character and life,

In dazzling and irresistible caricature Voltaire has no equal. There is
no deep humour, as in Don Quixote, or Tristram Shandy, which Voltaire
did not care for,[122] or Richter’s Siebenkäs, which he would not have
cared for any more than De Stael did. He was too purely intellectual,
too argumentative, too geometrical, and cared too much for illustrating
a principle. But in Candide, Zadig, L’Ingénu, wit is as high as mere wit
can go. They are better than Hudibras, because the motive is broader and
more intellectual. Rapidity of play, infallible accuracy of stroke,
perfect copiousness, and above all a fresh and unflagging spontaneity,
combine with a surprising invention, to give these stories a singular
quality, of which we most effectively observe the real brilliance, by
comparing them with the too numerous imitations that their success has
unhappily invited since.

It is impossible to omit from the most cursory study of Voltaire’s work,
that too famous poem which was his favourite amusement during some of
the best years of his life, which was the delight of all who could by
any means get the high favour of sight or hearing of so much as a canto
of it, and which is now always spoken of, when it happens to be spoken
of at all, with extreme abhorrence.[123] The Pucelle offends two modern
sentiments, the love of modesty, and the love of the heroic personages
of history. The moral sense and the historic sense have both been
sharpened in some respects since Voltaire, and a poem which not only
abounds in immodesty, and centres the whole action in an indecency of
conception, but also fastens this gross chaplet round the memory of a
great deliverer of the poet’s own country, seems to offer a double
outrage to an age when relish for licentious verse has gone out of
fashion, and reverence for the heroic dead has come in. Still the fact
that the greatest man of his time should have written one of the most
unseemly poems that exist in any tongue, is worth trying to understand.
Voltaire, let us remember, had no special turn, like Gibbon or Bayle,
least of all like the unclean Swift, for extracting a malodorous
diversion out of grossness or sensuality. His writings betray no
irresistible passion for flying to an indelicacy, nor any of the vapid
lasciviousness of some more modern French writers. The Pucelle is at
least the wit of a rational man, and not the prying beastliness of a
satyr. It is wit worse than poorly employed, but it is purity itself
compared with some of the nameless abominations with which Diderot
besmirched his imagination. The Persian Letters contain what we should
now account passages of extreme licentiousness, yet Montesquieu was
assuredly no libertine. Voltaire’s life again was never indecent or
immoderate from the point of view of the manners of the time. A man of
grave character and untarnished life, like Condorcet, did not scruple to
defend a poem, in which it is hard for us to see anything but a most
indecorous burlesque of a most heroic subject. He insists that books
which divert the imagination without heating or seducing it, which by
gay and pleasurable images fill up those moments of exhaustion that are
useless alike for labour and meditation, have the effect of inclining
men to gentleness and indulgence. “It was not such books as the Pucelle
that Gérard or Clément used to read, or that the satellites of Cromwell
carried at the saddle-bow.”[124]

The fact is that in amusing himself by the Pucelle, Voltaire was only
giving literary expression to a kind of view which had already in the
society of the time found for itself a thoroughly practical expression.
The people among whom he lived had systematised that freedom from law or
restraint in the relations of the sexes, of which his poem is so vivid a
representation. The Duke of Richelieu was the irresistible Lovelace of
his time, and it was deemed an honour, an honour to which Madame du
Châtelet among so many others has a title, to have yielded to his
fascination. A long and profoundly unedifying chronicle might be drawn
up of the memorable gallantries of that time, and for our purpose it
might fitly close with the amour with Saint Lambert that led to Madame
du Châtelet’s death. Of course, these countless gallantries in the most
licentious persons of the day, such as Richelieu or Saxe, were neither
more nor less than an outbreak of sheer dissoluteness, such as took
place among English people of quality in the time of the Restoration.
The idle and luxurious, whose imagination is uncontrolled by the
discipline of labour and purpose, and to whom the indulgence of their
own inclinations is the first and single law of life, are always ready
to profit by any relaxation of restraint, which the moral conditions of
the moment may permit.

The peculiarity of the licence of France in the middle of the eighteenth
century is, that it was looked upon with complacency by the great
intellectual leaders of opinion. It took its place in the progressive
formula. What austerity was to other forward movements, licence was to
this. It is not difficult to perceive how so extraordinary a
circumstance came to pass. Chastity was the supreme virtue in the eyes
of the church, the mystic key to Christian holiness. Continence was one
of the most sacred of the pretensions by which the organised preachers
of superstition claimed the reverence of men and women. It was
identified, therefore, in a particular manner with that Infamous,
against which the main assault of the time was directed. So men
contended, more or less expressly, first, that continence was no
commanding chief among virtues, then that it was a very superficial and
easily practised virtue, finally that it was no virtue at all, but if
sometimes a convenience, generally an impediment to free human
happiness. These disastrous sophisms show the peril of having morality
made an appendage of a set of theological mysteries, because the
mysteries are sure in time to be dragged into the open air of reason,
and moral truth crumbles away with the false dogmas with which it had
got mixed.

‘If,’ says Condorcet, ‘we may treat as useful the design to make
superstition ridiculous in the eyes of men given to pleasures, and
destined, by the very want of self-control which makes pleasures
attractive to them, to become one day the unfortunate victims or the
mischievous instruments of that vile tyrant of humanity; if the
affectation of austerity in manners, if the excessive value attached to
purity, only serves the hypocrites who by putting on the easy mask of
chastity can dispense with all virtues, and cover with a sacred veil the
vices most pernicious to society, hardness of heart and intolerance; if
by accustoming men to treat as so many crimes faults from which
honourable and conscientious persons are not exempt, we extend over the
purest souls the power of that dangerous caste, which to rule and
disturb the earth, has constituted itself exclusively the interpreter of
heavenly justice;—then we shall see in the author of the Pucelle no more
than a foe to hypocrisy and superstition.’[125]

It helps us to realise the infinite vileness of a system, like that of
the Church in the last century, which could engender in men of essential
nobleness of character like Condorcet, an antipathy so violent as to
shut the eyes of their understanding to the radical sophistry of such
pleading as this. Let one reflection out of many, serve to crush the
whole of it. The key to effective life is unity of life, and unity of
life means as much as anything else the unity of our human relations.
Our identity does by no means consist in a historic continuity of
tissues, but in an organic moral coherency of relation. It is this,
which alone, if we consider the passing shortness of our days, makes
life a whole, instead of a parcel of thrums bound together by an
accident. Is not every incentive and every concession to vagrant
appetite a force that enwraps a man in gratification of self, and severs
him from duty to others, and so a force of dissolution and dispersion?
It might be necessary to pull down the Church, but the worst church that
has ever prostituted the name and the idea of religion cannot be so
disastrous to society, as a gospel that systematically relaxes
self-control as being an unmeaning curtailment of happiness. The
apologists for the Pucelle exhibit the doctrine of individualism in one
of its worst issues. ‘Your proof that this is really the best of all
possible worlds is excellent,’ says Candide for his famous last word,
‘but we must cultivate our garden.’ The same principle of exclusive
self-regard, applied to the gratification of sense, passed for a
satisfactory defence of libertinage. In the first form it destroys a
state, in the second it destroys the family.

It is easier to account for Voltaire’s contempt for the mediæval
superstition about purity, than his want of respect for a deliverer of
France. The explanation lies in the conviction which had such power in
Voltaire’s own mind and with which he impregnated to such a degree the
minds of others, that the action of illiterate and unpolished times can
have no life in it. His view of progress was a progress of art and
knowledge, and heroic action which was dumb, or which was not expressed
in terms of intellect, was to the eighteenth century, and to Voltaire at
least as much as to any other of its leaders, mere barbaric energy. In
the order of taste, for instance, he can find only words of cool and
limited praise for Homer, while for the polish and elegance of Virgil
his admiration is supreme. The first was the bard of a rude time, while
round the second cluster all the associations of a refined and lettered
age. A self-devotion that was only articulate in the jargon of mystery
and hallucination, and that was surrounded with rude and irrational
circumstance, with ignorance, brutality, visions, miracle, was encircled
by no halo in the eyes of a poet who found no nobleness where he did not
find a definite intelligence, and who rested all his hopes and interests
on the long distance set by time and civilisation between ourselves and
such conditions and associations as belong to the name of Joan of Arc.
The foremost men of the eighteenth century despised Joan of Arc,
whenever they had occasion to think of her, for the same reason which
made them despise Gothic architecture. ‘When,’ says Voltaire in one
place, ‘the arts began to revive, they revived as Goths and Vandals;
what unhappily remains to us of the architecture and sculpture of these
times is a fantastic compound of rudeness and filigree.’[126] Just so,
even Turgot, while protesting how dear to every sensible heart were the
Gothic buildings destined to the use of the poor and the orphan,
complained of the outrage done by their rude architecture to the
delicacy of our sight.[127] Characters like Joan of Arc ranked in the
same rude and fantastic order, and respect for them meant that respect
for the middle age which was treason to the new time. Men despised her,
just as they despised the majesty and beauty of the great church at
Rheims where she brought her work to a climax, or the lofty grace and
symmetry of the church of St. Ouen, within sight of which her life came
to its terrible end.

Henry the Fourth was a hero with Voltaire, for no better reason than
that he was the first great tolerant, the earliest historic indifferent.
The Henriade is only important because it helped to popularise the type
of its hero’s character, and so to promote the rapidly-growing tendency
in public opinion towards a still wider version of the policy of the
Edict of Nantes. The reign of Lewis XIV. had thrown all previous
monarchs into obscurity, and the French king who showed a warmer and
more generous interest in the happiness of his subjects than any they
ever had, was forgotten, until Voltaire brought him into fame. It was
just, however, because Henry’s exploits were so glorious, and at the
same time so near in point of time, that he made an indifferent hero for
an epic poem. ‘He should never choose for an epic poem history,’ said
Hume very truly, ‘the truth of which is well known; for no fiction can
come up to the interest of the actual story and incidents of the
singular life of Henry IV.’[128] These general considerations, however,
as to the propriety of the subject are hardly worth entering upon. How
could any true epic come out of that age, or find fountains in that
critical, realistic, and polemical soul? To fuse a long narrative of
heroic adventure in animated, picturesque, above all, in sincere verse,
is an achievement reserved for men with a steadier glow, a firmer,
simpler, more exuberant and more natural poetic feeling, than was
possible in that time of mean shifts, purposeless public action, and
pitiful sacrifice of private self-respect. Virgil was stirred by the
greatness of the newly-united empire, Tasso by the heroic march of
Christendom against pagan oppressors, Milton by the noble ardour of our
war for public rights. What long and glowing inspiration was possible to
a would-be courtier, thrust into the Bastille for wanting to fight a
noble who had had him caned by lackeys? Besides, an epic, of all forms
of poetic composition, most demands concentrated depth, and Voltaire was
too widely curious and vivacious on the intellectual side to be capable
of this emotional concentration.

But it is superfluous to give reasons why Voltaire’s epic should not be
a great poem. The Henriade itself is there, the most indisputable of
arguments. Of poems whose names are known out of literary histories and
academic catalogues, it is perhaps the least worth reading in any
language by any one but a professional student of letters. It is less
worth reading than Lucan’s Pharsalia, because it is more deliberately
artificial and gratuitously unspontaneous. Paradise Regained, which it
is too ready a fashion among us to pronounce dull, still contains at
least three pieces of superb and unsurpassed description, never fails in
grave majestic verse, and is at the worst free from all the dreary
apparatus of phantom and impersonation and mystic vision, which have
never jarred so profoundly with sense of poetic fitness, as when
associated with so political and matter-of-fact a hero as Henry the
Fourth. The reader has no illusion in such transactions as Saint Lewis
taking Henry into heaven and hell, Sleep hearing from her secret caves,
the Winds at sight of him falling into Silence, and Dreams, children of
Hope, flying to cover the hero with olive and laurel. How can we
overcome our repugnance to that strange admixture of real and unreal
matter which presents us with a highly-coloured picture of the Temple of
Love, where in the forecourt sits Joy, with Mystery, Desire,
Complaisance, on the soft turf by her side, while in the inner sanctuary
haunt Jealousy, Suspicion, Malice, Fury; while the next canto describes

   L’église toujours une et partout étendue,
   Libre, mais sous un chef, adorant en tout lieu,
   Dans le bonheur des saints, la grandeur de son Dieu.
   Le Christ, de nos péches victime renaissante,
   De ses élus chéris nourriture vivante,
   Descend sur les autels à ses yeux éperdus,
   Et lui découvre un Dieu sous un pain qui n’est plus.[129]

Voltaire congratulated himself in his preface that he had come
sufficiently near theological exactitude, and to this qualification,
which is so new for poetry, the critic may add elegance and flow; but
neither elegance nor theological exactitude reconciles us to an epic
that has neither a stroke of sublimity nor a touch of pathos, that
presents no grandeur in character, and no hurrying force and movement in
action. Frederick the Great used to speak of Voltaire as the French
Virgil, but then Frederick’s father had never permitted him to learn
Latin, and if he ever read Virgil at all, it must have been in some of
the jingling French translations. Even so, with the episodes of Dido and
of Nisus and Euryalus in our minds, we may wonder how so monstrous a
parallel could have occurred even to Frederick, who was no critic,
between two poets who have hardly a quality in common. If the reader
wishes to realise how nearly insipid even Voltaire’s genius could become
when working in unsuitable forms, he may turn from any canto of the
Henriade to any page of Lucretius or the Paradise Lost. A French critic
quotes the famous reviewer’s sentence, concluding an analysis of some
epic, to the effect that on the whole, when all is summed up, the given
epic was ‘one of the best that had appeared in the course of the current
year;’ and insists that Voltaire’s piece will not at any rate perish in
the oblivion of poetic annuals like these. If not, the only reason lies
in that unfortunate tenderness for the bad work of famous men, which
makes of so much reading time worse than wasted. ‘The unwise,’ said
Candide, ‘value every word in an author of repute.’



The Marquise du Châtelet died under circumstances that were tragical
enough to herself, but which disgust the grave, while they give a
grotesque amusement to those who look with cynical eye upon what they
choose to treat as the great human comedy. In 1749 the friendship of
sixteen years thus came to its end, and Voltaire was left without the
tie that, in spite of too frequent breaking away from it, had brought
him much happiness and good help so far on the road. He was now free,
disastrously free as the event proved, to accept the invitations with
which he had so long been pressed to take up his residence with the king
who may dispute with him the claim to be held the most extraordinary man
of that century.

Neither credit nor peace followed Voltaire in his own land. Lewis XV.,
perhaps the most worthless of all the creatures that monarchy has ever
corrupted, always disliked him. The whole influence of the court and the
official world had been uniformly exerted against him. Many years went
by before he could even win a seat in the academy, a distinction, it
may be added, to which Diderot, hardly second to Voltaire in originality
and power, never attained to the end of his days. Madame de Pompadour,
the protectress of Quesnay, was Voltaire’s first friend at court. He
said of her long afterwards that in the bottom of her heart she belonged
to the philosophers, and did as much as she could to protect them.[130]
She had known him in her obscurer and more reputable days, and she
charged him with the composition of a court-piece (1745), to celebrate
the marriage of the dauphin. The task was satisfactorily performed, and
honours which had been refused to the author of Zaïre, Alzire, and the
Henriade, were at once given to the writer of the Princess of Navarre,
which Voltaire himself ranked as a mere farce of the fair. He was made
gentleman of the chamber and historiographer of France. He disarmed the
devout by the Pope’s acceptance of Mahomet, and by a letter which he
wrote to Father Latour, head of his former school, protesting his
affection for religion and his esteem for the Jesuits. Condorcet most
righteously pronounces that, in spite of the art with which he handles
his expressions in this letter, it would undoubtedly have been far
better to give up the academy than to write it.[131] It answered its
purpose, and Voltaire was admitted of the forty (May 1746). This
distinction, however, was far from securing for him the tranquillity
which he had hoped from it, and worse libels tormented him than before.
The court sun ceased to shine. Madame de Pompadour gave to Crébillon a
preference which Voltaire resented with more agitation than any
preference of Madame Pompadour’s ought to have stirred in the breast of
a strong man.

We cannot, however, too constantly remember not to ask from Voltaire the
heroic. He was far too sympathetic, too generously eager to please, too
susceptible to opinion. Of that stern and cold stuff which supports a
man in firm march and straight course, giving him the ample content of
self-respect, he probably had less than any one of equal prominence has
ever had. Instead of writing his tragedy as well as he knew how, and
then leaving it to its destiny, he wrote it as well as he knew how, and
then went in disguise to the café of the critics to find out what his
inferiors had to say about his work. Instead of composing his
court-piece, and taking such reward as offered, or disdaining such
ignoble tasks—and nobody knew better than he how ignoble they were—he
sought to catch some crumb of praise by fawningly asking of the vilest
of men, _Trajan est-il content?_ Make what allowance we will for
difference of time and circumstance, such an attitude to such a man,
whether in Seneca towards Nero, or Voltaire towards Lewis XV., is a
baseness that we ought never to pardon and never to extenuate. Whether
or no there be in the human breast that natural religion of goodness and
virtue which was the sheet-anchor of Voltaire’s faith, there is at least
a something in the hearts of good men which sets a fast gulf between
them and those who are to the very depths of their souls irredeemably
saturated with corruption.

We may permit ourselves to hope that it was the consciousness of the
humiliation of such relations as these, rather than the fact that they
did not answer their own paltry purpose, that made Voltaire resolve a
second time to shake the dust of his own country from off his feet In
July 1750 he reached Potsdam, and was installed with sumptuous honour in
the court of Frederick the Great, twenty-four years since he had
installed himself with Mr. Falkener, the English merchant at Wandsworth.
Diderot was busy with the first volume of the Encyclopædia, and Rousseau
had just abandoned his second child in the hospital for foundlings. If
the visit to London did everything for Voltaire, the visit to Berlin did
nothing. There was no Prussia, as there was an England. To travel from
the dominion of George II. to the dominion of his famous nephew, was to
go from the full light of the eighteenth century back to the dimness of
the fifteenth. An academy of sciences, by the influence of
Sophie-Charlotte, and under the guidance of Leibnitz, had been founded
at Berlin at the beginning of the eighteenth century; but Frederick
William had an angry contempt for every kind of activity except drill
and the preaching of orthodox theology, and during his reign the academy
languished in obscurity.[132]

The accession of Frederick II. was the signal for its reconstitution,
and the revival of its activity under the direction of Maupertuis. To
the sciences of experiment and observation, which had been its original
objects, was added a department of speculative philosophy. The court was
materialist, sceptical, Voltairean, all at the same time; but the
academy as a body was theologically orthodox, and it was wholly and
purely metaphysical in its philosophy. We may partly understand the
distance at which Berlin was then behind Paris, when we read
D’Alembert’s just remonstrances with Frederick against giving as
subjects for prize-essays such metaphysical problems as ‘The search for
a primary and permanent force, at once substance and cause.’[133]

Whatever activity existed outside of the court and the academy was
divided between the dialectic of Protestant scholasticism, and Wolf’s
exposition and development of Leibnitz. In literature proper there arose
with the accession of Frederick a small group of essentially secondary
critics, of whom Sulzer was the best, without the vivid and radiant
force of either Voltaire or Diderot, and without the deep inspiration
and invention of those who were to follow them, and to place Germany
finally on a level with England and France. Lessing, the founder of the
modern German literature, was at this time a youth of twenty-two, and by
a striking turn of chance was employed by Voltaire in putting into
German his pleadings in the infamous Hirschel case. It was not then
worth while for a stranger to learn the language in which Lessing had
not yet written, and Voltaire, who was a master of English and Italian,
never knew more German than was needed to curse a postilion.[134]
Leibnitz wrote everything of importance in Latin or French, the Berlin
academy conducted its transactions first in Latin, next and for many
years to come in French, and one of its earliest presidents, a man of
special competence,[135] pronounced German to be a noble but frightfully
barbarised tongue. The famous Wolf had done his best to make the tongue
of his country literate, but even his influence was unequal to the task.

Society was in its foundations not removed from the mediæval. The
soldiers with whom Frederick won Zorndorf and Leuthen, like the Russians
and Austrians whom he defeated on those bloody days, were not more nor
less than serfs. Instead of philosophers like Newton and Locke, he had
to find the pride and safety of his country in swift rushing troopers
like Winterfield and Ziethen. A daring cavalry-charge in season was for
the moment more to Prussia than any theory why it is that an apple
falls, and a new method of drill much more urgent than a new origin for
ideas. She was concerned not with the speculative problem of the causes
why the earth keeps its place in the planetary system, but with the
practical problem how Prussia was to make her place in the system of
Europe. Prussia was then far more behind France in all thought and all
arts, save the soldier’s, than England was in front of France.

Voltaire had nothing to learn at Berlin, and may we not add, as the king
was a rooted Voltairean long before this, he had nothing to teach there?
The sternest barrack in Europe was not a field in which the apostle of
free and refined intelligence could sow seed with good hope of harvest.
Voltaire at this time, we have to recollect, was in the public mind only
a poet, and perhaps was regarded, if not altogether by Frederick,
certainly by those who surrounded him, as much in the same order of
being with Frederick’s flute, fitted by miracle with a greater number of
stops. ‘I don’t give you any news of literature,’ D’Alembert wrote from
Potsdam in 1763, ‘for I don’t know any, and you know how barren
literature is in this country, where no one except the king concerns
himself with it.’[136] There is no particular disgrace to Berlin or its
king in this. Their task was very definite, and it was only a pleasant
error of Frederick’s rather fantastic youth to suppose that this task
lay in the direction of polite letters. The singer of the Henriade was
naturally of different quality and turn of mind from a hero who had at
least as hard an enterprise in his hand as that of Henry IV. Voltaire
and Frederick were the two leaders of the two chief movements then going
on, in the great work of the transformation of the old Europe into the
new. But the movements were in different matter, demanded vastly
different methods, and, as is so often the case, the scope of each was
hardly visible to the pursuer of the other. Voltaire’s work was to
quicken the activity and proclaim the freedom of human intelligence, and
to destroy the supremacy of an old spiritual order. Frederick’s work was
to shake down the old political order. The sum of their efforts was the
definite commencement of that revolution in the thought and the
political conformation of the West, of which the momentous local
revolution in France must, if we take a sufficiently wide survey before
and after, be counted a secondary phase. The conditions of the order
which was established after the confusion of the fall of the Roman power
before the inroads of the barbarians, and which constituted the Europe
of the early and middle ages, are now tolerably well understood, and the
historic continuity or identity of that order is typified in two
institutions, which by the middle of the eighteenth century had reached
very different stages of decay, and possessed very different powers of
resisting attack. One was the German Empire, and the other was the Holy
Catholic Church. Frederick dealt a definite blow to the first, and
Voltaire did the same to the second.

Those who read history and biography with a sturdy and childish
pre-conception that the critical achievements in the long course of the
world’s progress must of necessity have fallen to the lot of the salt of
the earth, will find it hard to associate the beginning of the great
overt side of modern movement with the two men who versified and
wrangled together for some two and a half years in the middle of the
eighteenth century at Berlin. It is hard to think of the old state, with
all its memories of simple enthusiasm and wild valour and rude
aspiration after some better order, finally disappearing into the chaos
for which it was more than ripe, under the impulse of an arch cynic. And
it is hard, too, to think that the civilising religion which was founded
by a Jew, and first seized by Jews, noblest and holiest of their race,
got its first and severest blow from one who was not above using a Jew
to cheat Christians out of their money. But the fact remains of the vast
work which this amazing pair had to do, and did.

The character of the founder of the greatness of Prussia, if indeed we
may call founder one rather than another member of that active, clear,
and far-sighted line, can have no attraction for those who require as an
indispensable condition of fealty that their hero shall have either
purity, or sensibility, or generosity, or high honour, or manly respect
for human nature. Frederick’s rapidity and firmness of will, his
administrative capacity, his military talent, were marvellous and
admirable enough; but on the moral side of character, in his relations
to men and women, in his feeling for the unseen, in his ideas of truth
and beauty, he belonged to a type which is not altogether uncommon. In
his youth he had much of a sort of shallow sensibility, which more
sympathetic usage might possibly have established and to some small
extent even deepened, but which the curiously rough treatment that his
pacific tastes and frivolous predilections provoked his father to
inflict, turned in time into the most bitter and profound kind of
cynicism that the world knows. No cynic is so hard and insensible as the
man who has once had sensibility, perhaps because the consciousness that
he was in earlier days open to more generous impressions persuades him
that the fault of any change in his own view of things must needs lie in
the world’s villainy, which he has now happily for himself had time to
find out. Sensibility of a true sort, springing from natural fountains
of simple and unselfish feeling, can neither be corrupted nor dried up.
But at its best, Frederick’s sensibility was of the literary and
aesthetic kind, rather than the humane and social. It concerned taste
and expression, and had little root in the recognition as at first-hand
of those facts of experience, of beauty and tenderness and cruelty and
endurance, which are the natural objects that permanently quicken a
sensitive nature. In a word, Frederick’s was the conventional
sensibility of the French literature of the time; a harmless thing
enough in the poor souls that only poured themselves out in bad romance
and worse verse, but terrible when it helped to fill with contempt for
mankind an absolute monarch, with the most perfect military machine in
Europe at his command. Frederick is constantly spoken of as a man
typical of his century. In truth he was throughout his life in
ostentatious opposition to his century on its most remarkable side.
There has never been any epoch whose foremost men had such faith and
hope in the virtues of humanity. There has never been any prominent man
who despised humanity so bitterly and unaffectedly as Frederick despised

We know what to think of a man who writes a touching and pathetic letter
condoling with a friend on the loss of his wife, and on the same day
makes an epigram on the dead woman[137]; who never found so much
pleasure in a friendly act as when he could make it the means of hurting
the recipient; whose practical pleasantries were always spiteful and
sneering and cruel. As we read of his tricks on D’Argens or Pöllnitz, we
feel how right Voltaire was in borrowing a nickname for him from a
mischievous brute whom he kept in his garden. He presented D’Argens with
a house; when D’Argens went to take possession he found the walls
adorned with pictures of all the most indecent and humiliating episodes
of his own life. This was a type of Frederick’s delicacy towards some of
those whom he honoured with his friendship. It is true that, except
Voltaire and Maupertuis, most of the French philosophers whom Frederick
seduced into coming to live at Berlin were not too good for the
corporal’s horse-play of which they were the victims. But then we know,
further, what to think of a man whose self-respect fails to proscribe
gross and unworthy companions. He is either a lover of parasites, which
Frederick certainly was not, or else the most execrable cynic, the cynic
who delights in any folly or depravity that assures him how right he is
in despising ‘that damned race.’

Frederick need not have summoned the least worthy French freethinkers,
men like D’Argens and La Mettrie and De Prades, in their own way as
little attractive in life and in doctrine as any monk or Geneva
preacher, to warrant him in thinking meanly of mankind. If any one wants
to know what manner of spirit this great temporal deliverer of Europe
was of, he may find what he seeks in the single episode of the
negotiations at Klein-Schnellendorf in 1741. There, although he had made
and was still bound by a solemn treaty of alliance with France, he
entered into secret engagements with the Hungarian Queen, to be veiled
by adroitly pretended hostilities. Even if, as an illustrious apologist
of the Prussian King is reduced to plead, this is in a certain fashion
defensible, on the ground that France and Austria were both playing with
cogged dice, and therefore the other dicer of the party was in
self-defence driven to show himself their superior in these excellent
artifices, there still seems a gratuitous infamy in hinting to the
Austrian general, as Frederick did, how he might assault with advantage
the French enemy, Frederick’s own ally at the moment.[138] This was the
author of the plea for political morality, called the Anti-Machiavel,
whose publication Voltaire had superintended the year before, and, for
that matter, had done his best to prevent. Still, as Frederick so
graciously said of his new guest and old friend: ‘He has all the tricks
of a monkey; but I shall make no sign, for I need him in my study of
French style. One may learn good things from a scoundrel: I want to know
his French; what is his morality to me?’ And so a royal statesman may
have the manners of the coarsest corporal, and the morality of the
grossest cynic, and still have both the eye to discern, and the hand to
control, the forces of a great forward movement.

Frederick had the signal honour of accepting his position, and taking up
with an almost perfect fortitude the burden which it laid upon him. ‘We
are not masters of our own lot,’ he wrote to Voltaire, immediately after
his accession to the throne; ‘the whirlwind of circumstances carries us
away, and we must suffer ourselves to be carried away.’[139] And what he
said in this hour of exaltation he did not deny nearly twenty years
later, when his fortunes seemed absolutely desperate. ‘If I had been
born a private person,’ he wrote to him in 1759, ‘I would give up
everything for love of peace; but a man is bound to take on the spirit
of his position.’[140] ‘Philosophy teaches us to do our duty, to serve
our country faithfully at the price of our blood and our case, to
sacrifice for it our whole existence.’[141] Men are also called upon by
their country to abstain from sacrificing their existence, and if
Frederick’s sense of duty to his subjects had been as perfect as it was
exceptionally near being so, he would not have carried a phial of poison
round his neck.[142] Still on the whole he devoted himself to his career
with a temper that was as entirely calculated for the overthrow of a
tottering system, as Voltaire’s own. It is difficult to tell whether
Frederick’s steady attention to letters and men of letters, and his
praiseworthy endeavours to make Berlin a true academic centre, were due
to a real and disinterested love of knowledge, and a sense of its worth
to the spirit of man, or still more to weak literary vanity, and a
futile idea of universal fame so far as his own productions went, and a
purely utilitarian purpose so far as his patronage of the national
academy was concerned. One thing is certain, that the philosophy which
he learnt from French masters, which Voltaire brought in his proper
person to Berlin, and to which Frederick to the end of his days was
always adding illustrative commentaries, never made any impression on
Germany. The teaching of Leibnitz and Wolf stood like a fortified wall
in the face of the French invasion, and whatever effective share French
speculation had upon Germany, was through the influence of Descartes
upon Leibnitz.

The dissolution of the outer framework of the European state-system, for
which Frederick’s seizure of Silesia was the first clear signal,
followed as it was by the indispensable suppression of the mischievous
independence, so called, of barbaric and feudal Poland, where bishops
and nobles held a people in the most oppressive bondage, can only
concern us here slightly, because it was for the time only indirectly
connected with the characteristic work of Voltaire’s life. But, though
indirect, the connection may be seen at our distance of time to have
been marked and unmistakable. The old order and principles of Europe
were to receive a new impress, and the decaying system of the middle age
to be replaced by a polity of revolution, which should finally change
the relations of nations, the types of European government, and the
ideas of spiritual control.

In 1733 the war of the Polish succession between Austria and Russia on
the one hand, and France and Spain on the other, had given the first
great shock to the house of Austria, which was compelled to renounce the
pretensions and territory of the Empire in Italy, or nearly all of them,
in favour of the Spanish Bourbons, as well as to surrender Lorraine to
Stanislas, with reversion to the crown of France. We may notice in
passing that it was at Stanislas’ court of Lunéville that Voltaire and
the Marquise du Châtelet passed their last days together. The wars of
the Polish succession were remarkable for another circumstance. They
were the first occasion of the decisive interference of Russia in
Western affairs, an only less important disturbance of Europe than the
first great interference of Prussia a few years later. The falling to
pieces of the old Europe was as inevitable as, more than twelve
centuries before, had been the dissolution of that yet older Europe
whose heart had been not Vienna but Rome. Russia and Prussia were not
the only novel elements. There was a third from over the sea, the
American colonies of France and England.

Roman Europe had been a vast imperial state, with slavery for a base.
Then, after the feudal organisation had run its course, there was a long
and chaotic transition of dynastic and territorial wars, frightfully
wasteful of humanity and worse than unfruitful to progress. In vain do
historians, intent on vindicating the foregone conclusions of the
optimism which a distorted notion about final causes demands or
engenders in them, try to show these hateful contests as parts of a
harmonious scheme of things, in which many diverse forces move in a
mysterious way to a common and happy end. As if any good use, for
instance, were served by the transfer, for one of the chief results of
the war of the Polish succession, of the Italian provinces of the Empire
of the Spanish Bourbons. As if any good or permanent use were served by
the wars which ended in the Peace of Utrecht, when victorious England
conceded, and with much wisdom conceded, the precise point which she had
for so many years been disputing. From the Peace of Westphalia to the
beginning of the Seven Years’ War, it is not too much to say that there
was a century of purely artificial strife on the continent of Europe,
of wars as factious, as merely personal, as unmeaning, as the civil war
of the Fronde was all of these things. In speaking roundly of this
period, we leave out of account the first Silesian War, because the
issue between Prussia and Austria was not decisively fought out until
the final death-struggle from 1756 to 1763. It was the entry of
Frederick the Great upon the scene, that instantly raised international
relations into the region of real matter and changed a strife of
dynasties, houses, persons, into a vital competition between old forces
and principles and new. The aimless and bloody commotions which had
raged over Europe, and ground men’s lives to dust in the red mill of
battle, came for a time to an end, and their place was taken by a
tremendous conflict, on whose issue hung not merely the triumph of a
dynasty, but the question of the type to which future civilisation was
to conform.

In the preliminary war which followed immediately upon the death of
Charles VI. in 1740, and which had its beginning in Frederick’s invasion
of Silesia, circumstances partially marched in the usual tradition, with
France and Austria playing opposite sides in an accustomed game. Before
the opening of the Seven Years’ War the cardinal change of policy and
alliances had taken place. We are not concerned with the court intrigues
that brought the change about, with the intricate manœuvres of the
Jesuits, or the wounded vanity of Bernis, whose verses Frederick laughed
at, or the pique of Pompadour, whom Frederick declined to count an
acquaintance. When conflicting forces of tidal magnitude are at work, as
they were in the middle of the last century, the play of mere personal
aims and ambitions is necessarily of secondary importance; because we
may always count upon there being at least one great power that clearly
discerns its own vital interest, and is sure therefore to press with
steady energy in its own special direction. That power was Austria. One
force of this kind is enough to secure a universal adjustment of all the
others in their natural places.

The situation was apparently very complex. There were in the middle of
the century two great pairs of opposed interests, the interests of
France and England on the ocean and in America, and the interests of
Austria and Prussia in Central Europe. The contest was in each of the
two cases much more than a superficial affair of dynasties or division
of territory, to meet the requirements of the metaphysical diplomacy of
the balance of power. It was a re-opening in far vaster proportions of
those profound issues of new religion and old which had only been dammed
up, and not permanently settled, by the great Peace of Westphalia in
1648. In vaster proportions, not merely because the new struggle between
the Catholic and Protestant powers extended into the new world, but
because the forces contained in these two creeds had been widened and
developed, and a multitude of indirect consequences, entirely apart from
theology and church discipline, depended upon the triumph of Great
Britain and Prussia. The Governments of France and Austria represented
the feudal and military idea, not in the strength of that idea while it
was still alive, but in the narrow and oppressive form of its decay. No
social growth was possible under its shadow, for one of its essential
conditions was discouragement, active and passive, of commercial
industry, the main pathway then open to an advancing people. Again, both
France and Austria represented the old type of monarchy, as
distinguished alike from the aristocratic oligarchy of England, and the
new type of monarchy which Prussia introduced into Europe, frugal,
encouraging industry, active in supervision, indefatigable in improving
the laws. Let us not omit above all things the splendid religious
toleration, of which Prussia set so extraordinarily early an example to
Europe. The Protestants whom episcopal tyranny drove from Salzburg found
warm hospitality among their northern brethren. While the professors of
the reformed faith were denied civil status in France, and subjected to
persecution of a mediæval bloodiness, one Christian was counted exactly
as another in Prussia. While England was revelling in the infliction of
atrocious penal laws on her Catholic citizens, Prussia extended even to
the abhorred Jesuit the shelter which was denied him in Spain and at
Rome. The transfer of territory from Austria to Prussia meant the
extension of toleration in that territory. Silesia, for instance, no
sooner became Prussian, than the University of Breslau, whose advantages
had hitherto been rigidly confined to Catholics, was at once
compulsorily opened to Protestants and Catholics alike. In criticising
Frederick’s despotism let us recognise how much enlightenment, how much
of what is truly modern, was to be found in the manner in which this
despotic power was exercised, long before the same enlightened
principles were accepted in other countries.

We cannot understand the issues of the Seven Years’ War, nor indeed of
the eighteenth century on any of its more important sides, without
tolerably distinct ideas about the ages before and behind it, about the
sixteenth century and the twentieth; without ideas as to the conditions
of the break-up of the Catholic and the feudal organisation, and, next,
as to the attitude proper to be assumed, and the methods to be followed,
in dealing with the more or less anarchic circumstances in which their
break-up and its sequels leave us. There are two ways of regarding these
questions. You may say, as Comte says, that the ultimate type of
society, perfected on a basis of positive knowledge, will in the
essential features of its constitution correspond to the ancient or
mediæval constitution which it replaces; because that gave the fullest
possible satisfaction to those elements of human nature which are
deepest and permanent, and to those social needs which must always press
upon us; that anything which either seriously retards the dissolution of
the old, or draws men aside from the road which leads on to the same
organisation transformed, must therefore be an impediment in the way of
the new society, and a peril to civilisation. Hence, they say, the
mischievousness of Protestantism, Voltairism, and all the minor
manifestations of the critical spirit, because they inspire their
followers with a contempt, as mistaken towards the past as it is
pernicious to the future, for those fundamental principles of social
stability and individual happiness, to which alone we have to look for
the establishment of a better order; because they give to the unguided
individual judgment the force and authority that can only come with
safety from organisation and tradition, that is from a certain definite
form of shaping and expressing the common judgment; and because,
moreover, they tend directly and indirectly to detach effort from social
aims and the promotion of the common weal, to the attainment of mean and
unwholesome individual ambitions. From this point of view, we should
have to regard the acquisition of colonies, for instance, which was one
of the chief objects of Lord Chatham’s policy, as the mischievous
transfer, in the interests of commercial cupidity, of an activity,
hopefulness, and power, that ought to have been devoted to the solution
of the growing social difficulties of Europe; and that ought to have
been bent from a profoundly mean egotism, in the nation and the traders
whose interest was the key of the policy, into a generous feeling for
the public order.

There is, however, another and a very different way of looking at all
this. You cannot be sure, it is said, that the method of social advance
is to be a return upon the old framework and the old lines; to be sure
of this implies an impatient confidence that social forms have all been
exhausted, or else an unsupported assumption that the present transitory
form is so full of danger to the stability of civilisation, as to make
the acceptance of almost any firm order better than the prolonged
endurance of a social state which, on that theory, ought hardly to be
accounted much better than the social state of Bedouin Arabs. Is it not
far better and safer to refrain from committing ourselves to a given
type of social reconstruction, and to work forward patiently upon the
only principle that can be received with entire assurance; namely, that
faithful cultivation of the intelligence, and open-minded investigation
of all that the intelligence may present to us, is the only certain
method of not missing the surest and quickest road to the manifold
improvements of which the fundamental qualities of human nature, as well
as the relations of man in society, are susceptible? There is no good
ground for supposing that this steadfast regard to the fruitfulness and
variety of the individual intelligence tends specially to lead to the
concentration of energy upon individual aims. For what lesson does free
intelligence teach us more constantly or more impressively than that man
standing alone is impotent, that every unsocial act or sentiment tends
to overthrow that collectivity of effort to which we owe all, and, most
important of all, that this collectivity is most effectively secured by
the just culture of the impulses and affections? No degree nor kind of
organisation could lead us further than this, and ought it not to be the
prime object and chief hope of those who think about society, that this
truth shall stand rooted in every one’s own reason? If it does not so
stand, you have no security for your spiritual organisation, and if it
does, then you have no necessity. It is to the spread of this
conviction, by the ever-pressing consciousness of urgent social
circumstances, that we must look to suffuse industrial and egotistic
energy with a truly moral and social sentiment.

This is the point of view from which we may justly regard the violent
change that was the result of the Seven Years’ War, as a truly
progressive step. We cannot be as reasonably sure that the old
conditions of men’s relations in society are in whatever new shape
destined to return, as we are sure that it was a good thing to prevent a
feudal and jesuitical government like Austria from retaining a purely
obstructive power in Europe, and a jesuitical government like France
from establishing the same obstructive kind of power in America. The
advantages of the final acquisition of America by Protestantism, and the
decisive consolidation of Prussia, were not without alloy. History does
not present us with these clean balances. It is not at all difficult to
see the injurious elements in this victory of the northern powers, and
nobody would be less willing than the present writer to accept either
the Prussian polity of Frederick, or the commercial polity of England
and her western colonies, as offering final types of wholesome social
states But the alternative was the triumph of a far worse polity than
either, the polity of the Society of Jesus.

Even those who claim our respect for the Jesuits as having in the
beginning of their course served the very useful purpose of honestly
administering that spiritual power which had fallen from the hands of
the Popes, who had mischievously entered the ranks and followed the
methods of temporal princes, do not deny that within a couple of
generations they became a dangerous obstacle to the continuity of
European progress. Indeed, it is clear that they grew into the very
worst element that has ever appeared in the whole course of European
history, because their influence rested on a systematic compromise with
moral corruption. They had barely seized the spiritual power in the
Catholic countries when it was perceived that as an engine of moral
control their supposed power was no power at all; and that the only
condition on which they could retain the honour and the political
authority which were needful to them was that they should connive at
moral depravity. They had the education of the country in their hands,
and from the confessor’s closet they pulled the wires which moved
courts. There was no counter-force, for the mass of the people was dumb,
ignorant, and fettered. Say what we will of the need for a spiritual
power, the influence of the Jesuits by the middle of the eighteenth
century was cutting off the very root of civilisation. This was the
veritably Infamous. And this was the influence which the alliance of
England and Prussia, a thing accidental enough to all appearance,
successfully and decisively checked, because the triumph of the two
northern powers was naturally the means of discrediting the Jesuit
intrigues in the court of Versailles and elsewhere, and stripping them
of those associations of political and material success, which had
hitherto stood to them in the stead of true spiritual credit.

The peace of 1763 had important territorial consequences. By the treaty
of Paris between France, England, and Spain, Great Britain was assured
of her possessions on the other side of the Atlantic. By the treaty of
Hubertsburg between Austria, Prussia, and Saxony, Prussia was assured of
her position as an independent power in Europe. These things were much.
But the decisive repulse of the great Jesuit organisation was yet more.
It was the most important side of the same facts. The immediate
occasions of this repulse varied in different countries, and had their
origin in different sets of superficial circumstance, but the debility
of the courts of Austria and France was the only condition on which such
occasions could be seized. The very next year, after the treaties of
Paris and Hubertsburg, the Society of Jesus was suppressed in France,
and its property confiscated. Three years later it was expelled from
Spain. Within ten years from the peace of 1763 it was abolished by the
virtuous Clement XIV. In Canada, where the order had been extremely
powerful,[143] their authority vanished, and with it the probability of
establishing in the northern half of the new world those ideas of
political absolutism and theological casuistry which were undoing the
old. Whatever the accidents which hurried the catastrophe, there were
two general causes which really produced it, the revolution in ideas,
and the revolution in the seat of material power. If this be a true
description of the crisis, we can see sufficiently plainly to what an
extent Voltaire and Frederick, while they appeared to themselves to be
fellow-workers only in the culture of the muses, were in fact
unconsciously co-operating in a far mightier task. When the war was
drawing to an end, and Frederick was likely to escape from the
calamities which had so nearly overwhelmed him and his kingdom in
irretrievable ruin, we find Voltaire writing to D’Alembert thus: ‘As for
Luc’ (the nickname borrowed for the king of Prussia from an ape with a
trick of biting), ‘though I ought to be full of resentment against him,
yet I confess to you that in my quality of thinking creature and
Frenchman, I am heartily content that a certain most devout house has
not swallowed Germany up, and that the Jesuits don’t confess at Berlin.
Superstition is monstrously powerful towards the Danube.’ To which his
correspondent replied that he quite agreed that the triumph of Frederick
was a blessing for France and for philosophy. ‘These Austrians are
insolent capucins, whom I would fain see annihilated with the
superstition they protect.’[144] Here was precisely the issue.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that Frederick consciously and
formally recognised the ultimate ends of his policy. Such deliberate
marking out of the final destination of their work, imputed to rulers,
churchmen, poets, is mostly a figment invented by philosophers.
Frederick thought nothing at all about the conformation of the European
societies in the twentieth century. It was enough for him to make a
strong and independent Prussia, without any far-reaching vision, or
indeed without any vision at all, of the effect which a strong and
independent Prussia would finally have upon the readjustment of ideas
and social forces in western civilisation. We are led to a false notion
of history, and of all the conditions of political action and the
development of nations, by attributing to statesmen deep and
far-reaching sight of consequences, which only completed knowledge and
some ingenuity enable those who live after to fit into a harmonious
scheme. ‘Fate, for whose wisdom I entertain all imaginable reverence,
often finds in chance, by which it works, an instrument not over
manageable.’[145] And the great ruler, knowing this, is content to
abstain from playing fate’s part, feeling his way slowly to the next
step. His compass is only true for a very short distance, and his chart
has marks for no long course. To make Prussia strong was the aim of
Frederick’s life. Hence, although the real destiny of his policy was to
destroy the house of Austria, he did not scruple in 1741 to offer to
assist Maria Theresa with his best help against all the other invaders
of the famous Pragmatic Sanction, which they had solemnly sworn to
uphold. Afterwards, and before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, he
sought the alliance of France, but happily for Europe, not until after
Kaunitz and Maria Theresa had already secured that blind and misguided
power, thus driving him into an alliance with Great Britain. And so
chance did the work of fate after all.

It may be said that such a view of the operation of the great forces of
the world is destructive of all especial respect and gratitude towards
the eminent men, of whom chance and fate have made mere instruments.
What becomes of hero-worship, if your hero after all only half knew
whither he sought to go, and if those achievements which have done such
powerful service were not consciously directed towards the serviceable
end? We can only answer that it is not the office of history to purvey
heroes, nor always to join appreciation of a set of complex effects with
veneration for this or that performer. For this veneration, if it is to
be an intelligent mood, implies insight into the inmost privacy of aim
and motive, and this insight, in the case of those whom circumstance
raises on a towering pedestal, we can hardly ever count with assurance
on finding faithful and authentic. History is perhaps not less
interesting for not being distorted into a new hagiographa.

It is equally unwarranted to put into Frederick’s mind conscious ideas
as to the type of monarchy proper for Europe in the epoch of passage
from old systems. Once more, he thought of his own country, and his own
country only, in all those wise measures of internal government which
have been so unjustly and so childishly thrust by historians into the
second place behind his exploits as a soldier, as if the civil activity
of the period between 1763, when peace was made, and 1786, when he died,
was not fully as remarkable in itself, and fully as momentous in its
results, as the military activity of the period between 1763 and 1740.
There is in men of the highest governing capacity, like Richelieu, or
Cromwell, or Frederick, an instinct for good order and regular
administration. They insist upon it for its own sake, independently of
its effects either on the happiness of subjects, or on the fundamental
policy and march of things. If Frederick had acceded to the supreme
power in a highly civilised country, he would have been equally bent on
imposing his own will and forcing the administration into the exact
grooves prescribed by himself, and the result would have been as
pestilent there as it was beneficial in a backward and semi-barbarous
country such as Prussia was in his time. This good internal ordering was
no more than a part of the same simple design which shaped his external
policy. He had to make a nation, and its material independence in the
face of Austria and Russia was not more a part of this process than
giving it the great elements of internal well-being, equal laws, just
administration, financial thrift, and stimulus and encouragement to
industry. Such an achievement as the restoration of the germs of order
and prosperity, which Frederick so rapidly brought about after the
appalling ruin that seven years of disastrous war had effected, is
unmatched in the history of human government. Well might he pride
himself, as we know that he did, on replacing this social chaos by
order, more than on Eossbach or Leuthen. Above all, he never forgot the
truth which every statesman ought to have burning in letters of fire
before his eyes; _I am the procurator of the poor_.

It commits us to no general theory of government to recognise the merits
of Frederick’s internal administration. They constitute a special case,
to be judged by its own conditions. We may safely go so far as to say
that in whatever degree the social state of a nation calls for active
government, whether, as the people of the American Union boast of
themselves, they need no government, or whether, as is the case in Great
Britain, the wretched lives of the poor beneath the combined cupidity
and heartless want of thought of the rich cry aloud for justice, in this
degree it is good that the statesmen called to govern should be in that
capacity of Frederick’s type, conceding all freedom to thought, but
energetic in the use of power as trustees for the whole nation against
special classes. To meet completely the demands of their office they
should have, what Frederick neither had nor could under the
circumstances of his advent and the time be expected to have, a firm
conviction that the highest ultimate end of all kingship is to enable
nations to dispense with that organ of national life, and to fit them
for a spontaneous initiative and free control in the conduct of their
own affairs.

Let us be careful to remember that, if Frederick was a great ruler in
the positive sense, he sprang from the critical school. The traditions
of his house were strictly Protestant, his tutors were Calvinistic
refugees, and his personal predilections had from his earliest youth
been enthusiastically Voltairean. May we not count it one of the claims
of the critical philosophy to a place among the leading progressive
influences in western history, that it tended to produce statesmen of
this positive type? I do not know of any period of corresponding length
that can produce such a group of active, wise, and truly positive
statesmen as existed in Europe between 1760 and 1780. Besides Frederick,
we have Turgot in France, Pombal in Portugal, Charles III and D’Aranda
in Spain. If Charles III was faithful to the old creed, the three
greatest, at any rate, of these extraordinary men drew inspiration from
the centre of the critical school. D’Aranda had mixed much with the
Voltairean circle while in Paris. Pombal, in spite of the taint of some
cruelty, in so many respects one of the most powerful and resolute
ministers that has ever held office in Europe, had been for some time in
England, and was a warm admirer of Voltaire, whose works he caused to be
translated into Portuguese. The famous school of Italian publicists,
whose speculations bore such admirable fruit in the humane legislation
of Leopold of Tuscany, and had so large a share in that code with which
the name of the ever hateful Bonaparte has become fraudulently
associated, these excellent thinkers found their oracles in that
critical philosophy, of which we are so unjustly bidden to think only in
connection with shallow and reckless destruction. The application of
reason to the amelioration of the social condition was the device of the
great rulers of this time, and the father and inspirer of this device
was that Voltaire who is habitually presented to us a mere mocker.

Psychologues like Sulzer might declare that the scourge of right
thinking was to be found in ‘those philosophers who, more used to
sallies of wit than to deep reasoning, assume that they have overthrown
by a single smart trope truths only to be known by combining a multitude
of observations, so delicate and difficult that we cannot grasp them
without the aid of the firmest attention.’[146] How many of these
so-called truths were anything but sophistical propositions, the
products of intellectual ingenuity run riot, without the smallest
bearing either on positive science or social well-being? And is it not
rather an abuse of men’s willingness to take the profundity of
metaphysics on trust, that any one who has formulated a metaphysical
proposition, with due technicality of sounding words, has a claim to
arrest the serious attention of every busy passer-by, and to throw on
this innocent and laudable person the burden of disproof? If Duns Scotus
or St. Thomas Aquinas had risen from the dead, Voltaire would very
properly have declined a bout of school dialectic with those famous
shades, because he was living in the century of the Encyclopædia, when
the exploration of things and the improvement of institutions had taken
the place of subtle manipulation of unverified words, important as that
process had once been in the intellectual development of Europe. He was
equally wise in declining to throw more than a trope or sprightly sally
in the direction of people who dealt only in the multiplication of
metaphysical abracadabras. It was his task to fix the eyes of men upon
action. In the sight of Lutheran or Wolfian conjurors with words this
was egregious shallowness. Strangely enough they thought it the climax
of philosophic profundity to reconcile their natural spiritualism with
the supernatural spiritualism of the scriptures, and rationalistic
theism with the historic theism of revelation.[147] Voltaire repudiated
the supernatural and pseudo-historic half of this hybrid combination,
and in doing so he showed a far profounder logic than the cloudiest and
most sonorous of his theologico-metaphysical critics. We may call him
negative and destructive on this account if we please, yet surely the
abnegation of barren and inconsistent speculation, and of fruitless
effort to seize a vain abstract universality, was a very meritorious
trait in a man who did not stop here, but by every means, by poetry, by
history, by biography, and by the manifestation of all his vivid
personal interests, drew every one who was within the sphere of his
attraction to the consideration of social action as the first fact for
the firm attention of the leaders of mankind.

It may be said that even from this side Voltaire was destructive only,
and undoubtedly, owing to the circumstances of the time, the destructive
side seemed to predominate in his social influence. To say this,
however, is not to bring an end to the matter. The truth is that no
negative thinking can stop at the negative point. To teach men to hate
superstition and injustice is a sure, if an indirect, way of teaching
them to seek after their opposites. Voltaire could only shake
obscurantist institutions by appealing to man’s love of light, and the
love of light, once stirred, leads far. He appealed to reason, and it
was reason in Frederick and the others, which had quickened and
strengthened the love of good order, that produced the striking
reforming spirit which moved through the eighteenth century, until the
reaction against French revolutionary violence arrested its progress. It
is one of the most difficult questions in all history to determine
whether the change from the old order to the new has been damaged or
advanced by that most memorable arrest of the work of social renovation
in the hands of sovereign and traditional governments, administered by
wise statesmen with due regard to traditional spirit; and how far the
passionate efforts of those classes, whose only tradition is a tradition
of squalor and despair, have driven the possessors of superior material
power back into obstructive trepidation. The question is more than
difficult, it is in our generation insoluble, because the movement is
wholly incomplete. But whether the French outbreak from 1789 to 1794 may
prove to have been the starting-point of a new society, or only to have
been a detrimental interruption and parent of interruptions to stable
movement forwards, we have in either case to admit that there was a most
vigorous attempt made in all the chief countries in Europe, between the
middle of the century and the fall of the French monarchy, to improve
government and to perfect administration; that Frederick of Prussia was
the author of the most permanently successful of these endeavours; and
that Frederick learnt to break loose from dark usage, to prefer equity
of administration, to abandon religious superstition, and to insist on
tolerance, from the only effective moral and intellectual masters he
ever had, first the French Calvinists, and then the French critical
school, with Voltaire for chief. It is true, as we shall presently see,
that an important change in the spirit of French writers was marked by
the Encyclopædia, which was so much besides being critical. But then
this famous work only commenced in the year when Voltaire reached
Berlin, and Frederick’s character had received its final shape long
before that time.

With the exception of Voltaire, D’Alembert was the only really eminent
Frenchman whose work ever struck Frederick, and we are even conscious,
in comparing his letters to these two eminent men, of a certain
seriousness and deferential respect towards the later friend, which
never marked his relations with Voltaire after the early days of
youthful enthusiasm. Frederick’s admiration for France, indeed, has been
somewhat overstated by French writers, and by those of our own country
who have taken their word for granted. ‘Your nation,’ Frederick once
wrote to Voltaire, ‘is the most inconsequent in all Europe. It abounds
in bright intelligence, but has no consistency in its ideas. This is how
it appears through all its history. There is really an indelible
character imprinted on it. The only exception in a long succession of
reigns is to be found in a few years of Lewis XIV. The reign of Henry
IV. was neither tranquil enough nor long enough for us to take that into
account. During the administration of Richelieu we observe some
consistency of design and some nerve in execution; but in truth they are
uncommonly short epochs of wisdom in so long a chronicle of madnesses.
Again, France has been able to produce men like Descartes or
Malebranche, but no Leibnitz, no Lockes, no Newtons. On the other hand,
for taste, you surpass all other nations, and I will surely range myself
under your standards in all that regards delicacy of discernment and the
judicious and scrupulous choice between real beauties and those which
are only apparent. That is a great point in polite letters, but it is
not everything.’[148] Frederick, however, could never endure the least
hint that he was not a perfect Frenchman in the order of polite letters.
The article on Prussia in the Encyclopædia was full of the most
flattering eulogies of his work as a soldier and an administrator, and
even contained handsome praise for his writings; but Diderot, the author
of this part of the article, delicately suggested that a year or two in
the Faubourg St. Honoré would perhaps have dispersed the few grains of
Berlin sand which hindered the perfect purity of note of that admirable
flute. Frederick, who had hitherto been an ardent reader of the
Encyclopædia, never opened another volume.

We can understand Voltaire’s character without wading through the slough
of mean scandals which sprung up like gross fungi during his stay at
Berlin. Who need remember that Frederick spoke of his illustrious guest
as an orange of which, when one has squeezed the juice, one throws away
the skin? Or how Voltaire retorted by speaking of his illustrious host,
whose royal verses he had to correct, as a man sending his dirty linen
to him to wash? or, still worse, as a compound of Julius Caesar and the
abbé Cotin? Nor need we examine into stories, suspicious products of
Berlin malice, how Frederick stopped his guest’s supply of sugar and
chocolate, and how Voltaire put his host’s candle-ends into his pocket.
It is enough to know that the king and the poet gradually lost their
illusions, and forgot that life was both too short and too valuable to
waste in vain efforts of making believe that an illusion is other than
it is. Voltaire took a childish delight in his gold key and his star,
and in supping as an intimate with a king who had won five battles. His
life was at once free and occupied, the two conditions of happy
existence. He worked diligently at his Siècle de Louis XIV., and
diverted himself with operas, comedies, and great entertainments among
affable queens, charming princesses, and handsome maids of honour. Yet
he could not forget the saying, which had been so faithfully carried to
him, of the orange-skin. He declared that he was like the man who fell
from the top of a high tower, and finding himself softly supported in
the air, cried out, _Good, if it only lasts._[149] Or he was like a
husband striving hard to persuade himself of the fidelity of a suspected
wife. He had fits of violent nostalgia. ‘I am writing to you by the side
of a stove, with drooping head and heavy heart, looking on to the River
Spree, because the Spree falls into the Elbe, the Elbe into the sea, and
the sea receives the Seine, and our Paris house is near the River Seine,
and I say, Why am I in this palace, in this cabinet looking into this
Spree, and not in our own chimney-corner?... How my happiness is
poisoned, how short is life! What wretchedness to seek happiness far
from you; and what remorse, if one finds it away from you.’[150] This
was to Madame Denis, his niece; but a Christmas in the Berlin barrack
made even a plain coquette in Paris attractive and homely. We may
imagine with what tender regrets he would look back upon the old days at

Even in respect of the very mischief from which he had fled, the
detraction and caballing of the envious, he was hardly any better off at
Berlin than he had been at Paris. D’Argental, one of the wisest of his
friends, had forewarned him of this, and that he had fled from enemies
whom at any rate he never saw, only to find other enemies with whom he
had to live day after day. This was exactly what came to pass. Voltaire
often compared the system of life at Berlin and Potsdam to that of a
convent, half military, half literary. The vices of conventual life came
with its other features, and among them jealousy, envy, and malice. The
tale-bearer, that constant parasite of such societies, had exquisite
opportunities, and for a susceptible creature like Voltaire, the result
was wholly fatal. The nights and suppers of the gods became, in his own
phrase, suppers of Damocles. Alexander the Great was transformed into
the tyrant Dionysius. The famous Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, in the
autumn of 1752, brought matters to a climax, because its publication was
supposed to show marked defiance of the king’s wishes.

Maupertuis had been one of the earliest and most strenuous Newtonians
in France, and had at his own personal risk helped to corroborate the
truth of the new system. In 1735 the zeal for experimental science,
which was so remarkable a trait in this century of many-sided
intellectual activity, induced the academy of sciences to despatch an
expedition to take the actual measure of a degree of meridian below the
equator, and the curious and indefatigable De la Condamine, one of the
most ardent men of that ardent time, with two other inquirers went to
Peru. In 1736 Maupertuis and Clairaut under the same auspices started
for the north pole, where, after undergoing the severest hardships, they
succeeded in measuring their degree, and verifying by observation
Newton’s demonstration of the oblate figure of the earth, a verification
that was further completed by La Caille’s voyage to the Cape of Good
Hope in 1750.[151] Maupertuis commemorated his share in this excellent
work by having a portrait of himself executed, in which the palm of a
hand gently flattens the north pole. He was extremely courageous and
extremely vain. His costume was eccentric and affected, his temper more
jealous and arbitrary than comports with the magnanimity of
philosophers, and his manner more gloomily solemn than the conditions of
human life can ever justify. With all his absurdities, he was a man of
real abilities, and of a solidity of character beyond that of any of his
countrymen at Frederick’s court. I would rather live with him,
Frederick wrote to the princess Wilhelmina, than with Voltaire; ‘his
character is surer,’ which in itself was saying little. But then, the
moment he came into collision with Voltaire, his absurdities became the
most important thing about him, because it was precisely these which
Voltaire was sure to drag into unsparing prominence. In old days they
had been good friends, and a letter still remains, mournfully testifying
to the shallowness of men’s sight into the roots of their relations with
others, for it closes by bidding Maupertuis be sure that Voltaire will
love him all the days of his life.[152] The causes of their collision
were obvious enough. As Frederick said, Of two Frenchmen in the same
court, one must perish. Maupertuis, from the heights of the exact
sciences, probably despised Voltaire as a scribbler, while Voltaire,
with a heart flowing over with gay vivacity, assuredly counted
Maupertuis arbitrary, ridiculously solemn, and something of an impostor.
The compliances of society, he said of the president of the Berlin
academy, are not problems that he is fond of solving. Maupertuis acted
to König, in the matter of an academic or discoverer’s quarrel, in a way
that struck Voltaire, and all men since, as tyrannical, unjust, and
childish, all in one. He unhappily wrote a book which gave Voltaire such
an excuse for punishing the author’s injustice to König, as even
Voltaire’s spleen could hardly have hoped for, and the result was the
wittiest and most pitiless of all the purely personal satires in the
world. The temptation was certainly irresistible.

Maupertuis, as has been said, was courageous and venturesome, and this
venturesomeness being uncorrected by the severe discipline of a large
body of accurate positive knowledge, such as Clairaut and Lagrange
possessed, led him into some worse than equivocal speculation. He was in
the depths of the metaphysical stage, and developed physical theories
out of abstract terms. Of some of these theories the worst that could be
said was they were wholly unproved. He advanced the hypothesis, for
instance, that all the animal species sprang from some first creature,
prototype of all creatures since. Others of his theories were right in
idea, but wrong in form, and without even an attempt at verification.
The famous principle of the minimum of action, for example, in spite of
the truth at the bottom of it, was valueless and confused, until
Lagrange connected it with fundamental dynamic principles, generalised
it, and cleared the unsupported metaphysical notions out of it.[153] All
this, however, was wise and Newtonic compared with the ideas promulgated
in the Philosophic Letters, on which the wicked Akakia so swiftly
pounced. Here were notions which it needed more audacity to broach, than
to face the frosts and snows of Lapland; strange theories that in a
certain state of exaltation of the soul one may foresee the future; that
if the expiration of vital force could only be prevented, the body
might be kept alive for hundreds of years; that by careful dissection of
the brains of giants, Patagonian and other, we should ascertain
something of the composition of the mind; that a Latin town if it were
established, and this was not an original idea, would be an excellent
means of teaching the Latin language. Voltaire knew exactly what kind of
malicious gravity and feigned respect would surround this amazing
performance and its author with inextinguishable laughter, and his
thousand turns and tropes cut deep into Maupertuis like sharpened

Voltaire was not by scientific training competent to criticise
Maupertuis. This is true; but then Voltaire had what in such cases
dispensed with special competence, a preternatural gift of detecting an
impostor, and we must add that here as in every other case his anger was
set aflame not by intellectual vapidity, but by what he counted gross
wrong. Maupertuis had acted with despotic injustice towards König, and
Voltaire resolved to punish him. This is perhaps the only side of that
world-famous and truly wretched fray which it is worth our while to
remember, besides its illustration of the general moral that active
interest in public affairs is the only sure safeguard against the
inhuman egotism, otherwise so nearly inevitable and in any wise so
revolting, of men of letters and men of science.

Frederick took the side of the president of his academy, and had Doctor
Akakia publicly burnt within earshot of its author’s quarters.[154]
Voltaire had long been preparing for the end by depositing his funds in
the hands of the Duke of Würtemberg, and by other steps, which had come
to the king’s ears, and had by no means smoothed matters. He sees now
that the orange has been squeezed, and that it is his business to think
of saving the skin. He drew up for his own instruction, he said, a
pocket-dictionary of terms in use with kings: _My friend_ means _my
slave_; _my dear friend_ means that _you are more than indifferent to me;_
understand by _I will make you happy_, _I will endure you, as long as I
have need of you_; _sup with me to-night_ means _I will make fun of you
to-night._[155] Voltaire, though he had been, and always was, the most
graceful of courtiers, kept to his point, and loudly gave Frederick to
understand that in literary disputes he recognised no kings. An act of
tyranny had been committed towards König, who was his friend, and
nothing would induce him to admit either that it was anything else, or
that it was other than just to have held up the tyrant to the laughter
of Europe.

Frederick was profoundly irritated, and the terms in which he writes of
his French Virgil as an ape who ought to be flogged for his tricks, a
man worse than many who have been broken on the wheel, a creature who
may deserve a statue for his poetry but who certainly deserves chains
for his conduct, seem to imply a quite special mortification and
resentment. He had no doubt a deep and haughty contempt for all these
angers of celestial minds. The cabals of men of letters, he wrote to
Voltaire, seemed to him the lowest depth of degradation.[156] And he
would fain have flung a handful of dust on the furious creatures. After
three months of vain effort to achieve the impossible, Voltaire being
only moderately compliant, the king in March 1753 gave him leave to
depart, though with a sort of nominal understanding for politeness’ sake
that there was to be a speedy return.

Voltaire, however, was not a man in whose breast the flame of resentment
ever flickered away in politeness, until his adversary had humbled
himself. Though no one ever so systematically convinced himself each day
for thirty years that he was on the very point of death, no one was less
careful to measure the things that were worth doing from the point of
view of a conventional _memento mori_. Nobody spoke about dying so much,
nor thought about it so little. The first use he made of his liberty was
to shoot yet another bolt at Maupertuis from Leipzig, more piercing than
any that had gone before. Frederick now in his turn abandoned the forms
of politeness, and the renowned episode of Frankfort took place.
Voltaire, on reaching Frankfort, was required by the Prussian resident
in the free city to surrender his court decorations, and, more
important than these, a certain volume of royal verse containing the
Palladium, a poem of indecencies which were probably worse than those of
the Pucelle, because an indecent German is usually worse than an
indecent Frenchman. The poems, however, were what was far worse than
indecent in Frederick’s eyes; they were impolitic, for they contained
bitter sarcasm on sovereigns whom he might be glad to have, and one of
whom he did actually have, on his side in the day of approaching storm.
Various delays and unlucky mishaps occurred, and Voltaire underwent a
kind of imprisonment for some five weeks (May 31 to July 7, 1753), under
extremely mortifying and humiliating circumstances. There was on the one
part an honest, punctual, methodic, rather dull Prussian subordinate,
anxious above all other things in the world, not excepting respect for
genius and respect for law, to obey the injunctions of his master from
Berlin. On the other part Voltaire, whom we know; excitable as a demon,
burning with fury against enemies who were out of his reach now that he
had spent all his ammunition of satire upon them, only half
understanding what was said to him in a strange tongue, mad with fear
lest Frederick meant to detain him after all. It would need the singer
of the battle of the frogs and mice to do justice to this five-weeks’
tragi-comedy. A bookseller with whom he had had feuds years before,
injudiciously came either to pay his respects, or to demand some trivial
arears of money; the furious poet and philosopher rushed up to his
visitor and inflicted a stinging box on the ear, while Collini, his
Italian secretary, hastily offered this intrepid consolation to Van
Duren, ‘Sir, you have received a box on the ear from one of the greatest
men in the world.’ A clerk came to settle this affair or that, and
Voltaire rushed towards him with click of pistol, the friendly Collini
again interfering to better purpose by striking up the hand that had
written Mérope and was on the point of despatching a clerk. We need not
go into the minute circumstances of the Frankfort outrage. Freytag, the
subordinate, clearly overstrained his instructions, and his excess of
zeal in detaining and harassing Voltaire can only be laid indirectly to
Frederick’s charge. But Frederick is responsible, as every principal is,
who launches an agent in a lawless and tyrannic course. The German
Varnhagen has undoubtedly shown that Voltaire’s account, witty and
diverting as it is, is not free from many misrepresentations, and some
tolerably deliberate lies. French writers have as undoubtedly shown that
the detention of a French citizen by a Prussian agent in a free town of
the Empire was a distinct and outrageous illegality.[157] We, who are
fortunately not committed by the exigencies of patriotism to close our
eyes to either half of the facts, may with facile impartiality admit
both halves. Voltaire, though fundamentally a man of exceptional truth,
was by no means incapable of an untruth when his imagination was hot,
and Frederick was by no means incapable of an outrage upon law, when law
stood between him and his purpose. Frederick’s subordinates had no right
to detain Voltaire at all, and they had no right to allow themselves to
be provoked by his impatience into the infliction of even small outrages
upon him and his obnoxious niece. On the other hand, if Voltaire had
been a sort of Benjamin Franklin, if he had possessed a well-regulated
mind, a cool and gentle temper, a nice sense of the expedient, then the
most grotesque scene of a life in which there was too much of grotesque,
would not have been acted as it was, to the supreme delight of those
miserable souls who love to contemplate the follies of the wise.

Any reader who takes the trouble to read the documents affecting this
preposterous brawl at Frankfort between a thoroughly subordinate German
and the most insubordinate Frenchman that ever lived,—this adventure, as
its victim called it, of Cimbrians and Sicambrians,—will be rather
struck by the extreme care with which Frederick impresses on the persons
concerned the propriety of having Voltaire’s written and signed word for
such parts of the transaction as needed official commemoration. In one
place he expressly insists that a given memorandum should be written by
Voltaire’s own hand from top to bottom. This precaution, which seems so
strange in a king who had won five battles, dealing with the author of a
score of tragedies, an epic, and many other fine things, sprang in truth
from no desire to cast a wanton slight on Voltaire’s honour, but from
the painful knowledge that the author of the fine things was not above
tampering with papers and denying patent superscriptions. Voltaire’s
visit had not been of long duration, before the unfortunate lawsuit with
Abraham Hirschel occurred. Of this transaction we need only say this
much, that Voltaire employed the Jew in some illegal jobbing in Saxon
securities; that he gave him bills on a Paris banker, holding diamonds
from the Jew as pledge of honest Christian dealing; that his suspicions
were aroused, that he protested his bills, then agreed to buy the
jewels, then quarrelled over the price, and finally plunged into a suit,
of which the issues were practically two, whether Hirschel had any
rights on one of the Paris bills, and whether the jewels were fairly
charged. Voltaire got his bill back, and the jewels were to be duly
valued; but the proceedings disclosed two facts of considerable
seriousness for all who should have dealings with him: first, that he
had interpolated matter to his own advantage in a document already
signed by his adversary, thus making the Jew to have signed what he had
signed not; and second, that when very hard pushed he would not swerve
from a false oath, any more than his great enemy the apostle Peter had
done.[158] Frederick had remembered all this, just as every negotiator
who had to deal with Frederick remembered that the great king was not
above such infamies as Klein-Schnellendorf, nor such meanness as
filching away with his foot a letter that had slipped unseen from an
ambassador’s pocket.[159]

And so there was an end, if not of correspondence, yet of that
friendship, which after all had always belonged rather to the spoken
order than to the deep unspeakable. There was now cynical, hoarse-voiced
contempt on the one side, and fierce, reverberating, shrill fury on the
other. The spectacle and the sound are distressing to those who crave
dignity and admission of the serious in the relations of men with one
another, as well as some sense of the myriad indefinable relations which
encompass us unawares, giving colour and perspective to our more
definable bonds. One would rather that even in their estrangement there
had been some grace and firmness and self-control, and that at least the
long-cherished illusion had faded away worthily, as when one bids
farewell to a friend whom a perverse will carries from us over unknown
seas until a far day, and we know not if we shall see his face any more.
It jars on us that the moon which has climbed into the night and moved
like sound of music over heath and woodland, should finally set in a
gray swamp amid the harsh croaking of amphibians. But the intimacy
between Frederick and Voltaire had perhaps been always most like the
theatre moon.

We may know what strange admixture of distrust, contempt, and
tormenting reminiscence, mingled with the admiration of these two men
for one another’s genius, from the bitterness which occasionally springs
up in the midst of their most graceful and amiable letters of a later
date. For instance, this is Voltaire to Frederick; ‘You have already
done me ill enough; you put me wrong for ever with the king of France;
you made me lose my offices and pensions; you used me shamefully at
Frankfort, me and an innocent woman who was dragged through the mud and
thrown into gaol; and now, while honouring me with letters, you mar the
sweetness of this consolation by bitter reproaches.... The greatest harm
that your works have done, is in the excuse they have given to the
enemies of philosophy throughout Europe to say, “These philosophers
cannot live in peace, and they cannot live together. Here is a king who
does not believe in Jesus Christ; he invites to his court a man who does
not believe in Jesus Christ, and he uses him ill; there is no humanity
in these pretended philosophers, and God punishes them by means of one
another.” ... Your admirable and solid wisdom is spoiled by the
unfortunate pleasure you have always had in seeing the humiliation of
other men, and in saying and writing stinging things to them; a pleasure
most unworthy of you, and all the more so as you are raised above them
by your rank and by your unique talents.’[160] To which the king answers
that he is fully aware how many faults he has, and what great faults
they are, that he does not treat himself very gently, and that in
dealing with himself he pardons nothing. As for Voltaire’s conduct, it
would not have been endured by any other philosopher. ‘If you had not
had to do with a man madly enamoured of your fine genius, you would not
have got off so well with anybody else. Consider all that as done with,
and never let me hear again of that wearisome niece, who has not so much
merit as her uncle, with which to cover her defects. People talk of the
servant of Molière, but nobody will ever speak of the niece of

The poet had talked, after his usual manner, of being old and worn out,
and tottering on the brink of the grave. ‘Why, you are only sixty-two,’
said Frederick, ‘and your soul is full of that fire which animates and
sustains the body. You will bury me and half the present generation. You
will have the delight of making a spiteful couplet on my tomb.’[161]
Voltaire did not make a couplet, but he wrote a prose lampoon on the
king’s private life, which is one of the bitterest libels that malice
ever prompted, and from which the greater part of Europe has been
content to borrow its idea of the character of Frederick.[162] This was
vengeance enough even for Voltaire. We may add that while Voltaire
constantly declared that he could never forget the outrages which the
king of Prussia had inflicted on him, neither did he forget to draw his
pension from the king of Prussia even in times when Frederick was most
urgently pressed.[163] It may be said that he was ready to return
favours; ‘If things go on as they are going now,’ he wrote with sportive
malice, ‘I reckon on having to allow a pension to the king of

It was not surprising that Voltaire did not return to Paris. His
correspondence during his residence at Berlin attests in every page of
it how bitterly he resented the cabals of ignoble men of letters, and
the insolence of ignoble men of authority. ‘If I had been in Paris this
Lent,’ he wrote in 1752, ‘I should have been hissed in town, and made
sport of at court, and the Siècle de Louis XIV. would have been
denounced, as smacking of heresy, as audacious, and full of ill
significance. I should have had to go to defend myself in the ante-room
of the lieutenant of police. The officers would say, as they saw me
pass, _There is a man who belongs to us_.... No, my friend, _qui bene
latuit, bene vixit_.’[165] With most just anger, he contrasted German
liberality with the tyrannical suspicion of his own government. The
emperor, he says, made no difficulty in permitting the publication of a
book in which Leopold was called a coward. Holland gave free circulation
to statements that the Dutch are ingrates and that their trade is
perishing. He was allowed to print under the eyes of the king of Prussia
that the Great Elector abased himself uselessly before Lewis XIV., and
resisted him as uselessly. It was only in France where permission was
refused for an eulogy of Lewis XIV. and of France, and that, because he
had been neither base enough nor foolish enough to disfigure his eulogy
either by shameful silences or cowardly misrepresentations.[166] The
imprisonment, nine years before this, of Lenglet Dufresnoy, an old man
of seventy, for no worse offence than publishing a supplement to De
Thou’s history, had made a deep impression on Voltaire.[167] He would
have been something lower than human if he had forgotten the treatment
which he had himself received at the hands of the most feeble and
incompetent government that ever was endured by a civilised people.

So he found his way to Geneva, then and until 1798 an independent
republic or municipality. There (1755) he made himself two hermitages,
one for summer, called the Délices, a short distance from the spot where
the Arve falls into the Rhone, and the other near Lausanne (Monrion) for
winter. Here, he says, I see from my bed this glorious lake, which
bathes a hundred gardens at the foot of my terrace; which forms on right
and left a stream of a dozen leagues, and a calm sea in front of my
windows; and which waters the fields of Savoy, crowned with the Alps in
the distance.[168] You write to me, replied D’Alembert, from your bed,
whence you command ten leagues of the lake, and I answer you from my
hole, whence I command a patch of sky three ells long.[169] To poor
D’Alembert the name of the famous lake was fraught with evil
associations, for he had just published his too veracious article on
Geneva in the Encyclopædia, in which he paid the clergy of that city the
unwelcome compliment, that they were the most logical of all
Protestants, for they were Socinians; and he was now suffering the
penalty of men who stir up angry hives.

The enjoyment which Voltaire had then and for twenty years to come in
his noble landscape, and which he so often commemorates in his letters,
is a proof that may be added to others, of the injustice of the common
idea that the Voltairean school of the eighteenth century were specially
insensible to the picturesque. Morellet, for instance, records his
delight and wonder at the Alps and the descent into Italy, in terms
quite as warm, if much less profuse, as those of the most impressible
modern tourist.[170] Diderot had a strong spontaneous feeling for
nature, as he shows not only in his truly remarkable criticisms on the
paintings of twenty years, but also in his most private correspondence,
where he demonstrates in terms too plain, simple, and homely, to be
suspected of insincerity, the meditative delight with which the
solitary contemplation of fine landscape inspired him. He has no
peculiar felicity in describing natural features in words, or in
reproducing the inner harmonies with which the soft lines of distant
hills, or the richness of deep embosoming woodlands, or the swift
procession of clouds driven by fierce or cheerful winds, compose and
strengthen the sympathising spirit. But he was as susceptible to them as
men of more sonorous word.[171] And Voltaire finds the liveliest
pleasure in the natural sights and objects around him, though they never
quickened in him those brooding moods of egotistic introspection and
deep questioning contemplation in which Jean Jacques, Bernardin de St.
Pierre, and Sénancour, found a sort of refuge from their own desperate
impotency of will and of material activity. Voltaire never felt this
impotency. As the very apostle of action, how should he have felt it? It
pleased him in the first few months of his settlement in new scenes, and
at other times, to borrow some of Frederick’s talk about the bestial
folly of the human race, and the absurdity of troubling oneself about
it; but what was a sincere cynicism in the king, was in Voltaire only a
bit of cant, the passing affectation of an hour. The dramatist whose
imagination had produced so long a series of dramas of situation, the
historian who had been attracted by such labours as those of Charles
XII. of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia, as well as by the
achievements of the illustrious men who adorned the age of Lewis XIV.,
proved himself of far too objective and positive a temperament to be
capable of that self-conscious despair of action, that paralysing lack
of confidence in will, which drove men of other humour and other
experience forlorn into the hermit’s caves of a new Thebaid. Voltaire’s
ostentatious enjoyment of his landscape and his garden was only the
expansion of a seafarer, who after a stormful voyage finds himself in a
fair haven. His lines to Liberty[172] give us the keynote to his mood at
this time. He did not suppose that he had got all, but he knew that he
had got somewhat.

   Je ne vante point d’avoir en cet asile
       Rencontré le parfait bonheur:
   Il n’est point retiré dans le fond d’un bocage;
       Il est encore moins chez les rois;
       Il n’est pas même chez le sage;
   De cette courte vie il n’est point le partage;
   Il y faut renoncer; mais on peut quelquefois
       Embrasser au moins son image.

‘’Tis a fine thing, is tranquillity,’ he wrote; ‘yes, but ennui is of
its acquaintance and belongs to the family. To repulse this ugly
relation, I have set up a theatre.’[173] Besides the theatre, guests
were frequent and multitudinous. He speaks of sometimes having a crowd
of fifty persons at table.[174] Besides Les Délices and Lausanne, he
purchased from the President de Brosses a life-interest in Tourney, and
in the same year(1758) he bought the lordship of Ferney, close by. He
was thus a citizen of Geneva, of Berne, and of France, ‘for philosophers
ought to have two or three holes underground against the hounds who
chase them.’ If the dogs of France should hunt him, he could take
shelter in Geneva. If the dogs of Geneva began to bay, he could run into
France. By and by this consideration of safety grew less absorbing, and
all was abandoned except Ferney; a name that will always remain
associated with those vigorous and terrible assaults upon the Infamous,
which first definitely opened when Voltaire became the lord of this
little domain.




In examining the Voltairean attack upon religion we have to remember
that it was in the first instance prompted, and throughout its course
stimulated and embittered, by antipathy to the external organisation of
the religion. It was not merely disbelief in a creed, but exasperation
against a church. Two distinct elements lay at the bottom of Voltaire’s
enmity to the peculiar form of monotheism which he found supreme around
him. One of them was the intellectual element of repugnance to a system
of belief that rested on miracles and mysteries irreconcilable with
reason, and was so intimately associated with some of the most odious
types of character and most atrocious actions in the Old Testament,
which undoubtedly contains so many of both. The other was the moral
element of anger against the expounders of this system, their
intolerance of light and hatred of knowledge, their fierce yet
profoundly contemptible struggles with one another, the scandals of
their casuistry, their besotted cruelty. Of these two elements, the
second was, no doubt, if not the earlier in time, at least the stronger
in intensity. It was because he perceived the fruit to be so deadly,
that Voltaire laid the axe to the root of the tree. It is easy to say
that these poisonous Jesuitries and black Jansenisms were no fruit of
the tree, but the produce of a mere graft, which could have been lopped
off without touching the sacred trunk. Voltaire thought otherwise, and
whether he was right or wrong, it is only just to him to keep constantly
before us the egregious failure of Catholicism in his day as a social
force. This is a fact as to which there can be no dispute among persons
with knowledge enough and mental freedom enough to be competent to have
an opinion, and Voltairism can only be fairly weighed if we regard it as
being in the first instance no outbreak of reckless speculative
intelligence, but a righteous social protest against a system socially
pestilent. It was the revival of the worst parts of this system in the
cruelty and obscurantism which broke out after the middle of the
century, that converted Voltaire into an active assailant of belief. But
for that he would pretty certainly have remained tranquilly in the phase
of deism of which some of his early verses are the expression.
Philosophy is truly, as Callicles says in the Gorgias, a most charming
accomplishment for a man to follow at the right age, but to carry
philosophy too far is the undoing of humanity.

Voltaire no doubt deliberately set himself to overthrow the Catholic
theology, as well as the ecclesi astical system which was bound up with
it, and he did so for the very sufficient reason that it has always been
impossible for men to become indulgent in act, while they remained
fanatical in belief. They will not cease to be persecutors, he said,
until they have ceased to be absurd.[175] The object was to secure
tolerance, and tolerance could only be expected as the product of
indifference, and indifference could be spread most surely by throwing
the fullest light of reason and common sense on the mystical foundations
of revealed religion. To stop short at the inculcation of charity and
indulgence was to surrender the cause; for how should the mere homilies
of a secular moralist soften those whom the direct injunctions of a
deity and his inspired apostles, their own acknowledged masters, failed
to make charitable? It was essential that the superstitions in which
intolerance had its root should be proved detestable and ridiculous.
When men had learnt to laugh at superstition, then they would perceive
how abominable is the oppressive fanaticism which is its champion.

It is hardly possible to deny the service which Protestantism rendered
in preventing the revolution from Catholicism to scientific modes of
thought from being that violent, abrupt, and irreconcilable breach,
which we now observe in France and Italy, when we remember that the
cause of toleration was systematically defended in England by men who as
systematically defended the cause of Christianity. The Liberty of
Prophesying, in which the expediency of tolerance was based on the
difficulty of being sure that we are right, was written by one of the
most devout and orthodox divines; while the famous Letters on Toleration
(1689), in which the truly remarkable step is taken of confining the
functions of civil government to men’s civil interests and the things of
this world, were the work of the same Locke who vindicated the
Reasonableness of Christianity.[176] The English Deists pressed home in
a very effectual way the deduction of universal freedom of speech from
the first maxims of Protestantism, and their inference was practically
admitted.[177] Hence there was no inseparable association between
adherence to the old religious ideas and the prohibition of free speech
in spirituals, and on the other hand there was no obligation on the part
of those who claimed free speech to attack a church which did not refuse
their claim.

In France the strictly repressive policy of the church in the eighteenth
century, sometimes bloody and cruel as in the persecution of the
Protestants, sometimes minutely vexatious as in the persecution of the
men of letters, but always stubborn and lynx-eyed, had the natural
effect of making it a point of honour with most of those who valued
liberty to hurl themselves upon the religious system, of which rigorous
intolerance was so prominent a characteristic. The Protestant dilution
of the theological spirit seems thus to be in the long run a more
effective preparation for decisive abandonment of it, than its virulent
dissolution in the biting acids of Voltairism, because within limits the
slower these great transformations are in accomplishing themselves, the
better it is for many of the most precious and most tender parts of
human character. Our present contention is that the attitude of the
religionists left no alternative. It is best that creeds, like men who
have done the work of the day, should die the slow deaths of nature, yet
it is counted lawful to raise an armed hand upon the brigand who seeks
the life of another.

Voltaire to the end of his course contended that the church only was to
blame for the storm which overtook her teaching in the later years, when
his own courageous attack had inspired a host of others, less brilliant
but not any less embittered, to throw themselves on the reeling enemy.
The cause of the inundation of Europe by the literature of negativism
and repudiation was to be sought first of all in the fierce theological
disputes which revolted the best of the laity. Of this violent revulsion
of feeling Voltaire himself was the great organ. He furnished its
justification, and nourished its fire, and invested it with a splendid
lustre. Even when with the timidity of extreme age he seemed to
deprecate the growing ferocity of the attack, he still taunted the
clerical party with their own folly in allowing a mean and egotistic
virulence to override every consideration of true wisdom and policy.
‘Now,’ he wrote in 1768, ‘a revolution has been accomplished in the
human mind, that nothing again can ever arrest. They would have
prevented this revolution, if they had been sage and moderate. The
quarrels of Jansenists and Molinists have done more harm to the
Christian religion than could have been done by four emperors like
Julian one after another.’[178]

It cannot be too often repeated that the Christianity which Voltaire
assailed was not that of the Sermon on the Mount, for there was not a
man then alive more keenly sensible than he was of the generous humanity
which is there enjoined with a force that so strangely touches the
heart, nor one who was on the whole, in spite of constitutional
infirmities and words which were far worse than his deeds, more ardent
and persevering in its practice. Still less was he the enemy of a form
of Christian profession which now fascinates many fine and subtle minds,
and which starting from the assumption that there are certain inborn
cravings in the human heart, constant, profound, and inextinguishable,
discerns in the long religious tradition an adequate proof that the
mystic faith in the incarnation, and in the spiritual facts which pour
like rays from that awful centre, are the highest satisfaction which a
divine will has as yet been pleased to establish for all these
yearnings of the race of men. This graceful development of belief,
emancipated from dogma and reducing so many substantial bodies to pale
shades, so many articles once held as solid realities to the strange
tenuity of dreams, was not the Christianity of Voltaire’s time, any more
than it was that of the Holy Office. There was nothing resembling the
present popularity of a treatment which gives generals so immense a
preponderance over particulars—somewhat to the neglect of the old saying
about the snare that lies hidden in generals, many persons being
tolerably indifferent about the _dolus_ so long as they can make sure of
the _latet_. He attacked a definite theology, not a theosophy. We may,
indeed, imagine the kind of questions which he would have asked of one
pressing such a doctrine on his acceptance; how he would have sought the
grounds for calling aspirations universal, which the numerical majority
of the human race appear to have been without, and the grounds for
making subjective yearnings the test and the measure of the truth of
definite objective records; how he would have prayed to be instructed of
these cravings, whether they spring up spontaneously, or are the
products of spiritual self-indulgence, and also of the precise manner in
which they come to be satisfied and soothed by the momentary appearance
of a humane figure far off upon the earth; how he would have paused to
consider the intelligibility of so overwhelming a wonder as the
incarnation having been wrought, for the benefit of so infinitesimally
small a fragment of mankind. We can imagine this and much else, but
Voltaire would never have stirred a finger to attack a mysticism which
is not aggressive, and can hardly be other than negatively hurtful.

If any one had maintained against Voltaire that the aspirations after a
future life, the longing for some token that the deity watches over his
creatures and is moved by a tender solicitude for them, and the other
spiritual desires alleged to be instinctive in men, constitute as
trustworthy and firm a guide to truth as the logical reason, we may be
sure that he would have forgiven what he must have considered an
enervating abnegation of intelligence, for the sake of the humane, if
not very actively improving, course of life to which this kind of
pietism is wont to lead. He might possibly have entertained a little
contempt for them, but it would have been quiet contempt and unspoken.
There is no case of Voltaire mocking at any set of men who lived good
lives. He did not mock the English Quakers. He doubtless attacked many
of the beliefs which good men hold sacred, but if good men take up their
abode under the same roof which shelters the children of darkness and
wrong, it is not the fault of Voltaire if they are hit by the smooth
stones shot from his sling against their unworthy comrades. The object
of his assault was that amalgam of metaphysical subtleties, degrading
legends, false miracles, and narrow depraving conceptions of divine
government which made the starting-point and vantage-ground of those
ecclesiastical oppressors, whom he habitually and justly designated the
enemies of the human race. The evil and the good, the old purity and the
superadded corruptions, were all so inextricably bound up in the
Catholicism of the eighteenth century, that it was impossible to a deal
a blow to the one without risk of harm to the other. The method was
desperate, but then the enemy was a true Chimæra, a monster sodden in
black corruption, with whom in the breast of a humane man there could be
no terms.

The popes during the Voltairean period were above the average in virtue
and intelligence, but their power was entirely overshadowed by that
wonderful order which had assumed all effective spiritual supremacy for
something like two centuries. Nor was this order the only retrogressive
influence. The eighteenth century was the century not only of the Sacré
Cœur, but of the miracles of the dead abbé Pâris, transactions in which
Jansenist emulated Jesuit in dragging men and women into the deepest
slough of superstition. A Roman augur fresh from the inspection of the
sacrificial entrails would have had a right to despise the priests who
invented an object for the adoration of men in the diseased and hideous
visions of Mary Alacoque. The man who sells rain to savages may almost
be held to add to the self-respect of the race, if you contrast him with
the convulsionnaires and the fanatics who were transported by their
revolting performances.[179]

France is the country where reactions are most rapid and most violent.
Nowhere else can the reformer count so surely on seeing the completion
of his reform followed so instantly by the triumph of its adversaries.
The expulsion of the Jesuits, under circumstances of marked and
uncompromising harshness, was not consummated, before the tide of
religious bigotry flowed in from the opposite shore, and swelled to a
portentous height. The exultation of the philosophers at the coming fall
of their old foes, was instantly checked by the yet worse things which
befell them and their principles at the hands of new enemies. The reign
of the Jansenists was speedily pronounced more hateful than the reign of
the Jesuits. Various accommodations were possible with heaven, so long
as the Jesuits had credit, but the Jansenists were pitiless.[180]

The parliament or supreme judicial tribunal of Paris[181] was Jansenist,
mainly out of political hatred of the Jesuits, partly from a hostility,
very easily explained, to every manifestation of ultramontane feeling
and influence, partly from a professional jealousy of the clergy, but
partly also because the austere predestinarian dogma, and the
metaphysical theology which brought it into supreme prominence, seem
often to have had an unexplained affinity for serious minds trained in
legal ideas and their application. The Jesuits had systematically
abstained as far as was possible from purely speculative theology.
Suarez is pronounced one of the greatest writers in speculative ethics
and jurisprudence; but in the technical metaphysics of theology the
Jesuits with all their literary industry did not greatly care to
exercise themselves. Their task was social and practical, and as
confessors, directors, preachers, and instructors, they had naturally
paid less attention to abstract thought than to the arts of eloquence,
address, and pliancy. Then, too, in doctrine they had uniformily clung
to the softer, more amiable, more worldly, less repulsive,
interpretation of the eternally embarrassing claims of grace, election,
free-will. The Augustinian, Calvinistic, or Jansenist view of the
impotence of will and the saving importance of grace is the answer of
souls eager to feel immediate individual contact with a Supreme Being.
The Jesuits and their power represented extremely different sentiments,
fundamentally religious, but still fundamentally social also, the desire
of men for sympathetic and considerate guidance in conduct, and their
craving for such a unity of the external ordering of the faith as should
leave them undistracted to live their lives. The former concentrated
feelings upon the relations of men directly and immediately with a
Supreme Being; the latter upon their relations with this Being only
mediately, through their relations with one another, and with the church
to which a measure of divinity had been attributed. Hence the decline of
the Jesuits assumed the form of a depravation of morals, while the
Jansenists held more and more tightly to a narrow and bigoted
correctness of belief. The parliament was willing to resist a Molinist
archbishop and his satellites, when they refused burial to all who
should die without having received a certificate of conformity to the
famous bull Unigenitus, which proscribed Jansenist opinion.[182] But
none the less for this was it bent on suppressing the common enemy, who
despised the bull and the Five propositions, Molina and Jansenius,
archbishop Beaumont and Quesnel, all equally. Voltaire’s natural
sagacity made him alive to the fact, which perhaps remains as true now
as then, that the professional and middle classes are a worse enemy of
liberal opinion and are more intolerant than the remnants of the old
aristocratic orders. He says to D’Alembert, ‘You are right in declaring
yourself the enemy of the great and their flatterers; still, the great
protect one upon occasion, they despise the Infamous, and they will not
persecute philosophers; but as for your pedants of Paris, who have
bought their office, as for those insolent bourgeois, half fanatics,
half imbecile, they can do nothing but mischief.’[183] He had not learnt
to look away from both classes, professional and aristocratic alike, to
that third estate where the voice of the reformer has always found the
first response. Still what he said was true as against the lawyers,
whose vision perhaps never extends beyond the improvement of that mere
surface of order with which their profession is concerned. The
Parliament of Paris was the eager ally of the bigots of the court in
1757, in fulminating deadly edicts against the Encyclopædia and all
concerned in its production or circulation. In 1762, the year of the
publication of Emile and the Contrat Social, not all the influence of
Rousseau’s powerful protectors could prevent the launching of a decree
of arrest against him. Bloodier measures were not wanting.

In 1762 Morellet had published under the title of a Manual for
Inquisitors a selection of the most cruel and revolting portions of the
procedure of the Holy Office, drawn from the Directorium Inquisitorium
of Eymeric, a grand inquisitor of the fourteenth century. The
cold-blooded cruelties of the regulations, which were thus brought into
the light of the eighteenth century, created the most profound sensation
among the rapidly increasing adherents of tolerance and humanity.
Voltaire was intensely stirred by this resuscitation of horrors that he
mistook for dead. It made the same impression upon him, he said, as the
bleeding body of Caesar made upon the men of Rome.[184] But he soon
found that it was an error to impute a special cruelty to the spiritual
power. Malesherbes, in giving Morellet the requisite permission to print
his Manual, had amazed his friend by telling him, that though he might
suppose he was giving to the world a collection of extraordinary facts
and unheard of processes, yet in truth the jurisprudence of Eymeric and
his inquisition was as nearly as possible identical with the criminal
jurisprudence of France at that very moment.[185] This was very soon to
be proved.

The bigots, infuriated by the blows which were destroying the Jesuits,
hunted out against heretical enemies some forgotten portions of this
terrible jurisprudence. A protestant pastor, Rochette, was hung for
exercising his functions in Languedoc. The Catholics on the occasion of
the arrest of Rochette were summoned by sound of tocsin, and three young
Protestants, who were brothers, fearing massacre in the midst of the
agitation, took up their arms: for this offence they were convicted of
rebellion, and had their heads struck off.[186] It became painfully
clear how great a mistake it was to suppose the clergy touched with some
special curse of cruelty. Then, as usually, for good or for evil, they
were on about the same moral level with an immense number of laymen, and
were not much more than the incarnation of the average darkness of the
hour. If Eymeric’s procedure only copied the ordinary criminal
jurisprudence, the bigotry of the ecclesiastics was accurately reflected
in the bigotry of the secular tribunals. The Protestant Calas was broken
on the wheel (1762), because his son had been found dead, and some one
chose to say that the father had killed him, to prevent him from turning
Catholic. There was not the smallest fragment of evidence, direct or
indirect, for a single link in the chain of circumstances on which the
unfortunate man’s guilt depended; while there were many facts which made
the theory of his guilt the most improbable that could have been brought
forward. The widow and the children of Calas were put to the torture,
and eventually fled to Geneva to take refuge with Voltaire. During the
same year the same tribunal, the parliament of Toulouse, did its best to
repeat this atrocity in the case of Sirven. Sirven was a Protestant, and
his daughter had been with perfect legality snatched away from him, and
shut up in a convent, there to be better instructed in the faith. She
ran away, and was found at the bottom of a well. Sirven was accused of
murdering his daughter, and he only escaped the wheel by prompt flight.
His wife perished of misery amid the snows of the Cevennes, and he
joined the wretched family of Calas at Geneva, where the same generous
man furnished shelter and protection.

In the north of France the fire of intolerance burnt at least as hotly
as in the south. At Abbeville a crucifix was found to have been
mutilated in the night. Two lads of eighteen, to one of whom Frederick
gave shelter in Prussia, were accused under cover of the sacrilege, and
La Barre was condemned by the tribunal of Amiens, at the instance of the
bishop, to have tongue and right hand cut off, and then be burnt alive;
a sentence that was presently commuted by the Parliament of Paris to
decapitation (1766). There was no proof whatever that either of the two
youths was in any way concerned in the outrage. The bishop of the
diocese had issued monitory proclamations, and conducted a solemn
procession to the insulted crucifix. The imagination of the town was
kindled, and the sacrilege became the universal talk of a people growing
more and more excited. Rumour ran that a new sect was being formed,
which was for breaking all the crucifixes, which threw the host on the
ground and cut it with knives. There were women who declared that they
had seen these things. All the horrible stories were revived which had
been believed against the Jews in the middle ages. A citizen took
advantage of this fierce agitation to gratify a private grudge against a
relative of La Barre. He set inquiries on foot among the lowest persons
for proof that the youth had been concerned in the original crime. By
one means or another he got together material enough to support an
indictment. Proceedings once begun, a crowd of informers rose up. It was
deposed that La Barre and D’Etallonde had passed within thirty yards of
the sacred procession without removing their hats, that La Barre had
spoken irreverently of the Virgin Mary, that he had been heard to sing
unseemly songs and recite ribald litanies. This testimony, given with a
vagueness that ought to have proved it legally valueless, was the fruit
of the episcopal monitory, which as at Toulouse in the case of Calas,
virtually incited the dregs of the people to bring accusations against
their superiors, and menaced a man with the pains of hell if he should
refuse to put his neighbour in peril of his life. The tribunal, as
excited as the witnesses and the rest of the public, relied on a royal
ordinance of 1682, directed against sacrilege and superstition and
designed to put down sorcery. In the sentence inflicting so bloody a
punishment, the offence was described as consisting in singing
abominable songs against the Virgin Mary.[187] To exact such a penalty
for such a delinquency was to make human life a mere plaything for the
ignorant passion of the populace and the intellectual confusion of the
tribunals. These atrocities kindled in Voltaire a blaze of anger and
pity, that remains among the things of which humanity has most reason to
be proud. Everybody who has read much of the French writing of the
middle of the eighteenth century, is conscious from time to time of a
sound of mocking and sardonic laughter in it. This laugh of the
eighteenth century has been too often misunderstood as the expression of
a cynical hardness of heart, proving the hollowness of the humanitarian
pretensions in the midst of which it is heard. It was in truth something
very different; it was the form in which men sought a little relief from
the monotony of the abominations which oppressed them, and from whose
taint they had such difficulty to escape. This refrain, that after all a
man can do nothing better than laugh, apparently so shallow and inhuman,
in reality so penetrated with melancholy, we may count most certainly
on finding at the close of the narration of some more than usually
iniquitous or imbecile exploit of those in authority. It was when the
thought of the political and social and intellectual degradation of
their country became too vivid to be endured, that men like Voltaire and
D’Alembert would abruptly turn away from it, and in the bitterness of
their impotence cry that there was nothing for it but to take the world
and all that befalls therein in merriment. It was the grimacing of a man
who jests when he is perishing of hunger, or is shrinking under knife or
cautery. Thus D’Alembert having given Voltaire an account of the
execution of the unfortunate La Barre, in words that show how intensely
his own narrative was afflicting him, suddenly concludes by saying that
he will add no more on this auto-da-fé, so honourable to the French
nation, for it made him ill-humoured, and he meant only to mock at
whatever might happen.[188] But Voltaire could not rest thus. The
thought of so hateful a crime, perpetrated by a tribunal of justice,
clothed him in the shirt of Nessus. All aflame, he wrote to D’Alembert
with noble impetuosity:

“This is no longer a time for jesting: witty things do not go well with
massacres. What? These Busirises in wigs destroy in the midst of
horrible tortures children of sixteen! And that in face of the verdict
of ten upright and humane judges! And the victim suffers it! People talk
about it for a moment, and the next they are hastening to the comic
opera; and barbarity, become the more insolent for our silence, will
to-morrow cut throats juridically at pleasure. Here Calas broken on the
wheel, there Sirven condemned to be hung, further off a gag thrust into
the mouth of a lieutenant-general, a fortnight after that five youths
condemned to the flames for extravagances that deserved nothing worse
than Saint Lazare. Is this the country of philosophy and pleasure? It is
the country rather of the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Why, the
Inquisition would not have ventured to do what these Jansenist judges
have done.”[189] When he had received D’Alembert’s letter, ending as we
have seen, his remonstrance waxed vehement: ‘What, you would be content
to laugh? We ought rather to resolve to seek vengeance, or at any rate
to leave a coimtry where day after day such horrors are committed....
No, once more, I cannot bear that you should finish your letter by
saying, I mean to laugh. Ah, my friend, is it a time for laughing?
Did men laugh when they saw Phalaris’s bull being made red-hot?’[190]

This revival in the tribunals of Paris and the provincial towns alike,
of the ignorant fanaticism and the unscientific jurisprudence of the
most unenlightened times, was the more bitter and insupportable from the
new light which shone around such horrors. Beccaria’s treatise on
Offences and Penalties had just been translated into French by Morellet,
and furnished a strange commentary upon the atrocities of Toulouse and
Abbeville. It seemed, men said, as if at every striking vindication of
the rights of humanity the genius of cruelty broke its chains, and, to
prove the futility of all such vindications, inspired new acts of
barbarism and violence.[191] The philosophic group had yielded to a
premature exultation, and in their inexperience supposed that they who
planted the tree should see the gathering-in of the fruit. The reign of
reason was believed to be close at hand, and this belief made the
visible recrudescence of fanatical unreason signally insupportable. It
is a high honour to Voltaire and his disciples that the trial did not
prove too strong for their faith, and that when they saw how far too
sanguine they had been, they were more astonished than they were
discouraged, and their energy redoubled with the demands made upon it.
The meaner partisans of an orthodoxy which can only make wholly sure of
itself by injustice to adversaries, have always loved to paint the
Voltairean school in the character of demons, enjoying their work of
destruction with a sportive and impish delight. They may have rejoiced
in their strength so long as they cherished the illusion that those who
first kindled the torch should also complete the long course and bear
the lamp to the goal. When the gravity of the enterprise showed itself
before them, they remained alert with all courage, but they ceased to
fancy that courage necessarily makes men happy. The mantle of
philosophy was rent in a hundred places, and bitter winds entered at a
hundred holes, but they only drew it the more closely around them.[192]
At the very last Voltaire seems to have seen something of the vast space
which every ray of light has to traverse before it reaches the eye of
the common understanding. ‘I now perceive,’ he wrote the year before his
death, ‘that we must still wait three or four hundred years. One day it
cannot but be that good men win their cause; but before that glorious
day arrives how many disgusts have we to undergo, how many dark
persecutions, without reckoning the La Barres, of whom from time to time
they will make an auto-da-fé’[193] To speak thus was to recognise the
true character of the revolution, and the many elements which go to the
transformation of an old society. To speak thus, too, was to mark the
true character of the sincere lover of human progress, the soul of
steadfast patience and strong hope, mingled with many a pang for the
far-off and slow-coming good.

It was a natural thing to identify the Jesuits with the strongest part
of the old society, because their organisation was both the strongest
and most striking of its external supports. Their suppression, though
not to be dispensed with except on the condition of an ultimate
overthrow of morality and an extinction of intellectual light, had one
effect which the statesmen of the time could hardly be expected to see,
and which has not been enough considered. Just as the papacy by the
fourteenth century had become more and more exclusively a temporal
power, so the Jesuits by the middle of the eighteenth had become more
and more a commercial power. They were a powerful trading corporation,
and it was as merchants, rather than as casuists and directors of
conscience, that they finally came into collision with secular authority
in France, Portugal, and Spain. Now since the revival of the order it
has been exclusively engaged in the contest for spiritual supremacy, and
for as much of temporal power as has seemed essential to its security.
This, however, is only one of the evils which counterbalance the
advantages of every progressive measure; for, alas, when the statesman
believes most confidently that he has advanced by a league, a very few
years show him or others that his league was after all no more than an
ell or two.

The reactionary outburst of fanaticism for which the humiliation of the
Jesuits was a signal, only showed how well founded the Voltairean
allegations as to the depraving effects of the existing system of
religion had really been. It was the verification of all that Voltaire
ever said against the system, and demonstrated both the virulence and
the tenacity of the influences which Catholicism in the days of its
degradation had exerted over the character of the nation. It was most
illogical to expect a people who had been bred in the Catholic tradition
suddenly to welcome its enemies. If Catholicism had trained men up to
the temper which seeks the light and loves it, how should it have
deserved animosity? Nearly all lovers of improvement are apt in the
heat of a generous enthusiasm to forget that if all the world were ready
to embrace their cause, their improvement could hardly be needed. It is
one of the hardest conditions of things that the more numerous and
resolute the enemies of reform, then the more unmistakably urgent the
necessity for it. It was just because the cruelty, persecution, and
darkness, in the last ten years of the reign of Lewis XV. were things
possible, that the onslaught upon Catholicism was justifiable and
praiseworthy. They showed the depth and strength of the forces of the
old society, and they foreshadowed the violence which marked its
dissolution. If people had remembered in 1789 how few years separated
them from the wide-spread fanaticism which darkened the last days of
Voltaire, they might have calculated better how few years separated them
from the Napoleonic Concordat.

No permanent transformation of a society, we may be sure, can ever take
place until a transformation has been accomplished in the spiritual
basis of thought. Voltaire may have distinctly seen this and formulated
it to himself, or not; in any case, he steered his own course exactly as
he would have done if he had seen it. As M. Guizot expresses it, the
separation between the spiritual and temporal orders was never real in
Europe except in the eighteenth century, when for the first time the
spiritual order developed itself entirely apart from the temporal
order.[194] Thus Voltaire acquiesced without murmur or reproach in the
conditions of political absolutism, and the disgrace and ruin which the
nullity of the government brought upon his country in the Seven Years’
War, keenly as he felt it, yet provoked no thought of temporal changes.
His correspondence in that fatal time is marked by a startling apathy
about public events, and even Rossbach seems not to move him to seek its
causes. If we compare his joyful enthusiasm at the accession of Turgot
to power in 1774, we can have no doubt that this strange numbness of
feeling was only the silence of a wise man despairing of saying or
seeing anything useful, and not the criminal folly of a bad citizen to
whom the welfare of his country is not dear. The disasters of France
were as serious to him as to any one else, as may be plainly seen under
the assumed philosophy with which his vivacious spirit loved to veil
real feeling; but the impossibility of doing anything, even of taking a
part in the process with which we English are so familiar as the forming
of public opinion, drove him for consolation to the field where he was
certain of doing efficient work.[195] Writing in 1761, a year of
crushing national loss, he says to one of the oldest and most intimate
of his correspondents: ‘There is nothing to laugh at in all this. I am
struck to the heart. Our only resource is in the promptest and most
humiliating peace. I always fancy, when some overwhelming disaster
arrives, that the French will be serious for six weeks. I have not yet
been able to disabuse myself of this notion.’[196] Voltaire was
penetrated by the spirit of action, and he perceived and regretted that
the organisation of France did not permit of the effective action of
private individuals in the field of politics.[197] There are lines in
the Henriade extolling the freedom of England,[198] and he sometimes
indulges in the commonplaces of a literary republicanism; but turning to
the portion of his works which his editors have classified as political,
we scarcely find much beyond the documents, and they are important and
interesting enough, still not truly political, that relate to the
various affairs of Calas, La Barre, and others, in which he exposed the
atrocities of the tribunals. So far as they come into the region of
politics at all, it is only to assail the overt and direct injustice
done to society by the institutions, privileges, and pretensions of the
church. He constantly attacks in a great variety of forms the material
mischief inflicted on society by the vast numbers of monks, mendicant or
other; their unproductive lives, the burden of their maintenance
weighing upon more industrious subjects, the restriction of population
occasioned by their celibacy. The direct refusal of the clergy in 1750
to consent to pay their share of the taxes like other citizens, though
owning as much as a fifth of all the property in the realm, moved him to
insist in a vigorous pamphlet that the distinction in a kingdom between
spiritual and temporal powers is a relic of barbarism; that it is
monstrous to permit a body of men to say, Let those pay who work, we
ought not to pay because we are idle; that superstition inevitably tends
to make bad citizens, and therefore princes ought to protect philosophy
which destroys superstition.[199]

Voltaire’s task, however, was never directly political, but spiritual,
to shake the foundations of that religious system which professed to be
founded on the revelation of Christ. Was he not right? If we find
ourselves walking amid a generation of cruel and unjust and darkened
spirits, we may be assured that it is their beliefs on what they deem
highest that have made them so. There is no counting with certainty on
the justice of men who are capable of fashioning and worshipping an
unjust divinity, nor on their humanity so long as they incorporate
inhuman motives in their most sacred dogma, nor on their reasonableness
while they rigorously decline to accept reason as a test of truth.

It is necessary to admit from the point of view of impartial criticism,
that Voltaire had one defect of character, of extreme importance in a
leader of this memorable and direct attack. With all his enthusiasm for
things noble and lofty, generous and compassionate, he missed the
peculiar emotion of holiness, the soul and life alike of the words of
Christ and Saint Paul, that indefinable secret of the long hold of
mystic superstition over so many high natures, otherwise entirely
prepared for the brightness of the rational day. From this impalpable
essence which magically surrounds us with the mysterious and subtle
atmosphere of the unseen, changing distances and proportions, adding new
faculties of sight and purpose, extinguishing the flames of disorderly
passion in a flood of truly divine aspiration, we have to confess that
the virtue went out in the presence of Voltaire. To admire Voltaire,
cried a man who detested him, is the sign of a corrupt heart, and if
anybody is drawn to his works, then be very sure that God does not love
such an one.[200] The truth of which that is so vehement a paraphrase
amounts to this, that Voltaire has said no word, nor even shown an
indirect appreciation of any word said by another, which stirs or
expands the emotional susceptibility, indefinite exultation, and
far-swelling inner harmony, which De Maistre and others have known as
the love of God, and for which a better name, as covering most varieties
of form and manifestation, is holiness, deepest of all the words that
defy definition. Through the affronts which his reason received from
certain pretensions both in the writers and in some of those whose
actions they commemorated, this sublime trait in the Bible, in both
portions of it, was unhappily lost to Voltaire. He had no ear for the
finer vibrations of the spiritual voice. This had no concern in the fact
that he hated and despised, and was eager that others should hate and
despise, the religious forms that ruled France in his day. The
Christianity which he assailed was as little touched as Voltairism
itself with that spirit of holiness which poured itself round the lives
and words of the two founders, the great master and the great apostle.
The more deeply imbued a man was with this spirit, the more ardently
would he crave the demolition of that Infamous in belief and in
practice, which poisoned the stream of holiness in its springs, and shed
pestilence along its banks, and choked its issues in barrenness and

The point where the failure of this quality in Voltaire was especially a
source of weakness to his attack, is to be found in the crippling of his
historic imagination, and the inability which this inflicted upon him of
conceiving the true meaning and lowest roots of the Catholic legend. The
middle age between himself and the polytheism of the Empire was a
parched desert to him and to all his school, just as to the Protestant
the interval between the apostles and Luther is a long night of unclean
things. He saw only a besotted people led in chains by a crafty
priesthood; he heard only the unending repetition of records that were
fictitious, and dogmas that drew a curtain of darkness over the
understanding. Men spoke to him of the mild beams of Christian charity,
and where they pointed he saw only the yellow glare of the stake; they
talked of the gentle solace of Christian faith, and he heard only the
shrieks of the thousands and tens of thousands whom faithful Christian
persecutors had racked, strangled, gibbeted, burnt, broken on the
wheel. Through the steam of innocent blood which Christians for the
honour of their belief had spilt in every quarter of the known world,
the blood of Jews, Moors, Indians, and all the vast holocausts of
heretical sects and people in eastern and western Europe, he saw only
dismal tracts of intellectual darkness, and heard only the humming of
the doctors, as they served forth to congregations of poor men hungering
for spiritual sustenance the draff of theological superstition.

This vehement and blinding antipathy arose partly from the intense force
with which the existing aspect of Catholicism recalled all that was
worst, and shut out all that was best in its former history. One cannot
fairly expect the man who is in the grip of a decrepit tyrant, to do
absolutely full justice to the seemly deeds and gracious promises of his
tormentor’s youth. But partly also this blindness arose from the fact
that Voltaire measured the achievements of Catholicism by the magnitude
of its pretensions. He took its supernatural claims seriously, and his
intelligence was exasperated beyond control by the amazing disproportion
and incongruity between these claims and the most conspicuous of the
actual results. Those who have parted company with a religion, as
Voltaire had parted company with Christianity, can only be counted upon
to award the well-earned praise to its better part, after they have
planted themselves stably on the assumption that the given religion is a
human and natural force like another.

The just historic calm on which our modern prides himself, is only
possible in proportion to the mature completeness with which he takes
for granted, and believes that those to whom he speaks will take for
granted, the absence of supernatural intervention in the processes of
religious action and development. He is absolutely undisturbed by the
thought of that claim, which was omnipotent until Voltaire came to do
deadly battle with it, of Christianity to be a crowning miracle of
divine favour, which should raise men to be only a little lower than the
angels, and should be the instrument for pouring out upon them an
ever-flowing stream of special and extraordinary grace. It is not until
the idea has dropped out of our minds of the great fathers of the church
as saints, that we are free to perceive what services they rendered as
statesmen, and it is only when men have ceased to dispute whether
Christianity was a revelation, that they have eyes to see what services
it has rendered as a system. But in Voltaire’s time, if Catholicism was
justified historically, it was believed dogmatically, and therefore was
to be attacked dogmatically also. The surrender of the written legend
has never hindered its champions from taking ground which implied some
esoteric revelation, that proves to be some special interpretation of
the written legend. So long as the thinker is busy disproving the
position that a man who happens to live on a certain part of the globe
is a being of such singular and exceptional consequence in the universe
as to be held worthy by supreme heavenly powers of receiving a
miraculous message and the promise of this and that unspeakable
privilege in indescribable worlds to come, so long he is not likely to
weigh very fairly the effects of the belief in such power, messages, and
privileges, on the education and advancement of this world. The modern
historic justice which is done to Catholicism is due to the
establishment of a series of convictions that civilisation is a
structure which man by his own right arm has raised for himself, that it
has been exposed to many an era of storm and stress, and to manifold
influences which have been perpetually destroying portions of the great
edifice, adding fresh parts, modifying the old, by an interminable
succession of changes, resounding and volcanic, or still and
imperceptible; that the danger of destruction was never so terrible as
in the days of the dissolution of the old Roman society; that in this
prolonged crisis the Christian church emerged, first by its organisation
and the ability of some of its chiefs, and next by the attraction of
legends that harmonised with the needs of a dark, confused, and
terror-stricken time; that the many barbarous and absurd articles of
belief incorporated in the Christian profession by the sophists of the
East, received from time to time humane modification in the hands of the
wiser churchmen of the West, whose practical judgment was perpetually
softening down the crude, savage, unilluminated doctrines which had
naturally sprung up in the dismal age when the Catholic system acquired
substance and shape. A just recognition of all these things is only
easy to one whose expectations from humanity are moderate, who perceives
how tardy and difficult is the accomplishment of each smallest step in
the long process, and how helpful are even the simplest beliefs of rude
times in transforming men from vagrant animals into beings with a
consciousness of fixed common relations towards some object of common
worship, and so planting the first germs of social consolidation and

Voltaire was, from the circumstances in which he was placed, too busy
proving the purely human origin of Catholicism to have a mind free to
examine how much, if we suppose it to be of purely human origin, it has
done for those who accepted it. Perhaps we ought rather to praise than
blame him for abstaining from planting himself at the historic point of
view, before settling the previous question whether the historic point
of view is permitted in considering the religious movements of Europe.
Until Voltaire and others had divested the current religion of its
supernatural pretensions, it was impossible for any thinker, who
declines to try to take the second step before he has already taken the
first, to survey the operations of such a religion as a merely secular
force. This surely is a field of thought where no serious inquirer could
content himself with a mere working hypothesis. If the supernatural
claims of Catholicism are well founded, then the historic method of
treating it is either a frivolous diversion or else a grave and
mischievous heresy. The issue being of this moment, everybody who
studies the philosophy of history with effect must have made up his mind
in one way or the other. Voltaire had made up his mind very definitely,
and the conclusion to which, for adequate or inadequate reasons, he came
in this matter was one of the most influential agencies in preparing
men’s minds for the construction and general reception of a sounder
historical philosophy than was within his own reach. That he did not see
the deduction from his work is a limitation of vision that he shares
with most of the men to whom it has fallen to overthrow old sytems, and
clear the ground on which the next generation has raised new.


Having said thus much on the general causes and conditions of Voltaire’s
attack, we may next briefly examine his method. A brief examination
suffices, because, like all his contemporaries, he was so very
imperfectly acquainted with the principles of scientific criticism, and
because his weapons, though sharp and deadly enough for their purpose,
are now likely to become more and more thoroughly antiquated. In
criticism he was, as has often been remarked, the direct descendant of
Bayle. That is, his instruments were purely literary and dialectical. He
examined the various sacred narratives as if he had been reviewing a
contemporary historian. He delights in the minute cavils of literary
pyrrhonism, and rejoices in the artifice of imposing the significance of
the letter, where his adversaries strove for interpretation of the
spirit. As if, for instance, anything could be more childish than to
attack baptism by asking whether Christianity consists in throwing water
on the head, with a little salt in it.[201] He is perfectly content with
the exposure of a fallacy in words, without seeking to expose the root
fallacy of idea. Nothing short of the blindest partisanship can pretend
to find in this a proper or adequate method. The utmost that can be
said, and no just historian ought to forget to say it, is that it was
not more improper nor inadequate than the orthodox method of defence.
Bayle’s commentary on the words, ‘Compel them to come in,’ would not
satisfy the modern requirements of scriptural exegesis, but it was quite
good enough to confound those who contended that the text was a direct
warrant and injunction from heaven for the bitterest persecution on
earth. But the unfair parry of unfair thrust, extenuate it as we may,
count it inevitable as we may, even reckoning up such advantages from it
as we can, and in the present case they were enormous, can never be any
pattern or masterpiece of retort; and it is folly to allow admiration
for the social merit of Voltaire’s end to blind us to the logical
demerit of his means. It is deliberately to throw away the advantage of
our distance from the contest, and to sell for a momentary
self-indulgence in the spirit of party the birthright of a free and
equitable historic vision. Let men not fail to do justice to the gains
of humanity won by the emancipation of the eighteenth century; but we
shall be worse off than if they had never been transmitted, if they are
allowed to bind us to approve of every detail of the many movements by
which the final triumph was obtained.

The key to his method of attack is given us in a sentence in one of his
letters to D’Alembert. ‘It is never by means of metaphysics,’ he says,
‘that you will succeed in delivering men from error; you must prove the
truth by facts.’[202] In other words, the sublime abstract reasoning of
a Spinoza will do far less to dispel the narrow ideas, unfounded
beliefs, and false restrictive conceptions which cripple the human
intelligence so long as it is in bondage to a theological system, than a
direct disproval of the alleged facts on which the system professes to
rest. It is only by dealing immediately with these that you can make the
repulse of error a real question, substantially interesting to ordinary
men. Always remembering that Voltaire’s intelligence was practical
rather than speculative, and, besides this, that from the time when he
commenced his attack in earnest the object which he had at heart was the
overthrow of a crushing practical institution, we may agree that in such
a humour and with such a purpose the most effective way of harassing so
active and pestilent a foe was to carry the war into the enemy’s
quarters, and to use those kinds of arguments which the greatest number
of men would be likely to find cogent. We may complain that Voltaire
never rises from the ground into the region of the higher facts of
religion; and this is quite true. It would have been controversially
futile if he had done so. There was no audience in those times for the
discussion of the higher facts; and the reason of this was that the
spiritual instructors and champions themselves thrust into the front
place legends, miracles, and the whole of the peculiarly vulgar part of
the theological apparatus, which it would have been as absurd to
controvert metaphysically, as it would be to try to elevate a Gold-coast
negro from his fetish worship by the transcendental parts of Plato.

It nearly always happens that the defenders of a decaying system, when
they find themselves surrounded by the wholly uncongenial atmosphere of
rationalistic method, fall back, not on the noblest, but on the
ignoblest parts of their system. Distressed by the light, they shrink
hurriedly into darkest recesses of the familiar caves, partly because
they have a sense of especial security in a region that they know so
well, and partly because they have misgivings lest the surrender of
articles or practices in which they only half believe, should by too
stringent process of logical compulsion lead to the destruction of
others in which they believe with all their hearts. Such tactics may or
may not be politic, but we can at least be quite certain that they tend
neither to elevation of religion, nor discovery of truth, nor profit and
sincerity of discussion. If a set of doctrines be attacked from many
quarters in an unworthy manner, and taken at their worst instead of at
their best, we may be quite sure that this is as much due to the
defenders as to the assailants. It was not Voltaire’s fault that the
controversy turned on issues which a more modern opponent would not care
to dispute. He is constantly flippant and trivial, and constantly
manifests gross irreverence, but it was the writers whom he was
combating, writers like Sanchez or the stercorists, who had opened
frivolous and unbecoming questions that could hardly be exposed with
gravity. He was making war on an institution, and it was not his concern
to fight on ground which his adversary had never thought, and was too
blind and demoralised to be able to think, of taking up. It was not his
fault that the upholders of the creed he attacked, made a stand upon the
letter of sacred documents, upon prophecy and miracle and special
intervention, upon the virtues of relics and the liquefaction of the
blood of Saint Januarius. The same wise man who forbade us to answer a
fool according to his folly, also enjoined upon us to answer a fool
according to his folly, and the moral commentator agrees that each
prescription is as sage as its contradictory.

If truth means anything, it was worth while to put to rout the
distortions of truth with which the church lowered the understanding of
its votaries. If truth means anything, then it was worth while to reply
to the allegation that the history of the Christian church is a long
witness of the goodness of heaven and the ever-present guidance of its
heavenly founder, by a record of the actual facts; of the simplicity,
equality, absence of multiplied rites, orders, and dogmas, among the
primitive members of the congregation, and of the radical differences
between the use of apostolic times and of times since; of the incurable
want of authority for all those tales of demons being cast out, pious
inscriptions in letters of gold found graven on the hearts of martyrs,
and the rest, which grow rare in proportion as we draw nearer to the
times when the evidence for them would have been preserved; of the
infamous character of many Christian heroes, from Constantine downwards,
and of the promptitude with which the Christians, as soon as ever they
had power, dyed their hands in the blood of their persecutors; of the
stupefying circumstances that after a revelation was made to the human
race by no less a prodigy than the incarnation of supreme power in a
mortal body, and the miraculous maintenance of this event and its
significance in the tradition, doctrine, discipline of the Catholic
church, yet the whole of Asia, the whole of Africa, all the possessions
of the English and Dutch in America, all the uncivilised Indian tribes,
all the southern lands, amounting to one-fifth part of the globe still
remain in the clutches of the demon, to verify that holy saying of many
being called but few chosen.[203]

It may be said that this kind of argument really proves nothing at all
about the supernatural origin or character of the Christian revelation,
for which you must seek the responses not of ecclesiastical history but
of the human heart. And that may be a fair thing to say, but then this
contention of the new revelation being only a message to the heart has
only been heard since Voltaire thrust aside the very different
contention of his day. Those various beliefs were universally accepted
about the progress of the church, which were true in no sense whatever,
literal or spiritual, mystical or historical. People accepted traditions
and records, sacred and profane, as literal, accurate, categorical
declarations and descriptions of a long series of things done and
suffered. Moreover, the modern argument in favour of the supernatural
origin of the Christian religion, drawn from its suitableness to our
needs and its divine response to our aspirations, must be admitted by
every candid person resorting to it to be of exactly equal force in the
mouth of a Mahometan or a fire-worshipper or an astrolater. If you apply
a subjective test of this kind, it must be as good for the sincere and
satisfied votaries of one creed, as it is for those of any other. The
needs and aspirations of the Mahometan would not be satisfied by
fetishism or polytheism, nor those of the developed polytheist by
totem-worship. It would be ridiculous for so small a minority of the
race as the professors of Christianity to assume that their aspirations
are the absolute measure of those of humanity in every stage. The
argument can never carry us beyond the relativity of religious truth.

Now the French apologist a hundred years ago dealt in the most absolute
possible matter. Christianity to him meant a set of very concrete ideas
of all sorts; any one who accepted them in the concrete and literal form
prescribed by the church would share infinite bliss, and any one who
rejected them, whether deliberately or from never having been so happy
as to hear of them, would be infinitely tormented. If this theory be
right, then Voltaire must naturally be abhorred by all persons who hold
it, as a perverse and mischievous hinderer of light. If it be wrong, and
we must observe that from its terms this is not one of the marvellously
multiplying beliefs of which we hear that they may be half wrong and
half right, then Voltaire may take rank with other useful expellers of
popular error. Everybody must admit how imperfect is all such treatment
of popular error; how little rich, how little comprehensive, how little
full. Yet the surgeon who has couched his patient’s cataract has surely
done a service, even if he do not straightway carry him to enjoy the
restored faculty on some high summit of far and noble prospect.

Voltaire’s attack was essentially the attack of the English deists, as
indeed he is always willing enough to admit, pursued with far less
gravity and honest search for truth, but, it is hardly necessary to say,
with far more adroitness, rapidity, and grace of manner than any of
them, even than Bolingbroke. As we have seen, he insisted on throwing
himself upon the facts in the records that are least easily reconciled
with a general sense of probability and evidence, as gradually developed
in men by experience. He placed the various incidents of the Bible, the
interpretation of them by the church, the statement of doctrine, the
characters of prominent actors, in the full light of common experience
and of the maxims which experience has made second nature. ‘I always
speak humanly,’ he says mockingly, ‘I always put myself in the place of
a man who, having never heard tell either of Jews or Christians, should
read these books for the first time, and not being illuminated by grace,
should be so unhappy as to trust unaided reason in the matter, until he
should be enlightened from on high.’[204]

It is superfluous to detail the treatment to which he subjected such
mysteries of the faith as the inheritance of the curse of sin by all
following generations from the first fall of man; the appearance from
time to time, among an obscure oriental tribe, of prophets who foretold
the coming of a divine deliverer, who should wash away that fatal stain
by sacrificial expiation; the choice of this specially cruel,
treacherous, stubborn, and rebellious tribe, to be the favoured people
of a deity of spotless mercy and truth; the advent of the deliverer in
circumstances of extraordinary meanness and obscurity among a generation
that greeted his pretensions with incredulity, and finally caused him to
be put to death with ignominy, in spite of his appeal to the prophets
and to the many signs and wonders which he wrought among them; the
rising of this deliverer from the dead; the ascription to him in the
course of the next three or four centuries of claims which he never made
in person, and of propositions which he never advanced while he walked
on the earth, yet which must now be accepted by every one who would
after death escape a pitiless torment without end; the truly miraculous
preservation amid a fiery swarm of heresies, intricate, minute, subtle,
barely intelligible, but very soul-destroying, of that little fragile
thread of pure belief which can alone guide each spirit in the divinely
appointed path. Exposed to the light, which they were never meant to
endure, of ordinary principles of evidence founded on ordinary
experience, the immortal legends, the prophecies, the miracles, the
mysteries, on which the spiritual faith of Europe had hung for so many
generations, seemed to shrivel up in unlovely dissolution. The
authenticity of the texts on which the salvation of man depends, the
contradictions and inconsistencies of the documents, the incompatibility
between many acts and motives expressly approved by the holiest persons,
and the justice and mercy which are supposed to sit enthroned on high in
the bosoms, the forced constructions of prophecies and their
stultifying futility of fulfilment, the extraordinary frivolousness of
some of the occasions on which the divine power of thaumaturgy was
deliberately and solemnly exerted,—these were among the points at which
the messenger of Satan at Ferney was permitted sorely to buffet the
church. What is the date of the Apostles’ Creed? What of the so-called
Athanasian Creed? How were the seven sacraments instituted one after
another? What was the difference between the synaxis and the mass? And
so forth through many hundreds of pages.

Along with rationalistic questions in scriptural and ecclesiastical
history, are many more as to doctrine, and the assumption on which a
doctrine rests; questions as to the trinity, as to redemption by the
shedding of innocent blood, as to the daily miracle of
transubstantiation, as to the resurrection of the body, as to the
existence of an entity called soul independently of that matter which,
apart from miracle, seems an inseparable condition of its manifestation.
His arguments on all these subjects contain a strange mixture of shallow
mockery and just objection. The questions which he suggests for the
doctors as to the resurrection of the body may serve for an example.
Among them are these:

‘A Breton soldier goes to Canada. It happens by a not uncommon chance
that he falls short of food; he is forced to eat a piece of an Iroquois
whom he has killed over night. The Iroquois had fed on Jesuits for two
or three months, a great part of his body had thus become Jesuit. So
there is the body of the soldier with Iroquois, Jesuit, and whatever he
had eaten before, entering into it. How then will each resume exactly
what belongs to him?’ ‘In order to come to life again, to be the same
person you were, you must have a lively and present recollection; it is
memory that makes your identity. Having lost memory, how are you to be
the same man?’ Again, ‘considering that only certain material elements
are proper for the composition of the human body, where is earth enough
to be found to remake all the bodies needed for so many hundreds of
generations? And supposing that by a prodigious miracle the whole human
race could be resuscitated in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where are all
the spirits meanwhile?’[205]

Another very favourite mode of approaching the beliefs, incidents, and
personages of Jewish and Christian history was to show that they had
counterparts in some pagan fables or systems, in the books of Chinese
philosophers or Brahminical sages. The inference from this identity or
correspondence between some Judaical practices and myths, and the
practices and myths of Arabians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hindoos, was
that they were in all cases equally the artificial creations of
impostors preying on the credu-lity of men, ‘the first prophet or
diviner having been the first rogue who met the first fool.’ It is
curious to observe how the modern argument from constantly extending
discoveries in comparative mythology tends to the demolition of the
special pretensions of Judaical myths of all sorts, by the very opposite
inference to that on which the Voltairean school rested. Voltaire urged
that as these myths resembled one another in this and that important
feature, therefore they were all equally spurious, false, and absurd.
The modern, on the contrary, would hold them all equally genuine,
equally free from the taint of imposture in priest or people, and
equally faithful representations of the mental states which produced and
accepted them. The weakening of the particular sanctity and objective
reality of any one form of these common primitive ways of thinking about
the action of non-human agents would be just as strong, whether we take
the new or the old view of the generation of myths, but the difference
of the effect of the two views upon the justice and fertility of
historic spirit is immeasurable.

There is no sign, however, that Voltaire was ever seriously conscious of
the importance of a right consideration of the mental conditions of
primitive peoples. This study had been commenced in his own time by De
Brosses, the inventor of the term fetishism, and pronounced by competent
modern authorities to have been a powerful and original thinker upon the
facts of the infancy of civilisation.[206] Yet Voltaire treated the
speculations of this industrious inquirer with the same ignorant
contempt and scorn that the theological enemies of geology were once
accustomed to bestow on men who chipped bits of rock and cherished
fossils.[207] Oddly enough, Voltaire’s carelessness and want of thought
on these matters left him with that very theory of the nature of the
development of cultivation, on which the theological school insists to
this day as against the scientific ethnologists. The question is whether
the earliest men were savages, or partially civilised; in other words,
whether civilisation has consisted in a certain uniform progression from
a state a little above the brutes, or whether the savage is not a being
who has degenerated from a partial degree of civilisation. The
progression theory was no doubt in a general way a characteristic
doctrine of the men of the eighteenth century, for which De Maistre, an
ardent and most ingenious advocate of the degeneration theory, reviled
them with his usual heartiness. Yet his eagerness to depress revelation
by exalting natural theology led Voltaire to the essentially theological
position that the earliest men had a clear and lofty idea of a Supreme
Being, and a ready appreciation of justice and charity in their
relations with one another, until the vile ambition of priestly and
prophetic impostors succeeded in setting upon their necks the yoke of
systems which corrupted the heart and conscience, and sophisticated a
pure and simple faith.

He did not hold that men were conscious of the one God as they were
conscious of light, or that they had perceptions of such a being, as
they had perceptions of the ground they tilled. The idea was derived by
process of natural logic from the contemplation of astonishing natural
effects, of harvest and dearth, of fair days and tempests, of
benefactions and scourges. They saw all these things, and felt the work
of a master.[208] Just as in each community there were men who by the
force of their reason found out that triangles with the same base and of
the same height are equal, and others who in sowing and reaping and
tending their flocks perceived that the sun and moon returned pretty
nearly to the point from which they had started, and that they never
travelled beyond a certain limit to north or south, so there was a third
man who considered that men, animals, stars could not have made
themselves, and who saw that therefore a Supreme Being must exist; while
a fourth, struck by the wrongs that men inflicted on one another,
concluded that if there exists a being who made the stars, the earth,
and men, such a being must confer favour on the virtuous, and
punishments on the wicked. This idea, Voltaire declares, is so natural
and so good that it was most readily embraced.[209] The various forms of
revelations were only so many corruptions of that simple, serviceable,
and self-proving monotheism, and so were the conceptions of polytheism.
He had no notion that monotheism is a later development of the
theological spirit than polytheism. Unable to deny that the Greeks and
Romans, about whom he knew so little and talked so much, had plurality
of gods, he drew a distinction between one Supreme Being and all the
rest, and contended that you may search all their records in vain for a
single fact or a single word to counterbalance the many passages and
monuments which attest their belief of the sovereignty of the one deity
and his superiority over all the rest.[210] We do not know whether this
was a fortuitous kind of growth in his own mind, or whether it was a
scrap of recollection from the painstaking pages in which Cudworth had
worked at the establishment of that explanation of polytheism. Voltaire
too often writes on these weighty subjects, as if trusting to a memory
that snatched effectively at plausible theories, while losing much of
their evidence and all their deeper bearings.

It would be not a little extraordinary, if we did not constantly
remember that Voltaire’s strength did not lie in speculation or
systematic thought, that he saw none of the objections to this account
of things, and that he was content with so limited an observation of the
facts. If De Brosses had magnanimously suffered himself to be cheated in
the transaction of the fourteen cords of wood, Voltaire would perhaps
have read his book candidly, and if he had read it otherwise than with a
foregone resolution to despise it, he would have come upon a number of
circumstances entirely fatal to his smooth theory that many gods are
always subordinate to the one, because he would have had to consider
those states of the human mind in which there are no spiritual gods at
all, but in which every object whatever is invested with volition and
power. In one place he shows something like a recognition of the true
nature of the process. ‘I have always been persuaded,’ he says in a
letter to Mairan, ‘that the phenomena of the heavens have been in the
main the source of the old fables. Thunder was heard on the inaccessible
summit of a mountain; therefore there must be gods dwelling on the
mountain, and launching the thunder. The sun seems to speed from east to
west, therefore he has fine coursers. The rain does not touch the head
of one who sees a rainbow, so the rainbow is a token that there will
never again be a deluge.’[211] But then Voltaire was no systematic
thinker, and thus there was no security that any given right idea which
came into his mind would either remain present to him, or would be
followed up and placed along with other ideas in a scientific order.
Apart from this, however, it is extraordinary that Voltaire’s extreme
acuteness did not suggest to him the question, how it was that the
artless and clear belief in one God became more and more obscured by the
growing multitude of other gods, just in proportion as the primitive
tribes became more civilised in all the arts of life. If the nomad
progenitors of the Greeks had only one god, how was it that, as
knowledge, social feeling, love of beauty, and all the other ennobling
parts of man became more fully developed, the power of superstition
waxed greater, and temples and images were multiplied!

Again, the theologist might, consistently with his deliberate principle
of resort to the miraculous, contend that this first conception of a
single supreme power, in the fact of the existence of which he is
entirely at one with Voltaire, was directly implanted by a supernatural
force. But Voltaire, debarred from such an explanation as this, was
driven silently to assume and imply the truly incredible position that
the rudest savages, being what we know them, urgently occupied in the
struggle for means of subsistence, leading lives purely animal,
possessed of no vocabulary for any abstract idea, should yet by one leap
of natural logic have risen to one of the very highest pinnacles of
speculation, and both felt and expressed the idea of cause in the most
general and comprehensive of all its forms. Surely this assumption,
measured by any of those standards of experience or probability to which
he professed to appeal, was as much of a miracle as those which he so
decisively repudiated.

In one of his letters Voltaire declared that Locke was the only
reasonable metaphysician that he knew, and that next to him he placed
Hume.[212] Did he ever read, we may wonder, that masterly essay on the
Natural History of Religion, where Hume not only combats with his usual
vigour and effectiveness the idea of the belief in one omniscient,
omnipotent, and omnipresent spirit being the primary religion of men,
and shows that polytheism precedes monotheism, but also traces the
origin of all religion to its rudiment, in that ‘universal tendency
among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to
every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted,
and of which they are intimately conscious?’[213] The greater the
knowledge we acquire of the spiritual rudiments of primitive people, the
more certainly is it established that the idea of theism as the earliest
and most elementary belief, which Voltaire had picked up from
Bolingbroke and Pope, is untenable, and that Hume has been more and more
fully warranted in saying that the only point of theology on which the
consent of mankind is nearly universal is that ‘there is an invisible,
intelligent power in the world, but whether this power be supreme or
subordinate, whether confined to one being or distributed among several,
what attributes, qualities, connections, or principles of action, ought
to be ascribed to these beings, concerning all these points there is the
widest difference in the popular systems of theology.’[214] This might
be placing natural theology very low, but Hume at any rate placed it
where he did and described it as he did, because he had knowledge enough
of the condition of various nations in various parts of their history,
and was sufficiently penetrated with a cautious and scientific spirit,
to abstain from the unsupported and purely metaphysical conjectures of
men like Voltaire and Rousseau. Well might the keen-eyed De Maistre
describe him from the Catholic point of view as the most dangerous and
the guiltiest of all those pestilent writers,—the one who employed most
talent with most coolness to do most mischief.[215]

If Voltaire had studied Hume, moreover, he might have learnt how futile
and inappropriate it is in the long run to examine a religion otherwise
than in its most fundamental and comprehensive general ideas, and how
narrow and superficial would every philosophic appreciation ultimately
find what he called refutation by facts. For his own immediate purpose,
which was to cover the church and its creed with ridicule, the method of
collecting all the ludicrous, immoral, and inconsistent circumstances in
the Scriptures and their current interpretation, was, as we have already
said, a weapon potent enough. Voltaire, however, not only did not use,
he never understood nor perceived, the fact that a religion rests for
its final base on a certain small number of ideas, or that it is only by
touching these, by loosening the firmness of their hold, by revealing
their want of coherency and consistency with other accepted ideas, that
we can expect to shake the superstructure. For example, if only the
official exponents of religion had not been so firmly bent on making
the feeblest of all their ramparts into their very citadel, it would
have been a very small thing to urge the truly singular quality of such
miracles as those of the water made wine at Cana, of the cursing of the
barren fig-tree, of the unfortunate swine who rushed violently down a
steep place and were choked. These were legends that from the right
point of view of religion were not worth defending, any more than from
the right point of view of truth they were worth attacking. The details
of the use of a supernaturally conferred power may best be let alone,
until the probability of the existence and bestowal of such power has
been discussed and decided. The important issue and matter of vital
concern turned upon the general idea of the miraculous; yet this was
what Voltaire, perhaps from an instinctive consciousness of the little
capacity he possessed for genuine speculation, postponed to the really
secondary purpose of disparaging particular cases of miraculous

We are now touching what, before Hume, was the central defect of the
eighteenth-century attack, judged philosophically rather than
practically. The movement was a reaction against a certain set of ideas
which had been incorporated in the Christian system, as that system was
elaborated by the oriental sophisters. Yet the exact conflict between
the old ideas and the new was never conceived, much less was it
expressed, in clear comprehensive formulas. Consequently the most
general terms for the debate were neither sought nor found, and hence
the oppressive narrowness, the stifling want of free air, throughout the
controversy. The truth or falsehood which it is good for us to discover
in connection with a religion resides not in detail, but in the largest
general ideas of the subject. These draw all else along with them. Let
us take an illustration from a characteristic of the anti-christian
attack which has already been mentioned. The Voltairean school, as we
have before observed,[216] habitually derided the sacred importance
attached by the church in all ages, from Saint Paul downwards, to the
practice of continence. But there is no sign, so far as the present
writer’s knowledge goes, that they ever were near perceiving the origin
of that superstition lying deep down for so many centuries in the human
mind. The sanctity of continence was only one product of the old
far-spreading conviction of all the evil and unholiness essentially
inherent in matter. This conviction, which has itself a history and
genesis well worth tracing, probably accounts for more of the peculiar
manifestations contained in Christianity than any one principle of
belief besides. From this metaphysical idea sprang the whole theory of
asceticism; it had much to do indirectly with the first establishment of
the doctrine of the divinity of Christ; it entered into the triumph of
indispensable grace.[217] The speculative origin of practices and
sentiments which the heads of the western church valued, modified, and
sagaciously used for ecclesiastical or political reasons, ought never to
be lost sight of, because their duration has depended on the
circumstance of the original speculative idea remaining deeply sunk,
though not often put into articulate form, in the minds of the faithful,
and of all others whom these practices and sentiments have influenced.
One key to the central movement of the eighteenth century is the
dispersion of this association of evil and corruption from matter. There
was energetic and triumphant progress in the discovery of the laws of
matter, in their most stupendous, overwhelming, and majestic order.
There was a steady tendency to resolve mental manifestations into
functions of matter. There was a general inclination to forget those
depressing facts connected with the decay and dissolution of matter,
which, in the dismal times when the church was founded, had been thrust
into a prominence so humiliating to human dignity. The general movement
was carried too far by extreme spirits, but on the whole it was a
salutary and much-needed protest against the limitation of knowledge
within airy cloudlands where no true knowledge was to be reached, and of
emotion within transcendental aspirations where the deep reality of
human relations faded into dim distance.

It is only when controversy is conducted with reference to ground ideas
of this kind, that the parties to it can be sure of being on the same
plane, and, if they are not on the same plane, one of the least
mischiefs is that their arguments fly over one another’s heads.
Voltaire failed, partly from want of historic knowledge, partly from
insufficient depth of nature, to see what these ground ideas were,
against which he was fighting. Thus, to take another instance, he failed
to see that the belief in the exertion of supernatural power, even on
occasions which struck him as so frivolous, and in a manner undoubtedly
incompatible with justice, was merely an incidental result of a
profoundly rooted idea of the closeness, constancy, and mixed holiness
and majesty, of the relations between man and an awful being other than
man, endowed with powers denied to us, and animated by motives
inscrutable to us. He chose, if we are not wrong in using a term that
may imply much conscious deliberation, to identify his own conception of
deity with the conception of deity in the first four centuries of the
Christian era, simply because the object of each was called by a common
name. He found that the actions attributed to the Supreme Being whom the
church revered, were unworthy of a personage endowed with the qualities
which he ascribed to a supreme power, in his own version of that
culminating conception. He was thus never on the same plane of thought
or argument, but he never was near finding this out. The God whom he
conceived was incapable, from the very nature attributed to him by his
worshippers, of the various transactions, lofty and mean, sublime and
puerile, described in the documents on which Catholicism relied, and
the tradition by which it corroborated and interpreted them. The ground
idea of the belief in the miraculous was an extremely anthropomorphic
notion of a divinity, possessed of complete power, but using it in
obedience to motives which finite understandings cannot pretend to
fathom or measure. Such a notion was the natural growth of the human
mind, amid such a set of circumstances as attended the development and
establishment of Christianity. Men sat in darkness, forlorn and without
hope, and it is not hard for us to imagine the exultation with which
some greater spirit would produce, and all others would embrace, the
idea of this misery and darkness being no more than an outer accident,
the mysterious and incomprehensible dispensation of a divine being, ever
alive to the destinies of men, but holding them in the hollow of an
unseen hand, and guiding them in ways that are not as our ways; ever
remote from corporeal vision, but operating at a multitude of points on
the spirit of each man through grace, and finally, by a consummating
miracle repeated daily some thousands of times, severing this spirit
from the probation of flesh, and prolonging its existence independently
of the body through all eternity in modes of being, none the less real
for being impossible to conceive. To Voltaire this was unspeakable
foolishness. The prodigies of grace, of the resurrection of the body, of
the incarnation of divinity, were inconsistent with the qualities which
he imputed to the creator of the universe, and hence he contented
himself with mocking at them; the real state of the case was simply that
a number of influences had drawn men aside from that conception of the
creator, with which such prodigies were not inconsistent, but were on
the contrary logically and inseparably associated.

This failure to rise to the highest ideas involved in the great debate
explains, along with much besides, two striking facts connected with it.
It explains the intense acerbity of the conflict, and the flaming depth
of the chasm which divided and divides the two camps in France. For the
best natures are most violently irritated and outraged by mocking and
satiric attack upon the minor details, the accidents, the outside of the
objects of faith, when they would have been affected in a very different
way by a contrast between the loftiest parts of their own belief and the
loftiest parts of some other belief. Many persons who would listen to a
grave attack on the consistency, reasonableness, and elevation of the
currently ascribed attributes of the godhead, with something of the
respect due to the profound solemnity of the subject, would turn with
deaf and implacable resentment upon one who should make merry over the
swine of Gadara.

The same circumstance, secondly, explains the absence of permanent
quality about all that Voltaire wrote upon religion. For instance, men
who sympathise with him in his aims, and even for their sake forgive him
his method, who have long ago struck the tents under which they once
found shelter in the lands of belief, to whom Catholicism has become as
extinct a thing as Mahometanism, even they will turn with better chance
of edification to the great masters and teachers of the old faith, than
to the fiery precursor of the new. And why, if not for the reason that
while he dealt mainly with the lower religious ideas, or with the higher
ideas in their lowest forms, they put these into the second place, and
move with an inspiring exultation amid the loftiest and most general
conceptions that fine imagination and a soaring reason could discover
among the spiritual treasures of their religion. They turned to the
diviner mind, and exercised themselves with the weightiest and most
universal circumstances of the destiny of mankind. This is what makes
their thought and eloquence of perpetual worth, because the
circumstances with which they deal are perpetually present, and the
elements of life and character to which they appeal perpetually
operative. The awful law of death, the impenetrable secret of the first
cause, the fierce play of passion and universal distribution of pain,
the momentariness of guilt and eternity of remorse, the anguish of
bereavement that chokes and rends, the hopeless inner desolation which
is the unbroken lot of myriads of the forlorn of the earth,—these
ghostly things ever laying siege to the soul were known to a Bossuet or
a Pascal, and resolved by a series of ideas about the unknowable power
and the government of the world, which are no longer the mighty weapons
of exorcism they once were, but they are at any rate of due magnitude
and proportion, sublime, solemn, never unworthy. We touch the hands of
those who have walked with the most high, and they tell us many moving
wonders; we look on faces that have shone in rays from the heaven of
noble thoughts; we hear solemn and melodious words from men who received
answers from oracles that to us are very mute, but the memory of whose
power is still upon us. Hence the work of these glowing mortals lives
even for those to whom their faith is dead, while the words that
Voltaire wrote on religion are lifeless as the Infamous which they so
meritoriously slew. As we have said, he never knew the deeper things of
Catholicism. This is what he wrote about the immortal Dante: ‘Everybody
with a spark of good sense ought to blush at that monstrous assemblage
in hell of Dante and Virgil, of Saint Peter and Madonna Beatrice. There
are to be found among us, in the eighteenth century, people who force
themselves to admire feats of imagination as stupidly extravagant and as
barbarous as this; they have the brutality to oppose them to the
masterpieces of genius, wisdom, and eloquence, that we have in our
language. _O tempora, O judicium!_’[218] To which prodigy of criticism
we can only exclaim with the echo, _O tempora, O judicium!_


Let us see shortly what was Voltaire’s own solution of those facts of
life with which religion has to deal. The Catholic solution we know, and
can definitely analyse and describe; but the vagueness of Voltairean
deism defies any attempt at detailed examination. We can perceive a
supernatural existence, endowed with indefinable attributes, which are
fixed subjectively in the individual consciousness of each believer, and
which therefore can never be set forth in a scheme of general
acceptance. The Voltairean deist—and such persons exist in ample numbers
to this day—hardly ever takes the trouble to reconcile with one another
the various attributes which he imputes at various times to some great
master power of the universe. There is scarcely one of these attributes
to which, when it comes to be definitely described, he does not
encounter affronting contradiction in the real occurrences that arise
from time to time to search and try all our theories, deistical, or
other. The phenomena of moral and physical evil on the earth, and the
arrival of disasters which make no discrimination between their victims,
are constantly dealing sore blows to the conceptions which the deist
loves to erect in moments of optimistic expansion, of the clemency,
justice, and illimitable power of a being who governs the universe, and
is a something outside and independent of it. These optimist
conceptions, vague, unverified, free of definite relations with any
moral or social system, and furnishing no principle of active human
association as the Catholic idea of deity had done, constitute the
favourite religion or religiosity of those classes in all modern
countries, which have found the Voltairean kind of objection to the
Christian revelation insuperable, and which are so fortunate as to enjoy
a full measure of material prosperity. To these classes the black side
of life is strange and a matter of hearsay; and hence the awkwardness of
reconciling their complacent theory with the horror of facts is never
forced upon them. In their own happiness they love to superadd the
luxury of thankfulness to the bounty of a being to whom they owe all,
and to swell the tide of their own emotions by meditation on his
infinite and unspeakable perfections. Proof they require none, beyond
the loveliness and variety of external nature, the innocence and delight
of all young creatures, the order of the seasons bearing us their
copious fruit, the vivid intelligence and serviceable power of man, who
is the divinely appointed recipient of all these multitudinous favours.
Hence in proportion as this sort of deism stirs the soul of a man, the
more closely are his inmost thoughts reserved for contemplation of the
relations between the Supreme Being and his own individuality. It is a
creed which is specially adapted for, and has been generally seized by,
those with whom the world has gone very well, owing to their own
laudable exertion, and who are inclined to believe that the existing
ordering of society is fundamentally the best possible. It is the
superlative decoration of optimism.

The mass of men, those who dwell in dens and whose lives are bitter,
have never, in spite even of Rousseau’s teaching, accepted deism. An
opportunity for trying the experiment had occurred in the fourth
century, and the lesson should not be forgotten. Deism had been the
prevailing opinion in religion, but, as the most instructive of all the
historians of the dissolution of the Empire observes, it was generally
felt that deism did not supply the void occasioned by the absence of the
multitude of sympathetic divinities of the pagan system. Its influence
was cold and inanimate.[219] The common people are wont to crave a
revelation, or else they find atheism a rather better synthesis than any
other. They either cling to the miraculously transmitted message with
its hopes of recompense, and its daily communication of the divine voice
in prayer or sacrament, or else they make a world which moves through
space as a black monstrous ship with no steersman. The bare deistic
idea, of a being endowed at once with sovereign power and sovereign
clemency, with might that cannot be resisted and justice that cannot be
impugned, who loves man with infinite tenderness, yet sends him no word
of comfort and gives him no way of deliverance, is too hard a thing for
those who have to endure the hardships of the brutes, but yet preserve
the intelligence of men.

   Comment concevoir un Dieu, la bonté même,
   Qui prodigua ses biens à ses enfans qu’il aime,
   Et qui versa sur eux les maux à pleines mains?
   Quel œil peut pénétrer dans ses profonds desseins?
   De l’être tout parfait le mal ne pouvait naître!
   Il ne vient point d’autrui puisque Dieu seul est maître:
   Il existe pourtant. O tristes vérités!
   O melange etonnant de contrariétés!
   Un Dieu vint consoler notre race affligée;
   Il visita la terre et ne l’a point changée!
   Un sophiste arrogant nous dit qu’il ne l’a pu;
   Il le pouvait, dit l’autre, et ne l’a point voulu;
   Il le voudra, sans doute; et tandis qu’on raisonne,
   Des foudres souterraines engloutissent Lisbonne,
   Et de trente cités dispersent les débris,
   Des bords sanglans du Tage à la mer de Cadix.[220]

A bald deism has undoubtedly been the creed of some of the purest and
most generous men that have ever trod the earth, but none the less on
that account is it in its essence a doctrine of self-complacent
individualism from which society has little to hope, and with which
there is little chance of the bulk of society ever sympathising. In
truth, one can scarcely call it a creed. It is mainly a name for a
particular mood of fine spiritual exaltation; the expression of a state
of indefinite aspiration and supreme feeling for lofty things. Are you
going to convert the new barbarians of our western world with this fair
word of emptiness? Will you sweeten the lives of suffering men, and
take its heaviness from that droning piteous chronicle of wrong and
cruelty and despair, which everlastingly saddens the compassionating ear
like moaning of a midnight sea; will you animate the stout of heart with
new fire, and the firm of hand with fresh joy of battle, by the thought
of a being without intelligible attributes, a mere abstract creation of
metaphysic, whose mercy is not as our mercy, nor his justice as our
justice, nor his fatherhood as the fatherhood of men? It was not by a
cold, a cheerless, a radically depraving conception such as this, that
the church became the refuge of humanity in the dark times of old, but
by the representation, to men sitting in bondage and confusion, of
godlike natures moving among them under figure of the most eternally
touching of human relations, a tender mother ever interceding for them,
and an elder brother laying down his life that their burdens might be

We have spoken of Voltairean deism, and the expression is a convenient
one to distinguish from the various forms of mystic theology, which
gloomily disclaim any pretence to be rational, the halting-place of
spirits too deeply penetrated with the rationalistic objections of
Voltaire to accept revelation, and either too timorous or too confident
to acquiesce in a neutral solution. It is unjust, however, to attribute
to Voltaire himself a perfect adherence to the deistical idea. For the
first half of his life there is no doubt that it floated in his mind,
as in so many others, in a random manner, as the true explanation of the
world. His introduction to the teaching of Newton would give a firmer
shape to such a belief. He has indeed told us that it was so. He
mentions that in the course of several interviews he had with Doctor
Samuel Clarke in 1726, this philosopher never pronounced the name of God
without a curious air of awe and self-collection, and he commemorates
the impression which the sight of this habit, and reflection upon its
significance, made upon him[221]. Still it was not a very active or
vital element of belief with him even then, but rather of the nature of
the sublimest of poetic figures.

   Oui, dans le sein de Dieu, loin de ce corps mortel,
   L’esprit semble écouter la voix l’Eternel[222].

Clearly this kind of expression means very little, and has no source in
the deeper seats of the writer’s feeling. A considerable number of
Voltaire’s deistical ejaculations, and on these occasions he threw into
them a measure of real unction, may be fairly traced to the
extraordinary polemical utility of an idea of spotless purity, entire
justice, inexhaustible mercy, as an engine of battle against men who in
the sacred name of this idea were the great practitioners of intolerance
and wrong.

   Ignorer ton être suprême,
   Grand Dieu! c’est un moindre blasphème,
   Et moins digne de ton courroux
   Que de te croire impitoyable,
   De nos malheurs insatiable,
   Jaloux, injuste comme nous.
   Lorsqu’un dévot atrabilaire
   Nourri de superstition,
   A par cette affreuse chimère,
   Corrompu sa religion,
   Le voilà stupide et farouche:
   Le fiel découle de sa bouche,
   Le fanatisme arme son bras:
   Et dans sa piété profonde
   Sa rage immolerait le monde
   A son Dieu, qu’il ne connaît pas.[223]

To have a conception of perfect goodness was a manifest convenience in
confronting men who were to be proved masters of badness. But when the
pressure of circumstance forced Voltaire to seek in earnest for an
explanation of the world, which he had formerly been content to take in
an easy way upon trust, then the deism, which had been barely more than
nominal at best, was transformed into a very different and far sincerer
mood. It would obviously be a gross blunder from a logical point to
confound optimism with deism, but it is clear that what shook Voltaire’s
conviction of the existence of a deity was the awakening in him of a
keener sense of the calamities that afflict the race of man. Personal
misfortunes perhaps had their share. It was after the loss of Madame du
Châtelet, and after the rude dispersion of his illusions as to
Frederick, when he barely knew whither to turn for shelter or a home,
that the optimism which he had learnt in England began to lose its hold
upon him. We must do him the justice to add that he was yet more
sensible of disasters which affected others. The horrid tide of war
which devastated Europe and America, the yet more hateful tide of
persecution for opinion which swept over France, and the cruel
maladministration of justice which disgraced her tribunals, stirred all
that was best in him to the very depths. The only non-dramatic poem of
his which has strength, sincerity, and profundity of meaning enough
firmly to arrest the reader’s attention, and stimulate both thought and
feeling, is that fine and powerful piece which he wrote on the occasion
of the great earthquake of Lisbon.[224] Here he threw into energetic and
passionately argumentative verse the same protest against the theory
that whatever is is best, which he afterwards urged in a very different
form in the ‘refined insolence’ of Candide.[225] He approaches more
nearly than a quarter of a century before he would have thought
possible, to the deep gloom of the Pascal against whose terrible
pictures he had then so warmly protested. He sees mankind imprisoned in
a circle of appalling doom, from which there is no way of escape. Unlike
Pascal, he can find no solution, and he denounces that mockery of a
solution which cries that all is well in accents stifled with
lamentation. He protests against the delusion of forcing the course of
the world’s destiny into a moral formula, that shall contain the terms
of justice and mercy in their human sense.

   Aux cris demi-formés de leurs voix expirantes,
   Au spectacle effrayant de leurs cendres fumantes,
   Direz-vous: C’est l’effet des éternelles lois,
   Qui d’un Dieu libre et bon nécessitent le choix?
   Direz-vous, en voyant cet amas de victimes:
   Dieu s’est vengé, leur mort est le prix de leurs crimes?
   Quelle crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfans
   Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglans?
   Lisbonne, qui n’est plus, eut-elle plus de vices
   Que Londres, que Paris, plongés dans les délices?
   Lisbonne est abîmée, et l’on danse á Paris.

He equally refuses, though not in terms, to comfort himself by the
reflection that, in default of a better, the current ragged theory of
the providential government of the universe, because it may be possible,
must be true. He can find no answer, and confesses his belief that no
answer is to be found by human effort. Whatever side we take, we can
only shudder; there is nothing that we know, nothing that we have not to
fear. Nature is mute, and we interrogate her in vain; the book of
destiny is closed to our eyes.

   L’homme, étranger à soi, de l’homme est ignoré.
   Que suis-je? où suis-je? où vais-je? et d’où suis-je tiré?
   Atomes tourmentés sur cet amas de boue,
   Que la mort engloutit, et dont le sort se joue,
   Mais atomes pensans, atomes dont les yeux,
   Guidés par la pensée, ont mesuré les cieux,
   Au sein de l’infini nous élaçons notre être,
   Sans pouvoir un moment nous voir et nous connaître.

          *       *       *       *       *

   Le passé n’est pour nous qu’un triste souvenir;
   Le présent est affreux, s’il n’est point d’avenir,
   Si la nuit du tombeau détruit l’être qui pense.

He abandons Plato and rejects Epicurus. Bayle knows more than they, as,
with the balance in his hand, he teaches men to doubt; wise enough,
great enough, to be without a system.

In a note he adds to this glorification of Bayle, whom he styles the
advocate-general of the philosophers—the thinker in whose pages all
opinions are set forth, all the reasons which shake them and all which
uphold are equally investigated, while he abstains from giving any
conclusions.[226] Elsewhere he explains that when he describes reason as
having made immense progress in Germany, he does not refer to those who
openly embrace the system of Spinoza; but the good folk who have no
fixed principles on the nature of things, who do not know what is, but
know very well what is not, these are my true philosophers.[227]

It would not be difficult to find a score of passages in which the
writer assumes or declares certainty on this high matter to be
attainable, and to be entirely in one direction. His opinions
undoubtedly shifted with the veering of his moods, but on the whole
these axioms of suspense mark the central point to which they constantly
tended to return, and at which they rested longest. That dark word, Shut
thine eyes and thou shalt see, opened no road for him. The saying that
the Most High may be easily known, provided one does not press for
definition, offered no treasure of spiritual acquisition to the man who
never let go, even if he did not always accurately appreciate, Locke’s
injunction to us to be careful to define our terms. We cannot label
Voltaire either spiritualist or materialist. The success with which he
evades these two appellations is one of the best available tests of a
man’s capacity for approaching the great problems with that care and
positive judgment, which are quite as proper to them as to practical
affairs or to physical science.

Thus with reference to the other great open question, he habitually
insisted that the immortality of the soul can never possibly be
demonstrated, and that this is why it has been revealed to us by
religion,[228] which is perhaps Voltaire’s way of saying that it is no
near concern of his. Sometimes he argued from considerations of general
probability. The brutes feel and think up to a certain point, and men
have only the advantage over them of a greater combination of ideas; the
more or less makes no difference in kind. ‘Well, nobody thinks of giving
an immortal soul to a flea; why should you give one any the more to an
elephant, or a monkey, or my Champagne valet, or a village steward who
has a trifle more instinct than my valet?’[229] Again, he retorted
significantly on those who contended with a vehemence of prejudice
known in some places even to this day, that belief in the immortality of
the soul is an indispensable condition of probity; as if the first Jews
accepted that dogma, and as if there were no honest men among them, and
no instruction in virtue.[230]

In fine, then, we search Voltaire in vain for a positive creed, which
logic may hold in coherent bonds, or social philosophy accept as a
religious force. The old word about his faith must be pronounced true.
It remains a creed of negation. But still, be it always understood,
negation of darkness. And this inevitably leads in the direction of the
day. It was an indispensable step in the process of transition. Men, it
is constantly being said since the violent breaking-up of French
society, will never consent to live on no better base than articles of
denial and formulas of suspense, for are not the deepest parts of human
character moved by strong yearning for relationship with the unknowable?
It may be so, and if it be, the Voltairean movement was the great
instrument in leading, not merely a scanty group of speculative
intellects, but vast bodies, large nations, of common folk to perceive,
or dimly to conjecture, that this object of adoration which their eyes
strain after _is_ unknowable, and that there is no attainable external
correlative of their deep desire. Voltaire never went so far in the
direction of assertion as Rousseau, and he never went so far in the
direction of denial as Holbach. And, whatever we may say generally of
the horror of the world for the spirit that denies, all that was best
and most truly progressive in French society during the eighteenth
century, Turgot and Condorcet no less than Beaumarchais, showed itself
content to follow him in this middle path. His appreciation of religion
was wanting in a hundred vital things, just as some may say that
Luther’s was, but it contained the one idea which the deepest spirit of
the time prompted men to desire, the decisive repudiation of the
religious notions of the past. We must call this negative, no doubt, but
no word should frighten us away from seeing how much positive aspiration
lay underneath. When men are in the mood of France a century and a
quarter since, when all that an old civilisation has bestowed on them of
what is best and strongest, rises up against all that the same
civilisation has bequeathed to them of what is pestilent and dangerous,
they are never nice critics. They do not decline a reinvigorating
article of faith, because it is not a system, nor do they measure a
deliverer by syllogism. The smallest chink may shine like light of the
sun to prisoners long held in black and cavernous recesses.

When Bayle’s Dictionary came out, we read, so great was the avidity to
have sight of it, that long before the doors of the Mazarin library were
open, a little crowd assembled in the early morning of each day, and
there was as great a struggle for the first access to the precious book,
as for the front row at the performance of a piece for which there is a
rage.[231] This was the beginning of an immense impulse of curiosity,
eager to fill the vacuum occasioned by the slow subsidence of the old
religion, which had once covered not only faith, but science, history,
dialectic, and philosophy, all in a single synthesis. It was this
impulse which Voltaire both represented and accelerated. In these
periods of agitation, men forgive all to one who represents without
compromise or diminution their own dominant passions. Vehemence of
character counts for more than completeness of doctrine, and they crave
a battle-cry, not a dissertation. They need to have their own sentiment
aggressively presented, and their own defects of boldness or courage at
once rebuked and supplemented by a leader whose purpose can never be
mistaken, and whose words are never nipped by the frost of intellectual
misgiving. All through the century there was slowly growing up an inner
France, full of angry disgust against the past. Its germ was the crowd
eager to read Bayle. Its outcome was the night of the Fourth of August
1789, when the civil order of society was overthrown between a sunset
and a dawn. Voltaire, as we have seen, studiously abstained from any
public word upon things political, but it was he who in the long
interval between these two events held men by a watchword to which the
political decay of the country gave such meaning, that of hatred to the
old. And there was no such steadfast symbol of the old as the church,
to him and his school a lurid beacon on a monster-haunted shore.

Voltaire’s selection of the church as the object of his attacks marks an
important difference between him and the other great revolutionary
precursor. Rousseau’s Savoyard Vicar was perfectly willing to accept the
cultus of Christianity, even when he had ceased to accept its dogma. He
regarded all particular religions as so many salutary institutions, all
good so long as they were the organs for a due service of God. He
actually celebrated mass with more veneration after the acquisition of
his new principles, than he had been accustomed to do when he supposed
that the mass was an occasion of personal divine presence. This kind of
teaching was clearly to perpetuate and transfix for ever the form of
religion which each country, or any given set of men in it, might
possess. It was to stereotype belief, as it is stereotyped among the
millions in the East. Whence was reform to come, whence any ray of new
light, whence a principle of growth and activity for the intelligence of
men? How on these terms is truth to win the battle at a single point?
This was the beginning of a fatal substitution of bland emotional
complacency for robust cultivation of the reason, and firm reverence for
its lessons as the highest that we can learn. Voltaire no doubt did in
practice many a time come to terms with his adversary while he was yet
on the way with him; but, disagreeable as these temporisings are to us
who live in an easier day, they never deceived any one, nor could they
ever be mistaken for the establishment of intellectual treason as a
principle, or of philosophic indifference as a climax. As has been said,
though he writes in the midst of the old régime, in the face of the
Bastille, and with the fetters of the enemy in some sort actually upon
him, he still finds a thousand means of reaching you.[232] He is always
the representative of reason, and never of sentimentalism. He was not
above superficial compromises in matters of conduct, and these it is
hard or impossible to condone; but at any rate he is free from the
deeper and more penetrating reproach of erecting hypocrisy into a
deliberate doctrine.

We do not know how far he ever seriously approached the question, so
much debated since the overthrow of the old order in France, whether a
society can exist without a religion? He says in one place that to
believe God and spirits corporeal is an old metaphysical error, but
absolutely not to believe in any god would be an error incompatible with
wise government. But even this much was said for the sake of introducing
a taunt against the orthodox, who by a strange contradiction had risen
up with fury against Bayle for believing it possible that a society of
atheists could hold together, while they insisted with just as much
violence that the empire of China was established on a basis of
atheism.[233] His natural sagacity would most likely have shown him
that this is one of the sterile problems, with which the obstructive
defender of things as they are tries to draw the soldier of improvement
away from his strongest posts. Whether a society can exist without
religion or not, at least its existence as a structure for whose
duration we can be anxious, must depend on the number of men in it who
deal honestly with their own understandings. And, further, is no man to
be counted to have a religion who, like Voltaire, left great questions
open, and put them aside, as all questions, that must from the
limitations of human faculty eternally remain open, well deserve to be
put aside? Must we ever call an unknown God by one name? Are there so
few tasks for one on earth, that he must strain all his soul to fix the
regimen of high heaven?

Voltaire, there is every reason to think, did in an informal kind of way
suppose in the bottom of his heart that there is nothing in human nature
to hinder a very advanced society from holding perfectly well together,
with all its opinions in a constant state of analysis. Whatever we may
think of it, this dream of what is possible, if the activity of human
intelligence were only sufficiently stimulated and the conditions of
social union were once so adjusted as to give it fair play,
unquestionably lies at the root of the revolutionary ideas with all
those who were first stirred by Voltaire rather than by Rousseau.
Condorcet, for instance, manifestly depends with the firmest confidence
upon that possibility being realised. It is the idea of every literary
revolutionist, as distinguished from the social or economic
revolutionist, in France at the present day. The knowledge that this was
the case, added to the sound conviction that men can never live by
analysis alone, gave its fire to De Maistre’s powerful attack, and its
immense force to Burke’s plea for what he called prejudice. But the
indispensable synthesis need never be immovably fixed, nor can it soon
again be one and single for our civilisation; for progress consists in
gradual modifications of it, as increase of knowledge and unforeseen
changes in the current of human affairs disclose imperfections in it,
and wherever progress is a law the stages of men’s advance are unequal.
Above all, it is monstrous to suppose that because a man does not accept
your synthesis, he is therefore a being without a positive creed or a
coherent body of belief capable of guiding and inspiring conduct.

There are new solutions for him, if the old are fallen dumb. If he no
longer believes death to be a stroke from the sword of God’s justice,
but the leaden footfall of an inflexible law of matter, the humility of
his awe is deepened, and the tenderness of his pity made holier, that
creatures who can love so much should have their days so shut round with
a wall of darkness. The purifying anguish of remorse will be stronger,
not weaker, when he has trained himself to look upon every wrong in
thought, every duty omitted from act, each infringement of the inner
spiritual law which humanity is constantly perfecting for its own
guidance and advantage, less as a breach of the decrees of an unseen
tribunal, than as an ungrateful infection, weakening and corrupting the
future of his brothers. And he will be less effectually raised from
inmost prostration of soul by a doubtful subjective reconciliation, so
meanly comfortable to his own individuality, than by hearing full in the
ear the sound of the cry of humanity craving sleepless succour from her
children. That swelling consciousness of height and freedom with which
the old legends of an omnipotent divine majesty fill the breast, may
still remain; for how shall the universe ever cease to be a sovereign
wonder of overwhelming power and superhuman fixedness of law? And a man
will be already in no mean paradise, if at the hour of sunset a good
hope can fall upon him like harmonies of music, that the earth shall
still be fair, and the happiness of every feeling creature still receive
a constant augmentation, and each good cause yet find worthy defenders,
when the memory of his own poor name and personality has long been
blotted out of the brief recollection of men for ever.



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

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

Voltaire has told us the circumstances under which he was led to
approach the philosophy of history. Madame du Châtelet, whose mind would
fain have reached every kind of knowledge, but who was especially apt
for metaphysics and geometry, had conceived an aversion for history.
‘What does it matter to me,’ she would ask, ‘a Frenchwoman living on my
estate, to know that Egil succeeded Haquin in Sweden, and that Ottoman
was the son of Ortogrul? I have read with pleasure the history of the
Greeks and the Romans; they offered me certain great pictures which
attracted me. But I have never yet been able to finish any long history
of our modern nations. I can see scarcely anything in them but
confusion; a host of minute events without connection or sequence, a
thousand battles which settled nothing. I renounced a study which
overwhelms the mind without illuminating it.’ To this frank statement of
the case, to which so many thousands of persons in all epochs would so
heartily subscribe, Voltaire replied by pointing out that perhaps the
study of history would be no waste of time, if by cutting away all the
details of wars, as tedious as they are untrustworthy, all the frivolous
negotiations which have been nothing but pieces of purposeless cheating,
all the minute incidents which stifle great events, and by retaining
those which paint manners, you made of this chaos a general and
well-arranged picture; in short, if you tried to disengage from the
concourse of events the history of the human mind.[234] Not all the
faults of execution ought to blind us to the merit of this notion of the
true way of studying history, or to the admirable clearness of vision
with which Voltaire, not only in this but in all his other historical
pieces, adhered to his own two leading principles; first, that laws,
arts, manners, are the chief matter and concern of history; and second,
that ‘details which lead to nothing are in history what baggage is to
an army, _impedimenta_, for we must look at things in large, for the
very reason that the human mind is small and sinks under the weight of
minutiæ.’ Minutiæ ought to be collected by annalists, or in some kind
of dictionaries where one might find them at need.[235] In this last
point Voltaire, as might be expected, was more just than Bolingbroke,
who had said somewhat petulantly that ‘he had rather take the Darius
whom Alexander conquered for the son of Hystaspes, and make as many
anachronisms as a Jewish chronologer, than sacrifice half his life to
collect all the learned lumber that fills the head of an
antiquary.’[236] The antiquary’s is a vocation like another, and the
highest kind of history can only flourish on condition that the humbler
ancillary kind flourishes also, and that there are patient and
scrupulous men to mark the difference between Darius Codomannus and
Darius the son of Hystaspes.

We may say that three kinds of men write history: the gazetteer or
annalist, the statesman, and the philosopher. The annalist’s business is
to investigate and record events, and his highest merits are clearness,
accuracy, and simplicity. The political historian seeks the superficial
and immediate causes of great transactions, and he serves us by mixed
penetration and soundness of judgment. The historical philosopher is
concerned only with groups of events, the changes and movements that
transform communities, and with the trains of conditions that lead to
such movements. The majority of historians, from the illustrious Bacon
down to the compiler of a manual, illustrate the first kind. Thucydides
and Tacitus, among the ancients, a Machiavelli or a Finlay, among
moderns, may illustrate the second kind. As Voltaire was sometimes
gazetteer and sometimes statesman, so Montesquieu took the statesman’s
point of view in his reflections on the decline of Rome, and that of the
philosopher in the Spirit of Laws. It is the statesman or man of the
world, who, after recounting Caesar’s failure on one occasion to comply
with the etiquette of the senate, proceeds to make the following
reflection, that ‘we never offend men more, than when we shock their
ceremonies and usages: seek to oppress them, and that is sometimes a
proof of the importance you attach to them; but shock their customs, and
that is always a mark of contempt.’[237] It is the philosopher, feeling
for the causes of things and their order, who being led to inquire into
the spirit or meaning of Laws, understands such an inquiry to involve a
comparative investigation of the relations between laws and physical
climate, the quality of ground, situation and extent of territory, the
mode of life of the people, agricultural, hunting, or pastoral; between
laws and the freedom of the constitution, the religion, wealth, trade,
moral ideas, and manners, of the inhabitants; above all, historically,
between laws and their origin and the order of things on which they
were first founded.

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

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

For his four works in the class of political history he had the best
attainable authorities and material, and no one was ever more diligent
in putting them to the best possible use.[238] His acute sense,
strengthened by contact with the world and its most active personages,
made him what we may almost call prematurely scientific in his demand
for adequate evidence and proof. It is rather striking, for example, to
find him anticipating more recent objections to the trustworthiness of
Tacitus, pointing out the extraordinary improbabilities in his account
of Tiberius, Nero, and the others. There is all the difference, he says,
between a faithful historian equally free from adulation and hatred, and
‘a malicious wit who poisons everything through the medium of a concise
and energetic style.’ Are we to believe, he asks elsewhere, on the story
of a man who lived long after Tiberius, that this emperor, nearly eighty
years old, who had up to that time been decent almost to austerity, yet
passed all his time in debaucheries hitherto unknown, and so monstrous
as to need new names for them?[239] And in the same way he questions the
alleged atrocities of Nero and Caligula, as well as the motives imputed
to Domitian by Tacitus for the frequency with which he sent to inquire
after the health of Agricola. These historic doubts sprang from none of
the political judgment or feeling which propounds them in more modern
times, but purely from scientific incredulity. ‘History,’ he once wrote,
‘is after all nothing but a parcel of tricks that we play the
dead.’[240] He did not hold this slightly splenetic theory, in which
assuredly there is a painful truth, to absolve him from the duty of
doing what he could to belie it, and to make history as correct and as
faithfully representative of actual occurrences, as careful inquiry
from those most likely to know the characters of the most prominent
actors could make it. In the composition of the Siècle de Louis XV., he
had of course the advantage of knowing all these leaders of the public
activity personally and at first hand, while if he had not that
advantage to the same extent in the Siècle de Louis XIV., he at least
mixed on intimate terms with many who had been intimate with the court
of the great monarch. For the history of Russia he was amply provided
with documents and authentic narratives from the Russian court, at whose
solicitation he undertook a work which was the first full introduction
of that hitherto barbarous and unknown country to the literature of
civilised Europe. His letters to Schouvalof, the imperial chamberlain,
attest the unremitting industry with which he sought for every kind of
information that might be useful to him. ‘The enlightened spirit which
now reigns among the principal nations of Europe, requires that we
should go to the bottom, where in former times a historian barely
thought it worth while to skim the surface. People wish to know how a
nation grew together; what was its population before the epoch of which
you treat; the difference in the number of the regular army then and in
former times; the nature and growth of its commerce; what arts have
sprung up within the country, and what have been introduced from
elsewhere and been perfected there; what used to be the ordinary average
revenue of the state, and what it is now; the birth and extension of
its navy; the proportion in numbers between its nobles and its
ecclesiastics and monks, and between the latter and the cultivators of
the soil, etc.’[241] Even importunities of this kind continued over a
space of some years, and the copious responses which they brought, never
consoled Voltaire for not having made the journey to the Russian capital
in his proper person. ‘I should have learnt more from you in a few hours
of conversation,’ he wrote to Schouvalof, ‘than all the compilers in the
world will ever teach me.’[242] In writing the History of Charles XII.
of Sweden, one of the most delightful of his books, the art of which is
none the less because it is so little ostentatious and striking and
seems so easy, he had procured a large quantity of material from
Fabrice, who knew the Swedish king during his detention at Bender and
subsequently, and met Voltaire in London. This material was supplemented
in later years by information picked up at Lunéville from the ex-Polish
king Stanislas, who was indebted to Charles for his sovereignty, that
true δῶρον ἄδωρον. ‘As for the portraits of men,’ Voltaire declared,
‘they are nearly all the creations of fancy; ’tis a monstrous piece of
charlatanry to pretend to paint a personage with whom you have never
lived.’[243] Napoleon, in the memorable campaign of 1812, coming to
various places which Voltaire had occasion to describe in his History of
Charles XII., found his account weak and inaccurate, and threw it aside
in favour of Adlerfeldt. This was to be expected from the very merit of
the book; for how should a picture, painted in large for the general
instruction of the world, satisfy the minute requirements of strategical
topography? It was precisely Voltaire’s object to separate history from
geography, statistics, anecdote, biography, tactics, and to invest it
with an independent character and quality apart from all these.

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

Voltaire was always conscious, though not so clearly as writers are now,
of the great historical principle that besides the prominent men of a
generation there is a something at work underneath, a moving current on
whose flood they are borne. He never fixed this current by any of the
names which now fall so glibly from our lips,—tendency of the times,
tenor of public opinion, spirit of the age, and the like, by which we
give a collective name to groups of sentiments and forces, all making in
what seems to be a single direction. But although unnamed, this singular
and invisible concurrence of circumstance was yet a reality to him. The
age was something besides its heroes, and something besides its noisiest
and most resounding occurrences. His divisions of the great epochs of
humanity are undoubtedly open to much criticism, because the principles
on which he drew the dividing lines have lost their force in new
generations. It was to be expected that they would do so; and his four
great epochs[244] were not likely to remain the four great epochs of a
posterity, which has partially learnt the lesson that he had not learnt
at all, that perfection in the fine arts is not the highest mark of an
age in which humanity may glory. Nevertheless, we are bound to recognise
that a new way of regarding human action, as well as a new way of
composing history, was being introduced by a writer whose first
paragraph declared that he proposed to himself a greater object than an
account of the life of Lewis XIV.; that he designed to paint for the
instruction of posterity, not the actions of a single man, but the
spirit of men; and that while all periods must be alike to one who only
desires to fill his memory with facts, discrimination among them cannot
be dispensed with for one who thinks.

Hence also the propriety of discrimination among the various kinds of
fact which are at the historian’s disposal, and in this order Voltaire’s
whole soul revolted against the reigning practice and prescription. ‘I
would rather have details,’ he wrote to one of his intimates so early in
his career as 1735, ‘about Racine and Despréaux, Molière, Bossuet,
Descartes, than I would about the battle of Steinkirk. There is nothing
left but the names of men who led battalions and squadrons. There is no
return to the human race from a hundred engagements; but the great men I
have spoken of prepared pure and everlasting pleasures for mortals still
unborn. A canal-sluice, a picture by Poussin, a fine tragedy, a truth
established, are all of them things a thousand times more precious than
the whole mass of annals of the court, and than all the narratives of
campaigns.’[245] From this and from a multitude of other passages, as
well as from his actual compositions, we perceive that the activity of a
court and the manœuvres of an army were no longer in Voltaire’s eyes the
fit substance of history. One reason for this might be his lively sense
of the impossibility of knowing the character and motives of people with
whom one has not lived, or the real cause of even the most momentous
intrigues and negotiations in which one has not taken a personal share.
A still deeper reason would be his most rational conviction that these
matters are only of moment to us for their larger results and
unmistakable outcome, and from the profoundly true and important
principle that the progress of intellectual enlightenment, material
prosperity, and moral elevation is not only a feature in the history of
a nation, but does itself constitute that history, while all records of
other transactions in the course of its annals, achievements in
diplomacy, feats of arms, revolutions in policy, have no true historic
value, except for the light they shed upon this economic, intellectual,
and moral progress, and are not worth studying except in that light. We
may see the immediate effects of Voltaire’s influence most markedly of
all in Gibbon, but in a less important shape in the general account of
the middle ages which Robertson contributed to his History of Charles V.
(1769), and which remained for many years the most instructive piece
that our literature possessed upon the character and spirit of the
feudal system and other features of the middle ages. Adam Ferguson’s
Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) bears traces of the same
influence. In both of these cases much also must be added for the
kindred authority of Montesquieu. One has some hesitation in adding Hume
to the list in the present connection, because his history, the
composition of which extended from 1752 to 1763, ought perhaps to be
counted rather the direct and independent outcome of the French
philosophic spirit, than of the French historic spirit which itself
proceeded from the philosophy; and because, moreover, Hume, as a
historian, has some of Voltaire’s most serious defects, without that
breadth and size which constituted his greatest merit, though it is
needless to point out how many merits Hume had of his own. It is worth
remarking that in some pages which he wrote on Hume’s History,[246]
Voltaire gave it a joyful welcome, as might be expected, and
particularly to those parts which we now esteem most lightly, such as
the contemptuous account of Cromwell.

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

Voltaire not only held up these demoralising records to the odium they
deserve; he directly taxed the clergy with their failure to discharge
the very highest part of their duty. Of the five or six thousand sermons
of Massillon, he asked, are there a couple where you could pick out a
word or two against the scourge and crime of war? Bourdaloue preached
against impurity, but what sermon did he ever direct against the murder,
rapine, brigandage, and universal rage, which desolate the world?
‘Miserable physicians of souls, you declaim for five quarters of an hour
against the mere pricks of a pin, and say no word on the curse which
tears us into a thousand pieces! Philosophers and moralists, burn your
books: so long as the caprice of a handful of men will cause the
massacring in all loyalty of thousands of our brothers, the part of the
human race which is devoted to heroism will contain all that is most
frightful in human nature. What concern to me are humanity, benevolence,
modesty, temperance, gentleness, wisdom, piety, so long as half an ounce
of lead shatters my body, and I die at twenty in torments unspeakable,
surrounded by five or six thousand dead or dying, while my eyes, opening
for the last time, see the town I was born in delivered to fire and
sword, and the last sounds that reach my ears are the shrieks of women
and children expiring in the ruins—and the whole for the pretended
interests of a man that we do not know?’[247] His rebuke to Montesquieu
is still more distinctively modern. The author of the Esprit des Lois
had said that among societies it sometimes happens that natural defence
possibly involves the necessity of attack, when a nation perceives that
a longer peace would place another nation in a position to destroy
it.[248] ‘If ever there was a war evidently unjust,’ Voltaire replies,
‘it is that which you propose; it is to go and kill your neighbour for
fear your neighbour should be in a condition to attack you; that is to
say, you must run the risk of ruining your country, in the hope of
ruining without reason some other country.... If your neighbour grows
too powerful during a time of peace, what hinders you from growing
powerful like him? If he has made alliances, make alliances on your
side. If, having less religion, he has all the more manufacturers and
soldiers for it, imitate him in so sage an economy. If he drills his
sailors better, drill yours too: all that is perfectly just. But to
expose your people to the most horrible misery, in the idea, which is so
often chimerical, of crushing your dear brother, the most serene
bordering prince—! ’twas never for a president of a pacific order to
give you such a piece of counsel.’[249] The book in which this sound
view of justice and expediency in the dealings of nations with one
another was pressed upon the attention of France, was published in 1764,
five years before the birth of the man who turned the tide back, and
made the international policy of France a synonym both for iniquity and
folly. On the 15th of August 1769 Voltaire concluded his letter to
D’Alembert with his usual vivacity: ‘Adieu; my compliments to the devil,
for it is he who governs the world.’[250] If he had known that, while he
was writing, Napoleon Bonaparte had come into the world, and could at
the same time have foreseen the new-comer’s destiny, he might have said
the same thing more seriously. Voltaire never played the sentimentalist.
He knew that there are complexities of affairs which only the sword can
cut. But he was the first influential writer—for the abbé Saint-Pierre,
so undeservedly laughed at for his dreams of perpetual peace, had no
influence to speak of—who deliberately placed war among retrograde
agencies, and deliberately dwelt upon peaceful industry as the true life
of nations.[251]

Diplomacy and its complex subterranean processes, which have occupied so
extremely disproportionate a space in written history, and which are in
acted history responsible for so much evil, were in the same way
informally relegated to the region of inhuman occupations. Its methods
were the tortuous and depressing methods of the same past, which had
made the many the playthings and unhappy instruments of the few, and had
never interrupted the triumphant manœuvres of craft and subtlety by a
whisper for the claims of humanity and justice. Voltaire scarcely ever
speaks of negotiations between contending powers without a shrewd
thrust, half contemptuous and half angry. The plain where some
negotiations took place in the struggles among the descendants of
Charles the Great is still called the Field of Lies; a name, he says,
that might well be common to most spots where men have negotiated.[252]
And this represents his general tone in speaking of a branch of activity
which may interest the professional diplomatist in all its details, but
which, as he thought, can only concern the historical student in its
results. Here Voltaire represented a marked tendency, which waxes
stronger as societies grow more penetrated with popular forces, to
divest diplomacy of a professional quality, and to throw the adjustment
of the relations between nations as entirely as possible into the hands
of plain men of firm and upright character, and full knowledge of the
special matters at issue.

It is, however, when we come to the ground idea of the Essay on
Manners,[253] that we feel the full breath of the modern spirit, and
perceive that at length we are nearing the wide expanse of the sea.
There we emerge absolutely from the narrow conception of universal
history, with which Bossuet had familiarised men’s minds in the
Discourse on Universal History. This famous piece, which has had at
least as much praise as it merits, if we are to consider reason as well
as eloquence, was fundamentally and in substance no more than a bit of
theological commonplace splendidly decorated. Bossuet indeed spoke of
‘the concatenation of human affairs,’ but only in the same sentence with
‘the sequence of the counsels of God.’ The gorgeous rhetorician of the
church was not likely to rise philosophically into the larger air of
universal history, properly so called. His eloquent discourse is a
vindication of divine foresight, by means of an intensely narrow survey
of such sets of facts as might be thought not inconsistent with the
deity’s fixed purpose to make one final and decisive revelation to men.
No one who looks upon the vast assemblage of stupendous human
circumstances, from the first origin of man upon the earth, as merely
the ordained antecedent of what, seen from the long procession of all
the ages, figures in so diminutive a consummation as the Catholic
church, is likely to obtain a very effective hold of that broad sequence
and many-linked chain of events, to which Bossuet gave a right name,
but whose real meaning he never was even near seizing. His merit is
that he did in a small and rhetorical way, what Montesquieu and Voltaire
afterwards did in a truly comprehensive and philosophical way; he
pressed forward general ideas in connection with the recorded movements
of the chief races of mankind. For a teacher of history to leave the
bare chronicler’s road so far as to declare, for example, the general
principle, inadequate and overstated as it is, that ‘religion and civil
government are the two points on which human things revolve,’ even this
was a clear step in advance—and to dismiss the long series of emperors
from Augustus to Alexander Severus in two or three pages was to show a
rare sense of large historic proportion. Again, Bossuet’s expressions of
‘the concatenation of the universe,’ of the interdependence of the parts
of so vast a whole, of there coming no great change without having its
causes in foregoing centuries, and of the true object of history being
to observe in connection with each epoch those secret dispositions of
events which prepared the way for great changes, as well as the
momentous conjunctures which more immediately brought them to pass—all
these phrases seem to point to a true and philosophic survey. But they
end in themselves, and lead nowhither. The chain is an arbitrary and
one-sided collection of facts. The writer does not cautiously follow and
feel after the successive links, but forges and chooses and arranges
them after a pattern of his own, which was fixed independently of them.
A scientific term or two is not enough to disguise the purely
theological essence of the treatise.

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

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

Prejudice, alas, spares truth and light no more when it narrows the
vision of a free-thinker, than when it distorts the faculty of the
devout. Being a reaction against Bossuet’s unreasonable exaltation of
the Jews and their history, Voltaire’s conception of the place due to
them partook of the inevitable fault of all reactions, and left out of
sight considerations which it is eminently unscientific not to remember.
‘You never find,’ he says, ‘a generous action in the annals of the
Hebrews; they knew neither hospitality nor liberality nor clemency.
Their sovereign bliss is to practise usury with foreigners, and this
spirit of usury is so rooted in their hearts, that it is the continual
object of the figures they employ in the eloquence which is peculiar to
them. Their glory is to deliver to fire and slaughter the small
villages of which they may be able to take possession. They assassinate
their masters when they are slaves, and they never know how to pardon
when they are victorious; they are the enemies of the human race.’[254]
This is as great an exaggeration on one side, as Bossuet’s exaltation of
them and their deeds was on the other side. We ought to admit what
abominable traits the character and history of this race unfortunately
present, without forgetting how much is owing to them for preserving in
its sublimest shape, and investing with the most deeply impressive
images and associations, that idea of monotheism which, if destined to
be superseded by other ideas more commensurate with the limits of human
intelligence, must still be counted the germ of much that is purest and
loftiest and most inspiring among the ideals of western civilisation.

The same kind of extreme prejudice which drove Voltaire into maintaining
of the Jews, not that they were a people whom we should do very ill
either to imitate or admire, but nothing less than that they were the
enemies of the human race, found vent in such assertions as that if any
one could have restored the Empire to its strength, or at all events
retarded its fall, that man was the Emperor Julian.[255] A historian may
justly contend, if he thinks that the evidence warrants him, that Julian
belongs to the type of virtuous reactionists, just as we may say it of
Wesley or the chiefs of the Tractarians. But to make such an assertion
as that the repression of Christianity after the middle of the fourth
century, even supposing it to have been possible of achievement, could
have given back to the rapidly declining empire a strength of which all
the roots were lifeless, was to falsify history for the sake of exalting
the name of an apostate. A Roman aristocrat, blind to the real operation
and comparative value of the forces at work, might be pardoned for
holding Christianity guilty of the general dissolution around him; but
it was a strange phantasy for a philosopher of the eighteenth century to
suppose that the Christian system, in the shape which it had assumed by
Julian’s time, did not offer principles of firmer association, than the
mere rites of a paganism which was spontaneously decaying with a
rapidity that increased day by day.[256] There is no stronger
illustration of the twist which polemical fury may give to the most
acute intelligence, than this belief of Voltaire’s, that an organisation
which had attracted to itself every able and statesmanlike intellect of
the time, could do less for the regeneration of the Empire than the
initiated disciple of Platonist theurgy.

His account of the history of the church is composed in the same vein,
and we may see where Gibbon, who was a reader of Voltaire, drew the
inspiration of the solemn sneer with which he sapped solemn creed.[257]
‘So many frauds, so many errors, so many disgusting absurdities,’ says
Voltaire, ‘with which we have been inundated for seventeen hundred
years, have been unable to do any harm to our religion. It is
unquestionably divine, since seventeen centuries of imposture and
imbecility have not destroyed it.’[258] Voltaire thought as ill as
possible of the century to which he belonged; we cannot therefore charge
him with the inconsistency which marks some of his most prominent
disciples, who while they accepted such an account of the vileness of
the church as he had given them, did not scruple to believe that, as if
by miracle, seventeen centuries of steady depravation were _per saltum_
to be followed by an eighteenth and other centuries of boundless virtue
and enlightenment. Still it is wonderful that he should have been able
to appreciate the admirable character of the best sovereign of the
thirteenth century, Lewis IX.,[259] and to describe his motives and his
achievements so generously, and yet should never have thought of the
education and surrounding spiritual conditions by which such a character
had been formed. If the power of Catholicism for evil was so great and
decisive, it would have been reasonable to suppose that it had some
share also in moulding to good those who came forth from it the very
flower of humanity. But Voltaire did not know how much a man is the
product of a system operating on, and with, the individual
predisposition, or he would not have chidden St. Lewis for remaining on
the level of the prejudice of his time, instead of changing the spirit
of his age.[260] How should St. Lewis have risen from the prejudice of
his age, when it was exactly that prejudice which had formed him, and of
which he represented the worthy side?

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

This is the more curious as he was able to perceive, in a way in which
it were much to be wished that more recent historians might show an
equal discernment, that we ought to use the terms of civilisation, with
all their complex and accumulated associations, in an extremely modified
sense in speaking of the centuries between the fifth and the thirteenth,
just as it is the gravest mistake to suppose that, because you can
express the results of the various contests of those times in terms of
philosophy, therefore the actors in any one of them were both conscious
of its most general bearings, and were animated by large and
philosophical inclinations. For example, after he has told us how
William the Conqueror sent to the Pope Harold’s battle-standard and a
small portion of the small treasure that an English king might possess
in those times, he proceeds to reduce the transaction to what he
conceived to be its true proportions, in the following manner: ‘Thus,’
he says, ‘a barbarian, the son of a harlot, the murderer of a legitimate
king, shares the plunder of this king with another barbarian; for if you
take away the names of duke of Normandy, king of England, and pope, all
is reduced to the action of a Norman brigand and a Lombard receiver of
plunder.[261] This being the case, the secular possessors of power being
so rude, petty, and barbarous, their contests being ‘those of bears and
wolves,’ their rapacity and violence being tempered by few of those
ideas of justice which form the bonds of society in its more advanced
stages, it ought to have struck even the most ardent enemy of
ecclesiastical pretensions as a thing in the highest degree
unphilosophical, to pour all the ill epithets of usurpation upon the
virtuous efforts of the great churchmen, who were least touched by the
spirit of violence, to take away as much power as they could from
barbarous princes and nobles, who were most impregnated with that and
all other dark spirits. The smaller the difference between the least
moral and the most moral orders in a community, the more desirable it is
that the order with even a small advantage should acquire as much power
as possible; for the reason that so near an approach to equality in
morals is most likely to occur when the average is low, and when
therefore the need to prevent it from falling any lower is most urgent.
Granting that the ecclesiastics were only slightly the superiors of the
barbarous laymen, this is all the better ground for rejoicing that they
succeeded in converting their ascendancy of moral idea into an
ascendancy of political fact.

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

‘There are some events,’ he wrote in a note to his best poem, ‘which
have effects, and others which have none. It is with the chain of events
as it is with a genealogical tree, where we perceive branches that
become extinct at the first generation, and others that continue the
race. Many events remain without any filiation. It is thus that in every
machine there are effects necessary to the movement, while others are
indifferent, following the operation of the first, and leading to
nothing. The wheels of a vehicle serve to make it go; but whether they
raise a little more or a little less dust, the journey is accomplished
equally. Such is the general order of the world, that the links of the
chain are not deranged by a little more or a little less of
irregularity.’[262] The figures in this passage serve adequately to
describe his own treatment. We see in the Essay the lines of the
genealogical tree, but we do not learn the laws of the transmission of
qualities from one stock to another; we see the links of the chain, but
not the conditions which fastened each to the other; conditions, indeed,
only to be grasped through a scientific study of human nature which
Voltaire had never made; and finally we see the towering car drawn
slowly along a devious road by sweat and strain of millions, but we know
not why it went by this road rather than another. In a word, the inner
machinery of societies and of their movement remains as far from our
sight as it ever was. The study of those economic and material forces
which have so profound an influence upon social transformations, was in
its infancy, and the Economists, who really saw that there are definite
laws regulating the play of these forces, unfortunately mixed up with
their speculations a number of chimerical fancies, which Voltaire was
too acute to accept, but not patient enough to sift.[263] In this
respect he is as defective as Gibbon, in whose book, so justly famous
for its splendid breadth of conception and industrious elaboration of
detail, we have much of that meagre philosophy which consisted in the
exposure of falsehood, but little of the true science which shows us the
numerous organs of society in connection with their actual play and
function. Neither Gibbon nor Voltaire made any contribution, nor seems
to have been aware of the importance of contributing, to that study of
the fundamental conditions of the social union, which Aristotle
commenced, and which both Bodin in the sixteenth century and Montesquieu
in the eighteenth had so meritoriously continued.[264] Nevertheless, it
was much to lead men to study the history of modern Europe as a whole,
and we may say of Voltaire in connection with history what he said of
Corneille in connection with tragedy—‘It is so great a merit to have
opened the career, and inventors are so much above other men, that
posterity pardons their greatest faults.’[265]



Voltaire, as we have seen, took possession of Ferney in 1758, and he
lived here almost without a break for something like twenty years. His
estate was a feudal seigniory in the district of Gex, on the very
frontier of Switzerland, but in France, though enjoying immunity from
French taxation. He built a new manor-house, and in his capacity of lord
of the manor replaced the dilapidated little church of the estate by a
new one, very small, very plain, and about which, notwithstanding its
famous inscription of which he so often boasted,—_Deo erexit
Voltaire_,—much more noise has been made, than so simple and natural a
proceeding at all calls for.[266] Madame Denis kept house for him, and
according to the Paris gossips of the time, on an extravagant scale,
which often produced ruptures between the two. Guests were incessant
and the hospitality ungrudging.[267] He complained during the Seven
Years’ War of the embarrassment of being a Frenchman, when he had to
entertain daily at dinner Russians, English, and Germans.[268] He
protests that he is weary of being hotel-keeper in general for all
Europe, and so weary was he at one time of this noisy and costly post,
that the establishment was partially suspended for upwards of a year.
One of the most generous of Voltaire’s many generous acts was his
reception into his house of a child who had no other claim on him than
that of being the great-grand-daughter of the uncle of Corneille. A
soldier ought to succour the niece of his general, he said. He took the
liveliest interest in the little maid’s education, though she appears to
have been a sulky pupil, and eventually he married her with due dower to
one Dupuits. The bustle and expense of his establishment became greater
than ever, and in the spring of 1768 Paris was as much electrified by
news of a revolution at Ferney, as she has been since by some
revolutions in her own streets. Madame Denis and the two Dupuits had
suddenly made their way to Paris, and for a year and a half Voltaire was
left in peace, part of which he employed sensibly in having his house
cleaned from cellar to garret,—a bit of news which is handed down to
our times, since, according to Grimm, the domestic arrangements of the
manor-house at Ferney interested at that moment more or less every court
in Europe.[269] In the autumn of 1769 Madame Denis returned, and with
her the old stir and extravagance were resumed, for Voltaire was one of
the best-humoured of men to his family and friends, and could deny his
niece nothing. We have more than one description of this too immortal
niece. They are all equally unflattering. Her homeliness of appearance
amounted to the ugliness that is bitter. She was destitute of wit, and
had a vulgar soul. Born to be the insipid gossip of a bourgeois circle,
says one charitable writer, but having by chance the first man in the
nation for an uncle, she learnt to chatter about literature and the
theatre, as a parrot learns.[270] She wrote a comedy; but the players,
out of respect for Voltaire, declined to act in it. She wrote a tragedy;
but the one favour, which the repeated entreaties of years could never
wring from Voltaire, was that he would read it. She had histrionic as
well as dramatic ambition, and here worked a miracle, for her
representation of Mérope once drew floods of tears from some English
ladies.[271] Her affectation of intellect had not cooled the reality of
simple sensation, and if she loved art, she was said not to despise
gallantry. At any rate, though she was only sixteen years younger than
her uncle,[272] she needed continual festivities and crowds of guests.

Ferney was rather a difficult spot for a woman with a passion for the
hum of cities. For five months in the year, says Voltaire, my deserts
are, on the admission of Russians, worse than Siberia itself; we see
thirty leagues of mountain, snow, and precipices: it is Naples in
summer, Lapland in winter.[273] One year he marks with word of
bitterness snow falling thick in the middle of May. Four feet of snow in
the courtyard constituted a normal winter state. He commemorates with
enthusiasm how one day, through these four feet of snow, he saw porters
bringing him a hamper of Champagne from a friend; for the more generous
sort of Burgundy with which he ordinarily recruited himself had fallen
short, and he had been reduced to the humble vintage of Beaujolais.

Yet in the midst of a thousand discomforts and hardships we never hear
him wishing to be back in Paris. It remained to him the accursed city,
as it had been before his journey to England. He always thought with
horror of its cabal, intrigue, frivolity, and sovereign indifference to
the ruin of the kingdom and the shedding of innocent blood. There can be
no doubt that this wise exile prolonged his days. He was constantly
complaining of illness, and he passed months at a time in bed, which
may in truth have been the best possible preservative of life for one of
his temperament. Yet in spite of this avoidance of society, this passion
for his study, the man of ordinary capacity, with no more than an
ordinary working day, may marvel how amid so many distractions the
master of the house contrived to write so many scores of pieces, large
and small, and so many hundreds of letters, grave and gay. Of these
letters nearly seven thousand are already in print, and M. Beuchot, most
carefully informed of all Voltaire’s editors, thinks there are likely to
be quite as many more still in undiscovered existence. Ferney was the
centre of the most universal and varied correspondence that any one man
has ever carried on. Frederick the Great was not the only crowned head
with whom Voltaire interchanged royal communication. Catherine II. of
Russia, of Anhalt-Zerbst by birth, was the helpful patroness of Diderot
and D’Alembert, and was always eager to hear some word from the
patriarch of their encyclopædic church, only praying him not to think
her too importunate. Christian VII. of Denmark apologises for not being
able at a stroke to remove all the obstacles that lie in the way of the
civil liberty of his subjects. Gustavus III. of Sweden is elated by the
thought that Voltaire sometimes casts a glance on what is going on in
the North, and protests that this is their greatest encouragement to do
as well as they can in all ways.[274] Joseph II. would fain have called
at Ferney while travelling incognito through France, but fear of his
mother’s displeasure held him back, the high and devout nature of Maria
Theresa always finding Voltaire’s mockery of sacred things deeply
repugnant, as we may easily believe.

Beside sovereigns who wrote to him as to an equal, every young aspirant
to literary distinction, however unknown and obscure, sought a criticism
from Ferney. Twenty years before he settled down here, Voltaire had been
consulted by Vauvenargues, and had replied with words of painstaking and
generous counsel. It was always the same with him. No young author ever
solicited advice in vain, and he was never sparing either of trouble or
praise. The Marquis of Chastellux sent him a copy of his Félicité
Publique, and was raised to the seventh heaven by a letter of thanks, in
which Voltaire tells him: ‘I covered the margin of my copy with notes,
as I always do when a book charms and instructs me; I even took the
liberty of not always sharing the author’s opinion. I am very old and
very feeble, but such reading makes me young again.’ And the letter
contains a large number of points where he thinks the author in

Besides kings and the writers of books, plain men also besought his
dictum on high matters. ‘A burgomaster of Middleburg,’ he informs Madame
du Deffand, ‘whom I do not know, wrote to me a little while since, to
ask me in confidence whether there is a God or not; whether, in case
there be one, he takes any heed of us; whether matter is eternal;
whether it can think; whether the soul is immortal; and begging me to
answer by return of post.’[276]

One may suspect that a little colouring is added here by the master
hand, but the substantial facts are probable enough. He corresponded
with cardinals, marshals of France, and bishops, and he corresponded
with Helvétius and with Diderot, who, greatly to the indignation of the
business-like patriarch, had a bad habit of leaving letters to answer

If two cavalry officers fell to disputing over the mess-table as to the
propriety of using some bit of old French, it was to Ferney that the
reference was instantly made.[278]

We get an idea of the kind of imperial authority which attached to
Voltaire’s judgment, from the eagerness with which Turgot sought,
without revealing his name, an opinion from Ferney as to the worth of a
translation with which he lightened the heavy burden of his intendance
at Limoges, a translation of the Eclogues and Fourth Æneid into French
metric verse. ‘They say,’ wrote Turgot, ‘that he is so busy with his
Encyclopædia as neither to speak nor to write to any one.’ If Turgot
could have seen Voltaire’s correspondence for 1770, he would have found
out how far this rumour was from the truth, and in fact he did get an
answer to his own letter; but it can hardly have been very much more
satisfactory than silence would have been, for Voltaire, while profuse
in praise of the fidelity and spirit of the translation, unfortunately
did not detect that it was meant for anything more ambitious than simple
prose with enthusiasm in it.[279] As Turgot especially valued in the
patriarch his ’superb ear,’ the blow was as sharp as it well could be.
He was little concerned or surprised on learning the fallacious
reasoning of the poet in political economy. ‘Reasoning,’ he adds, ‘has
never been Voltaire’s strong point.’[280] And that was true in matters
of abstract science, but he was an unrivalled populariser of the results
of other people’s reasoning, from Newton’s Principia down to Middleton’s
Free Enquiry, and this popularisation was what the conditions of the
time caused to be most ardently demanded. The proof of the demand we may
see in the extraordinary respect and curiosity, or dislike and alarm,
with which Voltaire for the twenty crowning years of his life was
regarded throughout the whole of civilised Europe.

It is impossible to read the multitudinous volumes of Voltaire’s
correspondence, and they are being added to every two or three years,
with entire satisfaction. They are wittier than any other letters in the
world. For lightness, swiftness, grace, spontaneity, you can find no
second to them, at however long an interval. But they abound in many
things which are disagreable in the letters of an old man who had
so true an interest in the spread of virtue, knowledge, and the other
conditions of human dignity. These, however, may be passed over as the
innocent and unconscious unseemliness of a very gay nature living in a
very free age. It is less easy to banish the unpleasant impressions with
which we find him playing the equivocal part of being all things to all
men. One would have been pleased to have a little more stiffness, a
little less pliancy of phrase. We would not go through the world
insisting on grim Puritanic earnestness at every moment of a man’s life,
but Voltaire’s lively complaisance with all sorts of unworthy people is
something worse than unedifying. One can hardly help sympathising with
D’Alembert’s remonstrance. ‘You have rather spoilt the people who
persecute us. ’Tis true you have had greater need than anybody else to
keep them quiet, and that you have been obliged to offer a candle to
Lucifer to save yourself from Beelzebub, but Lucifer has only grown the
prouder, without Beelzebub growing the less malignant.’[281] The truth
probably is that Voltaire did not always take—much thought of Lucifer or
Beelzebub. For one thing, he was, as we have said more than once,
intensely sympathetic by temperament, and in writing to a friend, or
even an acquaintance only, he was for the moment animated by a lively
good will and anxiety to be in harmony with his correspondent. There was
nothing false in these purring pleasantries, with which he amused all
correspondents alike. They came as naturally from his mobile and genial
constitution, as an equality of prosaic moroseness comes from persons of
fundamentally different constitutions. For another thing, the old
fashion of his youth never dropped away from him, and the elaborate
courteousness and friendly ardour of manner, which he had learnt among
the aristocratic friends of the days of the Regency and afterwards at
Paris and Versailles, did not desert him in the solitudes of the Jura.
He was to the last a man of quality, as well as a crusher of the
Infamous, and to the last he kept up the tone of one who had been a
gentleman of the chamber to one king, and court-chamberlain to another.
Voltaire’s temperament and earliest surroundings fully explain what was
a more public, as well as more serious, falling away from the rigorous
integrity which men are now accustomed to demand from the leaders of
unpopular causes. His sins in this order are nearly as numerous as his
public acts. Rousseau, perhaps we may say without breach of charity, as
much from vanity as principle, prefixed his name to all that he wrote,
and he paid the penalty in a life of wandering and persecution. Voltaire
in his later days as invariably sheltered himself behind the anonymous,
and not only disclaimed works of which it was notorious that he was the
author, but insisted that his friends should impute them to this or that
dead name. Nobody was deceived. While he got unwelcome credit for a
multitude of pieces that were not his own, assuredly nothing really his
ever failed to be set down to its true author. We can only say that this
was the evil practice of the time, and that Voltaire was here little
worse than Turgot and many another man of general virtuousness, to whom
the ferocity of authority would not even allow freedom enough to plead
for tolerance, much less to utter uncertified opinion. ‘Time,’ said
D’Alembert, apologising for some whiff of orthodoxy which Voltaire
scented in one or two articles in the Encyclopædia, ‘will make people
distinguish what we thought from what we said.’[282] Condorcet, as we
know, deliberately defended these deceptions, which did not deceive,
while they did protect. He contended that if you rob a man of his
natural right of publishing his opinions, then you lose your own right
to hear the truth from the man’s lips.[283] Undoubtedly all laws admit
that duress introduces new conditions into the determination of what is
right and wrong in action, or at least that it mitigates pains and
penalties, and the position of every claimant for free speech was in
those days emphatically a position of duress. The choice lay between
disavowal on the one hand, and on the other abstention from proclaiming
truths by which only society could gain the freedom it so much needed;
between strict anonymity and leaving the darkness unbroken. And we must
remember that disingenuous tricks to conceal authorship were not
assuredly so unpardonable, when resorted to as protectives against
imprisonment, confiscation, and possible peril of life, as they are now
among ourselves, when they serve no more defensible purpose than
sheltering men who have not the courage of their opinions, against one
or two paltry social deprivations. The monstrous proceedings against La
Barre, and the ease with which in this and numerous other cases the
jurisprudence of the tribunals lent itself to the cruelty of fanatics,
no doubt excited in Voltaire a very genuine alarm for his own safety,
and probably with good reason. We know that he could not venture to
visit Italy, in consequence of his just fear lest the Inquisition should
throw their redoubtable foe into prison, and the parliaments of Toulouse
and Abbeville had perpetrated juridical murders as iniquitous as any of
the proceedings of the Holy Office. And though it is easy and right for
the young, who live in a time when you are not imprisoned or hung or
decapitated for holding unpopular opinions, to call out for manliness to
the uttermost in these things, one must make allowance for an occasional
fit of timorousness in a man of eighty, whom nature had never cut out
for a martyr. Yet, more than once, these fits committed Voltaire to acts
which were as great a scandal to the devout as to the atheists. That he
should rebuild the ruinous little chapel of his estate was not much more
remarked, than it would be for a Protestant landlord to subscribe to
repair the Catholic church on an Irish property containing only Catholic
tenants. The gorgeous ceremony with which in his quality of lord he
commemorated its opening, made everybody laugh, not excepting the chief
performer, for he actually took the opportunity of lifting up his voice
in the new temple and preaching a sermon against theft. The bishop of
Annecy in Savoy, his diocesan, was furious at this mockery, and urged
the minister at Paris to banish Voltaire from France. In order to avert
the blow, Voltaire tried to make a nominal peace with the church by
confessing, and participating in the solemnity of an Easter communion
(1768). The bishop wrote him a long letter of unctuous impertinences, to
which Voltaire replied by asking very tartly why the discharge of so
ordinary a duty called for this insolent congratulation. The
philosophers of Paris were bitterly scandalised, and some of them wrote
to the patriarch of the sect to remonstrate. Even D’Alembert, his own
familiar friend, could not refrain from protest.[284] Voltaire could
give no better reasons for his strange lapse than we may hear given
every day in our own country, by men who practise hypocritical
compliances for the sake of a little ignoble ease, and thus perpetuate
the yoke. He owed an example to his parish, as if the example of
feigning a belief which he repudiates could be a good example for one to
set in any parish. It was very well to shirk these observances in Paris,
because there in the tide of business one finds an excuse or is not
missed, but in the country no such excuse offers itself. One must stand
well with the curé, be he knave or dunce. One must respect the two
hundred and fifty timorous consciences around one. And so forth, down
that well-worn list of pleas by which men make anxiety about the
consciences of others a substantial reason for treachery to their own.
Voltaire, besides all these, honestly added the one true reason, that he
did not mean to be burnt alive, and that the only way of making sure
against such a fate was to close the lips of spies and informers.[285]
The bishop knew perfectly well that the squire, who had made his Easter
communion in so remarkable a manner in 1768, was the author of the
Philosophical Dictionary, of which a bran-new edition, amended and
revised, made its appearance in 1769; and he appears to have forbidden
the priest of Ferney to confess or administer the eucharist to the chief
of the flock. Voltaire was at once seized with a fever, and summoned the
priest to administer ghostly comfort. The priest pleaded the horrible
rumours of the world as to the damnable books of which the sick man was
alleged to be the author. Voltaire replied by warning him very
peremptorily that in refusing to administer the viaticum he was
infringing the law, and the consequence was that he did duly receive the
viaticum, after which he signed a solemn act in the presence of a
notary, declaring that he pardons his various calumniators; that ‘if any
indiscretion prejudicial to the religion of the State should have
escaped him,’ he seeks forgiveness from God and the State; and finally
he forgave the bishop of Annecy, who had calumniated him to the king,
and whose malicious designs had come to nought. The priest and notary
afterwards falsified this amazing declaration so as to appease the
bishop, and came to Voltaire praying him not to betray them. ‘I prove to
them,’ he says, ‘that they will be damned, I give them something to
drink, and they go away delighted.’[286] A younger philosopher of his
school remarks with his accustomed gravity on this most singular
transaction, that the satisfaction of forcing his priest to administer
by fear of the secular judges, and of insulting the bishop of Annecy in
a juridical manner, cannot excuse such a proceeding in the eyes of the
free and firm man, who weighs calmly the claims of truth and the
requirements of prudence, when laws contrary to natural justice render
truth dangerous and prudence indispensable.[287] To which reflection we
may perhaps add another, suggested by the cruel experience of the church
in France within five and twenty years from Voltaire’s impious
communion, that if any order, secular or spiritual, constrains its
adversaries under penalties to the commission of base acts, then if the
chances of time should ever transfer the power to the other side, that
order has only itself to blame for whatever wrong may mark the
retaliation. There is no more dangerous policy in affairs of state than
to strip your opponent of self-respect, and this the descendants of the
persecutors found out to their extreme cost, when in 1793 they had to
deal with the descendants of the persecuted.

One other curious piece of sportiveness in his dealings with the church
deserves to be noticed. In the year 1770 the post of temporal father of
the order of Capucins for the district of Gex became vacant. Voltaire
applied for it, and the general at Rome, perhaps listening to a word
from Ganganelli, or else from the Duchess of Choiseul, sent to Ferney
the letters patent conferring upon its patriarch this strange dignity,
and also affiliating him to the order. What were Voltaire’s motives in
so odd a transaction, it is not very hard to divine. Probably, he
thought even this humble office would be some protection against
persecution. Then it gave him an opportunity of harassing his enemy, the
bishop of Annecy. Thirdly, it amused that whimsical element of farce and
mischief which was always so irrepressible in him, from the early days
when he is said to have nearly damned his own play by appearing on the
stage as the high-priest’s train-bearer, and burlesquing that august
person’s solemn gait. Voltaire filled his letters with infinite
pleasantries about the new Capucin, and seemed as much pleased at the
idea of wearing the cord of Saint Francis, as he had been with the gold
key of a Prussian chamberlain.[288] One of his first enjoyments was to
write letters to his episcopal foe, signed with a cross and his name:
‘✠ _Voltaire, Capucin indigne._’[289] A story is told by Grimm of a
visitor arriving at Ferney, and being greeted by the patriarch with
the news that he would find his host a changed man. ‘One grows a bigot
in one’s old age; I have a habit of having some pious work read to me
when I sit down at table.’ And in fact, some one began to read a
sermon of Massillon, Voltaire throwing in exclamations on the beauty,
eloquence, imagination of the preacher. Suddenly after three or four
pages, he called out ‘Off with Massillon!’ and launched forth during
the rest of the meal with his usual verve and fanciful extravagance of
imagination.[290] It is profoundly unedifying, but not the less

Voltaire, there can be little doubt, never designed a social revolution,
being in this the representative of the method of Hobbes. His single
object was to reinstate the understanding in its full rights, to
emancipate thought, to extend knowledge, to erect the standard of
critical common sense. He either could not see, or else, as one
sometimes thinks, he closes his eyes and refuses for his part to see,
that it was impossible to revolutionise the spiritual basis of belief
without touching the social forms, which were inseparably connected with
the old basis by the strong bonds of time and a thousand fibres of
ancient association and common interest. Rousseau began where Voltaire
left off. He informs us that in the days when his character was forming,
nothing which Voltaire wrote escaped, him, and that the Philosophical
Letters, that is the Letters on the English, though assuredly not the
writer’s best work, were what first attracted him to study, and
implanted a taste which never afterwards became extinct. The
correspondence between Voltaire and the prince of Prussia, afterwards
the great Frederick, inspired Rousseau with a passionate desire to learn
how to compose with elegance, and to imitate the colouring of so fine an
author.[291] Thus Voltaire, who was eighteen years his elder, gave this
extraordinary genius his first productive impulse. But a sensibility of
temperament, to which perhaps there is no parallel in the list of
prominent men, impelled Rousseau to think, or rather to feel, about the
concrete wrongs and miseries of men and women, and not the abstract
rights of their intelligence. Hence the two great revolutionary schools,
the school which appealed to sentiment, and the school which appealed to
intelligence. The Voltarian principles of the strictest political
moderation and of literary common sense, negative, merely emancipatory,
found their political outcome, as French historians early pointed out,
in the Constituent Assembly, which was the creation of the upper and
middle class, while the spirit of Rousseau, ardent, generous, passionate
for the relief of the suffering, overwhelmed by the crowding forms of
manhood chronically degraded and womanhood systematically polluted, came
to life and power in the Convention and the sections of the Commune of
Paris which overawed the Convention.

‘It will not do,’ wrote D’Alembert to Voltaire as early as 1762, ‘to
speak too loudly against Jean Jacques or his book, for he is rather a
king in the Halles.’[292] This must have been a new word in the ears of
the old man, who had grown up in the habit of thinking of public opinion
as the opinion, not of markets where the common people bought and sold,
but of the galleries of Versailles. Except for its theology, the age of
Lewis XIV. always remained the great age to Voltaire, the age of pomp
and literary glory, and it was too difficult a feat to cling on one side
to the Grand Monarch, and to stretch out a hand on the other to the
Social Contract. It was too difficult for the man who had been embraced
by Ninon de l’Enclos, who was the correspondent of the greatest
sovereigns in Europe, and the intimate of some of the greatest nobles in
France, to feel much sympathy with writings that made their author king
of the Halles. Frederick offered Rousseau shelter, and so did Voltaire;
but each of them disliked his work as warmly as the other. They did not
understand one who, if he wrote with an eloquence that touched all
hearts, repulsed friends and provoked enemies like a madman or a savage.
The very language of Rousseau was to Voltaire as an unknown tongue, for
it was the language of reason clothing the births of passionate
sensation. Emile only wearied him, though there were perhaps fifty pages
of it which he would have had bound in morocco.[293] It is a stale
romance, he cries, while the Social Contract is only remarkable for
some insults rudely thrown at kings by a citizen of Geneva, and for four
insipid pages against the Christian religion, which are simply
plagiarised from Bayle’s centos.[294] The author is a monster of
ingratitude and insolence, the arch-scoundrel and chief of charlatans,
the lineal descendant of the dog of Diogenes the cynic, and other evil
things not readily to be named in a polite age. Partly no doubt this
extreme irritation was due to the insults with which Jean Jacques had
repulsed his offers of shelter and assistance, had repudiated Voltaire’s
attempts to defend him, and had held up Voltaire himself as a proper
object for the persecutions of Geneva. But there was a still deeper root
of discrepancy, which we have already pointed out. Rousseau’s
exaggerated tone was an offence to Voltaire’s more just and reasonable
spirit, and the feigned austerity of a man whose life and manners he
knew, assumed in his eyes a disagreeable shade of hypocrisy.[295]
Besides these things, he was clearly apprehensive of the storms which
Rousseau’s extraordinary hardihood had the very natural effect of
raising in the circles of authority, though it is true that the most
acute observers of the time thought that they noticed a very perceptible
increase of Voltaire’s own hardihood, as a consequence of the example
which the other set him.

The rivalry between the schools of Rousseau and Voltaire represents the
dead-lock to which social thought had come; a dead-lock of which the
catastrophe of the Revolution was both expression and result. At the
time of Voltaire’s death there was not a single institution in France
with force enough to be worth a month’s purchase. The monarchy was
decrepit; the aristocracy was as feeble and impotent as it was arrogant;
the bourgeoisie was not without aspiration, but it lacked courage and it
possessed no tradition; and the church was demoralised, first by the
direct attack of Voltaire and the not less powerful indirect attack of
the Encyclopædia, and second by the memory of its own cruelty and
selfishness in the generation just closing. But Voltaire’s theory, so
far as he ever put it into its most general form, was that the temporal
order was safe and firm, and that it would endure until criticism had
transformed thought and prepared the way for a régime of enlightenment
and humanity. Rousseau, on the contrary, directed all the engines of
passion against the whole temporal fabric, and was so little careful of
freedom of thought, so little confident in the plenary efficacy of
rational persuasion, as to insist upon the extermination of atheists by
law. The position of each was at once irrefragable and impossible. It
was impossible to effect a stable reconstitution of the social order
until men had been accustomed to use their minds freely, and had
gradually thrown off the demoralising burden of superstition. But then
the existing social order had become intolerable, and its forces were
practically extinct, and consequently such an attack as Rousseau’s was
inevitable, and was at the same time and for the same reasons
irresistible. To overthrow the power of the church only was to do
nothing in a society perishing from material decay and political
emasculation. Yet to regenerate such a society without the aid of moral
and spiritual forces, with whose activity the existence of a dominant
ecclesiastical power was absolutely incompatible, was one of the wildest
feats that ever passionate sophist attempted.

If, however, it must be admitted that each of these two famous
destroyers was attempting an equally desperate task, it is the
contention of these pages that Voltaire was the more right and
far-sighted of the two in his perception of the conditions of the
problem. We have now for various adequate reasons acquired the habit of
looking upon the church and speaking of it, as an organisation outside
of society, or at least as a separate organisation and independent
integer within it. The truth is that in a Catholic country like France
before the Revolution, the church more than the secular order actually
was the society, as it had been, though to a far wider degree,
throughout Europe in the days of Hildebrand and Innocent. That is to
say, it furnished the strongest of the ideas, sentiments, hopes, and
associations which bound men together in a single community. The
monarchy, the nobles, the old historic French tradition, the various
bodies and processes of law, were swept away by the Revolution,
virtually never to return, in spite of the transient appearances to the
contrary. The church was swept away also, but only for a year or two;
and so little effectual was the Revolution, which was in fact Rousseau’s
Revolution, in permanently modifying its position, that those Frenchmen
at the present day who most soberly judge the future of their country
and look deepest into its state, clearly perceive that the battle to be
fought in the order of ideas is a battle between the new moral and
social ideas of the workmen, and the old moral and social ideas which
Catholicism has implanted in the breasts of the peasants, and on which
the middle class privately and unconsciously lean for the support of
their own consciences, though they may have put away Catholic dogma. We
may see here, once more, the help which Protestantism gave to the
dissolution of the old society, by the increased room it gave, apart
from the specific influence of a more democratic dogma, for that gradual
intellectual expansion throughout a community, which for those who have
faith in the reasoning faculty is the one sure secret of social advance.
The subjection of the spiritual power to the temporal, which has
commonly followed the establishment of the Protestant communion, has
very likely retarded the final disappearance of many ideas which foster
anti-social tendencies; but the subjection of the spiritual power in
such a set of circumstances has the effect of softening shocks.
Protestantism in the sixteenth century, if it could have been accepted
in France, would have been a more edifying dissolvent than Voltairism
was in the eighteenth; but it is certain that the loosening of
theological ideas and the organisation connected with them and upholding
them, was the first process towards making truly social ideas possible,
and their future realisation a thing which good men might hope for.
Napoleon, the great organ of political reaction, knew what he was about
in paying writers for years to denigrate the memory of Voltaire, whose
very name he abhorred.[296]

In saying, however, that Rousseau’s attack was inevitable, we have
perhaps said that it was indispensable; for where a society is not able
to resist an assault upon its fundamental conditions, we may be
tolerably sure that the time has arrived when either these conditions
must be dispersed, or else the society must fall into rapid dissolution.
We may refute Rousseau’s sophisms as often and as conclusively as we
please, and may dwell as forcibly as we know how upon the untold
penalties which France has paid, and is still doomed to pay, for
whatever benefits he may have bestowed on her. But, after all this, the
benefits remain, and they may be briefly set down as two in number. In
the first place he spoke words that can never be unspoken, and kindled a
hope that can never be extinguished; he first inflamed men with a
righteous conviction that the evils of the existing order of things
reduced civilisation to a nullity for the great majority of mankind, and
that it cannot for ever be tolerable that the mass should wear away
their lives in unbroken toil without hope or aim, in order that the few
may live selfish and vacuous days. Rousseau presented this sentiment in
a shape which made it the ‘negation of society;’ but it was much to
induce thinkers to ask themselves, and the bondsmen of society to ask
their masters, whether the last word of social philosophy had been
uttered, and the last experiment in the relations of men to one another
decisively tried and irrevocably accepted. Second, by his fervid
eloquence and the burning conviction which he kindled in the breasts of
great numbers of men, he inspired energy enough in France to awaken her
from the torpor as of death which was stealing so rapidly over her.
Nobody was more keenly aware of the presence of this breath of decay in
the air than Voltaire was. It had seized such hold of the vital parts of
the old order, that, but for the fiery spirit and unquenchable ardour of
the men who read Rousseau as men of old had read the gospel, but for the
spirit and ardour which animated the Convention, and made it alike in
the tasks of peace and the tasks of war one of the most effective and
formidable assemblies that the world has ever beheld, we do not see what
there was to stop France from sinking lower and lower into impotence,
until at last the powers who vainly threatened the republic with
partition, might in the course of time actually have consummated the
threat against the monarchy. This may seem impossible to us who live
after the Revolution and after Napoleon; but we must remember the
designs of partitioning Prussia in the middle of the century, the
accomplishment of a partition of the Italian possessions of the house of
Austria in 1735, and the partition of Poland; and why was France to be
eternal, any more than the Byzantine empire, or the power of the house
of Austria, or the power of Spain, had been eternal? It was the fire
kindled by Rousseau’s passion that saved her; for even of the
Constituent, which was Voltairean, the very soul was Mirabeau, who was

It will be seen that in one sense Rousseau was a far more original
personage than his first chief and inspirer. He contributed new ideas,
of extremely equivocal and perilous character, but still new, to the
multitudinous discussions which were throwing all the social elements
into confusion. These ideas might indeed have been found substantially
in the writings of previous thinkers like Montaigne and Locke; but
Rousseau’s passion invested them with a quality which was virtually to
constitute them a fresh and original force. Voltaire contributed
initiative and a temperament, which made his propagation of ideas that
were not new, as important a fact in social if not in intellectual
history, as if he had been possessed of superlative gifts in
speculation. This has also to be remembered when we think of comparing
him with Diderot, who, while his equal in industry, was greatly his
superior both in fresh simplicity of imagination, and in grasp and
breadth of positive knowledge. Whoever will take the trouble to turn
over some of the thirty-five volumes of the Encyclopædia, may easily see
how that gigantic undertaking (1751-1765), in which Voltaire always took
the most ardent and practical interest,[297] assisted the movement that
Voltaire had commenced. It seemed to gather up into a single great
reservoir all that men knew, and this fact of mere mechanical
collocation was a sort of substitute for a philosophic synthesis. As
Comte says, it furnished a provisional rallying-point for efforts the
most divergent, without requiring the sacrifice of any points of
essential independence, in such a way as to secure for a body of
incoherent speculation an external look of system.[298] This enterprise,
the history of which is a microcosm of the whole battle between the two
sides in France, enabled the various opponents of theological
absolutism, the Voltaireans, Rousseauites, atheists, and all other sorts
and conditions of protesting men, to confront the church and its
doctrine with a similar semblance of organic unity and completeness. The
Encyclopædia was not simply negative and critical. It was an unexampled
manual of information, and was the means of spreading over the country
some knowledge of that active scientific culture, which was producing
such abundant and astonishing discoveries. The two streams of dissolvent
influences, negative criticism on the one hand, and positive knowledge
and scientific method on the other, were led into a single channel of
multiplied volume and force. There was no real nor logical connection
between the two elements, and while one of them has daily grown less
serviceable, the other has daily grown more absorbingly powerful, so as
now to be itself the effective indirect substitute for that direct
negative criticism, with which the Encyclopædic design had once thrown
it into alliance.

Diderot, the third chief of the attack, does even fuller justice than
Rousseau to Voltaire’s share in stimulating thought and opening the mind
of France; and in spite of the extravagance of its first clause, there
is a glimpse of true discrimination in the characteristic sentence—‘Were
I to call him the greatest man nature has produced, I might find people
to agree with me; but if I say that she has never yet produced, and is
never likely to produce again, a man so extraordinary, only his enemies
will contradict me.’[299] This panegyric was specially disinterested,
because Voltaire’s last years had been not least remarkable for his
bitter antipathy to the dogmatic atheism and dogmatic materialism of
that school, with which Diderot was most intimate personally, and with
whose doctrines, if he did not at all times seem entirely to share them,
he had at any rate a warmer sympathy than with any other system of that
negative epoch, when every chief thinker was so vague positively, so
weak constructively, and only the subalterns, like D’Holbach and
Helvétius, presumed to push on to conclusions.

The story of Voltaire’s many long-sustained and unflagging endeavours to
procure whatever redress might be possible for the victims of legal
injustice, has been very often told, and mere commemoration of these
justly renowned achievements may suffice here. ‘The worst of the worthy
sort of people,’ he once said, ‘is that they are such cowards. A man
groans over wrong, he shuts his lips, he takes his supper, he
forgets.’[300] Voltaire was not of that temper. He was not only an
extremely humane man; extraordinary vividness of imagination, lack of
which is at the root of so much cruelty, and unparalleled sympathetic
quality, thinness of which explains so much appalling indifference,
animated him to a perseverance in protecting the helpless, which
entitles him to a place by the side of Howard and the noblest
philanthropists. There were three years in which the chief business of
his life was to procure the rehabilitation of the name of the
unfortunate Calas, and the payment of a money recompense to his family.
He agitated the whole world with indignation and pity by means of
narratives, pleas, short statements and long statements, passionate
appeals and argumentative appeals. Powerful ministers, fine ladies,
lawyers, men of letters, were all constrained by his importunate
solicitations to lend an ear to the cause of reason and tolerance, and
to lift up an arm in its vindication. The same tremendous enginery was
again brought into play in the case of Sirven. In the case of La Barre
and his comrade D’Etallonde, his tenacity was still more amazing and
heroic. For twelve years he persevered in the attempt to have the memory
of La Barre rehabilitated. One of the judicial authorities concerned in
that atrocious exploit, struck with horror at the thought of being held
up to the execration of Europe by that terrible avenger, conveyed some
menace to Voltaire of what might befall him. Voltaire replied to him by
a Chinese anecdote. ‘I forbid you,’ said a tyrannical emperor to the
chief of the tribunal of history, ‘to speak a word more of me.’ The
mandarin began to write. ‘What are you doing now?’ asked the emperor. ‘I
am writing down the order that your majesty has just given me.’[301]
There was a something inexorable as doom about Voltaire’s unrelenting
perseverance in getting wrong definitely stamped and transfixed. If he
did not succeed in obtaining justice for the memory of La Barre, and in
procuring for D’Etallonde free pardon, at least he never abandoned the
endeavour, and he was just as ardent and unwearied in the twelfth year,
as he had been while his indignation was freshly kindled. He was more
successful in the case of Lally. Count Lally had failed to save India
from the English, had been taken prisoner, and had then in a magnanimous
way asked his captors to allow him to go to Paris to clear himself from
various charges, which the too numerous enemies he had made were
spreading against his character and administration. The French people,
infuriated at the loss of their possessions in India and Canada, were
crying for a victim, and Lally, after a process tainted with every kind
of illegality, was condemned to death by the parliament of Paris (1766)
on the vague charge of abuse of authority, exactions, and
vexations.[302] The murdered man’s son, known in the days of the
Revolution as Lally Tollendal, was joined by Voltaire in the honourable
work of procuring revision of the proceedings; and one of the last
crowning triumphs of Voltaire’s days was the news brought to him on his
dying bed, that his long effort had availed.

The death of Lally is the parallel in French history to the execution of
Byng in the history of England, and, oddly enough, Voltaire was very
actively occupied in trying to avert that crime of our government, as
well as the crimes of his own. He had known Byng when he was in
England.[303] Some one told him that a letter from Richelieu, who had
been Byng’s opponent at Minorca, would be useful, and Voltaire instantly
urged the Duke to allow him to forward a letter he had, stating
Richelieu’s conviction of his defeated enemy’s bravery and good
judgment. Voltaire insists that this letter turned four votes on the
court-martial.[304] He informs a correspondent, moreover, of the fact
that Byng had instructed his executor to express his deep obligation
both to Voltaire and Richelieu.[305] Humanity is erroneously counted
among commonplace virtues. If it deserved such a place, there would be
less urgent need than, alas, there is, for its daily exercise among us.
In its pale shape of kindly sentiment and bland pity it is common
enough, and is always the portion of the cultivated. But humanity armed,
aggressive, and alert, never slumbering and never wearying, moving like
ancient hero over the land to slay monsters, is the rarest of virtues,
and Voltaire is one of its master-types.

His interest in public transactions in his latest years was keener than
ever. That fruit of Polish anarchy, the war between Russia and Turkey
which broke out in 1768, excited his imagination to a pitch of great
heat, and the despatch in the spring of 1770 of a squadron from
Cronstadt, for the so-called liberation of Greece, made him weep for
joy. He implored Frederick not to leave to Catherine alone the burden of
so glorious a task. Superstition had had seven crusades; was it not a
noble thing to undertake one crusade to drive the barbarous Turks from
the land of Socrates and Plato, Sophocles and Euripides? Frederick
replied very sensibly that Dantzic was more to him than the Piræus, and
that he is a little indifferent about the modern Greeks, who, if ever
the arts should revive among them, would be jealous to find that a Gaul
by his Henriade had surpassed their Homer; that this same Gaul had
beaten Sophocles, equalled Thucydides, and left far behind him Plato,
Aristotle, and the whole school of the Porch;[306]—which was, perhaps,
not quite so sensibly said.

The successes of Russia against Turkey in 1770 roused the anxiety of
Austria and Prussia, and the solution of what we know as the Eastern
question was indefinitely postponed by the device of partitioning Poland
(Aug. 5, 1772), the alternative to the acquisition of the whole of that
country by Russia, the least civilised of the three powers. Of this
memorable transaction Voltaire heartily approved, and he gave thanks
that he had lived to see ‘such glorious events.’[307] He insisted,
decidedly against the king’s will, that Frederick had devised the
scheme, for he found it full of genius, and to all seeming he discerned
none of the execration which the event he had just witnessed was
destined to raise in his own country in years to come. His friendship
with two of the chief actors may have biassed his judgment; but Voltaire
seldom allowed, indeed by the conditions of his temperament he was
unable to allow, personal considerations of this kind to obscure his
penetrating sight. He may well have thought the partition of Poland
desirable, for the reasons which a statesman of to-day may find
adequate: the country’s hopeless political anarchy, its crushing
material misery, the oppressive power of the church, the inevitable and
standing peril to Europe of the existence of such a centre of
conflagration. It is worth remarking that Rousseau was much more keenly
alive to the gravity of the event, that he protested against what had
been done, and that his influence has been one of the main causes of the
illogical sympathy of democratic Europe for one of the most pestilent of
aristocratic governments.

The accession of Turgot to power in 1774 stirred an ardent sympathy in
Voltaire. Like the rest of the school, he looked upon this as the advent
of the political messiah,[308] and he shared the extreme hopes of that
great and virtuous man’s most sanguine lieutenants. He declared that a
new heaven and a new earth had opened to him.[309] His sallies against
the economists were forgotten, and he now entered into the famous
controversy of the free trade in grain with all his usual fire. His
fervour went too far for the sage minister, who prayed him to be
somewhat less eager in alarming uninformed prejudice. Still he insisted
on hoping all things.

   Contemple la brillante aurore
   Qui t’annonce enfin les beaux jours.
   Un nouveau monde est près d’éclore;
   Até disparaît pour toujours.
   Vois l’auguste philosophie,
   Chez toi si long temps poursuivie,
   Dicter ses triomphantes lois.

       *       *       *       *       *

   Je lui dis: ‘Ange tutélaire,
   Quels dieux répandent ces bienfaits?’
   ‘C’est un seul homme.’[310]

When it proved that one man alone, ‘qui ne chercha le vrai, que pour
faire le bien,’[311] was no match for the mountain torrent of ignorance,
prejudice, selfishness, and usage, and Turgot fell from power (May
1776), Voltaire sunk into a despair for his country, from which he never
arose. ‘I am as one dashed to the ground. Never can we console ourselves
for having seen the golden age dawn and perish. My eyes see only death
in front of me, now that M. Turgot is gone. It has fallen like a
thunderbolt on my brain and my heart alike. The rest of my days can
never be other than pure bitterness.’[312]

The visit to Paris was perhaps a falsification of this prophecy for a
moment. In 1778, yielding either to the solicitations of his niece, or
to a momentary desire to enjoy the triumph of his renown at its centre,
he returned to the great city which he had not seen for nearly thirty
years. His reception has been described over and over again. It is one
of the historic events of the century. No great captain returning from a
prolonged campaign of difficulty and hazard crowned by the most glorious
victory, ever received a more splendid and far-resounding greeting. It
was the last great commotion in Paris under the old régime. The next
great commotion which the historian has to chronicle is the
ever-memorable fourteenth day of July, eleven years later, when the
Bastille fell, and a new order began for France, and new questions began
for all Europe.

The agitation of so much loud triumph and incessant acclamation proved
more violent than Voltaire’s feeble health could resist, and he died,
probably from an over-dose of laudanum, on the thirtieth of May 1778.
His last writing was a line of rejoicing to the young Lally, that their
efforts had been successful in procuring justice for the memory of one
who had been put to death unjustly. How far Voltaire realised the
nearness of vast changes we cannot tell. There is at least one
remarkable prophecy of his, in the well-known letter to
Chauvelin:—‘Everything that I see appears the throwing broadcast of the
seed of a revolution, which must inevitably come one day, but which I
shall not have the pleasure of witnessing. The French always come late
to things, but they do come at last. Light extends so from neighbour to
neighbour, that there will be a splendid outburst on the first occasion,
and then there will be a rare commotion. The young are very happy; they
will see fine things.’[313] A less sanguine tone marks the close of the
apologue in which Reason and Truth, her daughter, take a triumphant
journey in France and elsewhere, about the time of the accession of
Turgot. ‘Ah, well,’ says Reason, ‘let us enjoy these glorious days; let
us rest here, if they last; and if storms come on, let us go back to our
well.’[314] Whether this meant much or little none can know. It would be
shallow to believe that such men as Voltaire, with faculty quickened and
outlook widened in the high air to which their fame raises them, really
discerned no more than we, who have only their uttered words for
authority, can perceive that they discerned. Great position often
invests men with a second sight whose visions they lock up in silence,
content with the work of the day.


[1] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 214.

[2] See Comte’s _Philosophic Positive_, v. 520.

[3] Vauban and Boisguillebert are both to be found in _Les Economistes
Financiers du XVIIIième Siècle_, published by Guillaumin, 1851.

[4] ‘Je ne sais si, à tout prendre, et malgré les vices éclatants de
quelques uns de ses membres, il y eut jamais dans le monde un clergé
plus remarquable que le clergé catholique de France au moment où la
Révolution l’a surpris, plus éclairé, plus national, moins retranché
dans les seules vertus privées, mieux pourvu de vertus publiques et en
meme temps de plus de foi: la persécution l’a bien montré’—De
Tocqueville, _Ancien Régime_, liv. ii. c. 11.

[5] Rem. sur les Pensées de M. Pascal. _Œuvres_, xliii. p. 68.

[6] _Novum Organum_, § 67.

[7] Some fault has been found with this passage by one or two private
critics, as being not entirely just to the eminent thinker to whom it
refers, and to whom my own obligations, direct and indirect, are so
numerous, notwithstanding my final inability to follow him in his ideas
of social reconstruction, that the idea of adding to the sum of
misrepresentation of which Comte and his doctrines have been the
victims, is particularly disagreeable to me. Here, therefore, is one
passage in which Comte seems to speak rather more warmly of Voltaire
than the words in the text imply: ‘Toutefois, l’indispensable nécessité
mentale et sociale d’une telle élaboration provisoire laissera toujours,
dans l’ensemble de l’histoire humaine, une place importante à ses
principaux coopérateurs, et surtout à leur type le plus éminent, auquel
la postérité la plus lointaine assurera une position vraiment unique;
parceque jamais un pareil office n’avait pu jusqu’alors échoir, et
pourra désormais encore moins appartenir à un esprit de cette nature,
chez lequel la plus admirable combinaison qui ait existé jusqu’ici entre
les diverses qualités secondaires de l’intelligence présentait si
souvent la séduisante apparence de la force et du génie’ (_Phil. Pos._
v. 518). Against this we have to place the highly significant fact that
Voltaire only appears in the calendar as a dramatic poet, as well as the
whole tenour and spirit of Comte’s teaching, namely, as he puts it in
one place, that ‘_une pure critique ne peut jamais mériter beaucoup
d’estime_’ (_Politique Positive_, iii. 547).

[8] J. B. Rousseau’s _Moïsade_.

[9] _Œuvres_, lxii. p. 45.

[10] Dictionnaire Philosophique, _s.v. Œuvres_, lii. p. 378.

[11] _Œuvres_, i. 513.

[12] _Œuvres_, lxii. pp. 86 and 89.

[13] _Ib._ lxii. p. 107.

[14] A.R.O.V.E.T., L(_e_). I(_eune_).

[15] Chevalier appears to have been a title given by courtesy to the
cadets of certain great families.

[16] _Œuvres_, iv. 18.

[17] _Histoire de l’ancien Gouvernement de la France_ (1727).

[18] Buckle’s _Hist. of Civilisation_, i. 657-664.

[19] Sainte-Beuve, _Causeries_, v. 111.

[20] _Œdipe_, iv. sc. 1.

[21] _Ib._ ii. v.

[22] Le Pour et le Contre, ou Epître à Uranie. _Œuvres_, xv. pp. 399,

[23] Condorcet, _Vie de Voltaire. Œuvres_, iv. 20.

[24] Condorcet, _Vie de Voltaire. Œuvres_, iv. 20.

[25] Correspondence, 1725. _Œuvres_, lxii. pp. 140-49.

[26] Lettres sur les Anglais, xv. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 114. Cf. also
Letter xxiv. (pp. 197-202).

[27] Lord Stanhope’s _Hist. of England_, ii. 231 (ed. 1858).

[28] Lettres sur les Anglais, ix. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 73.

[29] Correspondence, 1732. _Œuvres_, lxii. p. 253.

[30] Martin’s _Hist. de France_, vol. xiv. 265-67.

[31] Philosophie de Newton, Pt. i. c. i. _Œuvres_, xli. p. 46.

[32] Lettres sur les Anglais, xv. _Œuvres_, xxxv. pp. 115-20.

[33] Philos. de Newton, Pt. i. c. ix. _Œuvres_, xli. p. 108.

[34] D’Alembert.

[35] Dictionnaire Philosophique, s.v. Locke. _Œuvres_, lvi. p. 447.

[36] Corr. 1736. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 29.

[37] _Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, 6ième Fentretien_, i. 403.

[38] Corr. 1737; lxiii. p. 154.

[39] _Ib._ p. 248. Cf. also lxii. p. 276.

[40] Lettres sur les Anglais, xiv. _Œuvres_, xxxv. pp. 102-5.

[41] _Œuvres_, vol. xliii. p. 77.

[42] _Ib._ p. 20.

[43] _Œuvres_, vol. xliii. p. 26.

[44] Corr. 1737. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 248.

[45] Lettres sur les Anglais, xiii. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 95.

[46] Lettres, etc. x. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 81.

[47] De Tocqueville’s _Ancien Régime_, liv. ii. c. 9, p. 137 (ed. 1866).

[48] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 80.

[49] The reader of _Zadig_ will remember the ‘_homme comme moi_,’ and
his ill luck at Babylon. _Œuvres_, lix. pp. 153-59.

[50] Lettres sur les Anglais, xi. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 85.

[51] Lett. Ang. xxi.; xxxv. pp. 172, etc.

[52] Lettres sur les Anglais, i.; xxxv. p. 31.

[53] Lett. Ang. vi.; xxxv. p. 62.

[54] Lett. Ang. vii. pp. 62-65.

[55] Lett. Ang. ii.; xxxv. p. 42.

[56] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 185.

[57] Ess. sur la Poésie Epique. _Œuvres_, xiii. p. 445, and pp. 513-26.

[58] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 155.

[59] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 159.

[60] Corr. 1736. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 4. _Ib._ 60.

[61] _Œuvres_, xxxv. pp. 189, 190.

[62] For Berkeley, see Corr. 1736 _(Œuv_. lxiii. pp. 130, 164, etc.),
and for the other two, see Le Philosophe Ignorant (_Œuvres_, xliv. p.
69 and p. 47).

[63] _Œuv._ xliv. p. 47.

[64] The _De Veritate_ was published in 1624.

[65] See the list from 1725 to 1728 in Leland’s _View of the Deistical
Writers_, i. 132-144.

[66] _Œuvres_, lvii. pp. 107-114.

[67] Corr. 1736-37. _Œuv._ lxiii. p. 60, p. 86, and p. 112.

[68] Examen Important de Milord Bolingbrocke. _Œuv._ xliv. p. 89.

[69] See Lechler’s _Geschichte des Englischen Deismus_, p. 396.

[70] _Reflections. Works_, i. 419 (ed. 1842).

[71] _Encyclopédic Nouvelle_ de Jean Reynaud et Pierre Leroux, s.v.
Voltaire, p. 736. De Maistre audaciously denies that Voltaire ever did
more than dip into Locke. _Soirées_, vi.

[72] Villemain’s _Cours de Lit. Française_, i. p. 111. See also De
Maistre, _Soirées de St. Pétersbourg_, vi. p. 424. On the other hand,
see Lanfrey’s _L’Eglise et les Philosophes du 18ième Siècle_, pp. 99,
108, etc.

[73] Madame de Grafigny. Cf. Desnoiresterres, _Voltaire au Château de
Cirey_, p. 246, etc.

[74] Desnoiresterres, p. 257.

[75] Condorcet, _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 61. A graceful and dignified
letter in this kind is that to Formey, May 12, 1752. _Œuv._ lxv. p. 64.

[76] Grimm, _Correspondance Littéraire_, v. p. 5.

[77] _Œuv._ lxv. p. 395.

[78] Correspondence. Also, Essai sur la Poésie Epique, c. vi. _Œuvres_,
xiii. p. 481.

[79] _Œuvres_, lxv. p. 91.

[80] Corr. with the Abbé Moussinot, 1737, and afterwards. _Œuvres_,
lxiii. pp. 122, 160, 176, etc.

[81] Corr. 1752. _Œuvres_, lxv. p. 115.

[82] _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 37.

[83] Desnoiresterres, p. 323.

[84] Foisset’s _Correspond. de Voltaire avec De Brosses, etc._,
published in 1836.

[85] Quoted in Desnoiresterres, p. 239.

[86] Desnoiresterres, p. 242.

[87] Epître à Mdme. la Marquise du Châtelet, sur la Calomnie. _Œuvres_,
xvii. p. 85.

[88] See Whewell’s _Hist. Induc. Sci._ bk. vi. c. v.

[89] Desnoiresterres, pp. 313-21.

[90] Exposition du Livre des Institutions Physiques. _Œuvres _, xlii.
pp. 196-206.

[91] _Œuvres_, xlii. p. 207, etc.

[92] Corr. 1737. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 182.

[93] Condorcet, _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 43.

[94] Corr. 1737. _Œuvres_, lvi. p. 428.

[95] Dict. Phil. s.v. _Œuvres_, lvi. p. 428.

[96] Dict. Phil. s.v. _Œuvres_, lvi. p. 430.

[97] Corr. 1758. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 50.

[98] Temple du Goût. _Œuvres_, xv. p. 99.

[99] Corr. 1743. _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 119.

[100] _Œuvres de Vauvenargues_, ii. 252.

[101] Temple du Goût. _Œuvres_, xv. p. 100.

[102] In some readings given before popular audiences in Paris in 1850,
it was found that Voltaire was only partially effective. ‘Trop
d’artifice,’ says Ste. Beuve, ‘trop d’art nuit auprès des esprits neufs;
trop de simplicité nuit aussi; ils ne s’en étonnent pas, et ils ont
jusqu’à un certain point besoin d’être étonnés.’ (_Causeries_, i. 289.)

[103] Temple du Goût. _Œuvres_; xv. p. 95.

[104] Corr. 1732. _Œuvres_, lxii. p. 218.

[105] The dates of the most famous of his tragedies are these: _Œdipe_,
1718; _Brutus_, 1730; _Zaïre_, 1732; _Mort de César_, 1735; _Alzire_,
1736; _Mahomet_, 1741; _Mérope_, 1743; _Sémiramis_, 1748; _Tancrède_,

[106] Hettnerr, for instance: _Literaturgeschichte des 18ten
Jahrhunderts_, ii. 227.

[107] _Zaïre_, act i. sc. 1

[108] _Essay on Hum. Und._ iv. 19, § 3.

[109] Discours sur la Tragédie, à Milord Bolingbrocke. _Œuvres_, ii. p.
337. See also the preface to Œdipe. _Ib._ p. 73.

[110] _Œuvres_, ii. p. 339.

[111] Lett. sur les Anglais, xix. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 151.

[112] Introduction to Semiramis. _Œuvres_, v. p. 194. See also Du
Théâtre Anglais (1761). _Ib._ x. p. 88. Lettre à l’Acad. Franç. (1778),
iv. p. 186.

[113] _Voltaire: sechs Vorträge_. Von D. F. Strauss; p. 74. The same
idea is found in a speech of Wilhelm Meister, bk. iii. ch. 8.

[114] _Mém. de Marmontel_, liv. vii. ii. 245. For Diderot’s criticism,
see his _Mémoires et Œuv. Inédites_, i. 234 (1830). For D’Alembert’s,
cf. Voltaire’s _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 118.

[115] _Decline and Fall_, c. 52, note 83.

[116] _Œuvres_, vols. x. and xi.

[117] Desnoiresterres, p. 342.

[118] _Œuvres_, ix. p. 382.

[119] _Soirées_, 4ième entretien.

[120] _Œuvres_, v. p. 189.

[121] Strauss, p. 79.

[122] _Œuvres_, xviii. p. 250.

[123] Commenced soon after 1730; published surreptitiously in 1755;
published by Voltaire himself in 1762.

[124] _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 89.

[125] _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 88. On the same subject of chastity, of
Condorcet’s Works, vi. p. 264, and pp. 523-26; also a passage in his
correspondence, i. p. 221.

[126] Essai sur la Poésie Epique. _Œuvres_, xiii. p. 474

[127] _Œuvres_, ii. p. 591.

[128] Burton’s _Life of David Hume_, ii. 440.

[129] Henriade, x. 485-491.

[130] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p.266.

[131] _Vie de Voltaire_ p.60.

[132] See the late C. Bartholmess’s _Histoire Philosophique de
l’Académie de Prusse_, bk. ii.

[133] _Histoire Philosophique de l’Academie de Prusse_, bk. i. 230.

[134] Corr. 1750. _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 447.

[135] Jablonski.

[136] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 224.

[137] Corr. 1750. _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 443.

[138] Carlyle’s _History of Frederick_, bk. xiii. ch. 5.

[139] _Œuvres de Voltaire_, lxxiii. p. 456.

[140] _Ib._ p. 813.

[141] _Ib._ p. 807.

[142] For Voltaire’s admirably expressed remonstrance, see Corr. Oct.
1757. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 768.

[143] Martin’s _Hist. de France_, xv. p. 468.

[144] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 207 and p. 210.

[145] Goethe.

[146] Bartholmess, ii. 111.

[147] See Bartholmess, i. 168.

[148] _Œuvres de Voltaire_, lxxiii. p. 836.

[149] Corr. 1751. _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 524.

[150] Corr. 1751. _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 453.

[151] See Whewell’s _Hist. Ind, Sci._ bk. VII. ch. 4, § 7.

[152] _Œuvres_, lxiv. p. 53.

[153] See Comte’s _Phil. Pos._ i. 525-529.

[154] It may be worth mentioning that there actually existed in the
sixteenth century a French physician, who changed his real name of
Sans-Malice into Akakia, and left descendants so called. See M. Jal’s
_Dictionnaire Critique de Biographie et d’Histoire_, p. 19 (1869).

[155] Corr. 1752. _Œuvres_, lxv. p. 138.

[156] Desnoiresterres, 394.

[157] Desnoiresterres, _Voltaire et Fréderic_, cc. 9 and 10. Carlyle’s
_Frederick_, bk. xvi. ch. 12.

[158] See Desnoiresterres, _Voltaire et Frédéric_, pp. 124-153,
including a facsimile of the fraudulently altered agreement. Also
Carlyle’s _Frederick_, bk. xvi. ch. 7.

[159] Carlyle’s _Frederick_, bk. xiii. ch. 5.

[160] _Œuvres_, lxxiii. p. 830 (1760).

[161] _Œuvres_, lxxiii. pp. 835-837.

[162] Printed in vol. i. of the Baudouin edition, as _Mémoires pour
servir à la vie de M. Voltaire_, p. 212.

[163] Corr. 1758. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 80.

[164] _Ib._ p. 31.

[165] Corr. lxv. p. 23. Cf. also p. 83.

[166] Corr. lxv. p. 15.

[167] Corr. 1743. _Œuv._ lviii. p. 131. A very long and careful list of
the oppressions practised on writers in this reign is given in Mr.
Buckle’s _Hist. of Civilisation_, i. 675-681.

[168] Foisset’s _Corres. de Voltaire avec de Brasses_, etc., p. 318.
Also Corr. 1757. _Œuvres_, lxvi. pp. 1-50 passim.

[169] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 61.

[170] _Mémoires_, i. ch. in. p. 55.

[171] See for instance a letter to Mdlle. de Voland: _Mémoires,
Correspondance, et Ouv. inédites_, i. 99.

[172] L’Auteur arrivant à sa terre. _Œuv._ xvii. 194.

[173] Corr. 1757. _Œuv._ lxvi. p. 38.

[174] _Ib._ p. 32.

[175] Corr. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 249.

[176] It was to the last-named book, one may suppose, that Voltaire
referred, when he asked how it was that Locke, after having so
profoundly traced the development of the human understanding, could so
degrade his own understanding in another work. (Diet Phil. s.v. Platon.
_Œuv._ lvii. p. 369.)

[177] See Collins’s Apology for Free Debate and Liberty of Writing,
prefixed to the _Grounds and Reasons of Christianity_.

[178] Corr. 1768. _Œuv._ lxx. p. 140.

[179] The reader will find an account of them in M. Lanfrey’s _L’Eglise
et les Philosophes du 18ième Siècle_, pp. 131-135.

[180] Corr. _Œuv._ lxvi. p. 100.

[181] For the composition of this body see Voltaire’s Histoire du
Parlement de Paris. _Œuv._ xxxiv. Or in Martin s _Hist, de France_, iv.
295; xii. 280; and xii. 53.

[182] Siècle de Louis xv. c. 36. _Œuvres_, xxix. p. 3.

[183] Corr. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 145.

[184] Corr. _Œuvres_, lxvii. p. 166.

[185] Mém. de Morellet, ch. iii. p. 62.

[186] Martin’s _Hist. de France_, xvi. p. 139.

[187] Relation de la Mort du Chevalier de la Barre, 1766; Le Cri du Sang
Innocent, 1775, _Œuv._ xxxix. p. 99.

[188] Corr. July 16, 1766. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 357.

[189] Corr. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 359.

[190] _Ib._ p. 361.

[191] Grimm, _Corr. Lit._ v. p. 133.

[192] Corr. 1774. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 627.

[193] _Ib._ p. 696.

[194] _Hist. de la Civilisation en Europe_, 14ième leçon, p. 405. Cf.
also De Tocqueville’s _Ancien Régime_, liv. iii. ch. I.

[195] Corr. 1757-58. _Œuv._ lxvi. pp. 92, 102, 112, 185, etc.

[196] Corr. _Œuv._ lxvii. p. 174; also lxxv. p. 170.

[197] See ante, p. 19.

[198] Chant i. v. 306.

[199] La Voix du Sage et du Peuple (1750). _Œuv._ xxxviii. p. 53.

[200] De Maistre, _Soirées de St. Pétersbourg_, 4ième.

[201] _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 37.

[202] Corr. 1773. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 614.

[203] Cf. Dict. Phil. s.v. Eglise. _Œuv._ pp. 221-248.

[204] Dieu et les Hommes, c. xiv. _Œuvres_, xlv. p. 318.

[205] Dict. Phil. s.v. Resurrection. _Œuvres_, lviii. p. 67.

[206] See, for instance, Tylor’s _Primitive Culture_, i. 32, ii. 131,

[207] Corr. 1770. _Œuvres_, lxxv. pp. 522, 526, etc. This active spite
prevented the accession of De Brosses to a seat in the academy.

[208] Diet. Phil. s. v. Dieu. _Œuvres_, liv. p. 20.

[209] Dieu et les Hommes, c. iii. _Œuvres_, xlv. p. 270.

[210] Dict. Phil. s. v. Polythéisme. _Œuvres_, lvii. p. 391.

[211] Corr. 1761. _Œuvres_, lxvii. p. 186.

[212] Corr. 1758. _Œuvres_, lxvi. p. 200.

[213] _Nat. Hist. of Religion_, sect. iii.

[214] _Ib._ sect. iv.

[215] _Soirées de St. Pétersbourg_, vi. p. 403.

[216] Ante, ch. iii.

[217] See Milman’s _Hist. of Latin Christianity_, bk. ii. chap. ii. and

[218] Corr. 1761. _Œuvres_, lxvii. p. 74.

[219] Finlay’s _Greece under the Romans_ (B.C. 146-A.D. 716), pp. 146,

[220] Poëme sur le Desastre de Lisbonne. _Œuvres_, xv. p. 53.

[221] Phil. de Newton. _Œuv._ xli. p. 46. See also the whole chapter.

[222] A Mdme. du Châtelet sur la Philosophic de Newton (1738). _Œuv._
xvii. p. 113.

[223] Ode sur le Fanatisme. _Œuvres_, xvi. p. 331.

[224] _Œuvres_, xv. pp. 39-62.

[225] Aristotle’s definition of εὐτραπελία, or wit, as ὕβρις
πεπαιδευμένη marks one of Voltaire’s chief talents with entire accuracy.

[226] _Œuvres_, xv. p. 58.

[227] Corr. 1765. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 311.

[228] Lettres Ang. xiv. _Œuvres_, xxxv. p. 108.

[229] Corr. 1736. _Œuvres_, lxiii. p. 31.

[230] Dict. Phil. s. v. Locke. _Œuvres_, lvi. p. 338.

[231] Holberg, quoted in Sainte-Beuve’s _Nouveaux Lundis_, ix. 26.

[232] Quinet’s _La Révolution_, i. 168.

[233] Essai sur les Mœurs, c. ii. _Œuvres_, xx. p. 344. See also c.
clxxxii. _Œuv._ xxiv. p. 162.

[234] Essai sur les Mœurs, pp. 1, 2.

[235] Essai sur les Mœurs, p. 9.

[236] _On the Study of History_, Letter i. ad finem.

[237] _Grandeur et Décadence des Romains_, c. xi.

[238] The dates of the publication of Voltaire’s historical works are
these:—_Charles XII._, 1731; _Siècle de Louis XIV_., 1752 (a portion of
it in 1739); _Annales de l’Empire_, 1753-54; _Essai sur les Mœurs_, 1757
(surreptitiously in 1754); _Histoire de Russie_, Pt. I. in 1759, Pt. II.
in 1763; _Precis du Siècle de Louis XV._, 1768; _Histoire du Parlement
de Paris_, 1769.

[239] Le Pyrrhonisme de l’Histoire, cc. xii. xiii. _Œuvres_, xxxvi, p.
346; also p. 428.

[240] Corr. _Œuvres_, lxvi. p. 17.

[241] Corr. 1757. _Œuvres_, lxvi. p. 61.

[242] Corr. 1761. _Œuv._ lxvii. p. 228.

[243] _Œuvres_, xx. p. 10

[244] Siècle de Louis XIV., c. i. _Œuvres_, xxv. p. 283.

[245] Corr. 1735. _Œuvres_, lxii. pp. 455, 456.

[246] _Œuvres_, xxxvi. pp. 428-434 (1768).

[247] Diet. Phil. s.v. Guerre. _Œuvres_, lv. pp. 488, 489.

[248] _Esprit des Lois_, x. ii.

[249] _Œuvres_, lv. p. 490.

[250] Corr. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 460.

[251] See a letter of the king of Prussia in Voltaire’s _Works_, lxxiv.
p. 144, etc.

[252] C. xxiii. _Œuvres_, xxi. p. 9.

[253] _Mœurs_, like ἤθη is untranslatable by any single English word.
The full title is _Essai sur les Mœurs et l’Esprit des Nations, et sur
les principaux faits de l’Histoire depuís Charlemagne jusqu’ à Louis

[254] C. vi. _Œuvres_, xx. p. 396.

[255] C. xi. _Œuvres_, xx. p. 455.

[256] See on this interesting subject Finlay’s _Greece under the Romans_
(B.C. 146-A.D. 716), pp. 156, 157.

[257] _Childe Harold_, iii. 106 and 107.

[258] C. ix. _Œuvres_, xx. p. 445.

[259] C. lviii. _Œuvres_, xxi. pp. 328-341.

[260] Quelques petites Hardiesses, etc. _Œuvres_, xxxvi. p. 445.

[261] C. xlii. _Œuvres_, xxi. p. 143.

[262] Notes sur le Désastre de Lisbonne. _Œuvres_, xv. p. 57.

[263] He ridiculed some of these in one of his most humane and otherwise
excellent pieces, L’Homme aux Quarante Ecus (1767). _Œuv._ lix. p. 395.

[264] _The Republic_, 1577. _Esprit des Lois_, 1748.

[265] _Œuv._ lxvii. p. 94.

[266] A drawing of Voltaire’s château at Ferney is given in Blancheton’s
_Vues Pittoresques des Châteaux de France_ (Paris, 1826), Part II. The
château is still standing, and the prospect from the terrace repays a
visit, apart from the interest of association. The church is now a
receptacle for wine-casks.

[267] The reader who is curious as to the most indifferent details, will
find what he seeks in a singular monument of painstaking spleen,
entitled _Ménage et Finances de Voltaire_, by M. Nicolardot (Paris,

[268] Corr. 1761. _Œuv._ lxvii. p. 190.

[269] _Corr. Lit._ vi. p. 272; v. p. 385.

[270] Grimm, _Corr. Lit._ v. p. 393.

[271] Corr. 1761. _Œuv._ lxxv. p. 158.

[272] Born 1710; lost her first husband 1744; married one Vivier in
1779; died 1790.

[273] Corr. 1770. _Œuv._ lxx. p. 175.

[274] Corr. 1771-72. _Œuv._ lxxiv. pp. 733 and 737.

[275] Corr. 1772. _Œuvres_, lxxi. p. 496. The marked copy is still in
existence, along with the rest of Voltaire’s books, at St. Petersburg;
see Lavergne’s _Economistes du 18ième Siècle_, p. 285.

[276] Corr. 1761. _Œuvres_, lxvii. p. 166.

[277] _Œuvres_, lxxv. pp. 64, 69, etc.

[278] Corr. 1770. _Œuvres_, lxxi, p. 18.

[279] _Œuvres de Turgot_, ii. pp. 814-825.

[280] _Ib._ p. 824.

[281] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 331.

[282] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 33.

[283] _Œuvres de Condorcet_, iv. pp. 33, 34, and vi. pp. 187-189.

[284] Corr. 1768. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 426.

[285] Corr. 1768. _Œuvres_, lxx. pp. 198-199.

[286] Corr. 1769. _Œuvres_, lxx. pp. 434, 435; lxxv. p. 452. Grimm’s
_Corr. Lit._ vi. p. 231.

[287] Condorcet, _Vie de Voltaire_, p. 126.

[288] Corr. _Œuvres_, lxxi. pp. 25, 27, 30, etc.

[289] Grimm, _Corr. Lit._ vi. p. 358.

[290] Grimm, _Corr. Lit._ vi. p. 358.

[291] _Confessions_, pt. i. liv. v. Date of 1736.

[292] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 182.

[293] Corr. 1762. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 188.

[294] _Œuvres_, lxvii. p. 432.

[295] Condorcet, p. 170.

[296] Lamartine’s _Girondins_, iv. v.

[297] See his correspondence with D’Alembert (_Œuvres_, lxxv.) until
1760, the date of D’Alembert’s separation from Diderot and the

[298] _Phil. Pos._ v. 520.

[299] _Essais sur les règnes de Claude et Néron_, vol. vi. pp. 256, 290,
and 191 (Ed. 1819).

[300] Corr. 1766. _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 364.

[301] Condorcet, p. 124.

[302] Martin’s _Hist. de France_, xv. pp. 569-572.

[303] Corr. 1757. _Œuvres_, lxvi. p. 51.

[304] Corr. 1756. _Œuvres_, lxv. p. 568; lxvi. pp. 1, 19, 20, 40.

[305] _Œuvres_, lxvi. p. 51.

[306] Corr. 1772. _Œuvres_, lxxiv. p. 36.

[307] _Ib._ p. 93, etc.

[308] See Morellet, i. pp. 147, 159, etc.

[309] _Œuvres_, lxxv. p. 641.

[310] Ode sur le Passé et le Présent (1775). _Œuvres_, xvi. p. 415.

[311] Epître à un Homme (1776). _Œuvres_, xvii. p. 327.

[312] Corr. 1776. _Œuvres_, lxxii. pp. 403, 409, 412, etc.

[313] April 2, 1764. _Œuvres_, lxviii. p. 220.

[314] Eloge historique de la Raison (_or_ Voyage de la Raison).
_Œuvres_, lx. p. 478.


_Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, _Edinburgh_.

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