網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

their hands and eyes at La Pacelle, but will never talk of the grave and multiplied adulteries of Louis le Grand, or of the Parc aux Cerfs of his successo! ;-of the dissolute gallantries, amounting almost to promiscuous intercourse, of the enure body of the nobility ;-of the nauseous, depravity of the churchmen ;-or of the gross and insolent oppression and demoralization of the people by the whole. They prate as eloquently as parrots about those wicked philosophers, and speak of the ejectment of half a million of subjects by the god-like Louis, and the murder. rape, ravishment, and dragooning of the Protestants which preceded and followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantz, as the slightest of all possible drawbacks in that very kingly character.

The corruption of habits and manners which prevailed during the reign of Louis XIV. notwithstanding its imposing, orderly, and even devotional aspect, has already been mentioned. A few sentences on the public character of that ostentatious period, either the positive or comparative merits of which there is neither space nor disposition to dispute, are now requisite. Attending to much of the sway which preceded it, the reign of Louis was doubtless effective and useful to his people. His natural capacity was strong; and possessing firmness, self-will. and an extraordinary thirst for renown, the nation soon began to feel the benefit of that unity of power and of purpose, forming the single advantage which absolute monarchy can at any time claim, and that but very seldom. At the same time, the lofty notion entertained by Louis of the regal character, and the theory,—not possibly altogether new in France, but certainly never carried to the like extent, -of making the glory of the monarch the mainspring and object of all public exertion, gave a factitious ascendancy to his character, which was by no means inoperative. There is occasionally much metaphysical ingenuity in political servility; and it was never more dexterously displayed than in this filching abstraction of all the more broad and generous notions of love of country and of kind, of national utility, and of public renown, which transforms patriotism into a species of pagod-worship of man, and that one not unfrequently the most contemptible and insignificant in his own kingdom.

The most detestable and odious of all political sins is, indisputably, religious persecution ; and by that execrable union of kingcraft and priestcraft which assumes a sway over volition itself, was this sin unsparingly committed during the whole of the reign under consideration. This leads at once to the source of the early predispositions of Voltaire, and of the honourable enthusiam which coloured nearly the whole of his long life. By accident, carelessness, or indifference, he was very early allowed to imbibe a large portion of philosophical scepticism, which no after education,-and he was subsequently educated by Jesuits,-could remove. It is not intended either to applaud or lament this fact, but simply as a fact to produce it, for the purpose of asking what was more natural for a brilliant, ardent, and vivacious young man, thus ardently vaccinated—if the figure be allowable-against the small-por of fanaticism and superstition so prevalent in this country, and born during a reign which revoked the Edict of Nantz, and expatriated half a million of peaceful subjects? In what way did his Most Christian Majesty, the magnificent Louis, signalize that part of his kingly career which.immediately preceded the birth of Voltaire ? In the famous Dragonades, in which a rude and licentious soldiery were encouraged in every excess of cruelty and outrage, because, to use the language of the Minister Louvois, “his Majesty was desirous that the heaviest penalties should be put in force against those who are not willing to embrace his religion; and those who have the false glory to remain longest firm in their opinions, must be driven to the last extremities."

They were so driven, in a manner which it is impossible to enter into detail, for sources exist from which monstrous and mournful particulars might be extracted; but the general fact is all that is necessary in this place. It will therefore suffice to repeat, that at length the Edict of Nantz was formally repealed, Protestants refused liberty of conscience, their temples demolished, their children torn from them. and, to crown all, attempts were even made to impede their emigration. They were to be inclosed like wild beasts, and hunted down at leisure.

Such were the facts and horrors which must, in the first instance, have encoun tered and confirmed the incipient scepticism of Voltaire. What calm man, of any or of no religion, can now hear of them without shuddering and execration ? and what such feel now, it is reasonable to suppose that a mind predisposed like that of Voltaire must have felt then. It is evident that, from his earliest manhood, he declared war against the whole fabric of priestcraft and superstition, from which such mighty mischiefs emanated. But such was the combination of the horrible and ridiculous which indisputably encountered the youth of Voltaire; and whether for invective, for argument, or for jibe, it is impossible that an enemy to superstition, fanaticism, and priestly domination, with their attendant horrors of cruelty, intolerance, and persecution, who was at the same time a poet, wit, satirist, and philosopher, could be more irresistibly urged into a warfare which was to distinguish the whole of a long future life.

It only remains to enquire how far his subsequent experience was of a nature to confirm these opinions. The regency of Philip of Orleans, however dissolute as to morals and manners, was comparatively philosophical on the subject of religion. The usual re-action had, in fact, begun to take place; and that contemptuous indifference was engendering for religious disputation, which never fails to follow an excess of it. The enormous power and influence of a corrupt, intolerant, and ambitious clergy, was, however, a stationary evil in France ; and there was always sufficient going forward to keep in activity so determined and indefatigable an opponent as Voltaire. The despicable reign of Louis XV. was certainly not much encumbered with the devotion or fanaticism of the monarch ; but the horrible ini-. quities practised by the provincial parliaments—the bigotted persecutions which disgraced the local jurisdictions—and the protection these atrocities received from the episcopacy, remained. However divided into factions and engaged in interminable contests among themselves about the grace of God, the dignified clergy uniformly threw their effective shield over the blundering cruelties which were per. petrated in the genuine spirit of intolerant orthodoxy.

To conclude : in as far as regards the operation of the philosophers, and of Voltaire in particular, it is the duty of superior intellect to be eternally active and restless against oppression and misgovernment, and to diffuse the superior light which it bus collected. It is the duty of governments, on the other hand, to be the first to receive these lights, which are sure in the end to become general; and if, instead of this, they studiously reject them, the baleful consequences are of their own creation : society at large cannot and will not wait for them. The writings of Voltaire and his coadjutors, at great personal risk, pointed out abuses which were becoming unbearable; they were unattended to, and the result is a matter of history. Wisdom, in the proper place, might have made it better ; but the consequences might have heen worse. Enormous as was the temporary endurance, it bears no comparison with the aggregate amount of oppression and suffering in the two reigns of Louis XIV. and XV.; and to present and future France, even with a Bourbon on the throne, the great gain is unequivocal.

Next to fanaticism and superstition, Voltaire appears to have endeavoured with

the utmost anxiety to rectify the injustice of the public tribunals, especially in the provinces, which were in the habit of committing legal murders with a facility which could only be equalled by the impunity. Against the execrable tyranny of lettres de cachet, by which he himself suffered more than once, he occasionally darted his very powerful inuendos; but, after all, nothing has dropped from him of a nature to lead his readers to suppose that he contemplated anything beyond a regulation of the monarchy, and an extinction of priestly influence; but certainly his daydreams never went beyond the model of Great Britain. The same thing cannot be exactly affirmed of such of his disciples as reached the revolution; but neither the one nor the other ever contemplated outrage, violence, or transfer of property. No matter what the religious opinions of Voltaire were, he uniformly inculcates political moderation, religious tolerance, and general good will. It would be well if ail devout people did the same.

Looking, therefore, at the general labours of this premier genius of France for the benefit of his fellow creatures, he must at all events be regarded as a bold, active, and able philanthropist, upon his own theory, even by those who in many respects disagree with it. It is a poor matter in abatement to allege the various discrepancies, inconsistences, and apparent disingenuities that were forced upon him by the influence which he thwarted, and the tyranny which he undermined. It is very pleasant in the aiders and abetters of despots and inquisitors to require so high a degree of punctilious sincerity in those who oppose them. The exercise of the

natural rights of mankind is first rendered dangerous; and then the unhappy necessity of avoiding the danger is constituted a new crime. If you persist in delivering your opinions to your fellow-creatures, you shall be fined, imprisoned, hanged, beheaded, or burned ; and having done so, you are the most dishonourable of human beings if you equivocate in the slightest degree in order to escape from such desirable penalties !

Attend for instance to the particular situation of Voltaire. It is well observed by Condorcet, that if he had lived a few years earlier, the eminent services which he has rendered mankind could not have been executed ; and that he, of all men, was best adapted to effect the greatest possible good in the relaxed yet still dangerous and equivocal times in which he arose. And why was he thus adapted ? Because his spirit was Protean and ductile-because he could assume all shapes, practise every mode of warfare, and fly like a Parthian, only the more effectually to wound. Had this not been the case, Voltaire would have been cut off long before he redressed the horrible treatment of the Calas family, and redeemed the memory of the religiously-murdered head of it. As it was, he was twice imprisoned, once or twice obliged to fly, and in constant danger of the most hostile proceedings and vindictive prosecutions. The magnanimity of incurring these risks, in order to open the eyes of mankind to the nature of the pestilential superstition which was rendering them the wolfish shedders of each others blood, inhuman baters, persecutors, and slanderers, is surely a very tolerable set-off against a little faltering and finesse, when such risks became imminent. His character would have stood higher, had he exhibited less versatility; but still it must be conceded that the sacrifice of fortune, liberty, country, or life, is of a nature to shake the spirits of most men. Martyrdom is not the talent of all the world ; not to mention that it is only silly when its avoidance is more serviceable to a cause than its endurance.

The only just and liberal mode of settling the merits and failings of Voltaire, is not to judge him from some abstract idea of perfection, but as a great man, who, although born in the most dissolute and corrupt capital in the world, and early introduced into its most seductive circles, dedicated himself to the Herculean and dangerous labour of attacking and disarming a noxious superstition, which for centuries has stood in the way of all human improvement, in every land in which it has been seated in the fulness of power. Regarded in this single point of view, he is to be esteemed a benefactor to his own country in particular, and to human nature in general. That noxious superstition he has been a main cause of disarming; and we hesitate not to say, that the man who so washed it out of the minds of the large population of his country, that the faction intent on reviving it in its pristine fearfulness have no alternative but to begin again, has all but succeeded. A calm and enlightened lover of his species can form but one opinion—that it has uniformly opposed itself to political freedom, and the progressive amelioration of the social state. It never had it never will have, more than one claim to consideration, and that is, when its own oppression is re-acted on itself—its own maxims put into force. It is no nice estimation of the mode of attack and of the nature of the weapon-no casuistical refinement upon the exact point when discretion failed, when the argument was carried too far, and when the assailant ought to have paused-which can rob Voltaire of the honest fame of having broken down, and for ever, the most baleful order of domination that ever existed, and that by the arms of wit, reason, and adventurous exposure alone. It must be something more than a few lightminded and fantastical inconsistencies, which can erase the name of this man from the list of the benefactors to mankind.

But great as are his claims on this score, they by no means form his only title to the gratitude of his fellow creatures. It is trite to observe, that books are useful in proportion as they are read; and that the most able and elaborate productions, if only partially perused, must be comparatively inefficient. The elegant and perspicuous style in which Voltaire conveyed his various information, the fascinating brilliancy of his allusion, the picquant attraction of his wit, and the easy flow of his narrative, made readers of everybody; and such is the spontaneous and natural order of his thoughts, that his prose is less injured by translation than that of any other author on record. Such have been the operation of these charms, it would be difficult to say how much his contemporaries and posterity owe to the labours of Voltaire ; for, setting aside his diligent and never-neglected exposure of superstition and priestcraft, and their historical train of horrors, he uniformly inculcates the finest lessons of humanity, and those improved views of the genuine nature of the social progress, which are now beyond any power to unsettle, if not to impede. It must never be forgotten, that he wrote for everybody; and it would be immensely useful if other able men would do the same. A German taste exists at this time, which affects an amazing contempt for writers whom all the world can understand, and consequently for Voltaire. "The perfection of human genius, in such estimation, is exhibited in the art of mystification. Common thoughts are born aloft into the clouds, and we no longer know them for that which they were, and still less for any thing else; and all this is played off with a gravity of pretension, which is quite edifying. These are not the levers by which society can be rectified or exalted, nor were they those of Voltaire. The cant of philanthropy is as despicable as any other cant; and mind must exercise itself in various departments ; but the quiddities and conundrums of this class of writers, in comparison with the effective and manly exertions of Voltaire, resemble the learned lucubrations of the schoolmen in opposition to the effective intellectuality of Bacon.

It would be an endless task to attempt to refute the objections raised against Voltaire and his writings. The great privilege of a critic to find fault, because things do not square with his ideal theory of right and wrong, has been fully exercised against him. Condorcet distinctly states, that his great object was to destroy

Christianity; but we must recollect that it was Roman Catholic Christianity; and we well know what that is termed by our purer Protestant evangelical errand-boys of God. We have been told that Catholicism is idolatry ; but when that idolatry is attacked, common cause is made with it by the professors of supernatural magic, let them be of whatever sect they may. Thus, when the French revolution drove away the priests, the impostors of a religion which for three hundred years we had been told was damnable and idolatrous—what an outcry was made against the impious atheists, infidels, Jacobins, and rebels. But the most curious of all was the fact, that Goddle Mity was so often on the side of these atheists! Had he been bribed, or had his thunder slept ? So much for a protecting Providence. No matter! there must be a religion, a superstition, a mysterious power, to awe the wicked and confound the guilty; says one sapient caviller of Voltaire :-“when the Romans became wise enough to despise the oracles of their forefathers, and the augurs almost laughed in each others' faces, then they ceased to respect an oath, and the sanctity of their domestic life was exchanged for the most abominable prostitution." Now this is false—a naked lie. All that has been called religion, has hitherto been the promoter of every kind of immorality and debauchery among men. Those weak minds who believe in it know that, at the last hour, they can have redemption of their sins through the blood of the Lamb which was shed for all ; and those of stronger minds, who are interested in perpetuating the existing plunder and oppression, never let the dogmas of religion restrain their rapacity. A fig for the other world! give us this, and take heaven entirely to yourself, say the priest and the oppressor.—“For it were easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It would seem, indeed, as if the dogmas of religion were invented for the purpose of testing the powers of human credulity—as if there was no verbal or moral contradiction but what they could compel us to acknowledge, in entire defiance of our physical faculties. The object of all priesthood, from the pope at the Vatican to the ranting sectarian, is to live at ease upon the labours of others. “ They toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” In this they all agree most wonderfully. For this end they keep up a most incessant clamour against all other forms of superstition, in order to prevent their deluded followers from calmly discovering the foul imposture by which they are entangled and deluded. Religion hath never

been a restraint against the oppression of the powerful, in order to sustain the poor and afflicted. Passions, mischievous to society, are never restrained by religion, or what is so called ; and the doctrine of a future state has never deterred men in power from pursuing their iniquitous aggrandisements. The other world is the reward for unhappy virtue,' says one. Aye, the other world ! look there for a recompense ! The more you are trampled upon, galled, goaded, and plundered, the brighter will be your reward hereafter ; you will become angels, archangels, and the Lord only knows what else besides. Aye, this is true and pure and undefiled religion ; this is the true creed from the Thames to the Tiber, from the Nile to the Niger, from the Ganges to the Gulf of New Orleans. To shake in some degree this mighty system of superstition and of plunder was the object of Voltaire, and he succeeded more than any other man could have done that had been born about the same period of time. He was as a willow that bent before the storm which uprooted the oak. His very compliance with the forms of the church—his eagerness to be reconciled to it-his taking of the sacrament and his death, and his avowal that he died a Catholic—were but so many distinct assertions that he was compelled to bend before a power which he abhorred, and which the whole tenor of his life and writing, was calculated to destroy. No man can afford to be independent even now, wheħ fifty

« 上一頁繼續 »