Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Champion of Free Thought
By George Ripley (18021880)
[The New-York Tribune. 1878.]
THE EARLIEST dates in the history of Voltaire present a transparent contrast to the glory of its final scenes. He appears in the character of a cunning Bohemian, intent on wresting a livelihood from a reluctant world, rather than as a man of genius whose writings were to excite a fermentation of thought and dissolve the relics of tradition from the opinions of the age. His first step was to change his family name of Arouet to the more sonorous title of Voltaire. He soon finds his place in the brilliant and corrupt society of that period. His pen has free exercise in the field of irony and satire; his mocking genius is called into early action; he sends the shafts of his wit with less regard to the accuracy of their aim than to the effect of their stroke, and by the time he is twenty years old he is thrown into prison for lampoons on the king. But he soon turns the tables, makes friends with his accusers, and is again launched on the topmost wave of social and literary success. He becomes a shrewd financial manager, a fortunate speculator in stocks, a trader in pensions and offices, and a contractor with the government for furnishing the army with bacon and beef.
The wonderful power of Voltaire in the subsequent stages of his career was doubtless due to the sinuous facility with which he adapted himself to the spirit of the age. He struck while the iron was hot. It was an epoch of transition from mediæval religiousness to modern free-thinking. The whispers of doubt against the authority of the church were muttered in secret; but Voltaire proclaimed upon the housetops what had been suspected in the cell of the thinker and the study of the scholar. He gave vocal expression to the ideas which had been cherished in private, and the secret of the sceptic became the property of the world. At that time the sentiment of religion was identified with the faith of the church in the leading intellectual circles of French society. Protestantism had made little headway in the land of the Huguenots. The Roman Catholic faith was considered the genuine type of Christianity, which was held responsible for the encroachments of ecclesiastical power on the claims of human freedom. Voltaire made no distinction between religion and Catholicism. In his attacks on religion he deemed himself the defender of freedom, and supposed that he was battling for the cause of humanity, while attempting to demolish the authority of the church. Nor was Voltaire in sympathy with the thoroughgoing scepticism which was the characteristic of the eighteenth century; he attacked religion, less as a creed, or a sentiment, than as an obstacle, in its existing manifestations, to liberty of thought; and while he kept no terms with the ecclesiastical authorities of the age, was wont to express his conviction of a retributive Providence, and even erected a church at Ferney, dedicated to the Supreme Being, which, however, and perhaps justly, was recognized less as an evidence of piety than of vanity. The influence of Voltaire on his age, accordingly, was as the champion of mental freedom, of the unembarrassed pursuit of truth, of the rights of man, to use a phrase which was then coming into vogue, and which has since served as the key-note to pregnant movements of public policy.
The methods of Voltaire also took their stamp as much from the character of the age as from his own intellectual traits and tendencies. It was a period when the grave aspect of the scholastic philosophy was softened down into the unwrinkled visage of modern vivacity. Voltaire was essentially the royal jester in the court of literature. He did not undertake to sap a solemn creed by solemn sneer, but tried to undermine the faith of ages by gay ribaldry and light persiflage. He courted inquiry with some sorry joke on his lips, and laughed off the stage what he could not destroy by serious discussion. He seemed to have no earnestness of character, to play with his strongest convictions, to prefer a sparkling repartee to a lucid argument, and in his most strenuous combats to rely more on the flashes and flourishes of his sword than on the temper of the blade. His attacks on religion partook of the shallow and mercurial nature of the man. If he could make a brilliant point against the priesthood, he took little care to verify its truth. He held Christianity responsible with its life for many antiquated theories which since his time have parted with much of the prestige that had embalmed them in the odor of sanctity, and which are now by no means considered as essential elements of an orthodox creed. His famous, or rather infamous, watchword, which has usually been thought to apply to the founder of the Christian religion, was more probably directed against the pretensions of pontifical authority; but he was always too hasty and careless a thinker to seek out an essential difference under apparent resemblances.
Still, in his airy, mocking way, Voltaire was no doubt a lover of humanity. He had a keen sense of the evils of modern society, and a certain half-ironical hope that they were not past redemption. He felt for the oppressions that were done under the sun, but it was less a feeling of love of the oppressed than hatred of the oppressor. In his application of remedies for the miseries of the race, he is like the Mephistophelean surgeon in the wards of a hospital who approaches his patient with a demonic grin instead of a cheerful smile, and handles the limb which is racked by rheumatic agonies with a cynical laugh at the pain rather than a tender sympathy with the sufferer.
With all his remarkable gifts of brilliant execution, the nature of Voltaire was essentially meagre and thin, never rising to the loftiest heights of feeling or descending to the profoundest depths of thought. Both his moral and mental qualities were vitiated by an incurable taint of frivolity. His convictions appear to have been sincere; that is, he cherished no doubt of the absurdity which he dragged to light from beneath the mask of plausibility; but we find no traces of the passion for truth, the master sentiment which inspires the soarings of philosophy and fructifies the vigils of science. In this respect he compares unfavorably with Rousseau, whose wildest speculations were marked by intense earnestness, and who pleaded for his convictions, not as the fruits of a nimble fancy, but as vital truths for the regeneration of the race. Voltaire not only adapted himself to the spirit of the age; he presented its most conspicuous type and characteristic expression; he was the apostle, and prophet, and high priest of the eighteenth century, of which the philosophy was restricted within the domain of the senses, and its ethics a cunning contrivance for the highest degree of selfish enjoyment. The present century has opened a new era in which Voltaire would find himself a stranger and a foreigner. His influence has left but few traces on the intellectual development of the age; his genius for sarcasm and mockery has grown pale before the rising dawn of devout earnestness and the profound seriousness of inquiry which mark the researches of modern science; and the hollow and selfish cynicism of his morality has been thrown into eclipse, even by the impassioned appeals of Auguste Comte, who, in this respect at least, has approached the borders of the Christian faith, in claiming a regard to the welfare of our neighbor, no less than of ourselves, as the supreme legitimate principle of human action. The spirit of the nineteenth century calls for guides and teachers of different metal from that of Voltaire. Let the mocking spectre repose unmolested in the realms of shade; let no violence be offered to his aged bones as they rest in their laurelled though moss-grown sepulchre, but let him not be honored as the intellectual sovereign of the present or the coming age. The sceptre has departed from the sage of Ferney; let his name be no longer invoked as the law-giver of thought; but while he is dethroned from his intellectual supremacy over a superficial age, let us not fail to do justice to his higher qualities as the armed foe of superstition and the alert champion of the freedom of the human mind.