The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13

Author: John Morley  | Date: A.D. 1755

Voltaire Directs European Thought From Geneva

A.D. 1755


To set an exact date as marking the culmination of the vast influence of Voltaire upon the world is not easy. He was the chief leader, the most prominent and central figure, of that wide-spread intellectual revolt which extended from France over Europe during the middle of the eighteenth century. The spirit of doubt, questioning all ancient institutions, challenging them to prove their truth, arose everywhere, at times mocking, bitter, and superficial, or again earnest, thoughtful, deep as the deepest springs of human being. It has become almost a commonplace to say that Voltaire and his chief successor, Rousseau, caused the French Revolution.

Francois Marie Arouet, who himself assumed his literary name, Voltaire, was born in 1694. He was recognized as among the foremost writers of France at least as early as 1723, and Frederick the Great of Prussia established a friendship with him which resulted in Voltaire’s living at the Prussian court as king’s chamberlain for nearly three years (1750-1753). It was largely due to Voltaire’s influence that the celebrated French Encyclopedia, the first volume of which appeared in 1751, took its tone of scepticism, of cold, scientific criticism. It preached heresy and revolution. The publication was repeatedly stopped by the government, but was encouraged by Madame Pompadour and others, and finally finished in 1765.

Meanwhile Voltaire, who had been repeatedly exiled from the French court for the daring of his writings, settled near Geneva in 1755 and resided there during his active and fiery old age. The beginning of this residence has, therefore, been selected as marking the acme of his power. From his mountain chateau his writings poured like a torrent over the surrounding countries. Wherever there was oppression, his voice was raised in protest; wherever there was falsity, his rapier wit assailed it. He held correspondence with and influenced most of the crowned heads of Europe. He became the hero of his countrymen. Christianity, and especially Catholicism, served only too often as his subjects of assault, but he was never, as his enemies called him, an atheist.

In 1778, an old man of eighty-three, he ventured to return to Paris to see the production of his last tragedy, Irene. Tremendous was the enthusiasm. Paris, grown more Voltairean than Voltaire himself, went mad in its reception of its teacher. The excitement proved too much for his feeble frame, and he died in the full tide of his triumph.


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.

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 humor 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 renaissance. They are the fruit and representation of a spirit of encyclopedic 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 someone 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 recognize 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.

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.

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 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 mis-conception. The records he declared 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 toward 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 a 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.

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, has 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 labored 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 II. 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.

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 can not 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 accidents.

It was one of the happy chances of circumstance that there arose in France on the death of Louis 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 favorable 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 prescientific 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. 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 in evitable.

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 recognize 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 halfpence, 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 characterize 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.

The glories of the age of Louis XIV were the climax of a set of ideas that instantly afterward 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 Detail 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;1

from Corneille and Racine to La Bruyere’s picture of "certain wild animals, male and female, scattered over the fields, black, livid, all burned 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 Louis 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 civilization 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 reorganization 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 Louis 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 toward application, while in England social principles were ap plied 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?

Facsimile of the formal declaration prepared by Frederick the Great for Voltaire’s signature

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 revolutionize 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 afterward became extinct. The correspondence between Voltaire and the Prince of Prussia, afterward the great Frederick, inspired Rousseau with a passionate desire to learn how to compose with elegance, and to imitate the coloring of so fine an author.2

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 Voltairean 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 womahhood 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."3

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 Louis 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.4 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 plagiarized from Bayle’s centos.5 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.6 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 deadlock to which social thought had come; a deadlock 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 demoralized, first by the direct attack of Voltaire and the not less powerful indirect attack of the Encyclopedia, 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 regime 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 demoralizing 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.


Two sayings which characterize the two speakers are recorded of this time. The one is that of Louis XV, who with all his odious vices, his laziness, and unkingly seclusion, was not devoid of intelligence. "All this," he said, "will last as long as I shall," and his forecast was justified: the "deluge" came long after he had gone to his account; and the phrase stands against him as an expression of his base selfishness, which saw the coming troubles without caring about them, because he believed that they would not come in his day. The other saying is that of Voltaire, who, in 1762, exclaimed in an ecstasy of hope and prophecy, "Happy the young men, for they shall see many things." And yet those youths were mostly gray-headed when the "many things" began, and not a few of them lost those gray heads, instead of looking on as interested spectators of a new order of things.

The writers of this time, whatever their faults, form the true aristocracy of France: the rest of the nation, sinking lower and lower, left their superiority all the more marked and uncontested. The series of great writers of the age may be said to begin with Montesquieu, though Voltaire had published his (Edipus in 1718, and the Lettres Persanes did not appear till 1721. Montesquieu, a man of noble birth, was brought up as a lawyer. We trace in him accordingly an aristocratic and legal tone of mind, which naturally took pleasure in England and the law-abiding conservatism of her constitution, as it appeared to him in the middle of the eighteenth century. Like so many of his fellows, Montesquieu chafed under the influence of a corrupt clergy, and declared against them, with the philosophers. This was almost the only point he had in common with Voltaire, whom he heartily disliked. We may say that he represents the aristocratic and constitutional resistance to the state of things in France, while Voltaire is champion of liberty of thought and tolerance. Montesquieu resists the Jesuit influences of his day on conservative grounds alone; Voltaire resists them by resting on the enlightened despotism of his time, and appealing to it, rather than to the laws or constitution of his country. Lastly, at a later day, Rousseau, sworn foe to society, from which he had suffered much, the sentimentalist, enemy of aristocracy and monarchy, instinctively antagonistic to the legal temperament, speaks directly to the people, even as Montesquieu had spoken to the educated and the well-to-do, and Voltaire to kings; and they, stirred to the heart by his appeals, elected him the prophet of their cause, believed in him, and at his bidding subverted the whole fabric of society.

Montesquieu’s great work, the Esprit des Lois, which followed his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness and Fall of the Romans (1734), and appeared in 1748, forms an epoch in French prose style. He and Voltaire are the two parents of modern French prose literature. The Esprit des Lois was far more greedily read in England than in France. Society there had little taste for so solid a work; they vastly preferred the lively sparkle of the Persian Letters; the book was perhaps too clearly influenced by an admiration for the Constitution of England, and by a love for liberty, face to face with the weak arbitrary despotism which was dragging France to a catastrophe.

If Montesguieu is the advocate of political freedom, Voltaire is the champion of tolerance and freedom of conscience; and that, in his day and with his surroundings, meant that he was the deadly foe of the established faith, as he saw it in its acts in France. When we regard this apostle of toleration, and watch his pettinesses and vanity, note him at kings’ courts, see him glorifying Louis XIV, that great antagonist of all tolerance, whether religious or political or social, we are inclined to think that the most difficult of all toleration is that of having to endure its champion and to try to do him justice.

Voltaire was no deep thinker: he had amazing cleverness, was very susceptible of the influence of thought, and unrivalled in expression. We shall expect to find him taking color from what was round him, nor shall we be astonished if that color is dazzling and brilliant. Five successive influences marked his earlier life. First, his education under the Jesuits, which gave him an insight into their system; secondly, his introduction to the irreligious and immoral society of the fashionable abbes of the day, which showed him another side of the official religion of the time; thirdly, the beneficent friendship of the Abbe de Caumartin, who set him thinking about great and ambitious subjects, and led him to write the Henriade, and probably also to begin projecting his Siecle de Louis XIV; fourthly, the enforced leisure of the Bastille, whither he went a second time in 1726 for having resented an insult put on him by a coarse nobleman, one of the Rohans; lastly-thanks to the order for his exile-his sojourn in England after release from the Bastille, and his friendship for the chief writers and thinkers of this country. Hitherto he had been a purely literary man; henceforth he was fired with an ambition to be a philosopher and a liberator. Certainly France was unfortunate in the education she gave this brilliant and wayward child of her genius.

There was hardly a Frenchman of eminence in this period who did not either visit England or learn the English language, many doing both. And one so bright and receptive as Voltaire could not fail to notice many things. He could see how free thought was: he could make a contrast between the respect paid to letters in London, and their degradation under Louis XIV and later; he saw Newton and Locke in places of honor, Prior and Gay acting as ambassadors, Addison as secretary of state; he reached England in time to see the national funeral given to the remains of Newton. Bolingbroke took him in hand; he was astonished to find a learned and literary noblesse; Locke was his true teacher.

He went back to France another man, after three years’ absence: above all, he carried with him the then popular English way of thinking as to the supernatural, and became a somewhat cold, common-sense deist, opposed to the atheism of some and the dull bigotry of the established creed in the hands of others. God was to him conscious creator of the world, and only faintly, if at all, its ruler; he recognized the need of a deity as a starting-point for his system, though he did not feel the need of his care and presence in life; not God our Father, only God our Creator.

He brought over with him a great ripening of humane feelings: this is his noblest quality and parent of his best acts. When we see him as a champion of oppressed Huguenots, combating wrong and ill-doing with all the vehemence of his fiery soul, we find a common ground, which is lost sight of as we contemplate his equally hot attacks on Christianity, or his dwelling in kings’ courts, or his panegyrics on great sovereigns who had so fiercely crushed down that liberty of thought of which he was the life-long defender.

In his (Edipus he had assaulted priestcraft with not undeserved severity; we must always remember what he saw around him. In his Henriade (1725), perhaps almost unintentionally, he had glorified Henry IV at the expense of the Great Monarch. After his stay in England we have his Brutus (1730), an attack on kingcraft, and his Zaire (1732), a Parisian Othello, both based on Shakespeare. From this time onward he plunges into a supple and dexterous, if sometimes rather disingenuous, strife with a superior power. Throughout, the poet and man of taste struggles against the philosophic freethinker: he loves the surface impressions, perhaps the reflective illusions; "his sentiments are worth more than his ideas." The English Letters of 1735, written some years before, and now issued with much hesitation, created a great storm: they boldly attacked the royal power, the clergy, the faith; they were burned by the hangman; and Voltaire had to go into voluntary exile for a while. There his literary activity was unwearied: many of his works were written, or at least sketched, during the next five years. Strange problem of the human mind. While he here composed his Mahomet and other serious works, he also wrote his scandalous Pucelle; as if he could not rest without destroying all nobility of sentiment and faith in heroism. While Jeanne d’Arc is the helpless victim of his shameless attack, he is also busy with his Siecle de Louis XIV, a hero apparently more to his taste’ than the great Maid of Orle’ans.

The influence of Voltaire on opinion grew slowly but steadily through these years: no one more sedulously undermined the established faiths. It was in these years that he enjoyed a passing favor at the French court, whence his febrile energy, his roughnesses, his want of the true gloss of courtiership, soon lost him the good-will of his old friend Madame de Pompadour. He then tried Berlin, finding it equally untenable ground; eventually he withdrew to Ferney in the territory of Geneva, whence he kept up incessant war against all the injustices which touched his heart. His defence of Calas, of Servin, of the luckless Lally, all date from this time. In these days he animated the Encycloaedists with his spirit, encouraging them in their gigantic undertaking, the "Carroccio of the battle of the eighteenth century." It was a huge dictionary of human knowledge, written in direct antagonism to all belief in spiritual powers or religion. It sold incredibly, and the effect of it on society was immense. This great edifice, "built half of marble, half of mud," as Voltaire himself said, had as its chief architects Diderot and D’Alembert. Nothing contributed more to undermine the foundations on which all institutions, and not least royalty, were built.

A little later than Voltaire came Rousseau, "the valet who did not become a cardinal." His influences are also later, and touched society far more widely. Voltaire had spoken to society; Rousseau spoke to the heart of the people. He was above all things a sentimentalist, this son of a Genevan clock-maker. Society treated him harshly; and he avenged himself by making fierce war on society. The savage state is the best-society being revolting in its falseness and shallow varnish: all men are naturally equal and free; society is nothing but an artificial contract, an arrangement by which, in the end, the strong domineer over the weak; the state of nature is divine: there is a Garden of Eden for those who will cast society behind them. Sciences and arts, civilization and literature, Encyclopaedist included, are hateful as corrupters of mankind; all progress has been backward, if one may venture to say so-downward, certainly. Rousseau embroidered these paradoxes with a thousand sweet sentiments: he shut his eyes to history, to facts, to the real savage, the very disagreeable "primitive man," as he may yet sometimes be seen. "Follow nature" was his one great precept: then you will scourge away the false and conventional, and life will grow pure and simple; there will be no rank, no cunning law devised to keep men from their rights, no struggle for life, no competition. All France panted and groaned to emulate the "noble savage"-with what success, we know.

These were the chief literary luminaries of this time: and they all helped to pull down the fabric of the old society. That society, however, little understood the tendency of things; to a large extent it became the fashion to be philosophic, to be free-minded, to attack religion: with pride in their rank, and cold scorn for their humbler brethren, and high-bred contempt for their clergy, and ruinous vices sometimes made amusing by their brightness and their vivacious vanity, the French upper classes thought it great sport to pull merrily at the old walls of their country’s institutions, never dreaming that they could be so ill-ordered as to fall down and crush them in their ruin.

1Vauban and Boisguillebert are both to be found in Les Economists Financiers du XVIIIième Siècle, published by Guillaumin, 1851.

2Confessions, pt. i. liv. v. Date of 1736.

3OEuvres, lxxv. 182.

4Corr. 1762. OEuvres, lxxv. 188.

5OEuvres, lxvii, 432.

6Condorcet, 170.


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Chicago: John Morley and George W. Kitchin, "Voltaire Directs European Thought from Geneva," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: Morley, John, and George W. Kitchin. "Voltaire Directs European Thought from Geneva." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Morley, J, Kitchin, GW, 'Voltaire Directs European Thought from Geneva' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 13. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from