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The Skeptical Movement

The Sceptical Movement


An acute observer of events wrote in 1158: "The loss of religion in France cannot properly be attributed to the English philosophy, which has gained at Paris only a hundred philosophers, but to the hatred conceived toward the clergy which now runs to an excess. Scarcely can these ministers of religion show themselves on the streets without being hooted; and cell this comes from the bull Unigenitus, and from the disgrace of the Parliament."1 D'Argenson, Mémoires, viii. 35 The next year the same writer expressed himself in terms like these: "It is the priests who push from all sides into these troubles and this disorder, and so the minds of men are turned to discontent and disobedience, and everything is moving onward to a great revolution in religion as well as in government." 2 Ibid, viii. 242.


That this verdict of a contemporary has considerable plausibility cannot be denied. It is reasonable to suppose that the bull Unigenitus, violently enforced as it was, was provocative of skepticism. When an authority, claiming supreme and divine right over Christendom, condemned propositions which have an exact equivalent in the New Testament, and undertook to teach men that the fear of an unjust excommunication ought to hinder one from doing his duty, 3 All shuffling apart, no different meaning can be drawn from the condemnation of the following: Excommunicationis injustæ metus, nunquam debet nos impedire ab implendo debito nostro: nunquam eximus ab ecclesia, etiam quando hominum nequitiâ videmur ab ea expulsi, quando Deo, Jesu Christo, atque ipsi ecclesiæ per charitatem affixi sumus. it is not strange that various individuals, who had imperfectly learned the art of blind obedience, and did not wish to be put to shame by pagans, should think it time to look around for some system compatible with common sense and instinctive morality. Nor will it be strange if the like quest should yet be repeated in France and elsewhere, now that the action of the Vatican council has assigned to this specimen of papal wisdom an indubitable place in the moral code of the Romish Church. Still, it is not proper to burden a single cause with responsibility for results which have flowed from several causes. While the Unigenitus scandal had a baleful efficiency, it but added momentum to a current already started. Back of the sceptical movement of the eighteenth century in general lay the intolerant dogmatism which dominated so large a part of Europe through the seventeenth century. In France especially this dogmatism had taken on a hideous aspect from the time that Louis XIV. laid his hand to the task of extirpating Protestantism. While thus despotic intolerance provoked reaction, the moral levity and corruption which invaded the higher circles of French society in the first half of the eighteenth century favored laxity of belief. Men who lived practically as materialists and epicureans were not well braced against the materialistic and agnostic creed. An appreciable influence may also be attributed to the sensational philosophy and deistical school of England. The soil had been so well prepared in France that the types of thought which they presented could hardly fail to take root there.


An early work of Montesquieu, which achieved no little popularity, gives us a token of relaxed belief. In his "Persian Letters" (1721), we see, if not the same sparkle and piquancy which were put into the "Praise of Folly," a freedom in dealing with the affairs of the Church as bold as that which Erasmus had exhibited in his humorous critique. These Letters, assuming to be written by Persian visitors in France, make the Pope to figure as the head magician, who enforces belief in defiance of mathematics and the evidences of the senses, and who, in order to keep up the habit of belief in Christians, issues articles from time to time, a recent and much talked of constitution being an example. Remarks in a similar vein are passed upon various classes of ecclesiastics. A principal function of the bishops, it is said, is the granting of dispensations. It is characteristic of Christianity that it imposes an infinite number of practices, and inasmuch as it is esteemed more difficult to fulfill these practices than to support bishops to dispense from them, the latter alternative is chosen. This dispensing power reaches even to the canceling of a sworn engagement. Confessors are a kind of dervishes who do not suit the interests of heirs so well as the physicians. Casuists have a great function to perform in showing men how many sins they can commit without periling their salvation by a mortal fault. They are also very useful in taking away from sins their sinful quality by persuading the doer that they were not really sins, if being an acknowledged principle that it is not the act itself, but rather the conviction of the doer respecting the act, which determines its moral character. A commentator is one who searches the Bible to find there his own views, -- a method that is fruitful of variety; in fact, there are about as many points of dispute as there are lines in the Scriptures. A heretic does not fare the same in all regions. In France and Germany he will get clear by making a distinction; but in Spain and Portugal they do not care to listen to dogmatic refinements. A peculiar stroke of politeness has place in Spain. As a captain there will not beat a soldier without first asking his permission, so the Inquisition never burns a Jew without making excuses to him. The numerous stories told about the wrestling of the old monks with the devil indicate that they did not keep very good company. The monastic institute is at present a great check upon national progress. From this point of view, "it is certain that the religion of the Protestants gives them an infinite advantage over the Catholics. I venture to say that, in the condition in which Europe is now found, it is not possible for the Catholic religion to subsist five hundred years." 1 See Letters xxiv., xxix., xxv., lvii., Ixxviii.,lxxv., xciii., cxvii.,cxxiv.


The veil of humor is not so thick as to hide effectually the real opinions of the author of the "Lettres Persanes. " Their import, conjoined with other evidence, leaves no doubt that the papal system was to him a dead letter. His positive creed is not determined with quite the same certainty. Probably it affiliated with that type of deism which was outlined later in the century by Rousseau. He is said to have persevered in his way of thinking to the end. To the Jesuits, who approached him in his last sickness, and urged upon him the duty of retracting, he made only this answer:
"I have always respected religion; the morality of the gospel is the best gift that God could have made to mankind."


Montesquieu died in 1755. Voltaire was then at the middle point of his career. More than twenty-five years before, he had taken the pen of the author, and he was unceasingly occupied with literary tasks till his death in 1778.


In Voltaire more than in any other Frenchman, the sceptical revival of the eighteenth century found its impersonation. He supplied to it a more penetrative genius and a vaster industry than any one of his countrymen besides.1 The genius of the Genevese Rousseau was doubtless equally penetrating, but his literary activity was less extensive. In the latter respect, indeed, he has few equals in the annals of literature. He was as prodigiously busy in his way as was his contemporary, John Wesley, in a far different way.


As respects the native endowments of Voltaire, it is sufficiently obvious that he was a man of great swiftness and versatility of intellectual movement. With these gifts was associated another which made for them a well-nigh perfect vehicle. Voltaire was a great word artist. Never was language a more obedient subject to any one than was the French speech to him. The very clearness of his discourse was adapted to work conviction by giving an impression of mastery. Add to this a subtle wit, a unique gift for raillery, and one can see that this man was well prepared to impress powerfully that restless generation.


What has been said describes brilliancy rather than profundity. The latter, in fact, cannot be claimed for Voltaire. While in many relations he showed an admirable keenness of perception, he was not largely endowed with the philosophic faculty, and his impetuous temper was opposed to the prolonged and severe reflection which needs to be expended upon the deeper problems of human thinking. He had no aptitude or relish for anything transcendental. To the realm of grandeur and spiritual suggestiveness he was well-nigh a stranger, as appears from his estimate of the antique poets, of Shakespeare, and of others. 2 The following from Martin may be compared: "An essentially active and polemic genius, with little depth and immense surface, he rejected what was profound like what was obscure, what was abstract like what was subtle, and turned with instinctive repugnance from everything that was mysterious." (Histoire de France, tome xv., p 330 in Eng translation.) Dwelling always upon the surface of the earth in his emotions and affections, he was conspicuously lacking in the sense for the ideal and the infinite. A real awe for holiness seemed to be no part of his experience. Taste rather than principle was at the basis of such repugnance as he entertained for gross vices. Any great amount of moral fastidiousness certainly cannot be ascribed to the author of "La Pucelle."


Some of the biographers of Voltaire credit him with a fair measure of truthfulness. Probably he was truthful in the sense that he would not lie for the mere pleasure of the performance. But when occasion pressed he did not spare a falsehood, and his life was prolific in pressing occasions. The way in which he evaded responsibility for his books involved a continuous chain of deceitful innuendoes from the beginning to the end of his career. The expedients which he employed to gain admission to the French Academy justify the statement that he crawled to the coveted honor over a road paved with flatteries and falsehoods. His presentation of himself for the communion, and insistence upon his title to absolution as being a good Catholic, was an audacious stroke in mendacity, which might well have provoked the Father of Lies to envy. Voltaire, it is true, had his excuse; but the excuse when sifted down amounts simply to the conclusion that his personal comfort and safety were so precious as to justify any amount of crookedness. In the company of his friends, Voltaire himself was not far from putting the case in this form. Being asked one day by his secretary what he would have done if he had been born in Spain, he replied: "I would have gone to mass every day; I would have kissed the sleeve of the monks; and I would have tried to set fire to all their convents." This may have been the language of pleasantry; but in what different light did he figure when posing before a Romish altar as a good Catholic, while at the same time he was laboring with full energy to tear down the whole fabric of Roman Catholic faith and authority?


If the above shows the weakest and basest side of Voltaire in respect of feeling and conduct, his abhorrence of intolerance and his generous efforts in behalf of outraged Protestants and other victims of oppression present his best side. It cannot, indeed, be claimed that his habit of thought and feeling provided any complete basis for tolerance. There was in his mind too little respect for man as man. The pride of intellect which made him look with a species of contempt upon the masses, and allowed him to speak of them as canaille, was not intrinsically the best sort of foundation for a high type of tolerance. Still it would be niggardly not to credit Voltaire with an honest and intense abhorrence of intolerant bigotry. A long series of acts sustains his words on this subject, and makes credible his assertion that he felt a touch of fever on each returning anniversary of the Saint Bartholomew massacre. One will be the less tempted to see mere rhetoric in this declaration, when he remembers that still in Voltaire's time that stupendous crime was publicly celebrated as a great triumph of the Christian Church. 1 In the city of Toulouse the anniversary of the massacre was regularly celebrated as a two days' festival, under sanction of municipal law and e.papal bull. (Parton, Life of Voltaire, ii. 353.)


The intolerance practiced in the assumed interest of Christianity, if it did not create the infidel animosity in the heart of Voltaire, supplied it with fuel, and added to it many degrees of intensity. Ultimately, as is well known, a tolerably white heat was reached. In the private correspondence of Voltaire, during the last twenty years of his life, this intensified animosity glared forth in the formula Écrasez l' Infâme, "Crush the Monster."


What is the meaning of these sinister-looking words? Some have supposed them to refer to the Christian religion, or even to the central figure in that religion. That Voltaire had no faith in Christianity as a revealed religion, and would have been glad to see it displaced by a deistic creed, is entirely certain. But that he meant to apply this intolerant formula specifically and unqualifiedly to the Christian religion, admits of some doubt. A biographer who may be presumed to have looked carefully through the evidence draws this conclusion: "The 'Infâme' of Voltaire was not religion, nor the Christian religion, nor the Roman Catholic Church. It was religion claiming supernatural authority, and enforcing that authority by pains and penalties. This is the fairest answer to the question, taking his whole life into view."2 Parton, Life of Voltaire, ii. 286. Carlyle, who had no inconsiderable occasion to look into the views and schemes of the great sceptic, says: "Voltaire is deeply alive to the horrors and miseries which have issued on mankind from a Fanatic Popish Superstition, or Creed of Incredibilities,- which (except from the throat outwards, from the bewildered tongue outwards) the orthodox themselves cannot believe, but only pretend and struggle to believe. This, Voltaire calls ' The Infamous;' and this -- what name can any of us give it? The man who believes in falsities is very miserable. The man who cannot believe them, but only struggles and pretends to believe, and yet, being armed with the power of tile sword, industriously keeps menacing and slashing all round, to compel every neighbor to do like him, -- what is to be done with such a man ? Human Nature calls him a Social Nuisance; needing to be handcuffed, gagged, and abated. Human Nature, if it be in a terrified and imperiled state, with the sword of this fellow swashing around it calls him 'Infamous,' and a Monster of Chaos. He is indeed the select Monster of that region; the Patriarch of all the Monsters, little as he dreams of being such . . . More signal enemy to God, and friend of the Other Party, walks not the Earth in our day." (History of Frederick the Great, xiii. 6, 7.)


Not disputing this conclusion, we would still suggest that if the aggressive ecclesiasticism of the Romish Church was reckoned by Voltaire an inseparable characteristic, he certainly had an ardent desire for the destruction of that Church.


In writings designed for the public, ridicule, generally managed with sufficient skill to avoid the appearance of brusqueness, was Voltaire's favorite weapon of attack. Nor was this belligerent facetiousness wholly confined to words. His jesting ran over into deeds, when by feigning sickness he forced an unwilling priest to grant him absolution, or when he secured a friendly letter from the Pope, or when finally he obtained from Rome a piece of the hair shirt of Saint Francis, to serve as a relic in the church which he had built upon his estate at Ferney. The relic is said to have arrived on the same day as the portrait of Madame Pompadour, the potent mistress of the King,-- a circumstance which led Voltaire to remark that he was now very well both for this world and for the other.


The positive creed of Voltaire requires no prolix description, since it was neither extensive nor original. It was essentially the deistic creed of Bolingbroke, to whose tuition he was not a little indebted in his earlier years. While granting the existence of God, he had small confidence in the soul's immortality. It is thought, however, that near the close of life he became less doubtful upon the latter subject.


Opposition to the current faith was so much of a recommendation in the eyes of Voltaire, that the greater part of the radical unbelievers shared his regard, not-withstanding considerable divergence, in some instances, from his platform. The sceptical school -- if school it can be called exhibited in truth but moderate homogeneity. Buffon, the distinguished naturalist, the first three volumes of whose work were published in 1749, appears in peculiar contrast with Voltaire, inasmuch as he had a tolerably firm faith in immortality, and only a wavering belief in the existence of God. Among the chief authors of the 'L Encyclopedia " (1750-1765) D'Alembert gravitated toward universal scepticism, while Diderot embraced a sort of pantheistic naturalism. Positive atheism and materialism were represented by D'Holbach, Lamettrie, and Helvetius. As regards the tone of the "Encyclopedia," it should be noticed that a prudent regard to the peril of suppression dictated a measure of reserve and compromise. We find D'Alembert writing as follows, in answer to some strictures from Voltaire: "Doubtless we have some bad articles on theology and metaphysics; but with a theological censorship and an official privilege, I defy you to make them better. There are other articles, less conspicuous, in which all errors are corrected. Time will demonstrate the distinction between what we have thought and what we have said." 1 Quoted by Jervis, Church of France. ii. 335.


While the "Encyclopedia " was in process of publication, a work appeared (1762), which caused the sceptics to look askance. Not a few of them, Voltaire included, felt that there was an alien vein in the new production that boded no good to their cause. We refer to the treatise on education, "Émile, on De L'Éducation," by Jean Jacques Rousseau. In the midst of this treatise occurs the Savoyard Vicar's profession of faith. While this assumes to be simply a specimen of religious method, or of the manner in which a pupil may be led into the domain of pious belief, it is doubtless a compendium of Rousseau's own convictions. A glance into it will show that the sceptics of the era had reason to regard if with a jealous eye. It was not congenial to their negations. While it admitted grave objections to positive revelation, if recognized elements foreign to their system, since it gave a large significance to the innate religious sentiment of man, and eloquently portrayed the unique power of the Christian oracles to satisfy this sentiment. As compared with the writings of contemporary free-thinkers, that of Rousseau had somewhat of a constructive tendency. It was fitted to serve as a stepping-stone out of the blankness into which they were leading. That it exerted a far-reaching influence cannot properly be questioned.


Rousseau does not make his spokesman, the Savoyard Vicar, entirely to discard reasoning in favor of innate sentiment or spontaneous feeling. Arguments for theism are presented with a fair degree of cogency, and the truth is discreetly set forth that among possible hypotheses all of which are attended with difficulties, the one which best explains known facts is to be preferred. Grounds are also given for predicating the immateriality of the soul. Among these the weighty consideration is touched upon, that materialism, with its mechanical necessity, makes nugatory the distinction between truth and error, between correct and mistaken judgments. But interspersed with discussions of this kind, the opinion is expressed that philosophy has no plummet wherewith to sound these deep subjects, and fends rather to confusion than to enlightenment. "Never has the jargon of metaphysics," it is said, "discovered one single truth." Again it is remarked: "I perceive God in His works, I feel Him in myself, I see Him all around me; but as soon as I attempt to discover where He is, what He is, what is His substance, He escapes me, and my troubled spirit no longer perceives anything. ... The more I force myself to contemplate this infinite essence, the less I understand it; but it exists; that suffices me; the less I understand it, the more I adore, I humble myself before Him and say: Being of beings, I am because Thou art; it is to raise myself to my source that I meditate upon Thee without ceasing. The most worthy use of my reason is to annihilate itself before Thee: this is the rapture of my spirit, this the charm of my feebleness, to feel myself overwhelmed by Thy grandeur."


In determining the rules of conduct, as in searching for the knowledge of God, philosophy is a vain dependence. The law of right is expressed in the spontaneous convictions and emotions of the soul. " All which I feel to be good is good; all that which I feel to be evil is evil: the best of all casuists is the conscience, and it is only as a man begins to haggle with if that he has recourse to the subtleties of reasoning."


The fountain of religious and moral truth being thus within, an external revelation, it is concluded, cannot be strictly necessary. At least, to make eternal salvation depend upon the acceptance of a particular external revelation involves enormous difficulties. In that case every man would be under obligation to sift the evidence for and against different systems claiming to be revealed from Heaven. The study of their relative claims would be a life and death matter; no other task would be comparable with this in solemnity and import. From this tremendous labor not a single individual of the race could be excused. "If the son of a Christian does well to follow, without a profound and impartial examination, the religion of his father, why would it be evil for the son of a Turk to follow in like manner the religion of his father ? " It impeaches the benevolence of God thus to hang the immortal destiny of men upon a choice which in so many instances must be extremely difficult or even impossible. The expedient of the Romanist in asserting the authority of the Church provides no legitimate relief. To be told, "The Church decides that the Church has the right to decide," does not give a man any rational foundation. He is just as much bound to test this assumed right as he is to test the authority of the assumed revelation, and the former task is every whit as difficult as the latter.


This vigorous protest against a necessary dependence upon external revelation is not meant to be taken as an unequivocal denial of such a revelation. When it comes to the Christian oracles, Rousseau, without stopping to balance arguments, declares that there are proofs which he cannot combat, as well as objections which he cannot solve. It is in this connection that the spirited and oft-quoted passage occurs: "I confess that the majesty of the Scriptures astonishes me, the holiness of the gospel speaks to my heart. Behold the books of the philosophers, with all their pomp; how petty they are in comparison with those writings ! Is it possible that a book at once so sublime, and so simple, should be the work of men? Is it possible that he whose history it contains should have been himself only a man ? Is that the tone of an enthusiast or of an ambitious sectary? What mildness, what purity in his manners! what touching grace in his teachings! what elevation in his maxims ! what profound sagacity in his discourse ! what presence of mind, what skill, and what justice in his replies! what sovereignty over the passions! Where is the man, where is the sage, who knows how to act, to suffer, and to die without feebleness and without ostentation?... If the life and death of Socrates were those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus were those of a God. Will you tell me that the gospel history was invented at pleasure? My friend, it is not so that invention occurs; and the facts respecting Socrates, doubted by no one, are less perfectly attested than those respecting Jesus Christ. In reality this supposition only pushes back the difficulty without overcoming it; it would be more inconceivable that several men should have agreed in fabricating this book than it is that one alone should have furnished the subject. a company of Jewish writers could never have invented either the tone or the morals which are found here; and the gospel has marks of truth so great, so striking, so perfectly inimitable, that the inventor of them would be more astonishing than the hero. With all that, however, this same gospel is full of things incredible and repugnant to reason, and which it is impossible for any man of sense to conceive or to admit. What ought we to do in the midst of all these contradictions? To be always modest and circumspect; to respect in silence that which we are able neither to reject nor to comprehend, and to humble ourselves before the Great Being, who alone knows the truth."


It cannot be denied that Rousseau presented a needful offset to the dry intellectual schemes of the philosophers or would-be philosophers. Sentiment has a place as well as logic in the sanctuary of man's being, and it serves in no small degree to mirror to him the spiritual verities with which it is his high privilege to be conversant. But has not Rousseau exalted overmuch the function of mere sentiment, or unreasoned emotion? For our part, we do not hesitate to answer that some of his utterances savor of a misleading extreme. No doubt it may be urged that he is in orthodox company. It often happens that the pulpit responds to the strictures of rationalism with an appeal to sentiment very much in the style of Rousseau. It is well that the appeal should be made; but let the due restriction be applied. Sentiment must have a framework of rationality to grow upon, if it is to rise in beauty and healthfulness. Let go the demand for industrious thoughtfulness and genuine rationality, and there is no telling what superstitions will invade the religious realm, what vagaries, what puerilities, what fooleries with relics and the like, what grievous list of mere doll-baby attachments. As religion is properly the function of the whole man, so the safeguard of its purity lies in the exercise of all the faculties. In the right synthesis of history, reason, and emotion is provided the basis of a normal and healthy religious life.


Rousseau's sentimental deism, or semi-scepticism, may be regarded as the concluding phase of French free-thinking in the eighteenth century. The vulgar atheism which cropped out at the crisis of the Revolution was rather a phase of frenzy than of any kind of thinking.


To arrest an advancing scepticism, like that which has been described, was obviously no easy task. Its insinuating methods and unfixed character embarrassed the effort to bring it to close quarters. Even with the best management a speedy victory was not likely to be forthcoming. But the actual management of the subject was far from being well chosen and efficient. The feeble and inconsequent efforts of the authorities to suppress the offending writings sufficed for little else than to irritate the sceptics, and to inflame their zeal. While the appeal to force and authority was thus abortive, there was at the same time a dearth of fresh and effective argumentation. "Most of the replies were not above the rank of indigested balderdash." 1 De Pressensé, L'Église et la Révolution Française, p. 14. Orthodox intellect seemed to have become a missing article in France. A few writers, however, showed that complete sterility had not been reached. Duguet used his pen to good advantage in his Traité des Principes de la Foi Chrétienne." But the most trenchant apology was written by Antoine Guenée, under the title "Lettres de quelques, Juifs, Portugais, Allemands, et Polonais à M. de Voltaire." We know from the words of Voltaire himself that he was touched to the quick by Guenée's criticism, at once polite and deft.

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