What Voltaire Did For Humanity
A classic Freethought essay
by: Marshall J. Gauvin
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Voltaire has been dead for over two hundred years, yet his influence lives as a mighty molding force in the life of our time. His hatred of superstition, his valiant battle for reason, his war against tyranny and for justice and humanity, live today in the ideals of those who toil for an enlightened and better world.
Voltaire personifies a signal period of separation. Before his crusade for light and decency, mankind generally was benighted in superstition, persecuted by the church, crushed by the oppressions of courts and governments. Since his valiant work in raising men from their knees and teaching them to think, reason has clarified the minds of millions, democracy has grown apace throughout the world, and we stand at the door of the greatest promise ever opened to our race. The life of this great man was a glorious blessing to a needy world.
He was more than a man," said Victor Hugo, "he was an age." James Parton, his American biographer, calls him "the most extraordinary of Frenchmen, and one of the most extraordinary of human beings." Lord John Morley begins his critique of the life and genius of this great man with this striking characterization: "When the 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.
He was precocious, observant, and had an astonishing memory. His godfather, the Abbé de Châteauneuf, his first teacher, early indoctrinated him in the skeptical literature which was then becoming influential in France. At the age of ten he was sent to the Jesuit College of King Louis XIV, where he learned, as he says, nothing of mathematics or sound philosophy, but was drilled in "Latin and nonsense." Under the Jesuits he studied Latin literature, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and by assiduous practice acquired considerable literary skill, writing poetry of remarkable quality for a boy. When he was not yet eleven years old, the celebrated Ninon de L'Enclos, to whom he was presented, was so impressed with him that she left him by will about $400 with which to buy books.
Of good family, clever, dowered with humor and flashing wit, informed, interesting, Voltaire soon was courted by the most influential people. Then came a turn in his affairs. On the false charge of having lampooned the regent, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly a year. While in that terrible jail, his high spirits reaching for expression, he wrote his first play, dipe, and began work on the Henriade, the only successful epic in the French language. The play, when it was produced in Paris, ran forty-five nights before large audiences and was financially successful-a triumph for a writer of eighteen. In that play occurred the striking lines that carried to the audience something of the author's temper:
"Our priests are not what simple folk suppose; Their learning is but our credulity."
He went to England, where he remained three years, perhaps the most fruitful period of his life for his mental growth. In England he met many of the literary celebrities of the time-Pope, Young, Thomson, Gay, Bolingbroke, Chesterfield and many other people of note including Caroline, England's freethinking queen; studied Shakespeare and Milton and the philosophy of Locke; acquainted himself with details of the work of the English Deists in fighting the revelationism of the churches; and mastered Newton's teaching of astronomical physics.
Returning to France in 1729, he published a book of English Letters, sometimes called Philosophical Letters, which had been written in England. In that book, written with wit and sarcasm, yet some restraint, he expressed admiration for English institutions, and drew comparisons between conditions in France and in England, always to the advantage of the English people. "The dissolute manner of the French aristocracy was powerfully contrasted with the sober tone of character everywhere displayed in England by both nobility and churchmen." The book voiced also his liberal views on religion. The package was too much for Catholic Church-dominated France to take without a show of violence. Accordingly, by order of the Parliament of Paris, every discoverable copy of the book was confiscated and burned by the public executioner, and the publisher was seized and sent to the Bastille.
Meanwhile, by means of an inheritance from his father, some wise investments and gains from the sale of his books, he had become comfortably wealthy. Endowed with literary gifts above all other men of his time, and having chosen literature as his profession, he passed from success to success in one form of literature after another as poet, dramatist, essayist, novelist, historian, critic, philosopher, man of science, illuminating every field of thought he entered with brilliant wit, biting sarcasm, lucid exposition, and sound reasoning; he always held in view the humanitarian ideal, his aim being to raise men up, to make them think that they might feel and act like civilized human beings.
France offered him a field full of demand for his work. Before the people could breathe the air of culture in a spirit of tolerance, they had to be educated; and justice required that they be taught to hate judicial brutality. Here was Voltaire's opportunity.
Answering years of pleading from Frederick the Great, who greatly admired him, Voltaire went to live at the court of the Prussian king. "Frederick wanted him socially as the wittiest man in the world, the most daring genius of the age." The Prussians received him almost as a demigod; but the relations between the military- minded king and the philosopher who corrected the king's poetry became strained, and Voltaire returned home.
Because of their oppressions, the clergy were widely hated. Sensing a growing spirit of skepticism toward her dogmas, the Church, in 1757, procured an edict pronouncing the death penalty against all writers who attacked religion. Before that only a few writers dared to raise their voices against her teaching. Yet four years after this, Voltaire ventured to produce his first frontal attack on Christian doctrines, his Sermon of the Fifty. Pointing to crimes described in the Bible, he insisted that "every religion that belongs to one people only is false . . . Religion must conform to morality, and, like it, be universal."
He wrote of God who certainly could not be born of a girl, nor die on a gibbet, nor be eaten in a morsel of paste, nor have inspired this book with its contradictions, follies, and horrors.
In his Homily on Superstition, he asks: "Is there anyone among you, is there anyone on the whole earth, who can think that God will examine him on points of theology, not judge him by his deeds? What is a theological opinion? It is an idea that may be true or false; but morality has no interest in it . . . You will never have the least idea how Jesus could have two natures and two wills in one person." In his Epistle to the Romans, he points out that Catholicism is made up of scraps and patches of older religions; that priests with forgeries and frauds spoiled the greatness of ancient Rome, and reduced its prosperous population to a fraction of their numbers of wretched slaves worshipping "the navel of Jesus and the milk, and hair, and shift, and petticoat of his mother."
On All Saints Day in the year 1755, when the churches of Lisbon were crowded with worshippers, came the terrible earthquake that crashed the churches onto the heads of the people, killing in all some 40,000 persons in the afflicted city. The horror shook the philosopher's faith in his God of limited power, and drew from him his famous poem on the tragedy.
Rousseau, in an ingenious letter, tried to reply to the doctrine taught in the great poem. Voltaire, disdaining to take the criticism seriously, wrote Candide; Or, The Optimist, a novel in which, with surpassing invention, he throws a merciless searchlight of banter on the absurd belief that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds-one of the great literary masterpieces of all time.
In 1758 he settled in a great château of forty-two rooms he built at Ferney on the edge of France, four miles from Geneva, Switzerland, where he felt comparatively safe. There surrounded by his many servants he wrote assiduously and directed numerous interests. With a European reputation, he now came to be known as the Patriarch of Ferney. People came to see him by the hundreds, from poor peasants to artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, statesmen, men of affairs. Some stayed overnight, others remained for weeks. Peasants were always given a good meal and some money.
The greatest dramatist of the eighteenth century, he had a private theatre, and after a play had been put on, he always entertained at dinner from sixty to a hundred actors and their friends. After years of this business of entertaining, he said of himself that he was "the hotel-keeper of Europe."
He could afford the expense. A farmer now, he had on his large estate fifty cows and flocks of hens, he raised his own wheat and other grains, luscious peaches grew in his orchard, hundreds of hives provided honey, his vines assured a supply of wine.
In addition to his farming, he was a horse breeder; and in cooperation with the silkworms in his mulberry groves, the weavers he employed manufactured silk. He also had on his estate a watch factory. Among his many business activities was house building. He built more than a hundred houses for the peasants of his village, and rented or sold them on reasonable terms. He also built for the neighboring peasants a little church. Meanwhile, a flood of books, plays, articles, and letters flowed from his pen.
Then in 1762 came news that fired his humanitarian zeal. At Toulouse, a fanatical Catholic city in the south of France, lived Jean Calas, a modest dry goods dealer, with his wife and six children. They were Protestants, and their morals were above reproach. One of the sons, Marc-Antoine, 28, studied law, but because of his religion was refused a license to practice. Becoming despondent, he hanged himself one night in his father's store, while his family were entertaining his friend, a visitor, upstairs.
When the young man was found hanging from a door, his hair was neatly combed, his clothes unruffled, his coat carefully folded on the counter. It was a clear case of suicide. But the neighborhood soon made it a murder-the father, probably, with the help of his wife and others, had murdered his son to prevent his becoming a Catholic. Accordingly, the father, mother, one son, a Catholic servant and the guest were arrested and put in irons.
In the ghastly procedure called a trial, the father, a man 68 years old, was put to the torture to make him confess his guilt. First, with ropes attached to his wrists and feet, his body was stretched until all the joints of his arms and leg were dislocated. In agony he protested his innocence. Then, through a horn in his mouth, fifteen pints of water were poured into his stomach. He pleaded that he was innocent. Fifteen more pints of water were slowly forced into his terribly swollen stomach. Still he insisted he had not hanged his son. Then he was bound to a wooden cross, and the executioner with a bar of iron broke each arm and leg in two places, striking eleven blows in all. Two hours later he was still alive pleading his innocence. Then the executioner strangled him, and the mangled body was chained to a stake and burned. The son, Peter, was confined to a monastery. The two daughters were imprisoned in nunneries. The mother was allowed to go where she would.
Voltaire heard of the infamy that had been committed in the name of religion. He became the champion of the Calas family. He made their case his own. He had inquiries made, he gathered documents. He corresponded with everyone who could help him bring out the truth. He urged the reluctant king of France to act. His pamphlets exposing the matter were translated and scattered over Europe. He got a continent talking about the monstrous crime that had been committed. He provided money to pay expenses. He demanded a new trial, and finally got it. On March 9, 1765, three years after the murder, forty judges gave a unanimous verdict that Jean Calas did not murder his son. Money was raised, including a gift from the king, for the support of the widow and her family. That was the humanitarian work of Voltaire. Other horrors, the fruit of fanaticism, further brought out this great man's service to mankind, but I have not space here in which to deal with them.
Then, using the Calas case as his text, Voltaire wrote one of his greatest books, his Treatise on Toleration. There is nothing like it in any other language-a tremendous plea for intellectual liberty. His work was done. He had abolished torture in France. He had shattered the power of the persecuting church among the French people. He had made himself the most effective enemy of the Christian superstition the human race has produced. He had taught men to think, prepared them to live for this world. He had, in the words of historian Lecky, done "more to destroy the greatest of human curses (intolerance) than any other of the sons of men." He had made civilization his debtor to the end of time.