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MEN OF LETTERS
THE TIME OF GEORGE III.
THIS name is so intimately connected in the
minds of all men with infidelity, in the minds of most men with irreligion, and, in the minds of all who are not well-informed, with these qualities alone, that whoever undertakes to write his life and examine his claims to the vast reputation which all the hostile feelings excited by him against himself have never been able to destroy, or even materially to impair, has to labour under a great load of prejudice, and can hardly expect, by any detail of particulars, to obtain for his subject even common justice at the hands of the general reader. It becomes, therefore, necessary in the outset, to remove a good deal of misunderstanding which, from the popular abuse of language, creates great confusion, in considering the history and
weighing the merits of this extraordinary person.
The mention of Voltaire at once presents to every one the idea, not so much of a philosopher whose early inquiries have led him to doubt upon the foundations of religion, or even to disbelieve its truths, as of a bitter enemy to all belief in the evidence of things unseen-an enemy whose assaults were directed by malignant passions, aided by unscrupulous contri
vances, and, above all, pressed by the unlawful weapon of ridicule, not the fair armoury of argument; in a word, he is regarded as a scoffer, not a reasoner. Akin to this is the other charge which makes us shudder by the imputation of blasphemy. Now, upon this manner of viewing Voltaire some things are to be explained, and some to be recalled, that they may be borne in mind during the discussion of his character.
Let us begin with the last charge, because, until it is removed, no attention is likely to be gained by anything that can be urged in defence or in extenuation. It is evident that, strictly speaking, blasphemy can only be committed by a person who believes in the existence and in the attributes of the Deity whom he impugns, either by ridicule or by reasoning. An atheist is wholly incapable of the crime.
When he heaps epithets of abuse on the Creator, or turns His attributes into ridicule, he is assailing or scoffing at an empty name—at a being whom he believes to have no existence. In like manner if a deist, one who disbelieves in our Saviour being either the Son of God or sent by God as his prophet upon earth, shall argue against his miracles, or ridicule his mission or his person, he commits no blasphemy; for he firmly believes that Christ was a man like himself, and that he derived no authority from the Deity. Both the atheist and the deist are free from all guilt of blasphemy, that is, of all guilt towards the Deity or towards Christ. It is wholly another question whether or not they are guilty towards men. They plainly are so if they use topics calculated to wound the feelings of their neighbour who believes what they disbelieve; because religion, unlike other subjects of controversy, is one that mixes itself with the strongest feelings of the heart, and these must not be rudely outraged; because no man can be so perfectly certain that he is himself right and others are
wrong, as to justify him in thus making their opinions the subject of insolent laughter or scurrilous abuse; because it is our duty, even when fully convinced that we are dealing with error, and with dangerous error, to adopt such a course as will rather conciliate those we would gain over to the truth than make them shut their eyes to it by revolting their strongest feelings. Hence all law-givers have regarded such scoffing and insolent attacks on the religion professed by the great majority of their subjects as an offence justly punishable; although it may fairly be doubted whether the interposition of the law has ever had a tendency to protect religious belief itself, and it may even be suspected of having favoured the designs of those who impugn it, both by the reaction which such proceedings always occasion, and by the more cautious and successful methods of attack to which they usually drive the opponents of the national faith. But the offence, whether punished by the laws or not, is very incorrectly, though very generally, termed blasphemy, which is the offence of scoffing at the Deity, and assumes that the scoffer believes in him. Now it is barely possible that this offence may be committed; but it is the act of a mad rather than a bad man. If, indeed, any one really believing pretends to unbelief in order to indulge in scoffing, no language is too strong to express the reprobation he deserves, if he be in his senses ; for he adds falsehood to a crime so horrible as almost to pass the bounds of belief-the frightful act of wilfully rebelling against the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth.—This is the first and worst form of the offence.
Secondly: The like guilt will, to a certain extent, be incurred by him who vents his ribaldry, upon the mere ground of his scepticism. On such a subject doubting is not enough. Unless there is an entire conviction in the mind that the popular belief is utterly groundless in the one case (that of attacking the Deity) that there is a God, in the other (attacking Christianity) that there is a foundation for revelation, the guilt of blasphemy is incurred. He must be convinced, not merely doubt, or see reason for doubting; because no one has a right to speculate and take the chances of being innocent; guiltless if his doubts are well founded, guilty if they are not. The virtuous course here is the safe one. This is the moral of the fable in which the hermit answers the question of the rake, “Where are you, father, if there be not another world?” with the other question, “And you, my son, if there be ?" We need not go so far as some have done, who on this ground contend that it is safer always to believe than to doubt, because belief must ever, to be of any value, depend on conviction. But we may assuredly hold that the better conduct is that which abstains from attack and offence, where the reasons hang in suspense—abstains because of the great guilt incurred if the doubts should prove groundless.
It is a third and lesser degree of this offence if a person carelessly gives way to a prevailing unbelief, and does not apply his faculties to the inquiry with that sober attention, that conscientious diligence, which its immense importance demands of all rational creatures. No man is accountable for the opinion he may form, the conclusion at which he may arrive, provided that he has taken due pains to inform his mind and fix his judgment. But for the conduct of his understanding he certainly is responsible. He does more than err if he proceeds negligently in the inquiry; he does more than err if he allows any motive to sway his mind save the constant and single desire of finding the truth; he does more than err if he suffers the least influence of temper or of weak feeling to warp his judgment; he does more than err if he listens rather to ridicule than reason, unless it be that ridicule which springs from the contemplation of gross and
manifest absurdity, and which is in truth argument and not ribaldry.
Now by these plain rules we must try Voltaire ; and it is impossible to deny that he possessed such sufficient information, and applied his mind with such sufficient anxiety to the discovery of truth, as gave him a right
that he had formed his opinions, how erroneous soever they might be, after inquiring, and not lightly. The story which is related of the Master in the Jesuits Seminary of Louis le Grand, where he was educated, having foretold that he would be the Corypheus of deists, if true, only proves that he had very early begun to think for himself; and whoever doubted the real presence or questioned the power of absolution, was at once set down for an infidel in those countries and in those times. It would be the fate of any young scholar in the Roman colleges at this day, especially were he to maintain his doubts with a show of cleverness; and were he to mingle the least wit with his argument, he would straightway be charged with blasphemy. But it must be added that an impression unfavourable to the truths of religion, and its uses, was made
Voltaire's mind by the sight of its abuses, and by a consideration of the manifest errors inculcated in the Romish system. It is not enough to bring him within the blame above stated under the third head, that he was prejudiced in conducting his inquiries, if that prejudice proceeded from the errors of others which he had unjustly been summoned to believe. He is not to be blamed for having begun to doubt of the truths of Christianity in consequence of his attention having originally been directed to the foundations of the system by a view of the falsehoods which had been built upon those truths. Even if the bigotry of priests, the persecutions of sovereigns, the absurdities of a false faith, the grovelling superstitions of its votaries, their sufferings, bodily as well as mental, under false guides and