The word might be more accurately translated—Emancipation. It was a claim for liberty of thought and freedom from all ecclesiastical and social restraint. The movement, as we have seen, was general on the Continent at this time. While in England and Germany it was largely a matter of scholastic discussion, in France it took an intenser form, and became a fierce battle between the allied forces of Church and State and the champions of liberty. Against the abuses of a corrupt clergy and the intolerance of Jesuitical priestcraft, Voltaire and the Encyclopedists,—as the brilliant circle of free-thinkers were called,—raised their voices of bitter protest, employing scientific knowledge, scathing wit, and scoffing ribaldry to discredit and undermine the position of their enemies. The leaders of this movement were: Montesquieu, Condillac, Helvetius, Voltaire, Diderot, La Mettrie, D'Alembert, Turgot, Holbach, and others—writers whose merit it was, with all their faults, to give utterance to their countrymen's hatred of the baseness and hypocrisy of the privileged classes, and to awaken the people to a sense of their rights as men.
Thus while in England the deistic controversy was mainly academic, in France it became a popular movement, and while at the outset it was a protest against narrowness and superstition, it gradually became more and more negative until in the hands of the Encyclopedists, it passed from deism to atheism, and from empiricism to materialism and coarse naturalism.
Though Voltaire brought the results of English deism to France, and is regarded as the apostle of reason of the new era, the seeds of this spirit of rationalism were sown in the previous century, and Voltaire had his predecessors.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are sometimes contrasted to the disadvantage of the former. But it is a great mistake to fancy that the seventeenth century was devoid of all taste for speculative inquiry. In some respects that age was more a philosophic period than the succeeding one. The difference of the two centuries in France is, that while the eighteenth was destructive and negative, the seventeenth was constructive and positive. Already the conflict between tradition and freedom had begun, but the spirits which contended for liberty had not broken with authority. Pascal, the Prometheus of modern Catholicism, stands quite alone in the magnificence of his despair, the suspect of the Church, the emancipator of his age. But it is to Bossuet (1627-1704) we must look as the representative of his times. In him is summed up the spirit of the seventeenth century. He was one of the greatest masters of style as well as one of the clearest intellects that has ever lived, and if we would know what the eighteenth century superseded, we must go to him.
"If," says Sir James Stephen, "it were the order of nature that God should be represented upon earth by infallible priests and irresponsible beings, it would be impossible to imagine a nobler system of education for a great king than that which Bossuet conceived, or a teacher better suited to carry it out than Bossuet himself."
The education of the ill-fated Dauphin presented him with the occasion of the expression of his theory of human life. His three great works: Connaissance de Dieu et de Soi-meme; the Discours sur l'Histoire Universelle; and the Politique Tirée de I'Ecriture Sainte, represent the three great divisions of his teaching, and these works remain among the finest examples of the constructive power of human genius, as they are among the most important landmarks of human thought. But the point to be noticed is that, with all his faith, Bossuet was essentially a Rationalist. He accepted the facts of Revelation as the ultimate results of a process of reasoning which started from the grounds of all truth. Voltaire himself is not more determined in his expression of the principle of Rationalism than Bossuet is. "The understanding is the light which God has given us for our guidance." It has different names,—Spirit, Judgment, Conscience,—but its work is to save and deliver man from sin and error and guide him to truth. "Reason, when not seduced by passions, is infallible." "In spite of his mysticism," says Renan, "Bossuet was a Rationalist."
But Bossuet was a positive teacher, and withal a firm believer in the Christian faith, and his work of enlightenment and emancipation was unconsciously wrought and imperceptibly effected.
Already, when the glory of Louis the Great was at its height, and when Bossuet was in the zenith of his fame, there appeared a man who represented in his life and work more completely than any of his contemporaries the coming spirit of negation, which was to sap the foundations of the spiritual edifice. This man was Fontenelle, who was born in Rouen in 1657, and who as a centenarian lived well into the eighteenth century. He represents the transition from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, yet in spirit and sentiment he belongs to the latter rather than to the former. He stands for the emancipation of the individual judgment from the control of authority, and may be regarded as the prophet of French Rationalism.
He was not a thinker in the strict sense of the word. He had no great passion for truth—a mild curiosity with a love of ease characterized his life. He was a bit of a poet, a witty essayist, and a dabbler in science,—a man of letters, a clever dilettante, a type of writer, of which France has produced an abundance, skilled in portraying the spirit of the age. He had, however, one enthusiasm—a love of science, and he foresaw the part it was to play in the future.
He was a friend of Bayle and Voltaire and many other of the leading spirits of the times. His writings secretly undermined the positive truths of Christianity, not so much by his direct opposition as by his insinuation and spirit of scepticism. He became the suspect of the clergy, and was charged with impiety. He had much of the character of Voltaire himself. If Bayle provided in his Dictionnaire the philosophic arguments against the Church, it was Fontenelle and the kindred spirits, who used to meet in a little house in the Faubourg St. Jacque, that sowed broadcast the seeds of unbelief and licence, which too quickly brought forth fruit.
That little room has been called the cradle of eighteenth century Rationalism in France.
Along with Fontenelle there remains to be mentioned Pierre Bayle, who, born in 1647, was one of the earliest forces of Rationalism, and whose Dictionnaire was the arsenal from which many of the philosophical arguments were drawn for use against Christianity. Though son of a Calvinist pastor, like so many of his co-workers, he was trained in a Jesuit college, and by and by renounced his father's creed and adopted Catholicism. His advanced views, however, brought him under suspicion, and he again reverted to the Protestant side. He was called to a Chair of Philosophy in Sedan, and busied himself with philosophical and scientific subjects. A litterateur, like Fontenelle, rather than a systematic thinker, his scepticism was directed not so much against the doctrines of Christianity as against the bigotry of the clergy and the suppression of freedom. He held that moral character can flourish independently of religious belief. His Dictionnaire Historique et Critique ran to sixteen volumes, and its views were widely diffused through France and Holland.
After spending several years in England, where he studied the political writings of Locke and the working of the English Parliament, he returned to France and set himself to embody his views in the great works of history and law which have made his name famous. The first result of these studies was his Considerations sur les Causes de la Grandeur et de la Decadence des Romains (1734). In that work, which traces the growth of Rome from its earliest beginnings till the fall of Constantinople (in which he was indebted to Machiavelli and Bodin), we have the earliest application of the modern idea of historical development. But his great work, De I'Esprit des Lois, completed after twenty years of labour in 1748, vindicated its claim to be the most original treatise in the philosophy of law. By the spirit of laws, Montesquieu understands their inner essence or reason,—the causes and conditions in the character of the people, and the climate and soil of the country, which determine their form and expression. Laws which are good for one nation are unsuitable for another. In opposition to Spinoza and Hobbes, he controverts the opinion that laws do not arise until after the State has been formed. The great fundamental principles of justice and equity, he holds, are prior to the formation of all states, and have their origin in those natural instincts which compel men to unite. He analyses the English constitution and holds it up to the admiration of all Europe. Next to natural conditions nothing is more important for the life of a people than religion, and of all religions Christianity is best suited to develop and crown the work of the State. The influence of the Esprit des Lois has been very great upon the legal and political thought of Europe. But though it met with immediate favour in France, it was too late to counteract the spirit of unrest and revolution which had already begun to ferment in the minds of the people.
Maine, in his Ancient Law, while praising its general drift, points out what he considers its weakness. "The inference," he says, "constantly suggested is, that the laws are the creatures of climate, local situations, accident or imposture—the fruit of any causes except those which appear to operate with tolerable constancy. Montesquieu seems, in fact, to have looked upon the nature of man as entirely plastic, as passively reproducing the impressions and submitting implicitly to the impulses which it receives from without. He greatly underrates the stability of human nature. He pays little or no regard to the inherited qualities of the race, those qualities which each generation receives from its predecessors and transmits, but slightly altered, to the generation which follows it. . . . The truth is that the stable part of our mental, moral, and physical constitution is the largest part of it" (Anct. Law, ch. v.).
While Montesquieu developed the political views of Locke, Condillac and Helvetius carried his doctrine of Empiricism to pure sensationalism.
Etienne de Condillac (1715-80), the Abbé of Mureaux, and tutor of the Duke of Parma, was a native of Grenoble. He began as a disciple of Locke, whose writings he had got to know during a sojourn in England.
His chief writings were: Essai sur l'Origine des Connaissances Humaines (1746), and his Traité de Systéme, in which he argues against Spinoza, and finds fault with Leibnitz because he does not derive all knowledge from experience. Finally, in his Traité des Sensations and Traité des Animaux, he discloses his point of divergence from Locke.
While Locke assumed two sources of our knowledge,— Sensation and Reflection,—Condillac contended that these were but two forms of one source, viz.—Sensations. All our mental processes, our volitions as well as our most complex ideas, are reducible to simple sensations. "Locke," says Condillac, "distinguishes two sources of ideas, sensation and reflection, but it would be more correct to recognise only one: first, because reflection is in principle nothing but sensation; secondly, because it is less a source of ideas than a canal through which they flow from sense."
In order to prove that there is nothing in the soul except the ideas which it receives through impressions from the senses, Condillac imagines a statue, which is wholly devoid of any ideas, and is gradually endowed with one sense after another. He begins with the single sense of smell, and shows how much knowledge of the outward world is gained by that sense alone. Man is on a par with the lower animals to begin with, and is only distinguished from them by the sense of touch and by the power of associating one idea with another. Our ideas of good and evil are wholly derived from our sensation. Every sensation is connected with a blessing or a pain. Hence we seek what is desirable as good, and avoid what is disagreeable as evil.
Condillac does not go the length of denying the existence of God, nor does he assert the materiality of the soul. But if all that exists can only be perceived by the senses, it is but a step, and a step which his more consistent followers were not slow to take, to assert that there can be no being but material being.
The famous dictum of Condillac—Penser est Sentir, to think is to feel—has become the keynote of the Sensational school. While the aphorism has often been ridiculed, it was meant by Condillac to emphasize the idea that it is impossible to say where sensation ends and thought begins. The field of thought, it is held, is the nervous system connecting with the brain, and the idea which Condillac and others have sought to express is, that as muscle and nerve are nowhere absolutely separate, so feeling and thought are always interdependent. It will be seen that in these considerations Condillac foreshadows the position of later sensational psychology.
The chief merit of Condillac is his theory of the interdependence of thought and language. He contends that the development of our mental faculties is due to the use of verbal or written signs. In other words, he maintains that the evolution of thought is coincident with that of speech. It is the gift of language, by which man is able to associate and combine ideas, that distinguishes him from the brute. While the lower animal lives in the momentary sensation, man is able to unite his sensations into complex ideas, and in the form of words or signs, to receive them from the past and hand them on to succeeding generations.
While Condillac confined his philosophy to the theoretic side of knowledge, the principles of sensationalism were carried into the practical sphere of morals by Helvetius. If all our knowledge is derived from external sensation, then all our internal feelings, desires, and volitions must also be determined by our senses.
Claude Adrian Helvetius (1715-71), born at Paris, was a man of honourable character and kindly nature. His character was better than his creed, and he scarcely realized all that his teaching involved. On account of his work, De I'Esprit, he was subjected to severe persecution at the hands of the French clergy, especially on account of his criticism of the Jesuits. After his death appeared De l'Homme, de ses Facultés et de son Education (1771), in which he applies his ideas to education.
Since all our ideas, which are just copies of impressions, come to us from without, the difference among men must depend wholly upon circumstances, which is just another name for chance. The most important factor, therefore, in determining life and character is education, which cannot be begun too early. As the end of life is really self-satisfaction, the purpose of all education ought to be happiness. By happiness Helvetius understands the greatest amount of physical pleasure.
Self-interest or self-love, by means of which men strive after pleasure or seek to avoid pain, is the motive of all our conduct, the rule of all our actions. All intellectual pursuit as well as all practical effort rests on self-interest, and in every undertaking to promote the good of others, we are really actuated by considerations of our own advantage. To bring self-love and the common good, therefore, into harmony ought to be the object of all education and every form of legislation. It is unreasonable to expect men to do good for the sake of good alone. He who follows his own interests without injuring the interests of others is the good man. Complete suppression of the passions would only lead to brutalization. The passions enrich the soul, but they require to be regulated. It ought to be the task of the State to make it possible for each individual to attain to a moderate independence, and to prevent the few becoming rich at the expense and the toil of the many. Government should restrict work to eight hours a day, and should make provision for the general spread of knowledge. The State must take account of the selfish interests of its members, and, if it is to obtain the advantage of the many, its legislation must be so framed as to appeal to the desires of the individual, and, by a system of rewards and penalties, secure obedience to its laws. In Helvetius' mechanical scheme of the world there is no need for God and no place for Him. As the spring of all our actions is self-love, and the gratification of the senses the highest happiness of man, there can be no talk of virtue or goodness, and political expediency is the only sanction and restraint of the moral life.
It is easy to see that Helvetius is an eclectic, and is indebted to such writers as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu for his conclusions.