He was, indeed, a voluminous writer; scientific works, historical novels, poems and pamphlets poured from his pen, yet it was by his personality, rather than his works, that he impressed his age. He stands forth as the embodiment of the eighteenth century. With the single exception of Luther, there is probably no other individual in modern times whose influence and reputation have been so great and widespread as those of Voltaire. In his own day he was indeed highly honoured, and especially at the close of his career he was worshipped almost as a god, and received a triumph in Paris such as has been accorded to few sovereigns. Yet his name has grown rather than diminished in importance as we recede from him, and now he is regarded by his admirers and detractors alike as the most powerful factor of his age. He was not in the strict sense of the word a philosopher, but he was a man of wide knowledge and subtle mind, a master of expression, and of clear orderly arrangement and rapid generalization. But, as Carlyle says, he was not a great man. He had no great love of truth, except when it paid and was triumphant. He was essentially a mocker, and ridicule was to him the test of truth and the weapon of controversy. The glory of knowing and believing is almost a stranger to him. Though he inveighed against the Jesuits, he was a thorough master of their wiles, and nobody knew better than he how to make the end justify the means. He did not object to falsehood, if it was necessary to extricate him from a tight corner, and while he could praise the loftiest virtues, he did not consider it necessary to practise even the lowliest. Self was the measure of the world, and life had nothing glorious or divine in it. "He reads history not with the eye of a devout son, or even of a critic, but through a pair of mere anti-Catholic spectacles. It is not a mighty drama enacted in the theatre of Infinitude, with Laws for lamps and Eternity as a background; whose author is God."
He was a man of large learning, but of shallow attainment. In England he had learned to admire Newton, Locke, Shaftesbury, and Bolingbroke, and he returned to France an enthusiast for Newton's Principia and Shaftesbury's Characteristics. He understood Newton better than any other man in his country, and he knew how to forge English Deism into a weapon with which to smite French superstition. Carlyle calls him the "great Persifleur," a man for whom life had but a despicable meaning, and who met its difficulties with gay agility. No man so well understood the sense of self-preservation, and none so habitually employed the arts of derision. His view of the world is cool, calculating, and prosaic. He has no sense of sublimity or reverence. A light, careless, courteous man of the world, he was largely the outcome of his times, and while in a sense he helped to create, he also wholly embodied, the spirit of his age. He was essentially a critic, and the only thing which gives dignity to his figure is his daring advocacy of freedom and his unceasing protest against injustice and bigotry. It is his merit to have given the death-blow to superstition. He is chiefly conspicuous as a vehement opponent of the Christian faith, but his argument took the shallow and profitless form of controverting the "Plenary Inspiration of Scripture." Of the inward essence of Christianity he seems to have but the meagrest intuition. He was, however, no atheist. He held the belief in a God of rewards and punishments to be a needful support of moral order. "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent one." In this respect he did not go so far as his successors; on the other hand, he was the inveterate hater of all positive religion and the indefatigable opponent of every ecclesiastical form and observance. That this world is under the guidance of a wise God, he doubted. In his novel Candide, as in other of his writings, he deals with the difficulty of reconciling the sins of the world with the power and goodness of the Deity. "People are engulfed at Lisbon, while they dance at Paris."
The impulse started by Voltaire was taken up by the Encyclopedists and carried by them to greatest extremes. Of this group of writers Diderot (1713-84) is the chief representative. The Philosophical Encyclopedia was the literary organ of these writers, and was a notable monument of the spirit of the age, Diderot was its joint-editor with D'Alembert, and it counted among its contributors the most distinguished men of the day. It professed to be a treatise on Science and Theology, Art and Manners, and, indeed, every theme, every question, political and social, every opinion and grievance found expression in its pages. It was the literary focus of French Enlightenment —the chastiser of abuses, the champion of liberties. For twenty years Diderot stood at his post of editor in spite of danger. The book more than once was threatened with prosecution, and after a time D'Alembert forsook him to bear the brunt of attack alone. Diderot was a most prolific writer. He worked in almost every department of literature, as novelist, dramatist, satirist. As a literary critic he was in advance of his contemporaries, and anticipated the Romanticists in advocating a return to nature and in seeking to free the drama from the trammels of the Classical school. If he was inferior to Voltaire and Rousseau as a literary craftsman, he was a more philosophic thinker than either. His writings abound in racy sayings and pregnant thoughts, but are often marred by mannerisms and defects of taste. Unlike Voltaire, there was a strong vein of earnest passion in him. It is not easy, however, to determine his position in philosophy. He has been frequently described as an Atheist. He certainly gives expression to deistic views in his earlier writings, while in his later he seems to favour a pantheistic, or even materialistic, conception of the world. All matter, he holds, is instinct with feeling. In the animal organism sensation comes to consciousness, and in the highest types produces reason.
Diderot's atheism appears openly in his Interprétation de la Nature and in his conversations with D'Alembert. Here he reduces all mental activity to physiology. Here, too, he argues against freedom and immortality, and mocks at those who believe in a personal God. Deity is attested by the order of nature, and wherever truth, beauty, and goodness exist, there also God is. The individual vanishes, but the race remains. The immortality of the soul is nothing but the memory of man cherished in the hearts of his successors.
Diderot was a man of encyclopedic knowledge, yet his outlook on life was of the narrowest. Nothing escaped his eye, but his view of the world was mechanical and essentially atheistical. In his system there was no room for Divinity. The world is simply a vast machine, a musical instrument, which played of itself. Like all the men of his age, he was limited by the seen. The Sanctuary of man's soul remained closed, and "where his hand ceased to grope the world for him ended." In practical matters his views were loose and his morals dissolute. His theory of life was synonymous with pleasure, and self-denial entered not into his scheme of things.
Next to Voltaire he was the greatest Frenchman of his day—a hard worker, a brilliant talker, a keen lover of the good things of life. He, too, was the creature even more than the creator of his age. His role was that of polemic and denial, and his ambition, to be a philosopher. Yet for all he wrote, and in spite of all his agitation and controversy, his books are now hardly ever read, and he stands for little more than a name.
Still more pronounced and thorough-going was the Scepticism of the physician La Mettrie (1709-1751), the friend of Diderot. His Histoire Naturelle de l'Ame brought about his expulsion from France, as his L'Homme Machine did from Holland. He was thereafter summoned to the Court of Frederick the Great, in the capacity, as Voltaire said, of Court Atheist, where he wrote a number of works. In all his writings he teaches the most crass Atheism. Pleasure is the chief end of man, and the world will never be happy till the idea of God is banished from it. What is called the mind is really a part of the body. Man is a machine, enjoyment the only thing worth living for. The titles of his works indicate their character. Everything spiritual is a delusion. The Soul is only a function of the brain, which grows with the body, and with the body disappears. Immortality is an absurdity. Après la Mort la farce est jouée. Let us take pleasure while we can. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die.
In much the same spirit of negation, though with more of scientific method, were the writers Maupertuis (1698-1759), D'Alembert (1717-83), Buffon (1708-1788), and Robinet (1735-1820). Robinet, in his work De la Nature, asks the question, "Who is God?" and his answer is— "We know not." Over the temple of Being let us inscribe, "To the Unknown God." Our only possible knowledge is the knowledge of nature, in which all things have their origin and being. The Seed is the Life. Good and evil are equally balanced, and their equipoise constitutes the reality of the world.
Baron Holbach sums up the movement, and the treatise now attributed to him utters the last word of French materialism. The Système de la Nature may be regarded as the representative work of the period. It seeks to establish scientifically the doctrine that nothing exists but matter. It combines the materialism of La Mettrie, the sensationalism of Condillac, and the self-interest of Helvetius, and preaches the gospel of freedom from superstition and oppression. Holbach (1728-89), though born in Germany, lived mostly in Paris. His salon was the rendezvous of the leading spirits of the time.
The Universe discloses nothing but a combination of matter and movement, an unbroken chain of causes and effects, of which causes some affect our senses, and some do not, and are, therefore, unknown to us. The essence of things consists for us in innumerable combinations which are constantly altering. The totality of things is le grand Tous, which we call nature. In nature is neither purpose nor order—nothing but necessity. Everything is an activity. Nothing continues in one stay. There is an everlasting appearing and vanishing—a constant attraction and repulsion of elements. These are called by moralists sympathy and antipathy, love and hate, friendship and sincerity. But these two sets are really identical; the difference between the moral and the physical arises only from the different kinds of molecules. Man is not a duality of body and soul. What we call soul is only part of the body, and it is the molecular motions of the brain which produce thought and will.
The belief in God has its origin in a false distinction of mind and matter. Nothing in nature points to the existence of a God. Theology ascribes to him conflicting moral properties, and can only distinguish him by negative attributes. Many are of opinion that religion is necessary in order to restrain and direct the actions of men. It would be as reasonable to argue that you must give a man poison lest he abuse his powers. The idea of immortality is mischievous in so far as it withdraws human interest from the present world. Man, in short, is a tool in the hands of an inexorable necessity. He has neither freedom nor immortality. The superstitions of theologians only engender unrest. Materialism has the virtue of consistency, and accords with nature and life as we know them. It frees man from torturing impatience and delivers him from the fear of God and the reproach of conscience. It teaches him to enjoy personal happiness and to endure his lot with equanimity. Morality, which is founded on self-interest, is to be promoted by mutual forbearance.
The gospel of the System of Nature was one which appealed to the spirit of the age, and the work was hailed with approbation. It was a fierce and fanatical polemic against everything spiritual and moral. The notion of God as the source of all falsehood and hypocrisy was to be completely banished, and nature, with her unalterable laws, was to take its place. Truth and religion are sworn enemies,—reason and superstition irreconcilable opposites. "Nature says to man, 'Thou art free, and no power on earth can lawfully strip thee of thy right.' Religion cries to him that he is a slave condemned by God to groan under the rod of God's representatives. Let us recognise the plain truth, that it is these supernatural ideas that have obscured morality, corrupted politics, hindered the advance of the sciences, and extinguished happiness and peace in the heart of man" (Morley, Diderot).
Realism could reach no further than this, the System of Nature was the extreme of materialism, and the works which sought to outbid it are utterly unworthy of consideration. Grimm said of them that they were an exposition of Atheism fit for chambermaids and hairdressers. Men were no longer content to repeat what Diderot uttered on his death-bed—"The first step to philosophy is unbelief." It had come to be for the multitude, philosophy itself. (Erdmann, Geschichte, vol. II.)
At this juncture there came forward a remarkable man, who gave utterance to the thoughts which were seething in many minds, and who, while he opposed, also completed the one-sided and negative rationalism of the Enlightenment.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss of French descent, was born at Geneva in 1712. He was at once the offspring of the Illumination and the parent of a new movement which ultimately found its expression in the Revolution. At first an adherent of the Encyclopedists and the friend of Voltaire and Diderot, he soon passed beyond their position and became their bitter opponent. He lived a strange and checkered life, full of vicissitudes and inconsistencies, now in the depths of poverty and now on the crest of fame. Of a keenly sensitive temperament and suspicious nature, after a career of adventure and misfortune, vexed with deepening melancholy and hallucinations verging on madness, he died at Paris in 1778. He has given a frank and faithful account of his life in his Confessions, in which he has not attempted to minimize his vices and weaknesses. He was a man of rare genius, yet a mass of inconsistencies. He combined the most exalted ideals with an almost unparalleled weakness of will and instability of moral character. Sentiment and action, feeling and purpose, were strangely fused in him. Yet few men have left the impress of their personality more forcibly on their generation than he has done. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the influence of the genius of Rousseau. "No one," says Mr. Lecky, "plunged more recklessly into paradox, or supported his paradoxes with more consummate skill." The firmness with which he grasped great principles, the wonderful union of passion and clearness of his arguments, above all, the beauty and eloquence of his style, have given to his writings a power unequalled in his age. His revolt against the conventionalities of his day penetrated all classes of French society, revolutionizing social distinctions and overturning time-honoured traditions and customs.
He has been styled the conscience of France—the voice of protest against the crass negations and empty atheism of his time. His merit lies in opposing spiritualism to materialism, in advocating the social instincts of humanity as against a narrow egoism, and in exalting feeling in the place of cold analytic reason as the essence and inner power of man.
His first work was a prize essay on the Influence of the Arts and Sciences, in 1750, which was followed in 1753 by another on the Inequality of Man. His other writings were the Contrat Social (1762); his two novels, La Nouvelle Heloïse and Emile. One thought runs through all his books—Civilization is the great evil, the parent of all vices. Man, as he comes from the hands of Nature, is good, but society has spoiled him. "Back to Nature" is the cry with which Rousseau startled Europe, and the gospel which he preached was the simplicity and unspoiled innocence of primitive man.
He, not less than the leaders of the Enlightenment, is the champion of individual freedom, but the emancipation which he sought was not to come by the exercise of the intellect in the cultivation of science, but by a return to the original instincts of humanity.
Let us do away with all artificial conventions and all unnatural restrictions. Let us get back to primitive life. Civilization, with its burdens and inequalities, has enslaved man. All knowledge and refinement, all science and culture, have but made man untrue to his vocation and false to his nature. Society, with its creation of property and division of labour and separation of classes, has awakened selfish passions and created every crime. We must undo history. We must begin at the beginning again and let man develop his freedom naturally. "Do away with pernicious progress, with all our errors and vices, do away with all the works of man, and all will go well" (Emile, IV.).
In Emile Rousseau develops his ideas of education, which are largely borrowed from Locke. Let us isolate the individual, put him under a private tutor, so that, withdrawn from the influence of society, his true nature may unfold. Let the stress be chiefly laid on physical rather than intellectual training. Exercise his bodily functions and preserve in their naturalness and innocence all his primitive instincts. "All our first inclinations are legitimate." Let us guard against all teaching of science, and all the products of intellect in which the apostles of the Enlightenment place our superiority. The intuitions of feeling afford a light more brilliant and more pure than all the light of reason. Let us, therefore, always listen to the holy voice of Nature, our only guide to truth and happiness.
But, while Rousseau would lead us back to a state of nature, he does not advocate isolation. He sees the necessity of the social life for the development and mutual protection of man. What he really inveighs against is the artificiality of modern society. He would have history begin afresh, and would have men form a new social constitution according to which the individual might enjoy his full freedom, and, at the same time, the advantage and protection of State provisions.
Like Hobbes and Locke, therefore, Rousseau would base society on a contract by which men agree, for the sake of certain advantages, to restrict their individual liberties. The individual is not to exist for the State; on the contrary, the State is to exist for the individual. Man as man can only come to his highest through society. Government is, therefore, to be a democracy; it is to be based on the will of the people, and everywhere the rights of the individual are to be the first consideration. In the sphere of religion also Rousseau sought to oppose the prevailing Atheism of his age and to lead men back to nature, basing his ideas of God, virtue, and immortality upon the religion of the heart. If his politics, says Falchenberg, was the utterance of the Swiss Republican, his theory of religion revealed the Genevan Calvinist. In the confession of faith, put into the mouth of the Savoyard vicar in Emile, he exalts Deism as the true religion of feeling. The book, however, pleased neither the Church nor the Rationalist party. It was burned by order of the Government, and repudiated by the Encyclopedists. In Rousseau's religion of the heart we may detect the first germs of that emotional theology which afterwards became dominant, especially in Germany, in the form of Pietism.
We cannot prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, but we have an inner feeling with regard to both which is irresistible. In opposition to those who would deify reason, Rousseau is never weary of proclaiming that the heart is greater than the intellect, and that our own subjective feelings are, in spiritual matters, a surer guide than the reasonings of the mind.
"The more I strive to prove the infinite Being of God the less do I understand it. But I feel that He is. That is enough for me. The less I comprehend the more devoutly do I pray."
In the second part of the Profession de foi Rousseau endeavours to vindicate the reasonableness of a Divine Revelation. God requires no other service from man than the devotion of the heart. Reason is incompetent to decide the truth of Revelation. But the majesty and simplicity of Scriptures are its best evidence. That Christ was no mere man, that He was no fanatic or vulgar sectary, the meekness and purity of His life, the wisdom and grace of His words, the majesty of His person, and the elevation of His teaching, bear witness. Socrates lived and died as a philosopher. Jesus as a God. Whence did the writers of the Gospel obtain so noble a character as that of Jesus? From what sources did they derive so peerless a code of ethics? To have created such a life and to have invented such a system of truth would be a greater miracle than the life of Jesus itself. So everywhere the assurance of the heart vanquishes the doubt of the head.
These utterances sound strangely on the lips of the author of the Confessions, and his exalted sentiments of religion but ill accord with his life of indulgence and sense. But Rousseau was a living paradox, and in his profession of faith, not less than in the confession of his life, he was a sentimentalist. He is the apostle of subjective feeling. He worshipped self and revelled in the ecstasy of emotion. He lived in a world of inner contemplation, brooding over his own thoughts and finding supreme satisfaction in lonely self-analysis. He was an egoist not less than Helvetius or Voltaire. It is the last word of individualism—at once the completion and dissolution of Illuminism.
The enlightenment was a necessary moment in the evolution of thought. These men were the champions of individual freedom—the assertors of the liberty of thought. They accomplished a work, says Hegel, though in another form, similar to that of Luther. Rousseau, not less than his contemporaries, asserted the rights of the individual. "For a man to renounce his freedom," he says, "is to renounce the quality of manhood." What he called feeling they called reason; but both claimed for man the same thing—the right of individual thought—the liberty of the subject, a liberty which had yet to be wrought out in the practical sphere by the bloodshed of the revolution, and in the more quiet speculative domain, by the philosophy of Kant.