UNDER and amid the conflicts of national states, economic forces, political parties, and varieties of religious belief, the essential drama of modern European history was taking form: the fight for life of a great religion besieged and sapped by science, sectarianism, epicureanism, and philosophy. Is Christianity dying? Is the religion that gave morals, courage, and art to Western civilization suffering slow decay through the spread of knowledge, the widening of astronomic, geographical, and historical horizons, the realization of evil in history and the soul, the decline of faith in an afterlife and of trust in the benevolent guidance of the world? If this is so, it is the basic event of modern times, for the soul of a civilization is its religion, and it dies with its faith. To Bruno and Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza, Pascal and Bayle, Holbach and Helvétius, Voltaire and Hume, Leibniz and Kant, it was no longer a question of Catholicism versus Protestantism, it was a question of Christianity itself, of doubts and denials rising about the dearest fundamentals of the ancient creed. The thinkers of Europe—the vanguard of the European mind—were no longer discussing the authority of the pope; they were debating the existence of God.
Many factors made for unbelief. The principle of private judgment, condemned by the Catholic Church as an invitation to doctrinal and moral chaos, had been proclaimed, established, and then condemned by nearly all the Protestant bodies; meanwhile it had undermined the citadel of belief. Multiplying sects fought one another like superabundant progeny, exposed one another’s weaknesses, and left faith naked to rationalist winds. In their war they called both Scripture and reason to their support; the study of the Bible led to doubts of its meaning and infallibility, and the appeal to reason ended the Age of Faith. The Protestant Reformation achieved more than it desired. The assaults of Biblical criticism especially damaged a Protestantism that had recklessly based itself upon a divinely inspired Bible. Improvements in social order and human security softened terror and cruelty; men felt compelled to reconceive God in gentler terms than those of Paul and Augustine, Loyola and Calvin; hell and predestination became incredible, and the new morality shamed the old theology. The growth of wealth and pleasure made for an epicurean life, which sought a philosophy to justify it. Religion was a casualty in the wars of religion. The increasing knowledge of pagan morals and philosophies, of Asiatic cults and rituals, led to disturbing comparisons with Christianity; have we not heard Erasmus praying to “Saint Socrates,” and seen Montaigne reduce religious creeds to the accidents of geography and the arbitrament of war? The growth of science revealed the operation of “natural law” in many cases—e.g., the path of comets—where faith had seen the hand of Providence. The educated classes found it harder to believe in miracles, even while the letterless gloried in them. And this earth which, in the fond mythology of the people, had felt the feet of God—was it, as Copernicus and Galileo implied, only a bubble and a moment in a universe immeasurably too vast for the jealous, vengeful deity of Genesis? Where had heaven gone, now that up and down changed places twice a day?
The mildest skeptics were the Unitarians, who in Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Holland, and England suggested doubts about the divinity of Christ. There were already a few deists, who professed belief in a God loosely identified with Nature, rejected the divinity of Christ, and wished to make Christianity an ethic rather than a creed; they were as yet sporadic and cautious, except when, like Edward Herbert of Cherbury, they had sufficient status to frighten the hangman; we shall find them more vocal after 1648. Bolder were the “Epicureans” of Germany, who laughed at the Last Judgment, which took so long in coming, and at hell, which was probably not so terrible after all, since all the jolliest company gathered there.1 In France such men were called esprits forts (tough minds) orlibertins, whose loose ways began to give its modern meaning to a word that had originally meant “freethinkers.” In 1581 Philippe Duplessis-Mornay wrote a book of nine hundred pages, De la Vérité de la religion chrétienne, contre les athées; in 1623 the Jesuit François Garasse published a quarto of over a thousand pages, in which he denounced the beaux esprits who “believe in God only by way of form or as a maxim of state” and accept only Nature and destiny.2 In that same year Marin Mersenne estimated the “atheists” of Paris at fifty thousand,3 but that word was then so loosely used that he may have meant deists. In 1625 Gabriel Naudé explained that the divine revelations of laws to Numa Pompilius and Moses were fables invented to promote social order, and that the monks of the Thebaid had fabricated their stories of combats with the Devil to raise their reputation and milk the credulous mob.4 François de La Mothe Le Vayer, secretary to Richelieu and tutor to the future Louis XIV, published in 1633 hisDialogues of Orasius Tabero, professing a general skepticism: “Our knowledge is asininity, our certainties are fictions, our whole world is … a perpetual comedy.”5 He was one of those whose faith faded before the multiplicity of infallible creeds. “Amongst that infinity of religions there is no man who does not believe that he possesses the true and condemns all the rest.”6 Despite his skepticism he married at seventy-eight and died in bed at eighty-four. Like a good skeptic, he had made his peace with the Church.
Much of this French skepticism was a negative echo of Montaigne. It became a positive and constructive force in Montaigne’s friend Pierre Charron, a Bordeaux priest who gave him the last rites and inherited his library. Charron’s Traité de la sagesse (1601), a three-volume description of wisdom, has been inadequately described as a systematization of Montaigne; it is, rather, an independent treatise, owing much to the Essays, but bearing the stamp of Charron’s grave and courteous character. All knowledge, he says, is derived from the senses and is therefore subject to the many mistakes and limitations of the senses; truth is not for us. Fools argue that truth is proved by universal consent, and that vox populi est vox Dei; Charron believes rather that the voice of the people is the voice of ignorance, of opinions manufactured for them, and that one should be especially skeptical of what is widely believed.7 The soul is a mysterious, restless, searching activity connected with the brain and apparently dying with the body.8 Religion is composed of unprovable mysteries and many absurdities, and has been guilty of barbarous sacrifices and intolerant cruelties. If (as Voltaire would repeat) all men were philosophers, lovers and practicers of wisdom, religion would be unnecessary, and societies would live by a natural ethic independent of theology; “I would have a man virtuous without heaven and hell.”9 But considering the natural wickedness and ignorance of mankind, religion is a necessary means to morality and order.10 Consequently Charron accepts all the fundamentals of Christianity, even to angels and miracles,11 and he advises his sage to observe all the religious rites prescribed by the church to which, however accidentally, he belongs.12 A true skeptic will never be a heretic.13
Despite these orthodox conclusions a contemporary Jesuit classed him with the most wicked and dangerous atheists,14 and when Charron suddenly died, aged sixty-two, of an apoplectic stroke (1603), the pious called it God’s judgment on his infidelities.15Shortly before his death he prepared a second edition, in which he softened his more reckless passages and assured his fellow clergymen that by Nature he meant God; his book was put on the Index nevertheless. For half a century it far surpassed Montaigne’sEssays in popularity; De la sagesse had thirty-five editions in France between 1601 and 1672, and in the eighteenth century Charron was more influential than his master. But the same orderliness of exposition that attracted the classic seventeenth century seemed a dreary and scholastic didacticism in the nineteenth, and Charron was lost in the rediscovered brilliance and gaiety of Montaigne.