The Atheists



LET us define our terms. By philosopher we shall mean anyone who tries to arrive at reasoned opinions on any subject whatever as seen in a large perspective. More specifically, in these chapters, we shall apply the term to those who seek a rational view of the origin, nature, significance, and destiny of the universe, life, or man. Philosophy must not be understood as in opposition to religion, and any large perspective of human life must make room for religion. But since many philosophers in eighteenth-century France were hostile to Christianity as they knew it, the word philosophe took on an anti-Christian connotation;I and usually, in our use of the French term, it will carry that implication. So we shall call La Mettrie, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Grimm, Helvétius, and d’Holbach philosophes; but we shall not so term Rousseau—though we should call him a philosopher, if only because he gave a reasoned argument in defense of feeling and faith. We must also allow for the fact that a philosophe might oppose all the religions around him, and yet, like Voltaire, consistently and to the end profess belief in God. The debate that agitated the intellectual classes in the half century before the Revolution was not quite a conflict between religion and philosophy; it was primarily a conflict between the philosophes and Catholic Christianity as it then existed in France. It was the pent-up wrath of the French mind after centuries in which religion had sullied its services with obscurantism, persecution, and massacre. The reaction went to extremes, but so had the Massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572), the assassination of Henry IV (1610), and the dragonnades of the Revocation (1685).

Never had there been such a multitude of philosophers. Helvétius remarked “the taste of our age for philosophy,”2 and d’Alembert wrote:

Our century has called itself the century of philosophy par excellence.… From the principles of the profane sciences to the foundations of revelation, from metaphysics to questions of taste, from music to morals, … from the rights of princes to those of peoples, … everything has been discussed, analyzed, disputed.… One cannot deny that philosophy among us has shown progress. Natural science from day to day accumulates new riches.… Nearly all fields of knowledge have assumed new forms.3

The French philosophers were a new breed. First of all, they were clear. They were not solemn recluses, talking to themselves or their like in esoteric gibberish. They were men of letters, who knew how to make thoughts shine through words. They turned their backs on metaphysics as a hopeless quest, and on systems of philosophy as pretentious vanities. They wrote not long convoluted treatises, laboriously evolving the world from one idea, but relatively short essays, diverting dialogues, novels sometimes spiced with obscenity, satires that could slay with laughter, epigrams that could crush with a line. These philosophers attuned their speech to the men and women of the salons; in many cases they addressed their works to distinguished ladies; such books were bound to be intelligible, and might make atheism charming. So philosophy became a social force, moving out of the schools into society and government. It took part in the conflict of powers; it was in the news. And since all educated Europe looked to France for the latest notions, the works of the French philosophers reached into England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, and became European events. Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great were proud to be philosophes, and perhaps they were not disturbed when French conservatives predicted that the freethinkers of France were undermining her morals, unity, and power.

Gutenberg was having his effect: print was spreading science, history, Biblical criticism, the pagan classics; the philosophers could now speak to a larger and better-prepared audience than ever before. They did not disdain to come down from their towers and “popularize” knowledge. Not that they put much trust in the “common man” as they knew him in that age; but they were confident that the dissemination of “truth” would improve the conduct and happiness of mankind. D’Alembert regarded “the art of instructing and enlightening men” as “the noblest portion and gift within human reach.”4 Sapere aude—“to dare to know”—became the motto of this éclaircissement, or enlightenment, this Age of Reason triumphant and fulfilled.

For now the faith in reason, which had had its chanticleer in Francis Bacon a century before, became the foundation and instrument of “liberal” thought—i.e., in this aspect, thought liberated from the myths of the Bible and the dogmas of the Church. Reason appeared in all the glory of a new revelation; it claimed authority henceforth in every field, and proposed to re-form education, religion, morals, literature, economy, and government in its own bright image. The philosophes admitted the frailty of reason, as of everything human; they knew that it could be deceived by bad logic or a mistaken interpretation of experience; and they did not have to wait for Schopenhauer to tell them that reason is usually the servant of desire, the handmaiden of the will. Hume, who dominated this Age of Reason in Britain, was the strongest critic that reason ever encountered, possibly excepting Kant. Voltaire time and again acknowledged the limits of reason, and Diderot agreed with Rousseau that feeling is more basic than reason. Nearly all the philosophers of the Enlightenment recognized that the majority of men, even in the most civilized nation, are too pressed by economic necessities and toil to have time for the development of reason, and that the masses of mankind are moved far more by passion and prejudice than by reason. Even so, the hope remained that reason could be spread, and could be freed from narrow selfishness and interested indoctrination.

And so, despite their periods of pessimism, a spirit of optimism prevailed among the philosophes. Never had men been so confident that they could remold, if not themselves, at least society. Despite the disasters of the Seven Years’ War, despite the loss of Canada and India to England, there rose in the second half of the eighteenth century an élan of the mind that seemed to make old and ailing France young and strong again. Not since the days of the Greek Sophists had there been so many ideas in the air, or so invigorating a spirit of inquiry and debate; no wonder Duclos sensed around him “a certain fermentation of reason tending to develop everywhere.”5 And because Paris was now the intellectual capital of Europe, the Enlightenment became as wide a movement as the Renaissance and the Reformation. Indeed, it seemed the logical culmination of the earlier movements. The Renaissance had gone back beyond Christianity to explore the pagan mind; the Reformation had broken the bonds of doctrinal authority, and, almost despite itself, had let loose the play of reason. Now those two preludes to modernity could complete themselves. Man could at last liberate himself from medieval dogmas and Oriental myths; he could shrug off that bewildering, terrifying theology, and stand up free, free to doubt, to inquire, to think, to gather knowledge and spread it, free to build a new religion around the altar of reason and the service of mankind. It was a noble intoxication.

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