Voltaire and Christianity



WE may study later the nonreligious activities, opinions, and interests of that consuming fire called Voltaire, burning fitfully at Ferney; here we summarize only his views on religion and his war against Christianity. We shall say nothing about him that has not been said a hundred times before; and he said nothing about Christianity that had not been said before. It is only that when he said it the words passed like a flame through Europe, and became a force molding his time, and ours.

It was natural that he should question the Christian creed, for a religion is intended to quiet rather than excite the intellect, and Voltaire was intellect incarnate, unquiet and unappeased. We have seen him in his career joining the skeptical wits of the Temple, nourishing his doubts among the deists of England, pursuing science at Cirey, and exchanging infidelities with Frederick in Germany. Yet, until he was fifty-six, he kept his unbelief as an incidental expression or private sport, and made no open war upon the Church. On the contrary, he publicly and repeatedly defended the fundamentals of the Christian faith—a just God, free will, and immortality. Unless we account him a liar (which he often was), he retained till death his belief in God and in the value of religion. We may quote him to almost any purpose, for, like every living thing, he grew and changed and decayed; which of us retained at fifty the views he held at twenty, or, at seventy, the views he held at fifty? Voltaire contradicted himself endlessly because he lived long and wrote much; his opinions were the fluent vision of his mounting years.1

At Cirey, about 1734, he tried to formulate his ideas on first and last things in a Traité de métaphysique. Years before Paley made the comparison familiar to Englishmen, Voltaire submitted that it was as logical to postulate an intelligent mind in the universe as to suppose that a watchmaker had made a watch; in either case he saw evidence of design in the adaptation of specific means to particular ends. But just as the watch, though designed by intelligence, operates according to fixed laws, so does the universe; there are no miracles. Yet somehow he could not throw off the feeling that the human will is in some mysterious way and modest degree free, though he knew well that free volitions acting upon a mechanical world must upset its mechanism. Mind is a form and function of matter; “we ought to judge,” said Voltaire, following Locke, “that it is quite possible for God to add thought to matter”;2 that matter should think is no greater miracle than it would be for an immaterial mind to act upon a material body. The soul is merely the life of the body, and dies with it. There is no other divine revelation than nature itself; this is enough, and inexhaustible. There may be some good in religion, but an intelligent man does not need it as a support to morality; too often, in history, it has been used by priests to bemuse the public mind while kings picked the public pocket. Virtue should be defined in terms of social good rather than obedience to God, and it should not depend upon rewards and punishments after death.

Voltaire read these seventy-five pages to Mme. du Châtelet, who apparently discouraged their publication. He seems to have agreed with her; he put the manuscript aside, and it was never printed during his lifetime. Moreover, he became convinced that any rational metaphysics—any attempt by reason to explain the origin, nature, or destiny of the world and man—would be forever beyond human power. He read the philosophers, but he did not admire their systems. “In metaphysics and morals,” he thought, “the ancients have said everything. We always encounter or repeat them. All modern books of this description are merely repetitions.”3 He must have been impressed by Spinoza’s system, for he labored to refute it.

Despite his disclaimers, he could not still his interest in the insoluble. From time to time, during the years 1734–56, he delved into metaphysics and theology. He continued to the end of his life to rest his belief in God upon the argument from design, though he ridiculed the excesses of teleology. “I may not believe that noses were made as convenient bridges for spectacles, but I am convinced that they were made to smell with.”4 And: “To affirm that the eye is not made to see, nor the ear to hear, nor the stomach to digest—is not this the most monstrous absurdity?”5 When a young author knocked at the door of Les Délices (1757), and introduced himself to Voltaire as “a young atheist ready to serve” him, Voltaire replied, “And I have the honor to be a deist employer; but though our professions are so opposed, I will give you supper today and work tomorrow; I can make use of your arms, though not of your head.”6 He called himself a deist, but he was rather a theist: that is, his God was not an impersonal force more or less identical with nature, but a conscious intelligence designing and ruling the world. Generally, after 1750, he called himself a theist;7 and in the Philosophical Dictionary, in the article “Theism,” he wrote in terms that could justify Condorcet’s description of Voltaire as “a deeply religious man”:

The theist is a man firmly persuaded of the existence of a Supreme Being equally good and powerful, who has formed all … existences; who punishes crimes without cruelty, and rewards virtuous actions with kindness. The theist does not know how God punishes, how he rewards, how he pardons, for he is not presumptuous enough to flatter himself that he understands how God acts; but he knows that God acts, and that God is just. The difficulties opposed to a Providence do not stagger him in his faith, for they are only great difficulties, not proofs; he submits himself to that Providence, although he perceives only some of its effects and some appearances; and, judging of the things he does not see by those he sees, he thinks that this Providence pervades all places and all ages.

United in this principle with all the rest of the universe, he does not join any of the sects, who all contradict themselves. His religion is the most ancient and the most extended, for the simple adoration of a God has preceded all the systems in the world.… He believes that religion consists neither in the opinions of incomprehensible metaphysics nor in vain decorations, but in adoration and justice. To do good is his worship; to submit himself to God is his doctrine.… He laughs at Loreto and Mecca, but he succors the indigent and defends the oppressed.8

Was Voltaire sincere in these professions? Some students ascribe them to caution, or to a desire to move to atheism one step at a time,9 or to a hope that religious faith inculcated in his servants would lessen pilferage; and there are passages in Voltaire that seem to justify this interpretation. (“If you have but a village to govern, it must have a religion.”10) One of his most quoted remarks appears to reduce religion to a public utility; but the context of that line puts it in a fairer light. It occurs in the Epistle to the Author of “The Three Impostors”:

Si Dieu n’existait pas il faudrait l’inventer,

Mais toute la nature nous crie qu’il existe.11

—“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, but all nature cries out to us that he does exist,” and the entire poem is a plea for belief. Voltaire returns to the theistic argument again and again, as if to answer his own doubts. In his final decade he wrote as often against atheism as against orthodoxy. Meanwhile he made war upon the popular conception of the deity as a God of Vengeance damning most of mankind to an everlasting hell. “The human race would be too unhappy if it were as common to commit atrocities as to believe in them.”12 “If God made man in his own image, we have well repaid him”13—by making him in ours; nothing could better reveal man’s conception of himself than his conception of God.

Voltaire struggled to reconcile his theism with the existence of evil. In these efforts at theodicy he came close to the optimism of Leibniz (which he was to ridicule in Candide): what is evil from the standpoint of the part may be good, or at least not evil, in the perspective of the whole; this is not the best conceivable, but the best possible, world.14 “When everything is counted and weighed up,” he wrote to Frederick in 1738, “I think there are infinitely more enjoyments than bitterness in this life”15—but this was written in his hale and middle years. He did not believe that man is wicked by nature; on the contrary, he held that man has an innate sense of justice, and a bienveillance naturelle—a natural feeling of good will toward other men.16 There are countless varieties and contradictions in the moral ideas and customs of mankind, but all peoples, Voltaire thought, condemn parricide and fratricide.17

In 1752, at Potsdam, he composed a poem, La Loi naturelle (published in 1756), which summarized his “natural religion.” As it took the form of a letter to the skeptical Frederick II, it could hardly have been an attempt to please the pious; but it comes closer to piety and orthodoxy than anything else that Voltaire ever printed. It not only affirms faith in God the Creator, but describes man’s moral sense as infused into him by the Deity;18 here he speaks like Rousseau, and anticipates the enthusiasm of Kant for the categorical imperative of conscience. He defines his religion in one line: “Adore un Dieu, sois juste, et chéris ta patrie.”19 He surveys the varieties of religious belief, laments their hatreds and fanaticisms, and pleads for mutual toleration among the creeds. He ends with a prayer that any saint might have signed. The Paris Parlement ordered the poem to be publicly burned (January 23, 1759), probably because some lines in it condemned Jansenism.

We may conclude that until 1751—until he was fifty-seven years old—Voltaire refrained from any outright and public attack upon Christianity or the Catholic Church. What was it that aroused him to open war, precisely at an age when most rebels have subsided into peace? It was the suppression of the Encyclopédie, the orthodox explanations of the Lisbon earthquake, and the ferocious executions of Jean Calas and the Chevalier de La Barre.

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