It was in the ardor of these struggles that Voltaire’s opposition to Christianity became a hatred that almost consumed a decade of his life (1759–69). He had begun with a youthful scorn of the miracles, mysteries, and myths that comforted the people; and he passed on to a mocking skepticism of those Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, which St. Thomas Aquinas had frankly confessed to be beyond the reach of reason. But these moods of rebellion were natural in an active mind feeling the sap of growth; Voltaire might have passed through them to the man of the world’s genial connivance at beliefs so dear to the masses and so useful as an aid to social order and moral discipline. In the first half of the eighteenth century the French clergy were relatively tolerant, and the hierarchy shared in the advancing Enlightenment. But the growth of unbelief, and the acclaim that greeted the Encyclopédie, frightened them, and they seized upon the terror inspired in the King by Damiens’ attempt at assassination (1757) to draw from the state an edict (1759) making any attack upon the Church a crime to be punished with death. The philosophes saw in this a declaration of war, and felt that henceforth they need spare no feelings, no traditions, in attacking what seemed to them a murderous absurdity. Behind the beauty and poetry of religion they saw propaganda conscripting art; behind the support that Christianity had given to morality they saw a thousand heretics burned at the stake, the Albigensians crushed out in a homicidal crusade, Spain and Portugal darkened with autos-da-fé, France torn apart by rival mythologies, and all the future of the human spirit subject in every land to the repeated resurrection of superstition, priestcraft, and persecution. They would fight such a medieval reaction with the last years of their life.
Three events made the year 1762 a turning point in the irrepressible conflict. In March the execution of Jean Calas seemed to announce the return of France to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. The trial, torture, and murder were all conducted by the “secular arm,” but against the background of popular fanaticism engendered by religious indoctrination, ceremony, and hate. In May Rousseau’s Émile gave to the world the “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” which, though written by an opponent of thephilosophes, swept away from Christianity almost everything but belief in God and the ethics of Christ. The burning of the book on June 11 in Paris and on June 19 in Geneva seemed to unite Catholicism and Calvinism in a conspiracy against the human mind. In August the condemnation of the Jesuits by the Paris Parlement was apparently a triumph for the philosophes, but it was also a victory for the Jansenists who controlled the Parlements of Paris, Toulouse, and Rouen; and the actions of the parlements in the cases of Calas and La Barre made it clear that the Jansenists were as bitter enemies of intellectual freedom as any in the history of France. Meanwhile the hostility between the parlements and the court, and the growing ascendancy (1758–70) of the semi-Voltairean Choiseul in the government, gave the philosophes an opportunity to fight back with less than their usual danger from state censors and the police. The stage was set for the climax of the attack upon Christianity.
Now Voltaire spread and shouted the watchword of his ire, “Écrasez l’infâme! Crush the infamy!” He had begun to use the phrase in 1759; henceforth he repeated it a hundred times and in a dozen forms; occasionally he used it as a signature.69 A fresh vitality came to the sixty-eight-year-old Voltaire as he likened himself to Cato Senex crying out, at the end of his speeches to the Roman Senate, “Delenda est Carthago! Deleátur Carthago!” “I have the colic,” he wrote, “I suffer much; but when I attack l’infâme my pain is relieved.”70 With almost youthful enthusiasm, with incredible confidence, he set himself and a few hesitant aides to assail the most powerful institution in the history of mankind.
What did he mean by “the infamy”? Did he propose to crush superstition, fanaticism, obscurantism, and persecution? Or was he undertaking to destroy the Catholic Church, or all forms of Christianity, or all religion itself? Hardly the last, for we find him again and again, even amid the campaign, professing his theistic faith, sometimes in terms warm with Voltairean piety. In the Dictionnaire philosophique he defined religion indirectly: “Almost everything that goes beyond the adoration of a Supreme Being, and of submitting one’s heart to his eternal orders, is superstition.”71 This would seem to reject all forms of Christianity except Unitarianism. Voltaire repudiated nearly all the distinctive doctrines of traditional Christianity—original sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Eucharist; he ridiculed the “sacrifice” of God to God on the Cross, or by the priest in the Mass. Consequently he rejected most forms of Protestantism too; he reckoned Calvinism to be as obscurantist as Catholicism, and shocked the Genevan pastors by calling Calvin “atroce.” He thought he could live contentedly under the Established Church as he had seen it in England. He wrote to d’Alembert “I hope you will destroy l’infâme; that is the great point. It must be reduced to the state it has in England; and you will reach this end if you wish. This is the greatest service which we can render to the human race.”72 We may conclude that by l’infâme he meant not religion in general, but religion as organized to propagate superstition and mythology, to control education, and to oppose dissent with censorship and persecution. And such was Christianity as Voltaire saw it in history and in France.
So he burned all his bridges behind him, and called his cohorts to war. “To overturn the columns only five or six philosophes are needed who understand one another.… The vine of truth has been cultivated by the d’Alemberts, the Diderots, the Bolingbrokes, and the Humes,”73 but too sporadically, and without consistent plan. Now they must unite, and he takes it for granted that he will be their general. He advises them on tactics: “Strike, and hide your hand.… I hope that every year each of our fraternity will aim some arrows at the monster, without its learning from whose hand they came.”74 Let the brothers insinuate themselves into the academies, into posts of authority, if possible into the ministry. They need not convert the masses, they need only convert those men of initiative and power who lead the masses; see how one man, Peter the Great, changed the soul and face of Russia. And so Voltaire tried to enlist Frederick in the cause (January 5, 1767):
Sire, you are perfectly right: a wise and courageous prince, with money, troops, and laws, can quite well govern men without the aid of religion, which was made only to deceive them.… Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition. I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened, and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think.… ’Tis for you to feed their minds.… My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise.75
Frederick smiled at the old man’s naïveté, but Voltaire persisted, and not without some effect, as we may later see, on the cabinet ministers of France, Portugal, and Spain.
He welcomed lesser aides. He wrote apostolic exhortations to Bordes in Lyons, to Servan in Grenoble, to Pierre Rousseau in Bouillon, to Audibert in Marseilles, to Ribaute in Montauban, to the Marquis d’Argence in Charente, to the Abbé Audra in Toulouse. All these and others he called “les frères,” the brethren; to them he sent material and appeals, prodding them lest they sleep on their arms.
Attack, brothers, skillfully, all of you, l’infâme. What interests me is the propagation of the faith and of truth, the progress of philosophy, the suppression of l’infâme.
Drink to my health with brother Plato [Diderot], and écrasez l’infâme.
I embrace all my brethren. My health is pitiable. Écrasez l’infâme.
I embrace my brethren in Confucius, … in Lucretius, in Cicero, in Socrates, in Marcus Aurelius, in Julian, and in the communion of all our patriarchs.
My tender benediction to all the brethren. Orate fratres, et vigilate [pray, brothers, and watch]. Écrasez l’infâme.76
Now books became weapons, and literature became war. Not only did Diderot, d’Alembert, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Raynal, Morellet, and a dozen others bring their pens to the battle, but Voltaire himself, always dying, became a veritable armory of anticlerical missiles. Within a decade he sent forth some thirty booklets. He had no belief in the efficacy of large volumes.
What harm can a book [the Encyclopédie] do that costs a hundred crowns? … Twenty volumes folio will never create a revolution. It is the little portable volumes of thirty sous that are to be feared. If the Gospel had cost 1200 sesterces the Christian religion would never have been established.77
So he poured forth not merely histories and plays but pamphlets, stories, sermons, “instructions,” catechisms, diatribes, dialogues, letters, short critiques of the Bible or of Church history, anything that could circulate easily and prick the infâme. People called these productions petits pâtés—cookies, easy to digest. Long ago Frederick had written to him:
I imagine that somewhere in France there is a select society of superior and equal geniuses who all work together and publish their writings under the name of Voltaire.… If this supposition is true I shall become a Trinitarian, and shall begin to see daylight in this mystery which the Christians have hitherto believed without understanding.78
But now Voltaire did not write in the name of Voltaire. He used over a hundred different pseudonyms; and sometimes, in his impish humor, he ascribed his anti-Christian blasts to “the Archbishop of Canterbury” or “the Archbishop of Paris,” or an abbé, a pastor, or a monk. To throw the hounds of heaven off his trail he dedicated one of his pellets to himself. He knew printers in Paris, Amsterdam, the Hague, London, and Berlin; he used them in his campaign. Through Damilaville and others he had his brochures given free to booksellers, who sold them at low price and calculated risk. The seed went forth.
He published now (1762) that Sermon des cinquantes, or Sermon of the Fifty, which he had written at least ten years before and had read to Frederick at Potsdam. It was his first direct attack upon Christianity. It began quite innocently:
Fifty persons, educated, pious, and reasonable [the Quakers in London?], assembled every Sunday in a populous commercial city. They prayed, and one of them pronounced a discourse; then they dined; then they took up a collection for the poor. Each presided in turn, led the prayer, and pronounced the sermon. This is one of the prayers, and one of the sermons. …
God of all the globes and stars, … keep us from all superstition. If we insult you by unworthy sacrifices, abolish these infamous mysteries. If we dishonor the Divinity by absurd fables, may these fables perish forever.… Let men live and die in the worship of one sole God, … a God who could neither be born nor die.79
The sermon argued that the God revealed in the Old Testament is a boastful, jealous, angry, cruel, homicidal God, whom no sane person could worship, and that David was a scoundrel, a lecher, and a murderer. How could anyone believe such a book to be the word of God? And how from the Gospels could have come the incredible theology of Christianity, the easy, daily feat of turning a wafer into the body and blood of Christ, the innumerable relics, the sale of indulgences, the hatreds and holocausts of the religious wars?
We are told that the people need mysteries, and must be deceived. My brethren, dare anyone commit this outrage on humanity? Have not our fathers [the Reformers] taken from the people their transubstantiation, auricular confession, indulgences, exorcisms, false miracles, and ridiculous statues? Are not our people now accustomed to doing without these superstitions? We must have the courage to go a few steps further. The people are not so weak in mind as is supposed; they will easily admit a wise and simple cult of one God.… We seek not to despoil the clergy of what the liberality of their followers has given them; we wish them—since most of them secretly laugh at the falsehoods they teach—to join us in preaching the truth.… What incalculable good would be done by that happy change!80
All this is tiresome to us today, but it was revolutionary material in eighteenth-century France. No wonder Voltaire sent it forth under the pretense that it had been written by La Mettrie, who was safely dead.
In 1763 the warrior diverted himself with dramas, a worthless short story called “Blanc et noir,” and a little Catéchisme de l’honnête homme retailing his “natural religion.” But 1764 was a major year: Voltaire kept his printers busy with L’Évangile de la raison,and Examen de la religion (a modified edition of jean Meslier’s fiery Testament), and one of his most important publications: Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. It was not the immense tome of 824 large double-column pages that we have in one form today, or the five or eight volumes that it fills in his collected works; it was a small book, easy to hold or to conceal. The brevity of its articles, the simplicity and clarity of its style, carried it to a million readers in a dozen lands.
It is a remarkable production for one man. There are probably a thousand errors in it, but the vast accumulation of data, the erudition in almost every field, make the book one of the miracles in the history of literature. What industry, loquacity, pertinacity! Voltaire gossips; he has something to say on nearly everything, and almost always something of still-living interest. There are here many bits of frivolity, triviality, or superficiality; there are some foolish remarks (“The intellect of Europe has made greater progress in the last one hundred years than in the whole world before since the days of Brahma and Zoroaster”) ;81 but no man can be wise through a thousand pages, and no other man has ever been brilliant so long. Even etymologies are given, for Voltaire, like every curious reader, was attracted by the tribulations that words have suffered in their travels through time and space. And here, in the article “Abuse of Words”—and again in the article “Miracles”—is the famous Voltairean imperative “Define your terms!”
Essentially the book aimed to serve as an arsenal of arguments against Christianity as Voltaire knew it. Here once more are the incredibilities, absurdities, and scandals of the Bible, not only in the article “Contradictions,” but on almost every page. Who gave the Church the authority to pronounce “canonical” and God-inspired four of the fifty gospels that were written in the century after the death of Jesus? What a revealing oversight it was to speak of the Virgin Birth of Jesus and yet trace his genealogy to that rascal David through the allegedly fainéant Joseph! Why did Christianity reject the Mosaic Law despite Christ’s repeated confirmation of it? Was Paul, who rejected that Law (because of a little piece of skin) a greater authority than Christ?
The city fathers of Geneva did not like the Dictionnaire philosophique; on September 24, 1763, the Council of Twenty-five ordered the executioner to burn every copy that he could find. The Parlement of Paris ordered a similar bonfire in 1765; we have seen the fate of the book in Abbeville (1766). Voltaire assured the Genevan authorities that the Dictionary was the work of a corps of writers entirely unknown to him. Meanwhile he prepared supplementary articles for the four further editions that were secretly printed before the end of 1765, and he poured new material into the five additional editions that appeared before his death in 1778. He arranged with the conniving booksellers of Geneva to supply them with as many free copies as they could distribute, and with salesmen to leave copies at private doors.82
He continued the war with intensified passion in the years 1765–67. In 1764 he had finally abandoned his house at Les Délices in a Geneva too hot for his heresies; for almost three years he hardly stirred from his property at Ferney; and nearly every month he sent to some printer a new pamphlet against l’infâme. Les Questions de Zapata (March, 1767) pretended to be the queries put to a committee of theologians by a professor of theology at the University of Salamanca in 1629. Zapata confessed to doubts about the Star of Bethlehem, the supposed census of “the whole earth” by Augustus, the slaughter of the innocents, and the temptation of Jesus by Satan on a hill whence one could see all the kingdoms of the earth.” Where was that wonderful hill? Why had not Christ kept his promise to “come in a cloud, with power and great glory,” to establish the “kingdom of God” before “this generation shall pass away?”83 What had detained him? “Was the fog too thick?”84 “What must I do with those who dare to doubt? … Must I, for their edification, have the ordinary and extraordinary question [torture] put to them?” Or “would it not be better to avoid these labyrinths, and simply preach virtue?”85 The conclusion:
Zapata, receiving no answer, took to preaching God in all simplicity. He announced to men the common father, the rewarder, the punisher, the pardoner. He extricated the truth from the lies, and separated religion from fanaticism; he taught and practiced virtue. He was gentle, kindly, and modest, and he was burned at Valladolid in the year of grace 1631.86
In May, 1767, Voltaire returned to the attack more vigorously in a work of 105 pages, Examen important de milord Bolingbroke; here he put his arguments into the mouth of the dead Englishman, but Bolingbroke would probably have accepted the imposition. In the same year Voltaire published L’lngénu, a delightful 100-page story of an unbelievably virtuous Huron Indian brought to France from America, and confused by European customs and Christian theology. In 1769 came Le Cri des nations—an appeal to Catholic Europe to throw off the alleged sovereignty of popes over kings and states. Again in that year he sallied forth with a studious but impassioned Histoire du Parlement, condemning that body as a conspiracy of Jansenist reactionaries. And in 1770–72 he issued nine volumes as Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, a mélange of articles constituting another one-man encyclopedia, even more pointedly anti-Catholic than the Portatif.
Usually he disguised his publications with deceptive titles: Homily on the Interpretation of the Old Testament, Epistle to the Romans, Sermons of the Rev. Jacques Rossetes, Homily of Pastor Bourne, Counsels to the Fathers of Families. The educated public of France guessed that Voltaire had written them, for he could not disguise his style, but no one proved it. This exciting game became the talk of Paris and Geneva, and its echoes were heard in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, even in Vienna. Never in history had a writer played such hide-and-seek with such powerful enemies, and with such success. A hundred opponents tried to answer him; he rebutted them all, fighting back roughly, sometimes coarsely or unfairly; c’était la guerre. And he enjoyed it. In the ardor of battle he forgot to die.
Indeed, a strange new optimism came upon him, he who had seemed, after the Lisbon earthquake and Candide, to advise surrender to the evils of life as invincible. He dreamed of “philosophy” victorious over a Church entrenched in the needs of the people. If twelve unlettered fishermen had established Christianity, why could not twelve philosophes shake it out of its dogmas and Inquisitions? “Live happy and écrasez l’infâme” he wrote to one of the “brothers,” and he assured them, “We will crush it!”87 Were not a king, an empress, a royal mistress, and many other prominent persons openly or secretly on his side? He courted the court by attacking the Parlement of Paris; he enjoyed the favor of Mme. de Pompadour, and later of Mme. du Barry; he even hoped for the connivance of Louis XV. He wrote to d’Alembert in 1767: “Let us bless this happy revolution which has been produced in the minds of all honest men in the last fifteen or twenty years; it has surpassed my hopes.”88 Had he not foretold it? Had he not written to Helvétius, in 1760: “This century begins to see the triumph of reason”?89