The Triumph of the Philosophes



THERE was much to be said for Christianity, and its defenders said it with vigor, sometimes with blind misjudging of the age, sometimes with the grace and clarity that France expects even of theology. There were ecclesiastics who still insisted that any deviation from defined Catholic doctrine should be punished by the state, and that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was as legitimate as surgery.1 But there were others who took up the gage like gentlemen, and allowed the enemy to choose the weapon-reason. It was a gallant gesture, for when a religion consents to reason it begins to die.

Some nine hundred works in defense of Christianity were published in France between 1715 and 1789, ninety in one year (1770) alone.2 Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, Helvétius’ De l’Esprit, Rousseau’s Émile, drew ten refutations each. The Abbé Houteville, in La Religion chrétienne prouvée par les faits (1722), contended (like Archbishop Whately a century later) that the miracles proving the divinity of Christianity were as reliably attested as the accepted events of secular history. The Abbé Guyon spread through two volumes his satirical Oracle des nouveaux philosophes (1759–60). The Abbé Pluche spread out the Spectacle de la nature in eight volumes (1739–46); it went through eighteen costly editions; it displayed the wonders of science, and the evidences of design in nature, to manifest the existence of a Deity supreme in intelligence and power. If the human mind finds some puzzles in the immense scene, let it be modest; we must not reject God because we cannot understand him; meanwhile let us be grateful for the splendor and glory of his works. The Abbé Gauchat in fifteen volumes of Lettres critiques (1755–63) attacked the evolutionary hypotheses of Buffon, Diderot, and others with a reckless argument: “If men were once fishes, … one of two things followed: either man does not have a spiritual and immortal soul or fishes also have such a soul—two equally impious suppositions”;3 the philosophes gladly agreed. The Abbé Sigorgne, in La Philosophie chrétienne (1765), stressed the necessity of religion as a support for morality; purely secular restraints merely sharpen the wits of criminals who no longer believe in the all-seeing eye of God. In 1767 the Abbé Mayeul Chandon published a Dictionnaire antiphilosophique which went through seven editions. In 1770 Père Nonotte, “an ex-Jesuit with the vast erudition of the members of this order,”4 issued his massive Erreurs de Voltaire; this book sold out four editions in its first year, six in eight years; as late as 1857 Flaubert listed it as part of the reading of Emma Bovary. The Abbé Guénée defended the Bible with “spirit, taste, urbanity, and learning” in Lettres de quelques Juifs (1776), letters purporting to come from learned Jews; Voltaire admitted that Guénée “bites to the blood.”5 Catholic apologists, lay and clerical, directed a monthly barrage against the philosophesin La Religion vengée; and in 1771 they began to publish an Encyclopedic méthodique vaster even then Diderot’s, and attacking every weak point in that citadel of doubt.

The materialists encountered an able opponent in Nicolas Sylvestre Bergier, a parish priest in the diocese of Besançon. His Déisme réfuté par lui-même (1765) was “the answer of a real curé to the Savoyard Vicar of Rousseau’s imagination.”6 For his Certitude des preuves du Christianisme (1767) he received a letter of praise from the Pope. At the age of fifty-one (1769)he was elevated to a canonry in Notre-Dame-de-Paris, and became confessor to the daughters of Louis XV”. In that year he published an Apologie de la religion chrétienne contre l’auteur du Christianisme dévoilé—a blast against d’Holbach. Pleased, the Assembly of the Clergy voted him (1770) an annual pension of two thousand livres to give him more leisure to defend the faith. Within a year he issued a two-volume Examen du matérialisme, a reply to d’Holbach’s Système de la nature. He pointed out again that mind is the only reality immediately known to us; why should it be reduced to something else known only through mind?7 He charged d’Holbach with several inconsistencies: (1) the Baron pronounced God to be unknowable, but then applied to matter those qualities of infinity and eternity which he had found unintelligible in our concept of the Deity; (2) he accepted determinism, and yet exhorted men to reform their conduct; (3) he attributed religion (a) to the ignorance of primitive man, (b) to the chicanery of priests, (c) to the cunning of lawmakers—let him make up his mind. The abbé put aside the criticism of the Old Testament by explaining that the human amanuenses of God had used Oriental metaphors; therefore the Bible must not always be taken literally. The New Testament is the essence of Christianity; the divinity of the religion is proved by the life and miracles of Christ; however, the authority of the Church rests not on the Bible only, but on the Apostolic Succession of her bishops and their traditions of the faith. In Examen de la religion chrétienne (1771) Bergier stressed the argument that atheism, despite the exceptional individualities signalized by Bayle, would ruin morality.

The finest figure among the clerical defenders of Catholicism in eighteenth-century France was Guillaume François Berthier.8 Entering at the age of twelve (1714) the Jesuit college at Bourges, he distinguished himself by a keenness of mind that did no visible harm to his piety. At seventeen he expressed to his parents his desire to join the Society of Jesus; they bade him think it over for a year; he did, and persisted. In his novitiate at Paris he read, studied, and prayed so assiduously that he seldom gave more than five hours a day to sleep. He developed so rapidly that at nineteen he was appointed to teach the humanities at the Collège de Blois. After seven years there, and another year of novitiate, he was sent to Rennes, then to Rouen, as professor of philosophy. In 1745 the Jesuits made him editor of their Journal de Trévoux, which was then published in Paris. Under his leadership this periodical became one of the most respected voices of educated France.

He wrote most of the Journal himself. He lived in a small cell, never heated, and worked every hour of the waking day. His door was open to all who came; his mind was open on every subject but the faith that warmed his life. La Harpe, a pupil of Voltaire, described Berthier as “that man universally admired by scholars for his vast knowledge, and by all Europe for his modest virtues.”9 He had the charm of French courtesy, even in controversy; he attacked ideas, not characters, and praised the talents of his opponents.10 Nevertheless, he defended religious intolerance. Believing that the Catholic Church had been founded by Christ the Son of God, he held it a Christian duty to prevent, by any peaceful means, the dissemination of religious error; in a Christian nation anti-Christian propaganda should be banned as injurious to moral conduct and the stability of the state. He thought “it would be wrong to confound Catholic intolerance with zeal for persecution,”11 but he offered no promise that persecution would not be resumed. In 1759 he retorted the charge of intolerance upon the philosophes: “Unbelievers, you accuse us of a fanaticism which we do not have a semblance of possessing, while the hatred which animates you against our religion inspires in you a fanaticism whose too apparent excesses are inconceivable.”12

He did not admit the universal finality of reason. Even on Locke’s sensationist terms, reason can reach only as far as the senses; beyond these limits there are realities that must forever remain mysteries to finite minds; therefore the “true philosopher limits his search where he cannot reasonably penetrate.”13 To seek to subject the universe, or the traditional and general beliefs of mankind, to the test of individual reason is a form of intellectual pride; a modest man will accept the creed of his fellow men, even if he cannot understand it. In a rare mean moment Berthier suggested that many unbelievers reject religion because it interferes with their pleasures. If such libertins should prevail, he predicted, the moral code would collapse, passion would be loosed, and civilization would disappear in a morass of self-seeking, sensualism, deceit, and crime. If there is no free will, there is no moral responsibility; “since it [determinism] does not admit any law binding the conscience, the only guilty person will be the one who does not succeed.”14Morality would then be merely a calculus of expediency; no sense of justice would restrain the clever minority from abusing the simplicity of the majority; no ruler would feel any other obligation to his people than to keep his exploitation of them this side of revolution.15

Berthier, as we have seen, welcomed and commended the first volume of the Encyclopédie. He exposed its inaccuracies and plagiarisms with incontestable scholarship; so he showed that the article “Agir” (To Act), by the Abbé Yvon, extending to three columns in folio, was taken “completely and word for word from Father Buffier’s Traité des vérités premieres16 He praised the article on Arab philosophy, but expressed dismay at finding in the article “Athée” the arguments for atheism laid out at the same length, and with the same force, as those against it, leaving the existence of God in serious doubt. When, in Volume II, the anti-Christian bent became more evident, he attacked it with verve and skill. He pointed out that the Encyclopédie derived the authority of a government from the consent of the governed; this, said Berthier, is a view dangerous to hereditary monarchy. He may have been instrumental in having the Encylopédie repressed.17

In the Journal de Trévoux for April, 1757, he examined Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs. “It is sad for us to find here a living author whose talents we admire, [but who] abuses them in the most essential matters.” He saw in Voltaire’s work an attempt “to destroy the Church and religion, to elevate upon their ruins a philosophic structure, a temple dedicated to license of thought, and vowed to independence from all authority, to reduce and restrict worship and morality to a philosophy purely human and secular.” He charged Voltaire with a bias that disgraced the historian, with an almost complete blindness to the virtues and services of Christianity, and a passionate resolve to find every possible fault in its teachings and career. Voltaire, he said, pretended to believe in God, but the effect of his writings was to promote atheism. When, in the same issue, Berthier turned to Voltaire’s La Pucelle, he lost his temper and cried out:

Never has hell vomited up a more deadly plague… . Voluptuousness here impudently displays the most lewd pictures; obscenity borrows the language of the market place; … the basest buffoonery seasons its impiety… . The odor given off by these verses is enough to infect and corrupt every age and condition in society.18

Voltaire did not hurry to reply. He still entertained an affectionate remembrance of his Jesuit teachers, still had on the walls of his study at Ferney a portrait of the kindly and devoted Father Porée.19 But when the French government suppressed the Encyclopédie he yielded to d’Alembert’s urging, and took up arms against Berthier. He accused him of opposing the Encyclopédie because it competed with the Dictionnaire de Trévoux, which he supposed to be a Jesuit product (it was so only in part, and unofficially); and he invited the Society of Jesus to dissociate itself from this “gazetteer” of Trévoux. “What an employment for a priest, … to sell every month, from a bookstore, an anthology of slander and rash judgments!”20 Berthier answered (July, 1759) that the editors of theJournal de Trévoux had no connection with the editors of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux; he confessed that being a “gazetteer” was “neither beautiful nor agreeable,” but he upheld the right of a priest to use a periodical to praise good works and censure bad. He regretted that Voltaire had stooped to personalities and charges of venality; and he ended by expressing the hope that “this man of fine talents” would, in “the remaining moments which Providence is allowing him,” return to “that holy religion—not only the natural but the Christian and the Catholic—in which he was born.”21 In November Voltaire (doubtless remembering Swift’s imaginary burial of John Partridge) issued a solemn Relation de la maladie, la confession, la mort, et l’apparition du jésuite Berthier,telling how the editor had died of a fit of yawning over the Journal de Trévoux. He excused his method of controversy in a letter to Mme. d’Épinay: “We must render l’infâme and its defenders ridiculous.”22

In 1762 the parlements of France ordered the suppression of the Jesuits. Glad to end his travail as editor, Berthier went to a Trappist monastery for a silent and meditative retreat. He asked to be admitted to that order, but the general of the Jesuits refused to release him. He was engaged by Louis XV to tutor the royal children, but when the King (1764) signed the decree expelling all Jesuits from France, Berthier emigrated to Germany. In 1776 he was allowed to return. He lived in retirement with his brother in Bourges, and died there, aged seventy-eight, in 1782. He was a good man.

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