The war became bloodier when cassocks and courtesies were discarded and the journalists set their sights on the philosophes; now all the wit and vocabulary of Paris were brought to bear and to kill. We have seen how Voltaire in 1725 went to some trouble to save Pierre Desfontaines from the statutory punishment for homosexual acts, which was death. Desfontaines never forgave him. In 1735 he began a periodical publication, Observations sur les écrits modernes, which continued till 1743. In its pages he made himself the defender of all the virtues, chastity in particular; he attacked with indignation any sign of lax morality, or of imperfect orthodoxy, in the literature of the day. He became the bitterest enemy of Voltaire. When he died (1745) he bequeathed his crusade to his friend Fréron.
Élie Catherine Fréron was the ablest, bravest, and most learned of the antiphilosophes. He was scholar enough to write an Histoire de Marie Stuart (1742) and an eight-volume Histoire de l’empire d’Allemagne (1771). He was poet enough to compose an “Ode sur la bataille de Fontenoy” (1745), which Voltaire must have viewed as insolent competition with his own ode as royal historiographer. He founded in 1745 a periodical, Lettres sur quelques écrits de cette âge, which more than once drew blood from Voltaire. Fréron had his years of poverty en route to a coach-and-four; once he suffered six weeks of imprisonment in the Bastille for criticizing an influential abbé; but he fought for thirty years his lusty battle for the past. He harbored some intelligible resentment against Voltaire for dissuading Frederick from hiring him as Paris correspondent.23 In 1754 he founded a new review, Année litteraire, which he edited and mostly wrote, and published every ten days until 1774.
Fréron admired the religious conservatism of Bossuet, and the stately ways and style of the seventeenth century; he felt that the philosophes had a culpably superficial understanding of social organization, the supports of morality, and the consolations of faith.
Never was there an age more fertile than ours in seditious writers, who … concentrate all their powers on attacking the Godhead. They call themselves apostles of humanity, never realizing that it ill befits a citizen, and does a grave disservice to mankind, to rob them of the only hopes which offer them some mitigation of their life’s ills. They do not understand that they are upsetting the social order, inciting the poor against the rich, the weak against the strong, and putting arms into millions of hands hitherto restrained from violence by their moral and religious sense quite as much as by the law.24
This attack upon religion, Fréron predicted, would loosen all the foundations of the state. He anticipated by a generation the warnings of Edmund Burke.
Is not the fanaticism of your irreligion more absurd and more dangerous than the fanaticism of superstition? Begin by tolerating the faith of your fathers. You talk of nothing but tolerance, and never was a sect more intolerant.… As for me, I hold to no cabal of bel esprit, and to no party except that of religion, morality, and honor.25
Fréron was an acute critic. He lost no chance to puncture the sensitive vanity of the philosophes. He made fun of their dogmaticism, and of Voltaire’s seignorial pretensions as “Comte de Tournay.” When they replied by calling him a rascal and a bigot, he retaliated by calling Diderot a hypocrite, Grimm a sycophant of foreign notables, and the whole infidel group “knaves, crooks, puppies, and scoundrels.”26 He accused the Encyclopedists of stealing illustrations from Réaumur’s book on ants; they denied the charge; the Académie des Sciences supported their denial; later facts substantiated the charge.27 He did not do so well in re Calas; he suggested that the evidence indicated Calas’ guilt, and he wrote that Voltaire, in defending Calas, “was not so much carried away by the feeling of humanity as by the urge to recall public attention to his existence,” and “to make people talk about him.”28 Mlle. Clairon, a leading tragédienne, liked and visited Voltaire; Fréron sedulously praised her rival, and dropped hints about the immoral private life of a certain actress. The actors resented his allegations as undue interference with their personal affairs; the Duc de Richelieu, no persecutor of adultery, persuaded Louis XV to order Fréron back to the Bastille, but the Queen secured his pardon “for his piety and zeal in combating the philosophes” 29 When Turgot, friend of the philosophes, rose to power, the privilège of the Année litteraire was withdrawn (1774). Fréron comforted himself with good food, and died of a hearty meal (1776). His widow asked Voltaire to adopt his daughter, but Voltaire thought that this would be carrying gallantry to extremes.
Almost as damaging to the philosophes as Fréron’s thirty volumes was one word—the last in the title of Jacob Nicolas Moreau’s satire, Nouveau Mémoire pour servir à l’histoire des cacouacs (1757). The Cacouacs, said Moreau, were a species of barely human animals who carried a pouch of poison under their tongues; when they spoke, this venom mingled with their words and polluted all the surrounding air. The clever author quoted passages from Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire, and Rousseau; he argued that these men were veritable poisoners of the breath of life, and he charged them with doing evil “precisely for the pleasure of doing evil.”30 He called them atheists, anarchists, immoralists, egoists; but it was the term cacouac that pained them most keenly; it suggested the cacophony of quacking ducks, the bedlam of insane prattlers, sometimes (as the word intended) the odor of latrines. Voltaire struggled to reply, but who can refute a smell?
The conservatives took courage and multiplied their blows. In 1757 they won an ambitious and vivacious recruit. Charles Palissot de Monteney had visited Voltaire at Les Délices (1754), with an introduction by Thieriot as “a disciple formed by your works.”31 A year later he staged at Nancy a comedy genially satirizing Rousseau. In Paris he cultivated the young and devout Princesse de Robecq, who was at least the friend of the Duc de Choiseul. Diderot, adept in faux-pas, had censured her morals in the preface to hisFils naturel. Perhaps to placate her, Palissot published (1757) Petites Lettres sur de grands philosophes, severely criticizing Diderot but praising Voltaire. And on May 2, 1760, under the patronage of Mille, de Robecq, he offered at the Théâtre-Français the outstanding comedy of the season, Les Philosophes. This was to Helvétius, Diderot, and Rousseau what the Clouds of Aristophanes had been to Socrates 2,183 years before. Helvétius was portrayed as the philosopher-pedant Valère, who explains the altruism of egoism to the bluestocking Cidalise; the audience at once recognized in this lady Mme. Geoffrin, whose salon was frequented by the philosophes. Diderot was portrayed as Dortidius. In the servant Crispin, who moved across the stage on all fours, munching lettuce, the Parisians saw a caricature of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had in 1750 denounced civilization and idealized a “state of nature.” It was crude but legitimate satire, and everyone but the victims enjoyed it. Mlle, de Robecq had packed the house with her friends, other dévots, and several members of the hierarchy. The Princess herself, though dying of tuberculosis, insisted on gracing the première with her feverish beauty; at the end of the second act she had Palissot summoned to her box, and publicly embraced him; then, coughing blood, she was carried home.32 In twenty-nine days Les Philosophes was played fourteen times.
Meanwhile a loftier figure had joined in the attack upon the unbelievers. Jean Jacques Le Franc, Marquis de Pompignan, a provincial magistrate, wrote poems and plays significant enough to win him election to the Academy. In his speech of acceptance he denounced
this deceptive philosophy, which calls itself the organ of truth and serves as an instrument of calumny. It vaunts its own moderation and modesty, and swells with importance and pride. Its followers, bold and haughty with the pen, tremble basely in their lives. There is nothing sure in their principles, no consolation in their ethics, no rule for the present, no goal for the future.33
Louis XV praised the speech. Voltaire made fun of it in an anonymous seven-page pamphlet entitled Les Quand, each paragraph beginning with the word quand—when. For example:
When one has the honor to be received into an honorable society of men of letters, it is not necessary that his reception speech be a satire on men of letters; this is to insult the society and the public… .
When one is scarcely a man of letters at all, and not in the least a philosopher, it does not become him to say that our nation has only a false literature and a vain philosophy …
and so forth, not very brilliantly. But then Morellet followed with a broadsheet of ifs (Les Si), and, soon afterward, one of wherefores (Les Pourquoi); and Voltaire added successive sheets of tos, thats, whos, yesses, noes, and whys. Pompignan fled from this hurricane to his native Montauban, and never appeared in the Academy again. But in 1772 he returned to the conflict with La Religion vengée de l’incrédulité par l’incrédulité même. Materialism, he urged, left no real sanction for morality; if there is no God everything is permitted; all we need do is to elude the police. And if there is no heaven, “how,” asked the Marquis, “will you persuade men that they should be satisfied with the position of subordination that the republic allots them?”34
The Abbé Galiani, coming from Naples to Paris in 1761, and for eight years shining in the salons, told the philosophes—who loved him—that the plea of some of them to “follow nature” was a counsel of madness that would reduce civilized men to brutality and savagery;35 that the evidences of design in the universe were overwhelming;36 and that skepticism led to intellectual emptiness and spiritual despair:
By dint of enlightening ourselves we have found more void than fullness… . This void, persisting in our souls and our imagination, is the true cause of our melancholy.37 … After all is said and done, incredulity is the greatest effort the spirit of man may make against his own instincts and tastes… . Men need certainty… . The majority of men, and especially of women (whose imagination is double ours) … could not be agnostic; and those capable of agnosticism would be able to sustain the effort only at the height of their souls’ youth and strength. If the soul grows old, some belief reappears.38… Agnosticism is a reasoned despair [un désespoir raisonné].39
Against the brilliant Galiani, the learned Bergier, the courteous Berthier, the industrious Fréron, the titled Pompignan, the tantalizing Palissot, and the cackling Moreau the philosophes used every weapon of intellectual war, from reason and ridicule to censorship and vituperation. Voltaire gave up his peace, risked his security, to answer, often with more wit than argument, every assailant of philosophie and raison. “Send me the names of these miserable fellows,” he wrote to Diderot, “and I will treat them as they deserve.”40
It was difficult to get at Moreau, for he was librarian and historiographer to the Queen. But Pompignan could be pilloried with particles, and Palissot could be punctured with puns. So Marmontel wrote, quite untranslatably:
Cet homme avait nom Pali.
On dit d’abord Palis fade,
Puis Palis fou, Palis flat;
Palis froid et Palis fat;
Pour couronner la tirade
En fin de turlupinade,
On rencontra le vrai mot:
On le nomma Palis-sot.
M’abaissant jusqu’à toi,
Je joue avec le mot;
Réfléchis, si tu peux,
Mais n’écris pas.. .lis… sot.
This man had once the name Pali.
At first they called him Palis Dull,
Then Palis Low and Palis Fool,
Palis Vain and Palis Cool.
To top all the tirade
And end the pasquinade,
The fit word came at once—
They named him Palis Dunce.
To come down to your level
I with the word must revel.
Reflect, if you can use that tool,
But write not; rather read, you fool.
Diderot postponed his revenge till he retailed Pallissot’s debauchery in Le Neveu de Rameau;41 it was hardly worthy of a philosopher, but he had the decency not to publish it, and it did not see French print till after its victim’s death. Morellet, however, sent forth at once a stinging satire, lampooning not only Palissot but his protectrice, Mille, de Robecq. Her friends at court had Morellet committed to the Bastille (June 11, 1760), and she made matters worse for him by dying (June 26). Rousseau secured his release, but henceforth dissociated himself from the philosophes. Palissot tarnished his triumph with dissipation. In 1778 he turned with the Voltairean tide, and rejoined the philosophes.
Their heaviest blows fell upon Fréron. Diderot described him, in Le Neveu,42 as one of a group of literary hacks who lived by eating at the table of the millionaire Bertin. Voltaire devoted one of his cleverest quips to Fréron:
L’autre jour, au fond d’un vallon,
Un serpent piqua Jean Fréron.
Que pensez-vous qu’il arriva?
Ce fut le serpent qui crevaI
Typical of the grossness that often interrupted the good manners of Voltaire and the eighteenth century was his description of Fréron as “le ver sorti du cul de Desfontaines” (the worm that came out of Desfontaines’ behind).43 But the grand attack came in Voltaire’s play L’Écossaise (The Lady from Scotland), which opened at the Théâtre-FranÇais on July 26, 1760. It burlesqued Palissot’s Les Philosophes with obvious exaggerations by ascribing to his victims the responsibility for the defeats of the French armies in war and the collapse of the state finances. Fréron was pictured as a Grub Street scribbler who manufactured infamy at one pistole per paragraph. Among the terms applied to him in Voltaire’s play were scoundrel, toad, hound, spy, lizard, snake, and heart of filth.44 Voltaire followed custom by packing the house with friends of himself or the frères. The play rivaled Palissot’s in popularity, appearing sixteen times in five weeks. Fréron rode out the storm by attending the première with his pretty wife and conspicuously leading the applause. Voltaire recognized the mettle of his antagonist. When a visitor asked whom he should consult in Paris on the merits of new books, Voltaire replied, “Apply to that villain Fréron; … he is the only man who has taste. I am obliged to confess it, though I love him not.”45