A tantalizing problem remained. Could a state survive without a religion to buttress social order with supernatural hopes and fears? Could popular morality be maintained without popular belief in the divine origin of the moral code, and in a God who saw everything, who rewarded and avenged? The philosophes (excepting Voltaire) claimed that such motives were not needed for morality; granting that this might be true about the cultured few, was it true about the rest? And was the morality of the cultured few an ethical echo of the faith they had lost, of the religious rearing they had received?
The philosophes gambled on the efficacy of a natural ethic. Voltaire had his doubts about it, but Diderot, d’Alembert, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Mably, Turgot, and others argued for a morality that would be independent of theology, and therefore strong enough to survive the vicissitudes of belief. Bayle had led the way by arguing that atheists would be just as moral as believers; but he had defined morality as the habit of conformity with reason, he had assumed that man is a rational animal, and he had left reason undefined. Should society or the individual be judge of what was reasonable? If “society” and the individual disagreed, what but force could decide between them? Would social order be merely a contest between the enforcement and the evasion of the law, and would morality merely calculate the chances of detection? F. V. Toussaint had expounded a natural ethic in Les Moeurs (1748); he too had defined virtue as “fidelity in fulfilling the obligations imposed by reason”;85 but how many men could reason, or did reason if they could? And was not character (which determined action) formed before reason developed, and was not reason the harlot of the strongest desire? These were some of the problems that confronted a natural ethic.
Most of the philosophes accepted the universality of self-love as the basic source of all conscious action, but they trusted that education, legislation, and reason could turn self-love to mutual co-operation and social order. D’Alembert confidently rested natural morality on
one single and incontrovertible fact—the need that men have of one another, and the reciprocal obligations which that need imposes. This much being granted, all the moral laws follow from it in orderly and ineluctable sequence. All questions that have to do with morals have a solution ready to hand in the heart of each one of us—a solution which our passions sometimes circumvent, but which they never destroy. And the solution of each particular question leads … to the parent stem, and that, of course, is our own self-interest which is the basic principle of all moral obligations.86
Some of the philosophes recognized that this assumed a general predominance of reason in the generality of men—that is, a self-interest sufficiently “enlightened” to see the results of the ego’s choice in a perspective large enough to reconcile the selfishness of the individual with the good of the group. Voltaire did not share this trust in the intelligence of egoism; reasoning seemed to him a very exceptional operation. He preferred to base his ethic on the reality of an altruism independent of self-love, and he derived this altruism from a sense of justice infused into men by God. The frères condemned him as surrendering the case to religion.
Having assumed the universality of self-love, the philosophes in general concluded that happiness is the supreme good, and that all pleasures are permissible if they do no harm to the group or to the individual himself. Borrowing the methods of the Church, Grimm, d’Holbach, Mably, and Saint-Lambert wrote catechisms expounding the new morality. Saint-Lambert addressed his Catéchisme universel to children of twelve or thirteen years:
Q. What is man?
A. A being possessed of feeling and understanding.
Q. That being so, what should he do?
A. Pursue pleasure and avoid pain.
Q. Is this not self-love?
A. It is the necessary effect thereof.
Q. Does self-love exist in all men alike?
A. It does, because all men aim at self-preservation and at attaining happiness.
Q. What do you understand by happiness?
A. A continuous state in which we experience more pleasure than pain.
Q. What must we do to attain this state?
A. Cultivate our reason and act in accord therewith.
Q. What is reason?
A. The knowledge of truths that conduce to our well-being.
Q. Does not self-love always lead us to discover those truths and act in accord with them?
A. No, for all men do not know how self-love should be practiced.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. I mean that some men love themselves rightly, and others wrongly.
Q. Who are those who love themselves rightly?
A. Those who seek to know one another, and who do not separate their own happiness from the happiness of others.87
In their practical ethics the philosophes built upon their memories of Christian morality. For the worship of God, Mary, and the saints, which had indirectly aided morality, they substituted direct devotion to mankind. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre had proposed a new word for an old virtue—bienfaisance, which we weakly translate as beneficence, but which meant active mutual aid, and co-operation with others in common beneficent tasks. Along with this the philosophes stressed humanité, which meant humaneness, humanitarianism. This had its roots in the second of the two commandments enunciated by Christ. Raynal, when he branded as inhuman the cruelty of Europeans to Negroes and Indians (East and West), must have known that a Spanish bishop, Las Casas, had led the way in such condemnation in 1539. But the fresh enthusiasm for helping the poor, the sick, and the oppressed was due chiefly to the philosophes, and above all to Voltaire. To his persistent campaigns was due the reform of law in France. The French clergy had been noted for their charity, but they now had the experience of seeing the practical ethics of Christianity preached with remarkable success by the philosophes. Morality grew more independent of religion; in the fields of humaneness, sympathy, toleration, philanthropy, and peace it passed from a theological to a secular basis, and influenced society as seldom before.
Faced with the moral problems generated by war, the philosophes avoided pacifism while counseling peace. Voltaire admitted wars of defense, but he argued that war is robbery, that it impoverishes the victorious nation as well as the defeated, that it enriches only a few princes, war contractors, and royal mistresses. He protested Frederick’s invasion of Silesia and probably had it in mind when, in a passionate article, “War,” in the Dictionnaire philosophique , he explained how easily a royal conscience can be reconciled to aggression:
A genealogist proves to a prince that he descends in a direct line from a count, whose parents made a family compact three or four centuries ago with a house the memory of which does not even exist. That house had distant pretensions to a province… . The prince and his council see his right at once. This province, which is some hundred leagues distant from him, in vain protests that it knows him not, that it has no desire to be governed by him, that to give laws to its people he must at least have their consent… . He immediately assembles a great number of men who have nothing to lose, dresses them in coarse blue cloth, … makes them turn to the right and left, and marches to glory.
Nevertheless, Voltaire advised Catherine II to take up arms and drive the Turks from Europe; he wrote a patriotic elegy for the officers who had died for France in 1741; and he blessed the army of France in its victory at Fontenoy.
The philosophes rejected nationalism and patriotism on the ground that these emotions narrowed the conceptions of humanity and moral obligation and made it easier for kings to lead their people into war. The article “Patrie” in the Dictionnaire philosophiquecondemned patriotism as incorporated egotism. Voltaire begged the French to moderate their boasting of superiority in language, literature, art, and war, and reminded them of their faults, crimes, and defects.88 Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert in France, like Lessing, Kant, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller in Germany, were “good Europeans,” and Frenchmen or Germans afterward. As one religion and one language had promoted cosmopolitanism in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, so cosmopolitanism developed on the Continent as a result of the spread of the French language and culture. Rousseau in 1755 spoke of “those great cosmopolitan minds that make light of the barriers designed to sunder nation from nation, and who, like the Sovereign Power that created them, embrace all mankind within the scope of their benevolence.”89 Elsewhere he wrote, with characteristic exaggeration: “There are no longer Frenchmen or Germans, … there are only Europeans.”90 This was true only of the nobility and the intelligentsia, but in those strata the cosmopolitan spirit extended from Paris to Naples and St. Petersburg. Even in wartime aristocrats and literati mingled with others of their class across frontiers; Hume, Horace Walpole, Gibbon, and Adam Smith were welcomed in Parisian society while England and France were at war, and the Prince de Ligne felt at home in almost any European capital. Soldiers too had a bit of this internationalism. “Every German officer,” said Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, “should feel honored to serve under the French flag”;91 an entire regiment in the French army—the Allemands Royaux—was composed of Germans. The Revolution put an end to this cosmopolitan camaraderie of manners and minds; the ascendancy of France faded, and nationalism advanced.
So the intellectual revolt, which in part had risen out of a moral revulsion against the cruelties of gods and priests, passed from a rejection of the old theology to an ethic of universal brotherhood that was derived from the finest aspect of the superseded faith. But the question whether a moral code unsupported by religion could maintain social order remained unsolved. It is still with us; we live in that critical experiment.