VI. RELIGION IN RETREAT

Meanwhile, for the time being, the philosophes appeared to have won their war against Christianity. That admirably impartial historian Henri Martin described the people of France in 1762 as “a generation which had no belief in Christianity.”92 In 1770 theavocat général Séguier reported:

The philosophes have with one hand sought to shake the throne, and with the other to upset the altars. Their purpose was to change public opinion on civil and religious institutions, and that revolution, so to speak, has been effected. History and poetry, romances and even dictionaries have been infected with the poison of incredulity. Their writings are hardly published before they inundate the provinces like a torrent. The contagion has spread into workshops and cottages.93

As if to illustrate this report, Sylvan Maréchal compiled in 1771 a Dictionnaire des athées, which he expanded somewhat by including Abélard, Boccaccio, and Bishop Berkeley.94 In 1775 the Archbishop of Toulouse declared that “le monstrueux athéisme est devenu l’opinion dominante”95 Mme. du Deffand supposed that belief in the Christian miracles was as extinct as belief in the Greek mythology.96 The Devil survived as an expletive, hell as a jest;97 and the heaven of theology had been upset in space by the new astronomy, just as it recedes from space with the planetary explorations of our age. De Tocqueville spoke in 1856 of “the universal discredit into which all religious belief fell at the end of the eighteenth century.”98

All these statements were exaggerated, and were probably made with Paris and the upper and literate classes in mind. Lecky’s judgment was more discriminating: “The anti-Christian literature represented the opinions, and met the demands, of the great body of the educated classes; and crowds of administrators in all departments [of the government] connived at, or favored, its circulation.”99 The French masses still cherished the medieval faith as the prop and poetry of their toilsome lives. They accepted not only old miracles but new ones. Peddlers found a profitable market for miracle-working statuettes of the Virgin.100 Statues and relics were carried in processions to avert or end some public calamity. The churches, even in Paris, were filled on the great festivals of the religious year, and the church bells caroled through the city their reverberating invitations. Religious confraternities numbered many members, at least in the provincial towns. “Frère” Servan, writing from Grenoble to d’Alembert (1767), assured him: “You would be astonished at the progress of philosophy in these barbarous regions”; and at Dijon there were sixty sets of the Encyclopédie. But these cases were exceptional; by and large the provincial bourgeoisie remained faithful to the Church.

In Paris the new movement reached every class. The workers were increasingly anticlerical; the cafés had long since dismissed God. A nobleman told how his hairdresser said to him, while powdering his hair: “You see, sir, though I am a miserable scrub, I have no more religion than anyone else.”101 The women of the proletariat carried on the old worship, and fondly fingered their rosaries. Fashionable women, however, followed the philosophic mode, dispensing with religion until they reached desiccation; nearly all of them sent for the priest when they were sure of imminent death. Most of the major salons belonged to the philosophes. Mme. du Deffand despised these men, but Mme. Geoffrin let them dominate her dinners; d’Alembert, Turgot, and Condorcet reigned around Mille, de Lespinasse, and Grimm presided for Mme. d’Épinay. Horace Walpole described the intellectual atmosphere of the salons in 1765:

There is God and the King to be pulled down; … men and women are devoutly employed in the demolition. They think me quite profane for having any belief left.102 … The philosophes are insupportable, superficial, overbearing, and fanatic; they preach incessantly, and their avowed doctrine is atheism; you would not believe how openly. Don’t wonder, therefore, if I should return a Jesuit.103

Nevertheless the Academy chose nine philosophes to its membership in the fourteen elections between 1760 and 1770; and in 1772 it made d’Alembert its permanent secretary.

The nobles consumed with anticlerical delight the offerings of the esprits forts. “Atheism was universal in high society,” reported Lamothe-Langon; “to believe in God was an invitation to ridicule.”104 “After 1771 irreligion prevailed in the aristocracy.”105 The Duchesse d’Enville and the Duchesses de Choiseul, Gramont, Montesson, and Tessé were deists. Men high in the government—Choiseul, Rohan, Maurepas, Beauvau, Chauvelin—mingled amiably with d’Alembert, Turgot, Condorcet. Meanwhile thephilosophesexplained to France that feudalism had outlived its usefulness, that hereditary privileges were injustice fossilized, that a good shoemaker is better than a wastrel lord, and that all power stems from the people.

Even the clergy took the contagion. Chamfort in 1769 measured the degree of sacerdotal unbelief with the grades of the hierarchy: “The priest must believe a little; … the vicar can smile at a proposition against religion; the bishop laughs outright; the cardinal adds his own quip.”106 Diderot and d’Holbach numbered several skeptical abbés among their friends. The Abbés Torné, Fauchet, Maury, de Beauvais, and de Boulogne “were among the most outspoken of the philosophes.”107 We hear of a “Société de Prêtres Beaux-Esprits”; some of these “witty priests” were deists, some were atheists—Mesliers come to life. Priestley, dining with Turgot in 1774, was informed by the Marquis de Chastellux “that the two gentlemen opposite were the Bishop of Aix and the Archbishop of Toulouse, but ’they are no more believers than you or I.’ I assured him that I was a believer, and M. Le Roy, the philosopher, told me that I was the only man of sense he knew that was a Christian.”108

Even in the monasteries atheism had some friends. Dom Collignon, to avoid scandal, had his two mistresses at his table only when his other guests were trusted friends; he did not allow the Apostles’ Creed to interfere with his pleasures, but he considered religion an admirable institution for maintaining morals among commoners.109 Diderot told (1769) of a day he had passed with two monks:

One of them read the first draft of a very fresh and very vigorous treatise on atheism, full of new and bold ideas; I learned with edification that this was the current doctrine in their cloisters. For the rest, these two monks were the “big bonnets” of their monasteries. They had intellect, gaiety, good feeling, knowledge.110

A fervent Catholic historian tells us that toward the end of the eighteenth century “a sentiment of contempt, exaggerated but universal, had replaced everywhere the profound veneration which the great monasteries had so long inspired in the Catholic world.”111

The growth of toleration resulted chiefly from the decline of religious belief; it is easier to be tolerant when we are indifferent. Voltaire’s success in the cases of Calas and the Sirvens moved several provincial governors to recommend to the central government a mitigation of the laws against Protestants. This was done. The edicts against heresy were not repealed, but they were only mildly enforced; the Huguenots were left in peace, as Voltaire had proposed. The Parlement of Toulouse showed its repentance by extending toleration to a degree that alarmed the King.112 Some prelates—e.g., Bishop Fitzjames of Soissons in 1757—issued a pastoral letter calling upon all Christians to regard all men as brothers.113

Voltaire gave philosophy the credit for this victory. “It seems to me,” he wrote to d’Alembert in 1764, “that only the philosophers have in some measure softened the manners of men, and that without them we would have two or three St. Bartholomew Massacres in every century.”114 We must note again that the philosophes themselves were sometimes intolerant. D’Alembert and Marmontel exhorted Malesherbes to suppress Fréron (1757),115 and d’Alembert asked him to prosecute some critics of the Encyclopédie (1758). Mme. Helvétius urged him to silence a journal that had vilified her husband’s De l’Esprit (1758). Voltaire on several occasions begged the authorities to suppress parodies and libels against the philosophic group;116 and so far as these were real libels—injurious falsehoods—he was justified.

There were other factors besides philosophy in promoting toleration. The Reformation, though it sanctioned intolerance, generated so many sects (several of them strong enough to defend themselves) that intolerance seldom dared go beyond words. The sects had to dispute by argument, and they unwillingly accepted the test—and promoted the prestige—of reason. The memory of the “religious” wars in France, England, and Germany, and of the economic losses thereby incurred, turned many economic and political leaders to toleration. Mercantile centers like Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London found it necessary to put up with the different creeds and customs of their customers. The growing strength of the nationalist state made it more independent of religious unity as a means of maintaining social order. The spread of acquaintance with different civilizations and cults weakened the confidence of each faith in its monopoly of God. Above all, the advances of science made it difficult for religious dogma to proceed to barbarities like the trials of the Inguisition and the executions for witchcraft. The philosophes embraced most of these influences in their propaganda for toleration, and could reasonably claim much credit for the victory. It was a measure of their success that whereas in the first half of the eighteenth century Huguenot preachers were still being hanged in France, in 1776 and 1778 a Swiss Protestant was summoned by a Catholic king to save the state.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!