So we end as we began, by perceiving that it was the philosophers and the theologians, not the warriors and diplomats, who were fighting the crucial battle of the eighteenth century, and that we were justified in calling hat period the Age of Voltaire. “The philosophers of different nations,” said Condorcet, “embracing in their meditations the entire interests of mankind, … formed a firm and united phalanx against every description of error and every species of tyranny.”117 It was by no means a united phalanx; we shall see Rousseau leaving the ranks, and Kant striving to reconcile philosophy and religion. But it was truly a struggle for the soul of man, and the results are with us today.
By the time Voltaire left Ferney for his triumph in Paris (1778), the movement that he had led had become the dominant power in European thought. Fréron, its devoted enemy, described it as “the malady and folly of the age.”118 The Jesuits had fled, and the Jansenists were in retreat. The whole tone of French society had changed. Nearly every writer in France followed the line and sought the approval of the philosophes; philosophie was in a hundred titles and a thousand mouths; “a word of praise from Voltaire, Diderot, or d’Alembert was more valued than the favor of a prince.”119 The salons and the Academy, sometimes even the King’s ministry, were in “philosophic” hands.
Foreign visitors angled for admission to salons where they might meet and hear the famous philosophes; returning to their own lands, they spread the new ideas. Hume, though in many of his views he preceded Voltaire, looked up to him as a master; Robertson sent to Ferney his splendid Charles V; Chesterfield, Horace Walpole, and Garrick were among a score of Voltaire’s English correspondents; Smollett, Franklin, and others joined in preparing an English translation and edition of Voltaire’s works in thirty-seven volumes (1762). In America the founders of the new republic were deeply stirred by the writings of the philosophes. As to Germany, hear Goethe’s remarks to Eckermann in 1820 and 1831:
You have no idea of the influence which Voltaire and his great contemporaries had in my youth, and how they governed the [mind of the] whole civilized world.… It seems to me quite extraordinary to see what men the French had in their literature in the last century. I am astonished when I merely look at it. It was the metamorphosis of a hundred-year-old literature, which had been growing ever since Louis XIV, and now stood in full flower.120
Kings and queens joined in acclaiming Voltaire, and proudly listed themselves among his followers. Frederick the Great had been among the first to sense his importance; now in 1767, after thirty years of knowing him in all the faults of his character and the brilliance of his mind, he hailed the triumph of the campaign against l’ infâme: “The edifice [of superstition] is sapped to its foundations,” and “the nations will write in their annals that Voltaire was the promoter of this revolution that is taking place, in the eighteenth century, in the human spirit.”121 Catherine II of Russia and Gustavus III of Sweden joined in this adulation; and though the Emperor Joseph II could not so openly declare himself, he unquestionably owed to the philosophes the spirit of his reforms. Admirers of Voltaire rose to power in Catholic Milan, Parma, Naples, even Madrid. Grimm summed up the situation in 1767: “It gives me pleasure to note that an immense republic of cultivated spirits is being formed in Europe. Enlightenment is spreading on all sides.”122
Voltaire himself, overcoming the natural pessimism of old age, sounded a note of victory in 1771:
Well-constituted minds are now very numerous; they are at the head of nations; they influence public manners; and year by year the fanaticism that overspread the earth is receding in its detestable usurpations.… If religion no longer gives birth to civil wars, it is to philosophy alone that we are indebted; theological disputes begin to be regarded in much the same manner as the quarrels of Punch and Judy at the fair. A usurpation odious and injurious, founded upon fraud on one side and stupidity on the other, is being at every instant undermined by reason, which is establishing its reign.123
Let us give him his due. We may admit, with our hindsight knowledge of the Revolution’s excesses and of the reaction that followed, that the philosophes (excepting Voltaire) had too sanguine a confidence in human nature; that they underestimated the force of instincts generated in thousands of years of insecurity, savagery, and barbarism; that they exaggerated the power of education to develop reason as a sufficient controller of those instincts; that they were blind to the demands of imagination and sentiment, and deaf to the cry of the defeated for the consolations of belief. They gave too little weight to traditions and institutions produced by centuries of trial and error, and too great weight to the individual intellect that at best is the product of a brief and narrow life. But if these were serious misjudgments, they were rooted not merely in intellectual pride but also in a generous aspiration for human betterment. To the eighteenth-century thinkers—and to the perhaps profounder philosophers of the seventeenth—we owe the relative freedom that we enjoy in our thought and speech and creeds; we owe the multiplication of schools, libraries, and universities; we owe a hundred humane reforms in law and government, in the treatment of crime, sickness, and insanity. To them, and to the followers of Rousseau, we owe the immense stimulation of mind that produced the literature, science, philosophy, and statesmanship of the nineteenth century. Because of them our religions can free themselves more and more from a dulling superstition and a sadistic theology, can turn their backs upon obscurantism and persecution, and can recognize the need for mutual sympathy in the diverse tentatives of our ignorance and our hope. Because of those men we, here and now, can write without fear, though not without reproach. When we cease to honor Voltaire we shall be unworthy of freedom.
I. “The other day, down in a valley, a serpent stung John Fréron. What think you happened then? It was the serpent that died.”