Persons of the Dialogue: Pope Benedict XIV and Voltaire
Scene: A place in the grateful memory of mankind
BENEDICT. I am happy to see you here, monsieur, for though you did much damage to the Church which I was allowed to head for eighteen years, you did much good in chastising the sins and errors of the Church, and the injustices that shamed all of us in your time.
VOLTAIRE. You are now, as you were in life, the most gracious and forgiving of the popes. If every “servant of the servants of God” had been like you I would have recognized the sins of the Church as the natural property of men, and I would have continued to honor a great institution. You will remember how, for over fifty years, I respected the Jesuits.
BENEDICT. I remember, but I am sorry that you joined in the attack upon them just when they had moderated their political intrigues and were standing up bravely against the licentiousness of the King.
VOLTAIRE. I should have known better than to side with the Jansenists in that argument.
BENEDICT. Well, you see that you too can make mistakes, just like a pope. And now that I have found you in a modest mood, will you let me tell you why I remained faithful to the Church that you abandoned?
VOLTAIRE. That would be most interesting.
BENEDICT. I’m afraid I shall tire you, for I shall have to do most of the talking. But remember how many volumes you wrote.
VOLTAIRE. I often longed to see Rome, and I should have been happy to have you talk to me.
BENEDICT. And I often wished that I might speak with you. I must confess that I enjoyed your wit and your artistry. But it was your brilliance that led you astray. It is difficult to be brilliant and conservative; there is little charm, for active minds, in standing for tradition and authority; it is tempting to be critical, for then you can feel the pleasure of individuality and novelty. But in philosophy it is almost impossible to be original without being wrong. And I should like to talk with you not as a priest or a theologian, but as one philosopher to another.
VOLTAIRE. Thank you. There has been considerable doubt as to my being a philosopher.
BENEDICT. You had the good sense not to fabricate a new system. But you made a fundamental and grievous mistake.
VOLTAIRE. What was that one?
BENEDICT. You thought it possible for one mind, in one lifetime, to acquire such scope of knowledge and depth of understanding as to be fit to sit in judgment upon the wisdom of the race—upon traditions and institutions that have taken form out of the experience of centuries. Tradition is to the group what memory is to the individual; and just as the snapping of memory may bring insanity, so a sudden break with tradition may plunge a whole nation into madness, like France in the Revolution.
VOLTAIRE. France did not go mad; it concentrated into a decade the resentment accumulated during centuries of oppression. Besides, the “race” you speak of is not a mind, it is a collection and succession of fallible individuals; and the wisdom of the race is only the composite of the errors and insights of individuals. What has determined which elements in that flotsam of ideas shall be transmitted to posterity and acquire the aura and moss of time?
BENEDICT. The success or failure of ideas in the experiments of communities and nations has determined the survival of some ideas and the loss of the rest.
VOLTAIRE. I am not so sure. Perhaps prejudice robed in authority determined in many cases what ideas should be preserved, and censorship may have prevented a thousand good ideas from entering into the traditions of the race.
BENEDICT. I suppose my predecessors thought of censorship as a means of preventing the spread of ideas that would destroy the moral basis of social order, and the inspiring beliefs that help humanity to bear the burdens of life. I will admit that our censors made some grave mistakes, as in the case of Galileo—though I think we were more gentle with him than your followers have led many people to believe.
VOLTAIRE. Tradition, then, is capable of being wrong and oppressive, and an impediment to the advancement of understanding. How can man progress if he is forbidden to question tradition?
BENEDICT. Perhaps we should question progress too, but let us put that problem aside for the present. I believe that we should be allowed to question traditions and institutions, but with care that we do not destroy more than we can build, and with caution that the stone that we dislodge shall not prove to be a necessary support to what we wish to preserve, and always with a modest consciousness that the experience of generations may be wiser than the reason of a transitory individual.
VOLTAIRE. And yet reason is the noblest gift that God has given us.
BENEDICT. No; love is. I do not wish to belittle reason, but it should be the servant of love, not of pride.
VOLTAIRE. I often admitted the frailty of reason, I know that it tends to prove anything suggested by our desires; and my distant friend Diderot wrote somewhere that the truths of feeling are more unshakable than the truths of logical demonstration.1 The true skeptic will doubt reason too. Perhaps I exaggerated reason because that madman Rousseau exaggerated feeling. To subordinate reason to feeling is, to my mind, more disastrous than to subordinate feeling to reason.
BENEDICT. The whole man needs both in their interplay. But now I wonder will you accompany me in a further step? Won’t you agree that the clearest and most direct knowledge that we have is the knowledge that we exist, and that we think?
BENEDICT. So we know thought more immediately than we know anything else?
VOLTAIRE. I wonder. I believe that we know things long before we turn into ourselves and realize that we are thinking.
BENEDICT. But confess that when you look within you perceive a reality entirely different from the matter to which you were sometimes inclined to reduce everything.
VOLTAIRE. I had my doubts about it. But proceed.
BENEDICT. Confess, too, that what you perceive when you look within is some reality of choice, some freedom of will.
VOLTAIRE. You go too fast, Father. I once believed that I enjoyed a moderate degree of freedom, but logic forced me to accept determinism.
BENEDICT. That is, you surrendered what you immediately perceived to what you concluded from a long and precarious process of reasoning.
VOLTAIRE. I couldn’t refute that tough little lens-grinder Spinoza. Have you read Spinoza?
BENEDICT. Of course. A pope is not bound by the Index Expurgatorius.
VOLTAIRE. You know that we considered him an atheist.
BENEDICT. We mustn’t throw epithets at one another. He was a lovable fellow, but unbearably gloomy. He saw God so universally that he left no room for human personality. He was as religious as Augustine, and as great a saint.
VOLTAIRE. I love you, Benedict; you are kinder to him than I was.
BENEDICT. Let’s get on. I ask you to agree that thought, consciousness, and the sense of personality are the realities most directly known to us.
VOLTAIRE. Very well; granted.
BENEDICT. So I feel justified in rejecting materialism, atheism, and determinism. Each of us is a soul. Religion builds on that fact.
VOLTAIRE. Suppose all that; how does it warrant the mass of absurdities that were added, century after century, to the creed of the Church?
BENEDICT. There were many absurdities, I know. Many incredibilities. But the people cry out for them, and in several instances the Church, in accepting such marvels into her creed, yielded to persistent and widespread popular demand. If you take from the people the beliefs we allow them to hold, they will adopt legends and superstitions beyond control. Organized religion does not invent superstition, it checks it. Destroy an organized faith, and it will be replaced by that wilderness of disorderly superstitions that are now arising like maggots in the wounds of Christianity. And even so, there are more incredibilities in science than in religion. Is there anything more incredible than the belief that the condition of some primeval nebula determined and compelled every line in your plays?
VOLTAIRE. But those stories about asbestos saints who couldn’t be burned, and a decapitated saint walking with his head in his hand, and Mary lifted up into heaven—I just couldn’t stomach them.
BENEDICT. You always had a weak stomach. The people make no difficulty about them, for these stories are part of a creed that gives support and consolation to their lives. That is why they will never listen to you for long, since the breath of their life depends upon not hearing you. So, in the struggle between faith and unbelief, faith always wins. See how Catholicism is winning Western Germany, regaining your infidel France, holding Latin America, and rising to power in North America, even in the land of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.
VOLTAIRE. Sometimes, Father, I think your religion recovers not through the truth of your creed, nor through the attractiveness of your myths, not even through your clever use of drama and art, but through your devilishly subtle encouragement of fertility among your people. I perceive that the birth rate is the chief enemy of philosophy. We breed from the bottom and die at the top; and the fertility of simplicity defeats the activity of intelligence.
BENEDICT. You are mistaken if you think that our birth rate is the secret of our success; something far profounder is involved. Shall I tell you why intelligent people all over the world are returning to religion?
VOLTAIRE. Because they are tired of thinking.
BENEDICT. Not quite. They have discovered that your philosophy has no answer but ignorance and despair. And wise men perceive that all attempts at what your brethren called a natural ethic have failed. You and I probably agree that man is born with individualistic instincts formed in thousands of years of primitive conditions; that his social instincts are relatively weak; and that a strong code of morals and laws is needed to tame this natural anarchist into a normally peaceful citizen. Our theologians called those individualistic instincts original sin, inherited from our “first parents”—that is, from those harassed, lawless men, ever endangered hunters, who had always to be ready to fight and kill for food or mates; who had to be violently acquisitive, and pugnacious, and cruel, because whatever social organization they had was still weak, and they had to depend upon themselves for security in their lives and possessions.
VOLTAIRE. You are not talking like a pope.
BENEDICT. I told you we should talk like philosophers. A pope too can be a philosopher, but he has to express the conclusions of philosophy in terms not only intelligible to the people, but capable of influencing their emotions and conduct. We are convinced—and the world is returning to us because it is learning—that no moral code of confessedly human origin will be sufficiently impressive to control the unsocial impulses of the natural man. Our people are held up in their moral life—though this is uncongenial to the flesh—by a moral code taught them in their formative childhood as part of their religion, and as the word not of man but of God. You wish to keep the morality and discard the theology; but it is the theology that makes the morality sink into the soul. We must make the moral code an inseparable part of that religious belief which is man’s most precious possession; for only through such belief does life acquire a meaning and a dignity that can support and ennoble our existence.
VOLTAIRE. So Moses invented those conversations with God?
BENEDICT. No mature mind asks such a question.
VOLTAIRE. You are quite right.
BENEDICT. I forgive your immature sarcasm. Certainly Hammurabi, Lycurgus, and Numa Pompilius were wise in recognizing that morality must be given a religious foundation if it is not to crumble under the persistent attacks of our strongest instincts. You too accepted this when you talked about a rewarding and punishing God. You wanted your servants to have religion, but you thought your friends could get along without it.
VOLTAIRE. I still think that philosophers can dispense with it.
BENEDICT. How naïve you are! Are children capable of philosophy? Can children reason? Society is based upon morality, morality is based upon character, character is formed in childhood and youth long before reason can be a guide. We must infuse morality into the individual when he is young and malleable; then it may be strong enough to withstand his individualistic impulses, even his individualistic reasoning. I’m afraid you began to think too soon. The intellect is a constitutional individualist, and when it is uncontrolled by morality it can tear a society to pieces.
VOLTAIRE. Some of the finest men of my time found reason a sufficient morality.
BENEDICT. That was before the individualistic intellect had time to overcome the effects of religion. A few men, like Spinoza and Bayle, d’Holbach and Helvétius, may have led good lives after abandoning the religion of their fathers; but how do we know that their virtues were not the result of their religious education?
VOLTAIRE. There were hundreds of people among my contemporaries who were contemptible profligates despite religious educations and Catholic orthodoxy, like Cardinal Dubois and Louis XV–
BENEDICT: Of whom you wrote a fulsome eulogy.
VOLTAIRE. Alas, yes. I was like some of your monks; I used pious frauds to obtain what I felt were good ends.
BENEDICT. However, there is no doubt that thousands of people orthodox in faith—even people who attend to all the observances of religion—can become great sinners and passionate criminals. Religion is no infallible cure for crime, it is only a help in the great task of civilizing mankind; we believe that without it men would be far worse than they are.
VOLTAIRE. But that awful doctrine of hell turned God into an ogre more cruel than any despot in history.
BENEDICT. You resent that doctrine, but if you knew men better you would understand that they must be frightened with fears as well as encouraged with hopes. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. When your followers lost that fear they began to deteriorate. You were relatively decent in your immorality; there was something beautiful in your long association with Madame du Châtelet; but your relations with your niece were disgraceful. And you found nothing to reproach in the conduct of your lecherous friend the Duc de Richelieu.
VOLTAIRE. How could I reproach him? I would have endangered my loans.
BENEDICT. You did not live long enough to see how atheism came close to making man the most despicable of beasts. Have you read the Marquis de Sade? During the ecstasy of the French Revolution he published three novels2 in which he explained that if there is no God, everything is permitted except detection by the agents of the law. He pointed out that many wicked people prosper on earth, and many good people suffer; therefore, since there is no heaven or hell, there is no sense in being good to the detriment of our pleasures. He concluded that if the will is not free, there is no moral responsibility; there is no right or wrong, there are only weak and strong. Goodness is weakness, and weakness is evil; even the pleasure of the strong in exploiting the weak is justifiable. Cruelty, he argued, is natural, and often pleasurable. So he approved every form of pleasure, including the most disgusting and degenerate perversions, until at last the summum bonum seemed to lie in inflicting or receiving pain as a mode of sexual delight.
VOLTAIRE. That man should have been flogged to within an inch of his life.
BENEDICT. Yes, if you could catch him; but if you couldn’t? Think of the countless crimes that are committed every day and are never detected or never punished. You have to have a moral code that will deter a man from crime even when he feels secure from detection. Is it any wonder that the “Age of Voltaire” was one of the most immoral in history? I will not say anything about your own Pucelle, but think of the King’s Parc aux Cerfs, and the licentious literature that was printed in great quantity, widely sold, and eagerly bought, even by women. This reckless provision of erotic excitement becomes an obscene flood in times and lands of unbelief.
VOLTAIRE. You must know, your Holiness, that the sexual instinct is very strong, even in some popes, and that it will find expression despite every law.
BENEDICT. Because of its strength it needs special controls, and certainly no encouragement. That is why we tried to channel it within orderly marriage, and did all we could to make early marriage possible. In your modern societies you make marriage impossible for all but reckless and improvident men until long after they reach sexual maturity; yet you make continence difficult for them by stimulating their sexual imagination and desire at every turn by literature and the theater, under the shibboleth of freedom for the press and the stage.
VOLTAIRE. Our young people take no lasting harm from their freedom.
BENEDICT. I think you are wrong. A man accustomed to promiscuity before marriage will seldom prove a faithful husband; and a woman who gives herself freely before marriage will only exceptionally make a faithful wife. So you are driven to allow divorce on ever easier conditions. We make marriage a solemn sacrament, a vow of lifelong patience and fidelity; you make marriage a business contract, which either party is free to cancel after a passing quarrel, or in prospect of a younger or richer mate. Every home now has all its doors open, inviting flight, and the institution of marriage falls into a chaos of temporary and experimental unions tragic for women and fatal to moral order.
VOLTAIRE. But, my dear Father, monogamy is unnatural and unbearable.
BENEDICT. All restraint of instinct is unnatural, and yet without many such restraints society is impossible. And I believe that a man or woman with one mate and several children is happier than a man or woman with several mates and one child. How can a man be long happy who, excited by a new face and a pretty form, has divorced the wife who has lost her beauty in bearing and rearing his children?
VOLTAIRE. But by forbidding divorce you have had to tolerate the adultery that is so widespread in Catholic countries.
BENEDICT. Yes, there we are weak and guilty; weak through the growth of unbelief. Perhaps, because it allows an apparently united home for the children, adultery is better than divorce, and involves a less lasting derangement of the family; but I am ashamed that we have found no better solution.
VOLTAIRE. You are an honest man, Father. I would give all that I ever had if I could share your faith and your goodness.
BENEDICT. And yet you are so hard to convince! Sometimes I despair of winning back brilliant men like you, whose pens move a million souls for evil or for good. But some of your followers are opening their eyes to the awful reality. The bubble of progress has exploded in a century that has seen more wholesale murder of men and women, more devastation of cities and desolation of hearts, than any other century in history. Progress in knowledge, science, comforts, and power is only progress in means; if there is no improvement in ends, purposes, or desires, progress is a delusion. Reason improves the instrumentalities, but the ends are determined by instincts formed before birth and established before reason can grow.
VOLTAIRE. I still have faith in human intelligence; we shall improve ends as well as means as we become more secure in our lives.
BENEDICT. Are you becoming more secure? Is violent crime decreasing? Is war less terrible than before? You hope against hope that the destructiveness of your weapons will deter you and your enemies from war; but did the equivalent progress from the arrow to the bomb stop nations from challenging each other to the death?
VOLTAIRE. The education of the human race will take many centuries.
BENEDICT. Meanwhile consider the spiritual devastation that your propaganda has spread, perhaps more tragic than any ruin of cities. Is not atheism the prelude to a profounder pessimism than believers have ever known? And you, rich and famous, did you not often think of suicide?
VOLTAIRE. Yes. I tried to believe in God, but I confess to you that God meant nothing in my life, and that in my secret heart I too felt a void where my childhood faith had been. But probably this feeling belongs only to individuals and generations in transition; the grandchildren of these pessimists will frolic in the freedom of their lives, and have more happiness than poor Christians darkened with fear of hell.
BENEDICT. That fear played only a minor role in the lives of the great majority of the faithful. What inspired them was the feeling that the agony of death was not a meaningless obscenity but the prelude to a larger life, in which all earthly injustices and cruelties would be righted and healed, and they would be united in happiness and peace with those whom they had loved and lost.
VOLTAIRE. Yes, that was a real comfort, however illusory. I didn’t feel it, because I hardly knew my mother, I seldom saw my father, and I had no known children.
BENEDICT. You were not a complete man, and so your philosophy was not complete. Did you ever know the life of the poor?
VOLTAIRE. Only from the outside; but I tried to be just and helpful to the poor who lived on my estates.
BENEDICT. Yes, you were a good seigneur. And you saw to it that the consoling faith of your people should be renewed by religious instruction and worship. But meanwhile your desolating gospel of no hope beyond the grave was being spread over France. Have you ever answered de Musset’s question?3 After you or your followers have taught the poor that the only heaven they can ever reach must be created by them on earth, and after they have slaughtered their rulers, and new rulers appear, and poverty remains, together with greater disorder and insecurity than before—what comfort will you then be able to offer to the defeated poor?
VOLTAIRE. I did not recommend slaughtering their rulers; I suspected that the new rulers would be much like the old, but with worse manners.
BENEDICT. I will not say that revolution is never justified. But we have learned, through the experience accumulated and transmitted by our undying hierarchy, that after every overturn there will soon again be masters and men, rich and relatively poor. We are all born unequal, and every new invention, every added complexity of life or thought, increases the gap between the simple and the clever, the weak and the strong. Those hopeful revolutionists talked of liberty, and equality, and fraternity. But these idols never get along together. If you establish liberty you let natural inequalities multiply into artificial inequalities; and to check these you have to restrain liberty; so your utopias of freedom sometimes become straitjackets of despotism, and in the turmoil fraternity becomes only a phrase.
VOLTAIRE. Yes, it is So.
BENEDICT. Well, then, which of us offers the greater consolation to the inevitably defeated majority? Do you think you will be doing a favor to the toilers of France and Italy if you convince them that their wayside shrines, their crosses, religious images, and devout offerings are meaningless mummeries, and that their prayers are addressed to an empty sky? Could there be any greater tragedy than that men should have to believe that there is nothing in life but the struggle for existence, and nothing certain in it but death?
VOLTAIRE. I sympathize with your feeling, Father. I was touched and disturbed by a letter that came to me from Madame de Talmond. I remember it well: “I think, sir, that a philosopher should never write but to endeavor to render mankind less wicked and unhappy than they are. Now, you do quite the contrary. You are always writing against that religion which alone is able to restrain wickedness and to afford consolation in misfortune.”4 But I have my faith, too—that in the long run truth will be a blessing even to the poor.
BENEDICT. Truth is not truth unless it remains true through generations. The past generations belie you, future generations will reproach you. Even the victors in the struggle of life will reprove you for taking from the poor the hopes that reconciled them to their humble place in the inevitable stratification of any society.
VOLTAIRE. I would not lend myself to such a double deception of the poor.
BENEDICT. We do not deceive them. We teach them faith, hope, and charity, and all three are real boons to human life. You made miserable jokes about the Trinity; but have you any notion of the comfort brought to millions and millions of souls by the thought that God himself had come down to this earth to share their sufferings and atone for their sins? You laughed at the Virgin Birth, but is there in all literature a more lovable and inspiring symbol of womanly modesty and maternal love?
VOLTAIRE. It is a beautiful story. If you had read all my ninety-nine volumes you would have noted that I acknowledged the value of consolatory myths.5
BENEDICT. We do not admit that they are myths; they are among the profoundest truths. Their effects are among the most certain facts of history. I will not speak of the art and music they have engendered, which are among the richest portions of man’s heritage.
VOLTAIRE. The art was excellent, but your Gregorian chant is a gloomy bore.
BENEDICT. If you were profounder you would appreciate the value of our rituals and our sacraments. Our ceremonies bring the worshipers together in a living drama and a unifying brotherhood. Our sacraments are really what we call them—outward signs of an inward grace. It is a comfort to parents to see their child, through baptism and confirmation, accepted into the community and into the inheritance of the ancient faith; so the generations are united into a timeless family, and the individual need not feel alone. It is a boon to the sinner to confess his sins and receive absolution; you say that this merely permits him to sin again; we say that it encourages him to begin a better life, unburdened with the weight of guilt. Are not your psychiatrists struggling to find a substitute for the confessional? And do they create as many neurotics as they cure? Is it not beautiful that in the sacrament of the Eucharist weak man is strengthened and inspired by union with God? Have you ever seen anything lovelier than children going to their First Communion?
VOLTAIRE. I’m still shocked by the idea of eating God. It’s a remnant of savage customs.
BENEDICT. Again you confuse the outward sign with the inward grace. There is nothing so shallow as sophistication; it judges everything from the surface, and thinks it is profound. All modern life has been misled by it. In religion the mature mind has passed through three stages: belief, unbelief, and understanding.
VOLTAIRE. You may be right. But that does not justify the hypocrisy of your sinful prelates, or the persecution of honest thought.
BENEDICT. Yes, we have been guilty. The faith is good, but its ministrants are men and women, fallible and sinful.
VOLTAIRE. But if its ministrants are fallible, why do they claim infallibility?
BENEDICT. The Church claims infallibility only for her most official, fundamental, and considered judgments. Somewhere debate has to stop if the mind or the society is to have peace.
VOLTAIRE. And so we come back to the stifling consorship and brutal intolerance that were the bane of my life and the disgrace of ecclesiastical history. I can see the doors of the Inquisition opening again.
BENEDICT. I hope not. It was because the papacy was weak that the Inquisition was so cruel; my predecessors strove to check it.
VOLTAIRE. The popes too were guilty. They looked with equanimity upon the killing of hundreds of Jews during the Crusades, and they conspired with the French state to slaughter the Albigenses. Why should we go back to a faith that, with all its charm, could engender, and can still condone, such savagery?
BENEDICT. We shared in the manners of our time. We share now in the improvement of morals. See our priests; are they not a fine group of men in education, devotion, and conduct?
VOLTAIRE. So I am told, but perhaps that is because they have competition. Who knows what they will be when the higher birth rate of their adherents gives them political supremacy? The Christians of the first three centuries of our era were noted for their superior morals, but you know what they became when they rose to power. They killed a hundred times more people for religious dissent than all the Roman emperors had ever done.
BENEDICT. Our people were then only emerging into education. Let us hope that we shall do better next time.
VOLTAIRE. The Church did do better at times. During the Italian Renaissance some of your predecessors showed an urbane tolerance of unbelief when unbelievers made no attempt to deprive the poor of their consolatory faith. I, for one, do not wish to destroy the faith of the poor. And I assure you that the poor do not read my books.
BENEDICT. Blessed be the poor.
VOLTAIRE. Meanwhile you must forgive me if I and my like continue our efforts to enlighten a minority sufficiently numerous and resolute to prevent any recurrence of ecclesiastical domination over the thought of educated men. History would be worthless to us if it did not teach us to keep on our guard against the natural intolerance of an orthodoxy wielding power. I honor and reverence you, Benedict, but I must remain Voltaire.
BENEDICT. May God forgive you.
VOLTAIRE. Pardon is the word for all.