The Scholars


THE growth of knowledge was impeded by inertia, superstition, persecution, censorship, and ecclesiastical control of education. These obstacles were weaker than before, but they were still far stronger than in an industrial civilization where the competition of individuals, groups, and nations compels men to search for new ideas and ways, new means for old ends. Most men in the eighteenth century moved in a slowly changing milieu where traditional responses and ideas usually sufficed for the needs of life. When novel situations and events did not readily lend themselves to natural explanations, the common mind ascribed them to supernatural causes, and rested.

A thousand superstitions survived side by side with the rising enlightenment. Highborn ladies trembled at unfavorable horoscopes, or believed that a drowned child could be revived if a poor woman would light a candle and set it afloat in a cup to set fire to a bridge on the Seine. The Princesse de Conti promised the Abbé Leroux a sumptuous equipage if he would find her the philosopher’s stone. Julie de Lespinasse, after living for years with the skeptical scientist d’Alembert, kept her faith in lucky and unlucky days. Fortunetellers lived on the credit given to their clairvoyance; so Mme. de Pompadour, the Abbé de Bernis, and the Duc de Choiseul secretly consulted Mme. Bontemps, who read the future in coffee grounds.1 According to Montesquieu, Paris swarmed with magicians and other impostors who offered to ensure worldly success or eternal youth. The Comte de Saint-Germain persuaded Louis XV that the sick finances of France could be restored by secret methods of manufacturing diamonds and gold.2 The Duc de Richelieu played with black magic—invoking Satan’s aid. The old Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, who won many battles for Prussia, did not believe in God, but if he met three old women on his way to hunt he would return home; it was “a bad time.”3 Thousands of people wore amulets or talismans to avert evils. A thousand magical prescriptions served as popular medicine. Religious relics could cure almost any ailment, and relics of Christ or the saints could be found anywhere—a bit of his raiment at Trier, his cloak at Turin and Laon, one of the nails of the True Cross in the Abbey of St.-Denis. In England the cause of the Stuart Pretenders was advanced by the widely held notion that they could by their touch cure scrofula—a power denied to the Hanoverian kings because they were “usurpers” not blessed by divine right. Most peasants were sure that they heard elves or fairies in the woods. The belief in ghosts was declining; but the learned Benedictine Dom Augustin Calmet wrote a history of vampires—corpses that went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living; this book was published with the approval of the Sorbonne.4

The worst superstition of all, the belief in witchcraft, disappeared in this century, except for some local vestiges. In 1736 the “divines of the Associated Presbyteries” of Scotland passed a resolution reaffirming their belief in witchcraft;5 and as late as 1765 the most famous of English jurists, Sir William Blackstone, wrote in his Commentaries: “To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is flatly to contradict the revealed word of God; … the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath in its turn borne testimony.” Despite Blackstone and the Bible the English law that had made witchcraft a felony was repealed in 1736. No execution for witchcraft is recorded in France after 1718, none in Scotland after 1722; an execution in Switzerland in 1782 is the last recorded on the European Continent.6 Gradually the increase of wealth and towns, the spread of education, the experiments of scientists, the appeals of scholars and philosophers reduced the role of devils and ghosts in human life and thought, and judges, defying popular fanaticism, refused to hear accusations of sorcery. Europe began to forget that it had sacrificed 100,000 men, women, and girls to just one of its superstitions.7

Meanwhile persecution of dissent by Church and state, by Catholics and Protestants, exerted its terrors to keep from the public mind any ideas that might disturb vested beliefs and powers. The Catholic Church claimed to have been established by the Son of God, therefore to be the depository and sole authorized interpreter of divine truth, therefore to have the right to suppress heresy. It concluded that outside the Church no one could be saved from eternal damnation. Had not Christ said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be condemned”?8 So the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council, in 1215, had made it part of the fides definita— required every Catholic to believe—that “there is one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all can be saved.”I

Louis XV accepted this doctrine as logically derived from Scriptural texts, and as useful in molding a unified national mind. In 1732 the public exercise of Protestant worship in France was forbidden on pain of torture, the galleys, or death.9 The Catholic population was more tolerant than its leaders; it condemned these savage penalties, and the edict was so laxly enforced that in 1744 the Huguenots of France dared to hold a national synod. But in 1767 the Sorbonne, the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris, reiterated the old claim: “The prince has received the temporal sword in order to repress such doctrines as materialism, atheism, and deism, which cut the bonds of society and instigate crime, and also to crush every teaching threatening to shake the foundations of the Catholic faith.”10 In Spain and Portugal this policy was strictly enforced; in Italy, more leniently. In Russia the Orthodox Church required similar unanimity.

Many Protestant states agreed with the Catholics on the necessity of persecution. In Denmark and Sweden the laws demanded adherence to the Lutheran faith; in practice other Protestants, and even Catholics, were unmolested, though they remained ineligible to hold public office. In Switzerland each canton was free to choose its own faith and enforce it. In Germany the rule that the people must follow the religion of the prince was increasingly ignored. In the United Provinces Protestant ecclesiastics rejected toleration as an invitation to religious indifference, but the laity refused to follow the clergy in this matter, and relative freedom from persecution made Holland a refuge for unorthodox ideas and publications. In England the laws allowed religious dissent, but they harassed Dissenters with social and political disabilities. Samuel Johnson declared in 1763 that “false doctrine should be checked on its first appearance; the civil power should unite with the Church in punishing those who dared to attack the established religion.”11 The British government occasionally burned books, or pilloried authors, that had questioned the fundamentals of the Christian faith; so Woolston was fined and jailed in 1730, and in 1762 Peter Annet was sentenced to the pillory, then to a year’s imprisonment with hard labor, for his attacks on Christianity. The laws against Catholics were loosely administered in England, but in Ireland they were enforced with rigor until Lord Chesterfield, as lord lieutenant in 1745, refused to apply them; and in the second half of the eighteenth century some of the severe regulations were repealed. In general the theory of persecution was maintained by both the Catholic and the Protestant clergy till 1789, except where Catholics or Protestants were in the minority, but the practice of persecution declined as a new public opinion took form with the development of religious doubt. The instinct to persecute passed from religion to politics as the state replaced the Church as the guardian of unanimity and order and as the object of heretical dissent.

Censorship of speech and press was generally more relaxed in Protestant than in Catholic countries; it was mildest in Holland and England. It was strict in most of the Swiss cantons. The city fathers of Geneva burned a few unorthodox books, but seldom took action against the authors themselves. In Germany censorship was handicapped by the multiplicity of states, each with its own official creed; a writer could move across a frontier from an unfriendly to a friendly or indifferent environment. In Prussia censorship was practically abolished by Frederick the Great, but was restored by his successor in 1786. Denmark, except for a brief interlude under Struensee, maintained censorship of books till 1849. Sweden forbade the publication of material critical of Lutheranism or the government; in 1764 the University of Uppsala issued a list of forbidden books; but in 1766 Sweden established full freedom of the press.

In France censorship had broadened from precedent to precedent since Francis I, and was renewed by an edict of 1723: “No publishers or others may print or reprint, anywhere in the kingdom, any books without having obtained permission in advance by letters sealed with the Great Seal.” In 1741 there were seventy-six official censors. Before giving a book the permission et privilége du roi the censor was required to testify that the book contained nothing contrary to religion, public order, or sound morality. Even after being published with the royal imprimatur a book might be condemned by the Paris Parlement or the Sorbonne. In the first half of the eighteenth century the royal censorship was only loosely enforced. Thousands of books appeared without the privilége and with impunity; in many cases, especially when Malesherbes was chief censor (1750–63), an author received permission tacite—an informal pledge that the book in question might be printed without fear of prosecution. A book published without the permission of the government might be burned by the public executioner, while the author remained free; and if he was sent to the Bastille it was usually for a brief and genteel imprisonment.12

This era of relative toleration ended with the attempt of Damiens to assassinate Louis XV (January 5, 1757). In April a savage edict decreed death for “all those who shall be convicted of having written or printed any works intended to attack religion, to assail the royal authority, or to disturb the order and tranquillity of the realm.” In 1764 another decree forbade the publication of works on the finances of the state. Books, pamphlets, even prefaces to plays, were subjected to the most detailed scrutiny and control. Sentences varying from the pillory and flogging to nine years in the galleys were imposed for buying or selling copies of Voltaire’s La Pucelle or his Dictionnaire philosophique. In 1762 d’Alembert wrote to Voltaire: “You cannot imagine what degree of fury the Inquisition has reached [in France]. The inspectors of thought … delete from all books such words as superstition, indulgence, persecution.”13 Hatred grew tense on both sides of the conflict between religion and philosophy; what had begun as a campaign against superstition rose to the pitch of a war against Christianity. Revolution came in France, and not in eighteenth-century England, partly because censorship by state or Church, which was mild in England, was so strong in France that the imprisoned mind could expand only by the violent destruction of its bonds.

The philosophes (i.e., those French philosophers who joined in the attack upon Christianity) protested against the censorship as condemning French thought to sterility. But they themselves sometimes asked the censor to check their opponents. So d’Alembert begged Malesherbes to suppress Fréron’s antiphilosophe periodical, L’ Année littéraire; Malesherbes, though pro-philosophes, refused.14 Voltaire asked the Queen to prohibit the performance of a parody on his play Sémiramis; she would not, but Pompadour did.15

Meanwhile the philosophes contrived a variety of ways to elude the censorship. They sent their manuscripts to foreign publishers, usually to Amsterdam, The Hague, or Geneva; thence their books, in French, were imported wholesale into France; almost every day forbidden books arrived by boat at Bordeaux or other points on the French coast or frontier. Disguised with innocent titles, they were peddled from street to street, from town to town. Some nobles not overfriendly to the centralized monarchy allowed such volumes to be sold in their territory.16 Voltaire’s correspondence, which unified the philosophic campaign, escaped much of the censorship because his friend Damilaville for a time held a post in the finance administration, and was able to countersign with the seal of the comptroller general the letters and packages of Voltaire and his associates.17 Many government officials, some clergymen, read with pleasure the books that the government or the clergy had condemned. French authors of foreign-published volumes rarely put their names on the title page, and when they were accused of authorship they lied with a stout conscience; this was part of the game, sanctioned by the laws of war. Voltaire not only denied the authorship of several of his books, he sometimes foisted them upon dead people, and he confused the scent by issuing criticisms or denunciations of his own works. The game included devices of form or tricks of expression that helped to form the subtlety of French prose: double meanings, dialogues, allegories, stories, irony, transparent exaggeration, and, all in all, such delicate wit as no other literature has ever matched. The Abbé Galiani defined eloquence as the art of saying something without being sent to the Bastille.

Only second to the censorship as an obstacle to free thought was the control of education by the clergy. In France the local curés taught or supervised the parish schools; secondary education was in the hands of the Jesuits, the Oratorians, or the Christian Brothers. All Europe acclaimed the Jesuits as teachers of classical languages and literatures, but they were less helpful in science. Many of the philosophes had had their wits sharpened by a Jesuit education. The University of Paris was dominated by priests far more conservative than the Jesuits. The University of Orléans, famous for law, and the University of Montpellier, famous for medicine, were relatively secular. It is significant that neither Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Maupertuis, Helvétius, nor Buff on attended a university. The French mind, struggling to free itself from theological leading strings, flowered not in universities but in academies and salons.

Learned academies had sprung up in this century in Berlin (1701), Uppsala (1710), St. Petersburg (1724), and Copenhagen (1743). In 1739 Linnaeus and five other Swedish scholars formed the Collegium Curiosum; in 1741 this was incorporated as the Kongliga Svenska Vetenskaps-academien, which became the Swedish Royal Academy. In France there were provincial academies in Orléans, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Auxerre, Metz, Besançon, Dijon, Lyons, Caen, Rouen, Montauban, Angers, Nancy, Aix-en-Provence. The academies steered clear of heresy, but they encouraged science and experiment, and they tolerated and stimulated discussion; it was the prize competitions offered by the Dijon Academy in 1749 and 1754 that started Rousseau on his way toward the French Revolution. In Paris the French Academy of moribund Immortals was awakened from dogmatic slumbers by the election of Duclos (1746) and d’Alembert (1754); and the rise of Duclos to the strategic post of “permanent secretary” (1755) marked the capture of the Academy by the philosophes.

Learned journals added to the intellectual stimulation. One of the best was the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des sciences et des beaux-arts, edited by the Jesuits from 1701 to 1762, and known as the Journal de Trévoux from their publishing house at Trévoux, near Lyons; this was the most erudite and liberal of the religious publications. There were seventy-three periodicals in Paris alone, led by the Mercure de France and the Journal des savants. Two of Voltaire’s most effective and persistent enemies edited influential journals: Desfontaines founded the Nouvelles littéraires in 1721, and Fréron published the Année littéraire from 1754 to 1774. Germany followed suit with Brieve die neueste Literatur betreffend, which numbered Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn among its frequent contributors. In Italy the Giornale dei letterati covered science, literature, and art, while Caffé was a journal of opinion on the style of The Spectator. In Sweden Olof von Dalin made Svenska Argus a messenger of the Enlightenment. As nearly all these periodicals used the vernacular and were independent of ecclesiastical control, they were a rising leaven in the ferment of their time.

Typical of the eighteenth century, as of our own, was a spreading eagerness for knowledge—precisely that intellectual lust which the Middle Ages had condemned as a sin of foolish pride. Authors responded with a zeal to make knowledge more widely available and intelligible. “Outlines” abounded; books like Mathematics Made Easy, The Essential Bayle, L’Esprit de Montaigne, and L’Esprit de Fontenelle strove to put science, literature, and philosophy à la portée de tout le monde— within the comprehension of all the world. More and more professors taught in the vernaculars, reaching audiences incapable of Latin. Libraries and museums were expanding, and were opening their treasures to students. In 1753 Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed to the British nation his collection of fifty thousand books, several thousand manuscripts, and a great number of pictures, coins, and antiquities; Parliament voted twenty thousand pounds to his heirs in recompense, and the collection became the nucleus of the British Museum. The Harleian and Cottonian collections of manuscripts, and the accumulated libraries of the kings of England were added; and in 1759 the great museum was opened to the public. In 1928 it had 3,200,000 printed volumes and 56,000 manuscripts on its fifty-five miles of shelves.

Finally, encyclopedias took form to gather, order, and transmit the new stores of knowledge to all who could read and think. There had been such works in the Middle Ages, as by Isidore, Bishop (c.600–636) of Seville, and Vincent of Beauvais (c.1190-C.1264). In the seventeenth century there had been Johann Heinrich Alsted’s Encyclopaedia (1630) and Louis Moreri’s Grand Dictionnaire historique (1674). Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) was rather an assemblage of disturbing facts and suggestive theories than an encyclopedia, but it had more influence on the mind of educated Europe than any similar work before Diderot’s. At London, in 1728, Ephraim Chambers published in two volumes a Cyclopoedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences;it omitted history, biography, and geography, but by its system of cross references, and in other ways, it gave a lead to the epochal Encyclopédie (1751 f.) of Diderot and d’Alembert. In 1771 there appeared in three volumes the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, “by a society of gentlemen in Scotland, printed in Edinburgh.” A second edition (1778) ran to ten volumes, and advanced upon its predecessors by including history and biography. So it has grown, from edition to edition, through two hundred years. How many of us have foraged in that harvest ten times a day, and pilfered from that treasury!

By 1789 the middle classes in Western Europe were as well informed as the aristocracy and the clergy. Print had made its way. That, after all, was the basic revolution.

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