Classical scholarship was in modest decline from its peak under the Scaligers, Casaubon, Salmasius, and Bentley; but Nicolas Fréret upheld their tradition of scholarly devotion and far-reaching results. Admitted to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres at the age of twenty-six, he read to it in that year (1714) a paper, Sur l’Origine des Francs, which upset the proud legend that the Franks were “free” men coming from Greece or Troy; rather, they were South German barbarians. The Abbé Vertot denounced Fréret to the government as a libeler of the monarchy; the young scholar was sent to the Bastille for a short stay; thereafter he confined his researches to other lands than France. He drew up 1,375 maps illustrating ancient geography. He gathered illuminating data on the history of classic science and art, and on the origins of the Greek mythology. His eight volumes on ancient chronology corrected the epochal work of Joseph Justus Scaliger, and established Chinese chronology on lines accepted today; this was one of a thousand scholarly pinpricks that punctured the Biblical conception of history.
A similar blow was struck at classic fables when Pouilly read before the same Academy (1722) a paper questioning Livy’s account of early Roman history. Lorenzo Valla had suggested such doubts on this point about 1440; Vico had developed them in 1721; but Pouilly’s wide research definitely discredited as legends the stories of Romulus and Remus, of the Horatii and the Curiatii; the way was made straight for the work of Barthold Niebuhr in the nineteenth century. Not quite within the temporal bounds of this chapter, but belonging to the eighteenth century, were the Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795), in which Friedrich Wolf disintegrated Homer into a whole school and dynasty of singers; and Richard Porson’s meticulous editions of Aeschylus and Euripides; and Joseph Eckhel’s Doctrina Numorum veterum (1792–98), which founded the science of numismatics.
It was not till the discovery of Herculaneum that the world of classical scholarship felt again the ecstasy of such a revelation as had come through the humanists of the Renaissance. In 1738 some workmen preparing the foundations of a hunting lodge for King Charles IV of Naples unearthed by accident the ruins of Herculaneum; in 1748 a first inspection revealed some of the astonishing structures of Pompeii, also buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79; and in 1752 the majestic temples built by Greek colonists at Paestum were recovered from the jungle growth of darkened centuries. The master engraver Piranesi described the excavated temples, palaces, and statues of Pompeii in etchings whose prints found eager purchasers everywhere in Europe. The result of these discoveries was a fervent revival of interest in ancient art, a strong impetus to the neoclassical movement led by Winckelmann, and an immense addition to modern knowledge of ancient ways.
We must pause to acknowledge the debt of scholarship to monks who used their libraries and manuscript collections to make researches and compile records extremely helpful to the modern mind. The Benedictines of St.-Maur continued their old devotion to historical studies. Dom Bernard de Montfaucon founded the science of paleography with his Palaeographica graeca (1708); he illuminated ancient history by means of ancient art in his Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (ten volumes, 1719–24), and he turned his painstaking studies to his own country in five folio volumes, Les Monuments de la monarchic française (1729–33). Dom Antoine Rivet de la Grange began in 1733 the Benedictine Histoire littéraire de la France, which served as progenitor and storehouse for all later histories of early French literature. The greatest of these eighteenth-century Benedictine scholars was Dom Augustin Calmet, whose monastery at Senones gave Voltaire asylum in 1754; Voltaire never ceased to profit, and sometimes he pilfered, from Calmet’s Commentaire littéral sur tous les livres de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament (1707–16). Despite certain shortcomings,18 these twenty-four volumes were acclaimed as a monument of erudition. Calmet wrote several other works of Biblical exegesis, followed Bossuet in composing an Histoire universelle (1735), and spent nearly all his waking hours in study and prayer. “Who is Madame de Pompadour?” he asked Voltaire in happy ignorance.19 He refused a bishopric, and wrote his own epitaph: “Hic jacet qui multum legit, scripsit, oravit; utinam bene! Amen” (Here lies one who read much, wrote much, prayed much; may it have been well! Amen).20
Some bold laics joined in Biblical criticism. The physician Jean Astruc, assuming the Mosaic author of the Pentateuch, studied its sources in his Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paraît que Moïse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genése(1753); here for the first time it was pointed out that the use of two different names for God, Yahveh and Elohim, indicated two original stories of the Creation, loosely and repetitiously combined in the Book of Genesis. Other Biblical students tried to calculate, on the basis of the Pentateuch, the date of the Creation, and arrived at two hundred diverse results. Orientalists disturbed the orthodox by quoting Egyptian chronology that claimed to go back thirteen thousand years, and Chinese calculations that Chinese civilization had lasted ninety thousand years. No one believed the Indian Brahmins who held that the world had existed through 326,669 ages, each of which had contained many centuries.21
The most audacious and far-reaching contribution to Biblical studies in the eighteenth century was made by a German professor of Oriental languages in the Hamburg Academy. Hermann Reimarus left at his death in 1768 a four-thousand-page manuscript on which he had labored for twenty years—“Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes” (Apology for the Rational Worshipers of God). No one dared publish it until Lessing issued (1774–78) seven portions of it as “fragments of an anonymous work[Fragmente eines Ungenannten] found at Wolfenbüttel” (where Lessing was librarian). Nearly all literate Germany except Frederick the Great rose in protest; even the liberal scholar Johann Semler called Lessing mad to serve as godfather to so devastating a criticism of orthodox beliefs. For in the seventh fragment, Von dem Zwecke Jesu and Seine Jünge (On the Aim of Jesus and His Disciples), Reimarus not only rejected the miracles and resurrection of Christ, but pictured him as an earnest, lovable, deluded young Jew who was faithful to Judaism to the end, accepted the belief of some Jews that the world was soon to be destroyed, and based his ethical principles on this premise as a preparation for the event. Reimarus thought that Jesus interpreted the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” in the sense then current among his people, as a coming kingdom of the Jews liberated from Rome.22 His despondent cry on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou abandoned me?,” was a confession of his humanity and his defeat. After his disappearance some of the Apostles transferred this promised kingdom to a life after death. In this sense it was not Christ but the Apostles who inaugurated Christianity. All in all, says Reimarus’ erudite interpreter, Albert Schweitzer, “his work is perhaps the most splendid achievement in the whole course of the historical investigation of the life of Jesus, for he was the first to grasp the fact that the world of thought in which Jesus moved was essentially eschatological”—based on the theory of an imminent end of the world.23
From the study of Jewish antiquities scholars passed timidly to Oriental peoples that had rejected Christ or never heard his name. Galland’s French translation of the Arabian Nights (1704–17), de Reland’s Religion des Mahométans (1721), Burigny’s Histoire de la philosophie païenne (1724), Boulainvilliers’ Vie de Mahomet (1730), and Sale’s English translation of the Koran (1734) revealed Islam as not a world of barbarism but as the domain of a powerful rival creed, and of a moral order that seemed to work despite its concessions to the natural polygamy of mankind. Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron opened another realm by translating the Scriptures of the Parsees. He was attracted by reading in a Paris library some extracts from the Zend-Avesta; he abandoned his preparation for the priest-hood, and resolved to explore at first hand the sacred books of the East, Too poor to buy passage, he enlisted, aged twenty-three (1754), as a soldier in a French expedition to India. Arrived at Pondicherry, he quickly learned to read modern Persian; at Chandernagor he took up Sanskrit; at Surat he persuaded a Parsee priest to teach him Pahlavi and Zend. In 1762 he returned to Paris with 180 Oriental manuscripts and set himself to translate them; meanwhile he lived on bread, cheese, and water, and avoided marriage as an impossible expense. In 1771 he published his French version of the Zend-Avesta, and fragments of other books of the Parsees; and in 1804 he issued Les Oupanichads. Slowly the awareness of non-Christian religions and moral codes shared in undermining the dogmatism of European faiths.
Of these ethnic revelations the most influential was the opening up of Chinese history and philosophy by European missionaries, travelers, and scholars. It had begun with Marco Polo’s return to Venice in 1295; it was advanced by French and English translations (1588) of the Jesuit Father Juan Gonzales de Mendoza’s Historia del reino de la China (Lisbon, 1584), and with Hakluyt’s English translation, in his Voyages (1589–1600), of a Latin treatise, Of the Kingdom of China (Macao, 1590). The new influence appeared in Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience” (1591?): “China, in whose realm the government and the arts, without any knowledge of our own institutions, surpass these in many points of excellence.”24 In 1615 the Jesuit Nicolas Trigault published his account De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas; it was soon translated into French, and into English in Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). Trigault and others lauded the Chinese system of making specific and detailed education a prerequisite for public office, of admitting all classes of the male population to examination for office, and of submitting all governmental agencies to periodical inspection. Another Jesuit, the amazing polymath Athanasius Kircher, published in 1670 a veritable encyclopedia, China illustrata, in which he praised the Chinese government as administered by philosopher-kings.25
The Jesuits gave generous commendation to Chinese religion and philosophy. Trigault reported that the educated Chinese conceived God as the soul of the world, and the world as his body; Spinoza, who held a similar view, could have read this idea in a book published in Amsterdam in 1649; his Latin teacher Frans van den Enden had this book in his library.26 In 1622 the Jesuits published a Latin translation of Confucius as Sapientia sinica; in a further summary, Confucius Sinarum philosophus (1687), they called the Confucian ethics “the excellentest morality that ever was taught, a morality which might be said to proceed from the school of Jesus Christ.”27 In Mémoires de la Chine (1696) the Jesuit Louis Le Comte wrote that the Chinese people had “for two thousand years preserved the knowledge of the true God” and had “practiced the purest moral code while Europe was yet steeped in error and corruption”;28 this book was condemned by the Sorbonne. In 1697 Leibniz, cautious politically but alert to every breeze in the intellectual atmosphere, published his Novissima Sinaica (“the latest news from China”). He rated Europe as excelling China in science and philosophy, yet
who would formerly have believed that there is a people that surpasses us in its principles of civil life? And this, nevertheless, we now experience in the case of the Chinese … in ethics and politics. For it is impossible to describe how beautifully everything in the laws of the Chinese, more than in those of other peoples, is directed to the achievement of public tranquillity.… The state of our affairs, as corruptions spread among us without measure, seems to me such that it would appear almost necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach us the use and practice of natural religion, just as we send missionaries to them to teach them revealed religion. And so I believe that if a wise man were chosen to pass judgment … upon the excellence of peoples, he would award the golden apple to the Chinese—except that we should have the better of them in one supreme but superhuman thing, namely, the divine gift of the Christian religion.29
Leibniz urged the academies of Europe to gather information about China, and he helped persuade the French government to send accomplished Jesuit scholars to join the mission in China and make factual reports. In 1735 Jean Baptiste du Halde summarized these and other data in his Description … de l’empire de la Chine; a year later this was translated into English; in both France and England it had wide influence. Du Halde was the first to give Mencius a European reputation. By the middle of the eighteenth century Bossuet’s Histoire universelle had been discredited by the revelation of old, extensive, and enlightened cultures which his “universal” history had almost ignored; and the way was open for Voltaire’s larger perspective of the story of civilization.
The results of these enthusiastic exaggerations appeared in European customs, arts, manners, literature, and philosophy. In 1739 the Marquis d’Argens published a series of Lettres chinoises by an imaginary Chinese, criticizing European institutions and ways; in 1757 Horace Walpole amused England with a “Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher”; in 1760 Goldsmith used the same device in his Citizen of the World. When the Emperor Joseph II in person plowed a piece of land, he was imitating a custom of the Chinese emperors.30 When the fine ladies of Paris opened their parasols against the sun, they were displaying a pretty contraption introduced into France from China by the Jesuits;31 toward the end of the eighteenth century the umbrella evolved from the parasol. Chinese porcelain and Japanese lacquer had in the seventeenth century become prized possessions in European homes; Chinese wallpaper, in which the small units, properly placed, made a single large pictorial pattern, captured English fancy toward 1700; Chinese furniture entered English homes about 1750. All through the eighteenth century the taste for chinoiseries—articles of Chinese make or style—characterized English and French decoration, ran through Italy and Germany, entered into rococo ornament, and became so compulsive a fashion that a dozen satirists rose to challenge its tyranny. Chinese silk became a symbol of status; Chinese gardens spread over Western Europe; Chinese firecrackers burned European thumbs.32 Gozzi’s Turandot was a Chinese fantasy. A dozen plays with a Chinese background appeared on the English stage; and Voltaire developed his Orphelin de la Chine from a Chinese drama in the third volume of Du Halde.33
Chinese influence on Western thought was keenest in France, where the esprits forts seized upon it as another weapon against Christianity. They rejoiced to find that Confucius was a freethinker rather than a displaced Jesuit. They proclaimed that the Confucian ethic proved the practicability of a moral code independent of supernatural religion.34 Bayle pointed out (1685) that a Chinese emperor was giving free scope to Catholic missionaries while Louis XIV, revoking Henry IV’s tolerant Edict of Nantes, was enforcing religious conformity through the barbarous violence of dragonnades. Misinterpreting the Confucians as atheists, Bayle cited them as disproving the argument from universal consent for the existence of God.35 Montesquieu stood his ground against the Oriental tide, called the Chinese emperors despots, denounced dishonest Chinese merchants, exposed the poverty of the Chinese masses, and predicted tragic results from overpopulation in China.36 Quesnay tried to answer Montesquieu in Le Despotisme de la Chine(1767), praised it as “enlightened despotism,” and cited Chinese models for needed reforms in French economy and government. Turgot, skeptical of the Chinese utopia, commissioned two Chinese Catholic priests in France to go to China and seek factual answers to fifty-two questions; their report encouraged a more realistic appraisal of good and bad in Chinese life.37
Voltaire read extensively and eagerly on China. He gave Chinese civilization the first three chapters in his Essai sur les moeurs; and in his Dictionnaire philosophique he called China “the finest, the most ancient, the most extensive, the most populous and well-regulated kingdom on earth.”38 His admiration for Chinese government shared in inclining him to the belief that the best hope for social reform lay in despotisme éclairé, by which he meant enlightened monarchy. Like several other Frenchmen, and like the German philosopher Wolff, he was ready to canonize Confucius, who “had taught the Chinese people the principles of virtue five hundred years before the founding of Christianity.”39 Voltaire, famous for his good manners, thought the decorum, self-restraint, and quiet peaceableness of the Chinese a model for his excitable countrymen,40 and perhaps for himself. When two poems by the current Chinese Emperor, Ch’ien Lung (r. 1736–96), were translated into French, Voltaire responded in verse. The Emperor sent him a porcelain vase.
European acquaintance with alien faiths and institutions was a powerful factor in weakening Christian theology. The news from Persia, India, Egypt, China, and America led to an endless series of embarrassing questions. How, asked Montesquieu, could one choose the true religion out of two thousand different faiths?41 How, asked a hundred others, could the world have been created in 4004 B.C when in 4000 B.C China already had a developed civilization? Why had China no record or tradition of Noah’s Flood, which, according to the Bible, had covered the whole earth? Why had God confined his Scriptural revelation to a small nation in western Asia if he had intended it for mankind? How could anyone believe that outside the Church there would be no salvation?—were all those billions who had lived in India, China, and Japan now roasting in hell? The theologians struggled to answer these and similar questions with a mountain of distinctions and explanations, but the structure of dogma nevertheless showed new cracks day by day, often as the result of missionary reports; sometimes it seemed that the Jesuits in China had been converted to Confucius instead of converting the Chinese to Christ.
And was it not by the science they brought, rather than by the theology they taught, that those cultured Jesuits had won so many friends among the Chinese?
I. Una est fidelium universalis Ecclesia, extra quam nullus omnino salvatur. Pope Pius IX reaffirmed the doctrine in his encyclical of August 10, 1863: “The Catholic dogma is well known, namely, that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church [Notissimum est catholicum dogma neminem scilicet extra catholicam ecclesiam posse salvari].” (Catholic Encyclopedia, III, 753b.) It is fair to add that recent Catholic theology softens the dogma. “The doctrine … summed up in the phrase Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus … does not mean that none can be saved except those who are in visible communion with the Church. The Catholic Church has ever taught that nothing else is needed to obtain justification than an act of perfect charity and of contrition. Whoever, under the impulse of actual grace, elicits these acts receives immediately the gift of sanctifying grace, and is numbered among the children of God. Should he die in these dispositions he will assuredly attain heaven.” (Ibid., 752b.)