By Gary Potter
“The Enlightenment” is the name by which are known both an intellectual movement and an historical period usually considered as having begun in the 17th century and reaching their height in the 18th. However, insofar as ideas spawned by the movement — ideas about God, authority, order and freedom — are ones held by the majority of Americans today, there is a real sense in which it can be said that the Age of the Enlightenment is not over, that we are still living in it. This is still more the case since the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, documents on which our national government and political system are based, were born of the Enlightenment and imbued with its ideas.
Some of those ideas, which are alien to traditional Catholic belief and traditional Catholic philosophical and political thought, are the subject of this article. Talking about them as we ought, which is to say critically, will not be entirely easy for the simple reason that they are so much a part of the nation and world in which we live. We lack the perspective that distance between us and the ideas would provide. This is so even if we are Catholic. Indeed, it was necessary a few lines ago to speak of traditional Catholic belief and traditional Catholic philosophical and political thought because much of what now passes for Catholic belief and thought is the result of a systematic effort made by leading Catholic figures in this country to adjust Church teaching to Enlightenment ideas.
Further, if the ideas were adopted in America after originating in Europe and England, they backwashed from here to the Universal Church at Vatican II, notably in the Council’s promulgation of its Declaration on Religious Liberty, so that it is no longer possible, as it was a century ago when Pope Leo XIII condemned the heresy of Americanism in his Apostolic Letter Testem Benevolentiae , to contrast the Church in this country with the Church as she is in the rest of the world.
In any event, we shall proceed by examining a few of the Enlightenment’s central notions. This will be done by identifying some key figures of the movement, their works, and the particular ideas associated with them. Before we do that, howeve, we shall consider some history.
Most intellectual movements are given their name by men who study them. The Enlightenment is peculiar in that it named itself. This happened when certain thinkers and writers, ones who lived and worked mainly in France and England, saw themselves as “enlightened” in comparison with most other men, and, setting out to enlighten the others, said that is what they were doing. Many of the men of whom we speak were trained as mathematicians or scientists. When they spoke of themselves as enlightened, what they meant was that by the light of reason they had freed themselves from ignorance and superstition, which is to say, orthodox religion, and had thereby come to understand that the hierarchically-based, political-social order then prevailing nearly everywhere was bound to be oppressive or downright tyrannical insofar as both those at society’s summit and those lower down in it saw the order as being willed by God.
It is significant that many of the “enlightened” were trained as mathematicians or scientists. It was on account of their training that they were led to suppose that through the observation of nature they could, by the use of reason, discern laws which governed, or ought to govern, the life of society as they did nature itself. This is to say, they held that by the use of human reason alone men could arrive at truth — the truth about everything, or everything that mattered, in this world. Later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this notion would give rise to such pseudo-sciences as psychology and sociology, which pretended that the workings of the human mind, movements of the human spirit, and every kind of relation men have with one another could be quantified, measured, understood, and controlled like physical phenomena and the properties of material objects, but that is another story.
Practically speaking, the views of the “enlightened” put them at odds with the two institutions which in fact governed the life of society at the time, the Church and hereditary monarchy.
An intellectual movement does not arise from nothing. Before it flowers, it has roots. In its exaltation of reason — an exaltation made manifest at the time of the French Revolution, when the Goddess of Reason, played by an actress-prostitute, was ceremonially enthroned in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — the roots of the Enlightenment can actually be traced back to St. Thomas Aquinas. That is because it was he who revived, in the 13th century, the exercise of the Aristotelian logic of the Classical past. Of course he, and all the scholastics who followed him during the next two centuries, used logic — the art of reasoning — to advance and defend the teachings of the Faith. The thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment used it to attack the Church first, then eventually religious belief itself, as being against reason.
There was a certain irony in that, to be sure. It was somewhat akin to Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists of our day accusing the Catholic Church of being “unscriptural.” They forget that Holy Scripture as they know it would not exist save for the Church.
The Enlightenment also had roots in the period we know as the Renaissance. This was when, starting in Italy and France in the 14th century and becoming full-blown in the 15th, there emerged that characteristic figure called the “humanist.” We need to take care with our use of the term in relation to the Renaissance. Today “humanism,” especially when linked to another term to become “secular humanism,” denotes a militantly anti-Christian intellectual movement, a virtual alternative religion, one in which Man is worshipped instead of God. But the painters, sculptors, musicians, architects, and scholars of the Renaissance were not anti-Christian. Indeed, it is hard to think of one (outside England ) who was not a professing Catholic. What they held was that the worship of God necessarily entailed a deep appreciation of all His creation, at the earthly summit of which is humanity — men created by Him in His own image. In itself that notion is absolutely correct.
Where the humanists of the Renaissance began to go wrong was when some of them confused their creative power with God’s. No longer satisfied with trying to give rebirth (the meaning of the word renaissance ) to the beauties and learning of antiquity, they strove to surpass them, to make tradition an instrument for change in order to reshape the world.
Much of what they did was aesthetically quite glorious, but even as the humanists took a wrong turn in their notion of their own achievements, a dark side to the Renaissance also developed. We tend now to ignore this. We forget that the high Renaissance, for all its splendors, was also a deeply superstitious time. Belief in magic was widespread. Witchcraft trials became as commonplace, especially in Protestant parts of Europe (and very soon in Puritan New England), as they had been rare in the Catholic Middle Ages.
The Renaissance can be seen as presaging the Enlightenment in the famous case of the Italian mathematician and astronomer, Galileo Galilei. Having applied the rules of logic to observations of his own, he argued in support of the earlier finding of the German-Polish astronomer, Nicholas Copernicus, that Earth revolves around the sun while rotating on its own axis. This was in 1632. As is well known, Galileo was subsequently condemned by Church authorities. The condemnation is nearly always misrepresented nowadays. Supposedly it was of the very notion of a heliocentric solar system — as if the authorities who silenced Galileo were a bunch of retrograde flat-earthers acting to defend a literal reading of the Bible when it speaks of the sun moving through the sky.
What they were defending was really something else. St. Thomas Aquinas had written: “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” As against this kind of knowledge that St. Thomas said men should seek, Galileo wrote: “I value the discovery of a truth, even in a small matter, more than disputing at length on the greatest issues without attaining any truth whatever.” In writing thus he was casting doubt on our being able to obtain even the “slenderest knowledge” of the highest things — the truths of religion. Accordingly, he was saying, what we should value are the kinds of facts science can ascertain through its methods — through reason. In a word, he was exalting science over religion. That is what Church authorities condemned. They were defending knowledge of the highest things.
“That may or may not be,” most men would say today, “but who were these ‘authorities’ to decide what is higher or lesser knowledge? Who were they to stifle Galileo and free scientific inquiry?” This response is proof of the contention with which these lines began: that we are still living in the Age of the Enlightenment.
We might cite any one of several figures as being the first to exemplify the Age of the Enlightenment in its early stages. Let us select Michel de Montaigne. Cultural relativism was born with him.
Since he was born and spent his entire life not even in the 17th century, but the 16th (his dates: 1533-92), the reader may wonder why we are placing Montaigne in the Age of the Enlightenment. It is on account of his ideas. Without them there would have been no Enlightenment. His ideas came to be among those that typified the age (and now our own day).
The reader may suppose Montaigne was an aristocrat on account of the “de” in his name. He was not. The family’s estate in Perigord was purchased by his grandfather, a former wine merchant in Bordeaux. In other words, Montaigne was of the bourgeoisie. This is worth pointing out since the principal social outcome of the Revolution, the ultimate political expression of the Enlightenment that Montaigne helped foster, was the replacement of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie as the ruling class of society.
Montaigne studied law and did spend a little time working in that profession. He also married and fathered five daughters. During his lifetime he took one trip, not a very extensive one. (He went to Bavaria and then south to Venice and Rome.) Otherwise he spent his entire life on his estate, writing. All of the years of writing produced a single work, his Essays. He first brought it out in 1580, published a new edition in 1588, and was still revising that when he died.
Any description of Essays will make it sound boring. It is disjointed, consisting mostly of the author’s memories and reflections, especially on his reading, which was wide-ranging. Montaigne openly and cheerfully acknowledges that he himself was “the subject of his book.” That will make it sound more boring yet. It is not. Nor does the writing seem labored despite the one book being all its author produced. Reading Essays is like spending time with a host who keeps your glass filled with good wine while he tells story after story, each one amusing and all filled with charm, and none seeming to have much point except to amuse and charm. This can be dangerous, especially when the stories turn tastefully but undeniably lascivious. You know you should stop listening because you cannot be sure where the situation is headed, but you do not want to break the spell. So you laugh as if you were perfectly used to such talk, and continue listening.
What is most devastating about Essays from a moral point of view is that Montaigne keeps repeating a question, one of the most famous in French literature: Que sais-je ? “What do I know?” He is not asking it as might a man confessing that he lacks knowledge of something in particular. It is the question of a man who refuses to judge. It is like a shrug, like saying, “Yes, most persons would see what my friend did as wicked, as reprehensible, but what do I know?” Such moral ambiguity had not been seen in books before Essays.
Neither had been seen such treatment of foreign places, peoples and ways as we read in the volume. When Montaigne began writing it, it was no more than eighty years since Columbus had made his first voyage to the New World. Not a very great deal was yet known in Europe about all of the non-Christian cultures of the Western Hemisphere, but we should not be surprised that the writer who asked “What do I know?” adopted toward them the attitude Montaigne did.
There are cannibals in Brazil? Well, perhaps in their situation it makes more sense to eat the flesh of the dead than to waste it by burying it in the ground the way we Christians do. That, in effect, was Montaigne’s attitude. That, in effect, was what he said. He had passed from moral ambiguity to moral relativity, the notion that morals may change depending on the situation, depending on the culture, no one of which is superior to another, but simply different.
Montaigne, it must be said, died in the Church. Indeed, Holy Mass, for which he asked, was being said in his bedroom at the moment of his death. In other words, he never explicitly denied anything a man must believe in order to be Catholic. He never even raised questions — not explicitly — that were only implied in Essays. Other men would do that in the next century.
If there are circumstances that make cannibalism morally acceptable in Brazil or, say, polygamy elsewhere, by what right may Christians insist that such practices never are acceptable and that they must cease? If other men elsewhere led lives radically different from those of European Christians, who is to say that the European Christian way of life is necessarily the best? Can an entirely different way of life, one free from (for instance) the oppression of Church and crown, be invented? If a man is able to ask, “What do I know?” how can it be certain that Christian beliefs and morals — beliefs and morals such as taught by the Church — really come from God? If they do not, by what right may Christians seek to impose them on others? As far as that goes, by what right may a pope or king insist on a Frenchman’s adherence to them?
All during the century following Montaigne, doubts sown by such questions fueled a growing appetite for the kind of knowledge that science, already on the march, offered. It did not claim as absolute the truths at which it arrived. On the contrary. The scientist boasted that his findings could never be absolute, that there was always more to learn, that knowledge is always growing, that it is always subject to change as new evidence comes to light, evidence to be studied in the light of reason, light, light, light: enlightenment. Only one thing could thwart the development of knowledge whose accumulation depends on objective evidence and reason: authority. There was the enemy.
Another who, early on, contributed importantly to the development of Enlightenment thought was Rene Descartes, a mathematician often described in textbooks as “the father of modern philosophy.” His dates are 1596-1650. He was born near Tours and schooled by Jesuits.
Descartes believed, or wanted to believe, in the existence of God, and he was not an enemy of the Church. However, he did not want to have to depend on the explanations of theologians for belief. Beyond belief, he wanted certainty — certainty of the kind he had when he did his mathematics. That is, he wanted clarity and distinctness: Two plus two equals four, and that’s it.
He set out on his quest for them by disregarding the evidence of his senses. It could always be misleading, always doubtful, for a variety of reasons. He next postulated that even in doing mathematics, the result can be doubtful because the mathematician may inadvertently include wrong numbers or take false steps in working out a problem. But he observed that amid his doubts and questions, he could not doubt that he was thinking. This realization led Descartes to a proposition which he expressed in another of history’s most famous phrases: Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” This was his answer to the age-old question: How do we know we exist? Its “mathematical” clarity and distinctness meant, as far as Descartes was concerned, that it had to be true.
He followed a similar process in satisfying himself that God exists: Since men are imperfect, their idea of God as a perfect Being could not originate with themselves; the idea must exist because He does. From this conclusion Descartes attempted a totally rational defense of the Faith. Though he satisfied himself that he succeeded, he was wrong. The truths of the Faith cannot be verified by reason alone. Other philosophers, following Descartes, showed he was wrong, and helped undermine the religious beliefs of countless tepid and confused souls in the process. By the early 20th century, the most influential philosopher of the day, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who might be described as the ultimate logician, used reason to show philosophizing itself to be a futile exercise unable ever to arrive at objective truth.
Actually, the history of ideas did not have to wait for men who came after Descartes to refute him. A younger contemporary, another brilliant mathematician, Blaise Pascal, rose to the challenge. This was after a deeply moving religious experience made a real Catholic out of him after years of a very worldly life in Paris. “We know the truth,” Pascal wrote, “not only by reason, but also by the heart.” Pascal was a man of science who understood that reason has its limits.
Locke, Voltaire, Liberalism, So-Called Rights
We have identified two Frenchmen as precursors of the Enlightenment, as men without whose work the movement and age named for it would not have arisen. There were Englishmen who were equally important, or more so. Indeed, the movement and age did not become full-blown until the ideas of these Englishmen became known in French, which was the language of intellectual circles everywhere in continental Europe in the 18th century. It was Voltaire, of whom more will soon be said, who made them known after a sojourn of three years in London (1726-29). The ideas of John Locke especially influenced Voltaire, as they also did the Founding Fathers of our republic.
Locke, more than any other single individual, fashioned into a philosophy the false view men eventually came to call liberalism, which is to speak of the spread of original sin throughout society as a political and social force — the dominant one in the world today. Its principal characteristic is the belief that society’s members possess an unqualified right to decide every issue, to judge every action, according to their own lights without reference to God and His commandments. (In our day this has reached the point of men believing that they have the “right” to sin so that it has become the corner-stone and inspiration of so-called human rights like the “right” to kill a preborn child or the “right” of sodomites to parade their vice.)
Locke is also recognized as having originated, along with Francis Bacon, that approach to things which became known as empiricism — reliance on experience and observation, as opposed to theory, and the corresponding rejection of authority, as a source for knowing truth. (In the 19th century other Englishmen, notably Jeremy Benthan and, above all, John Stuart Mill, would develop some of their notions into the doctrine of utilitarianism: that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the aim of all political and social institutions so that utility became the standard of morality.)
Locke was born in Somerset and had his university education at Christ Church, Oxford. His dates are 1632-1704. Francis Bacon, who was as successful as a politician as he was significant as a philosopher (in 1618, he became Lord Chancellor under King James I), doubtless was more important to the foundation of Enlightenment thought than Locke, but we are dwelling on the latter because, apart from the dissemination of his ideas in Europe by Voltaire, no one exercised a greater influence on the minds of some of our republic’s Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson wants to be singled out in this regard. (Locke’s influence also extended in this country beyond the era of the Founding Fathers. That is insofar as a direct line can be traced from Locke through John Stuart Mill to that quintessential American philosopher of the 20th century, the pragmatist John Dewey, whose ideas did so much to shape American public-school education.)
It is revelatory that Jefferson, in a letter to his fellow Founding Father Benjamin Rush, described Locke, Bacon, and the English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton as his personal “trinity of genius.” Today, there are Americans still so desperate to want to believe that our republic can somehow be Christian at the same time it is liberal, that they will point out how often Jefferson speaks of God. He did it perhaps most famously in words inscribed on his monument in Washington, D.C. : “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The trouble, first of all, is that Jefferson ‘s “God” was not the Christian triune one. Jefferson showed what he thought of Him when he condemned orthodox Christians for their “hocus-pocus phantom of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads.” “We should all live,” Jefferson wrote on another occasion, “without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience and say nothing about what no man can understand, and therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” That God is triune simply was not an “intelligible proposition” to Jefferson.
Because he was not truly Christian, Jefferson was once able to tell a nephew, “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.” Accordingly, as he wrote elsewhere, “We are to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience.” In other words, the “tyranny” over the minds of man that Jefferson swore to fight would have included beliefs a Catholic must hold in order to be Catholic — because the Catholic must hold them even as the central one, that God is triune, is an “unintelligible proposition.”
It must be said of John Locke himself that he never took the position that individual conscience alone should determine an object. The reduction of object to subject by more superficial minds, like Jefferson ‘s, came after him. Still, it is extremely fitting that the only “trinity” worshipped by Jefferson included John Locke.
His devotion to the Englishman’s thought was so complete that when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he was accused of plagiarizing parts of it from Locke’s Treatises on Government. Jefferson defended himself by acknowledging that Locke’s ideas were so important to him as to have become his own — his “second nature.” In any case, the “plagiarism” was not word-for-word. For instance, reflective of his own hedonism, Jefferson enumerated in the Declaration as “unalienable Rights” those of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Locke had written of “Life, liberty, and property.”
Before we proceed to consider other representative figures of the Enlightenment, and since we have taken time to touch on John Locke’s influence on our republic’s Founding Fathers, it is useful to pause and note a real difference between the Enlightenment in Europe and the Enlightenment in the United States.
Europe was the heartland of the Faith. It was the center of Christendom when that still existed. America was a European outpost. In parts of Europe, Christianity flourished without interruption for nearly 1,700 years before the Enlightenment was full-blown. Thus, all the Enlightenment did in Europe was open up for its sons the possibility of attacking and then undermining the Christian political-social order. Not all Europeans sought the opportunity. They did not embrace the Enlightenment. Though a minority, many still do not, and though a minority, they are not less than negligible as a political and social force as are Traditional Catholics in the U.S. They remain dedicated to the idea of a Europe faithful to its Christian roots, as opposed to the Socialist one now being organized by the rootless EU bureaucrats of Brussels and Strasbourg.
The Christian political-social order that was the only order known in all of Europe when all Europe was Catholic never existed, except in an attenuated Protestant form, in the thirteen English colonies that would become the first thirteen of the United States. That entire history was lacking among the first U.S. Americans. It therefore occurred to few of them, and to none of the Founding Fathers, to question or dissent from the principles of the Enlightenment, especially since sons of the Mother Country like John Locke and Francis Bacon made England a seedbed of the principles. Thus, not merely did the principles become the basis, first, of the Declaration of Independence, and then of the U.S. Constitution. No alternative to them was imagined. Accordingly, their nearly universal acceptance also made of them a virtual religion, the very foundation of the U.S. civic life, as the universal acceptance of the teachings of the Faith had once made Christendom out of Europe. To question them even today gives the questioner the appearance of a kind of heretic. This, more than anything, accounts for the anti-Catholicism that existed when there were a few Catholics on the American scene — in the 19th century and early in the 20th — who dared to dissent from them. It also explains why most American Catholics, including most American bishops, never have. Instead, they have striven to demonstrate they were as “good” Americans as anyone else. This has entailed, in terms of our present subject, striving to show themselves faithful sons of the Enlightenment.
If, when the nation was founded, ideas of the Enlightenment became a substitute for Christian teachings, making a veritable religion of them, in more recent years the ideas increasingly have conflated with the nation itself, making it a religion and, therefore, divine. We can hear this explicitly stated by our political leaders. For instance, in his last speech as mayor of New York City, delivered at the Episcopalian St. Paul’s Chapel close by the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers, Rudy Giuliani declared: “All that matters is that you embrace America and understand its ideals and what it’s all about. Abraham Lincoln used to say that the test of your Americanism was how much you believed in America. Because we’re like a religion really. A secular religion.”
Voltaire has already been mentioned in these lines. Joseph de Maistre, the counter-Enlightenment philosopher and statesman, called him a man “into whose hands Hell had given all its powers.” He was the very embodiment of the Enlightenment. Born Francois Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694, he would live until 1778. He assumed the name Voltaire while serving a sentence in the Bastille during 1717-18 for two poems in which he accused the French kingdom’s Regent of trying to usurp the throne following the death of Louis XIV — an early exercise of the use of his talents to undermine legitimate authority.
Years later, when Louis XVI was awaiting execution and saw books in his prison by Voltaire and Rousseau, he remarked, “These two men have destroyed France.” Louis’s view was confirmed by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. “The Bourbons,” he observed, “might have preserved themselves, if they had controlled writing materials.” Voltaire himself would say: “Books rule the world, or at least those nations in it which have a written language; the others do not count.”
Probably no writer in all history has exercised greater influence in his own lifetime than Voltaire. His gifts were apparent when he was still a very young boy. It is said he was able to write verses almost as soon as he could write his name. His earliest education was provided by a dissolute priest whose behavior taught him scepticism even as he learned his prayers from him. From the age of nine until he was 17 he was under the tutelage of the Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand in Paris, then the principal seminary of the Society of Jesus in France. The Jesuits were justly famous for training students in the use of logic. Voltaire was an apt pupil. He learned from his teachers how to prove anything, and so ended by believing nothing.
After he left the College he studied law for a time, but the subject bored him. Literature was his interest, but his precocity was not limited to it. He became so notoriously dissipated that his father, a notary, arranged a position for him at the French embassy in Holland to get him out of the country. Fresh scandal resulted, however, when he seduced the daughter of a leading Protestant with the promise he would love her “forever.” It was a promise he would make innumerable times, though some of his affairs with women were long-lasting, notably one he conducted with a niece.
He continued to write (he would never stop) after his return to Paris. He also laid the foundation of a very large personal fortune after being lucky at the national lottery and successfully investing the proceeds in what would now be called corn futures.
Though his literary production included tragedies, he became most celebrated for the coruscating wit of his satirical writing. In time, one of his plays greatly amused King Louis XV, who named him to a position at court. There his reputation was established once and for all under the patronage of Madame de Pompadour. That was until his flattery of the royal mistress so incensed the Queen that he felt obliged to leave France. He accepted an invitation from King Frederick the Great of Prussia to live in one of his palaces in Potsdam. This was in 1750.
We already know that a quarter of a century before, Voltaire had spent three years in London, an important passage of his life. It should be mentioned here that in 1746 he had been elected to the Academie Francaise, that illustrious body whose membership is restricted to the most brilliant lights of the French language’s literature.
Voltaire’s life in Potsdam could not have been more agreeable — for two years. Being King was not sufficient for Frederick. He also wanted to be regarded as a poet and philosopher. Voltaire, who was universally recognized as both, was happy to let him think that he so regarded him. As a consequence, when the two fell into a literary dispute, the King would feel himself every bit Voltaire’s equal. Voltaire had to leave Germany.
He would later repay Frederick’s hospitality, and also the financial gifts the King lavished on him, with a malicious book detailing his “true” assessment of the monarch’s character and habits.
When Voltaire left Germany he could not return to France. That was on account of a book he had published in Berlin, Essay on the Morals and the Spirit of the Nations from Charlemagne to Louis XIII. The work perfectly reflected his view that “History is nothing more than a picture of crimes and misfortunes.” One has to be Catholic to see it is something more: a record of the workings of Providence.
Voltaire settled finally on an estate near Geneva. There he remained, constantly and prodigiously at work, until shortly before his death. That was in 1778, as we have seen. He had returned to Paris, where he was welcomed royally after his long absence from the city, for the premiere of one of his plays. The play was received ecstatically by the public. All of the excitement, however, proved too much for the old man, even after a lifetime of acclaim. It killed him.
During his long residence in Switzerland, Voltaire became friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, relations between them were broken after Rousseau supported the Genevan government when it refused permission for Voltaire to open a theater for the production of his plays. In a little time we shall consider the career of Rousseau. First, a couple of points are to be drawn from the account we have given of Voltaire’s life.
The man hated the Faith and dedicated his life and gifts to doing what he could to destroy the political and social order arising from it. How explain that men and women at the summit of that order, including monarchs and other great princes, would befriend and patronize him?
The answer is that it is a myth that revolutions take place when the oppressed masses heroically rise up and strike off their chains. That lie is nothing but the product of two centuries of revolutionary propaganda. In truth, revolutions happen when a ruling class stops believing in its right to rule. It was the case in France in the 18th century, when the King’s own cousin, the debauched Duc d’Orleans, insisted on being addressed as “Citizen” and cast the decisive vote in the Convention for the King’s execution. It was again the case in Russia in 1917, when the Masonic lodges of St. Petersburg and Moscow were full of nobles. More recently, anyone watching television news with an intelligent eye could tell that white rule in South Africa was doomed as soon as there were pictures of white students at the nation’s universities demonstrating against apartheid. Though it would divert us to cite all the historical evidence proving it to be the case, there are also invariably certain figures present at the inception of a revolution and then who drive it, and none is a worker or peasant. Besides leading representatives of the former ruling class like the Duc d’Orleans, the most important are: faithless priests, disgruntled intellectuals, and enthusiastic women.
Yes, the cynical Voltaire mocked the virtues that France’s aristocrats were supposed to embody as well as represent, but too many had stopped embodying them. Otherwise they would not have laughed at his corrosive witticisms. They would have found him and his sayings abhorrent, even as men today would turn off their television sets if they still clung to the virtues mocked by situation comedies. As it was, the Parisian aristocrats could enjoy the delicious thrill of signing, so to speak, their own death warrants every time Voltaire made them laugh. It is easy to imagine some bewigged and jewel-laden countess fluttering her fan and trilling, “Oh, Monsieur Voltaire, you are too wicked!”
The second point to be drawn from our short account of the career of Voltaire: Though his writing was phenomenally successful and influential in his lifetime, and his historical significance is and always will be recognized, practically nothing by him is read today, not even by most educated Frenchmen, or at least not for pleasure. Even his most celebrated work, the one remaining whose title will at least be known to literate men, the irreverent Candide , is read by few besides university students. Indeed, of all the vast amount of work he produced over seven decades of published writing, probably no more than two things he ever said are still remembered as being said by him, but they tell us everything we need to know about Voltaire.
The first: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Without the idea expressed there, which is totally contrary to the authentic Catholic position that error has no rights, liberal democracy would cease to exist.
The second: Ecrasez l’infame ! “Crush the Infamous One!” The “Infamous One” was the Catholic Faith embodied in the One True Church. Voltaire’s hatred of it was bottomless. Virtually his entire oeuvre is marked one way or another by his anti-religious zeal, but he devoted himself to anti-Catholic writing in a special way after settling on his Genevan estate. Probably the best-known of the works he then produced, and a monumental achievement in terms of the learning, clarity, brevity and wit it displays (and all issuing from one mind), was his Philosophical Dictionary , a virtual encyclopedia inasmuch as Voltaire writes on subject after subject as suggested by the alphabet.
But the reader must not misunderstand. To say that Voltaire hated the Church and was her enemy does not mean he was an atheist. When lesser men than he say of themselves today, “I believe in God but not in any particular religion,” or “What’s important is the kind of man you are, not what religion you belong to” — that is what Voltaire was, but writ large, for he is the one who taught others to speak like that, even if their ignorance today precludes their knowing he was the teacher. Here are a few lines from an article in the Philosophical Dictionary , the one in which Voltaire defines “Theist” (see if the talk is not as familiar as what you heard the last time some personage was hailed on television as “wise” and “humane”):
“The Theist is a man firmly persuaded of the existence of a supreme being as good as he is powerful, who has formed all things; who punishes, without cruelty, all crime, and recompenses with goodness all virtuous actions. Reunited in this principle with the rest of the universe, he does not join any of the sects which all contradict one another. His religion is the most ancient and the most widespread; for the simple worship of a God preceded all the systems of the world. He speaks a language all peoples understand, while they do not understand one another. He has brothers from Pekin to Cayenne, and he counts all the sages for his fellows. He believes that religion consists neither in the opinions of an unintelligible metaphysic, nor in vain shows, but in worship and justice. To do good is his worship, to submit to God is his creed. The Mohammedan cries out to him, ‘Beware if you fail to make the pilgrimage to Mecca!’ — the priest says to him, ‘Curses on you if you do not make the trip to Notre Dame de Lorette!’ He laughs at Lorette and at Mecca; but he succors the indigent and defends the oppressed.”
Is it any wonder that the memory of Voltaire is revered today, even if he is no longer widely read?
That he died in 1778 means he did not live to see the Revolution that he did so much to prepare. But he foresaw it. He knew what he had done (note how “light” which gives Enlightenment will produce the “splendid outburst”):
“Everything that I see appears to be throwing broadcast the seed of a revolution which must some day come, but which I shall not have the pleasure of witnessing. The French always come late to things, but they do come at last. Light extends so from neighbor to neighbor, that there will be a splendid outburst on the first occasion; and then there will be a rare commotion! The young are fortunate; they will see fine things.”
Before we conclude these notes on the Enlightenment, this outline of the origin of some of its ideas that continue to dominate the intellectual landscape even of our own day, we must speak of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A few lines are also in order concerning the encyclopedists, also known as the philosophes , a group of 18th-century French thinkers driven by the idea that morality — that which determines what is good — should not be based on any fixed body of teaching like the Commandments of God and dogmas of the Church, but on the needs of society, which they saw as constantly changing.
The word philosophes translates as “philosophers,” but in order to distinguish between this particular group of 18th-century French thinkers and other philosophers it has become the convention to retain the French when referring to them.
Between 1751 and 1765 they produced an Encyclopedie , a multivolume work whose articles were tied together by the single thread of materialism, not because all the philosophes were materialists as such — no more than Voltaire — but because they had no better instrument at hand for overturning the authority of throne and altar.
Voltaire contributed a number of articles to the Encyclopedie , but the chief figures among the philosophes were the mathematican Jean d’Alembert and the work’s editor, the Jesuit-educated Denis Diderot. This latter would write that “men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” That sentiment pretty much summed up the views of the philosophes , but it did not prevent Diderot from letting himself be rescued from the penury of his old age by a large gift of money from Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
Unquestionably, the articles in Diderot’s Encyclopedie that had to do with science and mathematics were first-rate for their day, but the work’s historical importance lies in what it had to say about religion and politics: that submission to the “autocracy” of the throne resulted from belief in God, and the one would not end without making men realize — without enlightening them — that the other was baseless folly.
Church authorities did succeed for a time in suppressing the first volumes of the Encyclopedie , but that did not prevent the work’s influence from spreading very far. The ultimate measure of its success would have been unimagined by Diderot: As the Revolution has continued to unfold during the past two centuries, countless of the faithful, taking their lead from eminent Churchmen and theologians, have endeavored to prove the philosophes wrong by showing in their conduct (and doubtless sincerely believing) that somehow one can be a liberal and remain Catholic.
As for Rousseau, he is probably the most familiar of all the leading figures of the Enlightenment. Most educated Americans have some sense of what he was about. They have heard, for instance, of his idea of the “noble savage.” That may make it unnecessary to devote as much space here to him as was given to Voltaire, who is no longer as well known among English-speakers, but this will also further obscure a dimension of Enlightenment thought that has already gone largely ignored in these lines. The emphasis here has been on the rationalist side of the Enlightenment. It has another: its naturalistic side, where it is held that the supernatural does not exist, that even such truth as may be conceded to religion is based on natural causes and processes. Voltaire can be seen standing at the one pole, and Rousseau at the other.
He was born in Geneva in 1712, and raised by relatives, his mother having died giving him birth. He was never formally educated. What learning he came to possess, and it did not amount to much, he acquired by himself. At 16 he ran away from home and began to make his way in the world with the help of a couple of older women who found his youth attractive. When he moved to Paris in 1741, he took up, somewhat inexplicably, with a housemaid who would be his companion for the rest of his life. He fathered five children by the woman, every one of whom he consigned to a home for foundlings — a significant point considering the reputation he still enjoys for a tender sensibility and the way he rhapsodizes in his writing on the innocence of childhood.
Rousseau first became widely known to the reading public in 1750 with an essay arguing that the arts and sciences had seduced man from his noble, natural state by creating new and artificial desires. This was followed in 1754 by his Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalite parmi les hommes , wherein he expounded at greater length his central thesis that
it is social and political institu-
tions which corrupt man’s natural
That same year he returned to Geneva, where he wrote a novel in letter-form, La Nouvelle Heloise. Three years later he was back in Paris, then moved on to Luxembourg. In 1762, he published his most important book, Contrat social , which we shall consider in a few moments. That same year saw publication of a novel, Emile. The views expressed therein on both monarchy and religion could have landed him in prison except that Frederick the Great offered him protection.
In 1766, he accepted an invitation to move to England from the Scottish empiricist philosopher, David Hume, an atheist who denied the existence of the self, wrote that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions,” and continues to our day to be a potent influence in philosophy. Rousseau wrote most of his Confessions , his second best-known book, while living in England, but it was also at that time he began displaying the unmistakable symptoms of paranoia.
By 1770, he was again in Paris, having alienated nearly all his friends and patrons. Moving to a cottage in the village of Ermenonville, he died there, insane, in July 1778, a month after Voltaire. His remains are enshrined today, along with those of Voltaire, in Paris in the former Church of St. Genevieve that the Revolution transformed into republican France ‘s national Pantheon.
As for Contrat social , which we said we would consider, it can be described quite simply as the Bible of the Revolution. Like the opening of the Gospel of St. John, its first line is known even by men who have not read the book: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”
What the book postulates is a social contract or “form of association which will defend with the whole common force, the person of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself to all, may still obey himself alone and still remain as free as before.” In order to “remain as free as before,” the citizen must surrender his rights and possessions to the “general will” which, since it does not admit of sectarian or private interests, must necessarily have the impartial good as its end. So it is that if a citizen dares to act against the “general will,” he must be “forced to be free.”
Those words — “forced to be free” — set forever, or for at least the past two centuries, the limit, the extent to which liberalism, always proclaiming itself to be tolerant, will go in its tolerance. It is tolerant only to the degree that it is not itself challenged.
That is so even in the case of religion. This is stated explicitly at the very conclusion of Contrat social. Prefiguring Jefferson ‘s vow to fight every form of “tyranny” over the mind of man, Rousseau wrote: “Now that there is and can be no longer an exclusive national religion, tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship. But whoever dares to say: Outside the Church is no salvation, ought to be driven from the State.”
Of course there is one “church,” one religion, making increasingly exclusive demands in which membership will not result in banishment. On the contrary. To quote Mayor Giuliani once more, “embracing” it, “understanding its ideals,” “believing” in it, threaten to become “all that matters.”
The Age of the Enlightenment is not over.