The Age of Voltaire

by Will and Ariel Durant

Through his writings, Voltaire helped Western Europe in the 1700s become a more secular, less religious place. Voltaire stands foremost among the thought-leaders that France knew as the philosophes. Since many philosophers in eighteenth-century France were hostile to Christianity as they knew it, the word philosophe took on an anti-Christian connotation. This group also included Diderot, the force behind a multi-volume Encyclopédie that had a lasting impact toward a more enlightened society.

In these excerpts, we see what Voltaire and a few other philosophes said to counter centuries of Church dogma:

Voltaire with a book

Chapter excerpts:
I France: The Regency two plays from Voltaire's early years. One traced religious crimes through the ages
VII The People and the Statea pamphlet which urged the government to establish its authority over the Church, to prevent the Church from being a state within the state
X The Play of the MindMontesquieu defies the censors, poking at Christianity by poking at Islam
XI Voltaire in France: 1729–50Letters concerning the English Nation: liberty of person and property; freedom of the press; the right of being tried in all criminal cases by a jury of independent men; the right of being tried only according to the strict letter of the law; the right of every man to profess, unmolested, what religion he chooses.
XIV Switzerland and VoltaireLooking in history to discover a history of the human mind.
Organized religion the villain in his story, since it seemed to him generally allied with obscurantism, given to oppression, and fomenting war.
XV The ScholarsEuropean acquaintance with alien faiths and institutions was a powerful factor in weakening Christian theology. Why had China no record or tradition of Noah's Flood? 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 structure of dogma showed new cracks day by day.
XVI The Scientific AdvanceJoseph Priestley received the credit for the discovery of oxygen. In his Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit, he said
. . . that the soul and body, being in reality the same kind of substance, must die together.
Astronomy. Laplace. To destroy the errors born from ignorance of our true relations with nature, errors and fears that will readily be reborn if the torch of science is ever extinguished.
BOTANY. Linnaeus. He treated man (whom he trustfully called “homo sapiens”) as part of the animal kingdom.
The effect of science upon religion—or rather upon Christianity—seemed lethal.
XVII MedicineTo reform the care of the insane.
A milestone in modern medicine Led by Pinel, who had imbibed the humanitarian ethics of Voltaire,
he received permission to strike off the chains from his patients, to release them from their cells, and to give them fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and progressive mental tasks.
XVIII The AtheistsSince many philosophers in eighteenth-century France were hostile to Christianity as they knew it, the word philosophe took on an anti-Christian connotation.
La Mettrie, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Grimm, Helvétius, and d’Holbach
They turned their backs on metaphysics as a hopeless quest, and on systems of philosophy as pretentious vanities.
Faith in reason became the foundation and instrument of "liberal" thought—i.e., in this aspect, thought liberated from the myths of the Bible and the dogmas of the Church.
XIX Diderot and the EncyclopédieNearly all its contents used as weapons by the philosophes in their conflict with Christianity
XXI The Spreading Campaign: 1758–74Helvétius, from his Treatise on Man:
The desire of the clergy in all times has been to be powerful and opulent. By what method can it satisfy this desire? By selling hope and fear.
Another abbé, Raynal, in 1772, detailed and denounced the greed, treachery, and violence of the Europeans in dealing with the natives of the East and West Indies
The dominant themes of the Enlightenment: hatred of superstition and priestcraft, and resentment of state-and-Church tyranny over life and thought. Catholicism was an imposture by which prelates and rulers had joined forces to support each other through myths, miracles, propaganda, oppression.
Himself a noble, d'Holbach would do away with hereditary aristocracy:
"Are nations to work without respite to satisfy the vanity, the luxury, the greed of a pack of useless and corrupt bloodsuckers?"
XXII Voltaire and ChristianityHe said nothing about Christianity that had not been said before. It is only that when he said it the words passed like a flame through Europe, and became a force molding his time, and ours.

An intelligent man does not need it as a support to morality; too often, in history, it has been used by priests to bemuse the public mind while kings picked the public pocket.

What was it that aroused him to open war? It was the suppression of the Encyclopédie, the orthodox explanations of the Lisbon earthquake, and the ferocious executions of Jean Calas and the Chevalier de La Barre.
XXIII The Triumph of the PhilosophesFreeing public education from the control of the Jesuits.
He argued, their domination of the classroom closed the mind to original thought, and indoctrinated pupils with loyalty to a foreign power.
The rules of morality should be taught independently of any religious creed; "the laws of ethics take precedence over all laws, both divine and human, and would subsist even if these laws had never been declared.
Fresh enthusiasm for helping the poor, the sick, and the oppressed was due chiefly to the philosophes, and above all to Voltaire. Morality grew more independent of religion.

In America we need to revisit these ideas.

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