Chap. XIX   Diderot and the Encyclopédie



Nearly all its contents have been superseded by the intellectual revolution which it helped to foment; they engage our interest only as events in the history of ideas, and as weapons used by the philosophes in their conflict with the only Christianity that they knew. The attack, as we have seen, was seldom direct. The articles "Jesus" and "Christianity," both by Diderot, were essentially orthodox; the second was praised by an Italian abbé. Several priests contributed articles; so the Abbé Yvon wrote "Atheists." The Encyclopédie supported not atheism but deism. However, the cross references were sometimes seductive; appended to an orthodox article, they often pointed to other articles that suggested doubts; so the exemplary piece on God referred to the article "Demonstration," which laid down principles of evidence lethal to miracles and myths. Sometimes the least reasonable elements in the Christian creed were expounded with apparent acceptance, but in a way to evoke questioning. Chinese or Mohammedan doctrines similar to those of Christianity were rejected as irrational. The article "Priests," probably by d'Holbach, was outspoken in hostility, for the philosophes hated the clergy as foes of free thought and as prods to persecution. The author pretended to be writing of pagan Priests:

Superstition having multiplied the ceremonies of the diverse cults, the persons conducting the ceremonies soon formed a separate order. The people believed that these persons were entirely devoted to the divinity; hence the priests shared in the respect given to the divinity. Vulgar occupations appeared to be beneath them, and the people believed themselves obliged to provide for their subsistence . . . . as depositories and interpreters of the divine will, and as mediators between gods and men. . . .


To more surely establish their domination, the priests depicted the gods as cruel, vindictive, implacable. They introduced ceremonies, initiations, mysteries, whose atrocity could nourish in men that somber melancholy so favorable to the empire of fanaticism. Then human blood flowed in great streams over the altars; the people, cowed with fear and stupefied with superstition, thought no price too high to pay for the good will of the gods. Mothers delivered without a tear their tender infants to the devouring flames; thousands of victims fell under the sacrificial knife. . . .

It was difficult for men so reverenced to remain long within the borders of subordination necessary to social order. The priesthood, drunk with power, often disputed the rights of the kings. . . . Fanaticism and superstition held the knife suspended over the heads of sovereigns; thrones were shaken whenever kings wished to repress or punish holy men, whose interests were confounded with those of the gods. . . . To wish to limit their power was to sap the foundations of religion.

If such a philosopher could replace the priest as guide-confessor to a king, he could counsel, first of all, a spread of freedom, especially to speech and press. "No man has received from nature the right of commanding others"; so much for the divine right of kings. And as for revolution:

Power acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only as long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey. . . . If these in turn become stronger and shake off their yoke, they do so with as much right and justice as did the former who had imposed it upon them. The same law that made the authority unmakes it; it is the law of the stronger. . . . Therefore true and legitimate power necessarily has limits. . . . The prince holds from his subjects themselves the authority that he has over them; and this authority is limited by the laws of nature and of the state. . . . It is not the state which belongs to the prince, but rather the prince who belongs to the state.


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