Chap. XIV           Switzerland and Voltaire


Describing his approach to writing history to Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire said that “if, while preserving those details that paint manners, you should form out of that chaos a general and well-defined picture; if you should discover in events the history of the human mind, would you believe you had wasted your time?

He gave credit to Bossuet for attempting a "universal history," but he protested against conceiving this as a history of the Jews and the Christians, and of Greece and Rome chiefly in relation to Christianity. He pounced upon the bishop's neglect of China and India, and his conception of the Arabs as mere barbarian heretics. He recognized the philosophic endeavor of his predecessor in seeking a unifying theme or process in history, but he could not agree that history can be explained as the operation of Providence, or by seeing the hand of God in every major event. He saw history rather as the slow and fumbling advance of man, through natural causes and human effort, from ignorance to knowledge, from miracles to science, from superstition to reason. He could see no Providential design in the maelstrom of events. Perhaps in reaction to Bossuet he made organized religion the villain in his story, since it seemed to him generally allied with obscurantism, given to oppression, and fomenting war. In his eagerness to discourage fanaticism and persecution Voltaire weighted his narrative as heavily in one direction as Bossuet had in the other.

In his new cosmopolitan perspective, made possible by the progress of geography through the reports of explorers, missionaries, merchants, and travelers, Europe assumed a modest position in the panorama of history. Voltaire was impressed by "the collection of astronomical observations made during nineteen hundred successive years in Babylonia, and transferred by Alexander to Greece"; he concluded that there must have been, along the Tigris and Euphrates , a widespread and developed civilization, usually passed over with a sentence or two in such histories as Bossuet's. Still more was he moved by the antiquity, extent, and excellence of civilization in China; this, he thought, “places the Chinese above all the other nations of the world. . . . Yet this nation and India, the most ancient of extant states, . . . which had invented nearly all the arts almost before we possessed any of them, have always been omitted, down to our own time, in our pretended universal histories.” It pleased the anti-Christian warrior to find and to present so many great cultures so long antedating Christianity, quite unacquainted with the Bible, and yet producing artists, Poets, scientists, sages, and saints generations before the birth of Christ. It delighted him to reduce Judea a very small role in history.

He made some effort to be fair to the Christians. In his pages not all the popes are bad, not all the monks are parasites. He had a good word for popes like Alexander III, “who abolished vassalage, . . . restored the rights of the people, and chastised the wickedness of crowned heads.”

a young Voltaire

But by and large Voltaire, caught with the embattled Encyclopedists in a war against the Catholic Church in France, emphasized the faults of Christianity in history. He minimized the persecution of Christians by Rome, and anticipated Gibbon in reckoning this as far less frequent and murderous than the persecution of heretics by the Church. He gave another lead to Gibbon in arguing that the new religion had weakened the Roman state. He thought that priests had usurped power by propagating absurd doctrines among ignorant and credulous people, and by using the hypnotic power of ritual to deaden the mind and strengthen these delusions. He charged that popes had extended their sway, and had amassed wealth, by using documents such as the "Donation of Constantine," now generally admitted to be spurious. He declared that the Spanish Inquisition and the massacre of the heretical Albigenses were the vilest events in history.

The Middle Ages in Christendom seemed to him a desolate interlude between Julian and Rabelais; but he was among the first to recognize the debt of European thought to Arab science, medicine, and philosophy. He praised Louis IX as the ideal of a Christian king, but he saw no nobility in Charlemagne, no sense in Scholasticism, no grandeur in the Gothic cathedrals, which he dismissed as "a fantastic compound of rudeness and filigree."

He made it a rule to question any testimony that seemed to contradict "common sense" or the general experience of mankind. Doubtless he would have confessed today that the incredibilities of one age may be accepted routine in the next, but he laid it down as a guiding principle that "incredulity is the foundation of all knowledge." So he anticipated Barthold Niebuhr in rejecting the early chapters of Livy as legendary; he laughed Romulus, Remus, and their alma mater wolf out of court; he suspected Tacitus of vengeful exaggerations in describing the vices of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Caligula; he doubted Herodotus and Suetonius as retailers of hearsay, and he thought Plutarch, too fond of anecdotes to be entirely reliable; but he accepted Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius as trustworthy historians. He was skeptical of monkish chronicles, but he praised Du Cange and the "careful" Tillemont and the "profound" Mabillon. He refused to continue the ancient custom of imaginary speeches, or the modern custom of historical "portraits." He subordinated the individual in the general stream of ideas and events, and the only heroes he worshiped were those of the mind.

In the Essai [Essay on General History] and elsewhere Voltaire suggested rather than formulated his philosophy of history. He wrote a "Philosophie de l'histoire," and prefixed it to an edition of the Essai in 1765. He had an aversion to "systems" of thought, to all attempts to squeeze the universe into a formula; he knew that facts have sworn eternal enmity to generalizations; and perhaps he felt that any philosophy of history should follow and derive from, rather than precede and decide, the recital of events. Some wide conclusions, however, emerged from his narrative: that civilization preceded "Adam" and "the Creation" by many thousands of years; that human nature is fundamentally the same in all ages and lands, but is diversely modified by different customs; that climate, government, and religion are the basic determinants of these variations; that the "empire of custom is far larger than that of nature"; that chance and accident (within the universal rule of natural laws) play an important role in generating events; that history is made less by the genius of individuals than by the instinctive operations of human multitudes upon their environment; that in this way are produced, bit by bit, the manners, morals, economies, laws, sciences, and arts that make a civilization and produce the spirit of the times. "My principal end is always to observe the spirit of the times, since it is that which directs the great events of the world."

All in all, as Voltaire saw it in his "Recapitulation," history (as generally written) was a bitter and tragic story. One wonders why Voltaire went to so much trouble to depict it at such length. He would have answered: to shock the reader into conscience and thought, and to stir governments to remold education and legislation to form better men. We cannot change human nature, but we can modify its operations by saner customs and wiser laws. If ideas have changed the world, why may not better ideas make a better world? So, in the end, Voltaire moderated his pessimism with hope for the dissemination of reason as a patient agent in the progress of mankind.

But the merits of the Essai were numberless. Its range of knowledge was immense, and testified to sedulous research. Its bright style, weighted with philosophy and lightened with humor, raised it far above most works of history between Tacitus and Gibbon. Its general spirit alleviated its bias; the book is still warm with love of liberty, toleration, justice, and reason. Here again, after so many lifeless, credulous chronicles, historiography became an art. In one generation three more histories transformed past events into literature and philosophy: Hume's History of England, Robertson's History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—all of them indebted to the spirit, and in part to the example of Voltaire. Michelet wrote gratefully of the Essai as “this History which made all historiography, which begot all of us, critics and narrators alike.” And what are we doing here but walking in the path of Voltaire?


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