Chap. XVIII           The Atheists


But since many philosophers in eighteenth-century France were hostile to Christianity as they knew it, the word philosophe took on an anti-Christian connotation; and usually, in our use of the French term, it will carry that implication. So we shall call La Mettrie, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Grimm, Helvétius, and d’Holbach philosophes. The debate that agitated the intellectual classes in the half century before the Revolution was not quite a conflict between religion and philosophy, it was primarily a conflict between the philosophes and Catholic Christianity as it then existed in France. It was the pent up wrath of the French mind after centuries in which religion had sullied its services with obscurantism, persecution, and massacre. The reaction went to extremes, but so had the massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572), the assassination of Henry IV (1610), and the dragonnades of the Revocation (1685).

a young Voltaire

The French philosophers were a new breed. First of all, they were clear. They were not solemn recluses, talking to themselves or their like in esoteric gibberish. They were men of letters, who knew how to make thoughts shine through words. They turned their backs on metaphysics as a hopeless quest, and on systems of philosophy as pretentious vanities. They wrote not long convoluted treatises, laboriously evolving the world from one idea, but relatively short essays, diverting dialogues, novels sometimes spiced with obscenity, satires that could slay with laughter, epigrams that could crush with a line. These philosophers attuned their speech to the men and women of the salons; in many cases they addressed their works to distinguished ladies; such books were bound to be intelligible, and might make atheism charming. So philosophy became a social force, moving out of the schools into society and government. It took part in the conflict of powers; It was in the news. And since all educated Europe looked to France for the latest notions, the works of the French philosophers reached into England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden, and Russia.

For now the faith in reason, which had had its chanticleer in Francis before, 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. Reason appeared in all the glory of a new revelation; it claimed authority henceforth in every field, and proposed to reform education, religion, morals, literature, economy, and government in its own bright image. The philosophes admitted the frailty of reason, as of everything human; they knew that it could be deceived by bad logic or a mistaken interpretation of experience; and they did not have to wait for Schopenhauer to tell them that reason is usually the servant of desire, the handmaiden of the will.

A spirit of optimism prevailed among the philosophes. Never had men been so confident that they could remold, if not themselves, at least society. There rose in the second half of the eighteenth century an élan of the mind that seemed to make old and ailing France young and strong again. Not since the days of the Greek Sophists had there been so many ideas in the air, or so invigorating a spirit of inquiry and debate. And because Paris was now the intellectual capital of Europe, the Enlightenment became as wide a movement as the Renaissance and the Reformation.


La Mettrie quoted a probably fictitious "friend" as holding that "the universe will never be happy unless it is atheistic"; for then there will be no more theological disputes, no ecclesiastical persecutions, no more religious wars, and man will express his natural instincts with no sense of sin. Let no man (said La Mettrie) repent his indulgence in sensual delights if these involved no harm to others.


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