Chap. XXIII         The Triumph of the Philosophes



Jesuit writer Berthier noted that the Encyclopédie derived the authority of a government from the consent of the governed; this, said Berthier, is a view dangerous to hereditary monarchy. He may have been instrumental in having the Encyclopédie repressed.

Voltaire, he said, pretended to believe in God, but the effect of his writings was to promote atheism.

Voltaire did not hurry to reply. In November 1759 Voltaire (doubtless remembering Swift's imaginary burial of John Partridge) issued a solemn Relation de la maladie, la confession, la mort, et l’apparition du jésuite Berthier, telling how the editor had died of a fit of yawning over the Journal de Trévoux. He excused his method of controversy in a letter to Mme. d'Épinay: "We must render l'infâme and its defenders ridiculous.

a young Voltaire


”Jesuits,” as their critics called them, became within a century the most powerful group of ecclesiastics in the Catholic Church. By 1575 they had established twelve colleges in France alone. They trained the intellects of Descartes, Molière, Voltaire, and Diderot, only to see these brilliant men turn against them and the whole system of Jesuit education. At his home in Ferney (1758 f.) Voltaire maintained friendly relations with the local Jesits; several of them enjoyed his hospitality.

The most powerful of all the forces that were converging upon the Jesuits was the hostility of the Paris Parlement. That assemblage was composed of lawyers or magistrates belonging to the noblesse de robe, encased in gowns as awesome as the cassocks of the priests. This second aristocracy, well organized and eloquently vocal, was rapidly rising in power, and eager to challenge the authority of the clergy. Moreover, the Parlement was predominantly Jansenist.

The harassed King tried for a compromise. In January, 1762, he sent to Clement XIII, and to Lorenzo Ricci, general of the Jesuits, a proposal that henceforth all the general's powers for France should be delegated to five provincial vicars sworn to obey the laws of France and the Gallican Articles of 1682, which in effect freed the French Church from submission to the pope. On February 15, 1762, the Parlement of Rouen ordered all Jesuits in Normandy to accept the Gallican Articles.

In November,1764, Louis ordered the complete suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. The confiscated property amounted to 58 million francs, and may have helped to reconcile the King to the dissolution. A small pension was allowed to the ex-Jesuits, and for a time they were permitted to stay in France; but in 1767 the Paris Parlement decreed that all former Jesuits must leave France. Only a few renounced their order and remained.

The philosophes at first hailed the expulsion as an inspiring victory for liberal thought, and d'Alembert noted with pleasure the comment of the Biblical scholar Jean Astruc that "it was not the Jansenists but the Encyclopédie that killed the Jesuits." The number of free-thought publications now rapidly increased; it was in the decade after the expulsion that d'Holbach and his aides carried the anti-Christian campaign to the point of atheism.

On second thought, however, the philosophes perceived that the victory belonged less to them than to the Jansenists and the parlements, and that it left free thought facing an enemy far more intolerant than the Jesuits. In his Histoire de la destruction des Jésuites (1765) d'Alembert expressed only a tempered elation over their fate:

There were thousands of innocents whom we have regretfully confused with some twenty guilty individuals. . . . The destruction of the Society will redound to the great advantage of reason, provided Jansenist intolerance does not succeed to Jesuit intolerance. . . . The Jansenists want everyone to think as they do. If they were masters they would exercise the most violent inquisition over minds, speech, and morals.


But who would educate French youth now that the Jesuits were gone? Here was chaos, but also an opening for a pedagogical revolution.

La Chalotais, still warm with his indictment of the Jesuits, seized the opportunity, and offered to France an Essai d'éducation nationaJe (1763) which the philosophes crowned with acclaim. His present plea was that the schools of France should not pass from one religious fraternity to another—for example, to the Christian Brothers or to the Oratorians. He would not have the clergy control education. He admitted that many ecclesiastics were excellent teachers, unrivaled in patience and devotion, but sooner or later, 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. . . . I demand for the nation an education that will depend upon the state alone." The teachers should be laymen, or, if priests, they should belong to the secular clergy, not to a religious order. The aim of education should be to prepare the individual not for heaven but for life, and not for blind obedience but for competent service in the professions, in administration, and in the industrial arts. French, not Latin, should be the language of instruction; Latin should receive less time, English and German more. The curriculum should include plenty of science, and from the lowest grades; even children of five to ten years of age can absorb the elements of geography, physics, and natural history. History too should have a larger place in school studies; but "what is ordinarily lacking, both to those who write history and to those who read it, is a philosophic mind"; here La Chalotais handed Voltaire the palm. In later grades there should be instruction in art and taste. Greater provision should be made for the education of women, but it was unnecessary to educate the poor.

Diderot called for state control of education. Since genius may arise in any class, the schools should be open to all, without charge; and poor children should receive books and food free.

So belabored, the French government struggled to avert the educational interregnum threatened by the expulsion of the Jesuits. The confiscated property of the order was largely applied to a reorganization of the five hundred colleges of France. These were made part of the University of Paris.

Catholic doctrine was still a substantial part of the curriculum, but science and modern philosophy began to displace Aristotle and the Scholastics, and some lay teachers managed to convey the ideas of the philosophes. Laboratories were set up in the colleges, with professors of experimental physics, and technical and military schools were opened in Paris and the provinces. There were several warnings that the new curriculum would improve intellect rather than character, would weaken morality and discipline, and lead to revolution.


The 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 the fields of humaneness, sympathy, toleration, philanthropy, and peace it passed from a theological to a secular basis, and influenced society as seldom before.

Faced with the moral problems generated by war, the philosophes avoided pacifism while counseling peace. Voltaire admitted wars of defense, but he argued that war is robber)r, that it impoverishes the victorious nation as well as the defeated, that it enriches only a few princes, war contractors, and royal mistresses. He protested Frederick's invasion of Silesia and probably had it in mind when, in a passionate article, "War," in the Dictionnaire philosophique, he explained how easily a royal conscience can be reconciled to aggression:

A genealogist proves to a prince that he descends in a direct line from a count, whose parents made a family compact three or four centuries ago with a house the memory of which does not even exist. That house had distant pretensions to a province. . . . The prince and his council see his right at once. This province, which is some hundred leagues distant from him, in vain protests that it knows him not, that it has no desire to be governed by him, that to give laws to its people he must at least have their consent. . . . He immediately assembles a great number of men who have nothing to lose, dresses them in coarse blue cloth, . . . makes them turn to the right and left, and marches to glory.

The philosophes rejected nationalism and patriotism on the ground that these emotions narrowed the conceptions of humanity and moral obligation and made it easier for kings to lead their people into war. The article "Patrie" in the Dictionnaire philosophique condemned patriotism as incorporated egotism. Voltaire begged the French to moderate their boasting of superiority in language, literature, art, and war, and reminded them of their faults, crimes, and defects."


Meanwhile, for the time being, the philosophes appeared to have won their war against Christianity. That admirably impartial historian Henri Martin described the people of France in 1762 as "a generation which had no belief in Christianity.”

In 1775 the Archbishop of Toulouse declared that "le monstrueux atheisme est devenu l’opinion dominante." [monstrous atheism has become the dominant opinion] Mme. du Deffand supposed that belief in the Christian miracles was as extinct as belief in the Greek mythology. The Devil survived as an expletive, hell as a jest; and the heaven of theology had been upset in space by the new astronomy just as it recedes from space with the planetary explorations of our age. De Tocqueville spoke in 1856 of "the universal discredit into which all religious belief fell at the end of the eighteenth century."

All these statements were exaggerated, and were probably made with Paris and the upper and literate classes in mind. In Paris the new movement reached every class. The workers were increasingly anticlerical; the cafés had long since dismissed God. A nobleman told how his hairdresser said to him, while powdering his hair: "You see, sir, though I am a miserable scrub, I have no more religion than anyone else."

The Academy chose nine philosophes to its membership in the fourteen elections between 1760 and 1770; and in 1772 it made d’Alembert its Permanent secretary. Meanwhile the philosophes explained to France that feudalism had outlived its usefulness, that hereditary privileges were injustice fossilized, that a good shoemaker is better than a wastrel lord, and that all power stems from the people.

Even the clergy took the contagion. Diderot and d'Holbach numbered several skeptical abbés among their friends.

The growth of toleration resulted chiefly from the decline of religious belief; it is easier to be tolerant when we are indifferent. Voltaire’s success in the cases of Calas and the Sirvens moved several provincial governors to recommend to the central government a mitigation of the laws against Protestants. This was done.

Mercantile centers like Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London found it necessary to put up with the different creeds and customs of their customers. The growing strength of the nationalist state made it more independent of religious unity as a means of maintaining social order. The spread of acquaintance with different civilizations and cults weakened the confidence of each faith in its monopoly of God. Above all, the advances of science made it difficult for religious dogma to proceed to barbarities like the trials of the inquisition and the executions for witchcraft. The philosophes embraced most of these influences in their propaganda for toleration, and could reasonably claim much credit for the victory. It was a measure of their success that whereas in the first half of the eighteenth century Huguenot preachers were still being hanged in France, in 1776 and 1778 a Swiss Protestant was summoned by a Catholic king to save the state.


Voltaire himself, overcoming the natural pessimism of old age, sounded a note of victory in 1771:

Well-constituted minds are now very numerous; they are at the head of nations; they influence public manners; and year by year the fanaticism that overspread the earth is receding in its detestable usurpations. . . . If religion no longer gives birth to civil wars, it is to philosophy alone that we are indebted; theological disputes begin to be regarded in much the same manner as the quarrels of Punch and Judy at the fair. A usurpation odious and injurious, founded upon fraud on one side and stupidity on the other, is being at every instant undermined by reason, which is establishing its reign.

To the eighteenth-century thinkers—and to the perhaps profounder philosophers of the seventeenth—we owe the relative freedom that we enjoy in our thought and speech and creeds. When we cease to honor Voltaire we shall be unworthy of freedom.


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