Sunday, June 12, 2016
Chap. I France: The Regency
IX. Voltaire and the Bastille: 1715–26
Voltaire brought out his play Oedipe in November, 1718. Freethinkers enthusiastically hailed two lines in the first scene of Act IV, that were to become a theme song of Voltaire's life:
Nos prêtres ne sont pils çe qu'un vain peuple pense;
Notre crédulité fait toute leur science
— "Our priests are not what a silly populace supposes; all their learning consists in our credulity."
In 1724 the play La Henriade began secretly to circulate among the intelligentsia. It was a political broadcast on an epic scale. Taking the Massacre of St. Bartholomew as a text, it traced religious crimes through the ages: mothers offering their children to be burned on the altars of Moloch; Agamemnon preparing to sacrifice his daughter to the gods for a little breeze; Christians persecuted by Romans, heretics by Christians, fanatics "invoking the Lord while slaughtering their brothers"; devotees inspired to kill French kings.
It was translated into seven languages; we shall see it making a stir in England. It played a part in reviving the popularity of Henry IV. It made France ashamed of its religious wars, and critical of the theologies that had inflamed men to such ferocity.