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Toleration and Other Essays

François-Marie Arouet Voltaire

188 pages
Library of Alexandria
It seems useful, in presenting to English readers this selection of the works of Voltaire, to recall the position and personality of the writer and the circumstances in which the works were written. It is too lightly assumed, even by many who enjoy the freedom which he, more than any, won for Europe, and who may surpass him in scepticism, that Voltaire is a figure to be left in a discreetly remote niche of memory. “Other times, other manners” is one of the phrases he contributed to modern literature. Let us genially acknowledge that he played a great part in dispelling the last mists of the Middle Ages, and politely attribute to the papal perversity and the lingering vulgarity of his age the more effective features of his work. Thus has Voltaire become a mere name to modern rationalists; a name of fading brilliance, a monumental name, but nothing more. This sentiment is at once the effect and the cause of a very general ignorance concerning Voltaire; and it is a reproach to us. We have time, amid increasing knowledge, to recover the most obscure personalities of the Middle Ages and of antiquity; we trace the most elementary contributors to modern culture; and we neglect one of the mightiest forces that made the development of modern culture possible. I do not speak of Voltaire the historian, who, a distinguished writer says, introduced history for the first time into the realm of letters; Voltaire the dramatist, whose name is inscribed for ever in the temple of the tragic muse; Voltaire the physicist, who drove the old Cartesianism out of France, and imposed on it the fertile principles of Newton; Voltaire the social reformer, who talked to eighteenth-century kings of the rights of man, and scourged every judicial criminal of his aristocratic age; Voltaire the cosmopolitan, who boldly set up England’s ensign of liberty in feudal France. All these things were done by the “flippant Voltaire” of the flippant modern preacher. But he can be considered here only as one of the few who, in an age of profound inequality, used the privilege of his enlightenment to enlighten his fellows; one of those who won for us that liberty to think rationally, and to speak freely, on religious matters which we too airily attribute to our new goddess, Evolution. The position of Voltaire in the development of religious thought in Europe is unique. Even if his words had no application in our age, it merits the most grateful consideration. Trace to its sources the spirit that has led modern France and modern Portugal to raise civic ideals above creeds, and that will, within a few decades, find the same expression in Spain, Italy, Belgium, and half of America. You find yourself in the first half of the nineteenth century, when, in all those countries, a few hundred men, and some women, maintained a superb struggle with restored monarchs and restored Jesuits for the liberty that had been wrested from them; and you find that the vast majority of them were disciples of Voltaire. Go back to the very beginning of the anti-clerical movement; seek the generators of that intellectual and emotional electricity which, gathering insensibly in the atmosphere of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, burst at last in the lurid flashes and the rolling thunders of the Great Revolution. On the religious side, with which alone I am concerned here, that devastating storm was overwhelmingly due to the writings of Voltaire. Rousseau, it is true, gave to the world his simple Deistic creed, and with sweet reasonableness lodged it in the minds of many; Diderot and d’Holbach and La Mettrie impressed their deeper scepticism with a weight of learning. But Voltaire was the oracle of Europe.