J. M. (John Mackinnon) Robertson.

A short history of freethought ancient and modern; online

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system of Descartes ; all the while preaching a New-
tonian but rather agnostic deism. This is the purport
of his Philosophe Ignorant, his longest philosophical
essay.' The destruction of Lisbon by the earthquake of
1755 seems to have shaken him in his deistic faith, since
the upshot of his poem on that subject is to leave the
moral government of the universe an absolute enigma ;
and in the later Candide (1759) he attacks theistic
optimism with his matchless ridicule. Indeed, as early
as 1749, in his Traite de la Metaphysique, written for the
Marquise du Chatelet, he reaches virtually pantheistic
positions in defence of the God-idea, declaring with
Spinoza that deity can be neither good nor bad. But,
like so many professed pantheists, he relapsed, and he
never accepted the atheistic view ; on the contrary, we
find him arguing absurdly enough, in his Homily on
Atheism (1765), that atheism had been the destruction
of morality in Rome -^ and his tale oijenni, or, the Sage
and the Atheist (1775), is a polemic against the atheism
of d'Holbach. By this time the inconsistent deism of
his youth had itself been discredited among the more
thoroughgoing freethinkers ; and for years it had been
said in one section of literary society that Voltaire after
all " is a bigot : he is a deist !"^

But for freethinkers of all schools the supreme service
of Voltaire lay in his twofold triumph over the spirit of
religious persecution. He had contrived at once to

' M. Lanson seems to overlook it when he writes (p. 747) that " the
affirmation of God, the denial of Providence and miracles, is the whole
metaphysic of Voltaire."

' Mr. Morley writes (p. 209) : " We do not know how far he ever
seriously approached the question whether a society can exist with-
out a religion." This overlooks the Homdlie sur V Athiisme, where it is
discussed seriously and explicitly.

3 Horace Walpole, Letter to Gray, Nov. 19th, 1765.


make it hateful and to make it ridiculous ; and it is a
great theistic poet of our own day that has pronounced
his blade the

' ' sharpest, shrewdest steel that ever stabbed
To death Imposture through the armour joints.'"

To be perfect, the tribute should have noted that he
hated cruelty much more than imposture ; and such is
the note of the whole movement of which his name was
the oriflamme. It is notable that most of the humani-
tarian ideas of the latter half of the century — the demand
for the reform of criminal treatment, the denunciation of
war and slavery, the insistence on good government, and
toleration of all creeds — are more definitely associated
with the freethinking than with any religious party,
excepting perhaps the laudable but uninfluential sect of

1 6. From Voltaire onwards the rationalistic movement
in eighteenth-century France so rapidly widens and
deepens that it is impossible in the present survey to do
more than note its main features. The number of
rationalistic writers, despite the press laws which in that
age inflicted the indignity of imprisonment on half the
men of letters, increased from decade to decade, especially
after 1765 ; the audacious example of Voltaire, and the
rising prestige of the philosophes in connection with the
Encyclopedie (1751-72), giving new courage to writers
and printers. At once the ecclesiastical powers saw in
the Encyclopedie a dangerous enemy ; and in 1752 the
Sorbonne condemned a thesis by the Abbe de Prades,
which had at first been received with applause, but which
was found on study to breathe the spirit of the new work,
whose editor, Diderot, was the Abbe's friend. Soon
after came the formal condemnation of the first two
volumes of the Encyclopedie^ of which the second had
just appeared.^

A new era of propaganda and struggle had visibly

' Browning, The Two Poets of Croisic, st. cvii.

^ Rocquain, V Esprit Rdvolutionnaire avant la Revolution, 1878, pp.
149-151 ; Morley, Diderot, ch. v.


begun. In the earlier part of the century freethought
had been disseminated largely by way of manuscripts'
and reprints of foreign books in translation ; but from
the middle onwards, despite denunciations and prohibi-
tions, new books multiply. Voltaire single-handed pro-
duced a library ; and d'Holbach is credited with at least
a dozen freethinking treatises, every one noticeable in
its day. But there were many more combatants. The
reputation of Voltaire has overshadowed even that of his
leading contemporaries, and theirs and his have further
obscured that of the lesser men ; but a partial list of
miscellaneous freethinking works by minor French
writers during the century, up to the Revolution, will
serve to show how general was the activity after 1750.
It will be seen that very little was published in France
in the period in which English deism was most fecund.
It was when the long period of chronic warfare ended
for France with the peace of Paris (1763) ; when she had
lost India and North America ; when she had expelled
the Jesuits (1764) ; and when England had in the main
turned from intellectual interests to the pursuit of empire
and the development of manufacturing industry, that the
released French intelligence turned with irresistible
energy to the rational criticism of established opinions.
The following table is thus symbolic of the whole
century's development : —

1700. Lettre d' Hippocrate a Daviagete, attributed to the Comte de

,, Gilbert (Claude). Histoire de Caleja-va, ou de I'isle des

hommes raisonnailes , avec le paralVele de leur Morale et du

Christianisme. (Dijon.) Suppressed : only one copy

known to have escaped.
1704. Dialogues de M. le Baron de la Houtan et d'un sauvage dans

VAmirique. By Gueudeville, Amsterdam.
1710. Tissot de Patot. Voyages et Avantures de Jaques Mass^.

1712. Deslandes. A. F. B. Reflexions sur les grands hommes qui

sont Tnorts en plaisantant. ^

' Cp. pref. (La Vie de Salvian) to French trans, of Salvian, 1734,
p. Ixix.

= Given by Brunei, who is followed by Wheeler, as appearing in 1732,


1714. Discours sur la liberti de penser [French trans, of Collins's
Discourse of Freethiniing], traduit de I'anglois et augment^
d'une Lettre d'un Medecin Aiabe.

1725. Huard's trans, of the Hypotyposes of Sextus Empiricus.

1732. Re-issue of Deslandes's Reflexions.

1737. D'Argens, Marquis. La philosophie du Bon Sens. (Berlin.)

1738. , Lettres Juives. 6 torn. (Berlin.)

„ Marie Huber. Lettres sur la religion essentielle a I'homme,
distingue de ce qui n^ en est qtieVaccessoire. 2 torn. (Nomi-
nally London). Rep. 1739.

1729. , Suite to the foregoing, "servant de reponse aux

objections,'' etc. Also Suite de la troisiem^ partie.

1741. Deslandes, A. F. B. Pygmalion, ou la Statue anim^e. Con-
demned to be burnt by Parlement of Dijon, 1742.

1743. Nouvelles libertis de penser (Amsterdam).

1745. De la Serre (Lieut.). Examen de la Religion. Appeared
under other titles. Condemned to be burnt by Parlement
of Paris.
,, La iSIettrie, Histoire naturelle de VcLine.

1747. Deslandes, A. F. B. De la Certitude des connaissances


1748. Est^ve, P. L' Origine de r Univers expliqude par un principe

de matiere.
,, La Mettrie. U Homme Machine.

1750. Nouvelles liberies de penser. Rep. (?) Containing Dumarsais's

Dissertation du Philosophe (the Essai sur les prepijis).

1751. Mirabaud, J. B. de. Le Monde, son origine et son antiquite.
„ De Prades. Sorbonne Thesis.

1752. Maubert de Gouvest. Lettres Iroquoises.

,, G^nard, F. L'Ecole de Phomme, ou Parallele des Portraits
du siecle et des tableaux de Vecriture sainte. Author

1753. Baume-Desdossat, Canon of Avignon. La Christiade.

Book suppressed. Author fined.

1754. Pr^montval, A. L le Guay de. Le Diogene de d'Alembert, ou

Pens^es libres sur Vhomme. (Berlin : 2nd ed. enlarged,

,, Burigny, J. L. Thiologie payenne.

and as translated into English, under the t\t\e Dying Merrily, in 1745.
But I possess an English translation of 1713 (pref. dated March 25),
entitled v4 Philological Essay : or, Reflections on the Death of Freethinkers

By Monsieur D , of the Royal Academy of Sciences in France,

and author of the Poetae Rusticantis LiteratUTn Otium. Translated

from the French by Mr. B , with additions by the author, now in

London, and the translator. [A note in a contemporary hand makes
" B" Boyer.]


1754. Beausobre, L. de (the Younger). Pyrrhonisme du Sage.

(Berlin.) Burnt by Paris Parlement.

1755. Les Trois Imposteurs. Attributed to Boulainvilliers.

„ Analyse de Bayle. Begun by Marsy, continued by Robinet.

1756. 'Le Christianisme devoiU. Attributed to Boulanger,

Damilaville, and d'Holbach. 3 torn. Rep. 1766 and 1777.

1757. Pr^montval. Vues Philosophiques. (Amsterdam.)

[In this year was pronounced the death penalty against
all writers attacking religion. Hence a suspension of
publication. In 1764 the Jesuits were expelled, and the
policy of suppression was soon paralysed.]

1760. Dumarsais (d. 1756). Essai sur les prejuges (the Disserta-
tioti du Philosophe, with additions).

1762. Meister, J. H. De V origine des principes religieux .

\'jiiJf Discours sur la liberty de penser. (Rep. of trans, of Collins.)
,, Recherches sur Vorigine du despotisme oriental, et des super-
stitions. Ouvrage posthume de Mr. D. J. D. P. E. C.

„ UEvangile de la Raison, par M y, M.D. [ed. by Abh€

Dulaurens ; containing the Testament de Jean Meslier
(greatly abridged and adapted by Voltaire)] ; Voltaire's
Catdchisme de Vhonnete homme. Sermon des cinquante,
Examen de la religion, etc. [Rep. 1766.]

1765. Castillon, J. L. Essai de philosophie morale.

1766. Boulanger, N. A. VAntiquiti d^voilee. Recast by

,, De Prades. Abrigi de Vhistoire eccUsiastique de Fleury.

(Berlin.) Pref by Frederick the Great.
,, Burigny, J. L. Examen critique des Apologistes de la

religion chretienne. Published by Naigeon under the

name of Freret. [Twice rep. in 1767.]

1767. Castillon, J. L. Almanack Philosophique.

,, Doutes sur la religion. Attributed to Boulainvilliers and

Dulaurens, Abb6 H. J. V Antipapisme revM.
Freret, N. Lettre de Thrasybule a Leucippe. [Written long

Damilaville. V Honnetete ThSologique.
Reprint of Le Christianisme devoiU. [Condemned to be

burnt, 1770.]
Questions sur les Miracles. Par un Proposant.
Seconde partie of the Recherches sur Vorigine du despotisme.

1768. Catalogue raisonni des esprits forts, depuis le curS Rabelais

jusqu'au curd Meslier.
D'Holbach. La Contagion SacrSe.

Thiologie Portative. " Parl'abb^ Bernier." [By d'Holbach.]
D'Argens. CEuvres completes. 24 torn. (Berlin.)


1768. Naigeon, J. A. Le militaire philosophe.
Robinet, J. B. Considerations Philosophiques .

1769-1780. L'Evang-ile du jour. 18 torn. Scores of pieces, chiefly
hy Voltaire, but with some by others.

1769. Castillon, J. L. Histoire ginirale des dogmes et opinions

,, Isoard-Delisle (otherwise Delisle de Sales). La Philosophie
de la Nature. Author imprisoned.
VEnfer Ditruit, traduit de I'Anglois [by d'HolbachJ.

1770. Histoire critique de Jdsus Christ. [By d'Holbach.]
,, Dumarsais. Essai sur les prejug^s . Rep.

,, Recueil Philosophique. Edited by Naigeon.

[In this year appeared the Systeme de la Nature of
d'Holbach, which checked deism and turned discussion on
atheism. In 1776 appeared Condorcet's Lettres d'un Theo-
logue, also atheistic]

1772. Le Bon Sens. [Adaptation from Meslier by Diderot and


1773. Carra, J. L. Systeme de laPaison, on le prophete philosophe.
,, Burigny (?). Recherches siirles miracles.

1774. D'Holbach. La politique naturelle.
,, . Systeme Sociale.

,, Abauzit, F. Reflexions impartiales sur les Evangiles, sxnwi&s
d'une essai sur I'Apocalypse. (Abauzit died 1767).
1776. D'Holbach. La morale universelle.

, , . Ethocratie.

"i-IT!- Carra, J. L. Esprit de la morale et de la philosophie.
, , Exanien critique du nouveau Testament.

Attrib. to J. B. de Mirabaud. Appd. in i'}6() a.s Reflexions
impaiiiales sur Vevangile.
1778. Barthez, P. J. Nouveaux Elements de la Science de

1780. Duvernet, Abb6 Th. J. IJIntoUrance religieuse.

,, Clootz, Anacharsis. La Certitude des preuves du Mahomi-
tisme. [Reply by way of parody to Bergier's work, noted
on p. 229.]

1781. Marechal, Sylvain. Le nouveau Lucrece.

1783. Brissot de Warville. Lettres philosophigues sur S. Paul.

1784. Doray de Longrais. Faustin, oil le siecle philosophique.

,, Pougens, M. C. J. de. Recreations de philosophie et de

1787. Pastoret, Marquis. Zoroastre, Confucius, et Mahomet.

1788. Meister, J. H. De la Morale Naturelle.

,, Pastoret, Marquis. Mo'ise consider^ comme legislateur el

comme moraliste.
,, Marechal. Almanach des honnetes gens.


1789. Duvernet, Abbe. Les Devotions de Madavie^de Betzamooth.
,, Cerutti (Jesuit Father). Breviaire Philosophique , ou His-

toire du Judaisms, du Christianisme , et du Deisme.
1791-93. Naigeon. Dictionnaire de la philosophie ancienne et


Of these works the merit is of course very various ; but
the total effect of the propaganda was formidable, and
some of the treatises are extremely effective. The
Examen critique of Burigny, for instance, which
quickly won a wide circulation, is one of the most
telling attacks thus far made on the Christian system,
raising as it does most of the issues fought over by
recent criticism. It tells indeed of a whole generation
of private investigation and debate. The Lettre de
Thrasybule a Leucippe, said to have been written by
Freret (d. 1749) as early as 1722, but never printed in
his lifetime, is a no less mordant attack on theism ;
and the 'gowe.riul Essai sur les Prejuges oi Dumarsais
(1676-1756), first published in 1750,' sets forth such a
stern indictment alike of religions and governments that
few copies of the book were allowed to survive.^ In him
we have already the note of the Revolution. Making
no such cojiciliatory concessions to religion in the
abstract as were offered by other deists, he thunders on
the text that " Under unjust Gods proclaimed by lying
priests, under licentious and cruel chiefs, subjects will
never be either virtuous or happy. Morality is forced
to break for ever with religion and policy. "^

Of both Freret and Dumarsais the arguments are to be
found reproduced in d'Holbach's Systeme de la Nature
as well as in the anonymous Bon Sens given forth
(1772), presumptively by Diderot and d'Holbach, as
the work of Jean Meslier, but really an independent

' In that issue, under the title Dissertation du Philosophe, it was pre-
faced by a letter to La Harpe, then a freethinker, in entire sympathy
with the work.

" Mirabeau spoke of the Essai as " le livre le moins connu, et celui qui
m^rite le plus I'etre." Even the reprint of 1793 had become "extremely
rare " in 1822. The book seems to have been specially disquieting' to
orthodoxy, and was hunted down accordingly.

3 Ch. xiii. Rep. of 1822, p. 338.


compilation, embodying other arguments with his, and
putting the whole with a concision and brilliancy to
which he could make no approach. Premontval, a bad
writer,' contrives to say many pungent things of a
deistic order in his Diogene de d' Alembert, and, following
Marie Huber, puts forward the formula of religion
versus theology, which has done so much duty in the
nineteenth century. Of the whole literature it is not too
much to say that it covered cogently most of the impor-
tant grounds of latter-day debate, from the doctrine of
torments to the bases of ethics and the problem of deity;
and it would be hard to show that the nineteenth century
has handled the main issues with more sincerity,
lucidity, or logic than were attained by Frenchmen in
the eighteenth. It is only in the analysis of the
historical problem by the newer tests of anthropology
and hierology, and in the light of latterly discovered
documents, that our generation has made much
advance on the strenuous pioneers of the age of Voltaire.
17. Though the bibliographers claim to have traced
the authorship in most cases, such works were in the
first instance nearly always published anonymously,'' as
were those of Voltaire, d'Holbach, and the leading free-
thinkers ; and the clerical policy of suppression had the
result of leaving them generally unanswered, save in
anonymous writings, when they nevertheless got into
private circulation. It was impolitic that an official
answer should appear to a book which was officially held
not to exist ; so that the orthodox defence was mainly
confined to the classic performances of Pascal, Bossuet,
Huet, Fenelon, and some outsiders such as the Protes-
tant Abbadie, who settled first in Berlin and later in
London. The polemic of every one of the writers
named is a work of great ability ; even that of Abbadie
{Traite de la Veritede la religion chretienne, 1684), though

' Like Huard, however, he strives for a reform in spellings, dropping
many doubled letters, and writing home, bone, acuse, fole, apelle,
honSte, afreux, etc.

' The exceptions were books published outside of France.


now little known, being in its day much egteemed.' In
the age of Louis XIV those classic answers to unbelief
were by believers held to be conclusive ; and thus far
the French defence was certainly more thorough and
philosophical than the English. But French free-
thought, which in Herbert's day had given the lead to
English, now drew new energy from the English growth ;
and the general arguments of the old apologists did not
explicitly meet the new attack. Their books having
been written to meet the mostly unpublished objections
of previous generations, the church through its chosen
policy had the , air of utter inability to confute the
newer propaganda, though some apologetic treatises of
fair power did appear, in particular those of the Abbe
Bergier.^ By the avowal of a Christian historian, "So
low had the talents of the once illustrious Church of
France fallen, that in the latter part of the eighteenth
century, when Christianity itself was assailed, not one
champion of note appeared in its ranks ; and when the
convocation of the clergy, in 1770, published their
famous anathema against the dangers of unbelief, and
oifered rewards for the best essays in defence of the
Christian faith, the productions called forth were so
despicable that they sensibly injured the cause of
religion. "3

Merit apart, the defence was belated. After the expul-
sion of the Jesuits (1762)'' the press grew practically

' Madame de S^vigni, for instance, declared that she would not let
pass a year of her life without re-reading: the second volume of Abbadie.

° Le D^isme refute par lui-mSme (larg-ely a reply to Rousseau), 1765 ;
1770. Apologie de la religion chrStienne ; 1773, La certitude des preuves du
christianisme. Previously had appeared the Lettres sur le D^isme of the
younger Salchi, professor at Lausanne. It deals chiefly with the
English deists, and with D'Argens. There were also two journals,
Jesuit and Jansenist, which fought \ha philosophes ^a.n%or\f p. 721) ; and
sometimes even a manuscript was answered — e.g., the Refutation du
Celse moderne of the Abb^ Gautier (1752), a reply to Mirabaud's unpub-
lished Examen critique.

3 Alison, History of Europe, ed. 1849, i, 180-1.

^ The Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759 ; from Bohemia and
Denmark in 1766; from Spain, Genoa, and Venice in 1767; and from
Naples, Malta, and Parma in 1768. At first the Pope, Clement VIII,
strove to defend them, but in 1773 the Society was suppressed by papal


more and more free; and when, after the accession of
Pope Clement XIV (1769), the freethinking books circu-
lated with less and less restraint, Bergier opened fire on
deism, and deists and clerics joined in answering the
atheistic Systeme de la Nature of d'Holbach. But by
this time the deistic books were legion, and the political
battle over the taxation of church property had become
the more pressing problem, especially seeing that the
mass of the people remained conforming.

The English view that Frencli ortliodoxy made a ' ' bad "

defence to the freethinking attack as compared with what was

done in England (Sir J. F. Stephen, Horcp Sahbaticce, 2nd ser.

p. 281 ; Alison, as cited above) proceeds on some misconception of

the circumstances, which, as has been shown, were substantially

different in the two countries. Could the English clergy have

resorted to official suppression of deistic literature, they too

would doubtless have done so. Swift and Berkeley bitterly

desired to. But the view that the English defence was relatively

"good," and that Butler's in particular was decisive, is also, as

we have seen, fallacious. In Sir Leslie Stephen's analysis, as

apart from his preamble, the orthodox defence is exhibited as

generally weak, and often absurd. In France, the defence

began sooner, and was more profound and even more methodical.

Pascal at least went deeper, and Bossuet (in his Discours sur

VHistoire Universelle) more widely, into certain inward and

outward problems of the controversy than did any of the

English apologists ; Huet produced, in his Demonstratio Evan-

gelica, one of the most methodical of all the defensive treatises

of the time ; Abbadie, as before noted, gave great satisfaction,

and certainly grappled zealously with Hobbes and Spinoza;

.A.llix, though no great dialectician, gave a lead to English

apologetics against the deists (above, p. 107), and was even

adapted by Paley ; and Fenelon, though his Traits de V Existence

et des AttHbuts de Dieu (1712) and Lettres sur la Religion (1716)

are not very powerful processes of reasoning, contributed

through his reproduced conversations (1710) with Ramsay a set

of arguments at least as plausible as anything on the English

side, and, what is more notable, marked by an amenity which

almost no English apologist attained.

The ground had been thus very fully covered by the defence
in France before the main battle in England began ; and, when
a new French campaign commenced with Voltaire, the defence
against that incomparable attack, so far as the system allowed
of any, was probably as good as it could have been made in


England. As we have seen, the very principle of suppression
disallowed notice of books secretly printed, an*d therefore offi-
cially non-existent. But, as Paley admitted with reference to
Gibbon ("Who can refute a sneer?"), the new attack was very
hard to meet. A sneer is not hard to refute when it is
unfounded, inasmuch as it implies a proposition, which can be
rebutted or turned by another sneer. The Anglican church had
been well enough pleased by the polemic sneers of Swift and
Berkeley ; but the other side had the heavier guns, and of the
mass of defences produced in England nothing remains save in
the neat compilation of Pale)'. Alison's whole avowal might
equally well apply to anything produced in England as against
Voltaire. The skeptical line of argument for faith had been
already employed by Huet and Pascal and Fenelon, with
visibly small success ; Berkeley had achieved nothing with it
as against English deism ; and Butler had no such effect in his
day in England as to induce French Catholics to use him. (He
does not appear to have been translated into French till 1821.)
On the other hand, Voltaire circulated widely in England, and
was no better answered there than in France. His attack was,
in truth, at many points peculiarly baffling, were it only by its
inimitable wit. The English replies to Spinoza, again, were as
entirely inefficient or deficient as the French ; the only intelli-
gent English answers to Hume on Miracles (the replies on
other issues were of no account) made use of the French investi-
gations of the Jansenist miracles ; and the replies to Gibbon
were in general ignominious failures.

Finally, though the deeper reasonings of Diderot were over
the heads alike of the French and the English clergy, the
Systeme de la Nature of d'Holbach was met skilfully enough at
many points by G. J. Holland (1772), who, though not a French-
man, wrote excellent French, and supplied for French readers a
very respectable rejoinder ; whereas in England there was
practically none. In this case, of course, the defence was
deistic ; as was that of Voltaire, who criticised d'Holbach as

Online LibraryJ. M. (John Mackinnon) RobertsonA short history of freethought ancient and modern; → online text (page 22 of 43)