Joseph Forster.

Some French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon online

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 3 of 19)
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two young men were utterly paralysed, and looked


helplessly on. The wretched father, in an agony
of grief, laid his son on the floor and sent Peter
for a surgeon who lived near, saying first to him,
' Let us, if we can, prevent this dishonourable
accident being known. You need not say how your
brother's death occurred.'

Lavaisse ran upstairs to prevent Mdme. Galas
learning what had happened, but she had heard the
groans and outcries of her husband, and soon
knew the whole truth. The surgeon was out, but
M. Grosse, his pupil, came at once. He found
Anthony quite dead, and on examining the body,
observing the dark mark made by the cord, said he
had been strangled. A crowd of people had col-
lected round the door, and, hearing the surgeon's
words, at once formed the opinion that the deceased
had wished to become a Catholic, and his Protestant
family to prevent that had strangled him. The
great majority of the inhabitants of Toulouse
hated the Protestants with a bitter and pious
hatred, and this suspicion spread like wildfire.
In fact, a furious mob composed of defenders of
the faith assembled round the house, and to prevent
Galas and his family from being torn in pieces, the
Intcndant of Police and his assistants were sent for.
The whole family were committed to jail amidst
the howls and execrations of the religious mob.
Two religious societies, the Franciscans and the
White Penitents, who naturally thought promoting
the death of a heretic family a holy work, inflamed
the popular hatred, and spread the report that


Anthony, who had never given any pretext for
such a statement, was the next day to have en-
tered one of these holy bodies ; that he was
strangled in consequence ; and that Lavaisse was
generally executioner for the Calvinists.

The funeral was conducted with all the pomp
and circumstance the Catholics knew so well how
to display. A monument was raised over Anthony's
remains, and a real human skeleton was exhibited on
it, holding in one hand a paper on which was written
' Abjuration of Heresy/ and in the other a branch
of the palm-tree as an emblem of martyrdom. In
fact, it was a pious orgy, a saturnalia of bigotry.
A fair trial, even a slight consideration of facts and
arguments, was out of the question. One David, a
fierce bigot, insisted that it was impossible to hang
oneself across folding-doors, and that it was the
common practice with Protestant parents to hang
such of their children as wished to become Catholics.
The worthy magistrate utterly forgot that Lewis
Calas, brother of Anthony, had actually become
a Catholic, and, far from being embittered by the
fact, his father had lately settled him in a good
business. Le Borde, the presiding judge, inquired
' if Anthony Galas had been seen to kneel at his
father's feet before he strangled him?' and, ob-
taining no satisfactory answer, observed, that 'the
cries of the murdered martyr had been heard at
distant parts of the city.' He added, that ' it was
necessary to make an example of John Calas for the
edification of true believers and the propagation of


sound faith, as heretics had been of late more than
usually bold and incorrigible.' And this poor man,
seventy years of age, with his heart broken by the
death the horrible death of a beloved son, was
doomed in the eighteenth century, contrary to all evi-
dence and all probability, to have his old bones broken
on the wheel ! And foolish people, who live principally
to eat and drink, and wear their clothes, and whose
religion never advances much beyond going more or
less regularly to church and chapel, abuse a man of
genius like Voltaire, who attacked with the finest wit
and irony a hideous system which produced such fruit !

Galas endured his torture with unshaken firmness,
declaring the innocence of himself and his family to
the last. His son Peter was banished for life, the
other members of the family were set at liberty.

This hideous specimen of the hatred and devilish
cruelty engendered by bigotry aroused the fiery and
unresting indignation of Voltaire. He never ceased
writing, petitioning, and speaking on this atrocious
theme. His repeated in fact, his incessant appli-
cations to men in power were at last so unbearable
that the judicial proceedings were sent to Paris to
be revised. Galas and the whole family were de-
clared innocent, the sentence was annulled, the
Attorney-General of the province was directed to
prosecute the infamous David, and every possible
satisfaction was made to the widow, M. Lavaisse,
and the survivors.

Every possible satisfaction ! What a hideous
mockery ! AVhat could be done for the poor


mother and wife whose heart was first torn by the
suicide of a dearly-loved son, and before she could
recover from that terrible blow, her husband her
lifelong companion and supporter is broken on the
wheel for the murder of a son he loved as dearly as she.

The words of David addressed to Galas on the
scaffold are worthy of Philip II. or Alva. ' Wretch ! '
said this infernal bigot to the poor old man, ' "Wretch !
confess your crime. Behold the faggots which are to
consume your body to ashes ! ' This horrible crime
was perpetrated in 1761.

Now we will turn for a few moments to the
hardly less celebrated Sirvens affair.

About forty miles from Toulouse is a place called
Cartries. Near there lived, on a little farm, the family
of Sirvens, composed of a farmer, his wife, and three
daughters, one of whom was married and likely to
become a mother, her husband working in a distant
province. Although a Protestant, the younger of
his unmarried daughters had been taken by force
from her father's house, put into a convent, and told
that she must profess the Catholic religion, the only
true one. The girl remaining obstinate, and not
being fascinated by the spiritual beauties of a
religion which tore her from her loved family and
home, was beaten with many stripes, and placed,
doubtless with a little bad water and less bread, in
solitary confinement. This religious discipline did
not benefit the girl as it ought to have done, con-
sidering its severity. The girl lost her senses, and
instead of, as often happens, becoming a Catholic in


consequence, threw herself down a well. All the
pious convent people, and the great majority of the
neighbours, at once stated that the poor girl had
been murdered by her family in revenge for her
becoming a Catholic. The people became dangerous,
and Sirvens, who had heard of the Galas murder,
was terribly frightened. In fact, his house was
attacked twice. After the second attack, while the
holy mob were resting and refreshing themselves
after their pious exertions, he took the opportunity
of escaping with his wife and family. At the
dead of night, in the bitter winter weather, with
deep snow on the ground, they fled from their
savage neighbours, ten times more to be feared
than cold and cutting wind, and escaped into
Switzerland. To add to their misery, his married
daughter was delivered of a dead child during the
terrible journey, her premature confinement brought
on by the danger and privation she underwent. The
poor mother, half mad with grief, would not believe
the child was dead, and tried to warm it into life
against her half- frozen bosom. Our pious defenders
of the faith at Cartries were mad with rage when
they found their prey had escaped their tender
mercies. They consoled themselves with burning
the whole family in effigy. In addition, they con-
fiscated all Sirvens' property and loaded his name
with reproach and infamy. The fugitives, who
travelled all night and concealed themselves by
day, at last reached Switzerland. The indignation
of the wicked Voltaire was roused by the religious


fervour of the good people of Cartries and its fruits,
the persecution of this poor family. He felt for
them in a practical way : he felt in his pocket
for them; he sheltered them in his house, the
mad humanitarian ! made the civilised world ring
with the story of their wrongs ; and actually
shot his arrows, winged with wit and barbed with
truth, at the religious zealots who show their love of
the beautiful and holy Christ, by murdering and
torturing their fellow- creatures who differ from
them in matters of opinion. If Voltaire had wished
to pass a quiet life and to be respectable he should
not have chivalrously supported the weak and poor
against the strong and the rich. I boldly and em-
phatically say that Voltaire was a thousand times a
better Christian than those murdering hypocrites,
drunk with religious fanaticism, whose religion con-
sisted in hate and not in love.

Now a few words on the vulgar and almost uni-
versal error, made by good people who do not ex-
amine evidence perhaps it is just to admit they
cannot that Voltaire was an Atheist. You all
know that Voltaire erected at Ferney a church
dedicated to God. He was, of the two, more
severe to Atheists than to bigots. In fact, he
could not listen with patience to what he considered
their idiotic arguments. He, the most tolerant man in
the world, on this subject became intolerant. Some
people, who always seem to me to make a point of
talking most about what they know least, will be
surprised to learn that the great feature of Voltaire's


character was his enthusiastic love of humanity. He
was a practical philanthropist, and did not confine his
charity to people living on another continent, as so
many people do, so that while a hell of poverty and
misery exist at the East-end of London, all their
benefits are shipped to Africa or some more distant
place. No, he made the people of his own village
of Ferney happy by helping them to help themselves.
He was not only the author of works of genius, but
the author of the happiness of thousands.

A village of fifty peasant inhabitants was changed
by him into the home of 1200 manufacturers. His
greatest fault was his prodigious excitability. He
was too generous, too easily moved. But in this
cold-blooded, selfish world, that is so rare a fault
that it becomes a virtue. If his greatest enemy,
the man who had caused him to shed tears of
anguish, were in want, Voltaire was the first to
help him, not with cheap words of useless sym-
pathy, but with material assistance.

Voltaire did not attack religion. He attacked
the lives of Jesuits, the cant of priests. When he
spoke or wrote of the Protestant faith, he did so
with respect and gravity. I consider that Voltaire
was the very incarnation of common sense. He was
level-headed, one of the most uncommon attributes
of humanity. We will return to Voltaire's alleged
atheism, that being, in my humble opinion, a very
important factor in the unreasoning hatred his name
inspires in so many well-meaning though stupid
people. Voltaire in his article on ' God and Gods/


in the Philosophical Dictionary, quotes Spinosa's 'Pro-
fession of Faith : '

' If I also concluded that the idea of God, comprised
in that of the infinity of the universe, excused me from
obedience, love, and worship, I should make a still more
pernicious use of my reason, for it is evident to me that
the laws which I have received, not by the relation and
intervention of other men, but immediately from Him,
are those which the light of nature points out to me as
the true guides of rational conduct If I failed in obe-
dience in this particular, I should sin not only against
the principle of my being and the society of my kind,
but also against myself, in depriving myself of the most
solid advantage of my existence. This obedience does, it
is true, bind me only to the duties of my state, and
makes me look on all beside as frivolous practices, in-'
vented by superstition to serve the purposes of their

' With regard to the love of God, so far, I conceive, is
this idea from tending to weaken it, that no other is
more calculated to increase it, since through it I know
that God is intimate with my being, that He gave me
existence and all that I have ; but He gives them me
liberally, without reproach, without interest, without
subjecting me to anything but my own nature. It
banishes fear, uneasiness, distrust, and all the effects
of a vulgar or interested love. It informs me that this
is a good which I cannot lose, and which I possess the
more fully the more I know it and love it.'

This is what the God-intoxicated man, Spinosa,
believed as natural religion. He believed with


Novalis that 'man is the temple of the living

What does Voltaire say on that sublime passage ?
Listen : ' Are these the words of the virtuous and
tender Fenelon, or those of Spinosa? How is it
that two men so opposed to each other have, with
such different notions of God, concurred in the idea
of loving God for Himself?'

Does not this prove what Voltaire says in a
preface to one of his plays, that all good men are of
one religion ? Religion consists in unselfish devotion
to others : it is, as Goethe expresses it, ' the worship
of sorrow.' It does not proceed from the tongue
and the teeth, but from the heart and the soul. I
myself would rather share the future fate of a
Yoltaire or Spinosa than that of any Facing-both-
ways occupant of the bench of bishops.

Let us listen to Yoltaire again :

'The Atheist treats final causes with contempt,
because the argument is hackneyed ; but this much-
despised argument is that of Cicero and Newton. This
alone might somewhat lessen the confidence of Atheists
in themselves. The number is not small of the sages who,
observing the mighty course of the stars, and the pro-
digious art that pervades the structure of animals and
plants, have acknowledged a powerful hand working these
continual wonders.

' The Atheist asserts that matter, blind and without
direction, produces intelligent animals produces, with-
out intelligence, intelligent beings ! Is this even conceiv-
able 1 Is this system founded on the slightest probability ?


An opinion so preposterous requires proofs no less
astonishing than itself. The Atheist gives us none ; he
proves nothing ; he only boldly asserts. What chaos !
what confusion ! and what temerity !

' Spinosa at least acknowledged an intelligence acting
in this great whole, which constituted nature : in this
there was philosophy. But in the new system, I am
compelled to say there is none.

' Matter has extent, solidity, gravity, divisibility. I
have all these as well as a stone : but was a stone ever
known to feel and think 1 If I am extended, solid,
divisible, I owe it to matter. But I have sensation and
thoughts to what do I owe them ? Not to water, not to
mud, most likely to something more powerful than my-
self. Solely to the combination of the elements, some
will say. Let them prove it to me. Show me plainly
that my intelligence cannot have been given to me by
an intelligent cause. To this they are reduced.

'The Atheist successfully combats the God of the
schoolmen a God composed of discordant qualities, a
God to whom, as to those of Homer, is attributed the
passions of men a God capricious, fickle, unreasonable,
absurd ; but he cannot combat the God of the wise. The
wise, contemplating nature, admit an intelligent and
supreme power. It is, perhaps, impossible for human
reason, destitute of divine assistance, to go a step further.

' The Atheist asks where this being resides ; and
because it is impossible that any one, without being
infinite, should know where he resides, he concludes that
he does not exist. That is not philosophical : for we are
not, because we cannot tell where the cause of an effect
is, to conclude that there is no cause. If you had never
seen a gunner, and you saw the effects of a battery of


cannon, you would not say it acts spontaneously. Shall
it, then, only be necessary for you to say there is no God,
in order to be believed on your word only] Finally, the
Atheist's great objection is, the woes and crimes of man-
kind an objection alike ancient and philosophical ; an
objection common, but terrible and fatal, and to which
we find no answer but in the hope of a better life. But
what is this hope ? We can have no certainty in it but
from reason. Still, I will venture to say, that when it is
proved to us that a vast edifice, constructed with the
greatest art, is built by an architect, whoever he may be,
we ought to believe in that architect, even though the
edifice should be stained with our blood, polluted by our
crimes, and should crush us in its fall. I inquire not
whether the architect is a good one, whether I ought not
to be satisfied with his building, whether I should quit it
rather than stay in it, nor whether those who are lodged
in it for a few days, like myself, are content. I only
inquire if it be true that there is an architect, or if this
house, containing so many fine apartments, and so many
more wretched garrets, built itself.'

In the same article occurs the following charac-
teristic passage :

' I do not propose to you to believe extravagant
things, in order to escape embarrassment. I do not say to
you, Go to Mecca and instruct yourself by kissing a
black stone, take hold of a cow's tail, muffle yourself in
a scapulary, or be imbecile and fanatical, in order to
acquire the favour of the Being of beings. I say to you :
Continue to cultivate virtue, to be beneficent, to regard
all superstition with horror, or with pity ; but adore, with
me, the design which is manifested in all nature, and,


consequently, the author of that design the first and
final cause of all ; hope with me, that our soul, which
reasons on the great Eternal Being, may be happy
through Him. There is no contradiction in this. You
can no more demonstrate its impossibility than I can
demonstrate mathematically that it is so. In metaphysics
we scarcely reason oa anything but probabilities. We
are all swimming in a sea of which we have never seen
the shore. Woe be to those who fight while they swim !
Land who can : but he that cries out to me, " You
swim in vain, there is no land ! " disheartens me, and
robs me of all my strength.

' Religion, you say, has produced thousands of crimes
say, rather, Superstition, which unhappily reigns over
this globe ; it is the most bitter enemy of the pure
adoration due to the Supreme Being.

' Let us detest this monster, Superstition, which has
constantly been tearing the bosom of its mother ; those
who combat it are the benefactors of mankind. It is a
serpent enclosing Religion in its horrible folds ; its head
must be bruised, without wounding the parent whom it
infects and devours.'

I did not intend to quote so fully as I have done.
But it is so necessary in this age of cant and lies to
prove that Voltaire was not a blatant, windy Atheist,
that he did not attack real religion, that all his war
was made on lying priests and their venal and
ignorant supporters. No man has been so misrepre-
sented as Voltaire. His polished sarcasm, his biting
wit, and his logical strength, made him the terror
and dread of all hypocrites and humbugs ; and, of
course, of the poor fools who are misled by such


people. The enmity aroused by Voltaire is profound
and without reason. Foolish people don't read him.
If they did, perhaps they would not understand
him. Then the rogues and hypocrites there are
some existing even in this enlightened age, although
education is helping people to find them out who
find it worth their while to cajole and humbug the
superstitious and ignorant part of the community,
never cease attacking the brilliant and trenchant
common sense of Voltaire, and all those who resemble
him. If common sense and reason ruled the world,
what would become of the windy charlatans and
the canting deceivers who support the present
unsatisfactory condition of things ? Remember
this, the late Earl of Beaconsfield, who while he
blessed the earth with his wisdom and truth, said
that he was on the side of the angels, in another
speech, I think, I may say, a little more truthful,
boldly stated that the government of this country
was not conducted in accordance with the rules of
logic. Now, that explains a great deal. That is
why reasonable men are always making a noise, and
mean to continue doing so so long as they exist ; and
we hope those that follow them will continue making
a noise when they are at rest, until affairs in this
country are conducted according to the rules of reason
and logic, and not as in the past, by rule of aristo-
cratic and clerical thumbs. "When Voltaire attacks
dogmatic Atheism, he does not say, ' I believe
because it is impossible,' but his opinions are based
on what he sees, thinks, and feels. He does not,



like so many clerical dogmatists, say, ' Believe what
I say or be damned.' There is not a word in the
magnificent passages to which I have just called
attention, that is contrary to common sense and love
of, and consideration for, his fellow-creatures. Like
the noble Lessing, the author of the most eloquent plea
for toleration ever written, ' Nathan the Wise,' he
says, that ' any man who believes that the universal
father of all men has any undue preference for any
particular nation or creed, has a totally inadequate
idea of the justice and love of the Universal Father.'

Voltaire, unlike priests of nearly all creeds and
countries, instead of appealing to the passions and
lowest instincts of humanity, by threatening them
with eternal torture unless they believe this, that,
and the other impossibility, appeals on the contrary
to the reason and heart of mankind, and tries, with
undeviating faith, to awaken and keep alive the love
of man for man, irrespective of colour, race, or creed.
If that is not the soul and essence of Christianity, as
I believe it is, then the less we have to do with a
sham religion the better.

Now, let us listen to Voltaire on that hideous
subject War :

' Distant people hear that they are going to fight,
and that they may gain five or six sous a day if they
will be of the party ; they divide themselves into two
bands, like reapers, and offer their services to whoever
will employ them. These multitudes will fall upon one
another, not only without having any interest in the
affair, but without knowing the reason of it.


' The most wonderful part of this infernal enterprise
is that each chief of the murderers causes his colours to
be blessed, and solemnly invokes God before he goes to
exterminate his neighbours. If a chief has only the
good fortune to kill two or three thousand men, he does
not thank God for it; but when he has exterminated
about ten thousand by fire and sword, and, to complete
the work, some town has been levelled with the ground,
they then sing a long song in four parts, composed in a
language unknown to all the soldiers, and replete with
barbarisms. The same song serves for marriages and
births, as well as for murders ; which is unpardonable,
particularly in a nation famous for new songs.

' Natural religion has a thousand times prevented
citizens from committing crimes. A well-trained mind
has no inclination for them, a tender one is alarmed at
them, representing to itself a just and avenging God ;
but artificial religion encourages all cruelties which are
exercised by troops, conspiracies, seditions, pillages,
ambuscades, surprises of towns, robberies, and murders.
Each marches gaily to crime, under the banner of his

1 A certain number of orators are everywhere paid to
celebrate these murderous days; some are dressed in a long
black close coat, with a short cloak ; others have a shirt
above a gown ; some wear two variegated stuff streamers
over their shirts. All of them speak for a long time,
many through the nose, and quote that which was done
of old in Palestine as applicable to war in the present
day. The rest of the year these people declaim against
vices. They prove, in three points and by antithesis,
that ladies who lay a little carmine upon their cheeks
will be the eternal objects of the eternal vengeance of the


Supreme ; that Racine's plays are works of the demon ;
that a man who, for two hundred crowns a day, causes
his table to be furnished with fresh sea fish during Lent,
infallibly works his salvation ; and that a poor man who
eats two-pennyworth of mutton, will go for ever to all the
devils. Miserable physicians of souls ! You exclaim
for five quarters of an hour on some pricks of a pin, and

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Online LibraryJoseph ForsterSome French and Spanish men of genius. Sketches of Marivaux, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarachais, Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre, Béranger, Victor Hugo, Eugéne Sue and Zola, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, Calderon → online text (page 3 of 19)