Reflections on the Endarkenment in France, Part I

Textbook histories paint a bright picture of how we human beings have progressed from the Dark Ages of Catholic superstition, philosophical irrationality, barbaric cruelty, and political tyranny to the modern age of science, sweet reason, philanthropic humanity.  In the bad old Middle Ages we groaned under the worst sort of despotism, but now we live free under a political system that combines the stability of manly republican government with the fairness of democracy.  The key phases of this progressive development are the Renaissance, when humanists began to liberate man from the shackles of religion, the Enlightenment, when the philosophes laid the foundations for science and a rational approach to human life, society, and politics, and The French Revolution, which--despite the excesses of mob violence--was a turning point in man’s struggle for freedom.  The Revolution was, first and foremost, the best of Times, according to Dickens, as well as the worst of times.  As Wordsworth gushed in retrospect, though he would repent of his folly:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

          But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,

          In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

          Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

          The attraction of a country in romance!

          When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,

The reality, it goes without saying, is more complex, both the reality of the French Revolution and the reality of the intellectual revolution that preceded it.  “Dark Age” philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, far from being irrational or bigoted, had devised the most supremely rational philosophical systems ever conceived by the human mind, and neither Renaissance humanists nor Enlightenment philosophes made any contributions to philosophy.  The Renaissance, in fact, witnessed the revival of Black Magic, withcraft--and witch hunting; Enlightenment philosophes, while celebrating political philosophy and natural science, were amateurs in every field they worked in and made no significant contribution to science or political theory, and the French Revolution---well, debunking that particular myth is the subject of this conference.  Here is the judgment of an old friend, the Austrian liberal Erik von Kuhneldt-Leddihn:

One shouldn't forget that much of what may appear positive to us today - liberality, intellectuality, humanitarianism - had all been already brought to us by the liberal, courtly absolutism, while the French Revolution which used all these words in reality did nothing more than brutally extinguish them. 

We are all, if we have been to college, children of the Enlightenment and we take its doctrines so much for granted that we think they are universal or taught by Christianity.  For example, most of us assume that Christianity teaches universal benevolence, that we have a duty to feed the starving millions of Africa and Asia, and to bring democracy and human rights to Yugoslavia, Iraq, China, and the Man in the Moon.

The truth is that the universal benevolence of contemporary Christianity derives not from the Bible and the traditions of the Church but from the attempts of Enlightenment philosophers to pervert the Scriptures into their own philosophy of humanitarianism.   To cite only one example, the deist Thomas Jefferson prepared his own edition of the Bible, which was expurgated of all Jewish particularities and theological interpretations--“the wretched depravity of particular duties” as he called it.  That wretched depravity is precisely the very Christian notion that we have very specific obligations as parents or children, husbands and wives, citizens and aliens.  Like most deists--Voltaire, for example, or Kant--Jefferson believed that all human social life could be reduced down to general laws about universal rights and universal duties, and they reinterpreted Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors as a universal law of benevolence instructing us to care for everyone equally around the world, no matter whether they are our children or people in foreign countries whom we have never met.

In its earliest phase, deism had been an optimistic philosophy that sought to justify the moral order of the universe with systematic methods that paralleled those of Newtonian science.  Philosophers like Leibniz demonstrated that the world was only as evil as it had to be, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.  Theologians still grappled with the problem of evil, but most deists, including Voltaire--the most prominent deist of all--thought the problem had been explained.       

François Marie Arouet had every reason to be complacent.  Brought up in a comfortable middle-class family, he had gone to the best school in Paris, where he made friends with a circle of young aristocrats who were to befriend him throughout his life.  Well-read but far from erudite, Voltaire (as he renamed himself) climbed to the highest pinnacle of French literary and intellectual life.

Wildly successful and honored throughout Europe, Voltaire remained unsatisfied.  His irreverence brought him into frequent collision with censors, and more than once he had to flee Paris to avoid imprisonment.  He was also quarrelsome and did not shrink from libeling friends and benefactors, once he felt himself provoked.  Possessed of a forgiving conscience, he could, almost in the same instant, deny his authorship of a libelous pamphlet and give instructions for its distribution.  As Voltaire grew older, and more embittered by the misfortunes he had brought on himself, he began to doubt the wisdom of providence and the justice of the universe.  Finally, in 1755 the Lisbon earthquake gave the spoiled sophist the occasion he needed.      

The earthquake had struck Lisbon on All Souls Day and, while leveling large parts of the city, had killed tens of thousands of people.  It is not too much to describe his poem on the Lisbon earthquake and his novel Candide as the symbolic kick-off of international humanitarianism.  In the years to come, Voltaire would become the champion of lost causes and the spokesman for what we would now call international human rights.      

According to his admirers, this natural disaster awakened the philosopher from his dogmatic optimism and turned him from a world-weary cynic into a champion of social justice.  But there is an odd resemblance among most of Voltaire's causes: In nearly every case, the victims had been oppressed by the Catholic Church, and it is difficult to tell whether it is his humanity speaking, when Voltaire defends a Huguenot family accused of murdering their son on the grounds that he was converting to Catholicism, or only his hatred of priests.  

If one reads Voltaire's first written response to the Lisbon earthquake, his anti-clerical fanaticism leaps off the page.  Faced with the terrible death of thousands of human beings, the philosophe consoled himself with the reflection that "at least the reverend fathers, the inquisitors, will have been wiped out like the others.  That ought to teach men not to persecute men."     

Since Voltaire regarded himself as a victim of clerical censorship, it was no small personal satisfaction to imagine the suffering and death of his enemies.  Voltaire was, in fact, the very model of the modern sentimentalist: a chronic liar who flattered the very people he was libeling, faithless in love and friendship, he forfeited the esteem of Frederick the Great when he speculated on the devalued Saxon currency, after learning that Frederick--who had forbidden speculation--was going to redeem it.  Proclaiming the loftiest standards of human justice and defying the Creator himself, Voltaire cheated his own benefactor out of the price of a load of firewood. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina