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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Prejudices Voltaire was original


Voltaire's

mind has been described as "a chaos of clear ideas." It is easy to point out the inconsistencies of his opinions, yet certain dominant thoughts can be distinguished amid the chaos. He believed in a God; the arrangements of the universe require a designer; the idea of God is a benefit to society--if He did not exist, He must be invented. But to suppose that the Deity intervenes in the affairs of the world is superstition; He rules through general laws--His executive; He is represented in the heart of man by His viceroy--conscience. The soul is immortal, and God is just; therefore let wrong-doers beware. In _L'Histoire de Jenni_ the youthful hero is perverted by his atheistic associates, and does not fear to murder his creditor; he is reconverted to theism, and becomes one of the best men in England. As to the evil which darkens the world, we cannot understand it; let us not make it worse by vain perplexities; let us hope that a future life will right the balance of things; and, meanwhile, let us attend to the counsels of moderation and good sense; let the narrow bounds of our knowledge at least teach us the lesson of toleration.

Applied to history, such ideas lead Voltaire, in striking contrast with Bossuet, to ignore the supernatural, to eliminate the Providential order, and to seek the explanation of events in human opinion, in human sentiments, in the influence of great men, even in the influence of petty accident, the caprice of _sa Majeste

le Hasard_. In the epoch of classical antiquity--which Voltaire understood ill--man had advanced from barbarism to a condition of comparative well-being and good sense; in the Christian and mediaeval period there was a recoil and retrogression; in modern times has begun a renewed advance. In fixing attention on the _esprit et moeurs_ of nations--their manners, opinions, institutions, sentiments, prejudices--Voltaire was original, and rendered most important service to the study of history. Although his blindness to the significance of religious phenomena is a grave defect, his historical scepticism had its uses. As a writer of historical narrative he is admirably lucid and rapid; nor should the ease of his narration conceal the fact that he worked laboriously and carefully among original sources. With his _Charles XII._, his _Pierre le Grand_, his _Siecle de Louis XIV._, we may class the _Henriade_ as a piece of history; its imaginative power is not that of an epic, but it is an interpretation of a fragment of French history in the light of one generous idea--that of religious toleration.

Filled with destructive passion against the Church, Voltaire, in affairs of the State, was a conservative. His ideal for France was an intelligent despotism. But if a conservative, he was one of a reforming spirit. He pleaded for freedom in the internal trade of province with province, for legal and administrative uniformity throughout the whole country, for a reform of the magistracy, for a milder code of criminal jurisprudence, for attention to public hygiene. His programme was not ambitious, but it was reasonable, and his efforts for the general welfare have been justified by time.

As a literary critic he was again conservative. He belonged to the classical school, and to its least liberal section. He regarded literary forms as imposed from without on the content of poetry, not as growing from within; passion and imagination he would reduce to the strict bounds of uninspired good sense; he placed Virgil above Homer, and preferred French tragedy to that of ancient Greece; from his involuntary admiration of Shakespeare he recoiled in alarm; if he admired Corneille, it was with many reservations. Yet his taste was less narrow than that of some of his contemporaries; he had a true feeling for the genius of the French language; he possessed, after the manner of his nation and his time, _le grand gout_; he honoured Boileau; he exalted Racine in the highest degree; and, to the praise of his discernment, it may be said that he discovered _Athalie_.


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