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A History of Philosophy in Epitome by Schwegler

The slavish obedience exacted by a corrupt priesthood

style="text-align: justify;"> SECTION XXXII.


1. It has already been remarked (Sec. XXX.) that the carrying out of empiricism to its extremes, as was attempted in France, was most intimately connected with the general condition of the French people and state, in the period before the revolution. The contradictory element in the character of the Middle Ages, the external and dualistic relation to the spiritual world, had developed itself in Catholic France till it had corrupted and destroyed every condition. Morality, mainly through the influence of a licentious court, had become wholly corrupted; the state had sunk to an unbridled despotism, and the church to a hierarchy as hypocritical as it was powerful. Thus, as every intellectual edifice was threatened with ruin, nature, as matter without intellect, as the object of sensation and desire, alone remained. Yet it is not the materialistic extreme which constitutes the peculiar character and tendency of the period now before us. The common character of the philosophers of the eighteenth century is rather, and most prominently, the opposition against every ruling restraint, and perversion in morals, religion, and the state. Their criticism and polemics, which were much more ingenious and eloquent than strictly scientific, were directed against the whole realm of traditional and given and positive notions.

They sought to show the contradiction between the existing elements in the state and the church, and the incontrovertible demands of the reason. They sought to overthrow in the faith of the world every fixed opinion which had not been established in the eye of reason, and to give the thinking man the full consciousness of his pure freedom. In order that we may correctly estimate the merit of these men, we must bring before us the French world of that age against which their attacks were directed; the dissoluteness of a pitiful court, the slavish obedience exacted by a corrupt priesthood, a church sunken into decay yet seeking worldly honor, a state constitution, a condition of rights and of society, which must be profoundly revolting to every thinking man and every moral feeling. It is the immortal merit of these men that they gave over to scorn and hatred the abjectness and hypocrisy which then reigned; that they brought the minds of men to look with indifference upon the idols of the world, and awakened within them a consciousness of their own autonomy.

2. The most famous and influential actor in this period of the French clearing up, is _Voltaire_ (1694-1778). Though a writer of great versatility, rather than a philosopher, there was yet no philosopher of that time who exerted so powerful an influence upon the whole thinking of his country and his age. Voltaire was no atheist. On the contrary, he regarded the belief in a Supreme Being to be so necessary, that he once said that if there were no God we should be under the necessity of inventing one. He was just as little disposed to deny the immortality of the soul, though he often expressed his doubts upon it. He regarded the atheistic materialism of a La Mettrie as nothing but nonsense. In these respects, therefore, he is far removed from the standpoint of the philosophers who followed him. His whole hatred was expended against Christianity as a positive religion. To destroy this system he considered as his peculiar mission, and he left no means untried to attain this anxiously longed-for end. His unwearied warfare against every positive religion prepared the way and gave weapons for the attacks against spiritualism which followed.

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