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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Less prudent and less temperate than Voltaire


Thus is described in the words of an eye-witness the last triumph of an existence that had been one of ceaseless agitation, owing to Voltaire himself far more than to the national circumstances and events of the time at which he lived. His anxious vanity and the inexhaustible movement of his mind had kept him constantly fluctuating between alternations of intoxication and despair; he had the good fortune to die at the very pinnacle of success and renown, the only immortality he could comprehend or desire, at the outset of a new and hopeful reign; he did not see, he had never apprehended the terrible catastrophe to which he had been thoughtlessly contributing for sixty years. A rare piece of good fortune and one which might be considered too great, if the limits of eternal justice rested upon earth and were to be measured by our compass.

Voltaire's incessant activity bore many fruits which survived him; he contributed powerfully to the triumph of those notions of humanity, justice, and freedom, which, superior to his own ideal, did honor to the eighteenth century; he became the model of a style, clear, neat, brilliant, the natural exponent of his own mind, far more than of the as yet confused hopes and aspirations of his age; he defended the rights of common sense, and sometimes withstood the anti-religious passion of his friends, but he blasted both minds and souls with his sceptical gibes; his bitter and at the same time temperate banter disturbed consciences which would have been revolted by the materialistic doctrines of the Encyclopaedists; the circle of infidelity widened under his hands; his disciples were able to go beyond him on the fatal path he had opened to them. Voltaire has remained the true representative of the mocking and stone-flinging phase of free-thinking, knowing nothing of the deep yearnings any more than of the supreme wretchlessness of the human soul, which it kept imprisoned within the narrow limits of earth and time. At the outcome from the bloody slough of the French Revolution and from the chaos it caused in men's souls, it was the infidelity of Voltaire which remained at the bottom of the scepticism and moral disorder of the France of our day. The demon which torments her is even more Voltairian than materialistic.

Other influences, more sincere and at the same time more dangerous, were simultaneously undermining men's minds. The group of Encyclopaedists, less prudent and less temperate than Voltaire, flaunted openly the flag of revolt. At the head marched Diderot, the most daring of all, the most genuinely affected by his own ardor, without perhaps being the most sure of his ground in his negations. His was an original and exuberant nature, expansively open to all new impressions. "In my country," he says, "we pass within twenty-four hours from cold to hot, from calm to storm, and this changeability of climate extends to the persons. Thus, from earliest infancy, they are wont to shift with every wind. The head of a Langrois stands on his shoulders like a weathercock on the top of a church-steeple; it is never steady at one point, and, if it comes round again to that which it had left, it is not to stop there. As for me, I am of my country; only residence of the capital and constant application have corrected me a little."


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