The continent of Europe
, the ‘beautiful kingdom’ of central Eu-
rope, was occupied by a most ingenious people, formed of blended elements, and still bearing traces not only of the Celtic
but of the German race, of the culture of Rome
, and the hardihood of the Northmen.
In the habit of analysis it excelled all nations; its delight in logical exactness and in precision of outline and expression of thought, gave the style alike to its highest efforts and to its ordinary manufactures; to its poetry and its prose; to the tragedies of Racine
and the pictures of Poussin
, as well as to its products of taste for daily use, and the adornment of its public squares with a careful regard to fitness and proportion.
Its severe method in the pursuit of mathematical science corresponded to its nicety of workmanship in the structure of its ships of war, its canals, its bridges, its fortifications, and its public buildings.
Light-hearted, frivolous and vain, no people were more ready to seize a new idea, and to pursue it with rigid dialectics to all its consequences;
none were so eager to fill, and as it were
to burden the fleeting moment with pleasure; and none so ready to renounce pleasure, and risk life for a caprice, or sacrifice it for glory.
Self-indulgent, they abounded in offices of charity.
Often exhibiting the most heartless egoism, they were also easily inflamed, with a most generous enthusiasm.
Seemingly lost in profligate sensuality, they were yet capable of contemplative asceticism.
To the superficial observer, they were a nation of atheists; and yet they preserved the traditions of their own Bossuet
and Calvin, of Descartes
In this most polished and cultivated land,—whose government had just been driven out from North America
, whose remaining colonies collectively had but about seventy thousand white persons, whose commerce with the New World could only be a consequence of American Independence,—two opposite powers competed for supremacy; on the one side monarchy, claiming to be absolute; on the other, free thought, which was becoming the mistress of the world.
Absolute power met barriers on every side.
The arbitrary Central will was circumscribed by the customs and privileges of the provinces, and the independence of its own agents.
Many places near the king were held by patent; the officers of his army were poorly paid, and often possessed of large private fortunes; the clergy, though named by him, held office irrevocably, and their vast revenues, of a hundred Rand
thirty millions of livres annually, were their own property.
His treasury was always in need of money, not by taxes only, but by loans, which require the credit
that rests on an assured respect for law. Former
kings had in their poverty made a permanent sale of the power of civil and criminal justice; so that the magistrates were triply independent, being themselves wealthy, holding their office of judges as a property, and being irremovable.
The high courts of justice, or parliaments as they were called, were also connected with the power of legislation; for as they enforced only those laws which they themselves had registered, so they assumed the right of refusing to register laws; and if the king came in person to command their registry, they would still remonstrate, even while they obeyed.
But the great impairment of royal power was the decay of the faith on which it had rested.
was no more the France of the Middle Age
. The caste of the nobility, numbering, of both sexes and all ages, not much more than one hundred thousand souls, was overtopt in importance by the many millions of an industrious people; and its young men, trained by the study of antiquity, sometimes imbibed republican principles from the patriot writings of Greece
Authority, in its feeble conflict with free opinion, did but provoke licentiousness, and was braved with the invincible weapons of ridicule.
Freedom was the vogue, and it had more credit than the king.
Skepticism found its refuge in the social circles of the capital; and infusing itself into every department of literature and science, blended with the living intelligence of the nation.
Almost every considerable house in Paris
had pretensions as a school of philosophy.
Derision of the established church was the fashion of the world; many waged warfare against every form of religion, and against religion itself
while some were aiming also at the extermination of
The new ideas got abroad in remonstrances and sermons, comedies and songs, books and epigrams.
On the side of modern life, pushing free inquiry to the utmost contempt of restraint, though not to total unbelief, Voltaire
employed his peerless wit and activity.
The Puritans of New England
changed their hemisphere to escape from bishops, and hated prelacy with the rancor of faction; Voltaire
waged the same warfare with widely different weapons, and, writing history as a partisan, made the annals of his race a continuous sarcasm against the hierarchy of the Roman
His power reached through Europe
; he spoke to the free thinkers throughout the cultivated world.
In the age of skepticism he was the prince of scoffers; when philosophy hovered round saloons, he excelled in reflecting the brilliantly licentious mind of the intelligent aristocracy.
His great works were written in retirement, but he was himself the spoiled child of society.
He sunned himself in its light, and dazzled it by concentrating its rays.
He was its idol, and he courted its idolatry.
Far from breaking with authority, he loved the people as little as he loved the Sorbonne.
The complaisant courtier of sovereigns and ministers, he could even stand and wait for smiles at the toilet of the French
king's mistress, or prostrate himself in flattery before the Semiramis of the north; willing to shut his eyes on the sorrows of the masses, if the great would but favor men of letters.
He it was, and not an English poet, that praised George the First of England
as a sage and a hero who ruled the
universe by his virtues;1
he could address Louis the
Fifteenth as a Trajan; and when the French
king took a prostitute for his associate, it was the aged Voltaire
who extolled the monarch's mistress as an adorable Egeria.2
‘The populace which has its hands to live by,’ such are the words, and such the sentiments of Voltaire
, and as he believed of every landholder, ‘the people has neither time nor capacity for selfinstruc-tion; they would die of hunger before becoming philosophers.
It seems to me essential that there should be ignorant poor.3
Preach virtue to the lower classes; when the populace meddles with reasoning, all is lost.’4
The school of Voltaire
did not so much seek the total overthrow of despotism as desire to make his philosophy its counsellor; and shielded the vices of a libidinous oligarchy by proposing love of self as the cornerstone of morality.
The great view which pervades his writings is the humanizing influence of letters, and not the regenerating power of truth.
He welcomed, therefore, every thing which softened barbarism, refined society, and stayed the cruelties of superstition; but he could not see the hopeful coming of popular power, nor hear the footsteps of Providence
along the line of centuries, so that he classed the changes in the government of France
among accidents and anecdotes.
Least of all did he understand the tendency of his own untiring labors.
He would have hated the thought of hastening a democratic revolution; and, in mocking the follies and vices of French institutions, he harbored
no purpose of destroying them.
‘Spare them,’ he
would say, ‘though they are not all of gold and diamonds.
Take the world as it goes; if all is not good, all is passable.’5
Thus skepticism proceeded unconsciously in the work of destruction, invalidating the past, yet unable to construct the future.
For good government is not the creation of skepticism.
Her garments are red with blood, and ruins are her delight; her despair may stimulate to voluptuousness and revenge; she never kindled with the disinterested love of man.
The age could have learnt, from the school of Voltaire
, to scoff at its past; but the studious and observing Montesquieu
discovered ‘the title deeds of humanity,’ as they lay buried under the rubbish of privileges, conventional charters, and statutes.
His was a generous nature that disdained the impotence of epicureanism, and found no resting-place in doubt.
He saw that society, notwithstanding all its revolutions, must repose on principles that do not change; that Christianity, which seems to aim only at the happiness of another life, also constitutes man's blessedness in this.6
He questioned the laws of every nation to unfold to him the truth that had inspired them; and behind the confused masses of positive rules, he recognised the anterior existence and reality of justice.
Full of the inquiring spirit of his time, he demanded tolerance for every opinion; and to him belongs the
peaceful and brilliant glory of leading the way to a
milder and more effective penal code.
Shunning speculative conjecture, he limited his reasonings to the facts in European
political life, and though he failed to discover, theoretically, the true foundation of government, he revived and quickened faith in the principles of political liberty, and showed to the people of France
how monarchy may be tempered by a division of its power, and how republics, more happy than those of Italy
, may save themselves from the passionate tyranny of a single senate.
That free commerce would benefit every nation, is a truth which Montesquieu7
is thought to have but imperfectly perceived.
The moment was come when the languishing agriculture of his country would invoke science to rescue it from oppression by entreating the liberty of industry and trade.
The great employment of France
was the tillage of land, than which no method of gain is more grateful in itself, or more worthy of freemen,8
or more happy in rendering service to the whole human race.9
No occupation is nearer heaven.
But authority had invaded this chosen domain of labor; as if protection of manufactures needed restrictions on the exchanges of the products of the earth, the withering prohibition of the export of grain had doomed large tracts of land10
to lie desolately fallow.
Indirect taxes, to the number of at least ten thousand,11
bringing with them custom-houses between provinces, and custom-houses on the frontier, and a hundred thousand
tax-gatherers, left little ‘to the peasant12
to weep with.’
The treasury was poor, for the realm was poor; and the realm was poor because the husbandman was poor.13
While every one, from the palace to the hovel, looked about for a remedy to this system of merciless and improvident spoliation, there arose a school of upright and disinterested men,14
who sought a remedy for the servitude of labor by looking beyond the precedents of the statute book, or forms of government, to universal principles and the laws of social life; beyond the power of the people or the power of princes, to the power of nature.15
They found that man in society renounces no natural right, but remains the master of his person and his faculties, with the right to labor and to enjoy or exchange the fruits of his labor.
Exportation has no danger,16
for demand summons supplies; dearness need not appal, for high prices, quickening production, as manure does the soil, are their own certain, as well as only cure.
So there should be no restriction on commerce17
and industry, internal or external; competition should supersede monopoly, and private freedom displace the regulating supervision of the state.
Such was ‘the liberal and generous’ 18
system of the political economists who grouped themselves round the calm and unpretending Quesnai
, startling the world by their axioms and tables of rustic economy,19
though a discovery had been made like that of the
alphabet or of metallic coin.20
The new ideas fell, in France
, on the fruitful genius of Turgot
, who came forward in the virgin purity of philosophy to take part in active life.
He was well-informed and virtuous,21
and of a taste the most delicate and sure; a disinterested man, austere, yet holding it to be every man's business to solace those who suffer; wishing the effective accomplishment of good, not his own glory in performing it. For him the human race was one great whole,23
composed, as the Christian
religion first taught, of members of one family under a common Father; always, through calm and through ‘agitations,’ through good and through ill, through sorrow and through joy, on the march, though at ‘a slow step,’24
towards a greater perfection.
To further this improvement of the race, opinion, he insisted, must be free, and liberty conceded to industry in all its branches and in all its connections.
‘Do not govern the world too much,’ he repeated, in the words of an earlier statesman.
Corporations had usurped the several branches of domestic trade and manufactures; Turgot
vindicated the poor man's right to the free employment of his powers.
Statesmen, from the days of Philip the Second of Spain
, had fondly hoped to promote national industry and wealth by a system of prohibitions and restrictions, and had only succeeded in deceiving nations into mutual antipathies, which did but represent the hatreds and envy of avarice: Turgot
would solve questions of trade abstractly from countries as well as from provinces, and make it
free between man and man, and between nation and
nation; for commerce is neither a captive to be ransomed, nor an infant to be held in leading-strings.
Thus he followed the teachings of nature, living as one born not for himself, but for the service of truth and the welfare of mankind.25
In those days the people toiled and suffered, with scarce a hope of a better futurity even for their posterity.
In life Turgot
employed his powers and his fortune as a trust, to relieve the sorrows of the poor; but, under the system of uncontrolled individual freedom, the laborer, from the pressure of competition, might underbid his fellow laborer till his wages should be reduced to a bare support.26
Thus the skeptical philosopher, the erudite magistrate, the philanthropic founder of the science of political economy, proposed what they could for human progress.
From the discipleship of Calvin, from the republic of Geneva
, from the abodes of poverty, there sprung up a writer, through whom the ‘ignorant poor’ breathed out their wrongs, and a new class gained a voice in the world of published thought.
With Jean Jacques Rousseau
truth was no more to employ the discreet insinuations of academicians; nor seek a hearing by the felicities of wit; nor compromise itself by exchanging flattery for the favor of the great; nor appeal to the interests of the industrial classes.
Full of weaknesses and jealousies, shallow and inconsiderate, betrayed by poverty into shameful deeds, yet driven by remorse to make atonement for
his vices, and possessing a deep and real feeling for
humanity, in an age of skepticism and in the agony of want, tossed from faith to faith, as from country to country, he read the signs of death on the features of the past civilization; and in tones of sadness, but not of despair—clinging always to faith in man's spiritual nature, and solacing the ills of life by trust in God27
— he breathed the spirit of revolution into words of flame.
Fearlessly questioning all the grandeurs of the world—despots and prelates, and philosophers and aristocrats, and men of letters; the manners, the systems of education, the creeds, the political institutions, the superstitions of his time;—he aroused Europe
to the inquiry, if there did not exist a people.
What though the church cursed his writings with its ban, and parliaments burned them at the gibbet by the hangman's hand?
What though France
drove him from her soil, and the republic of his birth disowned her son?
What though the men of letters hooted at his wildness, and the humane Voltaire
himself led the cry against this ‘savage charlatan,’28
‘this beggar,’ who sought ‘fraternal union among men’ by setting ‘the poor to plunder all the rich?’
Without learning or deep philosophy, from the woes of the world in which he had suffered, from the wrongs of the down-trodden which he had shared,29
he derived an eloquence which went to the heart of Europe
He lit up the darkness
of his times with flashes of sagacity; and spoke out the
hidden truth, that the old social world was smitten with inevitable decay; that if there is life still on earth, ‘it is the masses alone that live.’30
At the very time when Bedford
were concluding the peace that was ratified in 1763, Rousseau
, in a little essay on the social compact, published to the millions, that while true legislation has its source in divinity, the right to exercise sovereignty belongs inalienably to the people; but rushing eagerly to the doctrine which was to renew the world, he lost out of sight the personal and individual freedom of mind.
The race as it goes forward, does not let fall one truth, but husbands the fruits of past wisdom for the greater welfare of the ages to come.
Before government could grow out of the consenting mind of all, there was need of all the teachers who had asserted freedom for the reason of each separate man. Rousseau
claimed power for the public mind over the mind of each member of the state, which would make of democracy a homicidal tyranny.
He did not teach that the freedom, and therefore the power, of the general mind, rests on the freedom of each individual mind; that the right of private judgment must be confirmed before the power of the collective public judgment can be justified; that the sovereignty of the people presupposes the entire personal freedom of each citizen.
He demanded for his commonwealth the right of making its power a religion, its opinions a creed, and of punishing every dissenter with exile or death;31
so that his precepts
were at once enfranchising and despotic, involving re-
volution, and constituting revolution an exterminating despotism.
This logical result of his lessons was at first less observed.
His fiery eloquence, and the concerted efforts of men of letters who fashioned anew the whole circle of human knowledge, overwhelmed the priesthood and the throne.
The ancient forms of the state and the church were still standing; but monarchy and the hierarchy were as insulated columns, from which the building they once belonged to had crumbled away; where statues, formerly worshipped, lay mutilated and overthrown, among ruins that now sheltered the viper and the destroyer.