By Rev. James A. MacCaffrey.
In the Middle Ages the theory that human reason was to be placed above faith
found able exponents, and more than once men arose who questioned some of the
fundamental principles of Christianity, or who went farther still by rejecting
entirely the Christian revelation. But such views were expounded in an age when
the outlook of society was markedly religious, and they exercised no perceptible
influence on contemporary thought. Between the fourteenth century and the
eighteenth, however, a great change had taken place in the world. Dogmatic
theology had lost its hold upon many educated men. The Renaissance movement
ushering in the first beginnings of literary and historical criticism, the
wonderful progress made in the natural sciences, revolutionizing as it did
beliefs that had been regarded hitherto as unquestionable, and the influence of
the printing press and of the universities, would in themselves have created a
dangerous crisis in the history of religious thought, and would have
necessitated a more careful study on the part of the theologians to determine
precisely the limits where dogma ended and opinion began.
But the most important factor in arousing active opposition to or studied contempt of revealed religion was undoubtedly the religious revolution of the sixteenth century, and more especially the dangerous principles formulated by Luther and his companions to justify them in their resistance to doctrines and practices that had been accepted for centuries by the whole Christian world. They were driven to reject the teaching authority of the visible Church, to maintain that Christ had given to men a body of doctrines that might be interpreted by His followers in future ages as they pleased, and to assert that Christians should follow the dictates of individual judgment instead of yielding a ready obedience to the decrees of Popes and Councils. These were dangerous principles, the full consequence of which the early Reformers did not perceive. If it was true, as they asserted, that Christ had set up no visible authority to safeguard and to expound His revelation, that for centuries Christianity had been corrupted by additions that were only the inventions of men, it might well be asked what guarantee could Luther or Calvin give that their interpretation of Christ's doctrine was correct or binding upon their followers, and what authority could they produce to warrant them in placing any dogmatic restrictions upon the freedom of human thought? The very principles put forward by the Reformers of the sixteenth century to justify their rejection of certain doctrines were used by later generations to prepare the way for still greater inroads upon the contents of Christianity, and finally to justify an attitude of doubt concerning the very foundations on which Christianity was based. Empiricism, Sensualism, Materialism, and Skepticism in philosophy, undermined dogmatic Christianity, and prepared the way for the irreligious and indifferentist opinions, that found such general favor among the educated and higher classes during the eighteenth century.
The movement, that owed so much of its widespread popularity on the Continent to the influence of the French rationalistic school, had its origin in England, where the frequent changes of religion during the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth, the quarrels between the Puritans and the High Church party, and the spread of revolutionary principles during the reign of Charles I., had contributed not a little to unsettle the religious convictions of a large section of the community. Many individuals, influenced by pantheistic teaching, did not believe in the existence of a personal God distinct from the world; others, while holding fast to the belief in a personal supreme Being, rejected the Trinity and the Incarnation, and a still larger section insisted on the subjection of Christian revelation to the judgment of reason, and as a consequence on the rejection of everything in Christianity that flavored of the supernatural. The works of these men were imported from the Netherlands into France in spite of all restrictions that could be imposed by the police authorities, and their views were popularized by a brilliant band of litterateurs, until in a short time Deism and Naturalism became quite fashionable in the higher circles of French society.
The principal writers of the English school were Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648), whose works tended to call in question the existence of a supernatural religion; John Hobbs (1588-1679) the apostle of absolute rule, who saw in religion only a means of keeping the people in subjection; John Locke (1632-1704) nominally a Christian himself, whose philosophy of Empiricism and Sensualism barred the way effectively against belief in a supernatural religion; Charles Blount (1630-93), who like Flavius Philostratus sought to discredit Christianity by setting up Apollonius of Tyana as a rival of Christ; Collins, the patron of free- hinkers (1676-1729); John Toland (1670-1722), who although originally a believer in Christian revelation tended more and more towards Pantheism; and Tyndal (1656-1733), who changed from Protestantism to Catholicism and finally from Christianity to Rationalism. In England Deism and Naturalism secured a strong foot-hold amongst the better classes, but the deeply religious temperament of the English people and their strong conservatism saved the nation from falling under the influence of such ideas.
In France the religious wars between the Catholics and Calvinists, the controversies that were waged by the Jansenists and Gallicans, the extravagances of the Convulsionnaires, the flagrant immorality of the court during the rule of the Duke of Orleans and of Louis XV., and the enslavement of the Church, leading as it did to a decline of zeal and learning amongst the higher clergy, tended inevitably to foster religious indifference amongst the masses. In the higher circles of society Rationalism was looked upon as a sign of good breeding, while those who held fast by their dogmatic beliefs were regarded as vulgar and unprogressive. Leading society ladies such as Ninon de Lenclos (1615-1706) gathered around them groups of learned admirers, who under the guise of zeal for the triumph of literary and artistic ideals sought to popularize everything that was obscene and irreligious. Amongst some of the principal writers who contributed largely to the success of the anti-Christian campaign in France might be mentioned Peter Bayle (1647-1706), whose Dictionnaire historique et critique became the leading source of information for those who were in search of arguments against Christianity; John Baptist Rousseau (1671-1741), whose life was in complete harmony with the filthiness to which he gave expression in his works; Bernard le Boivier de Fontenelle (1657- 1757), who though never an open enemy of the Catholic Church contributed not a little by his works to prepare the way for the men of the Enclyclopaedia; Montesquieu (1689- 1755), whose satirical books on both Church and State were read with pleasure not only in France but in nearly every country of Europe; D'Alembert (1717-83) and Diderot (1713-84), the two men mainly responsible for the Encyclopedie; Helvetius (1715-1771), and the Baron d'Holbach, who sought to popularize the irreligious views then current among the nobility by spreading the rationalist literature throughout the mass of the poorer classes in Paris.
But the two writers whose works did most to undermine revealed religion in France were Francois Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The former of these was born at Paris, received his early education from the Jesuits, and was introduced while still a youth to the salon of Ninon de Lenclos, frequented at this time by the principal literary opponents of religion and morality. His earliest excursions into literature marked him out immediately as a dangerous adversary of the Christian religion. He journeyed in England where he was in close touch with the Deist school of thought, in Germany where he was a welcome guest at the court of Frederick II. of Prussia, and settled finally at Ferney in Switzerland close to the French frontiers. Towards the end of his life (1778) he returned to Paris where he received a popular ovation. Poets, philosophers, actresses, and academicians vied with one another in doing honor to a man who had vowed to crush L'Infame, as he termed Christianity, and whose writings had done so much to accomplish that result in the land of his birth. The reception given to Voltaire in Paris affords the most striking proof of the religious and moral corruption of all classes in France at this period. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born at Geneva and reared as a Calvinist. Later on he embraced the Catholic religion, from which he relapsed once more into Calvinism, if indeed in his later years he was troubled by any dogmatic beliefs. His private life was in perfect harmony with the moral tone of most of his works. He had neither the wit nor the literary genius of Voltaire, but in many respects his works, especially Le Contrat Social, exercised a greater influence on the France of his own time and on Europe generally since that time than any other writings of the eighteenth century. His greatest works were La Nouvelle Heloise (1759), a novel depicting the most dangerous of human passions; Emile, a philosophical romance dealing with educational ideas and tending directly towards Deism, and Le Contrat Social, in which he maintained that all power comes from the people, and may be recalled if those to whom it has been entrusted abuse it. The Confessions which tell the story of his shameless life were not published until after his death.
To further their propaganda without at the same time attracting the notice of the civil authorities the rationalist party had recourse to various devices. Pamphlets and books were published, professedly descriptive of manners and customs in foreign countries, but directed in reality against civil and religious institutions in France. Typical examples of this class of literature were the Persian Letters of Montesquieu, A Description of the Island of Borneo by Fontanelle, The Life of Mohammed by Henri de Bouillon Villiers, and a Letter on the English from the pen of Voltaire. The greatest and most successful work undertaken by them for popularizing their ideas was undoubtedly the Encyclopedie. The professed object of the work was to give in a concise and handy form the latest and best results of scholarship in every department of human knowledge, but the real aim of the founders was to spread their poisonous views amongst the people of France, and to win them from their allegiance to the Catholic Church. In order to escape persecution from the government and to conceal their real purposes many of the articles were written by clerics and laymen whose orthodoxy was above suspicion, and many of the articles referring to religion from the pen of the rationalistic collaborators were respectful in tone, though a careful reader could see that they did not represent the real views of the author. Sometimes references were given to other articles of a very different kind, where probably opposite views were established by apparently sound arguments. The originator of the project was D'Alembert, who was assisted by Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condillac, Buffon, and D'Holbach. The work was begun in 1750, and in spite of interruptions and temporary suppressions it was brought to a successful conclusion in 1772. The reviewers and the learned world hailed it with delight as a veritable treasure-house of information. New and cheap editions of it were brought out for the general public, and in a remarkably short time the influence of the Encyclopaedists had reached the lowest strata of French society. Many of those in authority in France favored the designs of the Encyclopaedists, and threw all kinds of obstacles in the way of those who sought to uphold the teaching of the Church, but soon they had reason to regret their approval of a campaign that led directly to revolution.
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