Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

30

From Voltaire to Diderot

By the early 1740s, Voltaire's philosophy had matured, acquired a certain solidity, and was poised to dominate the French Enlightenment. Until 1752, moreover, he was generally perceived as an ally of the Jesuits, the reforming papacy of Benedict XIV, and the liberal wings of all the churches, Anglican Latitudinarian, Greek Orthodox, and Reformed no less than Catholic. Yet there was also an element of contradiction in all this. Privately, his closer philosophical allies (and enemies) knew perfectly well that his true position was ultimately more antagonistic to Christian tradition and ecclesiastical authority than this public stance and reputation at the time presupposed, a discrepancy sooner or later bound to create major complications.

Besides veiling the extent of his hostility to Christianity, Voltaire endeavoured to soften also other lines of potential antagonism. He evinced little desire to challenge the existing political and social status quo and in high society generally spoke as if he had no wish to 'enlighten' the lower orders. 'Le vulgaire', he assured the Countess Bentinck in June 1752, 'ne mérite pas qu'on pense à l'éclairer.'1 Yet his deep-seated antipathy to ecclesiastical authority and traditional theology, however much veiled for the moment, a certain proselytizing zeal, and twinges of bad conscience about leaving the common people to languish in a morass of imposture and lies, occasionally nudged some part of him in a different direction. In the unpublished Sermon des cinquante, at any rate, he is distinctly troubled by the view of some 'qu'il faut des mystères au peuple; qu'il faut le tromper', exclaiming rhetorically: but how can enlightened men of conscience inflict such an 'outrage' on the human race?2 Here was a tension which, from a Lockean-Newtonian perspective, was not easily resolved; and this was by no means his only dilemma: by the late 1730s there were also other worrying cracks appearing in the edifice of his Lockean-Newtonian Enlightenment.

One unresolved theoretical difficulty, we have seen, was Locke's extreme caution, and dithering, in successive editions of the Essay over what he called 'liberty in respect of willing'. In 1737 Voltaire's incisive young friend the officer-philosopher Vauvenargues, examining Locke's arguments about this in his Traité sur le libre

1 Lee, 'Le "Sermon"', 144; Himmelfarb, Roads to Modernity, 170–1.

2 HHL MS Fr, 79 "Voltaire", 'Le Sermon', 26v; "Voltaire", Sermon des cinquante, 21.

-781-

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