1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French Theology

(Part 63)


18th Century Theology

To devote a section to the history of the theological literature of the 18th century in France may seem something of a contradiction; for, indeed, all or most of such literature was anti-theological. The magnificent list of names which the church had been able to claim on her side of the second quarter of the 18th with Massillon, and none came to fill their place. Very rarely has orthodoxy been so badly defended as at this time. The literary championship of the church was entirely in the hands of the Jesuits, and of a few disreputable literary free-lances like Fréron (1719-1776) and Desfontaines. The Jesuits were learned enough, and their principal journal, that of Trévoux, was conducted with much vigour and a great deal of erudition. But they were the first place discredited by the moral taint which has always hung over Jesuitism, and in the Protestants, which were attributed to their influence. No single name or work on the orthodox side has preserved the least reputation; while, on the other hand, the names of Père Nonotte and several of his fellows have been enshrined unenviably in the imperishable ridicule of Voltaire, one only of whose adversaries, Guénée (1717-1803), was able to meet him at something like his own weapons. At the same time, while religion and the church were never so badly off for defenders, they had never been, and have never been, so desperately in need of defence. The financial condition of the church was in scandalous contrast with the need and bankruptcy of the state. The lives of too many of its ministers were in more scandalous contrast still with its doctrines and precepts; while its political ascendency, and the use made of it, were felt to be, not merely adjust and improper in themselves, but an almost insuperable barrier to social and political reform. Meanwhile a spirit of hostility had long been growing up, not merely to the church, but to Christianity and religion itself, which was not entirely due to ecclesiastical corruptions. The Renaissance by its paganism, the Reformation by its latitudinarian developments, and the growth of modern science by its materialistic tendencies, had all contributed to this anti-theological movement. Even in the reigns of Louis XIV, there was a considerable school of freethinkers at the French court, and when the restraint of that monarch’s devotion was removed the number became largely increased, especially as the study of the writings of the English deists came to strengthen the tendency. It has never been at all accurately decided how far what may be called the scoffing school of Voltaire represents a direct revolt against Christianity, and how far it was merely a kind of guerilla warfare against the clergy. It is positively certain that Voltaire was not an atheist, and that he did not approve of atheism. Bur for his aggressive and reforming tendencies he might very likely have confined himself to the colourless and speculative deism of Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury. As it was, however, he went farther, and his Dictionnaire Philosophique, which is typical of a vast amount of contemporary and subsequent literature, consists of a heterogeneous assemblage of articles directed against various points of dogma and ritual and various characteristics of the sacred records. From the literary point of view, it is one of the most characteristic of all Voltaire’s works, though it is perhaps not entirely his. The desultory arrangement, the light and lively style, the extensive but not always too accurate erudition, and the somewhat captious and quibbling objections, are intensely Voltairian. But there is little seriousness about it, and certainly no kind of rancorous or deep-seated hostility. With many, however, of Voltaire’s pupils and younger contemporaries the case was altered. The atheism of Diderot, unquestionably the greatest of them all, has been keenly debated; but in the case of Damilaville, Naigeon, Holbach, and others there is no room for doubt. But these persons a great mass of atheistic an anti-Christian literature was composed and set afloat. The characteristic work of this school, its last word indeed, is the famous Système de la Nature, attributed to Holbach (1723-1789), but known to be, in part at least, the work of Diderot. In this remarkable work, which caps the climax of the metaphysical materialism or rather nihilism of the century, the atheistic position is clearly put. It made an immense sensation; and it is so fluttered not merely the orthodox but the more moderate free-thinkers, that Frederick of Prussia and Voltaire, perhaps the most singular pair of defenders that orthodoxy ever had, actually set themselves to refute it. The extreme unpopularity and startling nature of its tenets, which we do not here judge, have been wont to reflect themselves in the criticisms passed on it merely as a book. Viewed in this light, without prejudice, either way, it must be pronounced undeserving of much of this unfavourable criticism. Its style and argument are very unequal, as books written in collaboration are apt to be, and especially books in which Diderot, the paragon of inequality, had a hand. But there is on the whole a great consistency and even rigour in the argument; there is an almost entire absence of the heterogeneous assemblage of anecdotes, jokes good and bad, scraps of accurate or inaccurate physical science, and other incongruous matter with which the Philosophes were wont to stuff their works; and lastly, there is in the best passages a kind of sombre grandeur which recalls the manner as well as the matter of Lucretius. It is perhaps well to repeat, in the case of so notorious a book, that this criticism is of a purely literary a formal character; but there is little doubt that the literary merits of the work considerably assisted its didactic influence. As the Revolution approached, and the victory of the Philosophe party was declared, there appeared for a brief space a group of cynical and accomplished phrasemakers presenting some similarity to that of which a hundred years before St Evremond was the most prominent figure. The chief of this group were Chamfort (1747-1794) on the republican side, and Rivarol (1753-1801) on that of the royalists. Like the older writer to whom we have compared them, neither can be said have produced any one work of eminence, and in this they stand distinguished from moralists like La Rochefoucauld. The floating sayings however, which are attributed to them, or which occur here and there in their miscellaneous work, yield in no respect to those of the most famous of their predecessors in wit and certain kind of wisdom, though they are frequently more personal than aphoristic.

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