One of the most important days in the history of mankind was November 20, 1694, when a puny, sickly, ugly child was born of humble parents who afterwards called himself "Voltaire." This anemic and cynically-faced individual made the time in which he lived momentous. The period might well be called the "Age of Voltaire." In fact Victor Hugo said that to name Voltaire was to characterize the entire eighteenth century. For just as surely as the geological periods in the earth's history have left their stratified imprint on the earth's formation, so the work and influence of Voltaire are unmistakably impressed upon the progress and intellectual development of mankind. And just as the monsters who once roamed the earth are buried in layers beneath the earth's surface and reveal the age in which they lived, so the crumbling of the Roman Catholic Church marks the period of Voltaire.
When Voltaire was born, the condition of the French people was most pitiful. It had been so for many generations, and there appeared little prospect of an amelioration of this tragic condition. Misery, poverty, ignorance, and tyranny held the people in a viselike grip. No ray of light penetrated their dark and gloomy existence. There was no hope however remote to buoy up their depressed and sunken spirits. They seemed doomed to this frightful condition to this perpetual slavery. They despaired of any change for the better and resigned themselves and their lot in life to the divine plan. If "God" so willed it, it should be so. It was easy for priests to tell them that God's ways were beyond their understanding, and that whatever was, was best.
If by any chance there arose a rebellious spirit who dared to raise his head and lift his voice in behalf of his fellow slaves, instruments worthy of the Inquisition were put to effective use. And make no mistake about the effectiveness of those instruments of torture. They nearly always accomplished their purpose. And what was left undone by them was undertaken by religious fanaticism, with all the hatred and vindictiveness that this blind and hateful passion can accomplish. The mass of people lived in serfdom. The country was dominated by priest and king -- a sinister combination of ignorance and tyranny. Superstition intermingled with brutality. It is difficult to conceive of conditions more intolerable.
Even if some form of economic justice, some method of lifting the burden of poverty from the backs of the people had been proposed, there stood on guard against such change (more menacing than any other single condition), the arm of Catholicism known as the Society of Jesus -- the partisans of a creed, says Morley, in whose name more human blood has been violently shed than in any other cause whatever. An economic change without a corresponding advance in their mental condition would in any case have proved futile or of only temporary value.
The people were so subservient to the church that no possible amelioration in their living conditions could have been effected until they had been liberated, in some degree, from the religious thraldom in which they were held. The benefits they would have received from better economic conditions would have been taken from them by the church.
Royalty lived in a wild extravagance of silks and satins; of diamonds and gold and precious jewels; of gilded palaces and magnificent halls, all wrung from the very lifeblood of the people. Sensualism was its consuming activity. And the church, walking arm in arm with royalty, fed contentedly upon the fat of the land. When the state could no longer increase the servitude; when the state could no longer rob the people through pillage and taxation, the priests, sly, unscrupulous and heartless, completed the job.
The people seemed doomed to this existence. No avenue of escape was open. Destitution was written across their horizon. Could anything be worse than to have insane, ignorant, superstitious and brutal men with unlimited power inflict tortures upon innocent and defenseless people under the delusion that they were performing their acts with the approval of God?
Bind the limbs, chain the mentality, and you have the condition of society that is most acceptable to the church. With such a society the church can best ply its trade. Such a condition offers a ready market for its wares with a most fruitful return. The priests thrive on it, and so they are careful to nurture it, to cultivate and develop it. To them it is the ideal condition. Licentious priests revel in the poverty and ignorance of the poor fools over whom they have control.
Magic and superstition were the physicians of that time. It was a sacrilege to resort to medicine; a blasphemy to call the doctor. The church held a monopoly for the cure of disease. Medals, candles, holy oil, and the like were sold to cure anything from a sore throat to granulated eyelids. Amulets and tokens, charms and relics were either sold to protect from harm or to bring good luck. The more serious the ailment, the more sacred should be the article to effect a cure. And so from rheumatism to cholera morbus it was necessary to invoke the efficacy of pieces of the original cross, bones of the saints, and the toenail of Jesus Christ.
A mother whose child was dying of a disease, the virulency of which was tearing its little helpless body to pieces, whose tender flesh was being burnt by the heat of a consuming fever, could, on paying an exorbitant price -- and provided her Catholicism was without a blemish -- secure the most precious of all the church's articles, the one most capable of effecting a miraculous cure -- a vial containing the Virgin Mary's milk!
In the year 1585, in the town of Embrun, France, the male generative organ of St. Foutin was greatly revered. A jar was placed beneath his emblem to catch the wine with which it was generally anointed. The wine was left to sour, and then it was known as "Holy Vinegar." The women drank it in order to be blessed with children.
And until suppressed in 1780 the affected parts of the generative organs of both male and female sufferers were treated by purchasing at church fairs representations of the creative organs and having priests pour upon them the oil of Saint Cosmas.
Every fraud was practiced under the guise of religion, and practiced with profit. Every crime that furthered the ends of the church was commended, or at least condoned. Every effort to crush those who protested was applauded. Freedom of discussion was prohibited. Intellectual life was decaying for want of expression and for lack of the sunlight of approval. Superstition was not only rampant; the very atmosphere was so laden with it that the people breathed it into their very being. Truly every man was afraid of his shadow. Every clap of thunder was an ominous warning, and every bolt of lightning, a flash of anger and vengeance.
Saints were multiplied and their bodies were sold in bits; each piece was highly treasured as separately efficacious. Their bones, teeth, eyelashes, and hair were of potent medicinal value. Nothing mattered save the worship of God. It was sinful to help man. If man suffered, it was God's will and nothing should be done about it. The supreme authority on earth was in the Jesuits, the holy men of God, who bartered every principle, sacrificed every right no matter how sacred, and prostituted their religion to hold the reins of power. They controlled the education of the country, and through the confessional every corrupt and licentious member of the government became a cat's-paw in their hands. Picture the very worst conditions conceivable and you will have a glimpse of the true situation as it existed under these heartless and unscrupulous men. With perfect mockery God was worshiped as the giver of all knowledge, but it was death not to remain in ignorance.
Somewhere in his child life, this boy, Francois-Marie Arouet, who "just out of his cradle lisped in verse," must have absorbed from a careless conversation a precious thought that like magic freed him from the stultifying superstitions among which he lived. His eyes, they say, possessed a peculiar brilliance, and his father more than once winced under the piercing look of his strangely smiling son whose questions penetrated with the sharpness of steel.
The boy's education was under the control of the Jesuits. He sums up his acquisition of knowledge under their tutelage by saying that he learnt little besides Latin and nonsense. It was, nevertheless, a wonderful opportunity for Voltaire. He was ushered into the inner sanctum of this hypocritical order; he became fully acquainted with its sophistry, and was taught all the Jesuitical tricks in the belief that they were training the greatest Jesuit of them all!
Had the religionists possessed Voltaire they would have attributed his birth to divine providence.
He was born sickly; life in his frail body hesitated to remain. His father sought many avenues of occupation for him in order that he might grow up into respectability and remain dutiful. He passed through many dangerous episodes, and experienced enough hardships and punishments to kill an ordinary man; yet he lived to plague the church with more destructive assaults than any other man who ever lived. He attained the age of eighty-four, many years beyond the time Biblically allotted to man.
Voltaire was a continual worry to his father who, fearful that the boy would become involved in some mischief, finally persuaded him to enter the profession of Advocate. However, Voltaire soon became disgusted with this profession and his apprenticeship consisted mostly in writing verse while neglecting his duties. To one of his keen intellect, it was soon apparent what a mockery had been made of this fundamental instrument of justice. Instead of protecting the weak against the strong and the avaricious, and being in fact what it was represented in symbol, the law was used to trap the unwary and keep within its clutches the ignorant and the frightened. And the law hasn't changed much even to this day. With hundreds of bandits walking the streets, with thousands of swindlers preying upon the credulous, the strong arm of the law is used to close our theaters and persecute the publishers of books.
After two years of effort to reconcile himself with the legal profession, Voltaire came to this conclusion: "What disgusted me with the profession of Advocate was the profusion of useless things with which they wished to load my brain. 'To the point, is my advice.'" And in that respect Voltaire did not have a fool for a client. Clarence Darrow says that Voltaire's father was unable to make a lawyer out of a genius.
We cannot view Voltaire as we do other men. The conditions existing in France at the time of his struggles were totally different from those prevailing in other nations. England was by comparison so utterly free that the intelligent people of France looked upon her with both amazement and envy. Any attempt to imitate the freedom of expression which prevailed in England at that time was met with stern rebuke by the aristocrats of the French nation and their Catholic mentors. They understood quite well what it would lead to. And every attempt to attack the ruling classes and the church resulted in the instigators suffering imprisonment. Such insolence was not to be tolerated. The nobles and the high priests were the lords and masters of the destinies of the people, and no one was permitted to interfere with their plans.
Every great writer and thinker in France, it has been said, paid a penalty for his daring. Nearly every one suffered imprisonment. The works of Newton were forbidden publication. The encyclopedists were discouraged and finally barred. Rousseau was banished and his works burned. The celebrated treatise of Helvetius, On the Mind, was suppressed by an order of the royal council, and burnt in the public square by the common hangman. The author was compelled to flee for safety. A book advocating religious tolerance was condemned as seditious, and actually sentenced to be burnt -- a judgment well in keeping with the mind of the time. The idea of advocating religious toleration in an age when God's personal representative was occupying a room in the royal palace!
A book on the Philosophy of Nature cost an author perpetual exile. The mere rumor that an author had in his possession a manuscript containing something that might offend the clergy was sufficient reason for his confinement in the Bastille. Books on law, history, science, medicine, and even biographies met the same fate. The authors were treated as convicts and tortured as felons.
For the dastardly crime of writing against the arrest of a Pretender to the English throne, Desforges was buried in a dungeon three feet square and confined there for three years. This happened in the year of grace 1749.
Some twenty years later, a professor at the College of Toulouse, Andra by name, published the first volume of an Abridgement of General History. It was condemned by the archbishop of the diocese, and the author, besides being held up to public scorn and opprobrium, was deprived of his professorship. Unable to witness a lifetime of mental labor so wantonly destroyed by power vested in ignorance, he lay a corpse, within twenty-four hours, dead from a stroke of apoplexy.
A chance remark that did not meet with the approval of some of the licentious nobles meant an indefinite stay in the Bastille.
Diderot, one of the great men of France, wrote a book, the thesis of which was that a person born blind had ideas somewhat different from those who possess eyesight. Such heresy, so boldly questioning the work of God, was certainly not to be tolerated, and for this blasphemy the severest punishment was demanded. However, a touch of pity prevented the taking of Diderot's life. He merely suffered the loss of all his property, and was confined in the fortress of Vincennes. So perfect was the theocracy in France that a proposal had been favorably received to invoke the death penalty against any one who wrote or published a work dealing with any governmental subject, or one which attacked religion. Since divine knowledge was interpreted by divine men, why should any one be so bold as to question divine institutions, and the one and only true religion? Did not the Bible contain all knowledge, and was it not all sufficient unto itself? In fact the government was about to issue an edict that no book could be published unless it bore the imprint of the executive magistrate.
But perhaps the best proof that can be given of the unbearable conditions existing in France in Voltaire's day, when it was most dangerous to express one's thoughts and opinions, when one's property and reputation were at the mercy of priest and king; was that one's tenderest affections, the most sacred ties of life, were subject to the mercies of the ruling scoundrels of that time. No man or woman was safe. There was no such thing as the privacy of one's home. The agent provocateur knew no restrictions. The idea that a man's home was his castle did not prevail in the eighteenth-century France.
About the year 1750 there was an actress on the stage by the name of Chantilly. She was beloved by Maurice de Saxe, a noted profligate of his time, the father of more than one hundred illegitimate children! But Chantilly did not reciprocate his affections. She preferred as her husband the man she loved, and so married Favart, a well-known writer of songs and comic opera. De Saxe, amazed at her boldness, applied for aid to the French crown. Unbelievable as such an application may seem, still more appalling is the verdict rendered. The application made, the evidence submitted, the government of France had the brazen audacity to issue an order directing Favart to abandon his wife and entrust her to the charge of the man she had spurned, to whose embraces she was compelled to submit.
Voltaire, whose name even now possesses a certain magnetic charm and seems to have an uncanny power, comes upon the scene with every fibre of his body tensed to fight these outrages -- outrages that would not have been suffered to exist even in barbaric times and among people utterly uncivilized, much less among those possessing the only true revelation of God.
Lucky for the world that Voltaire became disgusted with the profession of Advocate, and lucky too that his Jesuitical training merely impressed him with "a little Latin and much nonsense."
Voltaire appeared in an age in which he found the most important duty in life was the Will to Believe. His philosophy, on the contrary, was the Courage to Doubt, to investigate and to understand. For hundreds of years the church, taking the Genesis story seriously, taught, and the people believed, that woman had one more rib than man. Voltaire questioned the infallibility of the church, and counted them. That sacred truth is no longer taught!
Voltaire was the Apostle of Doubt. "I, who doubt of everything," he once said of himself. Voltaire was not concerned with the love of God. He cared for truth and humanity. He did not seek a seat in heaven, but he did want the approval and esteem of mankind. "The greatest privilege of a human being," he said, "is to be able to do good." And how well he followed his own advice!
But Voltaire's path was beset with a multitude of obstacles. It was not long before his satire and mockery began to have telling effect. And hardly had he got started, before he felt the pressure of the power he was attacking and found to his amazement that he was banished from Paris. His exile over, he was back with even more determination throwing his shining lances at the hypocritical tyrants of his day.
He was ever watchful of an opportunity to strike, and as a result was generally accused even when he was not guilty of the assault. There was circulated in Paris a tract entitled I Have Seen which was in part as follows:
"I have seen the Bastille and a thousand other prisons filled with brave citizens, faithful subjects! ... I have seen the people wretched under a rigorous servitude! ... I have seen the soldiery perishing of hunger, thirst, indignation, and rage! ... I have seen the altar polluted! ... I have seen the blackest of all possible acts, which the waters of the entire ocean could not purge, and which posterity will scarcely be able to believe! ... I have seen the prelacy sold or made the reward of imposture! ... I have seen nonentities raised to the highest rank! ... I have seen -- and this includes all -- the Jesuits adored! ... I have seen these evils, and I am not yet twenty years old!"
Some one had to be arrested for writing this challenge to the government, and not being able to find the author, Voltaire was accused. He was brought before the regent who said: "Monsieur Arouet, you have doubtless seen a great many things but I think I can show you something you have never seen."
"Indeed, Monseigneur, and might I ask what it is?"
"The inside of the Bastille," was the answer.
So for eleven months Voltaire tasted his first confinement in that celebrated dungeon. This was the first but not the last time Voltaire was confined in this prison. In fact he was such a frequent guest and such a celebrated prisoner that he even made his cell famous. It was known as "Voltaire's room."
Exiled, imprisoned, persecuted, his books burned, his reputation sullied -- nevertheless, it was a perfect retribution, a most worthy vindication, when on July 10th, 1791, he was borne to the site of the Bastille, the sarcophagus adorned with laurel and roses and bearing this inscription
"Upon This Spot, Voltaire, Where Despotism
Chained Thee, Receive the Homage of
a Free People."
The burning of an author's books, imprisonment for opinion's sake, has always been the tribute that an ignorant age pays to the genius of its time.
In the city of Toulouse, the seventh largest city in France, the clergy enjoyed absolute domination. This city was famous for its holiness. It possessed the most sacred relics, and was the only city in the world that owned a part of the dress of the Virgin Mary. It was proved to be her dress, because when cut with a scissors, blood would flow from it. But whether it was her wedding gown which she wore when she was approached by the Holy Ghost, or a simple morning frock is not stated. There were enough bones of the saints to stock a skeleton factory, and the lumber business that could be started by the accumulation of the pieces of the original cross would make any business man envious.
And more precious still was the most valuable of all the sacred relics. It was the prepuce, or foreskin, of Jesus Christ. This priceless possession was on display in a glass case and was carried in processions only on the most Holy Days. It is needless to say that this was the only true one.
And the people themselves were famous. It would be unfair not to give them the credit for the reputation that their city enjoyed. They celebrated with jubilation and festivities the two most bloody pages in history, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the expulsion of the Huguenots.
They were tolerant too; no bigots in that community. No Protestant could be a lawyer, or a physician, or an apothecary, or a grocer, or a bookseller, or a printer; nor could a Catholic employ a Protestant servant or clerk. If a Catholic went to another country and married a Protestant, he was forbidden to return to his family or friends. He had committed the unpardonable sin.
There lived in Toulouse a family of Protestants by the name of Calas. The man was a shopkeeper. His family consisted of a wife and six children. One son had already accepted the Catholic faith, probably from necessity, finding that to remain a Protestant was an insurmountable barrier in both social and business life.
Another son wanted to study law and was confronted by these alternatives: to remain a Protestant without an education, or to renounce the religion of his father in order to practice his profession. He sought his license by subterfuge, by concealing the fact that he was a Protestant. He was discovered, and in due time was subjected to severe censure and punishment. He grew morose, discouraged, and disconsolate. Unable to face the storm and stress of such an intolerable condition, he committed suicide in his father's house, while the family was at supper entertaining one of his friends.
Immediately the father, a feeble and sickly man of sixty-five, was accused of murdering his son to prevent his becoming a Catholic and the entire family was ordered put in irons. The fires of religious fanaticism rose to white heat, and the flames were fanned by the approach of the annual celebration of the murdering of four thousand Huguenots. What a fitting climax to the festival it would be if this unfortunate Protestant could be hanged in the public square at the conclusion of the happy ceremonies!
Holy religious orders held solemn services over the body of the dead boy and declared him a martyr to Catholicism. Miracles were immediately recorded. One old woman, who had been deaf for years, claimed she heard the ringing of bells. Another took some of the teeth from the corpse as relics, and even a priest testified that he had been cured of an epileptic fit!
While the family was in prison, the father was tried, and although the evidence was utterly without foundation, he was convicted and condemned. The penalty was death upon the wheel -- unless he confessed. If he had confessed, there is no telling what the punishment would have been. The executioners, kissing the cross, inflicted the following tortures upon this innocent man:
They first applied the "question ordinary." They bound him by his wrists to an iron ring in the stone wall four feet from the ground, and his feet to another ring in the floor. The chains were then shortened until every joint in his arms and legs was dislocated. The flesh was stretched to a hideous proportion, the veins ruptured, and the blood ran riot through his body causing unutterable pain. While applying the torture he was continually questioned. If he persisted in maintaining his innocence, the chains were further tightened until life itself cried out for relief. But Jean Calas remained firm in the declaration of his innocence.
Unsuccessful, these religious vultures applied the "question extraordinary." This consisted in pouring water into his mouth from a horn specially constructed, until his body, unable to absorb the vast quantity, was swollen to almost twice its size. Even this frightful torture was not severe enough for Jean Calas to lie to save his life. So he was carried to the scaffold, his limbs were broken with an iron bar, and he was left to die. After two agonizing hours he was still alive, and the executioner, with a heart overflowing with commiseration, strangled him to death! While Jean Calas to the last called God as a witness to his innocence and asked forgiveness for those who put him to death!
Ingersoll asks what would have happened if these people's hearts had not been softened by the glad tidings of great joy?
Voltaire heard of this case. His labor in behalf of the remaining members of the family is now history. He secured a reversal of the verdict and the Catholic Church stands convicted before the world of this heinous atrocity. During the time that Voltaire labored in behalf of the outraged family of this innocent man, he says that "not a smile escaped me without my reproaching myself for it, as for a crime." Sixteen years later, when he returned to Paris after a forced exile and was acclaimed by the populace, some one asked who was the man being applauded and the answer was, "Do you not know that he is the preserver of the Calas?"
In behalf of this case Voltaire wrote his magnificent Treatise on Toleration in which he pleaded that religious people treat each other with common civility! He asked that those who worship God by the light of the noonday taper should bear charitably with those who content themselves with the light of the stars. And do you know that at the conclusion of this masterful essay Voltaire prints a letter from a friend admonishing him not to be the one to intercede in behalf of Calas. Because of Voltaire's known heresy, his friend feared that he might prejudice the case! And if Voltaire had not undertaken the arduous task of vindicating the name of Calas and at the same time exposing to all the world the menace of religious fanaticism, who, I ask, in all Europe would have undertaken the task? If Voltaire had followed the advice of his friend and had taken no step in this matter, how many thousands of innocent men and women would have suffered a like fate? Voltaire's fight was not for Calas alone; it was for all humanity. He wanted to destroy the evil that was responsible for these diabolical acts. And who but this genius of his time, this pre-eminent citizen of the eighteenth century could have done it so well and so successfully? Let those who tell us that we should not be the ones to expose the religious frauds and hypocrisy of our day keep their peace unless they themselves will undertake the work.
When Voltaire saw a flagrant wrong committed or an injustice perpetrated, he did not ask himself whether his friends would approve or disapprove of his actions; or whether the reaction would be favorable or unfavorable. He did not know whether he would be condemned or praised for his labors; he did not know whether he would be exiled or bastilled; however, he did not hesitate to let the world know that it had the stamp of his condemnation. "The worst of the worthy sort of people," said Voltaire, "is that they are such cowards. A man groans over wrongs, he shuts his eyes, he takes his supper, he forgets."
The disease of religious fanaticism that so permeated the city of Toulouse seems to have contaminated the surrounding country where lived Sírvens and his family in a little town in Languedoc. Commit any crime, place the label of religion upon it, and you are exempt from the penalty of the law. And so anything done in the name of religion was permissible and right.
A Catholic servant, with the approval of the Bishop of Castres, probably some licentious priest who is remembered only because of his disgraceful relation with this case, kidnapped Sírvens' youngest daughter and placed her in a convent of the Black Sisters in the hope of converting her to the Catholic faith. Tolerance, as you can easily perceive, also prevailed in this city, because the law permitted a Catholic to take a Protestant child for such a purpose. They were determined to save your soul even if they killed you in the undertaking.
The child, however, returned to the home of her parents in a terribly upset mental condition. What frightful pictures of punishment were impressed upon the plastic mind of this little child will never be known. Depression followed depression until one day, while her father was attending his professional duties, the poor child threw herself into a well and there her dead body was found. The family was accused of murdering the child to prevent her becoming a Catholic. The Sírvens had already heard of the case of Jean Calas, and expecting the worst, fled for safety.
It was in the midst of winter. The fury of the mob was mingled with the fury of the winds. The cold blasts of winter were too much for the mother; she died of exposure. The married daughter, weakened by the hurried trip over ice and snow, and suffering mental agony, gave birth prematurely. The father, exhausted, and without funds, arrived with the remnant of his family in Switzerland, the haven of the persecuted and the oppressed. In the meantime the property belonging to the Sírvens was confiscated. They had been tried and convicted. All had been condemned to die. The order of execution directed that the daughters remain under the gallows while their father and mother were being executed. Such fiendish sentences could only be conceived in the brains of God-inspired men.
Arriving in Switzerland, the broken family was destitute. They knew there was only one man in all the world who would understand and help them. His name was Voltaire! They were right. Under the wing of this infidel's protection, and as a result of ten years of labor in their behalf, they were exonerated, and their rights and property (whatever was left) were restored to them. However, God (if there be one) with his infinite mercy could never repay that family for what they endured from those religious wolves who "love and worship" him.
With this case in mind, I am constrained to paraphrase Madame Roland's famous expression and cry: "Religion, what crimes are committed in thy name!"
It was an altogether dangerous thing to be a Protestant in those days. When M. Espinasse took a Protestant clergyman into his home and gave him supper and lodging, he was pounced upon by the ravenous jackals of Catholicism, and for his monstrous crime was tried, convicted and sentenced to the galleys for the rest of his life. After having passed twenty-three long years in a dungeon for this "crime," Voltaire interceded in his behalf and secured his release. But how many thousands of poor, unknown, friendless men and women suffered at the hands of these brutally insane people, with no Voltaire to help them?
In the year 1765, in the town of Abbeville, it was discovered that an old wooden cross standing on the bridge over the Somme River had been mutilated; it had been hacked with a knife. On the same night it was also discovered that a crucifix on one of the cemeteries had been bespotted with mud. For such a crime and for such an atrocity nothing must be left undone to punish the guilty. Such a defiance of God and such a mockery of the church must not go unpunished! Not every crime was so flagrant that it was "worthy of the severest punishment known to the world's law," but this one met all the requirements. It merited such severity as only hyenas of religion could inflict.
Two young men, the Chevaliers de la Barre and d'Etallonde were accused. The former was arrested, the latter escaped to Russia. The evidence against de la Barre was that he was known to have passed a procession bearing the Sacrament without taking off his hat, and more damaging still was the fact that there was found in his room a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. This last piece of evidence conclusively proved his guilt, and if he were not guilty he should be for having Voltaire's blasphemous books. The verdict of the learned and inspired tribunal, before which he was tried, was that of guilty, and this nineteen-year-old boy was sentenced to endure the tortures "ordinary and extraordinary." This merciful punishment consisted in having his tongue torn out with pincers of iron; in having his right hand cut off in front of the door of the principal church in Abbeville, in being drawn in a cart to the market place, and there being burnt to death by a slow fire. It seems that an element of pity touched the hearts of his executioners, and the sentence was mitigated to the extent that he was allowed to be beheaded before he was burned!
Talk about a Reign of Terror! It existed before the Revolution.
No wonder that Voltaire cried that we are worse than tigers. Tigers, he said, kill only for food -- but we butcher one another on account of something that we know nothing about! And is it not probable that with these crimes in mind, he was prompted in later years to write to his friend, D'Alembert: "My compliments to the Devil for it is he who rules the world!"
Yet, true to the traditions of Voltaire, he immediately wrote a pamphlet about the case. He discovered the whereabouts of d'Etallonde, and used his influence in his behalf. A statue of the Chevalier de la Barre has since been erected as a vindication of the boy and as a warning to the church.
These cases in which Voltaire has played such an heroic part have been repeated again and again, but the mere telling of them is not enough. They should be told and retold until every civilized person is acquainted with the creed and the church responsible for such deviltry, and until that church and that creed will never again be able to fasten its poisonous fangs upon another human being on this earth. And with what justification did Voltaire dedicate himself to "Crush the Infamous"! He knew the character of the institution responsible for such acts. He had seen it in operation, and had felt its power.
Voltaire answered every argument, anticipated every question. He employed ridicule, satire, and mockery in their proper place and in their most effective manner. He utilized reason when he knew the intelligence of the people would understand it. He met every falsehood with fact, and with direct and decisive blows demolished the false structures built upon casuistry.
He was never idle in behalf of mankind. It has been said that he was extravagant with everything but his time. To him time was the most precious thing in the world. He could not bear to see a single golden moment wasted while heartless brutality of priest and king rode so mercilessly upon the backs of the ignorant masses. He could not reconcile himself to idleness and pleasure with so much misery and injustice prevailing, when he could be of some assistance.
And Voltaire, of all the sons of men, was so versatile in the instruments he used that he could strike with either hand upon any subject in any department of learning, and so, whether as a dramatist, poet, philosopher, essayist, historian or pamphleteer, Voltaire always labored in behalf of human progress. It is little wonder, then, that his literary efforts, from his youth to the day of his death at the grand age of eighty-four, fill more than ninety volumes. But the work that Voltaire did for mankind, the good he accomplished, the progress he is responsible for, could never be compressed into a thousand volumes. Truly, this man was a genius. He provided us with every weapon and left nothing for us to do but to "carry on."
Who but Voltaire could have reasoned so adroitly and then have declared so boldly that Jesus Christ committed suicide. Truly, if Christ was God, if he had the power over life and death and did not object to his own crucifixion, then surely he participated in his own murder and was responsible for his own destruction.
How well we know this argument, and how well Voltaire answered it with a single question. "If you were to succeed in abolishing superstition, what would you substitute for it?" he was asked.
"...when I deliver the world from a monster which devours it, I am asked what will I put in its place?"
On the question of Taxing the Churches, note how well he states the case and how sharply he puts it!
"In France, where reason becomes more developed every day, reason teaches us that the church ought to contribute to the expense of the nation in proportion to its revenues, and that the body set apart to teach justice ought to begin by giving an example of it. That government would be worthy of Hottentots in which it would be permitted to a certain number of men to say: 'Let those pay the taxes who work; we ought not to pay anything because we are idle.' That government would outrage God and men in which some citizens would be able to say, 'The nation has given us all we have, and we owe nothing to it except prayer.'"
To exempt the church from taxation is to give it unearned wealth, and in proportion as the church grows rich, the people grow poor. And Voltaire wonders how the church can reconcile its greed with its Bible, which says: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust cloth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.... If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor.... And every one that has forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life."
I suppose in Voltaire's day, as in our own, these passages had a different interpretation which could not be understood.
On the definition of Freedom of Thought Voltaire succinctly says: "Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too."
And his famous sentence to Helvetius is now a classic: "I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
As for myself, all I ask is freedom of mind, and the courage to face the facts of life as they are, and the reason to solve them to the best of my ability.
"Heresy," he says, "is the bloodthirsty cant cry of the church in its strong days."
And on Orthodoxy how appropriate is this verse:
"He thinks all those who are not circumcised
Are by His God rejected and despised,
Another thinks he Brahma's favor gains
Whilst he from eating rabbit's flesh abstains;
Against their neighbors all alike declaim
And brand them with the unbeliever's name."
And of Superstition:
"O superstition, how thy savage power deprives at once the best and tenderest hearts of humanity."
On the important subject of the Soul, he says:
"We haven't the smallest step on which to set our foot to reach the slightest knowledge of what makes us live and makes us think."
And of the Virgin Birth:
"It is an insult to the divinity to conceive that he could possibly, in any manner whatsoever, commit with woman the crime we call adultery."
And of Christianity itself he said:
"God himself came down from heaven and died to redeem mankind and extirpate sin forever from the face of the earth; and yet he left the greater part of mankind a prey to error, to crime, and to the devil. This, to our weak intellects, appears a fatal contradiction. But it is not for us to question Providence; our duty is to humble ourselves in the dust before it."
As to Miracles, he says:
"If a predicted miracle be not public and as well verified as an eclipse that is announced in the almanac, be assured that it is nothing better than a juggler's trick or an old woman's tale."
And for the verification of a miracle he offers this suggestion:
"It would certainly, for example, be very desirable, in order to the firm and clear establishment of a miracle, that it should be performed in the presence of the Academy of Sciences of Paris, or the Royal Society of London, and the faculty of Medicine, assisted by a detachment of guards to keep in due order and distance the populace who might by their rudeness or indiscretion prevent the operation of the miracle."
And as for Immortality, this sentence is all sufficient!
"Nobody thinks of giving an immortal soul to a flea."
On the question of Prophets Voltaire was extremely illuminating:
"The Jews possessed this faculty of exalting and exciting the soul to such a degree that they saw every future event as dearly as possible; only unfortunately it is difficult to decide whether by Jerusalem they always meant eternal life; whether Babylon means London or Paris; whether, when they speak of a grand dinner, they really mean a fast, and whether red wine means blood, and a red mantle means faith, and a white mantle charity. Indeed the correct and complete understanding of the prophets is the most arduous attainment of the human mind."
And on the eternal search for God, he said:
"God we should search for in ourselves alone;
If he exists the human heart's his throne."
But when he discusses the anthropomorphic idea of God, note how searching he makes his analysis:
"When they say God is a tender father, God is a just King; when they add the idea of infinity to that of love, that kindness, that justice which they observe in the best of this own species, they soon fall into the most palpable and dreadful contradictions. How could this sovereign, who possessed in infinite fulness the principle or quality of human justice; how could this father, entertaining an infinite affection for his children; how could this being, infinitely powerful, have formed creatures in His own likeness, to have them immediately afterwards tempted by a malignant demon, to make them yield to that temptation to inflict death on those whom He had created immortal and to overwhelm their posterity with calamities and crimes?"
On the question of Absolution, one of the cardinal supports of the church, Voltaire reveals this evidence from the church's official documents.
"Absolution for one who has carnally known his mother, his sister, etc. costs five drachmas. Absolution for one who has deflowered a virgin, six drachmas. Absolution for one who has revealed another's confession, seven drachmas. Absolution for one who has killed his father, his mother, etc., five drachmas...."
Is it any wonder that such a system in vogue for the bartering of crime plunged society into an orgy of vice?
As might be expected Voltaire has many a pithy remark about Heretics and so I quote:
"It is a great evil to be a heretic; but is it a great good to maintain orthodoxy by soldiers and executioners? Would it not be better that every man should eat his bread in peace under the shade of his own fig-tree? I suggest so bold a proposition with fear and trembling."
And who would have been so keen as to place such significance upon a prohibition as Voltaire has done with this biblical injunction. He first asks: "Were the Jewish ladies intimate with goats?" and then answers: "You assert that your mothers had no commerce with he-goats, nor your fathers with she-goats. But pray, gentlemen, why are you the only people upon this earth whose laws have forbidden such commerce? Would any legislator ever have thought of promulgating this extraordinary law if the offence had not been common?"
Voltaire made things, that were formally held sacred, look ridiculous merely by making a comparison:
"If, when invoking God, or swearing by him, you call him the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob you will, by these words, do things the nature and force of which are such that evil spirits submit to those who pronounce them; but if you call him by another name as God of the roaring sea, etc., rendered in Greek will work nothing; but pronounce it in Hebrew with the other words required, and you will effect the conjuration."
And on the question of Dogmatism need anything further be said than this? What a volume of philosophy it contains!
"If you had asked the whole earth before the time of Copernicus: 'has the sun risen? Has it set today?' All men would have answered: 'We are quite certain of it.' They were certain and they were in error. Witchcraft, divinations, and possessions were for a long time the most certain things in the world in the eyes of society. What an innumerable crowd of people who have seen all these fine things and who have been certain of them. At present this certainty has been a little shaken."
Voltaire showed that every prophecy of the Bible had been proved false; that almost every statement concerning the Jews was a lie; that the blessings of God had proved to be curses, and that the people whom God considered his enemies are the ones enjoying the greatest power and possessing the greatest wealth.
Strange as it may seem Voltaire believed in Reverence but from quite a different viewpoint to that of the church. "It is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, not those who enslave men by violence; it is to him who understands the universe, not to those who disfigure it, that we owe our reverence." And the most amazing thing to him was that people did not readily acknowledge an error when the truth was presented to them.
In writing his brilliant and eloquent Treatise on Toleration, Voltaire, with the satire and mockery for which he was famous, creates a character in the person-of a priest, who advances a method of ridding the country of heretics. He begins by saying: "The following is in obedience to the orders I received from your reverence to lay before you the most effectual means for delivering Jesus and His company from their enemies."
The suggestion is a model of tolerance, sympathy and benevolence. First, he would kill all the preachers; murder the mothers and fathers as they lie in bed, so as to avoid the possibility of any of them escaping. The male children of fourteen and fifteen years of age should be castrated since they have been so poisoned with heresy that redemption is impossible; however, the young girls should be married immediately to good Catholics who believe in large families so as rapidly to provide for the depopulation that would naturally result in the murder of about a million Huguenots. While one such proposal (by which gunpowder was to be used to accomplish this glorious purpose) failed of execution because one of the perpetrators wanted to save a friend, this good bishop need have no such apprehension as he had no friend. And since all heretics were consigned to hell anyway, he would have nothing to reproach himself about, as he would be putting them into their inheritance a little sooner than expected. Then again, by committing the happy deed now, he would be performing a most worthy act by preventing the murdering of the millions of the next generation who would naturally be born of those now living. Any other arguments against the scheme were too frivolous to be considered. And only those who judge the ways and designs of Providence by the weak light of their own reason would fail to appreciate the justification of so rigorous a punishment upon so large a number of people.
But strange as it may seem, there was more truth in this satire than you would imagine. While Voltaire was writing and working in behalf of religious toleration, pleading that human beings should not torture each other, because of the differences of meaningless words, a learned bishop, real and in the flesh, possessing all the faculties of a human being, was devoting his time and his labors not only to justify and condone religious persecution, but actually to plead for its continuance. The title of the good bishop's work was The Harmony of Religion and Humanity, but which Voltaire more properly labeled a "Treatise of Inhumanity." The good bishop said: "If you have to deal with any considerable number of heretics, it will be necessary to use gentle methods, and try to bring them over by persuasion; but if they are only a few in number, then make free use of the gibbet, and the galleys; you will find the advantage of it." And again: "The entire extirpation of the Protestants in France would not weaken that Kingdom more than a plentiful bleeding would a patient of a sound constitution."
Is it any wonder, then, that Protestants were sacrificed in the name of religion, by "burning them alive, hanging up mothers upon gibbets, and tying their daughters around their necks to see them expire together; ripping up women with child, taking the half-formed infant from the womb, and throwing it to swine and dogs to be devoured; putting a dagger into the hands of their manacled prisoners, and forcing them to plunge it into the breasts of their fathers, their mothers, their wives or children...!"
Others met death in a more merciful manner! They were suspended at the end of a long beam, which played upon a pole erected for that purpose, and underneath them was kindled a large fire, into which they were alternately lowered and then raised again, by which they experienced the most excruciating torments, till "a lingering death," says Voltaire, "at last put an end to the longest and most dreadful punishment that cruelty ever invented."
"It does not require any great art or studied elocution to prove that Christians ought to tolerate one another," said Voltaire. "Nay, I shall go farther and say that we ought to look upon all men as our brethren. How! Call a Turk, a Jew, and a Siamese, my brother? Yes, doubtless; for are we not all children of the same parent, and the creature of the same Creator?"
This was a bold statement to make of universal brotherhood and religious toleration in Voltaire's time, and would not be out of place even if repeated and advocated today.
Need more be said to show the demoralizing effects upon human beings than to quote this paragraph of Voltaire's which both explains and condemns this strange insanity of religious belief. He shows how abuses creep in and cause religious people to commit the most abominable acts, that repeated often enough pass for fundamental laws, aye for sacred precepts.
"It is said that in Asia greasy Mohammedan saints march in procession entirely naked and that devout females crowd round them to kiss what is not worthy to be named."
Voltaire defies any one to prove that the Koran contains a passage that justifies this practice. Yet civilized Christians in Voltaire's day carried the holy foreskin in processions and paid sacred homage to it!
Is there no limit to the disgusting habits that religious people will adopt; no limit to the acts of degradation that they will perform to court favor of their God? Have they no sense of shame whatever? Are they utterly devoid of self-respect?
And to those who think we are unduly cautious and watchful, and who say that the church has learned its lesson and is no longer to be feared, how important are these words of Voltaire uttered in answer to one who reproached him for continuing his attacks upon the church.
"You are in error," he said; "It is the fire that is covered, not extinguished. Those fanatics, those impostors, are mad dogs. They are muzzled, but they have not lost their teeth. It is true they bite no more; but on the first opportunity, if their teeth are not drawn, you will see if they will not bite."
The Inquisition was merely asleep, and Voltaire by his watchfulness smothered it as it struggled to awake. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," is as true today as it ever was. The Beast merely sleeps, and some believe it dead; a most dangerous state of mind.
Voltaire was not to be so easily fooled and again shouted: "I shall never cease to preach tolerance from the house-tops -- despite the groans of your priests ... until persecution is no more. The progress of reason is slow, the roots of prejudice are deep. Doubtless, I shall never see the fruits of my efforts, but they are seeds which may some day germinate."
And although the church now pleads and begs for some of its lost prestige and privileges, it has not changed its attitude and would commit the same atrocities today if it had the power.
With what deep insight does Voltaire express this thought.
"....does not experience prove that influence over men's minds is only gained by offering them the difficult, nay the impossible, to perform and believe?"
No wonder the church created a heaven and a hell -- gave man a soul and pictured the frightful torments that disobedience to her edicts would provoke her revengeful and jealous God to inflict. When man no longer fears the church and its teaching, the church will no longer be able to exploit and subjugate him. Voltaire called the church a quack "who would fain have us believe we are ill, in order to sell us its pills." "Keep thy drugs," he said, "and leave me my health." What a perfect characterization is that of the church! Man has not sinned, therefore, he does not have to repent. He has no soul to save. He has but a life to live.
If the church had no heaven, it could not sell man a front seat on the right hand of God. If it had no hell, it could not save him from its torments. The church is practicing fraud and should be punished under the law like any other criminal.
The church has hypnotized man into guilt in order to free him from his crime. What a great thing it was to convince man that his legs were sound and that he needed no crutches; that it was not necessary for the church to save him from something that did not exist!
Voltaire placed the church in the same category as those fakirs who sell rain to the savages.
"The church will not cease to be persecutors," he said, "until it ceases to be absurd." "Only the foolish and the ridiculous need force in order to secure respect."
No summary of Voltaire can be complete without some mention of his hatred of war and his efforts to abolish it. "What concern to me," he cries, "are humanity, benevolence, modesty, temperance, gentleness, wisdom, piety, so long as half an ounce of lead shatters my body, and I die at twenty in torments unspeakable, surrounded by five or six thousand dead and dying while my eyes, opening for the last time, see the town I was born in delivered to fire and sword, and the last sounds that reach my ears are the shrieks of women and children expiring in the ruins -- and the whole for the pretended interest of men that we do not know?"
The Freethinker distinguishes himself from the religionist because he refuses to accept the conditions of life as specially ordained. "Whatever is, is best" is a doctrine that he cannot subscribe to. The murdering of our fellow man is a crime no matter for what purpose it is accomplished.
"Go over the whole history of Christian assassins," exclaims Voltaire, "-- and it is very long -- and you will see that they all had the Bible in their pockets with their daggers...!"
Voltaire treated war as the most depraved of human acts, and in this he was vastly different from the church. War is another doctrine separating the Freethinker from the Religionist. Voltaire was the first historian of modern times who placed war at the bottom of the list of human events that should attract the attention of men, whereas the clergy from time immemorial have extolled war, in their most eloquent tongues. And with what solemn piety they have blessed the sword and asked their God that he destroy wantonly the enemy in order that victory might be theirs.
Mozart, the musician, in a letter to his father, said this:
"The moment the symphony was over, I went off in my joy, to the Palais-Royal, where I took a good ice, told over my beads, as I had vowed, and went home, where I am always happiest. I must give you a piece of intelligence, that you perhaps already know: namely, that the ungodly arch-villain, Voltaire, has died miserably, like a dog -- just like a brute." [Italics mine.]
This of the man who said that whoever destroys a theater is an enemy to his country. Mozart's letter proves two things. One, that Voltaire died as he had lived, an infidel; second, that a man may be a great musician and still be a bigot and utterly ignorant of the very fundamentals of human freedom, especially when his mind has been so contaminated with religious prejudice that it is unable to function except in one direction. The religious poison that was inculcated in him while on his mother's knee could not be eradicated by his symphonies.
No, Voltaire did not die like a dog, as that expression is supposed to indicate; he died just as serenely as the coming of the dawn. And if Mozart were living today he would see statues to Voltaire throughout all France, and above the entrance of the Hotel de Ville, the City Hall of Paris, stands the figure of Voltaire as the symbol of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
In his last moments priests, like vultures, intruded themselves upon him as representatives of God. Voltaire politely asked them for their credentials. When they persisted and continued their annoyance he feebly instructed his valet to assure them of his respect, and with a gesture for them to depart, closed his eyes for the last time on May 30, 1778, with these words upon his lips: "Let me die in peace." And he did.
Voltaire's influence upon the leaders of the American Revolution, so brilliantly exemplified by Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine, makes America deeply indebted to him as one of our liberators. Voltaire died on Decoration Day -- and no American can pay tribute to our honored dead without mentioning the name of Voltaire.
"Of all the intellectual weapons that have been wielded by man, the most terrible was the mockery of Voltaire. Bigots and tyrants who had never been moved by the wailings and cursing of millions, turned pale at his name," said Lord Macaulay.
And the magnificent Ingersoll, who carried the torch so brilliantly lighted by this courageous warrior, said that at the mention of Voltaire's name, the mask of hypocrisy would fall from the face of every priest and hypocrite.
Since priests still practice hypocrisy and fraud, and prey upon the ignorant and the credulous; since religion still teaches us to hate one another, and by the use of force prevents the acquisition of knowledge and retards the material progress of man -- let us resolve now, as a debt of gratitude to the memory of this great humanitarian and lover of mankind -- this great Freethinker this incomparable Infidel -- never to cease mentioning the name of Voltaire and so help to "Crush the Infamous"