Voltaire wrote what the people thought, and consequently his writings were universally read. He wittily ridiculed established abuses, and keenly satirized venerable absurdities. For this he was consigned to the Bastile, and this distinction served to increase his popularity and extend his influence. He was thus enabled to cope successfully with the papal hierarchy, and laugh at the murmurs of the Vatican. The struggle commenced in his youth, and continued till his death. It was a struggle of light against darkness – of freedom against tyranny; and it ended in the triumph of truth over error and of toleration over bigotry.
Educated by the Jesuits, he early learned their methods, and his great ability enabled him to circumvent their wiles. The ceremonious presentation of his tragedy of Mahomet1 to Pope Benedict XIV., is an example of his daring audacity; – his success with the "head of the church" shows his intellectual superiority – whilst the gracious reply of "his Holiness" fitly illustrates the pontiff's vanity. From priest to bishop, from cardinal to pope, all felt his intellectual power and all dreaded his merciless satire.
He was famous as poet, dramatist, historian, and philosopher. An experienced courtier and polished writer, he gracefully and politely conquered his clerical opponents, and with courteous irony overthrew his literary critics. From his demeanor you could not judge of his thoughts or intentions, and while listening to his compliments, you instinctively dreaded his sarcasms. But venture to approach this grand seigneur, this keen man of the world, this intellectual giant, and plead in favor of human justice – appeal to his magnanimity and love of toleration – and you then had no cause to question his earnestness, no reason to doubt his sincerity. His blood boiled, says Macaulay,2 at the sight of cruelty and injustice, and in an age of religious persecution, judicial torture, and arbitrary imprisonment, he made manful war, with every faculty he possessed, on what he considered as abuses; and on many signal occasions, placed himself gallantly between the powerful and the oppressed. "When an innocent man was broken on the wheel at Toulouse, when a youth, guilty only of an indiscretion, was beheaded at Abbéville, when a brave officer, borne down by public injustice, was dragged, with a gag in his mouth, to die on the Place de Grêve, a voice instantly went forth from the banks of Lake Leman, which made itself heard from Moscow to Cadiz, and which sentenced the unjust judges to the contempt and detestation of all Europe."
"None can read these stories of the horrible religious bigotry of the day," says Alex. A. Knox, in The Nineteenth Century,3 "without feeling for Voltaire reverence and respect."
The following extract from the above named Review will explain the religious cruelty to which Macaulay refers:
"Jean Calas, a Protestant, kept a small shop in Toulouse. He had a scape-grace of a son, Marc Antoine by name, who hanged himself in his father's shop. The poor father and mother were up stairs at the time, at supper, in company with the second son. The evidence was so clear that a coroner's jury at a public-house would not have turned round upon it. The priests and the priest party got hold of it, and turned it into a religious crime. The Protestant, or Huguenot parents were charged with murdering their son for fear he should turn Catholic. The body was taken to the Hôtel de Ville, and then escorted by priests to the cathedral. The religious orders – White Penitents and others – held solemn ceremonies for the repose of Marc Antoine's soul. The churches resounded with the exhortations of the priests, informing the people what evidence was required to procure the condemnation of the Calas, and directing them to come forward as witnesses. Upon such assumptions as these horrible people could devise, the poor old man was stretched till his limbs were torn out of the sockets. He was then submitted to the question extraordinaire. This consisted in pouring water into his mouth from a horn till his body was swollen to twice its size. The man had been drowned a hundred times over, but he was still alive. He was then carried to the scaffold and his limbs were broken with an iron bar, and he was left for two hours to die. He did not then die, and so the executioner strangled him at last; but he died without confessing his crime. The man was innocent; he had no confession to make. The poor creature by his unutterable agony thus saved the lives of his wife and family, all as innocent as himself. Two daughters were thrust into a convent: a son shammed conversion to Catholicism and was released. The servant escaped into a convent. The property of the family was confiscated. The poor mother slipped away unseen. Finally, another son, who had been apprenticed to a watchmaker of Nismes, escaped to Geneva. This is a picture of France in the eighteenth century.
"Voltaire took poor young Calas into his family. He tried at once to interest the Cardinal de Bernis, the Duc de Choiseul, and others in this horrible story. He found for the widow a comfortable retreat at Paris; he employed the best lawyers he could find to give practical form to the business; he sent the daughters to join the mother. He paid all the expenses out of his own pocket. He reached the Chancellor; he made his appeal to Europe. He employed a clever young advocate M. Elie de Beaumont, to conduct the cast. The Queen of England, Frederick the Great, Catharine of Russia, were induced by Voltaire to help the Calas.
"The case of the Sirvens was well-nigh as bad as that of the Calas. Sirven lived with his wife and three daughters, all Protestants, near Toulouse. The story is so illustrative of the France of the eighteenth century, and of what Voltaire was about, that it deserves a few lines. Sirven's housekeeper, a Roman Catholic, with the assent of the Bishop of Castres, spirited away the youngest daughter, and placed her in a convent of the Black Ladies with a view to her conversion. She returned to her parents in a state of insanity, her body covered with the marks of the whip. She never recovered from the cruelties she had endured at the convent. One day, when her father was absent on his professional duties, she threw herself into a well, at the bottom of which she was found drowned. It was obvious to the authorities that the parents had murdered their child because she wished to become a Roman Catholic. They most wisely did not appear, and were sentenced to be hanged when they could be caught. In their flight the married daughter gave premature birth to a child; and Madame Sirven died in despair. It took Voltaire ten years to get this abominable sentence reversed, and to turn wrong into right.
"A Protestant gentleman, M. Espinasse, had been condemned to the galleys for life and his estate confiscated because he had given supper and lodging to a Protestant clergyman. He served twenty-three years; but in 1763 Voltaire obtained his release, and ultimately obtained back for the family a portion of their property.
"The Chevalier de la Barre was another victim. Some person or persons unknown had hacked with a knife a wooden crucifix which stood on a bridge at Abbéville over the Somme. The same night a crucifix on one of the cemeteries was bespattered with mud. The bishop of the place set to work to stir up excitement, praying for punishment 'on those who had rendered themselves worthy of the severest punishment known to the world's law.' Young De la Barre was arrested. The evidence against him was that he, with certain companions, had been known to pass within thirty yards of a procession bearing the Sacrament without taking off their hats. It was further proved in evidence that he and his friends had sung certain objectionable songs, and that not only some novels had been found in his rooms, but also two small volumes of Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique. On this evidence he was sentenced to be subjected to the torture, ordinary and extraordinary; to have his tongue torn out by the roots with pincers of iron, to have his right hand cut off at the door of the principal church at Abbéville, to be drawn in a cart to the market-place, and there to be burned to death by a slow fire. The sentence was mitigated so far that he was allowed to be beheaded before he was burned. This sentence was carried out on the 1st of July, 1766. These are samples of what was occurring in France. Was there not enough to rouse indignation to fever-heat?
"When one reads such stories, even at this distance of time, he understands the French Revolution and Voltaire."
In all his writings Voltaire claimed to be religious, and was as ready to oppose with his sarcasms the agnostic or atheist, as the catholic. In speaking of Tully as a doubter, he makes Pococurante exclaim: "I once had some liking for his philosophical works; but when I found he doubted of everything, I thought I knew as much as himself, and had no need of a guide to learn ignorance."
But while Voltaire
This work, says Prof. F.C. Schlosser in his
Vol. iv, No. 39.