Voltaire's life, from his youth upwards, was a stormy one. After he left College, his father, finding him persist in writing poetry, and living at large, forbade him his house. He insisted upon his son binding himself to an attorney. But his restless disposition quite unfitted him for regular employment, and he soon quitted the profession. He early made the acquaintance of the most celebrated men of his time, but his genius, his wit, and his sarcasm, soon raised up numerous enemies. At the age of twenty-two, he was accused of having written a satire upon Louis XIV., who was just dead, and was thrown into the Bastile. But he was not cast down. It was here that he sketched his poem of the "League," corrected his tragedy of "Oedipus," and wrote some merry verses on the misfortune, of being a prisoner. The Regent, Duke of Orleans, being informed of his innocence, restored him to freedom, and granted him a recompense. "I thank your royal highness," said Voltaire, "for having provided me with food; but I hope you will not hereafter trouble yourself concerning my lodging."
Voltaire, with his activity of mind, and living to so great an age, must necessarily produce many works. They are voluminous, consisting of history, poetry, and philosophy. His dramatic pieces are numerous, many of which are considered second only to Shakespeare's. "Oedipus," "Zadig," "Ingenu," "Zaire," "Henri-ade," "Irene," "Tancred," "Mahomet," "Merope," "Saul," "Alzire," "Le Fanatisme," "Mariamne," "Gaston de Foix," "Enfant Prodigue," "Pucelle d'Orleans," an essay on "Fire," the "Elements," "History of Charles XII.," "Lectures on Man," "Letters on England," "Memoirs," "Voyage of Sacramentado," "Micromegas," "Maid of Orleans," "Brutus," "Adelaide," "Death of Caesar," "Temple of Taste," "Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations," "An Examination of the Holy Scriptures," and the "Philosophical Dictionary," are works that emanated from the active brain of this wit, poet, satirist, and philosopher.
In 1722, while at Brussels, Voltaire met Jean Baptiste Rousseau, whose misfortunes he deplored, and whose poetic talents he esteemed. Voltaire read some of his poems to Rousseau, and he in return read to Voltaire his "Ode addressed to Posterity," which Voltaire, it is asserted, told him would never arrive at the place to which it was addressed. The two poets parted irreconcileable foes.
In 1725, Voltaire was again shut up in the Bastile, through attempting to revenge an insult inflicted upon him by a courtier. At the end of six months he was released, but ordered to quit Paris. He sought refuge in England, in 1726. He was the guest in that country of a Mr. Falconer, of Wandsworth, whose hospitality he remembered with affection so long as life lasted. Voltaire was known to most of the wits and Freethinkers of that day in England. At this early age he was at war with Christianity. "His visit to England," says Lamartine, "gave assurance and gravity to his incredulity; for in France he had only known libertines—in England he knew philosophers." He went to visit Congreve, who had the affectation to tell him that he (Congreve) valued himself, not on his authorship, but as a man of the world. To which Voltaire administered a just rebuke by saying, "I should never have come so far to see a gentleman!"
Voltaire soon acquired an ample fortune, much of which was expended in aiding men of letters, and in encouraging such youth as he thought discovered the seeds of genius. The use he made of riches might prevail on envy itself to pardon him their acquirement. His pen and his purse were ever at the service of the oppressed. Calas, an infirm old man, living at Toulouse, was accused of having hung his son, to prevent his becoming a Catholic. The Catholic population became inflamed, and the young man was declared to be a martyr. The father was condemned to the torture and the wheel, and died protesting his innocence. The family of Calas was ruined and disgraced. Voltaire, assuring himself of the innocence of the old man, determined to obtain justice for the family. To this end he labored incessantly for three years. In all this time, he said, a smile did not escape him for which he did not reproach himself as for a crime. His efforts were successful. Nor was this the only cause in which he was engaged on the side of the weak and the wronged against the powerful and the persecuting. His whole life, though maligned as an Infidel and a-scoffer, was one long act of benevolence. On learning that a young niece of Corneille languished in a condition unworthy of his name, Voltaire, in the most delicate manner, invited her to his house, and she there received an education suitable to the rank that her birth had marked lor her in society. "It is the duty of a soldier," he said, "to succor the niece of his general."
Voltaire lived for a time at the Court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and for many years carried on a correspondence with that monarch. He quarrelled with the king, and left the court in a passion. An emissary was despatched to him to request an apology, who said he was to carry back to the king his answer verbatim. Voltaire told him that "the king might go to the devil!" On being asked if that was the message he meant to be delivered! "Yes," he answered, "and add to it that I told you that you might go there with him." In his "Memoirs," he has drawn a most amusing picture of his Prussian Majesty. He, also says, "Priests never entered the palace; and, in a word, Frederick lived without religion, without a council, and without a court."
Wearied with his rambling and unsettled mode of living, Voltaire bought an estate at Ferney, in the Pays des Gex, where he spent the last twenty years of his life. He rebuilt the house, laid out gardens, kept a good table, and had crowds of visitors from all parts, of Europe. Removed from whatever could excite momentary or personal passion, he yielded to his zeal for the destruction of prejudice, which was the most powerful and active of all the sensations he felt. This peaceful life, seldom disturbed except by the threats of persecution rather than persecution itself, was adorned by those acts of enlightened and bold benevolence, which, while they relieve the sufferings of certain individuals, are of any service to the whole human race. He was known to Europe as the "Sage of Ferney." After an absence of more than twenty-seven years, he re-visited Paris in the beginning of 1778. He had just finished his play of "Irene," and was anxious to see it performed. His visit was an ovation. He had outlived all his enemies. After having been the object of unrelenting persecution by the priests and corrupt courtiers of France for a period of more than fifty years, he yet lived to see the day when "all that was most eminent in station or most distinguished in talents—all that most shone in society, or most ruled in court, seemed to bend before him." At this period he, for the first time, saw Benjamin Franklin. They embraced each other in the midst of public acclamations, and it was said to be Solon who embraced Sophocles.
Voltaire did not survive his triumph long. His unwearied activity induced him, at his great age, to commence a "Dictionary" upon a novel plan, which he prevailed upon the French Academy to take up. These labors brought on spitting of blood, followed by sleeplessness, to obviate which he took opium in considerable quantities. Condorcet says that the servant mistook one of the doses, which threw him into a state of lethargy, from which he never rallied. He lingered for some time, but at length expired on the 30th of May, 1778, in his eighty-fifth year.
It was the custom in those days, and prevails to a considerable extent even in our own time, for the religious world to fabricate "horrible death-beds" of all Freethinkers. Voltaire's last moments were distorted by his enemies after the approved fashion; and notwithstanding the most unqualified denial on the part of Dr. Burard and others, who were present at his death, there are many who believe these falsehoods at this moment. Voltaire died in peace, with the exception of the petty annoyances to which he was subjected by the priests. The philosophers, too, who wished that no public stigma should be cast upon him by the refusal of Christian burial, persuaded him to undergo confession and absolution. This, to oblige his friends, he submitted to; but when the cure one day drew him from his lethargy by shouting into his ear, "Do you believe the divinity of Jesus Christ?" Voltaire exclaimed, "In the name of God, Sir, speak to me no more of that man, but let me die in peace!" This put to flight all doubts of the pious, and the certificate of burial was refused. But the prohibition of the Bishop of Troyes came too late. Voltaire was buried at the monastery of Scellieres, in Champagne, of which his nephew was abbot. Afterwards, during the first French Revolution, the body, at the request of the citizens, was removed to Paris, and buried in the Pantheon. Lamartine, in his "History of the Girondists," p. 149, speaking of the ceremony, says:—
"On the 11th of July, the departmental and municipal authorities went in state to the barrier of Charenton, to receive the mortal remains of Voltaire, which were placed on the ancient site of the Bastile, like a conqueror on his trophies; his coffin was exposed to public gaze, and a pedestal was formed for it of stones torn from the foundations of this ancient stronghold of tyranny; and thus Voltaire when dead triumphed over those stones which had triumphed over and confined him when living. On one of the blocks was the inscription, 'Receive on this spot, where despotism once fettered thee, the Honors decreed to thee by thy country'.... The coffin of Voltaire was deposited between those of Descartes and Mirabeau—the spot predestined for this intermediary genius between philosophy and policy, between the design and the execution."
The aim of Voltaire's life was the destruction of prejudice and the establishment of Reason. "Deists," said W. J. Fox in 1819, "have done much for toleration and religious liberty. It may be doubted if there be a country in Europe, where that cause has not been advanced by the writings of Voltaire." In the Preface and Conclusion to the "Examination of the Scriptures," Voltaire says:—
"The ambition of domineering over the mind, is one of the strongest passions. A theologian, a missionary, or a partisan of any description, is always for conquering like a prince, and there are many more sects than there are sovereigns in the world. To whose guidance shall I submit my mind? Must I be a Christian, be-cause I happened to be born in London, or in Madrid? Must I be a Mussulman, because I was born in Turkey? As it is myself alone that I ought to consult, the choice of a religion is my greatest interest. One man adores God by Mahomet, another by the Grand Lama, and another by the Pope. Weak and foolish men! adore God by your own reason.... I have learnt that a French Vicar, of the name of John Meslier, who died a short time since, prayed on his death-bed that God would forgive him for having taught Christianity. I have seen a Vicar in Dorsetshire relinquish a living of L200 a year, and confess to his parishioners that his conscience would not permit him to preach the shocking absurdities of the Christians. But neither the will nor the testament of John Meslier, nor the declaration of this worthy Vicar, are what I consider decisive proofs. Uriel Acosta, a Jew, publicly renounced the Old Testament in Amsterdam; however, I pay no more attention to the Jew Acosta than to Parson Meslier. I will read the arguments on both sides of the trial, with careful attention, not suffering the lawyers to tamper with me; but will weigh, before God, the reasons of both parties, and decide according to my conscience. I commence by being my-own instructor.... I conclude, that every sensible man, every honest man, ought to hold Christianity in abhorrence. 'The great name of Theist, which we can never sufficiently revere,' is the only name we ought to adopt. The only gospel we should read is the grand book of nature, written with God's own hand, and stamped with his own seal. The only religion we ought to profess is, 'to adore God, and act like honest men.' It would be as impossible for this simple and eternal religion to produce evil, as it would be impossible for Christian fanaticism not to produce it.... But what shall we substitute in its place? say you. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place! Is it you that put this question to me? Then you are a hundred times more odious than the Pagan Pontiffs, who permitted themselves to enjoy tranquillity among their ceremonies and sacrifices, who did not attempt to enslave the mind by dogmas, who never disputed the powers of the magistrates, and who introduced no discord among mankind. You have the face to ask what you must substitute in the place of your fables!"
As will be seen by his exclamation on his death-bed, Voltaire was no believer in the divinity of Christ. He disbelieved the Bible in toto. The accounts of the doings of the Jewish kings, as represented in the Old Testament, he has unsparingly ridiculed in the drama of "Saul." The quiet irony of the following will be easily appreciated:—
Divinity of Jesus.—The Socinians, who are regarded as blasphemers, do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. They dare to pretend, with the philosophers of antiquity, with the Jews, the Mahometans, and most other nations, that the idea of a god-man is monstrous; that the distance from God to man is infinite; and that it is impossible for a perishable body to be infinite, immense, or eternal. They have the confidence to quote Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in their favor, who, in his "Ecclesiastical History," book i., chap. 9, declares that it is absurd to imagine the uncreated and unchangeable nature of Almighty God taking the form of a man. They cite the fathers of the church, Justin and Tertullian, who have said the same thing: Justin in his "Dialogue with Triphonius;" and Tertullian, in his "Discourse against Praxeas." They quote St. Paul, who never calls Jesus Christ, God, and who calls him man very often. They carry their audacity so far as to affirm, that the Christians passed three entire ages in forming by degrees the apotheosis of Jesus; and that they only raised this astonishing edifice by the example of the Pagans, who had deified mortals. At first, according to them, Jesus was only regarded as a man inspired by God, and then as a creature more perfect than others. They gave him some time after, a place above the angels, as St. Paul tells us. Every day added to his greatness. He in time became an emanation, proceeding from God. This was not enough; he was even born before time. At last he was God consubstantial with God. Crellius, Voquelsius, Natalis, Alexander, and Hornbeck, have supported all these blasphemies by arguments, which astonish the wise and mislead the weak. Above all, Faustus Socinus spread the seeds of this doctrine in Europe; and at the end of the sixteenth century, a new species of Christianity was established. There were already more than three hundred.—[Philosophical Dictionary, vol. i. p. 405.]
Though a firm and consistent believer in the being of a God, Voltaire was no bigot. The calm reasoning of the following passage does honor to its author:—
Faith.—Divine faith, about which so much has been written, is evidently nothing more than incredulity brought under subjection; for we certainly have no other faculty than the understanding by which we can believe; and the objects of faith are not those of the understanding. We can believe only what appears to be true; and nothing can appear true but in one of the three following ways—by intuition or feeling, as I exist, I see the sun; or by an accumulation of probability amounting to certainty, as there is a city called Constantinople; or by positive demonstration, as triangles of the same base and height are equal. Faith, therefore, being nothing at all of this description, can no more be a belief, a persuasion, than it can be yellow or red. It can be nothing but the annihilation of reason, a silence of adoration at the contemplation of things absolutely incomprehensible. Thus, speaking philosophically, no person believes the Trinity; no person believes that the same body can be in a thousand places at once; and he who says, I believe these mysteries, will see, beyond the possibility of a doubt, if he reflects for a moment on what passes in his mind, that these words mean no more than, I respect thee, mysteries; I submit myself to those who announce them. For they agree with me, that my real reason, their own reason, believe them not; but it is clear if my reason is not persuaded, I am not persuaded, and my reason cannot possibly be two different beings. It is an absolute contradiction that I should receive that as true which my understanding rejects as false. Faith, therefore, is nothing but submissive or deferential incredulity. But why should this submission be exercised when my understanding invincibly recoils? The reason, we well know, is, that my understanding has been persuaded that the mysteries of my faith are laid down by God himself. All, then, that I can do, as a reasonable being, is to be silent and adore. That is what divines call external faith; and this faith neither is, nor can be, anything more than respect for things incomprehensible, in consequence of the reliance I place on those who teach them; If God himself were to say to me, "Thought is of an olive colour;" "the square of a certain number is bitter;" I should certainly understand nothing at all from these words. I could not adopt them either as true or false. But I will repeat them, if he commands me to do it; and I will make others repeat them at the risk of my life. This is faith; it is nothing more than obedience. In order to obtain a foundation then for this obedience, it is merely necessary to examine the books which require it. Our understanding, therefore, should investigate the books of the Old and New Testament, just as it would Plutarch or Livy; and if it finds in them incontestable and decisive evidences—evidences obvious to all minds, and such as would be admitted by men of all nations—that God himself is their author, then it is our incumbent duty to subject our understanding to the yoke of faith.—[Ibid, p. 474.]
Prayer.—We know of no religion without prayers; even the Jews had them, although there was no public form of prayer among them before the time when they sang their canticles in their synagogues, which did not take place until a late period. The people of all nations, whether actuated by desires or fears, have summoned the assistance of the Divinity. Philosophers, however, more respectful to the Supreme Being, and rising more above human weakness, have been habituated to substitute, for prayer, resignation. This, in fact, is all that appears proper and suitable between creature and Creator. But philosophy is not adapted to the great mass of mankind; it soars too highly above the vulgar; it speaks a language they are unable to comprehend. To propose philosophy to them, would be just as weak as to propose the study of conic sections to peasants or fish-women. Among philosophers themselves, I know of no one besides Maximus Tyrius who has treated of this subject. The following is the substance of his ideas upon it:—The designs of God exist from all eternity. If the object prayed for be conformable to his immutable will, it must be perfectly useless to request of him the very thing which he has determined to do. If he is prayed to for the reverse of what he has determined to do, he is prayed to be weak, fickle, and inconstant; such a prayer implies that this is thought to be his character, and is nothing better than ridicule or mockery of him. You either request of him what is just and right, in which case he ought to do it, and it will be actually done without any solicitation, which in fact, shows distrust of his rectitude; or what you request is unjust, and then you insult him. You are either worthy or unworthy of the favour you implore; if worthy, he knows it better than you do yourself; if unworthy, you commit an additional crime in requesting that which you do not merit. In a word, we offer up prayers to God only because we have made him after our own image. We treat him like a pacha, or a sultan, who is capable of being exasperated and appeased. In short, all nations pray to God; the sage is resigned, and obeys him. Let us pray with the people, and let us be resigned to him with the sage. We have already spoken of the public prayer of many nations, and of those of the Jews.—That people have had one from time immemorial, which deserves all our attention, from its resemblance to the prayer taught us by Jesus Christ himself. This Jewish prayer is called the Kadish, and begins with these words:—"Oh! God! let thy name be magnified and sanctified; make thy kingdom to prevail; let redemption flourish, and the Messiah come quickly!" As this Radish is recited in Chaldee, it has induced the belief, that it is as ancient as the captivity, and that it was at that period that the Jews began to hope for a Messiah, a Liberator, or Redeemer, whom they have since prayed for in ihe seasons of their calamities.—[Ibid, vol. ii., p. 350.]
Voltaire's contempt for the Bible led him to use the language of "holy writ" in the coarsest jokes; though, perhaps, with such material, the jokes could not well be otherwise than coarse. The following letter he addressed to M. Baillon, Intendant of Lyons, on account of a poor Jew taken up for uttering contraband goods. This kind of writing obtained for Voltaire the title of "scoffer:"—
"Blessings on the Old Testament, which gives me this opportunity of telling you, that amongst all those who adore the New, there is not one more devoted to your service than myself, a certain descendant of Jacob, a pedlar, as all these gentlemen are, whilst he is waiting for the Messiah, waits also for your protection, which at present he has the most need of. Some honest men of the first trade of St. Matthew, who gather together the Jews and Christians at the gates of your city, have seized something in the breeches pocket of an Israelitish page, belonging to the poor circumcised, who has the honour to tender you this billet, with all proper submission and humility. I beg leave to join my Amen to his at a venture. I but just saw you at Paris as Moses saw the Deity, and should be very happy in seeing you face to face. If the word face can any ways be applied to me, preserve some remembrance of your old eternal humble servant, who loves you with that chaste and tender affection, which the religious Solomon had for his three hundred Shuhamites."
Voltaire's prodigious wit and sarcasm were so exuberant, that he expended them upon all people and all subjects—even himself, when occasion admitted of it, In one of his letters,-addressed to the Elector Palatine, Sept. 9, 1761, he gives this excuse for not attending at the court:—
"I should really make an excellent figure amidst the rejoicings of your electoral highness. It was only, I think, in the Egypt of antiquity that skeletons were admitted to a place in their festivals. To say the truth, my lord, it is all over with me. I laugh indeed sometimes; but am forced to acknowledge that pain is an evil. It is a comfort to me that your highness is well; but I am fitter for an extreme unction than a baptism. May the peace serve for an era to mark the prince's birth; and may his august father preserve his regard for, and accept the profound respects of his little Swiss, Voltaire."
In politics, Voltaire was not very far advanced. He seems to have had no idea of a nation without a king. A monarch who should not commit any very flagrant acts of tyranny, was as much as he appeared to desire. He evidently did not foresee the great revolution that was so soon to burst forth in France, but that he mainly contributed by his writings to bring it about, there can be no doubt. His influence upon the men of his time, both in France and Europe, is ably depicted by such writers as Lamartine, Quinet, and Brougham. Voltaire's was the one great mind of his day, whose thoughts engrossed the attention of all men. He was great by his learning, his genius, and his benevolence—and this man was the champion of Reason, the enemy of superstition, and an "Infidel." Quinet, in his lectures on the Romish Church, says:—"I watch, for forty years, the reign of one man who is in himself the spiritual director, not of his country, but of his age. From the corner of his chamber, he governs the kingdom of spirits; intellects are every day regulated by his; one word written by his hand traverses Europe. Princes love, and kings fear him; they think they are not sure of their kingdom if he be not with them. Whole nations, on their side, adopt without discussion, and emulously repeat, every syllable that falls from his pen. Who exercises this incredible power, which had been nowhere seen since the middle ages? Is he another Gregory II.? Is he a Pope? No—Voltaire."
We conclude our sketch with the eloquent words of Lamartine, who describes, in a few sentences, the inestimable services rendered to Freethought and intellectual progression by the Sage of Ferney:—
"If we judge of men by what they have done, then Voltaire is incontestably the greatest writer of modern Europe. No one has caused, through the powerful influence of his genius alone, and the perseverance of his will, so great a commotion in the minds of men; his pen aroused a world, and has shaken a far mightier empire than that of Charlemagne, the European empire of a theocracy. His genius was not force but light. Heaven had destined him not to destroy but to illuminate, and wherever he trod, light followed him, for Reason (which is light) had destined him to be first her poet, then her apostle, and lastly her idol."
In the Augustan age of Freethought, no British writer achieved more renown, or performed greater services to Biblical criticism, than John Toland. His life would fill a volume, while his works would stock a library. True to his convictions, he spoke like a man, and died as a hero. His books are strewn with classical illustrations, and deal so with abstract (and to us) uninteresting arguments, that we shall simply give a brief sketch of the life of this extraordinary man. He gave his thoughts to the scholars at the same time that Woolston addressed the people; conjointly they revolutionized opinion in our favor.
Toland was born on November 30, 1670, at Londonderry, in Ireland. It is said his registered name was "James Junius," another account says "Julius Caesar;" but we have been unable to find any authentic date for either supposition, and whatever his name was registered, we have indisputable evidence that he was always called John Toland. We have less proof as to his parentage; some writers allege that he was the natural son of a Catholic priest; while others contend that he was born of a family once affluent, but at the time of his birth in very reduced circumstances. Whether this was the case or the reverse, young Toland received a liberal education. He was early taught the classics, studied in the Glasgow College; and on leaving Glasgow he was presented with letters of credit from the city magistrates, highly flattering to him as a man and a scholar. He received the diploma of A.M. at Edinburgh, the day previous to the Battle of the Boyne. He finished his studies at the University of Leyden.
The first work of importance which Toland published, was a "Life of John Milton, containing besides the History of his Works, several extraordinary Characters of Men and Books, Sects, Parties, and Opinions." This work being violently opposed, was speedily followed by "Amyntor," or a defence of Milton's life, containing—1. A general apology for all writings of that kind. 2. A catalogue of books, attributed in the primitive times to Jesus Christ, his apostles, and other eminent persons, with several important remarks relating to the canon of Scripture. 3. A complete history of the Book, entitled "Icon Basilike, proving Dr. Gauden, and not King Charles I., to be the author of it," etc. Those works established the fame of Toland, as well as formed the groundwork for persecution, which hunted him even on his death-bed. In the year 1699 Toland collected, edited, and published, from the original MSS., the whole of the works of James Harrington, prefixed by a memoir of this extraordinary theorist. In his preface he says that he composed this work "in his beloved retirement at Cannon, near Bansted, in Surrey." From this, along with other excerpts scattered through his works, we cannot but infer that at the outset of his career he possessed a moderate competence of worldly wealth and social position. He says his idea was "to transmit to posterity the worthy memory of James Harrington, a bright ornament to useful learning, a hearty lover of his native country, and a generous benefactor to the whole world; a person who obscured the false lustre of our modern politicians, and equalled (if not exceeded) all the ancient legislators." This to us is an interesting fact, for it shows the early unanimity which existed between the earlier reformers in politics and those of theology. The supervision of the "Oceana" by Toland, bears the same inferential analogy, as if Mr. Holyoake were the biographer and publisher of the "New Moral World" and its author. In 1700, he published "Anglia Libera; or, the Limitation and Succession of the Crown of England, explained and Asserted," etc. This book is concluded by the following apothegm, assuring the people "that no king can ever be so good as one of their own making, as there is no title equal to their approbation, which is the only divine right of all magistracy, for the voice of the people is the voice of God." In 1702, Toland spent some time in Germany, publish-ing a series of Letters to a friend in Holland, entitled "Some Remarks on the King of Prussia's Country, on his Government, his Court, and his numerous Palaces." About this time appeared "The Art of Governing by Parties;" this was always a favorite subject of the old Freethinkers, and is still further elucidated by Bolingbroke.
In 1707 he published a large treatise in English and Latin, as "A Philippic Oration, to incite the English against the French," a work I have never seen. We now return to an earlier date, and shall trace the use of his theological works. The first of note (1696) was "Christianity not Mysterious"—showing that there is nothing in the gospel contrary to reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery. As soon as this book was issued from the press, it was attacked with unmanly virulence. One man (Peter Brown) who was more disgustingly opposed to Toland than the rest, was made a bishop; and by far the greatest majority amongst the Anglican clergy, who attacked him, were all rewarded by honors and preferment. The author was accused of making himself a new Heresiarch; that there was a tradition amongst the Irish that he was to be a second Cromwell, and that Toland himself boasted that before he was forty years old, he would be governor over a greater country than Cromwell; and that he would be the head over a new religion before he was thirty. One of his opponents publicly stigmatises him as saying that he (Toland) himself designed to be as great an impostor as Mahomet, and more powerful than the Pope; while the Puritans denounced him as a disguised Jesuit, and the Papists as a rancorous Nonconformist. To complete the comedy, the Irish Parliament condemned his book to be publicly burnt, some ecclesiastics loudly murmuring that, the author should be burned with it; others, more moderate, were anxious that Toland should burn it himself, while at last they came to an unanimous resolution to burn it in front of the threshold of his door, so that when the author appeared, he would be obliged to step oyer the ashes of his own book, which was accordingly done amid the brutal cheers of an ignorant and infuriated populace.
As a proof of the high esteem in which Toland was held by the few able and liberal men of the day, we extract the following account from the correspondence of John Locke and Mr. Molyneux. * The latter gentleman, writing to the former, says:—"I am told the author of 'Christianity not Mysterious' is of this country, and that his name is Toland, but he is a stranger in these parts, I believe. If he belongs to this kingdom, he has been a good while out of it, or I have not heard of any such remarkable man amongst us." In another letter, the same writer says:—"In my last to you, there was a passage, relating to the author of 'Christianity not Mysterious.' I did not then think he was so near me as within the bounds of this city; but I find since that he has come over hither, and have had the favor of a visit from him. I now understand that he was born in this country, but that he has been a great while abroad, and his education was for some time under the great Le Clerc. But that for which I can never honor him too much, is his acquaintance and friendship to you, and the respect which upon all occasions he expresses for you. I propose a great deal of satisfaction in his conversation. I take him to be a candid Freethinker, and a good scholar. But there is a violent sort of spirit which reigns here, which begins already to show itself against him, and I believe will increase daily, for I find the clergy alarmed to a mighty degree against him. And last Sunday he had his welcome to this city, by hearing himself harangued against out of the pulpit, by a prelate of this country."
* Locke's posthumous works. Edited by Die Maizeaus.
Mr. Locke, in return, says:—"For the man I wish very well, and could give you, if it needed, proofs that I do so. And therefore I desire you to be kind to him: but I must leave it to your prudence in what way and how far. For it will be his fault alone, if he proves not a very valuable man, and have not you for his friend." To this, Mr. Molyneux writes to Mr. Locke—"I look upon Mr. Toland as a very ingenuous man, and I should be very glad of any opportunity of doing him service, to which I think myself indispensably bound by your recommendation." Soon after this, Mr. Molyneux describes the treatment Toland underwent in Ireland. In another letter to Locke—"He has had his opposers here, as you will find by a book which I have sent to you. The author (Peter Brown) is my acquaintance, but two things I shall never forgive in his book: the one is the foul language and opprobrious names he gives Mr. Toland; the other is upon several occasions, calling in the aid of the civil magistrate, and delivering up Mr. Toland to secular punishment. This, indeed, is a killing argument, but some will be apt to say, that where, the strength of his reason failed him, then he flies to the strength of his sword; and this reminds me of a business that was very surprising to many, the presentment of some pernicious books and their authors by the grand jury of Middlesex. This is looked upon as a matter of dangerous consequence, to make our civil courts judges of religious doctrines; and no one knows upon a change of affairs whose turn it may be next to be condemned. But the example has been followed in this country, and Mr. Toland and his book have been presented here by a grand jury, not one of whom I am persuaded ever read one leaf in 'Christianity not Mysterious.'
"Let the Sorbonne forever now be silent; a learned grand jury, directed by as learned a judge, does the business much better. The Dissenters here were the chief promoters of this matter, but, when I asked one of them 'What if a violent Church of England jury should present Mr. Baxter's books as pernicious, and condemn them to the flames by the common executioner,' he was sensible of the error, and said he wished it had never been done." Mr. Locke, in his reply, coincides with his friend, and says, "The Dissenters had best consider; but they are a sort of men which will always be the same." A remark which 150 years has not failed in its truthfulness. Mr. Molyneux concludes his remarks in reference to Toland, as follows:—"Mr. Toland is at length driven out of our kingdom; the poor gentleman at last wanted a meal's meat, and the universal outcry of the clergy ran so strong against him, that none durst admit him to their tables. The little stock of money which he had was soon exhausted, he fell to borrowing, and to complete his hardships, the Parliament fell on his book, voted it to be burnt by the common hangman, and ordered the author to be taken into custody by the Serjeant-at-Arms, and to be prosecuted by the Attorney General. Hereupon he is fled out of this kingdom, and none here knows where he has directed his course." From this correspondence we glean the following facts:—
1. That John Locke and Mr. Molyneux were favorable to Freethought.
2. That (on Locke's authority) Toland possessed abilities of no common order.
3. That Toland was unjustly persecuted, and he met with the sympathy of the Liberals.
Toland, having received a foretaste of his country's vengeance, retired for two years to Germany, where he was welcomed by the first scholars of the age. Hearing that the House of Convocation, in London, was about to denounce two of his works as heretical ("Christianity not Mysterious," and "Amyntor,") he hastened to England, and published two letters to the Prolucutor, which were never laid before Convocation. He insisted that he should be heard in his own defence before sentence was passed on his works; but as usual this wish was denied him. A legal difficulty prevented the bishops from prosecuting the works, and Toland gave the world a full account in his "Vindicius Liberius."
The "Letters to Serena," written in a bold, honest, unflinching manner, were the next performances of Toland. The first letter is on "The Origin and Force of Prejudices." It is founded on a reflection of Cicero, that all prejudices spring from moral, and not physical sources, and while all admit the power of the senses to be infallible, all strive to corrupt the judgment, by false metaphor and unjust premises. Toland traces the progress of superstition from the hands of a midwife to those of a priest, and shows how the nurse, parent, schoolmaster, professor, philosopher, and politician, all combine to warp the mind of man by fallacies from his progress in childhood, at school, at college, and in the world. How the child is blinded with an idea, and the man with a word. The second letter is "A History of the Soul's Immortality Among the Heathens." A lady had been reading Platers "Phaedo," and remarked as to how Cato could derive any consolation from the slippery and vague suppositions of that verbiant dialogue. Toland, therefore, for her edification, drew up a list of the specifications of the ancients on the subject, analysing (in its progress) the varying phases of the fables of the Elysian fields, the Charons, the Styx, etc., deriving them all from the ancient Egyptians. Toland thought the idea had arisen among the people, like our witches, ghosts, and fairy stories, and subsequently defended by the philosophers, who sought to rule their passions by finding arguments for their superstitions, and thus the rise of their exoteric and esoteric doctrines were the first foundations of the belief in the immortality of the soul. The third letter is on "The Origin of Idolatry," or, as it might rather be called, a history of the follies of mankind. He traces the causes, the origin, and the science of superstition—its phenomena and its devotees, proving that all the sacrifices, prayers, and customs of idolatry are the same in all ages, they only differ in language and adaptability of climate, and that with the fall of judicial astrology, idolatry received its greatest blow, for while men thought that priests could control destiny, they feared them—but this idea destroyed, it removed the terror which so long had existed as an immediate object betwixt the man and this sacerdotal tyrant.
In letter fourth, addressed "To a Gentleman in Holland, showing Spinoza's System of Philosophy to be without any principle or foundation," and in the concluding article, Toland argues that "motion is essential to matter, in answer to some remarks by a noble friend on the above." In the fifteenth section of this argument, Toland thus rebuts the allegation that were motion indissolubly connected with matter, there must be extension without surface for motion or matter to exert their respective powers upon. It is often used as an argument, that if a vase was filled with any commodity to the utmost extent, where would be the space for motion? We know that in a kettle of water, if there is no outlet for the steam (which is the motion of the water,) the kettle will burst. Toland says, "'You own most bodies are in actual motion, which can be no argument that they have been always so, or that there are not others in actual repose.' I grant that such a consequence does not necessarily follow, though the thing may itself be true. But, however, it may not be amiss to consider how far this actual motion reaches, and is allowed, before we come to treat of rest. Though the matter of the universe be everywhere the same, yet according to its various modifications it is conceived to be divided into numberless particular systems, vortices or whirlpools of matter; and these again are subdivided into other systems greater or less, which depend oh one another, as every one on the whole, in their centres, textures, frame, and coherence. Our sun is the centre of one of the larger systems, which contains a great many small ones within the sphere of its activity, as all the planets which move about it; and these are subdivided into lesser systems that depend on them, as his satelites wait upon Jupiter, and the moon on the earth; the earth again is divided into the atmosphere, ground, water, and other principal parts; these again into the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms. Now, as all these depend in a link on one another, so their matter is mutually resolved into each other, for earth, air, fire, and water are not only closely blended and united, but likewise interchangeable, transformed in a perpetual revolution: earth becoming water, water air, air ether, and so back again in mixtures without end or number. The animals we destroy contribute to preserve us, till we are destroyed to preserve other things, and become parts of grass, or plants, or water, or air, or something else that helps to make other animals, and they one another, or other men, and these again into stone, or wood, or metals, or minerals, or animals again, or become parts of all these and of a great many other things, animals, or vegetables, daily consuming and devouring each other—so true it is that everything lives by the destruction of another. All the parts of the universe are in this constant motion of destroying and begetting, of begetting and destroying, and the greater systems are acknowledged to have their ceaseless movements as well as the smallest particles, the very central globes of the vortices revolving on their own axis, and every particle in the vortex gravitating towards the centre. Our bodies, however we may flatter ourselves, do not differ from those of other creatures, but like them receive increase or diminution by nutrition or evacuation, by accretion, transpiration, and other ways, giving some parts of ours to other bodies, and receiving again of theirs, not altogether the same yesterday as to-day, nor to continue the same to-morrow, being alive in a perpetual flux like a river, and in the total dissolution of our system at death to become parts of a thousand other things at once, our bodies partly mixing with the dust and the water of the earth, partly exhaled and evaporated into the air, flying to so many different places, mixing and incorporating with numerous things.
"No parts of matter are bound to any one figure or form, losing and changing their figures and forms continually, that is being in perpetual motion, dipt, or worn, or ground to pieces, or dissolved by other parts, acquiring their figures, and these theirs, and so on incessantly: earth, air, fire, and water, iron, wood, and marble, plants and animals, being rarefied, condensed, liquified, congealed, dissolved, coagulated, or any other way resolved into one another. The whole face of the earth exhibits those mutations every moment to our eyes, nothing continuing one hour numerically the same; and these changes being but several kinds of motion, are therefore the incontestable effects of universal action. But the changes in the parts make no change in the universe; for it is manifest that the continual alterations, successions, revolutions, and transmutations of matter, cause no accession or diminution therein, no more than any letter is added or lost in the alphabet by the endless combinations and transpositions thereof into so many different words and languages, for a thing no sooner quits one form than it puts on another, leaving as it were the theatre in a certain dress, and appearing again in a new one, which produces a perpetual youthfulness and vigor, without any decay or decrepitness of the world, as some have falsely imagined, contrary to reason and experience; the world, with all the parts and kinds thereof, continuing at all times in the same condition."
"But the species still continue by propagation, notwithstanding the decay of the individuals, and the death of our bodies is but matter going to be dressed in some new form; the impressions may vary, but the wax continues still the same, and indeed death is in effect the very same thins with our birth; for as to die is only to cease to be what we formerly were, so to be born is to begin to be something which we were not before. Considering the numberless successive generations that have inhabited this globe, returning at death into the common mass of the same, mixing with all the other parts thereof, and to this, the incessant river-like flowing and transpiration of matter every moment from the bodies of men while they live, as well as their daily nourishment, inspiration of air, and other additions of matter to their bulk; it seems probable that there is no particle of matter on the whole earth which has not been a part of man. Nor is this reasoning confined to our own species, but remains as true of every order of animals or plants, or any other beings, since they have been all resolved into one another by ceaseless revolutions, so that nothing is more certain than that every material Thing is all Things, and that all Things are but manifestations of one."
In his reply to Wotton, who attacks those "Letters to Serena," Toland says they were addressed "to a lady, the most accomplished then in the world." The name of the lady will probably, remain forever a mystery.
In 1718, he published the celebrated work "Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity," which caused an immense sensation at the time it appeared, and led to his "Mangonentes" (1720,) a work singularly profound and effective. In the same year he gave the world "Tetradymus," containing "Hodegus, or the Pillar of Cloud and Fire," that guided the Israelites in the Wilderness, not miraculous, but a thing equally practiced by other nations; and "Clidophorus, or of the Exoteric and Esoteric Philosophy;" and "Hypatia." There is a long preface to those books, "from under an elm in Bensbury (or Chebem's camp,) on the 'warren at the south end of Wimbledon Common (1720.") About this time "Pantheisticon" appeared, written as a caricature on Church Liturgies, which Archdeacon Hare denounced as "downright Atheism."
Along with the above, Toland wrote a multitude of small pamphlets; he translated the fables of AEsop, and published a poem, entitled "Clito," which caused much excitement at the time; and, as it represented Toland's ideal character, we reprinted it in the London Investigator. His earlier political works were esteemed so valuable in the defence of the Protestant succession, and advancing the interests of the Elector, subsequently King of England, that in one of his visits paid to that Court, he was presented by the Electress with miniature portraits of herself and family.
The following is a catalogue of the works of Toland, which have never yet been published, and the works in which they are mentioned:—
1. The History of Socrates (in the Life of Harrington.)
2. Systems of Divinity Exploded. An Epistolary Dissertation. (Christianity not Mysterious.)
3. The History of the Canon of the New Testament. (Nazarenus.)
4. Repubiica Mosaica. (Nazarenus.)
5. A Treatise Concerning Tradition. (Tetradymus.)
There were several other works, part of them written, which passed into the hands of Lord Molesworth (we believe,) part of which were published (the "History of the Druid" and also "Giordano Bruno;") but whether they exist at the present time or not, we are unable to say.
There is also great difficulty in deciding as to the manner of Toland's life; of this, however, we are certain, that he caused great opposition in his own day, and he was patronised by able man. He edited an edition of Lord Shaftesbury's Letters, and published a work of that noble Lord's surreptitiously; he mingled amongst the German Courts, and appeared on terms of equality with the elite of the philosophers and the aristocracy. The brief memoir prefaced to one of his works is an epistolary document addressed to a noble Lord. His acquaintance with Locke, Shaftesbury, Collins, Molesworth, and Molyneux, must have proceed-. ed from other causes than his genius, or why was Toland exalted when Mandeville, Chubb, and the brave Woolston are never so much as alluded to? We consider that there is a strong probability that he was wealthy—or at least possessed of a moderate competence. His abilities were of a curious order. He seemed to be one of a school which rose about his time to advocate Freethought, but shackled by a dogma. His collegiate education gave him an early liking for the dead languages, and he carried out the notion of the ancients, that the exoteric or esoteric methods were still in force. From a careful perusal of the works of the "Fathers," and the contemporary books of the heathens, he fancied that all the superstitions in the world differed but in degree—that religion was but the organic cause of superstition, the arguments made for it by the philosophers to propitiate the vulgar. This idea (in the main) was agreed to by Woolston, although his violent "Discourses," which were addressed to the unlearned, contained within them the germ of their intrinsic popularity. Yet even Woolston's works, notwithstanding their bluff exterior, had something more within them than what the people could appreciate, or even the present race of Freethinkers can always understand; for underneath that unrivalled vein of sarcasm, there was in every instance an esoteric view, which comprehended the meaning by which the earlier Christians understood the gospels, and rendered them on the same scale as the works of the ancients. The renowned William Whiston was another who interpreted Scripture in a similar manner. All those writers would have been Swedenborgians if there had been no Freethought, while Whiston would have been an Atheist had there been no representative of that school. We do not consider Toland, then, as an absolute Deist. At that time the age was not so far progressed as to admit a Biblical scholar into the extreme advanced list; and when a man has spent the whole of his childhood in a sectarian family, and his youth and early manhood in a University, it is an impossibility to throw off at one struggle the whole of his past ideas; he may be unfettered in thought, and valiant in speech, still there is the encyclopaedia of years hanging upon him as a drag to that extreme development which he wishes, but cannot bring his passions to follow. Not that we would by any means observe that Toland was comparatively behind his age, but that even in his more daring works he still had a vague idea of Scripture being partly inspired, although overlaid with a mass of ecclesiastical verbiage.
It also seems a mystery how the works of Woolston could be condemned, his person seized, while in the case of Toland we hear of nothing but his works being burnt. Why was Convocation so idle? Why make idle threats, and let their victim ramble at large! Was it because the one had powerful friends and the other had none? or was it that in the earlier portion of the career of Toland, the invisible hand of Bolingbroke stayed the grasp of persecution? Or was Shaftesbury's memory so esteemed, that hid friend was untouched! Those particulars we cannot learn, but they will take rank with other parallel cases, as when the same government prosecuted Paine, and gave Gibbon a sinecure, or nearer our own times when a series of men were imprisoned for Atheism, and Sir William Moles worth published similar sentiments without hindrance.
In the "History of the Soul's Immortality," Toland thus gives the explanation respecting the exoteric and esoteric doctrines of Pythagoras:—"Pythagoras himself did not believe the transmigration which has made his name so famous to posterity; for in the internal or secret doctrine he meant no more than the eternal revolution of forms in matter, those ceaseless vicissitudes and alterations which turn everything into all things, and all things into anything; as vegetables and animals become part of us, we become part of them, and both become parts of a thousand other things in the universe, each turning into water, water into air, etc., and so back again in mixtures without end or number. But in the external or popular doctrine he imposed on the mob by an equivocal expression that they should become various kinds of beasts after death, thereby to deter them the more effectually from wickedness.... Though the poets embellished their pieces with the opinion of the soul's immortality, yet a great number of them utterly rejected it for Seneca was not single in saying:—
'Naught's after death, and death itself is naught, Of a quick race, only the utmost goal; Then may the saints lose all their hope of heaven, And sinners quit their racky fears of hell.'"
We now dismiss John Toland from our view. He was one of the most honest, brave, truthful, and scholastic of the old Deists. His memory will be borne on the wings of centuries, and if ever a true millennium does arise, the name of this sterling Freethinker will occupy one of the brightest niches in its Pantheon of Worthies.
COMPTE DE VOLNEY.
Constantine Francis Chasshboeuf, de Volney, was born on February 3rd, 1757, at Craon, in Anjou. His father, a distinguished advocate, not wishing his son to bear the name of Chasseboeuf, resolved that he should assume that of Boisgirais. With this name Constantine Francis was first known in the world, studying at the College of Ancenis and Angers. He afterwards commenced his Oriental travels, changing his name to Volney.
At the age of seventeen, finding himself his own master, and possessed of L50 a-year, inherited from his mother, he went to Paris, in order to study the sciences, preferring the study of medicine and physiology, although giving great attention to history and the ancient languages. On inheriting a legacy of L240, he visited Egypt and Syria, starting on foot, a knapsack on his back, a gun on his shoulder, and his L240, in gold, concealed in a belt. When he arrived in Egypt, he shut himself up for eight months in a Coptic monastery, in order to learn Arabic; after which he commenced his travels through Egypt and Syria, returning to France after an absence of four years, and publishing his "Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie," which was acknowledged by the French army, on their conquering Egypt, to be the only book "that had never deceived them." The French Government named him Director of Commerce and Agriculture in Corsica, but being elected a deputy of the tiers-etat of the Senechausse of Anjou, he resigned the government appointment, holding the maxim, that a national deputy ought not in any way to be a pensioner. He opposed all secret deliberations, and wished to admit the constituents and the citizens. He was made secretary on the 23rd of November, 1790, and in the debates, which arose upon the power of the king to determine peace and war, Volney proposed and carried the resolution that "The French nation renounces from this moment the undertaking any war tending to increase their territory." In 1792, he accompanied Pozzo di Borgo to Corsica, in compliance with invitations from many influential inhabitants, who sought his information. In Corsica he became acquainted with Napoleon Buonaparte, who was then an artillery officer; and some years after, hearing that Buonaparte had obtained the command of the army of Italy, Volney exclaimed, "If circumstances favor him, we shall see the head of a Caeesar upon the shoulders of an Alexander." When Volney returned to Paris, he published an "Account of the State of Corsica." He was afterwards appointed Professor of History, attracting large audiences; but the Normal School being suppressed, he embarked for the United States of America, in 1795. He was received by Washington, who bestowed publicly on him marks of honor and friendship. In 1798, Volney returned to France, and gave up to his mother-in-law the property which he was entitled to from the death of his father, which had just occurred. During his absence, he had been chosen a member of the Institute. Buonaparte also, on Volney's return, tried to win his esteem and assistance, soliciting him as colleague in the consulship. But he refused the co-operation, as also the office of Minister of the Interior.
Seldom do men find so many inducements to "accept office" as was offered to Volney; and seldom do men appear who are disinterested enough to reject the inducements then held out to him. Although he refused to work with the ruling powers of that day, he ever ceased to work for the people! He occupied himself till the last year of his life in giving to the world that literature which will never be forgotten.
It would be impossible to notice all the works written by such an indefatigable thinker as the "heretic" of our sketch. We ought to mention, however, that subsequently to his being made Peer of France, by Louis XVIII.; and when there existed an intention of crowning Louis, Volney published "The History of Samuel, the inventor of Royal Coronations." This book represents Samuel as an impostor, Saul as the blind instrument of sacerdotal cunning, and David as an ambitious youth. In September, 1791, Volney presented to the Assembly "The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires," a book which will immortalize him in the memory of Freethinkers. The originality of style, and the eloquence of expression, cannot fail to interest all who read it. We give the following extracts, from the above work, but as it contains so much that ought to be read, we must return to the subject in another number:—
"Legislators, friends of evidence and of truth!
"That the subject of which we treat should be involved in so many clouds, is by no means astonishing, since, beside the difficulties that are peculiar to it, thought itself has, till this moment, ever had shackles imposed upon it, and free inquiry, by the intolerance of every religious system, been interdicted. But now that thought is unrestrained, and may develope all its powers, we will expose in the face of day, and submit to the common judgment of assembled nations, such rational truths as unprejudiced minds have by long and laborious study discovered: and this, not with the design of imposing them as a creed, but from a desire of provoking new lights, and obtaining better information.
"Chiefs and instructors of the people! you are not ignorant of the profound obscurity in which the nature, origin, and history of the dogmas you teach are enveloped. Imposed by force and authority, inculcated by education, maintained by the influence of example, they were perpetuated from age to age, and habit and inattention strengthened their empire. But if man, enlightened by experience and reflection, summon to the bar of mature examination the prejudices of his infancy, he presently discovers a multitude of incongruities and contradictions, which awaken his sagacity, and call forth the exertion of his reasoning powers.
"At first, remarking the various and opposite creeds into which nations are divided, we are led boldly to reject the infallibility claimed by each; and arming ourselves alternately with their reciprocal pretensions, to conceive that the senses and the understanding, emanating directly from God, are a law not less sacred, and a guide not less sure, than the indirect and contradictory codes of the prophets.
"If we proceed to examine the texture of the codes themselves, we shall observe that their pretended divine laws, that is to say, laws immutable and eternal, have risen from the complexion of times, of places, and of persons; that these codes issue one from another in a kind of genealogical order, mutually borrowing a common and similar fund of ideas, which every institutor modifies agreeably to his fancy.
"If we ascend to the source of those ideas, we shall find that it is lost in the night of time, in the infancy of nations, in the very origin of the world, to which they claim alliance: and there, immersed in the obscurity of chaos, and the fabulous empire of tradition, they are attended with so many prodigies as to be seemingly inaccessible to the human understanding. But this prodigious state of things gives birth to a ray of reasoning, that resolves the difficulty; for if the miracles held out in systems of religion have actually existed; if, for instance, metamorphoses, apparitions and the conversations of one or more Gods, recorded in the sacred books of the Hindoos, the Hebrews, and the Parses, are indeed events in real history, it follows that nature in those times was perfectly unlike the nature that we are acquainted with now; that men of the present age are totally different from the men that formerly existed; but, consequently, that we ought not to trouble our heads about them.
"On the contrary, if those miraculous facts have had no real existence in the physical order of things, they must be regarded solely as productions of the human intellect: and the nature of man, at this day, capable of making the most fantastic combinations, explains the phenomenon of those monsters in history. The only difficulty is to ascertain how and for what purpose the imagination invented them. If we examine with attention the subjects that are exhibited by them, if we analyze the ideas which they combine and associate, and weigh with accuracy all their concomitant circumstances, we shall find a solution perfectly conformable to the laws of nature. Those fabulous stories have a figurative sense different from their apparent one; they are founded on simple and physical facts; but these facts being ill-conceived and erroneously represented, have been disfigured and changed from their original nature by accidental causes dependent on the human mind, by the confusion of signs made use of in the representation of objects, by the equivocation of words, the defect of language, and the imperfection of writing. These Gods, for example, who act such singular parts in every system, are no other than the physical powers of nature, the elements, the winds, the meteors, the stars, all which have been personified by the necessary mechanism of language, and the manner in which objects are conceived by the understanding. Their life, their manners, their actions, are only the operation of the same powers, and the whole of their pretended history no more than a description of their various phenomena, traced by the first naturalist that observed them, but taken in a contrary sense by the vulgar, who did not understand it, or by succeeding generations, who forgot it. In a word, all the theological dogmas respecting the origin of the world, the nature of God, the revelation of his laws, the manifestation of his person, are but recitals of astronomical facts, figurative and emblematical narratives of the motion and influence of the heavenly bodies. The very idea itself of the divinity, which is at present so obscure, abstracted, and metaphysical, was in its origin merely a composite of the powers of the material universe, considered sometimes analytically, as they appear in their agents and their phenomena, and sometimes synthetically, as forming one whole, and exhibiting an harmonious revelation in all its parts. Thus the name of God has been bestowed sometimes upon the wind, upon fire, water, and the elements; sometimes upon the sun, the stars, the planets, and their influences; sometimes upon the universe at large, and the matter of which the world is composed; sometimes upon abstract and metaphysical properties, such as space, duration, motion, and intelligence; but in every instance, the idea of a Deity has not flowed from the miraculous revelation of an invisible world, but has been the natural result of human reflection, has followed the progress and undergone the changes of the successive improvement of intellect, and has had for its subject the visible universe and its different agents.
"It is then in vain that nations refer the origin of their religion to heavenly inspiration; it is in vain that they pretend to describe a supernatural state of things as first in order of events; the original barbarous state of mankind, attested by their own monuments, belies all their assertions. These assertions are still more victoriously refuted by considering this great principle, that man receives no ideas but through the medium of his senses: for from hence it appears that every system which ascribes human wisdom to any other source than experience and sensation, includes in it a ysteron vroteron, and represents the last results of understanding as earliest in the order of time. If we examine the different religious systems which have been formed respecting the actions of the Gods, and the origin of the world, we shall discover at every turn an anticipation in the order of narrating things, which could only be suggested by subsequent reflection. Reason, then, emboldened by these contradictions, hesitates not to reject whatever does not accord with the nature of things, and accepts nothing for historical truth that is not capable of being established by argument and ratiocination. Its ideas and suggestions are as follows:—
"Before any nation received from a neighbor nation dogmas already invented; before one generation inherited the ideas of another, none of these complicated systems had existence. The first men, the children of nature, whose consciousness was anterior to experience, and who brought no preconceived knowledge into the world with them, were born without any idea of those articles of faith which are the result of learned contention; of those religious rites which bad relation to arts and practices not yet in existence; of those precepts which suppose the passions already developed; of those laws which have reference to a language and a social order hereafter to be produced; of that God, whose attributes are abstractions of the knowledge of nature, and the idea of whose conduct is suggested by the experience of a despotic government; in fine, of that soul and those spiritual existences which are said not to be the object of the senses, but which, however, we must forever have remained unacquainted with, if our senses had not introduced them to us. Previously to arriving at these notions, an immense catalogue of existing facts must have been observed. Man, originally savage, must have learned from repeated trials the use of his organs. Successive generations must have invented and refined upon the means of subsistence; and the understanding, at liberty to disengage itself from the wants of nature, must have risen to the complicated art of comparing ideas, digesting reasonings, and seizing upon abstract similitudes.
"It was not till after having surmounted those obstacles, and run a long career in the night of history, that man, reflecting on his state, began to perceive his subjection to forces superior to his own and independent of his will. The sun gave him light and warmth; fire burned, thunder terrified, the winds buffeted, water overwhelmed him; all the various natural existences acted upon him in a manner not to be resisted. For a long time an automaton, he remained passive, without inquiring into the cause of this action; but the very moment he was desirous of accounting to himself for it, astonishment seized his mind; and passing from the surprise of a first thought to the reverie of curiosity, he formed a chain of reasoning.
"At first, considering only the action of the elements upon him, he inferred relatively to himself, an idea of weakness, of subjection, and relatively to them, an idea of power, of domination; and this idea was the primitive and fundamental type of all his conceptions of the divinity.
"The action of the natural existences, in the second place, excited in him sensations of pleasure or pain, of good or evil; by virtue of his organization, he conceived love or aversion for them, he desired or dreaded their presence: and fear or hope was the principle of every idea of religion.
"Afterwards, judging everything by comparison, and remarking in those beings a motion spontaneous like his own, he supposed there to be a will, an intelligence inherent in that motion, of a nature similar to what existed in himself; and hence, by way of inference, he started a fresh argument. Having experienced that certain modes of behavior towards his fellow-creatures wrought a change in their affections and governed their conduct, he applied those practices to the powerful beings of the universe. 'When my fellow-creature of superior strength,' said he to himself, 'is disposed to injure me, I humble myself before him, and my prayer has the art of appeasing him. I will pray to the powerful beings that strike me. I will supplicate the faculties of the planets, the waters, and they will hear me. I will conjure them to avert the calamities, and to grant me the blessings which are aft their disposal. My tears will move, my offerings propitiate them, and I shall enjoy complete felicity.'
"And, simple in the infancy of his reason, man spoke to the sun and the moon; he animated with his understanding and his passions the great agents of nature; he thought by vain sounds and useless practices to change their inflexible laws. Fatal error! He desired that the water should ascend, the mountains be removed, the stone mount in the air; and substituting a fantastic to a real world, he constituted for himself beings of opinion, to the terror of his mind and the torment of his race.
"Thus the ideas of God and religion sprung, like all others, from physical objects, and were in the understanding of man, the products of his sensations, his wants, the circumstances of his life, and the progressive state of his knowledge.
"As these ideas had natural beings for their first models, it resulted from hence that the divinity was originally as various and manifold as the forms under which he seemed to act: each being was a power, a genius, and the first men found the universe crowded with innumerable Gods.
"In like manner the ideas of the divinity having bad for motors the affections of the human heart, they underwent an order of division calculated from the sensations of pair: and pleasure, of love and hatred: the powers of nature, the Gods, the genii, were classed into benign and maleficent, into good and evil ones: and this constitutes the universality of these two ideas in every system of religion.
"These ideas, analogous to the condition of their inventors, were for a long time confused and cross. Wandering in woods, beset with wants, destitute of resources, men in their savage state had no leisure to make comparisons and draw conclusions. Suffering more ills than they tasted enjoyments, their most habitual sentiment was fear, their theology terror, their worship was confined to certain modes of salutation, of offerings which they presented to beings whom they supposed to be ferocious and greedy like themselves. In their state of equality and independence, no one took upon him the office of mediator with Gods as insubordinate and poor as himself. No one having any superfluity to dispose of, there existed no parasite under the name of priest, nor tribute under the name of victim, nor empire under the name of altar; their dogmas and morality, jumbled together, were only self-preservation; and their religion, an arbitrary idea without influence on the mutual relations existing between men, was but a vain homage paid to the visible powers of nature.
"Such was the first and necessary origin of every idea of the divinity...."
"In reality, when the vulgar heard others talk of a new heaven and another world, they gave a body to these fictions; they erected on it a solid stage and real scenes; and their notions of geography and astronomy served to strengthen, if they did not give rise to the delusion.
"On the one hand, the Phoenician navigators, those who passed the pillars of Hercules to fetch the pewter of Thule and the amber of the Baltic, related that at the extremity of the world, the boundaries of the ocean (the Mediterranean,) where the sun sets to the countries of Asia, there were Fortunate Islands, the abode of an everlasting spring; and at a farther distance, hyperborean regions, placed under the earth (relatively to the tropics,) where reigned an eternal night. From those stories, badly understood, and no doubt confusedly related, the imagination of the people composed the Elysian Fields, delightful spots in a world below, having their heaven, their sun, and their stars; and Tartarus, a place of darkness, humidity, mire, and chilling frost. Now, inasmuch as mankind, inquisitive about all that of which they are ignorant, and desirous of a protracted existence, had already exerted their faculties respecting what was to become of them after death; inasmuch, as they had early reasoned upon that principle of life which animates the body, and which quits it without changing the form of the body, and had conceived to themselves airy substances, phantoms and shades, they loved to believe that they should resume in the subterranean world that life which it was so painful to lose; and this abode appeared commodious for the reception of those beloved objects which they could not prevail on themselves to renounce.
"On the other hand, the astrological and philosophical priests told such stories of their heavens as perfectly quadrated with these fictions. Having, in their metaphorical language, denominated the equinoxes and solstices the gates of heaven, or the entrance of the seasons, they explained the terrestrial phenomena by saying, that through the gate of horn (first the bull, afterwards the ram,) vivifying fires descended, which, in spring, gave life to vegetation, and aquatic spirits, which caused, at the solstice, the overflowing of the Nile: that through the gate of ivory (originally the bowman, or Sagittarius, then the balance,) and through that of Capricorn, or the urn, the emanations or influences of the heavens returned to their source and re-ascended to their origin; and the Milky Way which passed through the doors of the solstices, seemed to them to have been placed there on purpose to be their road and vehicle. The celestial scene farther presented, according to their Atlas, a river (the Nile, designated by the windings of the Hydra;) together with a barge (the vessel Argo,) and the dog Sirius, both bearing relation to that river, of which they foreboded the overflowing. These circumstances, added to the preceding ones, increased the probability of the fiction; and thus to arrive at Tartarus or Elysium, souls were obliged to cross the rivers Styx and Acheron, in the boat of Charon the ferryman, and to pass through the doors of horn and ivory, which were guarded by the mastiff Cerberus. At length a civil usage was joined to all these inventions, and gave them consistency.
"The inhabitants of Egypt having remarked that the putrefaction of dead bodies became in their burning climate the source of pestilence and diseases, the custom was introduced in a great number of States, of burying the dead at a distance from the inhabited districts, in the desert which lies at the West. To arrive there it was necessary to cross the canals of the river in a boat, and to pay a toll to the ferryman, otherwise the body remaining unburied, would have been left a prey to wild beasts. This custom suggested to her civil and religious legislators, a powerful means of affecting the manners of her inhabitants, and addressing savage and uncultivated men with the motives of filial piety and reverence for the dead; they introduced, as a necessary condition, the undergoing that previous trial which should decide whether the deceased deserved to be admitted upon the footing of his family honors into the black city. Such an idea too well accorded with the rest of the business not to be incorporated with it; it accordingly entered for an article into religious creeds, and hel had its Minos and its Radamanthus, with the wand, the chair, the guards, and the urn, after the exact model of this civil transaction. The divinity then, for the first time, became a subject of moral and political consideration, a legislator, by so much the more formidable as, while his judgment was final and his decrees without appeal, he was unapproachable to his subjects. This mythological and fabulous creation, composed as it was of scattered and discordant parts, then became a source of future punishments and rewards, in which divine justice was supposed to correct the vices and errors of this transitory state. A spiritual and mystical system, such as have mentioned, acquired so much the more credit as it applied itself to the mind by every argument suited to it. The oppressed looked thither for an indemnification, and entertained the consoling hope of vengeance; the oppressor expected by the costliness of his offerings to secure to himself impunity, and at the same time employed this principle to inspire the vulgar with timidity; kings and priests, the heads of the people, saw in it a new source of power, as they reserved to themselves the privilege of awarding the favors or the censure of the great Judge of all, accord-ing to the opinion they, should inculcate of the odiousness of crimes and the meritoriousness of virtue.
"Thus, then, an invisible and imaginary world entered into competition with that which was real. Such, O Persians! was the origin of your renovated earth, your city of resurrection, placed under the equator, and distinguished from all other cities by this singular attribute, that the bodies of its inhabitants cast no shade. Such, O Jews and Christians! disciples of the Persians, was the source of your New Jerusalem, your paradise and your heaven, modelled upon the astrological heaven of Hermes. Meanwhile your hell, O ye Musselmans! a subterraneous pit surmounted by a bridge, your balance of souls and good works, your judgment pronounced by the angels Monkir and Nekir, derives its attributes from the mysterious ceremonies of the cave of Mithra; and your heaven is exactly coincident with that of Osiris, Ormuzd, and Brama."....
"It is evident, that it is not truth for which you contend; that it is not her cause you are jealous of maintaining, but the cause of your own passions and prejudices; that it is not the object as it really exists that you wish to verify, but the object as it appears to you; that it is not the evidence of the thing that you are anxious should prevail, but your personal opinion, your mode of seeing and judging. There is a power that you want to exercise, an interest that you want to maintain, a prerogative that you want to assume: in short, the whole is a struggle of vanity. And as every individual, when he compares himself with every other, finds himself to be his equal and fellow, he resists by a similar feeling of right; and from this right, which you all deny to each other, and from the inherent consciousness of your equality, spring your disputes, your combats, and your intolerance.
"Now the only way of restoring unanimity is by returning to nature, and taking the order of things which she has established for your director and guide, and this farther truth will then appear from your uniformity of sentiment.
"If we would arrive at uniformity of opinion, we must previously establish certainty, and verify the resemblance which our ideas have to their models. Now, this can nut be obtained, except so far as the objects of our inquiry can be referred to the testimony, and subjected to the examination of our senses. Whatever cannot be brought to this, trial is beyond the limits of our understanding: we have neither rule to try it by, nor measure by which to institute a comparison, nor source of demonstration and knowledge concerning it.
"Whence it is obvious that, in order to live in peace and harmony, we must consent not to pronounce upon such objects, nor annex to them importance; we must draw a line of demarcation between such as can be verified and such as cannot, and separate, by an inviolable barrier, the world of fantastic beings from the world of realities: that is to say, all civil effect must be taken away from theological and religious opinions.
"This, O nations! is the end that a great people, freed from their fetters and prejudices, have proposed to themselves; this is the work in which, by their command, and under their immediate auspices, we were engaged, when your kings and your priests came to interrupt our labors.... Kings and priests! you may yet for awhile suspend the solemn publication of the laws of nature; but it is no longer in your power to annihilate or to subvert them."
We conclude with the following:—"Investigate the laws which nature, for our direction, has implanted in our breasts, and form from thence an authentic and immutable code. Nor let this code be calculated for one family, or one nation only, but for the whole with-out exception. Be the legislators of the human race, as ye are the interpreters of their common nature. Show us the line that separates the world of chimeras from that of realities: and each us, after so many religions of error and delusion, the religion of evidence and truth."
Our space prohibits further quotation in this number; but when we return to the subject, we shall notice chapter xxi., "Problem of Religious Contradictions," and also "The Law of Nature; or Principles of Morality." Few men wrote more on various topics than Volney; and few have been more respected while living, and esteemed when dead, by those whose respect and esteem it is always an honor to possess. At the age of fifty-three, after much travel and great study, Volney consoled his latter days by marrying his cousin—the hope of his youth—Mdlle. de Chassebouf. A disorder of the bladder, contracted when traversing the Arabian deserts, caused his death at the age of sixty-three. He was buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, when Laya, Director of the French Academy, pronounced a noble panegyric over his grave; and months after his death he was spoken highly of by some of the most illustrious men of France. Thus ended the days of one of the Freethinkers of the past whose works, despite all suppression, will never die.
Look with me through the dark vista of 150 years of clouded history. Throw your mind across the bridge of time, for we are about to visit a tragic scene—a scene which might be depicted by a poet—so much of beauty, of truth, and of goodness, all blasted by the perjuries of the priest. Yonder, in the dim library of an ancestral mansion, embowered amid the woods of the south, close by the gurgling waters which beat an echo to the stormy breezes—those breezes which will never more fan his cheek—that water where he has often bathed his limbs will be his rippling monument. The shady moonlight of an August evening is gilding the rich pastures of Hertfordshire; the gorse bushes have not yet lost their beauty, the pheasants are playing in the woods—woods that so lately resounded with laughter—laughter ringing like a bell—the music of a merry heart. Withdraw those curtains which hide the heart-struck and the dead. Above you is the exquisite picture of Eleanora, gazing into the very bed at that form which lay shrouded in nothingness. You see the broad manly brow—even now the brown hair rises in graceful curls over that damp forehead. The lips are locked in an eternal smile, as if to mock the closed eyes and the recumbent form. Is it true that pictures of those we love are endowed with a clairvoyant power of gazing at those who have caressed them in life? If it is, then on that August night the wife of Charles Blount was watching over his bier.
But who is that pale form, with dishevelled hair and weeping eyes, with an alabaster skin stained with the blue spots of grief? The rapid upheaving swells of that fair bosom tell of affection withered, not by remorse, but by superstition? See her how she nervously grasps that dead man's hand, how she imprints kisses on his lips! Her hair, which yesterday was glossy as the raven's, is now as bleached as the driven snow; to-day she utters her plaintive cries, to-morrow she hastens to join her lover in the tomb. This is a sad history. It should be written with the juice of hemlock, as a warning to Genius of impatient love.
While the fair girl watches by the couch of the suicide, while from the painted canvass Eleanora gleams on the living and the dead, while the clouds of night gather silently over that ancestral hall, around the drooping com on the bold sloping park, and the clear blue river—all so quiet and gentle—let us gather up the events of the past, and learn the cause of a death so tragic, a grief so piercing.
In the year 1672, at the age of nineteen years, a young man (the son of a baronet) led to the altar the lovely daughter of Sir Timothy Tyrrel. Flowers strewed the path of the wedded pair, and for years their life was one scene of bliss. At last, struck down by disease, Charles Blount stood by the side of his dying wife—in his arms his Eleanora yielded her last sigh. He buried her by the willow-tree in the old churchyard. The lily blended with the white rose, and the myrtle overshadowed the grave. It was here where the widower rested in the evening—here where he taught his children the virtues of their dead mother. Sometimes he gazed at the azure skies, and strange fancies beguiled the mind of the mourner. When he saw the sun sink to the west, gilding the world with its glorious rays, he mused on the creeds of many lands. He fancied he saw a heaven and a God, and traced in the lines of light the patriarchal worshippers of the world. He looked at the sun and its worshippers—those who sought the origin of purity by worshipping that which is the origin of all good. He looked at the fables of Greece, and found delight in the thought of Sappho uttering her diapason of joy in lyrics which told of love and beauty; at Egypt, where the priests, in their esoteric cunning, searched in vain for that which gives life, and motion, and joy; and then he glanced at the Christian heaven, but here all was dark—dark as the Plutonian caverns of Homer's hell. He wished to meet his Eleanora—not in Pagan dreams—not in Christian parables—but in the world of realities. He looked with eager eyes upon the world around him, in society, at Court, and, in the homes of his country. But wherever he went, there was but one thought—one feeling. He wished a mother for his children—a mother like the sainted dead. There was but one who answered the ideal—like in features, in passion, and in beauty—to the lost Eleanora. Born of the same parents, loved by the same brother, educated by the same teachers, imbued with the same thoughts, she was the model of her dead sister; with a sisterly love for her brother, she was already both mother and aunt to her sister's children.
With deliberate thoughts, with convulsive passion, the love of Charles Blount passed the bounds of that of a brother; longing to make her his wife, he adored her with the passion he had lavished on the dead. It seemed as if the shade of Eleanora was perpetually prompting him to bestow all his affection on the young and beautiful Eliza. She caressed his children with the pride of an aunt, she traced the image of her sister in the laughing eyes of the merry babes—still she was not happy. How could she be happy? She loved him as a man—as a brother. She was a Christian—he an Infidel. She was bound by creeds—he by conduct. She was doing the duty she owed to the dead. He sought to do it by uniting himself to the living. Eliza was anxious to marry, but there existed something which, to her mind, was greater than human duties, and it often outraged them. God and the Church demanded her first attention, and then her lover and his children. The Church, in cruel mockery of human rights, stepped between her judgment and her affections. It denied the power of a woman to occupy the married home of her deceased sister. She was willing to pledge her love to Charles Blount at the altar, but the priest mocked her prayers and denounced her affections. The occasion was too good to be lost. Episcopalism sought revenge on its opponent, and it triumphed. Eliza felt the force of Blount's arguments. She wandered with him through the green fields, but her sorrow was too great to pluck the wild roses. The luscious fruits of summer were passed untasted. A heart sick and in trouble, a mind wandering from her sister's grave to her children, and then at the anathema of the Church, made her a widowed maid. To overcome her scruples, her lover wrote a book (inviting the clergy to refute it,) defending the marriage with a deceased wife's sister. But ever as he spoke there was a film before her eyes. There was a gaunt priest, with canonical robes, stood before the gates of heaven. Before him and through him was the way to an eternal happiness, below him was a fiery hell; and he shouted with hoarse voice, Incest, incest, incest!—And ever as he shouted, he pointed with his finger of scorn at this Christian hell, and she conjured up in her mind the old stories of this priest, until she saw the livid flames rising up higher till they encircled her form, and then the priest screamed with fury, Anathema maranatha, incest, incest! And in terror she stood, with the big drops of sweat dripping from her brow, with her heart beating, with her mind distracted, but her affections unclouded.
This priest was the Church of England, and those fancies were driven into her imagination by her creed, her litanies, and her sermons. Eliza Tyrrel was miserable; she was placed between her love, her duty, and her religion. If she had been a woman of a strong mind, she would have torn her creed into shreds, she would have dared the anathema of the priest—the ostracism of its dupes—and would have clung to the man she loved so truly, in defiance of that which was, at the best, but a faint possibility.
The arguments in that pamphlet of Blount's were conclusive, but she distrusted reason. The plainest dictates of common logic were referred to the promptings of the Devil. How could it be otherwise? Can the teachings of a lifetime be overthrown by the courtship of a few months? Eliza Tyrrel, true to Blount, loved him; true to her religion, she durst not marry him without the sanction of the Church. So Blount, as a last resolve, laid the matter before the Lord's Vicegerent at Canterbury, and many of the most learned divines of England; and from those ecclesiastical leeches there was a Shylock cry of incest, incest, incest! And those terrible words came greeting the ears of Charles Blount, making his home like a charnel-house, and they nearly sent his beautiful Eliza to a maniac's grave. Still she lingered on. Denied the power of a wife, she would not relinquish her duties as a mother to her sister's babes. There was a calm heroism here which few can imitate. The passions of Blount could not brook further insults. The last kick of bigotry against the broken-hearted Freethinker was given. He could no longer rise with the lark, and roam over the bills of his ancestral home. To him the birds, as they warbled, spoke of joys never to return. The broad river told him of the days when the little skiff floated on its waters with Eleanora; and even his friends only too bitterly reminded him of the tournaments of wit where Hobbes, Brown, and Gildon, jousted each other in the presence of his wife. His life was one scene of misery. He saw no chance of amendment. In a fit of despair, he loaded his pistol with due deliberation, placed it to his head, and shot himself. He lingered for sometime, and then died on the breast of Eliza.
This was a strange suicide. Blount's memory bears its weight of obloquy. It is hard to draw the line when and where a man has a right to take away his life. Common sense tells us that so long as our families are dependent upon us, we have no right to end our lives; and if we have no dependents, no friends, then our country has a claim upon us. But, at the same time, the one sole end of existence is to be happy. If a man cannot find happiness in life, if there is a great coalition against him, he is justified in taking up arms against them; but, at the same time, it proves a greater amount of courage "to bear up against the ills of life" than to madly leave it, and thus weaken the force of those who wish to stem its injustice.
Charles Blount died, and with him expired much of the chivalry of Freethought. His friend, Charles Gil-don, writing of him to a lady, says, "You know Astrea (Eliza,) and have an exact friendship with her. You can attest her beauty, wit, honor, virtue, good humor, and discretion. You have been acquainted with the charms of her conversation and conduct, and condemn her, only adhering to a national custom to the loss of so generous a friend, and so faithful a lover. But custom and obedience meeting the more easily, betrayed her virtue into a crime. I know my friend loved her to his last breath; and I know, therefore, that all who love his memory must, for her sake, love and value her, as being a lady of that merit, that engaged the reason of Philander (C. Blount) to so violent a passion for her."