We have tried to comprehend the mind of Voltaire, to notice his peculiarities and faults, before considering his opinions; because his influence was due to his mental and personal character rather than to the matter of his writings. It remains to state his views on religion, and the grounds of his attack on revelation. The chief materials for ascertaining them are the four volumes in the vast collection of his works, which contain his philosophical and theological writings.(529) They partake of every variety of form,—essays, letters, treatises, pamphlets, translations, commentaries. They include, besides smaller works, a commentary on the Old Testament; translations of parts of Bolingbroke and of Toland; an investigation concerning the establishment of Christianity; deist sermons which he pretends had been delivered; discourses written under false names;(530) and doubts proposed and solved after the manner of preceding philosophers. Yet in these numerous treatises there is no claim to originality. His doubts and his beliefs are taken mainly from the English deists; and chiefly from Bolingbroke, the most French in mind of any of the English school.
A few words therefore will suffice to characterise his opinions. It appears that he believed in a God,(531) but firmly disbelieved the divine origin of the revealed religion, Jewish and Christian. The main purpose of his life however was not affirmation, but denial.(532) Accordingly the sole object of all his efforts was to destroy belief in the plenary inspiration of the scriptures, and the divine origin of revelation which is attested by them. There is hardly a book in scripture that he did not attack. Successively surveying the narrative of Jewish history, the Gospels, and statements of early church history,(533) he tried to show absurdities and contradictions in them all; not so much literary differences in the authors as difficulties of belief in the material revealed. In his views of Judaism and of Christianity he seems to have fluctuated between attributing them to the fraud or mistake of their propagators, and denying their originality. The science of historical criticism was beginning in his day, and was applied to the legends of Roman history. Voltaire embodied the spirit of this inquiry. In his histories he exemplified the cold, worldly, modern mode of looking at events, as opposed to the providential and theocratic view of them which had found expression as recently as in the works of Bossuet.(534) And he transferred this method to the treatment of holy scripture. No new branch of information was left unused by him for contributing to his impious purpose. The numerous works of travels which were affording an acquaintance with the mythology of other nations, were made to furnish him with the materials for hastily applying one solution to all the early Jewish histories, which he failed to invalidate by the application of the historic method just described. By an inversion of the argument of the early Christian apologists, he pretended that the early history preserved among the Hebrews was borrowed from the heathens, instead of claiming that the heathen mythology was a trace of Hebrew tradition; and, with a view to sustain this opinion, he discredited the integrity of the Hebrew literature. In nothing is his singular want of poetic taste, and of the power to appreciate the beauties of the literature of young nations, and the ethical value of moral institutions, more visible, than in denying the literary and monumental value of the Bible, and the moral influence of Christianity.(535) Infidels who have hated revealed religion as bitterly as Voltaire, have at least not had the meanness or the want of taste to depreciate the literary and moral interest which attaches to it.
Such was the character of the man, and of the efforts which he directed to the injury of revelation. It has been said(536) that to obliterate his influence from the history of the eighteenth century would be to produce a greater difference than the absence of any other individual in it would occasion; and would be similar to the omission of Luther from the sixteenth. The analogy, though startling, is true in the particulars which it is intended to illustrate. The influence of each was European in his respective century; and the doctrine acted not only on the world of thought, but of action.
We have described Voltaire alone; not because he was isolated by any interval of time from a general movement, but because his attack is more rudimentary, being directed rather to disintegrate Christianity than dogmatically to affirm unbelief. He was perhaps rather logically prior to the others than chronologically; being really connected with two bodies of men, which formed the centres of two infidel movements, the one in Paris, the other at the court of Frederick at Berlin.
Frederick the Great surrounded himself with French literary men.(537) They were mostly persons who were exiles from France to escape persecution for their opinions, who had first found a refuge in Holland, and thence endeavoured by means of the Dutch booksellers to introduce their writings into France. From about 1740-60 several such teachers of infidelity were invited to the Prussian court, and dispersed their influence in Germany; the effects of which we shall subsequently find. One of them was the physician La Mettrie,(538) who wrote works on physiology marked by a low materialism. Such also was De Prades,(539) and more especially D'Argens.(540) The latter, struck with the force of "the Persian Letters" of Montesquieu, threw his doubts into an epistolary form, "the Jewish Letters;" in which the traditional opinions and ruling systems of the time were attacked with great freedom. He translated also some ancient works to serve his purpose, especially the fragments of the abusive work of the emperor Julian against Christianity, written in favour of the state religion of the Greeks and Romans.
While this was the character of some of the Frenchmen at the court of Frederick, whom Voltaire subsequently joined; men who, imbued with the most extravagant form of the philosophy of sensation, verged upon materialism; there were coteries of literary persons in Paris, which were the rallying point of sceptical minds, and centres of irreligious influence.
The existence of them is due in part to the altered position already named which literature assumed in reference to the court during the regency. Instead of being fostered, it was discouraged; and Fleury manifested an almost puritan spirit, and has left on record the expression of his alarm at the growing sceptical tone of literary works, and the imitation of the English spirit. Owing accordingly to the absence of patronage, and to the lavishment of those favours on extravagance which the elder Louis had bestowed on the fostering of intellect, literature became disjoined from court influences; and hence there grew up small centres of literary influence, analogous to those preceding the times of Louis XIV,(541) and nuclei for intellectual movement, where of old the various bodies had all moved round one central sun.
It would be irrelevant to enter into the details of these coteries. (23) Some were simply of fashion and taste; but others were undoubtedly gatherings of powerful thinkers, imbued with infidel principles, whose character belongs to French literature and the mental and moral culture of the time. One of the most remarkable of these coteries included names noted in French literature, such as Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert,(542) D'Holbach, Marmontel,(543) Helvetius, Grimm,(544) St. Lambert,(545) and Raynal.(546) We must notice some of them in detail, in order at once to appreciate the character of their works, and to illustrate the relation of their unbelief to the philosophy which they adopted.(547)
Diderot,(548) next to Voltaire, was the most able of the infidel writers, and greatly superior to the other members of the same class. His history is one of those narratives of struggle and suffering which so often have been the lot of men of letters. Those who have been the teachers of the world have too often been also its martyrs. The great peculiarity of Diderot, as of Johnson, was his encyclopaedic knowledge, and his versatility in comprehending a variety of subjects. Less critical than Voltaire, and less philosophical than Rousseau, he exceeded both as the practical teacher. But in unbelief he unhappily advanced farther than either; his temper lacked moral earnestness; and in later life he was an atheist. A growth of unbelief may be traced in him: at first he was a doubter, next he became a deist, lastly an atheist. In the first stage he only translated English works, and even condemned some of the English deists. His views seem gradually to have altered, probably under the influence of Voltaire's writings, and of the infidel books smuggled into France; and he thenceforth assumed a tone bolder and marked by positive disbelief. In 1746 he wrote his Pensees Philosophiques, intended to be placed in opposition to the Pensees of Pascal. Pascal, by a series of sceptical propositions, had hoped to establish the necessity of revelation. Diderot tried by the same method to show that this revelation must be untrue.(549) The first portion of the propositions(550) bore upon philosophy and natural religion, but at length he came to weaken the proofs for the truth of Christianity, and controverted miracles, and the truth of any system which reposes on miracles; yet even in this work he did not evince the atheism which he subsequently avowed. It was soon after the imprisonment in which he was involved by this book, that he projected the plan of the magnificent work, the Encyclopedie, or universal dictionary of human knowledge. Its object however was not only literary, but also theological; for it was designed to circulate among all classes new modes of thinking, which should be opposed to all that was traditionary. Voltaire's unbelief was merely destructive: this was reconstructive and systematic. The religion of this great work was deism: the philosophy of it was sensationalist and almost materialist; seeming hardly to allow the existence of anything but mechanical beings. Soul was absorbed in body; the inner world in the outer;—a tendency fostered by physics. It was the view of things taken by the scientific mind, and lacks the poetical and feeling elements of nature—a true type of the cold and mechanical age which produced it. Diderot's atheism is a still further development of his unbelief. It is expressed in few of his writings, and presents no subject of interest to us; save that it seeks to invalidate the arguments for the being of a God, drawn from final causes. It has been well observed, that the lesson to be derived from him(551) is, that the mechanical view of the world is essentially atheistic; that whosoever will admit no means of discovering God but common logic, cannot find him. Diderot's unbelief may be considered to embody that which resulted from the abuse at once of erudition, physical science, and the sensational theory in metaphysics.
Among the band of friends who from connexion with the Encyclopaedia acquired the name of Encyclopaedists, was also Helvetius.(552) He was the moralist of the sensational philosophy, one of those who applied the philosophy of Condillac to morals. Each man's tastes are so far affected by circumstances, that it is possible that Helvetius's exclusive association with the selfish circles of the French society, which never lived for the good of others, together with the perception of the hollowness of the respect which persons paid him for his wealth and influence, led him to regard self-love as the sole motive of conduct. His philosophy is expressed in two works;(553) the one on the spirit, the other on man: the former a theoretical view of human nature, the latter a practical view of education and society. His primary position is, that man owes all his superiority over animals to the superior organization of his body. Starting from this point, he argues that all minds are originally equal, and owe their variation to circumstances;(554) that all their faculties and emotions are derivable from sensation; that pleasure is the only good, and self-interest the true ground of morals and the framework of individual and political right.(555)
If in Diderot we have met with atheism, and in Helvetius with the selfish theory of morals; in the author of "the System of Nature" we meet with utter materialism, and the two former evils as corollaries from it. This work, which was published about 1774, though bearing a different author's name on the title, was probably the work of D'Holbach,(556) aided by Diderot and Helvetius, and other members of the society which met at D'Holbach's house. It is a work of unquestionable talent and eloquence, in which materialism, fatalism, and atheism, combine to form a view of human nature which even Voltaire is said to have denounced.
The grand object of this work being to show that there is no God, the first part is occupied by the most rigorous materialism, and is designed to prove that there is no such thing as mind, nothing beyond the material fabric,(557) which is maintained by simple and invariable laws; and that the soul is a mode of organism,(558) the mere action of the body under different functions. The freedom of the will(559) and immortality(560) are accordingly denied. The first part having been directed to disprove the existence of mind, the second part is designed against religion. The author attributes the idea which man has formed of a first Cause to fear,(561) generated through suffering; and attempts to show the insufficiency of the a priori argument in favour of a God,(562) omitting the consideration of the arguments derived from final causes. Nature becomes in his scheme a machine; man an organism; morality self-interest; deity a fiction.
The work we have just named formed the crowning result of infidelity.(563) Voltaire showed philosophy shrinking from the hard materialism, morality from the fatalism, and religion from the atheism, to which they afterwards attained. In these steps, as witnessed in the circle of intellect just sketched, we see the ramification of the French sensational philosophy pushed to its farthest limits.
The writers lately described, though in some degree eminent, do not, like Voltaire, stand in the first rank of the French literary writers. Amid the circle of unbelievers, however, another of the highest rank was found, who, though he must be classed with the others, stood so apart in taste, in sympathy, in purpose, and in belief, that the study of his life and character is an interruption to the series of the materialist writers whom we are describing. Rousseau(564) was not an atheist like Diderot, nor a materialist like D'Holbach, nor a moralist of the selfish school like Helvetius, nor a scoffer like Voltaire. We discover in him a spirit endowed with deep feeling, and trained by much greater experience of life and of internal sorrow. His writings also mark the period when French philosophy ceased to attack the church, and found itself strong enough to act against the state. The greater portion of his works lies out of the range of our inquiry. Even his political writings, which indirectly injured religion in the world of action by stimulating the revolutionary hatred to the church, require notice only so far as they involved principles fundamentally opposed to the teaching of revealed religion.
It was about the middle of the century(565) that Rousseau commenced the "Political Essays" which made his name famous, and unhappily afterwards formed as it were the very bible of the French revolution. Retaining through life the preference for the simple institutions of the republic in which he had been born, he saw in French society the abuses which appertain to civilization; and, with somewhat of the same feeling which Tacitus exhibits in his portraiture of the Germans, was led to study the comparative advantages of a primitive and refined age, and to maintain the paradox that the empire of corruption and inequality was to be regarded as the artificial creation of civilization. Ignoring the natural sinfulness and selfishness of the human race, he sought deliverance for mankind in the return to a primeval state, in which all should be free, equal, and independent. The inartificial state of society was the beau-ideal. And from this philosophical origin he traced society in the historical formation of an actual polity, describing how the social contract, while subordinating individual liberty to the collective will of a society, recompensed men by investing them with rights of civilization.
His doctrine was false theologically in its view of human nature; false philosophically in attempting to investigate an historical question by means of abstract metaphysical analysis; and false politically in drawing the attention of men away from practical and possible schemes of reform to visionary ones. It typified the movement of the French revolution in its extravagant hopes and its errors, in its destructive, not its remedial aspect.(566)
It was a few years later than the publication of these speculations that Rousseau wrote his celebrated treatise on education, the Emile,(567) which is the chief source for ascertaining his religious opinions. It has been called the Cyropaedia of modern times, an attempt to show the education which a philosopher would give his pupil, in contradistinction to the religious and Jesuit training common in Rousseau's time.
In examining the religious education to be given to the young, he introduces a Savoyard vicar, the original of which his own early travels had suggested to him, to narrate the history of his convictions, and explain the nature of his creed. This creed is deism, and bears a very striking resemblance to that taught by the English deists. Rejecting tradition and philosophy,(568) the vicar grounds his creed on reason, the interior light. Commencing with sensation, he shows how step by step we arrive at the doctrine of the being and attributes of one God. Though he does not reject the argument from final causes, he seems to lay more stress on the metaphysical argument of the necessity of the divine existence. He first proves the existence of personality and will,(569) and uses this idea for the purpose of exploring the outer world; arguing that matter is inert and not self-active, he regards matter in motion as indicating force, and therefore volition; uniformity in its motion as proving a law, and therefore an intelligent will,(570) in which wisdom, power, and goodness combine.(571) This being is God, to whom man is subject. The universe is universal order. The physical evil therein originates in our vices, the moral in our free will.(572)
Having established the being of a God, he next proceeds to give reasons for believing in immortality. He bases it on the fact of the goodness of God, which leads Him to recompense with happiness the suffering good; and he disbelieves the eternity of punishment for the bad.(573) Having fixed the objects of belief, he next lays down the rule of duty in conscience, which he regards as an innate and infallible guide.(574) After thus establishing natural religion, he proceeds to criticise revealed, arguing its want of irrefragable evidence,(575) the discrepant(576) opinions in reference to it, the improbability of portions of its history;(577) attacking strongly the external evidence of prophecy and miracles; the former on the alleged want of proof of agreement between prophecy and its fulfilment; the latter on the ground of the alleged circle, that miracles are made to prove doctrine, and doctrine miracles.(578) He accordingly rejects the idea of Christianity being necessary to salvation; but renders a tribute of praise to its moral precepts, and regards the gospels, though partly fictitious, as containing indestructible moral truths; and concludes with the well-known comparison of Socrates to Christ, showing the stupendous superiority of the death and example of the latter. "If the death of Socrates," he says, "was that of a sage, that of Jesus was that of a God."(579)
It would have been thought that such teaching as this would hardly have excited a legal prosecution, in comparison with the more violent attacks that were made on religion: but the wide reputation and fascinating style of the author, the extraordinary ability of the work, above all the fact that many of the previous infidel doctrines had been published without the writers' names, were the means of subjecting him to persecution which they escaped. Voltaire and the infidel party were indignant at Rousseau's partial acceptance of Christianity. The French clergy were angry at his rejection of the remainder. The parliament ordered the book to be burned, and the author to be imprisoned. Rousseau had to seek refuge in Switzerland, and there defended his views of Christianity and miracles in a series of celebrated letters, which in their political effects have been compared with the letters of Junius. Driven out from Switzerland, he found a shelter in England, with Hume; and, until he could safely return to France, employed his time in writing his Confessions;(580)—the celebrated work, a mixture of romance and fact, which takes its place in the first rank of autobiographies,—a sad witness to the desperate wickedness of the human heart, and to the impotence of even a high moral creed, which we know Rousseau elsewhere expressed,(581) in creating morality, without Christian motives to give practical efficacy to it.
Such was Rousseau, an enemy of artificial society, of Roman catholic education, and of supernatural revelation; yet far removed from Voltaire and the other infidels, both in tone and literary character.(582) While Voltaire aimed only to destroy, Rousseau sought to reconstruct. Voltaire was a flippant, hasty reviler of Christianity, without originality in the material of his works, without depth of soul: Rousseau was serious, fresh, full of pathos. Voltaire either had no creed, or thought one unimportant, and was actuated by malignant hatred against Judaism and Christianity: Rousseau had a firm creed, and spoke with decency of the religion which he rejected. Voltaire was devoid of taste for ancient literature, witty under a mask, a selfish sycophant to the ancient political regime: Rousseau never denied the authorship of his writings, was democratic in tastes, and was the means of exciting a love for antiquity. Finally rejecting to a great degree the sensational philosophy; rising above it in heart, if not in thought, Rousseau taught a spiritual philosophy, destined to bear fruit when the dreams of the revolution had passed. He stands alone however at present in this respect, like Montesquieu in politics(583) and Buffon in science; and the course of our history again brings before us men who must be classed with the materialists that preceded him.
We have stated that by the middle of the century the infidel writers turned their attention from the attack on the church to that on the state; and had already made such impression on the government, that it joined them in expelling the Jesuits.(584) For more than a quarter of a century before the revolution the literary writers were infidel. At length the evils of the state grew incurable, and the storm of the revolution burst.
It is possible in the present age to take a much more dispassionate view of that vast event than was taken by contemporaries.(585) It can now be adjusted to its true historic perspective, and its function in the scheme of history can be clearly perceived. The vastness of the movement consisted in this, that it was at once political, social, and religious.(586) It aimed at redressing the grievances under which France had suffered, and reconstructing society with guarantees for future liberty. It sought not merely to destroy the feudalism which had outlived its time, and to equalize the unfair distribution of the public burdens, as means to accommodate society to modern wants; but it tried to effect these changes among a people whose minds were fully persuaded both that the privileges of particular classes and the existence of an established religion were the chief causes of the public misfortune. When so many movements combined, the catastrophe was intensified. It is indeed possible now to see that in the end the solid advantages of the revolution were reaped, while the mischief was temporary; but the severity of the storm while it lasted was increased by the infidel views with which society had become impregnated. For the revolution attempted to embody in its political aspect those poetical but wild theories of society which sceptical students had taught; and was founded on the false assumption of the perfectibility of man, and the perfect goodness of human nature, except as depraved by human government.
At first, under the National Assembly,(587) the attack was only made on the property of the church; but on the establishment of the Convention, when the nation had become frantic at the alarm of foreign invasion, to which the king and clergy were supposed to be instrumental, the monarchy was overthrown, and religion also was declared obsolete. The municipality and many of the bishops abjured Christianity; the churches were stripped; the images of the Saviour trampled under foot; and a fete was held in November 1793,(588) in which an opera-dancer, impersonating Reason as a goddess, was introduced into the Convention, and then led in procession to the cathedral of Notre Dame; and there, elevated on the high altar, took the place of deity, and received adoration from the audience. The services of religion were abandoned; the churches were closed; the sabbath was abolished; and the calendar altered. On all the public cemeteries the inscription was placed, "Death is an eternal sleep." Robespierre himself saw the necessity for the public recognition of the being of a God; and after the fall of the Girondists, obtained an edict for that purpose shortly before his death, in 1794; which event marks the return of society from atheism and materialism back to deism.(589) When the horrors of the dictatorship of Robespierre closed, and a regular government was established under the Directory, the priests obtained liberty to reopen the churches provided they maintained them at their own expense.(590) But the great majority of the people lived wholly without God in the world; while some sought refuge in the extravagant creed of a deist sect called the Theophilanthropists.(591) Nor was it till the year 1802 that Napoleon was able, and even then amid much opposition, to reestablish the Sunday.(592) Christianity was then reinaugurated by a public ceremony(593) in the cathedral, polluted eight years before by the blasphemy of the goddess of Reason. But the total cessation of religious instruction snapped asunder a chain of faith which had descended unbroken from the first ages; and to this must be ascribed the irreligious mode of spending the Sunday in French society.
The reign of atheism in religion was fortified by a philosophy; and the works of one infidel writer preserve the expression of the view which it took of Christianity and religion. As soon as the excitement of the revolution allowed leisure to return to the study of mental facts, there arose the extreme form of sensationalism, which was called (in a different meaning from the present popular use of the term) Ideology, (24). Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy are the best exponents of its physiological and psychological aspects; and the well-known Volney of its moral and religious side. Starting from the principles of Condillac and Helvetius, that the very faculties as well as ideas are derived from sensation, and moral rules from self-love, it almost reaches the same point as D'Holbach. Mental science was approached from the physiological side, and so viewed that mind seemed to be made a property of brain.(594)
The chief work in which Volney expresses his unbelief is entitled the "Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires."(595) It is a poem in prose. Volney imagines himself falling into a meditation, amid the ruins of Palmyra, on the fall of empires.(596) The phantom of the ruins appears, and, entering into converse with him, causes him to see the kingdoms of the world, and guides him in the solution of the mysteries which puzzle him.(597) It unveils to him the view of nature as a system of laws, and of man as a being gifted with self-love. It traces the origin of society in a manner not unlike Rousseau,(598) and refers the source of evil to self-love; states the cause of ancient prosperity and decline, and draws the moral lesson from the past.(599) While Volney is despondent at the prospect of the future, a vision is unveiled to him of a new age. It is of a nation ridding itself of privileged classes, and arming itself when its young liberties were threatened by foreign powers.(600) It is an apocalyptic vision of France in his time. Then suddenly the vision changes, and an assembly of the nations of the world is gathered as in one common arena, to ascertain how they may arrive at unity and peace.(601) Their differences are illustrated by the discrepant opinions which they utter on religion; and the origin of each religion on the earth is traced.(602) It is here that Volney makes his speaker convey his own scepticism. He tracks the origin of the religious ideas(603) through the worship prompted by fear of the physical elements(604) and the stars(605) to that of symbols or idols,(606) with its accompanying mysteries and orders of priests; and then onward through dualism(607) to the belief of an unseen world;(608) then through mythology(609) and pantheism(610) to the belief in a Creator;(611) next, to Judaism(612) as the worship of the soul of the world; and lastly, through the Persian(613) and Hindu(614) systems to Christianity,(615) which he attempts to show to be the worship of the sun under the cabalistic names of Christ and Jesus. Availing himself of some of the fragments of mythology which such writers as Eusebius have preserved, and with a faint perception of the nature of mythology, he tries to resolve the narrative of the fall of man into solar mythology; and, pointing to contact with the Persians at the captivity as the source from which the Jews borrowed their ideas of a symbolic system, he regards the incarnation and life of Christ as the mistaken literalization on the part of contemporaries of their preconceived opinions. The conclusions to which Volney makes his interlocutor come(616) is, that nothing can be true, nothing be a ground of peace and union, which is not visible to the senses. Truth is conformity with sensations. The book is interesting as a work of art; but its analysis of Christianity is so shocking, that its absurdity alone prevents its becoming dangerous. It is the most unblushing attempt to resolve the noblest of effects into the most absurd of origins; and embodies in the consideration of religion the school of philosophy which he represented.
We have now completed the history of unbelief in France during the eighteenth century. We have seen how literature gradually emancipated itself from the power of the court, and, under the influence of a sceptical stimulus received from the importation of English free thought, was changed into political and ecclesiastical antipathy, and acquired a mastery over the public mind, until it involved the state, the church, and Christianity, in a common ruin. History offers no parallel instance of the victory of unbelief, through the power of the pen, nor of the union of the political with the theological movement, and of the intimate connexion of both with the current philosophy of the time.
The theological movement has contributed nothing of permanent literary value. The few apologies written were unimportant; and the thoughts of those who attacked Christianity were neither new nor characterised by depth. Their criticism was shallow, and was marked by the feature of which traces were observed in a few English authors, the disposition to charge imposture on the writers of the holy scriptures; so that they not only failed to appreciate the literary excellence of the works, but scarcely even allowed the possibility of unintentional deception on the part of the writers. The doubts were chiefly the reproduction of the English point of view, with the addition of a few physical difficulties;(617) protests of free thought against dogma in natural science. The view entertained concerning deity was eventually grovelling; the greatness of nature seemed to inspire no reverence. Unbelief gradually lost hold of monotheism; and in doing so never ascended in grandeur to the idea of pantheism, but fell into blank atheism. The theoretical morality of the English deists, even when depending on expedience, was noble; but in place of it the French school presented the lowest form of theory which ethical science has ever stated, and which finds its refutation with the philosophy that gave it birth.
No age exhibits a body of sceptical writers whose characters are so unattractive as the French unbelievers; whose coarseness of mind in failing to appreciate that which is beautiful in Christianity is so evident, that charity could not forbid us to doubt, even if there were not independent proof, that faults of character contributed very largely to the formation of their unbelief. Nevertheless, the political aspect of the movement carries a solemn warning to the Christian church, not to endanger the everlasting Gospel of the Son of God by making it the buttress to support corrupt political and ecclesiastical institutions. It is true that Christ will not abandon his true church. Whatever is divine and eternally true will always as in this case survive the catastrophe. But this period of history shows that Providence will not work a miracle to save religion from a temporary eclipse, if the church forgets that Christ's kingdom is not of this world; and that the mission which he has given it is to convert souls to him; and that learning and piety are intellectual and moral means for effecting this object.(618) The political faults or shortcomings of the church are no apology for the infidelity of France; but they must be taken into account in explaining its intensity.
A theological movement so vast could not fail to exercise an influence in other lands. Incidental allusions have already been made to its effects at the court of Prussia,(619) and to the traces of its tone in some of the later of the English deists.
The remainder of this lecture will be employed in tracing the history of free thought in England, from the date at which the narrative was interrupted to a little later than the end of the century; especially noticing the mode in which it was influenced by the movement in France.
It will be remembered that we brought down the history of it as far as Hume.(620) We paused there, because deism then ends as a literary movement. Politics and new forms of literature absorbed the mind. Free thought continued to exist; but it was less frequently expressed in literature, and was considerably modified by foreign influences. In Gibbon, about 1776, the ancient spirit of deism, the spirit of Bolingbroke, speaks, but the form is changed. Instead of denying Christianity on a priori moral considerations, he feels bound to explain facts. The attack is not so much moral as historic. The inquiry into historical origines as well as logical causes has commenced. The mode of attack too has changed, as well as the point from which it is made. The French influence is visible in the satire and irony prevalent. There is no longer the bitter moral indignation of the early English deists, but the sneer that marks the spirit of contempt. Fear and hatred of Christianity have given way to philosophical contempt. (25)
In Thomas Paine, who wrote in France in the midst of the meeting of the French Convention, we meet a nearer reproduction of the spirit of early English deism, but he has even more than Gibbon caught the spirit of the French movement. Gibbon's scepticism is that of high life; Paine's of low. The one writer sneers, the other hates. The one is a philosopher, the other a politician. Paine represents the infidel movement of England when it had spread itself among the lower orders, and mingled itself with the political dissatisfaction for which unhappily there was supposed to be some ground. Paine's spirit is that of English deism animated by the political exasperation which had characterised the French. His doctrines come from English deism; his bitterness from Voltaire; his politics from Rousseau.
Within the limits of the present century two other traces are found of the influence of the French school of infidelity, which therefore ought logically to be comprised with it. The one is political, the other literary; viz. the socialist schemes of Owen, which in some respects seem to be derived by direct lineage from Paine, and the expression of unbelief in the poetry of Byron and Shelley.
We must briefly notice these writers in succession. The first in the series is Gibbon.(621) Though he has left an autobiography, he has not fully unveiled the causes which shook his faith, and made him turn deist. We can however collect that the reaction from the doubts suggested by the perusal of Middleton's work on the subject of the cessation of miracles, then recently brought into notoriety, (26) turned him to the church of Rome; and that his residence abroad and familiarity with French literature caused him to drift afterwards into the opposite extreme of scepticism. He did not become an atheist, like some of the French writers whom we have been studying: but he seems to have given up the belief in the divine origin of Christianity; and he manifested the spirit of dislike and insinuation common in the unbelief of the time.
He did not write expressly against Christianity; but the subject came across his path in travelling over the vast space of time which he embraced in his magnificent History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is a subject of regret to be compelled to direct hostile remarks against one who has deserved so well of the world. That work, though in the pageantry of its style(622) it in some sense reflects the art and taste of the age in which it was written, yet in its love of solid information and deep research is the noblest work of history in the English tongue. Grand alike in its subject, its composition, and its perspective, it has a right to a place among the highest works of human conception; and sustains the relation to history which the works of Michael Angelo bear to art. In the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of this work, Gibbon had occasion to discuss the origin of Christianity, and assigned five causes for its spread; viz. its internal doctrine, and organization, miracles, Jewish zeal, and excellence of Christian morals. The chapters were received with denunciations. Yet those(623) who in later times have re-examined Gibbon's statements candidly admit that they can find hardly any errors of fact or intentional mis-statement of circumstances.
The great mistake which he commits is obvious, and the cause hardly less so. The mistake is twofold: first, he attributes to the earliest period of Christianity that which was only true of a later; and secondly, he confounds the circumstances of the spread of Christianity with the cause which gave it force.(624) The powerful influence of the causes which he specifies cannot be doubted;(625) and we may hold it to be not derogatory to our religion that it admits of union with every class of efficient causes; and adapts itself so fully to man's wants, as to accept the support of ordinary sources of influence. But the causes which he alleges operated far less strongly, and some of them not at all, in the primitive age of Christianity. The discussion of this period lay beyond Gibbon's purpose; and as he dwelt wholly on the aspects of a later age, he has left the impression that the earliest age partook of the same characteristics. Nor is he correct in regarding the five causes as solely efficient. There is a subtler force at work, of the operation of which they exhibit only the conditions. They reveal the mechanism, but do not explain the principle. Without judging him as a theologian in omitting the theological cause for an alleged supernatural power, he must be censured as a historian in failing to appreciate the spiritual movement at work in Christianity, the deep excitement of the spiritual faculty, the yearning of the mind after truth and holiness. The same fault is observable in his appreciation of religion generally, and not merely of Christianity. With the want of spiritual perception common to his age, he had not the ethical sensibility to appreciate the internal part of a religious system; and hence he regards unworldly phenomena in the tone of the political world of his time.
In pointing out his errors, we have hinted at their causes. The coldness which scepticism and sensational philosophy(626) had induced in his mind, which could kindle into warmth in describing the greatness either of men or of events, but not in depicting the moral excellence of Christianity, was but the reflection of the cold hatred of religious enthusiasm common in his day. Nor would the historic views of primitive Christianity commonly entertained in his time tend to dissipate his error. For it was usual in that age of evidences to regard the early converts as cold and cautious inquirers, accustomed to weigh evidences and suggest doubts. In attempting to discover the doctrines and discipline of the English church in apostolic times, there was a danger of transferring the notions of modern decorum to the marvellous outburst of enthusiastic piety and supernatural mystery which attended the communication of the heaven-sent message; and therefore it is some palliation for Gibbon that he too failed to perceive that those were times of excitement, when new ideas fell on untried minds and yearning hearts. And it is a remarkable proof of the improved general conception which men now entertain of Christianity, that no apprehension of danger is now felt from Gibbon's views. The youngest student has imbibed a religious spirit so much deeper, that he cannot fail instinctively to perceive their insufficiency as an explanation of the phenomena.(627)
One of our great poets has celebrated the two literary exiles of the Leman lake.(628) But how different are our feelings in respect of them in relation to this subject! Both were deists; but the one dedicated his life to a crusade against Christianity, the other only insinuated a few slight hints: the one derived his faults from himself, the other from his age: the one, the type of subtlety, acted by his pen on the world political; the other, the type of industry, sought to instruct the student. The writings of Voltaire remain as works of power, but not of information: Gibbon's history will endure as long as the English tongue.
Paine is a character of a very different kind from the freethinker last named.(629) Instead of the polished scholar, the polite man of letters, and the historian, like Gibbon, we see in him an active man of the world, educated by men rather than books, of low tastes and vulgar tone, the apostle alike of political revolution and infidelity. Though a native of England, his earliest life was spent in America at the time of the war of independence. Returning to England with the strong feelings of liberty and freedom which had marked the revolt of the colonies, he wrote at the time of the outbreak of the French revolution a work called the Rights of Man, in reply to Burke's criticism on that event. Prosecuted for this work, he fled to France, and was distinguished by being the only foreigner save one(630) elected to the French Convention. During its session he composed the infidel work called the Age of Reason, by which his name has gained an unenviable notoriety; and after the alteration of political circumstances in France, he returned to America, and there dragged out a miserable existence, indebted in his last illness for acts of charity to disciples of the very religion that he had opposed.
The two works, the Rights of Man, and the Age of Reason, being circulated widely in England by the democratic societies of that period, contributed probably more than any other books to stimulate revolutionary feeling in politics and religion.(631) This popularity is owing partly to the character of the language and ideas, partly to the state of public feeling. Manifesting much plebeian simplicity of speech and earnestness of conviction, they gave expression in coarse Saxon words to thoughts which were then passing through many hearts. They were like the address of a mob-orator in writing, and fell upon ground prepared. Political reforms had been steadily resisted; and accordingly, when the success of foreign revolution had raised men's spirits to the highest point of impatience, the middle classes, which wanted a moderate reform, were unfortunately thrown on the side of the wild and anarchical spirits that wished for utter revolution. The church, by holding with the state, was partly involved in the same obloquy. Paine's works, resembling Rousseau's in purpose, though quite opposite in style, were as much adapted to the lower classes of England as his to the polished upper classes of France.
The Age of Reason, was a pamphlet admitting of quick perusal. It was afterwards followed by a second part, in which a defence was offered against the replies made to the former part. The object of the two is to state reasons for rejecting the Bible,(632) and to explain the nature of the religion of deism,(633) which was proposed as a substitute. A portion is devoted to an attack on the external evidence of revelation, or, as the author blasphemously calls it,(634) "the three principal means of imposture," prophecy, miracles, and mystery; the latter of which he asserts may exist in the physical, but not by the nature of things in the moral world. A larger portion is devoted to a collection of the various internal difficulties of the books of the Old and New Testament, and of the schemes of religion, Jewish and Christian.(635) The great mass of these objections are those which had been suggested by English or French deists, but are stated with extreme bitterness. The most novel part of this work is the use which Paine makes of the discoveries of astronomy(636) in revealing the vastness of the universe and a plurality of globes, to discredit the idea of interference on behalf of this insignificant planet,—an argument which he wields especially against the doctrine of incarnation. But no part of his work manifests such bitterness, and at the same time such a specious mode of argument, as his attack on the doctrine of redemption and substitutional atonement.(637) The work, in its satire and its blasphemous ribaldry, is a fit parallel to those of Voltaire. Every line is fresh from the writer's mind, and written with an acrimony which accounts for much of its influence. The religion which Paine substituted for Christianity was the belief in one God as revealed by science, in immortality as the continuance of conscious existence, in the natural equality of man, and in the obligation of justice and mercy to one's neighbour.(638)
The influence of the spirit of Paine lingered in some strata of our population far into the present century: by means of the views of Owen,(639) the founder of English socialism, which essentially reproduce the visionary political reforms which belonged to the philosophy and to the doubt of the last century.
Being desirous to improve the condition of the industrial classes, Owen speculated on the causes of evil; and, approaching the subject from the extreme sensational point of view, regarded the power of circumstances to be so great, that he was led to regard action as the obedience to the strongest motive. He thus introduced the idea of physical causation into the human will; and made the rule of right to be each one's own pleasures and pains. Founding political inferences on this ethical theory of circumstantial fatalism, he proposed the system called socialism, which aimed at modifying temptations and removing two great classes of temptations, by facilitating divorce, and proposing equality of property. The system is now obsolete both in idea and in history, yet it has an interest from the circumstance that until recently it deceived the minds and corrupted the religious faith of many of the manufacturing population.
The history of the influence of French infidelity on the course of English thought closes with names of greater note.(640) If Owen, though belonging to the present century, represents the political tone of the past, we must also refer to the same period, morally though not chronologically, the spirit of unbelief which animated literature in the poetry of Byron and Shelley.
Saddened by blighted hopes, political and personal, Byron affords a type of the unbelief which is marked by despair.(641) If compared with the two exiles of the Leman lake, whom the sympathy of a common scepticism and common exile commended to his meditation, he stands in many respects widely contrasted with them in tone and spirit. Allied rather to Gibbon in seriousness, he nevertheless wholly lacked his moral purpose and resolute spirit of perseverance. More nearly resembling Voltaire in the nature of his unbelief, he nevertheless differed in the features of gloom by which his mind was characterized. His unbelief was a remnant of the philosophic atheism of France; but it received a tinge in passing through the wounded mind of the poet.
His brother poet, of a still loftier genius, is more widely contrasted with him in mental qualities, than united by similarity in the character of his unbelief. Both were weary of the world; but the one was drawn down by unbelief to earth, the other soared into the ideal: the one was driven to the gloom of despair, the other was excited by the imagination to the madness of enthusiasm: the one was made sad by disappointment, the other was goaded by it into frenzy.
Shelley merits more than a passing notice, both because his poetry is a proof of our main position concerning the influence of certain forms of philosophy in producing unbelief, and because his mental history, as learned by means of his works and memoirs, is a psychological study of the highest value. The infidelity which shows itself in him is an idolum specus, as well as an idolum theatri.(642)
His life, his natural character, and his philosophy, all contributed to form his scepticism.(643) His life is a tale of sorrow and ruined hopes, of genius without wisdom: one of the sad stories which will ever excite the sympathy of the heart. Early sent to this university, he seems like Gibbon to have lived alone; and in the solitude of that impulsive and recluse spirit which formed his life-long peculiarity, to have nursed a spirit of atheism and wild schemes of reform. Charged by the authorities of his college with the authorship of an atheistical pamphlet,(644) he was expelled the university. An outcast from his family, he went forth to suffer poverty, to gather his livelihood as he could by the wonderful genius which nature had given him. Wronged as he thought by his university and his country, his wounded spirit imputed the supposed unkindness which he received to the religion which his enemies professed. In a foreign land, brooding over his wrongs, he cherished the bitter antipathy to priestcraft and to monarchy which finds such terrific expression in his poems.(645) His end was a fit close of a tragic life. A friendly hand paid the last office of friendship to his remains; and the urn which contains the ashes of his pyre rests in the solemn and beautiful cemetery of the eternal city, which he himself had described so strikingly in his affecting memorial of his friend, the poet Keats.(646)
His natural character contributed to produce his scepticism not less than his life to increase it. He has left us a clear delineation of himself in his writings. If considered on the emotional side, he was a creature of impulses. His predominant passion was an enthusiastic desire to reform the world. Filled with the wildest ideas of the French revolution, his impulsiveness hurried him on to give expression to them. His intellectual nature was analogous to the moral, and itself received a stimulus from it. His mental peculiarity was his power of sustained abstraction. His poems are not lyrics of life, but of an ideal world. His tendency was to insulate qualities or feelings, and hold them up to the mental vision as personalities. The words which he has addressed to his own skylark fitly describe his mind as it soared in the solitude of its abstraction:
Higher still and higher From the earth thou springest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
It has been well observed, that this tendency of the mind to personify isolated qualities or impulses, was essentially the mythological tendency(647) which had created the religion and expressed itself in the poetry of the Greeks, and possibly contributed to foster Shelley's sympathies with heathen religion. His mind was peculiarly Greek, simple not complex, imaginative rather than fanciful, abstract not concrete, intellectual not emotional; wanting the many-sidedness of modern taste, partaking of the unity of science rather than the multiformity of nature, like sculpture rather than painting. This mental peculiarity contributed to scepticism by inclining his mind to the pantheistic philosophy, which can never be held save by those whose minds can give being to an abstraction, and is revolting to those who are deeply touched with the Hebrew consciousness of personality and of duty. His philosophy was at first a form of naturalism, which identified God with nature, and made body and spirit co-essential. In this stage he oscillated between the belief of half personified self-moved atoms, or a general pervading spirit of nature. From this stage he passed into a new one, by contact with the philosophy of Hume; and, while admitting the diversity of matter and spirit, yet denied the substantial reality of both. In this state of mind he studied the philosophy of Plato, which was originally designed for doubters somewhat analogous to him; and he readily imbibed the theory that the passing phenomena are types of eternal archetypes, embodiments of eternal realities. But it was Plato's view of the universe that he accepted, not his view of man; his metaphysics, not his ethics. In none of these three theories is the rule of the universe ascribed to a character, but in each to animated abstractions. They are a pantheistic or mythological view of things.(648) Nor was the effect of this philosophy merely theoretical, for the distorted view of the physical and moral cosmos led him to believe that both should be regulated by the same conditions; that men should have the unconstrained liberty which he thought he saw in material things. Like Rousseau, ascribing moral evil to the artificial laws of society, Shelley proposed to substitute a new order of things, in which man should be emancipated from kings and priests. This philosophy also increased his hatred against the moral order of the world, and especially against Christianity; and led him to regard it as the offshoot of superstition and the impediment to progress. Yet even here, while echoing the irreverent doctrines of the French revolution, he bore an unconscious witness to the majesty of the Christian virtues, in that he could find no nobler type with which to invest his ideal race of men.
We have dwelt long on Shelley, as a most instructive example for observing the various influences, personal and social, intellectual and moral, philosophical and political, combining to form unbelief. His thoughts are the last echo of the unbelief of the last century. The great movement of Germany has completely changed the scepticism of the present. The instances that we have found of unbelief in England were indications of a tendency rather than a movement. They were however of sufficient importance to call forth the voices of the church in reply or in protest.
It has been remarked, that in the former half of the eighteenth century the attack was chiefly directed against the internal doctrines and narratives of revelation, on the assumption that they clashed with the judgment of common sense, or of the moral faculty. And therefore the writers on the evidences, adapting their defence to the attack, employed themselves chiefly in establishing the internal evidences, the moral need of a revelation generally, and the suitability of the Christian in particular, before producing the divine testimony which authenticates it. But about the middle of this century the historic spirit arose, and the point of attack shifted to an assault on the historic value of the literature which contains the revelation. The question thenceforth became a literary one, whether there was documentary proof that a revelation had been given. The defence accordingly ceased to be philosophical, and became historical.(649)
Opinions have changed with regard to the value of evidences in general, and the historic form of them in particular. When Boyle(650) at the end of the seventeenth century, and Bampton and Hulse in the latter half of the eighteenth, established their respective lectures, they looked forward to the probability of the occurrence of new forms of doubt, and to the importance of reasoning as the weapon for meeting them. In more recent times evidences have been undervalued, through the two opposite tendencies of the present age, the churchly and corporate tendency on the one hand, which rests on church authority, and the individualising tendency on the other, which rests on intuitive consciousness.(651) Evidences essentially belong to a theory, which places the test of truth objectively in a revealed book, and subjectively in the reason, as the organ for discovering morality and interpreting the book.(652) While evidences in general have been undervalued for these reasons, the historic branch of them has been regarded as obsolete, because having reference only to an age which doubts the documents and charges the authors with being deceivers or deceived, and unavailing, like an old fortification, against a new mode of assault. This latter statement is in substance correct. It lessens the value of this argument as a practical weapon against the doubts which now assail us, but does not detract from the literary value of the works in the special branch to which they apply. If the progress of knowledge be the exciting cause of free thought, a similar alteration in the evidences would be expected to occur from causes similar to those which produce an alteration in the attack, independently of the change which occurs from the necessity of adjusting the one to the other.
Abstract questions like this concerning the value of evidences find their solution independently of the human will. The human mind cannot be chained. New knowledge will suggest new doubts; and if so, spirit must be combated by spirit. Defences of Christianity, attempts to readjust it to new discoveries, must therefore continue to the end of time. In reference to the minor question of the value of the historic evidences, it is important to remember that these grand works are not simply refutative; they are indirectly instructive and didactic. Just as miracles are a part of Christianity, as well as evidences for its truth, so apologetic is a lesson in Christianity, as well as a reply to doubt.(653) It happens also that the most modern doubt of Germany has assumed the historic line, has become critical instead of philosophical; and, though the criticism is primarily of a different kind, it ultimately becomes capable of refutation by the very line of argument used in the eighteenth century.(654) We cherish therefore with devout reverence the memory of those writers who employed the power of the pen to defend the religion that they loved. They joined their intellectual labours to the spiritual earnestness which was the other weapon for opposing unbelief. Providence blessed their work. They sowed the seed of the intellectual and spiritual harvest which this century is reaping. "And herein is that saying true, One soweth and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: other men laboured, and ye are entered into their labours. And he that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal; that both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together."(655)
LECTURE VI. FREE THOUGHT IN THE THEOLOGY OF GERMANY FROM 1750-1835.
PHIL. iv. 8.
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
We are about to study the history of the movement in German theology, which is usually described by the vague name of Rationalism,(656)—a movement which, whether viewed specially in its relation to theology, or to literature generally, must be regarded as one of the most memorable efforts of human thought. It was one aspect of the great outburst of mental activity in Germany, which within the last hundred years has created a literature, which not only vies with the most renowned of those which have added to the stock of human knowledge, but holds a foremost rank among those which are characterised by originality and depth. The permanent contribution made by it to the thought of the world is the creation of a science of criticism,—a method of analysis, in which philosophy and history are jointly employed in the investigation of every branch of knowledge. If however it be viewed apart from the question of utility, the works produced during this period, in poetry, speculation, criticism, and theology, must ever make it memorable for monuments of mental power, even when they shall have become obsolete as sources of information.
The theological aspect of this great period of mental activity, which we are about to sketch, has now probably so far assumed its final shape, and given indications of the tendencies permanently created by it for good or for evil, that it admits of being viewed as a whole, and its purpose and meaning observed.(657)
We shall deviate slightly from the plan hitherto pursued, of selecting only the sceptical form of free thought, and shall give an outline of German theology generally; partly because the limits that sever orthodoxy from heresy are a matter of dispute, partly in order that the movement may be judged of as a whole. The size of the subject will preclude the possibility of entering so fully into biographical notices of the writers, or into the analysis of their writings, as in former lectures. We must select such typical minds as will enable us to observe the chief tendencies of thought.
As the stages of history are not arbitrarily severed, but grow out of each other, we must briefly notice the mental conditions of the period in Germany which preceded the rise of rationalism; next indicate the new forces, the introduction of which was the means of generating the movement; and then explain the movement itself in its chief phases and present results.
We have previously had occasion to imply, that the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century contained both an intellectual and a spiritual element.(658) The attempt to reconcile these has been the problem of protestant theology in Germany ever since. The intellectual element, so far as it was literary, soon passed into the hands of lay scholars:(659) the spiritual became a life rather than a doctrine, and the polemic or dogmatic aspect of the intellectual movement alone was left. The time from the passing of the Formula of Concord and the Synod of Dort(660) to the beginning of the eighteenth century, a period nearly corresponding with the seventeenth century, was in Germany an age of dogmatic theology. It was scholasticism revived, with the difference that the only source for the data of argument was the Scripture, not philosophy. But there was an equal absence of inquiry into first principles, an equal appeal to authority for the grounds of belief, and equal activity within these prescribed limits. It was marked, as among the contemporary puritans in England, by the most extreme view of biblical inspiration.(661) Not only was the distinction of law and gospel overlooked, and the historic and providential development in revelation forgotten; but Scripture was supposed to be in all respects a guide for the present, as well as a record of the past. Infallible inspiration was attributed to the authors of the sacred books, not merely in reference to the religious instruction which formed the appropriate matter of the supernatural revelation, but in reference also to the allusions to collateral subjects, such as natural science, or politics; and not merely to the matter, but to the smallest details of the language of the books.
Contemporary with this scholastic spirit was an outburst of the living spiritual feeling which had formed the other element in the Reformation. This religious movement is denominated Pietism. (27) Its centre was at Halle; and the best known name among the band of saints, of whom the world was not worthy, was Spener. Soon after the time when the miseries of the thirty years' war were closing, he established schools for orphans, and a system of teaching and of religious living which stirred up religious life in Germany. These two tendencies—the dogmatic and the pietistic—marked the religious life of Germany at the opening of the eighteenth century. The inference has been frequently drawn by the German writers, that they ministered indirectly to the production of scepticism; the dogmatic strictness stimulating a reaction towards latitude of opinion, and the unchurchlike and isolating character of pietism fostering individuality of belief. This inference is however hardly correct. Dogmatic truth in the corporate church, and piety in the individual members, are ordinarily the safeguard of Christian faith and life. The danger arose in this case from the circumstance that the dogmas were emptied of life, and so became unreal; and that the piety, being separated from theological science, became insecure.
During the first half of the century, certain new influences were introduced, which in the latter half caused these tendencies to develope into rationalism. They may be classed as three;(662)—the spread of the speculative philosophy of Wolff; the introduction of the works of the English deists; and the influence of the colony of French infidels established by Frederick the Great in Prussia. We shall explain these in detail.
The philosophy of Wolff was an offshoot directly from Leibnitz, indirectly from the Cartesian school. It is hardly necessary to reiterate the remark that the revolution in thought wrought by Descartes was nothing less than a protest of the human mind against any external authority for the first principles of its belief. Two great philosophers followed out his method in an independent manner; Spinoza, who attempted to exhibit with the rigour of deduction the necessary development of the idea of substance into the various modes which it assumes; and Leibnitz,(663) who, with less attempt at formal precision of method, starting with the idea of power, endeavoured, by means of the monadic theory, which it is unnecessary here to explain, to exhibit the nature of the universe in itself, and the connexion of the world of matter and of spirit. Wolff was a disciple of Leibnitz; great as a teacher rather than an inventor, who invested the system of his master slightly modified, with the precision of form which raised it to rivalry with the perfect symmetry of Spinoza's system. Adopting his master's two great canons of truth, the law of contradiction as regulative of thoughts, and the law of the sufficient reason as regulative of things,(664) he attempted in his theoretic philosophy to work out a regular system on each of the great branches of metaphysic,—nature, the mind, and God; by deducing them from the abstract ideas of the human mind.(665) The true method of conducting this inquiry would be strictly an a posteriori one, an analytical examination of our own consciousness, to ascertain what data the facts of the thinking mind furnish with respect to things thought of. But without any such examination Wolff, assuming in reference to these subjects the abstract ideas of the human mind as his data, proceeded to reason from them with the same confidence as the realists of the middle ages, or as mathematicians when they commence with the real intuitions of magnitude on which their science is founded. Thus his whole philosophy was form without matter; a magnificent idea, but not a fact. Yet though really baseless, it was not necessarily harmful.
This philosophy at first met with much opposition from the pietistic party of Halle.(666) The opposition was not due to any theological incorrectness, for Wolff was an orthodox Christian; but arose from the narrow and unnecessary suspicions which religious men too often have of philosophy, and the sensibility to any attempt to suggest a reconsideration of the grounds of belief, even if the conclusion adopted be the same. But the system soon became universally dominant. Its orderly method possessed the fascination which belongs to any encyclopaedic view of human knowledge. It coincided too with the tone of the age. Really opposed, as Cartesianism had been in France, to the scholasticism which still reigned, its dogmatic form nevertheless bore such external similarity to it, that it fell in with the old literary tastes. The evil effects which it subsequently produced in reference to religion were due only to the point of view which it ultimately induced. Like Locke's work on the reasonableness of Christianity, it stimulated intellectual speculation concerning revelation. By suggesting attempts to deduce a priori the necessary character of religious truths, it turned men's attention more than ever away from spiritual religion to theology. The attempt to demonstrate everything caused dogmas to be viewed apart from their practical aspect; and men being compelled to discard the previous method of drawing philosophy out of scripture, an independent philosophy was created, and scripture compared with its discoveries.(667) Philosophy no longer relied on scripture, but scripture rested on philosophy. Dogmatic theology was made a part of metaphysical philosophy. This was the mode in which Wolff's philosophy ministered indirectly to the creation of the disposition to make scriptural dogmas submit to reason, which was denominated rationalism. The empire of it was undisputed during the whole of the middle part of the century, until it was expelled towards the close by the partial introduction of Locke's philosophy,(668) and of the system of Kant, as well as by the growth of classical erudition, and of a native literature.
The second cause which ministered to generate rationalism was English deism. The connexion of England with Hanover had caused several of the works of the English deists to be translated in Germany,(669) and the general doctrines of natural religion, expressed by Herbert and Toland, were soon reproduced, together with the difficulties put forth by Tindal. But the direct effect of this cause has probably been exaggerated by the eagerness of those who, in the wish to identify German rationalism with English deism, have ignorantly overlooked the wide differences in premises, if not in results, which separated them, and the regular internal law of logical development which has presided over the German movement.
A more direct cause was found about the middle of the century in the influence of the French refugees and others, whom Frederick the Great invited to his court. Not only were Voltaire and Diderot visitors, but several writers of worse fame, La Mettrie, D'Argens, Maupertuis,(670) who possessed their faults without their mental power, were constant residents. Their philosophy and unbelief were the miniature of that which we have detailed in France. They created an antichristian atmosphere about the court, and in the upper classes of Berlin; and even minds that were attempting to create a native literature, and to improve the critical standard of literary taste, were partially influenced by means of it.(671)
We have now seen the state of the German mind in reference to theology at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the three new influences which were introduced into it in the interval between 1720 and 1760. The dogmatic tendency became transformed by the Wolffian philosophy; the pietistic retired from a public movement into the privacy of life; while the minds of men were awakened to inquiry by the suggestions of the English deists, or the restless and hopeful tone of the French mind. It was a moment of transition; the streaks of twilight before the dawn. Yet the signs of a change were so slight, that few could as yet discern the coming of a crisis, none predict its form.
We may now proceed to give the history of the theological movement which sprang up, commonly called Rationalism. It admits of natural division into three parts. The first, a period destructive in its tendency, extending to a little later than the end of the century, exhibits the gradual growth of the system, and its spread over every department of theology. The second, reconstructive in character, the re-establishment of harmony between faith and reason, extends till the publication of Strauss's celebrated work on the Life of Christ in 1835; the third, containing the divergent tendencies which have created permanent schools, reaches to the present time.(672) In all alike the harmony of faith and reason was sought: but in the first it was attained by sacrificing faith to reason; in the second and third, by seeking for their unity, or by separating their spheres. A distinguished name stands at the commencement of each period, representing the mind whose speculations were most influential in giving form to the movements. Semler inaugurated the destructive movement; Schleiermacher, the constructive; and Strauss precipitated the final forms which theological parties have assumed. In the present lecture we shall treat only of the first two of these movements.
The first of these periods, extending; from about 1750 to 1810,(673) contains two sub-periods. Till about 1790(674) we find the growth of rationalism. In the last decade of the century we shall meet with its full development; but at the same time the growth of new causes will be perceived, which prepared the way for a total alteration after the commencement of the present century.
The sub-period extending to 1790 is one of transition, in which we can trace three broadly marked tendencies in religion; one within the church, two outside of it. Such classes indeed slide away into each other; nature is more complex than man; but the use of them may be excused as facilitating instruction.
The movement within the church verged from a literary and dogmatic orthodoxy, which existed chiefly at the Saxon university of Leipsic, through the purely literary tendency, of which Michaelis may be taken as a type in the newly formed university of Goettingen, to the freethinking method typified by Semler, orthodox in doctrine, but in criticism adopting free views of inspiration, which mingled itself with the old pietism of the university of Halle.(675)
The two movements outside the church were, a literary one, indicated by Lessing, which found its chief utterance in the periodical literature, then in its infancy;(676) and a thoroughly deist one, connected with the court of Berlin, embodied in the educational institutions of Basedow.(677)
The movement which we have just named as existing within the church, differed from the older dogmatic one, in being a tendency toward an historical and critical study of the scriptures, instead of a philosophical study of doctrines. It embraced those whose teaching was not at variance with Christianity, and also those who manifested incipient scepticism. Two names, Ernesti(678) at Leipsic, and Michaelis(679) at Goettingen, represent the first class; the former applying criticism chiefly to the New Testament, the latter to the Old. The endeavour of both, especially of Ernesti, was to revive the grammatical and literary mode of interpreting scripture, as opposed to the dogmatic previously in use. Their spirit was not sceptical, but was that of men who felt the sceptical opinions round them; ethical and cold, like that of the Arminians of the preceding century.
Their system developed into rationalism in the hands of two of their pupils. Eichhorn was the pupil of Michaelis, Semler of Ernesti. The name of Eichhorn will recur later; Semler(680) must be considered now.
Semler was one of those minds which fall short of the highest order of originality, but by their erudition and appreciation of the wants of their time institute a movement by giving form to the current feeling of their day. Nurtured in pietism, he always retained signs of personal excellence; and his Christian earnestness is said not to have been destroyed by his speculations. His autobiography furnishes us with the means for the full comprehension of his character, and shows him to have been keenly alive to the difficulties which the English literature had suggested. His labours related to criticism, to exegesis, and to doctrine. As a critic he did not restrict himself to the examination of texts, but investigated the canonicity of the books of Scripture.(681) It is probable that the criticism commenced by R. Simon and Spinoza furnished hints for his views. He was one of the first to undervalue external evidence in the formation of the canon. The determination of the canon, i.e. of the list of books which are to be considered scripture, is a question of fact. What did the early church pronounce to be such; and does internal evidence bear out the idea? Semler undervalued the historical evidence of the church's judgment, and replaced it, not by careful study of internal critical evidence, like later rationalism, but by an a priori subjective decision, that only such books were to be received as conduced to a religious object. But it is in exegesis that he enunciated the principles which have left a permanent effect. He established what is called the historical method of interpretation.(682)
In the course of Christian history, three great methods for the interpretation of scripture have been used; the allegorical, the dogmatic, and the grammatical.(683) In the early church the tendency in the main was to the allegorical; in the middle-ages to the dogmatic; at the Renaissance and Reformation to the grammatical, which however in the seventeenth century was displaced by the allegorical(684) and dogmatic; and it was the work of Ernesti to restore it. Semler added the historic; by which is meant the method, which, after discovering the grammatical sense of the words, rests content exactly with the meaning which the circumstances of society could permit scripture to have at that age. It declines to search for mystical senses, or to use dogma as a clue to interpretation. This principle, so valuable in itself, yet, when abused, so fruitful in producing rationalism, was the discovery of Semler.
The application of this method of interpretation led him to the theory generally known by the name of "accommodation."(685) He felt a strong reaction against the forgetfulness shown by the old dogmatic orthodoxy, which had regarded the Bible as one book, instead of a collection or historic series of books, and had confounded together the Jewish and Christian dispensations, and taken no cognizance of the development of religious knowledge in scripture. Accordingly he desired to remove the deist difficulty by separating the eternal truth in scripture from what he considered to be local(686) that the Mosaic law of divorce was an adaptation to the particular needs of the age, seemed to establish the validity of the principle that revelation was an accommodation to be judged of by the historic circumstances of the age for which it was intended. The principle had been applied by English theologians:(687) but it needed a delicate insight to apply it safely. Semler introduced it indiscriminately into prophecy, miracle, and doctrine; and stated his views in a form which, though well meant, is certainly most repulsive. We may cite an instance in the case of his view of the demoniacal possessions of the New Testament.(688) Not denying them, Semler probably considered them to be nothing but the diseases of epilepsy and madness. But he did not ridicule the narrative as a deist would, nor explain the facts away as legends or myths, as is the plan of the later schools, nor account for them by the supposition that the apostles were left in ignorance about physical science, and inspired only in religious knowledge; but he regarded the narrative as an intentional accommodation on the part of the teachers to their hearers, and consequently stated his views in a form which is the more repulsive as seeming to impute dishonesty.(689) He went so far as to consider some of the doctrines of the New Testament to be an accommodation on the part of our Lord to the Jewish notions; and regarded Christ's work as the compromise between the Mosaic and philosophical parties in the Jewish church, which afterwards were represented in the Christian by St. Peter and St. Paul respectively.(690) Though he himself held the apostles' creed, and was shocked at some later developments of unbelief,(691) yet he seems to have considered practical morality to be at once the sole aim of Christianity, and the supreme rule of doctrine.(692) He founded no school; but his influence decidedly initiated the rationalist movement within the church; one peculiarity of which will be found to be, that it was professedly designed in defence of the church, not as an attack upon it.
The tendency which we have just studied was within the church. The two now about to be named were external to it. The one, earnest and scholarlike, formed chiefly on the model of English deism, is represented by Lessing. The other, modelled after Rousseau, was practical rather than intellectual, and aimed at remodelling education as well as altering belief.
Lessing,(693) a name honoured in the history of literature, is little known in England, save by his exquisite comparison of art and poetry, called the Laocoon.(694) He was one of those whose labours remain for the benefit of other ages, like that of the coral worms, which die, but leave their work. That a native German literature exists, is the work of Lessing as pioneer; that it is worth studying, is the result of his criticism and influence. Finding literature just arising, and the dispute still raging between the Saxon and Swiss schools, whether it should model itself after reason and form like the French literature, or after nature and the soul like the English, (28) he showed the true mode of uniting the two by turning attention to Greek models; and, in conjunction with Nicholai and the Jewish philosopher Mendelssohn, established a critical periodical, which became the agency for a literary reformation. But the point of interest, in relation to our present subject, is his influence on religion. Availing himself of the right which his position as librarian of Wolfenbuettel, a small town near Brunswick, gave him to publish manuscripts found in the library, he edited, in 1774 and the four following years, several fragments of a larger work, which he professed to have found. They are usually called the Wolfenbuettel fragments. (29) Till recently their authorship remained a secret. They are now known to have been written by the learned Hamburg philosopher, Reimarus.(695) They treated very nearly the same subjects, and in much the same tone, but with consummate skill, as the English deists. Reimarus, as is now known, in the introduction(696) to the larger unprinted work from which they were extracted, gave his own intellectual history, his early doubts on the doctrines of the Trinity, and the destruction of the heathen; and also on the history of the Old and New Testaments; and ends, like the English deists, with resting in natural religion.
The first two(697) fragments, published by Lessing, touched only upon the question of tolerating deists, and on the custom of declaiming against human reason in the pulpits. The third referred to the impossibility that all men should be brought to believe revelation on rational evidence. The fourth and fifth attacked the Old Testament history, such as the passage of the Red Sea. The sixth directed an assault against the New Testament; pointing out with unsparing severity the discrepancies in the accounts of the resurrection. The concluding one was on the object of Christianity, in which our blessed Lord's life and work were represented as a defeated political reform.
These views however were not professedly sanctioned by Lessing, for he added notes in refutation of them, and stated his object to be merely to stimulate free inquiry.(698) His wish was gratified in the tremendous effect which the publication produced. In the literary controversy which ensued, and which embittered his few remaining days,(699) he explained himself to be a doubter rather than a disbeliever; and defended himself by urging the distinctness of the religious element in scripture from the scientific; asserting that, as Christianity existed before the New Testament, so it could exist after it. The Christian religion is not true, he said, merely because evangelists and apostles taught it; but they taught it because it is true. And in order to restore Christianity to its true place in the estimation of thinking men, he composed or edited a well-known work(700) on the Education of the World,(701) which became a fertile source of thought for the philosophy of history, and was designed to explain the function of the Jewish religion in reference to the Christian, and to the world. The theology of Lessing's coadjutors however, if not also that of Lessing himself, did not rise higher than that of the more serious among the English deists.(702)
The other tendency, more decidedly sceptical even than that of Lessing, gave definite form to the extreme sceptical opinions excited by French philosophy, which had been fermenting in German society, and had earlier expressed themselves. It is best represented by Edelmann,(703) and by the unhappy Bahrdt, who passed gradually from Semler's school into this. Its religions tenets were simple naturalism, moral as distinct from positive religion; and it was connected with the attempt by Basedow,(704) patronised by Frederick, to establish educational institutions on the model proposed in Rousseau's Emile. The name which it gave to the movement was, the Period of Enlightenment (Aufklaerung-zeit),(705) which expressed the consciousness of illumination, and the yearning for deliverance which was finding its expression in France; and this name therefore has been usually adopted among foreign writers to describe this period of the history.
Such are the historical tendencies from about 1750 till about 1790—cold but learned orthodoxy; the commencement of critical rationalism, and open deism. About that time new influences came into operation, the effects of which are at once evident. Without taking account of the excitement caused by the political events of the French revolution, we may name two such new causes of movement—the literary influence of the court of Weimar, and the philosophy of Kant.
The centres of intellectual activity in Germany now changed. We are so apt to forget that Germany, especially at the end of the last century, formed a set of independent principalities, which varied in taste, in belief, and in literary tone, that we fail to realise the individuality of the scenes of literary activity. At the end of the last century there was one spot which became the very focus of intellectual life. The court of Karl August at Weimar, insignificant in political importance, was great in the history of the human mind.(706) There were gathered there most of the mighty spirits of the golden ago of German literature,—Herder, Wieland, Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul; a constellation of intellect unequalled since the court of Ferrara in the days of Alphonso.(707) The influence made itself felt in the adjacent university of Jena; and this little seminary became from that time for about twenty years,(708) until the foundation of Berlin, the first university in Germany. In it alone the philosophy of Kant became naturalized.(709) Some of the ablest men in Germany were its Professors; and about this time Jena and Weimar became the stronghold of free thought.
Except in the case of Herder,(710) the literary influence was not directly influential on theology. But it gave moral support to theological movement; though ultimately, by introducing a truer and more subjective appreciation of human nature, it was the means of generating the deep insight in the critical taste of thinking men which furnished the death-blow to rationalism. The same remark is true of the effects of the philosophy of Kant.(711) Its ultimate result was valuable in removing the eudaemonism common in ethics, and turning men's attention to the moral law within. But its immediate effects were to reinforce the appeal to reason, and to destroy revelation by leaving nothing to be revealed.
The nature of this system, so far as is necessary for our purpose, may be soon told. Kant, dissatisfied with the distrust in the human faculties induced by the scepticism of Hume, and the one-sided sensationalism of Condillac, carried a penetrating analysis into the human faculties;(712) attempting to perform with more exactness the work of Locke, to measure the human mind, which is the sounding-line, before fathoming the ocean of knowledge. Like Copernicus inverting astronomy, he reversed metaphysics, by referring classes of ideas to inward causes which before had been referred to outer.
He detected, as he supposed, innate forms of thought(713) in the mental structure, which form the conditions under which knowledge is possible. When he applied his system to give a philosophy of ethics and religion, he asserted nobly the law of duty written in the heart,(714) but identified it with religion. Religious ideas were regarded as true regulatively, not speculatively. Revelation was reunited with reason, by being resolved into the natural religion of the heart. Accordingly, the moral effect of this philosophy was to expel the French materialism and illuminism,(715) and to give depth to the moral perceptions: its religious effect was to strengthen the appeal to reason and the moral judgment as the test of religious truth; to render miraculous communication of moral instruction useless, if not absurd; and to reawaken the attempt, which had been laid aside since the Wolffian philosophy, of endeavouring to find a philosophy of religion.(716) From this time in German theology we shall find the existence of the twofold movement; the critical one, the lawful descendant of Semler, examining the historic revelation; and the philosophical one, the offshoot of the system of Kant, seeking for a philosophy of religion.
During the next twenty years, from 1790 to 1810, when so many influences were operating in common, it is not easy to measure the effect of the speculative philosophy upon particular minds with such exactness as to ascertain which ought properly to be classed in the destructive tendency, and which gave signs of the reaction. We must however be careful to exclude those younger minds(717) that were already appearing on the field, to become the heroes of the subsequent history, whose tone was so decidedly affected by new influences as to belong to the age of reaction.
In this sub-period we may name three tendencies: (1) the continuation of the Exegesis inaugurated in the last epoch by Semler, until about the end of the century it found its utmost limit in Paulus,(718)—the result of the age of illumination; (2) a dogmatic tendency, more or less the growth of new influences introduced by the new philosophy, which attempted to reconcile reason with the supernatural, and may be represented in its nearest approach to orthodoxy, at the end of this period, by Bretschneider;(719) and (3) the awakening of a distinct expression of the appeal to the supernatural which had never quite died out in the church, in the Arminianism of Reinhardt in the north, and of Storr in the south.(720) The last needs no further investigation; but we shall consider briefly the other two.
The exegetical method which formed the first was that which is now usually called the old or common-sense rationalism.(721) This form of rationalism differed from the English deism and French naturalism, in not regarding the Bible as fabulous in character, and the device of priestcraft;(722) but only denied the supernatural. By them the apostles had been regarded as impostors; and scripture was not only not received as divine, but not even respected as an ordinary historical record; whereas rationalism was intended as a defence against this view. It denied only the revealed character of scripture, and treated it as an ordinary history; and, distinguishing broadly between the fact related and the judgment on the fact, sought to separate the two, and explained away the supernatural element, such as miracles, as being orientalisms in the narrative, adapted to an infant age, which an enlightened age must translate into the language of ordinary events.
Eichhorn at Goettingen(723) applied this view to the Old Testament. Deeming miracles impossible, he did not regard them as fraud, but admitted on the contrary that the agents or narrators honestly believed them. The supernatural was not imparted to deceive, but was the result of oriental modes of speech, such as hyperbole, parable, or ellipsis, in which the steps by which the process was performed were omitted. The smoke of Sinai was considered a thunderstorm; the shining of Moses's face a natural phenomenon.
The principles which Eichhorn applied to the Old Testament, Paulus of Jena extended to the New.(724) The miraculous cures were explained by an ellipsis in the omission of the natural remedies; the casting out of devils as the power of a wise man over the insane; the transfiguration as the confused recollection of sleeping men, who saw Jesus with two unknown friends, in the beautiful light of the morning among the mountains: nay, trespassing on still more holy ground, he dared impiously to explain away the resurrection of our blessed Lord by the hypothesis that his death was only apparent. These are a specimen of the mode of exegesis adopted in this school, which is usually specifically called Rationalism. In this mode Jesus appeared to be merely a wise and virtuous man; and his miracles were merely acts of skill or accident. Paulus presented this as the original Christianity. The theory did not last long, save in the mind of its author, who lived until a recent period, to see the entire change of critical belief. Attributing the supernatural to ignorance, it did not even propose, like the later schools, to explain the marvellousness of the phenomena, objectively by so plausible a theory as legends, nor subjectively by myths:(725) it was too clumsy, not to say irreverent, an explanation of the facts to satisfy a people of deep and poetical soul like the Germans.
While this is a specimen of the critical side of rationalism, its dogmatic side varied from natural ethics to a kind of Socinianism. But in all alike, as its name would imply, it not only asserted that there is only one universal revelation, which takes place through observation of nature and man's reason; but that Christianity was not designed to teach any mysterious truths, but only to confirm the religious teaching of reason; and that no one ought to recognise as true that which cannot be proved to him rationally. The doctrine of a Trinity was necessarily disbelieved; the death of Christ regarded as an historic event, or a symbol that sacrifices were abolished. Holiness was reduced to morality. Extreme veneration for the Bible was called Bibliolatry.(726) Religion was represented as acting by natural motives: the ethical superseded the historic. The early theologians of this dogmatic branch of the school are now little known; but we may name Bretschneider(727) as the type of the least heretical portion of it at the close of this period, who believed Christianity to be a republication of natural religion, supernatural but reasonable: and, as the literary tendency of this school continued to exist in Roehr,(728) after the movement had become extinct in other minds, so Wegscheider,(729) until a recent period, was the solitary instance of the dogmatic position slightly modified.