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THE EVE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
EDWARD J. LOWELL
TO MY WIFE
There are two ways in which the French Revolution may be considered. We may look at the great events which astonished and horrified Europe and America: the storming of the Bastille, the march on Versailles, the massacres of September, the Terror, and the restoration of order by Napoleon. The study of these events must always be both interesting and profitable, and we cannot wonder that historians, scenting the approaching battle, have sometimes hurried over the comparatively peaceful country that separated them from it. They have accepted easy and ready-made solutions for the cause of the trouble. Old France has been lurid in their eyes, in the light of her burning country-houses. The Frenchmen of the eighteenth century, they think, must have been wretches, or they could not so have suffered. The social fabric, they are sure, was rotten indeed, or it would never have gone to pieces so suddenly.
There is, however, another way of looking at that great revolution of which we habitually set the beginning in 1789. That date is, indeed, momentous; more so than any other in modern history. It marks the outbreak in legislation and politics of ideas which had already been working for a century, and which have changed the face of the civilized world. These ideas are not all true nor all noble. They have in them a large admixture of speculative error and of spiritual baseness. They require to-day to be modified and readjusted. But they represent sides of truth which in 1789, and still more in 1689, were too much overlooked and neglected. They suited the stage of civilization which the world had reached, and men needed to emphasize them. Their very exaggeration was perhaps necessary to enable them to fight, and in a measure to supplant, the older doctrines which were in possession of the human mind. Induction, as the sole method of reasoning, sensation as the sole origin of ideas, may not be the final and only truth; but they were very much needed in the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they found philosophers to elaborate them, and enthusiasts to preach them. They made their way chiefly on French soil in the decades preceding 1789.
The history of French society at that time has of late years attracted much attention in France. Diligent scholars have studied it from many sides. I have used their work freely, and acknowledgment will be found in the foot-notes; but I cannot resist the pleasure of mentioning in this preface a few of those to whom I am most indebted; and first M. Albert Babeau, without whose careful researches several chapters of this book could hardly have been written. His studies in archives, as well as in printed memoirs and travels, have brought much of the daily life of old France into the clearest light. He has in an eminent degree the great and thoroughly French quality of telling us what we want to know. His impartiality rivals his lucidity, while his thoroughness is such that it is hard gleaning the old fields after him.
Hardly less is my indebtedness to the late M. Aimé Chérest, whose unfinished work, “La Chute de l’ancien régime,” gives the most interesting and philosophical narrative of the later political events preceding the meeting of the Estates General. To the great names of de Tocqueville and of Taine I can but render a passing homage. The former may be said to have opened the modern mind to the proper method of studying the eighteenth century in France, the latter is, perhaps, the most brilliant of writers on the subject; and no one has recently written, or will soon write, about the time when the Revolution was approaching without using the books of both of them. And I must not forget the works of the Vicomte de Broc, of M. Boiteau, and of M. Rambaud, to which I have sometimes turned for suggestion or confirmation.
Passing to another branch of the subject, I gladly acknowledge my debt to the Right Honorable John Morley. Differing from him in opinion almost wherever it is possible to have an opinion, I have yet found him thoroughly fair and accurate in matters of fact. His books on Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Encyclopaedists, taken together, form the most satisfactory history of French philosophy in the eighteenth century with which I am acquainted.
Of the writers of monographs, and of the biographers, I will not speak here in detail, although some of their books have been of very great service to me. Such are those of M. Bailly, M. de Lavergne, M. Horn, M. Stourm, and M. Charles Gomel, on the financial history of France; M. de Poncins and M. Desjardins, on the cahiers; M. Rocquain on the revolutionary spirit before the revolution, the Comte de Luçay and M. de Lavergne, on the ministerial power and on the provincial assemblies and estates; M. Desnoiresterres, on Voltaire; M. Scherer, on Diderot; M. de Loménie, on Beaumarchais; and many others; and if, after all, it is the old writers, the contemporaries, on whom I have most relied, without the assistance of these modern writers I certainly could not have found them all.
In treating of the Philosophers and other writers of the eighteenth century I have not endeavored to give an abridgment of their books, but to explain such of their doctrines as seemed to me most important and influential. This I have done, where it was possible, in their own language. I have quoted where I could; and in many cases where quotation marks will not be found, the only changes from the actual expression of the author, beyond those inevitable in translation, have been the transference from direct to oblique speech, or some other trifling alterations rendered necessary in my judgment by the exigencies of grammar. On the other hand, I have tried to translate ideas and phrases rather than words.
EDWARD J. LOWELL.
June 24, 1892.
I. THE KING AND THE ADMINISTRATION
II. LOUIS XVI. AND HIS COURT
III. THE CLERGY
IV. THE CHURCH AND HER ADVERSARIES
V. THE CHURCH AND VOLTAIRE
VI. THE NOBILITY
VII. THE ARMY
VIII. THE COURTS OF LAW
IX. EQUALITY AND LIBERTY
XII. THE PROVINCIAL TOWNS
XIII. THE COUNTRY
XVI. “THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA”
XVII. HELVETIUS, HOLBACH, AND CHASTELLUX
XVIII. ROUSSEAU’S POLITICAL WRITINGS
XIX. “LA NOUVELLE HÉLOÏSE” AND “ÉMILE”
XX. THE PAMPHLETS
XXI. THE CAHIERS
XXII. SOCIAL AND ECONOMICAL MATTERS IN THE CAHIERS
INDEX OF EDITIONS CITED
THE EVE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.
It is characteristic of the European family of nations, as distinguished from the other great divisions of mankind, that among them different ideals of government and of life arise from time to time, and that before the whole of a community has entirely adopted one set of principles, the more advanced thinkers are already passing on to another. Throughout the western part of continental Europe, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, absolute monarchy was superseding feudalism; and in France the victory of the newer over the older system was especially thorough. Then, suddenly, although not quite without warning, a third system was brought face to face with the two others. Democracy was born full-grown and defiant. It appealed at once to two sides of men’s minds, to pure reason and to humanity. Why should a few men be allowed to rule a great multitude as deserving as themselves? Why should the mass of mankind lead lives full of labor and sorrow? These questions are difficult to answer. The Philosophers of the eighteenth century pronounced them unanswerable. They did not in all cases advise the establishment of democratic government as a cure for the wrongs which they saw in the world. But they attacked the things that were, proposing other things, more or less practicable, in their places. It seemed to these men no very difficult task to reconstitute society and civilization, if only the faulty arrangements of the past could be done away. They believed that men and things might be governed by a few simple laws, obvious and uniform. These natural laws they did not make any great effort to discover; they rather took them for granted; and while they disagreed in their statement of principles, they still believed their principles to be axiomatic. They therefore undertook to demolish simultaneously all established things which to their minds did not rest on absolute logical right. They bent themselves to their task with ardent faith and hope.
The larger number of people, who had been living quietly in the existing order, were amused and interested. The attacks of the Philosophers seemed to them just in many cases, the reasoning conclusive. But in their hearts they could not believe in the reality and importance of the assault. Some of those most interested in keeping the world as it was, honestly or frivolously joined in the cry for reform and for destruction.
At last an attempt was made to put the new theories into practice. The social edifice, slowly constructed through centuries, to meet the various needs of different generations, began to tumble about the astonished ears of its occupants. Then all who recognized that they had something at stake in civilization as it existed were startled and alarmed. Believers in the old religion, in old forms of government, in old manners and morals, men in fear for their heads and men in fear for their estates, were driven together. Absolutism and aristocracy, although entirely opposed to each other in principle, were forced into an unnatural alliance. From that day to this, the history of the world has been largely made up of the contests of the supporters of the new ideas, resting on natural law and on logic, with those of the older forms of thought and customs of life, having their sanctions in experience. It was in France that the long struggle began and took its form. It is therefore interesting to consider the government of that country, and its material and moral condition, at the time when the new ideas first became prominent and forced their way toward fulfillment.
It is seldom in the time of the generation in which they are propounded that new theories of life and its relations bear their full fruit. Only those doctrines which a man learns in his early youth seem to him so completely certain as to deserve to be pushed nearly to their last conclusions. The Frenchman of the reign of Louis XV. listened eagerly to Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Their descendants, in the time of his grandson, first attempted to apply the ideas of those teachers. While I shall endeavor in this book to deal with social and political conditions existing in the reign of Louis XVI., I shall be obliged to turn to that of his predecessor for the origin of French thoughts which acted only in the last quarter of the century.
THE KING AND THE ADMINISTRATION.
When Louis XVI. came to the throne in the year 1774, he inherited a power nearly absolute in theory over all the temporal affairs of his kingdom. In certain parts of the country the old assemblies or Provincial Estates still met at fixed times, but their functions were very closely limited. The _Parliaments_, or high courts of justice, which had claimed the right to impose some check on legislation, had been browbeaten by Louis XIV., and the principal one, that of Paris, had been dissolved by his successor. The young king appeared, therefore, to be left face to face with a nation over which he was to exercise direct and despotic power. It was a recognized maxim that the royal was law. [Footnote: Si veut le roi, si veut la loi.] Moreover, for more than two centuries, the tendency of continental governments had been toward absolutism. Among the great desires of men in those ages had been organization and strong government. A despotism was considered more favorable to these things than an aristocracy. Democracy existed as yet only in the dreams of philosophers, the history of antiquity, and the example of a few inconsiderable countries, like the Swiss cantons. It was soon to be brought into greater prominence by the American Revolution. As yet, however, the French nation looked hopefully to the king for government, and for such measures of reform as were deemed necessary. A king of France who had reigned justly and strongly would have received the moral support of the most respectable part of his subjects. These longed for a fair distribution of public burdens and for freedom from unnecessary restraint, rather than for a share in the government. The admiration for the English constitution, which was commonly expressed, was as yet rather theoretic than practical, and was not of a nature to detract from the loyalty undoubtedly felt for the French crown.
Every monarch, however despotic in theory, is in fact surrounded by many barriers which it takes a strong man to overleap. And so it was with the king of France. Although he was the fountain of justice, his judicial powers were exercised through magistrates many of whom had bought their places, and could therefore not be dispossessed without measures that were felt to be unjust and almost revolutionary. The breaking up of the Parliament of Paris, in the latter years of the preceding reign, had thrown the whole body of judges and lawyers into a state of discontent bordering on revolt. The new court of justice which had superseded the old one, the Parlement Maupeou as it was called, after the name of the chancellor who had advised its formation, was neither liked nor respected. It was one of the first acts of the government of Louis XVI. to restore the ancient Parliament of Paris, whose rights over legislation will be considered later, but which exercised at least a certain moral restraint on the royal authority.
But it was in the administrative part of the government, where the king seemed most free, that he was in fact most hampered. A vast system of public offices had been gradually formed, with regulations, traditions, and a professional spirit. This it was which had displaced the old feudal order, substituting centralization for vigorous local life.
The king’s councils, which had become the central governing power of the state, were five in number. They were, however, closely connected together. The king himself was supposed to sit in all of them, and appears to have attended three with tolerable regularity. When there was a prime minister, he also sat in the three that were most important. The controller of the finances was a member of four of the councils, and the chancellor of three at least. As these were the most important men in the government, their presence in the several councils secured unity of action. The boards, moreover, were small, not exceeding nine members in the case of the first four in dignity and power: the Councils of State, of Despatches, of Finance, and of Commerce. The fifth, the Privy Council, or Council of Parties, was larger, and served in a measure as a training-school for the others. It comprised, beside all the members of the superior councils, thirty councilors of state, several intendants of finance, and eighty lawyers known as _maitres des requetes_. [Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d’État, 418, 419, 424, 442, 448, 449.]
The functions of the various councils were not clearly defined and distinguished. Many questions would be submitted to one or another of them as chance or influence might direct. Under each there were a number of public offices, called bureaux, where business was prepared, and where the smaller matters were practically settled. By the royal councils and their subordinate public offices, France was governed to an extent and with a minuteness hardly comprehensible to any one not accustomed to centralized government.
The councils did nothing in their own name. The king it was who nominally settled everything with their advice. The final decision of every question was supposed to rest with the monarch himself. Every important matter was in fact submitted to him. Thus in the government of the country, the king could at any moment take as much of the burden upon his own shoulders as they were strong enough to bear.
The legislative power was exercised by the councils. It was a question not entirely settled whether their edicts possessed full force of law without the assent of the high courts or parliaments. But with the councils rested, at least, all the initiative of legislation. The process of lawmaking began with them, and by them the laws were shaped and drafted.
They also possessed no small part of the judiciary power. The custom of removing private causes from the regular courts, and trying them before one or another of the royal councils, was a great and, I think, a growing one. This appellate jurisdiction was due in theory partly to the doctrine that the king was the origin of justice; and partly to the idea that political matters could not safely be left to ordinary tribunals. The notion that the king owes justice to all his subjects and that it is an act of grace, perhaps even a duty on his part, to administer it in person when it is possible to do so, is as old as monarchy itself.
Solomon in his palace, Saint Louis under his oak, when they decided between suitors before them, were exercising the inherent rights of sovereignty, as understood in their day. The late descendants of the royal saint did not decide causes themselves except on rare occasions, but in questions between parties followed the decision of the majority of the council that heard the case. Thus the ancient custom of seeking justice from a royal judge merely served to transfer jurisdiction to an irregular tribunal.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d’État_, 465.]
The executive power was both nominally and actually in the hands of the councils. Great questions of foreign and domestic policy could be settled only in the Council of State.[Footnote: Sometimes called Conseil d’en haut, or Upper Council.] But the whole administration tended more and more in the same direction. Questions of detail were submitted from all parts of France. Hardly a bridge was built or a steeple repaired in Burgundy or Provence without a permission signed by the king in council and countersigned by a secretary of state. The Council of Despatches exercised disciplinary jurisdiction over authors, printers, and booksellers. It governed schools, and revised their rules and regulations. It laid out roads, dredged rivers, and built canals. It dealt with the clergy, decided differences between bishops and their chapters, authorized dioceses and parishes to borrow money. It took general charge of towns and municipal organization. The Council of Finance and the Council of Commerce had equally minute questions to decide in their own departments.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Secrétaires d’État_, 418. For this excessive centralization, see, also, De Tocqueville, _L’ancien Régime et la Révolution_, passim.]
Evidently the king and his ministers could not give their personal attention to all these matters. Minor questions were in fact settled by the bureaux and the secretaries of state, and the king did little more than sign the necessary license. Thus matters of local interest were practically decided by subordinate officers in Paris or Versailles, instead of being arranged in the places where they were really understood. If a village in Languedoc wanted a new parsonage, neither the inhabitants of the place, nor any one who had ever been within a hundred miles of it, was allowed to decide on the plan and to regulate the expense, but the whole matter was reported to an office in the capital and there settled by a clerk. This barbarous system, which is by no means obsolete in Europe, is known in modern times by the barbarous name of bureaucracy.
The royal councils and their subordinate bureaux had their agents in the country. These were the intendants, men who deserve attention, for by them a very large part of the actual government was carried on. They were thirty-two in number, and governed each a territory, called a généralité. The Intendants were not great lords, nor the owners of offices that had become assimilated to property; they were hard-working men, delegated by the council, under the great seal, and liable to be promoted or recalled at the royal pleasure. They were chosen from the class of _maîtres des requêtes_, and were therefore all lawyers and members of the Privy Council. Thus the unity of the administration in Versailles and the provinces was constantly maintained.
It had originally been the function of the intendants to act as legal inspectors, making the circuit of the provincial towns for the purpose of securing uniformity and the proper administration of justice in the various local courts.[Footnote: Du Boys, i. 517.] They retained to the end of the monarchy the privilege of sitting in all the courts of law within their districts.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 31.] But their duties and powers had grown to be far greater than those of any officer merely judicial. The intendant had charge of the interests of the Catholic religion and worship, and the care of buildings devoted to religious purposes. He also controlled the Protestants, and all their affairs. He encouraged and regulated agriculture and commerce. He settled many questions concerning military matters and garrisons. The militia was entirely managed by him. He cooperated with the courts of justice in the control of the police. He had charge of post-roads and post-offices, stage coaches, books and printing, royal or privileged lotteries, and the suppression of illegal gambling. He was, in fact, the direct representative of the royal power, and was in constant correspondence with the king’s minister of state. And as the power of the crown had constantly grown for two centuries, so the power of the intendant had constantly grown with it, tending to the centralization and unity of France and to the destruction of local liberties.
As the intendants were educated as lawyers rather than as administrators, and as they were often transferred from one province to another after a short term of service, they did not acquire full knowledge of their business. Moreover, they did not reside regularly in the part of the country which they governed, but made only flying visits to it, and spent most of their time near the centre of influence, in Paris or Versailles. Yet their opportunities for doing good or harm were almost unlimited. Their executive command was nearly uncontrolled; for where there were no provincial estates, the inhabitants could not send a petition to the king except through the hands of the intendant, and any complaint against that officer was referred to himself for an answer.[Footnote: For the intendants, see Necker, _De l’administration_, ii. 469, iii. 379. Ibid., _Mémoire au roi sur l’établissement des administrations provinciales_, passim. De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 29. Mercier, _Tableau de Paris_, ix. 85. The official title of the intendant was _commissaire départi_.]
The intendants were represented in their provinces by subordinate officers called sub-delegates, each one of whom ruled his petty district or _élection_. These men were generally local lawyers or magistrates. Their pay was small, they had no hope of advancement, and they were under great temptation to use their extensive powers in a corrupt and oppressive manner.[Footnote: De Lucay, _Les Assemblées provinciales_, 42, etc.]
Beside the intendant, we find in every province a royal governor. The powers of this official had gradually waned before those of his rival. He was always a great lord, drawing a great salary and maintaining great state, but doing little service, and really of far less importance to the province than the new man. He was a survival of the old feudal government, superseded by the centralized monarchy of which the intendant was the representative.[Footnote: The _generalité_ governed by the intendant, and the _province_ to which the royal governor was appointed, were not always coterminous.]
LOUIS XVI. AND HIS COURT.
A centralized government, when it is well managed and carefully watched from above, may reach a degree of efficiency and quickness of action which a government of distributed local powers cannot hope to equal. But if a strong central government become disorganized, if inefficiency, or idleness, or, above all, dishonesty, once obtain a ruling place in it, the whole governing body is diseased. The honest men who may find themselves involved in any inferior part of the administration will either fall into discouraged acquiescence, or break their hearts and ruin their fortunes in hopeless revolt. Nothing but long years of untiring effort and inflexible will on the part of the ruler, with power to change his agents at his discretion, can restore order and honesty.
There is no doubt that the French administrative body at the time when Louis XVI. began to reign, was corrupt and self-seeking. In the management of the finances and of the army, illegitimate profits were made. But this was not the worst evil from which the public service was suffering. France was in fact governed by what in modern times is called “a ring.” The members of such an organization pretend to serve the sovereign, or the public, and in some measure actually do so; but their rewards are determined by intrigue and favor, and are entirely disproportionate to their services. They generally prefer jobbery to direct stealing, and will spend a million of the state’s money in a needless undertaking, in order to divert a few thousands into their own pockets.
They hold together against all the world, while trying to circumvent each other. Such a ring in old France was the court. By such a ring will every country be governed, where the sovereign who possesses the political power is weak in moral character or careless of the public interest; whether that sovereign be a monarch, a chamber, or the mass of the people.[Footnote: “Quand, dans un royaume, il y a plus d’avantage à faire sa cour qu’à faire son devoir, tout est perdu.” Montesquieu, vii. 176, (_Pensées diverses_.)]
Louis XVI., king of France and of Navarre, was more dull than stupid, and weaker in will than in intellect. In him the hobbledehoy period had been unusually prolonged, and strangers at court were astonished to see a prince of nineteen years of age running after a footman to tickle him while his hands were full of dirty clothes.[Footnote: Swinburne, i. 11.] The clumsy youth grew up into a shy and awkward man, unable to find at will those accents of gracious politeness which are most useful to the great. Yet people who had been struck at first only with his awkwardness were sometimes astonished to find in him a certain amount of education, a memory for facts, and a reasonable judgment.[Footnote: Campan, ii. 231. Bertrand de Moleville, _Histoire_, i. Introd.; _Mémoires_, i. 221.] Among his predecessors he had set himself Henry IV. as a model, probably without any very accurate idea of the character of that monarch; and he had fully determined he would do what in him lay to make his people happy. He was, moreover, thoroughly conscientious, and had a high sense of the responsibility of his great calling. He was not indolent, although heavy, and his courage, which was sorely tested, was never broken. With these virtues he might have made a good king, had he possessed firmness of will enough to support a good minister, or to adhere to a good policy. But such strength had not been given him. Totally incapable of standing by himself, he leant successively, or simultaneously, on his aunt, his wife, his ministers, his courtiers, as ready to change his policy as his adviser. Yet it was part of his weakness to be unwilling to believe himself under the guidance of any particular person; he set a high value on his own authority, and was inordinately jealous of it. No one, therefore, could acquire a permanent influence. Thus a well-meaning man became the worst of sovereigns; for the first virtue of a master is consistency, and no subordinate can follow out with intelligent zeal today a policy which he knows may be subverted tomorrow.
The apologists of Louis XVI. are fond of speaking of him as “virtuous.” The adjective is singularly ill-chosen. His faults were of the will more than of the understanding. To have a vague notion of what is right, to desire it in a general way, and to lack the moral force to do it,–surely this is the very opposite of virtue.
The French court, which was destined to have a very great influence on the course of events in this reign and in the beginning of the French Revolution, was composed of the people about the king’s person. The royal family and the members of the higher nobility were admitted into the circle by right of birth, but a large place could be obtained only by favor. It was the court that controlled most appointments, for no king could know all applicants personally and intimately. The stream of honor and emolument from the royal fountain-head was diverted, by the ministers and courtiers, into their own channels. Louis XV had been led by his mistresses; Louis XVI was turned about by the last person who happened to speak to him. The courtiers, in their turn, were swayed by their feelings, or their interests. They formed parties and combinations, and intrigued for or against each other. They made bargains, they gave and took bribes. In all these intrigues, bribes, and bargains, the court ladies had a great share. They were as corrupt as the men, and as frivolous. It is probable that in no government did women ever exercise so great an influence.
The factions into which the court was divided tended to group themselves round certain rich and influential families. Such were the Noailles, an ambitious and powerful house, with which Lafayette was connected by marriage; the Broglies, one of whom had held the thread of the secret diplomacy which Louis XV. had carried on behind the backs of his acknowledged ministers; the Polignacs, new people, creatures of Queen Marie Antoinette; the Rohans, through the influence of whose great name an unworthy member of the family was to rise to high dignity in the church and the state, and then to cast a deep shadow on the darkening popularity of that ill-starred princess. Such families as these formed an upper class among nobles, and the members firmly believed in their own prescriptive right to the best places. The poorer nobility, on the other hand, saw with great jealousy the supremacy of the court families. They insisted that there was and should be but one order of nobility, all whose members were equal among themselves.[Footnote: See among other places the Instructions of the Nobility of Blois to the deputies, _Archives parlementaires_, ii. 385.]
The courtiers, on their side, thought themselves a different order of beings from the rest of the nation. The ceremony of presentation was the passport into their society, but by no means all who possessed this formal title were held to belong to the inner circle. Women who came to court but once a week, although of great family, were known as “Sunday ladies.” The true courtier lived always in the refulgent presence of his sovereign.[Footnote: Campan, iii. 89.]
The court was considered a perfectly legitimate power, although much hated at times, and bearing, very properly, a large share of the odium of misgovernment. The idea of its legitimacy is impressed on the language of diplomacy, and we still speak of the Court of St. James, the Court of Vienna, as powers to be dealt with. Under a monarchy, people do not always distinguish in their own minds between the good of the state and the personal enjoyment of the monarch, nor is the doctrine that the king exists for his people by any means fully recognized. When the Count of Artois told the Parliament of Paris in 1787 that they knew that the expenses of the king could not be regulated by his receipts, but that his receipts must be governed by his expenses, he spoke a half-truth; yet it had probably not occurred to him that there was any difference between the necessity of keeping up an efficient army, and the desirability of having hounds, coaches, and palaces. He had not reflected that it might be essential to the honor of France to feed the old soldiers in the Hotel des Invalides, and quite superfluous to pay large sums to generals who had never taken the field and to colonels who seldom visited their regiments. The courtiers fully believed that to interfere with their salaries was to disturb the most sacred rights of property. In 1787, when the strictest economy was necessary, the king united his “Great Stables” and “Small Stables,” throwing the Duke of Coigny, who had charge of the latter, out of place. Although great pains were taken to spare the duke’s feelings and his pocket, he was very angry at the change, and there was a violent scene between him and the king. “We were really provoked, the Duke of Coigny and I,” said Louis good-naturedly afterwards, “but I think if he had thrashed me, I should have forgiven him.” The duke, however, was not so placable as the king. Holding another appointment, he resigned it in a huff. The queen was displeased at this mark of temper, and remarked to a courtier that the Duke of Coigny did not appreciate the consideration that had been shown him.
“Madam,” was the reply, “he is losing too much to be content with compliments. It is too bad to live in a country where you are not sure of possessing today what you had yesterday. Such things used to take place only in Turkey.”[Footnote: Besenval, ii. 255.]
It is not easy, in looking at the French government in the eighteenth century, to decide where the working administration ended, and where the useless court that answered no real purpose began. The ministers of state were reckoned a part of the court. So were many of the upper civil-servants, the king’s military staff, and in a sense, the guards and household troops. So were the “great services,” partaking of the nature of public offices, ceremonial honors, and domestic labors. Of this kind were the Household, the Chamber, the Antechamber and Closet, the Great and the Little Stables, with their Grand Squire, First Squire and pages, who had to prove nobility to the satisfaction of the royal herald. There was the department of hunting and that of buildings, a separate one for royal journeys, one for the guard, another for police, yet another for ceremonies. There were five hundred officers “of the mouth,” table-bearers distinct from chair-bearers. There were tradesmen, from apothecaries and armorers at one end of the list to saddle-makers, tailors and violinists at the other.
When a baby is at last born to Marie Antoinette (only a girl, to every one’s disappointment), a rumor gets about that the child will be tended with great simplicity. The queen’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, in distant Vienna, takes alarm. She does not approve of “the present fashion according to Rousseau” by which young princes are brought up like peasants. Her ambassador in Paris hastens to reassure her. The infant will not lack reasonable ceremony. The service of her royal person alone will employ nearly eighty attendants.[Footnote: Mercy-Argenteau, iii. 283, 292.] The military and civil households of the king and of the royal family are said to have consisted of about fifteen thousand souls, and to have cost forty-five million francs per annum. The holders of many of the places served but three months apiece out of every year, so that four officers and four salaries were required, instead of one.
With such a system as this we cannot wonder that the men who administered the French government were generally incapable and self-seeking. Most of them were politicians rather than administrators, and cared more for their places than for their country. Of the few conscientious and patriotic men who obtained power, the greater number lost it very speedily. Turgot and Malesherbes did not long remain in the Council. Necker, more cautious and conservative, could keep his place no better. The jealousy of Louis was excited, and he feared the domination of a man of whom the general opinion of posterity has been that he was wanting in decision. Calonne was sent away as soon as he tried to turn from extravagance to economy. Vergennes alone, of the good servants, retained his office; perhaps because he had little to do with financial matters; perhaps, also, because he knew how to keep himself decidedly subordinate to whatever power was in the ascendant. The lasting influences were that of Maurepas, an old man who cared for nothing but himself, whose great object in government was to be without a rival, and whose art was made up of tact and gayety; and that of the rival factions of Lamballe and Polignac, guiding the queen, which were simply rapacious.
The courtiers and the numerous people who were drawn to Versailles by business or curiosity were governed by a system of rules of gradual growth, constituting what was known as “Étiquette.” The word has passed into common speech. In this country it is an unpopular word, and there is an impression in many people’s minds that the thing which it represents is unnecessary. This, however, is a great delusion. Étiquette is that code of rules, not necessarily connected with morals, by which mutual intercourse is regulated. Every society, whether civilized or barbarous, has such a code of its own. Without it social life would be impossible, for no man would know what to expect of his neighbors, nor be able promptly to interpret the words and actions of his fellow-men. It is in obedience to an unwritten law of this kind that an American takes off his hat when he goes into a church, and an Asiatic, when he enters a mosque, takes off his shoes; that Englishmen shake hands, and Africans rub noses. Where étiquette is well understood and well adapted to the persons whom it governs, men are at ease, for they know what they may do without offense. Where it is too complicated it hampers them, making spontaneous action difficult, and there is no doubt that the étiquette that governed the French court was antiquated, unadvisable and cumbrous. Its rules had been devised to prevent confusion and to regulate the approach of the courtiers to the king. As all honors and emoluments came from the royal pleasure, people were sure to crowd about the monarch, and to jostle each other with unmannerly and dangerous haste, unless they were strictly held in check. Every one, therefore, must have his place definitely assigned to him. To be near the king at all times, to have the opportunity of slipping a timely word into his ear, was an invaluable privilege. To be employed in menial offices about his person was a mark of confidence. Rules could not easily be revised, for each of them concerned a vested right. Those in force in the reign of Louis XVI. had been established by his predecessors when manners were different.
At the close of the Middle Ages privacy may be said to have been a luxury almost unknown to any man. There was not room for it in the largest castle. Solitude was seldom either possible or safe. People were crowded together without means of escape from each other. The greatest received their dependents, and often ate their meals, in their bedrooms. A confidential interview would be held in the embrasure of a window. Such customs disappeared but gradually from the sixteenth century to our own. But by the latter part of the eighteenth, modern ways and ideas were coming in. Yet the étiquette of the French court was still old-fashioned. It infringed too much on the king’s privacy; it interfered seriously with his freedom. It exposed him too familiarly to the eyes of a nation overprone to ridicule. A man who is to inspire awe should not dress and undress in public. A woman who is to be regarded with veneration should be allowed to take her bath and give birth to her children in private.[Footnote: See the account of the birth of Marie Antoinette’s first child, when she was in danger from the mixed crowd that filled her room, stood on chairs, etc., 19th Dec. 1778. Campan, i. 201. At her later confinements only princes of the blood, the chancellor and the ministers, and a few other persons were admitted. Ibid., 203.]
Madame Campan, long a waiting-woman of Marie Antoinette, has left an account of the toilet of the queen and of the little occurrences that might interrupt it. The whole performance, she says, was a masterpiece of étiquette; everything about it was governed by rules. The Lady of Honor and the Lady of the Bedchamber, both if they were there together, assisted by the First Woman and the two other women, did the principal service; but there were distinctions among them. The Lady of the Bedchamber put on the skirt and presented the gown. The Lady of Honor poured out the water to wash the queen’s hands and put on the chemise. When a Princess of the Royal Family or a Princess of the Blood was present at the toilet, the Lady of Honor gave up the latter function to her. To a Princess of the Royal Family, that is to say to the sister, sister-in-law, or aunt of the king, she handed the garment directly; but to a Princess of the Blood (the king’s cousin by blood or marriage) she did not yield this service. In the latter case, the Lady of Honor handed the chemise to the First Woman, who presented it to the Princess of the Blood. Every one of these ladies observed these customs scrupulously, as appertaining to her rank.
One winter’s day it happened that the Queen, entirely undressed, was about to put on her chemise. Madame Campan was holding it unfolded. The Lady of Honor came in, made haste to take off her gloves and took the chemise. While she still had it in her hands there came a knock at the door, which was immediately opened. The new-comer was the Duchess of Orleans, a Princess of the Blood. Her Highness’s gloves were taken-off, she advanced to take the shift, but the Lady of Honor must not give it directly to her, and therefore passed it back to Madame Campan, who gave it to the princess. Just then there came another knock at the door, and the Countess of Provence, known as Madame, and sister-in-law to the king, was ushered in. The Duchess of Orleans presented the chemise to her. Meanwhile the Queen kept her arms crossed on her breast, and looked cold. Madame saw her disagreeable position, and without waiting to take off her gloves, merely threw away her handkerchief and put the chemise on the Queen. In her haste she knocked down the Queen’s hair. The latter burst out laughing, to hide her annoyance; and only murmured several times between her teeth: “This is odious! What a nuisance!”
This anecdote gives but an instance of the well-known and not unfounded aversion of Marie Antoinette to the étiquette of the French court. But the young queen made no attempt to reform that étiquette; she tried only to evade it. Much has been written about Marie Antoinette as a woman, her terrible misfortunes and the fortitude with which she bore them having evoked the sympathy of mankind. Her conduct as a queen-consort has been less considered. The woman was lively and amiable, possessing a great personal charm, which impressed those who approached her; but that mattered little to the nation, whose dealings were with the queen. What were the duties of her office and how did she fulfill them?
The first thing demanded of her was parade. She had to keep up the splendor and attractiveness of the French monarchy. This, in spite of her impatience of étiquette, was of all her public duties the one which she best performed. Her manners were dignified, gracious, and appropriately discriminating. It is said that she could bow to ten persons with one movement, giving, with her head and eyes, the recognition due to each separately.
She had also the art of talking to several people at once, so that each one felt as if her remarks had been addressed to himself, and the equally important art (sometimes called royal) of remembering faces and names. As she passed from one part of her palace to another, surrounded by the ladies of her court, she seemed to the spectator to surpass them all in the nobility of her countenance and the dignified grace of her carriage. She had the crowning beauty of woman, a well-poised and proudly carried head. Her gait was a gliding motion, in which the steps were not clearly distinguishable. Foreigners generally were enchanted with her, and to them she owes no small part of her posthumous popularity. The French nobility, on the other hand, complained, not unreasonably, that the queen was too exclusively devoted to the society of a few intimate companions, for whose sake she neglected other people. Her court, on this account, was sometimes comparatively deserted. But a young queen can hardly be very severely blamed if she often prefers her pleasures and her friends to the tedious duties of her position. Marie Antoinette had had little education or guidance. Her likes and dislikes were strong, nor was she entirely above petty spite. “You tell me,” wrote Maria Theresa to her daughter on one occasion, “that for love of me you treat the Broglies well, although they have been disrespectful to you personally. That is another odd idea. Can a little Broglie be disrespectful to you? I do not understand that. No one was ever disrespectful to me, nor to any of your ten brothers and sisters.” It was no fair-weather queen that wrote this most royal reproof. Marie Antoinette never rose to this height of dignity, where the great lady sits above the clouds. In her days of prosperity she certainly never approached it. Perhaps no mortal woman ever reached it in early life. [Footnote: Mercy-Argenteau, _passim_, and especially i. 218, 265, 279; ii. 218, 232,312, 525; iii. 56, 113, 132 and _n_., 157, 265, 490. Tilly, _Mémoires,_ 230. Cognel, 59,84; Wraxall, i.85; Walpole’s _Letters,_ vi. 245 (23d Aug. 1776), etc.]
It is one of the most important duties of a queen-consort to set a good example in morals. Here Marie Antoinette was deficient. Her private conduct has probably been slandered, but she brought the slanders on herself. Beside the code of morals, there is in every country a code of proprieties, and people who habitually do that which is considered improper have only themselves to thank if a harsh construction is put on their doubtful actions. The scandals concerning Marie Antoinette were numberless and public. The young queen of France chose for her intimate companions men and women of bad reputation. Her brother, Joseph II., was shocked when he visited her, at the familiar manners which she permitted. He wrote to her that English travelers compared her court to Spa, then a famous gambling-place, and he called the house of the Princess of Guéménée, which she was in the habit of frequenting, “a real gambling-hell.” Accusations of cheating at cards flew about the palace, and one courtier had his pocket picked in the royal drawing-room. The queen was constantly surrounded by dissipated young noblemen, who on race days were allowed to come into her presence in costumes which shocked conservative people. She herself was recognized at public masked balls, where the worst women of the capital jostled the great nobles of the court. When she had the measles, four gentlemen of her especial friends were appointed nurses, and hardly left her chamber during the day and evening. People asked ironically what four ladies would be appointed to nurse the king if he were ill. In her amusements she was seldom accompanied by her husband. It hardly told in her favor that the latter was a man for whom a young and high-spirited woman could not be expected to entertain any very passionate affection.
The country was deeply in debt, and during a part of the reign an expensive war was going on. It was obviously the queen’s duty to retrench her own expenses, and to set an example of economy. Yet her demands on the treasury were very great. Her personal allowance was much larger than that of the previous queen, and she was frequently in debt. Her losses at play were considerable, in spite of her husband’s well-known aversion to gambling. She increased the number of expensive and useless offices about her court. She was constantly accessible to rapacious favorites. The feeble king could at least recognize that he owed something to his subjects; the queen appears to have thought that the revenues of France were intended principally to provide means for the royal bounty to people who had done nothing to deserve it. On the other hand, she acknowledged the duty of private charity, and believed that thereby she was earning the gratitude of her subjects. That the taxpayer was entitled to any consideration is an idea that does not seem to have entered her mind.
Had Marie Antoinette been the wife of a strong and able king, she would probably have been quite right in avoiding interference in the government of the state. Being married to Louis XVI., it was inevitable that she should try to direct his vacillating will in public matters. It therefore becomes pertinent to ask whether her influence was generally exerted on the right side.
It is evident that in the earlier part of her reign the affairs of the state did not interest her, though her feelings were often strongly moved for or against persons. Her preference for Choiseul and his adherents, over Aiguillon and his party, was natural and well founded. The Duke of Choiseul was not only the author of the Austrian alliance and of the queen’s marriage, but was also the ablest minister who had recently held favor in France. Had Marie Antoinette possessed as much influence over her husband in 1774 as she obtained later, she might perhaps have overcome what seems to have been one of his strongest prejudices, and have brought Choiseul back to power, to the benefit of the country. But her efforts in that direction were unavailing. In her relations with the other ministers, Turgot, Malesherbes, and Necker, her voice was generally on the side of extravagance and the court, and against economy and the nation. This, far more than the intrigues of faction, was the cause of the unpopularity that pursued her to her grave. If the court of France was a corrupt ring living on the country, Marie Antoinette was not far from being its centre.
The inhabitants of France were divided into three orders, differing in legal rights. These were the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Commons, or Third Estate. The first two, which are commonly spoken of as the privileged orders, contained but a small fraction of the population numerically, but their wealth and position gave them a great importance.
The clergy formed, as the philosophers were never tired of complaining, a state within a state. No accurate statistics concerning it can be obtained. The whole number of persons vowed to religion in the country, both regular and secular, would seem to have been between one hundred and one hundred and thirty thousand. They owned probably from one fifth to one quarter of the soil. The proportion was excessive, but it does not appear that the lay inhabitants of the country were thereby crowded. Like other landowners, the clergy had tenants, and they were far from being the worst of landlords. For one thing, they were seldom absentees. The abbot of a monastery might spend his time at Versailles, but the prior and the monks remained, to do their duty by their farmers. It is said that the church lands were the best cultivated in the kingdom, and that the peasants that tilled them were the best, treated.[Footnote: Barthelémy, _Erreurs et mensonges historiques, xv. 40._ Article entitled _La question des congregations il y a cent ans_, quoting largely from Féroux, _Vues d’un Solitaire Patriote_, 1784. See also Genlis, _Dictionnaire des Étiquettes,_ ii. 79. Mathieu, 324. Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 133.] In any case the church was rich. Its income from invested property, principally land, has been reckoned at one hundred and twenty-four million livres a year. It received about as much more from tithes, beside the amount, very variously reckoned, which came in as fees, on such occasions as weddings, christenings, and funerals.
Tithes were imposed throughout France for the support of the clergy. They were not, however, taken upon all Articles of produce, nor did they usually amount to one tenth of the increase. Sometimes the tithe was compounded for a fixed rent in money; sometimes for a given number of sheaves, or measures of wine per acre. Oftener it was a fixed proportion of the crop, varying from one quarter to one fortieth. In some places wood, fruit, and other commodities were exempt; in other places they were charged. Tithe was in some cases taken of calves, lambs, chickens, sucking pigs, fleeces, or fish; and the clergy or the tithe owners were bound to provide the necessary bulls, rams, and boars. A distinction was usually made between the Great tithes, levied on such common articles as corn and wine, and the Small tithes, taken from less important crops. Of these the former were often paid to the bishops, the latter to the parish priest. The tithes had in some cases been alienated by the church and were owned by lay proprietors. In general, it is believed that this tax on the agricultural class in France amounted to about one eighteenth of the gross product of the soil.[Footnote: Chassin, _Les cahiers due clergé_, 36. Bailly, ii. 414, 419. Boiteau, 41. Rambaud, ii. 58 _n._ Taine, _L’ancien Régime_ (book i. chap ii.). The livre of the time of Louis XVI. is commonly reckoned to have had at least twice the purchasing power of the franc of to-day.]
The whole body of the clergy, as it existed within the boundaries of the kingdom, was not subject to the same rules and laws. The larger part of it formed what was known as the “Clergy of France,” and possessed peculiar rights and privileges presently to be described. Those ecclesiastics, however, who lived in certain provinces, situated principally in the northern and eastern part of the country, and annexed to the kingdom since the beginning of the sixteenth century, were called the “Foreign Clergy.” These did not share the rights of the larger body, but depended more directly on the papacy. They paid certain taxes from which the Clergy of France were exempt. The mode of appointment to bishoprics and abbacies was different among them from what it was in the rest of the country. Throughout France, and in all affairs, ecclesiastical and secular, were anomalies such as these.
The Church of France enjoyed great and peculiar privileges, both among the churches of Christendom, and among the Estates of the French realm. By the Concordat, or treaty of 1516, made between Pope Leo X. and King Francis I., the nomination to bishroprics and to considerable ecclesiastical benefices had been given to the king, while the Holy Father kept only a right of veto on appointments. The _annates_, or first-fruits of the bishoprics, taxes equal in theory to one year’s revenue on every change of incumbent, but in fact of less amount than that, were paid to the Pope, and these, with other dues, made up a sum of three or four million livres sent annually from France to Rome. On the other hand, the Clergy of France was the only body in the state which had undisputed constitutional rights independent of the throne. Its ordinary assemblies were held once in ten years. The country was divided into sixteen ecclesiastical provinces, each under the superintendence of an archbishop. In each of these provinces a meeting was held, composed of delegates of the various dioceses. Each of these provincial meetings elected two bishops and two other ecclesiastics, either regular or secular. These deputies received, from their constituents, instructions called _cahiers_ to be taken by them to the Ordinary Assembly of the clergy, which was held in Paris. This body granted subsidies to the king, managed the debt and other secular affairs of the clergy, and pronounced unofficially even in matters of doctrine. Smaller Assemblies, nearly equal in power, came together at least once during the interval which elapsed between the meetings of the Ordinary Assemblies; so that as often as once in five years the Church of France exercised a true political activity. The sum voted to the king was called a Free Gift[Footnote: Don Gratuit], and the name was not altogether inappropriate, for, although required was stated by the king’s ministers, conditions were not infrequently exacted of the crown. Thus in 1785, on the occasion of a gift of eighteen million livres, the suppression of the works of Voltaire was demanded. And once at least, as late as 1750, on the occasion of a squabble between the church and the court, the clergy had refused to make any grant whatsoever. The total amount of the Free Gift voted during the reign of Louis XVI. was 65,800,000 livres, or less than four and a half millions a year on an average. The grant was not annual, but was made in lump sums from time to time; a vote of two thirds of the assembly being necessary for making it. The assembly itself assessed the tax on the dioceses. A commission managed the affairs of the clergy when no assembly was sitting. The order had its treasury, and its credit was good. The king was its debtor to the extent of about a hundred million livres.
The clergy itself was in debt. Instead of raising directly, by taxation of its members, the money which it paid to the state, it had acquired the habit of borrowing the necessary sum. The debt thus incurred appears to have been about one hundred and thirty-four million livres. In addition to the amount necessary for interest on this debt, and for a provision for its gradual repayment, the order had various expenses to meet. For these purposes it taxed itself to an amount of more than ten million livres a year. On the other hand it received back from the king a subsidy of two and a half million livres. From most of the regular, direct taxes paid by Frenchmen the Clergy of France was freed. [Footnote: _Revue des questions historiques_, 1st July, 1890 (L’abbé L. Bourgain, _Contribution du clergé a l’impôt_). Sciout, i. 35. Boiteau, 195. Rambaud, ii. 44. Necker, _De l’Administration_, ii. 308. The financial statement given above refers to the Clergy of France only. Its pecuniary affairs are as difficult and doubtful as those of every part of the nation at this period, and have repeatedly been made the subject of confused statement and religious and political controversy. The Foreign Clergy paid some of the regular taxes, giving the state about one million livres a year on an income of twenty million livres. Boiteau, 196.]
The bishops were not subject to the secular tribunals, but other clerks came under the royal jurisdiction in temporal matters. In spiritual affairs they were judged by the ecclesiastical courts.
The income of the clergy, had it been fairly distributed, was amply sufficient for the support of every one connected with the order. It was, however, divided with great partiality. There were set over the clergy, both French and foreign, eighteen archbishops and a hundred and twenty-one bishops, beside eleven of those bishops _in partibus infidelium_, who, having no sees of their own in France, might be expected to make themselves generally useful. These hundred and fifty bishops were very highly, though unequally paid. The bishoprics, with a very few exceptions, were reserved for members of the nobility, and this rule was quite as strictly enforced under Louis XVI. as under any of his predecessors. Nothing prevented the cumulation of ecclesiastical benefices, and that prelate was but a poor courtier who did not enjoy the revenue of several rich abbeys. Nor was it in money and in ecclesiastical preferment alone that the bishops were paid for the services which they too often neglected to perform.
Not a few of them were barons, counts, dukes, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, or peers of France by virtue of their sees. Several rose to be ministers of state. Even in that age they were accused of worldliness. It was a proverb that with Spanish bishops and French priests an excellent clergy could be made. But not all the French bishops were worldly, nor neglectful of their spiritual duties. Among them might be found conscientious and serious prelates, abounding both in faith and good works, living simply and bestowing their wealth in charity. [Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 37. Mathieu, 151.]
After the bishops came the abbots. As their offices were in the gift of the king, and as no discipline was enforced upon them, they were chiefly to be found in the antechambers of Versailles and in the drawing-rooms of Paris. They were not even obliged to be members of the religious orders they were supposed to govern.[Footnote: The abbots of abbeys _en commende_ were appointed by the king. These appear to have been most of the rich abbeys. There were also _abbayes régulières_, where the abbot was elected by the brethren. Rambaud, ii. 53. The revenues of the monasteries were divided into two parts, the _mense abbatiale_, for the abbot, the _mense conventuelle_, for the brethren. Mathieu, 73.] Leaving the charge of their monasteries to the priors, they spent the incomes where new preferment was to be looked for, and devoted their time to intrigues rather than to prayers. No small part of the revenues of the clergy was wasted in the dissipations of these ecclesiastic courtiers. They were imitated in their vices by a rabble of priests out of place, to whom the title of abbot was given in politeness, the little _abbés_ of French biography and fiction. These men lived in garrets, haunted cheap eating-houses, and appeared on certain days of the week at rich men’s tables, picking up a living as best they could. They were to be seen among the tradesmen and suitors who crowded the levees of the great, distinguishable in the throng by their black clothes, and a very small tonsure. They attended the toilets of fashionable ladies, ever ready with the last bit of literary gossip, or of social scandal. They sought employment as secretaries, or as writers for the press. The church, or indeed, the opposite party, could find literary champions among them at a moment’s notice. Nor was hope of professional preferment always lacking. It is said that one of the number kept an ecclesiastical intelligence office. This man was acquainted with the incumbents of valuable livings; he watched the state of their health, and calculated the chances of death among them. He knew what patrons were likely to have preferment to give away, and how those patrons were to be reached. His couriers were ever on the road to Rome, for the Pope still had the gift of many rich places in France, in spite of the Concordat.[Footnote: Mercier, ix. 350.]
Another large part of the revenues of the church was devoted to the support of the convents. These contained from sixty to seventy thousand persons, more of them women than men. Owing to various causes, and especially to the action of a commission appointed to examine all convents, and to reform, close, or consolidate such as might need to be so treated, the number of regular religious persons fell off more than one half during the last twenty-five years of the monarchy. Yet many of the functions which in modern countries are left to private charity, or to the direct action of the state, were performed in old France by persons of this kind. The care of the poor and sick and the education of the young were largely, although not entirely, in the hands of religious orders. Some monks, like the Benedictines of St. Maur, devoted their lives to the advancement of learning. But there were also monks and nuns who rendered no services to the public, and were entirely occupied with their own spiritual and temporal interests, giving alms, perhaps, but only incidentally, like other citizens. Against these the indignation of the French Philosophers was much excited. Their celibacy was attacked, as contrary to the interests of the state; they were accused of laziness and greed. How far were the Philosophers right in their opposition? It is impossible to discuss in detail here the policy of allowing or discouraging religious corporations in a state. Should men and women be permitted to retire from the struggles and duties of active life in the world? Is the monastery, with its steady and depressing routine, its religious observances, often mechanical, and its quiet life, more or less degrading than the wearing toil of the world without, and the coarse pleasures of the club or the tavern? Is it better that a woman, whom choice or necessity has deprived of every probability of governing a home of her own, should struggle against the chances and temptations of city life, or the constant drudgery of spinsterhood in the country; or that she should find the stupefying protection of a convent? These questions have seldom been answered entirely on their own merits. They have presented themselves in company with others even more important; with questions of freedom of conscience and of national existence. The time seems not far distant when they must be reconsidered for their own sake. Already in France the persons leading a monastic life are believed to be twice as numerous as they were at the outbreak of the Revolution. It is difficult to ascertain the number in our own country, but it is not inconsiderable.[Footnote: Rambaud (ii. 52 and _n._) reckons 100,000 in the 18th century and 158,500 to-day in France, but the figures for the last century are probably too high, at least if 1788 be taken as the point of comparison. Sadlier’s _Catholic Directory_, 1885, p. 116, gives the number of Catholic religions in the Archdiocese of New York at 117 regular priests, 271 brothers, 2136 religious women, in addition to 279 secular priests.]
A pleasant life the inmates of some convents must have had of it. The incomes were large, the duties easy.
Certain houses had been secularized and turned into noble chapters. The ladies who inhabited them were freed from the vow of poverty. They wore no religious vestment, but appeared in the fashionable dress of the day. They received their friends in the convent, and could leave it themselves to reenter the secular life, and to marry if they pleased. Such a chapter was that of Remiremont in Lorraine, whose abbess was a princess of the Holy Roman Empire, by virtue of her office. Her crook was of gold. Six horses were harnessed to her carriage. Her dominion extended over two hundred villages, whose inhabitants paid her both feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes. Nor were her duties onerous. She spent a large part of her time in Strasburg, and went to the theatre without scruple. She traveled a good deal in the neighborhood, and was a familiar figure at some of the petty courts on the Rhine. The canonesses followed her good example. Some of them were continually on the road. Others stayed at home in the convent, and entertained much good company. They dressed like other people, in the fashion, with nothing to mark their religious calling but a broad ribbon over the right shoulder, blue bordered with red, supporting a cross, with a figure of Saint Romaric. No lady was received into this chapter who could not show nine generations or two hundred and twenty-five years of chivalric, noble descent, both on the father’s and on the mother’s side.
Such requirements as this were extreme, but similar conditions were not unusual. The Benedictines of Saint Claude, transformed into a chapter of canonesses, required sixteen quarterings for admission; that is to say, that every canoness must show by proper heraldic proof, that her sixteen great–grandfathers and great–grandmothers were of noble blood. The Knights of Malta required but four quarterings. They had two hundred and twenty commanderies in France, with eight hundred Knights. The Grand Priory gave an income of sixty thousand livres to the Prior, who was always a prince. The revenues of the order were 1,750,000 livres.
But very rich monasteries were exceptional after all. Those where life was hard and labor continuous were far more common. In some of them, forty men would be found living on a joint income of six thousand livres a year. They cultivated the soil, they built, they dug. They were not afraid of great undertakings in architecture or engineering, to be accomplished only after long years and generations of labor, for was not their corporation immortal? Then we have the begging orders, infesting the roads and villages, and drawing several million livres a year from the poorer classes, which supported and grumbled at them. And against the luxury of the noble chapters must be set the silence, the vigils, the fasts of La Trappe. This monastery stood in a gloomy valley, sunk among wooded hills. The church and the surrounding buildings were mostly old, and all sombre and uninviting. Each narrow cell was furnished with but a mattress, a blanket and a table, without chair or fire. The monks were clad in a robe and a hood, and wore shoes and stockings, but had neither shirt nor breeches. They shaved three times a year. Their food consisted of boiled vegetables, with salad once a week; never any butter nor eggs. Twice in the night they rose, and hastened shivering to the chapel. Never did they speak, but to their confessor; until, in his last hour, each was privileged to give to the prior his dying messages. Hither, from the active and gay world of philosophy and frivolity would suddenly retire from time to time some young officer, scholar, or courtier. Here, bound by irrevocable vows, he could weep over his sins, or gnash his teeth at the folly that had brought him, until he found peace at last in life or in the grave.
To enjoy the temporal privileges of the religious life neither any great age nor any extensive learning was required. To hold a cure of souls or the abbacy of a “regular” convent (whose inmates chose their abbot), a man must be twenty-five years old. But an abbot appointed by the king need only be twenty-two, a canon of a cathedral fourteen, and a chaplain seven. It cannot be doubted that persons of either sex were obliged to make irrevocable vows, without any proof of free vocation, or any reason to expect a fixed resolution. Daughters and younger sons could thus be conveniently disposed of. A larger share was left for the family, for the religious were civilly dead, and did not take part in the inheritance. On the other hand, misfortune and want need not be feared for the inmate of the convent. If a nun were lost to the joys of the world, she was lost to its cares. To make such a choice, to commit temporal suicide, the very young should surely not be admitted. Yet it was not until 1768 that the time for taking final vows was advanced to the very moderate age of twenty-one for young men and eighteen for girls.[Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 45. Mathieu, 43. Chassin, 25. Boiteau, 176. Bailly, 421. Mme. d’Oberkirch, 127. Mme. de Genlis, _Dict. des Étiquettes_, i. Ill _n._, _Le Comte de Fersen et la Cour de France_, I. xxix. Mercier, xi. 358.]
The secular clergy was about as numerous as the regular. It was principally composed of the _curés_ and _vicaires_ who had charge of parishes.[Footnote: The bishops, of course, belonged to the secular clergy. So, in fact, did the canons; who, on account of the similarity of their mode of life, have been treated with the regulars. In the French hierarchy the _curé_ comes above the _vicaire_. The relation is somewhat that of _parson_ and _curate_ in the church of England.] These men were mostly drawn from the lower classes of society, or at any rate not from the nobility. They had therefore very little chance of promotion. Some of them in the country districts were very poor; for the great tithes, levied on the principal crops, generally belonged to the bishops, to the convents of regulars, or to laymen; and only the lesser tithes, the occasional fees,[Footnote: _Casuel._] and the product of a small glebe were reserved for the parish priest, and the latter was liable to continual squabbles with the peasants concerning his dues. But the parish priest, with all other churchmen, was exempt from the state taxes, although obliged to pay a proportion of the _décimes_,[Footnote: _Décime_, in the singular, was an extraordinary tax levied on ecclesiastical revenue for some object deemed important. _Décimes_, in the plural, was the tax paid annually by bénéfices. _Dîme_, tithe (see Littré, _Décime_). It seems a question whether the proportion of the _décimes_ paid by the parish priests was too large. See _Revue des questions historiques_, 1st July 1890, 102. Necker, _De l’Administration_, ii. 313.] or special tax laid by the clergy on their own order. Moreover, the government set a minimum;[Footnote: _Portion congrue._] and if the income of the parish priest fell below it, the owner of the great tithes was bound to make up the difference. This minimum was set at five hundred livres a year for a _curé_ in 1768, and raised to seven hundred in 1785. A _vicaire_ received two hundred and three hundred and fifty. These amounts do not seem large, but they must have secured to the country priest a tolerable condition, for we do not find that the clerical profession was neglected.
Apart from considerations of material well being, the condition of the parish priest was not undesirable. He was fairly independent, and could not be deprived of his living without due process of law. His house was larger or smaller according to his means, but his authority and influence might in any case be considerable. He had more education and more dealings with the outer world than most of his parishioners. To him the intendant of the province might apply for information concerning the state of his village, and the losses of the peasants by fire, or by epidemics among their cattle. His sympathy with his fellow-villagers was the warmer, that like them he had a piece of ground to till, were it only a garden, an orchard, or a bit of vineyard. Round his door, as round theirs, a few hens were scratching; perhaps a cow lowed from her shed, or followed the village herd to the common. The priest’s servant, a stout lass, did the milking and the weeding. In 1788, a provincial synod was much disturbed by a motion, made by some fanatic in the interest of morals, that no priest should keep a serving-maid less than forty-five years of age. The rule was rejected on the ground that it would make it impossible to cultivate the glebes. Undoubtedly, the priests themselves often tucked up the skirts of their cassocks, and lent a hand in the work. They were treated by their flocks with a certain amount of respectful familiarity. They were addressed as _messire_. With the joys and sorrows of their parishioners, their connection was at once intimate and professional. Their ministrations were sought by the sick and the sad, their congratulations by the happy. No wedding party nor funeral feast was complete without them.[Footnote: Turgot, v. 364. This letter is very interesting, as showing the importance of the _curés_ and their possible dealings with the intendant. Mathieu, 152. Babeau, _La vie rurale_, 157. A good study of the clergy before the Revolution is found in an article by Marius Sepet (_La société française a la veille de la révolution_), in the _Revue des questions historiques_, 1st April and 1st July, 1889.]
The privileges and immunities which the Church of France enjoyed had given to her clergy a tone of independence both to the Pope and to the king. We have seen them accompanying their “free gifts” to the latter by requests and conditions. Toward the Holy See their attitude had once been quite as bold. In 1682 an assembly of the Church of France had promulgated four propositions which were considered the bulwarks of the Gallican liberties.
(1.) God has given to Saint Peter and his successors no power, direct or indirect, over temporal affairs.
(2.) Ecumenical councils are superior to the Pope in spiritual matters.
(3.) The rules, usages and statutes admitted by the kingdom and the Church of France must remain inviolate.
(4.) In matters of faith, decisions of the Sovereign Pontiff are irrevocable only after having received the consent of the church.
These propositions were undoubtedly a part of the law of France, and were fully accepted by a portion of the French clergy. But the spirit that dictated them had in a measure died out during the corrupt reign of Louis XV. The long quarrel between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, which agitated the Galilean church during the latter part of the seventeenth and the earlier half of the eighteenth century, had tended neither to strengthen nor to purify that body. A large number of the most serious, intelligent and devout Catholics in France had been put into opposition to the most powerful section of the clergy and to the Pope himself. Thus the Church of France was in a bad position to repel the violent attacks made upon her from without.[Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 40. For a Catholic account of the Jansenist quarrel, see Carné, _La monarchie française au 18me siècle_, 407.]
For a time of trial had come to the Catholic Church, and the Church of France, although hardly aware of its danger, was placed in the forefront of battle. It was against her that the most persistent and violent assault of the Philosophers was directed. Before considering the doctrines of those men, who differed among themselves very widely on many points, it is well to ask what was the cause of the great excitement which their doctrines created. Men as great have existed in other centuries, and have exercised an enormous influence on the human mind.
But that influence has generally been gradual; percolating slowly, through the minds of scholars and thinkers, to men of action and the people. The intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in France was rapid. It was the nature of the opposition which they encountered which drew popular attention to the attacks of the Philosophers.
THE CHURCH AND HER ADVERSARIES.
The new birth of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had been followed by the strengthening and centralization of government, both in church and state. France had its full share of this change. Its civil government became the strongest in Europe, putting down every breath of opposition. Against the political conduct of Louis XIV neither magistrate nor citizen dared to raise his voice. The Church of France, on the other hand, in close alliance with the civil power, became almost irresistible in her own sphere. The Catholic Church throughout Europe had been the great schoolmaster of civilization. It had fallen into the common fault of schoolmasters, the assumption of infallibility. It was, moreover, a state within all states. Its sovereign, the Pope, the most powerful monarch in Christendom, is chosen in accordance with a curious and elaborate set of regulations, by electors appointed by his predecessors. His rule, nominally despotic, is limited by powers and influences understood by few persons outside of his palace. His government, although highly centralized, is yet able to work efficiently in all the countries of the earth. It is served by a great body of officials, probably less corrupt on the whole than those of any other state. They are kept in order, not only by moral and spiritual sanctions, but by a system of worldly promotion. They wield over their subjects a tremendous weapon, sometimes borrowed, but seldom long or very skillfully used by laymen, and called, in clerical language, excommunication. This, when it is confined to the denial of religious privileges, may be considered a spiritual weapon. But in the eighteenth century the temporal power of Catholic Europe was still in great measure at the service of the ecclesiastical authorities. Obedience to the church was a law of the state. Although Frenchmen were no longer executed for heresy in the reign of Louis XVI., they still were persecuted. The property of Protestants was unsafe, their marriages invalid. Their children might be taken from them. Such toleration as existed was precarious, and the Church of France was constantly urging the temporal government to take stronger measures for the extirpation of heresy.
The church had succeeded in implanting in the minds of its votaries one opinion of enormous value in its struggle for power. Originally and properly an association for the practice and spreading of religion, the corporation had succeeded in making itself an object of worship. One great reason why atheism took root in France was the impossibility, induced by long habit, of distinguishing between religion and Catholicism, and of conceiving that the one may exist without the other. The by-laws of the church had become as sacred as the primary duties of piety; and the injunction to refrain from meat on Fridays was indistinguishable by most Catholics, in point of obligation, from the injunction to love the Lord their God.
The Protestant churches which separated themselves from the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century carried with them much of the intolerant spirit of the original body. It is one of the commonplace sneers of the unreflecting to say that religious toleration has always been the dogma of the weaker party. The saying, if it were true, which it is not, yet would not be especially sagacious. Toleration, like other things, has been most sought by those whose need of it was greatest. But they have not always recognized its value. It was no small step in the progress of the human mind that was taken when men came to look on religious toleration as desirable or possible. That the state might treat with equal favor all forms of worship was an opinion hardly accepted by wise and liberal-minded men in the eighteenth century. It may be that the fiery contests of the Reformation were still too near in those days to let perfect peace be safe or profitable.
Yet religious toleration was making its way in men’s minds. Cautiously, and with limitations, the doctrine is stated, first by Locke, Bayle, and Fénelon in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, then by almost all the great writers of the eighteenth. The Protestants, with their experience of persecution, assert that those persons should not be tolerated who teach that faith should not be kept with heretics, or that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms; or who attribute to themselves any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals in civil affairs; in short, they exclude the Catholics. Atheists also may be excluded, as being under no possible conscientious obligation to dogmatize concerning their negative creed. The Catholics maintain the right of the sovereign to forbid the use of ceremonies, or the profession of opinions, which would disturb the public peace. Montesquieu, a nominal Catholic only, declares that it is the fundamental principle of political laws concerning religion, not to allow the establishment of a new form if it can be prevented; but when one is once established, to tolerate it. He refuses to say that heresy should not be punished, but he says that it should be punished only with great circumspection. This left the case of the French Protestants to all appearances as bad as before; for the laws denied that they had been established in the kingdom, and the church always asserted that it was mild and circumspect in its dealings with heretics. Voltaire will not say that those who are not of the same religion as the prince should share in the honors of the state, or hold public office. Such limitations as these would seem to have deprived toleration of the greater part of its value, by excluding from its benefits those persons who were most likely to be persecuted. But the statement of a great principle is far more effectual than the enumeration of its limitations. Toleration, eloquently announced as an ideal, made its way in men’s minds. “Absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, is the thing we stand in need of,” cries Locke, and the saying is retained when his exceptions concerning the Catholics are forgotten. “When kings meddle with religion,” says Fénelon, “instead of protecting, they enslave her.”[Footnote: Locke, vi. 46, 46 (Letter on Toleration). Bayle, Commentary on the Text “Compelle intrare” (for atheists), ii. 431, a., Fénelon, Oeuvres, vii. 123 (Essai philosophique sur le gouvernement civil). Montesquieu, Oeuvres, iv. 68; v. 175 (Esprit des Lois, liv. xii. ch. v. and liv. xxxv. ch. x.). Felice, Voltaire, xli. 247 (Essai sur la tolérance).]
The Church of France had long been cruel to her opponents. The persecution of the French Protestants, which preceded and followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, is known to most readers. It was long and bloody. But about the middle of the eighteenth century it began to abate. The last execution for heresy in France appears to have taken place in 1762. A Protestant meeting was surprised and attacked by soldiers in 1767. Some eight or ten years later than this, the last prisoner for conscience’ sake was released from the galleys at Toulon. But no religion except the Roman Catholic was recognized by the state; and to its clergy alone were entrusted certain functions essential to the conduct of civilized life. No marriage could be legally solemnized but by a Catholic priest. No public record of births was kept but in the parish registers. As a consequence of this, no faithful Protestant could be legally married at all, and all children of Protestant parents were bastards, whose property could be taken from them by the nearest Catholic relative. It is true that the courts did much to soften the execution of these laws; but the judges, with the best intentions, were sometimes powerless; and all judges did not mean to act fairly by heretics.
Slowly, during the lifetime of a generation, the Protestants gained ground. The coronation-oath contained a clause by which the king promised to exterminate heretics. When Louis XVI. was to be crowned at Rheims, Turgot desired to modify this part of the oath. He drew up a new form. The clergy, however, resisted the innovation, and Maurepas, the prime minister, agreed with them. The young king, with characteristic weakness, is said to have muttered some meaningless sounds, in place of the disputed portion of the oath.
In 1778, an attempt was made to induce the Parliament of Paris to interfere in behalf of the oppressed sectaries, It was stated that since 1740, more than four hundred thousand marriages had been contracted outside of the church, and that these marriages were void in law and the constant cause of scandalous suits. But the Parliament, by a great majority, rejected the proposal to apply to the king for relief. In 1775, and again in 1780, the assembly of the clergy protested against the toleration accorded to heretics. It is not a little curious that at a time when a measure of simple humanity was thus opposed by the highest court of justice in the realm, and by the Church of France in its corporate capacity, a foreign Protestant, Necker, was the most important of the royal servants.
The spirit of the church, or at least of her leading men, is expressed in the Pastoral Instruction of Lefranc de Pompignan, Archbishop of Vienne, perhaps the most prominent French ecclesiastic of the century. The church, he says, has never persecuted, although misguided men have done so in her name. The sovereign should maintain the true religion, and is himself the judge of the best means of doing it. But religion sets bounds to what a monarch should do in her defense. She does not ask for violent or sanguinary measures against simple heretics. Such measures would do more harm than good. But when men have the audacity to exercise a pretended and forbidden ministry, injurious to the public peace, it would be absurd to think that rigorous penalties applied to their misdeeds are contrary to Christian charity. And in connection with toleration, the prelate brings together the two texts, “Judge not, that ye be not judged;”–“but he that believeth not is condemned already.” This plan of dealing gently with Protestants, while so maltreating their pastors as to make public worship or the administration of sacraments very difficult, was a favourite one with French churchmen.
The great devolution was close at hand. On the last day of the first session of the Assembly of Notables, in the spring of 1787, Lafayette proposed to petition the king in favor of the Protestants. His motion was received with almost unanimous approval by the committee to which it was made, and the Count of Artois, president of that committee, carried a petition to Louis XVI. accordingly. His Majesty deigned to favor the proposal, and an edict for giving a civil status to Protestants was included in the batch of bills submitted to the Parliament of Paris for registration. The measure of relief was of the most moderate character. It did not enable the sectaries of the despised religion to hold any office in the state, nor even to meet publicly for worship. Yet the opposition to the proposed law was warm, and was fomented by part of the nobility and of the clergy. One of the great ladies of the court called on each counselor of the Parliament, and left a note to remind him of his duty to the Catholic religion and the laws. The Bishop of Dol told the king of France that he would be answerable to God and man for the misfortunes which the reestablishment of Protestantism would bring on the kingdom. His Majesty’s sainted aunt, according to the bishop, was looking down on him from that heaven where her virtues had placed her, and blaming his conduct. Louis XVI. resented this language and found manliness enough to send the Bishop of Dol back to his see. On the 19th of January, 1788, the matter was warmly debated in the Parliament itself. D’Espréménil, one of the counselors, was filled with excitement and wrath at the proposed toleration. Pointing to the image of Christ, which hung on the wall of the chamber, “would you,” he indignantly exclaimed, “would you crucify him again?” But the appeal of bigotry was unavailing. The measure passed by a large majority.[Footnote: For the last persecution of the Protestants, see Felice, 422. Howard, Lazzarettos, 55. Coquerel, 93. Geffroy, i. 406. Chérest, i. 45, 382. For the oath, Turgot, i. 217; vii. 314, 317. See also Dareste, vii. 20, Lefranc de Pompignan, i. 132. Geffroy, i. 410; ii. 85. Droz, ii. 38. Sallier, Annales françaises, 136 n. The majority was 94 to 17. Seven counselors and three bishops retired without voting.]
It was not against Protestants alone that the clergy showed their activity. The church, in its capacity of guardian of the public morals and religion, passed condemnation on books supposed to be hostile to its claims. In this matter it exercised concurrent jurisdiction with the administrative branch of the government and with the courts of law. A new book was liable to undergo a triple ordeal. A license was required before publication, and the manuscript was therefore submitted to an official censor, often an ecclesiastic. Thence it became the custom to print in foreign countries, books which contained anything to which anybody in authority might object, and to bring them secretly into France. The presses of Holland and of Geneva were thus used. Sometimes, instead of this, a book would be published in Paris with a foreign imprint. Thus “Boston” and “Philadelphia” are not infrequently found on the title-pages of books printed in France in the reign of Louis XVI. Such books were sold secretly, with greater or less precautions against discovery, for the laws were severe; an ordinance passed as late as 1757 forbade, under penalty of death, all publications which might tend to excite the public mind. So loose an expression gave discretionary power to the authorities. The extreme penalty was not enforced, but imprisonment and exile were somewhat capriciously inflicted on authors and printers.
But a book that had received the _imprimatur_ of the censor was not yet safe. The clergy might denounce, or the Parliament condemn it. The church was quick to scent danger. An honest scholar, an upright and original thinker, could hardly escape the reproach of irreligion or of heresy. Nor were the laws fairly administered. It might be more dangerous to be supposed to allude disagreeably to the mistress of a prince, than to attack the government of the kingdom. Had a severe law been severely and consistently enforced, slander, heresy, and political thought might have been stamped out together. Such was in some measure the case in the reign of Louis XIV. But under the misrule of the courtiers of his feeble successors, no strict law was adhered to. There was a common tendency to wink at illegal writings of which half the public approved. Malesherbes, for instance, was at one time at the head of the official censors. He is said to have had a way of warning authors and publishers the day before a descent was to be made upon their houses. Under laws thus enforced, authors who held new doctrines learned to adapt their methods to those of the government. Almost all the great French writers of the eighteenth century framed some passages in their books for the purpose of satisfying the censor or of avoiding punishment. They were profuse in expressions of loyally to church and state, in passages sometimes sounding ludicrously hollow, sometimes conveying the most biting mockery and satire, and again in words hardly to be distinguished from the heartfelt language of devotion. They became skillful at hinting, and masters of the art of innuendo. They attacked Christianity under the name of Mahometanism, and if they had occasion to blame French ministers of state, would seem to be satirizing the viziers of Turkey. Politics and theology are subjects of unceasing and vivid interest, and their discussion cannot be suppressed, unless minds are to be smothered altogether. If any measure of free thought and speech is to be admitted, the engrossing topics will find expression. If people are not allowed pamphlets and editorials, they will bring out their ideas in poems and fables. Under Louis XV and Louis XVI, politics took possession of popular songs, and theology of every conceivable kind of writing. There was hardly an advertisement of the virtues of a quack medicine, or a copy of verses to a man’s mistress, that did not contain a fling at the church or the government. There can be no doubt that the moral nature of authors and of the public suffered in such a course. Books lost some of their real value. But for a time an element of excitement was added to the pleasure both of writers and readers. The author had all the advantage of being persecuted, with the pleasing assurance that the persecution would not go very far. The reader, while perusing what seemed to him true and right, enjoyed the satisfaction of holding a forbidden book. He had the amusement of eating stolen fruit, and the inward conviction that it agreed with him.[Footnote: Lomenie, Vie de Beaumarchais, i. 324. Montesquieu, i. 464 (Lettres persanes, cxlv.). Mirabeau, L’ami des hommes, 238 (pt. ii. oh, iv.). Anciennes Lois, xxii. 272. Lanfrey, 193.]
The writers who adopted this course are mostly known as the “Philosophers.” It is hard to be consistent in the use of this word as applied to Frenchmen of the eighteenth century. The name was sometimes given to all those who advocated reform or alteration in church or state. In its stricter application, it belongs to a party among them; to Voltaire and his immediate followers, and especially to the Encyclopaedists.
“Never,” says Voltaire, in his “English Letters,” “will our philosophers make a religious sect, for they are without enthusiasm.” This was a favorite idea with the disciples of the great cynic, but the event has disproved its truth. The Philosophers in Voltaire’s lifetime formed a sect, although it could hardly be called a religious one. The Patriarch of Ferney himself was something not unlike its pontiff. Diderot and d’Alembert were its bishops, with their attendant clergy of Encyclopaedists. Helvetius and Holbach were its doctors of atheology. Most reading and thinking Frenchmen were for a time its members. Rousseau was its arch-heretic. The doctrines were materialism, fatalism, and hedonism. The sect still exists. It has adhered, from the time of its formation, to a curious notion, its favorite superstition, which may be expressed somewhat as follows: “Human reason and good sense were first invented from thirty to fifty years ago.” “When we consider,” says Voltaire, “that Newton, Locke, Clarke and Leibnitz, would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, burnt at Lisbon, what must we think of human reason? It was born in England within this century.” [Footnote: Voltaire (Geneva ed. 1771) xv. 99 (Newton). Also (Beuchot’s ed.) xv. 351 (Essai sur les Moeurs) and passim. The date usually set by Voltaire’s modern followers is that of the publication of the Origin of Species; although no error is more opposed than this one to the great theory of evolution.] And similar expressions are frequent in his writings. The sectaries, from that day to this, have never been wanting in the most glowing enthusiasm. In this respect they generally surpass the Catholics; in fanaticism (or the quality of being cocksure) the Protestants. They hold toleration as one of their chief tenets, but never undertake to conceal their contempt for any one who disagrees with them. The sect has always contained many useful and excellent persons, and some of the most dogmatic of mankind.
THE CHURCH AND VOLTAIRE.
The enemies of the Church of France were many and bitter, but one man stands out prominent among them. Voltaire was a poet, much admired in his day, an industrious and talented historian, a writer on all sorts of subjects, a wit of dazzling brilliancy; but he was first, last, and always an enemy of the Catholic Church, and although not quite an atheist, an opponent of all forms of religion. For more than forty years he was the head of the party of the Philosophers. During all that time he was the most conspicuous of literary Frenchmen. Two others, Rousseau and Montesquieu, may rival him in influence on the modern world, but his followers in the regions of thought are numerous and aggressive to-day.
Voltaire was born in 1694 the son of a lawyer named Arouet. There are doubts as to the origin of the name he has made so famous; whether it was derived from a fief possessed by his mother, or from an anagram of AROUET LE JEUNE. At any rate, the name was adopted by the young poet, at his own fancy, a case not without parallel in the eighteenth century. [Footnote: As in the case of D’Alembert. For Voltaire’s name, see Desnoiresterres, _Jeunesse de Voltaire_, 161.]
Voltaire began early to attract public attention. Before he was twenty-five years old he had established his reputation as a wit, had spent nearly a year in the Bastille on a charge of writing satirical verses, and had produced a successful tragedy. In this play a couplet sneering at priests might possibly have become a familiar quotation even had it been written by another pen.[Footnote: _Oedipe_, written in 1718. “Nos prêtres ne sont point ce qu’un vain peuple pense; Notre credulité fait toute leur science.” Act IV., Scene I.] For several years Voltaire went on writing, with increasing reputation. In 1723, his great epic poem, “La Henriade,” was secretly circulated in Paris.[Footnote: Desnoiresterres, _Jeunesse_, 297.] The author was one of the marked men of the town. At the same time his reputation must have been to some extent that of a troublesome fellow. And in December of that year an event occurred which was destined to drive the rising author from France for several years, and add bitterness to a mind naturally acid.
The details of the story are variously told. It appears that Voltaire was one evening at the theatre behind the scenes, and had a dispute with the Chevalier de Chabot, of the family of Rohan. “Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur Arouet, what’s your name!” the chevalier is said to have called out. “My name is not a great one, but I am no discredit to it,” answered the author. Chabot lifted his cane, Voltaire laid his hand on his sword. Mademoiselle Lecouvreur, the actress, for whose benefit, perhaps, the little dispute was enacted, took occasion to faint. Chabot went off, muttering something about a stick.
A few days later, Voltaire was dining at the house of the Duke of Sulli. A servant informed him that some one wanted to see him at the door. So Voltaire went out, and stepped quietly up to a coach that was standing in front of the house. As he put his head in at the coach door, he was seized by the collar of his coat and held fast, while two men came up behind and belabored him with sticks. The Chevalier de Chabot, his noble adversary, was looking on from another carriage.
When the tormentors let him go, Voltaire rushed back into the house and appealed to the Duke of Sulli for vengeance, but in vain. It was no small matter to quarrel with the family of Rohan. Then the poet applied to the court for redress, but got none. It is said that Voltaire’s enemies had persuaded the prime minister that his petitioner was the author of a certain epigram, addressed to His Excellency’s mistress, in which she was reminded that it is easy to deceive a one-eyed Argus. (The minister had but one eye.) Finally Voltaire, seeing that no one else would take up his quarrel, began to take fencing lessons and to keep boisterous company. It is probable that he would have made little use of any skill he might have acquired as a swordsman. Voltaire was not physically rash. The Chevalier de Chabot, although he held the commission of a staff-officer, was certainly no braver than his adversary, and was in a position to take no risks. Voltaire was at first watched by the police; then, perhaps after sending a challenge, locked up in the Bastille. He remained in that state prison for about a fortnight, receiving his friends and dining at the governor’s table. On the 5th of May, 1726, he was at Calais on his way to exile in England. [Footnote: Desnoiresterres, _Jeunesse_, 345.]
Voltaire spent three years in England, years which exercised a deep influence on his life. He learned the English language exceptionally well, and practiced writing it in prose and verse. He associated on terms of intimacy with Lord Bolingbroke, whom he had already known in France, with Swift, Pope, and Gay. He drew an epigram from Young. He brought out a new and amended edition of the “Henriade,” with a dedication in English to Queen Caroline. He studied the writings of Bacon, Newton, and Locke. Thus to the Chevalier de Chabot, and his shameful assault, did French thinkers owe, in no small measure, the influence which English writers exercised upon them.
While in England, Voltaire was taking notes and writing letters. These he probably worked over during the years immediately following his return to France. The “Lettres Philosophiques,” or “Letters concerning the English Nation,” were first published in England in 1733. They were allowed to slip into circulation in France in the following year. Promptly condemned by the Parliament of Paris as “scandalous and contrary to religion and morals, and to the respect due to the powers that be,” they were “torn and burned at the foot of the great staircase,” and read all the more for it.
It is no wonder that the church, and that conservative if sometimes heterodox body, the Parliament of Paris, should have condemned the “English Letters.” A bitter satire is leveled at France, with her religion and her government, under cover of candid praise of English ways and English laws. What could the Catholic clergy say to words like these, put into the mouth of a Quaker? “God forbid that we should dare to command any one to receive the Holy Ghost on Sunday to the exclusion of the rest of the faithful! Thank Heaven we are the only people on earth who have no priests! Would you rob us of so happy a distinction? Why should we abandon our child to mercenary nurses when we have milk to give him? These hirelings would soon govern the house and oppress mother and child. God has said: `Freely ye have received; freely give.’ After that saying, shall we go chaffer with the Gospel, sell the Holy Ghost, and turn a meeting of Christians into a tradesman’s shop? We do not give money to men dressed in black, to assist our poor, to bury our dead, to preach to the faithful. Those holy occupations are too dear to us to be cast off upon others.”[Footnote: Voltaire, xxxvii. 124.]
Having thus attacked the institution of priesthood in general, Voltaire turns his attention in particular to the priests of France and England. In morals, he says, the Anglican clergy are more regular than the French. This is because all ecclesiastics in England are educated at the universities, far from the temptations of the capital, and are called to the dignities of the church at an advanced age, when men have no passions left but avarice and ambition. Advancement here is the recompense of long service, in the church as well as in the army. You do not see boys becoming bishops or colonels on leaving school. Moreover, most English priests are married men. The awkward manners contracted at the university, and the slight intercourse with women usual in that country, generally compel a bishop to be content with his own wife. Priests sometimes go to the tavern in England, because custom allows it; but if they get drunk, they do so seriously, and without making scandal.
“That indefinable being, who is neither a layman nor an ecclesiastic, in a word, that which we call an _abbé_, is an unknown species in England. Here all priests are reserved, and nearly all are pedants. When they are told that in France young men known for their debauched lives and raised to the prelacy by the intrigues of women make love publicly, amuse themselves by composing amorous songs, give long and dainty suppers every night, and go thence to ask the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, and boldly call themselves successors of the apostles, they thank God that they are Protestants;–but they are vile heretics, to be burned by all the devils, as says Master Francois Rabelais. Which is why I have nothing to do with them.”[Footnote: Voltaire, xxxvii. 140.]
While the evil lives of an important part of the French clergy are thus assailed, the doctrines of the Church are not spared. The following is from the letter on the Socinians. “Do you remember a certain orthodox bishop, who in order to convince the Emperor of the consubstantiality [of the three Persons of the Godhead] ventured to chuck the Emperor’s son under the chin, and to pull his nose in his sacred majesty’s presence? The Emperor was going to have the bishop thrown out of the window, when the good man addressed him in the following fine and convincing words: `Sir, if your Majesty is so angry that your son should be treated with disrespect, how do you think that God the Father will punish those who refuse to give to Jesus Christ the titles that are due to Him?’ The people of whom I speak say that the holy bishop was ill-advised, that his argument was far from conclusive, and that the Emperor should have answered: `Know that there are two ways of showing want of respect for me; the first is not to render sufficient honor to my son, the other is to honor him as much as myself.'”[Footnote: Voltaire, xxxvii. 144.] Such words as these were hardly to be borne. But the French authorities recognized that there was a greater and more insidious danger to the church in certain other passages by which Frenchmen were made to learn some of the results of English abstract thought.
Among the French writers of the eighteenth century are several men of eminent talent; one only whose sinister but original genius has given a new direction to the human mind. I shall treat farther on of the ideas of Rousseau. The others, and Voltaire among them, belong to that class of great men who assimilate, express, and popularize thought, rather than to the very small body of original thinkers. Let us then pause for a moment, while studying the French Philosophers and their action on the church, and ask who were their masters.
Montaigne, Bayle, and Grotius may be considered the predecessors on the Continent of the French Philosophic movement, but its great impulse came from England. Bacon had much to do with it; Hooker and Hobbes were not without influence; Newton’s discoveries directed men’s minds towards physical science; but of the metaphysical and political ideas of the century, John Locke was the fountain-head. Some Frenchmen have in modern times disputed his claims. To refute these disputants it is only necessary to turn from their books to those of Voltaire and his contemporaries. The services rendered by France to the human race are so great that her sons need never claim any glory which does not clearly belong to them. All through modern history, Frenchmen have stood in the front rank of civilization. They have stood there side by side with Englishmen, Italians, and Germans. International jealousy should spare the leaders of human thought. They belong to the whole European family of nations. The attempt to set aside Locke, Newton, and Bacon, as guides of the eighteenth century belongs not to that age but to our own.
The works of Locke are on the shelves of most considerable libraries; but many men, now that the study of metaphysics is out of fashion, are appalled at the suggestion that they should read an essay in three volumes on the human understanding, evidently considering their own minds less worthy of study than their bodies or their estates. It may be worth while, therefore, to give a short summary of those theories, or discoveries of Locke which most modified French thought in the eighteenth century. The great thinker was born in 1632 and died in 1704. His principal works were published shortly after the English Revolution of 1688, but had been long in preparation; and the “Essay on the Human Understanding” is said to have occupied him not less than twenty years.
It is the principal doctrine of Locke that all ideas are derived from sensation and reflection. He acknowledges that “it is a received doctrine that men have native ideas and original characters stamped upon their minds in their very first being;” but he utterly rejects every such theory. It is his principal business to protest and argue against the existence of such “innate ideas.” Virtue he believes to be generally approved because it is profitable, not on account of any natural leaning of the mind in its direction. Conscience “is nothing else but our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions.” Memory is the power in the mind to revive perceptions which it once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before. Wit lies in the assemblage of ideas, judgment in the careful discrimination among them. “Things are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain;” … “our love and hatred of inanimate, insensible beings is commonly founded on that pleasure or pain which we receive from their use and application any way to our senses, though with their destruction; but hatred or love of beings incapable of happiness or misery is often the uneasiness or delight which we find in ourselves, arising from a consideration of their very being or happiness. Thus the being and welfare of a man’s children or friends, producing constant delight in him, he is said constantly to love them. But it suffices to note that our ideas of love and hatred are but dispositions of the mind in respect of pleasure or pain in general, however caused in us.”
We have no clear idea of substance nor of spirit. Substance is that wherein we conceive qualities of matter to exist; spirit, that in which we conceive qualities of mind, as thinking, knowing, and doubting. The primary ideas of body are the cohesion of solid, and therefore separate parts, and a power of communicating motion by impulse. The ideas of spirit are thinking and will, or a power of putting body into motion by thought, and, which is consequent to it, liberty. The ideas of existence, mobility, and duration are common to both.
Locke’s intelligence was clear enough to perceive that these two ideas, spirit and matter, stand on a similar footing. Less lucid thinkers have boldly denied the existence of spirit while asserting that of matter. Locke’s system would not allow him to believe that either conception depended on the nature of the mind itself. He therefore rejected the claims of substance as unequivocally as those of spirit, declaring it to be “only an uncertain supposition of we know not what, i. e., of something whereof we have no particular, distinct, positive idea, which we take to be the substratum or support of those ideas we know.” Yet he inclines on the whole toward materialism. “We have,” he says, “the ideas of matter and thinking, but possibly shall never be able to know whether any mere material being thinks, or no; it being impossible for us, by the contemplation of our own ideas, without revelation, to discover whether omnipotency has not given to some system of matter, fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think, or else joined and fixed to matter so disposed a thinking immaterial substance, it being, in respect of our notions, not much more remote from our comprehension to conceive that God can, if he pleases, superadd to matter a faculty of thinking, than that he should superadd to it another substance, with a faculty of thinking; since we know not wherein thinking consists, nor to what sort of substances the Almighty has been pleased to give that power, which cannot be in any created being, but merely by the good pleasure and power of the Creator.”… “All the great ends of morality and religion,” he adds, “are well secured without philosophical proof of the soul’s immateriality.” As to our knowledge “of the actual existence of things, we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence, and a demonstrative knowledge of the existence of God; of the existence of anything else, we have no other but a sensitive knowledge, which extends not beyond the objects present to our senses.”[Footnote: Is not an intuitive knowledge suspiciously like an innate idea? Locke’s _Works_, i. 38, 39, 72, 82, 137, 145, 231; ii. 10, 11, 21, 331, 360, 372 (Book i. ch. 3, 4, Book ii. ch. 1,10,11, 20, 23, Book iv. ch. 3).]
The eulogy of Locke in Voltaire’s “Lettres Philosophiques” gave especial offense to the French churchmen. Voltaire writes to a friend that the censor might have been brought to give his approbation to all the letters but this one. “I confess,” he adds, “that I do not understand this exception, but the theologians know more about it than I do, and I must take their word for it.”[Footnote: Voltaire, li. 356 (_Letter to Thieriot,_ 24 Feb. 1733).] The letter to which the censor objected was principally taken up with the doctrine of the materiality of the soul. “Never,” says Voltaire, “was there perhaps a wiser or a more methodical spirit, a more exact logician, than Locke.” … “Before him great philosophers had positively decided what is the soul of man; but as they knew nothing at all about it, it is very natural that they should all have been of different minds.” And he adds in another part of the letter, “Men have long disputed on the nature and immortality of the soul. As to its immortality, that cannot be demonstrated, since people are still disputing about its nature; and since, surely, we must thoroughly know a created being to decide whether it is immortal or not. Human reason alone is so unable to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, that religion has been obliged to reveal it to us. The common good of all men demands that we should believe the soul to be immortal; faith commands it; no more is needed, and the matter is almost decided. It is not the same as to its nature; it matters little to religion of what substance is the soul, if only it be virtuous. It is a clock that has been given us to regulate, but the maker has not told us of what springs this clock is composed.”[Footnote: Voltaire, xxxvii. 177,182 (_Lettres philosophiques._ In the various editions of Voltaire’s collected works published in the last century these letters do not appear as a series, but their contents is distributed among the miscellaneous articles, and those of the _Dictionnaire philosophique_. The reason for this was that the letters, having been judicially condemned, might have brought their publishers into trouble if they had appeared under their own title. Bengesco, ii. 9. Desnoiresterres, _Voltaire à Cirey_, 28, Voltaire, xxxvii. 113. In Beuchot’s edition the letters appear in their original form).]
The “Lettres philosophiques” may be considered the first of Voltaire’s polemic writings. They exhibit his mordant wit, his clear-sightedness and his moral courage. There is in them, perhaps, more real gayety, more spontaneous fun, than in his later books. Voltaire was between thirty-five and forty years old when they were written, and although he possessed to the end of his long life more vitality than most men, yet he was physically something of an invalid, and his many exiles and disappointments told upon his temper. From 1734, when these letters first appeared in France, to 1778, when he died, worn out with years, labors, quarrels, and honors, his activity was unceasing. He had many followers and many enemies, but hardly a rival. Voltaire was and is the great representative of a way of looking at life; a way which was enthusiastically followed in his own time, which is followed with equal enthusiasm to-day. This view he expressed and enforced in his numberless poems, tragedies, histories, and tales. It formed the burden of his voluminous correspondence. As we read any of them, his creed becomes clear to us; it is written large in every one of his more than ninety volumes. It may almost be said to be on every page of them. That creed may be stated as follows: We know truth only by our reason. That reason is enlightened only by our senses. What they do not tell us we cannot know, and it is mere folly to waste time in conjecturing. Imagination and feeling are blind leaders of the blind. All men who pretend to supernatural revelation or inspiration are swindlers, and those who believe them are dupes. It may be desirable, for political or social purposes, to have a favored religion in the state, but freedom of opinion and of expression should be allowed to all men, at least to all educated men; for the populace, with their crude ideas and superstitions, may be held in slight regard.