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almost amounting to social proscription ? Who, in fine, is ignorant of the existence of a Society, whose object it is to attack powerless vice exclusively; nay worse—to assail much that is merely enacted into criminality, whilst indisputable gilded offence, and unequivocal lofty turpitude, are left unmolested ?* The extent of this conventional hypocrisy among the abettors of all existing abuses in the present day, has gone far to distinguish it as the Age of CẢNT, and with justice ; for although the practice must exist more or less in all crowded society, it was never so extensively ramified and expanded before. This fact is, doubtless, owing to the increased circulation of opinion, and to the alarm which is thereby naturally excited among all the close and injurious monopolists of power, profit, or privilege; who feel, and feel justly, that in proportion as sentiment is freely and rapidly interchanged, are their outworks assailed and their strong holds in danger.
But what has all this to do with Voltaire, the reader will demand. Simply this ; that having been the man who baffled the odious vices of superstition, intolerance, and bigotry while living, his memory is pursued with proportionate misrepresentation and rancour by the legitimate representatives of those vices since his death. Every puling fanatic can dwell upon his personal failings, without the slightest endeavour to discriminate the faults and errors of the man from those of his age and country, and every maudlin alarmist attribute to a writer, whose
* It is asserted upon knowledge, that the proprietors of a considerable manufactory in the suburbs subscribed to this Society, and even took an interest in its proceedings, wbo kept ten or fifteen labourers secretly employed every Sunday on their premises, for half-a-year together.
ever fertile brain was in eternal exercise against the vilest atrocities of priestcraft and misgovernment, the reaction of violence which, in the fullness of time, they engendered. This observation is not made in advertence to the production of argument against argument, or of opinion against opinion; but to the monstrous injustice of attributing the horrors of a revolution of unparalleled magnitude to the operation of a writer, whose ostensible and probably whose only real object was, unlimited toleration, or it may be, equal political eligibility,* while the most convenient silence is maintained on the multiplied horrors, oppression, and misrule, which alone can effect a simultaneous movement in any great country like France. That the works of this most popular writer of his own or possibly of any other time, who had laboured earnestly against a great number of the enormities which had brought about the crisis, should give a turn to the language and sentiment of the day, is natural enough: but who can quote a line of Voltaire in justification of the various atrocities of the infuriated Parisian mob—the broken-loose roturiers, exasperated by a recollection of the insolence and oppression of ages? Since all revolted slaves are cruel and revengeful, the cure is, not to possess slaves to revolt.
It has already been observed that, in the estimation of a public character, a due consideration must be had for the necessary operation of the period in which he lived, and of the nature of the society
* Some people may imagine that his views extended further, which possibly, under the idea that complete toleration would never otherwise be obtained, may be true. The practice of the United States has, however, rectified this idea.
amidst which he was reared. Voltaire was in his twentieth year when Louis XIV. died, and consequently his very precocious adolescence was spent during the close of the reign of that celebrated actor of majesty. How was that season characterised as to morals and the tone of Parisian good company? An epitome of the private life of Louis himself will tell. When youthful, he debauched one or two of his mother's maids of honour; and his amours, as he advanced, were abundant, according to the routine of their most Christian majesties in general.* One or two of these affairs, independently of the last, were very characteristic; but the chief circumstance to be regarded is the solemn self-engrossment of the man, and the formality and etiquette with which he surrounded even his vices. In fact, the concubinage of the throne, under both him and his successor, was in a manner legitimated upon a sort of Mahometan principle, the priesthood making as little objection as any one else, possibly because their privileges and revenues remained precisely the same, or tended by it as the sultans grew_older. The decorum and air of state with which Louis sinned, was rather edifying than scandalous; and his subjects very faithfully copied the Grand Monarque. Gallantry became the order of the day throughout France, with a great abatement of the chivalrous sentiment which attended it under the regency of Anne of Austria, but still exempt from the more sensual gracelessness which rapidly followed under the Regent and Louis XV.
* Not without exception; one of which was Louis XVI.; for an account of whose retention, see Madame Campan, who gives a gravely ludicrous narrative of the tardy but final triumph and satisfaction of poor Marie Antoinette.
When Voltaire entered life, Louis was all devotion and exclusive Madame Maintenon, and as his glory, as it was called, had exceedingly abated, the youth of his dominion were beginning to look for other models and manners. Still, a portion of this well-assorted decency and libertinism abounded ; and the first thing we hear of the education of Voltaire is, that a very agreeable Abbé-the Abbé Chateauneuf-taught him to repeat the fables of La Fontaine, and a sceptical poem of J. B. Rousseau, as soon as he could speak; and at the age of fifteen introduced him to the celebrated Ninon de L'Enclos, the said Abbé having been the last of the one hundred and fifty of her lovers. Now all this was mere accident or routine in France, and yet there are people who will dwell on the levity and libertinism of Voltaire, and its desperate consequences, who would not hazard a word upon the dissolute framework of the society which formed him, because that would show at once both the sources of his feelings and of the general disorder which engendered the revolution.
The boasted reign of Louis, in fact, was signalised by the most flagitious immorality from the Court downwards, which immorality was very poorly covered towards the close by a species of factitious devotion, which only added to the disgust of those who penetrated beyond the surface.* The morals of the Regency were a little better or a little worse, just as the reader may be disposed to prefer impudence or hypocrisy—unblushing vice, or “the homage which vice pays to virtue.” A great and active party in this country prefer the homage—the French plate, which, as Joseph Surface
* One of whom was the Duchess of Orleans, the mother of the Regent, whose recently published Correspondence throws an admirable light upon the moral deformity of the boasted Court of Louis.
says, pays no tax-to the real silver, all to nothing; and unhappily the age takes both its hue and its appellation from this preference. Letting this pass; it is certain that a brilliant, highly-gifted, and more than commonly vivacious young man, like Voltaire, who moved in the high tide of Parisian society, must necessarily be imbued with the levity and laxity that on every side surrounded him, and 'which has rendered the period in question proverbial for profligacy and debauchery. This is not observed in defence of the moral defects of Voltaire, or of any one else, but in answer to those who expect the virtues of a sage from the education of an Alcibiades. His youthful career seems to have been precisely that of other young men of his age and station in the French metropolis, neither better nor worse; and it is scarcely necessary to prove the tinge which such a state of society must bestow upon every character, however intellectually gifted, which is formed in the midst of it.
So much as to a certain licence in respect to gallantry and sexual matters, which, however, may be very briefly dismissed, as Voltaire was by no means a distinguished offender in that
way. The remark is made in relation rather to the literary freedom which this kind of early experience is likely to create, and to certain occasional offences contra bonos mores which must be expected from a writer, who has thus commenced
But even after including La Pucelle, these are not very numerous, besides being for the most part admirably redeemed by the wit and severity that accompany them, which are generally turned against the detestable vice of hypocrisy, and in exposition of the personal failings of 'fanatics or their idols, who never either spare the weak opponent or pardon the
as a man.