I am a great fan of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series of novels (The movie Master and Commander being a mash-up of several) and if your read the novels attentively you notice that the real hero of the series is not the somewhat dense and amoral navel commander Jack Aubrey, but his devoutly Catholic surgeon and side-kick and intensely intimate best friend, Stephen Maturin. (At times the relationship seems to be latently—or maybe even discreetly—homosexual.) Stephen Maturin is not only a brilliant surgeon but also a secret British agent, an ardent republican determined to bring down Napoleon. Several times in the 21½ novels Maturin expresses his contempt for “that scoundrel Rousseau.” He is referring to Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the leading philosophes of the Enlightenment.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was not French, but Swiss: a Calvinst from Geneva. He was, perhaps most famous for his novel Emile (aka On Education). Moving far from his Calvinist roots (Rousseau would convert to Catholicism c 1728 and then convert back to Calvinism in 1754 though he was by no means a professing Christian, his conversions being more a matter of political and social advantage) Rousseau believed in the inherent goodness of the human individual. He found the idea of original sin repugnant and believed that the human person in the state of nature is blameless: the bon sauvage, noble savage. (Sauvage in French, like the original meaning of the English term “savage” does not connote barbarism but simply the human person living wild and free in nature.) He blamed human corruption on the growth of human society that separates the human person from the natural state. He saw society as essential as persons must cooperate in order to survive but he also saw it degenerating into competition from which springs a variety of human evils. Rousseau, reflecting his Swiss roots, was an ardent believer in republican government and direct democracy—the participation of the largest possible number of citizenry in directly making political decisions. His influence on American thought, especially Jefferson, cannot be missed. As to religion, while he remained an admirer (even in his Catholic years) of John Calvin for his legislative career in Geneva, he was very post-orthodox in his theology. He was a Deist though, unlike most Deists who saw God as impersonal and distant, Rousseau had a sort of natural mysticism that made him profoundly aware of and sentimental towards the manifestations of God in nature. Like other Enlightenment figures he advanced the idea of the freedom of conscience and believed that each person should be free to follow the religious beliefs and practices to which he or she was drawn.
Voltaire (1694-1778) (born François-Marie Arouet, was educated by the Jesuits at the College Louis le Grand in Paris where he—like so many educated by the Jesuits, lost his Catholic faith. He adopted the name (nom de plume, nom de guerre) Voltaire in his mid-twenties. It was an anagram of the Latin form of his name Arouet. He was an exceptionally witty man but as we know from our friends among the Katholik Krazies, not everyone is blessed with a sense of humor and his wit won him the enmity of one of its victims, the Regent, Philippe, the Duke of Orleans. When you piss of a Regent it never goes well for you, especially under the cherished ancien regime, and Voltaire ended up in the Bastille for eleven months. His friends—of which he was always to have many—won his release on the promise he would go to exile and he fled to the Netherlands. There he met a lovely young Huguenot (French Protestant) Catherine Olympe Dunoyer and married her. He sneaked back into France under somewhat false pretenses—and, as it was against the law for a Catholic (which he still was, at least nominally) to be married to a Protestant, illegally. He enjoyed the friendship and patronage of Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress and this helped him—sometimes—to avoid the various penalties his opinions earned him.
Voltaire went after the Catholic Church and its position of being the established religion in France. He firmly believed in the separation of Church and State and freedom for the individual to practice the religion of his choice—or no religion. He was a most prodigious writer of plays, poems, novels, letters and essays as well as scientific and historical works, all of which advanced his very avant-garde ideas. His brilliance at satire offended many in the establishment and while he had numerous friends outside the court, at court he had more than his share of enemies.
Voltaire rejected classic Christianity for a vague belief in a creator. He did have quite a bit of admiration for Hinduism, though how he became familiar with it except through books, I can’t be sure. Sometimes we develop an admiration for something not so much because we know it or understand it, but because it is contrary to that which society has established for us.
He was very skeptical of the Bible as he felt that God’s own moral ambiguities—telling various Israelite leaders that they should kill this person or annihilate that nation—only justified violence and oppression. Yet he was tremendously admiring of nuns, especially those who served the sick and the poor as he saw a deep idealism in them. He saw that Christianity was useful in as that it imposed a certain moral code upon the common and uneducated people but he felt it had no place among those who could think for themselves. He is quoted as having said: “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” But perhaps my favorite quote of his is that on his deathbed, when asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he said: “This is no time to make new enemies.” Humorous to the last. Hopefully God appreciates the humor; otherwise we are all in deep trouble.
A somewhat less known figure of the Enlightenment was Denis Diderot (1713-1784). He advocated inoculation against smallpox and he compiled the Encyclopédie which is an anthology of Enlightenment thought. Unlike most of the philosophes, Diderot was not a Deist but an atheist. His antagonism against religion may have been due in great part to the death from exhaustion of his much beloved sister, a nun in a very austere convent. My reason for including Diderot is that he has my favorite quote of all the Enlightenment philosophes: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest.” I have it hanging in my office right alongside one of my other favorite quotes from a far less distinguished source: si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes.
Finally, we need to backtrack a bit and deal with the Englishman Sir Issac Newton whom I have somehow overlooked. Newton (1642-1727), like my buddy Stephen Maturin, was a natural philosopher: i.e. a scientist, and perhaps the most important scientist of all western history. A great mathematician, it was Newton who established once and for all that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the solar system. In addition to physics, mathematics, and astronomy, Newton did extensive work in optics. Given his particular position at Cambridge he was expected to be ordained in the Church of England but he obtained a royal warrant excusing him from Holy Orders. He never gave a reason but it seems while devout he was not orthodox in as that he did not subscribe to the Doctrine of the Trinity. Like many in his day He saw God as the Master Mathematician, the Creator of the Universe and Newton attributed the unflinching order of things in the natural realm to the Divine Mind.