Imagens da página
PDF
ePub

PREFACE;

INCLUDING A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE LIFE, CONDUCT,

AND PHILOSOPHICAL WRITINGS OF VOLTAIRE.

The Philosophical Dictionary of Voltaire is, probably, the only work from his hand which has not been adequately translated into the English language; and as the publishers of the following version can perceive no sufficing reason for this exception, they are induced to do it away by a translation as comprehensive as the present state of knowledge and the different circumstances of French and English readers will allow. Aware of the interested clamour and bigotry which pursue the name of this great and extraordinary author, it is not expected that the task will escape the censure of the most venal and the most active of all confederacies. But this is a trifle: it is not seen why a work, abounding in the most curious research, the most amusing anecdote, and the most lively wit, should not be naturalised as fully as possible, especially as its errors, like all other errors, are amenable to correction and reproof through the same medium which affords them publicity. For reasons, which no doubt they perfectly understand, it is a settled matter, indeed, on the part of certain tenacious thinkers, that wit is a weapon to be proscribed in all the contests in which they may happen to be engaged. The objection is, doubtless, disinterested; but as it happens that the aforesaid reasoners are not very scrupulous in the choice of their own means of annoyance, or remarkable for any very merciful consideration of their opponents in the use of them, it is not seen why their antipathy to a particular one should be very deeply considered. Besides, the gravest of these personages must allow the extreme courtesy of an opponent, who seldom treads upon the toes of their prejudices without touching his hat with the most finished politeness.

Hume, in summing up the character of Queen Elizabeth, a masterpiece in its way, observes, that few great persons have been more exposed to the calúmnies of enemies and the adulation of friends, than that celebrated sovereign; and yet that we scarcely hear of any one whose real pretensions are more certainly determined. He further observes, that the true way of estimating the merits of those who operate materially on the destinies of mankind, is to lay aside undue consideration of temper, amiability, and the other minor morals so requisite to the perfection of private life, and to attend in a greater degree to those leading qualities of mind and conduct, which have contributed to distinguish them from the great majority of their fellow creatures.

Upon something of the foregoing principle, it is thought that a brief estimate of the philosophical and social claims of Voltaire, by way of preface to the present translation, will not at this moment he unseasonable. It is not, however, intended either to conceal defects or to palliate culpability : while we hear of few names which the unsophisticated friends of general humanity, and the unequivocal enemies to bigotry, superstition, fraud, oppression, and cruelty, must necessarily regard with more complacency than that of Voltaire, there is none, possibly, the defence of

which requires a more candid admission of imputed failing As addressed to Englishmen, frankness in this particular is still more essential, because most of the follies and weaknesses of Voltaire were attributable to circumstances, of which, experimentally, they can form no adequate conception; not to mention the prevalence of certain national traits in his character with which they are peculiarly uncongenial. We are not quite certain that the latter may not add to the difficulty of the task more than the former ; for, in respect to literary restriction, profligate misgovernment, illegal persecution, and political oppression, the reign of the Stuarts may vie with the unblushing regimen of Louis XV.; but at no time, nor in consideration of the past character of any time, can English feelings accommodate themselves to the personal vanity and vain glory so prevalent in the Frenchman; and never was there more a Frenchman, both in the merits and demerits of the character, than Voltaire.

In order to form a fair and correct estimate of this original and fertile genius, in the spirit of the example which has just been quoted, it will be well to attend, in the first place, to the state of the French society, in the midst of which he was reared, and his predispositions irretrievably formed; and, in the second, to the complexion of the evils which his cultivated reason and great extent of information led him so determinedly to oppose. A brief attention to both these points, and to their effects upon a temperament rendered so peculiarly mercurial as that of Voltaire, may be sufficient to lead the general reader into that calm and unprejudiced view of his character and conduct, which it is the principal object of these prefatory pages to recommend.

All the world is aware of the vast mass of slander

which is upheld in the social atmosphere, ready, like humidity, to descend in a visible shower upon every head which is more or less occupied in the consideration of evils, the existence of which is profitable to a powerful few exactly in proportion as it is injurious to every body else. Contrast is resemblance with the single addition of a negative, says an eminent writer; according to which definition, the virulence here spoken of may pair off with the apparent unconsciousness of all similar failings in the parties, persons, or principles, which it is the interest of these active bodies to uphold. The injustice and hypocrisy which gross and venal people can display in concert, is indescribable. While dwelling with an earnestness approaching to vociferation on the vices of an individual whom they choose to regard as an enemy, they will assiduously cover and even defend the very same offences in an idol or partisan. Now one half of this baseness may be allowed to pass ; for although both are detestable, flattery is less so than slander. That.“ saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn,” may be granted; but the converse of the proposition is certainly not admissible.

The sinner in purple is not to be held twice a sinner in drab, even if a sinner in purple can exist at all, which, according to a mitred prelate, is somewhat doubtful.*

a

* That is to say, either constitutionally or morally. The constitutional fiction, that the King can do no wrong, is absurd enough, and has been utterly burlesqued by the practice of the country which professes it; but the silly dictum, in its usual acceptation, was not enough in the instance alluded to. When the First James asked one of his Prelates whether he might not make free with his subjects' goods and chattels when he thought proper?—To be sure," returned the obsequious priest : “ Is not your Majesty the breath of our nostrils ?" Whether the existing bishop would allow reigning Majesty to make free at pleasure with the goods of the Church is

The bronzed assurance with which this despicable game is daily played, is frequently amusing. What more common, for instance, than to hear a brazen-faced lawyer, the very epitome of Voltore, in the “Fox” of Ben Jonson, exclaim against the venality of the periodical Press, and the baseness with which it is swayed by "filthy lucre.” Now, although the fact is often true enough, it is ludicrous to hear such a general imputation from an animal, who is possibly at that very moment exhibiting the most complete mental prostitution,

-palliating falsehood, disguising truth, mimicking conviction, and acting vehemency to the very approximation of convulsion, for a fee of five, ten, or twenty guineas.* Who has not read—who does not every day read, the grossest adulation of dissolute rank and power, from quarters which are absolutely making similar aberrations in others the foundation of a degree of rancorous slander,

doubtful, but he has clearly made him an unlimited present of the Decalogue.

* It is scarcely necessary to observe, that the writer is fully aware of the extent of argument by which the existing system of advocacy can be attacked and defended; but, however the question may be decided, they, whose business it is to play at football with truth, have no reason to look down upon any profession. The operation of the practice of the law upon

the

power of moral discrimination, is singularly curious. A case in point: The writer, a few days ago, listened with great attention to an eulogium from legal lips, of a very successful mode of tactic by an eminent barrister, now a Judge. “He had the art, Sir, of attracting the attention of the jury while the opposite counsel was speaking; of turning up his eyes, shaking his head, smiling as in derision, and nodding as in scorn every time the argument of the speaker was likely to be peculiarly effective. A very clever man, Sir: he obtained many a verdict by these means." If this be true, how can Judge pass sentence upon a prisoner for being guilty of obtaining money upon false pretences, without a blush? It may also be asked, how far he is from being a rascal, who obtains a verdict for a rascal by such management?

« AnteriorContinuar »