Ҿ˹˹ѧ
PDF
ePub

"passed away like a whirlwind,' to be forgotten forever ; and that German artisan has wrought a benefit, which is yet immeasurably expanding itself, and will continue to expand itself through all countries and through all times. What are the conquests and expeditions of the whole corporation of captains, from Walter the Penniless to Napoleon Bonaparte, compared with these movable types' of Johannes Faust? Truly, it is a mortifying thing for your Conqueror to reflect, how perishable is the metal which he hammers with such violence : how the kind earth will soon shroud-up his bloody footprints; and all that he achieved and skilfully piled together will be but like his own canvas city' of a camp, this evening loud with life, to-morrow all struck and vanished, a few earth-pits and heaps of straw!' For here, as always, it continues true, that the deepest force is the stillest ; that, as in the Fable, the mild shining of the sun shall silently accomplish what the fierce blustering of the tempest has in vain essayed. Above all, it is ever to be kept in mind, that not by material, but by moral power, are men and their actions governed. How noiseless is thought! No rolling of drums, no tramp of squadrons, or immeasurable tumult of baggage-wagons, attends its movements : in what obscure and sequestered places may the head be meditating, which is one day to be crowned with more than imperial authority ; for Kings and Emperors will be among its ministering servants; it will rule not over, but in, all heads, and with these its solitary combinations of ideas, as with magic formulas, bend the world to its will! The time may come, when Napoleon himself will be better known for his laws than for his battles; and the victory of Waterloo prove less momentous than the opening of the first Mechanics’ Institute.

We have been led into such rather trite reflections, by these Volumes of Memoirs on Voltaire ; a man in whose history the relative importance of intellectual and physical power is again curiously evinced. This also was a private person, by birth nowise an elevated one ; yet so far as present knowledge will enable us to judge, it may be said that to abstract Voltaire and his activity from the eighteenth century, were to produce a greater difference in the existing figure of things, than the want of any other individual, up to this day, could have occasioned. Nay, with the single exception of Luther, there is perhaps, in these modern ages, no other man of a merely intellectual character, whose influence and reputation have become so entirely European as that of Voltaire. Indeed, like the great German Reformer's, his doctrines too, almost from the first, have affected not only the belief of the thinking world, silently propagating therselves from mind to mind; but in a high degree also, the conduct of the active and political world; entering as a distinct element into some of the most fearful civil convulsions which European history has on record.

Doubtless, to his own contemporaries, to such of them at least as had any insight into the actual state of men's minds, Voltaire already appeared as a noteworthy and decidedly historical personage: yet, perhaps, not the wildest of his admirers ventured to assign him such a magnitude as he now figures in, even with his adversaries and detractors. He has grown in apparent importance, as we receded from him, as the nature of his endeavours became more and more visible in their results. For, unlike many great men, but like all great agitators, Voltaire everywhere shows himself emphatically as the man of his century: uniting in his own person whatever spiritual accomplishments were most valued by that age; at the same time, with no depth to discern its ulterior tendencies, still less with any magnanimity to attempt withstanding these, his greatness and his littleness alike fitted him to produce an immediate effect; for he leads whither the multitude was of itself dimly minded to run, and keeps the van not less by skill in commanding, than by cunning in obeying. Besides, now that we look on the matter from some distance, the efforts of a thousand coadjutors and disciples, nay a series of mighty political vicissitudes, in the production of which these efforts had but a subsidiary share, have all come, naturally in such a case, to appear as if exclusively his work; so that he rises before us as the paragon and epitome of a whole spiritual period, now almost passed away, yet remarkable in itself, and more than ever interesting to us, who seem to stand, as it were, on the confines of a new and better one.

Nay, had we forgotten that ours is the “ Age of the Press, when he who runs may not only read, but furnish us with reading ; and simply counted the books, and scattered leaves, thick as the autumnal in Vallombrosa, that have been written and printed concerning this man, we might almost fancy him the most important person, not of the eighteenth century, but of all the centuries from Noah's Flood downwards. We have Lives of Voltaire by friend and by fue: Condorcet, Duvernet, Lepan, have each given us a whole ; portions, documents and all manner of authentic or spurious contributions have been supplied by innumerable hands; of which we mention only the labours of his various Secretaries : Collini's, published some twenty years ago, and now these Two massive Octavos from Longchamp and Wagnière. To say nothing of the Baron de Grimm's Collections, unparalleled in more than one respect; or of the six-and-thirty volumes of scurrilous eaves-dropping, long since printed under the title of Mémoires de Bachaumont ; or of the daily and hourly attacks and defences that appeared separately in his lifetime, and all the judicial pieces, whether in the style of apotheosis or of excommunication, that have seen the light since then ; a mass of fugitive writings, the very diamond edition of which might fill whole libraries. The peculiar talent of the French in all narrative, at least in all anecdotic, departments, rendering most of these works extremely readable, still farther favoured their circulation, both at home and abroad: so that now, in most countries, Voltaire has been read of and talked of, till his name and life have grown familiar like those of a village acquaintance. In England, at least, where for almost a century the study of foreign literature has, we may say, confined itself to that of the French, with a slight intermixture from the elder Italians, Voltaire's writings, and such writings as treated of him, were little likely to want readers. We suppose, there is no literary era, not even any domestic one, concerning which Englishmen in general have such information, at least have gathered so many anecdotes and opinions, as concerning this of Voltaire. Nor have native additions to the stock been wanting, and these of a due variety in purport and kind : maledictions, expostulations and dreadful death-scenes painted like Spanish Sanbenitos, by weak well-meaning persons of the hostile class ; eulogies, generally of a gayer sort, by open or secret friends: all this has been long and extensively carried on among us.

There is even an English Life of Voltaire ; nay, we remember to have seen portions of his writings cited in terrorem, and with criticisms, in some pamphlet, by a country gentleman,' either on the Education of the People, or else on the question of Preserving the Game.

With the Age of the Press,' and such manifestations of it on this subject, we are far from quarrelling. We have read great part of these thousand-and-first · Memoirs on Voltaire, by Longchamp and Wagnière, not without satisfaction; and can cheerfully look forward to still other “Memoirs’ following in their train. Nothing can be more in the course of Nature than the wish to satisfy oneself with knowledge of all sorts about any distinguished person, especially of our own era; the true study of his character, his spiritual individu

1

16 By Frank Hall Standish, Esq.' (London, 1821); a work, which we can recommend only to such as feel themselves in extreme want of information on this subject, and except in their own language unable to acquire any. It is written very badly, though with sincerity, and not without considerable indications of talent; to all appearance, by a minor; many of whose statements and opinions (for he seems an inquiring, honesthearted, rather decisive character) must have begun to astonish even himself, several years ago.

ality and peculiar manner of existence, is full of instruction for all mankind : even that of his looks, sayings, habitudes and indifferent actions, were not the records of them generally lies, is rather to be commended; nay, are not such lies themselves, when they keep within bounds, and the subject of them has been dead for some time, equal to snipe-shooting, or Colburn-Novels, at least little inferior, in the great art of getting done with life, or, as it is technically called, killing time? For our own part, we say: Would that every Johnson in the world had his veridical Boswell, or leash of Boswells! We could then tolerate his Hawkins also, though not veridical. With regard to Voltaire, in particular, it seems to us not only innocent but profitable, that the whole truth regarding him should be well understood. Surely, the biography of such a man, who, to say no more of him, spent his best efforts, and as many still think, successfully, in assaulting the Christian religion, must be a matter of considerable import; what he did, and what he could not do; how he did it, or attempted it, that is, with what degree of strength, clearness, especially with what moral intents, what theories and feelings on man and man's life, are questions that will bear some discussing. To Voltaire individually, for the last fifty-one years, the discussion has been indifferent enough ; and to us it is a discussion not on one remarkable person only, and chiefly for the curious or studious, but involving considerations of highest moment to all men, and inquiries which the utmost compass of our philosophy will be unable to embrace.

Here, accordingly, we are about to offer some farther observations on this quæstio vexata ; not without hope that the reader may accept them in good part. Doubtless, when we look at the whole bearings of the matter, there seems little prospect of any unanimity respecting it, either now, or within a calculable period : it is probable that many will continue, for a long time, to speak of this “universal genius,' this apostle of Reason,' and father of sound Philosophy;'

« ͹˹Թõ
 »