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In his Histories, he seems ever intent on exhibiting, in the most glaring colours, the manifold inconsistencies of the human race : in showing the contradiction between profession and practice; in contrasting the magnificence of the apparatus, with the impotence of the results. The enormous abuses of Christianity are brought into juxta-position with the most meritorious features in other religions; and thus all are reduced to nearly the same level. The credulity of one half of mankind is set in opposition to the cunning of the other. The most momentous events are traced to the most insignificant causes; and the ripest schemes of wisdom are shown to have been baffled by the intervention of the most trivial accidents. Thus the conduct of the world seems to be regulated by chance ; the springs of human action are resolved into selfishness; and religion, of whatever denomination, is only a different form of superstition. It is true that his satire is directed not so much against any particular system, as the vices of that system. But the result left on the mind is not a whit less pernicious. His philosophical romance of “ Candide” affords a good exemplification of his manner. The thesis of perfect optimism in this world, at which he levels this jeu d'esprit, is manifestly indefensible. But then he supports his position with such an array of gross and hyperbolical atrocities, without the intervention of a single palliative circumstance, and withal in such a tone of keen derision, that if any serious impression be left on the mind, it can be no other than that of a baleful, withering scepticism. The historian rarely so far forgets his philosophy as to kindle into high and generous emotion, the glow of patriotism, or moral and religious enthusiasm. And hence, too, his style, though always graceful, and often seasoned with the sallies of a piquant wit, never rises into eloquence or sublimity.
Voltaire has been frequently reproached for want of historical accuracy. But if we make due allowance for the sweeping tenor of his reflections, and for the infinite variety of his topics, we shall be slow in giving credit to this charge. He was, indeed, oftentimes misled by his inveterate Pyrrhonism ; a defect, when carried to the excess in which he indulged it, almost equally fatal to the historian with credulity or superstition. His researches frequently led him into dark, untravelled regions ; but the aliment which he imported thence served only too often to minister to his pernicious philosophy. He resembled the allegorical agents of Milton, paving a way across the gulf of chaos for the spirits of mischief to enter more easily upon the earth.
There is no writer who exhibits more distinctly the full development of the principles of modern history, with all its virtues and defects, than Gibbon. His learning was fully equal to his vast subject. This, commencing with expiring civilisation in ancient Rome, continues on until the period of its perfect and final resurrection in Italy, in the fifteenth century; and thus may be said to furnish the lights which are to guide us through the long interval of darkness which divides the old from the modern world. The range of his subject was fully equal to its duration. Goths, Huns, Tartars, and all the rude tribes of the north, are brought upon the stage, together with the more cultivated natives of the south, the Greeks, Italians, and the intellectual Arab; and as the scene shifts from one country to another, we behold its population depicted with that peculiarity of physiognomy, and studied propriety of costume, which belong to dramatic exhibition. For Gibbon was a more vivacious draughtsman than most
VOL. VI.-FOURTH SERIES.
writers of his school. He was, moreover, deeply versed in geography, chronology, antiquities, verbal criticism, --in short, in all the sciences in any way subsidiary to his art. The extent of his subject permitted him to indulge in those elaborate disquisitions, so congenial to the spirit of modern history, on the most momentous and interesting topics; while his early studies enabled him to embellish the drier details of his narrative with the charms of a liberal and elegant scholarship.
What, then, was wanting to this accomplished writer ? Good faith. His defects were precisely of the class of which we have before been speaking, and his most elaborate efforts exhibit too often the perversion of learning and ingenuity to the vindication of preconceived hypotheses. He cannot, indeed, be convicted of ignorance, or of literal inaccuracy; but his disingenuous mode of conducting the argument leads precisely to the same result. Thus, in his celebrated chapters on the “ Progress of Christianity,” which, he tells us, were “ reduced by three successive revisals, from a bulky volume to their present size,” he has often slurred over in the text such particulars as might reflect most credit on the character of the religion, or shuffled them into a note at the bottom of the page; while all that admits of a doubtful complexion in its early propagation is ostentatiously blazoned, and set in contrast to the most amiable features of Paganism. At the same time, by a style of innuendo, that conveys more than meets the ear," he has contrived, with Iago-like duplicity, to breathe a taint of suspicion on the purity which he dares not openly assail. It would be easy to furnish examples of all this, were this the place for it. But the charges have no novelty, and have been abundantly substantiated by others.
It is a consequence of this scepticism in Gibbon, as with Voltaire, that his writings are nowhere warmed with a generous moral sentiment. (3.) The most sublime of all spectacles, that of the martyr who suffers for conscience' sake, and this equally whether his creed be founded in truth or error, is contemplated by the historian with the smile, or rather sneer, of philosophic indifference. This is not only bad taste, as he is addressing a Christian audience; but he thus voluntarily relinquishes one of the most powerful engines for the movement of human passion, which is never so easily excited as by deeds of suffering, self-devoted heroism.
(1.) Mr. Prescott mentions the original “humanity and beneficence of the disposition of Voltaire.” Not less certainly than true Christianity elevates, purifies, and sanctifies all that it finds in the mental constitution not requiring removal, do scepticism and infidelity degrade, corrupt, and pervertingly desecrate it. In Voltaire these kinder propensions were changed into bitter acrimony, prompting to keen and atrabilious sarcasm, and giving to his mental portraiture at least an expression only to be described by the language of a more recent poet, who seems often to have written as before a mirror, and to have painted from the life : “ There was a laughing devil in his sneer.” Rousseau appears to have possessed a temperament which Christianity might have raised to benevolence and kindness, but which, by a singular process of introversion, becoming at length so completely centred in self as to admit of neither idea nor feeling of which self was not the principal ingredient, issued in a mawkish, sickening sentimentality, so completely preventing all the exercises of a healthy outgoing, that, morally speaking, the mens sana ceased to exist ; and he who might have been happy in domestic life, an attached friend, an amiable neighbour, and a useful, instructive member of civil society, became a dis
gusting profligate, a drivelling mountebank, whining a variety to the histrionic grinning of his older associate. And then, there was Maximilien Robespierre, the absolute sovereign of the “reign of terror," whose sanguinary ovations only terminated with his power and life, who exhausted even Parisian love of excitement, and wore out the admirers of spectacles, far exceeding those of the Roman circus, by the dread monotony of the rumbling of the carts heavily laden with victims in their progress to the guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre was originally a warm philanthropist. General testimony is too decided and well-supported to allow us to doubt this. Nor did he ever become, in the common sense of the term, ferocious and sanguinary. His philanthropy was sentimental and romantic, based on those visionary principles in which unbelievers are wont to indulge themselves, and which ultimately shot forth, as its natural and living branches, the deeds of a wide-wasting homicide. His imagination was so filled with the glories of that social fabric which he thought himself able to construct, in which human perfectibility would produce unalloyed human happiness, that he thought no more of sweeping away human lives than if they had been particles of dust. Nothing hardens the heart so completely as this spurious philanthropy. True philanthropy begins with obedience to the command,—“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Christianity thus provides for unlimited benevolence in the most rational manner. He who loves man as man, and for the sake of the one Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of all, loves man wherever he finds him, at home or abroad, not on large or small scale, because truly on no scale at all. Man is loved, and therefore every man. He who cultivates the spirit of the Gospel, cultivates that genuine philanthropy which wishes good to all, and evil to none; which does good to all within the reach of opportunity, and never thinks of inflicting injury on one that benefits may be conferred on another. It is time that this spurious philanthropy should be seen in its true light, and estimated at its just value. Three quarters of a century ago, the confederated infidels who thought themselves able to crush the Gospel, baited with professions of philanthropy the hooks with which they fished for men. They talked loudly on the subject ; and some of them wept over the pictures of fancied misery they had drawn, sometimes mingling tears of joy when they contemplated in vision the new aspect of society, freed from superstition and tyranny, all men equal, fraternising without envy, selfishness, or pride, dwelling in the simple innocence of Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses, priestcraft abolished, domestic bondage discarded, and, in its place, unlimited freedom asserted and practised. Philanthropists like Rousseau and Robespierre were overpowered by the dazzling glory of the prospect, and in sheer tenderness of heart they wept for very gladness. Of these vaunting professions, the fearful, the astounding results are now matters of undeniable history. Once more, and, if possible, more decisively than ever, has the Gospel triumphed. Infidelity assumed the garb of philanthropy, and in the name of philanthropy committed crimes whose atrocity was never exceeded in the darkest periods of the world's history.
And most remarkable is the fact, and to the observers of Divine Providence most significant also, that, during this very period, the beneficial influence of the Gospel on the social condition of man has been more visible than ever. Christianity has triumphed as the friend of man. The improvement of social institutions in this Christian land,-Christian, with all its faults,—the multiplication of benevolent institutions, the augmentation of their funds, the abolition of slavery, the acknowledgment of the true rights of man by the admission of people of colour to such a social standing as they would enjoy had they the light hair and the fair complexion of a genuine Saxon ancestry,-and, above all, the wonderful revival, extension, and success of Missionary operations,—wonderful in respect to the Providence which has given them such a remarkable direction, as well as in respect to the grace which has given them such remarkable success, ---all contribute to the manifestation of the true source and channel of philanthropy, even in the manifested kindness and philanthropy of God our Saviour. In conferring benefits on them that were “far off,” the Father, and Friend, and Saviour of mankind has inflicted no injuries on them who are “ nigh.” They who have assisted in the furtherance of one of the greatest works ever known in the world, have not looked with callous indifference on the sufferings of those more immediately in their view, while they have simpered affectedly over imaginary benefits conferred on whom they knew not, and which they only valued because, in the vanity of their self-sufficient and deceived hearts, they fancied it was their own work. Kaflirs, Hottentots, Tonguese, will not have to mourn in finding the history of their social and spiritual advancement written in letters of blood. That which has raised them, has raised also the instruments of their elevation. The double blessedness of mercy, in blessing him that gives and him that takes, has been indisputably shown. The philanthropy of infidelity, especially if it professes to relate to objects large, future, and remote, is always to be distrusted.
(2.) Nor is it to be distrusted only in its professions of philanthropy. More than ever does it move disguising its real objects, as it seeks to conceal its true character. The tactics of the leaders are singularly artful, calculated to deceive, not merely the masses, on whom they desire to operate, but even what may be termed the secondary and subordinate officers whom they employ. Of these last many are the actual promoters of infidelity without knowing that they are so. We cannot free the leaders from this guilty knowledge and intention. We believe that, on the Continent, the Encyclopædists have their successors. But the complete defeat which the predecessors sustained when they cast away all concealment, and displayed their banners in full daylight,—the intellectual vigour, the undaunted courage, the holy zeal, with which the champions of revealed religion arose in their might, and routed all the armies of the aliens,—so tha the shout of a King was heard in the Christian camp,-has taught the opponents now to act more warily. In France, indeed, there is less need of disguise. That most mournful fact, that the great bulk of two generations have been educated in the gloomy scepticism to which there is nothing beyond this world, and whose summum bonum consists in the combination of military glory, social levity and gaiety, and refined and elegant but real sensual gratification, allows the leaders of the movement there to permit their true character to be seen. But, even there, the general tactics are different. In this country they are entirely so. The ostensible plan is, the abolition of ancient prejudices, as inconsistent with the increased enlightenment of the age. Infidel principles are not proposed as such. The Paines, and Carliles, and Taylors have disappeared. This is the plan. Developments are proposed, rather than principles; and it is to the development alone that attention is directed, while the principle, of which it is the development, the necessary development, is cautiously kept out of sight. In an age of superficial rather than profound knowledge, so far as mental and moral science are concerned, (in physical science we are glad to acknowledge that it is otherwise,) complicated opinions are easily recommended without reference to principle; and many embrace them who never analyse them. Multitudes thus hold opinions which involve infidelity, without ever suspecting it. They are only opposing prejudices that ought to be discarded as antiquated. The results are melancholy. There is a strong sympathy with infidelity in many of its movements. For the sake of certain points of agreement, there is a familiarity with infidels totally inconsistent with the—“Come out from among them, and be ye separate : touch not; taste not”—of the Apostle. By the very laws of our nature, this diminishes the abhorrence of their principles : pleas for mental error are eagerly sought; and proportionably, attachment to our own principles is weakened likewise. Of course, this is not the fellowship of him that believeth with an infidel. That would be too obviously a direct infraction of the command of the Holy Ghost. We are too often governed by names, and plausible appearances. We are only renouncing an oldfashioned bigotry. We are only promoting a spirit of charity. Many go so far as to say that dogmas-doctrines—are nothing; morals and charity everything. Protestant zeal against what a true Protestant must believe to be the dangerous errors of Popery, is frowned upon as offensive to "large classes of our fellow-subjects." Unhappily, Popish zeal against Protestant heresy—Popish efforts to indoctrinate Protestant masses with Romish tenets-is, somehow or other, not met with a similar rebuke. The real character of this spurious charity might soon be found out, if its constant dislike of evangelical truth were conscientiously seen. The sanctity of the Sabbath is not directly assailed; but they who consistently advocate it are represented as Pharisees, Judaisers, Puritans, enemies to the enjoyments and relaxations of the poor. In France, the Christian characters of the marriage-institute are often opposed without disguise, and facilities for divorce are demanded that none may be galled by the fetters of “ domestic bondage.” In England, there is too much light for this. There has been too much Christian education to allow these notions to become popular. And yet, some years ago, the man who endeavoured to import among us French plans for the re-construction of society-who openly professed that his methods of improvement not only required no aid from religion, but rejected it as an encumbrance,—this man, because he professed himself to be a philanthropist, unbigoted, charitable, was received into favour, countenanced, introduced to royalty, by those who would, we sincerely believe, have promptly rejected every proposal in favour of open infidelity. Yet, when his schemes for improving society were fully explained, the vital principle was seen to be, the reconstruction of society so as to banish, from every form and portion of it, the very idea of God! By many the scheme has been taken as a whole. The majority, however, disavow the Atheism of it, together with its implied abolition of marriage, and take only what they regard as the innocent portions of it; that is, its secondary principles, removed a step from the primary ones, and, therefore, never mentioning them,--though really implying them, and depending on them for all their validity.
Many plans of religious and church reform are precisely of the same character, necessarily involving a principle which their advocates profess even to abhor, but which lurks unseen at the bottom of all their inventions. It is an old prejudice among pious people, that Christ is the Founder of llis church, its living Head and Lord, ruling over it and present with it;