Forerunners of the French Revolution. Part 3a

The Rationalists


With the gradual growth of free thought the Lutheran principle of private judgment produced more and more ruinous results. The divine teaching authority of the Church was, of course, first rejected; then the divinity of Christ; then, as a consequence, the guidance of the Scriptures (no longer believed to be inspired), natural Reason was put in their place (whence the term Rationalism from Latin ratio= reason); last came the denial of the existence of God Himself. Thus, from ripples of scepticism towards the end of the seventeenth century (1650- 1700) a great wave of unbelief swept over Europe in the eighteenth, to crest and break in the utter atheism of the French Revolution (1789).

The Rationalist or Free-Thinking movement made its first appearance in England about the middle of the seveenth century (c. 1650). Some hundred years later it secured a great hold in Germany, particularly during the long reign of the irreligious Frederick II of Prussia (1740-1786). It came to a head in France towards the close of the eighteenth century. Headed by the infamous apostate Voltaire, a group of Rationalist writers brought out an Encyclopedia, which, pretending to be a summary of modern knowledge, carried, scattered through it, articles attacking Catholic beliefs and ideals with the weapons of scoffery and ridicule. Along with the work of another Rationalist philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Encyclopedia did much to undermin the faith in France and pave the way for the Revolution.

Voltaire was the most complete incarnation of the irreligious spirit of the eighteenth century. To the French corruption and frivolity he added the hateful fanaticism which he imbibed, while in England, from the deists of that country. After his return he was perhaps the most marvellous workman of destruction who has ever appeared. He was endowed with a mind unequalled in suppleness and vivacity, universally gifted as a writer, skilled in the infernal art of handling the poisonous weapon of sarcasm and irony; and, in the war to death which he had declared against Christianity, he employed all the resources of a mind exceptionally constituted for intellectual struggles and all the indefatigable activities of a satanic hatred against the Church. For almost a century, he led the irreligious campaign with astounding obstinacy and to use the expression of a great modern poet- he was the missionary of the devil among the men of his time. He is little read nowadays, because, notwithstanding his prodigious talent, his works were of his day; nevertheless his mind remains the wicked genius of the modern world, and, to the present day, the Christian cannot look upon his hideous likeness without feelings of fright and horror.

In ENGLAND the most noteworthy of the Rationalists were Lord Herbert of Cherbury (d. 1648), Hobbes (d. 1679), Locke (1632- 1704) and the Scottish philosopher Hume (1711 1776). The general tendency of English Rationalism was to deny the existence of any truths other than those established by the immediate experience of the senses: hence spiritual realities such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were treated as purely subjective creations of the mind, devoid of any foundation in reality. There is no religion in England, wrote the French essayist Montesquieu in 1729; speak of religion and everyone begins to laugh.

In GERMANY the Rationalist movement had its centre in Prussia, where the spirit of unbelief found expression in a pagan literary and philosophical renaissance during the eighteenth century. The more outstanding among the German rationalists were the literateur Lessing (d. 1781), the philosopher Kant (d. 1804), whose work has practically dominated in the field of non-Catholic philosophy down to our time, his successor Fichte (d. 1814), the poet Goethe (d. 1832), whose disastrous influence was second only to that of Voltaire in France, and the literateur Schiller (d. 1805). German rationalism found a willing patron in the utterly irreligious Frederick II, who, by pushing Prussia to the forefront of Europe, gave the anti-Christian philosophers and poets a prestige which told heavily against the faith.

In FRANCE, the Churchs battle with Jansenism and Gallicanism and the preoccupation of theologians with the Grace problems, gave rationalism time to sens its roots deep down into soil already prepared by loose morality. The three principal contributors to the Encyclopedia (referred to above) were Voltaire (1694-1778), Diderot (1784) and dAlembert. While these writers and their colleagues contented themselves with making destructive mockery of the Christian philosophy of life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau worked constructively by proposing a pagan philosophy in its place.

An Outline History of the Catholic Church by Rev. Reginald F. Walker CSSP.

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