Concerning Voltaire and Franklin

— It is said, on the vague authority of a newspaper item, that a British tourist, who was refreshing himself at the lunch counter of an American railway station, had his attention directed by an amiable native to “ the great Mr. Ingersoll,” who was also refreshing himself near by; and that when he inquired as to Mr. Ingersoll’s claims to greatness, the native, albeit of sound orthodox belief, said, with scarcely concealed pride, “ I guess, sir, he ’s the biggest infidel that ever was.”

In reading Mr. Morse’s admirable biography of Franklin (in the American Statesmen Series), I came upon a statement in relation to Voltaire which, although apparently introduced as merely a sort of rhetorical flourish, cannot, in view of the claims of “ our Mister Ingersoll,” be allowed to pass unchallenged. Mr. Morse says (page 285) : “ Voltaire came back to Paris after twenty-seven years of voluntary exile, and received such adoration that it almost seemed as if, for Frenchmen, he was taking the place of that God whom he had been declaring non-existent, but whom he believed it necessary for mankind to invent.”

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to extract from Voltaire’s voluminous writings any definition of the attributes of the Deity to whom he was in the habit of appealing from the inhumanity of man, and especially from the inhumanity of the religious institutions of his day. But he was not an atheist. Many quotations might be given, but this — “ the sublimest of poetic figures ” — may be taken as an example : —

“ Oui, dans le sein de Dieu, loin de ce corps mortel,
L’ esprit semble èouter la voix l’Eternel.”

Mr. John Morley, in his keenly critical essay, says : “We search in vain for a positive creed which logic may hold in coherent bonds, or social philosophy accept as a religious force. . . . Voltaire never went so far in the direction of assertion as Rousseau, and he never went so far in the direction of denial as Holbach. . . . We do not know how far he ever seriously approached the question, so much debated since the overthrow of the old order in France, whether a society can exist without a religion. He says in one place that to believe God and spirits corporeal is an old metaphysical error, but absolutely not to believe in any god would be an error incompatible with wise government.”

Mr. Morse’s reference to Voltaire’s belief in the necessity of inventing a God is misleading. Voltaire said, “ Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudroit l’inventer,” — If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Archbishop Tillotson had said something like it before Voltaire was born: “ If God were not a necessary Being himself, he might almost seem to be made for the use and benefit of men.”

It may be interesting to mention, in connection with this reference to the new life of Franklin, that in looking over a file of old papers, recently, I found a news item in the New York Daily Gazette of a hundred years ago, which stated that, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, on the 17th April, 1789, “ in the house of the Hon. Dr. Franklin, President,” at Philadelphia, “ Madame la Princesse Catherine Romanowna d’Aschkaw, President of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, Russia,” was duly elected a member. Did the aged philosopher have any ulterior object in view, in paying this compliment to a woman who was not then in good repute in polite or learned circles outside of Russia ? It would almost seem so. On the 2d November, A. c. 1789, — observe the date, — the Princess Daselikaw (generally written in English “ Dashkoff ”, by command of the serene and all-powerful Empress Catherine II., totius Russiæ autocritoris,” sent an elaborate diploma, to which was attached a great seal in a gold box, conferring upon Benjamin Franklin, “ a man already very celebrated on account of his scientific attainments,” an appointment as foreign member of the Academy of St. Petersburg. The diploma was given to the city of Boston, some years ago, by William J. Duane, of Philadelphia, who married Franklin’s niece ; and it may now be seen at the Public Library, with much other interesting matter relating to Franklin.