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There is a secret pleasure in discriminating how far great men are moulded by circumstances—in fathoming the silent depths of thought and feeling, and in tracing out those peculiar and more individual traits of character, which are discoverable in an author. That is an involuntary and noble impulse of mind, which prompts us to the admiration of one who has shown himself superior to the thoughts and prejudices of the age in which he lived, and who dared to raise his voice against the infatuation and madness of those who sought to corrupt and brutalize mankind. And though these may be regarded as constituting the more prominent traits of character, exhibited in him whose name we have placed at the head of this article, and the circumstances of whose unfortunate life we are about to particularize ; yet it is not with a sense of admiration alone that we mark the career of the “ brilliant Frenchman." It was with a feeling of execration, that we first breathed his name upon our lips, and even now, although years have rendered us familiar with its sound, we almost instinctively shudder at the utterance of the startling dissyllable.
M. de Voltaire, notwithstanding the various opinions which have been formed of his productions, as a poet, historian, and philosopher, and the variety of judgments which have been pronounced upon them, is perhaps the most universally execrated character of his own or of any other age. Individuals of every variety of creed, abhorring, persecuting, reviling each other, have yet joined in a temporary truce, to assail his memory and fasten additional infamy upon his name. They all seem to have
been inspired with the spirit of malignity itself, and to have erected their batteries against the “daring infidel,” with the most furious and implacable zeal. The proscriptive and rancorous tone with which he was denounced by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in France, was evidently insufficient. He has been furiously attacked by almost every religious denomination since, and there is, perhaps, no problem more difficult of solution, than to determine when, in the estimation of the world, his memory shall have been sufficiently blasted. It
may be a matter of astonishment to many, that we should devote any portion of the Magazine to the defense of one who has, by common consent, brought himself under the just condemnation of mankind. We are aware that we are about to tread upon dangerous ground, and may possibly evince our caution gratuitously as we proceed. It is more than probable, too, that we shall incur the censure of those who are accustomed to take their opinions upon trust, and who, in conformity to the popular prejudices of the age, still persist in regarding Voltaire as the avowed enemy of God and religion. In forming our estimate of his character, we have been too long accustomed to disregard the circumstances by which he was surrounded, and the powerful combination of influences which confirmed his incipient scepticism.
He had scarcely left the college of the Jesuits, when he became the victim of that hypocritical and persecuting spirit, which was, at that time, everywhere prevalent in France. Abandoned by his father, in consequence of having obstinately persisted in writing poetry to the neglect of his professional studies, he found himself thrown suddenly upon the world, with but few friends, and those but little disposed to encourage him in his literary career. Struck by the boldness of his opinions and the independence of his mind, his early instructors had already predicated the nature and fearful extent of that career, and, as might have been expected, instead of favor and patronage, he met only with jealousy and suspicion. Twice incarcerated within the walls of the Bastile, and witnessing the injustice and outrage to which his countrymen were daily submitting, he determined, at an early period of life, in defiance of the agents of superstition and tyranny, fearlessly to advocate the cause of freedom and religious toleration in France. Regarding prejudices, of whatever nature they may be, as the surest means of perpetuating the stupidity of a nation, he sought not only to elevate the common mind, but to root out all such errors as have their existence only in vulgar credulity.