Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A name given to several persons in France who entered into a combination to overturn the religion of Jesus, and eradicate from the human heart every religious sentiment. The man more particularly to whom the idea first occurred was Voltaire, who being weary (as he said himself) of hearing people repeat that twelve men were sufficient to establish Christianity, resolved to prove that one might be sufficient to overturn it. Full of this project, he swore before the year 1730 to dedicate his life to its accomplishment; and, for some time, he flattered himself that he should enjoy alone the glory of destroying the Christian religion. He found, however, that associates would be necessary; and from the numerous tribe of his admirers and disciples he chose D'Alembert and Diderot as the most proper persons to co-operate with him in his designs. But Voltaire was not satisfied with their aid alone. He contrived to embark in the same cause Frederic II. king of Prussia, who wished to be thought a philosopher, and who, of course, deemed it expedient to talk and write against a religion which he had never studied, and into the evidence of which he had probably never deigned to inquire. This royal adept was one of the most zealous of Voltaire's condjutors, til he discovered that the philosophists were waging war with the throne as well as with the altar. This, indeed, was not originally Voltaire's intention. He was vain: he loved to be caressed by the great; and, in one word, he was, from natural disposition, an aristocrat, and an admirer of royalty.
But when he found that almost every sovereign but Frederic disapproved of his impious projects, as soon as he perceived their issue, he determined to oppose all the governments on earth rather than forfeit the glory with which he had flattered himself of vanquishing Christ and his apostles in the field of controversy. He now set himself, with D'Alembert and Diderot, to excite universal discontent with the established order of things. For this purpose they formed secret societies, assumed new names, and employed an enigmatical language. Thus Frederic was called Luc; D'Alembert, Protagoras, and sometimes Bertrand; Voltaire, Raton; and Diderot, Platon, or its anagram Tonpla; while the general term for the conspirators was Cacouce. In their secret meetings they professed to celebrate the mysteries of Mythra; and their great object, as they professed to one another, was to confound the wretch, meaning Jesus Christ. Hence their secret watch-word was Ecrasez l'Infame, "Crush Christ." If we look into some of the books expressly written for general circulation, we shall there find the following doctrines; some of them standing alone in all their naked horrors, others surrounded by sophistry and meretricious ornaments, to entice the mind into their net before it perceives their nature, "The Universal Cause, that god of the philosophers, of the Jews, and of the Christians, is but a chimera and a phantom.
The phenomena of nature only prove the existence of God to a few prepossessed men; so far from bespeaking a God, they are but the necessary effects of matter prodigiously diversified. It is more reasonable to admit, with Manes, of a two-fold God, than of the God of Christianity. We cannot know whether a God really exists, or whether there is the smallest difference between good and evil, or vice and virtue. Nothing can be more absurd than to believe the soul a spiritual being. The immortality of the soul, so far from stimulating man to the practice of virtue, is nothing but a barbarous, desperate, fatal tenet, and contrary to all legislation. All ideas of justice and injustice, of virtue and vice, of glory and infamy, are purely arbitrary, and dependent on custom. conscience and remorse are nothing but the foresight of those physical penalties to which crimes expose us. The man who is above the law can commit, without remorse, the dishonest act that may serve his purpose. The fear of God, so far from being the beginning of wisdom, should be the beginning of folly. the command to love one's parents is more the work of education than of nature. Modesty is only an invention of refined voluptuousness. The law which condemns married people to live together, becomes barbarous and cruel on the day they cease to love one another."
These extracts from the secret correspondence and the public writings of these men, will suffice to show us the nature and tendency of the dreadful system they had formed. The philosophists were diligently employed in attempting to propagate their sentiments. Their grand Encyclopedia was converted into an engine to serve this purpose. Voltaire proposed to establish a colony of philosophists at Cleves, who, protected by the king of Prussia, might publish their opinions without dread or danger; and Frederic was disposed to take them under his protection, till he discovered that their opinions were anarchical as well as impious, when he threw them off, and even wrote against them. They contrived, however, to engage the ministers of the court of France in their favour, by pretending to have nothing in view but the enlargement of science, in works which spoke indeed respectfully of revelation, while every discovery which they brought forward was meant to undermine its very foundation. When the throne was to be attacked, and even when barefaced atheism was to be promulgated, a number of impious and licentious pamphlets were dispersed (for some time none knew how) from a secret society formed at the Hotel d'Holbach, at Paris, of which Voltaire was elected honorary and perpetual president.
To conceal their real design, which was the diffusion of their infidel sentiments, they called themselves Economists.
See OECONOMISTS. The books, however, that were issued from this club were calculated to impair and overturn religion, morals, and government; and which indeed, spreading over all Europe, imperceptibly took possession of public opinion. As soon as the sale was sufficient to pay the expenses, inferior editions were printed, and given away or sold at a very low price; circulating libraries of them formed, and reading societies instituted. While they constantly denied these productions to the world, they contrived to give them a false celebrity through their confidential agents, and correspondents, who were not themselves always trusted with the entire secret. By degrees they got possession nearly of all the reviews and periodical publications, established a general intercourse by means of hawkers and pedlars with the distant provinces, and instituted an office to supply all schools with teachers; and thus did they acquire unprecedented dominion over every species of literature, over the minds of all ranks of people, and over the education of youth, without giving any alarm to the world. The lovers of wit and polite literature were caught by Voltaire; the men of science were perverted, and children corrupted in the first rudiments of learning, by D'Alembert and Diderto; stronger appetites were fed by the secret club of Baron Holbach; the imaginations of the higher orders were set dangerously afloat by Montesquieu; and th multitude of all ranks was surprised, confounded and hurried away by Rousseau. Thus was the public mind in France completely corrupted, and which, no doubt, greatly accelerated those dreadful events which have since transpired in that country.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Philosophists'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/p/philosophists.html. 1802.