Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.
If God did not exist, one would have to invent him.
Welcome to the clandestine Enlightenment. It has been known for some time that the French Enlightenment had two faces, a public face and a clandestine one. Censorship was rather extensive at the time, but it was possible to evade it in a number of ways, so people who wanted to publish something that they didn't think would get past the censor would circulate it in the underground, either as a manuscript, or as a published tract, or some such. Much of this publication was philosophical in character. We should be very careful not to treat it as a monolithic thing; any number of things might not get past the censors, and people might worry about any number of things coming before the censor, so the literature of this philosophical underground is extraordinarily diverse -- some of it is atheistic, some of it is deistic, some of it is Christian but reform-advocating. What is more, the literature is very complex. The works were passed from hand to hand; they are often anonymous; clandestine copyings often involved massive plagiarisms; works would be altered, or expanded, or made more concise, by the copier, without any indication that this would be done. One notable work of the clandestine Enlightenment was an anonymous text called The Three Imposters, which owes its fame in part to the fact that it irritated Voltaire enough that he responded to it. The above dictum belongs to his reply.
I. François-Marie Arouet
The man we know as Voltaire was born in Paris in November of 1694. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, and got him a position as an assistant to a lawyer, an opportunity François-Marie squandered by devoting his time to writing plays. His father eventually found out and sent him to the country to start his legal studies in earnest, but Voltaire continued to spend his time writing. His plays eventually became famous, and Voltaire ascended to the ranks of the French literati, feted by the finest French aristocracy. His pen name, Voltaire, seems to have been a sort of anagrammatic play on his last name. He died in May of 1778.
II. Les Trois Imposteurs
Like much of the literature of the clandestine Enlightenment, the history of the anonymous The Three Imposters is very difficult to trace, but it seems to have circulated fairly widely. The three imposters of the title are Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, who, according to the author, pretended to be in communication with God. The work is not quite atheistic in our sense, because it seems to allow a Spinozistic notion of God as an amoral Natura naturans, nature considered as active; but it is quite frank that what most people think of as God is an imaginary being and that there is no afterlife.
The theory underlying these claims is standard freethinking fare, primarily remarkable for how frankly it is laid out. People are extremely gullible when it comes to matters of fear, and there are plenty of con men, imposters, willing to gull them. The world is often a dark place, so people, desperate to pretend that there are gentle powers that are on their side and will make things OK in the end, begin to treat those powers as if they were real. Priests and the like, seeing a means to power, play on the fears of these ignorant people, teaching them to fear philosophy, inquiry, and truth until they blindly obey. From this fear-based stamping out of reason and good sense ridiculous opinions begin to collect together until you have religion and superstition, an empire of falsehood, as the text calls it. Of the people who impose this empire on the weak, ignorant, and stupid, some excel above others in the art of trickery; Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are the three greatest of these vile tricksters, although the text as we have it seems somewhat confused, since it sometimes talks about three imposters and sometimes about four (including Numa Pompilius).
III. Epître sur Les Trois Imposteurs
Among Voltaire's works is a poem that is a scathing response to The Three Imposters, with the following note by Voltaire himself:
Ce livre des Trois Imposteurs est un très-mauvais ouvrage, plein d'un athéisme grossier, sans esprit, et sans philosophie.
[This book of the Three Imposters is a very bad work, full of a coarse kind of atheism, mindless and lacking philosophy.]
Perhaps playing on the confusion in the text between three and four imposters, Voltaire starts out the poem asking
Insipide écrivain, qui crois à tes lecteurs
Crayonner les portraits de tes Trois Imposteurs,
D'où vient que, sans esprit, tu fais le quatrième?
[Insipid writer, who pretends for your readers
to draw the portraits of your Three Imposters,
how does it happen that, mindless, you become the fourth?]
Voltaire continues by drawing a sharp distinction between Creator and priest, saying that merely because God is sometimes poorly served is no reason to disrespect God Himself. In fact, it is clear enough that there is a God:
De lézards et de rats mon logis est rempli;
Mais l' architecte existe, et quiconque le nie
Sous le manteau du sage est atteint de manie.
Consulte Zoroastre, et Minos, et Solon,
Et le martyr Socrate, et le grand Cicéron:
Ils ont adoré tous un maître, un juge, un père.
Ce système sublime à l'homme est nécessaire.
C'est le sacré lien de la société,
Le premier fondement de la sainte équité,
Le frein du scélérat, l'espérance du juste.
[Of lizards and rats my lodge is full;
but the architect exists, and whoever denies it
under the guise of wisdom is touched with madness.
Ask Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They adored one master, one judge, one father.
This sublime system is necessary for men.
It is the sacred bond of society,
first foundation of holy fairness,
bridle on the wicked, hope for the just.]
In other words, whatever imposters there may be, many of the wisest of humanity have recognized that the world points to its architect and that this architect must be revered as judge and father; and on the basis of this principle civilization has been built. But suppose the author of the Three Imposters were right in claiming that God does not exist? Even so, he would still be clueless:
Si les cieux, dépouillés de son empreinte auguste,
Pouvaient cesser jamais de le manifester,
Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer.
Que le sage l'annonce, et que les rois le craignent.
Rois, si vous m'opprimez, si vos grandeurs dédaignent
Les pleurs de l'innocent que vous faites couler,
Mon vengeur est au ciel: apprenez à trembler.
Tel est au moins le fruit d'une utile croyance.
[If the heavens, stripped of his august imprint,
were ever to cease to manifest him,
if God did not exist, one would have to invent him.
Let the sage announce him, and the kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your greatnesses disdain
the tears of the innocent that you make to flow,
my avenger is in heaven: learn to tremble.
Such is, at the least, the fruit of a useful belief.]
Here we find our dictum. The author of The Three Imposters argued that human beings invented the idea of God. Well, says Voltaire, reason shows that God exists, but even it did not, even if God did not exist, he would have to be invented. Why? Here Voltaire turns the argument of The Three Imposters on its head. Yes, the belief is useful for keeping people in bounds with fear, but it is the powerful and the mighty who are kept in bound by it. To protect the innocent from the oppression of the powerful, we must make it clear that those powerful can never get away with it, however clever or powerful they are; there is always a higher power, a higher law, that will bring them to justice. Belief in a just God is a means, one of the few, by which the poor and oppressed can fend off the powerful oppressor. If you oppress, you do see in the eyes of a judge who will wreak vengeance on you for the way you treat the poor and the innocent. If nothing else, whatever abuses, that is a powerful use. But even more than this, the belief assists the morality of the people:
Mais toi, raisonneur faux, dont la triste imprudence
Dans le chemin du crime ose les rassurer,
De tes beaux arguments quel fruit peux-tu tirer?
Tes enfants à ta voix seront-ils plus dociles?
Tes amis, au besoin, plus sûrs et plus utiles?
Ta femme plus honnête? et ton nouveau fermier,
Pour ne pas croire en Dieu, va-t-il mieux te payer?...
Ah! laissons aux humains la crainte et l'espérance.
But you, false reasoner, whose sad imprudence
reassures them on the path of crime,
what fruit can you draw from your beautiful arguments?
Will your children be more docile to your voice?
Your friends, in your need, more sure and more useful?
Your wife more honest? And your tenant,
will he pay you better for not believing in God?
Ah, leave humankind their fear and their hope!
It is the argument of The Three Imposters, not belief in God and an afterlife, that is useless; it will accomplish nothing. And it is the contempt of the author for fear and hope that is irrational: fear and hope, however limited they may be, are part of the moral life of human beings.
Voltaire goes on to argue contemptuously that the whole argument of the book is simply pointless. Can the author claim that Voltaire does not understand the infamies of superstition? Voltaire knows them better than the author does, having attacked them for fifty years.
Mais, de ce fanatisme ennemi formidable,
J'ai fait adorer Dieu quand j'ai vaincu le diable.
Je distinguai toujours de la religion
Les malheurs qu'apporta la superstition.
[But as the formidable enemy of this fanaticism,
I adored God when I vanquished the devil.
I have always distinguished from religion
the evils that support superstition.]
He has, he claims, done more good for religion than Luther or Calvin, having brought peace and tolerance to Europe, and he has contributed to what will become, eventually, a new era:
Je vois venir de loin ces temps, ces jours sereins,
Où la philosophie, éclairant les humains,
Doit les conduire en paix aux pieds du commun maître;
Le fanatisme affreux tremblera d'y paraître:
On aura moins de dogme avec plus de vertu.
[I see coming in the distance those times, those peaceful days,
where philosophy, enlightening humankind,
must bring them in peace to the feet of a common master;
fierce fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
there will be less dogma and more virtue.]
Thus the dictum is part of the freethinking Voltaire's attack on "un athéisme grossier, sans esprit, et sans philosophie": it is his own deistic kind of freethinking, not the crude atheism of the author of The Three Imposters, so contemptuous of the oppressed, that will enlighten Europe. The idea is that even if (per impossibile) God did not exist, he would have to be invented; he is essential to Voltaire's view of Enlightenment and tolerance.