The Skeptical Era in Modern History, 1856
The Skeptical Era in Modern History, Or, the Infidelity of the Eighteenth Century; The Product of Spiritual Despotism by Truman Marcellus Post . New York, CHARLES SCRIBNER Ed., 145 Nassau Street, 1856




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POST, Truman Marcellus, clergyman, born in Middlebury, Vermont, 3 June, 1810; died in St. Louis, Missouri, 31 December, 1886. He was graduated at Middlebury college in 1829, and then was principal of an academy at Castleton, Vermont, for a year. In 1830 he returned to Middlebury as tutor, and remained for two years, also studying law. He spent the winter of 1832-‘3 at Washington, D. C.. listening to debates in congress and at the supreme court. After spending a short time in St. Louis, Missouri, he settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, and was admitted to the bar. In 1833 he became professor of languages in Illinois college, and later he took the chair of history. He studied theology, and was ordained minister of the Congregational church in Jacksonville in 1840. He Was called in 1847 to the 3d Presbyterian church in St. Louis, and in 1851 to the newly organized 1st Congregational church in that city, serving until his death. Dr. Post held the place of university professor of ancient and modern history at Washington university, and in 1873-‘5 was Southworth lecturer on Congregationalism at Andover theological seminary, and was professor of ecclesiastical history in Northwestern theological seminary in Chicago. In 1855 he received the degree of D. D. from Middlebury college. He contributed to the « Biblical Repository » and other religious periodicals, and, besides various pamphlets, addresses, and sermons, was the author of « The Skeptical Era in Modern History » (New York, 1856). (Source biographie: famousamericans)


Freedom and Faith are the great Tutelar Forces of modern civilization. Their relation to each other is the great problem of the age ; one whose solution has with if the destiny of the future. The question presses on us witk the more solemn aspect, the more evident becomes the hastening approach of an era of democratic liberty in church, state, and society. What condition of the religious sentiment will consort with that political and social order of the world ? Will faith consist with it? If so, will it be a vigorous, vital, commanding, organic element, or is it destined to be timid and feeble, holding with unbelief a doubtful and divided empire ?

A philosophic writer, eminent for accurate and profound social analysis, De Tocqueville, thus gives his solution of the above problem. « I am inclined to believe that our posterity in the democratic ages will tend more and more to a single division into two parts ; some relinquishing Christianity entirely, others returning to the bosom of the Church of Rome. » That is, in the ages of democratic freedom, spiritual despotism will be the only conservator of faith.

Chateaubriand also, in his  » Etudes Historiques?; claims for Catholicism that it is the religion of democratic society, whilst he characterizes the Reformed Faith as  » Philosophic truth, clothed with Christian form, attacking religious truth »— having achieved for society a change from the military to the civil and industrial genius, and « able to point, amid the ruins it has wrought, simply to some field it has planted, and – some manufactures it has established » Nor are these writers alone in their forecast of the future, or their estimate of the relations of Protestantism to democracy and faith. Sentiments like the above are rife in the literature of the day. They are the cant of a school; a school not of the Catholic communion alone. Protestant writers of profound and tasteful culture, of devout and earnest tone, and of a seductive plausibility and grace, join in their utterance.

Protestantism, they tell you, is a religion of negations ; its philosophy that of doubt, denial, irreverence and insurrection ; its triumphs logical, economic, administrative, industrial, fiscal; its genius cold, hard, practical, materialistic ; unheroic, unideal, undevout—the very antipodes of exalted religious passion or faith. These are to find shelter alone under the shadow of an ecclesiastical absolutism. Thus the democratic ages are to be the millennium of spiritual despotism ; both because such despotism will, by natural affinity attract those ages, and because it alone will be able to keep alive religious sentiment and belief during their progress. Thus, in many quarters Protestantism seems afraid of its own life-principles, and verging towards the suicide of renouncing them. But before joining in this deadly work, we are compelled to pause and inquire. Is the above solution of the religious problem of society the true one ? Is despotism the only keeper of faith ? An era of entire liberty, of necessity, an era of unbelief ? What facts authorize an augury so gloomy ? The advocates of sentiments above alluded to, claim that history makes for them, and point in proof to the infidel cycle following the Lutheran reform. The era of irreligious eclipse and the catastrophe of the world which closed it, they arraign as crimes of liberty—of Protestantism. It was this, they argue, which poisoned modern civilization. It was this which, by the revolution in philosophy, and the insurrection of mind against authority, which it inaugurated ; and by the dethronement of the religious idea and the enthronement of that of wealth over European civilization, wrought the ruin of the world’s faith. This was to society the fountain of doubt and irreverence, and of materialism, sensualism, and Mammonism, that corrupted the world and prepared its overthrow.

But it has seemed to the writer of this work, that their very witness confutes them ; that it requires no very acute or profound analysis to trace the infidelity of the eighteenth century to a widely different source. To ascribe the skepticism of the eighteenth century to the religious revolution of the sixteenth, is to ascribe a stream to the cascade down which its waters may have previously flowed. It were as philosophical to attribute to the overflow of a dammed-up flood gushing down one side its reservoir, its resurgent overflow on another. Such a cascade, was the Lutheran reform, in the progress of modern mind: such a flow and resurgent overflow from the dammed-up flood of European thought, were the religious and philosophical revolutions of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries—independent consequences of a common force.

Another cause, patent and portentous, stands out in JEtnean prominence in that landscape of ruin—a cause, the direct antithesis of liberty. To trace this cause, to show its wide-spread mischievousness, imparting a malign efficiency to causes merely secondary or occasional, and to exhibit its essential and implacable hostility to genuine faith, is th e aim of these pages ; an aim pursued through the relations historical and philosophical, of .the phenomenon we are considering.

In pursuance of this aim, I have first attempted to exhibit the fact we are to explain—the nature and extent of that strange defection of faith that marked the eighteenth century. We, then, consider its causes ; and first those which are secondary and occasional; such as e. g., the low and relaxed moral tone of the world’s mind at the time the epidemic of unbelief set in—the century and a half of religious agonism and arms which preceded the revolution in philosophy inaugurated by Bacon and Des Cartes in physics and metaphysics, and by Luther in the realm of religion— and the rise of the idea of wealth to the ascendency in cabinets of governments, and in general society. Our view is then directed to the  » JFwis et origo Tnalorum, » the great Cause Of Causes of the evil we investigate ; viz : despotism, despotism both secular and spiritual, but with especial and portentous preeminence of the latter. Our investigation then, brings us to the geographic focus and centre of the plague :—France. Its position in European civilization— its civil and ecclesiastical constitution and history—its court, monarchy, church, literature—these are seen through the malign influence of spiritual despotism, directed to the subversion of belief; and finally resulting in the organization of a conspiracy and crusade against the faith of the world.

Having traced the evil cause above noted, i. e., despotism, to its consequences in France, we next inquire into its effects in other countries of Europe,—those especially claimed by spiritual despotism as monuments of her power to guard nations from infidelity—viz.: Italy and Spain. A brief view of the manner in which she has conserved faith in the two peninsulas closes our survey.

Such is in general the plan and aim of this work. If I shall have been to any degree thereby instrumental of adding in any mind to the elements of hopefulness and courage in the solution of the great problem indicated, or of giving confidence to the confession of the great principles of Protestant liberty, or shall have contributed aught to vindicate for the human soul prerogatives claimed by its imperishable instincts, warranted by the great charter of its faith, I shall feel that this humble effort is not altogether without service to the Great King of truth to whom it is my wish to dedicate it.



St Louis, Oct. 20,1855.



France the most Powerful Generator and Diffuser of Infidelity— Her Position in Modern History—The Model Kingdom of Europe —Oracle of Civilization—Her Early Culture—Genius—Language —Court Literature—Political Ascendency—Self-diffusiveness— Causes of Infidelity in her Civil and Ecclesiastic Constitution and History—Religious Wars—Albigenses—Huguenots—Separation of the Actual from the Ideal the widest—Reaction of Repressed Mind most Passionate—Daring and Revolutionary Despotism in France in the 17th and 18th Centuries—Absolutism of Louis XIV. —Its Mischief—Two Great Crimes of the French Church and Monarchy Generative of Infidelity — Ecclesiastic Barbarism extending down toward the close of the 18th Century—Torture and Execution at Abbeville 1776—Despotism in France applied to a Mind the most Active, Daring, Witty and Philosophic in Europe.

In our view of the great defection of the human mind from Christianity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we have thus far been engaged for the most part, with causes and principles of general and well-nigh of universal scope, throughout Christendom during this era. « We now propose, in further illustration and analysis of our theme, to look more narrowly at the geographic centre and focus of the plague. That view will develop important principles in relation to the laws of its origin and propagation. .

In illustration and enforcement of general principles thus far considered, it has been seen that our constant fountain of instances is French history and society. We now propose to direct attention especially to that fountain, France itself; and consider her especial efficiency in producing the sad phenomenon we are investigating.

Eminent amid the causes of the spread of skepticism over Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, stands forth the prominent and commanding position of France in European civilization during that period.

France was in those ages the most powerful elaborator and diffuser of infidelity, as she was the most powerful elaborator and diffuser of all elements of civilization. The French mind was the most active in Europe—the most generative, the most diffusive. Thoughts, feelings, ideas, sentiments, manners went forth from Paris to the possession of Europe.

The causes of this position of France in modern civilization radicate back to the birth of modern Europe. The municipal remains of ancient civilization, proximity to the scenes where ancient literature and art lingered longest and were earliest revived, the rise of the Frank Empire earliest amid political or at least national and imperial forms after the fall of the Roman Empire, were among the originating influences. Subsequently, Provencal culture, the earlier consolidation of the French Monarchy and formation of the French Court, with the most brilliant and perfect development of chivalry and feudalism, the magnificence of baronies and baronial courts and their subsequent focalization in that of royalty, the agitation and collision of the parties in the era of the Eeformation and their final equipoise in the pacification of Nantes ■—these causes conspiring perhaps with the livelier genius of the French mind, had contributed to give to that mind a culture more mature, refined, productive and energetic than any other in Western or Central Europe. And not only was the French mind the most prolific of ideas, but from influences hereafter to be specified, it was the most likely of all to reflect the skeptical genius of the age.

The above causes of earlier culture and of finer and livelier energy in the French mind, tended with other influences to make France also the most powerful diffuser of her civilization, whatever it might be. To this result conspired moreover the distinctive personal genius of brilliant and powerful monarchs.

Thus, in consequence of all these causes, in France earliest amid the nations of modern Europe, the regal court having absorbed the baronial, coercing or alluring the noblesse from their fastnesses to the Capital, Paris had become France, and France under the Valois and Bourbons, had become the metropolis of civilization itself; the model kingdom of Europe; the most consolidated, powerful, brilliant and courtly amid its monarchies, and with a type of culture the most polished and cosmopolite. She was leader in the literary, social and political realm; the standard of taste, manners, literature and philosophy as well as of civil and military administration and of diplomacy. Her genius was mistress in saloons and academies, in the cabinet and on the field of battle. « What was French was sure to become European. A peculiar vivacity and polish had given a peculiar diffusiveness to her intellectual and social culture. Her Court became the mirror of gallantry and gaiety, of wit and grace, and of brilliant and elegant dissoluteness. Under the corrupting though splendid rule of Francis I. and Henry IV the vigorous and sagacious administration of Richelieu, and especially by the magnificence of arts and arms under the ambitious Louis XIV, she had been conducted forward almost to the attainment of universal empire, not only in politics but in civilization.

A galaxy of great men, brilliant generals, statesmen, courtiers and ecclesiastics, of poets, orators and philosophers, illustrates the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France; but they gather especially in a sidereal coronal around the throne of the grand Monarque. It will suffice to name a Condé, Turenne, Colbert, Louvois, Villars, Luxembourg, among statesmen and generals the first of the age; and allude to the genius of a Corneille, Molière and Racine, in the drama; a La Fontaine, Des Cartes, Boileau, Malebranche and Boyle in philosophy; or a Bourdaloue, Fenelon, Bossuet and Massillon, in sacred eloquence; all of these, and hosts of others of world-wide fame, constellating round the reign of Louis XIV. During the eighteenth century, Paris became the intellectual, social and political captial of Christendom; Versailles, the supreme court of European culture. The French language, with its facile, insinuating, conversable genius became every where the common medium of intercourse for the courtly and the learned; the French monarch, the most perfect and brilliant example of absolute power, the study and model of all despots. In short to an extent never equalled by any other nation in modern times, France became the oracle of civilization.

We have to add also to the above causes of the peculiar diffusiveness of French civilization in the eighteenth century, the centrality of her geographic position, placing her among and between the most powerful European States; and also the peculiar complaisance and sympathy, the versatility, sociability and geniality, of the French mind; which seem to have distinctively marked it all through modern history, and have made it the most self diffusing in Europe; insomuch that Guizot states truly « It is necessary wherever an idea is born, it should pass through the medium of the French mind in order to take possession of Europe. »

All the above causes combined to make France in the eighteenth century—what Guizot terms her,  » the centre and focus of modern civilization; » and predetermined the universal spread of any social distemperature arising within her; evidently, taking possession of the French mind, it must make the tour of the continent.

But while France thus was a most effective selfdiffuser, it was the calamity of modern history, that she was, at the same time, of all the nations of Europe, the most powerful elaborator and generator of religious skepticism. She was so through her history and society; through her Church, her court, and her literature.

Let us look at the relations of some of these elements of her civilization to the unbelief of the age. « We shall find, that while she is the model and oracle of European civilization, she at the same time exhibit 8 in herself most of the various causes we have already discussed, of the infidelity of the eighteenth century, existing in their most effective and virulent type.

Her history must have been a prolific fountain of infidelity. Her page of religious wars and persecutions, from the crusade against the Albigenses to the expulsion of the Huguenots, was amid the foulest and bloodiest in Europe; bleared over with perjury and cruelty, assassination and massacre. She had during the period of the Reformation been convulsed and torn for generations by religious wars. From the sins, shames and treacheries, the hypocrisies, fanaticisms and atrocities, of those wars, abusing the name of God and Christianity, and breeding a disgust and horror at religion from the frightful dissoluteness of manners springing from them and from the moral collapse or relaxation following them—from all these causes sown in her history, must have sprung a woeful harvest of incredulity and hate toward religion.

Two great specific crimes in her history, most ruinous to French faith, we shall have occasion to notice presently, « We now refer, in general, to her religious history, as peculiarly productive of infidelity. […]

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