Spinoza was an Amsterdam Jew who got expelled from his synagogue, probably for his heretical views. He wrote in Latin, first in his Tractatus Theo-logicus Politicus (1670) but quickly his ideas and text were translated - heretical Protestant circles in the Dutch Republic being among the first to take up his ideas - and then spinozism made its way into numerous anonymous books and manuscripts. The most famous and infamous became the Traite des trois imposteurs (1710-11). It began with a translation from part of Spinoza's Tractatus and then went on to label Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed as the three great impostors. Everything we know about the creation of this outrageous tract traces it to renegade Protestant circles in the Dutch Republic.16 All knew John Toland well, and many went on to have masonic associations.
By the 1720s and on both sides of the channel - and writing in many languages - the Christian clergy of whatever church were genuinely alarmed. In England in just that period a periodical, The Freethinker, took up the cause of irreligion. It said that freethinking was the 'foundation of all human liberty: remove the one and the other cannot stand'. What most clergymen did not know was that its sponsors lay in the highest circles of the Whig government.17 The situation was grave, and all the more so because it seemed as if the authorities had lost control over the printing presses. This was especially true also in France where a vast French language press operated north and west of its borders, in the Dutch Republic and Switzerland.
The publishing freedom of the 1720s gave the young Voltaire his start. He had been unfairly imprisoned in Paris, left for the Low Countries where he sought a publisher for his longpoem in praise of Henry IV, the king who had in the 1590s given France its first taste of religious toleration. He gravitated to the same publishing circles involved in bringing out the Traité des trois imposteurs. Having no success, he ventured to England and fell in love with its relative freedom and its science. His Letters on the English (1733) made his literary career and gave Europe justification for a rabid Anglophilia that affected Enlightened circles. Voltaire never embraced the radicalism of the freethinkers; he never became a republican or a materialist. But his iconoclastic style owes much to that pioneered by the anonymous journalists and radical Whigs of an earlier generation.
1720s and 1730s: retreat and Christian renewal
Science proved a faithful ally to both sides in cultural war about orthodoxy; if anything it served the pious more faithfully. Newton's immediate followers of
Was this article helpful?