Of the Advantages contributed to Government by Religion.
Having already shown you, Madam, the feebleness of those succors which religion furnishes to morals, I shall now proceed to examine whether it procure advantages in themselves really politic, and whether it be true, as has so often been urged by the priests, that it is absolutely necessary to the existence of every government. Were we disposed to shut our eyes, and deliver ourselves up to the language of our priests, we should believe that their opinions are necessary to the public tranquillity, and the repose and security of the State; that princes could not, without their aid, govern the people, and exert themselves for the prosperity of their empire. Nor is this all; our spiritual pilots approach the throne, and gaining the ear of the sovereign, make him also believe that he has the greatest interest in conforming to their caprices, in order to subject men to the divine yoke of royalty. These priests mingle in all important political quarrels, and they too often persuade the rulers of the earth that the enemies of the church are the enemies of all power, and that in sapping the foundations of the altar, the foundations of the throne are likewise necessarily overthrown.
We have, then, only to open our eyes and consult history, to be convinced of the falsity of these pretensions, and to appreciate the important services which the Christian priests have rendered to their sovereigns. Ever since the establishment of Christianity, we have seen, in all the countries in which this religion has gained ground, that two rival powers are perpetually at war one with the other. We find a government within the government; that is to say, we find the Church, a body of priests, continually opposed to the sovereign power, and in virtue of their pretended divine mission and sacred office, pretending to give laws to all the sovereigns of the earth. We find the clergy, puffed up and besotted with the titles they have given themselves, laboring to exact the obedience due to the sovereign, pretending to chimerical and dangerous prerogatives, which none are suffered to question, without risking the displeasure of the Almighty. And so well have the priesthood managed this matter, that in many countries we actually see the people more inclined to lean to the authority of the Vicars of Jesus Christ than to that of the civil government. The priesthood claim the right of commanding monarchs themselves, and sustained by their emissaries and the credulity of the people, their ridiculous pretensions have engaged princes in the most serious affairs, sown trouble and discord in kingdoms, and so shook thrones as to compel their occupants to make submission to an intolerant hierarchy.
Such are the important services which religion has a thousand times rendered to kings. The people, blinded by superstition, could hesitate but little between God and the princes of the earth. The priests, being the visible organs of an invisible monarch, have acquired an immense credit with prejudiced minds. The ignorance of the people places them, as well as their sovereigns, at the mercy of the priests. Nations have continually been dragged into their futile though bloody quarrels; princes, for a long series of years, have either had to dispute their authority with the clergy, or become their tools or dupes.
The continual attention which the princes of Europe have been forced to pay to the clergy has prevented them from occupying their thoughts about the welfare of their subjects, who, in many instances the dupes of the priesthood, have opposed even the good their rulers desired to procure them. In like manner, the heads of the people, their kings and governors, too weak to resist the torrent of opinions propagated by the clergy, have been forced to yield, to bow, nay, even to caress the priesthood, and to consent to grant it all its demands. Whenever they have wished to resist the encroachments of the clergy, they have encountered concealed snares or open opposition, as the holy power was either too weak to act in the face of day, or strong enough to contend in the sunshine. When princes have wished to be listened to by the clergy, these last have invariably contrived to make them cowardly, and to sacrifice the happiness and respect of their people. Often have the hands of parricides and rebels been armed, by a proud and vindictive priesthood, against sovereigns the most worthy of reigning. The priests, under pretext of avenging God, inflict their anger upon monarchs themselves, whenever the latter are found indisposed to bend under their yoke. In a word, in all countries we perceive that the ministers of religion have exercised in all ages the most unbridled license. We every where see empires torn by their dissensions; thrones overturned by their machinations; princes immolated to their power and revenge; subjects animated to revolt against the prince that ought to give them more happiness than they actually enjoyed; and when we take the retrospect of these, we find that the ambition, the cupidity, and vanity of the clergy have been the true causes and motives of all these outrages on the peace of the universe. And it is thus that their religion has so often produced anarchy, and overturned the very empires they pretended to support by its influence.
Sovereigns have never enjoyed peace but when, shamefully devoted to priests, they submitted to their caprices, became enslaved to their opinions, and allowed them to govern in place of themselves. Then was the sovereign power subordinate to the sacerdotal, and the prince was only the first servant of the church; she degraded him to such a degree as to make him her hangman; she obliged him to execute her sanguinary decrees; she forced him to dip his hands in the blood of his own subjects whom the clergy had proscribed; she made him the visible instrument of her vengeance, her fury, and her concealed passions. Instead of occupying himself with the happiness of his people, the sovereign has had the complaisance to torment, to persecute, and to immolate honest citizens, thus exciting the just hatred of a portion of his people, to whom he should have been a father, to gratify the ambition and the selfish malevolence of some priests, always aliens in the state which nourishes them, and who only style themselves members of the realm in order to domineer, to distract, to plunder, and to devour with impunity.
How little soever you are disposed to reflect, you will be convinced, Madam, that I do not exaggerate these things. Recent examples prove to you that even in this age, so ambitious of being considered enlightened, nations are not secure from the shocks that the priests have ever caused nations to suffer. You have a hundred times sighed at the sight of the sad follies which puerile questions have produced among us. You have shuddered at the frightful consequences which have resulted from the unreasonable squabbles of the clergy. You have trembled with all good citizens at the sight of the tragical effects which have been brought about by the furious wickedness of a fanaticism for which nothing is sacred. In fine, you have seen the sovereign authority compelled to struggle incessantly against rebellious subjects, who pretend that their conscience or the interests of religion have obliged them to resist opinions the most agreeable to common sense, and the most equitable.
Our fathers, more religious and less enlightened than ourselves, were witnesses of scenes yet more terrible. They saw civil wars, leagues openly formed against their sovereign, and the capital submerged in the blood of murdered citizens; two monarchs successively immolated to the fury of the clergy, who kindled in all parts the fire of sedition. They afterwards saw kings at war with their own subjects; a famous sovereign, Louis XIV., tarnishing all his glory by persecuting, contrary to the faith of treaties, subjects who would have lived tranquil, if they had only been allowed to enjoy in peace the liberty of conscience; and they saw, in fine, this same prince, the dupe of a false policy, dictated by intolerance, banish, along with the exiled Protestants, the industry of his states, and forcing the arts and manufactures of our nation to take refuge in the dominions of our most implacable enemies.
We see religion throughout Europe, without cessation, exerting a baleful influence upon temporal affairs; we see it direct the interests of princes; we see it divide and make Christian nations enemies of each other, because their spiritual guides do not all entertain the same opinions. Germany is divided into two religious parties whose interests are perpetually at variance. We every where perceive that Protestants are born the enemies of the Catholics, and are always in antagonism to them; while, on the other hand, the Catholics are leagued with their priests against all those whose mode of thinking is less abject and less servile than their own.
Behold, Madam, the signal advantages that nations derive from religion! But we are certain to be told that these terrible effects are due to the passions of men, and not to the Christian religion, which incessantly inculcates charity, concord, indulgence, and peace. If, however, we reflect even a moment on the principles of this religion, we should immediately perceive that they are incompatible with the fine maxims that have never been practised by the Christian priests, except when they lacked the power to persecute their enemies and inflict upon them the weight of their rage. The adorers of a jealous God, vindictive and sanguinary, as is obviously the character of the God of the Jews and Christians, could not evince in their conduct moderation, tranquillity, and humanity. The adorers of a God who takes offence at the opinions of his weak creatures, who reprobates and glories in the extermination of all who do not worship him in a particular way, for the which, by the by, he gives them neither the means nor the inclination, must necessarily be intolerant persecutors. The adorers of a God who has not thought fit to illuminate with an equal portion of light the minds of all his creatures, who reveals his favor and bestows his kindness on a few only of those creatures, who leaves the remainder in blindness and uncertainty to follow their passions, or adopt opinions against which the favored wage war, must of necessity be eternally at odds with the rest of the world, canting about their oracles and mysteries, supernatural precepts, invented purely to torment the human mind, to enthral it, and leave man answerable for what he could not obey, and punishable for what he was restrained from performing. We need not then be astonished if, since the origin of Christianity, our priests have never been a single moment without disputes. It appears that God only sent his Son upon earth that his marvellous doctrines might prove an apple of discord both for his priests and his adorers. The ministers of a church founded by Christ himself, who promised to send them his Holy Spirit to lead them into all the truth, have never been in unison with their dogmas. We have seen this infallible church for whole ages enveloped in error. You know, Madam, that in the fourth century, by the acknowledgment of the priests themselves, the great body of the church followed the opinions of the Arians, who disavowed even the divinity of Jesus Christ. The spirit of God must then have abandoned his church; else why did its ministers fall into this error, and dispute afterwards about so fundamental a dogma of the Christian religion?
Notwithstanding these continual quarrels, the church arrogates to itself the right of fixing the faith of the true believers, and in this it pretends to infallibility; and if the Protestant parsons have renounced the lofty and ridiculous pretensions of their Catholic brethren, they are not less certain in the infallibility of their decisions; for they talk with the authority of oracles, and send to hell and damnation all who do not yield submission to their dogmas. Thus on both sides of the cross they wish their assertions to be received by their adherents as if they came direct from heaven. The priests have always been at discord among themselves, and have perpetually cursed, anathematized, and doomed each other to hell. The vanity of each holy clique has caused it to adhere obstinately to its own peculiar opinions, and to treat its adversaries as heretics. Violence alone has generally decided the discussions, terminated the disputes, and fixed the standard of belief. Those pugnacious, brawling priests who were artful enough to enlist sovereigns on their side were orthodox, or, in other words, boasted that they were the exclusive possessors of the true doctrine. They made use of their credit to crush their adversaries, whom they always treated with the greatest barbarity.
But, after all, whatever the clergy may say, we shall find, even with a small share of attention, that it has ever been kings and emperors who, in the last resort, fixed the faith of the disputatious Christians. It has been by downright blows of the sword that those theological notions most pleasing to the Deity have been sustained in all countries. The true belief has invariably been that which had princes for its adherents. The faithful were those who had strength sufficient to exterminate their enemies, whom they never failed to treat as the enemies of God. In a word, princes have been truly infallible; we should regard them as the true founders of religious faith; they are the judges who have decided, in all ages, what doctrines should be admitted or rejected; and they are, in fine, the authorities which have always fixed the religion of their subjects.
Ever since Christianity has been adopted by some nations, have we not seen that religion has almost entirely occupied the attention of sovereigns? Either the princes, blinded by superstition, were devoted to the priests, or the rulers of nations believed that prudence exacted a concession on their part to the clergy, the true masters of their people, who considered nothing more sacred or more great than the ministers of their God. In neither case was the body politic ever consulted; it was cowardly sacrificed to the interests of the court, or the vanity and luxury of the priests. It is by a continuation of superstition on the part of the princes that we behold the church so richly endowed in times of ignorance; when men believed they would enrich Deity by putting all their wealth into the hands of the priests of a good God the declared enemy of riches. Savage warriors, destitute of the manners of men, flattered themselves that they could expiate all their sins by founding monasteries and giving immense wealth to a set of men who had made vows of poverty. It was believed that they would merit from the All-powerful a great advantage by recompensing laziness, which, in the priests, was regarded as a great good, and that the blessings procured by their prayers would be in proportion to the continual and pressing demands their poverty made on the wealthy. It is thus that by the superstition of princes, by that of the powerful classes, and of the people themselves, the clergy have become opulent and powerful; that monachism was honored, and citizens the most useless, the least submissive, and the most dangerous, were the best recompensed, the most considered, and the best paid. They were loaded with benefits, privileges, and immunities; they enjoyed independence, and they had that great power which flowed from so great license. Thus were priests placed above sovereigns themselves by the imprudent devotion of the latter, and the former were enabled to give the law and trouble the state with impunity.
The clergy, arrived at this elevation of power and grandeur, became redoubtable even to monarchs. They were obliged to bend under the yoke or be at way with clerical power. When the sovereigns yielded, they became mere slaves to the priests, the instruments of their passions, and the vile adorers of their power. When they refused to yield, the priests involved them in the most cruel embarrassments; they launched against them the anathemas of the church; the people were incited against them in the name of heaven; the nations divided themselves between the celestial and the terrestrial monarch, and the latter was reduced to great extremities to sustain a throne which the priests could shake or even destroy at pleasure. There was a time in Europe when both the welfare of the prince and the repose of his kingdom depended solely upon the caprice of a priest. In these times of ignorance, of devotion, and of commotions so favorable to the clergy, a weak and poor monarch, surrounded by a miserable nation, was at the mercy of a Roman pontiff, who could at any instant destroy his felicity, excite his subjects against him, and precipitate him into the abyss of misery.
In general, Madam, we find that in countries where religion holds dominion, the sovereign is necessarily dependent upon the priests; he has no power except by the consent of the clergy; that power disappears as soon as he displeases the self-styled vicegerents of God, who are very soon able to array his subjects against him. The people, in accordance with the principles of their religion, cannot hesitate between God and their sovereign. God never says any thing except what his priests say for him; and the ignorance and folly in which they are kept by their spiritual guides prevent them from inquiring whether God's ambassadors faithfully render his decrees.
Conclude, then, with me, that the interests of a sovereign who would rule equitably are unable to accord with those of the ministers of the Christian religion, who in all ages have been the most turbulent citizens, the most rebellious, the most difficult to render subservient to law and order, and whose resistance has extended to the very assassination of obnoxious rulers. We shall be told that Christianity is a firm support of government; that it regards magistrates as the images of the Deity; and that it teaches that all power comes from on high. These maxims of the clergy are, however, best calculated to lull kings on the couch of slumber; they are calculated to flatter those on whom the clergy can rely, and who will serve their ambition; and their flatterers can soon change their tone when the princes have the temerity to question the pernicious tendency of priestly influence, or when they do not blindly lend themselves to all their views. Then the sovereign is an impious wretch, a heretic; his destruction is laudable; heaven rejoices in his overthrow. And all this is the religion of the Bible!
You know, Madam, that these odious maxims have been a thousand times enforced by the priests, who say the prince has encroached upon the authority of the church; and the people respond that it is better to obey God than man. The priests are only devoted to the princes when the princes are blindly led by the priests. These last preach arrogantly that the former ought to be exterminated, when they refuse to obey the church, that is to say, the priests; yet, how terrible soever may be these maxims, how dangerous soever their practice to the security of the sovereign and the tranquillity of the state, they are the immediate consequences drawn from Judaism and Christianity. We find in the Old Testament that the regicide is applauded; that treason and rebellion are approved. As soon as it is supposed that God is offended with the thoughts of men,—as soon as it is supposed that heretics are displeasing to him,—it is very natural to conclude that an impious and heretical sovereign, that is to say, one who does not obey a clerical body that set themselves up as the directors of his belief, who opposes the sacred views of an infallible church, and who might occasion the loss and apostasy of a large part of the nation,—it is natural that the priests should conclude it to be legitimate for subjects to attack such a prince, alleging their religion to be the most important thing in the world, and dearer than life itself. Actuated by such principles, it is impossible that a Christian zealot should not think he rendered a service to heaven by punishing its enemy, and a service to his country by disembarrassing it of a chief who might interpose an obstacle to his eternal happiness.
The obedience of the clergy is never otherwise than conditional. The priests submit to a prince, they flatter his power, and they sustain his authority, provided he submits to their orders, makes no obstacles to their projects, touches none of their interests, and changes none of the dogmas upon which the ministers of the church have founded their own grandeur. In fine, provided a government recognizes, as divine, clerical privileges that are plainly opposed to popular rights, and tend to subvert them, the hierarchy will submit to it.
These considerations prove how dangerous are the priesthood, since the end they purpose by all their projects is dominion over the mind of mankind, and by subjugating it to enslave their persons, and render them the creatures of despotism and tyranny. And we shall find, upon examination, that, with one or two exceptions, the pious have been the enemies of the progress of science and the development of the human understanding; for by brutalizing mankind they have invariably striven to bind them to their yoke. Their avarice, their thirst of power and wealth, have led them to plunge their fellow-citizens in ignorance, in misery, and unhappiness. They discourage the cultivation of the earth by their system of tithes, their extortions, and their secret projects; they annihilate activity, talents, and industry; their pride is to reign on the ruin of the rest of their species. The finest countries in Europe have, when blindly submissive to the priest, been the worst cultivated, the thinnest peopled, and the most wretched. The Inquisition in Spain, Italy, and Portugal has only tended to impoverish those countries, to debase the mind, and render their subjects the veriest slaves of superstition. And in countries where we see heaven showering down abundance, the people are poor and famished, while the priests and monks are opulent and bloated. Their kings are without power and without glory; their subjects languish in indigence and wretchedness.
The priests boast of the utility of their office. Independently of their prayers, from which the world has for so many ages derived neither instruction nor peace, prosperity nor happiness, their pretensions to teach the rising generations are often frivolous, and sometimes arrogant, since we have found others equally well calculated to the discharge of those functions, who have been good citizens, that have not drawn from the pockets of their neighbors the tenth of their earnings. Thus, in what light soever we view them, the pretensions of the priests are reduced to a nonentity, compared to the disservice they render the community by their exactions and dissolute lives.
In what consists, in effect, the education that our spiritual guides have, unhappily for society, assumed the vocation of imparting to youth? Does it tend to make reasonable, courageous, and virtuous citizens? No; it is incontestable that it creates ignoble men, whose entire lives are tormented with imaginary terrors; it creates superstitious slaves, who only possess monastic virtues, and who, if they follow faithfully the instructions of their masters, must be perfectly useless to society; it forms intolerant devotees, ready to detest all those who do not think like themselves; and it makes fanatics, who are ready to rebel against any government as soon as they are persuaded it is rebellious to the church. What do the priests teach their pupils? They cause them to lose much precious time in reciting prayers, in mechanically repeating theological dogmas, of which, even in mature life, they comprehend nothing. They teach them the dead languages, which, at the best, only serve for entertainment, being by no means necessary in the present form of society. They terminate these fine studies by a philosophy which, in clerical hands, has become a mere play of words, a jargon void of sense, and which is exactly calculated to fit them for the unintelligible science called theology. But is this theology itself useful to nations? Are the interminable disputes which arise between profound metaphysicians of such a character as to be interesting to the people who do not comprehend them? Are the people of Paris and the provinces much advanced in heavenly knowledge when the priests dispute among themselves about what should really be thought of grace?
In regard to the instruction imparted by the clergy, it is indeed necessary to have faith in order to discover its utility. Their boasted instruction consists in teaching ineffable mysteries, marvellous dogmas, narrations and fables perfectly ridiculous, panic terrors, fanatical and lugubrious predictions, frightful menaces, and above all, systems so profound that they who announce are not able to comprehend them. In truth, Madam, in all this I can see nothing useful. Should nations feel any extraordinary obligations to teachers who concoct doctrines that must always remain impenetrable for the whole human race? It must be confessed that our priests, who so painfully occupy themselves in arranging a pure creed for us, must signally lose all their labor. At any rate, the people are not much in the situation to profit by such sublime toils. Very frequently the pulpit becomes the theatre of discord; the sacred disclaimers launch injuries at each other, infusing their own passions into the bosoms of their Christian auditors, kindling their zeal against the enemies of the church, and becoming themselves the trumpets of party spirit, fury, and sedition. If these preachers teach morality, it is a kind of supernatural morality, little adapted to the nature of man. If they inculcate virtue, it is that theological virtue whose inutility we have sufficiently shown. If by chance some one among them allows himself to preach that morality and virtue which is practical, human, and social, you know, Madam, that he is proscribed by his confederates, and becomes an object of their acrimonious criticisms and their deadly hatred. He is also disdained by devotees who are attached to evangelical virtues that they cannot comprehend, and who consider nothing as more important than mysterious forms and ceremonies, in which zealots make morality to consist.
See, then, in what limits are entertained the important services that the ministers of the Lord have for so many centuries rendered to nations! They are not worth, in all conscience, the excessive price which is paid for them. On the contrary, if priests were treated according to their real merit, if their functions were appreciated at their just value, it would, perhaps, be found that they did not merit a larger salary than those empirics who, at the corners of the streets, vend remedies more dangerous than the evils they promise to cure.
It is by subjecting the immense revenues, lands, abbeys, and estates, which clerical bodies have levied upon the credulity of men, to just and equal taxation, as with other property; it is by rendering the church and state entirely distinct; it is by stripping the hierarchy of immunities not possessed by other citizens, and of privileges both chimerical and injurious; it is by rigorously exacting the same civil obedience alike from priests and people,—that government can be rightly administered, that justice can be impartially rendered, and that the nation, as a whole, can be trained to courage, activity, industry, intelligence, tranquillity, and patriotism. So long as there are two powers in a state, they will necessarily be at variance, and the one which arrogates the favor of the Almighty will have immense advantages over that which claims no authority above the earth. If both pretend to emanate from the same source, the people would not know which to believe; they would range themselves on each side; the combat would be furious, and the power of the government would be unable to maintain itself against the many heads of the ecclesiastical hydra. The magicians of Pharaoh yielded to the Jewish priests, and in conflicts between the church and state, the immunities of the priests,
"Like Aaron's serpent, swallowed all the rest."
If such is the case, you will inquire, Madam, how can an enlightened civil power ever make obedient citizens of rebellious priests, who have so long possessed the confidence of the people, and who can with impunity render themselves formidable to any government? I reply, that in spite of the vigilant cares and the redoubled efforts of the priesthood, the people have begun to be more enlightened; they are becoming weary of the heavy yoke, which they would not have borne so long had they not believed it was imposed upon them by the Most High, and that it was necessary to their happiness. It is impossible for error to be eternal; it must give way to the power of truth. The priests, who think, know this well, and the whole ecclesiastical body continually declaim against all those who wish to enlighten the human race and unveil the conspiracies of their spiritual guides. They fear the piercing eyes of philosophy; they fear the reign of reason, which will never be that of tyranny or anarchy. Governments, then, ought not to share the fears of the clergy, nor render themselves the executors of their vengeance; they injure themselves when they sustain the cause of their turbulent rivals, who have ever been the enemies of civil polity and perturbers of the public repose. The magistrates of a state league themselves with their enemies when they form an alliance with the priesthood, or prevent the people from recognizing their errors.
Governments are more interested than individuals in the destruction of errors that often lead to confusion, anarchy, and rebellion. If men had not become gradually enlightened, nations would now, as formerly, be under the yoke of the Roman pontiff, who could occasion revolution in their midst, overturn the laws, and subvert the government. But for the insensible progress of reason, states would now be filled with a tumultuous crowd of devotees, ready to revolt at the signal of an unquiet priest or a seditious monk.
You perceive, then, Madam, that men who think, and who teach others to think, are more useful to governments than those who wish to stifle reason and to proscribe forever the liberty of thought. You see that the true friends of a stable government are those who seek most sedulously to enlighten, educate, and elevate the people. You feel that by banishing knowledge and persecuting philosophy, government sacrifices its dearest interests to a seditious clergy, whose ambition and avarice push them to usurp boundless authority, and whose pride always makes them indignant at being in subjection to a power which they contend should be subordinate to themselves.
There is no priest who does not consider himself superior to the highest ruler of any country. We have often seen the priesthood avow pretensions of this character. The clergy are always enraged when an attempt is made to subject them to the secular power. Such an attempt they regard as profane, and they denounce it as tyranny whenever it is sought to be enforced. They pretend that in all times the priesthood has been sacred, that its rights come from God himself, and that no government can, without sacrilege, or without outraging the Divinity, touch the property, the privileges, or the immunities which have been snatched from ignorance and credulity. Whenever the civil authority would touch the objects considered inviolable and sacred in the hands of the priests, their clamors cannot be appeased; they make efforts to excite the people against the government; they denounce all authority as tyrannical when it has the temerity to think of subjecting them to the laws, of reforming their abuses, and neutralizing their power to injure. But they consider authority legitimate when it crushes their enemies, though it appears insupportable as soon as it is reasonable and favorable to the people.
The priests are essentially the most wicked of men, and the worst citizens of a state. A miracle would be necessary to render them otherwise. In all countries they are the spoiled children of nations. They are proud and haughty, since they pretend it is from God himself they received their mission and their power. They are ingrates, since they assume to owe only to God benefits which they visibly hold from the generosity of governments and the people. They are audacious, because for many ages they have enjoyed supremacy with impunity. They are unquiet and turbulent, because they are never without the desire of playing a great part. They are quarrelsome and factious, because they are never able to find out a method of enabling men to understand the pretended truths they teach. They are suspicious, defiant, and cruel, because they sensibly feel that they may well dread the discovery of their impostures. They are the spontaneous enemies of truth, because they justly apprehend it will annihilate their pretensions. They are implacable in their vengeance, because it would be dangerous to pardon those who wish to crush their doctrines, whose weakness they know. They are hypocrites, because most of them possess too much sense to believe the reveries they retail to others. They are obstinate in their ideas, because they are inflated with vanity, and because they could not consistently deviate from a method of thinking of which they pretend God is the author. We often see them unbridled and licentious in their manners, because it is impossible that idleness, effeminacy, and luxury should not corrupt the heart. We sometimes see them austere and rigid in their conduct in order to impose on the people and accomplish their ambitious views. If they are hypocrites and rogues, they are extremely dangerous; and if they are fanatical in good faith, or imbecile, they are not less to be feared. In fine, we almost always see them rebellious and seditious, because an authority derived from God is not disposed to bend to authority derived from men.
You have here, Madam, a faithful portrait of the members of a powerful body, in whose favor governments, for a long time, have believed it their duty to sacrifice the other interests of the state. You here see the citizens whom prejudice most richly recompenses, whom princes honor in the eyes of the people, to whom they give their confidence, whom they regard as the support of their power, and whom they consider as necessary to the happiness and security of their kingdoms. You can judge yourself whether the likeness delineated is correct. You are in a position to discover their intrigues, their underplots, their conduct, and their discourse, and you will always find that their constant object is to flatter princes for the purpose of governing them and keeping nations in slavery.
It is to please citizens so dangerous that sovereigns mingle in theological questions, take the part of those who succeed in seducing them, persecute all those who do not submit, proscribe with fury the friends of reason, and by repressing knowledge injure their own power. Because the priests, who urge princes to sacrilege when they combat for them, are indignant against the same princes when they refuse to destroy the enemies of their own particular clerical body. They likewise denounce sovereigns as impious if the latter treat theological disputes with the indifference they merit.
When hereafter, reclaimed from their prejudices, princes wish to govern for the good of all, let them cease to hear the interested and often sanguinary councils of these pretended divine men, who, regarding themselves as the centre of all things, wish to have sacrificed for this object the happiness, the repose, the riches, and the honors of the state. Let the sovereign never enter into their dissensions, let him never persecute for religious opinions, which, among sectaries, are commonly on both sides equally ridiculous and destitute of foundation. They would never involve the government if the sovereign had not the weakness to mingle in them. Let him give unlimited freedom to the course of thinking, while he directs by just laws the course of acting on the part of his subjects. Let him permit every one to dream or speculate as he pleases, provided he conducts himself otherwise as an honest man and a good citizen. At least let the prince not oppose the progress of knowledge, which alone is capable of extricating his people from ignorance, barbarity, and superstition, which have made victims of so many Christian rulers. Let him be assured that enlightened and instructed citizens are more law-abiding, industrious, and peaceable than stupid slaves without knowledge and without reason, who will always be ready to take all the passions with which a fanatic wishes to inspire them.
Let the sovereign especially occupy himself with the education of his subjects, nor leave the clergy unobstructedly to impregnate his people with mystic notions, foolish reveries, and superstitious practices, which are only proper for fanatics. Let him at least counterbalance the inculcation of these follies by teaching a morality conformable to the good of the state, useful to the happiness of its members, and social and reasonable. This morality would inform a man what he owed to himself, to society, to his fellow-citizens, and to the magistrates who administered the laws. This morality would not form men who would hate each other for speculative opinions, nor dangerous enthusiasts, nor devotees blindly submissive to the priests. It would create a tranquil, intelligent, and industrious community; a body of inhabitants submissive to reason and obedient to just and legitimate authority. In a word, from such morality would spring virtuous men and good citizens, and it would be the surest antidote against superstition and fanaticism.
In this manner the empire of the clergy would be diminished, and the sovereign would have a less portentous rival; he would, without opposition, be assured of all rational and enlightened citizens; the riches of the clergy would in part reënter society, and be of use in benefiting the people; institutions now useless would be put to advantageous uses; a portion of the possessions of the church, originally destined for the poor, and so long appropriated by avaricious priests, would come into the hands of the suffering and the indigent, their legitimate proprietors. Supported by a nation who were sensible of the advantages he had procured them, the prince would no longer fear the cries of fanaticism, and they would soon be no longer heard. The priests, the lazy monks, and turbulent persons living in forced celibacy, could no longer calculate on the future, and, aliens in the state which nourished them, they would visibly diminish. The government, more rich and powerful, would be in a better situation to diffuse its benefits; and enlightened, virtuous, and beneficent men would constitute the support, the glory, and the grandeur of the state.
Such, Madam, are the ends which all governments would propose who opened their eyes to their own true interests. I flatter myself that these designs will not appear to you either impossible or chimerical. Knowledge and science, which begin to be generally diffused, are already advancing these results; they are giving an impulse to the march of the human mind, and in time, governments and people, without tumult or revolution, will be freed from the yoke which has oppressed them so long.
Do we see any thing useful in the pious endowments of our ancestors? We find them to consist of institutions invented to continue a lazy, monastic life; costly temples elevated and enriched by indigent people to augment the pride of the priests, and to erect altars and palaces. From the foundation of Christianity the whole object of religion has been to aggrandize the priesthood on the ruins of nations and governments. A jealous religion has exclusively seized on the minds of men, and persuaded them that they live upon earth merely to occupy themselves with their future happiness in the unknown regions of the empyrean. It is time that this prestige should cease; it is time that the human race should occupy itself with its own true interests. The interests of the people will always be incompatible with those of the guides who believe they have acquired an imprescriptible right to lead men astray. The more you examine the Christian religion, the more will you be convinced that it can be advantageous only to those whose object it is easily to guide mankind after having plunged them into darkness. I am, &c.