Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975) is a detailed look at the development of social and political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like any of Voegelin’s writings it requires a little patience, but his analysis is always methodically presented and ripe with insights. His first chapter on Voltaire (1694-1778) is a small masterpiece. It discusses the career of this capricious thinker who served the Enlightenment not so much as a systematic thinker but as its most brilliant propagandist. An interesting point is the discussion of Voltaire’s new morality in which the older notions of private piety and wisdom give way to purely externalized and politicized notions of virtue. Since the volume is out-of-print, it is worth quoting at length:
The attack on the saint as a prudent person who takes care of himself and forgets the neighbor is on principle already the Communist and National Socialist attack on the freedom and the achievements of the spirit, as well as on the spiritual formation of personality, as socially useless and perhaps even dangerous private concerns. The sphere of the socially valuable is restricted to the procurement of animal comforts and to scientific discoveries which may serve this purpose. Behind the phrase that a man who is not socially useful in this restricted sense does not count looms the virtuous terreur of Robespierre and the massacres by the later humanitarians whose hearts are filled with compassion to the point that they are willing to slaughter one half of mankind in order to make the other half happy. The complacent assumption that charitable compassion is a general disposition of man abandons the healthy Christian cynicism which is aware of the precarious ascendancy of the spirit over the passions and takes its precautions. The identification of the good with the socially useful foreshadows the compulsory goodness of the social planner as well as the idea of revolutionary justice, with its assumption that right is what serves the proletariat, the nation or the chosen race.
The obvious irony is that under a regime of political “virtue” like the French Revolution—an event that Voltaire helped foster, yet which he probably would have condemned—there was very little principled conduct on the part of the major players, either at home or in the public square. Because the small elite of Enlightenment philosophes wanted to be rid of the burden of religious conscience they removed the incentive for others to behave in public as well. In addition they created the mindset which is distrustful of the humility that should surround and guard the other virtues, lest they become arrogant and perverted into vices. As they see it, there can be no room for personal motives that are not ostentatiously advertised (or voyeuristically exposed) to the general public.