“Besides, the English Don’t Like Women Much Anyway”—on Voltaire, Van Gogh, and Darwin

No, Charles Darwin did not do a stint as a clergyman—much less get yelled at by his superiors for not shaking his parishioners down for money—he may have thought about becoming a clergyman, but he never actually did it. How could I have written that he did?

I’ll tell you how. It is because I recalled the Darwin story from Irving Stone’s historical novel The Origin. Irving Stone also wrote an historical novel of Vincent Van Gogh (Lust for Life), and this is the fellow who flunked out as a clergyman (a missionary, actually) in his younger days, not Darwin. This is the fellow who wouldn’t shake his parishioners down for money, not Darwin. This was the fellow who “went native” to share the work and living conditions of those he was assigned to, not Darwin. This is the fellow who was dismissed for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood,” not Darwin. Ya wanna check your facts before you let fly, Harley? You remember half of them wrong, you know.

Fortunately, I do check them, but once in a while some blooper slips through—as another one almost did when I savored a new unflattering portrait of Charles Darwin from a review of a new book by A.N. Wilson. At least, I initially thought it was of Charles Darwin. I had even begun the process of cutting him down to size as payback for his evolution—I have borne him a grudge for years over that—relishing the revisionist’s biting words that he was “cruel, oversexed egoist”—I imagined the possibilities in answering one of his godless followers who ponders “the fundamental mystery” of how “a man he finds atrocious could have spoken to him so deeply.” “I’ll tell you how that could happen—it’s because you...” I saw myself beginning my tirade with glee, and then I noticed it was Charles Dickens, not Charles Darwin—and I like Charles Dickens’s work. I have even adopted many of Dickens’s lines, such as that of Miss. Pross, defending like a lion its cub against the wicked foreign woman who would destroy it: “I am stronger than you. I thank heaven for it.”

They are both D-names, and both Charles—it’s a easy mistake to make.

All is not lost. Van Gogh serves my purposes as well as Darwin, because the intent of all this is to segue into Voltaire. Van Gogh, too, was ground up by the church, as was Darwin, only in a different way. He, too, can be used to introduce Voltaire, who spent his life eviscerating the church and the way it ground up people. In fact, Van Gogh serves better that Darwin, because his trampling of faith reveals more starkly the Church’s amassing of wealth for wealth’s own sake, and that was one of Voltaire’s constant themes—that the clergy used the wealth they accumulated so as to lead corrupt lives. Not too much had changed in France, apparently, in the century of so between Voltaire and Van Gogh.

And Darwin was British!—how in the world could I have had him doing a clerical stint in France? Even as I wrote it, I knew something didn’t quite square, but I was on a roll and couldn’t stop.

Of course, many things did change from between Voltaire and Van Gogh—most notable is the French Revolution that intervened. Voltaire skewered the clergy of his time—whoa! did they hate him for it!—but he remained always adamant that atheism was for fools—just because the tour guides are corrupt does not prove there is no museum. The ‘Book of Creation’ was enough to teach anyone not self-blinded that there was a God, he maintained, and he was much taken with the common-sense of verses like Hebrew 3:4, that “every house is constructed by someone, but the one who constructed all things is God.” If you come across a well-stocked home in the midst of a barren desert, are you going to maintain that no one designed it? It took years of atheist machinations to undermine the obvious sense of that one.

They rose to the occasion, though. Let no one say they are not industrious. If people are intent on breaking free from God, do not underestimate their ability to rationalize it. The heart chooses what it wants and then charges the head to devise a convincing rationale to it. Voltaire’s followers were on the cutting edge of “enlightenment” heading towards the French Revolution that would cost so many heads, but they soon fell into disfavor for being too conservative—their movement passed them by—and many of them were among those whose heads were severed by the guillotine. When a mob gets rolling—watch out! Voltaire directed public fury at priests who abused their power, but he did not waver in God’s existence. It would take the next generation, some claiming to stand upon his shoulders, as Newton did on Galileo’s, to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Surely, the most egregious of abuses of the clergy were curtailed by the Revolution, if for no other reason than the royalty disappeared. French aristocracy prior to the Revolution forbade offspring to work—work was for commoners—so it became a problem for royalty to find suitable careers for their offspring. There was always the Royal Court, there was always the military—that’s why there were so many 21-year old colonels—and there was always the clergy to which one might appoint a young man as archbishop. Young men being what they were—and these French aristocrats being what they were—they would often hire at a pittance some underling to tend to spiritual things while they themselves would revel in riotous, immoral, and luxurious living.

Voltaire liked the English way that he picked up on during his exile there. There, only the number one son of nobility could not work—all the remaining ones were launched somewhere into the world of human enterprise. There, only those with long devotion to the church—not some nobility’s snotty kids—could be appointed to high clerical station. By that time, Voltaire notes, all the womanizing and drinking had been refined out of them, if not by spirituality, then by age alone. Their excesses against their churches were fewer, he notes. He is ever writing humorously on such things, and at this point he takes it to a new level: “Besides, the English don’t like women much anyway.” Ha! Bingo! Listen, I may not know much about Voltaire, but I do know about my own family. My great-grandfather was English. He had six children, and yet the family name managed to die out in but two generations! Meanwhile, the other side of my family has produced enough children to fill a stadium.

 

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