The Despair of the Philosophes

The period known as the Enlightenment (c. 1685-1815) was a critical moment in the history of Christendom, as it saw the emergence of a system of thought hostile to Christianity and the rise of systematic atheism. Many thinkers of the Enlightenment considered revealed religion offensive to reason, for revealed religion insisted that we give our assent on faith, which was considered antithetical to human reason. Consider the thought of Denis Diderot: Diderot (1713-1784) was a French writer and philosopher, best known as the editor of the monumental Encyclopédie, the world’s first general encyclopedia. Diderot began his life as a Roman Catholic, embraced Deism, and later devolved to full-blown atheism. In Diderot’s 1770 tract Thoughts on Religion, we see faith and reason posited as irreconcilable antagonists:

To admit any conformity between the reason of man and the eternal reason of God, and to pretend that God demands the sacrifice of human reason, is to maintain that God wills one thing and demands the other thing at the same time…If reason is a gift from heaven, and the same thing can be said of faith, then heaven has given us two presents not only incompatible, but in direct contradiction with each other. In order to solve this difficulty, we are compelled to say either that faith is a chimera or that reason is useless.1

Diderot considered the faith the Church asks of believers tantamount to an extinction of reason. We see this in his parable of the candle: “Bewildered in an immense forest during the night, and having only one small torch for my guide, a stranger approaches and thus addresses me: ‘Friend, blow out your light if you would be sure of the right path.’ This stranger is the priest.”2

Diderot’s thought may be considered representative of the philosophical Enlightenment’s critique of religion as a whole, based on the supposed anti-rational nature of faith, the objects of which are not subject to empirical verification. In Diderot, we see that the traditional concept of faith and reason having a mutually reinforcing relationship has been jettisoned. To accept anything on faith is to “blow out your light,” i.e., suspend your reason entirely. This demonstrates the profoundly rationalist mentality of the Enlightenment: for men like Diderot, only that is true which can be empirically verified. The Church had considered faith and reason two different forms of knowledge, the former based on trust, the latter on observation. Even on a purely human level, we believe on faith all the time—for example, when my father tells me stories of his experiences before I was born, I accept them on faith because I trust my father’s word. Diderot rejects this as a means of knowledge; faith for Diderot is always an assault upon reason, never a complement to it.

We can also find this idea affirmed in the work of one of the Enlightenment’s most virulent atheists, the Franco-German Paul Thiry, Baron d’ Holbach (1723-1789). Holbach launched a frontal attack against religious belief in his 1770 System of Nature, which offered an entirely materialist account of the world while blasting religious faith as infantilizing the mind. Holbach’s caricature of the religious believer is of a perpetual child, suppressing reason in fear of a celestial boogeyman. His screed is worth quoting at length as it demonstrates the disdain Holbach nurtured for religion’s effect upon mankind:

[The believer] became the enemy of himself and his fellow creatures, because they persuaded him that his well-being here below was interdicted. Every time there was a question of his celestial tyrant, he no longer had any judgment, he no longer reasoned, he fell into a state of infancy or delirium, which submitted him to authority. Man was destined to this servitude as soon as he quitted the womb of his mother, and tyrannical opinion obliged him to wear his fetters during the rest of his days. A prey to the panic terrors with which they never ceased to inspire him, he appeared to have come upon the earth only to dream, to groan, to sigh, to injure himself, to deprive himself of all pleasures, to embitter his life, or disturb the felicity of others. Perpetually infected by the terrific chimeras which the delirium of the imagination presented to him without ceasing, he was abject, stupid, irrational, and he frequently became wicked, to honor the god whom they proposed to him for a model, or whom they told him to avenge…Such is, word for word, the history of those effects which the name of God produces upon the earth.3

Such was the opinion of the atheist luminary Holbach.

Men like Diderot and Holbach believed they were liberating human reason from the tyranny of superstition. Yet often the shackles of religion were merely exchanged for another kind of oppression: the weight of despair. Like many materialists since, they found that their mechanistic worldview offered no explanation for the sweeter things of life: love, beauty, and meaning. Their determinism left them little choice but to infer that love was nothing but a sophisticated biological response to stimuli; that beauty has no objective existence; that meaning is an illusion men conjure to save themselves from the existential anguish of a pointless existence. They understood what their philosophy implied and were terrified of it. In 1755, a violent earthquake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, killing 12,000 people. The Deist philosopher Voltaire used the occasion to compose a poem on the arbitrary meaninglessness of existence:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well”

What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.4

Diderot, too, was haunted by the nihilistic implications of his doctrines, which repelled him even though he accepted their truth. Writing to his mistress, Sophie Volland, Diderot cursed his own philosophy that reduced his love for her to a chance arrangement of atoms: “I am furious at being entangled in a confounded philosophy which my mind cannot refrain from approving and my heart from denying,” he lamented.5 Catholicism, meanwhile—with its rich tradition and lavish ceremonial—moved the heart of Diderot even though he intellectually rejected it.6

The crisis of men like Voltaire and Diderot was a crisis of freedom: the same liberty that freed them from religious dogma also obliterated free will. As Peter Gay, the 20th century scholar of the French Enlightenment put it:

The old questions that Christianity had answered so fully for so many men and so many centuries had to be asked anew…What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? Science itself did not answer these questions. It only suggested—even more insistently as the century went on—that the old answers were wrong…If God is dead, what is permitted? was not a question calculated to make men sleep easy.7

The world of cold, mechanical determinism was not a pleasant resting place for the human heart, and men like Diderot felt it keenly.

Holbach, Diderot, and Voltaire were part of a subset of Enlightenment thinkers known as the philosophes. The philosophes were not so much scientists as philosophers, champions of “enlightened” reason against the superstition of religion. They were intellectuals but not scientists, popularizers not researchers. It is the philosophes we find at the heart of Enlightenment critiques of religion. Yet in their critiques, the philosophes found themselves as men who cut off the branch they sat upon, for the mechanistic world they envisioned left no space for purpose, value, and morality—in other words, for the intangible realities that make human existence worthwhile. It’s not that the philosophes wanted this cold, meaningless world—quite the opposite; we have seen Diderot lamenting that his philosophy has extinguished love in the universe. The philosophes ardently desired a world of passion and meaning but could find no logical justification for it. Like many enemies of religion since, the philosophes came to realize too late that existence becomes profoundly darker when the beneficence of a Creator is denied.

Author’s Note: If you’d like to learn more about the interplay between religion and science in the Christian west, please take a look at my new book, In Pursuit of Wisdom: Science and Catholicism Through the Ages, available from Our Sunday Visitor.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

1Denis Diderot, Thoughts on Religion (London: R. Carlisle, 1819), 3-4

2Ibid. 4

3Quoted in From Absolutism to Revolution: 1648-1848, 2nd edition, ed. by Herbert Rowen (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 109, 108

4Toleration and Other Essays by Voltaire, trans. by Joseph McCabe (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912), 255

5Peter Gay, “The Enlightenment—A Modern View,” in From Absolutism to Revolution, 136


7Ibid., 135-136

Avatar photo


Phillip Campbell is a history teacher for Homeschool Connections and the author of many books on Catholic history, most notably the Story of Civilization series from TAN Books. You can learn more about his books and classes on his website. Phillip resides in southern Michigan.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage