By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
If there is anything I have learned from studying history the last twenty years (my goodness, I can’t believe it has been that long since I began my undergraduate studies), it is that the past affects every aspect of our lives. This took me awhile to grasp, since as a teenager and twenty-something, I assumed my worldview was a self-created thing; I thought that I had the power to pick and choose what I wanted from the ideas and memories of yesteryear. Studying history in all its guises has made me see that I was a foolish kid. All our lives are molded by the most idiosyncratic remnants of days long gone.
With this in mind, let me give you a odd historical example illustrating how mentalities don’t die, though humans do.
François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, died May 30th, 1778. A playwright, philosopher, novelist, political thinker, and much more, Voltaire was, and still is, understood as being a giant of the 18th century era known as the Enlightenment. Though not an outspoken political radical, Voltaire was a champion of revolutionary cultural ideals. Most infamously in his day, he was an often harsh critic of organized religion and, specifically, the Catholic Church. Here is one of many of his anti-clerical statements:
Every sensible man, every honest man, must hold the Christian sect in horror. ‘But what shall we substitute in its place?’, you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?
In 18th century Europe, holding such opinions, much less stating them, was a dangerous proposition. Voltaire played with fire, which made him one of the most admired, most feared, and most despised men of European letters at the time of his death. It would take 11 years, and the anti-clerical French Revolution to redeem Voltaire’s memory.
The Revolution of 1789 and its adherents waxed and waned in their feelings towards religion. Some were outright atheists. Some were deists. Some were romantic Christians. As a whole however, the Revolution as a political movement would try to control religion, either by making the church subservient to the nation, or even by transforming the revelatory nature of Christianity into the naturally rational cult of a faceless Supreme Being. Hence, by 1791, Voltaire was transformed from being a dangerous, though popular rebel, to a nationally recognized prophet of the French nation.
The French Revolution and the French nation had martyrs and saints. Voltaire would become the latter. He didn’t die for the cause, but he did face persecution for his beliefs by a ‘tyrannical’ French pre-revolutionary state, and he would need to be recognized as such. What better way to do so than moving his mortal remains to the Revolutionary state’s temple, the Pantheon? Nothing really new to all this hullabaloo. Each nation recognizes those early forebears, and seers who foreshadowed the nation. America is no different. Think Lincoln, Washington, and their respective monuments. However, this story veers in an unexpected direction. Friends and enemies of the Revolution began to fight regarding Voltaire’s state of decomposition.
As the French historian Antoine de Baecque points out his book, Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution, the state of Voltaire’s remains was controversial. After disinterring the body of the great man, two conflicting sets of rumors began to spread. Amongst the friends of the Revolution, it soon became gospel that Voltaire’s body was perfectly preserved, 13 years after being buried (he had been embalmed, so this makes some sense). But there was more: The Voltaire lovers relayed seemingly miraculous stories. Not only was Voltaire’s remains perfectly preserved, but they also smelled….good. The body was not decomposed, and had a sweet bouquet. On the other hand, those enemies of the Revolution, and the haters of Voltaire gossiped the opposite. Voltaire was actually a disgusting, rotted piece of decomposed flesh that was embarrassingly earthly. The smell of the remains in this story, instead of being sweet, were radically worst than one would expect. It was as if the infidel’s remains had the whiff of hellish brimstone about them.
What in the world was this all about? Well, to understand this ghoulish argument, we need to realize that this discourse of bodily remains was much older than Voltaire. The Catholic church, going all the way back to its earliest days, argued for the incorruptibility of their saint’s bodies. It would be proof of sacredness if a saint’s body was incorruptible; it would be a sign of God’s love if the dead saint smelled not rancid, but delightful. So, when the argument over Voltaire’s body arose, it was done so in the discourse of Catholicism. What the what? Superstition’s most famous enemy was now being turned into a saint by those whom he influenced. History does indeed repeat itself.
I love this story for two reasons. First, it is just weird and unforgettable tale, showing the strange beliefs of humans. Second, and more importantly, it is a perfect example of what effect the past can have on all of us. Even the French Revolutionaries, those who hoped to create the world anew, and in many ways did so, still could not escape their bygone forerunners. They were locked into a rut of history. You and I are no different.