Death and the Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-century France
Voltaire’s death was a major event in the eighteenth century. It did not merely signal the passing away of the archphilosophe of the Enlightenment; it was a drama, staged with consummate artistry by the last of the classical French tragedians, and it reveals more about eighteenth-century culture than any of the plays he wrote.
All Europe watched as the old man neared the end in 1778. Would he hold fast to his anticlericalism when faced with the final reckoning, or would he die in the hands of the priests as Montesquieu had done and as Buffon proposed to do? Would he go out with a jest, or would he take communion? Would he disavow his works, or would he brave burial in unconsecrated ground?
The questions touched a deep chord in eighteenth-century sensibility, as John McManners demonstrates in this latest book on death. Under the Old Regime, dying had become the supreme act of living—a ritual that, if managed correctly, could open the gates of heaven or, if bungled, could lead to hell. Men’s imaginations still fixed on the late medieval ideal of the “good death.” They hoped to die in bed and in public, surrounded by family, friends, and anyone who happened to follow the priest carrying the viaticum through the streets for the last communion. They wanted death to come after confession, absolution, communion, and extreme unction and to be followed by a proper cortege, a funeral service, and burial in a cemetery or, better, in a church, as near to the altar as possible. Above all, they did not want to die as most of us do today—quickly, privately, and with as little fuss as possible. In the eighteenth century, men were as horrified at the idea of dying suddenly, or unshriven in their sleep, as we would be at the spectacle of death in the midst of a crowd, with lamentations, anointing, the ringing of bells, the clutching of crucifixes, the hideous glimpses of hell, and the edifying last words for curious on-lookers.
But the old ideal began to unravel as the century wore on. Christians and unbelievers alike questioned the idea of a wrathful God, who would condemn a man to everlasting torment merely because he panicked on his deathbed or failed to take his last communion. They often resented the way priests exploited the fear of death. Some entertained notions of pushing the clergy into the background and of dying as Julie did in La Nouvelle Héloïse, in the bosom of the family. Some imagined dying without any priests at all. Death was the winding-down of a machine, said La Mettrie, the notorious materialist. It could even be pleasurable, like going to sleep after making love.
The freethinkers joked about dying. In place of spiritual exercises, they practiced famous last words. Duclos, who enjoyed the advantage of having a curé named Chapeau, resolved to die saying, “I came into the world without breeches; I will go out without Chapeau.” The comte de Caylus…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.