"God Is Always For The Big Battalions"
Context: Voltaire, the outspoken champion of freedom, was a master of the effective phrase. In some cases the thought did not originate with him, but was transformed by his own inspiration into an epigram of such forceful insight that, once read, it cannot be forgotten. At other times he might use a popular expression, but in such a way that it was given a new freshness and permanence. Voltaire's correspondence was enormous; but this ability seldom failed him, and even in a short letter dashed off in a hurry it frequently stands out. The lines are direct and pungent: they bite into the mind. The note which follows is a good example. It was written to M. Leriche, Receveur des Domaines at Besançon, when Voltaire was seventy-six years of age and living in exile near Geneva. His violent criticisms of Christianity and priestcraft had made it unsafe for him to live in France, but his creative activities continued unabated, and his influence upon the thought of his time did not lessen. Voltaire had long since learned how to achieve a maximum of communication through economy of means. In this letter he replies to a well-wisher who has evidently switched political parties or schools of thought in an effort to get away from attitudes which disgust him and to find something more acceptable. Voltaire warns him that he is not likely to find it. In a letter written October 18, 1677, Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (1618–1693) had remarked, "God is generally for the big squadrons against the little ones (Dieu est d'ordinaire pour les gros escadrons contre les petits)." Bussy-Rabutin, as he is commonly known, was a member of the French lesser nobility; a notorious rake, whose licentious sketches of the ladies of the court (Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules) landed him in the Bastille, he was gifted with considerable literary power. Voltaire, however, expresses the same thought far more effectively (dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons):
6th February 1770You, sir, have left the Welsh for the Welsh. You will find these stubborn barbarians everywhere. The number of the sages will always be small. It is true that it is growing; however, its increase is nothing in comparison with that of blockheads, and unfortunately it is said that God is always for the big battalions. Men of integrity must close ranks and stay under cover: it is impossible for their little band to attack this party of fanatics in the open.I have been very ill: I have been near death all winter: it is because of this, sir, that I am so late in answering. I am nonetheless touched by your remembrance. Continue your friendship toward me: that will console me for my ills and for the stupidities of the human race.Receive the assurances, . . .