That La Fontaine finally made some kind of a confession, there is little doubt; but that he made the shameful confession which Catholic writers declare he did, no one now believes. He was probably worn out with their entreaties, and came to a compromise with them.
He added nothing to his reputation after this, but rather detracted from it. He lived very quietly and devotedly, and died in 1695, in the seventy-fourth year of his age. It was found after his death that he was in the habit of mortifying himself with a shirt of sackcloth.
La Fontaine was unquestionably the greatest fabulist of his or any other time, and he has been exceedingly popular throughout France. His tales and fables and light poems are full of beauty and grace. But we cannot speak highly of their morality. They are, like almost all French literature, corrupt. They took their character from the times, and have had a bad influence upon later generations of France.
Perhaps no man has existed in the past history of France, who has had such a wonderful influence over succeeding generations, as Voltaire. I name him the infidel, not because his infidelity was the most prominent characteristic, but because he is known more widely in America for his scoffing skepticism. The effect of Voltaire’s skeptical writings is more perceptible in Paris than in the provinces, but in the capital an amount of infidelity obtains which is perfectly frightful; and even among those who frequent the church, and sometimes ostentatiously parade an affection for it, this skepticism fills the intellects. No one writer of past years unsettled the already shallow-rooted faith of the people to such an extent as Voltaire. Yet he was by no means the man many of his enemies suppose him to have been. No mere scoffer or reviler of the bible could have obtained such an influence in France as Voltaire did. He was really a great man, and gained the affections of the people by his advocacy of liberty. It is more than probable that under a system of religion as pure as now exists in America, Voltaire would never have been an infidel. The condition of the Catholic church in France, in his time, was sufficiently shocking to have startled every intelligent mind into skepticism. It was filled with hypocrites and knaves, who professed to be filled with the spirit of God, but who in reality were very sensual and wicked men. The slightest independence in religious opinions was punished by exile or imprisonment. How could a man with an independent intellect succumb to such a church? And was it not very natural for it to jump from belief to infidelity? This should be borne in mind when we estimate the character of Voltaire.