Sunday, February 22, 2015


"You are right, Monsieur. Invade the earth: it belongs to the strong, or the clever, who divide it. You have profited from the times of ignorance, superstition, and madness, to despoil us of our inheritance, and to trample us beneath your feet - to fatten yourselves on the substance of the unfortunate. Only tremble, lest the day of Reason arrive."

Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 - 1778), better know
n by his nom de plume "Voltaire," was the universal mind of the Enlightenment - a philosopher, essayist, poet, dramatist, human rights activist, and historian who dedicated his life to the cause of reason and humanity, and made himself rich, famous, and admired along the way.

As a young man he was educated by the Jesuits at one of the most prestigious schools in France, harbored the unheard-of ambition of making a living with his pen, and was very nearly shipped off to Canada by his alarmed father. His plays were a success, but he was too witty for his own good. After one sharp comment too many, an outraged nobleman had his goons beat him up. "Don't hit him in the head, he is supposed to have said - "something good may yet come of that." When Voltaire recovered he determined to fight a duel, but before he could track down his nemesis he was arrested and exiled to Britain. (1726)

There he found a rational, tolerant, and free people whose example profoundly influenced him. The French, he said, were still stuck in the muddle of theology and metaphysics, while the British were making steam engines, discovering the laws of gravity, and filling the world with their commerce. He approved also of British aristocrats who owned mines, factories, and trading companies, while their French counterparts scorned work, and were forbidden by law to do it. (Letters from the English Nation, 1733)

When his friends assured him it was safe, he returned to France, settled on an estate near the Rhine border (just in case), and fell in love with the remarkable Emile de Breteuil - a powerful intellectual in her own right, whom contemporaries called "Madame Newton." When she died during childbirth (1749) he was devastated. After adventures in the court of Fredrick the Great, involving financial legerdemain and the theft of some of Fredrick's atrocious poetry, he bought land on both sides of the Franco-Swiss border and moved there. (1758) When the Catholic theologians in France wanted him arrested, he said, he could move to the Swiss side - when he was in trouble with the Swiss Protestants, he could move to the French. His plays and shrewd investments had long since made him rich, and he ran the estate with such humanity and efficiency that many peasants petitioned him for the privilege of working his land. From this citadel he wanted a tireless letter and essay writing campaign against the forces of intolerance, superstition, and cruelty.

  In his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1755), and later Candide (1759), Voltaire ridiculed the optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Leibnitz, who had argued, like Alexander Pope, that "God had made the best of all possible worlds." He insisted that unmerited suffering is real, and a real evil. It cannot be explained away with cheap platitudes, philosophical or theological. The only worthwhile philosophy is the kind that takes practical steps to alleviate that suffering, though even in this there must be moderation.

In his History of Charles XII (1731) and Age of Louis XIV (1751) he argued that history should not honor the memory of monarchs simply because they excelled in slaughter, but should instead focus on the achievements of arts, letters, philosophy, and the institutions that make a country great. "The goal of this work," he said, "is not to know the exact year in which the brutal ruler of a barbaric people was succeeded by a prince unworthy of being known." The true spirit of history is to record the progress of reason in the face of its implacable foes, violence and superstition.

Like most 18th century intellectuals, Voltaire was a Deist. He believed that the order inherent in the world compels belief in God, but not the God of this or that sect. It is ridiculous, he said, to imagine that God has specially favored any one people with his exclusive patronage, as it is also absurd to suggest that he has to continually intervene in their affairs to ensure that his plans do not go awry. He ridiculed the bible as a pack of pernicious lies and silly fables, denounced priests as swindlers, and, after the Calas affair (1762), began to sign his letters "Crush the Infamy!" (i.e. religious intolerance.) Though he was a foe of the Catholic church all his life, when the Jesuits were expelled from France by royal decree he sheltered them on his estates, and helped them find homes in other countries. He was similarly critical of atheism, which, he said (agreeing with the theologians for once) undermined morality, and sanctioned the right of the strong to do what they will. "Atheism cannot do any good," he wrote to a friend, "and superstition does an infinity of evils. Save yourself from both of these abysses."

  In 1778 Louis XVI invited him to return to Paris and see his plays performed at the royal theatre. Crowds swarmed his carriage wherever he went, and he could hardly ever a room without receiving thunderous standing ovations. All Parisian society had long since begun to call him "The Patriarch." He died during his triumphal return, old and full of years, crowned with laurels, surrounded by friends and admirers, and on the eve of a revolution that would remake Europe forever.

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment (V of XVII)

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