Voltaire, whose real name was Francois-Marie d’Arouet, was born in 1694 in Paris of well-off, educated parents. His father was an official in Louis XIV’s court. Voltaire was a freethinking individual, who believed in liberal policies and the right of every individual to enjoy personal liberty.
Voltaire was a great disseminator of scientific ideas and material, and was enthusiastic about the science of Sir Isaac Newton. He supported Newton in his stance against the philosopher Descartes.
The debates and arguments caused a great divide in the thinking of the French philosophers. Voltaire also acknowledged and approved the theories of John Locke on Empiricism.
His key philosophical works were Lettres Philosophique, Dictionaire Philosophique, and the satirical novel Candide.
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A Vexatious and Confrontational Intellect
Voltaire seems to have had a number of issues with his fellow philosophers, and he was always, by nature, confrontational.
Voltaire was a playwright who adored the theatre, over which he quarrelled repeatedly with Rousseau when the Puritans banned drama in Geneva. Rousseau claimed that only savages acted in plays and pointed out that Plato disapproved of them. Furthermore, the Catholic Church objected to marrying or burying actors!
Rousseau called the drama “a school of concupiscence,” quotes Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy. As a result, the two eminent philosophers were at loggerheads over this – as well as various other political and religious issues.
When Rousseau wrote an essay concluding that man is naturally good when left to his own devices, and “at peace with all nature, and the friend of all his fellow-creatures,” he sent the piece to Voltaire, who responded with a scathing critique.
Bertrand Russell quotes Voltaire’s critique:
“I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, when reading your book, to walk on all fours.”
Voltaire was a deist, and studied with the Jesuits, although, claims Jeremy Harwood in “Voltaire,” 100 Great Thinkers,
“…he later claimed to have learned nothing from them but ‘Latin and the Stupidities.’”
Criticism of “Philosophical Romances”
Voltaire attacked the supreme philosophical intellectual, Gottfried Leibniz, as Harwood explained, “...for what he saw as his fatuous philosophical optimism.”
Voltaire is well-known for his famous work, Candide, whose central protagonist, despite numerous hardships and ordeals, believed that we lived in “…the best of all possible worlds.” However, as Bertrand Russell points out in “Leibniz” in his History of Western Philosophy:
“It was the popular Leibniz who invented the doctrine that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’” and, in fact, Voltaire caricatured Leibniz as Doctor Pangloss in the book. (Leibniz lived from 1646-1716 so he was Voltaire’s elder contemporary.)
The novel Candide is a satire on the philosophical romances of the time – “in other words, philosophical explanations that, although supposedly systematic, ultimate overcame doubts only by appealing to the human imagination.” This, then, was his argument with Leibniz, the doctrine that a rational God created the world and that it was “the best of all possible worlds.”
Rather, says Harwood, Voltaire believed that “often the most philosophical explanation is to offer no explanation at all.”
The Persecution of Voltaire
Voltaire’s unfortunate habit of falling out with a number of the giants of the Enlightenment, vexed the establishment, resulting in his persecution. He believed in God, but attacked religious superstition with a zeal that riled the authorities, “…religion does not consist either in the opinion of an unintelligible metaphysic, or in vain display,” quotes Harwood. Rather, Voltaire upheld the notions of worship and justice over what he regarded as the trappings of religious superstition.
Constantly, he denounced the authorities, calling for reforms and making more enemies. In spite of this, he continued to follow his rationalist ideas and his denouncements of bigotry and intolerance throughout his long life.
Legacy of Voltaire
Statements by Voltaire challenged the people and authorities who lived in the time of the Enlightenment, including, for some time, Frederick the Great of Prussia. Many of these quotations seem as relevant today as they were in his time, for example, as Richard Dawkins quotes in The God Delusion:
“Voltaire got it right long ago. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
In the beginning of his essay in Literature in the Modern World, Asa Briggs quotes Voltaire: “Before you can rectify the disorders of a state, you must examine the character of the people.”
Four pages on, Briggs has turned the argument on its head:
“There have been signs in recent years of an increasing challenge to such interpretations of history, reflecting social and cultural as well as economic and political changes… and in such circumstances, Voltaire’s dictum has in effect been modified to read: ‘Before you can rectify the character of a state, you must examine the disorders of the people.’”
Voltaire is not widely regarded as an original philosopher. Nevertheless, he was one of the most important central figures of the “Age of Reason” and was committed to spreading the news of these new and exciting theories. His belief in the right to personal liberty and the freedom of the individual, and his denouncement of what he saw as abuse of power by the elite, had enormous influence for future generations.
Today, his work and theories continue to challenge us.
According to the website of The European Graduate School, the name “Voltaire” was a nom-de-plume adopted by the philosopher after a spell in the Bastille, one of his many imprisonments due to his views on religious intolerance.
Francois-Marie d’Arouet, or Voltaire, died in his sleep in 1778.