Go get 'em boy.
Here we are again, with yet another writer who's got a philosophical bent. Last week it was Montesquieu. This time, it's Voltaire. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Voltaire was not a philosopher at all in the modern sense of the term. He wrote as many plays, stories, and poems as patently philosophical tracts, and he in fact directed many of his critical writings against the philosophical pretensions of recognized philosophers such as Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes." Well, if you remember my recent essays, you'll know I've got no problems critiquing Leibniz and Descartes. And I just looked at the wiki entry for Malebranch and saw "he sought to synthesize the thought of St. Augustine and Descartes, in order to demonstrate the active role of God in every aspect of the world." He's best known for his doctrine of Occasionalism, which "says that created substances cannot be efficient causes of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God." With philosophers like these out and about, who would have wanted to be a philosopher??
Circumstances though forced the young Voltaire (not called that at the time) to compare and contrast the belief systems that governed his country with those of post-revolution England. In 1726, Voltaire "responded to an insult from the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, whose servants beat him a few days later. The aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. This warrant caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial and without an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted. Voltaire's exile in Great Britain lasted nearly three years, and his experiences there greatly influenced his thinking. He was intrigued by Britain's constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, and by the country's greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion." It was then that Voltaire might have realised,
It is better to risk sparing a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.
To hold a pen is to be at war.
It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.
Even after his exile, Voltaire continued to have "trouble with the authorities for even mild critiques of the government and religious intolerance. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Régent led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation."
So, there's that to be said about being sent to prison for your writing. But perhaps this is also why Voltaire used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime. The name Voltaire, which "the author adopted in 1718, is an anagram of "AROVET LI," the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of le jeune (the young). The name also echoes in reverse order the syllables of the name of a family château: Airvault." Additionally, "a writer such as Voltaire would have intended it to convey its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associations with words such as voltige (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), volte-face (a spinning about to face one's enemies), and volatile (originally, any winged creature)." I can remember reading about this pen name when I read Candide as a teenager and thinking, what would my pen name be? I still don't have an answer to that, but isn't it great that I don't have to? It's great—to be cognizant of it once again—because of people like Voltaire.
And while he was "the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history," and he "pointed modern philosophy down several paths that it subsequently followed," Voltaire is best known for his many memorable aphorisms. So let's hear some of the best ones before we take him up on this quote:
We should be considerate to the living; to the dead we owe only the truth.
and examine the philosophical positions he did espouse and speak the truth about how these ideas fare in the survival of the fittest philosophers.
It is sad that often, to be a good patriot, one must be the enemy of the rest of mankind.
Men can only bear light to come in upon them by degrees.
Opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours.
Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.
We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.
To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.
Use, do not abuse; as the wise man commands. Neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy.
Love truth, but pardon error.
Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.
It is with books as with the fire in our hearths; we go to a neighbor to get the embers and light it when we return home, pass it on to others, and it belongs to everyone.
Voltaire (1694-1778 CE) was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade, and separation of church and state.
Voltaire’s best-known work, Candide, attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz's philosophy of optimism. Yes. The universe is not perfect - it is uncaring and will crush us if we let it. We must progress and remain vigilant to survive.
Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights – the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion. We owe a great debt to history’s courageous polemicists. May their example be followed. Fair trials and freedom of belief are necessary in virtuous societies. And the church must be kept separate from the functions of the state - chief among these, the education of its citizens.
Needs to Adapt
Like many other key figures during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a deist. According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or "the Supreme Architect") does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. No evidence for supernatural intervention has ever been found so it is right to dismiss this with great certainty. As we have little understanding for how the universe came to be - why there is something rather than nothing - a belief in a supreme architect is hard to suppress. Now that much of the history of the universe is understood though, the blindness and cruelty of extinction would imply either a blind god or a cruel god. If such a god did exist, it would be better to ignore it and plot against it.
Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force useful only as a counterbalance since its "religious tax," the tithe, helped to create a strong backing for revolutionaries. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Voltaire long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king's rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. An enlightened monarchy is better than an ignorant democracy. Given the state of the world and the lack of better examples, Voltaire’s analysis and resulting recommendations were good steps towards a better society. However, we see that the beauty of democracy lies in its ability to evolve through meritocratic trial and error, and in the example it sets for cooperation, while monarchies become static without the spur of competition to urge it on, and rigid in its insistence on hierarchy. Democracy was the better path.