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Voltaire and Enlightenment

Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet) was one of the most prolific and controversial writers of ancien regime France, and his works encapsulate the spirit and ideology of the French Enlightenment. His writings, which span a broad spectrum of genres, do not readily provide the reader with a single, coherent philosophical system or even a systematically argued world-view. In fact, Voltaire deeply mistrusted systems and system-builders, and he frequently satirized, particularly in his later years, the terminology and theories of metaphysicians such as Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz and Wolff.

(Besterman, 78-84) He wrote mostly, though not exclusively, as a philosophe rather than as a philosopher, that is to say, as a dissident polemicist concerned more with persuasive forms of discourse, and the effective advancement of a programme of moral and political reform, than with the pursuit of abstract speculation and analysis per se. Some aspects of his philosophical thinking are conducted at an arguably superficial level in the form of short, satirical tales.

The term ‘philosopher’, in its post-nineteenth-century sense, thus sits uneasily with Voltaire. (Davidson, 45-57) Had he known about the modern meaning of the term, he would have dissociated himself from it. He remained deeply skeptical about the mission of philosophy, and the absurdity of metaphysics is a striking leitmotif of his writings. In 1726, as the result of a scandal, Voltaire was exiled from Paris, and decided to go to London where he stayed until 1728.

His stay in England enabled him to engage with the Baconian tradition of English empiricism and to familiarize himself with the work of Locke, Hobbes, Newton, Clarke, Berkeley, Collins and others. (Bird, 124-133) The impact of England on his thinking resulted in 1734 in the publication of the Lettres philosophiques, composed originally in English as the Letters concerning the English Nation. In 1734 he also started work on another important fruit of the English experience, the Traite de metaphysique.

(Besterman, 78-84) This is one of the few Voltairean treatises to contain sustained, relatively sophisticated, philosophical argument and analysis. Between his earliest writings on philosophical matters in 1734 and those works that appeared after 1755, his position changed from one of qualified deistic providentialism and belief in a logically ordered creation, whose harmony had been convincingly demonstrated by Newton’s mathematical principles, to one of uncompromising rejection of providentialism and philosophical optimism.

Voltaire has few claims to originality as an abstract thinker. As his commentaries in the Lettres philosophiques on the work of Francis Bacon, Locke and above all Newton show, he excels in the art of exposition and vulgarization. (Davidson, 45-57) As a result, he occupies a uniquely influential position as a mediator and disseminator of English and German seventeenth-century philosophy in a France that was to remain dominated by Cartesianism until well into the 1740s. Newton and Locke, in particular, enter the French consciousness through Voltaire’s pen.

(Pearson, 65-82) While still in his school days, he became a member of the cultivated, freethinking, epicurean, and rather debauched “Society of the Temple. ” Resisting his father’s efforts to make him a lawyer, he insisted that he would be a poet. Soon his biting verses mocking those in high places had earned for him several brief exiles from Paris and, in 1717, an eleven-month sojourn in the Bastille. He emerged from prison with a finished draft of Oedipus , the first of the more than fifty plays he was to write during his lifetime.

Some of these plays were failures, others were spectacular successes on the contemporary stage, but none has survived the test of time. (Knapp, 91-106) Although they are interesting in their frequently exotic settings, their use of characters from French history, and their introduction of some of the elements of the less formal English drama upon the rigorously defined classical stage of France, it is for their historic interest rather than their literary or dramatic merit that they are read today. (Bird, 124-133)

A few years later, following another brief term in prison, a three-year exile in England brought Francois-Marie, who by this time had changed his name to Arouet de Voltaire, into the society of such men as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay and into contact with the ideas of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. As a result of this sojourn, much of the intellectual activity of Voltaire’s most productive period was devoted to synthesizing the two streams of rationalistic, freethinking ideas, French and English.

Voltaire returned to France with his deism and skepticism strengthened and with a strong desire to cultivate liberal thought in his homeland. (Davidson, 45-57) One of his first weapons in this cause was the Philosophical Letters , which, in characteristically brief, epigrammatic sentences, described the political liberty, religious tolerance, and commercial enterprise of the British, contrasting them with conditions in France.

When this volume was published, its implied criticism of French law, religion, and institutions incurred royal wrath, which forced Voltaire to flee Paris and take up residence with various wealthy sponsors in the provinces. (Pearson, 65-82) At the home of one of these sponsors, Voltaire met the Marquise du Chatelet, the brilliant and learned woman who was to be his mistress and intellectual companion for fifteen years.

The years he spent with her at Cirey were fruitful ones of intellectual development and consolidation. During that time he was appointed royal historiographer, was elected to the French Academy, wrote numerous plays, worked on several volumes of historical criticism—including the rationalistic, freethinking General History and State of Europe (also known as Essay on Manners), which was not published until 1754, and published the tale Zadig in 1747.

(Knapp, 91-106) After the Marquise du Chatelet’s death in 1749, Voltaire spent three years at the court of his great admirer and patron, Frederick the Great of Prussia, years which had been intended for the creation in reality of the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king but which were marked by increasingly bitter quarrels and disillusionment. (Besterman, 78-84) Upon his return to France, Voltaire, grown rich from writings, pensions, and shrewd business ventures, purchased and settled on a great estate at Ferney, conveniently close to the Swiss border.

It was during his life there that his A Treatise on Religious Toleration was written and the first volume of the Philosophical Dictionary, a work which epitomized Voltaire’s rationalism and his universal interests, was published. At Ferney he wrote articles for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie and dedicated himself to the extirpation of “L’Infame,” the intolerance and superstition which he believed to be the inevitable accompaniment of organized religion.

(Bird, 124-133) In the midst of numerous sustained interests and activities, he spent three days writing Candide , the work for which he is best remembered. In Candide: Or, The Optimist , the fantastically improbable travels, adventures, and misfortunes of the young Candide, his fiance Cunegonde, and his tutor Pangloss are recounted in a terse, dry, understated style.

Voltaire, never an unqualified optimist, and progressively disillusioned by his mistress’s death, the failure of his schemes for Frederick the Great, the gratuitous horror and suffering of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and his acquaintance with the universal folly and wickedness of humankind derived from his wide reading, makes his exaggerated adventure tale an ironic attack on the optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Pope, who contended that this was “the best of all possible worlds.

” (Davidson, 45-57) By endowing his characters initially with a good fortune and every prospect for happiness, and then leading them through every conceivable misfortune into resigned old age, Voltaire makes the point that only by taking life as it comes and avoiding theoretical speculation about its meaning can one ward off despair. Richly spiced with a wit and humor which are as fresh today as when they were created, Candide is nevertheless the thoughtful and embittered product of a mind more concerned with communicating an idea than with skillful characterization or pure entertainment.

(Bird, 124-133) Early in 1778 Voltaire entered Paris in triumph to oversee the production of his latest play, Irene. There, in his hour of greatest glory, he died on May 30. The man whose clear, direct style made him the greatest spokesman for the anticlerical and rationalistic ideas of the Enlightenment, had died “in a state of sin,” and his body had to be smuggled out of Paris at night to prevent its ignominious burial in a common ditch. Conclusion

He strongly believed that universal ethical principles were inherent in natural law and that the merit of human laws was determined by the extent to which they reflected such just and humane standards. Even though all religions derived from a universal rational source, the teachings of theologians and priests distorted the common truth, divided humanity, and perpetuated intolerance. Only under the guidance of enlightened thinkers who rose above superstition and prejudice could a rational morality be cultivated that would bring about human brotherhood.

In practice, Voltaire promoted a social ethic that was conducive to the harmonious interest of the entire society. In pursuing this goal, he was quite willing to accept socially useful beliefs that he personally rejected. Thus, he held that, even though the deity probably did not concern himself with human affairs, it was good for the people to believe that there are rewards and punishments for human actions. Among his deepest concerns was the happiness of the individual in society.

In Candide , he satirized the view that this is the best of all possible worlds, but he nevertheless imagined that in time reason and enlightenment would lessen superstition and fanaticism and bring about a more harmonious social order. To this end, Voltaire remained a passionate advocate of individuals who had been denied justice, especially by the power of the Church, and of judicial reform.

Works Cited

Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, 78-84 Bird, Stephen. Reinventing Voltaire: The Politics of Commemoration in Nineteenth Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2000, 124-133 Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile. New York: Grove Press, 2005, 45-57 Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz. Voltaire Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000, 91-106 Pearson, Roger. Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom. London: Bloomsbury, 2005, 65-82

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