Tuesday, November 21, 2006


"When truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise. There has never been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon." -- Voltaire.

One of the key figures of the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire was known and admired throughout Europe by such diverse figures as Bolingbroke, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin and James Boswell as France's great philosopher, satirist and wit. At the same time, he lived the life of a revolutionary for much of his career, spending years in exile and months inside the Bastille for sedition, waging a running battle with the Catholic church and settling in a French border town (Ferney, near Switzerland) so that he could escape the country easily in the event of another state crackdown. As he himself put it, "Philosophers should always have two or three underground holes in case of dogs hunting them."

As to his "philosophy," Voltaire never developed a systematic political theory, but rather he popularized, through poems, plays and essays, what he viewed as enlightened thinking -- characterized by a rational, scientific approach to political matters and technological progress, condemnation of superstition, and an uncompromising devotion to freedom of thought, speech and religion.

Born Francois-Marie Arouet on this day in 1694 in Paris, his father was a conventional bureaucrat who sent him to a Jesuit college (where he learned "Latin and nonsense" as he put it), but Voltaire's earliest intellectual guidance came from his godfather, the free-thinking Abbe de Chateauneuf, who introduced him to scientific skepticism. Voltaire, although educated to practice law, settled down to write plays and poems in a writing style that was brutally logical, trenchant and almost always bitingly humorous, and became the light of Paris society.

In 1717, however, he was falsely accused of lampooning the regent, and was thrown into the Bastille for a year. While there, he wrote his first play, Oedipe (1718) which was hugely successful, as well as an epic poem about Henry IV called the Henriade. Henry IV, as well as Louis XIV (about whose reign Voltaire later wrote in Le Siecle de Louis XIV, 1751), represented Voltaire's ideal of the enlightened despot, an absolute ruler who promoted rational discourse, kept the clergy in its place, and promoted religious tolerance; political liberty, in Voltaire's view, was not necessary if the king is enlightened.

Almost as instantly as his success took hold in France, he was forced into the Bastille again and into exile due to a quarrel with an important French family. He went to England in 1726, mixed in the intellectual society of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, learned English so that he could read and study Shakespeare, John Locke and Isaac Newton in their native tongue, and developed a great admiration for the religious tolerance and freedom of speech practiced there.

He returned to France 3 years later, consolidated the fortune he had begun to amass through the success of his writings and wise investments, and wrote works popularizing the Empiricism of Locke (Lettres philosophiques, 1734) and the scientific principles of Newton (Elements de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), who became his intellectual heroes. Fleeing a warrant for his arrest for sedition in 1734, he took refuge at the country chateau of Madame du Chatelet, a well-read woman with a passion for metaphysics and science, with whom he enjoyed his longest relationship despite the fact that she was married.

During another period of exile Voltaire answered the invitation of the newly-crowned king of Prussia, Frederick II (the Great), to join him in his court at Potsdam. Frederick collected Voltaire almost as he would have collected a painting, for his sparkling wit at court and literary achievements, but their relations became strained as the Prussians treated Voltaire as a demi-god of sorts, and Voltaire soon departed. Nevertheless, they remained friends after Voltaire left.

In the 1750s, Voltaire began to write stories, including Micromegas (1752), arguably the first story in which the Earth is visited by alien beings from another planet. In 1758, Voltaire wrote his masterpiece, Candide (about a Romantic philosopher who experiences a conversion to science and rationalism after suffering misfortune), in response to the "anti-rational," Romantic positions of his intellectual enemy Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire assumed the role of activist during the infamous Calais Affair in 1762, in which a Protestant shopkeeper was brutally tortured and executed for murder following the suicide of his son, who was despondent over not being allowed to practice his trade due to his religion. The incident was fertile ground for Voltaire's critique of Catholicism, but he also became personally involved in the matter, conducting his own investigation into the matter, paying expenses for a new inquest and providing financial support to the widow.

When Voltaire died on May 30, 1778, crowds gathered in mourning outside his Paris apartment; and although the Catholic church attempted to deprive him of a Christian burial, some local church officials defied the church and provided him with one anyway at the Abbey of Seillieres. After the French Revolution, Voltaire was again declared a hero and his remains were moved to a position of honor in the Pantheon in Paris.

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