Voltaire (Paris, Nov. 21, 1694 – Paris, May 30, 1778) was a French philosopher, playwright, historian, writer, poet, aphorist, encyclopedist, fairy tale author, novelist and essayist.
Voltaire’s name is linked to the cultural movement of the Enlightenment, of which he was one of the leading animators and exponents along with Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach and du Châtelet, all of whom gravitated around the Encyclopédie milieu. Voltaire’s vast literary output is characterized by irony, clarity of style, vivid tone, and polemic against injustice and superstition. i.e., a follower of natural religion that sees divinity as alien to the world and history, but a skeptic, strongly anticlerical, and secularist, Voltaire is considered one of the main inspirers of modern rationalist and nonreligious thought.
Voltaire’s ideas and works, as well as those of the other Enlightenment thinkers, inspired and influenced a great many contemporary and later thinkers, politicians, and intellectuals, and they are still popular today. In particular, they influenced protagonists of the American Revolution, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and of the French Revolution, such as Jean Sylvain Bailly (who kept up a fruitful correspondence in correspondence with Voltaire), Condorcet (also an encyclopedist), and to some extent Robespierre, as well as many other philosophers such as Cesare Beccaria, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
François-Marie Arouet was born on February 21, 1694 in Paris into a family belonging to the wealthy bourgeoisie. As the thinker himself argued on several occasions, the date of birth reported to us by the baptismal records-which place him on November 22 and state that the future writer was born the day before-may be false: due to serious health problems, the baptism would in fact be postponed for as many as nine months; in fact, he claimed to have been born on February 20, 1694. Since, however, practice dictates that in case of danger to the child, baptism should be given immediately, it must be assumed that if delay there was it was due to other reasons. His father François Arouet (d. 1722), a lawyer, was also a wealthy notary, conseiller du roi, high tax official, and a fervent Jansenist, while his mother, Marie Marguerite d’Aumart (1660-1701), belonged to a family close to the nobility. Her older brother Armand (1685-1765), a lawyer in the Parliament and later his father’s successor as receveur des épices, was very much in the Jansenist milieu at the time of the faction against the Unigenitus Bull and Deacon Pâris. His sister, Marie Arouet (1686-1726), the only person in the family who was fond of Voltaire, married Pierre François Mignot, a corrector at the Chambre des comptes, and was the mother of Abbot Mignot, who played an important role in Voltaire’s death, and Marie Louise, the future Madame Denis, who would share part of the writer’s life.
Originally from Haut Poitou, specifically Saint-Loup, a small town located in what is now the Deux-Sèvres department, François moved to Paris in 1675 and married in 1683. Voltaire was the last of five children: however, the eldest son Armand-François died while still a baby in 1684, and the same fate befell his brother Robert five years later. The aforementioned Armand saw the light in 1685, while the only female, Marguerite-Catherine, was born in 1686. Voltaire lost his mother when he was only 7 years old, and was raised by his father with whom he would always have a very contentious relationship.
In October 1704 he entered the renowned Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand. During this period the young Voltaire showed a marked inclination for humanistic studies, especially rhetoric and philosophy. Although destined to be highly critical of the Jesuits, Voltaire was able to benefit from the intense intellectual life of the college. His love of letters was fostered in particular by two teachers. Towards Father René-Joseph de Tournemine, the erudite editor of the Jesuits’ main newspaper-the Mémoires de Trévoux-with whom he would have some disagreements on matters of religious orthodoxy, he always nurtured gratitude and esteem. With rhetoric professor Father Charles Porée, the teenager formed an even more intense and equally enduring friendship; the clergyman, who was the teacher of such distinguished thinkers as Helvétius and Diderot, was also very active in the literary sphere. Porée dismissed an extensive output of poems, oratorios, essays and theatrical canovacci, the latter of which he staged at the College itself, where his great interest in theater immediately brought Voltaire into contact with an art he would practice throughout his career. A few months before his death, at about age 85, the famous courtesan and patroness of the arts, Ninon de Lenclos, had the young Arouet, then about 11 years old and impressed by his abilities, introduced to her, in her will left him 2,000 lire tornes (the equivalent of €7800 in 2008) so that he could buy books for himself (in fact, at the beginning of the 18th century, as Marshal Vauban notes in the Dîme royale, a simple day laborer earned less than 300 lire a year).
At boarding school he attained a thorough knowledge of Latin, through reading authors such as Virgil, Horace, Lucan, and Cicero; in contrast, very little or perhaps none at all was taught in Greek. Throughout his life he would study and speak fluently three modern languages in addition to French: English, Italian and, to a lesser extent, Spanish, which he would use in many letters with foreign correspondents.
In 1711 he left boarding school and enrolled, at his father’s behest, in law school, which, however, he would leave after only four months with firm and determined disgust, since he had never expressed any desire to be a lawyer. During these years the relationship with his father soured greatly, who resented his poetic vocation and his constant dealings with libertine philosophical circles, such as the Societé du Temple in Paris. Indicative of this is the fact that Voltaire boasted (rightly or wrongly) that he was an illegitimate son. In 1713 he worked as a secretary at the French Embassy in The Hague, then returned to Paris to serve as a notary’s clerk, in an attempt to respectfully pay homage to the footsteps of his much-hated father; in fact he wished to remove himself from the heavy influence of his parent, whom in fact he repudiated after a short time, and began to write articles and verses harsh and caustic toward the constituted authorities.
Persecutions and exile in England (1716-1728)
His highly polemical writings found immediate success in the aristocratic salons; in 1716 this cost him exile in Tulle and Sully-sur-Loire; some satirical verses, in 1717, against the regent of France, Philip of Orleans, who ruled in the name of the very young Louis XV, and against his daughter, the Duchess of Berry, caused his arrest and imprisonment in the Bastille, then another period of confinement in Chatenay. Upon his father’s death in 1722, the judicious investment of his father’s inheritance shielded Voltaire forever from financial worries, allowing him to live with some breadth. Instead, the publication of the 1723 poem La Ligue, written during his imprisonment, won the young king a court pension. The work, dedicated to King Henry IV of France, who was judged a champion of religious tolerance in contrast to the obscurantist and intolerant Louis XIV (who had disagreements with the Pope but revoked the Edict of Nantes and returned to persecution against Huguenots and Jansenists), would be published again under the title Enriad in 1728. The favor he was immediately shown by the nobles of France did not last long: again because of his biting writings, he quarreled with the aristocrat Guy-Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, knight of Rohan, who had mockingly apostrophized him at a theater. The following day Rohan had him assaulted and battered by his servants, armed with sticks, and then scornfully refused a duel to right the wrong, proposed by the young poet. Voltaire’s protests only served him to be imprisoned again, thanks to a lettre de cachet, i.e., a blank order of arrest (it was up to the person in possession of the document to add the name of the person to be hit) obtained from his rival’s family and signed by Philip of Orleans. After a brief period in exile outside Paris, Voltaire, under threat of arrest again, was forced to emigrate to England (1726-1729). In Britain, thanks to his acquaintance with men of liberal culture, writers and philosophers such as Robert Walpole, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and George Berkeley, he matured Enlightenment ideas opposed to the feudal absolutism of France.
From 1726 to 1728 he lived in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, at the place now commemorated by a plaque at No. 10. Voltaire’s exile in Britain lasted three years, and this experience strongly influenced his thinking. He was attracted to constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, and to a greater possibility of freedoms of speech and religion, and the right of habeas corpus. He was influenced by several neoclassical writers of the time, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, still relatively unknown in continental Europe. Although he emphasized his deviations from neoclassical standards, Voltaire saw Shakespeare as an example that French writers could emulate, since French drama, judged to be more polished, lacked onstage action. Later, however, as Shakespeare’s influence grew in France, Voltaire sought to counter this with his own works, denouncing what he considered “Shakespearean barbarism.” In England, he was present at Isaac Newton’s funeral, and praised the English for honoring a scientist considered a heretic with burial in Westminster Abbey.
After nearly three years of exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views towards the British government, literature and religion in a collection of essays, the English Letters (or Philosophical Letters), published in 1734 and for which he was again condemned, as harshly critical against the ancien régime and anti-dogmatic. In the work, Voltaire regards the English monarchy – constitutional, arising in an accomplished manner from the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – as more developed and more respectful of human rights (especially religious toleration) than its French counterpart regime.
During his exile in England he assumed the pseudonym “Arouet de Voltaire” (already used, however, as a signature in 1719), later shortened to Voltaire, to separate his name from his father’s and avoid confusion with poets with similar names. The use of the pseudonym was widespread in theatrical circles, as it was already in Molière’s time, but the origin of the nom de plume is uncertain and a source of debate; the most likely hypotheses are:
Back in France (1728-1749): the relationship with Châtelet
Forced still into exile in Lorraine (because of the 1731 work History of Charles XII), he wrote the tragedies Brutus and The Death of Caesar, which were followed by Muhammad or Fanaticism, which he wanted to polemically dedicate to Pope Benedict XIV, Merope, and the popular science treatise Elements of Newton’s Philosophy. During this period he began an affair with the married noblewoman Madame du Châtelet, who hid him in her country house in Cirey, Champagne. In the Chatelet’s library of 21,000 volumes, Voltaire and his companion studied Newton and Leibniz. Having built on his previous friction with the authorities, Voltaire also began to publish anonymously to stay out of harm’s way, denying any responsibility for being the author of compromising books. He continued to write for the theater, and began extensive research in the sciences and history. Once again, Voltaire’s main source of inspiration was his years of English exile, during which he had been strongly influenced by Newton’s works. Voltaire believed strongly in Newton’s theories, particularly with regard to optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colors of the spectrum led Voltaire to many experiments at Cirey) and gravity (Voltaire is the source of the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree, which he had learned from Newton’s nephew in London: he mentions it in his Essay on Epic Poetry). In the fall of 1735, Voltaire was visited by Francesco Algarotti, who was preparing a book on Newton.
In 1736 Frederick of Prussia began writing letters to Voltaire. Two years later Voltaire lived for a time in the Netherlands and met Herman Boerhaave. In the first half of 1740 Voltaire instead lived in Brussels and met with Lord Chesterfield. He met the bookseller and publisher Jan Van Duren, whom he would later come to symbolize as the quintessential con man, to take charge of the publication of the Anti-Machiavel, written by the Prussian crown prince. Voltaire lived in the Huis Honselaarsdijk, belonging to his admirer. In September Frederick II, who ascended the throne, met Voltaire for the first time at Moyland Castle near Cleve, and in November Voltaire went to Rheinsberg Castle for two weeks. In August 1742 Voltaire and Frederick met in Aix-la-Chapelle. The philosopher was then sent to Sanssouci by the French government as ambassador to find out more about Frederick’s plans after the First Silesian War.
Frederick became suspicious and had him arrested and released after a short time; however, he would continue to write letters to him once the misunderstanding was cleared up. Thanks to his rapprochement with the court, aided by his friendship with Madame de Pompadour, the favorite of King Louis XV, who was also Diderot’s protégé, he was appointed historiographer and member of the Académie Française in 1746, as well as Gentleman of the King’s Chamber; but Voltaire, while appreciated by part of the nobility, did not at all meet with the absolute ruler’s benevolence: so, once again broken with the court of Versailles (which he attended for about two years), he would end up accepting an invitation to Berlin from the King of Prussia, who considered him his teacher. The same span of years was privately painful for the philosopher: after a long and fluctuating affair, between comebacks and betrayals in the couple, Châtelet left him for the poet Saint-Lambert, and Voltaire responded by beginning an affair with his niece Madame Denis (1712-1790), a widow whom he had tried to marry in the past, according to aristocratic customs of the time, approved by the Church and fashionable even in the bourgeoisie, which did not consider an uncle-niece bond incestuous. The relationship with Madame Denis was brief, although they would cohabit platonically until her death. Moreover, when, in 1749, Madame du Châtelet, who had remained on good terms with the writer, died of complications related to childbirth, giving birth to Saint-Lambert’s daughter (who died at birth), Voltaire attended her and was greatly affected by her death, calling her in a letter his soul mate. Shortly after Émilie’s death, Voltaire wrote to a friend, “je n’ai pas perdu une maîtresse mais la moitié de moi-même. Un esprit pour lequel le mien semblait avoir été fait” (“I have not lost a lover but half of myself. A soul for whom mine seemed to be made”).
In Prussia and Switzerland (1749-1755)
Leaving France, he then sojourned in Berlin from 1749 to 1752, the guest of Frederick II, who admired him, considering himself his disciple Because of some financial speculation, in which the writer was very skilled, as well as his constant verbal attacks on the scientist Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who could not stand him, but who presided over the Berlin Academy, and some differences of ideas about the government of Prussia, Voltaire quarreled with the ruler and left Prussia, but the king had him abusively arrested, briefly, in Frankfurt. After this incident, it would be many years before their relations were pacified, resuming an epistolary correspondence with the ruler after about 10 years. Voltaire then accentuated his commitment against injustice in a particularly active way after his departure from Prussia. Unable to return to Paris because he was declared a person disagreeable to the authorities, he then moved to Geneva, to the mansion Les délices, until he broke with the Calvinist Republic, which he had mistakenly thought was an oasis of tolerance, and repaired in 1755 to Lausanne, then to the castles of Ferney and Tournay, which he had purchased, after lashing out against the politicians of Geneva in angry and harsh words in a letter sent to his friend d’Alembert.
Ferney’s patriarch: Voltaire’s guide to the Enlightenment (1755-1778)
The publication of the tragedy Orestes (1750), considered one of Voltaire’s minor works of theater, completed shortly after he left Prussia, dates from this period. Notably from then on he lived in the small town of Ferney, which would take his name (Ferney-Voltaire). Here he received numerous visits, wrote and corresponded with hundreds of people, who recognized in him the “patriarch” of the Enlightenment.
Among the people who came to visit him in Ferney, in addition to Diderot, Condorcet, and d’Alembert, were James Boswell, Adam Smith, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon. In the same period began the most fruitful phase of Voltaire’s production, which combined Enlightenment and confidence in progress with pessimism due to personal and historical events (first and foremost the disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which undermined the confidence of many philosophes in uncritical optimism). Voltaire dedicates three works to the earthquake: the Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, the Poem on Natural Law (written earlier but revised and appended to the former), and several chapters of Candide.
Voltaire collaborated on Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, in which d’Holbach and Jean-Jacques Rousseau also participated. After a good start, and a partial appreciation of the philosophes for his early works, the latter soon broke away, because of his radical ideas in politics and sentimental views on religion, from the reformism and rationalism of the encyclopedists; moreover, Rousseau did not accept the criticism of his city made by d’Alembert and Voltaire himself in the article “Geneva,” which would again trigger the Swiss authorities against the two philosophers. Voltaire began to regard Rousseau as an enemy of the movement, as well as a person incompatible with his own character (due to the author of the Social Contract’s paranoia and mood swings) and, therefore, to be discredited with his writings as was done with outspoken anti-Enlightenmentists. In a letter to a member of the Geneva Small Council, he would contradict his tolerant and much better-known statements when he called on the rulers of Geneva to condemn Rousseau with the utmost severity.
In fact, Voltaire responded to some attacks directed precisely by Rousseau (who was notoriously litigious and held him guilty of not defending him from censorship), and who instigated the Genevans, in Letters Written from the Mountain, after claiming that Voltaire was the author of the Sermon of Fifty (a scandalous anonymous work denouncing the historical falsity of the Gospel), to strike him directly if they wanted to “chastise the ungodly,” rather than prosecute him themselves.
Although Voltaire himself had offered him hospitality in Ferney after the accusations he suffered for the work Emile, he received several accusations from Rousseau in return, ending in mutual insults.
Voltaire for his part then retaliated with the letter stating that the real “seditious blasphemer” was Rousseau and not him, calling for action with “all the severity of the law,” i.e., banning his “subversive” works, without, however, explicitly stating that he condemned his colleague to capital punishment.
In the pamphlet The Sentiments of Citizens Voltaire, putting it in the mouth of a Calvinist pastor, writes one of the “incriminating” phrases (“it is necessary to teach him that if you punish lightly an ungodly novelist, you punish with death a vile seditionist”) and states that “you pity a madman; but when dementia becomes fury, you bind him. Tolerance, which is a virtue, would in that case be a vice..” He then reveals there some untoward facts of Rousseau’s life, such as the poverty in which he made his wife live, the five children left to the orphanage, and a venereal disease from which he suffered.
Also interesting for this human and intellectual disagreement are the letters exchanged directly between two philosophers: in a missive on Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in controversy with the Genevan’s primitivism, Voltaire wrote to him that “reading your work makes one want to walk on all fours. However, having lost this habit for more than sixty years, it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it.” For his part, mixed feelings were in Rousseau (in 1770 he signed a petition to erect a monument to Voltaire). Already in 1760 Rousseau had attacked Voltaire because of the article on Geneva and for not taking his side in the disagreement with d’Alembert:
In a private letter in 1766 to the secretary of state in Geneva, however, Voltaire denied that he was the author of The Sentiments of Citizens, probably based on confidences of Rousseau’s former friends (Diderot, Madame d’Epinay, Grimm):
Voltaire, during this period, also worked to avoid as much as possible the wars that bloodied Europe. He despised militarism and advocated pacifism and cosmopolitanism; a call for peace is also found in the Treatise on Tolerance. He tried to mediate between France and Frederick II’s Prussia to avoid the Seven Years’ War.
At the same time, however, it must be remembered that in his private life he carried on lucrative and not very honest business precisely in the field of supplies to the army. Wealthy and famous, a point of reference for all of Enlightenment Europe, he entered into controversy with Catholics for his parody of Joan of Arc in The Maid of Orleans, a reissued youth work, and expressed his positions in narrative form in numerous short stories and philosophical novels, the most successful of which is Candide or Optimism (1759), in which he polemicized Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism. The novel remains the most successful literary expression of his thought, opposed to all providentialism or fatalism. Hence began a fierce polemic against superstition and fanaticism in favor of greater tolerance and justice.
In this regard, he wrote the aforementioned Treatise on Tolerance on the occasion of Jean Calas’ death (1763) and the Philosophical Dictionary (1764), among the most important nonfiction works of the period, which also saw continued collaboration with Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. He also devoted himself to numerous pamphlets, often anonymous, against opponents of the Enlightenment. In the case of Jean Calas, he succeeded in securing the posthumous rehabilitation of the executed Protestant merchant, and that of the proscribed and destitute family, going so far as to orient the whole of France against the ruling of the Parliament of Toulouse. In the end, the widow, supported by Voltaire, appealed to the king, even gaining the support of Pompadour, who supported the Calas’ cause in a letter to the philosopher. Louis XV received the Calas in audience; then, he and his Privy Council annulled the judgment and ordered a new inquiry, in which the Toulouse judges were completely disavowed. This fact marked the height of Voltaire’s popularity and influence.
Other works from the long period straddling Prussia and Switzerland include the short stories Zadig (1747), Micromega (1752), The Man of Forty Shields (1767), the plays Zaira (1732), Alzira (1736), Merope (1743), as well as the aforementioned Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756). And finally, the important historiographical works The Century of Louis XIV (1751), written during the Prussian period, and the Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (1756). In one of his last purely philosophical works, Le philosophe ignorant (1766), Voltaire insisted on the limitation of human freedom, which never consists in the absence of any motive or determination.
Return to Paris and triumphant reception (February-May 1778)
His health meanwhile was beginning to decline, and he asked to be allowed to return home. He returned to Paris in early February 1778, after an absence of 28 years, and received a triumphant welcome, except from the court of the new king, Louis XVI, and, of course, from the clergy. On April 7 he entered Freemasonry, in the Lodge of the Nine Sisters. Along with him, his friend Benjamin Franklin was also initiated.
Despite his stubborn rejection, until his death, of the Catholic religion and the Church – Voltaire was a deist – the claim is made that the philosopher converted in extremis to the Christian faith. In proof of Voltaire’s conversion we have a study by Spaniard Carlos Valverde. As his condition worsened, Voltaire lost lucidity, and took heavy doses of opium for pain…. A priest, Gauthier, from the parish of Saint-Sulpice, where Voltaire lived, came to ask him for a confession of faith, so that he would not be buried in deconsecrated ground. The only statement written in his own hand, or dictated to his secretary, was, “I die worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” Gauthier did not consider it sufficient and did not give him absolution, but Voltaire refused to write any more confessions of faith sanctioning his return to Catholicism. In spite of this, documents of dubious authenticity were circulated after his death that would indicate that he signed a profession of faith, signed by Gauthier and his nephew, Abbé Mignot, even this, however, considered insufficient, though more explicit. The confession was considered by some to be either convenient, at the urging of friends, in order to have a dignified burial and funeral, or totally false, as being at odds with his entire life and work.
Other authors have also reported on the alleged authenticity of Voltaire’s conversion and on his relations with Pastor Gauthier.
Voltaire’s conversion in his later days was decisively denied by the Enlightenmentists, particularly the anticlericals, as it was considered to tarnish the image of one of their main inspirers and often not considered sincere even by Catholics. It should also be noted that Diderot also made arrangements with priests before his death so that he could be decently buried, and both were insistently urged on by friends and relatives, although, as we know from documents, at least Diderot was not really converted. The atheist Baron d’Holbach was also buried in a church (next to Diderot himself), having had to keep his ideas hidden during his lifetime in order to circumvent censorship and repression. All these similarities make it likely that these were not true conversions, and that Voltaire did not really return to Catholicism, which was why the Parisian curia vetoed the burial anyway, as he had died without absolution.
Death (May 1778) and posthumous events
The friends’ version tells that, at the point of death, the philosopher still rejected the priest, who was supposed to give consent for the burial, and who invited him to go to confession, asking him to make an explicit declaration of his Catholic faith, which Voltaire instead did not want to do (sensing that he wanted to be used later for propaganda purposes): when asked if he believed in the divinity of Christ, Voltaire replied, “In the name of God, Lord, do not speak to me any more about that man and let me die in peace.”
Voltaire died, probably of prostate cancer from which he would have suffered since 1773, on the evening of May 30, 1778, at the age of about 83, as the Parisian crowd cheered him on under his balcony. The death was kept secret for two days; the body, dressed as if alive and summarily embalmed, was taken out of Paris by carriage, as per arrangements made by Madame Denis with one of her lovers, a prelate who had agreed to the “trick.” His very lavish funeral was officiated by his nephew, the Abbé Mignot, parish priest of Scellières, and in the adjoining convent the writer was buried. The physicians who performed the autopsy removed his brain and heart (reunited years later with the remains at the behest of Napoleon III), perhaps to prevent a “complete” burial, given the order of the archbishop of Paris forbidding Voltaire’s burial in consecrated ground, or perhaps, more likely, so that they could be preserved as secular relics in the capital; they were in fact temporarily buried in the National Library of France and the Comédie Française. If Voltaire had nevertheless died without religious forgiveness, and the Parisian church denied him any honor, all members of the curia where he was buried wanted instead to hold a sung mass in his memory, and numerous ceremonies. Voltaire’s property and substantial estate passed, by will, to Madame Denis and her family, that is, the writer’s grandchildren, as well as to his adopted daughter Reine Philiberte de Varicourt, who had married the Marquis de Villette, in whose Parisian home Voltaire lived out his last days.
Thirteen years after his death, in the midst of the French Revolution, Voltaire’s body was transferred to the Pantheon and buried here on July 11, 1791 at the end of a state funeral of extraordinary proportions in terms of grandeur and theatricality, so much so that even the catafalque – on which a bust of the philosopher was placed – set up to transport his body remained memorable. Voltaire’s remains have rested there ever since. In 1821 he risked exhumation, which had been refused several times before by Napoleon I, because there were many in the Catholic front who considered his presence inside a church intolerable, since the Pantheon had been temporarily reconsecrated. However, King Louis XVIII did not consider it necessary because “… il est bien assez puni d’avoir à entendre la messe tous les jours.” (i.e., “he is already punished enough by having to listen to Mass every day”). The tomb is close to that of the other great Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire’s rival, who died a little less than a month later (on July 4), often made the target until the end of satire and invective, but nonetheless joined him in posthumous glory, being moved to the Pantheon in 1794. A legend spread, however, that royalists stole his bones in 1814, along with those of Rousseau, and threw them into a mass grave on the site where the science faculty of the Paris University of Jussieu stands today. However, in 1878 and later (1898, the year the Panthéon’s tombs were surveyed), several commissions of inquiry determined that the remains of the two great fathers of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire, were and still are in France’s Temple of Fame.
Constitutionalism and enlightened despotism
Voltaire did not believe that France (and every nation in general) was ready for true democracy: therefore, since he did not trust the people (unlike Rousseau, who believed in direct popular sovereignty), he never supported republican and democratic ideas; although, after his death, he became one of the “noble fathers” of the Revolution, celebrated by the revolutionaries, it should be remembered that some of Voltaire’s collaborators and friends ended up victims of the Jacobins during the regime of the Terror (among them Condorcet and Bailly). For Voltaire, those who have not been “enlightened” by reason, educated and culturally elevated, cannot participate in government, on pain of ending up in demagoguery. He still admits representative democracy and the division of powers proposed by Montesquieu, as implemented in England, but not direct democracy, practiced in Geneva.
The Geneva republic, which appeared to him to be just and tolerant, turned out to be a place of fanaticism. Far from populist and even radical ideas, except on the role of religion in politics (he was a decided anticlerical), his political stance was that of a moderate liberal, averse to the nobility-which made him doubt oligarchic government-but an advocate of absolute monarchy in the enlightened form (although he greatly admired as an “ideal government” the English constitutional monarchy) as a form of government: the ruler was supposed to rule wisely for the happiness of the people, precisely because he was “enlightened” by philosophers, and guarantee freedom of thought. Voltaire himself found fulfillment of his political ideas in the Prussia of Frederick II, ostensibly a philosopher-king, who with his reforms gained a leading role on the European chessboard. The philosopher’s dream later proved unfulfilled, revealing in him, especially in his later years, an underlying pessimism mitigated by the utopias vague in Candide, the impossible ideal world of Eldorado, where there is no fanaticism, no prisons and no poverty, and the small self-sufficient farm where the protagonist retreats to work, in a bourgeois contrast to aristocratic idleness.
In later works he expresses a willingness to work for political and civil freedom, focusing heavily on combating intolerance, especially religious intolerance, and no longer leaning on the rulers who had failed him. He is not opposed in principle to a republic, but he is opposed in practice, as he, a pragmatic thinker, does not see in his time the need for the monarchy-republic conflict, which would develop 11 years after his death with the start of the Revolution in 1789, but that monarchy-courts of justice (the so-called “parliaments.” not to be confused with the English meaning of the term, now used for any legislative body), and he, opposed to the arbitrations of such magistrates of aristocratic extraction, sides with the sovereign who can be guided by philosophers, while the reform of the courts requires complicated and time-consuming legislative restructuring. The philosopher must also orient the masses and push them along the right path, guide them, since “laws are made by public opinion.”
On social reforms: equality, justice and tolerance
Tolerance, which is to be exercised by the ruler practically all the time (he cites as examples many Roman emperors, particularly Titus, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), is the cornerstone of Voltaire’s political thought. Often attributed to him, with variations, is the phrase “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This quote is actually found only in a text by British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall. The quote is also not found in any of Voltaire’s works. The phrase would originate not from the February 6, 1770 letter to Abbot Le Riche, as is often said, but from a passage in the Questions on the Encyclopedia:
There are, however, many other phrases or aphorisms by Voltaire that express a concept akin to this, in different words: in a letter on the Calas case, attached by Voltaire to the Treatise on Tolerance: “Nature says to all human beings: (… ) Should you all be of the same opinion, which will surely never be the case, should there be but one man of a contrary opinion, you must forgive him: for it is I who make him think as he thinks,” a phrase that anticipates the thinking of liberalism in the next century; “We are all children of frailty: fallible and prone to error. All that remains, therefore, is to forgive one another our follies. This is the first natural law: the principle underlying all human rights”; “Of all superstitions, the most dangerous is that of hating one’s neighbor for his opinions”; “It is a most cruel thing to persecute in this life those who do not think our way”; “But how! Will each citizen be allowed to believe only in his own reason and to think what this reason, enlightened or deceived, will dictate to him? It is necessary, as long as it does not disturb the order”; and many others.
Voltaire welcomed the theses of the young Italian Enlightenment scholar Cesare Beccaria on the abolition of torture and the death penalty, as reflected in his very positive commentary on his work On Crimes and Punishments, urging rulers to drastically reduce the use of the former and then eliminate it altogether. Voltaire and Beccaria also had an exchange of letters. On capital punishment Voltaire is sharply opposed to its use and the excesses of violence that characterized it; although it may appear just in certain cases, it, to Enlightenment reason, proves only barbaric, since the worst and most hardened criminals, even if executed, will be of no use to anyone, whereas they could work for the public good and partially rehabilitate themselves, Beccaria’s main utilitarian motivation that Voltaire fully endorses; he considers life imprisonment a sufficient punishment for the worst and most violent crimes:
Voltaire also goes even further than Beccaria, and considers, from a humanitarian, philanthropic and jusnaturalist point of view and in controversy with Rousseau, an arbitrariness of the state to take life, which is the natural right of every human being (while cold-blooded revenge disqualifies human reason and the state itself, since it is not a legitimate defense of society, but a doggedness), and is not within the availability of the law, besides the fact that it is possible to strike even innocent people, often without proportionality:
Voltaire also uses his most powerful weapon, irony, combined with sarcasm and mockery of popular superstition:
For Voltaire, the most horrendous crime a man can commit is the death penalty applied for religious or ideological reasons, even disguised as common crimes, as in the Calas case, but dictated by pure religious fanaticism, so the principle of government must be tolerance.
However, one cannot omit and subject to critical evaluation the fact that Voltaire himself contradicted these principles of tolerance during his disagreement with Rousseau.
If the private man will make his fortune precisely from military supplies, in a century dense with wars, in the writer sharp is the condemnation that also emerges against militarism, nationalism (in the name of cosmopolitanism) and war as an end in itself, one of the reasons for the break with Frederick II, also made explicit in the philosophical accounts. Voltaire comments sarcastically that.
The genesis of the eighteenth-century wars is identified in the claims of the powerful who set up rights based on remote “genealogical evidence.”
Voltaire then attacks the widespread use of professional mercenaries:
War brings out the worst in human beings; no heroism or idealism can hold up:
He frequently attacks the political use of religion to justify wars and violence, and calls for the destruction of religious fanaticism:
For Voltaire, formal equality is a condition of nature; savage man is free, though not civilized. Civilized man is enslaved because of wars and injustice; substantive equality is not there for each to perform his function, with the example he gives, in the Philosophical Dictionary, of the cook and the cardinal, in which each must perform his activity, as is useful at the present moment, since that is how the world will subsist, even though humanly both belong to the same existential condition.
Economically, he adheres in part to the laissez faire liberalism that takes its first steps with the Enlightenment, at least in demanding freedom of trade from state control; however, he is not a liberalist like Adam Smith. Voltaire also believes that luxury, when it is not mere waste, is good for the economy and society, making everyone more prosperous and increasing the feeling of general well-being.
Politically, however, his thinking does not adhere to democratic liberalism since it is still tied to an oligarchical and hierarchical conception of society, as can be seen, for example, from this passage: “The spirit of a nation always resides in the small number that makes the large number work, is nourished by it, and governs it.”
Voltaire and the United Kingdom
Among the most significant experiences of the intellectual Voltaire were certainly his travels, the one to the Netherlands and especially the one to the United Kingdom; here the young Parisian saw religious tolerance and freedom of expression of political, philosophical and scientific ideas actively practiced. To his spirit intolerant of all absolutist and clerical repression (partly because he was fresh from his experience in the strict Jesuit schools) the United Kingdom appeared as the symbol of an enlightened and free form of life.
Immersed in the study of Anglo-Saxon culture, Voltaire remains blinded by the luminous and revolutionary scientific doctrines of Newton and the deism and empiricism of John Locke. He drew, from this encounter with the philosophy of the United Kingdom, the concept of a science conceived on an experimental basis understood as the determination of the laws of phenomena and the concept of a philosophy understood as the analysis and critique of human experience in the various fields. Thus were born the Lettres sur les anglais or Lettres philosophiques (1734), which helped broaden the European rational horizon but drew on him the thunderbolts of persecution.
The Lettres are condemned, as far as religious principles are concerned, by those who argued for the political necessity of cult unity; on the political side, they, extolling the honorability of commerce and liberty, shamelessly opposed the traditionalist French regime; and on the philosophical side, in the name of empiricism, they attempted to free scientific research from its ancient subordination to religious truth. Voltaire’s philosophical program would be more precisely delineated later with the Traité de métaphisique (1734), the Métaphisique de Newton (1740), Remarques sur les pensées de Pascal (1742), the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), and the Philosophe ignorant (1766), to name the most important ones.
However, there is no shortage of critical accents in his works against the British…
Natural religion and anticlericalism
The problem that Voltaire primarily addresses is the existence of God, knowledge that is fundamental to arriving at a just notion of man. The philosopher does not deny it, like some other Enlightenmentists who declared themselves atheists (his friend Diderot, D’Holbach and others) because they found no evidence for the existence of a Supreme Being, but neither, in his secular rationalism, does he take an agnostic position. He sees the proof of God’s existence in the higher order of the universe, for just as every work demonstrates an artificer, God exists as the author of the world, and if one wants to give a cause for the existence of beings, one must admit that there subsists a Creator Being, a First Principle, author of an Intelligent Design.
His position was therefore deist, as already mentioned:
Therefore, God exists, and although embracing this thesis would find many difficulties, the difficulties posed by embracing the contrary view would be even greater, living Voltaire in a time when the laws of evolution had not yet been discovered and the alternative to deism was the eternity of “matter,” which is an original principle anyway. Voltaire’s God is not the revealed god, but neither is he a god of a pantheistic position, like Spinoza’s. He is a kind of Great Architect of the Universe, a watchmaker author of a perfect machine (by the way, clocks were a passion of Voltaire, who devoted himself to building them in Ferney). Voltaire does not deny a Providence, but he does not accept the Christian type of Providence, i.e., he does not accept a providence that is simultaneously good and omnipotent by not adhering to Leibnizian answers on the problem of evil (according to his beliefs (like those of many of his time), man in the state of nature was happy, having instinct and reason, but civilization has contributed to unhappiness: it is therefore necessary to accept the world as it is, and improve it as much as possible. The study of Newton, known, as mentioned, in the English period, had contributed to his convictions: whose science, while remaining unrelated, as a mathematical philosophy, to the search for causes, turns out to be closely connected to theistic metaphysics, implying a rational belief in a Supreme Being (Être Supreme, from which Robespierre’s Cult of Reason would be vaguely inspired).
Voltaire is also pressured by censorship, especially in some works that he wanted to be widely circulated, outside the academic and encyclopedic environment of the philosophes, not to question Christianity and the traditional concept of divinity too much, in order to convince his interlocutors: e.g., in the Treatise on Tolerance, where he often refers to the Gospels or Catholicism, knowing that he had to convince-primarily the Catholic jurists-to reopen the Calas case, without thereby coming into too much of a clash with the Church and widespread faith.
However, Voltaire believes in a unifying God, God of all men: as universal as reason, God is of all.
Like other key thinkers of the period, he explicitly considers himself a deist
Voltaire’s deism, however, refuses to admit any intervention of God in the human world, and is reluctant, especially after the Lisbon earthquake, to admit the existence of a real Divine Providence. The Supreme has only started the machine of the universe, without intervening further, like the gods of Epicurus, so man is free, that is, he has the power to act, even if his freedom is limited; the philosopher can still turn to the Supreme Being, even to incite men who will read to tolerance.
The pre-evolutionary naturalist Buffon also shared it, and it would be Diderot, on the other hand, who would gradually break away from it after the seeds of evolutionism began to spread (although it would not be until the 19th century with Charles Darwin that the concept of random selection of species would officially emerge). At the time of Voltaire’s cultural formation, most rationalists admitted divinity as the guarantor of moral order and the “immobile engine” of the universe and life, as it seemed a simpler explanation than the atheistic materialism advocated, for example, by Jean Meslier and d’Holbach, in a completely mechanistic and determinist sense, and more cautiously by Diderot. Voltaire accepts the theological idea of Newton, John Locke and David Hume, so that while it is difficult to believe at certain junctures, it is still an acceptable idea, in the state of knowledge of the time. It was not until the discovery of Darwinian evolution and the cosmological theory of the Big Bang, this much later than Voltaire, that many rationalist scientists and philosophers abandoned deism for agnosticism and skepticism…
Voltaire also rationally criticizes biblical texts, questioning the historicity and moral validity of most texts. His general approach is inspired by that of some reformers such as the Socinians, but the French thinker’s deeply skeptical attitude, however, separates him from both Locke and Unitarian theologians such as precisely Fausto Socini, as well as from Rousseau, a deist tending toward Calvinism, and an advocate of a civil religion “imposed” by law, i.e., state religion, which Voltaire instead considers unnecessary and unjust, if this generates oppression and violence toward other cults.
The main objective of Voltaire and his entire thought, or, if you will, his life’s mission, is the annihilation of the Catholic Church (which he calls the infamous, although he uses this term with reference to any strong spirituality, which he unabashedly considers simply religious fanaticism). Indeed, he attempts to demolish Catholicism in order to proclaim the validity of natural religion. In a letter to Frederick II in 1767, he writes referring to Catholicism, “Ours is undoubtedly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloodthirsty ever to come to infect the world.”
His belief in the principles of natural morality aims to unite men spiritually beyond differences in customs and mores. He therefore proclaims tolerance against fanaticism and superstition (which stand “to religion as astrology stands to astronomy”) in the Treatise on Tolerance (1763), as well as secularism through many anticlerical writings: one of his goals is the complete separation of church and state, for example with the institution of civil marriage. Voltaire used to sign the end of his letters with Écrasez l’infame (he later shortened it to Ecr. L’inf.. In order to rid positive religions of these plagues, it is necessary to transform these cults, including Christianity, into the natural religion by dropping their dogmatic heritage and resorting to the enlightening action of reason.
From early Christianity Voltaire accepts certain moral teachings, namely simplicity, humanity, and charity, and believes that to want to reduce this doctrine to metaphysics is to make it a source of error. Several times in fact the Parisian, praising the Christian doctrine preached by Christ and his disciples (although he doubts the veracity of the Gospel accounts), will charge the degeneration of this into fanaticism, to the structure that men, and not the Redeemer, have given to the church. Christianity, if lived rationally, without dogma, rites, miracles, clergy and blind faith, in Voltaire’s thinking coincides with the law of nature.
Voltaire carries on a double polemic, against the intolerance and sclericism of Catholicism, and against atheism and materialism, although much of his speculation starts from material elements. “Voltaire does not feel the animus to decide for either materialism or spiritualism. He often repeats that ‘just as we do not know what a spirit is, so we are ignorant of what a body is.'”
The philosopher will say that “atheism does not oppose crimes but fanaticism urges the committing of them,” although he will later conclude that since atheism is almost always fatal to virtues, it is more useful in a society to have a religion, even if fallacious, than to have none. It is primarily an ethical problem, about religion as instrumentum regnii, and as the conscience of the people and the king, as well as the use of the notion of God as a kind of “prime mover” of creation. Voltaire believes that the fault, however, lies not with the explicit and convinced atheists (and is much more nuanced in his judgments toward generic pantheism or irreligiosity), but with the revealed religions, mainly Christianity, which, by making their God hateful, have prompted the denial of him altogether. Rational religion can be useful in maintaining order in ignorant people, as Niccolo Machiavelli, who also did not believe in it, already recalled. Superstition is considered wrong and ridiculous, unless it serves to prevent the people from becoming intolerant and even more harmful; indeed, Voltaire fears, like an intolerant superstitious, even a violent and intolerant atheist, stating that the moral atheist (of whom d’Holbach speaks instead), is a very rare thing. He also gives the example of pagan religions and beliefs, which often served a moral function and were personifications of principles and behavior, although they too are ridiculous in the eyes of a philosopher. He states that “Les lois veillent sur les crimes connus, et la religion sur les crimes secrets” (law watches over known crimes, religion over secret ones).
Not only Christianity, especially Catholicism, but every revealed religion, is just a man-made superstition, and is now too corrupt for it to be fully recovered. According to Catholic journalist Vittorio Messori, Voltaire’s antipathy for the Catholic Church was manifest and constant: in 1773 he went so far as to affirm the near end of Christianity:
Almost ironically, Voltaire’s Parisian home became a repository for the Protestant Bible Society of France. Voltaire also attacks Islam and other non-Christian cults in his works, for example in Muhammad i.e. Fanaticism and Zadig. To explain evil, Voltaire states that it happens because of man, who fights wars and succumbs to fanaticism and violence, or it is inherent in the nature of things, but progress and human work will mitigate it as far as possible. For that matter, he writes, “it would be strange if all nature, all the stars obeyed eternal laws, and if there were a small animal five feet high who, in spite of these laws, could always act as he pleased only according to his whim.” On the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife, on the other hand, Voltaire is more ambiguous, and maintains a position of agnosticism, avoiding making explicit pronouncements on this subject.
Worthy of mention is the polemic that Voltaire will carry on against Blaise Pascal, which will become especially polemic against apologetics and Christian pessimism in general. Voltaire says he stands up for humanity against that “sublime misanthrope” who taught men to hate their own nature. Rather than with the author of the Provinciales, he says he is lashing out against that of the Pensées, in defense of a different conception of man, of whom he rather emphasizes the complexity of the soul, the multiplicity of behavior, so that man recognizes and accepts himself for what he is, and does not attempt an absurd overcoming of his state.
In conclusion, it can be asserted that both philosophers recognize that the human being by his condition is bound to the world, but Pascal demands that he get rid of it and turn away from it, Voltaire wants him to recognize and accept it: it was the new world lashing out against the old.
Ethics and animals
Among Voltaire’s polemical arguments is a determined attack on the theological idea of the essential and supernatural difference between human beings and animals and of the superiority by divine right on the part of man to the whole of nature. Building on this critique, the writer condemns vivisection and the torments inflicted on farm animals, showing sympathy for the vegetarianism of the Pythagoreans, Porphyry and Isaac Newton. The issue of cruelty to animals and vegetarianism is addressed by Voltaire in several works, from Newton’s Elements of Philosophy to the Essay on Customs (in the chapter on India), and also in Zadig, in the Philosophical Dictionary in The Princess of Babylon and especially in the Dialogue of the Capon and the Chick.
Voltaire-who can be considered, in this respect, a forerunner of Jeremy Bentham- harshly questions Cartesian positions that reduced the animal to a machine without consciousness. In the Philosophical Dictionary , he points out what a disgrace it was “to have said that beasts are machines devoid of consciousness and feeling,” and, addressing the vivisector who dissects an animal in utter indifference, asks him, “you discover in him the same organs of feeling that are in you. Answer me, mechanist, has nature therefore combined in him all the springs of feeling so that he does not feel?”
Voltaire and human historiography
Voltaire was one of the most celebrated historians of his century. Voltaire’s philosophical conceptions are inseparable from his way of doing history. In fact, he wants to treat this discipline as a philosopher, that is, by grasping beyond the congeries of facts a progressive order that reveals their permanent meaning.
From his great historical works (1731’s Historie de Charles XII, 1751’s Les siecle de Louis XIV, 1754-1758’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations), comes a history “of the human spirit,” that is, of Progress understood as the dominion that reason exercises over the passions, in which prejudices and errors take root; in fact, the Essai always presents the danger of fanaticism as looming. Voltaire’s philosophy of history inaugurates, after forerunner Giambattista Vico, the so-called “historicism,” for which reality is history, cast in its context, and immanence.
History is no longer oriented toward the knowledge of God, a philosophical problem; this is not the purpose of man, who must instead devote himself to understanding and knowing himself until the discovery of history is identified with the discovery of man. History has become the history of the Enlightenment, of man’s progressive enlightenment of himself, of the progressive discovery of his rational principle. Sometimes, however, it sacrifices perfect truthfulness, as when it applies philosophy to history, in order to simplify certain concepts and make them clear.
The underlying anthropological model of eighteenth-century Orientalism, later taken up by Diderot, can also be well perceived in Voltaire′s Essai sur les mœurs. In this “universal history”-that was in fact the title of an earlier version of the Essai that the author had written-Voltaire shook the clerical and academic establishment by placing China, and especially India, at the head of his chronology, with the Jews (traditionally placed at the origin of the sacred chronology of history) well behind. Voltaire in fact presented India and China as the first advanced civilizations of the ancient world and, adding insult to injury, suggested that the Jews not only succeeded earlier civilizations but also copied them: “The Jews copied everything from other nations.” Voltaire also disseminated these heterodox claims in his Contes. and in his criticism of the Jews in the Philosophical Dictionary.
According to the Ferney philosopher, the progenitors of all knowledge were primarily Indians: “I am convinced that everything comes from the banks of the Ganges, astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis etc….” This hypothesis was particularly seductive because it could be extended to the most sophisticated aspects of human culture, i.e., for example, the sciences. As a historian, he also delved into the religious beliefs, such as Buddhism, of Asians.
Voltaire and French astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly had a lively exchange of letters that was published by Bailly himself in Lettres sur l’origine des sciences. Bailly, while appreciating Voltaire’s hypothesis, nevertheless tries to refute it in order to advocate his thesis of a very ancient Nordic people being the progenitors of mankind, according to his own conception of history.
According to historian David Harvey, “although impressed by Bailly’s history of astronomy, Voltaire was very unconvinced by his claim of the Nordic origins of science.” Declaring that he was “convinced that everything came to us from the banks of the Ganges,” Voltaire replied that the Brahmans “dwelling in an enchanting climate and to whom nature had bestowed all her gifts, must, it seems to me, have had more leisure to contemplate the stars than the Tartars and Uzbeks,” referring to the territories, those of Scythia and the Caucasus, which according to Bailly had hosted that unknown advanced civilization of which he spoke. On the contrary, he claimed that “Scythia has never produced anything but tigers, capable only of devouring our lambs,” and asked Bailly ironically, “Is it credible that these tigers left their savage lands with dials and astrolabes?” Historian Rolando Minuti has noted that “zoomorphic metaphors” were central to Voltaire’s portrayal of the “barbaric” peoples of Central Asia, and served him, within his macro-narrative on the origin of civilization, to juxtapose the destructive and animalistic nature of nomadic peoples with the cultivation of the arts and sciences by the original urban civilizations of the Ganges, portraying the former as “the historical antagonists of civilization.” This conception of India as the origin of civilization would have much fortune in the 19th century, being taken up even by Arthur Schopenhauer.
Shaftesbury said that “there is no better remedy than good humor against superstition and intolerance, and no one put this principle into practice better than Voltaire”; in fact, “his manner approaches that of a caricaturist, who is always close to the model from which he starts, but through a cleverly distorted play of perspectives and proportions, gives us his interpretation.” For Voltaire, although there is always some good that has prevented the total self-destruction of humankind, throughout history and in the present we see enormous injustices and tragedies, and the only way to deal with evil lucidly is to laugh at it, even cynically, through a humor that ridicules consolatory and theoretical optimism, discharging through irony and satire, flourishing in the eighteenth century, the emotional tension, rather than diverting it to sentiment, as the Romantics will do.
Humor, irony, satire, sarcasm, open or veiled derision, are employed by him from time to time against metaphysics, scholasticism or traditional religious beliefs. But sometimes, this ironically simplifying of certain situations leads him to overlook or miss very important aspects of the story.
Accusations of racism, Eurocentrism and other criticisms
Philosophy, for Voltaire, must be the critical spirit that opposes tradition in order to discern the true from the false; one must choose from the facts themselves the most important and significant ones to delineate the history of civilizations. Accordingly, Voltaire does not take into consideration the dark periods of history, that is, everything that did not constitute culture according to the Enlightenment, and excludes from his “universal” history barbarian peoples, who did not make their contribution to the progress of human civilization.
What is more, Voltaire was one of the few advocates of polygenism in the 18th century, claiming that God separately created humans of different “races” or “species.” In the 20th and 21st centuries, some historians have linked Voltaire’s philosophical polygenism to his material investments in colonial trade, such as in the French East India Company.
Emblematic, among the passages of certain attribution, are some theses in the Treatise on Metaphysics (1734), in which he clearly expresses his thesis on the inferiority of the “Negro” race, which allegedly originated from amplexes between men and apes, echoing the theses of many scientists of the time; likewise as others he considered homosexuality abnormal: in the Philosophical Dictionary he speaks out against pederasty, called “Socratic love” (on the other hand, he had friendly relations, albeit stormy and interspersed with clamorous quarrels, with Frederick II, whom Voltaire himself considered to have a homosexual orientation); he also affirms the inferiority of Africans to apes, lions, and elephants in addition to white men. He also expressed, while often mocking and criticizing the Jesuits for their alleged reign in Paraguay, a partially positive view of the reductions, where the company educated and armed the Indians, as this removed them from slavery, though enslaving them to a theocracy that eliminated the “good savage,” in whom, moreover, Voltaire did not have much faith, unlike Rousseau, even though he regarded untainted men as “better” and natural, and not evil in origin, just as innocent are in childhood.
In the Essay on Customs he states that he considers Africans to be intellectually inferior, which is why they are reduced “by nature” to slavery, since, he adds, “a people who sell their children are morally worse than one who buys them.”
Catholic journalist Francesco Agnoli reports that Voltaire, in his Treatise on Metaphysics (1734) and Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (1756), states that, whatever “a man dressed in a long, black cassock (the priest, ed.) may say, bearded whites, frizzy-haired Negroes, pigtailed Asians, and beardless men are not descended from the same man.” He goes on to situate Negroes on the lowest rung of the ladder, calling them animals, giving credence to the mythical idea of marriages between Negroes and apes, and considering whites “superior to these Negroes, as blacks to apes, and apes to oysters.” The same position is held by Catholic apologist writer Vittorio Messori in the volume Some Reasons to Believe. Often these stances can be found repeated in Catholic area publications, including contemporary ones.
Maurizio Ghiretti, echoing Leon Poliakov, also recalls that Voltaire is “a shareholder in a company that trades black slaves,” and perhaps it was in one such trade that he found himself twice mocked by white Jewish moneylenders. Also according to an article in the Société Voltaire, Voltaire directly invested £1,000 in the ship Saint-Georges, which left in 1751 for Buenos Aires, calling at the Gulf of Guinea, an investment that thus included the Negro trade to the Americas.
Other 19th-century writers such as Jean Ehrard report that Voltaire kept correspondence with slavers, although Domenico Losurdo records that it was John Locke who owned shares in a slave company and not Voltaire.
Voltaire’s supporters judge such claims to be “urban legends” spread by anti-Enlightenment and pro-clerical forgers, particularly the alleged letter where Voltaire compliments a Negro shipowner from Nantes, is not found in Voltaire’s epistolary or papers but only in an 1877 work by the forger Jacquot. Instead, there is a letter from Voltaire addressed to the shipowner Montadouin, dated June 2, 1768, in which the philosopher thanks the shipowner for giving his name to a vessel.
As evidence that Voltaire did not agree with these practices, some passages in his writings in which he attacks the slave trade and the use of slavery are also brought in: in Commentaire sur l’Esprit des lois (1777) he praises Montesquieu for “calling this odious practice an obrobrium,” while in 1769 he had expressed enthusiasm for the liberation of his own slaves carried out by the Quakers, in the Thirteen Colonies of North America. In addition, Voltaire deprecates the cruelty and excesses of slavery in Chapter XIX of Candide, in which he has a black slave speak of his misfortunes, who is shown to have a rational, humane mind and not at all “bestial,” while the protagonist Candide definitely sympathizes with him.
In the finale of the Treatise on Tolerance (1763), addressing God, Voltaire writes about the equality of men:
Voltaire is a staunch anti-Jew. Some passages in the Philosophical Dictionary are not at all soft on Jews:
Always in the same entry:
In the entry “States and Governments” they are called “a horde of thieves and usurers.” However, despite his anti-Jewish virulence, we cannot say that Voltaire was completely anti-Semitic: on other occasions he considers Jews better than Christians because they are more tolerant in religious matters.
and in Chapters XII and XIII (the latter entitled Extreme Tolerance of the Jews) of the Treatise on Tolerance even goes so far as to praise them in part:
Voltaire here praises the Jews’ practical tolerance in spite of their “intolerant” religion; peaceful, secularized Jews have a right to live quietly, but this would not be the case if they followed religious prescriptions to the letter:
Elsewhere he instead takes up the defense of early Christianity (which elsewhere he often criticizes), against Jews who vilified it:
Since in his private letters and other texts (“I conclude by saying that every sensible man, every proverbial man, must have the Christian sect in horror”), Voltaire is highly critical of Christianity, it is unclear whether this is feigned laudatory irony toward it, as also appears in the Treatise on Tolerance and also elsewhere in the Philosophical Dictionary, where he speaks of “our holy religion” in often sarcastic terms (not least because Voltaire being a non-Christian it seems odd that he calls Jesus “our Savior”).
Jews are also targets of irony in Candide (particularly because of their alleged habits, such as usury and avarice, but not because of “biological” racism; Voltaire does not consider Jews “a race,” but a people or a religious group) where, for example, a miserly and corrupt Jew named Don Issacar appears, although he resolutely opposes the persecutions against them, and no less the Parisian expresses himself about Christians (in the book satirized, for example, by the figure of the Grand Inquisitor, Don Issacar’s Catholic counterpart) and Muslim Arabs, a fact that has led some to accuse Voltaire of anti-Semitism or at least generic racism.
Rather than anti-Semitism, it would be more correct, according to some, to speak of anti-Judaism, as Voltaire primarily targets what he judges to be the cruelty and ignorance of the Jewish religion and certain Jewish culture, as do other philosophes.
Jewish scholar Elena Loewenthal says that the text of the Juifs entry, moreover often expunged from numerous editions of the Dictionary and also published as a single pamphlet, leaves one “astonished, impressed, disappointed” while acknowledging the absence of invectives peculiar to anti-Semitism, since it is mostly a matter of taking up the positions of Roman philosophers such as Cicero and cultural and religious, not ethnic, attacks. However, when Voltaire writes about the Jews, according to Loewenthal, the rancor goes far beyond anti-religious polemic, even though the philosopher explicitly condemns the pogroms and burnings of all times; he then “proposes that the Jews go back to Palestine, an idea that would have appealed to the future Zionists if it were not accompanied by sarcasms such as ‘you could sing freely in your detestable slang your detestable music.'”
In essence, Voltaire tolerates Jews who identify with the laws of the state, and advocates religious toleration of them, but does not like them at all.
Voltaire, as he expressed numerous anti-Catholic views, in addition to his well-known anticlericalism, in keeping with his own deistic philosophy also criticized Islam. In the Essay on Customs he criticizes Muhammad and the Arabs (while expressing some appreciation for some aspects of their civilization), already targets, for example in the play of the same name Muhammad i.e. fanaticism, as well as Jews and Christians. In the Philosophical Dictionary he discusses the Qur’an:
Criticisms are also found scattered in Candide and Zadig. In the said Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (French: Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations), an overview of peoples and nations without the desire to go into statistical detail, Voltaire dedicates:
Regarding Muhammad he says:
Harsh criticisms also come from him about the Prussians, the French, called, “fools” (as he also called the British) and inhabitants of a “country where monkeys tease tigers,” a people to which he himself belonged, allowing to blur part of the so-called Voltairian racism-which never invokes exterminations and subjugations of peoples, however “inferior” they may be-into derision toward those who do not use the “enlightenment” of reason or to that toward generic “barbarians,” a Eurocentric attitude typical of the intellectuals and people of his time:
Voltaire symbol of the Enlightenment
In general, Voltaire represented the Enlightenment, with its caustic and critical spirit, desire for clarity and lucidity, rejection of superstitious fanaticism, with a firm faith in reason, but without excessive inclinations to optimism and confidence in most individuals. Exemplary in this regard is the satirical novel Candide (Candide, 1759), where Voltaire mocks the philosophical optimism defended by Leibniz. Indeed, he violently accuses hypocritical optimism, “tout est bien” and the so-called theory of the best of all possible worlds, because they make the evils of natural and other origin that we experience appear even worse by representing them as inevitable and inherent in the universe. Opposed to it is true optimism, that is, the belief in human progress that science and Enlightenment philosophy make themselves out to be, even if a tiny fraction of those evils are indeed intrinsic and will still have to be endured.
Voltaire “was a man who enjoyed worldliness to the fullest, with its poisons and delights. What few know is that he devoted, every year, a day to solitude and mourning: a day on which he shut himself up at home, renouncing all human commerce, in order to grieve to the end. And this day was August 24, the anniversary of St. Bartholomew’s Night: an event that Our Lord suffered almost physically, because it symbolized the effects of religious fanaticism, blessed, when all was done, by the pope’s joyful commotion. Apparently, Voltaire devoted that day to updating one of his personal statistics: that of the dead in persecutions and wars of religion, arriving, it is said, at a figure of some 24
Voltaire inspired a great many later intellectuals, near and far in time, including, even minimally: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Maximilien de Robespierre, Bailly, Condorcet, Cesare Beccaria, Alfieri, Schopenhauer, Benedetto Croce, and many others. He is quoted critically in many anti-revolutionary works, often attributing to him extremist positions he never held (e.g. in Vittorio Alfieri’s L’antireligioneria, Vincenzo Monti’s Basvilliana, as well as by Joseph de Maistre). Voltaire is often attributed the phrase “I do not agree with what you say, but I would give my life that you might say it,” which, however, is not his but Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s.
The following is a summary chronology of Voltaire’s life and works:
A film about the life of the French writer and philosopher, simply titled Voltaire was made in 1933 by John G. Adolfi; the writer was in this film played by English actor George Arliss. The figure of Voltaire appears in other films and television series set in his era, such as Jeanne Poisson, 2006’s Marquise de Pompadour.
Several films were also based on his works, particularly Candide.
- ^ Voltaire, Dizionario filosofico, voce Superstizione, Tolleranza.
- ^ Ricardo J. Quinones, Erasmo e Voltaire. Perché sono ancora attuali, Armando editore, 2012, pag. 38, nota 5; disponibile su Google libri
- ^ Voltaire, Dizionario filosofico, voce Prete; voce Religione.
- ^ “Annamaria Battista ha documentato come l’antienciclopedismo di Robespierre avesse indotto quest’ultimo a bollare «con brutalità incisiva Diderot, D’Alembert e Voltaire come “intriganti ipocriti”, implacabili avversari del grande Rousseau» e come ciò sia riconducibile al “materialismo” della posizione degli enciclopedisti al quale Robespierre contrapponeva la “religiosità” rousseauiana” in Giuseppe Acocella, Per una filosofia politica dell’Italia civile, disponibile su Google books
- So Georg Holmsten, S. 10.
- Martí Domínguez, «Cronología» de Voltaire, Cartas filosóficas. Diccionario filosófico. Memorias para servir a la vida de Voltaire escritas por él mismo. Madrid: Gredos, 2014, pp. xcix-cii.
- a b c d e f g h i Martí Domínguez, op. cit.
- Voltaire denunciaba la vida licenciosa de la duquesa de Berry, burlándose de los partos clandestinos de la princesa, según el rumor público embarazada de su propio padre: Fougeret, W.-A., Histoire générale de la Bastille, depuis sa fondation 1369, jusqu’à sa destruction, 1789. Paris, 1834, t. II, pp. 104-108.
- Extraído de un retrato (anónimo y malicioso) de Voltaire hombre y autor de cuatro páginas que circuló hacia 1734-1735 (citado por René Pomeau en su Voltaire en son temps, t. I, p. 336. El texto original es: « Il est maigre, d’un tempérament sec. Il a la bile brulée, le visage décharné, l’air spirituel et caustique, les yeux étincelants et malins. Vif jusqu’à l’étourderie, c’est un ardent qui va et vient, qui vous éblouit et qui pétille ».
- Martí Domínguez, «Voltaire, el escritor filósofo», en Voltaire, Cartas filosóficas…, p. xxiv.
- Вольтер. Философские сочинения / отв. Кузнецов В. Н., перевод Кочеткова А. — М.: Наука, 1988. — С. 719. — 752 с.