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The High Enlightenment: Voltaire

The High Enlightenment: Voltaire

“M. de Voltaire,” said I, “this is the happiest moment of my life. I have been your pupil for twenty years, and my heart is full of joy to see my master.”
(Casanova’s memoirs)

The apogee of the Enlightenment is conventionally entitled the High Enlightenment (1730 to 1780) and was dominated by French philosophes such as d’Alembert, Buffon, Condorcet, Diderot, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Montesquieu and Rousseau.  Foremost amongst them, however, was Voltaire (1694 – 1778).

Voltaire’s output (literary, historical, political, scientific and philosophical) was prodigious, filling over a hundred volumes of published works and over a hundred volumes of correspondence.  They included satirical novels such as Candide, philosophical short stories such as Plato’s Dream, entries for that great Enlightenment project the Encyclopédie, histories such as The Age of Louis XIV, poetry such as The Henriade, tragic plays such as Oedipus and comedies such as The Princess of Navarre.  His works brimmed with originality, subtlety and devastating wit, their frequent subversiveness inevitably incurring the ire of the state.  And it wasn’t just the sharpness of his pen that got him into trouble.  His tongue could be just as bad.  Consequently, on various occasions, he was imprisoned (twice in the Bastille) and exiled, and his writings censored, banned, confiscated and burned.  So sensitive were the authorities to his writings that the discovery of his Dictionnaire Philosophique in the possession of François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre, a poor, young aristocrat, was used as part of the evidence against him in a prosecution for blasphemy.  Found guilty, Barre was tortured, beheaded and burned on a pyre.

Voltaire’s influence and reach, in France and abroad, was immense.  Not for nothing was he known as ‘the patriarch’ of the Enlightenment.  He did much to establish its key battle grounds: deism; anticlericalism; abuses of power; toleration; censorship; ethics.  However, despite his many works grounded in philosophy and natural philosophy, he was a critic of society, a reformer and activist, rather than a creator of coherent philosophical systems.  He was not a Hobbes or a Locke or a Kant.

Voltaire offered no systematic philosophy, because he wanted to contribute to different debates at different times under different circumstances, depending on his political standing at the time, his audience, and whether he was writing for the present or posterity.  He had no will to consistency.
(Alan Kors, ‘Voltaire and the triumph of the Enlightenment’)

Born Francois-Marie Arouet in the long reign of Louis XIV, Voltaire was twenty by the time of the Sun King’s death.  The first twenty years of anybody’s life, of course, is hugely formative but this was particularly the case with Voltaire.  The final two decades of Louis’ reign had been marked by war, famine, religious persecution and intellectual upheaval.  In 1685, the Edict of Fontainebleau stripped the rights awarded to the Protestant minority by the 1598 Edict of Nantes that had allowed them to practise their religion free from persecution.  Over a period of more than a quarter of a century, the wars of the League of Augsburg and the Spanish Succession ensured that France had enjoyed only a handful of years of peace.  Across the channel, the discoveries of Newton, the writings of Locke and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (with its 1689 Bill of Rights) challenged the older political, intellectual and religious certainties.  Throughout Europe radical ideas were being circulated by men of letters and discussed in learned journals.  Even within France itself these new ideas were taking hold.  The Regent of Louis XV, Philippe Duke of Orleans, was sympathetic to much of this thought, reducing censorship and thereby allowing French citizens direct access to literature that was critical of the established doctrines of the state.  Unsurprisingly, these various events were to play an important part in shaping the man Voltaire was to become.

Voltaire was born in Paris to a father who was a lawyer and a mother who was from the minor nobility.  From the age of 10 to 17, he was educated by the Jesuits at Louis-le-Grand, one of the most prestigious schools in Paris, and, consequently, received a rigorous intellectual training that incorporated aspects of traditional, theologically based scholasticism with the classical scholarship of Renaissance humanism.  His father expected him to go on to study law, like himself.  Voltaire, however, saw things differently.  Upon leaving Louis-le-Grand he spent his time writing and mingling in literary circles.  His father, continuing to push him in the direction of law and a more respectable career, organised work for him as secretary to the French ambassador to the Netherlands but this fell apart when Voltaire caused a scandal by falling in love with a French protestant refugee.  From 1714 he frequented a literary and philosophical society called the Société du Temple, a centre of free-thinking men and women and a source of radical ideas, notably deism.  In 1717, he found himself imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months after penning some scurrilous verse at the expense of the Prince Regent.  Nonetheless, during this time his reputation as a writer was growing and he was achieving commercial success. He was also, despite his not particularly exalted birth, to be found hobnobbing with the aristocracy, who appreciated his wit and intelligence.  He became friendly with the exiled English aristocrat and deist Lord Bolingbroke through whom he was introduced to the ideas of natural philosophy, Locke and Newton.

It was not long before Voltaire once again found himself on the wrong side of the law or, at least, the law as it was applied according to the arbitrary workings of privilege in the Ancien Regime.  In 1726 he offended the honour of the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot.  Facing another spell in the Bastille, Voltaire was able to negotiate, instead, a 30-month period of exile in Great Britain.  His exposure to English scientific and philosophical ideas, and how the country organised its political, social and religious affairs was to have a major influence upon his thought, engendering one of his most influential works.  England was also to have a significant impact upon his writing.  Through Bolingbroke, he met Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay who were experimenting with new literary forms such as Gulliver’s Travels.  Voltaire returned to Paris in 1728 and over the next several years a large family inheritance, a fortune made through the manipulation of the Paris lottery, pensions from his aristocratic admirers, income from his literary success and some very shrewd investing combined to make him immensely rich.  In 1733, he released a collection of essays in letter form on his English experience.  They were published initially in London and entitled Letters Concerning the English Nation before their publication in French the following year as Lettres Philosophiques.  Such was the outrage that greeted its appearance in France that Voltaire was once again forced to flee Paris.

In Lettres Philosophiques Voltaire celebrates the seventeenth-century English scientific and philosophical revolutions, disseminating their ideas to an increasingly educated French public.  He brings attention to the concrete achievements of an empirical tradition that was based upon the principles and methods of Francis Bacon, which prioritised evidence, experimentation and inductive reasoning and in which communities of scholars would work together to advance human understanding with the goal of improving the lot of their fellow man.  It was this humanist concern for man’s physical, as opposed to spiritual, well-being which was to become central to Enlightenment thought and which so appealed to Voltaire.  He drew attention, for example, to the practice of inoculation against smallpox which had been taken up in Britain but which encountered far greater resistance in France: “What! Aren’t the French fond of life? Do their women not care about their beauty? Indeed, we are strange folk! Perhaps in ten years’ time we shall adopt this English method if the priests and doctors permit”.  He had high regard for the achievements of Descartes but for him the progress in understanding the natural world made by scientists and philosophers such as Newton and Locke was undisputable.  Locke’s epistemology, that all knowledge was derived from sense experience interrogated by reason, was superior in his view to the rationalism and doctrine of innate ideas of Descartes.  For Locke, human knowledge had its limits.  The nature of immaterial substances, such as the mind and the soul, were beyond those limits.

However, it was not just the scientific and philosophical traditions of England that impressed Voltaire, but also the environment that allowed them to flourish:

When one considers that Newton, Locke, Clarke, and Leibniz would have been persecuted in France, imprisoned at Rome, and burned at Lisbon, what are we to think of human reason?  One would swear it was a native of England in the present age at least.
(Voltaire, ‘Lettres Philosophiques’)

Voltaire used England as a way to critique many of the things he found most objectionable about his home country.  Alan Kors notes, ‘He contrasts an aristocratic, officially intolerant and excessively traditionalist France to a commercial, politically free, and religiously tolerant England’ (‘Voltaire and the triumph of the Enlightenment’).  One of the most striking differences he highlights is religion.  In France, religious intolerance had led to Protestants finding refuge in Holland, England and Prussia; a commercial gain for those countries and a loss for France.  By contrast, in England a wide range of religious communities from Anglicans to Quakers to Presbyterians to Baptists to Ranters lived together peacefully and even though the rights of Roman Catholics were restricted they were not violently persecuted.  For Voltaire, diversity was a positive benefit to society.  He pointed to the success of the Quakers in trade and commerce and the wealth that they generated.  Voltaire compared the relationship between the State and the established Church.  In England the established Church had far less political power and its focus was to administer to the spiritual needs of its members, with senior Church offices distributed on the basis of devoted service.  In France, the Church and State were closely intertwined, clerical appointments were a lucrative source of patronage for the aristocracy and many of those in positions of authority in the Church were notoriously corrupt.  Voltaire pointed out that the power that English governments wielded over ordinary citizens was more circumscribed than was the case in France, that its laws were far less arbitrary and that all Englishmen were protected by them. It’s scholars, philosophers and scientists were treated with respect.  Citizens in England were taxed equally while in France the First and Second Estates (members of the Church and Aristocracy) were largely exempt.  In France, trade and commerce was treated as rather demeaning whereas in England it was far more highly esteemed.  In short, compared to England, France was rather backward, despotic and fanatical.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that Lettres Philosophiques received such a hostile reception on the part of many in authority.  Ironically, of course, the responses to the work and Voltaire’s exile from Paris confirmed much of what he had written.

For the next almost fifteen years Voltaire took refuge at Cirey-sur-Blaise in the château of the Marquis du Châtelet.  Voltaire, with the Marquis’s full knowledge, was the lover of his wife. Émilie du Châtelet was a gifted intellectual: a scientist and mathematician, translator of Newton’s Principia and one of the continent’s leading advocates of Newton’s ideas (she was known as Lady Newton).  During his time at Cirey, Voltaire worked with Châtelet in championing Newton against the supporters of Descartes and wrote philosophical works such as his Treatise on Metaphysics, in which he explores the implications of Locke’s philosophy, as well as works of history, ethics, drama and poetry. The two were exceptionally close and Voltaire was devastated when in 1749, after a brief affair with the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert, Émilie died in childbirth at the age of forty-two.

From Cirey he travelled to the Prussian court of Frederick the Great (1750 – 1753) but fell out of favour after a rift involving an erstwhile Newtonian ally and friend of Du Châtelet, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.  He then moved on to Geneva where, in 1755, he bought Ferney, an estate that cut across the French-Swiss border which was to be his home for the rest of his life.  During this time and throughout the 1750s he also became heavily involved in the defence of Diderot and d’Alembert’s emphatically secular and anti-authoritarian Encyclopédie, one of the outstanding achievements of the French Enlightenment to which he contributed over a score of entries.  It was the Encyclopédie which led to him to publish his own Dictionnaire philosophique (1764–1770) in support of this great project.

Despite all this activity, however, this was a particularly low period for Voltaire.  There was the death of Émilie, from 1756 – 1763 Europe was convulsed by the Seven-Years War and in 1756 there was the horrendous Lisbon earthquake which inspired his Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake for which he was publicly rebuked by Rousseau.   In the poem he had attacked the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz which attempted to tackle the question of how suffering could exist in a world created by a God who was infinitely good (the question of theodicy).  Leibniz’s conclusion was that the suffering in the world was the very least there could be.  As only God could be perfect then some degree of suffering had to exist on Earth, and any other possible world that God could have created would have contained even greater suffering.  Voltaire’s rejection of this conclusion and his humanistic assertion that it was mankind not God that required man’s love outraged Rousseau whose Letter to Voltaire on Providence argued that Voltaire was challenging the fact of God’s perfection (a fact proven by the power of reason) and that man was responsible for evil not God.  The Lisbon earthquake was God’s message to mankind that cities were a cause of moral degradation.  Moreover, in attacking God Voltaire was undermining the greatest source of comfort that was available to man to alleviate his unhappiness.

Central to this dispute was a clash between the deductive logic of Descartes and Leibniz and the empirically based inductive logic of the English tradition.  The former led to fatalism and despair.  If what happened in this world was for the best in the best of all possible worlds then what was the point in trying to improve upon it.  Moreover, it denied the human reality of suffering and its fundamental injustice.  The humanist tradition, underpinned by the ideas of Bacon and Locke, however, had at its core the aim of uncovering knowledge that would be of practical benefit to man’s well-being.  It was several years before Voltaire responded to Rousseau’s broadside.  He did so in the form of Candide (1759), a devastating satire on optimistic philosophy that in the figure of Professor Pangloss laid bare its absurdities.

Although Voltaire may not have devised his own systematic philosophy there are, through his active engagement in the key intellectual controversies of the time, a number of themes that underpin his ideas.  Many of these concerns were long-standing preoccupations of Western theology and philosophy given new direction as the old Aristotelian-scholastic tradition was increasingly eclipsed by the tangible successes of natural philosophy and the emergence of science.  The age-old tension between reconciling an omnipotent Creator of all things with the operation of free will continued to play itself out but with the determinism of the materialist and immutable laws of nature now placed alongside the determinist implications of an all-powerful God.  There was the epistemological tension between the Cartesian and metaphysical claims to certain knowledge against the well-honed doubts of the skeptical philosophical tradition and the probabilistic claims of thinkers like Gassendi and Locke.  In government and law there was the tension between the political ideals of absolute authority against those of equality and individual human rights.

With regards to the first of these, Voltaire steers a course between determinism and free will, allowing men some degree of agency where they have the capacity to use reason.  He rejects theological certainty, with all its obscure dogmas and doctrines, as well as the deductive metaphysical and philosophical certainties of scholars such as Leibniz and Descartes.  He follows the line of Newton who famously declared ‘I feign no hypotheses’ when challenged by his Cartesian critics to explain how gravity worked.  For Voltaire, to veer off into deductive, metaphysical explanations divorced from empirical evidence was little more than inventing comforting fairy stories.

Like determinism and free will, so with government:  Voltaire opts for a middle way between republicanism and absolutism, preferring a reformed monarchy with restricted powers and more liberty for individuals.  Particularly important for him were toleration and freedom of speech, principles that were essential to the ideals of the Enlightenment.   Social and scientific progress required that men and women had the opportunity to reason and debate with each other and hold opinions that others, especially the institutions of the Church and State, may oppose.  Toleration was also a logical consequence of epistemological doubt.  If there were no philosophical or theological certainties then there was always the danger of error and toleration could help to mitigate the consequences of such error.

This pattern of adopting a third way repeats itself again in his attitude towards divinity. He rejects the authority of the Church and also rejects hard-line, materialistic atheism.  He embraces, instead, a deistic position.  He believed, for instance, in the necessary existence of souls.  For him, the soul and the possibility of retribution in the afterlife was central to human morality.  Why would men behave morally if there was no danger of being punished for one’s earthly sins?

One of the ethical foundations of Voltaire’s morality lay in hedonism, a tradition that could be traced back to Epicurus and was revived by Gassendi in the mid-seventeenth century.  This was a philosophy that regarded pleasure as a measure of what was good.  A rational person should therefore aim to maximise pleasure and minimise pain.  As well as in the conduct of his personal life (although it wasn’t that outrageous), Voltaire expressed this belief both in his libertine literary works and his attacks upon the sexual repressiveness, self-denial and physical purging that had long been a feature of Christianity, most notably in the celibacy of the Catholic priest.

Voltaire was to become the most widely read Enlightenment author in the world.  He was a brilliant writer across a wide range of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, but he achieved particular renown for his philosophical tales such as that of Candide referred to above.  These are fictional texts which through their narratives and characters allowed him to explore important moral and philosophical themes.  They were a vehicle perfectly suited to Voltaire’s satirical genius.  Placing figures with which his audience would be familiar, either barely disguised real individuals or well-known types, such as courtiers, scholars, physicians, kings, lawyers and clerics, in frequently outlandish settings and plots, he was able to debunk institutions and established beliefs.  Through ridicule he undermined claims to authority, deference and respect.  They enabled him to confront his audience with radical ideas without having to commit himself to any particular position that might leave him vulnerable to prosecution.  His readers would be left to draw their own conclusions from the scenarios he constructed.  Typical themes that he dealt with included justice, government, arrogance, greed, superstition, suffering, pacifism, anticlericalism, religious tolerance, the abuse of power, the limits and relativity of human knowledge, the potential of science and the nature of God.

After Candide and his dispute with Rousseau, Voltaire moved away from philosophical theorising and focussed his energies more on practical action.  He used his wealth and prestige to campaign against injustice and intolerance (including specific abuses of power by the Church and State).  A notable example was that of the Huguenot merchant Jean Calas who, in 1763, had been brutally tortured to death after having been wrongfully convicted of the murder of his son.  Voltaire eventually succeeded in having the verdict overturned.  Ironically, he was himself quite an intolerant man.  In particular, he was anti-semitic.  Other crusades he fought for included the abolition of slavery and serfdom, freedom of thought, free trade, judicial reforms and an end to war.  Influential personages from all over Europe visited him.  He produced numerous anonymous texts which he had distributed throughout the Continent.  He corresponded with the best part of two thousand people from all walks of life.  It was also during this time that he wrote his Dictionnaire Philosophique.  He was a patron to young writers and a critic who pronounced on what was worth reading and what was not.

In February 1778 the 84-year-old Voltaire was allowed to return to Paris.  He was an international celebrity who received a rapturous welcome and was feted by both the ordinary peasants and the Parisian elite.  The demands upon him, however, took their toll and, exhausted, on the 30th May he died (followed just a few weeks later, coincidentally, by Rousseau).  In 1791, two years after the French Revolution, his body was exhumed and moved to the Pantheon of heroes in recognition of his fight against injustice and abuses of power.  However, when the Revolution became more radical it was Rousseau, who had bitterly criticised Voltaire, who became the favoured son and Voltaire’s own reputation suffered as a result.

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2018)


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