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A-Z of thought: Voltaire

Jonathan Hill


Voltaire was a sage in the mould of Cicero, Johnson, and Wilde. He did not set out a systematic "philosophy" in a series of dry tomes. He lived his philosophy, and his writings were an expression of his life.

That life was one long rebellion against authority. Born in 1694 in Paris, into a wealthy, aristocratic family, François-Marie d'Arouet abandoned the respectable career of public service that his father planned for him and began publishing plays and poems under the pen name Voltaire. His biting wit endeared him to elite Parisian society, but it also got him into trouble; in 1726, accused of defamation, he fled for England. Here he immersed himself in English liberal philosophy, natural science, and religious free thought.

Returning to France in 1729, Voltaire decided to educate his fellow countrymen in the ideas he had learned in England. The resulting work, Philosophical letters, was published in 1734 to enormous controversy; the authorities banned the book, and Voltaire fled to Cirey, the estate of his close friend and collaborator, the Marquise du Châtelet. Here he unleashed a flood of writings extolling English philosophy, especially the physics of Newton over that of Descartes. By 1749, when he left Cirey for the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, he had largely converted the French scientific establishment to Newtonianism.

Voltaire did not last long in Berlin, thanks to a satire he wrote mocking the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences there, and he eventually ended up in Ferney, in Switzerland. Here he continued to write voluminously and entertain the intellectual elite (and rebels) of Europe until 1778. In that year he returned to Paris, to enormous public acclaim, and died there shortly after.

In his writings, as in his life, Voltaire fought against what he regarded as unjust authority and irrationality. He took "Crush infamy!" to be his slogan, and he set about crushing it with the aid of a potent philosophical mixture of rational scepticism and broadly hedonistic ethics. His Treatise against intolerance of 1764 condemned the atrocities that people had committed throughout history in the name of religion, and pleaded for the freedom of each individual to believe as he choose. He especially hated what he perceived as the superstition and oppression of the Catholic Church. As a deist, Voltaire believed in God, but only in what could be rationally demonstrated about God, and he mocked what he regarded as the absurdities of Catholic doctrine, such as the notion that one could eat or drink God.

Voltaire's attacks were not always fair. His comic novel Candide, a satire on the optimistic philosophy associated with Leibniz, which held that God always does what is best, caricatured the unfortunate Leibniz so mercilessly (and so unfairly) that his reputation in the popular mind has still not recovered. But his attacks were always motivated by justice and common sense, as well as being couched in the wit and humour that has kept them widely read ever since. Voltaire was indefatigable in his crusade for what he believed was right; he was one of the principal contributors to Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopaedia, an immense multi-volume compendium of Enlightenment learning and ideas, and he supplemented it with his own Philosophical dictionary. In so doing, he helped to forge our modern, western ideals of liberalism and tolerance, in religion as well as in politics.

Jonathan Hill