Voltaire  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

François-Marie Arouet (21 November, 169430 May, 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher known for his wit, philosophical sport, and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws in France and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Christian Church dogma and the French institutions of his day.

Contents

Philosophy

Religion

Voltaire did not believe that any single religious text or tradition of revelation was needed to believe in God. Voltaire's focus was rather on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature which reflected the contemporary pantheism.

Like other key thinkers during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a deist, expressing the idea: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."

As for religious texts, Voltaire's opinion of the Bible was mixed. This did not hinder his religious practice, though it did win for him a bad reputation among religious fundamentalists. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...."

Views of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, can be found in Voltaire's writings. In a letter recommending his play Fanaticism, or Mahomet to Pope Benedict XIV, Voltaire described the founder of Islam as "the founder of a false and barbarous sect" and "a false prophet." Elsewhere, his views were more generous, often praising the relative tolerance of Muslim behavior in the lands they conquered (as opposed the Christian Inquisitions) and the fact that its dogmas were written by its founder himself, not based on hearsay, and had not endured the innumerable changes Christian dogmas had. His Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations, contains much fuller accounts on Muhammad and the founding and spread of his religion as do a number of his polemical works on religion.

From translated works on Confucianism and Legalism, Voltaire drew on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy (which were based on rational principles), to look critically at European organized religion and hereditary aristocracy.

Though many books have been written taxing Voltaire with anti-semitism, they do not explain, nor usually even mention, the numerous pamphlets he wrote attacking anti-semitism itself. This apparent contradiction led many to conclude that his remarks were in fact anti-Biblical and not anti-semitic. His "Sermon du rabbin Akib", for example, is a scathing attack on Christian persecution of the Jews, and similar remarks can be found scattered throughout his 200-odd pamphlets and books on religion. It has been pointed out that thirty of the 118 articles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique described the ancient Jews in consistently negative ways, as barbarous, absurd and deeply superstitious; however, this ignores his qualifiers, in which he points out that "all of antiquity was", as a rule. Peter Gay, the best known contemporary authority on the Enlightenment, wrote that "Voltaire struck at the Jews to strike at Christianity," a view shared by certain leading Jewish Voltairians—indeed, the point usually is, if the Jews were cruel and absurd, what can be made of other faiths that declare their histories sacred, yet persecute them? "When I see Christians cursing Jews," he wrote in his English Notebook, "methinks I see children beating their fathers." And posing as a freshly-minted Spanish priest in Les Questions de Zapata, he asks his superiors how how he should go about explaining that the Jews, whom they burn by the hundreds, were the chosen people of God for four thousand years, and why we chant their prayers while burning them. Voltaire grew exceedingly vocal against the Church during the campaign for tolerance of his later years, openly writing that it had been the "consistently implacable enemy of progress, decency, humanity and rationality" and that it had been the Church's interest to "keep people as ignorant and submissive as children".

In the Scottish Enlightenment the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation".

Freemasonry

Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry one month before his death. On April 4, 1778 Voltaire accompanied his close friend Benjamin Franklin into Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, France and became an Entered Apprentice Freemason, perhaps only to please Franklin.

Death and burial

In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in 20 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year old, and he believed he was about to die on February 28, writing "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero.

Because of his well-known criticism of the church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial, but friends managed to bury his body secretly at the abbey of Scellières in Champagne before this prohibition had been announced. His heart and brain were embalmed separately. On 11 July 1791, the National Assembly, which regarded him as a forerunner of the French revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris to enshrine him in the Panthéon. It is estimated that a million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, complete with an orchestra, and the music included a piece that André Grétry composed specially for the event, which included a part for the "tuba curva". This was an instrument that originated in Roman times as the cornu but had been recently revived under a new name.

A widely repeated story that the remains of Voltaire were stolen by religious fanatics in 1814 or 1821 during the Pantheon restoration and thrown into a garbage heap is false. Such rumours resulted in the coffin being opened in 1897, which confirmed that his remains were still present.

Writings

Poetry

From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two long poems, the Henriade and The Maid of Orleans, besides many other smaller pieces.

The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for modern readers but it was a huge success in the 18th and early 19th century, with sixty-five editions and translations into several languages. The epic poem transformed French King Henry IV into a national hero for his attempts at instituting tolerance with his Edict of Nantes. La Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque on the superhuman powers attributed to virginity in the legend of Joan of Arc. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.

Prose

Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz's philosophy of optimism; L'Homme aux quarante ecus, certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others, the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy; and some were written to deride the Bible. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style, free of exaggeration, is apparent, particularly the restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Candide in particular is the best example of his style. Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromégas.

In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar worksTemplate:Ndash sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siècles.

Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme," or "crush the infamous". The phrase refers to abuses to the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre. He also stated that (one of his most famous quotes) "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them".

The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire’s attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall's summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Roche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.

Voltaire's first major philosophical work in his battle against "l'infâme" was the Treatise on Tolerance, exposing the Calas affair, along with the tolerance exercised by other faiths and in other eras (for example, by the Jews, the Romans, the Greeks and the Chinese). Then, in his Dictionnaire philosophique, containing such articles as "Abraham", "Genesis", "Church Council", he wrote about what he perceived as the human origins of dogmas and beliefs, as well as inhuman behavior of religious and political institutions in shedding blood over the quarrels of competing sects.

Amongst other targets, Voltaire criticized France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as "a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige").

Letters

Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totaling over 20,000 letters. Theodore Besterman's collected edition of these letters, completed only in 1964, fills 102 volumes. One historian called the letters "a feast not only of wit and eloquence but of warm friendship, humane feeling, and incisive thought."

Bibliography

Major works

Plays

Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays, including a few unfinished ones. Among them are these:

Historical

  • History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731)
  • The Age of Louis XIV (1752)
  • The Age of Louis XV (1746 - 1752)
  • Annals of the Empire - Charlemagne, A.D. 742 - Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754)
  • Annals of the Empire - Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II (1754)
  • History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol. I 1759; Vol. II 1763)




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