François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694. His father, a well-established lawyer, sent him to the best school in the capital, and by all accounts he was a brilliant student. The young Arouet decided at an early age to make his name as a writer – to remake his name, to be precise, as the first thing he did was to change his name to Voltaire. The eighteenth century is often referred to as the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment, sometimes as the Age of Voltaire. So changing his name was a good call – “the Age of Arouet” would just not have worked.
Voltaire was precociously talented as a poet. At the age of only 24, he had his first verse tragedy performed at the Comédie française. By then he had already begun work on an epic poem about the French religious civil wars of the sixteenth century, a poem glorifying Henry IV as the king who brought peace by pragmatically converting from Protestantism to Catholicism. This was a subject dear to Voltaire’s heart, for under the guise of writing a national epic, he was able to dwell at length on the bloody consequences of religious intolerance.
Right from the start, Voltaire’s views on religion are expressed robustly. He was not an atheist, in part because he thought that some minimal belief in a deity was useful for social cohesion. Voltaire’s God created the world, instilled in us a sense of good and evil, and then basically took a back seat. This is rational religion – known in the eighteenth century under the name of natural religion or deism – and it has no truck with metaphysics of any kind. Voltaire was a man of reason who loathed fanaticism, idolatry, superstition. That men can kill each other to defend some bit of religious doctrine which they scarcely understand is something he found repellent. And he reserved his greatest hatred for the clerics who exploited the credulity of believers to maintain their own power base. Voltaire wanted religion without the Church.
For obvious reasons, the Catholic authorities were not keen for Voltaire’s poem about Henry IV, La Henriade, to be published in France. So Voltaire decided to publish his poem in London instead, and in 1726 he travelled to England. What began as a business trip soon turned into something different, and Voltaire ended up staying in England for some two and a half years. He learned English, got to know writers and politicians, and became a great admirer of English (Protestant) culture. He decided to write a book about his experience of England, and the Letters Concerning the English Nation appeared first in English in 1733. The French authorities were horrified, the book was censored, and Voltaire only narrowly avoided prison.
The book presents an informal portrait of English culture in a witty and ironical style, looking in turn at religion, politics, science and literature. Here, for example, is how Voltaire presents the Royal Exchange, a handsome building in the heart of the City, where merchants from across the world met to transact business:
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptised in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost: that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. If one religion only were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there as such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.
The message is clear: religious differences are trivial and separate men, while trade is important and brings them together. His conclusion, that the plurality of religions in England leads to a more peaceful society, is of course a covert criticism of France, where the Catholic Church was dominant.
The Letters Concerning the English Nation also discuss Locke and Newton, thinkers then poorly known in France. The subject-matter might seem challenging, but Voltaire is a past master at popularising difficult material. Ask any schoolchild today what they know about Newton, and they’ll tell you about the apple falling on his head – and the survival of this anecdote is due entirely to Voltaire. He heard it apparently from Newton’s niece, and immediately understood that this simple homely image was the perfect way of conveying the simplicity of Newton’s explanation of the force of gravity. After Voltaire used the story in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, everyone remembered it, and Voltaire left his mark on English popular culture.
Voltaire struggled with the question of good and evil, the problem at the heart of his best known work, Candide. This short satirical novel first appeared in 1759, and was a best-seller from the moment it was published. Translated into every possible language, it remains the most widely read work of the European Enlightenment. It has even left its mark on our language. Expressions like pour encourager les autres [‘to encourage the others’] or il faut cultiver le jardin [‘we must cultivate the garden’] have entered common usage. In the best of all possible worlds – yes, that’s another one – speakers of French or English quote Candide without even realising it… – and that’s the sure mark of a classic.
Candide is a timeless work, a satire of the human condition. It is also a work of the Enlightenment, and its philosophical theme is announced in the title: Candide or Optimism. The hero of Candide, as his name tells us, is an innocent, an anti-hero. He is in thrall to his tutor Pangloss who preaches the philosophy of Optimism. This is not ‘optimism’ in the modern sense of ‘looking on the bright side’. Optimism, spelled with a capital O, and as expounded by the German philosopher Leibniz, was an attempt to answer the age-old problem of evil. Why, if God is good, does he permit the existence of evil in the world? To which the eighteenth-century Optimist replies, evil is all part of some greater pattern of good: ‘All partial evil, universal good’ as the English poet Pope put it. In other words, evil doesn’t really exist at all, it is just something which man imagines because of his limited view of the world.
You might think this sounds like a bit of a confidence trick – Voltaire certainly did – but this idea found widespread acceptance in the eighteenth century. Candide puts this philosophy to the test. Ejected from his comfortable home in an obscure German castle after trying to seduce the Baron’s beautiful daughter Cunégonde, he undergoes many trials and tribulations: conscripted into the army, he fights in a war, then deserts, only to find himself a witness to an earthquake in Lisbon – a reference to a recent event in which some 40,000 people had perished. Candide is repeatedly brought face to face with evil in its most extreme forms – moral evil, in the case of the earthquake, where man is not apparently to blame; and most of all human evil, such as the war, where man is very definitely to blame. Pangloss’s breezy Optimism is clearly an inadequate response to enormities on this scale. Eventually, even Candide comes to realise this:
And sometimes Pangloss would say to Candide: ‘All events form a chain in the best of all possible worlds. For in the end, if you had not been given a good kick up the backside and chased out of a beautiful castle for loving Miss Cunégonde, and if you hadn’t been subjected to the Inquisition, and if you hadn’t wandered about America on foot, and if you hadn’t dealt the Baron a good blow with your sword, and if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from that fine country of El Dorado, you wouldn’t be here now eating candied citron and pistachio nuts.’
‘That is well put,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.’
After 1760, Voltaire took up residence in the château at Ferney, just outside Geneva. By now he was the most famous living writer in Europe, and he became widely known as the ‘patriarch of Ferney’. He took up a number of public causes. In 1761, a Protestant merchant Jean Calas was accused of murdering his son and sentenced by the judges of Toulouse to be tortured and then broken on the wheel. The legal processes were to say the least irregular, and the suspicion grew that the judges in this Catholic city had acted with excessive zeal out of religious bigotry. Voltaire became involved in the case, and mounted an energetic campaign to rehabilitate Calas’ memory and to help the members of his family, who had been left destitute. He wrote letters to those in authority and published a stream of pamphlets, culminating in 1763 in his Traité sur la tolérance (‘Treatise on Toleration’), which begins with the historical facts of the Calas case and broadens out into a history of religious intolerance in European culture.
Voltaire’s writings had enormous impact on public opinion, and eventually the judges in Paris quashed the judgment of the Toulouse court. Too late to save Calas, but a huge victory for Voltaire, who had learned an important lesson about how change could be brought about through the pressure of public opinion. ‘Opinion rules the world,’ he wrote in 1764, ‘but in the long run it is the philosophers who shape this opinion.’
Voltaire said of himself that he ‘wrote to act’, and he wanted his writings to change the way people thought and behaved. In leading his crusades against fanaticism, he even invented a campaign slogan, Ecrasez l’Infâme!, which translates roughly as ‘Crush the despicable!’. L’Infâme stands here for everything that Voltaire hates, everything that he had spent his life fighting: superstition, intolerance, irrational behaviour of every kind.
And we should never forget that he was a brilliant writer, one of the greatest stylist the French language has ever known. The power of his ideas had a lot to do with the power of his expression: many writers made fun of miracles, no one did it so hilariously as Voltaire. Always, Voltaire has an ear for the telling phrase: ‘If God had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him’ – it’s a good line, even in English, and better still in the original French, where it is more memorable because it is a classical alexandrine line in 12 syllables:
Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.
Voltaire’s legacy in our present debates about religious toleration remains potent. Hardly a week passes without an article in the press quoting ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This rallying cry of tolerant multiculturalism is so potent, that if Voltaire hadn’t said it, we would have had to invent it. Which is what happened – the expression was invented, by an Englishwoman in 1906. No matter – it expresses a truth which is fundamentally important to our culture, so we have adopted the phrase and decided that Voltaire said it. Voltaire’s name has become synonymous with a set of liberal values: freedom of speech, rejection of bigotry and superstition, belief in reason and tolerance. It is a unique and precious legacy.
Written by Professor Nicholas Cronk