Worshiper of Reason
By Gabriel Blanchard
Voltaire represents a major intellectual turning point in European civilization.
Eighteenth-century France was arguably the epicenter of the Enlightenment. This period was turning point between the Reformation and its attendant religious wars throughout Europe, and what we think of as modernity proper, the industrial age. Philosophically, it was a period of considerable upheaval: Christianity was challenged, Protestant and Catholic alike; classical Liberalism emerged and opposed or modified whole political systems; empiricism, skepticism, and rationalism became mainstream schools of thought. No single figure embodied all these changes more than a certain François-Marie Arouet, who wrote under the name Voltaire.
Author of dozens of pamphlets, plays, histories, essays, novels, and poems, Voltaire advanced arguments in favor of religious toleration and was highly critical of the monarchy, both for its persecution of French Jews and Protestants and for its absolutism in general. He was not enthusiastic about religion himself, to put it mildly: though a convinced deist, he regarded most religions as thoroughly corrupt and superstitious (though he admired Confucianism). He was even reported, probably inaccurately, to have replied on his deathbed to a priest who asked him to renounce the devil, “Now now, my good man, this is no time to be making enemies.” He is known to have used the slogan Écrasez l’infâme, “Smash the infamy,” in reference to abuses of royal and religious power, and was celebrated for his posthumous exoneration of Jean Calas, a Huguenot tortured and executed on false charges of murdering his son.
His hostility to crown and crozier alike was met with an equal hostility from the authorities, particularly the Jesuit order, and he spent much of his life in exile from France, voluntary or involuntary. After a brief imprisonment in the Bastille, Voltaire spent two and a half years living in England, where he rubbed shoulders with figures like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. He also spent two extended periods as the guest of Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, and lived for some time in Geneva as well.
In addition to politics and philosophy, he had a major impact on how history was approached as a scholarly discipline. He questioned and re-checked evidence rather than taking sources at their word, and tended to focus on social and cultural phenomena rather than political, diplomatic, and military affairs.
In 1791, thirteen years after his death, Voltaire’s remains were brought to Paris by the revolutionaries. In a way this encapsulates his legacy. The French and American Revolutions have directed politics ever since, not only in their own nations, but around the globe, both by example and by direct intervention.
Cover image of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace, France, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.