François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire encapsulates the spirit of the French Enlightenment in both his refusal to develop a philosophical system and his clear concern for social and political issues.

But he is also representative of the eighteenth century in his deep attachment to John Locke’s epistemological thought, his emphasis on the limited nature of human understanding, and his commitment to popularizing philosophy, especially by handling it through the medium of novels and tales in which irony often functions as an ad hominem argument.

It is thus that he fulfilled the role of philosopher and that his philosophy met the needs of his times, times characterized by a break with seventeenth-century dogmatism and an intensification of the critique of the political and religious spheres aiming to bring forth a morality on the human scale, centered on the values of tolerance and respect for others. Those values were soon to bear fruit in the doctrine of the Rights of Man.

Collège Louis-le-Grand
Collège Louis-le-Grand

Born in Paris to an established bourgeois Parisian family, François-Marie Arouet, who took the name Voltaire in 1718, received a sound education from his Jesuit teachers at the Collège Louis-le-Grand and soon managed to make his way into the most brilliant Parisian intellectual milieu of his time. There, he gave evidence of his poetic talent and satiric verve—the latter cost him a brief exile to the Netherlands in 1713 and periods of imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717–1718.

In the years that followed, he issued an epic poem, Henriade (1723), celebrating the tolerance of King Henry IV of France and entrenching his literary prestige on the Parisian intellectual scene. A romantic quarrel with the chevalier de Rohan in 1726 resulted in Voltaire’s being exiled to England, where he lived until 1728, taking advantage of the circumstances to improve his English and absorb English culture, especially in the field of philosophy.

During this period, he read William Shakespeare, deepened his knowledge of Locke and Isaac Newton, became familiar with Deism, and made the acquaintance of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and doubtless George Berkeley. This sojourn also enabled him to take a detached perspective on French intellectual, political, and religious life.

Temple du goût
Temple du goût

On his return to France, he published Temple du goût (1733), which anticipates his praise for French classicism in 1751 in Siècle de Louis XIV; Épître à Uranie (1732), an early challenge to the notion of divine goodness; and the famous Lettres philosophiques (1734), which contain the essentials of the philosophical plan he subsequently sought to carry out.

These were followed by Remarques sur les pensées de Pascal (1734). The publication of Lettres philosophiques, which discredited the regime under which France was governed by contrasting it to the more liberal English model, resulted in exile once again, this time to the home of Madame du Châtelet in Lorraine.

Voltaire took advantage of this extended retreat (1734–1749)— which was broken up by excursions to Paris and Sceaux to advance his candidacy for official positions (historiographer royal in 1745 and election to the Académie française in 1746)—to produce the some fifty tragedies and comedies that won him literary renown; gather together documents on history; work on philosophy (Traité de métaphysique dates from 1734); and publish his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738), on the thinker with whose approach to physics Voltaire’s metaphysical theism was in sympathy.

Frederick II of Prussia
Frederick II of Prussia

After Madame du Châtelet’s death in 1749 and a brief stay in Paris, Voltaire went into voluntary exile at the court of Frederick II of Prussia, with whom he had been corresponding for years. It was during his Prussian period, in 1751, that he published Siècle de Louis XIV. A quarrel with Frederick about a diatribe against Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis published by Voltaire led to his departure from Berlin in 1753. He went to Paris and from there to Geneva, Switzerland, where he settled in 1755.

His Geneva period saw the start of his collaboration on the Encyclopédie, the publication of his Essai sur les moeurs (1756), and the production of works, like the celebrated Candide, that were increasingly critical of established religion. To protect himself against possible reprisal, Voltaire decided in 1760 to permanently settle in Ferney, France,which sits near the French-Swiss border.

It was here that he became truly celebrated and his home took its place among the most fertile centers of intellectual activity of the time, thanks to his sustained correspondence with the elite of Europe, including Catherine II of Russia.

Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia

Here, too, he wrote many novels and tales that enhanced his fame and he took up his role as the opponent of injustice, defending victims of intolerance and fanaticism. A case in point is his well-known struggle on behalf of the Protestant merchant Jean Calas, who was unjustly condemned, tortured, and executed.

Philosophy

Although he was fully familiar with the French tradition, especially Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, and Pierre Bayle, thinkers with a common interest in skepticism, following his stay in London Voltaire drew the essentials of his philosophical position from the English tradition.

From Locke’s thought, he adopted the critique of the notion of innate ideas; the role assigned to philosophical inquiry as the means for best determining the faculties and limits of human understanding; and the acceptance of the unknowable nature of the essence of things.

Philosophy
Philosophy

These precepts set him on the road to ontological skepticism. Doubt regarding external things was mirrored by doubt about human interiority, concerning that it is possible to believe that its distinguishing constituent, thought, is nothing more than a product of matter.

Locke had indicated the possibility of “thinking matter” and Voltaire gives him a degree of credit for this but does not attempt to decide the question, because, as he says in Le philosophe ignorant (1767), one’s knowledge of substance, whether material or spiritual, is not a given:
Once again, what I am saying is not that it is matter that thinks in us; I am saying, with [Locke], that it does not behoove us to state it is impossible for God to cause matter to think, that it is absurd to state this, and that it is not up to earthworms to limit the power of the Supreme Being
toward atheism
toward atheism

Is Voltaire duping his readers here to lead them toward atheism? Not at all. His invocation of the divine is sincere and flows from his engagement with English thought. For it is from Newton that he drew the notion that the universe is a manifestation of the existence of God and that gravitational physics appears to prove that matter submits to the laws decreed by its creator.

In response to criticism of Newton that characterized gravitational attraction as an occult quality of a kind equivalent to the notorious Cartesian vortices, Voltaire bent to the task of showing that an unknown cause can be proven to exist from its effects.

Thus, even if attraction is not a perceivable thing, it is nevertheless the case that its existence is a true fact, because it is possible to prove its effects and calculate its proportions, even while acknowledging that this phenomenon’s ends are hidden from one and known to God alone. Along the road to probabilistic knowledge of the natural order, Newton had opened up a way by proposing a procedure featuring the integrity and prudence implied by the watchword hypothesis non fingo (I feign no hypotheses).

Newton
Newton

Allying Locke with Newton thus led Voltaire to a theistic vision consisting, on the one hand, of admitting the existence of God, conceived as the sole necessary being—but without saying anything about God’s attributes nor the ends of God’s creation—while on the other hand admitting the existence of a finite and contingent matter that requires divine aid to be set in motion.

Metaphysics

The Ontological Status of Reality.

Anticipating the definition of metaphysics proposed by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac in his Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746), in which “ambitious metaphysics,” which presumes to discover all and know all, is distinguished from “restrained metaphysics,” which contains its inquiries within the limits of the weaknesses of the human mind, Voltaire, following in Locke’s footsteps, conceives of metaphysics as a naturally limited science whose methods can only be founded on empiricism. As he wrote to Frederick II, “Metaphysics, in my opinion, is made up of two things, the first what all men of good sense know, the second what they will never know.”

In this light, Voltaire’s skepticism can be termed Zetetic (to make use of an ancient term): that is, it is perennially in search of truth, even though truth is by nature destined to escape it, and it perennially revisits its own assumptions, accepting that over time some of its initial convictions will be subjected to critique or abandoned.

Ontological status
Ontological status

If there is one point on which Voltaire’s position was to remain unchanged, it is surely the existence of two opposed substances: God and matter. His conviction on this score led him to oppose both the materialists and Berkeley’s immaterialism. Still, Voltaire’s conception of the relationship between these two substances underwent continuous change. The existence of matter appears obvious, at least in its phenomenal manifestation: it is sufficient to allow objects to take their effect on the senses to be persuaded of their presence.

Belief in the existence of God rests on two banal proofs, recalled in Traité de métaphysique: the proof from ultimate causation (God is the architect of a world that acknowledges its Demiurge) and the proof a contingentia mundi, according to which the ultimate reason for things can only be found in a necessary Being who constitutes the ultimate explanation for them. (Voltaire subsequently abandoned the latter proof, retaining only the teleological one.)

There flows from this the existence of this necessary Being, conceived as infinite, whose infinity is expressed through its eternity, immensity, and omnipotence. One can see why Voltaire opposed materialism all his life: it appeared to him to be an untenable form of reductionism, as well as to confuse two distinct levels by ascribing the quality of necessity to necessarily contingent matter.

Having acknowledged the existence of two substances, it is necessary to consider their relationship and in particular the two delicate matters of creation and of the existence of evil. The problem of creation is presented as early as Traité de métaphysique in the form of a set of alternatives: Either God drew the world out of nothing- ness or else he drew the world out of himself.

drawn from nothing
drawn from nothing

The first alternative is doubtful: How can something be drawn from nothing? The second is equally so: It comes down to conceiving the world as a part of the divine essence. Logically, then, one must conclude that the world has eternal existence, but that would presuppose an eternity other than divine eternity.

The Phenomenal Status of Reality

So much for relations between God and the material world. What of the more specific relationship between the soul and the body? First, it is necessary to be able to be sure of the existence of the soul.

Now, if God has the power to give to matter the possibility of thought, why would he burden himself with useless substance? Called on to choose between pure idealism and strict materialism, Voltaire preferred to invoke his ignorance of this subject and to maintain doubt, “because it is just as presumptuous to say that a body organized by God Himself cannot receive the thought of God Himself as it is ridiculous to say that spirit cannot think”.

Phenomenal Status
Phenomenal Status

It is easy to foresee that doubt would also prevail on the question of the form taken by human freedom, which may in reality consist of pure material determinism or be a reflection within one of divine freedom.

In fact, over time, Voltaire did come close to a deterministic position that led him, in the name of the principle of parsimony (which makes it superfluous to hypothesize a soul acting on the body), to explain the process of cognition wholly in materialist terms and to deny the Cartesian concepts of liberty of indifference and free will.

Thus, in the entry on freedom in the Dictionnaire philosophique, freedom is defined strictly in negative terms, as the ability to do what one wishes, or rather as will that is determined by the set of causes that constitute the world —causes that ultimately refer to a prime mover that is their reason.

Nicolas Malebranche
Nicolas Malebranche

The materialism that makes it possible to describe the order of the world and the laws of that order, and thus human actions as a part of it, must always be framed as being dependent on a spiritual principle that is alone capable of explaining its proper functioning.

This accounts for Voltaire’s glowing praise of Nicolas Malebranche in Tout en Dieu, since occasionalism is the system that provides the most correct explanation for the interactions that occur in the world, which at bottom have only one true cause: God.

Philosophical Optimism

Whereas Voltaire’s position on the question of creation and divine and human freedom evolved only somewhat, there is one problem in connection with which his intellectual evolution was radical, that of the existence of evil.

Philosophical Optimism
Philosophical Optimism

In his early writings, he seems not to grasp the real difficulty posed by the existence of physical and moral suffering (and in this he is close to Pope and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), making it vanish by adopting the perspective of the whole: If, since God himself is good, the organization of the universe as a whole is good, then the evil that one sees appearing here and there is justified at the holistic level.

Indeed, it may not even be evil, since the notion of evil is always relative and its existence undoubtedly has a function, that of revealing the beauty of the whole, just as shadows are necessary to accentuate the effects of light in a picture.

But the 1755 Lisbon earthquake played for Voltaire the role that Auschwitz and Dachau played for philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century: it was a revelation of evil that is absolute because wholly gratuitous. Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756) and Candide (1759) show Voltaire attaining awareness of the positive existence of evil, evil that appears to have no possible justification.

natural laws
natural laws

And yet God exists and, as a free being, he must be responsible for the disasters caused by the natural laws that he has willed. Must one therefore assign the fault to God, which would constitute true blasphemy? Voltaire is unafraid to affirm precisely that: since evil exists, it must be necessary that this be so, with evil being a necessary condition of divine action.

In contrast to Leibniz, who claims to justify the existence of evil and thus rescue the principle of God’s goodness, Voltaire seeks to excuse God by showing that undoubtedly he did his best but did not create the best of all possible worlds, and by acknowledging that the ultimate explanation for the reality of evil exceeds the bounds of one’s understanding.

Religion and Ethics

If one restricts oneself to the etymological significance of the word religion, which evokes the linking of individuals to one another, Voltaire must be said not to have had a religion, because for him the relationship with the divine is strictly personal and requires no collective rite. But if one agrees to conceive of religion as a specific relationship linking the human to the divine, Voltaire was a fully religious person.

Religion and Ethics
Religion and Ethics

To be religious is, for Voltaire to worship God as the reasonable cause of everything that happens; to thank him for having allowed one to benefit from it and marvel at it; and not to seek to adopt the divine perspective and claim thereby to understand its decrees, but to wish humbly to understand why something that happens in one way does not happen in another.

It is thus up to reason to lead one to the Supreme Being, which is itself universal reason, and not up to faith, which wraps things up in mystery and relies on miracles to better subordinate weak minds and enable priests to exercise power over them. Voltaire’s theism is in no sense a natural theology; but it aims to be a purified form of natural religion, along the lines set down by Herbert of Cherbury, and is wholly opposed to both positive religion and atheism.

Voltaire’s opposition to atheism is categorical and rests on a simple argument: The laws of the physical world are so reasonable that they necessarily presuppose an intelligent artisan. His opposition to established religion is equally categorical. His celebrated watchword, “Écrasez l’infâme (Erase the infamy),” is a reminder of how violently he struggled against Christianity, especially toward the end of his life, when fear of political power, the enforcer of religious power, had diminished in him.

human values
human values

His exasperation was directed less against the message of Christ, which he incorporated into a universalist conception of human values, than against what the church as an institution had done with that message and against the methods it had used to disseminate it (e.g., superstition, the worship of relics, faith in miracles, the establishment of the Inquisition, and incitement to fanaticism).

In his struggle against “l’infâme,” he used every available weapon and did not hesitate to borrow alike from Christians and atheists, skeptics and deists,—those of their arguments that seemed to him the strongest. Over the course of this long struggle, Voltaire’s immense erudition stood him in good stead, and he was effective at searching out the most convincing reasoning wherever necessary, turning to the European scholarship of previous centuries as well as to his contemporaries.

He invoked Italian (Giordano Bruno and Giulio Cesare Vanini), English (John Toland, Anthony Collins, Matthew Tindal, Thomas Woolston, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, and Thomas Chubb), German (Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, and Desiderius Erasmus), and French writers (Théophile de Viau, Jacques Vallée des Barreaux, François de La Mothe Le Vayer, Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis [Seigneur de Saint-Évremond], Pierre Bayle, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie).

Jean Meslier
Jean Meslier

In 1762, Voltaire went so far as to publish a long extract from the Testament of Jean Meslier, a text that was extremely hard on Christianity, written by one who knew it well because he had served it for many years as the curé of Étrépigny, France. Voltaire took care to touch up the text perceptibly, with a view to preserving natural religion and keeping only those criticisms that targeted revealed religion.

Why preserve natural religion and not be satisfied with an internal religion that would amount at bottom to a system of morality? This is accounted for by Voltaire’s anthropological pessimism. Human beings would not respect the rules of morality if there was no religion to bring those rules before their consciences.

In truth, religion and morality are one and the same, as is to be inferred from a formulation found in chapter 4 of the Oreilles du comte de Chesterfield et le chapelain Goudman (1775): “Let us do our duty to God, let us worship Him, let us be just: that is what our true praise and true prayers consist of.” (Oeuvres complètes, ed. Moland, vol. 39). In other words, religion is the morality of the weak and morality the religion of the strong.

moral law
moral law

It would be possible to do without religion if everyone was wise and respected the moral law engraved in every heart. But that is not the case, and that is why religion retains its usefulness, as does the notion of punishment and reward following death, which alone can serve to temper bad inclinations and make social life not only possible but indeed agreeable.

But what morality is one speaking of, and how does Voltaire picture it? On this score, it is possible to draw an analogy between the natural world and the moral world. Just as the laws of the natural world can be uncovered by one who applies one’s intelligence to the matter, those of the moral world are unveiled if one takes the trouble to reflect on them; and in light of such reflection, they lead one to distinguish right from wrong.

What makes it possible to differentiate morality from particular systems of ethics specific to a given people is its universality, that it transcends not just borders but centuries. The beauty of a moral act does not change with time; the truth of moral values is not subject to relativism. Thus, it will always be right to defend the poor and the oppressed and always wrong to condemn without proof.

kind of immortality
kind of immortality

That is how setting an example of virtue by practicing it confers a kind of immortality. In the West, Socrates exemplifies this truth; in the East, Confucius. At bottom, in the eyes of Voltaire (who on this score is heir to the Greeks), a philosopher’s value resides more in the way he or she has lived life than in the system he or she has sought to build.
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