Voltaire was born in the final years of the seventeenth century and died a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution. Christened François Marie Arouet, he subsequently assumed his name to Voltaire. In fact, Voltaire was a central and quintessential figure of the eighteenth century, so much so that this era has sometimes been called the “Age of Voltaire.” At a time when French culture dominated Europe, Voltaire dominated French culture and made major contributions to almost every sphere of human intellectual activity – the sciences, trade and commerce, politics, and most particularly the arts. But most of all Voltaire was a writer. To him, writing was more than just an expression of his thoughts. He viewed writing as an instrument of self-assertion in the world (Gray 5). He wrote plays, epic verses, philosophical tales, over twenty thousand letters, and innumerable essays and pamphlets (Gray 5). It is interesting to study the writings of Voltaire as they span the Age of Enlightenment.
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In Europe, the eighteenth century was a period of intellectual, social, and political ferment. This time is often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. In academia, progress was made in the fields of calculus and mechanics and these influenced thinking about the workings of the universe. Politically, the ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and others gave wake to a notion of democracy that ultimately replaced the monarchical power structure on the European continent. By the middle of the 18th century, the economic ideas of Adam Smith would provide the intellectual basis for the development of modern capitalism. For the first time, science became a central piece of public discourse. There was rapid democratization of scientific knowledge through the founding of two institutions: the Paris Academy and the Royal Society of London. Scientific journals were published by academies and sometimes by private sources. By the middle of the 18th century, the scientific revolution was in full swing. However, it was Voltaire who undertook the task of interpreting history as a whole from the point of view of the Enlightenment. The thinkers of the period often ignored the historical past. Their belief in the new society which they were attempting to create led to a contemptuous attitude towards earlier forms of society. They strove to separate history from legend and to make the past appear as rational as the present. They aimed at being truly universal and believed that all nations had contributed to the progress of mankind.
Two long poems, La Henriade, and La Pucelle d’Orléans were the earliest of Voltaire’s writings. The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil (Brumfitt 6). The Pucelle revolved around the themes of religion and history. In his poem La Pucelle d’Orleans (1759) Voltaire uses the saintly status of Joan of Arc to mock blind faith in religious superstition. Voltaire used many allusions in his work Siecle de Louis XIV. People resorted to guessing who the mysterious prisoner was in the work of Voltaire. In the segmented and edition of 1753, Voltaire says that the prisoner was “a young unknown prisoner, of a tall and noble figure,…” and “When this mysterious person was sent to the Island of St. Margarette, no distinguished person in Europe was missing” (Oxford University 174). The allusions of Voltaire denoted clearly a brother of Louis XIV, a natural son of Anna of Austria, whose father was said to be either King Louis himself or the Cardinal Richelieu or the Duke of Buckingham or the Count of Ranzau (Oxford University 174).
Voltaire also participated in the brilliant social life that characterized his age and earned a reputation as a great conversationalist. By the mid-1700s, Voltaire was commonly recognized as the greatest writer of his time. He spent the years 1726-28 in London where he became familiar with the cultural elements of England: the language, literature, and philosophy (Brumfitt 6). When he returned to France, in 1734 he published his Philosophical Letters, a series of reflections on the religious, political, and intellectual practices of the English. In 1738 he completed his Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, which helped him bring new scientific ideas to the French reading public (Brumfitt 7). He soon began to write historical works, the most important one being The Age of Louis XIV (1752). His other historical works are History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731); 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) (Brumfitt 8). He also composed philosophical meditations such as the seven-part Discourse on Man. Beneath all this formal diversity, a fundamental unity characterized Voltaire’s works. He was basically a philosophe and in this role, he denounced prejudice, and injustice, particularly religious intolerance; ridiculed excessively rigid thought systems of all sorts; argued that all forms of authority should be judged on the basis of reason; and questioned the appropriateness of existing governmental institutions.
Like his contemporary Montesquieu, Voltaire too was keenly interested in foreign cultures. The Enlightenment thinkers considered European traditions absurd and they used global diversity to show the arbitrary nature and to question the legitimacy of traditional laws. Thus these thinkers often were lead to provoking the Church and government officials. As advocates of reform, they opposed the French monarchy that seemed to have little tolerance for oppositional commentary. Voltaire was plagued by fears of censorship and persecution. Hence he often resorted to elaborate strategies to publish his works dodging official control. One such method was a literary form he perfected called the philosophical tale. This genre evolved out of what was originally his pastime. The One-Eyed Porter was a story he spun in 1714 drawing on the libertine tradition of La Fontaine (Iverson viii). In his, Voltaire spun out a story containing allusions to his hostess and her “two tiny hands white and more delicate than lilies”. In the 1730s he composed a story that was later known as “Micromegas”. Visualizing an intergalactic voyage, he explored some of the scientific issues with his mistress and intellectual companion Madame Du Chatelet. He included allusions to contemporaries (Iverson viii). The publication of Zadig in 1747 indicated a major shift in Voltaire’s attitude. Voltaire took great precautions to prevent the text from being pirated. One half was printed in Paris and the other in the provinces. In this, he attacked the corruption, intrigue, hypocrisy, and cupidity of the period. His acerbic wit is used against doctors, theologians, financiers, and ministers (Iverson ix). In Zadig, the philosophical tale is used as a powerful vehicle for analyzing the inconsistencies of the world (Iverson viii). Voltaire used many narrative solutions to propagate his philosophical message: a moral tale, sentimental novel, satire, dialogue, allegory, anecdote, and historical survey (Iverson x). He was also witty in his writings (Iverson xi). Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism; L’Homme aux quarante ecus attacks certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others opposed the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, and Voltaire sometimes wrote to deride the Bible.
In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, Voltaire displayed journalistic skills. In pure literary criticism, his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille. Voltaire’s works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word “l’infâme” and the expression “écrasez l’infâme, or “crush the infamy”. The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre. Thus, Voltaire traces the society of the period through his writings.
Zaire was one of Voltaire’s greatest tragedies. In this work, the main protagonist is Orosmanes, a noble character. Christianity stands between him and his union with a pious woman. Orosmanes does not believe in Christianity; he weeps for Zaire, whose mind is distracted by filial affection, and who is a willing victim of a superstitious prejudice that forbids her to love a man of a different sect. Zaire is said to be a weak allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello and thereby a reference to the school of bigotry, falsehood, and murder (Krappe, 305). Voltaire’s largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the Encyclopédie and several minor pieces. It directed criticism at French political institutions, Voltaire’s personal enemies, the Bible, and the Roman Catholic Church. Voltaire was a critic of France’s colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as “a few acres of snow” (“quelques arpents de neige”).
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Candide is a satire of the Old Regime ideologies wherein he criticizes the political, social, and religious ideals of his time. A common intellectual characteristic of the Enlightenment was anti-feudalism. Philosophers were against the separations in the Old Regime and pushed for equality among human beings. Voltaire parodies the pompousness of the nobility several times throughout his novel. As we are introduced to Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh, Voltaire describes his castle as luxurious, even though it is inferred that Westphalia is only a moderate estate. Candide also satirized the philosophy of Leibniz (Clive 19). Candide was also subject to censorship and Voltaire sarcastically remarked that the actual author was a certain “Dr DeMad” in a letter. Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”), contained in a verse epistle from 1768 (Columbia Encyclopedia 50469).
In Candide, Voltaire satirizes organized religion through a series of characters in the novel that are portrayed as corrupt, hypocritical, and religious. One of the characters is the daughter of a Pope. As a Catholic priest, he should have been celibate. The very presence of his daughter shows his hypocritical nature. There is a hard-line Catholic Inquisitor who hypocritically keeps a mistress and a Franciscan friar who operates as a jewel thief, despite the vow of poverty taken by members of the Franciscan order. Pangloss, one of the main characters in Candide, reveals that he got his V.D. from religious authorities: “received this present from a very learned Franciscan monk, who owed it to a marquise, who caught it from a Jesuit” (Candide, 48). Voltaire also introduces a Jesuit colonel with marked homosexual tendencies. Moreover, religious leaders in the novel are shown carrying out oppressive acts against those who disagree with them on even the smallest of theological matters. For example, the Inquisition persecutes Pangloss for expressing his ideas and Candide for merely listening to them. However, Voltaire is not totally against religion. Jacques, a member of a radical Protestant sect called the Anabaptists, is arguably the most generous and humane character in the novel. Some quotations of Voltaire from Candide that show his skepticism for the Catholic Church are:
“Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world.”
“It took centuries to build up Christianity, but, I’ll show how one Frenchman can destroy it within 50 years.”
“One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker”1 – Voltaire 1694-1778
In another instance, Voltaire writes about how Candide met a slave with only one arm and one leg, lost as a result of his master’s punishment. “It’s at this price that you eat sugar in Europe,” the slave asserts. Candide bursts out in a fit of sudden pessimistic enlightenment: “I’m through; I must give up [Pangloss’] optimism after all… It is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell”2 (63). Not only was the slave unjustly treated, but Candide learned that his master was a very religious Christian. Thus Voltaire keeps attacking the organized religion of Christianity in a subtle manner.
In the realm of military training, reformers were critical of the poor quality of officer training in the eighteenth century which saw many officers enjoying a pampered social life in which they abandoned their men to their own devices. Voltaire wrote in his Pagegyrique de Saint Louis: ‘Soldiers everywhere are inhuman, quick-tempered and barbarous’. In Candide, he denigrated the armies of Europe as a million men ‘carrying out murder and banditry under military discipline in order to make a living because they did not have a more honest trade’ (Hampson et al 47). Eighteenth-century Europe it appeared was when discussion of its armies was always tinged with cynicism and despair mainly because the reformers found the entire system flawed (Hampson et al 32)
Voltaire, though often thought an atheist, took part in religious activities and even erected a chapel on his estate at Ferney. Voltaire was clearly opposed to religious fanaticism, superstition, metaphysical cant, and tyranny. His criticism was more focused on the actions of organized religion, rather than on the concept of religion itself (Clive 36). Voltaire’s focus was on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature reflected the contemporary Pantheism, increasingly popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which continues in a form of deism today known as “Voltairean Pantheism” (Clive 37) He wrote, “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” (Clive 37). In terms of religious texts, Voltaire held the opinion that the Bible was outdated as a moral reference book. He thought that it held good lessons but it is mainly the work of man and not a divine gift (Clive 38). With all these beliefs, he remained a religious man with a bad reputation in the Catholic Church. Voltaire was also critical of Islam. His play Fanaticism or Mahomet was “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect”; he also referred to Muhammad as “a false prophet” (Clive 38). He relied on Confucianism and Legalism, to draw on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy and also displayed, as part of his Dictionnaire philosophique, an inclination towards the ideas of Hinduism (Clive 38).
As regards society, Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, and the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static force useful only as a counterbalance since its “religious tax” or the tithe helped to create a strong backing for revolutionaries. Voltaire was also skeptical about democracy which he felt was propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire, only an enlightened monarch or an enlightened absolutist, advised by philosophers like him, could bring about positive change and progress.
Thus by studying the writings and allusions of Voltaire, it is possible to get vital clues regarding religion and society in the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Voltaire.
Brumfitt, J. H. (1958). Voltaire: Historian. Oxford University Press. London. 1958.
Clive, Geoffrey (1960). The Romantic Enlightenment. Meridian Books. New York. 1960.
Columbia Encyclopedia (2007). Voltaire, FranÇois Marie Arouet De. The Columbia Encyclopedia. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York. 2007.
Gray, John (1999). Voltaire. Routledge Publishers. 1999.
Hampson, Norman; Crook, Malcolm; Doyle, William and Forrest, I. Alan (2004). Ashgate Publishing Ltd. France. 2004.
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Iverson, John (2001). Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories. Translated by Donald Murdoch Frame. Signet Classic. 2001.
Oxford University (2006). The Southern Literary Messenger. Oxford University Publication. Oxford. 2006.
Voltaire (1918). Candide. Modern Library. New York. 1918.
- Voltaire (1918). Candide. Modern Library. New York. 1918.
- Voltaire (1918). Candide. Modern Library. New York. 1918.