Voltaire

Voltaire is the pen name for the man who began life as François Marie Arouet (1694–1778) and who became one of the most famous and infamous philosophers of the Enlightenment. Voltaire was a celebrity and a controversial figure in his lifetime. His satirical pieces landed him in the Bastille on more than one occasion, but these incarcerations did not cause his quill pen to run dry.

Voltaire was virulently anti-Christian and considered himself to be a Deist. Voltaire bounced around Europe for many years. Invited to leave his native France, he crossed the Channel to England where he learned and wrote in the language. Back in France, he wrote The Philosophical Letters, which got him into more trouble with the Church and political authorities.

In his life, Voltaire was in and out of favor, alternately locked up and the toast of the royal court. He was a prolific writer in a variety of genres, from philosophy to fiction to verse. He was feted in Prussia and run out of Berlin. He finally returned to France where he lived out his remaining years and wrote his magnum opus, Essay on General History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations. This work condemns religion and the Catholic Church.

Deism, a popular belief of the time, is a religious philosophy that believes that, while there is a God, it is an extremely impersonal entity and not the micromanaging and often cantankerous Christian God. Deists often compared the universe to a well-ordered grandfather clock designed by God and then left to tick-tock, and occasionally cuckoo, more or less on its own. The divine manufacturer has no obligations or warranty plan.

Voltaire's most famous work is Candide. It is a scathing satire that lampoons the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who believed that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire did not believe the cliché that “Everything happens for a reason and everything happens for the best.” Voltaire mocks the naïve optimism of his hero, but also champions the indomitable human spirit that can endure such trials and tribulations and emerge sometimes broken, but always unbowed. After learning the hard way that this is not the best of all possible worlds, Candide and his compatriots go off to live simply on an isolated farm, and the lesson learned is straight out of Buddhist philosophy — everyone should simply tend to their own garden, and the world will be a better place.

Voltaire, through his dismissal of metaphysics and his championing of the human spirit, and his belief that fiction and literature should be used as vehicles to promote philosophy and social change, was a precursor to the twentieth-century French existentialists, including Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. But Voltaire, unlike the existentialists, believed in God. He affirmed his faith with characteristic wit when he proclaimed that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. But all nature proclaims that He exists.”

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