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Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Voltaire (1694-1778) pseudonym of Francois Marie Arouet. Voltaire was the most influential author of the 18 th century, an epochal period that changed the thinking and culture of Western Europe.

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voltaire 1694 1778 pseudonym of francois marie arouet
Voltaire (1694-1778)pseudonym of Francois Marie Arouet
  • Voltaire was the most influential author of the 18th century, an epochal period that changed the thinking and culture of Western Europe.
  • He wrote many hundreds of published works and well over 20,000 letters.
  • Voltaire’s published works range from light verse to epic poetry, drama, narrative fiction, essays, a dictionary, philosophical treatises, scientific popularizations to the genre he created, the “philosophical tale” (Kors 1, 452).
voltaire grew up during the reign of louis xiv of france
Voltaire grew up during the Reign of Louis XIV of France
  • Although orthodoxy and censorship limited candor, France under Louis XIV was in a state of intellectual ferment.
  • Because of his wars, the last 15-20 years of Louis XIV’s reign had led to widespread suffering, crippling taxation, agricultural crises and famine.
  • Indirect criticism of Louis’ reign took the form of idealized portrait of great rulers of the past, but moral and political criticism of the monarchy was widespread (Kors 2, 452).

Louis XIV

voltaire s jesuit education
Voltaire’s Jesuit Education
  • Jesuits gave their students a deep grounding in logic, disputation and rhetoric, including the categories of logic, the analysis of argument and the study of debate.
  • Students were encouraged to look for possible objections to what they were being taught or were trying to prove. This way of thinking became a habit of mind for the students.
  • Classics and modern analysis of the classics were stressed.
  • Thus,Voltaire and his fellow students studied the finest pre-Christian models of learning, which were themselves heterodoxical, anti-religious, and satirical (Kors 2, 452).
arouet to voltaire
Arouet to Voltaire
  • In 1715, France experienced the cultural revolution of the Regency of Phillippe, Duc d’Orleans. Censorship was lessened and previously suppressed ideas flourished.
  • In 1714, Voltaire was introduced to the Societe du Temple, which became his intellectual home until 1723. The society encouraged his poetry and introduced him to naturalistic epistemology, epicureanism, and the members’ indifference to religion,
  • Voltaire became a courtier in Versailles, where his wit and eloquence served him well. The Regent and later the King and Queen gave him pensions.

Voltaire at age 24

imprisonment in the bastille
Imprisonment in the Bastille
  • “In 1718, Voltaire enjoyed a first and stunning literary success with his tragedy Oedipe (0edipus), changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire and enjoyed literary triumph, fame and wealth.
  • He inherited his father’s wealth in 1724 and invested it extremely well.
  • However, at the height of his fame and influence, Voltaire experienced humiliation, imprisonment and exile to England” (Kors 2, 452).
voltaire in the bastille
Voltaire in the Bastille

In 1726, while at the theater, Voltaire made a clever remark to the Chevalier de Rohan, a young nobleman, who resented that Voltaire made him look like a fool. To get even, Rohan had several men give Voltaire a serious beating, which he watched from his carriage. Furious, Voltaire took fencing lessons and planned to challenge Rohan to a duel, but the Chevalier refused to duel with a commoner. To avoid a problem, the powerful Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued and Voltaire was arrested and taken to the Bastille. While in the Bastille for 11 months, Voltaire began his great epic on Henry IV, The Henriade.He was eventually released from prison after promising that he would leave France and go to England. (Birkenstock).

philosophical letters
Philosophical Letters
  • Voltaire’s influential work was based on his observations while he was exiled in England.
  • In it, Voltaire describes and implicitly praises English religious toleration.
  • Most importantly, he celebrates Newtonian (English) over Cartesian (French) physics (Kors 3-4, 452)
rene descartes
Rene Descartes
  • Many in France celebrated the 17th century revolutions in science and philosophy chauvinistically. French readers favored French authors, especially Descartes.
  • Descartes’ philosophy was based on accepted generalizations, rationally certain, clear and distinct ideas that he felt that we find innate in our minds. From these, we may deduce by logic our knowledge of the world.
  • To Voltaire, Cartesian philosophy relied upon, for its premises, ideas that had no empirical basis other than being generally accepted. (Kors 3, 452).
john locke
John Locke
  • For Voltaire, Locke’s sensationalism—his value for only that knowledge that we can verify through the experience of our senses—was superior to Descartes’ rationalism with its doctrine of innate ideas. Locke’s philosophy links us to the “things of this world” and makes authentic scientific knowledge possible.
  • Voltaire also wanted to popularize Locke’s view that if our knowledge is all derived from our experience, then our knowledge is limited to our experience (Kors 3, 452).
slide11
Unlike Descartes, Locke avoided theorizing about the substance or nature of the mind, an issue at the time. For Locke, this question is beyond human experience.
  • Voltaire defended Locke’s argument that philosophical skepticism is the only honest conclusion in metaphysical matter. He felt that the only honest conclusion in metaphysical matters is to admit ignorance (Kors 3, 452).
isaac newton
Isaac Newton
  • To Voltaire, the culminating achievement of Bacon’s method and Locke’s epistemology was Newton’s empiricism.
  • Empiricism is moving from the particulars of our experience to generalizations which are derived from these particulars and can be tested against them.
  • Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters praises Newton’s physics over abstract metaphysical speculation (Kors 447).
return to france
Return to France
  • On his return to France, Voltaire proudly published the Philosophical Letters (1734). He believed them to be moderate and non-controversial.
  • Vehement critics cried that Voltaire was advocating Quakerism, undermining the Christian religion, fomenting rebellion in France and attacking Divine Providence.
  • The clergy and secular authorities were furious and demanded his arrest.

Facing both prosecution and persecution, Voltaire was exiled from Paris until 1778, the year of his death (Kors 5,452).

emilie du chatelet a friend he had met in paris offered voltaire refuge at her chateau in cirey
Emilie du Chatelet, a friend he had met in Paris, offered Voltaire refuge at her chateau in Cirey.

Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet

.

1749 59 a dark decade
1749-59, a Dark Decade
  • The death of Emilie du Chatelet in 1749 devastated Voltaire. Depressed and homeless, he could not go to Paris or remain in France because of the deep animosity of the clergy to his influence and his writings.
  • For a brief period, he lived at the court of Frederick II. It didn’t go well.
  • In 1755, he gained permission to live in Protestant Geneva, where he purchased an estate, Ferney, in 1759.
  • In 1756, his protégé Frederick plunged Europe into war.
  • Famine threatened, lovers died, war spread…and philosophers were saying that this is the best of all possible worlds.
leibniz and theodicy
Leibniz and Theodicy
  • Emilie du Chatelet had introduced Voltaire to Essays on Theodicy, in which Gottfried Leibniz addressed the question of why evil exists in a world created by God. “Theodicy” is that branch of philosophy that addresses the problem of evil. Leibniz’s optimistic philosophy initially appealed to Voltaire’s deism.
  • In Theodicy, Leibniz argues that God, who is infinitely wise, powerful and good, would not create a perfect world, because He is the only perfect being. As God will create, therefore, an imperfect world, it logically follows, “the best of all possible worlds.”
  • It further follows that God chose everything in the creation as necessary to the existence of the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, nothing is truly “evil.” God has a sufficient reason for all things, and if we had God’s knowledge, we would understand the good of what we might think, from our limited perspective, to be evil (Kors 6, 452).
voltaire and optimism
Voltaire and Optimism
  • Voltaire had always felt a tension about this philosophical optimism; in the 1750s, he came to reject it.
  • The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 raised the question, “How can the evil and suffering of the world be reconciled with the goodness of God?”
  • Voltaire addressed this question in his Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, describing the suffering caused by the earthquake and asking why an omnipotent God could not have created a world without such catastrophes (Kors 6, 452).
lisbon earthquake
Lisbon Earthquake
  • The Lisbon earthquake of November 1,1755 seared Voltaire’s consciousness and deeply affected Europe’s intellectual life.
  • Voltaire questioned how the evil produced by nature’s general laws could be reconciled with the providence of God.
  • In his “Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake,” Voltaire argued that evil is real and incomprehensible. Rather than attempt to understand God, we should devote our love and attention to suffering humanity.
  • The arbitrariness of survival motivated Candide.
slide20
To Voltaire, philosophical optimism equals fatalism: if “whatever is, is right,” then one’s attempts to mitigate suffering do not matter.
poem on the lisbon earthquake
Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake

For Voltaire, one must choose between a Leibnizian optimism that denies the existence of evil and a cry of humanistic anguish that admits it.

  • Philosophical explanations of suffering add insult to injury.
  • Evil is real and incomprehensible.
  • God exists, but we cannot understand his providence.
  • Humanity, not God, requires our love and attention (Kors 6, 452).
in rousseau s stinging reply to the poem on the lisbon earthquate he asserts that
In Rousseau’s Stinging Reply to the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquate, he asserts that:
  • Voltaire has written against God and denied humans their solace,
  • Our rational knowledge of God’s nature and necessary creation of the best of all possible worlds wholly outweighs the appearances of things, and
  • Cities are centers of corruption; humans were meant to live simply in the countryside.
  • According to Rousseau, God put earthquakes in nature so we would know how to live (Kors 6, 452).
candide or optimism
Candide or Optimism
  • The word optimism was coined in the 18th century for a philosophical position which has only a distant relationship with our modern notion of optimism, which everyone now considers to be a positive attitude.
  • Leibniz, who believed the world was created by a perfect God, has to justify the presence of evil by saying that evil is necessary and is rather like the shadows in a painting which serve to highlight the principal figures and objects in the painting. Since the world is created by God it is necessarily not just good, but the best of all possible worlds. (optimum – the Latin word from which optimism is derived – means "best")
  • Voltaire, originally an admirer of Leibniz, soon realized that such a position justifies the presence of evil and provides no incentive to improve the lot of those who suffer evil and injustice in this life (Walsh).
candide and pangloss
Candide and Pangloss
  • Voltaire wrote Candide in anguish as a reply to Rousseau.
  • In the philosophical tale, Candide is the student of Pangloss, whose Leibnizian philosophy appears futile, irrelevant, and absurd in the midst of human pain and suffering (Kors 447).

Pangloss

slide25

Philosophical optimism denies the human reality of irredeemable pain, injustice, and cruelty.

  • Candide voyages through a world of war, arrogance, abuses of power, religious persecutions and disease.
  • Voltaire argues that evil is real, and we cannot understand God’s providence.
  • In Candide, the only way to avoid despair is to labor to satisfy human needs. We must pay attention to the real sources of well-being and the causes of human suffering (Kors 6, 452).
slide26
Candide’s conclusion is: “Let us cultivate our garden.” The only antidote to pain and despair is to work in the earthly garden, to stave off what suffering and vice we can.
  • Candide marked a crucial turn from

theological or metaphysical concerns to practial attention to the human condition, from abstract philosophy to humanistic activism (Kors 20).

voltaire s contribution
Voltaire’s Contribution
  • This “shift from theological or metaphysical concerns to the human condition” is one of Voltaire’s main contributions to the Enlightenment.
  • As a result of Voltaire’s assault of philosophical optimism, it became legitimate for intellectuals to refute formal thought by appeal to human experience.
  • Theology was displaced from the center of intellectual activity, a movement that encouraged both investigation into the causes of human misery and reform of the conditions that perpetuated suffering and injustice (Kors 447).
sources
Sources

Birkenstock, Jane M. “A Love Story—Voltaire and Emilie,” Chateau de Cirey-Residence of Voltaire (2009). Web. 14 June 2010.

Kors, Alan Charles. “The Assault Upon Philosophical Optimism: Voltaire,” The Birth of the Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Course 447.The Teaching Company, n.d. CD.

Kors, Alan Charles, Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment, Course 452.The Teaching Company, n.d. CD.

Walsh, Thomas Readings on Candide. Literary Companion to World Literature. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.