An Animated Introduction to Voltaire: Enlightenment Philosopher of Pluralism & Tolerance

Got­tfried Wil­helm Leib­niz has the dis­tinc­tion of hold­ing promi­nent places in both math­e­mat­ics and phi­los­o­phy. A con­tem­po­rary of Isaac New­ton, a rival, and Baruch Spin­oza, an acquain­tance, Leib­niz will for­ev­er be asso­ci­at­ed with Enlight­en­ment Ratio­nal­ism. But thanks to French philoso­pher and writer Voltaire, he will also be asso­ci­at­ed with a strain of thought gen­er­al­ly tak­en much less seri­ous­ly: the phi­los­o­phy of Opti­mism.

In the Theod­i­cy, the only philo­soph­i­cal book he pub­lished in his life­time, Leib­niz attempts to rec­on­cile divine prov­i­dence, human free­dom, and the nature of evil. He con­cludes, more or less, that the world is a per­fect bal­ance between the three. As “an absolute­ly per­fect being,” God must have made the best pos­si­ble world, he rea­soned, and many con­ser­v­a­tive the­olo­gians then and now have agreed. But not Voltaire.

Draw­ing on a diverse body of genres—travel nar­ra­tive, Bil­dungsro­man, picaresque novel—the French writer’s rol­lick­ing satir­i­cal novel­la Can­dide, or the Opti­mist presents us with a com­i­cal­ly grotesque and hyper­bol­ic world that is nonethe­less much more like the vio­lent, chaot­ic one we actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence than like Leibniz’s ide­al­iza­tion. The novel’s hero, a gullible naïf, traipses through Europe and the Amer­i­c­as with his men­tor, Pro­fes­sor Pan­gloss, “the great­est philoso­pher of the Holy Roman Empire.” A broad car­i­ca­ture of Leib­niz, Pan­gloss insists—as the two run into dev­as­tat­ing earth­quakes, war, tor­ture, can­ni­bal­ism, vene­re­al dis­ease, and yet more earthquakes—that they live in “the best of all pos­si­ble worlds.”

The asser­tion comes to seem increas­ing­ly, out­ra­geous­ly absurd and will­ful­ly obtuse. In the end, the var­i­ous char­ac­ters come around to the idea that their grand meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions have no real pur­chase on human exis­tence, and that they would do best to prac­tice a kind of qui­etism, set­tling down to small farms to, as Can­dide says, “cul­ti­vate our gar­den.” The response does not enjoin us to pas­siv­i­ty, but rather to the use of our abil­i­ties for pur­pose­ful work rather than con­tentious spec­u­la­tion or in the ser­vice of blind faith. From his start as a writer, Voltaire fierce­ly attacked “fanati­cism, idol­a­try, super­sti­tion,” as Alain de Bot­ton says in the School of Life intro­duc­tion to Voltaire above, as the basis of peo­ple killing each oth­er “to defend some bit of reli­gious doc­trine which they scarce­ly under­stand.”

Voltaire found the phe­nom­e­non of reli­gious war “repel­lant,” and his age had seen its share of war. In the his­tor­i­cal back­ground of Can­dide’s com­po­si­tion were the Sev­en Years’ War, the glob­al impe­r­i­al con­flict that claimed the lives of eight mil­lion, and the Thir­ty Years’ War: the 17th cen­tu­ry reli­gious con­flict that spread vio­lent death, famine, and dis­ease all over the Euro­pean con­ti­nent. In addi­tion to these appalling events, Voltaire and his con­tem­po­raries were left reel­ing from the 1755 Lis­bon earth­quake, which his­to­ri­ans esti­mate may have killed upwards of 100,000 peo­ple. This nat­ur­al evil was whol­ly unre­lat­ed to any kind of human misbehavior—as Voltaire bit­ter­ly argued in his “Poem on the Lis­bon Dis­as­ter”—and so made Opti­mistic phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy seem cru­el and ridicu­lous.

The bawdy, bloody, and hilar­i­ous Can­dide has remained the most inci­sive lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dis­il­lu­sion­ment in “best of all pos­si­ble worlds” theod­i­cy. It is by far Voltaire’s most pop­u­lar work—a best­seller from the day that it appeared in 1759—and is still giv­en to stu­dents to help them under­stand the philo­soph­i­cal Enlight­en­ment, or what is often called, as de Bot­ton says, “The Age of Voltaire.” With more clar­i­ty than even Jonathan Swift’s satires, Voltaire helps us grasp and remem­ber the major his­tor­i­cal, reli­gious, and philo­soph­i­cal con­flicts of the time. A “mas­ter at pop­u­lar­iz­ing dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al,” Voltaire also used lit­er­ary tech­niques to explain the ideas of con­tem­po­rary thinkers like Locke and New­ton.

The anec­dote of the apple falling on Newton’s head, for exam­ple, “is due entire­ly to Voltaire,” who heard it from Newton’s niece and includ­ed it in his Let­ters Con­cern­ing the Eng­lish Nation. This work, com­posed dur­ing his two-year stay in Eng­land, implic­it­ly cri­tiques the intol­er­ance of French society—causing the book to be banned—and makes the case for some of the philoso­pher’s most cher­ished val­ues: plu­ral­ism, reli­gious tol­er­a­tion, mutu­al respect, and free inquiry. We find these ideals all through­out the works of Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers from all over the con­ti­nent, but nowhere do we find them artic­u­lat­ed with such force­ful wit and vivid style as in the work of Voltaire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Voltaire: “Those Who Can Make You Believe Absur­di­ties, Can Make You Com­mit Atroc­i­ties”

Voltaire & the Lis­bon Earth­quake of 1755

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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