Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

How Voltaire Revolutionized Society

How Voltaire Revolutionized Society

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[quote]To hold a pen is to be at war.

—Voltaire, Letter to Jeanne-Grâce Bosc du Bouchet, 1748[/quote]

In each of these entries, I show how a certain historical figure upended conventional wisdom and/or redirected the course of western history. What is often left out is how some facets of history remain remarkably similar over centuries and even millennia. One of the more embarrassing constants of Western history was a tripartite social order that allowed for almost no fluidity. Our modern, pliable “upper, middle, and lower” class model replaced a social structure that dominated almost all of recorded history (and likely prehistory as well). The largely defunct groups are often described as “those who pray, those who fight, and those who work”—priests in the first group, nobility in the second, and everyone else in the third.

This model, fully in place by the earliest civilizations, first came under sustained attack in the eighteenth century, during the Enlightenment (touched upon in my Thomas Jefferson entry at #24), and it has since steadily faded away.{{1}} The Enlightenment’s ultimate success revolutionized society, allowing the obliteration of the now defunct hierarchy.

While many of the period’s philosophers contributed to this movement, their undisputed patriarch, hero, and leader was François-Marie Arouet, a courageous harbinger of personal liberties and a devastating enemy of the Ancien Régime. We know him better as Voltaire.

In 1694, François-Marie Arouet, his father being a successful Parisian lawyer, was born into the upper end of the “those who work” class and afforded a quality Jesuit education. Ultimately he learned, however, that reasonable means, a keen intellect, and a mile-long résumé were not enough to break into the upper crusts of society.

But what a résumé it was! Essayist, historian, novelist, pamphleteer, philosopher, playwright, and poet, Voltaire was the preeminent eighteenth century western writer. (At 30,000 pages, his body of work makes him the most prolific writer of anyone on our list.)

After attempting law school on orders from his father, he found out that the serious, strict world of law was not for him. From a young age, others found him funny, and he had a remarkable talent for writing. As a teenager, he wrote creative poetry and insightful historical analyses. His essays took informed swipes at royalty and religion, while his humor helped him get noticed.{{2}} Unfortunately, in early eighteenth century France, one did not want to get noticed as antimonarchical or anticlerical. In 1717, at 23 years old, a jab at the Regent, Philippe d’Orléans, landed François in the Bastille prison.{{3}}

For 11 months, he made the most of his imprisonment, writing a play, Oedipus, based on the Sophocles classic. He published it under a pen name, “Voltaire.”{{4}} After his release, Oedipus debuted to acclaim in 1718. It grew to be, in the opinions of modern French historians, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “the greatest dramatic success of eighteenth century France.” At only 24, Voltaire became renowned across the country. He would not relinquish his fame until his death six decades later, remaining France’s, and eventually Europe’s, top literary persona.

After the success of Oedipus, Voltaire wrote extensively, accruing more celebrity and fortune. He began to move in aristocratic circles. Known for his sharp tongue, ceaseless wit, and brilliant conversational ability, he was often the life of the party. It seems he may have even felt he belonged with the nobility. The flamboyant Voltaire did his best to resemble them. He dressed like the nobility, attended their gatherings, and, like an aristocrat, spent showy gobs of money.

This overconfidence ultimately precipitated a turning point in Voltaire’s life. His colorful behavior soon attracted negative attention. The wealthy enjoyed his company, but more as their amusement than their equal. He may have been a talented, rich commoner, but he was a commoner nonetheless.

At no point was this relegated status clearer to Voltaire than when, in 1725, he got into what would usually be considered a minor verbal spat with a haughty member of the French nobility, the Chevalier de Rohan. Voltaire, the intellectual superior of just about anyone on the continent, got the better of the exchange. Rohan took it personally and hired men to give Voltaire a beating as he watched from his carriage. Worse still, Rohan, using an aristocrat’s prerogative, then purchased a lettre de cachet from Louis XV, which allowed him to arrest and send Voltaire back to the Bastille without cause or trial. Voltaire offered a self-imposed exile, which the crown accepted.{{5}}

Distraught at this insulting yet perfectly lawful event, Voltaire traveled to the most liberal country in the world—Great Britain. He stayed for over two years and developed great respect for its constitutional monarchy, tolerance of free speech, adherence to habeas corpus, and bill of rights. While there still was nobility in Britain (Downton Abbey, anyone?), an aristocrat could never legally assault and imprison a commoner. There was due process of law. Voltaire greatly respected this culture and its history and immersed himself in the English titans of thought—Shakespeare, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.{{6}}

When he returned to France, he published a collection of essays called “Letters Concerning the English Nation,” favorably evaluating England—often by contrasting it with France—across numerous subjects like religion, economics, politics, and art. Its year of print, 1734, is usually considered the beginning of the French Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, this favorable review of an adversary earned him another exile from Paris.{{7}} He took asylum at Cirey, close to the French border in the east, in case he was forced to flee the country altogether. There, he began a 15-year affair with Émilie du Châtelet, the brilliant wife of the local Marquis. She was his intellectual equal, and their affair was more cerebral than sexual. They took a keen interest in Newton, studied Newton’s rival Gottfried Leibniz (a leading German mathematician and philosopher), and read volumes of history, philosophy, and theology, each often feeding critical Biblical analyses. From Cirey, Voltaire also corresponded with Frederick the Great, king of Prussia.{{8}} Frederick eventually invited Voltaire to stay with him in Prussia. During his two decades in Cirey and Prussia, Voltaire produced work after work, including one of the first pieces of modern science fiction, Micromégas.{{9}} Each major work was must-read across the continent, and he grew to be what can be considered the first non-royal, non-clerical international celebrity in history.

Resisting this upsurge in popularity was a king and Catholic Church that despised Voltaire. Censorship was alive and well; they outlawed and burned many of his books. This, of course, spurred Voltaire all the more.{{10}} Ironically, his works, whenever banned, became even more valuable. They’d be printed outside France’s borders—often in Belgium, Denmark, and Switzerland—then smuggled into France. Voltaire denied many of these writings, though there was no mistaking his imitable prose. He lambasted the divine right of kings, which argued that the will of the king, since he was appointed there by God Himself, is above the law. He was critical of unrealistic Biblical tales and of unthinking masses believing each word.{{11}} He attacked censorship, intolerance, and an autocratic state and Church. Most insulting to these powerful Europeans, Voltaire’s main strategy was satire; he was called the “Genius of Mockery” for the way he would pick apart archaic and irrational positions supported by modern regimes.

In 1758, at 64, he settled down in Ferney, again in eastern France, again allowing him a quick escape to another country if need be, though he often toyed with the unrealistic option of returning home to Paris. It was during this latter period where he produced his most famous work, a satire called Candide, ou l’Optimisme. Candide condemns the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, that Newtonian rival whom Voltaire had studied while staying at the Chateau de Cirey, which did its best to explain the paradox of evil coexisting with an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and benevolent God.{{12}} Candide, the title character, gradually realizes just how awful the world can be, while his straw man mentor Pangloss, in endless, unthinking optimism, insists that it’s all for the greater good. While Pangloss, representing Leibniz, comes across a fool, Candide argues for a much more pragmatic approach: the best way to forge through a scary world is to acknowledge that life isn’t perfect, and the best way to get through it is hard work, an acceptance of responsibility, and laughter. Candide was greeted by scandalous reviews which saw it as blasphemous and a far too flip analysis of God’s goodness, as well as an anti-Jesuit, -anti-missionary, and anti-Inquisition (somehow still around in the eighteenth century) piece of literature. Now, however, it is considered not only Voltaire’s greatest literary achievement but potentially France’s, and it’s regularly included in the elite canon of Western literature.

While in Ferney, he continued correspondences with the top minds across Europe. Voltaire was incensed when, in 1762, he learned of the French Protestant Jean Calas, wrongly sentenced to torture and death for the killing of his son, who was rumored to have been converting to Catholicism.{{13}} Voltaire redoubled his efforts against religious intolerance.{{14}} He began ending all his letters with “Ecrasez l’infame”—crush the infamous. In this case, he wanted to destroy the ancient and medieval ways of religious fanaticism and royal tyranny.{{15}} He scorned the privileges of the church, crown, and nobility.{{16}} The balance of his life was focused on rallying the Enlightenment against the advantaged elite.

In 1778, at the age of 83, he wrote his final play, Irene. To see its performance, Voltaire finally made his way back to Paris, the home that had not welcomed him for 40 years. The five-day trip from Ferney nearly killed him.{{17}} Fortunately, he briefly recovered. Word of his arrival preceded him, and as the clergy and nobility stood sullenly by, throngs of the Third Estate welcome their returning hero. When it came time to attend Irene, he was welcomed to the theater with a sustained standing ovation that moved him to tears. For the last two months of his life, a slew of actors, writers, and scholars, including the American Benjamin Franklin, came to pay their last respects to the treasured Voltaire, France’s apostle of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire died in May. He was denied a Christian burial.

In an era where French culture and ideas were the hub of western thought, Voltaire was the hub of French culture. No philosopher had a career as long, a voice as creative, a body of work as large, or, most importantly, a readership as devout and widespread.

With such strong-minded and ubiquitous material, he was likely the most divisive figure of the era. Opposed to the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary leadership, and the aristocracy’s superiority complex, Voltaire was despised by the monarchs and nobility who tasted his ridicule.{{18}} A champion of freedom of thought and religion, he was also abhorred by the Catholic Church, which suffered his scathing satire that asked people to question beliefs that had for so long been considered unassailable truths.{{19}} All the while, however, he was a hero and inspiration to countless commoners, many of whom went to have history-altering careers of their own. Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, Jefferson (#24), and many more Enlightenment thinkers were brilliant in their own right, but all got started after Voltaire, recognized his preeminence, and it’s from him they often got their ideas.

Thanks to these writers who finished out the eighteenth century, Voltaire’s ideas, representative of the entire Enlightenment, went mainstream. They promulgated freedom of religion, thought, and speech across the Western world.{{20}} His full-throated defense of liberty over tyranny echoed off every palace and cathedral in Europe. During the 1760s, ’70s, and ’80s, these ideas crossed the Atlantic and were used by the American founding fathers—Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and others—as they justified their rebellion against the British Empire and laid the framework for the first modern representative democracy.{{21}} The Americans were successful, and they have since exported these basic principles across the world.

In his own country, Voltaire died on the eve of its revolution. A decade after his death in Paris, thanks to the underpinnings laid by him for six decades, momentum had gathered enough to overthrow King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The new government strongly curtailed the strength of the Church. The Enlightenment demanded the total annihilation of what became known as the Ancien, or Old Régime, Voltaire’s “infamous thing” that he dedicated the latter part of his life to crushing.

While autocracy did not go without a fight in France or the rest of Europe, the rest of the West did eventually follow the American model. There were countless revolutions for liberal reform over the next hundred years, and most Western nations did eventually convert to republicanism. In the twentieth century, moreover, the West has done its best to instill certain liberal ideas across the world: free speech, free worship, free thought, civil liberties. Wherever these concepts exist, so, too, does Voltaire.

These freedoms, thanks to a big assist from the Industrial Revolution, helped level the social playing field. While it’s clear that there are still those born with enormous advantages and disadvantages in the modern western world, never have social classes been so fluid or standards of living so high. Industrialism receives a bulk of the credit, to be sure, but the ability for citizens to make demands of their government, to hold it accountable, to say what’s on their minds, and to have due process of law have enormously contributed to a free society that encourages people to actively partake in government, society, and the economy.

The result has been a completely revolutionized society. The tripartite hierarchy, with us from the dawn of civilization, is gone. Society has changed more in the last three centuries than it did in the three millennia before. Many people are to thank, but few more than François-Marie Arouet. Because of his brave and ultimately successful crusade to liberalize the world, Voltaire is the 22nd most influential figure in Western history.{{22}}

[[1]]The royal baby was a stark reminder that England, once the bastion of liberty, has lagged woefully behind in the annihilation of medieval thinking.[[1]]

[[2]]“If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor.”[[2]]

[[3]]Philippe served as regent for Louis XV, who was too young to inherit the throne after the death of Louis XIV in 1715. Louis XIV’s reign of over 72 years is the longest in European history, but it meant surviving his son, grandson, and his eldest great-grandson. Louis XV, a second great-grandson of Louis XIV, was only five years old at Louis XIV’s death, so his uncle Philippe acted as regent until he turned 13. Now you know.[[3]]

[[4]]An anagram of “Arovet LI,” his Latinized last name, and the initials of le jeune—“the young.”[[4]]

[[5]]For those keeping track, that’s two trips to the Bastille and two exiles. I smell a drinking game![[5]]

[[6]]All of whom make our list, but none of whom will be discussed any time soon.[[6]]


[[8]]Frederick (1712 – 1740 – 1786), though nowhere near a Top 30 influential figure of the West, is still one of the more fascinating leaders in history. He personified the “Philosopher King” promoted by Voltaire, Plato, and many more. He was a brilliant leader and military campaigner, but also religiously tolerant, a modernizer, a patron of the arts and sciences, and, most incredibly, an accomplished flutist and composer. I was as astonished as anyone when, listening to a classical Pandora station, I was enjoying a symphony which turned out to be written by him. (It was only his fourth symphony, though. Some king.)[[8]]

[[9]]Classic Voltaire. Enormous and brilliant aliens visit Earth and learn about us. They ultimately determine that we’re pretty stupid because, among other reasons, we think a god created the universe especially for humanity.[[9]]

[[10]]“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”[[10]]

[[11]]“Our [religion] is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most blood-thirsty ever to infect the world.”[[11]]

[[12]]Leibniz argued that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Evil and unfortunate events exist not only because of free will, which had been the blanket explanation at least since St. Augustine, but because evil can bring out more goodness. For example, there is no perseverance without strife. No lesson learned without a challenger. No courage without danger. God, in His omnipotent benevolence, would never give us too little evil that we would not be challenged, nor would he give us too much evil to overcome. God, therefore, gave us a universe with the perfect amount of evil so we can summon the perfect amount of goodness to defeat it. The best of all possible worlds.[[12]]

[[13]]Calas was tortured in an attempt to seduce a guilty plea. His arms and legs were stretched until ripping out of their sockets. Seventeen liters of water were poured down his throat. He was tied down in a public square where his limbs were broken by iron bars. He maintained his innocence through his death, delivered via the merciless bludgeoning of the breaking wheel. How is your week going?[[13]]

[[14]]“Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.”[[14]]

[[15]]As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.”[[15]]

[[16]]“Men are equal; it is not birth, but virtue that makes the difference.”[[16]]

[[17]]In fact, on February 28, fearing he was about to die, he jotted what he thought would be his last written sentence: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”[[17]]

[[18]]“In my life, I have prayed but one prayer: oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”[[18]]

[[19]]“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”[[19]]

[[20]]It’s worth mentioning that the quote most associated with Voltaire was not his at all. “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s too bad, because the quote does sum him up pretty well. Its author is actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote it in a 1906 Voltaire biography.[[20]]

[[21]]At this point, it seems important to mention that as important as Voltaire was, he is no John Locke, an English predecessor of Voltaire from whom the Americans would more directly draw, as Voltaire did. Locke will have his day in our series, but not for a long, long time.[[21]]

[[22]]Voltaire may have been denied a Christian burial, forcing his friends to bury him in a secret ceremony for fear of royal retribution, but he would be unearthed. In 1791, 13 years after his death, he was exhumed by revolutionary France. The National Assembly, correctly recognizing Voltaire as a forefather of the cause, enshrined him in the Panthéon, a neoclassical mausoleum that houses notable French citizens. Only the second burial in it, Voltaire’s second funeral was attended by a million people that filtered throughout the city. That’s what one calls “the last laugh.”[[22]]