The infamous Voltaire, also known as François-Marie Arouet, was a French enlightenment writer, much maligned and misquoted about the intertoobz. It is a pet peeve of mine, the way one man’s words can be taken so out of context and then used as evidence of something allegedly being true.
Today I falsely read that Voltaire was a great scientist, therefore an intellectual, devoid of the wit, whimsy, and woo. Just try to imagine Voltaire as Mr. Spock on Star Trek. This false portrayal of Voltaire actually annoyed me. He was a poet, a philosopher, he wrote plays and novels and tragedies, and while he may have conducted some experiments, he was really a cultural writer. Also a sexual libertine, but we won’t go there, at least not today.
Voltaire was a polemicist. A polemicist engages in “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Voltaire challenged the culture, he challenged the powers that be, he challenged the Catholic church, and he challenged the social mores of his day. I have a great affection for polemics.
Yesterday I walked into a room and written there on a white board were the words, “there is no God-Voltaire.” Sigh. This is what I mean about the annoyance of seeing Voltaire maligned and misquoted. Nietzsche may well have said those words, but as far as I know, Voltaire did not. Voltaire was not a famous atheist, he was a deist, like the vast majority of French enlightenment writers.
Voltaire is also often misquoted, credited with having said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As lovely as those words are, they actually belong to a woman, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote a biography called, “Friends of Voltaire.”
“It does not require great art, or magnificently trained eloquence, to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”-Voltaire.
These quotes of faith, these examples of Voltaire’s belief in both God and Christians themselves are seldom quoted, and his criticisms of the church are rarely placed in context. Voltaire is well-known for his, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Not well-known however, is the actual content and nature of his writing as revealed here, “Perhaps there is nothing greater on earth than the sacrifice of youth and beauty, often of high birth, made by the gentle sex in order to work in hospitals for the relief of human misery, the sight of which is so revolting to our delicacy. Peoples separated from the Roman religion have imitated but imperfectly so generous a charity.”
Voltaire did not die in prison, a rather surprising turn of events, but instead lived to a ripe old age, well into his 80’s. Fortunately he was granted a somewhat prolonged dying process, so we have many of his writings and letters. He once wrote, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”
If we’re going to stalk Voltaire, “the delicate sensibilities of the gentle sex” are simply going to have to demand that we learn to do it properly and thoroghly.