A retrospective: Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, or using his pseudonym Voltaire, was a French writer, historian and philosopher who was famous for his criticism of religion, and was a strong advocate for secularism. He was born in Paris, the Kingdom of France, in 1694. He was baptised and was educated by Jesuits (Society of Jesus), where he learned Latin and theology.

As a youth his father wished for him to become a lawyer, but he had no desire to do this, and preferred writing poetry, and reciting historical events. Some of his writing was controversial and he spent some time in the Bastille in Paris. In 1717 the first play that he wrote ‘Œdipe‘ debuted and it received much acclaim, and it almost immediately brought him fame and financial benefits. In 1718 he decided to stop writing as FrançoisMarie Arouet and adopted the pseudonym Voltaire.

“Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.” – Voltaire

As well as writing plays, satire and poetry, he was also a crusader against tyranny, bigotry and cruelty, and adopted liberal views. He was an open admirer of Hinduism, and Buddhism as he believed that their mantra kept peace with their spirituality and inner being. He adopted the term Philosophe, which the French of the 18th century described thinkers, but his knack of upsetting the wrong people met him with a two year exile to London, where he was forced to learn the English language. It didn’t take him long to engage with the English thinkers, and strongly admired the English liberalism, literature and philosophy. He decided that France could learn a lot from English thinkers, and scientists like Isaac Newton.

“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” – Voltaire

He returned to France in 1729 and continued to write plays, but this time he mimicked Shakespeare after being overwhelmed with his productions, and France loved it. Despite continuing to write satire, and plays, the works of Newton fascinated him, and he decided to write a book about him to bring the theory of gravity to a larger audience in France. ‘Éléments de la philosophie de Newton‘ was co-written by physicist Émilie du Châtelet and published in 1738.

“Many are destined to reason wrongly; others, not to reason at all; and others, to persecute those who do reason.” – Voltaire

Voltaire became friends with Marquis du Châtelet, who was Émilie‘s husband, and they studied philosophy and metaphysics together, and debated on whether God existed and if humans have a soul. They analysed the Bible and concluded that the majority of it was completely nonsensical, and this triggered his views of separation of the church and the state, which he became extremely critical of.

“Dare to think for yourself.” – Voltaire

In 1764 he published Dictionnaire philosophique‘ where he criticised religions, including Catholicism, Islam and Judaism. He became an activist against religious persecution, which saw several cases overturned, and like other enlightenment thinkers he was a deist, but a deist with doubt and questions. He was defiantly opposed to Christianity who he described as being propagandistic, and preferred Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism, but was heavily influenced by the rationalism of Confucius which had been recently translated into French.

“God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.” – Voltaire

In the 18th century the enlightenment movement took off, and Voltaire was a huge part of this. It involved thinkers embracing reason, independence, liberty, religious freedom, science, liberty and secularism. Voltaire was especially disgusted with slavery and found it unforgivable. Voltaire promoted the ideas that use human reason to achieve knowledge, freedom and a sense of wellbeing.

“Prejudices are what fools use for reason.” – Voltaire