Sunday, July 21, 2019

Voltaire & Voltaire & Voltaire

The French author and philosopher Voltaire was one of the main representatives of the French enlightenment, stubborn, intelligent, rebellious and ambitious. He was as much against the establishment of church and state as he was keen to be considered highly by the aristocracy of the times. His authorship was originally primarily focused on the theatre, with tragedies in the most classical sense. But his main influence resided in two literary innovations.

I read several of his books earlier this years, including his "Dictionnaire Philosophique", and many of his letters.

 Voltaire - Lettres Philosophiques (Flammarion, 1964)

The first one were his Lettres Philosophiques, a new approach of commenting on life and society without actually writing a philosophical essay, but rather easy to read comments on what was happening in reality. His exile in England allowed him to comment on the benefits of many aspects of the way the English state was organised, and implicitly comparing this to what was happening in France. He published his Lettres Philosophiques when returning from his exile, but the book was immediately forbidden and even burned on the stairs of the French parliament. In his Lettres, he praises the tolerance in England, the acceptance of different ethnicities and especially religions next to each other without repression. He also hailed the formal accounting the government had to show for the parliament.

Voltaire - Micromégas/Zadig/Candide (Flammarion, 2006)

His later political and philosophical novels were equally a literary innovation. He uses a kind of "what if" approach, putting his main characters in a surreal environment so that he could comment on societal mishaps and philosophical or scientific insights. Micromégas offers a kind of science fiction account of a huge space traveller (37 km tall!) who eventually come to our earth, where he and his friends get a laughing fit because of the stupidity and arrogance of mankind and its religions. In Candide, the main character is a naive young man who comes in a whole series of unpleasant situations, allowing Voltaire to test whether we really live in the "best of all possible worlds", as Leibniz pretended. Obviously, Voltaire makes a charicature of the German philosopher and his thinking.

Voltaire - Traité Sur La Tolérance (Gallimard, 2016)

In his "Treatise on Tolerance" he attacks the church and the justice system after the execution of Jean Calas, who allegedly had killed his son who wanted to convert to catholicism. Voltaire attacks the total inequality in the justice system, the torture, the manipulation of evidence, the influence of the church in judicial verdicts.

It is hard for us to understand the efforts that Voltaire made, including the writing of hundreds of letters to restore the honour of people he never even met, with the sole purpose of changing the justice system

In today's world, these books are still relevant. Whether in Iran, the United States, Russia, Israel, Syria and many other countries, Voltaire and his thoughts and actions are still needed. Stephen Pinker is advocating for "Enlightenment Now", and it's more than high time that the voices of obscurantism are overpowered again by the voice of reason.

What Voltaire means in today's world, cannot be overstated.

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