Voltaire: On Toleration - An Analysis

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Voltaire moved in the circles of the rich and powerful. With his pen he alternately flattered and lambasted those around him, and this talent for biting satire earned him another stint in the Bastille in He was soon released on the condition that he move to England. Within a matter of months, Voltaire became fluent in English, and English philosophy and society continued to fascinate him throughout his life. After three years he was allowed to return to France.


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During his lifetime, trenchant writings attacking church or government were often attributed to him whether he had written them or not. A lifelong champion of the poor and downtrodden, he wrote against tyranny and religious persecution with unmatched audacity. Despite his relentless criticism of powerful individuals and institutions, Voltaire became good friends with King Frederick of Prussia. They often quarreled, as Voltaire inevitably quarreled with anyone in power, but the ties of their friendship were lasting.

In the s, Voltaire grew increasingly appalled by the specters of injustice and inexplicable disaster that he saw around him. In , Voltaire purchased Ferney, an estate near the border between France and Switzerland, so that he might easily flee across the border to escape French authorities. Ferney quickly became a retreat for important European intellectuals. Though often considered a representative text of the Enlightenment, the novel actually savagely satires a number of Enlightenment philosophies and demonstrates that the Enlightenment was a far from monolithic movement.

In his later life Voltaire was involved in a wide variety of campaigns for social and political justice.

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The strain of the trip was more than his failing health could support, however, and he died in May of Voltaire would have appreciated the irony of this act, as he and Rousseau were bitter rivals during their lifetimes. Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them. I do not have to agree with what you believe and what you say, but I will make sure that you are allowed to say what you want. It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.

Besides, the priests are almost all married; the awkwardness they pick up in the university, and the fact that, socially, Englishmen have little to do with women, result in a bishop's ordinarily being forced to content himself with his own wife. Clergymen go to the tavern sometimes, for custom allows it; if they get drunk they do so in a serious-minded way and with perfect propriety. Clergymen here are all reserved, by temperament, and almost all pedantic. When they learn that in France young men, who are known for their debauchery and who have been raised to the prelacy by the plots of women, make love in public, divert themselves with the composing of sentimental songs, entertain daily with long and exquisite supper parties, and go from there to beseech the light of the Holy Spirit, and boldly to call themselves the successors of the Apostles—then the English thank God they are Protestants.

That's why I keep out of it. These gentlemen, who also have some churches in England, have made grave airs and severe expressions all the fashion in this country.

Voltaire, "On the Church of England"

To them is owing the sanctification of Sunday in the three kingdoms. On that day it is forbidden to work and play, which is double the severity of the Catholic churches. No opera, no plays, no concerts in London on Sunday; even cards are so expressly forbidden that only the aristocracy, and those we call well-bred people, play on that day. The rest of the nation go to church, to the tavern, and to the brothel. Although the Episcopalian and the Presbyterian are the two main sects in Great Britain, all others are welcome there and live pretty comfortably together, though most of their preachers detest one another almost as cordially as a Jansenist damns a Jesuit.

Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker.

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On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink; this man is on the way to be baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, by the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that man is having the foreskin of his son cut off, and a Hebraic formula mumbled over the child that he himself can make nothing of; these others are going to their church to await the inspiration of God with their hats on; and all are satisfied.

Vortical mechanics, for example, claimed that matter was moved by the action of an invisible agent, yet this, the Newtonians began to argue, was not to explain what is really happening but to imagine a fiction that gives us a speciously satisfactory rational explanation of it. Natural philosophy needs to resist the allure of such rational imaginings and to instead deal only with the empirically provable.

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Moreover, the Newtonians argued, if a set of irrefutable facts cannot be explained other then by accepting the brute facticity of their truth, this is not a failure of philosophical explanation so much as a devotion to appropriate rigor. Such epistemological battles became especially intense around Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Few questioned that Newton had demonstrated an irrefutable mathematical law whereby bodies appear to attract one another in relation to their masses and in inverse relation to the square of the distance between them.

But was this rigorous mathematical and empirical description a philosophical account of bodies in motion? Critics such as Leibniz said no, since mathematical description was not the same thing as philosophical explanation, and Newton refused to offer an explanation of how and why gravity operated the way that it did. The Newtonians countered that phenomenal descriptions were scientifically adequate so long as they were grounded in empirical facts, and since no facts had yet been discerned that explained what gravity is or how it works, no scientific account of it was yet possible.

They further insisted that it was enough that gravity did operate the way that Newton said it did, and that this was its own justification for accepting his theory. They further mocked those who insisted on dreaming up chimeras like the celestial vortices as explanations for phenomena when no empirical evidence existed to support of such theories. The previous summary describes the general core of the Newtonian position in the intense philosophical contests of the first decades of the eighteenth century.


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It also describes Voltaire's own stance in these same battles. His contribution, therefore, was not centered on any innovation within these very familiar Newtonian themes; rather, it was his accomplishment to become a leading evangelist for this new Newtonian epistemology, and by consequence a major reason for its widespread dissemination and acceptance in France and throughout Europe. A comparison with David Hume's role in this same development might help to illuminate the distinct contributions of each. Both Hume and Voltaire began with the same skepticism about rationalist philosophy, and each embraced the Newtonian criterion that made empirical fact the only guarantor of truth in philosophy.

Yet Hume's target remained traditional philosophy, and his contribution was to extend skepticism all the way to the point of denying the feasibility of transcendental philosophy itself. This argument would famously awake Kant's dogmatic slumbers and lead to the reconstitution of transcendental philosophy in new terms, but Voltaire had different fish to fry. His attachment was to the new Newtonian empirical scientists, and while he was never more than a dilettante scientist himself, his devotion to this form of natural inquiry made him in some respects the leading philosophical advocate and ideologist for the new empirico-scientific conception of philosophy that Newton initiated.

For Voltaire and many other eighteenth-century Newtonians the most important project was defending empirical science as an alternative to traditional natural philosophy. This involved sharing in Hume's critique of abstract rationalist systems, but it also involved the very different project of defending empirical induction and experimental reasoning as the new epistemology appropriate for a modern Enlightened philosophy. In particular, Voltaire fought vigorously against the rationalist epistemology that critics used to challenge Newtonian reasoning.

His famous conclusion in Candide , for example, that optimism was a philosophical chimera produced when dialectical reason remains detached from brute empirical facts owed a great debt to his Newtonian convictions. His alternative offered in the same text of a life devoted to simple tasks with clear, tangible, and most importantly useful ends was also derived from the utilitarian discourse that Newtonians also used to justify their science.

Voltaire's campaign on behalf of smallpox inoculation, which began with his letter on the topic in the Lettres philosophiques , was similarly grounded in an appeal to the facts of the case as an antidote to the fears generated by logical deductions from seemingly sound axiomatic principles. All of Voltaire's public campaigns, in fact, deployed empirical fact as the ultimate solvent for irrational prejudice and blind adherence to preexisting understandings.

In this respect, his philosophy as manifest in each was deeply indebted to the epistemological convictions he gleaned from Newtonianism. Voltaire also contributed directly to the new relationship between science and philosophy that the Newtonian revolution made central to Enlightenment modernity. Especially important was his critique of metaphysics and his argument that it be eliminated from any well-ordered science. At the center of the Newtonian innovations in natural philosophy was the argument that questions of body per se were either irrelevant to, or distracting from, a well focused natural science.

Against Leibniz, for example, who insisted that all physics begin with an accurate and comprehensive conception of the nature of bodies as such, Newton argued that the character of bodies was irrelevant to physics since this science should restrict itself to a quantified description of empirical effects only and resist the urge to speculate about that which cannot be seen or measured. This removal of metaphysics from physics was central to the overall Newtonian stance toward science, but no one fought more vigorously for it, or did more to clarify the distinction and give it a public audience than Voltaire.

The battles with Leibnizianism in the s were the great theater for Voltaire's work in this regard. This tract did not so much articulate Newton's metaphysics as celebrate the fact that he avoided practicing such speculations altogether. It also accused Leibniz of becoming deluded by his zeal to make metaphysics the foundation of physics. He also added personal invective and satire to this same position in his indictment of Maupertuis in the s, linking Maupertuis's turn toward metaphysical approaches to physics in the s with his increasingly deluded philosophical understanding and his authoritarian manner of dealing with his colleagues and critics.

While Voltaire's attacks on Maupertuis crossed the line into ad hominem , at their core was a fierce defense of the way that metaphysical reasoning both occludes and deludes the work of the physical scientist. In this way, Voltaire should be seen as the initiator of a philosophical tradition that runs from him to Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin, and then on to Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth century.

Because of Voltaire's celebrity, efforts to collect and canonize his writings began immediately after his death, and still continue today.

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SparkNotes: Voltaire

The result has been the production of three major collections of his writings including his vast correspondence, the last unfinished. Together these constitute the authoritative corpus of Voltaire's written work. The scholarly literature on Voltaire is vast, and growing larger every day. The summary here, therefore, will be largely restricted to scholarly books, with only a few articles of singular import listed. Voltaire's Enlightenment Philosophy 2. Voltaire's Life: The Philosopher as Critic and Public Activist Voltaire only began to identify himself with philosophy and the philosophe identity during middle age.

Voltaire's Enlightenment Philosophy Voltaire's philosophical legacy ultimately resides as much in how he practiced philosophy, and in the ends toward which he directed his philosophical activity, as in any specific doctrine or original idea. Bibliography Primary Literature Because of Voltaire's celebrity, efforts to collect and canonize his writings began immediately after his death, and still continue today.

Paris: Lefevre, — Moland and G. Fleming ed. Du Mont, Shorter Writings of Voltaire , J. Rodale ed. Barnes, Tallentyre tr. Applegate ed. Ungar, Voltaire: Selected Writings , Christopher Thacker ed. Voltaire: Selections , Paul Edwards ed. Brumfitt ed. Pollack tr. Epistle of M.

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Voltaire to the King of Prussia , Glasgow, Swallow, Voltaire's Romances , New York: P. Eckler, The Sermon of the Fifty , J. Paxton, A Treatise on Tolerance and other Writings. Edited by Brian Masters. Political Writings. Edited by David Williams. London: Cass, Birmingham, AL: Gryphon Editions, Philosophical Dictionary Edited by Theodore Besterman.