Voltaire was a French philosopher, writer, and social critic born in 1694 in Paris. He is most famous for his Candide, a satirical work in which criticizes the “Optimism” of those philosophers who were claiming at the time that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” At this time, two terrible earthquakes had recently occurred, and Voltaire was frustrated with people who disregarded the fact that many people were experiencing great suffering and tragedy. Voltaire was a major figure in the Enlightenment, and he supported the use of reason and the facts of empirical science, while harshly criticizing much of religion as superstition and speaking out at the abuses of the Church historically as well as in his own time. Voltaire was critical of the French government’s practices of colonialism and slavery, and was one of the first to promote the liberal ideals of freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, religious toleration, and the separation of church and state. Voltaire is equally known for his political beliefs as well as his skill as a writer.
Voltaire was an incredibly prolific writer who wrote thousands of works including letters, plays, poems, and historical and philosophical pieces. He is said to have drank dozens of cups of coffee a day which gave him the energy to do all this writing, and to have written under more than a 100 different pen-names (Voltaire is a pen-name). Because of his writings, which were often critical of the French government, he was imprisoned in the Bastille without trial, beaten, and on several occasions forced into exile. Throughout his life, he would remain critical of the hypocrisies and atrocities committed by the French Government and the Church. He also retained his sharp wit, and on his deathbed is said to have responded to a priest who asked him to use his last waking moments to renounce Satan by exclaiming, “Now, now, my good man, this is not the time for making enemies.”
Today, Voltaire is best known for his philosophical novella Candide, in which he depicts Professor Pangloss, a philosopher who claims that we live in the “best of all possible worlds” no matter how many misfortunes he or the main character Candide suffer. Voltaire is responding to a group of European philosophers at the time who had created a popular version of Leibniz philosophy, which argued that we live in the best possible world. Having lived during the catastrophic earthquakes of Lima and Lisbon that killed thousands, and personally experienced injustice in his own treatment at the hands of the French government in his arrest and exile, Voltaire saw this “Optimism” as denying the real suffering and tragedy which many people must endure. As a major figure of the Enlightenment, Voltaire did not want people to be content with misfortunes, whether caused by humans or by nature, but hoped that people could use reason and science to make things better.
In Candide, Voltaire is attacking the traditional religious belief that God is both all-knowing and good by pointing out the difficulty of reconciling this position with the great injustices and suffering which are always occurring in the world (This is known as the problem of evil or “theodicy”). Voltaire wants people to overcome such traditional beliefs and superstitions, and to be honest about what’s going on around them. He encourages people to empower themselves and take an active position towards life. Voltaire was opposed to the tradition of rationalism in philosophy which to him seemed like useless speculation. For Voltaire, what was important were the concerns of actual life.
Voltaire was influenced by the scientist and philosopher Newton’s ability to describe nature as being ordered on the basis of rational principles. He was a proponent of empirical science, seeing it as a way by which people would overcome their irrational beliefs and superstitions about the world. He wrote a more accessible version of Newton’s theories which popularized them in Europe. He also is credited with telling the story of Newton observing an apple falling from a tree as the basis for his inspiration for the law of gravity. In this way, Voltaire saw Europe’s progress as the result both of overcoming traditional religious and metaphysical beliefs as well as embracing a new scientific understanding of the world.
Voltaire did not like Europe’s sense of superiority towards the rest of the world. He recognized that histories in Europe typically focused on Christianity, while completely ignoring the contributions of other cultures and religions. Voltaire was one of the first Europeans to write a history of Middle Ages which acknowledged the contributions of the Arab world. He pointed to the achievements of non-European civilizations such as China and Japan, as well as the religious toleration practiced by other cultures throughout history such as the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. He wrote, “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 opposed the injustices which Europe committed on other peoples such as slavery and colonialism. In Candide, he writes “At what price we eat sugar in Europe.” He also spoke out against French colonialism in North Africa. He fought for civil rights, throughout his life he fought for civil rights such as the freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. He is known for the sentiment that no matter how much he disagreed with someone, he supported their right to say whatever they wanted. He considered the Church to be one of the greatest sources of injustice, writing “Our religion is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most bloody to ever infect the world. He therefore promoted both religious tolerance as well as the separation of church and state. Impassioned and witty, Voltaire is remembered both for his liberal ideals as well as his literary skills.