Voltaire

Voltaire was a crusader against tyranny and bigotry. Clarence Darrow captured the essence of his genius when her wrote; "Voltaire could not keep out of trouble. Almost every person of importance was his enemy at some period of his life, but he was not a nonresistant. He never turned the other cheek. When he was attacked, he replied with pamphlets and epigrams more poisonous than those any other author ever penned. Whenever he was at peace, he was uneasy to be at war. If his critics and traducers let him alone fort a time, he was busy writing some pamphlet, poem or play to get himself into trouble once more. He seldom signed his own name to the production of his pen. More than one hundred names were used by Voltaire in the course of his long literary career, but whatever the name and whether written by him or not, if especially bitter, mocking, rebellious of ungodly, it was always laid to Voltaire; and whatever the utterance that made the trouble, whether it was his or not, Voltaire was ready to deny that he was the author."

In 1759, Voltaire published the satire Candide about a naive young man who becomes disillusioned by the hardships he witnessed and experienced. The following passage illustrates Voltaire's insightful portrayal:

As they drew near the town they saw a Negro stretched on the ground with only one half of his habit, which was a kind of linen frock; for the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.

"Good God," said Candide in Dutch, "what dost thou here, friend, in this deplorable condition?"

"I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous trader," answered the Negro.

"Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur that used you in this cruel manner?"

"Yes, sir," said the Negro; "it is the custom here. They give a linen garment twice a year, and that is all our covering. When we labor in the sugar works, and the mill happens to snatch hold of a finger, they instantly chop off our hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off a leg. Both these cases have happened to me, and it is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe; and yet when my mother sold me for ten patacoons on the coast of Guinea, she said to me, 'My dear child, bless our fetishes; adore them forever; they will make thee live happy; thou hast the honor to be a slave to our lords the whites, by which thou wilt make the fortune of us thy parents.'

As the following passages illustrate, the dialogue between Candice and companions like his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, raised the questions which made Voltaire the Renaissance man of the Enlightenment:

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."

Voltaire further dissects the political and philosophical controversies of the 18th century through his other traveling companion, Martin: "Do you think," said Candide, "that mankind always massacred one another as they do now? Were they always guilty of lies, fraud, treachery, ingratitude, inconstancy, envy, ambition, and cruelty? Were they always thieves, fools, cowards, gluttons, drunkards, misers, calumniators, debauchees, fanatics, and hypocrites?"

"Do you believe," said Martin, "that hawks have always been accustomed to eat pigeons when they came in their way?"

"Doubtless," said Candide.

"Well then," replied Martin, "if hawks have always had the same nature, why should you pretend that mankind change theirs?"

"Oh," said Candide, "there is a great deal of difference; for free will-" and reasoning thus they arrived at Bordeaux.

Voltaire's tireless campaigning on behalf of the oppressed claimed much of his time and energy. The tragic plight of Jean Calas, a Protestant and respectable merchant who lived in the town of Toulouse, illustrates the nature of Voltaire's advocacy. Calas had a son who wanted to study law but he was denied because he was not a member of the Catholic Church. The son got very depressed and killed himself, something that was considered a mortal sin at the time. His family decided to conceal the suicide as they did not want to see his body drawn and quartered and fed to dogs as was the common practice for those who took their own lives. Things went horribly wrong as a rumour started that Jean Calas had murdered his son because he wanted to become a Catholic. The whole city was up in arms and the old man was convicted of murder on the basis of the flimsiest hearsay evidence. Refusing to confess even after horrendous torture, Calas was tied to a wooden cross, had his arms and legs broken and was strangled publicly by the executioner, after which his body was burned at the stake. The state then confiscated his property, leaving his widow homeless and destitute, and placed his children in Catholic institutions.

When Voltaire heard about this terrible affair he decided to investigate the case. He took one of the old manís sons to Ferney, found out what had happened and set out to clear Calas. He wrote dozens of letters to important people throughout Europe, including Catherine of Russia and his old friend Frederick the Great, he hired a lawyer, raised money for the family and prepared a case to vindicate Calas. He worked tirelessly for six years, eventually securing a unanimous vote in the parliament of Paris declaring Calas innocent. Calas himself was dead but the reversal of his conviction meant that his estate was returned to his family and the children returned to their mother. Voltaire also gave them an estate to live in once the case was over.

NEXT: Spinoza


 
 

 
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