Sunday, August 31, 2014

Class 4 - A New Beginning - Preamble and Thesis

I would like to begin this class with two thoughts. The first is very brief: that I would like you to think of this class as the true beginning of the class. The second is a quote from a very great historian whom nobody has ever heard of anymore, and not just in the hipster sense. I first heard the name Egon Friedell referenced by the great Australian TV critic (really), Clive James, who said in no uncertain terms that his Cultural History of the Modern Age is a neglected masterpiece. I tried to locate a copy in various places, but to no avail. It was only when browsing in the bargain shelf of Shakespeare and Co., Paris’s famous English language book store, that I found the first two volumes. I immediately started reading it in Paris and was stunned by what I found.

Friedell’s book is the inspiration of this class, a provider of much of its material, and we will be referring to him again and again as the class goes on. He was a Viennese intellectual from the era between the two world wars. As an intellectual, he was a complete amateur, having dropped out of university to become a cabaret singer. He was far better known in his own time as a performer and coffeehouse wit than as a pointy-headed intellectual. In the weeks, months, and years that follow, we’ll tell much more of his story. I would like to begin this class with a very long quote of his, and follow it up, paragraph by paragraph, by discussing parts of it. This comes from the introduction section of his book, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, which traces the cultural development of humanity from 1348, the year of the Black Plague, up to World War I.

“The aim of this book is to sketch an intellectual and moral picture-page, a spiritual costume-history of the last six centuries, showing at the same time the Platonic Idea of each age and the thought which inwardly inspired it and was its soul. This Thought of the Age is the organizing, the creative, and the only truth in each age, although in actuality it is seldom seen in the pure state; for what happens is that the prism of the age breaks it up into a many-coloured rainbow of symbols. Only now and then is the age so fortunate as to produce one great philosopher who reassembles the rays in the focus of his intellect.

The first question this brings up is: Is the thought and creation of the age the only true record of what an era leaves behind?

...Which leads us to a second question for anyone who believes otherwise: Why do some people, perhaps myself included, believe that thought and creation are the only ways to really capture the spirit of a time and place?

And this brings us to the real key of an age. We find it in those great men, those strange apparitions, that Carlyle called Heroes. They might equally well be called poets, if we did not one-sidedly regard a poet as a person who dabbled in pen and ink, but remembered that everything can be turned into poetry, given creative force and imagination; and that the great heroes and saints who have made poetry with their lives of deeds and sufferings stand actually higher than the poet of words. Carlyle was convinced that the form in which a great man appears is entirely immaterial. Let him be there, that is the main thing. “I confess, I have no notion of a truly great man that could not be all sorts of men…” … In history there are only two real wonders of the world: the Spirit of the Age, with its fabulous energies, and Genius, with its magical effect. The man of genius is the most complete absurdity, an absurdity because of his very normality. He is what all others should be: a perfect equation of aim and means, of task and accomplishment. He is so paradoxical as to do what no one else does: he fulfills his destiny.

I suppose I should state my agenda at the very beginning of this. I believe, very much, in the Great Man theory of History. But I do not believe in it the way that Carlyle does. According to Thomas Carlyle, whom I will explain without quoting, our whole lives are shaped by the parameters which heroic men, and until recently it sadly was almost always men, carve out for us. It is these heroic men which form where we are born, where we’re allowed to migrate to, whom we can marry, and what jobs we can take. According to this theory, there is no accounting for how men rose up from fortuitous circumstances to create the world as we now see it. They simply rose up from the ether like the proverbial phoenix, empowered by nothing but their own greatness. According to Carlyle, great men are not made, they are simply born.

As is the fashion of our day, I disagree with this formulation completely. I do believe that “great” men and women form the future which comes after them, but in every way are they they also formed by the circumstances which come before and during their lives. For every great man whom history has chosen, there might be another million who might have served equally well had history a different purpose. Herbert Spencer, an English historian and ally of Darwin, subjected Carlyle’s theory to a withering critique, and his point of view can be summed up in a sentence I agree with almost completely: "You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown.... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” Aside from the rather uncomfortable position that one has to take into account the ‘race’ into which a person is born, which could mean that he believes only his race is capable of greatness, though I don’t think that’s what he meant, this is actually a very progressive sentiment for its time, and allows for the entirely correct notion that mediocre people might have been great if they fell into more fortuitous circumstances, and also for the possibility that should the circumstances of mediocre people change, they may yet rise to greatness. But as we will see in a minute, my belief in the ‘great man’ theory, and Egon Friedell’s, is at least a little closer to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s formation when he wrote this line: “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Now, Genius and the Age are in account with each other in a complicated way, not easy to decipher.

No kidding. Tolstoy devoted nearly the last hundred pages of War and Peace to demolishing this very concept of the Great Man. Fortunately, Friedell’s Great Man formulation is very different from Carlyle’s and nowhere near as simplistic.

An age which does not find its hero is a pathological case: its soul is underfed and suffers, so to say, from “chronic dyspnea.” But no sooner does it get its man, who gives utterance to all its needs, than fresh oxygen streams suddenly into its organism, the dyspnea disappears, the circulation is regulated, and it is well again. Geniuses are the two or three men in every age who can speak. (The rest are dumb, or stammerers.) Without these we should know nothing of past ages, for we should merely have hieroglyphics which confused and disappointed us. We need a key to this cipher. Gerhart Hauptmann once compared the poet with an aeolian harp, which vibrates to every lightest breeze. If we adopt this comparison we may say: at bottom every person is an instrument of this sort with sensitive strings, but in most cases the impact of events merely sets the strings aquiver; it is only from the poet that notes are produced for all to hear and understand.

In other words, as human beings, we are all part of the same organism as the great person, and we are the raw material through which those who possess greatness propel themselves to the extraordinariness of his or her achievement. And as members of the same society, we all contribute to the formation of a few people’s greatness. In every worthwhile field of endeavor, there will be hundreds of thousands of practitioners, each of whom can gather inspiration from any of the millions of people who affect what they see and hear, or what they read and with whom they interact. Of those hundreds of thousands, perhaps 70% will probably not advance the progress of what they do, and a good many of that quotient will hinder progress. But of the remaining 30%, perhaps 20% will do what they do quite competently. Perhaps another 5-7% will be quite good at what they do. Perhaps another 2 ¾% are truly excellent. And then we arrive at that final ¼% which are truly extraordinary and have a chance to fulfill the creative potential of a field of endeavor. And of that ¼ of a percentage, perhaps 3/16ths of them will never be recognized for what's truly extraordinary about their contributions. Of that last 1/16th, most of them will make minor but nevertheless important contributions to their field, but a handful of them will make major innovations which change the curvature of the Earth.

For a particular section of man’s spiritual history to be perpetuated in a lasting picture, it seems that one man only is necessary, but that one is indispensable. For the age of Enlightenment, a Socrates sufficed in Greece, a Voltaire in France, a Lessing in Germany; for the English Ranaissance, a Shakespeare; and for our own time a Nietzsche. In such men the whole age is objective as itself, as in an illuminating cross-section that everyone can grasp. The genius is no other than the concentrated formula, the compressed compendium, the easily handled clue -- brief, concise, intelligible, and comprehensive -- to the desires and achievements of all his contemporaries. He is the strong extract, the clear distillation, the pungent essence which they yield; it is of them he is made. Take it away, and nothing of him would be left; he would dissolve into air. The great man is entirely the creature of his age; and the greater he is, the more this is the case. This is our first thesis on the nature of genius.

Let’s take a minute to understand this meaning. The great man or woman, if they truly achieve greatness, functions like something between a seismograph and a stenographer, which records the undercurrents and tectonic shifts of a society. I don’t understand how this process works, and I don’t believe anybody does, but when you take a broad view of society, I don’t know how this cannot be the case. There is a German philosopher of history named Oswald Spengler, a hero of Friedell’s who will also come up again and again in this class. Spengler believes that everything about our civilizations is based upon an almost mystical spirit of the time. Society, like all of us, is a kind of living organism - at least in a metaphorical sense - and perhaps even more alive because it is made of so many living things. And just as we have life cycles, just as the moon and the earth have cycles of their own, civilizations have their own life cycles. And each civilization goes through its own spring, in which the energy and romance of being alive is completely new; followed by a summer, in which the comedy of having too many blessings is always evidence; followed by an autumn, in which we come face to face with the tragedy of losing all our blessings; followed by a winter, in which we are faced with the cruel irony of remembering when we were blessed and must live out whatever days we have left in a depleted, reduced state of being. Furthermore, Spengler believes that each civilization has its own markers of identity that transcend any one form of endeavor that become the mascots of each particular civilization. Let’s take, for example, what Spengler terms ‘Western Civilization,’ which, perhaps wrongly, is the civilization that we live in even today. He refers to the founding myth of this civilization as ‘Faustian.’ For those who don’t remember the Faustian myth, it is a myth of a middle-aged to elderly man who sells his soul to the devil for a few more decades in which he gets to experience all the wonders of the world. The Faust legend has been responsible, particularly in Spengler’s native Germany, for inspiring more great artists than perhaps any other story in human history. And perhaps the reason is because Faust is about humanity’s struggle to reach for the infinite possibilities of life. Spengler sees the Faust legend as the wellspring of our continual struggle toward technological and cultural advancement. He is so fanatical and totalizing about this theory that he believes that it extends even to the mathematics of each civilization. To Spengler, it is no coincidence that the West was the civilization, with its unlimited desire to grasp for the new, gifted the world with the idea of infinity. Just as it is no coincidence that the Buddhism-influenced Indians, with their concepts of renunciation and Nirvana, was the civilization which gifted the world the idea of Zero.  

Many, many philosophers, including a few I deeply respect, think that Spengler’s theory is the most steaming variety of bullshit. But I think Spengler has at least tapped into something real, even if he never hit it on the head. Like many philosophers, his theories are two-dimensionally correct even if they never quite work the way true believers think they might in reality.

Question 1: If Spengler is correct, then where are we currently in the life cycle of our own civilization?

Question 2: Name some other philosophies of history which take a similar non-individualistic  approach, declaring that we are bound by history’s whirlpool, from which we will, and can, never escape.

But who, then, are these contemporaries? Who makes them contemporaries, attaches them to a particular limited section of history, endows them with a specific world-feeling, a definite life-atmosphere -- in short, a style of their own? Who but “the poet’? It is he who moulds their vital form and cuts the block from which, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are all printed. He multiplies himself mysteriously and thousandfold. Others walk, stand, sit, think, hate, or love according to his directives. He alters our standard expressions of courtesy and our feeling for nature; our hairdressing, our religiousness, our punctuation, our erotic; that which is most sacred and that which is most trivial. His whole age is infected by him. He penetrates irresistibly into our blood, splits our molecules, and tyrannically creates new connections. We speak his language, use his idiom; and a casual phrase from his mouth becomes a unifying watchword which men call to one another in the night. Streets and woods, churches and ballrooms are peoled suddenly, none knows how, with innumerable miniature copies of Werther, Byron, Napoleon, Oblomov, Hjalmar. The meadows change their hue, trees and clouds take on new shapes, men’s looks, gestures, and voices a new accent. Women become bluestockings after Moliere’s recipe, or the lowest of the low according to Strindberg’s vision; broad-hipped and full-bosomed because Rubens at his lonely easel so willed it, slender and anemic because Rosetti and Burne-Jones carried this picture of them in their heads. It is not by any means correct that the artist depicts reality; on the contrary, it is reality that runs after him. It may seem a paradox, as Oscar Wilde says, but it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.

Aside from the obvious condescension to women, there is much truth in this. I believe, though I could be wrong, that Friedell was only referring to women’s fashion. But this formulation applies equally well to men, and I’m sure he would agree.  

Question: Who are some contemporary examples of geniuses who have clearly changed the way we relate to the world so enormously that in some ways we can’t help but imitate their creations?

No one can resist these wizards. They give us wings and they cripple us, intoxicate us and sober us. All the remedies and toxins in the world are in their possession. Life springs up where they tread and everything becomes stronger and healthier, “finds itself.” This, indeed, is their greatest good deed: that they enable men to find and know themselves from the moment they come into contact with them. But they also bring sickness and death. They unloose tin many souls the latent foolishness that might otherwise have slept on forever. Also they stir up wars, revolutions, social earthquakes. They behead kings, prepare battlefields, sting nations to duels. A good-humored elderly gentleman named Socrates kills time with aphorisms; an equally good-humoured countryman of his named Plato makes a series of entertaining dialogues out of them; and libraries pile up and up, are burnt at the stake, are burnt as waste paper; new libraries are written and a hundred thousand heads and stomachs live on the name Plato. A high-flown journalist named Rousseau writes a couple of bizarre pamphlets, and for six years a highly gifted people tears itself to pieces. A stay-at-home scholar named Marx, indifferent to and ignored by society, writes a few fat volumes of unintelligible philosophy, and a gigantic empire alters its whole conditions of life from the base upward.

In short, the age is absolutely and entirely the creation of its great man. The more this is so, the greater it is, and the more completely and ripely will it fulfill its destiny.  

The thesis of this entire class, however many more times it meets, and hopefully it will meet regularly for years hence, is that as society evolves faster and faster, there are more and more great men and women who define our time. Every era becomes much shorter as the world evolves, and requires a new kind of greatness that renders the greatness of just a few years before obsolete and incommensurate with the needs of our new era. And in order to keep grasping for that infinite, humanity needed to overthrow God at the universe’s center. And once we did, progress in technology and culture became exponentially faster. As the great Eric Hoffer points out, even George Washington would recognize more about Ancient Egypt than he ever would of our civilization.

Infinity was thought of well before Western Civilization as a concept, both Anaximander in Ancient Greece and whomever wrote India’s mathematical text, Surya Prajnapti, clearly came up with infinity two thousand years before any westerner did. But, so far as I can tell, it was only in the Seventeenth Century that infinity began to be actively used in mathematical equations. One might infer that a human thought of infinity because infinity was the definition of the monotheistic God - a God that is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-being. And yet it is that vision of God, who created us in his own image, which made the striving after his properties inevitable. And as we advanced, it was inevitable that we ourselves would supplant him in our own imaginations. This class is the story of how it came to be.

Before we take a break, let’s play a little game. Let’s work backwards from every decade, from now stretching back unto the 1920’s. Let’s try to name the defining geniuses of every decade. Let’s come up with three names for each. A genius in politics, a genius in the arts, and a genius in science. Let’s at least see if we can do it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Class 4 - Voltaire: A New Beginning

Now let's begin the talk of this class with a quote from an historical figure who will figure rather prominently in a few weeks. As German culture has faded from public consciousness, he has faded with it. But there was a time, not all that long ago, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ranked with writers Shakespeare, Homer, Tolstoy, and Dante, as the most significant and discussed of all great writers.

But it’s his quote about another writer which we have to focus on now:

(call on reader)

“When families spread over a long period it may be observed that nature at last brings forth an individual member of it who comprises in hiself the characteristics of all his ancestors and unites and gives full expression to all the talents which have up till then made only spasmodic and tentative appearances. It is the same with nations, whose collective virtues are sure, with good luck, to be summed up one day in an individual. So for instance there arose in Louis XIV a French king in the highest sense, and so in Voltaire we have the greatest writer that it is possible to imagine among Frenchmen, and one of the most harmonious with his nation.”

Question 1: When you think of the Eighteenth Century, what qualities do you think of?

Question 2: When you think of France, what qualities do you think of?

Question 3: Is it possible that the two are connected?

Goethe went on to say:

“Voltaire will always be regarded as the greatest name in the literature of the modern age and perhaps of all centuries; as the most marvellous of nature’s creations.”

Clearly, this hasn’t happened. France has many great writers, but it does not have a writer who towers over all the others in influence the way that England does Shakespeare and Germany does Goethe. But France and French culture was the dominant force of the eighteenth century, and even now, relatively diminished as he is, no eighteenth-century writer looms larger than Voltaire. In Voltaire, it’s possible we have the essence not only of France, but of the entire eighteenth century.

But let's also issue a small clarification. France's Golden Age, or at least the Golden Age as Voltaire termed it, was mostly in the Seventeenth Century during the seventy-two year reign of Louis XIV. Virtually everything which we now think of as French culture and French qualities were formulated in this period. This was the era of great thinkers of various sorts like Descartes, the playwright Moliere, Pascal, the composer Lully, the artist Pussin. A very impressive group, but nothing compared to the cultural team which France would field in the eighteenth century. During the period when Voltaire wrote, the most dominant political force on continental Europe was, believe it or not, Prussia, a German-speaking state comprised mostly of what we would now think of as Eastern Germany and Western Poland, all brought under the reign of Friedrich-Wilhelm the Second, better known as Frederick the Great. And yet the full influence of the German lands upon the world stage was not felt in full for nearly another hundred years after Frederick's death. In order to find an explanation for this, let's think of American history in our own day. Even with the "relative triumphs" of the Obama era, few people would think to call our era an American Golden Age. And yet, our influence now is greater than it ever was, even in the Postwar era. In the postwar era, the United States had the Soviet Union to curb its worldwide reach. But America 'won' the twentieth century, while the Soviet Union lies in ruins and will remain there, however much Vladimir Putin pines to relaunch it. Now that America grows fat as the victor and unquestioned world leader, the full impact of its culture and prosperity can reach every corner of the globe. In every country but ours, a person's political beliefs are most formed by the question: What do you think of America? And what they think of us has less to do with whatever our current behavior is than it does with what they think of the tactics we've employed through the long view of history. 

Unlike Shakespeare or Dante, let alone whomever composed the Bible, we have almost complete knowledge of Voltaire’s life, and his biography reads more like that of a rock star than a writer. His house was a tourist destination, and people would intrude on him constantly, sometimes disguising themselves as servants, or attempting to bribe him to let them remain in his company for a time. Even the horses he rode were celebrities. And yet Voltaire wrote so voluminously that he enjoyed very little of it. His work day was, apparently, between eighteen and twenty hours. Like so many writers of means, he did not actually write, he dictated, and dictated so quickly that his secretaries had enormous trouble keeping up with him.

Voltaire’s income was such that he owned twenty estates with twelve-hundred subjects, which produced an annual average yield of a hundred-sixty thousand francs. Every one of them had its own chateaux or villa, and most of them had their own vineyards, libraries, art galleries, and gardens with rare plants. Wherever he went, he had on call a staff of servants, secretaries, carriages, chef and kitchen staff, and a fireworks expert. He even had a private theater at which the most famous performers of Modern France would appear, and, most unbelievably for this famous proto-atheist (or at least semi-atheist), he even had his own Church, on which he put the inscription “Deo erexit Voltaire.” Meaning, literally, “God builds Voltaire.”  

Obviously, an enormous part of his income was from writing, but an even larger sum was made on dubious financial transactions - from stock investments, investments in corn, real estate speculation as a middleman negotiator, contracts with the army, and loans he made at high interest. At one point in his career, there erupted a famous financial scandal in which Voltaire did battle with a German-Jewish banker named Abraham Hirschel, who accused Voltaire of changing the terms of their transaction. A famous German writer named Lessing fashioned this rhyming couplet out of the deal:

“The long and short of this affair
About the failure of the scheming Jew
Was simply that Monsieur Voltaire
Turned out the bigger rascal of the two.”

...A bigger rascal than a scheming Jew… Was there any greater insult in the eighteenth century? But however dishonest Voltaire was, it also made him a charming figure in that perfectly eighteenth century manner. When he wanted to be elected to the Academy of  Cardinal Fleury, he wrote letters to various members assuring them that he was a good catholic and had no idea what those Lettres philosophiques were that were attributed to him. When corresponding to a clergyman in Geneva, Voltaire once wrote “I have at last been able to read Candide, and,... I declare to you that people must have taken leave off their reason and their senses to ascribe such filthy stuff to me.” In his long poem on Joan of Arc, Voltaire wrote some deliberately crappy passages so that the public would attribute the book to a forger. He once issued a bold open letter to Mercure de France, the most eminent literary journal in France, about his History of French Parliament: 

“To have published a work like this, one would have had to burrow in the archives for at least a year, and once one descends into that abyss it is still a very difficult matter to bring up a readable book out of it. It is more likely to turn out oa fat protocol than a history. Should any bookseller proclaim me as the author, I can assure him he will gain nothing by so doing. Far from selling a single copy more, he would on the contrary damage the credit of the book. To maintain that I, who have been away from France for over twenty years, could have so lived myself into French law would be perfectly absurd.” 

He once wrote to a French Jesuit Father that if anyone had ever printed over his name anything that could offend even a village sexton, he would tear it up; he wished to live and die in peace without attacking anyone, without harming anyone, without taking a stand that could offend anyone.

But few if any authors have ever given more offense from their content than Voltaire ever did. So what was the reason that he went to such great lengths to deny what he wrote? Again, Voltaire has a quote for this:

“I am an ardent friend of truth, but in no sense a friend of martyrdom.”

Egon Friedell brings up the idea that with Voltaire, the idea of Christian martyrdom ceased to be. Rather than prove your devotion to existence by sacrificing your life, you prove it through continuously taking on the turmoil of the world. If death can no longer provide eternal life, then death for a cause accomplishes very little. And surely living on another day to fight more for your cause will accomplish much more.

New question: Is there any point to martyrdom in our era?

If we think at all of Voltaire in our day, we think of him as a combination of wit and scoundrel. He was surely vain and mendacious, perhaps as well known for his intrigues as for his cultural contributions, but all that is true of the era in which he was its greatest light.

What we generally call the 'Enlightenment' was a scientific movement at its foundation, but it was an eighteenth century conception of science - in which the humanities were considered by almost everyone to be quite as scientific as hard science. Greater than any achievement in science though was that it bequeathed to us the twin revolutions of America and France - and with them came two diametrically opposed visions of how to carry out the ideals of the era - America through a loose confederation of affiliated states, and France through the strictest possible government control.

But this is the era right before those revolutions. Ideas are thick in the air - modern political science is being formed, along with the foundations of natural history, thermodynamics, atheism and determinism, and yet any one of the innovators forming such theories can be sent to prison, to the torture chambers, even to the hangman. The intellectual, and particularly the 'philosophe' is the most wanted man in France. If you're a rich lady, you can keep as much company as you like with these intellectuals, known for their fascinating conversation as much as the danger in which the Cloth perpetually keeps them.

During this period, there was a book called L'homme-machine, whose author propounded the theory that humans were nothing more than automatons. According to this book, since the philosophes all agreed that man should be guided by reason, and since we live in a completely material universe, with as as many spiritual phenomena banished as we can, we must therefore be tiny machines living wiithin a giant, awesome machine.

Such a culture would have a mechanical view of the world, as precise as a Swiss watch, obsessed with rendering every surface immaculate while a great festering darkness in the unconscious waits to explode.

This is also the precisely the duality of Voltaire's temperament. Voltaire believed in freedom and justice and peace, yet his writings bear indirect responsibility for the French Revolution, and therefore also for the 10 million deaths caused by Napoleon, and all the bloodier European wars and police states thereafter. He was a vain, dishonest man, but for all his manipulation, he was also incredibly generous to young writers, and as a landlord he practically ran his own personal Scandinavian welfare state. He spent much of his life fighting against serfdom and slavery, he put part of his wealth toward drained marshes so that poor families could farm the, and investigated manners to cultivate dry heathland as well. He advocated on behalf of the long persecuted French Protestants, known as the Huguenots, and wrote endless pamphlets, essays, and appeals to powerful men for whatever cause he thought correct. Voltaire believed in justice and hated despotism. He, by a landslide of a margin, is the singular figure most responsible for our modern conceptions of what morality should be. He may not have formulated any of these conceptions himself, but he did more to disseminate them than anyone else by an exponential factor.

As all stories must, the story which this class is meant to tell begins a little arbitrarily. But after some difficult thought over a number of weeks, I believe that Voltaire, more than any other place, is the proper beginning to the story of this class. Darwin ensured that we can never fully go back to the days of religious superstition, but Voltaire ensured that we can escape from it.

Voltaire was not a polymath like Descartes or Pascal, but he was perhaps the very greatest of what we now call the ‘man of letters’, meaning that whatever form or genre that was there in which to write Voltaire wrote in it and did it well. As he was dying, a sycophantic author came to visit him and said ‘Today I have only called to see Homer, next time I will salute Sophocles and Euripides, then Tacitus and Lucian.’ Voltaire replied, “My dear sir, I am, as you see, a fairly aged man. Can you not fit in all these visits at once?” Perhaps, to take in the whole of his achievement, we have to think of what his contemporary, the Prussian King and rival genius, Frederick the Great, wrote about him:

“I doubt whether a Voltaire exists, and am in possession of a system by the aid of which I am able to prove his non-existence. It is impossible that one man should achieve the enormous output that is ascribed to M. Voltaire. Obviously there is an academy at Cirey composed of the world’s elite: philosophers who translate and edit Newton, writers of heroic epics, Corneilles, Catulluses, and Thucydieses; and the works of this academy are sent out under the name Voltaire as one attributes the deeds of an army to the commander.”

* For the record, Corneilles was a French tragic playwright, Catullus was a Roman poet, and Thucydides was an Athenian historian. So here’s a question: Is there any contemporary writer? Any filmmaker? A contemporary artist of any genre, who can take in a similar breadth of achievement?

A man of letters is a dying breed. It requires a cultivated, lucid mind that can understand any subject even if it never masters a single one. And as an educated citizen, has the ego necessary to believe that the world will benefit from his opinion being known. It requires the ability to present facts and argument in a manner that is easily understandable and effectively convincing. The main job of the man of letters is persuasion. And clearly, Voltaire did everything he could to be extremely persuasive. Not only did he write a dozen books of philosophy and nine books of history, he also wrote roughly five dozen plays, none of which are played anymore, and 2,000 pamphlets. Still more impressive was his correspondence. A letter from Voltaire was automatically considered an open letter. In 1760, when he had nearly twenty years of life left, he showed a friend the correspondence that he had to read and answer. There were 50,000 letters to answer. By the end of his life, he had answered 20,000 of them.

With such a public clamor for his work, Voltaire had good reason to be dishonest in his dealings. When he was still an unknown poet, a satirical verse landed him in the Bastille, and it was while he was in the Bastille that he decided to publish under the name Voltaire rather than his given name: Francois-Marie Arouet. It was while he was there that he came up with the idea for the two works that would make him famous. The first was perhaps conceived as a piece of revenge: Oedipe, a retelling of the Oedipus legend. Voltaire entered prison as a minor poet sent there because of some satiric verses at the expense of the Prince-Regent. But while Voltaire was in prison, rumors began to circulate about the Regent’s eldest daughter. She was pregnant and confined to private quarters, and the rumor went that the reason was because the Regent was the father of his granddaughter. The matter was considered so delicate for the monarchy that both the Regent and his very pregnant daughter had to go to the premiere at the and congratulate Voltaire for his great success lest anyone think the royal family had anything to hide. Nevertheless, he had to live in England for twenty years thereafter.

The second work was the Henriade, an epic poem which was Voltaire’s answer to the French problem. Unlike seemingly every other country in Europe, the French had no founding mythological epic. Greeks have the Illiad and the Odyssey, Ottomans have the Thousand and One Nights, the English have the various retellings of King Arthur, Jews have The Old Testament, the Germans have the Nibelungenlied, the Italians have the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. (question) Do we in America have any such foundational epic?

France certainly has no such foundational work, but unlike so many epics from other countries, there is no exhortation to violence, in its place are denunciations of violence, along with its nefarious twin, religious fanaticism.

This work of Voltaire’s was ostensibly about the life of the long-feted French king, Henry IV, a Protestant King who converted to Catholicism and managed to end the French civil wars for a time in spite of being viewed as a heretic by the Catholics and an apostate by the Protestants. His greatest contribution to history was the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious freedom to Protestants, thereby paving the way to an uneasy peace between the two sides which at least broke into war more seldomly than before.

Legend has it that Voltaire composed half the work in prison, writing it down between the lines of another book. Regardless of whether or not he did, the tale of its composition managed to polish Voltaire’s legend to an even brighter shine. But the truth remains, hardly anyone’s read it in roughly two-hundred years. From the little I’ve read on a public domain English translation, it seemed quite high-fallutin’ and boring. And yet in its time it was considered perhaps the greatest of all epics, even Frederick the Great said that every man of taste must prefer the Henriade to the Iliad.

Question: What highly feted works of art from today might seem similarly ridiculous in fifty to a hundred years?

Of more interest is his second epic poem, which is almost an anti-epic called: The Maid of Orleans. The Maid of Orleans is, of course, Joan of Arc. But this is not your typical portrait of Joan as a patron saint of France or one of our day as a proto-feminist icon. This is a poem that is clearly as misogynist as it is anti-religion. Fortunately, it doesn’t have a kind word to say about anything else either. And therefore, for two-hundred years, this poem was banned and burned all throughout Europe. Here is a portion rendered into English prose. Immediately, you’ll see the inimitable Voltaire voice: argumentative, snarky, not a little condescending, but intertwined with it is an unmistakable compassion that leavens his contempt.

Before we read it, who are some other artists who intermingle compassion and contempt in their artistic makeup?

Most of our historians, who copy each other, suppose that the Maid uttered prophecies, and that her prophecies were accomplished. She is made to say that " she will drive the English out of the kingdom," and they were still there five years after her death. She is said to have written a long letter to the King of England, and assuredly she could neither read nor write; such an education was not given to an inn servant in the Barois; and the information laid against her states that she could not sign her name.
But, it is said, she found a rusted sword, the blade of which was engraved with five golden fleurs-de-lis; and this sword was hidden in the church of Sainte Catherine de Fierbois at Tours. There, certainly is a great miracle!
Poor Joan of Arc having been captured by the English, despite her prophecies and her miracles, maintained first of all in her cross-examination that St. Catherine and St. Marguerite had honoured her with many revelations. I am astonished that she never said anything of her talks with the prince of the celestial militia. These two saints apparently liked talking better than St. Michael: Her judges thought her a sorceress, she thought herself inspired.
But unfortunately the Comte de Dunois' prophetess was captured at the siege of Compiegne by a bastard of Vendome, and Saintrailles' prophet was captured by Talbot. The gallant Talbot was far from having the shepherd burned. This Talbot was one of those true Englishmen who scorn superstition, and who have not the fanaticism for punishing fanatics.
This, it seems to me, is what the historians should have observed, and what they have neglected.
The Maid was taken to Jean de Luxembourg, Comte deLigny. She was shut up in the fortress of Beaulieu, then in that of Beaurevoir, and from there in that of Crotoy in Picardy.
First of all Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who was of the King of England's party against his own legitimate king, claims the Maid as a sorceress arrested on the limits of his diocese. He wishes to judge her as a sorceress. He supported the right he claimed by a down- right lie. Joan had been captured on the territory of the bishopric of Noyon: and neither the Bishop of Beauvais, nor the Bishop of Noyon assuredly had the right of condemning anybody, and still less of committing to death a subject of the Duke of Lorraine, and a warrior in the pay of the King of France.
There was at that time (who would believe it?) a vicar- general of the Inquisition in France, by name Brother Martin. It was one of the most horrible effects of the total subversion of that unfortunate country. Brother Martin claimed the prisoner as smelling of heresy (odorantem haeresim). He called upon the Duke of Burgundy and the Comte de Ligny, " by the right of his office, and of the authority given to him by the Holy See, to deliver Joan to the Holy Inquisition."
The Sorbonne hastened to support Brother Martin, and wrote to the Duke of Burgundy and to Jean de Luxembourg -" You have used your noble power to apprehend this woman who calls herself the Maid, by means of whom the honour of God has been immeasurably offended, the faith exceedingly hurt, and the Church too greatly dishonoured; for by reason of her, idolatry, errors, bad doctrine, and other inestimable evils have ensued in this kingdom . . . but what this woman has done would be of small account, if did not ensue what is meet for satisfying the offence perpetrated by her against our gentle Creator and His faith, and the Holy Church with her other innumerable misdeeds . . . and it would be intolerable offence against the divine majesty if it happened that this woman were freed..."
Joan underwent fourteen examinations; they are singular. She said that she saw St. Catherine and St. Marguerite at Poitiers. Doctor Beaupere asks her how she recognized the saints. She answers that it was by their way of bowing. Beaupere asks her if they are great chatterboxes. "Go look on the register," she says. Beaupere asks her if, when she saw St. Michael, he was naked. She answers: " Do you think our Lord had nothing to clothe him with? "
The curious will carefully observe here that Joan had long been directed with other religious women of the populace by a rogue named Richard, who performed miracles, and who taught these girls to perform them. One day he gave communion three times in succession to Joan, in honour of the Trinity. It was then the custom in matters of importance and in times of great peril. The knights had three masses said, and communicated three times when they went to seek fortune or to fight in a duel. It is what has been observed on the part of the Chevalier Bayard.
The workers of miracles, Joan's companions, who were submissive to Richard, were named Pierrone and Catherine. Pierrone affirmed that she had seen that God appeared to her in human form as a friend to a friend. God was "clad in a long white robe, etc.''
Up to the present the ridiculous; here now is the horrible.
One of Joan's judges, doctor of theology and priest, by name Nicholas the Bird-Catcher, comes to confess her in prison. He abuses the sacrament to the point of hiding behind a piece of serge two priests who transcribed Joan of Arc's confession. Thus did the judges use sacrilege in order to be murderers. And an unfortunate idiot, who had had enough courage to render very great services to the king and the country, was condemned to be burned by fortyf-our French priests who immolated her for the English faction.
It is sufficiently well-known how someone had the cunning and meanness to put a man's suit beside her to tempt her to wear this suit again, and with what absurd barbarism this transgression was claimed as a pretext for condemning her to the flames, as if in a warrior girl it was a crime worthy of the fire, to put on breeches instead of a skirt. All this wrings the heart, and makes common sense shudder. One cannot conceive how we dare, after the countless horrors of which we have been guilty, call any nation by the name of barbarian.
Most of our historians, lovers of the so-called embellishments of history rather than of truth, say that Joan went fearlessly to the torture; but as the chronicles of the times bear witness, and as the historian Villaret admits, she received her sentence with cries and tears; a weakness pardonable in her sex, and perhaps in ours, and very compatible with the courage which this girl had displayed amid the dangers of war; for one can be fearless in battle, and sensitive on the scaffold.
I must add that many persons have believed without any examination that the Maid of Orleans was not burned at Rouen at all, although we have the official report of her execution. They have been deceived by the account we still have of an adventuress who took the name of the " Maid," deceived Joan of Arc's brothers, and under cover of this imposture, married in Lorraine a nobleman of the house of Armoise. There were two other rogues who also passed themselves off as the " Maid of Orleans." All three claimed that Joan was not burned at all, and that another woman had been substituted for her. Such stories can be admitted only by those who want to be deceived.

Some of this is still vaguely shocking today, so then you have to ask, how the hell did Voltaire get this published? The answer is that he didn’t. It’s highly conceivable that Voltaire meant for this work to be kept secret for the reading of a select few friends. But Voltaire was too famous for those in the know to keep it to themselves, and eventually one of his secretaries gave someone a secret copy, probably for money. The rest, as they say, is history.

Voltaire, like his fellow man of letters Bernard Shaw later would, viewed himself principally as a playwright. But unlike Shaw, I doubt there’s a single person in here who’s read a play by Voltaire, let alone seen one. Voltaire is not a natural playwright, he was too much of a character himself to inhabit the character of other people. The world was his stage, and he therefore had no need of a theatrical stage. The characters of his plays were merely mouthpieces in which he could insert his various arguments. The language in which his characters conduct arguments was apparently beautiful, but speaking the few hundred words of French as I do myself with an accuracy that could with utmost charity be called mediocre, I am not the person to judge such things. But like the epic poems, the dramas are apparently charged with rhetoric, invective, beautifully crafted sentences and poetical rhymes, and a fiercely burning passion for justice. The characters bandy about their opinions like a high-school debate society, or an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. A play called Alzire is about the cruelty of Imperial Christian conquerors in Peru. Another, called “The Phantasm, or Mohammed the Prophet” is, according to the author, intended to show Mohammed as ‘Tartuffe with a sword in his hand.” Tartuffe being the famous religious hypocrite served to posterity by Moliere, the writer agreed upon universally today as the greatest of all French playwrights.

But Moliere was a great writer of poetry and drama. Voltaire, as anyone who’s read Candide can tell you, was a toweringly great satirist. But it’s difficult at best to believe that he is a great poet when perhaps his most famous poem was this one about the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which may have killed a hundred-thousand people.

“Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is well,"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble;
One-hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth
Who, bleeding, lacerated, and still alive,
Buried under their roofs without aid in their anguish,
End their sad days!
In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,
At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,
Will you say: "This is result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God!"
Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims:
"God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?"
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!”

It’s of course possible that Voltaire wrote less well-publicized poetry that was great. I honestly wouldn’t know much about it. But however worthy the sentiment of this work, the truth of this piece cannot be avoided, this poem is too terrible to ever read twice. Maybe it’s slightly better in the original language, but unless the whole thing is completely mistranslated, this is truly a horrible poem. It brings to mind the much better verse of Moliere from his great, perhaps greatest, verse-drama, The Misanthrope:

“Sir, these are delicate matters; we all desire
To be told that we’ve the true poetic fire.
But once, to one whose name I shall not mention,
I said, regarding some verse of his invention,
That gentlemen should rigorously control
That itch to write which often afflicts the soul;
That one should curb the heady inclination
To publicize one’s little avocation;
And that in showing off one’s works of art
One often plays a clownish part.”

Moliere - The Misanthrope

It is not as a poet, or playwright, or even as a fiction writer or satirist that Voltaire demonstrates his greatest value to posterity, but as a writer of non-fiction, history and philosophy. Like so many human beings, he was too deluded into thinking that he had talent in one field to notice that he had much greater talent in another. He had skill for fiction, but he had a genius for non-fiction. And surely there was a part of him which was aware of this, which shows in the sentiments of this letter:

“I should like to assert something which will astonish you. It is only a man who can write a tragedy who can impart interest to our dry and barbarous history. Like a play it must have its exposition, development, and solution.”

His dramas were too full of history to contain real feeling, but his histories were full of drama. You could even point to works like An Essay on Universal History as the beginning of real modern history writing. For perhaps the first time in the modern era, under Voltaire’s pen, an historical or cultural work is not just a boring description of historical facts, but works intended primarily to come alive with descriptions of what distinguishes one culture from another, or the manners of differing regions and eras. This is not just the dissemination of facts by a specialist for other specialists, but the dissemination of facts by a curious amateur for other curious amateurs. This democratic approach to knowledge, not the rarefied work of professional specialists, is truly what creates the modern era with its vast, exponential increases in knowledge. Among some amateurs, it creates the desire to become professional specialists in various fields, and even among those who do not become specialists, it creates a culture of curiosity which places value on the findings of specialists, which in turn fosters a greater desire for even the least educated to explore ever newer rooms in the storehouse of human knowledge.  

Consider, if you please, these three quotes from the Universal History about Christianity and what atomic scandals and revelations they must have set off in the eighteenth century:

“The more closely we examine Jesus’s behavior, the more do we become convinced that he was an honest enthusiast and a good man whose only weakness was the desire to make himself talked about.”

Question: What is there in the New Testament that would cause Voltaire to charge Jesus with such narcissism?

“It is melancholy to consider, that as soon as Christianity was seated on the throne, the sanctity of this religion should be profaned by Christians unworthy of that name, who indulged in their thirst for revenge, even when their triumph should have inspired within them the love of peace. They massacred all the magistrates in Syria and Palestine, that had been concerned in persecuting them; they drowned the wife and daughter of Maximinus, they put his sons and his relations to death by the most cruel tortures. The disputes about the consubstantiality of the son of God disturbed the world, and embrued it in blood. In short Ammianus Marcellinus tells us, that the Christians in his time, tore one another to pieces like wild beasts….”

Two Questions:
1. Since the saying goes that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is such hypocritical behavior as some Christians throughout history indulged in inherent in a community once they assume power?
2. And if even the message of Jesus cannot stop his followers from killing each other, is there no hope at all for a philosophy or ideology that will cause humanity to embrace peace?

“...different usages did not set the East and West at variance: they only served to forment the natural aversion between nations that were grown rivals to each other… The eastern churches were strangers to temporal dominion, that perpetual source of discord in the West… but other broils, of no less fatal consequence, were excited by those endless disputes, which sprang up continually in the sophistical brains of the Greeks and their disciples. The simplicity of primitive times disappeared amidst the multitude of questions, which were started by human curiosity… each mystery gave rise to different opinions, and each opinion was productive of bloodshed.
It is very extraordinary that out of very near fourscore sects, which had rent the church since the first establishment, not one was founded by a Roman, except Novitianus, who can hardly be considered as an heretic. And of all the bishops of Rome there has been only one, that favored any of those systems condemned by the church. This was the pope Honorius I, who is charged to this day with having been a monotheist. By this accusation they think to stigmatize his memory: but whoever will give himself the trouble to peruse his celebrated pastoral letter, wherein he attributes but one will to Jesus Christ, will find him a man of great prudence. “We acknowledge” says he “but one will in Christ. We do not find that either councils, or scripture authorize us to think otherwise: but whether, in consequence of the works of the divine and human nature with which he is invested, we ought to understand one operation or two, I leave to grammarians, and imports but little to know.
There is nothing more valuable perhaps in the letters of the popes, than these very expressions. They show that the disputes of the Greeks were merely about words; and that they ought to have silenced those sophistical quarrels, which have been attended with such fatal consequences. Had they left them to grammarians, as the judicious pontiff adviseth, the church would have enjoyed constant peace. But were they to decide the question, whether the Son was consubtstantial with the Father? The Christian world was divided, and one half persecuted the other. Would they know whether the mother of Jesus Christ was the mother of God, or of Jesus? Whether Christ had two natures and two wills in one and the same person, or two persons and one will, or one will and one person? All these disputes, which arose in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, excited seditions. One party anathematized the other; and the ruling party condemned to exile, to prison, to death, and to eternal torments the other faction, which in its turn took revenge by making use of the same weapons.”

Question: What are some other historical disasters that resulted from more dogmatic people taking older documents literally?

Or let's also consider this choice quote from his History of France under Louis XIV and what a fire this might have lit under the collective asses of the powerful:

"There is not any age in which some statesmen and warriors have not rendered their names famous. It seems, unfortunately, that politics and arms are the professions most natural to man. We must forever fight or negotiate. The most fortunate man passes for the greatest, and the public often impute that success to merit, which is only the effect of fortune."

For literally thousands of years, the world seemed unquestioningly to view the solution to mankind's problems as to accumulate greater order. In the anarchy of a world people did not understand, the idea of a leader who could alleviate their problems was enormously appealing. It was only in an era when such leaders accumulated enough power to be omnipresent in people's lives that they began to see that the tradeoffs of such strict heirarchies wasn't always worth it. Surely there were many movements to overthrow autocratic leaders throughout remoter history, but such movements were inetivably followed by the installation of a new autocrat. One of the most important of all Voltaire's contributions was the simple fact that he popularized the idea, an idea which originates far more from Locke than from he, that such strict control over subjects is unnecessary.
What we might call his historical writing was not confined to historical events. He was also a writer of popular science whose efforts perhaps did as much or more to make Newton accepted in the mainstream of European thought as the misanthropic Newton ever did for himself.

Just as importantly, he was a writer of political philosophy. Like many great philosophers, he was not a particularly original thinker. But is originality the point of philosophy or is truth?

He was only an original philosopher insofar as his formulations demanded a maximum of human liberty. But even in his philosophical pronouncements, he seemed less a philosopher than a newspaper columnist, doing battle for self-determinism and putting together lots of formulations for the defense of liberal practices which still retain their controversy in our day. Let’s take a look at his philosophical dictionary, which he put together at the behest of Frederick the Great in 1764, and in its day was considered the most important word on the subject.

Here are two Voltaire quotes about suicide which are shockingly frank, misanthropic, and modern for their day. The first one is not from the dictionary but from that one book nearly all of us have read by him: Candide.

“I have been a hundred times on the point of killing myself, but still was fond of life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our worst instincts. What can be more absurd than choosing to carry a burden that one really wants to throw to the ground? To detest, and yet to strive to preserve our existence? To caress the serpent that devours us, and hug him close to our bosoms till he has gnawed into our hearts?”

Question: Well… Can we answer this question? Can anything be more absurd than the desire to go on living when life is unendurable?

The reason to ask this question is to show that Voltaire, like Shakespeare, is still a step ahead of us. 250 years later, the question he asks here is still unanswered. We are not yet a progressive enough society to find a true answer to that question, and we may never be.

Or consider this quote about suicide from his philosophical dictionary:

“Notwithstanding this humane law of our masters we still drag on a sledge and drive a stake through the body of a man who has died a voluntary death; we do all we can to make his memory infamous; we dishonor his family as far as we are able; we punish the son for having lost his father, and the widow for being deprived of her husband.
We even confiscate the property of the deceased, which is robbing the living of the patrimony which of right belongs to them. This custom is derived from our canon law, which deprives of Christian burial such as die a voluntary death. Hence it is concluded that we cannot inherit from a man who is judged to have no inheritance in heaven. The canon law, under the head “De Pœnitentia,” assures us that Judas committed a greater crime in strangling himself than in selling our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Question: With the recent talk about depression brought about by Robin Williams’s suicide (apparent), how much progress have we really made from this point of view? Do we still punish the victims of suicide, and if we do, how?
Or consider, if you please, this semi-defense of homosexuality, or as he called it, “Socratic Love.” It’s utterly intolerant for our day, but by the standards of any era before ours, this must be counted a miraculously progressive defense of tolerance.
“How could it be, that a vice, which if general, would extinguish the human species, an infamous crime against nature, should become so natural? It appears to be the last degree of reflective corruption; and yet it is usually found in those who have not had time to be corrupted. It makes its way into novice hearts, who are strangers to ambition, fraud, and a thirst after wealth; it is blind youth, which at the end of childhood, by an unaccountable instinct, plunges itself into this enormity.”
Question: What is Voltaire implying here. Is he merely imputing that homosexuality is most common among adolescents, a typically bigoted sentiment among upper class people until quite recently. Or is he describing the sexual awakening of all people, and that the innocence with which homosexuality awakens in adolescence is no different than the innocent awakening of heterosexuality?
When all this is put together, it is, perhaps, why Voltaire still deserves a place at the very front rank of writers - equal in his own way even to Shakespeare. Shakespeare placed inquiries into human individuality at the center of his literary mission, but at the center of Voltaire’s literary mission was precisely the one great quality which Shakespeare avoided with extremity - a moral stand; a sense that all humans deserve dignity, justice, and education, regardless of the quality of their individuality. Voltaire’s stock has dropped precipitously for two hundred years. It took two-hundred years for Shakespeare to establish his aesthetic dominance over all writers of fiction. It’s now been roughly two-hundred-thirty-five years since Voltaire’s passing. Perhaps it will take a bit longer for Voltaire to do the same over writers of non-fiction.

Question: Who might some other candidates be for the moniker: The Shakespeare of non-fiction? Why?

By definition, no liberalism, not even Voltaire’s, is absolute. A liberal, a true one anyway, fits his beliefs to the circumstances, whereas virtually any other strain of political belief operates in the other direction. If, by some miracle, indisputable evidence were to be produced tomorrow that low taxes and no government welfare programs were the incontrovertible cure to society’s ills, a true liberal would embrace the new evidence and change his beliefs accordingly with very little handwringing or fuss. In the face of facts which contradict your beliefs, the beliefs of other groups: libertarians and socialists, conservatives and progressives, will not change, because they operate first upon moral imperatives about the role of government, or lack thereof, and then go about the business of framing the facts in a manner that causes their moral imperatives to seem necessary.

We will get to how this relates to Voltaire in a moment. As perhaps evidenced by the homosexuality quote, Voltaire was not always completely correct in what he believed. He believed in a maximum of personal liberty, but he also once wrote of the people he should have wanted to liberate:

“They will always remain stupid and barbarous; they are oxen who need a yoke, a whip, and hay.”

Voltaire died roughly ten years before the French Revolution. When the Jacobins came to power, they almost immediately set about transferring Voltaire’s remains to the Pantheon and celebrated him as one of their own. But had Voltaire lived into his nineties in full possession of his faculties, he probably would have been among the first batch they’d send to the guillotine, lest his pen turn the world against their revolutionary cause more quickly. And yet this is something he wrote in 1764, a quarter-century before the great event:

But before we do that, here’s another question: Can you name some other historical figures that were posthumously coopted by movements they would have detested?

“All that I see happening around me is sowing the seed of a revolution which will infallibly occur, though I shall hardly live to see it. The French are nearly always too late in achieving their aim, but still they do it in the end. Happy they who are young, they will see some fine days.”

Voltaire was both absolutely right about his prophecy of the French Revolution, but he was also wrong in nearly every particular. He came within a decade of seeing the revolution firsthand - he would have been 85 when it occurred, certainly an extremely advanced age for his day, but hardly one which no one reached. Furthermore, as it happens, French did see some good days after the Revolution, but most historians would agree that their first extended good days didn’t happen until the 1870’s, when the babies of the Revolution were in their dotage.

Or, as Voltaire held a hatred of Jews that at times seemed to even exceed his hatred of Christians, please consider these quotes about Jews from the same Universal History:

If we read the history of the Jews written by an author of another nation, we would have sorrow to believe that there were indeed fugitive people of Egypt which came by express order from God to immolate seven or eight small nations that they didn't know; to cut the throat without mercy of a woman, old men and children with the udder, and to reserve only the small girls; that these holy people were punished of his God when it had been enough criminal to save only one man devoted to the anathema. We would not believe that so abominable people (Jews) had been able to exist on the earth. But as this nation itself brings back all its facts in its holy books to us, it should be believed.”

Unfortunately, Voltaire is almost completely right about this. Yahweh ordered the wholesale conquest, and in one case, the genocide, of nations living on this promised land for the Hebrews. But what particular hypocrisies is Voltaire ignoring by focusing exclusively upon the genocide committed in the Bible the Jews?

“[The Jewish nation] dares spread an irreconcilable hatred against all nations; it revolts against all its masters. Always superstitious, always avid of the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous, crawling in misfortune, and insolent in prosperity. Here are what were the Jews in the eyes of the Greeks and the Romans who could read their books.”

Again, Voltaire is in some sense exactly right. The culture of eighteenth century Judaism was by and large deliberately preserved precisely as it had been  since the original days of Jewish diaspora in the first and second centuries. European culture was predisposed toward innovation, whereas Jewish culture was predisposed toward conservation. Is there any circumstance under which a culture of conservation might be considered a greater civilization than an innovative one?

“If these Ismaélites (Arabs) resembled to the Jews by the enthusiasm and the thirst for plundering, they were prodigiously higher by courage, by the nobility of soul, by the magnanimity: their history, or true or fabulous, before Mahomet, is filled of examples of friendship, such as Greece invented some in the fables of Pilade and Oreste, of Thésée and Pirithous. The history of Barmécides is only one continuation of amazing generosities which raise the heart. These features characterize a nation. We do not see on the contrary, in all annals of the Hebrew people, no generous action. They do not know nor hospitality, nor liberality, nor leniency. Their sovereign happiness is to exert wear (trade) with the foreigners; and this spirit of wear, principle of any cowardice, is so natural in their hearts, that it is the continual object of the figures that they employ in the species of eloquence which is proper for them. Their glory is to put at fire and blood the small villages they can seize. They cut the throat of the old men and the children; they hold only the girls nubiles; they assassinate their Masters when they are slaves; they can never forgive when they are victorious: they are enemy of the human mankind. No courtesy, no science, no art improved in any time, in this atrocious nation.”  

What about this statement might be considered forgivable when viewed in the context of Voltaire’s time?

Voltaire poses a few fascinating problems. He was a fanatic of anti-fanaticism, and this illiberally dogmatic liberalism of his was a misplacement of priorities so different than the usual fanatics of his time that his vehemence enabled society to take the first genuine steps of liberation from religious dogma. From Voltaire, we get not only find the germ of our liberation from religion, we also find the germ of our imprisonment within atheist religions.

Question: How can atheism become a religion?

Let’s also consider this: as a writer of non-fiction, he is not only one of the immortals. He may be the very greatest of all time, and in our era of information overload, Voltaire is long overdue for acknowledgement as the most important ancestor to every budding Christopher Hitchens, every budding Malcolm Gladwell, and every budding wikipedia editor. But a non-fiction writer is different than an original thinker. So far as I can tell, Voltaire may not have had a single original abstract idea. He was a great historian, a great anthropologist, a great critic, a great journalist, a great wit, and especially a great polemicist. But he was a synthesizer of, or intermediary with, popularizer for, abstract ideas which were the sole property of people more original than he, but Voltaire put these ideas to the public more eloquently, more interestingly, more colorfully, more entertainingly, than anyone before him ever could or did. And by doing so, he enabled the flowering of more ideas than even he could ever imagine.

The heart of Voltaire's accomplishment was his virulently bigoted vision of liberalism, which did nothing less than reorient the world away from the static model of monotheistic gods who insisted upon us conserving Their way of life from century to century and country to country, and would gladly allow us to sustain that lifestyle from eon to eon. Until the era of Voltaire, the notion and achievement of progress among Western humans was isolated and incidental to human history. In the monotheistic era, history was a story of continuity, not progress, in which evolution was reduced to the slowest possible crawl. But the era of Voltaire has more in common with the era of Jesus than it does with our own era. And even if he is not the sole reason for this, he is, ultimately, the best reason we'll be able to find for why the world changes exponentially as it does.