My introduction to Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher, poet, historian and writer of plays and satire, came from reading his novella, “Candide,” in a high school class that surveyed world literature.
For a time, as I recall (dimly perhaps since this was nearly 60 years ago), my friends and I applied our own version of Voltaire’s satire in comments about conditions “in this best of all possible worlds.” This was the contradiction that the naively optimistic character Candide faced when confronted with the disillusioning realities of life. Candide was also topical then because of an adaptation of the book for musical theater by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and playwritght Lillian Hellman. It opened on Broadway in 1956. The music has endured, especially in Bernstein’s often-performed overture.
What I didn’t learn at the time was that Voltaire wrote “Candide” in 1759 just as he was to embark in 1760 on a writing campaign in support of religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He continued this campaign until he died at age 84 in 1778. That’s according to a translation of some of these works in a 2015 book, “Voltaire’s Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion,” edited, translated and with an introduction by G.K. Noyer.
Noyer says in a lengthy introduction that Americans of recent generations know little of Voltaire’s contribution along with other Enlightenment philosophers to the thinking of America’s founders and to our freedoms of conscience and religion. “Our schoolbooks used to note the influence of the French Enlightenment writers on the founding of our nation and our revolutionary new laws, but the names of Voltaire and Montesquieu have nearly vanished in recent years, along with the very word Enlightenment.”
She added that “the total incomprehension of those rights and principles and of our real history has contributed greatly to America’s violent polarization over religion – a situation practically unique to our country in the Western hemisphere.”
So she might argue that this collection of Voltaire’s writing is timely for meeting modern challenges of religious tolerance and the continuing temptations to impose religious belief through laws.
Voltaire’s warning on fanaticism endures. In his dialog titled “Catechism of an Honest Man,” his honest man was asked how religion or what we might consider “isms” get started.
The honest man responded that a man of great imagination gathers followers. “The flock increases. Fanaticism begins, and deceit does the rest. A powerful man arrives. He sees a mob that has put a saddle on its back and a bit in its mouth. He climbs aboard.”
Voltaire wrote under pseudonyms (some 169 of them, according to Noyer) as did other 18th century writers fearful of arrest and torture.
Voltaire’s moral advice, summarized by Frederick the Great in his eulogy of Voltaire in 1778, was that men should love each other like brothers. “In a word, they should conduct themselves with others as they would wish to be treated themselves.” Voltaire was a Deist, and he accepted other religions, but not insofar as they might threaten others’ freedom of religion and belief.
Noyer wrote that Frederick the Great of Prussia had a 43-year correspondence with Voltaire, who served as his adviser. He granted freedom of beliefs to his subjects in 1740 and “played no small role in demonstrating its feasibility to all of Europe as well as to the American colonies.”
The eulogy noted that Voltaire had worked passionately on his last play until the very end of his life, relying on huge consumption of coffee and, at the last, on opiods until it resulted in his demise – a fact of Voltaire’s life that demonstrates some things don’t change in this best of all possible worlds.