100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 69


The Influence of Voltaire


To hold a pen is to be at war.”


Letter to Jeanne-Grâce Bosc du Bouchet, 1748


Image result for Voltaire 

It was Voltaire who introduced to France the mechanics of Newton and the psychology of Locke, and thereby began the great age of the Enlightenment. His influence began with the anticlerical moments in Oedipe (1718); it operates almost ecumenically today. We have seen it moving sovereigns: Frederick II, Catherine II, Joseph II, Gustavus III, and in less degree Charles III of Spain through Count Aranda, and Joseph II of Portugal through the Marquês de Pombal. In the intellectual world of the last two hundred years, only the influence of Rousseau and Darwin has equaled it.

    Whereas Rousseau’s moral influence was toward tenderness, sentiment, and the restoration of family life and marital fidelity, the moral influence of Voltaire was toward humanity and justice, toward the cleansing of French law and custom from legal abuses and barbaric cruelties. He, more than any other individual, spurred on the humanitarian movement that became one of the credits of the nineteenth century. To feel the influence of Voltaire on literature we need only recall Wieland, Kellgren, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Heine, Gautier, Renan, and Anatole France. Without Voltaire Gibbon would have been impossible; and historians acknowledge his lead and inspiration in giving less attention to the crimes of men and governments and more to the development of

knowledge, morals,  manners, literature, and art.   

    It will shock scholastic minds to see Voltaire included among the supreme thinkers of humankind; they will protest that his thought was borrowed rather than original, and that his influence was immoral and destructive. But which of us is original except in form? What idea can we conceive today that has not enjoyed, in one garb or another, a hoary antiquity of time? It is easier to be original in error than in truth, for every truth displaces a thousand falsehoods. An honest philosopher will admit, like Santayana, that truth, in its outlines, is as old as Aristotle, and that all we need do today is to inform and vary the design with our transient needs. Did not Spinoza, profoundest of modern thinkers, take the essentials of his thought from Bruno, Maimonides, and Descartes? Did not Ramus defend, as his thesis for the doctorate, the modest proposition that everything in Aristotle is false except that which he pilfered from Plato? And did not Plato, like Shakespeare, borrow lavishly from every store, making these stolen goods his own by transforming them with beauty? Granted that Voltaire, like Bacon, “lighted his candle at every man’s torch”; it remains that he made the torch burn so brightly that it enlightened all humanity. Things came to him dull and he made them radiant; things came to him obscure, and he cleansed and scoured them with clarity; things came to him in useless scholastic dress, and he clothed them in such language that the whole world could understand and profit from them. Never did one man teach so many, or with such irresistible artistry.    Was his influence destructive? Who shall say? Shall we abandon here the objectivity of judgment we proudly assume, and reject the laughing philosopher of Ferney because his thought was different from our own? We have sacrificed Spinoza from inclusion in the list of most influential philosophers, though some of us swear by his philosophy; sacrificed him because his influence has been, though deep, too narrowly confined. Evidently, we must ask of Voltaire, not do we accept his conclusions, but did the world accept them, did his thinking mold the educated humanity of his age and his posterity? It did; there can be little doubt of it.

    Voltaire shared in begetting the French Revolution by weakening the respect of the intellectual classes for the Church, and the belief of the aristocracy in its feudal rights. Louis XVI, seeing in his Temple prison the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, said, “Those two men have destroyed France,”—meaning despotism. Perhaps the poor king did philosophy too much honor; doubtless economic causes underlay the intellectual uprising that centered in Voltaire. But just as physiological decay leads to no action unless it sends its message of pain to consciousness, so the economic and political corruption of Bourbon France might have proceeded to utter national disintegration had not a hundred virile pens brought home the state of affairs to the conscience and consciousness of their country. And in that great task Voltaire was commander-in-chief; all the rest willingly acknowledged his lead, and did his bidding proudly. Even the mighty Frederick greeted him as “the finest genius that the ages have borne.” However, after 1789 Rousseau overwhelmed Voltaire’s political influence. Voltaire seemed too conservative, too scornful of the masses, too much of the seigneur; Robespierre rejected him; and for two years the Social Contract was the bible of the Revolution. Bonaparte felt the two influences in the usual sequence: “Until I was sixteen,” he recalled, “I would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire; today it is the opposite. . . . The more I read Voltaire the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic.” After the restoration of the Bourbons the writings of Voltaire became an instrument of bourgeois thought against the revived nobility and clergy. Between 1817 and 1829 there were twelve editions of Voltaire’s collected works; in those twelve years over three million volumes by Voltaire were sold. The Communist crusade under Marx and Engels once more gave the leadership to Rousseau. In general, the revolutionary movements since 1848 have followed Rousseau rather than Voltaire in politics, Voltaire rather than Rousseau in religion.

    The most profound and lasting influence of Voltaire has been on religious belief. Through him and his associates, France bypassed the Reformation, and went directly from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Perhaps that is one reason why the change was so violent; there was no pause at Protestantism. Some enthusiasts felt that the Enlightenment as a whole was a deeper reformation than that which Luther and Calvin had effected, for it challenged not merely the excesses of sacerdotalism and superstition, but the very fundamentals of Christianity, even of all supernatural creeds. Voltaire gathered into one voice all the varieties of anti-Catholic thought; he gave them added force by clarity, repetition, and wit; and for a time it seemed as if he had pulled down the Temple in which he had been reared. The philosophes moved the intellectual classes throughout Christendom to a polite deism or a secret atheism. In Germany, the youth of Goethe’s generation were profoundly influenced. Goethe thought that “Voltaire will always be regarded as the greatest man in the literature of modern times, and perhaps of all times.” In England a brilliant minority—Godwin, Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Byron, Shelley—felt Voltaire’s influence, but by and large English deism had anticipated him and dulled his point; moreover, English gentlemen felt that no cultured mind would attack a religion that gave such calming solace to the weaker classes and the weaker sex. In America, the founding fathers were almost all disciples of Voltaire. There and in England the influence of Darwin and modern biology has overlaid that of Voltaire in impairing religious belief; and in our times, the Christian theology suffers most of all from the unparalleled barbarity of our wars, and the victorious audacities of sciences that invade the very heavens that once housed deities and saints.

    To Voltaire, more than to any other individual, we owe the religious toleration that now precariously prevails in Europe and North America. The people of Paris thought of him not as the author of epochal books but as the defender of the Calas and the Sirvens. After him, no tribunal in Europe would have dared to break a man on the wheel on such charges and evidence as had condemned Jean Calas. Books like Émile were still banned and burned, but their ashes helped to disseminate their ideas. Religious censorship declined until it tacitly admitted defeat.     

    Beneath the recrudescence of ancient beliefs amid which we live, the influence of Voltaire quietly persists. As all Europe in his century bowed to the scepter of his pen, so the great leaders of the mind in later centuries have honored him as the fountainhead of intellectual enlightenment in our time. Nietzsche dedicated one of his books to him, and drank deeply at the Voltairian spring; Anatole France formed his thought, his wit and his style on the ninety-nine volumes which the great sage left behind him; and Georg Brandes, aged survivor of many a battle in the war of liberation, gives some of his dying years to a forgivably idolatrous biography of the Great Emancipator of Ferney. If, as seems possible, our children may have to fight all over again the battle for the freedom of the mind, let them seek inspiration and encouragement in the ninety-nine volumes of Voltaire. They will not find there one dull page. When we forget to honor Voltaire, we shall be unworthy of freedom.