Okay, pop quiz – what was the Age of Enlightenment and when was it?
Granted, it is certainly not a complete answer, but it takes us a very long way towards understanding the changes going on in Western Europe and America in the 18th century.
Today is Voltaire’s birthday and really – what a guy. He took on the church, the monarchy, Leibniz and right off the bat, his parents. His real name, btw, was Francois Marie Arouet, but he made up the name Voltaire for himself and insisted on being addressd that way. Eventually, he would use more than 150 pen names, mostly to avoid unpleasantness – like being thrown into jail or being exiled.
His father wanted him to be a notary, like a proper bourgeois, but Francois said no thanks and kept writing poetry. Very early on, he was sent to the Bastille for writing a satire actually written by someone else – when he was finally released after a year, he changed his name, avoided his family and got serious.
In 1719, he insulted a young aristocrat who had Louis XV issue a warrant and Voltaire was on his way to prison again. He talked the authorities into exiling him to England instead. When he returned three years later, he was more vicious and more clever than ever in his criticism of the king, the church and the aristocracy. He published Philosophical Letters on the English. in which he pointed out how much better constitutional monarchy was than absolute monarchy, how civilized the English were when it came to religious tolerance and the judicial system and a number of other points that caused a huge furor. The book was burned and Voltaire was forced to flee.
That was pretty much the pattern of his life . He got in trouble with Frederick the Great, escaped to Switzerland and finally crossed back into France to live for the rest of his life in the border town of Ferney.
What Voltaire was doing – like other Enlightment types – was rending what Professor Peter Gay calls ‘the Sacred Ciircle’ – that cosy arrangement whereby the clergy interpreted the Bible to bless the divine right of kings and the kings in turn protected and enriched the clergy.
But I think he had a good time doing it – it’s all there in his face in a wonderful bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Finally, some Voltaire to brighten your day:
- All men are born with a nose and ten fingers, but no one is born with a knowledge of God.
- Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.
- The art of government is to make two-thirds of a nation pay all it possibly can pay for the benefit of the other third.
- The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it.