Voltaire - Mrs. Tully's Website for Students

Voltaire - Mrs. Tully's Website for Students

Voltaire and the Enlightenment Voltaire was the most influential author of the 18th century, an epochal period that changed the thinking and culture of Western Europe. He wrote many hundreds of published works and well over 20,000 letters. Voltaires published works range from light verse to epic Voltaire poetry, drama, narrative fiction, essays, a dictionary, (1694-1778)

philosophical treatises, pseudonym of scientific popularizations to Francois Marie Arouet the genre he created, the philosophical tale (Kors 1, 452). Voltaire grew up during the Reign of Louis XIV of France Although orthodoxy and censorship limited candor, France under Louis XIV was in a state of intellectual ferment. Because of his wars, the last

15-20 years of Louis XIVs reign had led to widespread suffering, crippling taxation, agricultural crises and famine. Indirect criticism of Louis reign took the form of idealized portrait of great rulers of the past, but moral and political criticism of the monarchy was widespread (Kors 2, 452). Louis XIV Voltaires Education From ages of 10-17,

Voltaire attended Louis-leGrand, the Jesuit college in Paris which had the finest teachers in France. His fellow students were French aristocrats who would later provide invaluable patronage, protection and influence in Voltaires life (Kors 2, 452). Voltaires Jesuit Education Jesuits gave their students a deep grounding in logic, disputation and rhetoric, including the categories of logic, the analysis of argument and the study of debate.

Students were encouraged to look for possible objections to what they were being taught or were trying to prove. This way of thinking became a habit of mind for the students. Classics and modern analysis of the classics were stressed. Thus,Voltaire and his fellow students studied the finest pre-Christian models of learning, which were themselves heterodoxical, antireligious, and satirical (Kors 2, 452). In 1715, France experienced the cultural revolution of the Regency of Phillippe, Duc dOrleans. Censorship was

lessened and previously suppressed ideas flourished. In 1714, Voltaire was introduced to the Societe du Temple, which became his intellectual home until 1723. The society encouraged his poetry and introduced him to naturalistic epistemology, epicureanism, and the members indifference to religion, Voltaire became a courtier in Versailles, where his wit and eloquence served him well. The Regent and later the King

and Queen gave him pensions. Arouet to Voltaire Voltaire at age 24 Imprisonment in the Bastille In 1718, Voltaire enjoyed a first and stunning literary success with his tragedy Oedipe (0edipus), changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire and enjoyed literary triumph, fame and wealth.

He inherited his fathers wealth in 1724 and invested it extremely well. However, at the height of his fame and influence, Voltaire experienced humiliation, imprisonment and exile to England (Kors 2, 452). Voltaire in the Bastille

In 1726, while at the theater, Voltaire made a clever remark to the Chevalier de Rohan, a young nobleman, who resented that Voltaire made him look like a fool. To get even, Rohan had several men give Voltaire a serious beating, which he watched from his carriage. Furious, Voltaire took fencing lessons and planned to challenge Rohan to a duel, but the Chevalier refused to duel with a commoner. To avoid a problem, the powerful Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued and Voltaire was arrested and taken to the Bastille. While in the Bastille for 11 months, Voltaire began his great epic on Henry IV, The Henriade. He was eventually released from prison after promising that he would leave France and go to England. (Birkenstock). Philosophical Letters Voltaires influential work

was based on his observations while he was exiled in England. In it, Voltaire describes and implicitly praises English religious toleration. Most importantly, he celebrates Newtonian (English) over Cartesian (French) physics (Kors 3-4, 452) Rene Descartes

Many in France celebrated the 17th century revolutions in science and philosophy chauvinistically. French readers favored French authors, especially Descartes. Descartes philosophy was based on accepted generalizations, rationally certain, clear and distinct ideas that he felt that we find innate in our minds. From these, we may deduce by logic our knowledge of the world. To Voltaire, Cartesian philosophy relied upon, for its premises, ideas that had no empirical basis other than being generally accepted.

(Kors 3, 452). For Voltaire, Lockes sensationalismhis value for only that knowledge that we can verify through the experience of our senses was superior to Descartes rationalism with its doctrine of innate ideas. Lockes philosophy links us to the things of this world and makes authentic scientific knowledge possible. Voltaire also wanted to popularize Lockes view that

if our knowledge is all derived from our experience, then our knowledge is limited to our experience (Kors 3, 452). John Locke Unlike Descartes, Locke avoided theorizing about the substance or nature of the mind, an issue at the time. For Locke, this question is beyond human experience. Voltaire defended Lockes argument that philosophical skepticism is the only honest conclusion in metaphysical matter. He felt that the only honest conclusion in

metaphysical matters is to admit ignorance (Kors 3, 452). Isaac Newton To Voltaire, the culminating achievement of Bacons method and Lockes epistemology was Newtons empiricism. Empiricism is moving from the particulars of our experience to generalizations which are derived from these particulars and can be tested against them. Voltaires Philosophical Letters praises Newtons

physics over abstract metaphysical speculation (Kors 447). Return to France On his return to France, Voltaire proudly published the Philosophical Letters (1734). He believed them to be moderate and noncontroversial. Vehement critics cried that Voltaire was advocating Quakerism, undermining the Christian religion, fomenting rebellion in France and attacking Divine Providence. The clergy and secular authorities were furious and demanded his arrest. Facing both prosecution and persecution, Voltaire was exiled from Paris until 1778, the

year of his death (Kors 5,452). Emilie du Chatelet, a friend he had met in Paris, offered Voltaire refuge at her chateau in Cirey. Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet At Cirey Voltaire and Emilie had met in the spring of 1733 and became companions immediately. Friends when the Marquise du Chatelet invited Voltaire to live at her crumbling chateau, Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire became lovers and intellectual collaborators in a relationship

that lasted fifteen years. During this period, Cirey became a center of Newtonian study and persuasion. Almost all of the great Continental minds who sought to convert European thinkers from Descartess philosophy and physics to those of Newton came to Cirey. Voltaire and Mme. Du Chatelet played critical roles in winning the Continent over to Newtonian science. Their relationship, both physical and intellectual, lasted until her death in 1749 (Kors 5, 452). The Divine Emilie

Madame du Chatelet was one of the foremost Newtonians and thinkers of 18th-Century France. Born in 1706 into an upper class family in Paris, where her father the Baron de Breteuil was Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to Louis XIV, Emilie had high social prestige when she entered society as an adult. In the 18th century, women were excluded from educational realms that men reserved for themselves. To overcome this problem, Emilie hired professors to teach her geometry, algebra, calculus, and physics. Much of her education was self-taught and she spent from 8 to 12 hours a day on study, research, and writing. Throughout her life, the subjects that interested Emilie most were physics, the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics (Kors 5, 452).

Lady Newton Mme. du Chatelet had mastered Newtons optics, complex mathematics and physics. She understood Newtons position that where scientific knowledge to answer a question does not exist, one does not feign a hypothesis that cannot be confirmed to explain the phenomenon. A deist, she wrote scientific treatises that were taken seriously by the finest scientific minds of Europe, and she translated the whole of Newtons Principia Mathematica into French. She had also mastered metaphysical philosophy and was a critical student of both the Old and New Testaments, which was rare in France at that time. She introduced Voltaire to biblical study (Kors 4, 452).

Voltaires Years at Cirey At Cirey, Voltaire was happy, energetic and productive, working in almost all genres, including Elements of Newtons Philosophyexplicates Newtonian thought simply and directly, including the theories of optics, gravitation, and action at a distance. Treatise on Metaphysics draws out the implication of Lockean philosophy for the limitations on human knowledge and provides the foundation for an empirical, natural theology. The Worldly Mana celebration in verse of luxury over austerity, criticizing the concept of the Garden of Eden as paradise. A Discourse in Verse on Manaddresses humans search for happiness and the concept of liberty. Mohometa drama, dedicated to the Pope, who sent Voltaire a medal in honor of his play on the religious fanaticism of Muhammed and his followers. This infuriated the clerics of France and enchanted Voltaire. His

reputation and fame soared. In this period of time, he became tutor by correspondence to Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future King Frederick II (Kors 5, 452). 1749-59, a Dark Decade The death of Emilie du Chatelet in 1749 devastated Voltaire. Depressed and homeless, he could not go to Paris or remain in France because of the deep animosity of the clergy to his influence and his writings. For a brief period, he lived at the court of Frederick II. It didnt go well. In 1755, he gained permission to live in Protestant Geneva, where he purchased an estate, Ferney, in 1759. In 1756, his protg Frederick plunged Europe into war. Famine threatened, lovers died, war spreadand

philosophers were saying that this is the best of all possible worlds. Pome sur le dsastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon disaster) Leibniz and Theodicy Emilie du Chatelet had introduced Voltaire to Essays on Theodicy, in which Gottfried Leibniz addressed the question of why evil exists in a world created by God. Theodicy is that branch of philosophy that addresses the problem of evil. Leibnizs optimistic philosophy initially appealed to Voltaires deism. In Theodicy, Leibniz argues that God, who is infinitely wise, powerful and good, would not create a perfect world, because He is the only perfect being. As God will create,

therefore, an imperfect world, it logically follows, the best of all possible worlds. It further follows that God chose everything in the creation as necessary to the existence of the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, nothing is truly evil. God has a sufficient reason for all things, and if we had Gods knowledge, we would understand the good of what we might think, from our limited perspective, to be evil (Kors 6, 452). Voltaire and Optimism Voltaire had always felt a tension about this philosophical optimism; in the 1750s, he came to reject it. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 raised the question, How can the evil and suffering of the world be reconciled with the goodness of God?

Voltaire addressed this question in his Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, describing the suffering caused by the earthquake and asking why an omnipotent God could not have created a world without such catastrophes (Kors 6, 452). Lisbon Earthquake The Lisbon earthquake of November 1,1755 seared Voltaires consciousness and deeply affected Europes intellectual life. Voltaire questioned how the evil produced by natures general laws could be reconciled with the providence of God. In his Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire argued that evil is real and incomprehensible. Rather than attempt to understand God, we

should devote our love and attention to suffering humanity. The arbitrariness of survival motivated Candide. To Voltaire, philosophical optimism equals fatalism: if whatever is, is right, then ones attempts to mitigate suffering do not matter. Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake For Voltaire, one must choose between a

Leibnizian optimism that denies the existence of evil and a cry of humanistic anguish that admits it. Philosophical explanations of suffering add insult to injury. Evil is real and incomprehensible. God exists, but we cannot understand his providence. Humanity, not God, requires our love and attention (Kors 6, 452). In Rousseaus Stinging Reply to the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquate, he asserts that: Voltaire has written against God and denied humans their solace,

Our rational knowledge of Gods nature and necessary creation of the best of all possible worlds wholly outweighs the appearances of things, and Cities are centers of corruption; humans were meant to live simply in the countryside. According to Rousseau, God put earthquakes in nature so we would know how to live (Kors 6, 452). Candide or Optimism

The word optimism was coined in the 18th century for a philosophical position which has only a distant relationship with our modern notion of optimism, which everyone now considers to be a positive attitude. Leibniz, who believed the world was created by a perfect God, has to justify the presence of evil by saying that evil is necessary and is rather like the shadows in a painting which serve to highlight the principal figures and objects in the painting. Since the world is created by God it is necessarily not just good, but the best of all possible worlds. (optimum the Latin word from which optimism is derived means "best") Voltaire, originally an admirer of Leibniz, soon

realized that such a position justifies the presence of evil and provides no incentive to improve the lot of those who suffer evil and injustice in this life (Walsh). Candide and Pangloss Voltaire wrote Candide in anguish as a reply to Rousseau. In the philosophical tale, Candide is the student of Pangloss, whose Leibnizian philosophy appears futile, irrelevant, and absurd in the midst of human pain and suffering (Kors 447).

Pangloss Philosophical optimism denies the human reality of irredeemable pain, injustice, and cruelty. Candide voyages through a world of war, arrogance, abuses of power, religious persecutions and disease. Voltaire argues that evil is real, and we cannot understand Gods providence. In Candide, the only way to avoid despair is to labor to satisfy human needs. We must pay attention to the real sources of well-being and the causes of human suffering (Kors 6, 452).

Candides conclusion is: Let us cultivate our garden. The only antidote to pain and despair is to work in the earthly garden, to stave off what suffering and vice we can. Candide marked a crucial turn from theological or metaphysical concerns to practial attention to the human condition, from abstract philosophy to humanistic activism (Kors 20). Voltaires Contribution This shift from theological or metaphysical concerns to the human condition is one of Voltaires main contributions to

the Enlightenment. As a result of Voltaires assault of philosophical optimism, it became legitimate for intellectuals to refute formal thought by appeal to human experience. Theology was displaced from the center of intellectual activity, a movement that encouraged both investigation into the causes of human misery and reform of the conditions that perpetuated suffering and injustice (Kors 447).

Sources Birkenstock, Jane M. A Love StoryVoltaire and Emilie, Chateau de Cirey-Residence of Voltaire (2009). Web. 14 June 2010. Kors, Alan Charles. The Assault Upon Philosophical Optimism: Voltaire, The Birth of the Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Course 447. The Teaching Company, n.d. CD. Kors, Alan Charles, Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment, Course 452. The Teaching Company, n.d. CD. Walsh, Thomas Readings on Candide. Literary Companion to World Literature. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

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