Condorcet on Voltaire. ‘He seemed to recognise only one glory, that of avenging humanity, and rescuing victims of oppression.’
Greta Thunberg started her climate campaign whilst in her teens. Some great contributors to humanity took much longer to start their activism. One fascinating case in point is the French literary lion and perceived leader of the enlightenment Voltaire. He was not a perfect man by any means but his contribution to the collective good must be admired.
Voltaire took an assumed named in his 20’s. His father was a successful lawyer who sent him to one of the best schools in France and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps but Voltaire had a literary calling and rebelled. Initially his rebellion cost him dear as he was cut off from family funds and temporarily disinherited. He experienced real poverty for many years including some time in London. In his 30s he had some lucky business ventures and inherited family money. He used his money well and became fabulously wealthy. He consorted with Kings especially those of Prussia and France. He hated the system of France with its tyrannical approach to law and morality and found that the ‘Ancien Regime’ and the Catholic Church had too much arbitrary power over people’s lives. In those days torture of the cruellest kinds was used to extract ‘evidence’, which he and others realised was no such thing.
He was prone to a few literary anti-establishment ‘digs’ here and there but he was also capable of great sycophancy to the powers that be when it suited his interests and he would often deny authorship of critical texts. In his 50s he developed an interest in injustices of the law and became effectively a campaigner for reform and restorative justice. Any of the one in there American black males likely to end up in the US prison system would love to have had and would benefit from an advocate with Voltaire’s incisive ability to reveal absurdities and to focus on fairness. However, his real advocacy for poor people’s quality of life came later when he became a feudal landlord and developed a keen interest in the health and lives of those on his estates, some of whom where refugees. He lived into his 80’s and in the last 20 years of his life was revered by many previously poor people for the work that he had done to help them learn new skills, get decent jobs, justice, better housing and better food. He enjoyed doing it and he teaches us that no matter where you re on the age scale you can be an advocate for a kinder world and a golden civilisation.
The quotes below show Voltaire at his most humane:
‘Prejudices are what fools use for reason.’
‘To be free and to be loved, is something that the kings of the earth do not have.’
‘I really hate a country where the sanctimonious hypocrites can lock up a philosopher.’
‘I do not have a sceptre, but I do have a pen.’
‘To have pleasure, you need a bit of passion, a great and interesting purpose, a determined desire to learn, which occupies the soul continuously. It is difficult to find, and does not come without effort.’
‘How I love people who say what they think! People who only half-think are only half alive.’
‘...perish the infamous prejudices which dishonour and brutalise human nature, long live reason.’