Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, an...
Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, and was a prominent and very prolific philosopher of the Enlightenment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a psuedonym of French satirist François-Marie Arouet, regarded as the harbinger of the Enlightenment.

His work Candide criticizes the philosopher Leibniz‘s view that God created the best of all possible worlds. Candide‘s character Dr. Pangloss is a mouthpiece for the Leibnizian view. Pangloss clings to Leibniz’s optimistic theological outlook, despite undergoing horrendous personal sufferings.

Voltaire himself was a deist, believing in God but only in terms of natural, observable laws. He once said “heaven is where I am.” His view on religion is mixed. At times he singles out religious leaders as an example of how fanaticism can sway the masses. At other times he preaches religious tolerance.¹

His attacks on fanaticism do not only focus on religion. He writes at length about the merits of polite society in contrast to the laboring classes.

There is always, within a nation, a people that has no contact with polite society, which does not belong to the age, which is inaccessible to the progress of reason and over whom fanaticism maintains its atrocious hold…It is not the laborer one should educate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesman.²

Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontis...
Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontispiece to an 1843 edition of his Dictionnaire philosophique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire distrusted the idea of democracy, favoring rule of the enlightened monarch. But his satirical political letters earned him a beating and 11 months of prison in the Bastille.

Finding favor, however, with Mme de Pompadour he became historiographer to Louis XV. He continued to write voluminously to many notables, and became one of Europe’s most prominent figures.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire#Philosophy

² Cited in Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, p. 160).

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