Voltaire at Ferney

This week, The Essay on Radio 3 has been part of a series exploring Enlightenment Voices – Voltaire this time, concluding tonight with a talk in which Professor Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford, explored the legacy of this greatest of Enlightenment figures. When Voltaire died in 1778 aged 84, he was the most famous writer in the world and his immortality was assured. Nicholas Cronk recounted the  story of the removal of Voltaire’s library of around 7,000 books from his chateau in France all the way to St Petersburg, where Catherine the Great planned to build a type of Voltaire theme park. He explored Voltaire’s status, both before and after his death, and went on to discuss how his ideas about politics, religion and tolerance continue to resonate today. Cronk concluded with examples of how – in the true spirit of the Enlightenment – writers continue to debate with Voltaire and, in so doing, perpetuate his legacy. He quoted from this poem, written by WH Auden in 1939, on the eve of war in Europe:

Voltaire at Ferney
by W.H. Auden

Perfectly happy now, he looked at his estate.
An exile making watches glanced up as he passed
And went on working; where a hospital was rising fast,
A joiner touched his cap; an agent came to tell
Some of the trees he’d planted were progressing well.
The white alps glittered. It was summer. He was very great.

Far off in Paris where his enemies
Whsipered that he was wicked, in an upright chair
A blind old woman longed for death and letters. He would write,
“Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight
Against the false and the unfair
Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilize.

Cajoling, scolding, screaming, cleverest of them all,
He’d had the other children in a holy war
Against the infamous grown-ups; and, like a child, been sly
And humble, when there was occassion for
The two-faced answer or the plain protective lie,
But, patient like a peasant, waited for their fall.

And never doubted, like D’Alembert, he would win:
Only Pascal was a great enemy, the rest
Were rats already poisoned; there was much, though, to be done,
And only himself to count upon.
Dear Diderot was dull but did his best;
Rousseau, he’d always known, would blubber and give in.

Night fell and made him think of women: Lus
Was one of the great teachers; Pascal was a fool.
How Emilie had loved astronomy and bed;
Pimpette had loved him too, like scandal; he was glad.
He’d done his share of weeping for Jerusalem: As a rule,
It was the pleasure-haters who became unjust.

Yet, like a sentinel, he could not sleep. The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions: soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working: Overhead,
The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song.

What I learned from this week’s essays was that there are at least three distinct Voltaires. There is the scandalous Voltaire, who by the 1720s had become the leading controversialist in France, with his topical plays and poems, imprisoned in the Bastille twice for being generally annoying, and exiled to England in 1726, where he absorbed and wrote about English culture and parliamentary institutions. Then  there is the scientific Voltaire, who returned to France in 1728 and wrote about science and Newtonian physics. Finally, from the 1750s until his death, in 1778, there is the socially conscious Voltaire, the Voltaire who became one of the first human-rights campaigners in Europe, who W. H. Auden envisaged in 1939, in his poem ‘Voltaire at Ferney’:  ‘And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses / Itching to boil their children. Only his verses / Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working.’

He was born into a Europe which had still not completely broken the habit of burning old women as witches, where you could be tortured to death for owning a small book which suggested Abraham was a legendary figure, or for being Protestant in a Catholic town, or vice-versa, where arbitrary power depended entirely on birth. That all these things were under seige in the Europe he died in was in no small part due to his writings and influence. In Europe today we can read what we like, worship what we like (if anything), and even insult rich people, so we are all his beneficiaries.

In the first essay, Nicholas Cronk placed Voltaire in the context of other Enlightenment thinkers and celebrated his novel Candide – ‘a timeless satire on the human condition’. Among the historical events that inspired Voltaire to write Candide was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which challenged the contemporary philosophy of the Optimists, such as Leibniz, who argued that all is for the best because God is a benevolent deity. This concept was often summed up in the phrase, ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Philosophers had trouble fitting the horrors of the earthquake into the optimist world view.

Voltaire actively rejected Leibnizian optimism after the natural disaster, convinced that if this were the best possible world, it should surely be better than it is. In both Candide and ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire attacked optimist belief.

At the conclusion of Candide,after experiencing many trials and tribulations and witnessing many horrors Candide finally dismisses the optimism of his tutor, Pangloss:

Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide: “There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Some Voltaire sayings

…the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death.

Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference.

Prejudice is opinion without judgement.

The multitude of books is making us ignorant.

[What would he have thought of the Internet, etc – see Charlie Brooker on the ]

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. [Attributed to Voltaire, but originated in The Friends of Voltaire, 1906, by S. G. Tallentyre (aka Evelyn Beatrice Hall)]

Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.

As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

History is only the register of crimes and misfortunes.

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