An anti-statist for all time.
Voltaire, that ultimate freethinker and lifelong iconoclast, has never quite lost his audience. His epigrams are among the favorites of speechwriters and his political writings seem almost contemporary. Indeed he would make a suitable patron of today’s U.S. Libertarian Party if its elders cared to look back far enough. (They tend to stop at Thomas Jefferson.)
Although Voltaire is absent from the party’s materials, his spirit lives on in the libertarian movement, co-founder David Nolan told me recently.
In accidental Voltairean terms, the party rejects any attempt to constrain freedom of speech and calls for tolerance and a free, competitive market. Its platform lines up with Voltaire in its call for a world “where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power.”
The similarities are perhaps as much a symptom of eternal human desires as any direct derivation from France of the 1700s. Some trace libertarianism back to Plato. But the overlap with Voltaire is striking. “Maybe it’s more a case of great minds thinking alike than any attempt to copy or emulate Voltaire,” Nolan says.
Modern readers stand in awe of Voltaire 232 years after his death, and many marvel at how this complex, contradictory writer came to be such an intellectual force. A contemporary called him “Monsieur Multiforme” for his mastery of the written word and his range of views.
Even for a man of his time, however, Voltaire had his blind spots. Like some of his high-minded contemporaries, he had a strain of anti-Semitism and a penchant for offhand cynicism. But his libertarian (libertaire, in French) convictions made him basically a force for good: a fierce advocate of free will, individual liberty, tolerance, open expression, and free trade, none of which France provided in his lifetime.
A revival of interest in the man and his mind is now under way as Voltaire fans celebrate the 250th anniversary of the publication Candide, his most familiar work. In my research for a book on his life and writings, I repeatedly find evidence of his connection with modern times, especially in the United States. He helps explain how we got where we are today.
WHO WAS THIS François Marie Arouet, or “Voltaire” — a loose anagram of Arouet l.j. (for le jeune, the younger)? He was born in 1694, and rose to become the most durable, if not the deepest, of Europe’s 18th-century literary and philosophical thinkers. His prolific outpourings, hostile to church and state, won him two stays in the Bastille prison, plus a life on the run from the French thought police.
The early Americans took easily to his anti-authoritarian views. He is cited in writings of the early American Francophiles Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson, in homage, purchased a bust of him for his Monticello estate in Virginia, where a modern plaster copy of it still stands.
Voltaire has never entirely lost his audience. A swirl of events and commemorations in both the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds has been under way for the past year or so. A signal occasion was the colloquium at Oxford last fall that brought together the world’s leading Voltaireans. The French had their own commemorations, and across the sea, the New York Public Library, run by Voltaire enthusiast Paul LeClerc, created a Voltaire exhibition and decorated its columns with a banner celebrating Candide.
Just a few months ago, the dean of English Voltaire experts, Prof. Nicholas Cronk of the University of Oxford, was in New York parsing forgotten Voltaire correspondence in two prominent collections. Other scholars are burrowing into manuscripts in Paris, London, Oxford, Geneva, and St. Petersburg.
All this work will become part of the 200-volume Complete Works of Voltaire now being assembled and edited by the Voltaire Foundation under Cronk’s direction, the first academic scholarly edition and by far the largest “complete” Voltaire. Now in the home stretch, Cronk hopes to keep up his pace of about six volumes per year over the next eight years to complete the collection by 2018.
The best account of the state of Voltaire studies today is the new Cambridge Companion to Voltaire, edited by Cronk and including an essay by French Voltairean Christiane Mervaud and 12 other scholars from around the world. “There remain texts, some of them important, which still await their first ever critical edition,” says Cronk.
Satirists, cartoonists, novelists, moviemakers, and Broadway have made a good business out of the Candide story line. It does not lack for aggressive humor. I once made a list of the targets at which he takes aim in the book. Among them are Homer, Frederick the Great, philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, the pope, Jews, Jesuits, the Knights of Malta, sailors, the Portuguese University of Coimbra, Westphalia, the German language, the French and especially Parisians, suspicious foreigners, and “Negro pirates.”
In the first sentence, he flings anti-German barbs, naming Candide’s residence as Thunder-Ten-Tronkh, and a few lines later cites a town in Westphalia as Waldberghoff-Trarbk-Dikdorff, a swipe at German gutturals and reference to the French prejudice of the period that German was a barbaric language.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online