An anti-statist for all time.
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Voltaire had already expressed his anti-Church views in his “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” and elsewhere. In Candide he expands his argument, mischievously inserting an auto-da-fé (Portuguese for “act of faith”), the slow roasting alive of three men, as the “infallible formula for preventing the earth from quaking” again. The same day, an aftershock occurs. Voltaire rests his case.
Candide includes a tirade against France, perhaps unfair to all but the most extreme Franco-phobes of today. He called his native country a place “where half the people are crazy, others are overly crafty, still others are rather gentle and rather stupid.” Throughout France, he wrote, “the principal occupation is lovemaking, the second is slander and the third is talking nonsense.”
He wavers but never quite renounces his belief that he lives in “the best of all possible worlds.” He concludes that we must “cultivate our garden,” meaning that we must do our part, too, to make the world as good as it can be.
ALTHOUGH IT MAY SEEM the Voltaire legacy is mainly about Candide, a closer look reveals that the great Frenchman left a far more diverse collection of writing on politics and commerce, much of it readable today.
An admirer of England, he spent nearly three years in exile in London and wrote an enthusiastic book about his discoveries there — by implication indicting the weaknesses of his native France. In a chapter on trade, he made his bias clear: “Commerce, which has enriched English citizens, has helped to make them free, and this freedom in its turn has extended commerce, and that has made the greatness of the nation,” he wrote. France, meanwhile, was stagnating under the pressures of the absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church.
Who is more valuable, Voltaire asked in one of his English essays, a “well-powdered noble-man who knows exactly at what minute the king gets up and goes to bed…or a businessman who enriches his country, issues orders from his office to Surat or Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world?”
London received him as the great French poet and playwright that he certainly was, and he managed to meet some of the leading English intellectuals of the era. He is known to have encountered Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay and at least read the works of Isaac Newton, John Locke, and satirist Joseph Addison.
Taking intellectual life in England as the ideal, he wrote that he hoped that in France “the fashion for using one’s mind will come back….In England, as a rule, people think, and literature is more honored than in France.”
Voltaire came back to this theme in some of his poetry:
Shall Frenchmen never know what they require,
But damn capriciously what they admire?
Must laws with manners jar? Must every mind
In France, be made by superstition blind?
Wherefore should England be the only clime,
Where to think freely is not deemed a crime?
Over his lifetime, no one wrote more or better for the theater than Voltaire, and he did not stop at writing. He was often involved in rehearsals, even playing key roles in his plays. But it is his private correspondence that puts his writing style best on display and reveals most about the man.
Mme. Mervaud, president of the French Société des Etudes Voltairienne, believes his correspondence, which she has studied for years, provides the essential of Voltaire’s vision of the world. She finds his personal prose “pleasant, seductive and penetrating — the best way to get to his real thought processes.”
Many scholars have pored over this mountain of letters, about 15,000 of which have been collected for the Foundation project. (About another 15,000 are believed to have been lost.) Frequently on the move-to London, to Lorraine, to Geneva-Voltaire used letter writing to spread his ideas and to maintain contacts.
His correspondence leaves a valuable record of his times. He lived through the Seven Years’ War and the regency after the death of Louis XIV. And he corresponded extensively with Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. These letters, says Mme. Mervaud, reveal an “appetite for life and a desire to communicate.” Reading them, “we breathe the very air of the 18th century.”
Three years in the court of Frederick in Berlin ended in a bitter break in their relations in 1754. His next stop was in the neutral city-state of Geneva, then known for its tolerance and freethinking ways. He purchased a chateau and called it “Les Délices” (The Delights).
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