Voltaire – The universal man

I was recently marathoning Sharpe’s Rifles the TV series (great viewing by the way, if you don’t mind the cheesy 90’s style) when I heard continued references to a man by the name of Voltaire. I’m an amateur Napoleonic historian, and was surprised that I hadn’t heard of a French from around that time. According to Wikipedia, Voltaire (or Francois-Marie Arouet, by his real name) was a writer, historian, philosopher and satirist. He was most known for his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and advocacy for the separation of the church and state. Certainly very controversial views for his time. Men and women had been guillotined for less (remarkably, Voltaire made it to the ripe old age of 83 and kept his head).

The quote from Sharpe’s Rifles that got to me the most came when Richard Sharpe, the main character, was guarding a woman’s bedroom. As back story, Sharpe had a wife who was far away at the time, and this particular woman was someone Sharpe apparently had a prior relationship with. She requested his ‘company’ that night, and Sharpe was clearly torn between his urges and his loyalty to his wife. She said something to the effect of “But your wife isn’t here tonight.” Sharpe was still undecided, then the woman quoted Voltaire, saying, “I have no morals, yet I am a very moral person.” Apparently this was enough to convince Sharpe, as they quickly got busy. This scene made me uncomfortable. What does that quote really mean, and why is it justification for  cheating on one’s wife?

A few clicks on Google later, and my impression is that the original quote referred to the idea that one does not need a specific set of morals or a moral code to be a good person. This is likely an attack on the notion of requiring a religious moral code to be ‘good’, given Voltaire’s history of hating on the church. I suppose this woman was saying that Sharpe could indulge his urges, do something traditionally seen as immoral, and still be a good person. Does anyone have a different interpretation?

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Voltaire holding a copy of his Henriade. Image from commons.wikimedia.org

Feeling curious, I wanted to get a greater sense of the man, so I borrowed the biography Voltaire: The Universal Man by Derek Parker from the library. It was an amusing and surprisingly compelling read, with anecdotes like Voltaire’s incapability to stop working (he would dictate to an assistant in the morning while getting dressed) and his love of coffee. When Voltaire’s physician told him that coffee was a slow and steady poison, he replied “Yes, it must be a slow poison, it has been poisoning me for over seventy years!” According to some sources, Voltaire drank over 40 cups of coffee a day, which leads me to wonder how weak the coffee was, how small the cups were or how jittery Voltaire’s writing must have been!

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” This is without doubt one of my favourite quotes from Voltaire. It is similar to my own world view that not saving a life when you could have is morally equivalent taking a life (essentially utilitarianism).

One amusing theme was that Voltaire’s work is apparently, by and large, unreadable today. Parker claims that, of all Voltaire’s work, only Candide is still in print and read widely today. Given how much Voltaire’s quotes resonate with me and how much I enjoy reading them, I find this remarkable, but perhaps I am just reading the very best parts. I mean to read some of his original work, and look forward to any suggestions people may have for where to start.

Many a time Voltaire wrote anonymously, and had to deny his having written certain pieces of work as the church rounded them up and burned them. What a world that must have been.

Francois-Marie Arouet’s pseudonym has several proposed origins. The most likely, according to Parker, is the nickname he was given as an infant, ‘le petit volontaire‘, or ‘the little stubborn one’. A fitting nickname for one who became such a profound opponent of the church and the state of affairs in France. I find it remarkable that Voltaire is today almost always referred to by his pseudonym over his real name. Parker writes that “To call him a ‘great writer’ then, is, probably a mistake. To call Voltaire a great man is only to do him justice.” But I, in my uneducated way (I’m a scientist by training, not a philosopher or historian!) disagree. The fact that he is known as his writer’s name today must surely be proof that, at the time, it was his writing he was most known and enjoyed for, and what better proof of a good writer is there than a lot of people reading their work?

As an aside, I find the idea of a writer’s pseudonym intriguing and powerful. In The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester, I read about a man named Jesse Hawley, who, from jail and under the pen name of ‘Hercules’, wrote fourteen columns in the weekly Genesee Messenger arguing for the construction of a major canal, which was eventually built. A pseudonym can be powerful, and wield more influence than the name’s creator.

Just a small collection of my favourite Voltaire quotes to finish off today.

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

Common sense is not so common.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Until next time.