François-Marie d’Arouet, famous by his pen name Voltaire, was a prominent philosopher of the Enlightenment movement of the Eighteenth century. Born on November 21 1694, Voltaire gave remarkable concepts of freedom and enlightenment. He was also a noted historian and an outspoken, witty intellectual of his times.
Voltaire was not a philosopher in the strict sense of the term, though he put across new ideas and thoughts prolifically through his varied style of writing. He experimented with almost all forms of writing, including poetry, prose, letters, plays, essays, novels and even scientific works. The count of his letters reaches to 20,000, while books and pamphlets sum up to more than two thousand. Most of his books are works of satire, comprising of content sparking much controversy.
On the subject of morality, he tried to find a middle ground. In his most famous work Candide (1759), he spoke sharply against the overly optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. On the other hand, he also wrote in opposition of the pessimistic ideas regarding human evilness by Blaise Pascal. He focused on judging morality based solely on reasoning.
As a philosopher, he published the famous Philosophical Dictionary in 1764, and various other essays under the title of Encyclopedia, compiled between the years 1751-1772. He openly criticized the various sections of the French society, especially religious and political institutions.
Voltaire’s contribution to history cannot be neglected, as he provided a new perspective on how to record the past. Voltaire is considered to be the first person to keep track of historical events fundamentally based on culture. The Age of Louis XIV in 1751 and the Essay on Customs and Spirit of Nations published in 1756 are vital examples of his historiography capabilities.
Voltaire opposed almost all religions, calling the Bible and the Quran outdated manuscripts, deeming them not as divine presents but written by mortals. His harsh criticism of religion and religious scriptures and institutions often makes him come across as an atheist. In reality, however, he was a deist; he was one of the most important advocates of deism in England and France. He did not outright reject the possibility of a supreme being, but believed that an all-knowing and all-governing deity should be found through observation and reasoning, instead of blind faith. In the Treatise on Toleration (1763), he defended the right of religious freedom for all, and said that all humans are people of the same God, thus they should not create divisions and conflicts on the basis of religion.
Voltaire’s political philosophy was highly inspired by the ideas given by Confucius. For him, democracy was a practice of displaying mass foolishness. He was in favor of a sensible, responsible monarchy as form of government. For Voltaire, the provision of education to the masses would not only be favorable for the people, but also for the monarch. After observing the failure of this theory by Frederick the Great, he came to the conclusion that educating ourselves is a duty which only we can fulfill in its entirety.
He also spoke against the unfair authority of the church and the state which they exercised above the middle class, which comprised of most of the tax-paying population of the country.
Voltaire died on 30 May 1778. France remembers him as a brave polemic who was never afraid to speak his mind, in spite of fierce opposition. His ideas have remained impactful throughout the Enlightenment period and are honored around the world to this day.