On the True Greatness of Voltaire
Few writers in history have managed to leave such an indelible mark on world literature as the great Voltaire has. This, I do not think is an exaggerated statement at all, for any writer who has been honored by labeling the period during which he lived after his name has got to be great.
There is a reason why there exists the phrase The Age of Voltaire, which roughly refers to the period between 1715 to 1756. That was when Voltaire reigned supreme in the world of literature and philosophy. Of course, the phrase came into popular knowledge when Will Durant’s book, The Age of Voltaire, which covers the history of civilization in western Europe from 1715 to 1756, was published in 1965. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Voltaire’s significance and influence during that period of history are unparalleled. And this is precisely why it is my opinion that the age of reason or the age of enlightenment is rightly associated with the name of Voltaire, thereby making it the Age of Voltaire.
Now, for those of you who haven’t heard of Voltaire or haven’t read any of his work, allow me to give you a little introduction to him.
François-Marie Arouet (which was Voltaire’s real name) was born on 21st November 1694 in Paris. And as you might have guessed by now, the now world-famous name Voltaire was only his pen name. He knew he wanted to become a writer from an early age, from the moment he left school. But his father, François Arouet, who was a lawyer, did not agree with his son’s choice of career. Instead, he wanted Voltaire to become a lawyer just like him and sent him to Caen to study law.
Against the wishes of his father, Voltaire wrote poetry, essays, and historical studies there. Soon enough, he began writing plays as well and was gradually recognized for his wit and satire. It is said that he adopted his pen name in 1718 after he was imprisoned for 11 months in the Bastille for writing a satirical verse, in which he accused the Régent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, of having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. The true origin of his pen name is yet unknown, although there are quite a few theories and speculations regarding the same, which I shall refrain from addressing in this essay.
More than this basic background, I shall not go any further, for this is supposed to be an essay on his greatness and importance and not his biography.
And so, in this way, the rebellious Voltaire became a writer. Over the years, he cemented himself as one of the leading writers of his time, famous for his satirical, sarcastic, and witty plays, poems, and novellas, and for his poignant essays on his philosophy of freedom of thought, speech, expression, and religion. He became a strong advocate of civil liberties and religious tolerance, and he argued for the separation of church and state. But most of all, Voltaire became well-known for his open criticism and condemnation of Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, and of the French monarchy and institutions.
Voltaire was not only a prolific and extraordinary writer, who successfully experimented with and produced works in almost all literary forms, but he was also a great philosopher and historian. He is believed to have written more than 2,000 books and pamphlets and 20,000 letters, all of which included poems, essays, novels, novellas, plays, and even scientific and historical works.
Through this prodigious output of his, Voltaire managed to become the first writer who became internationally famous and commercially successful. His works made him one of the most well-known figures of the time.
But what exactly made Voltaire so successful? What was it that allowed him to succeed commercially and critically at a time when most writers would starve to death if they had no other job?
Well, there are probably multiple reasons for that.
One, Voltaire’s plays were said to be successful from the very beginning. From his first play onward, titled Oedipus, he achieved critical and commercial success, thereby establishing his reputation as a great writer. In fact, it is said that his first play was so well-received that the Régent and King George I of Great Britain presented him with medals as a mark of their appreciation. This early success, no doubt, played a huge role in his writing career, as it attracted the attention of the general public as well as the people of high society, who admired and championed his works, toward Voltaire the writer.
And two, Voltaire, along with French mathematician, geographer, and explorer Charles Marie de La Condamine, was believed to have won a million livre in a lottery organized by the French government. He invested this money wisely and even inherited and took control of a trust fund set up by his father. The combination of all these sources of money made him a rich man, which possibly gave him more freedom to experiment with his writings and afforded him the luxury to speak his mind, not having to bother much about sustaining himself solely through his writing.
According to my humble and insignificant opinion, it was Voltaire’s thoughts, especially on matters such as religion and its dogmas, freedom of thought and expression, and the French monarchy, that made him such an interesting and important writer. He dared to write what other writers would not. And by openly criticizing the church and the monarchy, he constantly risked being censored or exiled, or imprisoned by the French government. And he did all this just to put out his unfiltered, unadulterated thoughts.
Adding to that fact, he must also be given due credit for writing on almost anything and everything under the sun. He wrote to entertain as well as to educate. He wrote on social, political, and religious topics, and he wrote tragicomedies and romances as well.
Allow me to go into a little detail, just enough to give some more information but not bore you to death.
We are all aware, in some remote way or the other, of his work of prose fiction. Many of them were romances that were quite popular in their day but no longer hold much sway or influence in the literary world. But to compensate for them, Voltaire produced some of his best fictional works through Candide, Zadig, Micromegas, and The Man of Forty Pieces of Silver. For me personally, these works truly portray the genius of Voltaire as a writer.
Candide is a philosophical novella, written in a simple and fantastical manner, with a fast-moving and humorous plot. It is witty and insightful as only a Voltaire work can be, while at the same time it refuses to take itself too seriously. The novella revolves around Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism, which basically advocates that any circumstance, at any given moment, is the best of all possible worlds. Through the adventures of the naive protagonist named Candide, Voltaire beautifully explores the human condition, while at the same time attacking, not outrightly but somewhat indirectly, Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism.
In spite of it being a short work, Candide is now widely considered to be his masterpiece, and I tend to agree with such consideration. This novella, which is easy to read and understand (unlike most other philosophical works) is one of my favorite literary works in general, for I love the fact that Voltaire was able to address such complex and deep ideas in such a simple and casual manner, so as to make it an enjoyable read for adults and children alike.
Zadig is again a simple yet great work of philosophical fiction in which Voltaire challenges religious and metaphysical orthodoxy while addressing the social and political issues of the time. And through his philosophical novella Micromegas, which is regarded as one of the earliest works of the science fiction genre, he uses a being from another planet to comment on aspects of western culture.
These works have all been written in his ironic and witty style, which is what attracted the general public to his works.
Now, when it comes to poetry, here too Voltaire was a pioneer. He began writing poetry at a very early age and wrote the first-ever epic poem in French, Henriade, in imitation of the great Virgil. The poem, according to Voltaire himself, was written to honor the life of Henry IV, whom he considered a national hero for his attempts at instituting tolerance with his Edict of Nantes (which was mainly signed to bring an end to the longstanding French Wars of Religion that took place from 1562 to 1598).
As mentioned earlier, Voltaire was also a great historian, one who had an enormous influence on the development of historiography. His most well-known historical works include History of Charles XII, The Age of Louis XIV, and his essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations, in which he traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby avoiding and rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference.
Voltaire approached history from a very different angle, as had rarely been done before. He did not merely narrate the diplomatic and military events that took place during the period of history he was writing about. Instead, he focused more on the prevailing culture and customs of the time, its social and political history, and the achievements in the arts and sciences of that particular period. Unlike most other historians of the time, he refused to look at human history solely through a rigid theological outlook. Voltaire’s way of looking at history and writing about it had a significant influence on subsequent works of history.
And if this was not enough, Voltaire also managed to produce a prodigious amount of writing on his philosophical and religious views. Voltaire, as most of us know by now, was all for peace and tolerance in almost every sphere of human life. He advocated and supported the toleration of other religions, ethnicities, and races, urging people to regard all men across the world as their brothers, regardless of the differences in culture, religion, language, skin color, or any other dividing factor. It was his view that all human beings were children of the same father and creatures of the same God.
Other than just Christianity, Voltaire also expressed his views on other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. He was an admirer of Confucius and Confucianism in general. He also openly laid down his views on race and slavery in several of his works and letters. Not all of these writings were wholly positive or tolerant, but, nevertheless, they were way ahead of their time.
Seldom has there come a writer who was so competent, well-versed, and curious about all the above-mentioned fields as Voltaire seemed to be. And even if there was one, rarely have they dared to attempt to write on these topics as Voltaire did so courageously, and so often and consistently.
It may seem to one that, whatever Voltaire thought and felt, about anything that he was either interested or curious about, he boldly laid it down on paper for all the world to read and judge. And this, according to me, was exactly where his true greatness lay. This was what made him so great. It was this quality of his, this ability to write uninhibitedly, that made him stand out and stand tall from all the other writers of his time.
This was the reason why his contemporaries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, respected him. This was why Goethe regarded him as the greatest literary figure of modern times, and possibly of all time. This was why Frederick the Great considered it his good fortune for having lived in the age of Voltaire, and why Catherine the Great admired and respected him so dearly. This was why his works have so greatly influenced English writers, poets, and philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Lord Byron, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and many more. And even subsequent writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Jorge Luis Borges and countless more.
And this was exactly why the great Victor Hugo once said, “To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.”