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Voltaire the Activist

The writings of the philosopher Voltaire vary wildly between pertaining to the universal and to the specific. While his general comments on social ills such as fanaticism, intolerance, optimism and Christianity may appear to be among the more timeless portions of his oeuvre, his specific writings, which publicized and sought to correct certain contemporary injustices, provide a particularly useful insight into his character. In order to more fully understand this character it is necessary to compare the moral philosopher's prescriptions for living with the man's own modus operandi. If the latter falls short or oversteps the philosopher's description of a virtuous life then it must be attributed to some source other than that of Voltaire's own reasonable intellect.

Throughout his later life, especially during the period of 1769 until his death in 1778, Voltaire was immersed in a series of causes, some less celebrated than others. The unfortunate pattern was for an acquaintance to inform him of an injustice that had been committed, for example, of an innocent, persecuted man who had been cruelly executed, and for Voltaire to subsequently advocate for at least a partial redress, usually in the form of a posthumous repeal of the guilty sentence, or a reinstatement of the civil rights of the family of the executed party. On those occasions when Voltaire became involved in a case early enough to be in a position to seek to prevent an execution, he rarely succeeded. The affairs in which Voltaire was involved include those of: Voltaire also intervened for individuals who had been egregiously wronged financially, and advocated for the emancipation of France's serfs and for the repeal of an oppressive gabelle, or salt tax. In addition to public advocacy in the form of pamphleteering, Voltaire unceasingly dispatched petitions and letters to the many powerful figures with whom he was familiar. In fact, the overall impression of his life is of one spent first in accumulating influence and later in spending it. It is tempting to wonder whether Voltaire was of the opinion that his activist projects were required of him, whether as a philosopher or merely as a person. To proceed from the general to the specific, let us examen Voltaire's conception of the virtuous behavior incumbent on all men, as formulated on the one hand in some of his most populist philosophical works, and on the other hands, in his personal letters.

The Dictionnaire Philosophique, that work which was deemed responsible for corrupting the Chevalier de la Barre, defines “Virtue” as a purely interpersonal phenomenon. The dictionary entry, mostly in the form of a charming and illustrative dialog between a theologian and an honest man, explains why spiritual attributes such as faith or hygienic attributes such as temperance are in no way virtuous, however beneficial they may be for their bearers. Here Voltaire propounds the almost simple-minded dictum that virtues equals “doing good by those who depend on thee”. He further develops this altruistic principal in his letters, circumventing the question of a morality dependent on theism via his conclusion that virtue is required because it is necessary for the continuance of civilization, itself necessary for the survival of physically frail and individually helpless human beings. While this opinion notably opposes that of Rousseau, it nonetheless reduces to an appeal to Nature, which has created human beings to be sociable, that is to say, civilized.

The obvious but unstated correlate of the relationship stated in the Dictionnaire entry under “Virtue”, namely that as a category it includes only interpersonal actions, is the category of Philosophy, which is to say that a thinker who has discovered a useful truth has not done his duty until he has disseminated that truth. In fact, Voltaire's written use of the very word “philosophy” tends to freely substitute that term for the more accurate “my philosophy,” insofar as when he states that a philosopher will or must behave a certain way, what he means is that a philosopher, if he is reasonable and not prejudiced, will arrive at Voltaire's own conclusions and will therefore behave as Voltaire describes. Of course post-Enlightenment readers may find absurd the thesis that reason is a universal tool, which can only produce one, correct conclusion in any given situation, but that being said, Voltaire does hold that a philosopher will inevitably operate for the betterment of mankind, preaching the truths that Voltaire held to be such. The Dictionnaire entry under “Philosopher” sets up a hierarchy in which a philosopher is either engaged in uncovering natural truths, which are irrelevant as well as difficult to discover, or is engaged in uncovering moral truths, which are highly relevant and simple to discover. The entry purports that it is in their writings that philosophers can ameliorate the human condition, by instructing people in the ways of tolerance. And yet, when Voltaire's letters are examined he is seen to take a much more liberal view of what is required of a philosopher. In one passage he describes the highly quotidian activities of the “real philosopher”, who
clears uncultivated ground, adds to the number of ploughs, and, so, to the number of inhabitants: employs and enriches the poor: encourages marriages and fins a home for the orphan: does not grumble at necessary taxes, and puts the agriculturist in a position to pay them promptly. He expects nothing from others, and does them all the good he can.
The passage is not metaphorical in any way, and it lends itself to being interpreted as a statement to the effect of: a real philosopher will engage himself in non-philosophical activities, because those are the activities to which his reason, which is to say his philosophy, will recommend him. This paradoxical result is compatible with Voltaire's actual efforts, which were invariably far more practical than the far reaching improvement he believed the human race to be capable of, at least in the distant future.

Additionally, Voltaire is thorough enough to understand that a person cannot depend on his own observations and interpretations all of the time; that such a person's perceptual weaknessess quickly disable any accurate self-assessment. As a result, in the “Virtue” entry previously cited, he proposes, after Racine, an assay whereby a virtuous man can recognize his own virtue in the fact that the public overwhelmingly loves and does not fear him. While the shade of meaning of the passage most specifically puts forward the fact of this love as an example of the capacity of virtue to be rewarded in this life, it is nonetheless telling that Voltaire was explicitly thinking about popular acclaim, a thought which he immediately connects to his actual definition, “What is virtue? Beneficence towards your neighbor.” In Voltaire's warm-hearted and patronizing old age it is likely that, for all the effort his public involvement cost him, he savored his eventual reward of very real acclaim, as well as his title of the "savior of Calas”. Voltaire would probably not see any hypocrisy in this convenient synergy of inclination and obligation. The fact of human beings basely lusting after acclaim and therefore behaving virtuously, though not a crime that Voltaire would admit to, would only enhance his thesis concerning innate morality, driving people to do good for each other, if they are only liberated from their fractious ideologies.

  • Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966.
  • Tallentyre, S.G. Voltaire in His Letters. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1919.
  • Voltaire. The Philosophical Dictionary. 1924. Project Unicorn. 12 December 2003 .