A fresh and rounded look at Voltaire

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a former AP foreign correspondent and a 17-year veteran of publisher McGraw-Hill. He now lives in Bordeaux and has written for the International New York Times,  American Spectator, Open Letters Monthly, International Piano, Classical Source and Clavier Companion. He is a frequent contributor to Facts and Arts. 19.07.2015

What would Voltaire make of his uncertain place in the collective American consciousness today? My guess is that he would be outraged.  Educated Americans know a few of his aphorisms and perhaps his Candide novella but they seem to have blocked all memory of his key role in the thinking of their “Founding Fathers”, the 18th century men who drove the creation of the United States. 

A new book takes a step toward righting these wrongs and in the process stimulates A fresh and rounded look at Voltaire interest in the old French sage’s prolific output. Voltaire’s Revolution: Writings from his campaign to free laws from religion (Prometheus Books), by American-born Voltaire enthusiast G.K. Noyer, summarizes the debt that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, John Adams, and even George Washington owe to Voltaire.

The facts are clear. Paine’s Age of Reason has often been cited as a case of plagiarism of Voltaire’s pamphlets. Historian Garry Wills has found a Voltaire antecedent of Patrick Henry’s  “Give me liberty or give me death”. And other historians have identified Voltaire’s revolutionary thinking as inflaming the imagination of virtually the entire reading public in the New World.

Noyer announces her colors in the 55-page introduction, a readable broad-brush overview of Voltaire’s impact then and now. Although the American Revolution was the embodiment of the Europe’s Enlightenment movement, she writes, “a great many Americans don’t know it. “ … (T)he names Voltaire and Montesquieu have virtually vanished in recent years, along with the very word “Enlightenment”. One writer has deplored current American trends as relegating Voltaire to “kooks’ corner” or the “memory hole”. 

Noyer’s comparison of books of the era exposes the disconnection. One scholar she cites discovered that Voltaire “was without question the most frequently discussed … and reprinted” of European writers of the time. Many historians have claimed that French intervention in the Revolutionary War triggered a wave of Francophilia in which “enthusiasm for all things French (including Voltaire) became well-nigh universal”. At Yorktown, where British General Cornwallis surrendered in 1781, French soldiers outnumbered Americans two-to-one.

Voltaire’s campaigns are still regarded as fundamental to an open society – notably on the subject of tolerance -- but his rational mind and his rejection of organized religion underpinned his thinking. In contrast, the English philosopher John Locke, also a believer in tolerance, built his arguments on passages from the Bible. “This surely explains,” says Noyer, “why he (Locke) has replaced Voltaire in American schoolbooks” today.

Voltaire by Michael Johnson, the author

Noyer expects some readers to disagree. “I'm sure I'll read retorts and some howling, and who knows,” she tells me. “Perhaps I'll be proven wrong. But at least readers now have the primary materials and can form their own opinions…. I’m aiming at a rounder picture of Voltaire.”

The introduction is meaty and fresh but the strength of this book relies more on the new translations of work by or about Voltaire.  Noyer says she undertook complete translations of the texts, partly because so much of Voltaire has been unevenly rendered into English over the centuries or printed in obscure compilations difficult to find and categorize. A number of the texts appear here in English for the first time, although Noyer acknowledges that unrestricted use of Voltaire’s work make it impossible to certify “firsts” with any scholarly rigor.

This book is aimed at the general reader; texts are introduced with compact and well-informed introductions to provide context. Her criteria in selecting the twenty Voltaire texts and nine “testimonials” were to focus the book on texts that seem “pertinent and timeless”.

I count myself as a Voltaire enthusiast but had never bothered to unearth some of these gems.  Her rendering of “Frederick the Great’s Eulogy of Voltaire” sums up the man succinctly: “”So many talents, so much diverse knowledge united in a single person, throws readers into an astonishment mixed with surprise… M. de Voltaire was worth an entire academy by himself.”

And Voltaire’s “Reflections for Fools,” on the spread of democracy, is both witty and profound: “If the governed masses were composed of cattle, and the small number governing of cowherds, then the small number would do very well to maintain the masses in ignorance. But such is not the case. Several nations that wore horns and ruminated for a very long time have begun the think.”

On the rejection of Christianity, he writes of Jesus: “He disguised his divinity so well that he let himself be whipped and hanged, despite his miracles. But he also resurrected two days later without anyone seeing him and went back to heaven after solemnly promising that he would soon come back on a cloud …The trouble is that he didn’t come back.”

In one of his most-quoted pamphlets, “Republican Ideas”, his aphorisms ring with a modern truth: 

“Tolerance is as necessary to politics as to religion. It is pride alone that is intolerable. It is pride that revolts minds in trying to force others to think like us. It is the secret of all factions.”

No other book offers such a lively collection of Voltairian prose in so few pages. Even Voltaire scholars acknowledge that Voltaire’ can be hard work for the modern reader. And on this point Noyer has done a major service: choosing what to include as well as what to exclude.

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