Jul 19th 2015

A fresh and rounded look at Voltaire

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.




TO FOLLOW WHAT'S NEW ON FACTS & ARTS, PLEASE CLICK HERE!

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.