Voltaire didn't invent the Enlightenment — he was the Enlightenment.
Born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 in France, Voltaire wrote countless plays, poems, satires and polemics — his collected works take up 200 volumes — and centuries before there was a Madonna, Bono or Beyoncé, the one-named Voltaire was Europe's first truly modern celebrity. (Historians have differing views on why he gave himself that one-name moniker.)
Voltaire was so much more than an Enlightenment "philosopher" or "thinker" — he lived his beliefs. Voltaire embodied the Enlightenment principles of intellectual freedom, sharp-tongued critique and the righteous battle of reason versus superstition. And he did it on a public stage through his canny use of new publishing outlets like magazines and journals.
Voltaire's "fans" weren't only entertained by his witty writing and shocked by his public attacks against the church and other old-guard institutions; they were hungry for details of Voltaire's tabloid-ready private life. Illicit love affairs, illegitimate offspring, prison stints and forced exile became as synonymous with the name Voltaire as his satirical masterpiece "Candide."
Master of "New Media"
Voltaire would have loved Twitter. The Enlightenment was fueled by an explosion in new forms of print media like pamphlets, journals and even magazines, says J.B. Shank, a history professor and director of the Center for Early Modern History at the University of Minnesota. The ideas circulated in these publications would be discussed and debated at new intellectual arenas like urban coffeehouses, public libraries and upper-class salons.
"The 18th century was its own moment of new media and new media authorities, which created a new kind of fame," says Shank, author of "The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment" and "Before Voltaire: The French Origins of 'Newtonian' Mechanics."
"Voltaire emerges as this famous intellectual, writer and wit. He's really just famous for being Voltaire."
In "The Invention of Celebrity" by Antoine Lilti, the French historian notes that Voltaire understood "like nobody else" how to keep his name in the news through hilarious satires, bawdy poetry and shameless attacks on the "old regime" orthodoxy.
"Even those who had never read [Voltaire's] books had heard his name," writes Lilti.
Philosophie vs. Philosophy
It's wrong to call Voltaire a philosopher in the classical sense. He was what 18th-century France called a philosophe and what we might call today a "public intellectual." Through Voltaire's voluminous writings — plays, prose stories, letters, journalism — he contributed to a new type of public discourse that was free-spirited, critical, anti-establishment, and often funny and entertaining.
"Put all that together and what the French called it was 'philosophie,' which is anything but what you'd get if you signed up for a college philosophy course today," says Shank.
Voltaire became the "avatar" or embodiment of Enlightenment philosophie and in so doing popularized a new kind of modern intellectual stance. Voltaire and his compatriots weren't writing as mere intellectual exercises. They wanted their words and ideas — often delivered with wit and shock value — to shape and influence public opinion, and from there to chip away at the very foundations of old-guard European society.
"Crush the Infamy!"
Voltaire's motto was "Ecrasez l'infâme!" which roughly translates to "Crush the infamy!" The "infamy" in Voltaire's eyes was everything that was wrong with European society, from priests telling people what to believe and how to live, to royal dynasties sending countless men to their death in meaningless wars. It was the role of the philosophe to rail against the old regime and expose its dangerous absurdities.
"The idea was to mobilize intellectuals to call out the outrages of society and to marshal true thought, reason and sanity in the name of progress and improvement," says Shank. "The spirit of this motto is a shout through the bullhorn of 'We need to defeat the idiots!'"
Think of Voltaire as an 18th-century John Stewart, John Oliver or Trevor Noah. The material may be biting and sarcastic, but the underlying passions are dead serious. Voltaire used his celebrity persona as the brash, aggressive, provocateur to call out real violations of public trust by established institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and its undo influence on the state.
A great example was the Calas Affair, when a wealthy Protestant merchant was sentenced to death by Catholic judges in the city of Toulouse for the alleged murder of his son, supposedly because the son wished to convert to Catholicism. Not only was the father, named Calas, brutally torn limb from limb by teams of horses, but his widow and surviving children were cut off from his inheritance.
Voltaire launched a public campaign to get justice for Calas, whom Voltaire believed was convicted out of blind prejudice without a shred of evidence. With a lawyer's mind (Voltaire trained in the law in his youth) and his trademark wit, Voltaire wrote a series of unflinching pamphlets and letters that were published throughout France and even made their way to England in translation. In them, he brilliantly ridiculed the state's case and appealed to a higher court for a retrial, in which Calas was eventually exonerated posthumously and his family's fortune restored.
Liberty, Hedonism and Luxury
Voltaire's celebrity status was solidified after the Calas Affair. Free thought, reason and tolerance had prevailed over the cruel machinations of church and state. The philosophe, freely speaking his mind in the light of day, had swayed public opinion and righted a wrong through intellectual combat.
The Calas episode neatly encapsulated one of the pillars of the Enlightenment, which was unfettered liberty of speech, no matter the topic and no matter the opinion.
"Voltaire never actually said, 'I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,'" says Shank. "But even if he didn't say it, he should have. It's a perfect distillation of his philosophical stance."
For Voltaire, free speech was just part of the total liberty package. Voltaire was an infamous libertine who had no patience for the repressive morality of the church that held priestly celibacy as the sexual ideal. In his erotic poetry and unapologetic personal life, Voltaire preached the merits of hedonism.
"Anchoring all of this is Voltaire's idea that I'm a material human being with pleasures and passions, but also pains, and that the whole Christian apparatus is trying to suppress those pleasures," says Shank.
Voltaire was no starving artist, either. Thanks to some savvy investments, including a scheme to win a Paris lottery, Voltaire lived a lavish lifestyle and defended his desire for nice things. Like Adam Smith, Voltaire supported a free market system in which personal self-interest wasn't viewed as a "sin," but drove competition, innovation and progress.
Voltaire died in 1778, 11 years before the start of the French Revolution, after which the provocative public intellectual was raised from a popular literary celebrity to a French national hero. When the revolutionary government decided to entomb France's "Great Men" in the Panthéon, Voltaire was the very first to receive the honor.
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