History, Literature, Reviews.

Voltaire is a sharp kick in the pants

"Rire et faire rire! To laugh and to make laugh!"(The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant, p. 271)  

"Écrasez l'infâme! Crush the infamy!"(Letter to d'Alembert, 1762) 

-PD-US, Château de Voltaire

Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet. Attrib: Château de Voltaire, PD-US.


Voltaire always had his wits about him. When once a visitor arrived, announcing that he had just come from a visit to another well-known writer, Voltaire offered the opinion that the aforementioned writer was a man of talent, and the visitor replied that that writer did not hold the same opinion of Voltaire, to which Voltaire retorted, ‘We could both be wrong.’

Voltaire, the pen-name for François Marie Arouet, was perhaps the greatest writer of satires in Western literature. In much he wrote, and he wrote voluminously, he was deftly ironical, couching his many thoughts across a very wide spectrum in the patina of humor.  His best works are imminently readable today.

Here is one of many examples of Voltaire’s gift of satire, from his romance Zadig. Having damaged his left eye, Zadig, a Babylonian philosopher, "dispatched a messenger to Memphis for the great Egyptian physician Hermes, who came with a numerous retinue. He visited Zadig, and declared that the patient would lose his eye; he even foretold the day and hour when this fatal event would happen. 'Had it been the right eye,' said he, 'I could have easily cured it; but the wounds of the left eye are incurable.' All Babylon lamented the fate of Zadig, and admired the profound knowledge of Hermes. In two days the abcess broke of its own accord, and Zadig was perfectly cured. Hermes wrote a book to prove that it ought not to have healed. Zadig did not read it."(Zadig, or Fate. I. The Blind of One Eye.) 

Candide: or, Optimism, by Voltaire

His best-known satire is Candide and is oft emulated (for, example, the book and film Little Big Man are adaptations of Candide, moved to the Wild West of America). Candide was one of his later romances, and was written in reaction to first the devastating earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which destroyed over 30,000 people, mostly gathered in churches on that unfortunate Sunday, and second to the brutally indifferent responses by the French clergy, who explained the disaster as a punishment for the sins of the people of Lisbon, and third, to the callousness of Rousseau, who saw it as an affirmation for his naturalistic philosophy:  If these people had lived in the country, and out in the open instead of under a roof, this disaster would not have befallen them.

Characteristic of Voltaire, even his pessimism was couched in sharp satire.  In this excerpt, he parodies Leibnitz’ contention that we live in the best of all possible worlds [from Voltaire’s point of view, if best, certainly not for those 30,000], through the character Dr. Pangloss: "It is demonstrable that all is necessarily for the best end. Observe that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles . . . legs were visibly designed for stockings . . . stones were designed to construct castles . . . pigs were made so that we might have pork all year around. Consequently, they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing; they should have said that all is for the best."(Candide, Voltaire, p. 2)  

He was more than a literary giant; it is probably not too great an exaggeration to say that Voltaire and Rousseau were the two largest intellectual influences on the incipient French Revolution, in the elimination of the autocratic regime and autocratic Church in France. Certainly, Louis XVI felt that way, when upon seeing the works of Voltaire and Rousseau in his final prison, remarked, "Those two men have destroyed France."(The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant, p. 261)  

Voltaire’s motto early in his long life was “To laugh and to make laugh;” as he aged, he signed his letters “Crush the infamy!” in echo of Cato, reflecting his life-long escalation of seriousness, always stippled with ironical humor, culminating in a deep determination to move his society away from superstition toward reason, and away from autocracy towards individual liberty.

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