Notice that the most superstitious ages have always been those of the most horrible crimes... The superstitious man is ruled by fanatics and he becomes one himself. On the whole, the less superstition, the less fanaticism, and the less fanaticism, the fewer miseries.
From Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique 1776.
(FRANCOIS MARIE AROUET)
For nearly 50 years Voltaire preached freedom of thought and denounced cruelty and oppression in all its forms. Voltaire was bourgeois, not a democrat. He believed in reasonable dissent. He believed in natural religion and praised French artistic and cultural achievement during the Age of Louis XIV. Politically he advocated the concept of Enlightened Despotism. Above all others Voltaire stood as the champion of reason and tolerance. As a young man he was known in Paris for his plays and his wit and conversation. He once offended the aristocrat Chevalier de Rohan, who, too proud to fight a duel with a commoner ordered his servants to give Voltaire a street beating. He was then ordered to the Bastille. By agreeing to leave France Voltaire was granted his freedom. He immediately left for England.
While in England he found that he could say what he pleased and was not beaten for it. He quickly fell in love with a country where literary men and scientists were highly respected. In 1727 he attended the funeral of Isaac Newton and later wrote that he was overwhelmed to see "a professor of mathematics buried like a king."
During his tenure in England he wrote Letters on the English (1733). "The English, as a free people choose their own road to heaven. Here the nobles are great without insolence, and the people share in the government without disorder."
In 1734 he returned to France and his Letters on the English was published in his own country. Unfortunately this work angered both the government and the church and it was ordered to be burned in public as being "scandalous, contrary to religion, to morals and to respect for authority." Such a sentence only served to spur others to sample the forbidden fruit. Once again to avoid the Bastille, Voltaire went into hiding, this time with friends in Lorraine.
These early experiences set the stage for the remainder of Voltaire's life. Voltaire developed an extreme hatred for oppression and for the rest of his life he waged a personal war on intolerance and persecution for opinion's sake. He found that only in foreign countries (Switzerland, Holland, England and Prussia) could a man say what he thought about religion and politics.
Voltaire lived for the limelight and thus wrote plays, which thousands saw at the theaters. He tried his hand at a variety of literary endeavors: entertaining tales (Candide), scientific treatises (The Philosophy of Newton), poetry (On the Lisbon Earthquake), and letters, always letters to nearly everyone of importance and acquaintance. But in all of these he carried on his war against intolerance.
Additionally he was an historian and wrote a history of the world from early times to his own (An Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations) which was published in 1756. This was perhaps his most influential work. He used history to demonstrate his theme that persecution and intolerance were both unjust and useless. This was done by showing that the greatest advancement in knowledge occurred when there was the greatest freedom of thought. His writings demonstrated that this was best displayed during the classical age of Greece and Rome, during the Renaissance and in the 17th and 18th centuries. He contended, that in the Middle Ages, when the church held sway that thought was restricted and there "existed great ignorance and wretchedness--these were the Dark Ages." Voltaire exaggerated both the ancient world's qualities of good, and the Middle Ages' qualities of "horror." But this only made people read his work all the more.
Voltaire was not an atheist, but he was against any and all religions that were opposed to freedom of thought. Thus he became a bitter enemy of the Catholic Church as it existed in France. As he aged he spewed a great and greater venom against the church. Beginning in his early 60's he began to sign his letters to his friends with the phrase "Ecraser l'infame!" (Crush the infamous thing!) Voltaire clearly meant the spirit of persecution but his enemies proclaimed that he was ridiculing the Catholic Church.
In 1762 the aged Voltaire began to champion the causes of strangers who were persecuted unjustly. Such as man was Jean Calas a Huguenot shopkeeper in Toulouse who was accused and convicted of murdering one of his sons on the pretext that he wanted to become a Catholic. With anti Huguenots fervor Jean Calas was tortured and then broken on the wheel and his other children were forced to become members of monastic orders. There was never any real evidence of murder presented. Voltaire saw this as clearly a case of religious persecution and he worked to have the case overturned. Three years later the case was retried in Paris and the verdict overturned. This case became famous throughout Europe and earned Voltaire a great deal of honor as the champion of human rights.
In the year of his death, 1778, Voltaire returned to Paris. He was met at the frontier by a customs official who question him as the there being contraband in his carriage. Voltaire's reply was "Nothing but myself."
Why was Voltaire so admired throughout Europe? Perhaps it is as one observer replied when asked who was that man. She replied "That is the savior of Calas." Perhaps it is because he live for a long time and wrote a great deal. More than likely is stemmed from the fact that his works were read because they were so well written. His works filled more than 90 volumes. He died on the eve of the French Revolution and helped to create a atmosphere in which most people no longer believed in the divine right of the state or the church.
The Wit and Wisdom of Voltaire:
In general the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give it to the other.
Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly
I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: "Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous" And God granted it.
Self Love never dies
The gloomy Englishman, even in his loves, always wants to reason. We are more reasonable in France.
Men use thought only to justify their wrongdoings, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts.
It is said that God is always on the sides of the biggest battalions
All the reasoning of men is not worth one sentiment of woman.
To stop criticism they say one must die.
VOLTAIRE ON SUPERSTITION
"Almost everything that goes beyond the adoration of a Supreme Being and submission of the heart to his orders is superstition. One of the most dangerous is to believe that certain ceremonies entail the forgivness of crimes. Do you believe that God will forget a murder you have committed if you bathe in a certain river, sacrifice a black sheep, or if someone says certain words over you?...Do better miserable humans; have neither murders nor sacrifices of black sheep...