A Voltaire Sampler

Voltaire was a man of much wisdom who could deliver it in a witty way.  He was able to deliver irony without the grit of the cynics.  He said as much while winking at himself and the reader.   I’m glad my European History professor was so fond of injecting Voltaireisms into his lectures.  The zingers helped as learning and memorization prompts.  While Voltaire once said, “A witty saying proves nothing.” He did not say that a witty saying can’t be used to illustrate something.  He did illustrate his contentions and meanderings very effectively.

François-Marie Arouet was known by his pen-name Voltaire.  I was introduced to his writings during my late teens.  He has illuminated some of my solitary hours ever since.  Our philosophies intersected at very important places.  Voltaire was a tireless, careful, thoughtful advocate of civil liberties, human rights, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and freedom of expression, among other ideals. “It is dangerous to be right when the authorities are wrong.”

His intelligent jibes are as relevant today as they were in his own times. “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”  While we can certainly appreciate such statements these days, it must be remembered that Voltaire lived in France during the Eighteenth Century.  It was highly dangerous to speak one’s mind if one wanted to avoid arrest by the royal guard and suffer terrible punishments.

In fact, he had run-ins with the law for his critiques of the throne and the church. Voltaire was once imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly a year. Then he was exiled to Britain for three years.  It was during his incarceration that he came up with his pen -name. The Latin version of his surname Arouet and the first letters of le jeune formed the anagram, Arovet Le.  The adaptation of the name marked the split from his past and his family.
Highly controversial statements were bravely made by him. “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”  Imagine speaking something like this in Europe in the 1700s, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one:O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”


Voltaire commented often on spiritual matters and morality while eschewing religion. “All sects are different, because they come from men; morality is everywhere the same, because it comes from God.” “God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”  As a deist, he is famous for this statement, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

Writers have often paraphrased Voltaire’s sayings. This is one of the best, “Animals have these advantages over man: they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills.”  This is more familiar, “Each player must accept the cards life deals him. But once they are in hand, he alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”

Voltaire was one of the leading voices during the Enlightenment Period.  He influenced many important figures, including John Locke, Montesquieu, and the political thinkers behind the American Revolution and the French Revolution which followed, as well.

During Voltaire’s English exile, he became interested in Britain’s constitutional monarchy along with the liberal English attitudes towards religious authority and literature.  After his return to Paris, Voltaire wrote Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais.  The English translation is Philosophical Letters On The English.  He believed that the British form of government was more advanced and more careful with human rights.

“Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” He was particularly more impressed with attitudes about religious dissent and tolerance. “Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”  The publication of his book in France caused a major controversy.  The book was burned and Voltaire once again had to flee his country.

Voltaire went on to live an exciting, controversial, fruitful life.  I don’t have enough space to write his biography.  Anyway, that has already been taken care of.  I just want to include a couple more of Voltaire’s witty sayings before ending this post. “Chance is a word void of sense; nothing can exist without a cause.” Regarding our human nature he said, “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity.  We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.” and one of my favorites, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Au revoir

The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Voltaire is the writer of the famous story about Sir Isaac Newton getting bonked on the head by the apple falling from the tree.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Controversy, History, Politics, religion, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Voltaire Sampler

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