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Editor's Corner: Voltaire, Jesuit Education, Philosophe, and Innoculation

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

The most widely quoted statement misattributed to Voltaire, "Although I disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it," (on the principle of freedom of speech) written by English biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre in her book, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906. A witty description of the salonnières (to WIT, see Salonnières (fl. 17th and 18th c.)) and the mind of France can be found in her other book, The Women of the Salons, and Other French Portraits, 1901. With this and the last issue of the ISHLT Links Newsletter, she describes how women shaped the life and afterlife of Voltaire. In this issue we will turn to Voltaire's pediatric years.

Voltaire was fortunate to be deeply immersed in the custom and thinking of early 18th century France. This was the time where the French word for a philosopher of the Enlightenment philosophe, emerged. Recall René Descartes, the Father of modern philosophy and analytical geometry, who laid the foundation of rationalism and is best known for "Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am." Then it was Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher, probably influenced by Voltaire, who, through his doctrine of existentialism and human emotions, restated Descartes' famous quote, "I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am." Then consider this, I am that I am, therefore I think. All of this thinking may lead us to Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, an album produced by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians which debuted their 1988 hit, links image What I Am. On the B side is "I do." Edie Brickell is married to Paul Simon, but enough on this already. A philosophe is not a systematic formal philosopher, but someone who examines critically and analytically important problems of their time without prejudice.

To better appreciate the France that educated Voltaire one has to study the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King - le Roi-Soleil, who held the longest reign of any monarch in European history, from age 4 until his death in 1715 at age 76. Louis XIV's rule culminated in stifling orthodox and censorship that yoked and choked the dynamism of 17th century French intellectual life. The last two decades of the Sun King's reign leading into the 18th century were a period of unprecedented suffering in modern France with unbearable taxation and widespread famines. This led to intense moral and political criticisms. These criticisms from literary works and great works of art indirectly criticized Louis XIV's leadership through idealized portraits of great rulers of the past. The descriptions of the medieval monarchy depicted a King as a father who would nurture his country in harmony. Voltaire in his criticism did not use the past as a model, but instead made appeals to the future as a contemporary practice or he would directly criticize the abuse around him.

France was not the only country stifled by the increasingly stringent censorship. Many works by radicals with philosophical and heterodox thoughts of moral and political criticisms circulated throughout France and Europe. Many of these thoughts were published in learned journals from Holland where there was no censorship. The world of letters became an international republic in response to orthodox and censorship. These letters were smuggled into France then studied and discussed. Eventually the Jesuits would create their own learned journals primarily out of demand from the highly educated citizens of Paris and France. The Jesuits wanted to be part of these erudite and highly critical appraisals to familiarize everyone about the debates across Europe. Finally, France experiences the Cultural Revolution, known as the regency. In 1715, Louis XIV dies. Louis XV, the heir apparent, is a child therefore his uncle Philippe d'Orleans serves as Regent of the Kingdom from 1715-1723.

Philippe d'Orleans, a libertine or a free-thinker, was interested in the New Philosophy. He was full of deistic ideas and some of the works of the most heterodox minds and poets. Censorship was nearly abolished, resulting in a great outpouring of critical reviews that circulated in the circles where Voltaire was learning. The vitality of the Jesuit education played a major role in shaping the thought of the enlightenment in general, and Voltaire in particular. But Voltaire describes his own education at the hand of the Jesuits as a period of just Latin and bad poetry. Ironically the Jesuits, who run the best secondary schools in France, educate the minds of those who created the enlightenment culture. How is it that all these great heterodox, innovative and enlightened thinkers are educated by the Jesuits in France who received no striking education? How is it that these philosophes emerged as open-minded critical thinkers and are remarkably attuned to a world of ideas? What did the pediatric population learn from a late 17th and early 18th century Jesuit education?

From childhood to adolescence, Voltaire's education was focused on logic, disputation and rhetoric. The categories of logic and analysis of argument were learned by studying debates where the actual points of contention were reviewed. What would it take to win the argument of pro or the argument of con? One had to always confront all the strongest objections of what one is setting out to prove or demonstrate to overcome these objections. These Jesuit students learned to look for possible objections as a logical exercise not an end of itself but as a habit of their minds.

From childhood to adolescence, Voltaire's education from the Jesuits included a profound study of the classics in literature and a modern analysis of these classics. Among the classics studied were those authored by the pre-Christian romans including Horace, Cicero and Lucretius. Studying Horace provided an arsenal of witty satires on religion and society and studying Cicero and Lucretius offered an arsenal of anti-religious arguments, ironically from the Jesuits of orthodox Paris.

From childhood to adolescence, Voltaire and his fellow students were learning and were encouraged to write in Latin and in French as Voltaire evolved into a poet and a writer.

The Jesuits educate the uppermost strata of French society which established Voltaire, who himself was of "low birth," a bourgeois and not a "blue-blood" aristocrat, with important social connections or links. These links gave him lifetime patronage, protection, support and influence in important circles. Voltaire further profits by attending Lycée Louis-le-Grand, the most prestigious college in France with the finest teachers of the Jesuit order and the crème de la crème of the aristocratic society among its students. Some notable alumni from Louis-le-Grand include, among others: Marquis de La Fayette, Robespierre, Jacques Chirac, Molière, Diderot, Victor Hugo, and the aforementioned Jean-Paul Sartre.

When the regencies lifted the censorship, many political satires against the regents came from literary circles that included Voltaire. Where were his aristocratic friends and protectors when he was accused of a couple of political satires against the regents? He was sent to the Bastille for the first time for nearly a year, not the dreary place depicted in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities; if you did anything serious in France you were killed, maimed or sent to the galleys to row in the Mediterranean. Voltaire, with some connections, was able to dine with the Governor of the prison and began working on some of his most celebrated works. Upon his release from the Bastille, he enjoyed more literary success and entered the world of philosophical and literary courts in Paris where he became part of the La Société du Temple, Voltaire's intellectual home until 1723. This was a gathering of heterodox and free-thinking men and women of letters that had been previously bullied by Louis XIV reign but had become prominent during the Regency. He becomes a courtier in Versailles but experienced ridicule because many of the aristocrats know he was from low birth, however he spoke and wrote well at a time when the aristocrats and royal power wanted to be associated with the world of thought and letters. He enjoyed meteoric success beginning with the retelling of Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus. He wrote an epic poem about Henry IV, La Henriade, and along with his tragedies, he was celebrated on the Parisian stage. His reputation soared to a height where he was lauded as the highly sought after Poet and Playwright of France and was considered the first Great French Epic Poet. His early works for the French stage and theater were influenced by a great deal of new philosophical input with themes on religious toleration, abuses of power and the need for aligning justice and power as well as the dangers of fanaticism. What goes up must come down.

He met Chevalier de Rohan, an heir of an aristocratic family, who, among many other insults, ridiculed Voltaire on social pretentions, for example "how convenient is it to give oneself a new name." Voltaire, never at a loss for wit, replied, "better to give oneself a new name than to disgrace an old one." Because he was a commoner, neither Voltaire's aristocratic friends nor the justice system offered any help after the retaliation from Rohan's thugs who beat Voltaire up in the street. Again, he was imprisoned in the Bastille but negotiated an exile to England from 1726 - 1729. He knew France was a country with aristocratic and royal abuses of power. He knew life was unpredictable under a system of arbitrary wills and he believed he was leaving a country that lacked respect for men of letters, science and learning. France did not appreciate the effect philosophes had on a nation or on mankind. Voltaire would discover a different model of the world in England with a variety of new ideas. One thought in particular he published upon his return to France in the Philosophical Letters, Letter XI—On Inoculation — a seed or germ of an idea for Edward Jenner (see What Would Edward Jenner Say? by Stanley Martin, MD, ISHLT 2011 Volume 3, Issue 4, Page 10) on vaccinations in children. From this Voltaire taught us to judge results by their usefulness and consequences, and through reason and experience to reduce the suffering of the human condition. In this letter, he described the practice of variolation brought back from Turkey to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. The Circassian population had found that they could sell their daughters unmarked by smallpox for a higher price to the Ottoman Sultans and seraglios. Voltaire reasoned that exposure to a benign case of smallpox conferred immunity, avoided disfigurement and saved lives, thus increasing the value of the young women sold into slavery. Voltaire provided this example of English empiricism, which is learning about nature inductively from the particulars of experience to generalizations derived from these particulars which can be tested. He summarized that knowledge can move us from helplessness to understanding and happiness. However, inoculation in France was resisted by religious and medical authorities. Theology argued that this was human intervention against divine providence, and medicine argued that this violated the Hippocratic Oath which begins with "do no harm". Inoculation with smallpox gave a disease to someone and by tradition doctors could not do this. ■

Disclosure Statement: the author has no conflicts of interest to report.

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