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Editor's Corner: Voltaire, The Enlightenment and The Wit (WIT)


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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
vgvalent@utmb.edu



Think of France, then Paris, Cafés filled with artisans and literary scholars, art, cooking, croissants, coffee, wine, cheese, style, fashion, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Louvre, The Riviera, Versailles, Marseilles, Bastille, Love, Pepé Le Pew, and the Aristocats: Duchess, Marie, Toulouse and Berlioz (referring to Hector Berlioz - last page of ISHLT Links October 2011 Vol 3, Issue 5) are among the first thoughts that come to mind. For the ISHLT in 2015, Nice and because of this issue of the Links, Voltaire will enlighten us. Voltaire shaped Western Europe, Western Culture, Western Civilization and through all of this, he shaped the culture and thinking of the rest of the 18th century world as he continues to shape us today.

He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 and died Voltaire in 1778 in Paris. He used well over 100 different pen names, but we know him by this one non de plume, Voltaire, probably an anagram from the Latinized spelling of his surname "AVORET LI" which represented a separation from his family and his past. "Arouet was not a noble fit for his evolving reputation, given its resonance with "à rouer" "to be broken on the wheel" - a form of torture prevalent in the early 18th century. Interestingly, now that we know the derivation of "Nice" (see the May Issue of the ISHLT Links), Voltaire may have intended his name to have connotations with "speed and daring," similar to the word "volatile" - meaning, any winged creature, Nike or Winged Victory over Samothrace, might come to mind. He was a prodigious writer with published works in nearly every literary form ranging from plays, poems, novels and essays to historical, philosophical and scientific works. He produced more than 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. Although his best literary forms may have been theater and poetry, it is the genre of the "philosophical tale" he invented that emerged as his most influential vehicle for analyses, criticisms and explorations of the world. Some of his deepest philosophical views expressed in his most revered work are found in the philosophical tale, Candide (1759). Above all, he was a philosopher and considered the Patriarch of the French Enlightenment. It may not be too much of a stretch that the Enlightenment, aka, the Age of Reason, could easily have been referred to as the Age of Voltaire.

It is clear that the Age of Reason with its enlightened ideas and ideals spreading across Europe and North America in the late 16th and 17th century spawned the development of the history of Science and Technology. The Enlightenment period ended around the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic era. What's less clear is the defining moment of the beginning of this period. In the Age of Reason came the rise of Copernicanism and the debunking of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Galen's medical doctrine both pulling scientists and the evolving medical establishment out of the dark ages and away from fanaticism, tradition and faith toward scientific credibility while alchemy and astrology lost credibility. This promoted thought, skepticism and intellectual reasoning. Immanual Kant described it as "mankind's final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance." Bertrand Russell described the Enlightenment as "a phase of progressive development which began in antiquity with reason and challenges to the establishment as constant ideals throughout time." It was Voltaire and Rousseau who viewed the Enlightenment as a paradigm shift from Feudalism, "the Divine Right of Kings" to the "Consent of the Governed" as delineated by John Locke.

It is because of Voltaire and the many books published with diverse views about him that we know so much about of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire was a critical thinker, not a systematic thinker. He exposed the abuses of power and set the tone of the Enlightenment mostly through "wit" and laughter. "Once you have laughed as something, you never hold it in the same reverence again." He made the 18th century laugh at religious claims, intolerance, political leadership, abuses of power and professions held in high regard. An example of 18th century Voltairan wit comes from one of his philosophical tales, "A figure falls ill and despite the attention and ministrations of the leading medical doctors of Europe, he survived." None of the professions that Voltaire thought did not know what they were doing was immune to his mordant wit, his major weapon. What was the source of his thoughts and wit? One notion could be his time spent at Cirey in Eastern France near the Swiss border which may be the most influential and productive period of his life, a period that transformed him into the central towering figure of the French Enlightenment.

Just before his exile to Cirey in 1734, his famous Philosophical Letters was published and became a bestseller. He had returned to Paris from his English exile from 1726 - 1729 with the intent of re-establishing himself as an important figure in French life. He thought he was careful in writing the Philosophical Letters. He had taken precautions to save these works from condemnation. He did take delight in seeing them first in English from London before they were published in French. However the response to the letters was immediately condemnatory. There were many reviews by important Catholic intellectuals denouncing his works. He had spoken in favor of republicanism, attacked the foundations of religion and the monarchy and customs of France. He was accused of sedition and trying to stir up a rebellion in France. Facing prosecutions and persecutions, Voltaire was exiled, this time to Cirey.

In 1734, he accepted an invitation from one of the most remarkable figures of the 18th century, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet known as the Madame du Châtelet. She was in an aristocratic marriage of convenience with an understanding husband.

As an admirer of Voltaire, she invited him to her estate or Chateau where they become friends, lovers, and intellectual collaborators in a relationship that lasted 15 years. Voltaire wrote a poem about her in French ... in English it translates ...

"I confess that she is tyrannical. In order to court her one must speak to her in metaphysics when wants to speak to her of love."

She was one of the most remarkable intellectuals of the 18th Century and known in her lifetime as Lady Newton or by so many of her admirers as the Divine Émilie. She had been given an intensive and private education by her father. Well educated women at that time almost always had a father who took their minds and sensibilities seriously. She married the aristocratic Marquis du Chetelier and lived in a dilapidated estate at Cirey where her husband almost never visited but spent his life in Paris.

With his funds, Voltaire prepared the Chateau's scientific lab and made life comfortable. She was a voracious reader and student. She once wrote, "to study is the deepest pleasure of life." She lived in many ways following that dictum. She had a deep intellectual familiarity with English thought, debates and scientific life. She was an appreciative student of Voltaire's Philosophical Letters which gave them an immediate intellectual bond with the chemical and electrical romantic bond that quickly developed. Émilie wrote important scientific treatises and was taken seriously by the finest scientific minds of Europe. She successfully translated Newton's Principia Mathematica into French. She had mastered Newton's complex mathematics and understood more than most Newton's deep meaning on the subject of hypothesis ... when he says "I feign no hypotheses." When there was no empirical scientific knowledge to answer a question, one does not feign a hypothesis that is not confirmable, instead, one seeks to draw a generalization from nature that becomes a testable hypothesis to be confirmed or refuted. She introduced this to Voltaire.

Émilie's intellectual influence on Voltaire was profound. She was one of his central teachers which catalyzed the intellectual development of Voltaire. She dramatically deepened his understanding of physics and the Newtonian enterprise. She deepened his awareness and understanding of the deep metaphysical debates of the 17th century and introduced him to Leibnizing philosophy which Voltaire struggled with. From 1834-1849, Cirey became the epicenter of Newtonian study and persuasion. Nearly all great continental minds sought to convert European thinkers from Descarte's philosophy and physics to Newton's philosophy and physics. Strategies were developed to persuade European readers on the superiority of Newton and the wonderment of his accomplishments. Together, Lady Newton and Voltaire were critical and vital at converting Europe to Newtonian science and internationalizing 17th century briefings over natural philosophy.

During this time, Voltaire was happy, found extraordinary energy for work and was very productive. He wrote in nearly in all genres including some of his major philosophical tales. Some key writings included: Elements of Newton's Philosophy, Treatise of Metaphysics, The Wordly Man, and Discourse in the Verse on Man which revealed a new intellectual depth in Voltaire beyond the Philosophical Letters. A particular point from the Discourse in the Verse on Man, equally applicable today, we find that in spite of the social inequalities of the human condition which people are so obsessed is a far deeper unifying underlying equality of the human condition. In our quest for happiness, our weakness is the unavoidability of pain, sufferings and our loss. We look for the mitigation of pain, the increase in our well-being and liberty. Voltaire further added that liberty is not limited by metaphysical or theological boundaries it is limited by our own intellectual and moral weaknesses. It is limited by the forces of nature that do not care for the human will in their own activities. Liberty is also limited by human pride, arrogance and anger to the extent that they can be relieved and aided by knowledge in a philosophical spirit addressing our intellectual and moral blindness. Knowledge will increase some of our limited empire over nature that could lead us to understand philosophically how our pride and anger stand in the way of what we want most, happiness. Envy is the principle obstacle to happiness. Each person whatever he or she achieves sees other's achievements and feels envy, bitterness and rage toward the world. Instead, we need to see our own self as the appropriate object of our own activity and concern. "Better to live with oneself as one's only master than to be the slave of the achievements, social status and possessions of others."

Moderation is essential. Within these limits, pleasure is real and one must not give oneself over to undue pessimism. We are at our best when we seek to add to pleasure and minimize pain. There is no pure or absolute happiness to be found. True virtue lies in empathy, the feeling to make the suffering of others part of our own world. But, the peacefulness, happiness and very productive influential years of Voltaire at Cirey came to a tragic end in 1749 when Émilie took on a brief other lover and died in childbirth of puerperal fever, nearly 70 years before Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (Father of Infection Control) was born. To "wit" or the Women in Transplantation (WIT), behind every great man including the Father of Enlightenment there is a better woman, Madame du Châtelet.

This sums up the beginning of Voltaire with more to come about him and his works in future issues and how he influences the ISHLT as we head to France in Nice. Voltaire's mercurial and pragmatic writings have a "blinding clarity" which left him vulnerable to insulting remarks by one French critic, "his thought is a chaos of clear ideas."

George Carlin could also sum this up: "Catholic—which I was until I reached the age of reason."

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




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