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Dedication, Deification and Divination of Voltaire: An Apotheosis

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

For nearly six months, we have been immersed in Voltaire; how he shaped the 18th Century and how he still shapes us today. From the way he was shaped by France, the Jesuits, Lady Newton and wit to his journeys from optimism to humanism, from scientific inquiry to truth and his treatises on inoculation and criticisms on the establishments, all resulting in a man who knows too much, we now are challenged on how to wrap up Voltaire for this issue of the Links. But before we proceed with the possibilities of bringing a closure to Voltaire, there are decades to centuries of material left out. Herein, only a few points can be made.

First, his most effective means of communication was through his own invention of his greatest literary works, the philosophical tales, most of which can be gleaned from Candide and Other Stories by Voltaire. Next, from his own advice at the end of Candide, Voltaire literally and metaphorically cultivated his own garden as the only antidote to despair in which settled at his estate at Ferney. At Ferney, he was a progressive, tolerant and enlightened landlord. Ferney was a mecca of the Enlightenment where many leading lights of intellectual, political and social Europe were hosted by Voltaire. It was at Ferney where his pen became truly mightier than any sword on behalf of the vital causes of the Enlightenment: toleration, freedom of thought, abolition of slavery, end to colonial and dynastic wars and the application of knowledge for the improvement of the quality of life. Also, from his diverse writings, including poetry, plays, letters and historical writings, he produced a Philosophical Dictionary (1769). Its content and tone were sharp, insightful and explicit, serving as a window which illuminated our thoughts about Voltaire's mind at Ferney. He was a crusader. He ardently defended and celebrated those in authority who acted for the sake of humanity. He ridiculed and scolded those in authority who acted by abusing their power and exercising their arbitrary will. He was the conscience of civilization. Readers devoured his works and the many revisions of the Dictionary from this Sage at Ferney.

Finally, let's not lose sight of Voltaire the historian. He has been placed into the pantheon of writers of history alongside Richard Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and David Hume - History of England. Today, these three are considered among the most illustrious historians and philosophical thinkers who emerged within a single generation of the eighteenth century. All three exposed superstition, rejected supernatural explanations and identified progress with the development of knowledge, manners and arts. Voltaire viewed history as a story of the struggle between the philosophical spirit and specter of fanaticism. His major contributions were profound. Instead of simply chronicling history, he narrated it in terms of significant events with a philosophical understanding of the effect history had on human life and civilizations over time. Voltaire believed history was not defined by politics, diplomacy or war. He preferred a critical study of original sources and texts to explain both human plans and contingencies beyond human control. In his quest for a "universal history." he penned the Essai sur les moeurs (1756), which began not with the 18th Century convention of Old Testament events, but with the ancient civilization of China, signaling a profound rejection of the traditional European historical narrative. He wrote of China's advanced civilization with science, industry and organized civic life, while Europe remained shackled to barbarism and superstition. However, he asserted that excessive filial respect for custom, tradition and the emergence of Buddhism from India and its superstitions into China prevented the Chinese civilization from advancing any further.

No, time will not permit us a view these shimmering and glimmering lights from the Age of Voltaire. Trying to bring closure can only come from the scene of Paris near the time of his death and how he was revered by others. While America was being conceived in its revolution of 1776, Voltaire had achieved international fame. After 40 years of exile, he made a triumphant return to Paris following an official invitation to be honored in the world of politics and in the world of thought. He was invited to take his rightful seat at the Académie Française. During this popular ceremonious occasion, his reception was unprecedented. This was an extraordinary hero's welcome; the first such welcome for a man of letters. The adulation and thunderous ovation had never been witnessed before for such an individual. There was an endless flood of visitors. Among this deluge was Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps it was Ben Franklin, but more likely the celebration exhausted Voltaire and led to his death.

In Paris, one is usually buried in hallowed ground with permission of the Church. Otherwise you're buried as a commoner outside the city, a fate usually reserved for criminals, heretics, prostitutes and Protestant. Many great leaders were aware of this and had prepared their deathbed confession and conversion. Through a priest or a bishop, one can achieve a deathbed conversion for an appropriate burial rather than be dismissed into unhallowed and undignified sites. At Voltaire's impending death, the priest arrived for his deathbed conversion. Voltaire was asked, "Do you believe in God?" Voltaire answered, "I do." Then he was asked, "Do you believe in God the Son?" to which Voltaire replied, "Oh, don't talk to me about that man." The Church denied him burial in hallowed ground. Several days later, after his death, Voltaire's corpse was dressed and carried away. He was placed in a carriage and buried on the road to Ferney in a Catholic upstanding cemetery. Even in death, Voltaire cheated his enemies and maintained his defiant deism. He earned a literary triumph even in death. In 1791, his bones were moved to the Pantheon of heroes and became an object of national reverence. The early French revolutionaries embraced Voltaire. His heart was taken back to Ferney in an urn, where it was stated "his heart is here and his spirit is everywhere."

In the latter part of the French Revolution, the radical Jacobins saw Voltaire as a moderate and an enemy to their beloved Rousseau. Robespierre's and Rousseau's writings held a sacred place for the Jacobins. Voltaire's reputation fell into disfavor, which was further intensified when many of his friends, followers and intellectual heirs turned against the revolution because of its persecution of the Catholics. However, Voltaire was a staunch defender of religious tolerance and believed religion, above all else, should be a voluntary and private matter. He was a crusader for freedom of religion. He never called the persecution of anyone. Nevertheless, many Voltaireans died under the guillotine. Conservative Europeans saw him as the very cause of the Revolution, yet he was treated with ambiguity as it continued, and many of his disciples found themselves in danger.

There are no better summations than that by Johann Wolgang von Goethe (the giant German figure, writer and statesman from the romantic period), Frederick the Great of Prussia (Frederick II) and an unidentified author of an article, found in the Great French Catholic Encyclopedia of the 20th Century.

When Goethe writes an essay he makes a judgment. Here is his summation of Voltaire. "Profoundness, genius, intuition, grandeur, spontaneity, talent, merit, nobility, imagination, wit, comprehension, deep feeling, sensibility, discernment, good taste, rightness, propriety, voice, great tone, courtliness, variety, abundance, wealth, fruitfulness, warmth, something magical, charm, grace, urbanity, ease, vivacity, finesse, brilliance, boldness, dazzle, mordant wit, delicacy, ingenuity, style, poetry, harmony, purity, correctness, elegance, perfection." He goes on, "Voltaire is the greatest writer of all time, God's most astonishing creation." Der Alte Fritz (Frederick the Great) writes…"Voltaire's finest monument is the one that he erected to himself, his works which will remain longer than St Peter's Basilica, the Louvre and all the buildings constructed to eternity by human vanity. When French no longer is spoken, Voltaire still will be translated into whatever language succeeds it." And finally from the unidentified author representing the French Catholic Church as a pay back to Voltaire, "…it was above all by Voltaire's efforts that the modern world came into being in which the state liberated from the church and purely secular guarantees to every citizen, the freedom of his person, the freedom of thought, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press and the freedom of conscience and of religion."

"Freedom is a Light for which many Men have Died in Darkness."
An inscription above the Statue of George Washington and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington Square in Philadelphia. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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