New Voltaire biography

This video is called Enlightenment – Words of the World.

By Alex Miller in Britain:


by Ian Davidson (Profile Books, £12.99)

Tuesday 27 March 2012

In this fully referenced but highly readable biography, Ian Davidson provides a vivid and “up close and personal” account of the life of one of the major literary figures of the intellectual Enlightenment movement that paved the way for the French Revolution.

In 1764, 25 years before that revolution, Voltaire wrote in a letter to an acquaintance: “Everything that I see sows the seeds of a revolution which will come without fail.”

But he was far from being a self-conscious revolutionary – Davidson describes how Voltaire spent an inordinate amount of time and energy bowing and scraping before despots. He had the official titles of Gentleman in Ordinary of the King’s Chamber and King’s Historian in the court of Louis XV at Versailles and also acted as personal tutor to Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Moreover, one of his big ambitions was fulfilled when he became a member of the Academie Francaise, described by Davidson as “a self-perpetuating club at the heart of the French elite.”

Despite this, Voltaire couldn’t help becoming an inspiration for the generation of revolutionaries who just a few years after his death overthrew the ancien regime.

Although a highly prolific playwright, he is now remembered more for works like his Letters Concerning The English Nation, whose publication resulted in the book being burned by order of the French authorities and an arrest warrant being issued for its author.

Those “letters” were followed by equally controversial books such as Candide, which mocked the German philosopher Leibniz‘s claim that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Yet for Davidson the real turning point in Voltaire’s journey from aspiring courtier to champion of progress comes with his single-handed campaign to clear the names of individual men and women wrongly accused, tortured and murdered by a dreadful feudal judicial system.

His merciless attack on the “dark regressive alliance between the Catholic church and the French state” was summed up in the slogan “Ecrasez l’Infame” – “Crush the Horror.”

Voltaire identified Christianity as unique in its persecution of non-believers when he wrote: “I say it with horror, but with truth: it is we Christians who have been persecutors, executioners, assassins!

“It is we who have destroyed a hundred cities, with the crucifix or the bible in our hands, and who have not ceased spilling blood or lighting pyres, from the reign of Constantine until our own day.”

Such was the hatred of the church for Voltaire that when he died in Paris in 1778, his friends could only secure him a proper burial by pretending that he was still alive and propping up his fully dressed corpse in a coach out of the city.

An excellent and timely account of the life of one of the central figures in the fight between reason and religious intolerance and superstition.

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