The Delightful Voltaire

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Voltaire,
that ultimate freethinker and lifelong iconoclast, has never quite
lost his audience. His epigrams are among the favorites of speechwriters
and his political writings seem almost contemporary. Indeed he would
make a suitable patron of today’s U.S. Libertarian Party if its
elders cared to look back far enough. (They tend to stop at Thomas
Jefferson.)

Although Voltaire
is absent from the party’s materials, his spirit lives on in the
libertarian movement, co-founder David Nolan told me recently.

In accidental
Voltairean terms, the party rejects any attempt to constrain freedom
of speech and calls for tolerance and a free, competitive market.
Its platform lines up with Voltaire in its call for a world "where
individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways,
without interference from government or any authoritarian power."

The similarities
are perhaps as much a symptom of eternal human desires as any direct
derivation from France of the 1700s. Some trace libertarianism back
to Plato. But the overlap with Voltaire is striking. "Maybe
it’s more a case of great minds thinking alike than any attempt
to copy or emulate Voltaire," Nolan says.

Modern readers
stand in awe of Voltaire 232 years after his death, and many marvel
at how this complex, contradictory writer came to be such an intellectual
force. A contemporary called him "Monsieur Multiforme"
for his mastery of the written word and his range of views.

Even for a
man of his time, however, Voltaire had his blind spots. Like some
of his high-minded contemporaries, he had a strain of anti-Semitism
and a penchant for offhand cynicism. But his libertarian (libertaire,
in French) convictions made him basically a force for good: a fierce
advocate of free will, individual liberty, tolerance, open expression,
and free trade, none of which France provided in his lifetime.

A revival of
interest in the man and his mind is now under way as Voltaire fans
celebrate the 250th anniversary of the publication Candide,
his most familiar work. In my research for a book on his life and
writings, I repeatedly find evidence of his connection with modern
times, especially in the United States. He helps explain how we
got where we are today.

Who was this
François Marie Arouet, or "Voltaire" – a loose
anagram of Arouet l.j. (for le jeune, the younger)? He was
born in 1694, and rose to become the most durable, if not the deepest,
of Europe’s 18th-century literary and philosophical thinkers. His
prolific outpourings, hostile to church and state, won him two stays
in the Bastille prison, plus a life on the run from the French thought
police.

The early Americans
took easily to his anti-authoritarian views. He is cited in writings
of the early American Francophiles Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Jefferson, in homage, purchased a bust of him for his Monticello
estate in Virginia, where a modern plaster copy of it still stands.

Voltaire has
never entirely lost his audience. A swirl of events and commemorations
in both the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds has been
under way for the past year or so. A signal occasion was the colloquium
at Oxford last fall that brought together the world’s leading Voltaireans.
The French had their own commemorations, and across the sea, the
New York Public Library, run by Voltaire enthusiast Paul LeClerc,
created a Voltaire exhibition and decorated its columns with a banner
celebrating Candide.

Just a few
months ago, the dean of English Voltaire experts, Prof. Nicholas
Cronk of the University of Oxford, was in New York parsing forgotten
Voltaire correspondence in two prominent collections. Other scholars
are burrowing into manuscripts in Paris, London, Oxford, Geneva,
and St. Petersburg.

All this work
will become part of the 200-volume Complete Works of Voltaire
now being assembled and edited by the Voltaire Foundation under
Cronk’s direction, the first academic scholarly edition and by far
the largest “complete” Voltaire. Now in the home stretch, Cronk
hopes to keep up his pace of about six volumes per year over the
next eight years to complete the collection by 2018.

Read
the rest of the article

August
17, 2010

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