Francois Marie Arouet aka Voltaire (1698-1778) was a French enlightenment writer. He wrote on many subjects: literary, philosophical, religious and political. His most famous book is probably Candide, a satirical look at belief in God in a world where natural forces seem to prove that nature governs the world, not god.
Men believe in a benevolent god that supposedly protects them yet natural events like tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, draughts, plagues of virus, bacteria and fungi kill them, as they kill animals and trees. Looking at human existence one would think that the most obvious conclusion is that no force cares for human existence, that the world is an impersonal place where men irk out a living. Atheism would seem the most rational approach to metaphysical subjects. Yet, everywhere human beings flagellate themselves before what they call god and beg him to intervene in nature on their behalf; and he does not seem to hear their prayers much less intervene, and they do not seem to learn to let him go and do what they could to make a living until they die and disappear into the great oblivion from whence they came.
So why do they do it? Obviously, people are irrational and have all sorts of fears that pure reason would lead them to give up.
The Church plays on people’s fears and gives them the superstition that some god is angry at them for not pleasing him enough hence their earthly woes.
It would seem that human beings are pathetic for only the pathetic would listen to the mindless claptrap that the clergy dishes out to its servants and Voltaire was having a laugh at them for their self caused predicament. All they had to-do to liberate themselves from fear is declare, as Nietzsche did, that God is dead (which presumes that he once lived). All they have to do to liberate themselves from superstition is declare that God does not exist and then do what they could to make a living and then die and their bodies are thrown away, as we throw away dead bodies of animals and trees and that is all to their existence.
But, no, human beings would not learn and become Jean Paul Sartre type existentialist. So, Voltaire has fun at their expense.
Voltaire tried to make life as rational as is possible for himself and for mankind by preaching the philosophy of reason. As he saw it, man is best served if he used reason to solve his problems. This is rational secular humanism, the philosophy of the French enlightenment. He undertook to prepare the encyclopedia, a book that delineates what is known as true and that helps human beings free themselves from the superstitions propagated by the Roman Church.
Voltaire wrote extensively on all sorts of subjects but his value to social science is his apparent cynicism and skepticism. In a manner of speaking, he says: look at all received knowledge and social institutions with cynicism and skepticism. Do not believe anything that those in authority, especially Church leaders and political leaders, tell you is the truth. Those two people and their institutions are out to serve their interests and use superstition to perpetuate their existence; the more they can get people to be ignorant of facts the more people obey them and the more they thrive. Therefore, question everything these purveyors of superstition tell you.
This does not mean that there is nothing good in religion. Voltaire himself remained a believer in some sort of deity but a deity that he defined in his own idiosyncratic manner. Of course, we need government and Voltaire’s approach to it is to make it as rational as is possible.
Voltaire was not really infatuated by any particular form of government. He did not recommend any form of government as ideal. They are all prone to corruption. As far as he was concerned, hold whatever government there is to the yardsticks of pure reason.
Voltaire’s attitude is the attitude of a clever wit that is not really committed to a system of religion and governance that he believes is ideal; this attitude is hardly useful in the real world. In the real world certain forms of government are decidedly evil.
It took Voltaire’s contemporary, Jean Jacque Rousseau, to dispense with his playfulness and make the point that there are dangerous institutions out there and those need to be fought rather than just made fun of. There is time for Voltaire’s comedic approach to life and there is time to take action to eradicate the evil harming folk.
Let us then conclude that Voltaire is a clever wit, a dilettante who was not committed to any form of ideal government; a good writer but hardly a revolutionary; he was a man who makes you laugh but hardly a man who makes you take action to right wrongful situations.
Voltaire, Candide. (There are many editions).