Happy Birthday Voltaire.

Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1778 (National Gallery of Art)

The French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire (nee François-Marie Arouet) was born in Paris on this date in 1694.  A fierce advocate for civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression and separation of church and state, his ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.  And he didn’t just talk the talk, either:

Voltaire campaigned fiercely against civil atrocities in the name of religion, writing pamphlets and commentaries about the barbaric execution of a Huguenot trader, who was first broken at the wheel, then burned at the stake, in 1762. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and restitution ended with a posthumous retrial in 1765, during which 40 Parisian judges declared the defendant innocent. Voltaire urgently tried to save the life of Chevalier de la Barre, a 19 year old sentenced to death for blasphemy for failing to remove his hat during a religious procession. In 1766, Chevalier was beheaded after being tortured, then his body was burned, along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

Much to the chagrin of civil and religious authorities, Voltaire was an extraordinarily prolific writer, producing more than 20,000 letters, more than 2,000 books and pamphlets, and works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works.  He was jailed and exiled many times for even mild critiques of government and religion, his books and pamphlets burned by authorities all over Europe.  Voltaire is known to have used at least 178 additional pen names during his lifetime.

As witty and brilliant as he was for his time — hell, even by today’s standards — Voltaire held some appalling views about race, and was openly anti-Semitic.  Despite his relentless skewering of the absurdities of Christianity (and eventually Islam) he remained a Deist, writing in a Letter to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1770:

“If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.” But all nature cries aloud that he does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.

It is interesting to speculate what his thoughts might have been had he been born a century later, after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been published and scientific advances were steadily unlocking the mysteries of nature.  Indeed, although it is manifestly unfair to judge the man from the privileged perspective of a 21st century blogger, it is difficult to imagine how someone so devoted to rationalism and reason could say this:

I cannot imagine how the clockwork of the universe can exist without a clockmaker.

The statement is a textbook logical fallacy, the argumentum ad ignorantiam, otherwise known as “argument from ignorance” or “argument from personal incredulity”:

  • The theory of evolution says that people just came into existence by chance.
  • I personally do not see how this is possible.
  • Therefore evolution must be false.

Bzzzt.  (Incidentally, this specific argument is beautifully, memorably and enjoyably eviscerated in that flaming @$$hole Richard Dawkins‘ book The Blind Watchmaker.)

In much the same way that I love The Rolling Stones yet find much of their lyrical content objectionable, I can still find insight, inspiration and wisdom in the works of Voltaire without endorsing every word the d00d ever uttered.  With that caveat, please enjoy these pithy Voltaire quotes recently acquired for the Palace’s legendary quote collection.

Wait — one more thing.  According to one story, Voltaire was on his deathbed with a pesky priest at his side who was pestering him to renounce Satan.  Voltaire’s last words were, “Now is not the time for making new enemies.”


I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: “O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!” God granted it.

Atheism is the vice of a few intelligent people.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

When we hear news, we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.

It is better to risk sparing a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.

Let the punishments of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing; a man condemned to public works still serves the country, and is a living lesson.

Opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours.

To hold a pen is to be at war. This world is one vast temple consecrated to discord.

To pray to God is to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature.

It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.

Doubt is not an agreeable condition, but certainty is an absurd one.

Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.

It is said that God is always on the side of the big battalions.

Use, do not abuse; as the wise man commands. I flee Epictetus and Petronius alike. Neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy.

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

The Palace will be celebrating Voltaire’s birthday today in the Great Entry Hall near the Shrine to PZ Myers.  Champagne, French Fries and macarons will be served.

[h/t FFRF via Don Ardell]

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