Voltaire’s philosophy (1694-1778)

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was born in the (then) metropolis of Paris in 1694. His family was prosperous and very appreciative in higher circles. He came from a family of lawyers, and it was expected that he too would pursue a legal career. Voltaire rebelled and became a writer, something that brought shame to his wealthy family. Throughout his life he continued to rebel against everything that was taken for granted. It brought him fame, recognition but at the same time also trouble.

The speech

Voltaire is impossible to classify, he is simply too broadly oriented and had an opinion on every conceivable point of contention. However, that opinion did have its origins in reason. Reason was Voltaire’s hobbyhorse, this was already evident from the sentence that is most closely associated with Voltaire; ,I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death the right to say it., This sentence is not a quote from Voltaire, but from Evelyn Beatrice who summarized it powerfully in this way. He laid the foundation for the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our constitution today. Voltaire went (although forced) to England twice, because he was expelled from France because of his critical texts that he wrote about France and its monarchy, religious institutions and the pursuit of equality and freedom of expression. He saw England as more advanced than France, and praised John Locke and other empiricists for not taking anything at face value.

Empiricism drives progress

According to Voltaire, the proof that empiricism offers progress lay in simple phenomena of nature. Mothers from the Turkish highlands discovered that they could sell their daughters as slaves for more money (a common practice in those parts) if they were not marked by scars from a severe form of smallpox. A disease that was widespread throughout Europe at the time and maimed many people. However , the milder form of smallpox produced less scarring and was easily cured. Furthermore, the Turkish mothers knew that if you become infected with small pox , you become immune to every variant of this disease for the rest of your life. The body gets to know the disease and finds a way to become immune to it. The wife of the ambassador from England brought this knowledge to her country and started vaccinating people with this mild variant. Ultimately resulting in drastically lower mortality rates. According to Voltaire, hypotheses must always be exposed to empiricism.

Influence and views

Voltaire is sometimes called ‘the father of French enlightenment’. He has contributed enormously to the development of Western civilization and remains an inspiration for thinkers and writers to this day. He adored English tolerance, recognition of genius and the spread of church institutions. One church leads to tyranny, two leads to suppression (France, Netherlands) and thirty churches keep themselves in balance. He got into trouble in his work Lettres Anglaises , in which he contrasted English and French politics. They would be contrary to French morals, religion and authority. The letters were ceremonially burned. Voltaire further took the following positions;

  • Defender of human rights
  • Religious tolerance
  • Against the death penalty
  • Encourage hygienic progress
  • Striving for social justice

He expresses this again and again in his best-known works; Lettres philosophiques (1734), Oedipe (1718), Dictionnaire philosophique (1765).


Voltaire was a supporter of the religious-philosophical movement deism. Deistic thought states that the world was created by God, but that the laws of nature have governed the rest since then. God does not intervene and limits himself to being a creator. Deism gained popularity during the Enlightenment, partly because Voltaire popularized this religious-philosophical movement. In essence, according to this line of thought, God and nature coincide. Nature was created by God, but that does not mean that nature is God. Pantheism (panentheism), on the other hand, does say that everything and everyone is God. According to this school of thought, God is immanent and all-embracing.

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