If you have been following this blogsite, you are aware that it is in a state of renovation under the theme of The New Voltaire. The revised graphics and other technical goodies are coming. But much more importantly, I would like to address the question, why Voltaire?
Growing up, Voltaire was one of my heroes. He still is. His real name was Francois Arouet. Voltaire was his pen name. He had a very strict religious upbringing. So did I. He eventually left the church, and became its outspoken critic. So have I. He was a writer, a dramatist, playwright; he wrote biographies, histories, books on science. While my meager offerings pale in comparison with the productivity of this 18th century prodigy, I also am a writer, including non-fiction books, literary economic commentary, and on matters of financial, historical, social, and political interest for today’s non-aligned and non-ideological seekers.
Most of what Voltaire wrote was banned during his lifetime, and therefore he often wrote anonymously. I also write some things anonymously, as a ghost writer for others whose names adorn my work as the “authors” of record. In my case, I do this not as protection from a coercive State (at least not yet), but as an artist whose work is commissioned and paid for by my clients. In other words, it’s called making a living.
Voltaire evidently did not subscribe to the Platonic split of humans into an upper and lower self, a spiritual and material self, and he saw no reason to eschew the material comforts in life. He was neither stoic nor monastic in search of his higher self. He held no highbrow distinctions between the sciences, the arts, and the world of business and trade, and he applied himself equally assiduously and successfully to all of them. This aspect of his character resonates with me, because all my life I have been a writer, but for 35 of those adult years I was a businessman for the simple reason that it provided for my financial needs and aspirations less tentatively than a writing career might have. Or so I thought.
Voltaire wrote 56 plays, as well as countless other stories, novels, epic poetry, and what we would today call scientific “white papers”, book reviews, and over 20,000 letters. But that didn’t prevent him from becoming a successful investor, bond, commodity, and currency trader, and becoming a millionaire by the time he was 40. With his books banned, he relied on his business income for his lifestyle.
He was a champion of individual freedom, was imprisoned twice in the infamous Paris prison, La Bastille, and both the government of France and the Church were the targets of his rapier wit and excoriation. He was beaten in the streets by hired thugs while an aristocrat watched from his coach. He knew the importance of having cash on hand and living close to the border in the event that a hasty exit became necessary. Voltaire lived in a time and place where the rule of law was arbitrary and capricious and its implementation often viciously politically motivated by those whose primary preoccupation was with the extension of their privilege and power over the masses. So many laws were being made that virtually anyone could be construed as guilty, and their property could be confiscated by the State, and their life made forfeit. Interestingly, the finances of the State were in such chaos, that in 1764 a law was passed forbidding publication of any criticisms of the finances of the State. My oh my, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Much of what Voltaire wrote was set in the context of countries other than his native France, making it somewhat more difficult for his censors to claim that he was criticizing his own government. Most of what he wrote was published and distributed outside of France for the same reason.
Last but not least, I am forever impressed with Voltaire’s taste in women. He met Emilie, the Marquise du Chatelet, in 1733, and eventually moved into the Chateau de Cirey owned by the Marquise’s husband, the Marquis du Chatelet. Emilie’s marriage to the Marquis was one of convenience, and husband and wife led separate lives and each took lovers. The Marquis was a military man, and a hunter, whereas Emilie was a genius in her own right, an intellectual worthy of the term. By the age of twelve she could read, write, and speak fluent German, Latin, and Greek (bear in mind that her mother tongue was French) and she continued on to take private lessons in geometry, algebra, calculus, and physics; she spent her fifteen years with Voltaire studying mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, and metaphysics. Like Voltaire, she was no ascetic seeking absolution or approval by a life of self-denial; she loved her extensive wardrobe, shoes, and diamonds, sang opera and performed as an amateur actress. With no taste for gossip and small talk, she had few female friends and intimidated most men. She met her match in Voltaire, and they were together until she died.
Voltaire was one of the intellectual giants of history, one of the few who defied the orthodoxy of his time and moved the world forward. Voltaire was a contributor to the Encyclopedie, one of the primary French philosophical contributions to the Enlightenment. He stood head and shoulders with his contemporaries, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. He was a major intellectual influence on the founding fathers of the great American political experiment, the creation of a republic, the first of its kind in the world, that championed individual rights as inalienable, and therefore not granted by the State.
Voltaire’s father disapproved of his son’s choice of vocation; he kept telling him he couldn’t earn a living as a writer.
In today’s world where the omnipotent State is on the march as never before and liberty is perpetually in retreat, the voice of Voltaire needs to be heard, revived, and amplified. This call needs to be taken up by anyone with a voice, a keyboard, and most of all, a good mind and the courage to use it. But like Voltaire, do not live just to save the world; learn to love your own life and live in this world. Keep your sense of humor, keep some cash on hand and remember where the border is.