Voltaire’s wit was often described as cutting and fast; “rapier-like wit” – he wasn’t a man of violence, but his passions could be ferocious and when he decided that someone’s ideas needed to be attacked, his pen really was as mighty as a sword.
One of the things I respect about Voltaire is that he did not box outside his weight: he had great enemies. His more notorious sallies (and the ones that got him in the most trouble) were when he mouthed off to Frederick the Great, or the Regent of France (that netted him a year in the Bastille) or Leibniz or he declared that the Roman Catholic Church should be crushed. When the Chevalier de Rohan expressed annoyance with the attention-grabbing Voltaire at the Comedie Francaise (“who is that buffoon down there who talks so loudly?”) Voltaire responded with such exquisite snark (“I am one whose name is honored for what I have done, not for itself.”) that de Rohan had a bunch of bully-boys beat Voltaire up in the alley afterwards. When the furious Voltaire, who was a noble,* began practicing with a real sword, intent on duelling and killing de Rohan, de Rohan wrote an order to return Voltaire to the Bastille. Voltaire wisely fled to England where he re-negotiated his flight into a two year exile. The exile then proceeded to meet many interesting English enlightenment characters and may have attended the funeral of Isaac Newton. [rs] Technically, I suppose I could write him as Voltaire, FRS; did you know he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society? 1743! [wik]
His reply to Liebniz’ theory, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, was the play Candide, in which one of the characters, Dr. Pangloss, kept asserting “surely this is the best of all possible worlds” in spite of a series of personal disasters. I am not aware of Liebniz making any reply. Writing a play like Candide, which is still performed today [imdb] is a feat. Writing a play like Candide to troll a genius like Liebniz is a whole different plane of trolling.
Here is my favorite bit of cut and thrust with Voltaire. Some of the details are lost, and there are differing accounts, so this one is lifted from Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was another eccentric enlightenment genius [stderr] who established a justification for modern democracies, “the social contract.” One of his presumptions was that, prior to becoming members of society, people lived in a “state of nature” which Rousseau imagined to be sort of like a cross between the garden of eden and Woodstock.
Man is naturally good, Rousseau says; typical enlightenment-style argument through bold assertion.
When Rousseau published The Social Contract he sent a copy to Voltaire, who replied:
“I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.”
I am not aware of Rousseau making any reply.
There is even a version of Candide with nazis. [imdb] I can’t find it on youtube, amazon, or ebay.
I hereby officially request a Star Wars film based on Candide. With Vader as Pangloss.
Duelling was in a sort of limbo at that time, and was banned by Louis XIV shortly after; too many French nobles were killing each other to no end. At the time of the incident, it was legal but naughty – Voltaire being a minor noble was technically a peer of de Rohan’s, and could call him out, but de Rohan outranked him considerably and had other social privileges he could employ.
There’s a pretty cool book about Rousseau’s brief and unpleasant stay with David Hume [amazon] – Rousseau sounds like a pretty unpleasant person, who had some serious behavioral issues, or was non neuro-typical.
Voltaire was also, naturally, a member of the Academie Francaise,1746 [af]
A bit about Voltaire and London society: [vf]
Voltaire’s final blow-up with Frederick the Great was because Voltaire wrote a scathing parody of Maupertuis, who at the time was the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Prussia. Frederick had finally had enough and Voltaire left Sanssouci rather quickly.
I have tried various text encodings and HTML encodings of the French accents and they still do not render right. It’s something goofed about how FTB’s instance of WordPress is installed, and I’m not going to worry about it.