Vendredi Voltaire: Crossing Swords With Voltaire


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.

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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.

Comments

  1. colinday says

    Candide was published in 1759, 43 years after Leibniz’s (not Liebniz’s) death. How brave.

    Extreme pedant point: you have (correctly) Vendredi Voltaire as a category, but you have Vedredi Voltaire in the title of your post.

  2. says

    Writing a play like Candide to troll a genius like Liebniz is a whole different plane of trolling.

    Making art to troll annoying people. I certainly like that. I just added Candide to my reading queue.

    Nowadays when somebody annoys me I generally prefer to leave. Years ago when I was in school and leaving was not an option I enjoyed trolling my teachers. For example, once my English teacher reduced my mark for a presentation, because “my subject choice was inappropriate”. The next time I had to make a public speech, I intentionally set out to pick the most inappropriate topic I could possibly think of. Thus I ended up preaching Satanism to school children (my classmates). My poor English teacher was forced to sit still and listen while I was standing in front of the class and delivered my speech titled “The Philosophy of Satanism”.

  3. says

    Candide is not a play, originally… it’s a novella. I have never heard of any theater adaptations, although I would definitely want to watch them. :-) There is, of course, the operetta version by Bernstein, but that is a bit more loosely based on it.

    As far as a Star-Wars themed version of Candide: Yessss please. :-D And other pop culture settings too.

    @1
    Even if Leibniz himself was dead, there were probably plenty people who believed his stuff still around. ;-)

  4. says

    Jundurg@#3:
    You are correct, it’s not a play. I brain-o’d because I’ve only seen it as a stage production. Bernstien’s 70s version is pretty good – I enjoyed it a fair bit. There’s also the 60s version with nazis that I have not managed to find.

    The Star Wars version:
    “We begin our story in Alderaan, home to Candide and the lovely Cunegonde…
    BOOM
    Vader: Surely, that was the best of all possible worlds.”

  5. says

    colinday@#1:
    Candide was published in 1759, 43 years after Leibniz’s (not Liebniz’s) death. How brave.

    That’s why it’s not my favorite bit of Voltaire’s verbal duelling.
    For some more context, there was also the great earthquake and tidal wave at Lisbbon in 1755. That was also well in Voltaire’s mind because there were a few people who were responding to the disaster as though it were caused by divine providence – i.e.: Liebniz’ argument.

    I don’t accept the idea that Voltaire was not brave by not riposting immediately to Liebniz. He never waited to mouth off to anyone out of fear.

  6. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#2:
    Making art to troll annoying people. I certainly like that. I just added Candide to my reading queue.

    The Bernstein operetta was made into a movie, which is pretty good. That’s where I’d start. It’s quite clever.

    My poor English teacher was forced to sit still and listen while I was standing in front of the class and delivered my speech titled “The Philosophy of Satanism”.

    That sounds interesting! I bet it went over very well.

  7. says

    The Bernstein operetta was made into a movie, which is pretty good. That’s where I’d start. It’s quite clever.

    I downloaded “Candide ou l’Optimisme” from Project Gutenberg. I’m not into movies. The format just doesn’t work for me.

    That sounds interesting! I bet it went over very well.

    Yes, my classmates seemed to like my Satanist sermon. I got some questions after my speech, so at least I know that they weren’t sleeping. And my English teacher had to give me the highest possible mark. I had done the speech itself very well, and apparently my teacher didn’t want to start arguing with me about the appropriateness of my chosen topic.

    And of course I really enjoyed myself. Trolling people can be fun.

    Another example of me annoying my school teachers was when my literature teacher gave us an assignment to write an essay with at least three quotes in it. I hated the assignment. It’s hard to put many quotes in a short text, it just ends up being fragmented. You either spend lots of time searching for fitting quotes or you end up with a weird text where nothing fits together. I was annoyed with this assignment, so my literature teacher got to read my essay where I put quotes from a serial murderer. I was supposed to quote somebody famous, and crazy serial murderers are famous, so… Besides, nobody explicitly said that I should quote writers in my literature essays.

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