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Book Review: Voltaire’s Revolution

By (August 4, 2015) 4 Comments

Voltaire’s Revolution:voltaire's revolution

Writings from His Campaign

to Free Laws from Religion

by G. K. Noyer

Prometheus Books, 2015

The “Great Agnostic” American public speaker and humanist Robert Ingersoll was typically blunt on the subject: “Voltaire did more for human liberty than any man who ever lived or died,” he wrote. “He appealed to the common sense of mankind – he held up the great contradictions of the sacred Scriptures in a way that no man once having read him could forget.”

As G. K. Noyer takes pains to point out to readers in her indispensable new book Voltaire’s Revolution, neither Ingersoll nor any of his contemporaries in the 19th century who held the same high estimation of Voltaire were thinking of his now-famous novella Candide. They were thinking of a towering literary reputation that today is virtually unknown outside of France – a reputation widely spread in Voltaire’s own day:

Voltaire’s contemporaries saw him as the era’s leading poet, playwright, historian, and philosophe. Candide was just a footnote. Something akin to 80 percent of his massive output (comprising some ninety volumes, currently being expanded by Oxford) aimed at spreading this broader, less tribal view of “God.”

Noyer’s book is a collection of newly-translated bits and pieces from that massive output of writings that chiefly occupied Voltaire’s life from the 1760s until his death in 1778, a mission he undertook to free society from the shackles of organized religion and provide an intellectual framework by which people could embrace either a nebulous deism, a personal religion without a church-system, or else no spiritual beliefs at all. In her fiery Introduction, Noyer points out that in Voltaire’s day, even some of the most forward thinkers on the subject of religion in society – the American Founding Fathers (Noyer continually refers to them as “our” founders – a curiously provincial attitude, considering her subject) – had little choice in identifying themselves as to some degree religious:

To say our founders were all Christians is true, but it omits some very significant details. Birth certificates did not exist, only baptismal records. No marriages were performed, or burials, without the consent of a pastor or a priest; and excommunication deprived you of those rights. So how likely was it that you wouldn’t be a Christian? You didn’t officially exist otherwise. We only have a civil status – an identity outside the control of the church – today thanks to Enlightenment reforms.

But even though the US separation of church and state allows Americans to enjoy a freedom from religion undreamt of in Voltaire’s time, Noyer testily reminds them of how little they give credit where it’s due; although “many the world over have called America the first embodiment of the Enlightenment’s principles, a great many Americans don’t know it.”

She’s right to warn of the need for more awareness of Voltaire, too; American textbooks have not only largely air-brushed him out of the account of the Enlightenment, they’ve also air-brushed out the Enlightenment as well, as wave after wave of class materials approved by the Texas State Board of Education subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) try to massage their message to something insisting America is “a Christian country.” The implication is clear: America especially could more than ever benefit from Voltaire’s humorous but pointed plays, dialogues, and satires on the arrogance of religions – and their errors, as in 1761’s “The Sermon of Rabbi Akib”:

If someone, just leaving his auto-de-fe, should tell me he is a Christian, I will ask him in what way he can be one. Jesus never practiced confession, nor had it practiced. His Easter, or Passover, was certainly not that of the Portuguese. Can religious orders or Extreme Unction be found in the Gospels? He intuited neither cardinals, popes, Dominicans, priests, or inquisitors. He had no one burned. He recommended only respect of the laws, love of God and our neighbors, following the example of our prophets. If he came back to day, would he recognize himself in a single one of those who call themselves Christians?

Oliver Goldsmith wrote of Voltaire: “A person of his eminence can have few indifferent as to his character; every reader must be an enemy or an admirer.” It would be nice to think Voltaire’s Revolution will add to the ranks of the admirers. If this much wit and brilliance (all very adroitly translated) can’t manage that, probably nothing can.