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Arch-egotist: François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Everything about Voltaire was confected, starting with his name — only one of 178 noms de plume that he used. (Admittedly, he would not be the only would-be celebrity to reinvent himself.) Most of the bon mots attributed to him are spurious, including his last words. (Asked on his deathbed to renounce Satan, he supposedly said: “This is no time to make new enemies.” But this joke was first attributed to him two centuries later.) Others, such as “the best is the enemy of the good”, were plagiarised. Or take one of the most commonly quoted: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Not only did Voltaire never say it, but nothing in his life suggests that he would have defended anyone or anything to the death.

For Voltaire was an arch-egotist. He made one fortune, inherited another, and pleased himself. From his cavalier treatment of women — his mistresses included a widow, a married woman and his niece — to his envious treatment of younger rivals such as Rousseau, he demonstrated little of the nobility that posterity conferred on him. On the contrary: he admired and was admired above all by enlightened despots. He was only too happy to correspond with Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, neither of whom were friends of liberty. Frederick, indeed, lured Voltaire to his court: the first in a long line of French intellectuals to serve as useful idiots. Napoleon “loved” Voltaire, finding him “always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic”.

Yet there was a fanatical side to Voltaire. He liked to depict himself as a scourge of “superstition”, which could mean Catholicism or Judaism, and as a foe of religious persecution; but he himself had no time for religious freedom. He urged his fellow philosophe d’Alembert to annihilate “infamy”, by which he meant the Church: “écrasez l’infame”. To Frederick (a notorious unbeliever) he wrote: “Our [religion] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most sanguinary that has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think . . .” Such words have a sinister resonance today, when Christians are widely persecuted. And Voltaire’s open contempt for the masses gives the lie to the suggestion that he was any kind of liberal, let alone a democrat, or even that he had really learned much about what makes a free country from his time in England.

Yet despite his reputation as a fierce enemy of the Church, he was not above writing to Pope Benedict XIV, recommending his play Mahomet as a work of Catholic propaganda: “Your Holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect.”
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E. M. Langille
April 14th, 2018
6:04 AM
Voltaire admired the Classics and greco-latin culture. Since Judaism gave rise to Christianity, all the more reason to despise and attack it. Voltaire nevertheless fought sectarianism and religious fanaticism with unprecedented zeal. He can also be justly credited with having promoted secularism and the rule of law.

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