One of my favourite periods of European history is that often referred to as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, the time span from the beginning of the 18th century which encompassed a growing interest in the sciences and a questioning of the natural order of things which eventually resulted in revolution, both peaceful and bloody, to bring about a reformed society that was a more fair and equal one. One of the prime thinkers at the beginning of this age was François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, a man of prodigious intellect, great wit and charm and above all, a man of great humanity.
Derek Parker has written a very interesting and accessible biography of the life of Voltaire, a man who many acknowledge as being one of the founding fathers of the French Revolution, though he'd been dead some years before that took place; Voltaire was one of those men whose thoughts and ideas shone like beacons pointing the way through the darkness for the rest of us. Despite having died some 250 years ago, many of his ideas on a free and fair society are as fresh and relevant today as they were when they were first mooted, though they're also a good deal more acceptable in the twenty-first century than they were then. This is the biography of a man who was refused a Christian burial by the church and was constantly villified by the establishment for his championing of religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and the right of all people to a fair trial.
Over the years I've come across several wise and frequently witty quotations which have struck a chord only to discover they were from the pen of Voltaire. Though the name of Voltaire may be new to some, many of his words will be familiar with perhaps one of his most famous and often quoted sayings being 'I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.' When I saw this book in a local charity shop, I decided it was time to learn a little more about the man who so often seemed to voice exactly what I thought or felt.
Born in the final decade of the 17th century, François-Marie Arouet was the third and youngest of three surviving children and though something of a weakling in childhood and a bit of a hypochondriac throughout his life, he survived to a considerable old age. He was educated by Jesuits which is where he developed his love of language, his thirst for knowledge and his need to question the things he was told to blindly accept.
That isn't to say that Voltaire, as he styled himself from quite early in his writing career, was perfect by any means and the author covers his subject's flaws as well as his virtues. Like all of us, he had feet of clay and in his youth and early manhood he was seduced by the flattery of others of higher rank but this was a man who was an innately decent human being, with a compassion for his fellow man (and woman) that was lacking in many of his more aristocratic contemporaries. He felt they deserved better than they were receiving in the France before the Revolution: a time when there was not much liberté, égalité, or fraternité going on. These were excessively dissolute times, the French Regency under the Duc d'Orleans being every bit as morally lax as its British counterpart was to be. As a young man about town Voltaire enjoyed the ladies but he was much more restrained in his carnal appetites, telling a friend 'friendship is a thousand times more precious than love.' His excesses didn't extend to the gluttony that was prevalent amongst his peers either, all of which abstinence probably helped his longevity. It seems as though Voltaire was able to stand back and view his fellow men objectively and note the huge disparities between the aristocrat and the peasant and he didn't hold back in voicing his opinions on these matters both vocally and in print. He wasn't a fool though and despite enraging the Establishment with his sometimes scurrilous verses and campaigning pamphlets throughout his life, he knew when to withdraw to a safe distance saying, 'I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom.'
It seems Voltaire didn't just pluck his ideas out of the air and as well as reading extensively, he travelled through Europe and also to Britain which is where he admired the different British way of doing things. It can't have pleased the French that he applauded our religious tolerance and held up the English judicial system as an example of how trials should be conducted, though they'd be delighted no doubt that he found us (or we English at any rate) rather cold, haughty and insular.'
Derek Parker's biography encompasses the whole of Voltaire's life demonstrating how his education and experiences in early life helped to develop his humanitarian philosophies which were way ahead of their time. There can't have been many others in the early 18th century preaching tolerance towards homosexuals or those who didn't follow the teachings of the Church, indeed he advocated making the church subservient to the state, something which earned him eternal damnation in the eyes of the Roman Catholic church, so much so that they denied him a Christian burial. Apart from his writings, the author has brought to life a man who was extremely charming, clever and, above all, full of compassion though he doesn't shy away from revealing the less pleasant side of Voltaire. He details his intense rivalry with fellow philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man who irritated Voltaire beyond bearing and which ultimately diminished both men's reputations.
I've never come across the author, Derek Parker, before and know very little about him so I can't say whether this is a work of great scholarship but it certainly makes for interesting reading and I felt that he described Voltaire the private man every bit as well as he catalogued the more public aspects of his life. There are a lot of notes on the text, however, which are listed at the back of the book, and makes it necessary to flick from the text to the notes and back again which I found rather annoying, especially so when the text quotes Voltaire's words in French which was often too advanced for my schoolgirl knowledge of the language and I had to check out the notes to get the meaning. I feel it would have been far simpler to just write the English words to begin with.
There are quite a few pages of illustrations in the centre of the book, all in black and white, though there is a colour illustration of Voltaire on the front cover, showing a face that, though definitely not handsome, has a good deal of humour in it and with a decided twinkle in his eyes. This is the face of a man who found much about the human condition ridiculous; a man who managed to devise a philosophy full of humour and tolerance.
Currently this book can be bought new for about £5 with used copies available for just a couple of pounds less.
I finished reading this book feeling in awe of Voltaire's intellect and his bravery in voicing what were very radical ideas, whilst also recognising that he was a very human man with all the failings we humans have. To my mind, he deserves our admiration and our thanks because without his thoughts and reasoning to lead the way, the world could well have taken a wrong direction. Voltaire is one of France's, indeed the world's, greatest thinkers. On his tomb in the Pantheon are written the words "Poet, historian, philosopher, he enlarged the human spirit and taught it that it should be free." A wonderful summing up of a great man. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if more of us thought along the lines of Voltaire, the world would be a much nicer and happier place.