Voltaire, champion of freedom

François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, died on May 30th, 1778. He was a major figure in the Enlightenment, a writer, historian and philosopher, renowned for his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state.

He authored more than 2,000 books, essays and pamphlets, in addition to over 20,000 letters. He was versatile, writing novels, plays and poems, in addition to scientific papers and historical studies. He bravely advocated civil liberties in an age of aristocratic dominance and arbitrary control of the law. He fought against the censorship laws of France by publishing satires attacking the intolerance of Church dogma, and the repression of French institutions.

When a young French nobleman belittled his lack of breeding, Voltaire insulted him back, and was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille without any due process. His suggested alternative punishment of exile to England was accepted, and proved to be the making of him. He admired Britain’s constitutional monarchy and its greater respect for liberty and free speech.

Most of all Voltaire is famous for his relentless attacks on aristocratic and Church power in France, who oppressed the bourgeoisie and commoners on whom the bulk of the tax burden fell. His most famous satirical work, Candide, has its eponymous hero ploughing through every conceivable disaster, only to have Prof. Pangloss (Leibniz) reassuring us that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The novel ridicules religion, theologians, governments, armies, philosophies, and philosophers.

Like many famous figures from Sherlock Holmes to Rick of Casablanca, Voltaire never actually said the line he is famous for: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall to sum up Voltaire’s attitude, which it does succinctly.

Between 1727 and 1728 he lodged at Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, where a plaque now commemorates his residence there. He was a great fan of coffee, reportedly drinking 50-72 cups a day, which might explain his prolific creative output.

His advocacy of freedom of thought and speech eventually won through, and these principles are widely recognized in Britain and America, except in their universities. Developed and civilized countries acknowledge freedom of religion and religious expression, but significant parts of the world still imprison and execute people for heresy. In modern times the head of Iran called for a Western writer to be murdered, and in France the writers of a satirical magazine were murdered by religious zealots who took exception to what they had published.

Voltaire reminds us that there are states and religions that still oppress and seek to bind into conformity any attempt at free and independent thinking. His spirit lives on, reminding us to oppose such barbarism and not to surrender to its use of violence to silence us.