(1694 – 1778)
by Karl Williams
“The fruits of the earth are a common heritage for all, to which each man has equal right.”
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
“An ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”
“He was a great patriot, a humanitarian, a loyal friend; provided, of course, he really is dead.”
Voltaire’s intelligence, wit and style made him one of France’s greatest writers and philosophers. The veritable embodiment of 18th century Enlightenment, his extraordinary life bestowed unique opportunities to discover new ideas, and to dismantle the old. It’s a tragedy, however, that this busy life seemed to distract him from the main game – the promotion of the means to eliminate the overwhelming cause of poverty.
“Voltaire” was actually his pen name – born with a name like François-Marie Arouet, why wouldn’t you opt with something a bit groovier? Born in Paris to a wealthy family (his father was a notary), he was groomed by family and Jesuit schooling for the life of a respectable lawyer and a bourgeois set of attitudes associated with the affluent middle class. A born rebel, Voltaire left school at 17 to pursue a literary career – of his Jesuit college, he said he learned nothing but “Latin and the Stupidities.”
I imagine Voltaire as the Nick Cave of his day (without the chemical supplements) – he soon began to fall in with questionable company and to cause offense through the power and sarcasm of his wit and poetry. His humorous verses made him a favorite in society circles, but in 1717 his sharp wit got him into trouble with the authorities and he was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months for writing a scathing satire of the French government.
In 1726, Voltaire insulted a powerful young nobleman and had to flee to England for 3 years – a blessing in disguise, really, considering the rich influences he garnered there. In particular, Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke whom we know as a geoist, immortalized for comments such as:
“It is in vain in a country whose great fund is land to hope to lay the public charge on anything else; there at last it will terminate. The merchant (do what you can) will not bear it, the labourer cannot, and therefore the landholder must: and whether he were best to do it by laying it directly where it will at last settle, or by letting it come to him by the sinking of his rents, which when they are fallen, everyone knows they are not easily raised again, let him consider.”
….. as well as:
“When the “sacredness” of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.”
But rather than avidly pursue this economic line, Voltaire was distracted by the big political issues of his time and so made a serious study of the new philosophical ideas of Locke that questioned both the Divine Right of Kings and also the Authority of the State. He was also impressed by the English Constitutional arrangements.
When he returned to Paris he devoted four solid years to his literary activities, most notably concerning civil liberties, freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws and the harsh penalties for those who broke them.
Voltaire was again shooting his mouth (or quill) off too much for the French authorities, so he quit Paris and found refuge in the arms of his Sugar Mama, the learned Marquise du Châtelet, who exerted a strong intellectual influence upon him. In 1735 he was given leave to return to Paris by the French authorities but he knew he was onto a good thing and stayed with the Marquise in eastern France, only making occasional visits to Paris, Versailles, and elsewhere. After she died in 1749, he finally accepted a long-standing invitation from Frederick II of Prussia to become resident at the Prussian court but more scandals followed and he returned to France in 1753.
In 1759, Voltaire purchased an estate near the French-Swiss border where he lived the rest of his life – the place soon became the intellectual capital of Europe.
Voltaire is by far the most memorable of the band of celebrated writers whose crusade against established opinions was preparing the outbreak of the French Revolution. He is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. This ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).
Voltaire never personally discovered anything new in economics, but followed in the footsteps of the so-called physiocrats, a group of French economists who were responsible for the first well developed theory of economics. These physiocrats independently rediscovered the Law of Rent and other timeless geoist economic principles – but this is another story.