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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment (The Great Courses)

Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment (The Great Courses) - Alan Charles Kors This is a good summary review of the "Patriarch of the Enlightenment." I listened to these lectures in preparation for a book group that will be meeting to discuss the book, Candide.

Voltaire was a prolific writer. He wrote poetry, plays, novels, histories, philosophy, and letters. During his long life of 84 years he wrote 2,000 books or pamphlets. Scholars have found 20,000 letters written by him (an equal number of additional letters may have been lost). At around fifteen million words, the total of his collected works exceed the 800,000 words in the Bible by a factor of 19. His contemporaries thought he would be remembered by history mostly for his poetry and plays. Instead history has remembered him as a champion of the Enlightenment and advocate of religious toleration. His satirical and philosophic tale, Candide, remains a classic of international fame. Link to my review of Candide.

This is my favorite quotation by Voltaire (translated into English):
"I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: 'O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!' God granted it."
The above is a classic example of his ironic humor. He demeans his enemies without directly calling them names. And he claims the power of prayer while being well known as a Deist who doesn't believe in special providence.

One fascinating bit of trivia I learned is that Voltaire never said the following quotation (even though popular attribution probably makes it his most famous quotation):
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Dr. Kors says that if Voltaire said the above quotation, he was not the sort of person to mean the "defend to the death" part. Voltaire was a pacifist and too much of a rationalist to be a martyr for a cause. Though these words are regularly attributed to Voltaire, they were first used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of Stephen G Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), as a summation of Voltaire's beliefs on freedom of thought and expression.