Reflections on Voltaire
Voltaire was right three hundred years ago when he wrote, “The world would be a better place if those in power spent more time in their gardens.” The world still isn’t taking his advice and wars and slaughter continue to dominate headlines, so perhaps it will take longer than three centuries for his peaceful, tolerant advice to be accepted – war solves no problems.
His philosophical views are often entertaining but usually with a serious note. He warns, “It is dangerous to be right when those in power are wrong”, as Voltaire found to his cost when ridiculing King Louis or the clergy at a time when this could be punished by imprisonment or death. His satirical novellas such as Zadig or Candide are both amusing and horrifying and it is up to the reader to enjoy the farcical elements but at the same time understand Voltaire’s warning against intolerance and violence. His views on the problems caused by religious zeal are expressed clearly in his Treatise on Tolerance and much of his life was spent championing the cause of victims of religious persecution such as Jean Calas and Paul Sirven whose cases were famous throughout Europe. He defended them in court, gave refugees shelter in his home and spent much of the income he earned from his writings on petitioning those in power to release or pardon those unjustly condemned. Much of his success in helping such victims was due to his great popularity, his wit and the power of his pen: kings, Court and Church feared ridicule above all else and Voltaire was adept at making his adversaries appear ridiculous. Humour and comedy are powerful weapons still used to good effect today against abuse of power.
Voltaire saw that much good could be done even at village level and that lives of the workers on his estate and in the village of Ferney could be improved by provision of clean water, by irrigation and by the setting up of small factories and workshops such as his watchmaking and stocking factories. The creation of such thoughtful enterprises was appreciated by the people and years after his death the village was named Ferney-Voltaire. His choice of Ferney near the Swiss border was not only due to the magnificent view of the Alps from his chȃteau but due also to the fact that Protestant Switzerland was only a mile away. He could escape in a matter of minutes when his latest satire created enemies in Versailles or Rome and he had several houses all comfortably equipped with the necessities of life. His mansion at Les Délices in Geneva was renovated some years ago and furnished with the possessions saved from his other houses. It is an elegant, light and colourful building open to the public and well worth a visit.
Today the main attraction for lovers of Voltaire is his chȃteau in Ferney where visitors can enjoy the house and gardens and understand why his garden with its peaceful atmosphere was so important to him. It was not just a place for sitting and waiting for inspiration but a place to work the soil and grow his vegetables. He delighted in insisting that his influential literary and political friends should take a tour of the garden and admire the display of flowers in his borders.
Voltaire knew the value of powerful friends amongst whom were Catherine the Great, Didérot, Beaumarchais, Marshal Richelieu, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Madame de Pompadour, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Queen Caroline. Such friends would support his work and buy his books, though they were aware that being a friend of Voltaire was not always comfortable and sharing his views was often dangerous. Some friends were too powerful to care about criticism or danger – Frederick the Great was probably in love with Voltaire but still ignored his advice on the dangers of warmongering. The Empress Catherine was a steadfast friend and she bought his library when he died and had his works taken to Russia for safekeeping.
Voltaire’s influence was great in the Age of Enlightenment and even today readers will be moved and inspired by his Lettres Philosophiques (1734), his Treatise sur la Tolérance (1763) and by the insight of his historical studies such as L’Histoire de Charles Xll (1731) or Lettres sur les Anglais (1733). His many sayings are still quoted and still provide food for thought, such as, “If God did not exist we would have to invent Him”; “Opinion has caused more trouble than plagues or earthquakes”; “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and hundreds more treasures.
It is difficult to know which aspect of Voltaire’s genius to admire the most, his satirical and instructive novels, his human rights campaigns, his thoughtful histories and philosophical works or his generous improvements to the lives of his villagers. It all adds up to a great and productive life and an impressive legacy.
Lynda Aylett-Green is the author of Voltaire’s Garden.