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Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694–1778)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB068-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Voltaire remains the most celebrated representative of the reformers and free-thinkers whose writings define the movement of ideas in eighteenth-century France known as the Enlightenment. He was not, however, a systematic philosopher with an original, coherently argued world-view, but a philosophe who translated, interpreted and vulgarized the work of other philosophers. His own writings on philosophical matters were deeply influenced by English empiricism and deism. His thought is marked by a pragmatic rationalism that led him, even in his early years, to view the world of speculative theorizing with a scepticism that was often expressed most effectively in his short stories. As a young man, Voltaire was particularly interested in Locke and Newton, and it was largely through his publications in the 1730s and 1740s that knowledge of Lockean epistemology and Newtonian cosmology entered France and eventually ensured the eclipse of Cartesianism.

After his stay in England Voltaire became interested in philosophical optimism, and his thinking reflected closely Newton’s view of a divinely ordered human condition, to which Alexander Pope gave powerful poetic expression in the Essay on Man (1733–4). This was reinforced for the young Voltaire by Leibnizian optimism, which offered the view that the material world, being necessarily the perfect creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God, was the ‘best of all possible worlds’, that is to say the form of creation chosen by God as being that in which the optimum amount of good could be enjoyed at the cost of the least amount of evil.

Voltaire’s later dissatisfaction with optimistic theory brought with it a similar loss of faith in the notion of a meaningful order of nature, and his earlier acceptance of the reality of human freedom of decision-taking and action was replaced after 1748 with a growing conviction that such freedom was illusory. The 1750s witness Voltaire’s final abandonment of optimism and providentialism in favour of a more deterministically orientated position in which a much bleaker view of human life and destiny predominates. Pessimistic fatalism was a temporary phase in his thinking, however, and was replaced in turn by a melioristic view in which he asserted the possibilities of limited human action in the face of a hostile and godless condition.

Citing this article:
Williams, David. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694–1778), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB068-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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