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François Marie Arouet de Voltaire

Voltaire's Philosophy

In his philosophy, based on skepticism and rationalism, he was indebted to Locke as well as to Montaigne and Bayle. Despite Voltaire's passion for clarity and reason, he frequently contradicted himself. Thus he would maintain in one place that man's nature was as unchangeable as that of animals and would express elsewhere his belief in progress and the gradual humanization of society through the action of the arts, sciences, and commerce. In politics he advocated reform but had a horror of the ignorance and potential fanaticism of people and the violence of revolution.

In religion Voltaire felt that Christianity was a good thing for chambermaids and tailors to believe in, but for the use of the elite he advocated a simple deism. He opposed the atheism and materialism of Helvétius and Holbach. His line, "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented," has become proverbial. His celebrated slogan, Écrasez l'infâme! [crush the infamous thing!], has been interpreted as addressed either against the church or against the ancien régime in general.

Voltaire's influence in the popularization of the science and philosophy of his age was incalculably great. Perhaps his most lasting and original intellectual contribution was made in the field of history. His Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) embodies in part the ideas of his historical masterpiece, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations (7 vol., 1756; tr. 1759), the first attempt at writing a history of the world as a whole; Voltaire laid as much emphasis on culture and commerce as on politics and war, and he avoided national parochialism.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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