Six reasons why Voltaire is made of win … and two why he isn’t.

So I’ve just finished reading some short works by Voltaire:

  • Candide, or Optimism
  • What Pleases the Ladies
  • Micromégas
  • Plato’s Dream

I’m not going to sit here and type out my thoughts on each story, because they were all very good, but I will list a few of Voltaire’s most envious achievements:

  1. His name is Voltaire. I mean, how awesome would it be if you were named Voltaire? It’s a very suave and villainy name, and practically guarantees that you’d always end up with the girl. Most importantly, ‘Voltaire’ is as far from his birth name, François-Marie Arouet, as he could get. Congrats for having the guts to change your rather feminine name to something so spectacular, my dear!
  2. Instead of writing long essays in waffly academic-speak on all the ways in which certain persons were full of shit, Voltaire published short stories that parodied philosophers and rulers alike. Consequently, these philosophical tales were actually funny (something that hasn’t yet occurred to Paulo Coelho in his quest to moralise the world).
  3. Voltaire was a rebel – he got exiled, and had multiple stints in Bastille for daring to speak out against political and religious oppression. After he finished school, but before the church started whining about him, Voltaire lied to his parents and pretended that he was working respectably as a notary’s assistant. Whilst spending all his time writing poetry in Paris.
  4. He lived in a ménage à trois. Enough said.
  5. Thanks to Voltaire, children all around the world think gravity is awesome, albeit for the duration of time it takes to recount the whole apple-falling-on-Isaac-Newton’s-head anecdote, after which they begin (go back to?) cursing gravity for their inability to fly.
  6. Both Micromegas and Plato’s Dream were precursors to the modern sci-fi genre, with aliens! And since we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on Voltaire being able to time travel? Or being reincarnated as Douglas Adams? Because Adams’ depressed robot, Marvin, is strikingly similar to Martin in Voltaire’s Candide. Just saying.

Voltaire

… and two fails by Voltaire:

  1. The main character in Candide. The story itself was about a naïve guy who learned that optimism (or, in particular, Leibniz’ theory of optimism: all is the best in the best of all possible worlds) wasn’t a very useful state of mind. At all. The guy got screwed over a bunch of times, and continued to get screwed over in the same ways another bunch of times. I mean, I know that his physical and mental journey was one of the main points of the story, but seriously?! I wanted to lock him up in a tower like a damsel in distress – for his own good, but also to spare the world any similarly unintelligent offspring.
  2. Voltaire was attracted to his niece. And told her.

Despite these two drawbacks, Voltaire was, clearly, made of win.

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13 responses to “Six reasons why Voltaire is made of win … and two why he isn’t.

  1. A very entertaining post! I didn’t know all that about Voltaire. He does have a great name, and he did well to do away with the effeminate one he was given.

    Stints in the Bastille are always good for a writer of his period. Infamy works well. And do I sense a bit of Coelho digging? lol.
    What you said about ‘Micromegas’ and Plato’s Dream makes me want to go out and read them. Maybe I can find them for free on bartleby or something. I love early sci-fi.

    • I’m sorry about Coelho, he was on my mind after I read your post :(

      I compared both authors because they wrote philosophical stories, but I have to admit I prefer Voltaire’s tongue in cheek style to Coelho’s.

      Micromegas & Plato’s Dream were both quite interesting because they were this fusion between sci-fi & philosophy – Voltaire used alien perspectives to argue against certain beliefs or teachings of the church at the time. They’re both quite short (Plato’s Dream is a few paragraphs) and you can read them here: Micromegas and Plato’s Dream. Happy reading!

  2. Voltaire, indeed a suave name. I often read about the Church in those times always trying to shut-up and cage free thinkers in those times. But what of the two ill points? What is it about these geniuses and their attractions to their immediate relatives? Was society any better then? First Byron with his obsessions and now Voltaire!

    Another brilliantly written post, Ilona.

    • Thank goodness we had people like Voltaire who deliberately went against the Church’s wishes back then, or we’d be living in a pretty different society now. Voltaire was forced to go to law school after his parents found out he was lying about his job in Paris, and used that knowledge to help oppressed people.

      I’m not entirely sure about those strange attractions. Maybe it’s because one could marry cousins back then, and the difference in age between the bride and groom…? I don’t know if Voltaire acted on his feelings, but they ended up living together for a while.

      I don’t know too much about Byron, what were his obsessions??

      • Byron created his own cult of personality. It has been a topic for discussion in literature that Byron was bi-sexual and of course, during those times, “unnatural” relationships were frowned severely frowned upon. Also, he had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. I think it fabulous to read about the lives of these great artist.

        Reading your review of Voltaire just reminded me of how society was overall, during those times and how difficult it must have been to be in a so called “unnatural” love affair and how painful it must have been to express this love openly. These mysterious relationships definitely inspired beautiful works!

        • Ohhhh. See, now I’ve learnt something new! Those days were very intolerant, weren’t they? Imagine realising that you were bi or gay or whatever without a lot of information or support.
          I’m addicted to reading about author’s lives after I’d read the book, it provides a some context, and feels like I have a piece of history in my hands.

          • I definitely know what you mean. I don’t know which was worse during those times, being punished my the Church for being inquisitive or scientific, or abiding by strict societal codes.

            I eagerly await your next post!

  3. Wow, they say you learn something new every day…. I just learnt many new things. Now I might have to give Voltaire a try!

  4. Voltaire, today would the funniest, most outrageous, politically acute stand up comedian you could think of. Have you tried his Dictionaire philosophy.

    • Oh man, I just had a vision of him at Montreal Comedy Festival. Thank you, I never would have thought of him in those terms otherwise! No I haven’t read it, I assumed that since it was an encyclopedia it mightn’t be as interesting. Would you recommend I give it a go?

  5. parrishlantern

    It is actually a series of essays & was not planned as a dictionary on philosophy,Voltaires aim was to write a revolutioary book. Which was duly denounced by all sides & described as ” a deplorable monument of the extent to which intelligence & erudition can be abused”.
    Some of the subjects discussed by Voltaire are, Angels, Atheism, Fables , Fanaticism, Laws & moses, the term philosophy for Voltaire & his Friends simply meant Free Thought ((Rationalism or Humanism) & all the subjects in the book are exposed to his irony & passion for reason & justice.

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