April 30, 2008

Voltaire, Our Hero?

John Derbyshire is an estimable man and a terrific writer, but alas, being human, he is not always right.  Evidence of this came today with his strange admiration for Voltaire, a man who “was fanatical only in his hatred of fanaticism” and who was “a much better, much more admirable man than any of those who hated him.”  Indeed, Derbyshire asks us to sympathize with Voltaire on account of “the opposition faced by a curious and intelligent person like Voltaire under France’s ancien regime.”

Really?  Voltaire hated more than fanaticism—he hated the Catholic Church.  Pre-revolutionary France was able to accommodate many “curious and intelligent” men, including Lavoisier, the fifth ranking figure in the general science category in Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, Fermat, the fifth ranking figure in Murray’s list of mathematicians, and Pascal, the ninth ranking figure in Murray’s listing of mathematicians and also a formidable writer, philosopher, and theologian.  Revolutionary France was far less tolerant, as Lavoisier discovered; the judge who condemned him to death rejected appeals for clemency, declaring, “The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists.”

And Voltaire’s character was atrocious.  As Thomas Fleming writes in The Morality of Everyday Life,  Voltaire was “the very model of the modern sentimentalist.  A chronic liar who flattered the very people he was libeling, faithless in love and friendship, he forfeited the esteem of Frederick the Great when he speculated on the devalued Saxon currency after learning that Frederick—who had forbidden speculation—was going to redeem it.  Proclaiming the loftiest standards of human justice and defying the Creator himself, Voltaire would cheat a benefactor out of the price of a load of firewood.”  Voltaire would thus have felt at home in either the Obama, Clinton, or McCain campaigns, but it is hard to see what there is to recommend him.

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