Durant 1926: Voltaire and Rousseau (Voltaire)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 9 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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IX. Voltaire and Rousseau

Voltaire was so engrossed in the struggle against ecclesiastical tyranny that during the later decades of his life he was compelled almost to withdraw from the war on political corruption and oppression. “Politics is not in my line: I have always confined myself to doing my little best to make men less foolish and more honorable.” He knew how complex a matter political philosophy can become, and he shed his certainties as he grew. “I am tired of all these people who govern states from the recesses of their garrets”; “these legislators who rule the world at two cents a sheet; … unable to govern their wives or their households they take great pleasure in regulating the universe.” It is impossible to settle these matters with simple and general formulae, or by dividing all people into fools and knaves on the one hand, and on the other, ourselves. “Truth has not the name of a party”; and he writes to Vauvenargues: “It is the duty of a man like you to have preferences, but not exclusions.”

Voltaire was so engrossed in the struggle against ecclesiastical tyranny that during the later decades of his life he was compelled almost to withdraw from the war on political corruption and oppression. 

Being rich, he inclines towards conservatism, for no worse reason than that which impels the hungry man to call for a change. His panacea is the spread of property: ownership gives personality and an uplifting pride. “The spirit of property doubles a man’s strength. It is certain that the possessor of an estate will cultivate his own inheritance better than that of another.”

Being rich, Voltaire inclines towards conservatism.

He refuses to excite himself about forms of government. Theoretically he prefers a republic, but he knows its flaws: it permits factions which, if they do not bring on civil war, at least destroy national unity; it is suited only to small states protected by geographical situation, and as yet unspoiled and untorn with wealth; in general “men are rarely worthy to govern themselves.” Republics are transient at best; they are the first form of society, arising from the union of families; the American Indians lived in tribal republics, and Africa is full of such democracies. But differentiation of economic status puts an end to these egalitarian governments; and differentiation is the inevitable accompaniment of development. ”Which.is better,” he asks, “a monarchy or a republic?”—and he replies: “For four thousand years this question has been tossed about. Ask the rich for an answer—they all want aristocracy. Ask the people—they want democracy. Only the monarchs want monarchy. How then has it come about that almost the entire earth is governed by monarchs? Ask the rats who proposed to hang a bell about the neck of the cat.” But when a correspondent argues that monarchy is the best form of government he answers: “Provided Marcus Aurelius is monarch; for otherwise, what difference does it make to a poor man whether he is devoured by a lion or by a hundred rats?”

Voltaire refuses to excite himself about forms of government. Theoretically he prefers a republic, but he knows its flaws. In general “men are rarely worthy to govern themselves.” 

Likewise, he is almost indifferent to nationalities, like a traveled man; he has hardly any patriotism in the usual sense of that word. Patriotism commonly means, he says, that one hates every country but one’s own. If a man wishes his country to prosper, but never at the expense of other countries, he is at the same time an intelligent patriot and a citizen of the universe. Like a “good European” he praises England’s literature and Prussia’s king while France is at war with both England and Prussia. So long as nations make a practice of war, he says, there is not much to choose among them.

Patriotism commonly means, Voltaire says, that one hates every country but one’s own. 

For he hates war above all else. “War is the greatest of all crimes; and yet there is no aggressor who does not color his crime with the pretext of justice.” “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” He has a terrible “General Reflection on Man,” at the end of the article on “Man” in the Dictionary:

Twenty years are required to bring man from the state of a plant, in which he exists in the womb of his mother, and from the state of an animal, which is his condition in infancy, to a state in which the maturity of reason begins to make itself felt. Thirty centuries are necessary in which to discover even a little of his structure. An eternity would be required to know anything of his soul. But one moment suffices in which to kill him. 

Voltaire hates war above all else. 

Does he therefore think of revolution as a remedy? No. For first of all, he distrusts the people: ”When the people undertake to reason, all is lost.” The great majority are always too busy to perceive the truth until change has made the truth an error; and their intellectual history is merely the replacement of one myth by another. ”When an old error is established, politics uses it as a morsel which the people have put into their own mouths, until another superstition comes along to destroy this one, and politics profits from the second error as it did from the first.” And then again, inequality is written into the very structure of society, and can hardly be eradicated while men are men and life is a struggle. “Those who say that all men are equal speak the greatest truth if they mean that all men have an equal right to liberty, to the possession of their goods, and to the protection of the laws”; but “equality is at once the most natural and the most chimerical thing in the world: natural when it is limited to rights, unnatural when it attempts to level goods and powers.” “Not all citizens can be equally strong; but they can all be equally free; it is this which the English have won. … To be free is to be subject to nothing but the laws.” This was the note of the liberals, of Turgot and Condorcet and Mirabeau and the other followers of Voltaire who hoped to make a peaceful revolution; it could not quite satisfy the oppressed, who called not so much for liberty as for equality, equality even at the cost of liberty. Rousseau, voice of the common man, sensitive to the class distinctions which met him at every turn, demanded a leveling; and when the Revolution fell into the hands of his followers, Marat and Robespierre, equality had its turn, and liberty was guillotined.

Voltaire and his followers hoped for a peaceful revolution. Their note was, “Not all citizens can be equally strong; but they can all be equally free; it is this which the English have won. … To be free is to be subject to nothing but the laws.” 

Voltaire was skeptical of Utopias to be fashioned by human legislators who would create a brand new world out of their imaginations. Society is a growth in time, not a syllogism in logic; and when the past is put out through the door it comes in at the window. The problem is to show precisely by what changes we can diminish misery and injustice in the world in which we actually live. In the “Historical Eulogy of Reason,” Truth, the daughter of Reason, voices her joy at the accession of Louis XVI, and her expectation of great reforms; to which Reason replies: “My daughter, you know well that I too desire these things, and more. But all this requires time and thought. I am always happy when, amid many disappointments, I obtain some of the amelioration I longed for.” Yet Voltaire too rejoiced when Turgot came to power, and wrote: “We are in the golden age up to our necks!” —now would come the reforms he had advocated: juries, abolition of the tithe, an exemption of the poor from all taxes, etc. And had he not written that famous letter?—

Everything that I see appears to be throwing broadcast the seed of a revolution which must some day inevitably come, but which I shall not have the pleasure of witnessing. The French always come late to things, but they do come at last. Light extends so from neighbor to neighbor, that there will be a splendid outburst on the first occasion; and then there will be a rare commotion! The young are fortunate; they will see fine things.

Voltaire happily expected a peaceful revolution when Turgot, in 1774, was put in control of finances by Louis XVI. He knew that changes will take place, but slowly.

Yet he did not quite realize what was happening about him; and he never for a moment supposed that in this “splendid outburst” all France would accept enthusiastically the philosophy of this queer Jean Jacques Rousseau who, from Geneva and Paris, was thrilling the world with sentimental romances and revolutionary pamphlets. The complex soul of France seemed to have divided itself into these two men, so different and yet so French. Nietzsche speaks of “la gaya scienza, the light feet, wit, fire, grace, strong logic, arrogant intellectuality, the dance of the stars”—surely he was thinking of Voltaire. Now beside Voltaire put Rousseau: all heat and fantasy, a man with noble and jejune visions, the idol of la bourgeoise gentile-femme, announcing like Pascal that the heart has its reasons which the head can never understand. 

Voltaire did not quite realize that the people of France will opt for a philosophy that was all heat and fantasy and asserted that the heart has its reasons which the head can never understand. This was the philosophy of Rousseau.

In these two men we see again the old clash between intellect and instinct. Voltaire believed in reason always: “we can, by speech and pen, make men more enlightened and better.” Rousseau had little faith in reason; he desired action; the risks of revolution did not frighten him; he relied on the sentiment of brotherhood to re-unite the social elements scattered by turmoil and the uprooting of ancient habits. Let laws be removed, and men would pass into a reign of equality and justice. When he sent to Voltaire his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, with its arguments against civilization, letters, and science, and for a return to the natural condition as seen in savages and animals, Voltaire replied: “I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it. … No one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes; to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. As, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it.” He was chagrined to see Rousseau’s passion for savagery continue into the Social Contract: “Ah, Monsieur,” he writes to M. Bordes, “you see now that Jean Jacques resembles a philosopher as a monkey resembles a man.” He is the “dog of Diogenes gone mad.” Yet he attacked the Swiss authorities for burning the book, holding to his famous principle: “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And when Rousseau was fleeing from a hundred enemies Voltaire sent him a cordial invitation to come and stay with him at Les Délices. What a spectacle that would have been! 

In Voltaire and Rousseau we see again the old clash between intellect and instinct. Voltaire believed in reason always; but Rousseau had little faith in reason; he desired action. In spite of his disagreement, Voltaire respected Rousseau’s right to speak what he believed in.

Voltaire was convinced that all this denunciation of civilization was boyish nonsense; that man was incomparably better off under civilization than under savagery; he informs Rousseau that man is by nature a beast of prey, and that civilized society means a chaining of this beast, a mitigation of his brutality, and the possibility of the development, through social order, of the intellect and its joys. He agrees that things are bad: “A government in which it is permitted a certain class of men to say, ‘Let those pay taxes who work; we should not pay, because we do not work,’ is no better than a government of Hottentots.” Paris has its redeeming features, even amidst its corruption. In “The World as It Goes,” Voltaire tells how an angel sent Babouc to report on whether the city of Persepolis should be destroyed; Babouc goes, and is horrified with the vices he discovers; but after a time “he began to grow fond of a city the inhabitants of which were polite, affable and beneficent, though they were fickle, slanderous and vain. He was much afraid that Persepolis would be condemned. He was even afraid to give in his account. This he did, however, in the following manner. He caused a little statue, composed of different metals, of earth and of stones (the most precious and the most vile) to be cast by one of the best founders of the city, and carried it to the angel. ‘Wilt thou break,’ said he, ‘this pretty statue ‘because it is not wholly composed of gold and diamonds?'” The angel resolved to think no more of destroying Persepolis, but to leave “the world as it goes.” After all, when one tries to change institutions without having changed the nature of men, that unchanged nature will soon resurrect those institutions. 

Voltaire didn’t agree with Rousseau’s denunciation of civilization. He informs Rousseau that man is by nature a beast of prey, and that civilized society means a chaining of this beast. After all, when one tries to change institutions without having changed the nature of men, that unchanged nature will soon resurrect those institutions. 

Here was the old vicious circle; men form institutions, and institutions form men; where could change break into this ring? Voltaire and the liberals thought that intellect could break the ring by educating and changing men, slowly and peacefully; Rousseau and the radicals felt that the ring could be broken only by instinctive and passionate action that would break down the old institutions and build, at the dictates of the heart, new ones under which liberty, equality and fraternity would reign. Perhaps the truth lay above the divided camps: that instinct must destroy the old, but that only intellect can build the new. Certainly the seeds of reaction lay fertile in the radicalism of Rousseau: for instinct and sentiment are ultimately loyal to the ancient past which has begotten them, and to which they are stereotyped adaptations: after the catharsis of revolution the needs of the heart would recall supernatural religion and the “good old days” of routine and peace; after Rousseau would come Chateaubriand, and De Staël, and De Maistre, and Kant. 

Perhaps the truth lay above the divided camps: that instinct must destroy the old, but that only intellect can build the new. 

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