The philosophes pushed hard for education, the exchange of ideas, the use of reason, and especially tolerance. They argued that a society benefited humanity only if tolerance existed not only in government but also in religious institutions.
The philosophes generally didn’t mind absolute rulers as long as those rulers displayed some amount of benevolence and tolerance. What the philosophes despised most of all were intolerant religious institutions, factions, and individuals. History’s greatest crimes and most devastating wars, many philosophes observed, had been committed in the name of religion. For the philosophes, organized, institutionalized religion led to conflict among denominations and to superstitious rituals. They routinely criticized all churches, not just the Catholic Church, for their resentment and harsh treatment of anyone who dared think differently. It was despicable to the philosophes that Christians killed other Christians in the name of Christianity.
The deism they taught allowed and encouraged tolerance of others who claimed to be Christians. For the philosophes who practiced the deism they preached, the most important things about Christianity were the acknowledgement of God the creator and a reasonable, rational approach to the search for that creator. Among the most outspoken of the lot against organized religion was François Marie Arouet (1694-1778).
One of the most famous of all philosophes, Voltaire, which was Arouet’s pen name, had an interesting early career that greatly influenced his work as a philosophe. In 1717, Voltaire insulted the regent of France and earned himself nearly a year in Paris’s infamous Bastille prison (see Chapter 14). Ten years later, Voltaire popped off about a powerful nobleman and earned himself more jail time and a good thrashing. The French finally let Voltaire out of jail after he promised to leave France.
Would You Believe?
The Royal Academy of Sciences refused membership to Madame du Châtelet simply because of her gender. This spurned woman, however, translated Newton's Principia into French.
True to his word, Voltaire left for England, where he pondered his unfair treatment in France. When he returned, he found his way into the company of one of France’s greatest female minds, Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749).
The aristocratic Madame du Châtelet, who had a deep interest in science and mathematics, allowed Voltaire to live on her property while he studied and wrote.
In his many works, Voltaire argued for tolerance and justice. He wrote that a good monarch was a good thing because most people weren’t capable of governing themselves. He tried to convince the French rationalists that they needed a good dose of English empiricism. He glorified England and the English system of government and he slammed the French government. Voltaire reserved his harshest criticism for the Catholic Church, however. He disapproved of what he saw as its intolerance, oppression, and hypocrisy. Voltaire certainly believed in God but his religious beliefs centered on deism.
As a Matter of Fact
Voltaire wrote extensively about philosophy, social issues, and religion, but his most famous work turned out to be Candide, a racy, rip-roaring satire that lambasted oppression, the Church, the papacy, the violence of war, and even other philosophers. Voltaire, a pessimist by nature, had as his main purpose in writing Candide to rebut the optimistic philosophy of the contemporary philosopher Leibniz, who maintained that the world was the best of all possible worlds and was just as God intended it to be.
Voltaire’s crusade against the oppression of the Catholic Church and all organized religion stemmed largely from the religion-related violence he witnessed throughout his lifetime. Likewise, his crusade against political oppression and intolerance resulted mostly from his personal experiences in French jails. However, the event that turned Voltaire into a lifelong advocate for political justice and fairness occurred not in his life but in the life of another.
In 1762, French courts executed a Frenchman named Jean Calas. An innocent man, Calas had been accused of murdering his son. Despite being tortured before his execution, Calas never confessed to the crime. This case cut Voltaire to the quick, and he became obsessed with it. In 1763, Voltaire published A Treatise on Tolerance, a powerful and timeless work that decried the intolerance exhibited by the government and the Church. Voltaire argued that governments should hold secular values in higher esteem than religious values, because state-imposed religion always results in violence and injustice.