Voltaire and the philosophy of the French Enlightenment

The period of development of the Enlightenment may be conditionally limited to two dates: the year of the death of Louis XIV (1715), which put an end to the era of “brilliant” absolutism, and the year of the storming of the Bastille (1789).

The culmination of the educational philosophical movement was about 1751, in which the first volume of the famous Encyclopedia was published, which left neither enemies nor friends indifferent.

French philosophers of the mid-eighteenth century. they developed a classical form of educational ideology, which served as a model and example for their kindred thinkers in many countries — North America, Russia, Poland, Germany — where the conditions for anti-feudal speeches also developed, albeit in different ways. Relations with British progressive thought were more complex – although in England enlightenment ideas arose earlier, but due to certain social reasons only in a weakened form, however, Locke’s philosophy with its analysis of human problems taught the founders of a similar movement on the continent of Europe – Voltaire, Condillac and others. But soon it was in France that the Enlightenment and enlightenment materialism received the greatest development and acquired the classical form.

What are the main features of educational ideology? First of all, this belief in the special, crucial role of the state of education and knowledge in social development. The cause of all the miseries and misfortunes of people, says Helvetius, is ignorance. To overcome their sad position, people can get out of it only through enlightenment, and its growth is irresistible. In the minds there is “a hidden and continuous revolution and … over time, ignorance itself discredits itself.” Being the main lever of eliminating feudal relations, despotism, fanaticism and arbitrariness, education, according to this concept, is influenced either by the “enlightened monarch”, the “sensible husband-ruler”, or by gradually spreading knowledge and true concepts among the people that in one way or another will have a decisive impact on further social processes. J. -J. Rousseau pinned his main hopes on the development of moral consciousness, but he too was not free from the idea of ​​the “wise: lawgiver”.

A characteristic feature of the Enlightenment’s worldview was a specific “rationalism” of its main representatives, which can be expressed in a simple, but clarifying formula “the laws of nature are the laws of the mind”. In analyzing this formula, it is necessary to take into account what she had in common with Descartes rationalism (and partly with Hegel’s future rationalism).

The general was in the conviction that the world was formed as a harmonious, internal whole, in accordance with simple and coherent laws of mechanics. Having advanced to the first place among other sciences in the previous century, mechanics, along with branches of mathematics and astronomy adjacent to it, confirmed in the minds of scientists and advanced philosophers the desire to explain the world in clear and self-evident concepts.

Kinematics, mathematics, logic constituted an inseparable trinity, which rationality of the seventeenth century. understood in the sense of identifying its links: the rational began to be extremely similar to the mechanical and deduce one from the other. Hobbes saw in society a product of appropriately applied art, that is, a variant of the mechanism built on the basis of arguments of reason. Holbach considers nature and its laws as teachers of the human mind, its source and measure.

The combination of the two paths closely intertwined “rationality of knowledge” and “rationality of nature”: in ignorance they began to see not only a hindrance in the way of their own cognitive activity, but also an obstacle on the way to establishing a practical rational attitude to the world, and this latter was understood as the revelation of some initial rationality of the universe itself. But the deists and materialists interpreted the rationality of the universe differently – for the former, it meant only a manifestation of the “wisdom” of the supreme creator, and for the latter, something completely different.

In other words, a chain of equalities emerges in the Enlightenment’s worldview: natural = reasonable = useful = good = legal = knowable = workable. This chain expresses the historical and epistemological optimism of the enlighteners, their naturalistic orientation. This scheme was not destroyed either by the deistic reservations of Voltaire and Rousseau, nor by the desire of the latter to elevate moral education over the purely mental, theoretical. In terms of its critical focus, it corresponded to the tasks of the time and, when applied to contemporary reality, it meant that the situation in France in the mid-eighteenth century. “Unreasonable”, but “reason” must conquer and restore its rights in all areas of life. The educational philosophy in its applications was a purely “political” philosophy: the critique of the existing order was its main nerve. But the opposition to the existing “natural ideal”, the realization of which would establish the “kingdom of reason” in life, was connected with this.

Voltaire (1694 – 1778) played a pivotal role in helping the educational movement to develop, strengthen, and gain many supporters. The name Voltaire was one of 137 different pseudonyms of Francois Marie Arouet, who possessed the multilateral talents of a philosopher, historian, playwright, novelist, poet and essayist. As an ideologue of the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie, he opened the way to her alliance with other layers of the “third estate”, but his noble camouflage and attachment to the circles of the enlightened nobility led to many compromise traits in his world view.

The notion of “Voltaireanism” has become many-sided: adherents of his ideas declared themselves and aristocrats, who were enthusiastic about everything fashionable and therefore flirted with anti-clericalism, and his real followers-educators who saw him as the recognized leader of the anticlerical party. The enemy of despotism and violence, at the same time he defended the theory of enlightened absolutism and reacted incredulously to the bourgeois oligarchy. The appeal of Voltaire, the patriarch of free-thinking, “crush the reptile!” Thundered all over the country, but he himself feared wide, mass movements and avoided participating in them.

Voltaire developed philosophical views in the spirit of “deism of reason”. Within the framework of these views, he sketched the idea of ​​God as a “philosopher on the throne of heaven”, “a great geometer” and “an infinitely skillful worker”, a legislator of the rules of nature and morality and a judge over people. God commanded once, and “the universe obeys continually.” True, the functions of punishment and reward went beyond the “classical” deistic views, according to which, as V. Hugo wittily remarked, God fell asleep in the Voltaire chair, but this was not the main thing in Voltaire’s teaching, since he denied all the benefits of rituals and supplications .

The main thing was that Voltaire contrasted his teaching to Christianity with his tales of the Fall and Salvation and scourged the moral doctrines of all existing “world” religions. At the same time, with the help of social arguments, he rejected atheism, believing that religion, even if in its most abstract, deistic form, is intended to be a dam for the feelings of the raging “mob”. However, in the 1960s, Voltaire already wrote only about the “probability” of deism, but he remained with the same conviction about atheism.

In a letter to Mrs. de Saint-Kulien of December 15, 1766, Voltaire notes that atheism is “the greatest delusion of the mind”, who does not understand that the universe needs its “watchmaker”, and another in its letters two years later proclaimed: “May God save us from such (scholars. – I. N.) atheists!”. Voltaire tried to prove the fallacy of atheism in the first chapter of his “Fundamentals of Newton’s Philosophy” (1738) and in other writings; but it is characteristic that in the article “Atheism” he himself draws attention to the social causes of this phenomenon: with their cruel rule, tyrants unwittingly force the oppressed to lose all faith in God and in divine providence.

In the history of philosophy of the eighteenth century. Voltaire won his place as a propagandist of Locke’s sensationalism among the French enlighteners and as a thinker who acutely formulated and posed a number of problems, although he did not solve them.

In the form of dilemmas, they raised the following three main problems:

(a) Is there evil in the world, and if so, what is its source?

(b) Is a material or spiritual source inherent in movement, life, and consciousness?

(c) Does fatalism have or does not have exceptions in its action?

The first of these three problems acquired the character of aporia for Voltaire because from the very beginning, on the way to its resolution, he raised an obstacle in the form of the concept of a wise and just deity, from whom it is impossible to expect evil. At first, Voltaire, in thinking about this, was influenced by the optimism of Leibniz and Shaftesbury. In the story of Voltaire “Zadig, or fate”, the dispute still remained unresolved, and Voltaire himself was not very sure of the assumption that the present evil was giving rise to the shoots of the coming good.

But in the second half of the 40s, the situation in France became more gloomy. Louis XV threw off his flirting with public opinion, and again began the persecution of any free-thinking, from which Voltaire had to flee. In 1757 a decree was issued on the death penalty for any essay against religion and authorities. In addition, Voltaire was shocked by the news from Portugal, where a terrible catastrophe occurred in 1755 – an ocean wave 10 meters high caused by an underwater earthquake hit Lisbon and killed 35 thousand people, including many women and children.

The following year, Voltaire published the poem “On the destruction of Lisbon, or the verification of the axiom“ all is well ”, and in 1759 – the philosophical novel“ Candide, or optimism ”. In these writings, Voltaire broke with the former naively beautiful soul: the world is a great slaughter, and one who believes in universal harmony is like a convict having fun with his own chains (ten years later Holbach ironically calls the theory of universal optimism “love drunkenness.” God is not omnipotent, or he is full of evil, unless it is only the ignorant people themselves who are to blame for this evil. In the ingenious story “Candide” of the hero is pursued all sorts of misfortunes, his mentor, who taught that “The best place”, the Jesuits hang up, and the French and the Prussians “to the glory of God” cut and rob each other …

Voltaire summarized his doubts and hesitations in the article “All is well” for the “Philosophical Dictionary”, directed against Pope and Leibniz. This dictionary became an important addition to the articles that Voltaire wrote for Diderot’s “Encyclopedia”: in the so-called Ferney period (1757 – 1778) of his life, he was closest to the French materialists and collaborated with them. Apparently, Voltaire understood well that the denial of universal optimism undermines not only theodicy, but also the educational faith in the “rationality of nature” in the sense that adherence to natural laws guarantees a person happiness.

From here it was already possible to go further, deducing human history from under the power of the laws of nature that are protesting people. The classics of French materialism unwittingly embarked on this path, excluding society from the jurisdiction of these laws for at least ten centuries, which constituted a feudal period in Western European history. But Rousseau advanced even further, whose emphasis on the special laws of social life arose hand in hand with the denial of the axiom “all is well”, for it leads to the apology of everything that exists and to complete inactivity. In a letter to S. Bonnet, he wrote: “It was a blessing for the whole that we became civilized people, since we became such, but for us it would be better, of course, not to become such” (64,161). As for Voltaire, he provided further conclusions to other philosophers and he himself became halfway there.

In the problem of the source of movement, life and consciousness, Voltaire stopped in impotence over the dilemma he had formulated. Or Newton’s laws of mechanics are everywhere and then life and consciousness are an inexplicable miracle, or there are other laws of being, but they are incomprehensible to reason. However, some output is planned, if we recognize that matter has many such properties, which we are not aware of.

In a letter to de Formont (1736), Voltaire wrote about the ability of matter to think. In “Micromegas”, he stated that on the planet Saturn, for example, matter manifests 300 of its attributes, and on Sirius there are 2100. All these attributes and properties were initially acquired by matter.

The problem of overcoming fatalism was the most acute and urgent in connection with the need to substantiate the active struggle of the enlighteners against the church. In the article “Fate”, Voltaire argues in the same way as Holbach: the activity of human passions is determined fatally no less than the passive behavior of phlegmatic and submissive creatures. But in other writings, he leaned toward the assumption in the behavior and decisions of people of some partial fragment, in which free will is granted by God. If Descartes drew the boundary between determinism and teleology in such a way that it coincided with the boundary between animals and people, Voltaire tried to draw it inside human consciousness itself. But where it passes and how the transition from one form of behavior to another takes place remains for him completely mysterious.

Having accepted an erroneous chain of reasoning “for activity, free will is needed, and to ensure the latter, God is needed as the highest principe d’action”, Voltaire concluded: “if God did not exist, it would have to be invented!” Convent Robespierre, and during his years of power the Jacobins began to exterminate the “hydra of atheism.” But Voltaire himself least of all thought to engage in the propaganda of religious beliefs, and therefore solving the third and two preceding problems, he retained the reservations, leaving them unresolved to the end. This is a skeptical relativistic position, which is expressed in “The Ignorant Philosopher” (1766) and which did not prevent Voltaire from turning his forces on the fight against the “reptile” of clerical obscurantism. He repeatedly declares that the practical activity of people is more important than all metaphysical wisdom. “We will cultivate our garden!” – he exclaims in “Candida”, meaning that you should work and fight. In the labor of happiness, Helvetius echoes, and therefore the worker and the merchant are happier than their monarch.

As a representative of pre-revolutionary classicism, Voltaire played a role in the history of French aesthetics. He created the bright and energetic oratorical style used by the leaders of 1789, and his tragedies Brutus and Death of Caesar did not leave the stage of the young French Republic. Feeling the limitations of conventional classic canons, Voltaire in the “Temple of Taste” does not appeal to them, but to nature – the mother of true artistic taste. However, he did not create a single aesthetic system.

Voltaire’s power as a philosopher was not in the development of a positive teaching, but in the criticism of the former metaphysics. With his well-aimed pen, he struck the old, obsolete, his satyr and mock were murderous for the feudal camarilla, Voltaire’s laughter destroyed more than Rousseau’s cry.

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