Who Is Voltaire?

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694. He was raised with a Jesuit education (Latin, theology, rhetoric, and so on) but his auspicious upbringing quickly became a thorn in the side of the French establishment. He was a brilliant student who wrote extensively about the lavish corruption of 18th century French society. His blistering satires and critiques were largely directed at the decaying Catholic French monarchy and its rigid censorship laws as well as its self-aggrandizing ecclesiasticism. Today Voltaire is regarded as the essential Enlightenment man. He carried the skepticism of Montaigne as well as the humor Rabelais. He was a more potent enemy of superstition and religious fanaticism than either Erasmus or Hume. Victor Hugo likened Voltaire to the whole of the 18th century -he contained within himself both a Renaissance and a Reformation.

1724 Portrait of Voltaire

Voltaire had a rocky relationship with his father. As a young man Voltaire scandalized his father by wanting to become a writer of poetry and historical studies, but his father insisted that he become a lawyer. Voltaire pretended to work as an assistant to a notary while spending most of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, Voltaire was immediately moved into a new job working for the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. During this time he had an affair with a French Protestant refugee. When the affair was discovered Voltaire was forced to return to France where he spent his time in Paris writing and criticizing the French aristocracy and the church.

Needless to say, his writings were not well received by the French establishment (his own father regularly called him a “rascal”) and Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717 where he wrote his first tragedy, Oedipe (1718), a rationalistic re-telling of Sophocles’s Oedipus. While imprisoned, he took on the nom du plume: Voltaire. Its origins are somewhat mysterious though perhaps it is an anagram of the Latinized spelling of his first name, or else a reference to his childhood nickname le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”). At any rate, Voltaire was imprisoned again in 1726. He was released only on the condition that he leave France. He was exiled in London where he was connected with Alexander Pope, Congreve, and Jonathan Swift. Voltaire became an admirer of English society and culture. He was particularly impressed with the English Constitutional Monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy. During his travels he was also quite taken with Dutch society and its prosperity as well as its tolerant liberal character in contrast to France’s groupthink and widespread superstitious enforcement. After two and a half years abroad he returned to France where he wrote about his preference for England in his Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1729. It caused an uproar for its praise of England (“perfidious albion”) over France and he was again forced to flee Paris. As the letters were publicly burned and censored, they continued to grow in popularity eventually becoming a rallying cry in future years for French revolutionaries.

Voltaire settled at a chateau in Lorraine with an educated woman named Madame Émilie du Châtelet. She encouraged his literary efforts which led to Le Siecle de Louis XIV (1751), several historical tragedies, a history of the French civil wars, a biography of Henri IV of France (the Henriad), and a translation of Newton’s Principia. Together, Voltaire and the Madame conducted numerous Newtonian experiments. In fact, Voltaire was the chief advocate of modern science in France, particularly of Newton contra Descartes. He was also one of the leading proponents of the new style of English theatre that he experienced while exiled in London -he brought Shakespeare with him to mainland Europe where Shakespeare was still a relatively obscure name.

When Madame du Châtelet died in childbirth in 1749 (a child from another lover) Voltaire moved to Brussels and then to Berlin where served as chamberlain to Frederick II of Prussia but he was soon forced to flee after a dispute. In 1753 he moved to a French estate outside Geneva and settled with his niece (apparently he may have had an affair with his niece). Here, he completed his most acrid work, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759, along with a variety of other romantic picaresque novelettes. The book is, in part, an Enlightenment satire of Leibniz’s philosophy of ‘optimistic determinism’ (i.e. “all is best in the best of all possible worlds”). In total, Voltaire’s writings would fill 99 volumes.

Voltaire lived out much of his remaining years at a vast estate in Ferney along the Franco-Swiss border. In 1764 Voltaire’s major philosophical work, Dictionaire Philosophique was published which was an alphabetized dictionary. After many years, he was finally able to return to Paris where he was honored with a laurel wreath of the theatre where his successful play, Irene, was being performed. Voltaire never again left Paris and he died there on May 30, 1778 at the age of 83 -shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

In his introductory appreciation of Candide André Maurois writes: “In the eyes of posterity, nearly every great man is stabilized at one age of life. The Byron of legend is the handsome youth of 1812, not the full-grown man, prematurely ageing, with thinning hair, whom Lady Blessington knew. Tolstoy is the shaggy old peasant with a broad girdle circling his rustic blouse. The Voltaire of legend is the thin, mischievous old man of Ferney, as Houdon carved him, sneering, his skeleton form bent under its white marble dressing-gown, but bent as a spring is bent, ready to leap. For twenty years Voltaire, at Ferney, was a dying man: he had been one all his life.”

Voltaire is often mistaken for a French revolutionary -while imprisoned in the “Temple” Louis XVI lamented that the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau had destroyed France (the writers and philosophers are often blamed for social unrest, not unlike Socrates in ancient Athens). Rousseau and Voltaire were the two chief voices in France for a kind of naturalism coupled with rationalism, however they were not the causes of the brewing tensions that exploded in the French Revolution, they were merely vocal symptoms of the need for reform. Despite being honored post-mortem by the revolutionaries, Voltaire would have been horrified by the French Revolution (Voltaire was a Constitutional Monarchist and was a fierce opponent of fanaticism).

He was a theist in name, but a humanist in fact (not unlike many of the founders of the American Republic -in fact Voltaire was friendly with the likes of Benjamin Franklin who persuaded Voltaire to become a Freemason). Voltaire had an unquenchable lust for life despite being cursed with a somewhat frail physical constitution. Per André Maurois, “… he was marvelously alive; and mankind, dreading boredom even more than anxieties, is grateful to those who make life throb with a swifter, stronger beat. In the downpour of pamphlets, epistles, stories, poems, and letters that showered on France for so many years from Cirey and Berlin and Ferney, there were trivialities and excellences. But everything was swift and bright, and Frenchmen felt their wit coming alive to the tune of M. de Voltaire’s fiddling. A graver music some may prefer, but his must have had charm in plenty, for after more than a century France has not yet wearied of what has been so well called the prestissimo of Voltaire.”

As Will Durant notes in his Story of Civilization: “What is left to us is too much the flesh of Voltaire, too little the divine fire of his spirit. And yet, darkly though we see him through the glass of time, what a spirit!”

For this reading I used André Maurois praise of Voltaire in his introduction to Candide, along with Will Durant’s chapter on Voltaire and the Enlightenment in his Story of Civilization.

Working Through Book I of Euclid’s Elements

Recently I re-worked my way through all forty-eight propositions of Book I of Euclid’s Elements. In the book, Euclid offers a captivating introduction to classical geometry, which straddles the world of perfect abstraction on the one hand, yet it also relies upon certain physical principles found in the world around us. For example, in some propositions we experience a kind of imagined motion, or even a gravitational pull that governs Euclid’s visual demonstrations. We use this concept of weight and motion to demonstrate our abstract lines and shapes. In the Elements Euclid serves as a guide while we learn about lines, circles, angles, triangles, and rectilineal figures (all of which rely upon the unproven acceptance of Postulate #5, the “Parallel Postulate”).

As I went through the book this time I was struck by the unfolding plot of the Elements. Insofar as the Elements has a narrative, the plot of Book I begins by introducing us to equilateral triangles and it concludes by proving the equality of all right angles in equilateral figures (triangles and squares). Throughout the book we glean a sense of equality (equilateral triangles and rectilineal figures) while other shapes like circles are merely used to create triangles and rectilineal figures (in other words circles are subordinate to other shapes). Right angles are knowable and equal everywhere, whereas obtuse or acute angles may have varying degrees of distinction -the word mathematics comes from the Greek for ‘the knowable things’ or ‘the art of the knowable things.’ In Book I of Euclid’s Elements, the knowable things share equal attributes.

In Euclid, the concept of spatial area also begins to appear from Proposition #4 onward (“parallellogramic area”). We imagine a sense of transposition that may possible (i.e. that equal triangles may be placed directly on top of one another). What purpose does the concept of spatial area serve for Euclid?

Euclid’s Elements concludes each proposition with the Latin short-script of either Q.E.D. or Q.E.F. Q.E.D. stands for quod erat demonstrandum (or “what was to be shown”) or Q.E.F. or Quod erat faciendum (or “which had to be done”). Euclid used the Greek original of Quod Erat Faciendum (Q.E.F.) to conclude certain propositions that were demonstrations of figures rather than proofs of theorems. For example, Euclid’s first proposition of Book I shows how to construct an equilateral triangle, given one side, and it is concluded with Q.E.F. however most propositions are concluded with Q.E.D.

Lastly, there are by my count 11 reductio ad absurdum proofs (in Latin “reduction to absurdity”) in Book I of the Elements. The first reductio occurs in Proposition #6 (another proposition contains two reductios, as well). The reductios add to the force of the previous propositions by adding a hypothetical converse which, when proven, becomes impossible (“atopon” or literally ‘placeless’ or ‘impossible’ or ‘strange’ or even ‘foreign’). The reductios show us what is truly ‘impossible’ or ‘foreign’ in classical mathematics.

The following images capture my notes on completing the forty-eight propositions of Book I of Euclid’s Elements:

For this reading I used the wonderful translation of Euclid’s Elements by Thomas L. Heath from Green Lion Press. Mr. Heath was a Cambridge scholar who translated Euclid directly from the original Greek in the early 20th century.

Reflections On Aristotle’s Prime Unmoved Mover

The summit of Aristotle’s examination of “first philosophy” occurs in Book XII of his Metaphysics. Chapters 1-5 of Book XII reiterate Aristotle’s examination into the nature of thinghood (an inquiry which had previously appeared in Aristotle’s Physics). Thinghood is a kind of whole (not a part of a whole) representing the sources as well as the causes of independent things. Thinghood delineates the world. There are three kinds of thinghood: the material which is a ‘this by coming forth into appearance’ – which is perceptible and exists in the world of motion and destruction (i.e. a human composed of skin and bones and so on). The second is the nature of a thing and the active condition into which it comes (a living human who is growing and aging and so on). Lastly, is the particular kind of thing, such as “Socrates” or “Callias.” Curiously, Aristotle does not mention the fourth of thinghood that is mentioned in the Physics: the final cause, or the controversial teleological cause (perhaps the fourth cause is discussed as the prime mover, itself, in the course of the book). Aristotle then discusses types of changes in the world (referencing his argument in the Physics) which include the material, and the two types of being: potency and being-at-work. Another is motionless such as Platonic forms or mathematics. In examining the idea of change and motion, Aristotle strives to discover one or multiple motionless origins of motion and also, therefore, time (according to Aristotle, motion and time are co-existent, which is contra Einstein).

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics as in the Physics, the world around us is the result of causes -for example, an oak tree drops an acorn, the acorn falls into the ground, it grows into a tree, and the cycle continues. However, taking into account an evolution of life over time, Aristotle wonders if the causal lineage of all things can be traced back to one central source that is the catalyst for all future causes. He says: ‘All things come into being by the motion of some prior being, such as by art or nature, or else by fortune or chance’ (1078a).

In Book XII chapter 6 of the Metaphysics the central argument of the prime mover begins. Aristotle suggests, for the sake of the argument, that both motion and time are continuous. According to a causal cosmos, however, there must be a source of motion that is being-at-work-staying-the-same, and is also ever-lasting like the stars in the sky (whose motions are considered to be everlasting by Aristotle). Aristotle believes that if we simply retrace the lines of causes it will inevitably lead back to a primary source (or perhaps multiple primary sources). However, no single human being can possibly trace all causes in a lifetime, therefore the act of retracing the causal lineage of things is fundamentally an activity of the intellect.

Aristotle poses his central question at the crux of his argument in Book XII: “For how will thing have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work?” For Aristotle, material requires a craftsman and menstrual fluid requires male seed, a revealing claim which he claims in Chapter 6. For “nothing moves at random,” but rather things are moved by force, intelligence, or something else -and what is that something else? Aristotle leaves this door open in suggesting the existence of other possibilities for the origins of motion. From here, Aristotle seems to shy away from explicitly confronting the difficult question of his inquiry and instead he points us to the problem, and then posits a certain teleology to the cosmos. Up until this point, Aristotle has offered a glimpse into the difficulties of approaching the question of being qua being.

The prime mover of all future causes initiates motion “in the manner of something loved.” Not unlike a philosopher, the prime mover is a lover of the intellect. It is a thinker contemplating thought itself which is revealed to be the cause of all being and motion. Since the prime mover is composed of thought thinking itself, it can have no knowledge of future causes or beings that have resulted from its continuous motion. The prime mover is everlasting ‘like a god’ but it is motionless and unmoved, unlike a god. The prime mover cannot have magnitude since all finitude depends on some form of magnitude and the prime mover has no finitude because it is everlasting (this discussion of magnitude is further discussed in Aristotle’s Physics). The prime mover instills one everlasting motion in the shape of a sphere, like the circular movements of the planets which are also everlasting (here in the discussion, Aristotle’s Prime Mover starts to resemble Plato’s master craftsman in the Timaeus dialogue). Like the stars and planets there are likely multiple prime unmoved movers as the movements of the wandering planets suggest the activity of thought thinking itself, as well. Thus, the planets who adorn the night sky are an imitation of the prime mover’s act or acts of intelligence that unwittingly cause the cosmos.

Aristotle concludes Book XII with comments on theology (theology is only invoked after philosophic inquiry has been fully explored). Aristotle labels the inheritance of the gods as “myths” for the “persuasion of the masses” and the clarity of the god’s role in relation to the prime mover is left ambiguous. However, Aristotle’s prime mover shares certain characteristics in common with latter monotheistic theology which is developed over many centuries after his death. Here, Aristotle ends his inquiry with a brief comment. He cites the poets (Homer) and suggests that the cosmos would be best governed by one single intelligible whole in a Parmenidean sense (in the same way that the concept of number is whole and not divisible according to ancient Greek mathematics). Aristotle cites the Iliad at the end of Book XII (“a divided sovereignty is not good; let there be one lord” Iliad Book II, 204) -a quote which is in reference to Odysseus’s reformation of the chaotic Achaeans into a well-organized army against Ilium. The “lord” being referenced by Aristotle in the Iliad is the master political leader (i.e. Odysseus) and the reference in connection to the cosmos opens the door to the possibility of a divine intellect which has not created the world, but rather confers upon things a unique, delineated thinghood (these claims will later be revised to fit with European Christian orthodoxy by Thomas Aquinas some fifteen hundred years later).

To recap, Aristotle initially began his book as an innocent inquiry into the nature of things. He then proceeded into a lengthy dialectical or conversational discussion about ontological questions. Through the investigation, Aristotle slowly dismissed certain commonly held opinions and offered a new and higher perspective on speaking about being qua being. By the end, Aristotle’s exploration concluded with several possibilities examined, particularly in regard to a possible origination of motion and time, and a commonly-held “myth” was reaffirmed at the end for the sake of what is orderly and good (similar to the form of Plato’s “Myth of Er” at the conclusion of the Republic).

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s monumental translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

The Sicilian Expedition: Alcibiades and Nicias in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (Books VI-VII)

Thucydides claims the Peloponnesian War is the greatest event or movement in human history, and the most important part of this great war takes place in Books VI-VII: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

The Sicilian Expedition represents the turning point in the war. Thucydides begins to explain the expedition by offering a history of the origins of Sicily and its people. He continues by discussing the current zeitgeist in Athens. A rising and powerful love of Athens or a fervent patriotism arises among the Athenians. The old, middle-aged, and young citizens all see an easy occupation of Sicily that will yield great riches and power (i.e. the old and young, rich and poor are all united in support of the expedition as is necessary for an empire), while the skeptics are forced into silence for fear of being unpatriotic.

Thucydides offers two contrasting views on the Sicilian proposition: Nicias, the sober-minded Athenian general (or strategos) who is fervently opposed to interventionism. Nicias was the voice for moderation in Athens. Nicias had negotiated the aptly-named Peace of Nicias previously in 421 BC which paused the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta until the Athenian Sicilian Expedition 421 BC.

In contrast to Nicias’s moderation, Thucydides also shows us Alcibiades, the demagogic follower of Socrates and bombastic son of the old Athenian aristocracy, who successfully takes up the mantel of Pericles. Alcibiades rouses the passions of the Athenian public by claiming an either/or situation with regard to Sicily. The choice is between conquering or being conquered, though the idea that Athens is facing imminent conquest is absurd. Alcibiades is a proponent of aggressive expansionism and, in the end, he wins the day and leads the expedition to Sicily. Consider the way Thucydides describes the general mood of the Athenians regarding the invasion of Sicily:

“Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund to pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet” (6.24).

According to Thucydides, there is a kind of erotic love for conquest that grips the people of Athens, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Madison would have called it, takes hold. However, this eroticism takes different forms depending upon age and station: the older men thought their army was so powerful it could not possibly be defeated, those in the prime of their lives were longing for adventure (new things, ‘foreign sights and spectacles’), and the common people and soldiery were hungry for riches and security. In war, each group sees their own deprivation as an opportunity: strength, adventure, and riches, respectively.

At any rate, as happens with the superstitions of crowds, on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition all the stone statues of Hermes, the “Hermae,” are mutilated throughout the city of Athens. And rumors surface about drunken parties in private homes where the Mysteries of profaned (for reference see Socrates in Plato’s Symposium). Immediately, Alcibiades is blamed and it bears a foreboding sign for the expedition, while the enemies of Alcibiades hope to elevate the rule of the People, rather than leaders like Pericles and Alcibiades. These leaders win the moment and Alcibiades is brought to trial but he flees in exile to Sparta -his allegiances now in question, Alcibiades defects to the enemy. Meanwhile, the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster as the Athenian invasion fails to claim ground, and all the retreating Athenians are slaughtered in Syracuse.

Later, Thucydides makes note of the foremost cause of ruin for the Athenian army:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [a harbor port near Syracuse where the Athenians retreated], even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army” (7.24).

In response, Athens votes to send a massive force of reinforcements led by the general Demosthenes, not be confused with the great Athenian orator and speechwriter, but the Athenian armies become separated, decimated, enslaved, starved, and both Demosthenes and Nicias are executed. A few Athenian prisoners escape to deliver the dismal news back home in Athens.

Timeline of Events in the Peloponnesian War:

  • 6th-5th Centuries BC: The Peloponnesian League is created and led by Sparta over the surrounding Peloponnesus: Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and others. Also the Delian League was created under the leadership of Athens.

  • 435 BC: The city of Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra located right at the entrance to the Ionic Gulf, undergoes an internal revolt and requests help from Corcyra which is denied so they request help from soft rival to Corcyra, Corinth. It causes a proxy war between Corinth and Corcyra, with Corcyra winning back its colony. In response Corinth begins building up a vast navy.

  • 433 BC: Both Corinth and Corcyra call upon Athens, a fellow member of the Delian League, for aid. After both making their cases, Athens votes with an eye toward war with the Peloponnesus by siding with Corcyra. However, when both sides do battle, Corinth wins the day so they send reinforcements and the escalation calls upon the Peloponnesian League to break the standing peace treaty.

  • 432 BC: Athens fortifies its new ally Corcyra against Corinthian forces at Potidaea, as well. The Siege of Potidaea brings an end to Sparta’s inaction, with many denouncing Athens. Athens sent a fleet to Potidaea after Sparta and allies encouraged a revolt on the island in response to Athenian support for Corcyra against Corinth. Sparta declares Athens to be the aggressor and declares war on Athens.

    The powerful orator Pericles rises in Athens who is vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Sparta, in contrast to Archidamus King of Sparta, who urges caution, tact, and discipline. Sparta peddles a rumor that Athens is cursed by the goddess (thus subtly implicating Pericles as accursed). Athens, under Pericles, rejects offers to allow the Hellenes to remain free.

  • 431 BC: War begins. Thebes attacks and defeats Plataea, with Athenian help for Plataea arriving too late. Sparta invades Attica. Athens sends a fleet to attack the Pelopponesus and draw troops off their country farms. Pericles delivers his famous “Funeral Oration Speech” in Winter 431 BC.

  • 430 BC: Again Sparta invades Athens and shortly thereafter a great plague falls upon the land “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” It began perhaps in Egypt or Ethiopia and infected Athens through the Piraeus. A rumor spreads that Sparta poisons the water of Athens. The plague brings lawlessness and mass death.

    Pericles “The First Citizen” of Athens delivers a more tempered speech in Summer defending himself and wishing the Athenians had heeded all of his advice and not capitulated in any way to Sparta.

    Athens conquers Potidaea. Sparta attacks Plataea.

  • 428 BC: Sparta invades Athens again, Lesbos revolts from Athens. Mytilene turns to Sparta for help but Athens votes to spare Mytilene against the advice of Cleon a zealot and war hawk.

  • 425 BC: The Athenians outmaneuver the Spartans at Pylos under the generalship of Demosthenes (not be confused with the great Athenian orator).

  • 422 BC: War hawks Cleon (Athens) and Brasidas (Sparta) battle to the death at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

  • 421 BC: After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias is able to negotiate a peace – the Peace of Nicias which lasted six years.

  • 415 BC: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition is undertaken initially by Alcibiades who takes up the expansionist agenda from Pericles and Cleon, but the expedition ends in 413 BC in spectacular failure. Both leaders Nicias and Demosthenes are executed in the surrender at Syracuse.

  • 413 BC: In order to escape punishment in Athens, Alcibiades defects to Sparta and advises them on how to attack Athens. From here, Athens was beset by revolts, both internal and external by allies, as well as a troubling alliance between Persia and Sparta.

  • 407 BC: Alcibiades returns to Athens only to be exiled once again over questions of his loyalty.

  • 404 BC: Athens finally surrenders to Spartan general Lysander who defeated the Athenian navy and claimed the Dardanelles, a chief source of Athenian grain. Amidst death and starvation Athens surrenders. Sparta welcomes Athens into its network of allies but destroys Athens’s wall, navy, and riches.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.