Francois Marie Arouet was born in France in 1694 and died there in 1778, 11 years before the French Revolution within which he would become a major influence. A writer known by the pen name "Voltaire," he composed poems, essays, plays and satire. His most famous work was the satire "Candide," in which his then-unusual critique of religion anticipated many common criticisms of today.
The Modern Era
The modern era is generally described as having begun with the Enlightenment, a period that began with the Italian and French "humanists" of the 14th and 15th centuries and merged with the growth of natural science in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a period of heady intellectual activity, in which there was great hope that skeptical reason and science would give birth to a great human liberation. Voltaire was a captive of this idea, and he became one of its major literary advocates.
Liberalism and Multiculturalism
Voltaire's political beliefs also anticipated modern culture, in the aspiration for basic rights -- such as freedom of speech -- and in its multiculturalism. Voltaire was vitally interested in other cultures and was one of the first non-Eurocentric European intellectuals of the time. He was once exiled and twice jailed for his writings, which confirmed him in his commitment to the idea of free speech; and Voltaire was horrified by both the practice of war and the institution of slavery.
Religious Criticism - Candide
His most famous and lasting work is "Candide," the serialized story of a rather clueless world traveler (named Candide) accompanied by his relentlessly optimistic philosopher companion, Pangloss. This satire is aimed at Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a contemporary of Voltaire who claimed that as God is benevolent, we certainly live in "the best of all possible worlds." This phrase recurs constantly throughout "Candide," in the mouth of Pangloss, even as the companions encounter wars, earthquakes and other horrible catastrophes in their travels that seem to give the lie to this claim.
The Irony of Candide
The irony of "Candide" in modern culture is that Voltaire's own optimism about science and progress -- about which many of its proponents displayed a similarly outlandish optimism -- has proven incapable of banishing the troubles of strife and oppression. Oppression has taken new forms, some would say, and science has made warfare even more deadly and horrifying. Modern boosters of the 20th century, as seen in the archives of public relations, were paraphrasing "the best of all possible worlds," and now Candide's resigned decision at the end of the story, where he withdraws to a quiet and private life, seems to some again appropriate: "We must work in the garden."
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