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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Voltaire: A Sketch of his Life and Works

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I guess if Rousseau is the yin of French eighteenth-century philosophy, the Voltaire must be the yang. Unafraid to tear down the castles of prejudice, he doesn't always offer to build the new ones. My view anyway. This selection is far from complete, but it's representative.

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Voltaire: A Sketch of his Life and Works
by G. W. Foote and J. M. Wheeler (1891)

He would be a bold person who should attempt to say something entirely new on Voltaire. His life has often been written, and many are the disquisitions on his character and influence. This little book, which at the bicentenary of his birth I offer as a Freethinker’s tribute to the memory of the great liberator, has no other pretension than that of being a compilation seeking to display in brief compass something of the man’s work and influence. But it has its own point of view. It is as a Freethinker, a reformer, and an apostle of reason and universal toleration that I esteem Voltaire, and I have considered him mainly under this aspect. For the sketch of the salient points of his career I am indebted to many sources, including Condorcet, Duvernet, Desnoisterres, Parton, Espinasse, Collins, and Saintsbury, to whom the reader, desirous of fuller information, is referred. Mr. John Morley’s able work and Col. Hamley’s sketch may also be recommended.

That we are this year celebrating the bicentenary of Voltaire’s birth should remind us of how far our age has advanced from his, and also of how much we owe to our predecessors. The spread of democracy and the advance of science which distinguish our time both owe very-much to the brilliant iconoclasts of the last century, of whom Voltaire was the chief. In judging the work of the laughing sage of France we must remember that in his day the feudal laws still obtained in France, and a man might be clapped in prison for life without any trial. The poor were held to be born into the world for the service of the rich, and it was their duty to be subject to their masters, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. Justice was as easily bought as jewels. The Church was omnipotent and freethought a crime. If Voltaire’s influence is no longer what it was, it is because he has altered that. We can no longer keenly feel the evils against which he contended. His work is, however, by no means fully accomplished. While any remnant of superstition, intolerance, and oppression remains, his unremitting warfare against l’infâme should be an inspiration to all who are fighting for the liberation and progress of humanity.

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Download here:

Voltaire: A Sketch of his Life and Works by G. W. Foote and J. M. Wheeler

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