Leading the peace through beauty and culture
I, Charley Morton, time traveler and science geek, have set out to record my interview with the great French writer and satirist (like Colbert, but three centuries ago) as part of my "Superheroes of History" project.
The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks.
Charley Morton: You come down in history as a satirist, using comedy to poke at the king of France and the aristocracy. In my time, we comedians on TV whose job it is to do what you did in your books, plays and operas: make fun of the government and those in power who do dumb things. How did you get your point across, back before television?
Voltaire: Theater is the best way to soften habits and educate people in the ways of tolerance and liberty.
Charley Morton: I get that. Tolerance is again under attack in my time. But for mocking the king and the pope, they actually threw you in prison in the Bastille in Paris, didn't they? How were things different back in the day?
Voltaire: I love truth and vowed to publish it despite them. It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.
Charley Morton: Well, yeah! It's like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. People are afraid to point out that, whatever else he says, the king is actually naked, for fear of getting in trouble.
So, I get that, in the minds of the people at the time, the kings of France said they were given the right to rule by God.
Voltaire: God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.
Charley Morton: And that lasted all the way down until the French Revolution. So, am I getting people were too afraid to question whether a king or queen had any more rights than anyone else?
Voltaire: No opinion is worth burning your neighbor for.
Charley Morton: But people could still make up their own minds, based on the facts! Why wouldn't they listen to writers like you and other Enlightenment thinkers who dared to question authority, who advocated for rational thought, scientific proof?
Voltaire: Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road.
Charley Morton: It was pretty brave of you, questioning the conventional wisdom of your day. When you and your amour Emilie du Chatelet were engaged in debating the then-new laws of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton, I understand you were pioneering science as we know it today, creating an actual research lab at Cirey, where you and the Marquise lived, to test out those very laws. Was that radical, at the time?
Monsieur Newton himself called the process
experimental philosophy. The idea of experimentation to prove scientific ideas was then a novelty. Most of what you call "science"
was then part of philosophy, and even metaphysics. Newton famously refused to offer an explanation of how and why gravity operated the way that it did, saying that it was enough to
observe that it worked as it did.
Charley Morton: Until Emilie, of course, proved the math.
Voltaire: (waves his hands dismissively) Yes, well. The marquise and I disagreed on a number of fundamental things.
Charley Morton: You mean, like, Newton was wrong? Because as Newton explained his Laws of Gravity, because force (the energy exerted on an object) dissipates over time, the stable motion of the planets around the sun could only be true if God stepped in to correct things once in a while.
Voltaire: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Charley Morton: Exactly. Newton was saying that, for gravity to work, it needed a hand from the Almighty. But Emilie du Chatelet not only translated Newton’s works into French, she wrote a commentary explaining them. And wasn't it the work of another philosopher and rival of Newton, Leibniz, whose argument she proved right?
Voltaire: I disapprove of what she said, but I will defend to the death her right to say it.
Charley Morton: Is that true? Because I read you also made fun of her improvements on the science of Newton as being a "system of pure imagination."
Voltaire: In fact, Madame Pompom-Newton, as I called her, was "a great man whose only fault was being a woman."
Charley Morton: But you were in love with her, weren’t you?
Voltaire: This is what Emilie is like: Beautiful; a good friend, too Imagination blossoming and true Her mind is lively, nay, sublime With too much wit some of the time. She has a genius that is rare Worthy of Newton, I do swear; Yet even so she spends her days With all the world and its petty ways Playing at cards with gamblers and the like.
Charley Morton: (snorts and gives Voltaire the eye). And yet, you guys fought like crazy!
Such a waste that a woman such as Madame du Châtelet made her mind serve to embroider these spider webs, advancing Leibniz's philosophies. As Candide said,
in my brilliant play by the same name, to his "optimistic" teacher, Professor Pangloss,
When you were being hanged, dissected, beaten with a stick, and
rowing in the galleys, did you always believe that everything was for the best in this best of all worlds?
Charley Morton: What does that even mean, "In the best of all possible worlds?"
Voltaire: Leibniz advanced a philosophy based on optimism, which was his conclusion that our universe is, in a restricted sense, the best possible one that God could have created.
Charley Morton: And you weren't buying that?
Voltaire: If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?
Charley Morton: Wow, you were actually predicting a new science, quantum physics. When seen at the subatomic level, quantum physics predicts many worlds. And in the universe, our observations of space through mighty telescopes show us many planets, in fact, orbiting stars in galaxies far distant from our own.
So, to follow your reasoning, if there are an infinite number of universes—how can we know which world is best when we only live in this one?
Voltaire: Exactement! The only way to comprehend what mathematicians mean by Infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity.
Charley Morton: You certainly have a lot of opinions!
Voltaire: Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.
Charley Morton: What should a young person like me take away from your writings and your life?
Voltaire: Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Charley Morton: Hmph, I think not everyone would agree with you there. People are always complaining I ask too many questions. But how can asking questions be bad? I mean, how else are we going to learn?
Voltaire: Dare to think for yourself.
Want to Learn More?
- Madame Pompom Newton Cdujfds.fr, 23 Oct. 2018.
- NYPL, Candide & My Maps NYPL, Candide & My Maps | Voltaire's Candide: Online Exhibitions, Web 12 Jun. 2018.
- Rider, Bailey. StMU History Media. StMU History Media - Featuring Historical Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary's University, 5 Feb. 2017
- Rodama: A Blog of 18th Century & Revolutionary French Trivia. Jansenist Pilgrimage (Cont.), 26 Feb. 2015
- Shank, J.B. Voltaire. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University 30 Jul. 2015
- CANDIDE APP-EAL Voltaire Foundation, 31 May 2013.