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Voltaire and Rousseau: Two French Geniuses in Contrast

By Edited Sep 27, 2015 0 0

“Those two men have destroyed France,” said King Louis XVI referring to the eventual destruction of his dynasty, upon seeing in his Temple prison the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. 

 The complex soul of France seemed to have divided itself into these two men, so different and yet so French. Voltaire is the antithesis of Rousseau in terms of temperament. Voltaire can be described as the la gaya scienza to borrow the words of Nietzsche. He is of light feet, wit, fire, grace, strong logic, arrogant intellectuality, the dance of the stars. Rousseau, on the other hand is all heat and fantasy, a man with noble and jejune visions, the idol of la bourgeoisie gentile femme, announcing like Pascal that the heart has its reasons which the head can never understand. Clearly, Voltaire is an apostle of Reason, while Rousseau, that of Intuition. 

 In these two men we see again the traditional clash between intellect and instinct. Voltaire places high premium in the power of reason. He believes that the reasoning faculty of man is one of his attributes that separates him from the brute. Voltaire once said: “We can by speech and pen, make men more enlightened and better.” Rousseau, on the other face of the coin, places little faith in reason. He wanted action. The dangers that lie ahead as a result of the revolution did not create any sort of apprehension to him. To reunite the French society which has become divisive due to political turmoil and social upheaval, he appealed on the sentiment of fraternity of the French people. Accordingly, remove all laws and men would pass into a reign of equality and justice.

 While the two have but one aspiration for France, they accomplished their common purpose in rather different approaches. There are instances that the two had some clash of opinions towards certain issues about the socio-political conditions of France. One time Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” This treatise contains arguments against civilization, letters and science, and an advocacy for a return to the natural condition as seen in savages and animals. In reply to such, Voltaire sent a letter to Rousseau, the great apostle of romanticism. Known to be a polemic writer, Voltaire replied in a witty and uncompromising manner. This appears in one of his correspondences:

                   “I have received Sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it…No one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes; to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. As, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it.”

 

Rousseau’s passion to savagery created a sort of vexation to Voltaire particularly when the former advocated the same idea in his “Social Contract.” In a letter sent to Mr. Bordes, Voltaire had the following words to say about Rousseau:

             “Ah Monsieur, you see now that Jean Jacques resembles a philosopher as a monkey resembles a man. He is the dog of Diogenes gone mad.”

 Both Rousseau and Voltaire grieved over the tragic earthquake in Lisbon in November 1775 which resulted to the death of 30,000 people. Voltaire broke forth in a passionate poem in which he revived the vigorous expression in the old dilemma: “Either God can prevent evil and he will not, or he wishes to prevent it and he cannot.”  Rousseau is of different opinion. In a public reply, Rousseau said that man himself was to be blamed for the disaster. In an account given by Tallentyre (p. 231), Rousseau’s argument run as follows:

 

            “…if we lived out in the fields, and not in the towns, we should not be killed on so large a scale; if we lived under the sky, and not in houses, houses would not fall upon us.”

 Voltaier could not believe that the above theodicy can win such popularity and was angry that his name should be dragged by such a Quixote. He described Rousseau as the “most terrible of all the intellectual weapons ever wielded by man, the mockery of Voltaire.”  

  Voltaire was convinced that all of Rousseau’s denunciation of the civilization is a boyish nonsense. He does not believe that man can live better in savagery than under civilization. Voltaire likened man as a beast of prey who should be chained by the civilized society as a form of mitigation of his brutality and for the possibility of the development through social order, of the intellect and its joys. While Voltaire is not blind in recognizing the flaws of the French government, he would rather have such a government than a government where possible anarchy reigns. Voltaire once reputedly said: “A government in which it is permitted a certain class of men to say, ‘let those pay taxes who work; we should not pay because we do not work,” is no better than a government of Hottentots. In fact, in his work “The World As It Goes,” Voltaire tells how an angel sent Babouc to report on whether the city of Persepolis should be destroyed; Babouc goes, and is horrified with the vices he discovers; but after a time he began to grow fond of a city the inhabitants of which were polite, affable and beneficent, though they were fickle, slanderous and vain. He was much afraid that Persepolis would be condemned. He was even afraid to give his account. To avert the destruction of Persepolis however, Babouc erected a little statute composed of different metals, of earth and stones (the best and the most vile metals combined) to be cast by one of the best founders of the city, and carried it to the angel. “Wilt thou break,” said he, “this pretty statute because it is not wholly composed of gold and diamonds?” The angel decided not to destroy the city but to leave “the world as it goes.” The overriding implication is when one tries to change institutions without having changed the nature of men, that unchanged nature will soon resurrect those institutions. As a famous philosopher once said, “the true revolution starts from the revolution of the heart.”    

 Being liberal in temperament, Voltaire thought that intellect could break the vicious ring of corruptions of men and institution by educating and changing men, slowly and peacefully. Rousseau, on the other hand, who is of amore radical orientation, believes that the ring could be broken only by instinctive and passionate action that would break down the old institutions and build, at the dictates of the heart, new ones under which liberty, equality and fraternity would reign.

 In spite of these differences of opinion, Voltaire attacked the Swiss authorities for burning the book. As Voltaire puts it: “I do not agree with the word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire is known the world over of his tolerance of other’s opinion and his inimitable courage in defending the freedom of speech. It is for this defense of freedom of speech that Voltaire had experienced to be confined in Bastille, not only once, but twice. Voltaire even sent a cordial invitation to Rousseau to come and stay with him at Les Delices, his home and refuge during his later years when the latter was fleeing from hundreds of his enemies. 

 Which philosopher brought the philosopher’s stone which helped convert the French aspiration to reality, we cannot absolutely say. Perhaps the truth lies on the middle ground---instinct must destroy the old, but intellect must build the new. But one thing is certain, both Voltaire and Rousseau were instrumental in sowing the seeds of the revolution, which eventually lead to its successful conclusion

 

 

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