You might be familiar with the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It began as a query illustrating the importance of observation and perception. The question simply asks, if something is not perceived, does it matter? After all, what’s the point of a discovery if it is never shared? But conversely, what role does an observer really play? The tree will still fall and make a thud! even if no one is around to hear it. You might be thinking that the silent observer plays no role at all.
Eighteenth-century Enlightenment writer Voltaire witnessed the world around him. He was an observer, but he was far from silent. He spoke out against what he saw was wrong in society around him, and the echo of his words can still be felt centuries later. To tie into the earlier query, his recount of the sound of the tree falling forever changed the forest.
Voltaire was an influential French writer who is best known for his contributions as a historian and philosopher. A stubborn man unafraid to go against popular opinion, he never wavered in critiquing the dominating Catholic French monarchy. His satirical novel Candide has been listed by many as one of the most influential French books ever written.
Born as François-Marie d'Arouet, the man adopted the nom de plume, or pen name, Voltaire. The Frenchman embedded himself in higher Parisian society first with his poems and later his plays. Early on, he showed he wasn’t afraid to critique his own government, a habit that landed him in trouble with authorities throughout his career. In fact, a particularly scathing verse, in which he accused the Régent Philippe II of having sex with his daughter, landed Voltaire in prison at Bastille for almost a year.
Voltaire’s critical eye and thus rocky relationship with the French government caused him to stay abroad in England. The experience there certainly helped shape his philosophical views. Furthermore, it significantly affected his writing career, as evident by his series of essays entitled Lettres philosophiques, which was originally published in English under the title Letters Concerning the English Nation. For example, England exposed Voltaire to several different religions. While he found issues with each of them and, in fact, harshly critiqued several in Lettres philosophiques, Voltaire preached the importance of religious tolerance. Too many wars, he reasoned, had been fought over the issue. Let people believe what they will, and society will be better for doing so.
His magnum opus, or greatest work, is widely agreed to be his 1759 novel, Candide. The satirical piece was immediately banned for its religious blasphemy and hostility to prevailing politics. Candide mimics a lot of popular styles and tropes of the day before twisting or outright mocking them. It routinely criticizes the then prevalent Leibnizian optimism, a philosophy that states since God is good, everything that happens must be for good. Though the main character lives in “the best of all possible worlds,” the terrible tragedies that happen to and around him are not good. Countless scholars have argued about the end of the book and what philosophy, if any, should be accepted instead. Regardless, Voltaire clearly argued against the false comfort of this strain of optimism.
Time and time again, Voltaire did not hesitate to speak out against the wrongs he observed. Even when it was directly detrimental to him, Voltaire stood by his beliefs. Lettres philosophiques was publically burnt and banned, and Voltaire had to flee to avoid becoming imprisoned once more.
Still, Voltaire wrote essays and stories. While he often and vocally disagreed with others, he still championed the importance of freedom of speech and religious tolerance. He popularized the story of Newton being struck by a stray apple. He preached the importance of trusting the knowledge one gains from their own senses, a philosophy better known as empiricism. Voltaire shared what knowledge and good beliefs he found, regardless of how such sharing would personally affect him. Even if he had no perfect solution to offer, he didn’t let that stop him from speaking out against the evil saw.
Don’t you aspire to be someone like that: a person who won’t tolerate injustice around them? It’s important to view the world around us with a critical eye. Don’t be silent about what you find. Otherwise, we may never find “the best of all possible worlds.”