The Corner

RE: Voltaire, Rousseau

Perhaps we can get away with boring Corner readers on this subject one more time…

John, I certainly concede that the “fanatical” part was better directed to Rousseau, and the “addicted to cleverness” better aimed at Voltaire, but I do think both apply to each. I am a fan of the enlightenment too, though I rather prefer its Scottish and English version—which thought new light could be shed on the world without resort to an inferno that would burn it down to start anew. Voltaire was an enlightenment man, most certainly, but he was an enlightenment zealot, a revolutionary (though a mild one in comparison with those that followed), and in some respects (including his cult of Newton, don’t you think?) really quite out of his mind.

We shouldn’t overstate, either, the extent to which he “spoke up for liberty.” Voltaire was no democrat, and was more or less persuaded that a benevolent authoritarian was needed to carry out the sort of reforms he had in mind. I certainly wouldn’t underplay the conditions he was dealing with under the ancien régime, but the enemy of the enemy is not necessarily a friend.

In a way, Voltaire’s kind of corrosive ethic was the opposite of Rousseau’s. Where Rousseau worshiped the lowest things (brute savagery, really), Voltaire mocked and scorned the highest things, including just about anything that a lot of his fellow citizens respected. That is an easier attitude to like and to enjoy, but it is nonetheless in its own way (and I think it surely was in his way) a deeply destructive example, and at times also a form of fanaticism. Judged by his followers—which of course is not always fair—he is certainly that.

But perhaps it’s a matter of taste more than substance. I react badly to his style, which is not the whole of his substance but is surely an important part of it. And I should certainly read the Bodanis book now that you’ve recommended it. It’s really too bad you never got around to that review; I have a feeling the editors of whatever publication that was would still welcome it heartily. Peter Gay’s book Voltaire’s Politics is also a very friendly assessment of the man, which it sounds like you might enjoy.

At least we are agreed that we are not fans of Rousseau, we are fans of enlightenment, and science doesn’t lead you to killing people.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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