Voltaire and Rousseauby Rit Nosotro
Compare the political ideas of the philosophers: Voltaire and Rousseau. How did individual thought change national behavior?
Although both Voltaire and Rousseau were considered philosophers of the Enlightenment, their views differed on almost every subject. In fact, their hatred for one another was well-known during their lifetime. When Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his book The Social Contract, Voltaire answered him with a letter in which he said, "I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it." 1
One of the reasons for the difference of opinion between the two philosophers was the method in which they grew up and were educated. Voltaire (which was a pen name for his real name, Francois Marie Arouet) was born in Paris in 1694. Early in his lifetime he developed a taste for high society and was known for his gaiety, vivacity, and sparkling wit among the aristocrats of France. Voltaire was educated at "Louis-le-Grande", a Jesuit college in Paris.2 Although he was at first accepted and well-liked among his aristocratic friends, his outspokenness caused him trouble and he spent eleven months in prison and later three years exiled to England. While he was with the English, Voltaire became impressed with their ideas and philosophies and wrote a book praising their religious and political freedom. French authorities thought that the book was meant to criticize the French government and forced Voltaire to flee from his hometown. Later in life, after he had become renowned for his many books and philosophies, he returned to Paris as a hero just before he died.
Rousseau's upbringing and personality could not have been more different from Voltaire's. Born, in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau was raised by his father until he was twenty, when his father was forced to flee from his hometown. He was then left in the care of his uncle. When Rousseau was twenty-six he ran away from his hometown and for years led a lonely life, waffling between many professions and lifestyles. A man named David Diderot finally persuaded Rousseau to write, and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Académie de Dijon.3 As Rousseau began to develop his own ideas on education, he was widely rejected in France and was forced to flee to Switzerland, and then England. Even though many of Rousseau's writings made him well-known in the world of philosophy, he spent most of his life in seclusion. His temperament, unlike Voltaire's, was reserved. He had trouble relating to individuals and people sometimes questioned his mental health.
The view of these two men developed directly from their upbringing. Voltaire emphasized tolerance and the individual's right to self-expression.4 He admired the personal and religious freedoms he found in England and sought to mold the French government in the same pattern. Voltaire also campaigned heavily against the church and Christians, arguing that the Bible and the church were intolerant of other religions. Voltaire himself was a deist. He believed that God must exist to create our complex world and control morals, but he did not believe in the God of the Bible. Aside from his books on philosophy, Voltaire also wrote well-known plays including Oedipe, Zaire, and Irene. As far as society was concerned, Voltaire believed that instead of looking for a perfect society, which he did not believe existed; citizens should spend their time and energy trying to perfect the society in which they had been placed.5 Voltaire was one of the most influential figures in the French Enlightenment, and many of his ideas live on today. In 21st century America tolerance is valued above truth.
Rousseau's view of society was completely opposite of Voltaire's. He believed that humans are born inherently good, but are slowly corrupted through civilization and society.6 He believed that nature should be the main teacher of the human race. He said that the more people stayed away from civilization and the more they learned from nature, the more they would be successful. This view was directly influenced by Rousseau's quiet upbringing of seclusion and loneliness. Rousseau did not try to reform the government as Voltaire did, but instead saw it as a "necessary evil."7 Of all the forms of government he favored democracy. Rousseau was one of the first individuals to form a somewhat complete and coherent form of education. As in his view on society, Rousseau believed that nature should be the foremost teacher in a child's education. He also believed that an individual did not necessarily control his or her own success, since so many circumstances are beyond the control of human beings. Many of Rousseau's beliefs are classified under romanticism, which favors nature above culture, and the concrete over the abstract.8
Voltaire and Rousseau taught two completely opposite ways to improve society and live a life of virtue. Voltaire believed that the purpose of an individual is to refine the society in which he lives, while Rousseau believed that civilization corrupts while nature refines. Both of these philosophies, however, have some elements of error to them. If we look in the Bible, we see that because humans are born with a sinful nature, there will always be strife, war, and conflict. The only true way to live a life of virtue is to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.
1. What was Voltaire's opinion of Rousseau's book, The Social Contract?
a. He was impressed by it
b. He thought it was totally wrong
c. He was curious about it
d. He thought it was similar to his own books
2. What country did Voltaire believe that the French should model their government after?
3. Who or what did Rousseau believe should be the primary educator of a child?
b. The child's father
c. The child's mother
d. The principal of the school
4. Which of the following describes Rousseau's ideas?
1rjgeib.com. "Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire". http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/rousseau/rousseau.html November 16, 2003.
2Lucidcafé. "Voltaire: Author and Philosopher". http:/www.lucidcafe.com/library/95nov/voltaire.html November 19, 2003.
4Warren Swil. "The Philosophes: Voltaire". http://www.swil.ocdsb.edu.on.ca/ModWest/Enlightenment/philos/phils.html November 19, 2003.
7Warren Swil. "The Philosophes: Rousseau". http://www.swil.ocdsb.edu.on.ca/ModWest/Enlightenment/philos/phils.html November 19, 2003.
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