Locke and Voltaire-A Tale of Two Exilesby Rit Nosotro
Compare the political ideas of the philosophers Locke and Voltaire. How did individual thought change national behavior?
The lives and works of these two men overlap each other, yet their views on politics and religion were quite different. They were different men too. Locke took a more humble view of his call, “…to be employed as a laborer in clearing the ground a little and removing the rubbish that lies in the way on knowledge.” Voltaire, on the other hand, determined to edify an entire country. Locke saw the need for religion in a steady government while Voltaire thought religion, especially Orthodox Christianity, was useless to the well being of a government. In the great experiment of America Locke’s views were put to the test. During the French Revolution the ideas of Voltaire were applied.
John Locke was born in England in 1632, son of a small landowner and later captain in the army. He went to school at Westminster and later to Christ Church, Oxford. He remained there as a student for thirty years. Until, by royal decree, he was removed from the position of student. Eventually he received a bachelor’s degree in medicine and met Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury. For about 9 years, Locke worked for Shaftesbury. Unfortunately, the Earl was not the most upright of characters, and during his last years in power the Earl’s actions got out of hand. Being the Earl’s former secretary, he was suspected for being behind his employer’s plots. Locke left England in 1683. He returned six years later. Locke lived in a country home in Essex until his death in 1704.
Locke’s writings on politics were fueled by the same ideals that spawned the British civil war. He believed in rights for all Englishmen, though he was not exactly a father of democracy. Unfortunately for the slaves, serfs and women who lived in England at the time, Locke’s rights were not extended to them. A monarch had no divine right to rule the higher and middle class, according to Locke because God did not place some men over other men. Slaves were spoils of war, not men; serfs were property, not men; and women were women, not men. Thus these three groups were not supposed to have any rights. He also believed that religious toleration was necessary for the stability of government. Papists and atheists were excluded from toleration for state, not religious, reasons. However, Locke’s ideals went on to influence the founding fathers of America.
In France, in 1694 Francois Voltaire was born. He was educated at the college of Louis le Grand, in Paris. Voltaire’s Father then sent him to study law. Voltaire disliked the study of law, so he dropped law school in favor of a literary career. Later his godfather introduced him to the best circles of society France had to offer. Once in the high orbit Voltaire prospered. The high life wasn’t very forgiving though. Voltaire was accused of writing a parody on the reign of the late king Louis XIV and sentenced to a year in the Bastille. While in prison he finished his tragedy, Cedipe and begun his poem the Henriade, which were published with success on his release. Seven years later Voltaire was again placed in the Bastille for arguing with a noble. He was released to exile within a short time. Voltaire went to England and remained there for two years, returning to France in 1728. In 1750 Voltaire moved to Berlin on the invitation of Fredrick the Great of Prussia. Three years later Voltaire and the monarch quarreled. Voltaire moved to Switzerland with his niece. There he remained until his death.
Voltaire took it upon himself to enlighten France single handedly. He wrote
about 70 volumes of various kinds of literature. Voltaire also attempted to
free the populace from Orthodox Christian views by forwarding the idea of natural
religion. In a nutshell, natural religion says this: God created nature which
evolved and created man. Thus man isn’t really a direct creation of God.
Voltaire slammed the regime of England in his Letters concerning the English
nation. The letters were quite biased as England and France were not allies
at the time and their social structure was completely different. France was
still a “divine Monarchy” where the king had control over everything.
England had an updated version of monarchy, in which the king did not have absolute
power. Voltaire did not completely reject the English system. While he seemed
to sniff at the fact that nobles and clergy were not exempted from taxation
“The land-tax continues still upon the same foot, though the revenue of the lands is increased. Thus no one is tyrannised over, and every one is easy. The feet of the peasants are not bruised by wooden shoes; they eat white bread, are well clothed, and are not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle, nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes will be raised the year following. The annual income of the estates of a great many commoners in England amounts to two hundred thousand livres, and yet these do not think it beneath them to plough the lands which enrich them, and on which they enjoy their liberty.” (from Letters Concerning the English Nation)
The American revolution was an inspiration to the world. The colonists rebelled because they believed their unalienable rights were being violated. The right to life, liberty, property and the right to rebel against unjust law were being taken away from them. American won her independence. The founding Fathers laid down a constitution based on the idea that all men are created equal, an idea upheld be Locke. The French revolution however, did not have a happy ending. The people threw away any values they may have held to and wantonly began killing the people they thought responsible for their troubles. In the end the French had destroyed their monarchy and gained an emperor.
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