10 of the Greatest Minds of History

Voltaire, one of the great Enlightenment thinkers. National Post

Voltaire, leader of the enlightened generation

It is hard, perhaps impossible to quantify the gift that Enlightenment bestowed on the human race. It was thanks to a generation of men, and women, painfully groping free of the shackles of the Dark Ages, who introduced these monumental changes. Religion, of course, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, ruled the known world during those depressing times, and it was Voltaire who put things in perspective with his now famous comment: ‘A man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle.’

Voltaire was the nom de plume François-Marie Arouet, described usually as a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher. He is remembered for his many works of literature and philosophy, and also for his sparkling wit, which produced such memorable comments as that concerning French admirals. ‘Every now and then we should hang one. It would do wonders for the morale of the others.’

Closer to the bone, however, were such comments as: ‘Judge a man by his questions, not his answers’, and ‘The hallmark of a free society is that I may totally disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it until I die.’

This was, and is the stuff of Enlightenment. To quantify Voltaire’s individual genius is easy enough: he did what was required of him by his generation with brilliance, flair and an uncanny depth of understanding. However, simple quotes such as these do not answer to the quantum leap of consciousness that Voltaire and others made. In the Dark Ages, decrying religion, simply upon the basis of dissent, was punishable by an awful death, and it took a great deal of courage and moral surety to for the pioneers of Enlightenment to do so.

Voltaire died in 1778, a decade before the French revolution. In that brilliant age, such simple concepts as human rights, individual liberty, freedom of worship and freedom from tyranny were reborn. We take such things for granted today, and it is hard to imagine that a few hundred years ago, the world was defined by slavery as a commercial institution, religious persecution and routine punishment so ghastly as to defy imagination.

Voltaire produced major works of literature, both literary and philosophical, but it was in his actions that one can read the progression of his mind. He was a deist, taking the view that God exists is some form of creation, but not as a factor of day-to-day life. He defended freedom of religious expression, adopted vegetarianism, and by extension animal rights, and was admiring of the Hindu as a ‘peaceful and innocent people, equally incapable of hurting others or of defending themselves.’

Enlightenment no doubt would have come to the world without the intercession of the likes of Voltaire, but never without the midwifery of great genius. Innovation and progression are the by-product of original thought, and surprisingly rare that is. Voltaire was one of the great original thinkers.

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