11-21-1694

Voltaire

VOLTAIRE, French philosopher, born (d: 1778); born François-Marie Arouet, better known by the nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher known for his wit, philosophical sport, and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Christian dogma and the French institutions of his day. The name “Voltaire,” which he adopted in 1718 not only as a pen name but also in daily use, is an anagram of the Latinized spelling of his surname “Arouet” and the letters of the sobriquet “le jeune” (“the younger”): AROVET Le Ieune. The name also echoes in reversed order the syllables of a familial château in the Poitou region: “Airvault”.

In terms of religious texts, Voltaire was largely of the opinion that the Bible was 1) an outdated legal and/or moral reference, 2) by and large a metaphor, but one that perhaps taught some good lessons, and 3) a work of Man, not a divine gift. These beliefs did not hinder his religious practice (It is a line from one of his poems that translates “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”) though it did gain him somewhat of a bad reputation in the Catholic Church. He is best known today for his novel, Candide.

Voltaire blew hot and cold on the subject of homosexuality. Although he is known to have sampled the delights of same-sex love on one occasion, he nonetheless admonished a friend who wanted to try it a second time, “Once, a philosopher,” he proclaimed, “twice, a sodomite!” He was locked in a love-hate relationship with Frederick the Great, with whom he spent agonizing, ecstatic years. In her biography of Voltaire, Nancy Mitford writes that “nobody who studies the life of Voltaire can doubt that he had homosexual tendencies, and one wonders whether his feelings for the king were not exacerbated by unrequited passion.” Whatever his personal reservations about homosexuality, the famous French writer was forthright in declaring that sodomy, “when not accompanied by violence, should not fall under the sway of criminal law, for it does not violate the rights of any man.” We will never know why Voltaire once signed a letter to a male friend, “E vi baccio il catzo,” which, politely translated means, “I kiss your rod.”