What did Voltaire think of government?
Voltaire's whole philosophical approach to government was somewhat ambiguous. In this, as in much else, he was very much a product of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, he proved himself to be a tireless, redoubtable champion of those destroyed by the tyrannical excesses of government, most notably in the case of Jean Calas, a French Protestant brutally put to death over a trumped-up charge of murdering his son.
On the other hand, however, Voltaire—in common with many of the philosophes—was a firm believer in so-called enlightened despotism. This meant that if a ruler was inspired by the rational ideals of the Enlightenment then it was perfectly legitimate for them to exercise absolute power in controlling the levers of government. What mattered was not so much how power was exercised but what its ultimate aim was. If that aim happened to be the rationally benevolent reconstruction of society, all well and good. Despotic means could be used for rational ends.
Part of the reason for Voltaire's enthusiasm for enlightened despotism lies in his incorrigible elitism. Voltaire shared the widespread prejudices of his class towards the so-called masses, believing them to be ignorant, superstitious, and in need of the firm, benevolent hand of a despot trained in the art of rational governance. He never believed that people were, or even should be, equal. It was perfectly natural, then, for Voltaire to prostrate himself at the feet of despotic rulers such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and the Russian Empress Catherine The Great.
Looking back at the horrors of the twentieth century, we can see what often happens when rulers exercising absolute power do so on the basis of constructive rationality for what are ostensibly benevolent ends. Whether it was the Five Year Plans of Stalin's Russia, the Great Leap Forward of Mao in China, or the use of technology and planning by the Nazis in building their formidable war machine, some of the worst excesses of the recent past had their roots in the concept of enlightened despotism.
Voltaire's ambiguous conception of government epitomizes a tension buried deep within the Enlightenment project: a powerful urge to liberate and to expel superstition combined with an equally powerful desire to control and manipulate both humankind and nature for what are deemed to be rational ends.
Voltaire was zealous in his defense of individual rights and personal liberties. Government's construction would have to be with these entitlements in mind. His entire literary and professional life was lived with the idea of being able to challenge social conventions and possessing the freedom to speak out against orders of conformity that sought to silence him:
The surviving pictures of Voltaire, most in old age, represent him as thin, sharp-featured, and sardonic. He is the very embodiment of one aspect of the neoclassical period: skeptical, irreverent, and valuing personal freedom above all other things.
In speaking out against institutions that were prone to silence individuals, such as oppressive governments or misuse of the Church, Voltaire was a firm advocate of secular rule that would treat individuals as ends of themselves, as opposed to means to ends:
As a rationalist and Deist, he rejected the traditional Christian view of God and belief in the immortality of the soul. He adhered to a natural religion, believing in an impersonal, remote deity whose attributes were beyond human understanding but who inspired a great sense of awe. Voltaire shared the belief of fellow Deists who considered the essence of religion to be morality, a commitment to justice and humanity. He strongly believed that universal ethical principles were inherent in natural law and that the merit of human laws was determined by the extent to which they reflected such just and humane standards.
The freedom of thought in all of its forms and the ability to ensure that social and political organizations do not silence voices, particularly those of dissent, would be how Voltaire envisioned political authority should be constructed.