What did Voltaire think of government?

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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...

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