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Voltaire World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Very early in his life, Voltaire gained a reputation as the outstanding poet and playwright of his time. Yet although his poetry and plays earned for him fame and considerable sums of money, most are now seldom read or performed. Henriade, his one serious epic poem, is considered heavy reading. Some of Voltaire’s poetry, however—especially pieces such as Le Mondain (1736; The Man of the World, 1764) and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake—has survived the test of time. His best poetry presents his philosophical ideas in the critical, often satirical, and epigrammatic style that is so characteristic of almost all of his writing. The Man of the World and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake were vehicles for Voltaire’s ideas—ideas that summarized the principal intellectual currents of the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire held firmly to the idea that reason, human intelligence, was the cure for all ills. He employed reason as a weapon in his attack against the social and political abuses of the old regime, as well as its religious intolerance. In The Man of the World, he stressed the importance of economic progress and the right of individuals to enjoy the luxuries and pleasures that modern society had begun to produce. In Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, written just after the terrible earthquake (1755) in Lisbon, Portugal, which killed some thirty thousand people, Voltaire questioned the philosophical optimism of the famous German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the English poet and essayist Alexander Pope. He soundly rejected the notion that “all is well” here on earth and that one should accept Divine benevolence as an explanation for all that befalls humans.

Voltaire’s concern for the individual’s place on earth, the role that humans play in making their own history, was also apparent in the approach that he took in writing The Age of Louis XIV and The General History and State of Europe. In both these works, Voltaire broke new ground in the serious writing of social history. He very carefully documented his many volumes, often using unedited texts or securing eyewitness accounts. Even today, his The Age of Louis XIV is considered an interesting history of the French king.

From one of Voltaire’s earlier works, Letters Concerning the English Nation, to one of his later works, the Philosophical Dictionary, he continued to define and spread far and wide his ideas on liberty, politics, religion, and literature. His Letters Concerning the English Nation, the principal literary result of Voltaire’s three-year stay in England, had a profound influence when first published on the Continent. “The first bomb launched against the old regime” is the way the well-known French literary historian Gustave Lanson summarized the impact that piece had on France. In much the same style as that of a modern journalist, Voltaire presented ideas and information on English society in clear, direct, and often cutting prose. Readers of his day had little difficulty in understanding that Voltaire was drawing direct comparisons—always to the detriment of the old regime—between the societies of England and France.

While living in England, he wrote especially on the religious and political liberties enjoyed by English citizens. In short “letters,” published in his book Letters Concerning the English Nation , he described the many religious sects (Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Unitarians, for example) that tolerated one another and avoided religious persecution. In another letter, this one on the English Parliament, Voltaire underscored the limitations that English government placed on its monarchy; the same restrictions on kings did not exist on the Continent, and Voltaire made a point to highlight the differences in the two political systems. The last letter of the volume, and also the most controversial of its time, was an attack on the religious pessimism of the Jansenist writer Blaise Pascal. Voltaire, concerned with...

(The entire section is 3,621 words.)