How Voltaire's Atheism Overthrew Deism
"I don't believe in God, but I hope my valet does so he won't steal my spoons."
by Lewis Loflin
These are the words of arch atheist and religious bigot Voltaire. This is the "taproot" of Enlightenment Deism according to Arthur Herman in his book "The Cave and the Light". (P233)
As I have pointed out in my other essays this atheism is not the Deism that America was founded on nor is it Deism at all, but is the preferred belief system of the modern Internet Deist.
Another destructive personality was "Jean-Jacques Rousseau. See Rousseau: An Interesting Madman.
Most at best are agnostics but share with Voltaire a livid hatred of theism and all it implies. The foundation of the American Republic is a theism that when filtered through the English Enlightenment and harmonized with science would become American and English Deism.
This is Nature's God Jefferson refers to in the Declaration of Independence. This deity would be the source of our rights and liberties. To Voltaire and his later followers rights are a gift or privilege of the state. This philosophy was cemented by JJ Rousseau also the father of modern socialism.
Herman elsewhere notes that Voltaire in his attacks on the Catholic Church substituted Aristotle's Prime Mover for the God of Deism. But Voltaire was a Deist early on it seemed, so what went wrong?
The head of the French "public safety" police that in the 20th century would become the model for the Gestapo was the French Deist and admirer of Voltaire Robespierre.
Looking at Cliff's notes on Voltaire to quote, "...(his) earliest works reveal Voltaire as a man dedicated to freedom and justice as he understood these concepts. A dominant theme ... as the tyranny of the priesthood."
How is it that a man reputed to be a champion of "freedom and justice" and who reviled tyranny of the church become the father of a revolution that repudiated everything he allegedly stood for?
The intention all along starting back in the violent French Revolution has been to destroy traditional religiosity symbolized unfortunately by the corrupt and decadent Catholic Church and replace it with secular philosophy.
The Enlightenment to quote Wikipedia:
The term "Enlightenment" came into use in English during the mid-nineteenth century with particular reference to French philosophy...The terminology Enlightenment or Age of Enlightenment does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent.
The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals."
But not so oddly the Catholic Church had already destroyed religiosity to a large degree by reducing the faith to a form of philosophical correctness.
The Catholic Church thank goodness never held power in America that it held in Europe. Thus the concept of religion and the fact that England and its religious wars ended at a fairly early time meant there wasn't wholesale hatred of the institution. Tolerance spread much earlier than on the Continent outside of perhaps Holland.
In America this created much more harmony because through most of its history official religion was limited in power.
That was not the case in Voltaire's Europe.
The fact was that Voltaire was an elitist who partied and circulated among the aristocracy and monarchy of Europe. He cared nothing about the common man as individuals, and why not he had nothing to do with them.
He rightfully displayed disdain of the political abuses and tyranny of the Catholic Church, but was it the Catholic Church and its politics or was it his hatred in general of religious people?
Voltaire was vicious Jew hater and anti-Semite, yet Jews were the most powerless and persecuted people in Europe most imprisoned in ghettos across the continent. This same bigotry is present on certain "deist" websites. So much for secular tolerance.
What of his words about his valet and his spoons? This to me demonstrates his contempt for average people. Voltaire is the prototype of the modern secular political activist that constantly contradicts in their own actions and the very words they preach.
I'll address how radical secularization has created a storm of social ills we suffer today in the comment about the spoons in another essay.
Our next question is how did Voltaire and thus the modern atheist progressive understand freedom and justice? It doesn't mean what you think it does and deceptive word play by elitists is all too common to this day.
Voltaire's Early Life
Voltaire as a child was introduced to skepticism by his grandfather. A sickly but brilliant child he would enter a Jesuit college in 1704. Herman notes very little to no theology was taught in "Christian" colleges much to my shock.
Scholasticism and Greek philosophy were the main points of interest. Granted there was an attempt to give them a Christian slant but that was often ignored. Logic, rhetoric, and philosophy yes, religiosity and theology no. The subject would create questions that could bring in the Inquisition.
Christianity from the third century onward operated more as a philosophy among its elite. Thomas Jefferson noted Christianity is atheism - its center is the worship of a man, alleged salvation by a man, and a man as God.
The the Christian God is the God of Plato, thus Jefferson and Adams often referred to Christians as Platonists.
This became evident in the 1500s when Greek refugees fleeing the slaughter of Muslims in the fall of Constantinople brought with them the complete texts of many allegedly lost Greek classics. While some bits and pieces of classical philosophy survived through Muslim libraries captured in Spain and Sicily they were never lost to the Byzantines.
Christians in the West were shocked at how similar their pseudo-theology was to Plato. The fact was the vast majority of the church fathers including St. Augustine were trained Hellenist philosophers.
Christianity based mainly on neo-Platonism was more a belief system of philosophical correctness than religion. Going back to its Hellenist roots it completely rejected the Hebrew God in the same way that Voltaire rejected the Deist deity.
This game wasn't new to Voltaire.
The very introduction to the Gospel begins with Jesus as the "Word" a term known as Wisdom in Jewish philosophy and Lagos in Greek philosophy. The origins of the Christian deity goes back to Heraclitus and not Mosses - Hellenism in its rejection of the material world is diametrically opposed to the Hebrew deity or as Jefferson call it, "the Deism of the Jews."
Classical Deism rejected this Platonist view of the deity while retaining the transcendent Creator filtered through Aristotle's method.
Voltaire and the Enlightenment philosophers simply reintroduced the same Greek philosophy based on reason as a replacement for Catholicism. Aristotle's Prime Mover became a convenient philosophical argument for an essentially atheist viewpoint.
The modern so-called Internet Deist like Voltaire completely redefined Deism into a philosophy alien and hostile to it.
Yet Voltaire was once an actual Deist so what happened?
In this sense we will have to look back at the world as it was with Voltaire. Plato, the Stoics, and in particular Aristotle were the core subjects of his liberal education. He was certainly in the best Greek sense of the word a rational thinker.
Going back to the ancient Greeks many believe that through philosophy and reason one could achieve virtue. Plato's Republic was seen as a model for government where enlightened philosophers could create a better and happy world. That belief is still largely held today by what is derisively known as the political left.
Voltaire too at one time may have held this view, but world events would shatter this view. Voltaire was a witty, intelligent, and a great literary artist that brought both delight to his readers and often kept him in trouble. He fled Paris numerous times.
On May 16, 1717 he would spend 11 months in the infamous Bastille prison that shortly after his death would be the final way station for thousands on the way to the guillotine.
In the early 1720s while in exile once again he would meet Henry St. John known as Viscount Bolingbroke whose works would enormously influence Thomas Jefferson. Bolingbroke was one of the fathers of classical Deism. So impressed was Voltaire with Bolingbroke he would spend three years in England.
According to Cliff notes the "cultural and intellectual climate of England" during those three years delighted Voltaire. He was welcomed in numerous political circles and became friends with many of the leading literary dignitaries of the time. Literary classics such as Gulliver's Travels would influence his later works such as Candide.
In England he learned to fluently read and write the English language. He avidly read the works of Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, and Locke. John Locke's views on tolerance would be an enormous influence on him. Here he would learn many of the same ideas that the English would pass on to the Americans such as Jefferson and Franklin.
By spring 1729 he had returned to Paris and was soon in trouble again. I'll skip his sexual escapades.
So great was his notoriety that he even became friends with German Emperor Frederick the Great. His experiences in Germany didn't turn out for the best and he was more or less kicked out.
Because of his stay in Germany he was looked on with suspicion in France. He would later live in Switzerland were his relations with Calvinists caused more friction.
Voltaire wrote a great deal on the subject of physics in which he demonstrated considerable knowledge in particular he would be influenced the French Dictionary of Philosophy and Diderot. As Cliffs notes tell us that while he did delve into philosophy he was never great in the sense of John Locke and Leibnetz.
It should also be noted that in particular with John Locke he never gave up his Unitarian-Christian faith or belief in God and even miracles. Leibnetz believed in a supreme being.
Voltaire at this time believed deeply in optimism and that I suppose was human reason can solve our problems and God can guide our way.
What he always did struggle with was the idea of Providence or the idea that the deity guided human events. The deity to Voltaire was an absentee and largely irrelevant deity which is why replacing the deity with Aristotle was an easy task.
Voltaire's story is one of great success and he became a very wealthy man deeply and emotionally committed at least in the abstract sense to the human condition. But historical events would shatter all of whatever optimism he still retained - pessimism carried him to his grave.
In 1755 a massive earthquake shattered Portugal and Spain causing as many as 40,000 deaths. Right away Christian theologians jumped in accusing each other of being the source of God's wrath. They even got so silly that some Catholic theologians blamed the destruction of Lisbon on the presence of Protestants.
Voltaire had always had a pessimistic outlook that grew as the years went by - the disaster in Portugal sealed this view.
Again as Cliffs Notes tells us the earthquake provided "incontrovertible" proof to Voltaire that the entire doctrine was nonsense. "No thinking man" could view this world as being under any divine guide or any deity that cared about it.
While the fact that philosophy etc. were a joy to Voltaire his view of the Deist God was more philosophical than real.
Again we note that by 1756 he would write how hard it would be to see how the motion of the universe put forward by Aristotle's Prime Mover could ever produce the disaster that was Lisbon.
His views would be further shoved towards atheism and pessimism with the outbreak of the Seven Years War. Even with the spread of secular enlightenment among the monarchy and powers of Europe nothing had changed. In fact Voltaire personally tried to intervene to convince the French and Germans to end the bloodshed.
The new European Enlightenment served no more to change the hearts of men than the earlier Greek philosophy upon which it was based stopped the rulers of Rome and Greece from endless evil.
Voltaire died May 30, 1778 two years after the beginning of the American Revolution. America's founders such as Jefferson and Franklin retained the original optimism and belief in divine Providence that Voltaire and his followers had abandoned.
In a few short years would begin the French Revolution that lacking this religiosity turned in a very different and deadly direction. It wasn't just the collapse of religiosity following Lisbon, the Seven Years War and other disasters, but the climate itself would play a part.
Climate change triggered a prolonged cooling trend destroying French agriculture. The problem was that France unlike the rest of Europe still relied mainly on cereal crops and had not switched to potatoes. Nonetheless this left much of the population with the specter of starvation.
What some called the Little Ice Age would almost kill George Washington's army at Valley Forge. Similar climate change earlier had killed many of the early English settlers at Jamestown.
This was further exacerbated by the total indifference of the monarchy and the ruling class. According to Will Durant many of these monarchs were actually Deist and belonged in the class we sometimes call enlightened despots. As human beings their view towards the people was hardly enlightened.
This triggered a secular revolution of the which historians would call Voltaire the father but the politics would go to JJ Rousseau and his ideas of revolution. It was time many felt to end the whole rotten system.
The result was an unmitigated disaster leading to the rise of Napoleon whose wars which shatter European culture forever. The same severe weather would destroy Napoleon's armies in Russia.
A further climate disaster was triggered in 1815 with the explosion of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia and an earlier destructive eruption in Iceland. Temperatures across the planet again plunged creating what historians would call a year without summer. Snow would be falling in some sections of New England in August.
The climate would not recover and begin to warm back up until around the 1830s and continued until it stalled out around 2000.
As a side note in relation to the decline of the Roman Empire they too were also a victim of climate change. Starting in the late first century was another disastrous cooling trend that gradually destroyed agriculture to the North and was one of the primary reasons that barbarians were being driven into the Empire from the North and the East.
Yet in the middle of all this climate change wars and man-made misery still raged on. I believe in particularly among the intellectual classes that a poisonous pessimism would become ingrained in their philosophy as it did in the late Roman Empire.
In summary while Voltaire may have been a Deist at least in the philosophical sense early on, due to his pessimism and events around him he became an atheist. Many refuse to believe in particular in Europe that even a God of Providence setting events in motion could allow these disasters.
Like the end of the Roman Empire they had a spiritual collapse and a loss of faith in human institutions.
This loss of faith in older institutions has left a dangerous void to be filled in with every kind of speculative and crazy philosophy imaginable. Among the worst to arise would be those of Nietzsche and Karl Marx.
America never lost this religiosity and thus the American Revolution went in a completely different path than the French Revolution. Certainly there was more bloodshed in the American Revolutionary war than people want to talk about.
Half of the population of the southern states would be pro-British and the vast majority of fighting in the South would be between Americans killing thousands in what was a civil war.
But overall compared to the death toll in Europe and limited effects of climate change in America we retained our basic culture and religiosity. Americans were far better fed and healthy than Europeans.
The problem was starting in the 19th century America would begin to import these poisoned philosophies and it's rejection of religiosity from Europe. The entire idea of the progressive welfare state was imported from Germany and Otto von Bismarck. He believed that giving the masses most of what they want they could be controlled.
This is particularly true of the American elite who look down upon the common Americans but embraced European atheistic philosophy.
This loss of religiosity among the American ruling class has dire consequences that we are dealing with today with a growing loss of liberty, the deliberate destruction of those foundation stones that create social stability, and explosion of government power.
In fact the elite today hold traditional culture in such disdain and disgust they are willing to side with anything to overthrow it.
I will address that in another essay.
Cliffs Notes on Candide;
The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman
- Deism Mainpage
- A Broad Exploration of Deism
- Voltaire's Legacy of War on American Values
- How Voltaire's Atheism Overthrew Deism
- Rot in our Universities and Postcolonial Studies
- Scientific Case for a Transcendent God
- In Defense of Classical Deism
- Obama's Science Teacher Training Initiative Politicized Science
- Fear and Loathing of Islam is not Islamophobia
- Islam Versus Deism
- Left vs Right, Montesquieu, Corporatism
- Eastern Roman Empire and Islam
- Philosophies of Islam, Greece, and the West by Turgut Ozal
- Example of Islam and science.
- Maimonides Versus Aristotle and the Jews of Spain, Thirteen Rules
- Handbook on the History of Modern Science
- Pelagius and why he was right
- Islam Versus Judaism and Christianity
- Islam to Deism: Why I became a Deist