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French Deist Voltaire

Voltaire (d. 1778) embraced the conception of natural religion with ardor, and entered into a polemics against intolerance in Church and State relations as well as against the philosophy of the Church and the prevailing religious Cartesianism (Essai sur les mmurs et l'esprit des nations, 1754-58; Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764).

He derived his natural philosophy from Newton and Clarke, his theory of knowledge and his ideas on toleration from Locke, the main principles of his ethics from Shaftesbury, his critical method and the conception of natural religion from the Deists.

All phenomena are explained historically by the interaction between man and his environment, and all things are governed by God acting only in accordance with natural laws.

Natural morality and religion are not entirely innate ideas, but rather simple and universally prevalent conditions standing in need of development and following a course that leads through errors arising from ignorance and fear to an ultimate standard truth which is characterized as the "fruit of the cultivated reason."

Deism is thereby emptied of all religious content and restricted to the field of morals and rational metaphysics.

All that is essentially characteristic of human nature is the same everywhere; all that depends on custom varies. The chief influences for changes in the human mind are climate, government, religion, and in opposition to these one should seek to arrive at the underlying, undiversified unity.

"Dogma leads to fanaticism and strife; morality everywhere inspires harmony." The rise of positive religions may be studied psychologically in children and savages. Fear and ignorance of the law of nature are the primary causes; the parallel growth of social groups and the need of authority cooperate. In China alone natural religion has escaped this pernicious development.

India became the home of theological speculation, and influenced the religions of the West, of which the most important was Judaism as the parent of Christianity and Islam. Moses was a shrewd politician; the prophets were enthusiasts like the dervishes, or else epileptics; Jesus was a visionary like the founder of the Quakers, and his religion received life only through its union with Platonism.

Voltaire's conception of the evolution of history entered deep into European thought. By the side of the party of the juste milieu and of good sense," of which Voltaire is the most prominent representative, there arose a school which carried the doctrines of mechanism and sensualism to their furthest consequences. and evolved a philosophy of materialism. Ref: IEP