This post was written as part of CULA’s “Liberal Icons” essay competition; the winner and runner-up will be announced once all entries have been posted.
Voltaire is my liberal icon because he was a man of many talents and imparted his views on the world through almost every channel possible: he was a philosopher, author, historian, economist, human rights activist, and scientist. He stood for tolerance, freedom of speech, and the rejection of bigotry—views which were particularly liberal in the eighteenth century and which are still liberal today.
Voltaire’s philosophy was that of reason. He was concerned with the conflict between good and evil, as demonstrated through his literature. In his most famous novel, Candide, Voltaire voices his criticisms of Optimism (the philosophy that evil is part of some greater good) and argues against Leibniz’s view that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His adamance that evil and prejudice exist led to his intervention in a court case in Toulouse, where an innocent Protestant priest was sentenced to death by Catholic judges. This involved publishing papers (later collected in the Traité de la Tolerance) which advocated social inclusion and campaigning to support the relations of the priest who had been left destitute.
As an economist I am inspired by Voltaire and his application of religion to the functioning of the free market. He believed that trade is efficient because, for the purposes of negotiation, all men come together and overcome their differences. Furthermore, to him, a minimal belief in a deity is necessary for practical, rather than spiritual, reasons: faith is useful for the efficient functioning of the economy and society, whether that be providing a topic of conversation at dinner parties or the fear of judgement in the afterlife being a source of motivation for workers to be productive. Although this upset Catholics in France, I am intrigued by this relationship between religion and economics as it is rarely discussed in modern literature. I respect Voltaire for being so far ahead of his time.
Voltaire believed that multiculturalism was beneficial to social cohesion: “as there are a multitude [of religions in England] they all live happy and in peace”. This was a criticism of the French system where Catholicism was the dominant religion, and it is true that there has been much more conflict and violence on French soil than on English soil. Although this is partly due to geography, I also think that Voltaire’s ideal is accurate: religious differences should make us more open and understanding of each other. This is of course not always the case in reality, and I think that it is particularly relevant now as racial and sexual differences are causing too much strife around the world. We should all take time to remember Voltaire’s lesson on the advantages of religious and ethnic diversity.
Voltaire also spent time thinking about the role of God in human life and one reason why he is my liberal idol is that his answer to the problem of evil resonates with me more than any other explanation. He believed in rational religion: the idea that God created the world and instilled in humans the notions of good and evil, but then took a back seat. Although I do not believe in a god per se, this seems to me to be a sound explanation for how the existence of both a God and evil need not be mutually exclusive.
Lastly, Voltaire ardently pushed the notion that public opinion could bring about change. He famously said that “opinion rules the world”, and I think this is particularly apt in the current political climate where change is increasingly coming from those in no position of power, such as Malala and Greta Thunberg, but also from groups like ours! It is comforting to know that the view that anyone can create political pressure and force a change has been philosophised for over 300 years.
There is no doubt that Voltaire is a liberal icon. The range of methods through which he imparted his wisdom on society was so broad and he was totally unafraid of being unpopular or punished for voicing his opinions that it is impossible not to be in awe of him. He was a modern thinker, tackling social issues that always have and always will exist.