May 2nd 2013

Voltaire: I Groan In Silence

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


Voltaire looks up from his quill pen but does not rise as I enter his study for our interview. He is working alone, his bald head covered by a skull cap. A shoulder-length wig is draped on a wooden stand nearby. The first thing that strikes me is what a shrunken little guy he is, at odds with the large, lasting impression he made as a rapscallion in his heyday. Second, he didn’t dress up for this fantasy visit. He is wearing a housecoat, probably naked underneath. Voltaire’s view of our modern world turns out to be strangely similar to his commentaries on the 18th century. The world turns, it would seem, but does not evolve. Much of his writing fits the human predicament of today – needless war, abuse of power, fraudulent democracies, religious fanaticism. As he looks me over, his eyes twinkle. He is more comfortable than I am. With some exuberance, he extends a bony hand. I don’t know whether to shake it or kiss it. I shake it.

Herewith, a transcript of our interview.

INTERVIEWER: Monsieur Voltaire, I presume?

VOLTAIRE: Yes indeed, and a very good day to you, mon ami. It’s wonderful to meet the press and sound off again. I never thought I’d have another chance.

I: May we start with a scene-setter? Where have you been? We have missed you. We have neededyou. Did the devil take you?

V: No, I have not been in hell, as my enemies hoped. I have been in heaven and I am happier than ever. I didn’t quite believe heaven existed, but it turns out to be the perfect place for the likes of me. For one thing, we have no royal policemen checking on us every five minutes. Where did they end up, I wonder … ?

I: Let’s talk ‘big picture’ for a moment. How about life on our planet – surely you agree that it has changed for the better since you passed to the other side in 1778 after eighty years of troublemaking? You like what you see?

V: Oh no, I am disgusted! (He bangs his tiny fist on the writing table.) My lifetime of campaigning for the right to say what you think has proven to be a waste of time. Speaking out is still viewed as an inconvenience in too many of your countries, east, west and middle east. Entire peoples are afraid to speak their minds. The level of political discourse is juvenile. Superstition reigns. I have come back to sound the alarm – to try once more to wake up the world to the most sinister dangers. Political correctness. Fanaticism. Injustice.

I: Are you finished?

V: No, there is more — control of the populace by governments. Authoritarian rule is on the rise. Whatever happened to democracy? I always thought it would work at least in small countries. Your presidents want to hoard their power, just as our leaders did in my day. The people are scarcely consulted. Liberty is more fragile than ever. I warned about such things 200 years ago. Was no one listening?

I: Your cautionary writings about warfare seem to have zero impact. Are we guilty of repeating history?

V: Yes, you are. War is a plague that never stops. We had ghastly wars in my day, and the rules have not changed. Murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. How is it that we cross the sea to slaughter our brothers just because they dress in red smocks and wear turbans? How is it that we recruit citizen soldiers by making a noise with two little sticks on a cowhide membrane? And after battles have been won, come the celebrations! The sky is alight with rockets and the air is rent with the sound of bells, cannon and Te Deum on the cathedral organ. I groan in silence over murders that caused this public rejoicing.

To want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Please, give the armies credit for their honest patriotism if nothing else.

V: I don’t think so. To be a good patriot is very often to be the enemy of the rest of mankind. A patriot wants his country to prosper through trade and be powerful through armament. Clearly, one country cannot win without another losing, and it cannot conquer without making some people unhappy.(Wagging his finger.) So that is the human condition: to want your country to be great is to wish your neighbors ill.

I: Perhaps we have been too slow to learn our lessons?

V: Indeed. What can we say to a man who tells you that he would rather obey his God than man, and that therefore he is sure to go to heaven for butchering you? Fanatics are sometimes guided by rascals who put the dagger into their hands. These rascals are like the old man of lore who made imbeciles taste the joys of paradise and then promised them an eternity of pleasure on the condition that they assassinate all those he would name.

I: Yes, but that was then.

V: Not quite. Look around you. The identical situation prevails today. I once wrote a fable about a giant from another planet visiting earth and observing humans at war. The traveler, shuddering at what he saw, begged to know the cause of the horrible quarrels among such a puny race. The subject of the dispute was a pitiful mole-hill called Palestine, no larger than his heel. Need I provide specifics of your more modern struggles?

I: Don’t bother. I get your point. The human race is violent by nature.

V: Indeed. It requires twenty years for man to rise from the vegetative state in his mother’s womb, through childhood and adolescence until maturity of reason begins to appear. It has taken us centuries to learn a little about his blood, bone and sinew. (Shaking his head, eyes closed.) It takes an instant to kill him.

I: Would you agree that what we need is a sense of generosity toward each other to replace our urge to kill?

V: Yes, and this brings me to my most important theme – tolerance. What is tolerance? I once wrote an entire treatise on it. We are mere human beings — formed of weakness, inconsistencies, fickleness and error: let us pardon each others’ follies. That was and still is the first law of enlightened nature. It is clear that only a monster persecutes another because he is not of the same opinion.

I: Yet intolerance springs eternal in our species.

V: I invite the political powers of the world to say that they truly believe that kindness toward peoples would produce the same revolts that cruelty does. Of course the contrary is true. If men revolt when mistreated, it follows that they will not revolt if treated well.

An earthquake can swallow us all alike; that will be the ultimate justice 

I: At least justice will be served. Those who transgressed will eventually pay. Or will they?

V: Those reverend fathers of the Inquisition and its derivatives will be crushed just like other people. As we saw in Lisbon in 1755, an earthquake can swallow us all alike. That, my friend, will be the ultimate justice.

I. Most people only remember you for your harmless little tale Candide.

V. Candide was nothing great – I didn’t even like it — but it was far from harmless. It was full of malice, in fact. And you will excuse me if I say I am proud of my legacy. I left behind a mountain of poetry, prose, polemics, history, drama and private correspondence. I was the most popular playwright in Europe for many decades after my death. And some industrious souls at Oxford are still pulling my entire oeuvre together in a set of two hundred volumes. I wrote compulsively, day and night, about everything that mattered to me — and this was before email, Twitter and Facebook. Think of the ink I spilled!

I. We also remember you for saying you might disagree with us but would defend to the death our right to say it.

V. Wrong again. That was not I. It was a line – and a brilliant line it was – in a book published in London more than a hundred years ago called The Friends of Voltaire. I wish I had said it!

I: So you specialized in provocations. Monarchies trembled. What is your sweetest memory of impaling your targets?

V: Oh I had much pleasure in needling the grandees of my day – and I was glad to see that England, our big rival at that time, allowed and even encouraged this practice all those years ago. One of my most powerful little books was something I called Letters from the English Nation — a virtual hymn to England, singing the praises of the British and knowing how my words would be resented back across the Channel in France. They hated it when I wrote that “in England, people think, and literature is more honored than in France.”

I: Surely you don’t claim that England was a well-ordered society in the 18th century!

V: No, and being well-ordered is not the point. English genius has been like an unruly tree planted by nature, throwing a thousand branches in all directions and growing irregularly but vigorously. Genius dies if you seek to force its nature and trim it.

I: So did your little ruse work out?

V: Oh yes. They loved that book in old England. Not so much in France. (He lets out a high-pitched giggle.) They burned it in Paris.

I: And you went to your grave hating France?

V: No, no. I loved France – I still do — but I could not resist poking fun at the pompous people. One of my Candide characters says that when traveling in France he noted that half the inhabitants were insane, some were too cunning for their own good, others were rather good-natured but plain stupid. In all the provinces the principal occupation was fucking; the second, speaking ill of each other; and the third, just babbling nonsense. I wonder how much of this still applies today. Quite a bit, I would say. Plus ça change, as a French writer once said, well after my time.

I: Weren’t you always in trouble with your enemies, especially the critics?

V: Yes but I got even. I let rip against those who didn’t like me. I created a typical example of the genre, a Frenchman, naturally. He probably recognized himself. I called my character a fat swine, a wretched fellow who earned his living by trying to destroy all plays and all books; a reptile, a hack, a newspaper scribbler. You still have critics like that hanging around.

Journalists working among men of letters are like bats among the birds

I: Do you mean to say that newspapers writers serve no useful purpose?

V: The journalist produces the lowest kind of literature and is scorned even by the people. Yet these scribblers call themselves authors! The only authors are those who have succeeded in a genuine art, be it epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, history or philosophy, and who teach or delight mankind. The others, the journalists working among men of letters, are like bats among the birds.

I: Didn’t you sum up your thinking from A to Z in your Philosophical Dictionary?

V: Yes, that format gave me the opportunity to write about everything under the sun, and it’s in that book that I find I can make connections with your modern times. We thought our period was the beginning of an enlightened era, free of superstition. We were full of ourselves, and rightly so.

I: But that was mere hubris. You were still probing in the dark. You had no access to our scientific knowledge.

V: Oh yes we did. In my day, science was just becoming established, and it had been a long road. The Greeks and Romans thought the skies were made of crystal and the stars were little lamps that sometimes fell into the sea. In my time we had gathered enough data to scrap the old ways of understanding the physical world. Finally we had proofs. And yet most people preferred to cling to their superstitious, mystical beliefs. Many of you still do!

I: So life was not perfect in your day either?

V: Far from it. If you divided mankind of my era into twenty parts, nineteen would consist of people who work with their hands and are passive about learning. And in the one final part, how few are actually readers! And the number among those who actually think is exceedingly small.

And the faithful responded ‘Hee-haw hee-haw!’ 

I: You paint a dreary picture, Voltaire.

V: Oh, not always. If I looked hard enough I managed to find a bizarre humor in other people’s mysticism. For example, travelers through Italy told me the story of the Ass of Verona. The original donkey carried the Virgin Mary and Jesus into Jerusalem. The Veronese faithful organized gaudy processions behind a wooden donkey symbolizing the original. At the end of the celebratory Mass, the Verona priest, instead of saying “Ite missa est”, brayed three times with all his might, (Voltaire rises, takes a deep breath and bellows) ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’ And the faithful answered in chorus, ‘Hee-haw, hee-haw!’

I: Voltaire, you jest.

V: No, it’s true. Google it! They did it in France, too. Now we have entire books on the Feast of the Ass, and the Feast of Fools; they furnish wonderful material for a history of the human mind.

I: Voltaire, can you leave us on a hopeful note? What kind of real change is needed to make the human race worthy of the name?

V: We are misled by our betters: “Be content with what you have.” They will tell you to “desire nothing above your station”. Indeed! Curb your enthusiasm? If we always followed these maxims, we would still be eating acorns, we would still be sleeping in the open air, and we would not have had Corneille, Racine, Molière, and countless other great minds at play. Liberty is the way forward, ever more liberty. Let men read and let men dance – these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

I: What is wrong with a little irrational superstition? For simple people, can’t it be comforting in dealing with the unknown? They love their psychics and astrologers.

V: We should not seek to nourish ourselves on acorns when God gives us bread. Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the foolish daughters of very wise mothers. These two daughters, superstition and astrology, have subjugated the world for a long time. As I used to say at every opportunity, ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ (Crush infamy).

I: Since Socrates and Aristotle, philosophers have searched for the light.

V: Bah! I believe that there never was a creator of a philosophical system who did not confess at the end of his life that he had wasted his time. It must be admitted that the inventor of the mechanical arts have been much more useful than the inventors of syllogisms. He who imagined a ship or a machine towers considerably above he who imagined ideas.

I: But where are we supposed to find this energy for renewal today in a sea of apathy?

V: It is up to each of you to learn to think for yourself. You were born with this ability. If you choose to follow the herd, you deserve what you get.

– Dialogue quoted and adapted from Voltaire’s works, principally le Dictionnaire Philosophique, Treatise on Tolerance, Micromégas, Letters from the English Nation and Candide.

Sketch of Voltaire is by the author.

The article was first published by the Open Letters Monthly. Published here with the kind permission of the author and the Open Letters Monthly.


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."
Apr 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Reserve will buy unlimited quantities of Treasury bonds, the Bank of England will purchase £200 billion ($250 billion) of gilts, and the European Central Bank up to €750 billion ($815 billion) of eurozone bonds. Almost certainly, central banks will end up providing monetary finance to fund fiscal deficits. The only question is whether they should make that explicit."
Apr 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Even if you’re not enamoured with creepy crawlies, their gradual disappearance from the places they were once numerous is an ongoing crisis for the natural world. Insects and small invertebrates occupy the bottom rungs of most terrestrial ecosystems. As ecologist E.O. Wilson once observed, if you take away the “little things that run the world” then most of the creatures occupying niches further up the food chain will disappear too, and that includes humans. That’s why a 2017 study in Germany rang so many alarm bells – it reported a 75% decline over 27 years in the local biomass of all kinds of flying insects."
Apr 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "By 2000, China had already established near monopoly status on the manufacture of a whole range of products that the world rapidly consumes. Just a decade ago, 91% of all personal computers, 80% of all air conditioners, 74% of global solar cells, 71% of cell phones, and 60% of all cement were being manufactured in China. The world was hooked on Chinese-made products and the Chinese government had its way with foreign companies choosing to manufacture goods there, enforcing many draconian operating requirements in an environment that most companies would never have agreed to endure anywhere else."
Apr 20th 2020
Extracts: "Long before people and goods were traversing the globe non-stop, pandemics were already an inescapable feature of human civilization.........Nearly two millennia before London’s Great Plague, during the epidemic that killed at least one-third of Athenians near the end of the Peloponnesian War.............Epidemics not only ravage economies, but also throw societal inequalities into sharp relief, deepening deepen mistrust in the status quo........... Machiavelli, who witnessed – and probably died in – the plague in Florence in 1527, viewed the outbreak as the direct result of misrule. Criticisms of China, Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and others have echoed this sentiment....Others view epidemics through the lens of conspiracy theories. Marcus Aurelius blamed the Christians for the Antonine Plague. In Christian Europe, the fourteenth-century Black Death was blamed on the Jews......Despite these similarities, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to stand out in a crucial way: it is unlikely to upend the established order. The Antonine and Justinian Plagues encouraged the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. The Black Death drove people toward a less religious, more humanistic view of the world – a shift that would lead to the Renaissance. The Spanish flu prompted uprisings, massive labor strikes, and anti-imperialist protests; in India, where millions died, it helped to galvanize the independence movement."
Apr 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "From peddling disinformation about the virus to disbanding the National Security Council directorate overseeing pandemic threats, Trump has squandered multiple opportunities to get ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. The health and economic consequences that we are now experiencing have long been predicted. US intelligence analysts were warning about precisely this scenario for at least 12 years. But even they could not foresee that America would end up with a president willing to sacrifice so many lives on the altar of his ego."
Apr 9th 2020
EXTRACTS: ".........[1] The average bankruptcy takes 260 days to work out. During that period, businesses will have a hard time rebuilding.......[2]...consider the complexity of the global supply chain. More than 90% of Fortune 1,000 companies have at least one tier-2 (secondary) supplier in Hubei, the Chinese province around Wuhan.........[3]...disturbingly, 40% of all US corporate debt was rated BBB, just above junk, going into the crisis, while only 30% of the world’s outstanding stock of non-financial corporate bonds were rated A or above..........[4] Despite central bank interest-rate cuts, borrowing costs for companies are now rising dramatically. With further downgrades from credit ratings agencies all but guaranteed, especially with many big earnings announcements due after Easter, some companies will lose access to credit altogether. Moody’s estimates that the default rate for junk-rated companies could hit an astounding 10%, compared to a historical average of 4%......[5]...flu vaccines are relatively ineffective. They reduce your risk of becoming ill by 40% to 60%, compared to 97% for measles vaccines and 88% for mumps........[6] Lockdowns might end, while other measures like social distancing, limits on gatherings and travel restrictions continue – perhaps on a seasonal basis......[7] South Korea could be a glimpse into the future. It has so far avoided an Italian-style health crisis without a lockdown, but has still imposed various restrictions on the economy."
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "A recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, suggested that 78% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms. The findings are in line with research from an Italian village at the epicentre of the outbreak showing that 50%-75% were asymptomatic, but represented “a formidable source” of contagion. A recent Icelandic study also showed that around 50% of those who tested positive to COVID-19 in a large-scale testing exercise were asymptomatic. Meanwhile, a WHO report found that “80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections and 5% are critical infections................The new BMJ study is seemingly different to the findings of studies from earlier in the pandemic, which suggested that the completely asymptomatic proportion of COVID-19 is small: 17.9% on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and 33.3% in Japanese people who were evacuated from Wuhan.”
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Spooked by COVID-19, Americans not only stripped supermarket shelves of toilet paper and pasta, but also drove gun sales higher than ever. Apparently, many of these recent gun buyers never purchased a firearm before. Lobbyists for the US gun industry want gun stores to be counted as “essential” businesses, like food shops and pharmacies. A number of states have readily complied, as has the Department of Homeland Security. Jay Pritzker, Governor of Illinois, declared that “firearm and ammunition suppliers and retailers, for purposes of safety and security” should indeed be allowed to continue supplying these alleged necessities."
Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "........until the health crisis is resolved, the economic situation will look exceedingly grim. And even after an economic restart, the damage to businesses and debt markets will have lingering effects, especially considering that global debt was already at record-breaking levels before the crisis began..............Given that the 2008 financial crisis produced deep political paralysis and nurtured a crop of anti-technocratic populist leaders, we can expect the COVID-19 crisis to lead to even more extreme disruptions. is possible that stock-market losses so far have been less than those of 2008 only because everyone remembers how values shot back up during the recovery. But if that crisis does turn out to have been a mere dry run for this one, investors shouldn’t expect a quick rebound."