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Posts Tagged ‘Voltaire’

14 AUGUST, 2015

Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book

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“Perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.

A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.

But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.

Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.

In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.

On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.

So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.

Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.

On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.

After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.

They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.

“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].

“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.

He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.

The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.

This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.

But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.

Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.

Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.

After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.

One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”

The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:

More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.

The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:

Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.

All the philosophers shook their heads.

One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:

“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”

The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.

“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”

Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:

“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”

But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:

Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.

At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.

Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.

How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.

Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

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“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
.
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

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14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Female Mathematician

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“That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.”

“I found, in 1733, a young woman who thought as I did, and who decided to spend several years in the country, cultivating her mind.” So begins the description by Voltaire in his memoirs of a relationship that would define the most productive years of his life. The most famous man in Europe had met his match: the twenty-seven-year-old mathematical prodigy Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet.

The pairing was dynamic and productive — together, they would achieve some of the most important Enlightenment writing on science, physics, and philosophy. But as Nancy Mitford explains in her fantastic 1957 biography of the intellectual power couple, Voltaire in Love (public library), they were devoted not just as intellectuals, but as lovers as well as friends. It was an extraordinary bond that lasted for nearly fifteen years.

In his youth, Voltaire enjoyed the education of a minor aristocrat; Émilie could credit her education solely to her father, who recognized her capacity for learning at an early age. She studied Latin, English, Italian, and Greek, translated the Aeneid, read Homer and Cicero, and, most importantly, excelled at math.

Madame du Châtelet at her Desk by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

She was less successful at the feminine arts, and at the height of her fame would be chastised for having poor teeth, unkempt hair, and messy clothes. Mitford writes:

Elegance, for women, demands undivided attention; Émilie was an intellectual, she had not endless hours to waste with hairdressers and dressmakers.

Émilie and her talents inspired both awe and jealousy among the nobility; she had removed the most charming and witty man in Paris from their dinner tables. While Voltaire remained a bachelor, Émilie had married at nineteen the dull and abiding Marquis du Châtelet, the perfect arrangement for one to conduct a necessary love affair. Mitford explains:

Love, in France, is treated with formality; friends and relations are left in no doubt as to its beginning and its end. Concealment, necessitating confidants and secret meeting places, is only resorted to when there is a jealous husband or wife. The Marquis de Châtelet always behaved perfectly.

Before they met, both Voltaire and Émilie had a parade of lovers: He enjoyed the attentions, though not the intellect, of wealthy aristocrats who would feed and house him, while she entered into passionate affairs and even once drank poison to discourage a lover from leaving. After her third pregnancy at twenty-seven, she renounced the bearing of children and began the serious study of mathematics.

Their meeting was simple: The pair was introduced by another set of aristocratic lovers over a tavern dinner of chicken fricassee. Voltaire had just returned from England and was thrilled to discuss the latest scientific discoveries of the age. He wrote in a letter:

That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.

Portrait of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour c. 1736, three years into his relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet. (Wikimedia commons)

She invited him to her house in the country. He moved in. (The Marquis was often away on military campaigns.) With the essential assistance of Émilie, Voltaire would publish Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a simplified guide to the famous scientist, which popularized his most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes. Voltaire sincerely recognized the intellectual debt he owed his lover. The frontispiece of the work shows the philosopher touched by the divine light light of Newton, reflected down to earth by a heavenly muse, Madame du Châtelet.

Frontispiece for Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Newton and the Marquise as muse are shown floating above the author.

Émilie herself sought a more profound goal: the translation into French of Newton’s Mathematica Principia, in which the elements of calculus were first laid out. She not only translated, but also added her own commentary on Newton’s calculations. Her mathematical skills awed her social set. Émilie was a hustler of sorts at the gaming tables in Paris, though she rarely had the luck to win. Mitford writes:

Voltaire said of her that the people she gambled with had no idea she was so learned, though sometimes they were astonished by the speed and accuracy with which she added up the score. He himself once saw her divide nine figures by nine others in her head.

Voltaire and Émilie lived in an intellectual fairyland, punctuated by the occasional need for Voltaire to flee to the country due to an insult or an affront. But as with all French affairs, there was no doubt to the beginning of the love between Voltaire and Émilie, and there was no doubt to its end. In 1744, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, a poet in the Academie Française and a Byronic figure at court, paid a visit to their country house. Ten years younger than the forty-three-year-old Émilie, Saint-Lambert began a cold seduction of the Marquise, who quickly fell in love. Voltaire, who had been recently ill, was enraged and depressed.

I am here in a beautiful palace… with all of my historical books and my references and with Mme du Châtelet; even so I am one of the most unhappy thinking creatures upon earth.

Portrait of Émilie du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière c. 1740. (Louvre)

But in the manner of French love affairs, Voltaire decided that it was better to remain friends with the muse of his life. Instead of challenging the young Saint-Lambert to a duel, he let Émilie go:

No, no, my child, I was in the wrong. You are still in the happy age when one can love and be loved. Make the most of it. An old, ill man like myself can no longer hope for these pleasures.

With Saint-Lambert, Émilie soon found herself pregnant and terrified at the age of forty-four. She threw her attentions on translating Newton from Latin into French. She worked from eight in the morning until coffee at three in the afternoon, then she continued four until ten, and after a few hours with Voltaire, until five in the morning. With her work finished, she died in childbirth surrounded by her husband, her new lover, and Voltaire. (“It is you who has killed me!” he shouted at Saint-Lambert, learning of her death.) Voltaire would help publish her translation of Newton ten years after her death, which remains the standard version of the text in France today.

Issac Newton’s Principia, translated into French by the Marquise du Châtelet, published in 1759, ten years after her death.

Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet were among the most inspirational couplings of the Enlightenment, and became a model for brilliant and difficult men and women who would come together in a blaze of all-consuming affection between like minds, including Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Savor their singular romance in the altogether wonderful Voltaire in Love.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Voltaire on the Perils of Censorship, the Freedom of the Press, and the Rewards of Reading

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“The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.”

Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectuals on both sides of the English Channel and beyond. But more than a mere participant in literary culture, Voltaire was also its vocal proponent, unflinching custodian, and tireless crusader for its highest ideals. In a poignant and pointed 1733 letter to a high-ranking government commissioner, found in the volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection From His Correspondence (public library; public domain) by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire bemoans the extreme censorship of the press in 18th-century France. Making a brilliant addition to famous authors’ revolt against censorship and eloquently extolling the rewards of reading, he writes:

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar — slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

He then goes on to make an economic case against censorship, arguing that even the most meritless of literature should be allowed to exist for its economic and social value, whatever our moral judgment of it may be — an argument that could apply perfectly, depending on one’s disposition, to the Buzzfeeds and Huffington Posts of our time:

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier — and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things — profit and pleasure.

A year after Voltaire penned this missive, his own Letters on the English were publicly burned and he was compelled to flee the capital. But, as Hall writes, “the system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman’s fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous.”

Four decades later, writing to Rousseau in 1775 to discuss the perils of plagiarism, Voltaire revisits the subject of literature’s battles with his singular gift for separating the petty from the profound:

What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.

They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrants, Octavius Caesar — servilely entitled Augustus — he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

[…]

If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused — as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness. . .

More of Voltaire’s timeless wisdom and unwavering convictions can be found in Letters on the English, which is also available as a free download.

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