Voltaire, the French intellectual, was the champion of enlightenment and throughout his life he struggled for freedom of expression and human dignity and was against religious extremism and intolerance. He was a prolific writer and wrote over a hundred books, pamphlets and tracts.
He corresponded with European rulers, members of the aristocracy, other intellectuals as well as ordinary citizens, and wrote around 25,000 letters discussing political and religious issues. Eventually he was banished from Paris. Voltaire wandered from one place to the other for refuge but never compromised on his ideas despite suffering in exile. He settled down in an estate which he purchased on the border of France and Switzerland where people from all walks of life visited him.
Voltaire was born in an age of religious extremism when in Catholic France, there was no tolerance for protestants. On April 13, 1598 in Nantes, the French King, Henri IV (and Prince of Navarre), formally signed the document known as the Edict of Nantes. Even though the edict did not put an end to the pogroms and the persecutions, whose victims were Protestant believers in France, it did terminate what became known as the Wars of Religion, while legally (for a time at least) fixing the status of these reformers in the kingdom. It is to Nantes glory to have associated its name with one of the most far reaching acts of religious tolerance in history.
August 24, 1572 was the date of the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. On that day, over 400 years ago, began one of the most horrifying holocausts in history. The glorious Reformation, begun in Germany on October 31, 1517, had spread to France—and was joyfully received. A great change had come over the people as industry and learning began to flourish, and so rapidly did it spread that over a third of the population embraced the Reformed Christian Faith.
Voltaire favoured religious pluralism and believed that one religion or faith could make the society fanatic and narrow-minded. With two religions, people would slaughter each other in the name of faith. Only a society which had multiple religions would be tolerant and understanding of one another’s faith. In his writings, he emphasised on tolerance and condemned St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who had preached intolerance against non Christians.
Voltaire criticised the clergy when the church opposed inoculation against small pox, claiming it to be an intervention against the work of God. He supported inoculation and accused the priests of being superstitious. When there was an earthquake in Lisbon in which thousands of people died, the clergy called it divine punishment for the sinners but regarded it a blessing for the good people who died and earned paradise by the grace of God.
Voltaire opposed their views as he believed the earthquake to be a natural calamity.
Voltaire not only influenced the European society but also impressed the rulers by his views. He was invited by Frederick II of Prussia where he lived for three years but left in disappointment when he realised that he was only considered a decoration in the court and the implementation of his philosophy was not intended.
However, he continued to correspond with Frederick and discouraged him against wars in Europe, describing gruesome details of the battlefield where thousands of men died just to glorify kings and killers. He wrote letters to Catherine of Russia advising her to abolish serfdom and liberate the peasants. He vehemently opposed the French aristocracy who consumed wealth and made no contribution to society.
He remained anti-clergy throughout his life and argued that it was the priests and the religious people who created conflict, bloodshed and hatred in society while Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Spinoza peacefully benefited humanity through their ideas and inventions.
In 1778, his 84th year, Voltaire attended the first performance of his tragedy Irène, in Paris. His journey and reception were a triumph, but the emotion was too much for him to handle, and he died in Paris soon afterwards. His body later on was transferred to the Pantheon which was built by the revolutionary government to honour its heroes.
Pakistani society is presently going through a similar process that France and Europe went through in the 18th century.
Religious intolerance, extremism, warmongering and violence in the name of religion and trampling of human rights reign, while the rich and the ruling have abandoned the people and their problems. Sadly, there are no towering figures as Voltaire to raise a voice against these vices and transform society like he had done in the 18th century Europe.