Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment

Course No. 452
Professor Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 452
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Course Overview

Leading intellectual historian Alan Charles Kors shares with you his view of Voltaire as one of the most intriguing, influential, and elusive thinkers of the modern world. Focusing on the deepest, most enduring aspects of Voltaire's work and thought, but never losing sight of the colorful, fascinating man himself, Professor Kors sketches for you a vibrant, thought-provoking vision of Voltaire as "the father of the Enlightenment" and one of the great literary personalities of all time.

The "Father of the Enlightenment"

Voltaire lived for 84 astoundingly productive years (1694-1778), wrote hundreds of works in almost all the literary, philosophical, and polemical genres current in his day, and left behind more than 20,000 letters.

What was his world like? Who and what influenced him? What questions and dilemmas did he ponder? What evils did he struggle against? What reforms did he advocate? What made him laugh and cry, or write a book like Candide, which is at once so funny and so sad? And what is his place in the history of the Western mind?

According to Professor Kors, "his life both reflected and profoundly altered the movement we now call the 'Enlightenment.' He wrote in almost every literary genre—from light verse to epic poem, drama, narrative fiction, essay, dictionary, philosophical treatise, and scientific popularization—and virtually created a genre, the 'philosophical tale,' in which he has remained most alive for posterity."

In more than two decades of distinguished teaching at Penn, Professor Kors has proven himself a top scholar and award-winning classroom performer. He has written numerous books and articles on French and British intellectual history, and has won two awards for distinguished college teaching and several awards for the defense of academic freedom. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment.

Elusive Thinking and Philosophical Tales

Encouraged in his youth to write—he was an excellent poet by the age of 11 or 12—Voltaire continued at his craft until his death at the age of 84.

His collected works take up more than a hundred dense volumes of published texts and more than a hundred volumes of correspondence.

For the 18th century, he was a master of theater, epic poetry, serious and light verse, essays, histories, philosophical treatises, polemical pieces, scientific popularizations, and a genre that he developed and made his own.

In early 18th-century Paris, Voltaire was exposed to great philosophical debates and new religious ideas. He seemed on the verge of success until a quarrel caused a four-year exile to England that reshaped his outlook.

Voltaire was impressed by Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and by the prospect that knowledge gained from experience can improve the human condition. His Philosophical Letters (1734) explained and popularized British empiricism.

In this book, Voltaire contrasted his idealized portrait of prosperous, free, and tolerant England with the aristocracy, intolerance, and traditionalism of France. In some chapters, he accomplished nothing less than a revaluation of what is important to a progressive and free human life.

Banished from Paris, Voltaire sought refuge with the Marquise du Châtelet, a remarkable thinker who had mastered the intellectual legacies of the 17th century. His 15 years with her turned out to be the most productive of his life.

Her death in 1749 threw Voltaire into a long period of sorrow and uncertainty that ended with the publication of his most enduring philosophical tale: Candide, or Optimism (1759). With Candide—and in part to his own surprise—he became a crusader for "the party of humanity."

He wrote many plays and poems, but his many "philosophical tales," including Candide, became the prime vehicles for his ideas and made him the most widely read Enlightenment author.

Cultivating the "Human Garden"

At the end of Candide, Voltaire calls for cultivation of the "human garden" as the only antidote to despair. At his estate at Ferney on the Swiss border, he took his own advice both literally and metaphorically—and rose to the peak of his public influence.

Voltaire became a crusader for causes of the Enlightenment. He flooded Europe with his work, almost none of which appeared under his own name.

He had over 1,700 correspondents, from peasants to kings, and he used his letters to incite people to his causes, rail against injustice, propose reforms, and encourage young authors. He also used the correspondence to reveal which of the works that he had published anonymously or pseudonymously actually belonged to him.

Laughter was a weapon for Voltaire, and on any topic irony was essential to that laughter:

  • "To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered."
  • "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."
  • "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."
  • "Anything too stupid to be said is sung."
  • "This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."

Voltaire and God

Throughout all of his intellectual life, Voltaire wrestled with the problem of knowledge of God. A convinced Deist, he opposes revealed religion and atheism with equal vigor even while wondering how to reconcile God's existence with God's providence.

However, no issue meant more to Voltaire than ending religious intolerance and persecution, and in no domain did he do more to change the conscience and the practices of European civilization.

He wrote, "I have, and can only have, no other goal but truth, but there is more than one truth, that time alone can disclose."

"The Secret to Being Boring"

Voltaire once said: "The secret to being boring is to reveal everything." Voltaire would not reveal everything; he frequently changed his mind on fundamental issues of politics, God and providence, formal philosophy, and ethics. For Voltaire, life overflowed the categories by which we try to contain it in human thought. One critic wrote that Voltaire was "a chaos of clear ideas."

Voltaire wrote that a friend was sometimes Socrates, that is, always philosophically engaged and serious, and sometimes Epicurus, that is, always philosophically detached. He could have been writing about himself.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Voltaire is with a phrase for which he is often credited, but for which there is no clear evidence he actually uttered: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it."

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    “The Patriarch”—An Overview
    Studying the elusive and changeable thought of Voltaire demands a complex approach that takes into his massive writings, their influence, and the internal debates and dilemmas that shadow his life's work. x
  • 2
    The Education of a Philosophe
    In early 18th-century Paris, Voltaire is exposed to great philosophical debates and new religious ideas. He seems on the verge of success until a quarrel causes a four-year exile to England that will reshape his outlook. x
  • 3
    Philosophical Letters, Part I
    Voltaire is impressed by Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and by the prospect that knowledge gained from experience can improve the human condition. His Philosophical Letters (1734) explain and popularize British empiricism. x
  • 4
    Philosophical Letters, Part II
    Voltaire contrasts his idealized portrait of prosperous, free, and tolerant England with the aristocracy, intolerance, and traditionalism of France. In some chapters, he accomplishes nothing less than a revaluation of what is important to a progressive and free human life. x
  • 5
    The Years of Cirey
    Banished from Paris, Voltaire seeks refuge with the Marquise du Châtelet, a remarkable thinker who had mastered the intellectual legacies of the 17th century. His 15 years with her turn out to be the most productive of his life. x
  • 6
    From Optimism to Humanism
    Emilie du Châtelet's death in 1749 throws Voltaire into a long period of sorrow and uncertainty that ends with the publication of his most enduring philosophical tale: Candide, or Optimism (1759). With Candide—and in part to his own surprise—he becomes a crusader for "the party of humanity." x
  • 7
    Voltaire and the Philosophical Tale
    Contemporaries and probably Voltaire himself would have expected his plays and poems to be his most enduring works. But his many "philosophical tales," including Candide, became the prime vehicles for his ideas and made him the most widely read Enlightenment author. x
  • 8
    Voltaire at Ferney
    At the end of Candide, Voltaire calls for the cultivation of the human garden as the only antidote to despair. At his estate at Ferney on the Swiss border, he takes his own advice both literally and metaphorically—and also rises to the peak of his public influence. x
  • 9
    Voltaire and God
    Throughout his intellectual life, Voltaire wrestles with the problem of knowledge of God. A convinced Deist, he opposes revealed religion and atheism with equal vigor even while wondering how to reconcile God's existence with God's providence. x
  • 10
    Voltaire and History
    While writing everything from a life of Charles XII of Sweden (1731) to a history of the world (1756), Voltaire pioneers the critical use of sources and the weaving of narratives that present a philosophic vision of human affairs. x
  • 11
    Voltaire and Tradition
    No issue means more to Voltaire than ending religious intolerance and persecution, and in no domain does he do more to change the conscience and the practices of European civilization. x
  • 12
    Voltaire has been a cultural icon for centuries now. While posterity's judgment of him has not been constant, few other authors can claim to have affected so deeply the way a whole civilization thinks and feels. x

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Your professor

Alan Charles Kors

About Your Professor

Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Alan Charles Kors is Henry Charles Lea Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching since 1968. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and his master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He received postdoctoral fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, and the...
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Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 121.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well-written, well delivered I enjoyed thoroughly, and could have enjoyed slightly more if the canned applause weren't present.
Date published: 2017-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Recommended!! I'm almost 2/3 of the way through this course. I recommend it. In high school I wrote an essay about Voltaire's life that caused my teacher to ask why. As a college undergrad I wrote a term paper comparing Voltaire's "Candide" and Samuel Johnson's "Rasselas." My teacher for that class condemned Voltaire as an infidel and thought I'd missed the point. Prof. Kors' lecture analyzes "Candide" much better (and far more interestingly) than anything else does that I've ever read, heard, seen, or written. Prof. Kors explains the context in which Voltaire wrote "Candide," clarifies the points Voltaire made in veiled form, and describes the work's impact. As a graduate student I wrote a term paper about Voltaire's popularization of Sir Isaac Newton's thinking and the objections Voltaire -- and Newton -- faced in France. Professor Kors did a better job of explaining that subject, and putting it in context, than I'd seen, or than I wrote. Prof. Kors also gave the credit that's due to Mme. du Chatelet, and gave it with unusual detail and generosity. Prof. Kors starts this lecture series by telling us why no one description will thoroughly explain Voltaire's work and influence. Nonetheless, Prof. Kors' own clear and concise presentation comes admirably close. The man knows his stuff.
Date published: 2017-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent biography I knew little of Voltaire before taking this course, and was amazed to discover the extent of his influence on the Enlightenment and the dram in his own life. Best known as a poet and playwright in his own lifetime, he is now seen as a transformative thinker. If you as an English speaker would rather study English than French thinkers, you are in luck - so would Voltaire. The professor spends some time with "Letters Concerning the English Nation." While never voicing treasonous opinions against the French monarchy, Voltaire wrote these essays with the intent that the reader would draw the same conclusions as Voltaire himself: 18th century English religious tolerance was better than French persecution; English mercantile industriousness was better than French aristocratic leisure; and the English scientific empiricism of Bacon and Locke were infinitely preferable to the armchair philosophy of Descartes. Voltaire's own life has a pleasing dramatic arc, starting in obscurity, moving through adversity and persecution, and ending in universally acclaimed triumph. A great story well told.
Date published: 2017-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire Very informative and entertaining. Easy to listen to.
Date published: 2017-05-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enlightened but some shade dims a wee bit... Overall, a great lecture series. Informative, thoughtful, articulate and fun. The only negative is Professor Kors tends towards the hagiographic. One doesn't have to listen long to know the Professor is highly enthusiastic over the subject matter. That makes the course enjoyable but it leaves a discerning listener somewhat wanting. Some deeper analysis could be offered. For example, Lecture 11, on a discussion of toleration the professor takes joy in telling Voltaire's chastising of Christians and Christianity; 'of all religions, Christianity contributes most to intolerance in the world'. Was this all there was to Voltaire's view of Christianity?? Likely not and I realize this is just a cursory review into he life of Voltaire but... This presentation is modern secular progressive world view and perhaps one the professor holds thus he is biased in the presentation. Needless to say no Christianity... no Enlightenment. Surely Christianity and more specifically bureaucratized and politicized Christianity has its share of intolerance but... what religion doesn't? In the grand scheme however one could argue Christianity is arguably the most benevolent of all religions. I'm not taking sides here, I'm trying to say there are more sides to this story and the Professor didn't touch upon the deeper material. In this sense I felt there are many areas where it seems the Professor is using Voltaire as a vehicle to advance his modern political sentiments. Still a lot to be learned and enjoyed but not perfect thus the four stars.
Date published: 2017-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Voltaire CD was terrific. Voltaire was an amazing man. I had always heard about The Enlightenment but never really knew what it was all about. This course put it all in perspective. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-04-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Impossible to listen to this one This speaker was impossible for me to listen to because he speaks SOOOO SLOOOOWLY. that it immediately puts me to sleep. I've purchased and listened to many great courses and this is the first one that I've had this problem with. I just can't stay awake listening to someone who talks this slow. I contacted Great Courses to see if they had an audio player that would play at a faster speed (1.5X or 2.0x or higher) and they don't have anything like that. So I haven't been able to even listen to this program. I've tried several times to listen to this, but it's just impossible for me. If I could speed up the recording, I would probably enjoy this program, but I just can't bear to listen to a lecture by someone who talks so slowly. Lot's of apps by other companies have the ability to speed up a recording, but the great courses audio player doesn't have this feature.
Date published: 2016-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire & the Triumph of the Enlightenment I have not yet completed the entire course but would like to say that it is superb and one of the best courses so far that I have taken. Voltaire, with his complexity and his seminal and pivotal influence in modern European civilization, is brilliantly introduced by Professor Kors. Voltaire, controversial throughout his life and still the subject of controversy and differing interpretations, is introduced to us by a consummate expert in the field. Whether one is an academic or a student, these lectures provide a solid account of Voltaire and the various interpretations, schools of thought, if you will, of his influence in the realm of ideas and his role in history. One senses Professor Kors sees clearly to the heart of the matter. I very much appreciate the pace of Professor Kors delivery. Doubtless he is an impassioned scholar of Voltaire, but his presentation is always deliberate, succinct and vivid. One knows that the whole man Voltaire is being presented, and that the presentation is the result of a profound understanding of the man, an intimate and a thorough grasp of all the historical materials available.
Date published: 2016-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire Insight Of my over 30 Great Courses, this is by far my favorite among many enriching recordings. To provide this much insight into Voltaire and his nearly countless works is a significant accomplishment. These lectures sketch the life of Voltaire as he became Voltaire and lived his 84 years. This elusive figure always a step away from incarceration until near the end of his life, is made human from marble. Having passed by the Parthenon in Paris, I turned back and had to have another look at the building with the remains of this great man. His approach to God was through his particular brand of Deism. Chastising the atheists and speaking out for religious tolerance while denying the religious texts was an example of his mastery of layered language. Of course, he wanted no part of another trip to the Bastille. Professor Kors bows to the breadth and depth of Voltaire's many works and letters. His passion and awe for Voltaire is beautifully conveyed. Voltaire is not to be mastered by any of us.
Date published: 2016-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great! Now a Course on Voltaire's Philosophy audio download version For those like me, who know very little about Voltaire's life, less about how he fit into the society of the day and how his writings forced his relocations and prison time and are only familiar with overall Enlightenment philosophy, this is as outstanding course. Professor Kors enthusiastically delivers the life and times of Voltaire, along with many of his contemporaries, friends, enemies and lovers. Who knew for example that during his time at Freney he was an enlightened landlord and employer? Who knew that he was proud, vein and thin skinned? Who knew that he was essentially both an anti-semite and tolerant of Jews? Who knew that he learned much about science and mathematics, especially those of Isaac Newton from his lover, Emilie du Chaelet? Not me, but know I have a much better idea of the man and some insight into why he thought what he thought and did what he did. To be sure this course is not titled "Voltaire and the Philosophy of the Enlightenment", so in fairness I can deduct no stars for Dr. Kors not presenting a critique of his philosophy. But this not mean that the TC should not dedicate a course on this subject. Of course I may not have looked closely enough.
Date published: 2016-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great introduction to Voltaire This course not only brought my knowledge of Voltaire from near zero to ... well, at least I know the basics now! The presentation is very engaging and does a great job of explaining Voltaire's place in history and how he related to the other great philosophers of his era. I would strongly recommend this course to others.
Date published: 2016-06-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Content but Annoying Presentation A very interesting subject which I really wanted to learn about. The professor's presentation style is just very annoying. Overall I recommend it though as an interesting topic and I did learn a lot.
Date published: 2016-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great short course: can TTC make more like it? Audio CD Review The BLUF is that I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying this course. Dr. Kors is his normal brilliant self. He sets the right context, crafts the materiel in a simultaneously simple but nuanced fashion, and delivers with a passion and language that keeps your attention riveted. It is a very nice supplement with his Birth of the Modern Mind course. I highly recommend taking both courses back-to-back. I offer this idea to The Teaching Company: make similar short courses (6 -12 lectures) on many more Great Thinkers of the past. It would be similar to the Western Intellectual Tradition course, but rather than spending one or two classes on a Great Thinker, you dedicate 6-12 lectures. You would then have a suite of short courses from which customers can tailor package their selections. I would very much enjoy seeing such a product line being made available.
Date published: 2016-06-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Biographical, not Philosophical This course devotes much time to biographical information and little time to analyzing Voltaire's thought, intellectual predecessors, and influence. This break-down is unjustifiable. Voltaire deserves a course of his own not because he fell in love, moved around Europe, or met important people, but because he is a towering figure in modern European philosophy; that is, because of his ideas, which should have been this course's centerpiece. When the professor gets around to discussing Voltaire's ideas, his analyses are superficial. He says, for example, that Voltaire popularized Newtonian science in France and Europe, but he does not rigorously examine Newton's ideas or discuss the Aristotelian paradigm they challenged. If you want to know about Voltaire's life, you will probably like this course. You will probably be disappointed if you want a thorough discussion of Voltaire's thought and the Enlightenment's significance and legacy.
Date published: 2016-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, important, and beautifully taught This is the second course I have taken by Professor Kors, the other one being “Birth of the modern mind”, which is a fascinating and beautifully taught survey of intellectual history in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries. This course is a zoom-in on one of the most important characters of that survey; Voltaire. Professor Kors does a very good job in demonstrating how diverse and multidimensional Voltaire was. Particularly, he demonstrates his whipping sarcasm (which often landed him often in hot water) and brilliant wit. He also explains and demonstrates why it is so difficult to understand Voltaire, since it is often hard to decide if he is being straight or ironic. He had to be – he lived in an age in which one could be brutally punished for saying the wrong things. Another reason is that he was almost unbelievably prolific, and it is not rare to find Voltaire apparently changing his position in different works. Overall I found Professor Kors, in this course too, to be delightful and brilliant and the course to cover the huge and important contribution of Voltaire to modern, Western intellectual tradition well.
Date published: 2016-03-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Quietly compelling - excellent value I have little background on Voltaire, so I may be less critical than some of the reviewers with a more extensive knowledge, I use these courses - the history, literature, music and philosophy courses at least - to distract me when I am exercising, travelling or doing mundane tasks. So I want something that will mix education with a compelling presentation. I use the following five criteria when I am assessing a course. Yours may be different. 1. Do I look forward to listening to or watching the next episode? Yes, I had expected this course to be a bit dry, but I found myself moving on to the next episode, even when I did not really have enough time to complete it. 2. Do I feel I learned something interesting or useful from each episode? Without a doubt, yes. This of course may be because I didn't know much about Voltaire in the first place, but it worked for me. 3. Would I recommend this to a friend? I did indeed recommend this to a friend, and she was even more enthusiastic in her appreciation than I am. 4. Do I find the speaker’s lecturing style compelling and interesting. Yes, I did. Kors is not as dynamic a speaker as Kenneth Harle, Rufus Fears or Robert Greenberg, all of whom I enjoy listening to, but he is, in his own quiet way, compelling. 5. Would I buy another course from this lecturer, without hesitation? Yes, based on this, I purchased Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and enjoyed it also. The bottom line here is that for $15, I learned a lot, and I was entertained in the process. This course was, for me, excellent value.
Date published: 2015-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Set of Lectures Kors is incredibly good. Super enlightening, engrossing, relevant, timeless, riveting. I could not get out of the car to stop listening. I have heard this series at least three times now, and probably will several more times. The subject matter is timeless and super important right now. The issue of tolerance is one that cries out for another Voltaire, to help the world come to terms with some of the horrible injustice we are witnessing almost daily, due to intolerance. Treat yourself to this marvelous set of lectures. You won't regret it.
Date published: 2015-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kors rules I have to admit, this is not my first course delivered by Kors. I actually did this course specifically because he is the lecturer. He delivers the material clearly and makes the complicated sections fun. As an example, this course contained a lot of philosophical theory. He did not overplay those parts, but explained them in a manner that was easy to comprehend. Probably his best work comes when he ties the lectures into broader perspectives. Each lecture contains some piece of what is happening in the world and how this fits in. All in all I thoroughly enjoy his work and will continue to purchase his courses.
Date published: 2015-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well written overview Brief, rich, and easy to follow overview of Voltaire and the enlightenment period. Very much worth it.
Date published: 2015-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All you could want in a short course This course has all the elements to help you learn efficiently and joyfully. Professor Kors presents in a deliberate manner that is still engaging. The material includes historical and biographical information that places Voltaire's great thinking into context. There is deep insight and humor which stirs your desire to study more beyond the survey he masterfully delivers in six hours. Voltaire could consume a lifetime but this reminder of how we arrive at so many of our "conclusions" is invaluable.
Date published: 2015-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Necessary for understanding the enlightenment Well put together and held my interest through each lesson. The course sparked my interest so much that I have purchased Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, Candide, Zadig and selected stories, The Portable Voltaire, God and Human Beings and reading these while doing the course.
Date published: 2015-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment What a delightful course. Somehow I had buried the life and times of François-Marie Arouet deep in my subconscious, only to find a rekindled interest in this 18th-century champion of the Enlightenment when listening to the lectures.
Date published: 2014-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Portal Into the Enlightenment The course on Voltaire by Professor Kors is excellent. This course should be viewed along with "Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries" which provides a context for the period. It can be difficult to understand the full scope of the Enlightenment, but these two courses provide as good an introduction as one is likely to find. The written guidebooks are also excellent and provide references for even further study.
Date published: 2014-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One brave dude.... Dr Kors presents a thoroughly entertaining set of lectures about a man who, most likely, is responsible for establishing civilization in the western world in the 18th century...perhaps crystallizing the ideas articulated in the US constitution. Voltaire showed the courage to defy the Catholic dogma in France, risking his life for toleration and promoting a broad acceptance of rapidly expanding intellectual (scientific and philosophical) thought...commonly referred to as the 'Enlightenment'. If the reader is considering purchasing these lectures beware, since it may convince you to read many, if not all of his stuff (a very technical term). You will find them entertaining and many down-right funny...leaving you hungry for more. Can you imagine a man of his influence commenting on the state of toleration in the world of Islam today? Remarkable man and lectures series (often on sale).
Date published: 2014-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment Professor Kors has an excellent command of 18th century history, when Voltaire lived and became the father figure of the Enlightenment. The entire course is fascinating and holds the reader's attention all the time. Every single lecture is informative and interesting, from start of a lecture to its completion. After listening for one time through the complete course, you want to go back and listen again! It is that good. If you listen to the course again, to repeat the material, the course is as interesting as if you are hearing it for the first time !! Never boring. The pacing of the professor's speech is excellent, with elegant fluency of speech, erudition, and command of the English language, with outstanding historical perspective/context. This course is marvelous and can be repeated again and again -- without getting boring. Hallmark of a truly great teacher. Highly, highly recommended.
Date published: 2014-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening Dr. Alan Kors does it again. After taking his course on Birth of the Modern Mind (see below), I had to try his course on Voltaire and I wasn't disappointed. In Voltaire, Dr. Kors captures the essence of one of the Enlightenment's key rational philosophical thinkers. A literary gifted child of an official in France's royal bureaucracy with wealth, but without a pedigree, Voltaire shows a rebellious streak first with his father, and then with a member of the aristocracy. The former leads to a post in Holland where he meets his first lover, the later to a prison sentence and later exile to England. During this exile, Voltaire immerses himself in the English Enlightenment and is particularly influenced by John Locke's empiricism and Isaac Newton's Natural Philosophy. On return to France he turns from poetry to literary philosophy while attempting to imprint the Enlightenment ideas in the face of a conservative and hierarchical Catholic Church and a royal aristocracy. His Philosophical Letters and his philosophical tales (e.g. Candide) generate a huge following among the masses (and some aristocrats), not only in France but throughout Europe. At the same time, his writings incur the wrath of the French Catholic Church and the royalty. Voltaire was the most prolific writer of his age. His 15 million published words easily outdistance the 800,000 words of the Bible. He begins his writings at age 11 or 12 and continues until his death at age 84. In his words, we learn about his views on Humanism, Religion (he was a Deist), History, and (his hallmark) Toleration. While without a doubt from these we can see how his views influenced the French Revolution after his death, his influence on the democratic philosophy behind the American Revolution are also obvious. Though it is not discussed in the course, Voltaire without a doubt influenced Thomas Jefferson and probably also Ben Franklin (who paid his respects to Voltaire during a visit in the last year of his life). Along the way in Voltaire's life story we encounter some interesting female influences/acquaintances. The most significant is Mme. du Chatelet, also known as "Lady Newton". Mme du Chatelet was learned in the sciences, unusual for an 18th Century French Marquise. She obtained her nickname as she translated Newton's "Principia Mathematica" into French and self taught herself Newton's Calculus. She became the Natural Philosopher complement to Voltaire's literary genius as they co-habitated at her estate. Later, at his own estate with the considerable wealth he earned from his writings, Voltaire joined forces with is niece, Mme. Denis who created domestic tranquility enabling Voltaire to become even more prolific in his championing of Enlightenment Ideas. Despite his anti-aristocratic views and promotion of religious tolerance, Voltaire did write a few somewhat inconsistent works. Perhaps due to his discord with the Regent Duke of Orleans who ruled France until Louis XV came of age, Voltaire wrote a complimentary history of the prior King, Louis XIV. Louis XIV was noted for his strings of wars and, in particular, his pursuit of a "scorched Earth" policy when he devastated the Palatinate region of the Rhineland. As for religious tolerance, surprisingly Voltaire showed anti-Judaism views. This cannot be considered antisemitism, but rather an objection to the Jewish (pr any other religion's) concept of being a "chosen people." Voltaire's life was fascinating and impactful. As not only one of the Enlightenment's great thinkers but one of its greatest champions in promoting its ideals, Voltaire's influence was too vast to be measurable. Dr. Kors tells this story with inflection, passion and credibility. He obviously is a great admirer of Voltaire which comes through clearly in his lectures. Some reviewers find his accent and tonal range difficult; I did not. His voice range comes through clearly even amid background noise (e.g. driving or a treadmill). The accompanying course guide is excellent. Lecture summaries are in outline form. A timeline, biographical sketches, a glossary and an annotated bibliography are included. I recommend this course without hesitation to anyone interested in the philosophy and/or cultural change that occurred during the 18th Century Enlightenment Period.
Date published: 2014-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Apostle of Toleration AUDIO DOWNLOAD I thought this course would be a good refresher about a key Enlightenment thinker, as I have been, after many years, getting back to that period in my reading. Either I did not have a good understanding all those years ago and/or I have forgotten a lot. Professor Kors filled those gaps in my knowledge and appreciation of Voltaire in twelve lively and easy to listen to lectures, an exemplary introduction, leaving me with a keen interest in Professor Kors’ other TC courses. Professor Kors succeeds in showing us a Voltaire who is “…the most representative and the most influential author of the French Enlightenment…” and, rather than judge him, helps us “…to understand him historically in terms of his context, his dilemmas, his own changes, his influences, his major works, his ambiguities, and his place in the transformation of Western civilization” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). The amount of Voltaire’s writings is astounding, totaling over 15 million words and spanning a wide range of genres, including plays and poetry, history, philosophical letters, and his pioneering philosophical tales (among which is ‘Candide’, most well-known to readers today). I especially enjoyed Professor Kors’ treatment of Voltaire’s championing British empiricism over the prevailing French Cartesian theory of knowledge; his expert delineation of Voltaire’s “positive deism” (Page 47), in which Voltaire asserts a belief in God while rejecting both Christian theology and intolerance and atheism’s “dogmatic arrogance” (Page 49), and, so importantly, insists “…on the insolubility of the problem of evil…[resisting its denial as]… a perversion of human reason and compassion” (Page 48); and, not least, Voltaire’s long battle against intolerance. It is this last subject, toleration, that really caught my attention, as Professor Kors cites it as Voltaire’s “most enduring legacy”, the “…transformation of ‘tolerance’, from a pejorative indicating ‘indifference’ to a positive virtue” (Page 55), while at the same time acknowledging Voltaire’s own intolerance: anti-Semitic, anti-clerical, and contempt for “religious enthusiasts”. There is even more to this course, including much on Voltaire’s personal life, a fine understanding of and caution for readers about Voltaire’s ‘deliberate elusiveness’ (Page 1), and how Voltaire’s reputation fared in the years after his death. Interestingly, though many of his ideas helped pave the way for the French Revolution, once the Revolution entered its radical phase Voltaire’s reputation declined, and Rousseau’s, with whom Voltaire was at odds in life, rose dramatically. In all, this is an exceptionally interesting and informative course, providing useful background for anyone planning to read Voltaire or learn about the Enlightenment. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2014-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course. This was a great course that suffered not a bit from the fact that it comes in audio version only. I did the course in just two sittings (six lectures per sitting) and my interest never flagged. Voltaire is one of history’s greatest persons and this course delightfully refreshed all the reasons why I have so much admired him in the 56 years since I first read about him in Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy – in which he came away as being my favorite of all those I then read about.
Date published: 2014-06-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really excellent This was one of the finest of the many courses I have listened to. Although, as others have noted, Prof. Kors does not have the most mellifluous or engaging of voices, his knowledge, his enthusiasm - his love - of the topic comes through vividly. He does not spare us Voltaire's warts as well as his virtues, but he helps us to understand the centrality of Voltaire to the Enlightenment and the oversized role he played in the promotion of scientific thought, secularization, and the development of modern ideas of liberalism and compassion. Highly recommended - if these topics interest you.
Date published: 2014-05-03
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