Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment

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

Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 116.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Voltaire Fascinating course. I didn't know much about Voltaire. Dramatic and engaging story of Voltaire's life and writings. Great professor! I was sorry when the tapes ended. Thanks!
Date published: 2018-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kors is great as always We don't think about Voltaire much these days. Through Kors, though, we can appreciate the giant Voltaire was in his time, and how we still feel his lasting influence. And Kors himself, at times when he gets into his rhythm, in the cadence of his speech, in the quality of his delivery, and in the way his sentences start to flow, particularly in the later lectures, and especially on the one on Candide, can rouse like no other lecturer I know.
Date published: 2018-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from France's Greatest Writer François-Marie Arouet, commonly known by his pen name of Voltaire, is one of the most astonishing writers ever. We in the US usually know him only as the author of Candide, but he wrote as dramatist, poet, philosophical storyteller, political polemicist, social commentator, historian, and humorist, repeatedly provoking the secular and ecclesiastical authorities into imprisoning him or banning his works and his person from France while also winning admirers across Europe. According to Professor Kors, his published works came to about a hundred volumes and his letters to another hundred. Voltaire was the leading man of the French Enlightenment. He opposed religious fanaticism and promoted toleration. He hated religious orthodoxies and embraced deism. He deplored French absolutism and celebrated English constitutional monarchy. He hated war. Very late in life he campaigned for the rehabilitation of Protestants and other dissidents, especially Jean Calas, unjustly convicted of and executed for murder. Yet, ironically, he venomously attacked Judaism, which he saw—even more than he did the Catholic Church—as inflexible, intolerant, arrogant, superstitious and violent. I learned quite a few interesting things from this course. After winning fame for writing tragedies, young Voltaire had a run-in with a son of the mighty Rohan family that got him into trouble. Rohan sneered at his new name, at which Voltaire replied that it was better to honor a new name than disgrace an old one. Rohan took revenge by having the playwright beaten up. When Voltaire tried to challenge him to a duel, the Rohan family had the playwright locked up in the Bastille. Such was the power of nobility in those days. This incident turned Voltaire into a critic of the Old Regime. He also had a rather unconventional love life. He began by having an affair with a refugee Protestant French girl in the Netherlands while on a diplomatic mission and was sent home. During his long exile from Paris, he moved in with the married Madame du Châtelet, whose husband was quite understanding of their long affair. She was quite a brilliant woman in her own right, introducing Voltaire to Newtonian physics. She was also unfaithful to him; when she died in childbirth, the baby’s father was yet another man not her husband. Voltaire was unfaithful to her too, having a fling with his own niece, who became his companion for the rest of his life after Madame du Châtelet died. Professor Kors argues that Voltaire never fully revealed himself to anyone in his lifetime and remains less than transparent to scholars today. In writing on the Quakers in the Philosophical Letters, for example, Voltaire praised their mildness and compassion while affecting to criticize them as heretics. The tragedy Mahomet was overtly aimed at Islam and won applause from the Pope, yet the secondary target was the Catholic Church, which (for Voltaire) embodied the same vices as the Arab prophet. In attacking religious persecution, Voltaire denounced it as un-Christian for Christian readers and typically Christian for deist readers. Yet if Voltaire hoped to avoid prosecution or harassment in this way, however, he obviously failed to fool his enemies in the Catholic Church. They even spread rumors after his death that he repented of his deism while still denying him a Christian burial. C’est la vie! Et la morte! I highly recommend this short course. It will introduce you to a great and entertaining intellect and perhaps inspire you to read some of his works.
Date published: 2018-06-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from voltaire and the triumph of the enlightenment I thought the overall presentation and content of the course was interesting and well delivered. I learned quite a bit about the overarching themes of Voltaire's work and his life. Although touched upon in the course, I would liked to have learned a little bit more on his specific writing and philosophical methods.
Date published: 2018-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So happy I bought this lecture series This lecture series was as far as I have yet ventured among the Great Courses from my more comfortable science background. I was entranced throughout the series by the profound effect Voltaire had on the Enlightenment and subsequent western history and culture. The lecturer's style is unique but enjoyable and effective. I suspect this will lead me to other lectures on the subject. I do wish the Great Courses would can the canned applause, however.
Date published: 2017-12-29
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
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