Voltaire: To Digital Citizen

Ferney, February 20, 1759

Once again, sir, this orange has been squeezed, and now we must save the peel. Perhaps, my peculiar birth was hundreds of years premature. Did I materialize too early, or just in time? For I’ve survived a generation, weak in the body, strong in the mind, paving your rue for truth. Nearly 300 years later, I trust you’re reasoning in novel ways, exposing and uprooting tyrants, sowing innovative utopias, benefitting from a sweeping brilliance.

Monsieur, do you demand skepticism of truth and reasoning? Do you cherish an inalienable right to make use of your pen as of your tongue?

“Respect my master’s absurdities!” says tradition’s slave. “Nay,” yells the enlightened. “Shut your mouth. For your master’s lies shouldn’t earn five minutes from a shelled mollusk.”

In your time, I imagine people are accustomed to prickly facts, more than artificially soft blankets of fiction. Might your world accept my reality on this day, the 65th anniversary of my illegitimate birth in Chatenay, an evening ride north of Paris? My most probable truth: I’m a sickly bastard whose baptism was earned by surviving the same amount of time outside the womb as in it. My mother’s infidelity, her temptation from the dull arms of a mediocre notary to those of an inspired poet, is merely a rough grain of reality. She fancied a man of wit and intelligence. No matter how unnerving an idea, its deposit is critical to the balance of understandings. The search for truth is as necessary to man as the sun’s warmth.

I finished writing Candide last month. Today I launched a major coup by publishing it simultaneously across Europe. Soon, I suspect, the authorities in Paris will complain of its content to King Louis XV. The Venerable Company of Pastors will express its concerns in Geneva. While the Vatican marks Candide forbidden, calling it an attack on religion and public decency, I’ll point to the ongoing hatred for human dignity. Violent opposition will crush printing presses and call for my continued displacement. Despite these predictable obstructions, I expect to distribute tens of thousands of copies by the end of March, releasing a wave of readership greater than Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. But, once again, I’ve felt it necessary to keep the author anonymous, admitting no part in its publication. I worry for my publishers, as well as hold hope for my pardon from Paris, where I plan to lay for my life’s closing scene.

I hope your autonomy of expression is anchored by fewer concerns. I watched the ships of enlightenment sail from the shores of England and Holland, distributing ambitions of liberty and equality. Momentums innate to natural order are unstoppable by conventional laws. Oh how information must now flow so freely for you. Nobles, monks, clerks and their governments must lie prostrate as commoners prance on the power and dignity born of ignorance and credulity. Everyone must feel so compelled to collaborate, collectively synthesizing data for enriched understandings. I’d surely be astonished to hear how you’re organizing it all.

How wonderful it must feel to live with such sociable intellects – a great people governed by itself under a natural law that rhymes with the symphony of the universe. In your time, I envision uniquely empowered individuals, people exercising their understandings. Do you feel empowered to think for yourself, to inspire inquiry and engage generatively? If only you knew Madame du Chatelet, my dearest Emilie, a woman who could translate Newton and Virgil, whose ideas were marginalized by judgments of the feminine vehicle. You, sir, would welcome her contributions to science and mathematics. I sorely miss her.

As murderous revolutions tear into our nations, again, marching to the sound of trumpets, I picture you enjoying a global calm. Unfortunately, our Europe traded the barbarians of the Roman Empire for those of the Christians, who’re constantly at war with the Mohammedans. Perpetual wars have tendered desolation and the loss of millions. I assume you’ve swapped the dense cannon fodder for gusts of graceful correspondence, uniting poets and philosophers more than state politicians and military commanders. Policy and guns can no longer oppress a population when its people overwhelmingly realize and appreciate their true reality: we’re the ones holding the pens and pulling the triggers.

I suppose yours is a time when understanding is brewed in a kettle of millions of enlightened minds. Ideas venture beyond the simplest acts of reasoning afforded by state censors or ancient charlatans. I pray mankind no longer mimics a republic of sheep, but rather wild wolves regulated only by their uniquely divergent characters. Wise, free men discover an easy subsistence, migrating to climates most suitable to their nature. They value spontaneous, genuine and problem-centered attitudes; they seek knowledge in the unknown. It must be a world where it’s impossible to enslave. God is great.

Tonight, I’ll dream of your days, when philosophers are celebrated, scientists are treasured and the superstitious are pitied. Human beings are awakened to trust their innocence and administer their own relationship with God. Everyone thinks and acts without the brokers of deception or intimidation – no longer controlled by clerics and kings, basilicas and exile.

My dear friend, while we’ve never met, I’ve always thought of you.

Francois-Marie Arouet

Voltaire

A preparatory study for the portrait of Voltaire in 1735, as sketch by French Rococo portraitist Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788).

One thought on “Voltaire: To Digital Citizen

  1. Voltaire demanded great change during his lifetime. We should keep reflecting on how the great minds of yesterday continue to contribute today. We can learn a lot about ourselves — our priorities, influences, traditions, thoughts, social contexts — by visiting other cultures, as well as reflecting on other eras. As far as lessons in creativity, Voltaire created connections in the following areas:

    • Passion, creative thinking requires a passion to change your world.
    • Discomfort, innovative ideas are born from adversity
    • Autonomy, to be creative means to be independent
    • Philosophy, new ideas call for suspending judgment, cynicism and fear
    • Detachment, creators carry a courage to view their own culture from a bystander’s perspective
    • Connection, meaningful change requires democratic, unprejudiced sense of attachment to the human experience

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