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Or The Principle of Action

Essay Review.

The Principle of Action is a more timely title for this essay of our times.

Voltaire was nothing if not an accomplished poet, philosopher, and satirist. Hence his title for this essay. He proposed just the opposite, for to take sides would damage not only the present, but the future as well. And his further point is that issues blow over, leaving those who took sides sidelined without a cause. History moves on; new issues arise; so why does it matter?

Voltaire is widely quoted, and we find many bits of wisdom that apply in our times.

Voltaire called himself a “theist”, but not of the type common in his day that believed in a literal bible and an omnipotent, anthropomorphic god. He had this to say, which parallels the views of both Newton and Hawking.

The unvarying uniformity of the laws which control the march of the heavenly bodies, the movements of our globe, every species and genus of animal, plant and mineral, indicates that there is one mover. If there were two, they would either be different or be opposed to each other, or like each other. If they were different, there wold be no harmony; if opposed, things would destroy each other; if like, it would be as if there were only one--a twofold employment. This is Voltaire’s Principle of Action.

Even today, this reasoning seems sound. Voltaire was not aware of the possibility that the universe may have other dimensions which might impact his otherwise sound logic. We also know, from Einstein that nature is not what we see. Rather it has a geometric component, a warp, so to speak, in how gravity works, and therefore God (the Prime Mover in Newton’s terminology) must be of higher dimensional order still. Yet gravity still works and meets Voltaire’s need for logical consistency.

Voltaire saw harmony in nature that reinforced his belief in a unitary god.

Man obtains the faculties of the animals, but to a higher degree; can he obtain them from any other source?

He has nothing but what the great being has given him. It would be a strange contradiction, a singular absurdity, if all the stars and elements, the animals and plants, obeyed unceasingly and irresistibly, the laws of the great being, and man alone were independent of them.

The 300 years since Voltaire’s time have added nothing we know of to challenge this discourse. Voltaire, in all logic, went on to address the concept of the soul.

If there were in our body a little god called “the free soul,” which becomes so frequently a little devil, this little god would have to be regarded either as having been created from all eternity, or as created at the moment of your conception, or during your embryonic life, or at birth or when you began to feel. All these positions are equally ridiculous.

A little subordinate god, existing uselessly during a past eternity and descending into a body that often dies at birth, is the height of absurdity.

In other words, the soul to Voltaire was dogma.

Voltire quotes Epicurus on God and comments:

“Either God wished to prevent evil and could not do so; or He was able to do so, and did not wish.” Epicurus

And a thousand bachelors and doctors of divinity have fired arrows at this unshakeable rock; in this terrible shelter have the atheists taken refuge. Yet the atheist must admit that there is in nature an active, intelligent, necessary, eternal principle and that from this principle comes all that we call good and evil.

This anticipates the god of Spinoza and of Einstein, which in substance is nature itself.

Voltaire saw many outright conflicts in facts and logical inconsistencies throughout the Bible. He could not buy dogma for dogma’s sake. What may have troubled him most was the splintering of Christianity. On logical grounds he rejected:
  • personal immortality,
  • special providence,
  • miracles, and
  • divine revelation.

Voltaire’s creed was a natural religion reducible to morality whose enlightened goals were justice and an unflinching devotion to truth. He considered privileged orthodoxy and persecution to be most infamous. This echoes later cries for liberal and benevolent democracy.

No matter how we slice it, Voltaire was a oner and a wonder. His personal distinctions include contributions to poetry, drama, novels, philosophy, and history. His works are still classics after a dozen generations. He was often outspoken and controversial in his time. Yet he found time to actively participate in social reforms. It is for his timeless insights that we quote him liberally. His understanding of the historic link between monotheism and violence predated and predicted events in our era! He may be considered as one of the first social scientists. His interpretations sometimes fail modern research, but that had more to do with his limited information than with any lack in ability to process information. Regardless of one’s belief system, Voltaire is an enlightening read.

Voltaire: Biographical Links


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