Voltaire is regarded as the most ‘English’ among the French philosophers but his status as a bona fide philosopher is often cast into doubt. However, to consider him as a mere dabbler in philosophy is a gross misconception of his crucial input in the philosophical debates of his age. An extraordinary polymath, Voltaire was equally fascinated by the hottest philosophical quarrels and the latest scientific theories. After all, it was thanks to him that the radical ideas of Locke and Newton were introduced to a Cartesian-minded French intellectual élite.
By refusing to construct a static philosophical system, Voltaire felt free to question other thinkers’ positions and keep his critical mind constantly open to new ideas. The existence of God and the problem of evil preoccupied his piercing intelligence and fuelled his fertile imagination throughout his life. Like most of his ‘philosophe’ friends, he rejected the authority of the Church and its belief in the possibility of redemption and resurrection in an afterworld preordained by an all-knowing, merciful God.
Enemy of all superstitions and fanaticism, Voltaire saw in deism the most rational explanation of a physical world, ruled by eternal natural laws, emanating from a morally detached ‘celestial clock-maker’. Towards the end of his life, the ‘Sage of Ferney’ decided to revisit and finalise his deist position in his essay entitled ‘We must take sides; Or, the Principle of Action’, published in 1772. Without presuming to know the true nature of God, Voltaire proposes a ‘principle of action’ behind all the natural as well as psychological events, observable through man’s senses and understandable to his limited reason. Nothing is created out of nothing and animal as well as human actions must be ascribed to this single principle of necessity.
When man enjoys his freedom, it is, in reality, a relative freedom since ‘man is free when he can act out what he wants but he is not free to will for no reason as it would be a self-contradiction.’ Having to choose between a random world and a determined one, Voltaire chooses the latter as it would be ‘ridiculous and plainly absurd if half of all earthly events were pre-arranged and half of them weren’t.’ Recognising the limited powers and faculties of mankind, Voltaire concludes that ‘we are machines produced by the eternal designer … endowed with a principle of action which we cannot fathom … a million times more dependent on him than clay in the potter’s hands.’