Sunday, November 21, 2010

And he gave his finger to the church

This is the birthday of Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), born in 1694.

Voltaire was a world-famous wit, philosopher, essayist and cynic. "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," he wrote.

Voltaire's widely published anti-religious sentiments brought him an ultimatum from the government of France: imprisonment or exile. He chose the latter, and lived for almost 50 years outside of his native country.

Always a vociferous advocate of free speech and freedom of (or from) religion, Voltaire was under attack from the authorities throughout his writing life. "The safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience," he said. "With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death."

Among the advantages animals have over man, Voltaire wrote, are that "they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills."

Voltaire returned to Paris to a hero's welcome at age 83. The excitement of the trip was too much for him, and he died shortly thereafter. Because of his criticism of the church he was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

In 1814 a right-wing religious group stole Voltaire's remains and dumped them in a garbage heap, an act of desecration that was not discovered for some 50 years. When the crime was found out, his body was recovered, but his heart was gone. (It was later found, and now lies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.) His brain had also been removed, and it changed hands a number of times over the next 100 years, before being lost track of following an auction.

One story says that Voltaire, asked on his deathbed to renounce the devil, refused, saying, "This is no time to make new enemies."

One thing that Voltaire did not say was the most famous line ever credited to him: "I may not agree with what you say, but to the death I will defend your right to say it." These were not his words but were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, in her 1906 biographical book, The Friends of Voltaire.