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Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared

Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a French philosopher of freedom of expression. I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.



Quotations from Voltaire sourced from – WikiQuotes, GoodReads, BrainyQuote,

In this post I have made many comments between the [bracket] marks.

I had once some liking for his philosophical works; but when I found he doubted everything, I thought I knew as much as himself, and had no need of a guide to learn ignorance. [Once one is comfortable with their wisdom life is easier. Ask any child.]

I hold firmly to my original views! After all I am now a philosopher. [It’s as easy to become an honest philosopher as to become a fish. We need external inputs to maintain our orientations.]

The discovery of what is true and the practice of that which is good are the two most important aims of philosophy. [Even Jesus stood mute, when Pontius Pilate asked him, What is Truth? And, he never got around to, what is good?]

Our character is composed of our ideas and our feelings: and, since it has been proved that we give ourselves neither feelings nor ideas, our character does not depend on us. If it did depend on us, there is nobody who would not be perfect. If one does not reflect, one thinks oneself master of everything; but when one does reflect, one realizes that one is master of nothing. [Why worry over mastery when simple competence will do in life’s situations?]

Perfection is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time. [Perfection? Even a perfect diamond has imperfections.]

The perfect is the enemy of the good. [Why seek the good when good enough is good enough.]

Dare to think for yourself. [If you are thinking with words, you are already dependent on the world of other people’s vision. They created those words to make their environment comprehensible.]

No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. [This is an assertion that requires only a single example to prove it false, and people are incapable of infinite sustained thinking.]

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. [A slightly softer statement and more applicable statement would be more legitimate – I will defend my right to contradict you, and I will argue for your right to disagree with me. – Thus stated, I need not defend your right to presently violate me.]

Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too. [A modern way of saying that would be, THINK and empower others to THINK.]

The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks. [And, the great reward for saying what one thinks is other people’s understanding and appreciation.]

Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. [Truth like infinity depends on what is being measured, and the ultimate undefinability of what that might be.]

Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road. [They are throwing stones because there current path is what is working for them and a new path isn’t better and obviously doesn’t work – until it does.]

Men will always be mad, and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all. [The modern American cliché of madness perpetrated on the youth is, You can do anything you want to if you just try hard enough.]

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well. [Nature gave us life, and we have a responsibility to Nature of living our lives well. But, of course, nature has no motives and doesn’t care what we do so our responsibility is only to our socially significant others.]

Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well. [One part in a hundred billion is mine, the rest was humanities, so I should cultivate appreciation of what has been created that I can use, if I want tranquility.]

Common sense is not so common. [Seeking the common sense of verifiable wisdom seems quite rare.]

Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe. [Faith is believing in the unknowable and basing actions upon it, but if something is knowable you don’t need faith and can act with confidence of success.]

I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it. [The media makes every effort to make the public into ridiculous debt ridden consumers. They seek to form us into self created fools and slaves to the system of voluntary debt.]

Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. [Everyone loses the game by that standard, but we can have the tranquility of controlling our essential needs.]

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do. [Do what good you can and avoid what bad you can and be kind to others.]

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. [That is they kill with their social groups consent, and avoid the other groups similar inclinations.]

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers. [Unfortunately the best questions will be absurd until answered.]

Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us. [Dwelling on the negative prevents action, action is found exclusively in attending to the positive outcomes. Race care drivers intentionally look where you want to go.]

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. [The media bathes the modern public in absurdities, especially that violence solves problems.] [The only way a sane man can commit atrocities is by believing absurdities.]

God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. [God must be laughing at us humans because he gave us no plausible reason for believing in him.] To believe in God is impossible, not to believe in Him is absurd.

It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere. [Read the book – Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. It’s about self-imposed chains, and how to shed them.]

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare. [This isn’t Stoic tranquility!] There is a wide difference between speaking to deceive, and being silent to be impenetrable. [Stoics only live once so they avoid problems when possible.]

Of all religions, the Christian should of course inspire the most tolerance, but until now Christians have been the most intolerant of all men. [Monotheism is absolute and thus generates intolerance of the slightest deviation.] Discord is the great ill of mankind; and tolerance is the only remedy for it. — What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature. [If you observe carefully the others persons understanding of the situation it is easier to be tolerant of them.]

It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong. [Established authorities are common people with the support of the common people or they wouldn’t be their authorities. They are thus as dangerous as the common person.]

Love truth, but pardon error. [Who can know what is truth and what is error? It seems a better general policy to treat everyone with kindness and respect.]

The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing. [That is clearly overstated because everyone knows something, he might have said he isn’t so sure about the relative value of various things.]

Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! And if one reads profitably, one would realize how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow, every day. [People consume what they believe fits their life and what they like. It is a bit snotty for a super-rich dude, like Voltaire, to tell poverty-stricken ones what they should like.]

I don’t know where I am going, but I am on my way. [There are so many ideas he could offer about where to be headed. Places the public could reach like tranquility.]

God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh. [After being ruled by the constant mental and moral pummeling by the church, for a thousand years, how can any community laugh. We haven’t recovered from the beating yet.]

Now, now my good man, this is no time to be making enemies. [These may have been Voltaire’s dying words, at refusing communion and the implication was that he didn’t want to offend his new companions in Hell and Satan.]

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one. [I agree with that sentiment, but most people are more comfortable with certainty, especially so when it is given by apparently respectable authorities. The unfortunate result is that they lose there personal freedom to think for themselves.]

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. [This is obviously intended as an ironic joke, but the implication, for this aristocrat, is that God is helpful in controlling masses of people who can’t control themselves.]

The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.  [This is a snide comment, and its that attitude that got much of the snooty French upper class beheaded a few years later.]

It is not enough to conquer; one must learn to seduce. [This is the eternal conflict between the sword and the pen.]

The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe. [The function of the brain is to justify what the heart wants. And, what is the heart but the summation of learned mental behaviors.]

Prejudices are what fools use for reason. [Prejudice is just another name for the other guys careful reasoning from past experience.]

It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one. [That precept sounds good, but wouldn’t, “Minimize the suffering of the innocent” be a better general legal strategy.]

Man is free at the instant he wants to be. [We mustn’t forget Voltaire was a close friend with the aristocrats of Europe, and he lived among the most privileged people, and thus his ideas are tinged with that glow.]

Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst. [This is the best of all possible worlds because it is the only possible world we can inhabit. It is also the worst, and for the same reasons.]

It is with books as with men: a very small number play a great part. [The question becomes, what books will function best in your coming life. To some extent that can be known, but it is doubtful that mass media and trashy novels and other such distortions of reality will be helpful.]

We never live; we are always in the expectation of living. [That was 250 years ago and now we have mass media advertising making our lives better tomorrow, if only we buy their stuff. Back then it was still the church selling impossible dreams.]

Let us cultivate our garden. [Live our own lives and attend to our basic needs. That sounds like the Classic Roman ideal of the Stoics, and they said it a lot better.]

Life is bristling with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden. [Perhaps treating other people kindly would be a great way to avoid their thorns. But, Voltaire never got the knack of treating people kindly, and he became a foundation stone for the French Reign of Terror.]

Liberty of thought is the life of the soul. [Without liberty of thought and freedom of action a man is a slave dependent upon his masters whims. Modern Americans in deep debt are voluntary slaves, and today’s kids heading off to college and a huge debt are aware of their impending status as debt slaves.]

Men are equal; it is not birth but virtue that makes the difference. [This is the ultimate hypocrisy for an aristocrat to write.]

I should like to know which is worse: to be ravished a hundred times by pirates, and have a buttock cut off, and run the gauntlet of the Bulgarians, and be flogged and hanged in an auto-da-fé, and be dissected, and have to row in a galley — in short, to undergo all the miseries we have each of us suffered — or simply to sit here and do nothing?’ [Near the conclusion of Voltaire’s book Candid. The implication that doing nothing is agonizing. Thus personal tranquility if the worst of punishments.]

Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time. [People live in their time and place and with the people and opportunities that are available to them, so why should they worry about things which they will never encounter. Why inflict one’s self with needless suffering?]

If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others? [We are living in the world we live in whether it is good, bad or indifferent, but we can control our attitude toward our personal world.]

The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us. [This quote doesn’t feel like Voltaire in attitude, but it’s true that we must turn away from the negative, because action must come from positive actions, and they come from positive attitudes toward our chosen options.]

One great use of words is to hide our thoughts. [Hiding our thoughts with words is possible but revealing them so others and ourselves may profit from them is a better use.]

The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude. [This is a testable hypothesis, but I doubt that it’s true. Most people prefer being with other people a lot of their time.]

Opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours. [It isn’t the opinions that cause the trouble, it is the attempt to force other people to our opinion that creates the havoc. The opinion that – what you now possess is mine, is a cause of contention, but my ideas are absolutely right is the greatest killer of the other people.]

If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace. [Religion is the purest of opinion, because it is based on the purest of speculation, and of the speculation of that religious type there are no limiting constraints.]

Minds differ still more than faces. [This is a testable hypothesis, and it is probably true. It depends upon how these things are measured and compared.]

It is not inequality which is the real misfortune, it is dependence. [There is a current myth that the proximity of monetarily rich and poor people causes unhappiness.]

If God did not exist, He would have to be invented. But all nature cries aloud that he does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it. [There is no greater discrepancy in dependence that the relationship between God and man. It would seem therefore that believers in God would be the most unhappy.]

Injustice in the end produces independence. [This is probably false, and is true only in the sense that injustice causes revolution. France had a devastating one shortly after Voltaire died.]

To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize. [That is probably accurate, and I should observe it more carefully. Are we being ruled over when we sit quietly listening to loud talkers?]

If we do not find anything very pleasant, at least we shall find something new. [This is the hope when one picks up a book, opens a door or gets out of bed in the morning.]

Paradise is where I am. [Voltaire could equally have said, Hell is where I am, or Purgatory or consciousness; we are the center of our personal universe.]

Is politics nothing other than the art of deliberately lying? [Successful politics and religion is telling people what they want to hear, even if it is clearly false.]

What can you say to a man who tells you he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he’s certain he’ll go to heaven if he cuts your throat? [It is obvious that you don’t have a choice as to what you must do.]

Whatever you do, crush the infamous thing, and love those who love you. [This is the law of Nature, and those who don’t obey it are soon gone.]

Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor. [When we become too demanding of security we soon lose our freedoms, and security isn’t found in slavery but it can be approached in freedom and liberty.]

Men use thought only as authority for their injustice, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts. [Let us hope this isn’t true, and when it is found to be accurate those people must be cleared from positions of power and especially public office.]

A man loved by a beautiful woman will always get out of trouble. [I hope this is true, because then my life will continue to be trouble-free.]

Anything too stupid to be said is sung. [This is the reason I have so much trouble with music, but I never put it into such eloquently short statement.]

He wanted to know how they prayed to God in El Dorado. “We do not pray to him at all,” said the reverend sage. “We have nothing to ask of him. He has given us all we want, and we give him thanks continually. [Perhaps this suggestion should be made to the local atheists as a question of debate.]

Theology is to religion what poisons are to food. [Poison is only dangerous because of concentration, and by that reasoning theology is only poisonous because of its over-concentration.]

We are intelligent beings: intelligent beings cannot have been formed by a crude, blind, insensible being: there is certainly some difference between the ideas of Newton and the dung of a mule. Newton’s intelligence, therefore, came from another intelligence. [I agree with this in the sense that our ancestral women chose intelligence as a factor in the choice of mates. It is 10,000 generations of gossiping women who are the selective intelligence behind Newton and the rest of us. It is a positive feedback process creating intelligence and our other human qualities.]

I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health. [If a person can create enough slack in their desperate lives, then they can choose to be happy.]

The pursuit of pleasure must be the goal of every rational person. [To maximize pleasure is very similar to maximizing tranquility. That choice eliminates the extremes of pleasure sought by the short-sighted pleasure seeker.]

I have no morals, yet I am a very moral person. [Where did your morals come from? From your ancestral mothers choosing moral men for mates.]

Men argue. Nature acts. [The more that men can make adjustments to each others needs with argument the less their physical nature needs to act.]


The comments in this post were made after each quote. [inside brackets] Below are some further thoughts.

Voltaire’s famous statement, I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it, is a wonderful polemic. It gives every person the right to speak, but also gives every person the right not to agree, and implies the right not to listen. However, words not heard have no impact on the world and are felt to be wasted energy, but now everyone has the opportunity to publish to the internet, and although they might not be heard at the moment their thoughts are there and available to everyone.

It is not inequality which is the real misfortune, it is dependence. This is a profound observation. In the modern world there is considerable research on economic inequality in a community, and unhappiness is greatest where inequality is greatest. But, that may not be the real factor; it may be dependence and the following loss of personal freedom that is the cause. It has been shown that after basic monetary needs have been met further wealth doesn’t improve happiness much. At any level of wealth a person might still be dependent on factors outside of their control, and it is the lack of personal control of significant factors that create unhappiness. The most felt of these is liberty to think and speak as one chooses.  Liberty of thought is the life of the soul. 

Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor. This unfortunately, the very phrase “internal security,” that is the current theme of our government, and with modern surveillance and control techniques available to our government, and we, in the form of the NSA (National Security Agency) are astonishingly intrusive. Unfortunately at present those organizations are opaque to any form of public oversight, observation and control. We must keep the groups of those inside people, mutually conflicted by independent motives. Those at the helms of our powerful institutions must be permanently split by independent routes to their power, and each with independent group, independent means of observing the NSA. That can possibly be done by maintaining a high degree of transparency toward the government as well as toward the people occupying those positions. The Second Amendment includes the words right to bear arms, but these days the right to bear free cell phone access is more protective of the public’s liberties.