Posts Tagged ‘enlightenment’

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

For any young man politically minded and also a collector of quotes Thomas Paine is an inescapable presence whose quotes even this day have not lost their shine. In this age where all major religions are suffering from the virus of fundamentalism it is merely a caution well taken. Did he not say “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead?” His sane voice urging the man on the street that ‘he should not petition for his rights but take them,’ made the American revolution a necessity. His ‘Common Sense(1776)* was so influential for John Adams to observe, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

A corset maker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination his footprints in England, America and France left in their wake great many who were his allies and admirers turn on him in the end as fiercely as they had warmed up to his clarion call.2.

Born in Thetford England in the county of Norfolk, Paine emigrated to the British American colonies in 1774 and it was Benjamin Franklin who advised him to go to America and he just did, arriving in time to participate in the American Revolution.


Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote the Rights of Man (1791), in part a defence of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on British writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in 1792. In 1792, despite not being able to speak French, he was elected to the French National Convention. The Girondists regarded him as an ally. Consequently, the Montgnards especially Robespierre regarded him as an enemy. He narrowly missed guillotine and Thomas Jefferson as the Third President of the new Republic invited him to settle down in the new nation. His later years were plagued by ill health, neglect and when he died only six people attended his funeral. Quakers refused him burial and he was finally buried in a part of the grounds attached to his home.

*Common Sense

Paine used “common sense” as a weapon to delegitimize the monarchy and overturn prevailing conventional wisdom. He used two ideas from Scottish Common Sense Realism and from Philosophes. The idea is that ordinary people can indeed make sound judgments on major political issues, and that there exists a body of popular wisdom that is readily apparent to anyone. The Continental Enlightenment spread out influencing people as to how they thought. It empowered people in France to think for themselves. They held that common sense could refute the claims of traditional institutions. According to Sophia Rosenfeld the phenomenal appeal of his pamphlet resulted from his synthesis of popular and elite elements in the independence movement.


Paine decided that President George Washington had conspired with Robespierre to imprison him. Embittered by this perceived betrayal, Paine tried to ruin Washington’s reputation by calling him a treacherous man unworthy of his fame as a military and political hero. Paine described Washington as an incompetent commander and a vain and ungrateful person. In a scathing open letter to President Washington in 1796, he wrote: “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.


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Frederick the Great

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Voltaire (1694-1778)

French Philosopher, writer

In 1715 Voltaire arrived in Paris just when Louis XIV died and the Regent who for economy sold half of the horses that filled the royal stables. This prompted Voltaire to remark how much sensible to have been to dismiss half the asses that filled the royal court.


His cockiness galled many; and his wit demolished his detractors. As bad luck would have it, two libellious poems attacking the Regent made rounds and reached their victim; and he suspected Voltaire to be their author.

Meeting the youth in the gardens of Palais-Royal, the Regent said to him, “Monsieur Arouet, I am going to show you something you have never seen before: the Bastille.”

Ah Monsigneur!” the young Voltaire said, “I’ll take that as seen.”

Voltaire saw it on the Whit Sunday on April 16, 1717.(Ack: Nancy Mitford;Voltaire in Love-Penguin)


Once Voltaire was speaking highly of a contemporary Said a friend, “It’s good of you to such pleasant things about Monsieur So and So, when he always says such unpleasant things about you.”

Whereupon Voltaire suggested mildly, “Perhaps we both are mistaken.”


A contemporary of Voltaire was praising the qualities of his protégé whom he was pushing for promotion in the Government. He gushed among other things that he had a ready answer for everything.

Heavens,” exclaimed Voltaire, “ is he as ignorant as all that?”


Once Voltaire was asked to join a symposium honoring a famous contemporary who had just passed away.

Voltaire spoke on the occasion thus: ‘ He was a staunch patriot, a talented writer, a loyal friend and a model father and husband- provided of course that he, really, is dead.’


During his self-imposed exile in England he came to know the famous literati of the day. He pretended to no pedigree, and asked none of others. Voltaire sought out Congreve whom he held on a par with Molière.

When told of it Congreve sad thus:’ I had rather you wished to meet me because I am an English gentleman’.

Voltaire:’But there are so many of them!'(Ack: Nancy Mitford-Voltaire in Love.-Penguin)

There is another version which is as follows:

The English dramatist was known to dismiss his plays as trifles and desired to be known rather as a gentleman of leisure than as author, Voltaire ticked him off by saying, “If you have had the misfortune to be only a gentleman as any other, I should never have come to see you.”


His final visit to the city of Paris at the age of 83 was one of the great events of that age. Voltaire was given a hero’s welcome and a rapturous crowd followed his carriage to the Academy. During the meeting the frail old man proposed a revision of the French dictionary. The famous man still had his youthful ardor to propose that he could undertake all such work as would come under the letter A. Before he sat down he thanked them in the name of the alphabets to which the Chairman Chastellux replied: “And we thank in the name of letters.”


Old Voltaire had no quarrel with Christianity as with those who considered themselves the only competent authority. As his end was near a priest came to shrive him.

From whom do you come, M.l’Abbe?”

From God Himself.”

Well, well,” asked the sage, “your credentials?”

The priest went off without his prey.


Voltaire lived at an age when France was slipping from Medieval thoughts and attitudes and man’s thoughts were becoming a valuable commodity and his individuality as prized as a duke’s coronet.’He never himself had an original philosophical idea, but he had a genius for simplifying the ideas of others so that society women and loungers in cafés could grasp them’.Regarding the scandal created by his Lettres Philosophiques his comment was thus:’If I had not cheered up the subject nobody would have been scandalized;but then nobody would have read me'(quoted from Voltaire in Love- Nancy Mitford..Pub: Penguin Books).

Man’s thoughts are the stuff that create art and literature; and spirit of an age may be measured by one man’s life as we now speak of the Age of Louis XIV or of Voltaire. But man is just the same and the envy of literary men lead to quarrels as mean as between whores.

One of Voltaire’s literary acquaintance, the Abbé Desfontaines,

(1685-1745)was arrested and sent to the criminal prison on the charges of sodomy. Punishment was burning at the stake in the Place de la Grève outside the Hôtel de Ville. Nobody would lift a finger to help the hapless Abbé. Voltaire though ill went to Fontainebleau where the Court was in residence. He saw people and pulled strings and got him out of an unpleasant end. But no sooner was Desfontaines out of the prison at Bicêtre than he had written a disgusting pamphlet against Voltaire. This mean and ill concealed virulence was evident in his later criticisms as well.

Voltaire, Rousseau and Piron

Voltaire’s origins were not far different than of Alexis Piron(1689-1773) who came from Burgundy. Voltaire seldom liked other middle-class writers many of whom needlessly incurred his displeasure. Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1671-1741)was a case in point. Rousseau was twenty three years older than he. He showed his poem Ode à la Postérité and Voltaire unable to resist a joke remarked that he feared that the Ode would never reach its address. Rousseau who was in exile and disgrace never forgot the insult.

Piron, a Burgundian came to Paris and he wanted to meet Voltaire whom he adored. Mme de Mimeure, also a Burgundian was the celebrated wit’s mistress and she took Piron under her wings. One day he called on her who told him that Voltaire was present and said,’Go into my dining-room,’ and he found him huddled over the fire. As he saw Piron enter he pretended asleep. Piron sat there long and Voltaire could not keep up.. He got up and started nibbling on a piece of bread which he took out from his pocket. He explained that he had an illness that necessitated him to eat all day. Piron forthwith produced a flask from his pocket and said he had an illness that made it imperative for him to drink all day. Voltaire was not amused.(Ack: Nancy Mitford-Voltaire in Love-Penguin)


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