Voltaire and the Pursuit of Happiness
Uploaded by sinbaaad on Oct 30, 2011
This essay discusses what the “pursuit of happiness” might have meant to Voltaire.
At least for Americans, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is an unalienable right granted to them in the Declaration of Independence. This is somewhat astonishing if we consider it for a moment—how can anyone grant happiness to another as a right? Nevertheless, the words are there for all to see.
The idea of the pursuit of happiness didn’t originate with the signers of the Declaration, but is a product of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, that amazing period (the 17th and 18th Centuries up until about the time of the French Revolution) in European history, when new discoveries were being made, and new philosophies transformed the human experience.
This paper looks briefly at Voltaire, and what the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ might have meant to him.
The words that Thomas Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence were those of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire among them. They are closely tied to two other words, “life” and “liberty.” Perhaps we should start there, for it’s obvious that one must be alive and at liberty before he can pursue happiness.
Voltaire and other thinkers of his time shared a basic belief in the power of human reason. It was this idea, that men were capable of thinking for themselves that led many of the thinkers and philosophers of the period, Voltaire prominent among them, to renounce the Roman Catholic Church. This does not mean, as many people think, that Voltaire was an atheist. On the contrary, he was raised and taught be Jesuits and retained a deep reverence for them; he also apparently believed in God and the immortal soul. It was the corruption of the priests and the Church itself that he attacked. I think we can infer that he saw the Church as an institution that stood for irrationality in an age of reason. Church doctrine, after all, is based on faith, and faith is not susceptible to proof; that’s what the word means. But Voltaire was living at a time when philosophers had propounded a new idea: that knowledge is not innate (inborn) but comes “only from experience and observation guided by reason.” (“The Age of Reason,” PG).
The great truths of the human condition were to be discovered by...