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Voltaire on death

Tuesday, 7 August, 2018

The following post is reblogged from Oxford University Press. The author, Alyssa Russell, is a marketing manager at OUP on the Global Online Products and Academic/Trade teams.

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, wrote over 20,000 letters over his lifetime. One can read through his letters to learn more about his views on democracy and religion, as well as the soul and afterlife. The following excerpts from his letters show how his thoughts and ideas about death and the soul evolved over time.

Death, by Aufray de Roc Bhian

‘Death’, by Alphonse Édouard Enguérand Aufray de Roc’Bhian. (Public domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Voltaire first brushed with death in December 1723. At the young age of 29 he contracted smallpox. In a letter written to Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron de Preuilly in December 1723, Voltaire reflects on the previous days and his few regrets:

“[I] made my confession; and my will, which, as you will readily believe, was exceedingly short. After that, I calmly awaited death: only regretting that I had not put the finishing touches to my poem and to Mariamne, and that I must part from my friends so soon.”

He recovered from this bout of smallpox, but, as was indicative of the time, was quite incorrect about the nature of the disease, stating in the same letter:

“Smallpox is, in a simple form, merely the blood ridding itself of its impurities, and positively paves the way to more vigorous health.”

In 1726, Voltaire’s sister Catherine Arouet died. Quite shaken, he muses on death in his letter to Nicolas Claude Thieriot:

“Life is but a dream full of starts of folly, and of fancied, and true miseries. Death awakes us from this painful dream, and gives us, either a better existence or no existence at all.”

Almost 10 years later, in 1735, Voltaire muses on what the soul is in a letter to René Joseph Tournemine. The letter marks an important point in his intellectual development:

“[M]atter itself does not perish. Its extent, its impenetrability, its need to be delimited and to be located in space, all that and a thousand other things remain after our death. Why should not what you call soul also remain? It is certain that I know what I call matter only by some of its properties, and those very imperfectly. How then can I assert that omnipotent God has not been able to give it the faculty of thought?”

He later admits:

“I am very far from believing that I can assert thought to be matter. I am equally far from being able to assert that I have the slightest idea of the nature of what is called soul.”

Jumping ahead to August, 1769, Voltaire has been ill and is contemplating his own death, in this letter to Gottlob Louis von Schönberg, Reichsgraf von Schönberg:

“Yes, sir, it is true that I have been very ill. But that is the common lot of old age, especially when one has always had a feeble constitution: and these little warnings are the stroke of the clock to tell us that soon we shall have passed beyond time.”

He next introduces an interesting perspective of death: that animals benefit from not knowing it is coming:

“Animals have a great advantage over human beings: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be: they die without having any notion of death: they have no theologians to instruct them on the Four Ends of animals: their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies: it costs them nothing to be buried: no one goes to law over their wills: but in one respect we are greatly their superior — they only know the ties of habit, and we know friendship.”

Thirty-five years after previously writing down his thoughts about the eternal soul, Voltaire muses how it’s not known whether or not the soul lives on, in his letter to Frederick William, Prince of Prussia, November 1770:

“It is very true that we do not know any too well what the soul is: no one has ever seen it. All that we do know is that the eternal Lord of nature has given us the power of thinking, and of distinguishing virtue. It is not proved that this faculty survives our death: but the contrary is not proved either. It is possible, doubtless, that God has given thought to a particle to which, after we are no more, He will still give the power of thought: there is no inconsistency in this idea.“

Even if we do not know whether the soul lives on, Voltaire pragmatically advises that it is the best course of action to always do right:

“In the midst of all the doubts which we have discussed for four thousand years in four thousand ways, the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have nothing to fear from death.”

On May 26, 1778, Voltaire wrote his last letter. Death is clearly on his mind; the letter, written to Trophime Gérard de Lally-Tolendal, chevalier de Lally-Tolendal, is comprised of only one sentence:

“The dying man returns to life on hearing this great news: he tenderly embraces M. de Lally: he sees that the King is the defender of justice: and he dies content.”

Voltaire died four days later at the age of 83.

– Alyssa Russell

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