On 16 February 1778, days after his return to Paris for the first time following an almost twenty years exile, Voltaire received the US’s Representative to France: Benjamin Franklin. The American visitor, having brought with him his grandson, asked Voltaire to bless the boy. Voltaire touched the boy’s head and whispered,“God and liberty”, in English.
But which God?
Voltaire had been, for almost half a century before that encounter, an ardent opponent of Churches, whether the Catholic in France, or the Protestant in Prussia. He viewed Churches’ theology as deeply flawed. Like many philosophers before and after him, Voltaire viewed Christianity as an episode in an ancient series of connections between the Divine and humanity. He subtly but unambiguously rejected how Churches presented God to their followers. To him, the doctrinal view of the Holy Trinity was, at best, simplistic. His God was, to a large extent, that of the old philosophers, the Creator of the universe who assimilates with His creation, and whose manifestations fill the universe, which, in itself, is assimilated with the Divine, possibly in a flow of emanations. Or as Plato described it: the rational soul of man that is homogeneous with the “Supreme Mind” and assimilating with its “Holy Wisdom.” Voltaire’s God, following that long chain of understandings by tens of leading thinkers throughout history, was above the personification, let alone humanisation, of the Divine.
Benjamin Franklin was on the same page. As other founding fathers of America, Franklin neither espoused doctrinal theological understandings of God nor ways to propagate such understandings in society. On the contrary, for Franklin, society’s relationship with the Sacred, was a fundamental issue that his young country, the United States, must be an example of getting right.
That leads us to liberty
Though Voltaire was one of the most prominent defenders of freedoms in the century immediately before the French Revolution, and arguably he invented the term “human rights”, Voltaire’s conception of Liberty transcended it being a body of political and social guarantees. Liberty was (is) a crucial part of the natural state without which man’s very existence would be lacking. In this view, Liberty is a crucial component of man’s work to realise the meaning and purpose of his/her existence, and to advance human society. Its absence would doom any society, irrespective of its cultural achievements and economic successes.
‘Doom’ here is the utter uselessness of the endeavours of any society that achieves whatever tangible riches it does achieve, but that not only sacrifices the Liberty of its people, but crucially, does not recognise the gravity of that sacrifice, or often, does not even recognise that a sacrifice was undertaken.
In this understanding, Liberty is that of the souls – of the individual and of the society. And the latter could never be achieved without the materialisation of the former. For Voltaire, as well as for all the founding fathers of the American project, the Liberty of Man is balancing his/her freedom to pursue his/her mission in life, with the responsibilities that come from accepting the eternal rules of God (as Voltaire, and the American founding fathers, understood God to be).
This balance was what Voltaire meant when he combined “God” and “Liberty” in front of his grand American visitor. Man needs to achieve that balance.
Voltaire was a libertarian, par excellence. He had indulged in sensual pleasures to a degree, and in relationships, that scandalised French, German, and Swiss societies (and the first, in particular, was, and is, not easily scandalised). This was not a man who would invoke God alongside Liberty merely to emphasise the idea of ‘living a good, religious life’. Here, the link between God and Liberty is man’s choice of effecting that balance, of realising his/her dreams, of living life to the maximum of his imagination, and at the same time, living according to that mature understanding of the Divine. And so, the balance is Man’s choice of how to see him/herself and to realise him/herself, as well as to attempt to comprehend, and connect with, God. Voltaire hints at something he had struggled for throughout his life: to put forward, and gain acceptance for, the idea that a truly moral man is not one who leads what others would consider a moral life. Instead, the moral man is he/she who chooses to be intellectually free, particularly in his/her submission to what his/her free will considers sacred. In this view, the true essence of morality, which gives man a route to both: self-realisation as well as spiritual transcendence, is this ultimate form of Liberty.
Benjamin Franklin reportedly smiled when he had heard what Voltaire said to the boy. Not surprising, for Franklin, like other founding fathers of the American project (as it truly was), had long been grooving in the splendour of this mature conception of Humanity, Liberty, and God.