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 a half century before that encounter, an ardent opponent of Churches, whether the Catholic in France or the Protestant in Prussia.
Like many philosophers before him, Voltaire viewed Christianity as an episode in a long series of connections between the Divine and humanity. His Christianity, however, was vastly different from that of all mainstream churches, and he was hardly subtle about it. Voltaire unambiguously rejected how Churches presented God to their followers. To him, the doctrinal view of the Holy Trinity was, at best, simplistic - a derivation of a subtle meaning that the Churches had, over centuries, historicised in order to simplify to the masses. But in historicising the idea of the Trinity and of Christ, Voltaire believed, the essential meaning was lost.
Voltaire’s God was that of the old philosophers, the Creator of the Universe who fills His entire creation and is present within all entities. For Voltaire, that Presence was the connection through which humans could find within themselves the way to ascend beyond the confines of matter and sense fleeting elements of the Divine. And in sensing what is fleeting, and in concentrating on these experiences, one might receive the grace of knowing what is permanent. In this understanding, Christ is the consciousness through which man (as in man and woman of course) becomes their best, transcends their baseness, and connects with the Divine – Which is in them and around them.
Voltaire had a mixed view of Plato. But he identified with Plato’s perspective on the Divine, in which the Greek philosopher had described the Divine in Man as the soul that is homogeneous with the “Supreme Mind”, God. Homogeneity indicated oneness: man is of the Divine. And so, through an inner path, through the soul that connects with the Spirit in and around us, we, in Plato’s view, assimilate with the Holy Wisdom.
Voltaire, following a long chain of understandings throughout history, conceived of God as that Spirit.
Benjamin Franklin was on the same page. Like 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 get right. Franklin, like other Founding Fathers, understood that true Knowledge could not be easily presented to the masses. Yet, in his view, the foundations upon which the grand project – that is America – ought to be built, must be truthful, not catering to what he believed were mistaken conceptions of human nature and existence.
This leads us to liberty.
Seeing man (humans) as of the Divine, having that Presence inside him/her, has elevated man above mere following of the orders and regulations of fellow men. Because of this conviction, the Founding Fathers needed to form a system of government that respected the elevated nature of man, as well as what they understood to be the rules of God and the laws in Nature, and at the same time, a system that would ensure the sustenance and functioning of their nascent republic. This is why the Bill of Rights – a fundamental document capturing aspirations at the core of the American project – was envisioned to embody the rights and prerogatives of man who has the potential of connecting with the inherent Divinity.
In this respect, Benjamin Franklin recognised the immense depth of Voltaire’s thought. Voltaire was one of the most prominent defenders of freedoms in the few decades immediately before the French Revolution. Arguably he invented the term “human rights”. But Voltaire’s conception of Liberty went beyond it being a body of political and social guarantees. For Voltaire, Liberty was a crucial part of man’s natural state, without which his/her very existence would be lacking. In this view, Liberty is existential to the purpose of life. Without it, human life loses meaning.
Voltaire was a humanist. He placed colossal value on each human life – admiringly, even when he had held low opinions of the people living these lives. But Voltaire was also a social thinker who had seen way beyond the antiquated repressive systems of his age. He understood that human Liberty is necessary not only for humans’ ascension towards man’s grand potential, but also necessary for social progress.
Many societies have reached the doom of achieving wondrous tangible riches, but in the journeys to these riches they have sacrificed the Liberty of many of their people. Liberty here includes both: people’s freedom to live as humans ought to live, with dignity and the freedom to express themselves and their needs and wants and aspirations – as well as to live in an environment that allows for humans’ coming to understand their own connection to the Divinity in and around them. Indeed, some societies had run fast and secured bewitching material gains, only to have gone off the path of promise that their founding fathers had designed for them.
The loss is relative. Some societies have never really begun the journeys towards true Liberty, but others did - and for those who had been on the journey and have lost their path, the loss is arguably more calamitous.
For Voltaire - as well as for many founding fathers of grand social projects throughout history – notably America’s – Liberty is a perfect circle. It entails sanctifying individual rights, giving momentum to social progress, and before and after, creating an environment that allows for true understanding and therefore true sanctification of the Divine. And since there is divinity in man, no social progress is possible without true respect for man.
Voltaire was a libertarian par excellence. He had indulged in sensual pleasures to a degree that scandalised French, German, and Swiss societies (and the first, in particular, was, and is, not easily scandalised). But his Liberty was certainly not that of the senses only.
The golden mean is in the balance between living life to the maximum of one’s imagination of his/her potential, for in imagination (in the image in) man transcends his/her perceived limitations and advances to the realm of Divine powers - and at the same time, of one’s acceptance of the inviolability of the Natural Law of the Divine, for in sacrilegious disrespect of this Law, the mind and psyche (the images within and without) get clouded with heavy dark matter that dims the inner light.
Benjamin Franklin reportedly smiled when he heard what Voltaire had said to the boy. Not surprising, for Franklin, like other founding fathers of the American project (as it originally was), had long internalised this mature conception of Humanity, Liberty, and God.