Book Review: Voltaire and the State by Constance Rowe
OCTOBER 01, 1956 by FRANK CHODOROV
New York: Columbia University Press. 254 pp. $4.00.
“For a nation to be loved,” said Edmund Burke, “it should be lovely.” With something like that thought in mind, Voltaire set about defining the conditions that would make his beloved la patrie worthy of his unstinted devotion. French culture had a solid claim on his admiration, and with Parisian life he had fallen hopelessly in love in his youth. But, Bourbon management of L’Etat put a strain on one’s patriotism and for that reason was in dire need of overhauling. For his pains in setting forth its shortcomings and in expounding a philosophy of government, Voltaire was compelled to live most of his life outside the land he loved best.
Voltaire and the State is a concise and highly readable study of Voltaire’s views on the proper political organization of society. These views, in the main, were incorporated in our own Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution, and are therefore integrated with our political tradition. Long before Jefferson was born, Voltaire wrote of man’s “primitive and inalienable rights,” of equality before the law, of the obligation of government to preserve man’s fundamental liberties. Though France was uppermost in his mind when he expounded his ideas, he held them to be absolute principles underlying the contract between the individual and organized society, applicable to any political entity; he was a philosopher of patriotism.
The luster and immensity of Voltaire’s ideas have worn off under the impact of familiarity. But in his time, it should be remembered, kings ruled by “divine right,” not by any defined principles of government. Even he did not find monarchy in itself objectionable, indicating that his concern was not with any particular form of government but with the principles on which it operated. To him a State was on solid foundation only if it guaranteed to the individual such natural rights as liberty of person and property, freedom of speech, press and assembly, liberty of conscience and trial by jury; its techniques were of little moment. A patriot, to Voltaire, is one who strives to keep the government under which he lives in line with these principles. Voltaire advocated the reform, not the overthrow, of the Bourbon dynasty.
Now that the doctrine of “natural rights” has fallen into philosophic disfavor, and there is an inclination to relegate the individual to subservience to the State, it would be well for Americans to acquaint themselves with the ideas on which their political institutions were based. Voltaire and the State is an opportune book.