Book Review: Voltaire and the State by Constance Rowe


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.

Frank Chodorov


October 1956

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required
Sign me up for...


July/August 2014

The United States' corporate tax burden is the highest in the world, but innovators will always find a way to duck away from Uncle Sam's reach. Doug Bandow explains how those with the means are renouncing their citizenship in increasing numbers, while J. Dayne Girard describes the innovative use of freeports to shield wealth from the myriad taxes and duties imposed on it as it moves around the world. Of course the politicians brand all of these people unpatriotic, hoping you won't think too hard about the difference between the usual crony-capitalist suspects and the global creative elite that have done so much to improve our lives. In a special tech section, Joseph Diedrich, Thomas Bogle, and Matthew McCaffrey look at various ways these innovators add value to our lives--even in ways they probably never expected.
Download Free PDF