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No. 1168:
Voltaire and Science

Today, Newton, Voltaire, and the French Revolution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Why is Voltaire so famous? As a philosopher, he left no body of philosophy. He worked at science but he left no scientific principles or useful observations. He was a noted author, but few of us have read more than his book, Candide.

Still, reading Candide was an experience that's stuck with me ever since. Voltaire is so famous because he was a transforming agent. And, oddly enough, his interest in science may have been the driving force behind his great influence -- even though he contributed nothing to science.

In 1726, a young Voltaire was exiled to England for three years. His stay there overlapped the last year of Newton's life. Now: we regard Newton as the quintessential rationalist, the very soul of the Age of Reason. But he was a subversive rationalist.

At the heart of rationalism is the idea that everything can be deduced, like geometry, from self-evident principles. By 1776, the framers of the Declaration of Independence still talked that way.

They took it as self-evident truth that "All men are created equal," and that has caused trouble ever since. All kinds of people, from blatant racists to serious scientists, have said it isn't self-evident at all. It finally took the empirical records of DNA, anthropology, and human history to verify the equality among classes and races. What our founding fathers once claimed to be self-evident has its basis in the observed world.

Voltaire understood how Newton departed from pure rationalism and wrote a science to fit the observed world. Voltaire understood that human equality must follow empirical knowledge. You can't just theorize about the human lot; you have to observe it as well. He saw how the English industrial revolution was using rationalism aided by practical science. Knowing how real machines work in a real world would be the English key to individual freedom.

Voltaire took those ideas back to France. In Candide, he used a tactic called travel satire. Put a traveler in an alien culture whose logic exposes the folly of a familiar world. Voltaire went to London the same year Swift published Gulliver's Travels. Swift's mythical lands ridiculed English culture and demanded change.

Armed with Newton's use of empiricism, Voltaire did the same thing, even more bitingly, in Candide. He told us that if we looked with clear-eyed detachment at our own folly, we'd see that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds after all. Rather, we live in a world that can actually be improved.

So Voltaire took the new English science, rationalism tempered with observation, back to France. Those ideas soon ran away from him and started a revolution beyond anything he'd ever intended.

And so it was, at length, Isaac Newton who put the terribly disruptive engines of the French Revolution into motion.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bronowski, J., and Mazlish, B., The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.