Voltaire was a french Enlightenment thinker. He championed reason over superstition during a period which was brutal in the extreme. Oppressive religious intolerance ensured that people followed the line of the Church.
He believed strongly in freedom of expression. Voltaire and others, including Kant, started the Enlightenment movement against the irrationality, superstition, intolerance, cruelty and tyranny of the Christian clergy. He advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics and knowledge.
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."1
Voltaire was a significant contributor to the Enlightenment movement that was a precursor to the French and American Revolutions, that also lead to the rise of capitalism and the birth of socialism. Eventually it would lead to the separation of Church and state, and the emergence of modern secularism and democracy in the Western world.
Voltaire’s philosophy on man’s right to freedom of expression was enshrined in the French Constitution after his death. The right of freedom of expression emerged out of struggle against religious sensitivity, intolerance and tyranny of a religion of the Medieval Europe.
Like Locke before him, Voltaire's was also exiled. He went to England where he was greatly influenced by Britain's constitutional monarchy, as well as the country's support of the freedoms of speech and religion. After three years in exile, Voltaire returned to France and published a collection of essays developing his views on British attitudes towards government, literature and religion in letter form. The Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical letters on the English) regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights, including religious tolerance, than the French. These letters caused more problems for him and he was exiled once again.
Voltaire wrote Candide a philosophical novel of a man's search for true
happiness and his ultimate acceptance of life's disappointments. The theme of Candide is that one must strive to overcome adversity and not passively accept it in the belief that all is for
the best; although to Voltaire true happiness can only be experienced in an unreal world.
In another of Voltaire's novels, Zadig, he addresses the problem of human happiness. The main character, despite possessing material wealth, seems fated to be unhappy through being very unlucky. He also addresses the effects that evil persons can have on one's happiness. In Zadig, one of Voltaire's characters says,"It's important to have in mind that evil is essential to the order of the world and the birth of the good." This might reflect Voltaire's understanding of happiness based on the difficulty he had during times that were brutal in the extreme. Perhaps if he had lived to see the fruits of his works, how he influenced history after his death, he might have had a more optimistic view as to the achievement of happiness.
For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.
1 This quotation is widely attributed to Voltaire, but in fact it was written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (pseud. S. G. Tallentyre) in the biography "The Friends of Voltaire" (p. 199). She did not attribute the words to Voltaire, but used them to sum up Voltaire's attitude.