by August Thomas
Half an hour from Geneva, overlooking the French town of Ferney-Voltaire, you will find a fairytale pink chateau on the hill overlooking the town, surrounded by grazing sheep and rows of 18th century chestnut trees. Pristine and tranquil, ringed by formal gardens, the chateau seems a most unlikely birthplace for revolutionary ideas. But the man who first tended the chestnut trees — and gave his name to both the village and the chateau — was a firebrand of reason: Enlightenment philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire.
Portraits of Voltaire, including the benevolent statue that supervises the Ferney-Voltaire market square, almost always show him smiling. Although Voltaire’s protagonist Candide famously retreated from the world to peacefully “cultivate his garden”, Voltaire’s philosophy is no dreamy vie en rose mantra of contemplation and reclusion. In a time of bloodshed and profound social upheaval, Voltaire advocated courageously and ferociously for tolerance and against extremism. At the pink chateau, now a museum dedicated to Voltaire’s life, quotes from his books are projected on the walls. Afterwards, reading through more of his work, I found Voltaire’s words profoundly relevant — and disturbing:
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” Voltaire warns sharply, from more than two centuries ago.
“Tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.”
And, perhaps most frightening for a 21st century reader, “Once fanaticism has gangrenated the brain, the sickness is almost incurable.”
Voltaire’s 1763 Traité sur la tolérance is an impassioned plea for reason and tolerance. In this moment of perilous polarization and surging extremist rage around the globe, Voltaire’s 250-year-old insights feel like a stark warning.
Despite the urgency of his message, and his disgust for fanatics, Voltaire did not let fear and anger consume him. As the chateau’s website describes, “Alternately town planner, entrepreneur, and patron of the arts, Voltaire transformed the town of Ferney” during his two decades there. Like his more abstract wisdom, his good works in Ferney are visible still: the houses and theater he built, the tiny village he nurtured to prosperity, even the chestnut trees he nurtured, whose spiky windfalls you can still gather if you visit the chateau in the early autumn. Go, if you can, some day when the intolerance and fanaticism in the headlines feels overwhelming, and sit in Voltaire’s garden. For although this may not be, as Candide’s Dr. Pangloss satirically claims “the best of all possible worlds”, Voltaire stands as a reminder of how individual humans can make it better: not only with steadfast advocacy, and revolutionary ideas, but in the small, ordinary humanity of cultivating a garden, or leaving a legacy of kindness so indelible, even the statues smile.
This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.
Photo is taken from Chateau de Voltaire through Commons license.