A walk in the footsteps of Voltaire and Rousseau

Plus, a VERY special invitation to a conversation at the Tocqueville chateau in Normandy

Gracious readers,

Ciao from beautiful Florence!

Earlier in July, my husband, my 15-month-old son and I flew to Paris to begin a month-long adventure on the continent—part holiday after a year-and-a-half of COVID-19 lockdown, and part research for a future book.

The book idea is to write a guide to help travelers walk in the footsteps of the great men and women who built our world. In past eras, travel was primarily the purview of the rich and privileged. The Grand Tour, for example, was the capstone of the education of any European aristocrat: nobles would travel to Europe’s capitals to meet other aristocrats, visit historical sites, and gaze upon beautiful works of art—art that, it was hoped, would inspire similar feats of human achievement.

If you’re interested in where we’ve been on our trip so far, you can find our recommendations here!

After Champagne and Burgundy, we spent a few days in Switzerland where I visited the last Swiss Finishing School as part of research for my book on civility. Switzerland also gave us the chance to walk in the footsteps of thinkers, poets, and writers such as Lord Byron, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

Since Switzerland, we’ve been to Lake Como to walk in the footsteps of St. Augustine; Florence, where we tranced the history of the Italian renaissance; and today, we go to Arezzo, the home of poet, bibliophile, and father of the Italian renaissance, Francesco Petrarch.

We’ll explore these thinkers, their lives, and their ideas in future civic renaissance issues. For now, let’s focus on Voltaire and Rousseau.

In the footsteps of Voltaire and Rousseau

After the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and the wars over religion in the subsequent decades, Europe was tired. Many intellectuals chose to turn to “reason” over faith and “superstition.” The work of these intellectuals comprises what we now know as “The Enlightenment,” an intellectual movement that represented a faith in human reason’s ability to make philosophical and practical progress.

François-Marie Arouet (November 1694 – 30 May 1778), more commonly known by his pen name, Voltaire.

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Voltaire was a—and arguably the—leading member of this movement. He was critical or religious and political authorities, so much so that he was even exiled from France. He spent a few years, from 1726-1729, in England, where he came to love that country’s mores and culture. Interestingly enough—similar to the way that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, which presents an insightful and rather flattering depiction of Americans’ way of life—Voltaire wrote Letters Concerning the English Nation, where he captured some similarly positive reflections on the Anglosphere.

For example, it is in his Letters that we get Voltaire’s famous line about the tolerance-promoting effects of commerce:

Go into the London Stock Exchange – a more respectable place than many a court – and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men. Here, Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.

Commerce, in other words, can help bridge divides. When we do business with others, we are less prone to focus on the differences between ourselves and others, and are instead more likely to see how cooperating can benefit both parties.

Such notions, like the rest of Voltaire’s work, are emblematic of the Enlightenment ethos—that reason, science, and commerce can make the world a better place to live. Indeed, Voltaire himself spent some of the last few decades of his life implementing the ideas about which he was so passionate—education, inquiry, free speech—in a small French town so close to France’s border with Switzerland that it is essentially a suburb of Geneva.

Voltaire had left a Geneva that was in many ways still governed by the restrictive laws adopted under the influence of John Calvin, and he decided to move to Freney to help to create a municipality that was founded on the ideas of tolerance and freedom that he so loved. From 1759 to 1778, Voltaire made his home there (the town is now called Freney-Voltaire in his honor), founding a church and theaters, and helping create pottery and watchmaking industries that still thrive today.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was Voltaire’s contemporary—and adversary. Like Voltaire, Rousseau spent much of his life in Geneva. But very much unlike Voltaire, Rousseau was skeptical of the Enlightenment project’s faith in human progress and reason. Though he and Voltaire were once close friends, they had a falling out, and Rousseau became one of the Enlightenment’s most incisive critics.

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Consider, for example, Rousseau’s Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind, where he decried the Enlightenment’s influence on modern life:

In the midst of so much philosophy, humanity, and civilization, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.

Rousseau thought that man was by nature peaceful and good, and that civilization and society had corrupted and brought out the worst in him. Rousseau believed that the efforts of the thinkers of his day had cultivated nothing more than human pride and selfishness.

In my view, however, while Rousseau makes some important points about modernity and human nature, the problems he highlights are not problems of merely the Enlightenment or modernity.

Rather, they are problems of humanity. As I write in my forthcoming book on civility, human nature is both social and selfish. Humanity has always struggled with this tension in our nature, and we always will—but that our efforts to make the world a bit more hospitable are doomed to fail.

There is much we can learn from both Voltaire and Rousseau—two important contributors to the Great Conversation that we care so much about here at Civic Renaissance.

People like Voltaire—with their dogged optimism and passion for a better future—help drive us to think about the possibility of a better way of being.

People like Rousseau—incisive critics of claims of progress—keep us mindful of the perils of embracing novelty for novelty’s sake.

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A society needs both the visionary and the critic.

Walking in their footsteps, literally and metaphorically, helps us better understand the lives and ideas of these important thinkers—thinkers who in turn help us think more clearly about our own challenges today.

Let me know what you think about the legacies of Rousseau and Voltaire by writing to me directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com

A VERY special invitation to a conversation at the home of Alexis de Tocqueville in Normandy

On Saturday, July 24th at 1pm EST, I’ll be hosting a special conversation on the life and legacy of Alexis de Tocqueville. And I’d like to invite you to join us.

Reserve your spot now!

In partnership with Braver Angels and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Civic Renaissance is delighted to bring you a dialogue at the home of Alexis de Tocqueville with members of his family. We’ll discuss who Tocqueville was as a person and how his ideas have continuing significance, even more than a century-and-a-half after he lived.

Today Americans adore Tocqueville, and he is frequently invoked by figures across the political spectrum. And for good reason—in his Democracy in America, which he published in two volumes after visiting America in 1831, Tocqueville offers many important insights about Americans’ novel experiment with democracy.

As an aristocrat, Tocqueville had suffered personally from the violence of the French Revolution (beginning in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, which the French commemorated just a few days ago, on July 14th), losing many family members during the bloody Reign of Terror.

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With this experience, Tocqueville was understandably skeptical of democracy. But when he got to America, he liked much of what he saw about our culture, political structures, and way of life. His Democracy in America was published for his native Frenchmen so that they could see for themselves the possibilities—and pitfalls—that America’s example offered.

Join us for this conversation and get to know Tocqueville the person.

Join us!

In this conversation, we’ll explore:

Who was Alexis de Tocqueville?

What and thinkers and books made him who he was?

What events and places—including the Normandy town of Tocqueville—formed him?

We’ll discuss these questions with the people best suited to answer them: Tocqueville’s family!

Learn about the work of the Tocqueville Foundation, managed by his family, that seeks to ensure his ideas and influence remain relevant today.

Please share the invitation for this FREE event and conversation with anyone else you think might enjoy the dialogue.

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Even if you can’t make the time, please register so that you will receive a copy of the recording.

Please also feel free to send me an email directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com with any suggestions of groups or organizations that might be interested in this event.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for this very unique conversation and opportunity to discuss Tocqueville with his family at his home in Tocqueville, Normandy!

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!

Lexi