Voltaire’s savage laughter range out across eighteenth-century Europe, puncturing the pomposities and hypocrisies of power. Kings and cardinals felt the sting of his satire; governments and aristocracies endured his derision.
Yet the aims of the Enlightenment’s clown were nothing if not serious: to throw back the blinds of ignorance and superstition and let the sun of science and intellect stream in; to rebuild benighted Christendom as a new civilisation, secular and free.
Herald of reason and revolution, Voltaire’s mocking voice has echoed through two centuries of change. But as the Enlightenment’s achievements have come increasingly into question, the joke has rebounded on the comedian himself. A creation of Christianity in way he never realised, Voltaire owed more to his epoch’s orthodoxies than he could have ever guessed.
John Gray’s absorbing provocative introduction offers a radical reassessment of a fascinating and important figure, at once demythologizing the icon and revealing his genuine greatness.