Sunday, January 16, 2022

Voltaire: A Life II

I am plugging away slowly, as usual, and am about halfway through the book. Voltaire had such an active public life that it becomes exhausting to follow all of the details. It doesn't help that I have little interest in his poetic, theatrical or historical writings, and that most of his work is not about ideas per se. He became a major philosophe primarily due to the range of his works and his stature in France at the time.

Émilie du Châtelet was married to an aristocrat who worked in the military. She had dutifully produced three children, and was free to pursue an independent life. She was highly intelligent and interested in mathematics and science, whereas her husband was completely unintellectual and didn't mind if she had affairs. Prior to meeting Voltaire, she had moved to Paris and already had two affairs. While seeing Voltaire, she was initially engaged in another affair with her math tutor, but she eventually settled on Voltaire. Davidson thinks that her difficulty in judging people may have been a symptom of autism, and she was certainly promiscuous and occasionally exercised poor judgment.

When Émilie and Voltaire finally settled on each other, they renovated her husband's dilapidated château, called Cirey, which is located in the country about midway between Paris and Basel, Switzerland. At the time, Voltaire was trying to understand science, and they purchased equipment to conduct experiments. Bizarrely, they separately submitted scientific papers in a competition, which neither of them won. They also staged theatrical performances, participating themselves and including the staff. This was an ideal environment for both of them for a time, but Voltaire didn't really care about science and was more interested in writing and advancing his career. He received overtures from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who probably sought him as a trophy for his court. He continued to get himself into trouble with his writings, which were usually condemned by censors, even though they would be considered innocuous today. Sometimes his letters were copied and circulated without his knowledge. On top of this, it was impossible to control the printing and distribution of his works, which often appeared in pirated editions and got him into legal trouble, putting him at risk of being jailed again. As in any period, his financial manager was robbing him blind and had to be replaced.

By 1740, Voltaire was tiring of Émilie, whom he increasingly perceived as too controlling of him. He spent time with Frederick the Great and also attempted to improve his reputation in Paris by being nominated to the Académie Français. His first attempt failed, but later, with the help of Mme de Pompadour, whose friendship he had cultivated, he was elected. This meant that he was in good graces with Louis XV and received a pension. As of 1746, Voltaire's relationship with Émilie is continuing to unravel, and she is running up debts gambling in Fontainebleau. Voltaire has set his sights on a niece, Marie Louise Denis, who is the daughter of his sister, who died earlier, and whose husband has recently died.

There are samples of Voltaire's writing interspersed throughout the text, and I particularly like his witticisms, of which this is an example:

The whole of metaphysics, to my taste, contains just two things: first, what is known by all men of good sense; and second, what they will never know.

This statement not only explains Voltaire's disinterest in philosophy, but may even be correct.

I was pleased to see that Davidson is willing to discuss psychiatric issues. This has been rare in the biographies that I've read, and I would be glad to see more of it. It seems that depression and autism may be common among intellectuals and could be a key to understanding them. Possibly a dysfunction in one aspect of the brain frees up neurons for another aspect. This seems to be what happens with autism, where high competence in rote learning and information processing is accompanied by incompetence in social situations. One might even argue that there is currently an evolutionary pressure favoring autism. Then there are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy and ADHD. There is some evidence that schizophrenia may be associated with mathematical skills in some cases. Since these conditions could be genetically linked, it will be no easy matter sorting them out. 

As for myself, the only disorder that I'll admit to is a mild form of dyslexia. This made it difficult for me to read, write and learn other languages, but there seems to be a benefit in the sense that I form opinions more on the basis of observation than on written words. I'm not really sure that dyslexia is a true disorder, since, in theory, all humans were dyslexic a few thousand years ago, before writing was invented. It is possible that dyslexia is beneficial in some of the sciences: Charles Darwin was a poor student and needed help writing his books, and Richard Feynman, though mathematically talented, was bad at reading and writing.

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