Today, Newton, Voltaire, and the French Revolution.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Why is Voltaire so famous?
As a philosopher, he left no body of philosophy. He
worked at science but he left no scientific
principles or useful observations. He was a noted
author, but few of us have read more than his book,
Still, reading Candide was an
experience that's stuck with me ever since.
Voltaire is so famous because he was a transforming
agent. And, oddly enough, his interest in science
may have been the driving force behind his great
influence -- even though he contributed nothing to
In 1726, a young Voltaire was exiled to England for
three years. His stay there overlapped the last
year of Newton's life. Now: we regard Newton as the
quintessential rationalist, the very soul of the
Age of Reason. But he was a subversive rationalist.
At the heart of rationalism is the idea that
everything can be deduced, like geometry, from
self-evident principles. By 1776, the framers of
the Declaration of Independence still talked that
They took it as self-evident truth that "All men
are created equal," and that has caused trouble
ever since. All kinds of people, from blatant
racists to serious scientists, have said it isn't
self-evident at all. It finally took the empirical
records of DNA, anthropology, and human history to
verify the equality among classes and races. What
our founding fathers once claimed to be
self-evident has its basis in the observed world.
Voltaire understood how Newton departed from pure
rationalism and wrote a science to fit the observed
world. Voltaire understood that human equality must
follow empirical knowledge. You can't just theorize
about the human lot; you have to observe it as
well. He saw how the English industrial revolution
was using rationalism aided by practical science.
Knowing how real machines work in a real world
would be the English key to individual freedom.
Voltaire took those ideas back to France. In
Candide, he used a tactic called
travel satire. Put a traveler in an alien culture
whose logic exposes the folly of a familiar world.
Voltaire went to London the same year Swift
published Gulliver's Travels. Swift's
mythical lands ridiculed English culture and
Armed with Newton's use of empiricism, Voltaire did
the same thing, even more bitingly, in
Candide. He told us that if we looked
with clear-eyed detachment at our own folly, we'd
see that we do not live in the best of all possible
worlds after all. Rather, we live in a world that
can actually be improved.
So Voltaire took the new English science,
rationalism tempered with observation, back to
France. Those ideas soon ran away from him and
started a revolution beyond anything he'd ever
And so it was, at length, Isaac Newton who put the
terribly disruptive engines of the French
Revolution into motion.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds