by DOUGLAS BROWN
Voltaire by John Hearsey (Constable £h)
Reason, Ridicule and Religion by John Redmond (l kitties & Hudson £7)
1 recall an occasion when, on a journey to Eastern Europe, being delayed at Helmstedt, the point of contact between the two Germanies, I left the Autobahn and wandered beside the local manifestation of the Iron Curtain until I came across the historic highway which for centuries had linked Paris ana the West with Berlin and the East st. was
weed-choked and deserted, like some forgotten Roman road, and I found it difficult to realise that this could have been the busy route by which Voltaire, the apostle of liberty of thought, had travelled, in the blare of the Enlightenment, to the Court of Frederick the Great.
Today all East-West physical traffic is confined to a Few checkpoints on the roads which Hitler built. while the traffic of the mind has almost ceased. Such is the outcome of Voltaire's satirical crusade.
State control on the one hand and moral anarchy on the other are the goals of many of our popular thinkers today. Voltaire fought against both heresies only to be hailed later as the philosopherfounder of the French Revolution.
In some ways, it is true. the climate has improved since then. When Alfred Noyes, the English minor poet ("Go Down to Kew in Lilac Time"), attempted an objective assessment of Voltaire he was as
a Catholic threatened with the most dire consequences by certain dinosaurs at the Vatican.
Professional historians meanwhile have come to minimise Voltaire's destructive influence and to put his anti-clericalism into its eighteenth-century context. Some of the Voltarcan spirit was nut entirely absent from the Second Vatican Council.
John Hearsey's hook is by no means the best popular biography of this great man, It lacks the grand theme and confuses the reader with incomplete detail. which it serves to commemorate Voltaire's passion for justice, which in his latter years was as strong as his passion for untrammelled thought.
Voltaire was not an optimist in the original sense of the word. He did not subscribe to the belief he attributed to his comic character Pangloss, that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."
Yet he possessed the great virtue of hope, since his deism taught him that humanity was in some sense redeemable. It is good to have this emphasised in Mr Hearsey's book.
John Redwood, a Fellow of All Souls. in his immensely scholarly work. deals with the Age of Enlightenment on this side of the Channel. which he places between the Restoration and the middle of the eighteenth century.
After 1750. according to him, "England settled down to the conformity of natural religion," leaving it to Voltaire's France to develop the atheism of Jacobin tradition.
it was a near thing. to judge from the extracts given in this hook, but at least all the pamphleteers of the period brought God into their arguments. Their successors today do nut attack God: they ignore Him.