Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
3 min readNov 22, 2021
François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694–30 May 1778)

Today is the 327th anniversary of the birth of François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694–30 May 1778), better known as Voltaire, who was born on this date in 1694.

Happy Birthday Voltaire!

I think Voltaire was the first person to write a book titled Philosophy of History, so it would be accurate to state that modern philosophy of history begins with Voltaire, and therefore modern philosophy of history begins with an Enlightenment philosophy of history, for Voltaire was one of the foremost figures of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire was a prolific writer who produced poetry, prose, and drama. No doubt he was at his best as a controversialist, as a gadfly and a wit, but the influence of his prose has probably been far more influential that philosophers who stuck to more narrow and technical subjects. Voltaire’s Letters on England, for example, is a remarkable document, in which Voltaire lavishing praised the English for their scientific accomplishments; it is, throughout, a classic statement of Enlightenment thought. Letters on England influenced his younger contemporary Rousseau, with whom Voltaire quarreled as long as both were living.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Voltaire’s Philosophy of History, Chapter V, “Of the Religion of the First Men”:

“In order to know how these different doctrines and superstitions gained ground, it seems to me necessary to follow the career of the human mind left alone without a guide. The inhabitants of a village, who are little better than savages, see the fruits perish which should nourish them; an inundation carries away some cabins; others are destroyed by lightning. Who has done them this mischief? It could not be their fellow citizens, for all have equally suffered. It is therefore some secret power which has afflicted them, and must therefore be appeased. How is it to be effected? by using it as they do those whom they are desirous of pleasing; by making it some small presents. There is a serpent in the neighborhood, — it is very likely the serpent. They offer him milk near the cavern to which he retires. From that time he becomes sacred. He is invoked when they are at war near the neighboring village, who, on their side have chosen another protector.”

…and a couple of paragraphs further on…

“Every state had, then, in the course of time its tutelar divinity, without even knowing what was meant by a god, or without in the least suspecting that the neighboring state had not, as well as itself, a real protector. For how could they think, when they had a Lord, that others had not one also? The only thing in doubt was which among so many masters, lords, or gods, would be victorious, when the nations fought against each other.”

For the Enlightenment, with its anti-clericalism and its Deism, religion was a problem needed to be explained. Thus Voltaire gives us a naturalistic account of the origins of religion that satisfies the Enlightenment’s need for an explanation, and he does so by means of a state-of-nature thought experiment. In the early modern period many philosophers engaged in state-of-nature thought experiments (Hobbes and Rousseau were particularly influential in this respect), in which humanity is imagined prior to the advent of civilization, and an attempt to made at a rational reconstruction of the earliest history of humanity when the distinctive institutions of civilization were founded.

This early modern rational reconstruction of history lost to the mists of time bears some resemblance to Collingwood’s a priori historical imagination, though it is more radical, in both senses of the term “radical.” One can, then, think of later philosophies of history that employ technique of the imaginative reconstruction of that which had to have been, though all evidence of it is lost, as a refinement of the earlier technique of state-of-nature thought experiments, which, as an earlier tool of philosophy of history, were something of a blunt instrument.