Voltaire on being a public intellectual

I’ve been obsessing about Voltaire recently. I’m interested in the public sphere as a space within which rational progress happens, and I think Voltaire had some interesting insights into the idea of a public discourse before we’d even defined what we mean properly by this term.

As a youth, Voltaire set out to become a “man of letters”. In his time that would be something similar to what we now refer to as a “public intellectual”. In Diderot’s Encyclopedie, in an article titled Gens de lettres, Voltaire defines what a man of letters is (Voltaire says ‘man’ but, of course, what we mean here is a ‘person of letters’). It’s an individual possessing a grasp of grammar, geometry, history, philosophy, poetry, etc. That is, to truly be that kind of intellectual one needs to have certain knowledge of the world that is general enough to be able to engage with issues at an adequate level. Kant called this ‘pragmatic’ anthropology – the knowledge we need to have of the world, and of humanity’s place in the world, that enables us to participate in the world to the fullest extent.

Voltaire was sceptical about the possibility of something like this being possible any more. He wrote that “[u]niversal science is no longer within the reach of man: but true men of letters make incursions into these different terrains, even if they cannot cultivate them all.”

We now know much more than we did in Voltaire’s time. And so the task is greater. I agree with Voltaire that there is a necessity of a grasp of a wide range of knowledge, but what exactly is relevant knowledge here? At which point is the condition of knowledge met for one to be able to participate in the discourse?

We can keep reading, but the most important thing is to know when to start writing. The rest will surely follow.