Whether by the American religious Right or the gloomier sort of Catholic reactionary on this side of the Atlantic, the Enlightenment has lately been given rather a hard time. Those Fellows of the Royal Society in seventeenth-century London, innocently propounding theories of gravity and laws of physics, or those bewigged Parisian philosophes deriding the excesses of blind faith and calling for a little more in the way of rational discourse and civilised enquiry, are seen as demon harbingers of almost everything disagreeable or disastrous overtaking humanity during the last hundred years. From Galileo to the gulags, we are asked to believe, is but a short step.
Voltaire, for today’s anti-rationalists, is the Demon King in the Enlightenment panto. Poor François-Marie Arouet is easy enough to knock. The man who never actually uttered the most famous one-liner attributed to him, ‘I disagree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say