A silhouette of that French Gadfly of Reason, Voltaire, serves as an emblem for the new art of the enlightenment exhibition in the recently refurbished National Museum in Beijing. The work, which is attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, shows the philosopher-polemist holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. The curators regard the image as a metaphor for enlightenment, a goal eagerly sought across millennia by different cultures.
While the silhouette rightly serves to highlight the message, the life of the messenger holds equally vital lessons for mankind now passing through particularly turbulent times. “Voltaire promoted tolerance as the most valuable tenet of civilisation and mocked fanatics of all stripes. For this, of course, he was hated and reviled by the powers of his time, and even some of our own,” writes Ian Davidson in a new biography of the 18thcentury philosopher.
“He had a greater career as a champion of human rights for the last 30 years of his life than he had already had — great as it was — to the age of 50!” The Chinese Expo can also captalise on Voltaire’s admiration for Confucius (he looked upon Confucianism as a weapon against religious intolerance and hung a picture of the Chinese moralist on his wall). He also recognised that his principle of not doing to others what one didn’t want them to do to one came as a result of supreme self-enlightenment. Seeing equanimity all around, the illuminated seer treats everybody alike, as Sant Kabir says, praying for all without discriminating.