Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire


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“Behold the man who tamed the lighting”


In the history of the Enlightenment, few moments stand as emblematic as the 1778 meeting between Benjamin Franklin, the American polymath, and Voltaire, the French literary titan, at the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

This brief, yet iconic, encounter symbolized the confluence of French and American intellectual currents, encapsulated by a ceremonial kiss between the two luminaries.

While their direct interactions were limited, the shared respect and mutual admiration between Franklin and Voltaire serve as a testament to the interconnected tapestry of Enlightenment thought that transcended national boundaries.


Benjamin Franklin's grandson is anointed by Voltaire
Source: Wikipedia

In 1778, amidst the backdrop of a Paris brimming with intellectual fervor, two of the era's most renowned figures, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, met at the city's esteemed Academy of Sciences.

The atmosphere was charged with anticipation; the crowd, comprising scholars, philosophers, and curious Parisians, whispered excitedly, sensing the historical weight of the impending interaction.

Both men, though from different continents, represented the pinnacle of Enlightenment ideals—Franklin with his practical experiments and innovative spirit—and Voltaire with his sharp critiques of institutional power and unwavering defense of civil liberties.

When the moment arrived, their greeting was not the standard, reserved handshake of esteemed colleagues. Instead, the two luminaries shared a kiss on the lips, a gesture which to contemporary onlookers encapsulated the meeting of two worldviews, two cultures, and the union of French and American Enlightenment principles. This simple yet profound act resonated deeply with the gathered crowd.

Emotions ran high—some were moved to tears, while others exchanged joyous glances, recognizing the symbolism of unity and mutual respect.

Over time, this encounter has been romanticized and embellished in countless historical accounts, transforming it into a touchstone of the Enlightenment's shared global vision.


Benjamin Franklin's grandson Benny Franklin
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A touching moment occurred when Voltaire met Franklin’s young grandson, Benny Bache.

Voltaire, that great philosopher whose wit and wisdom pierced the pretensions of the ancien régime, displayed his tender affection for Franklin by blessing the child.

Accounts relate that Voltaire placed his aged hands upon little Benny’s head and declared in French, “God and Liberty.”

Some observers noted tears glistening in old Voltaire’s eyes.

The elderly writer, long a crusader against tyranny, perhaps saw in this American child the hope for the future he dreamed about.

It was as if the mantle was symbolically being passed from the champion of the European Enlightenment to the next generation of Americans whose country had thrown off the chains of their British oppressors.

With this simple act, Voltaire conferred his admiration not just for his esteemed colleague Franklin but also for the fledgling nation he represented.

Benny stood in for America itself, receiving a paternal benediction from one of Europe’s most famous philosophers.

It was a powerful acknowledgment of the significance and promise behind the American experiment. And for the witnesses gathered there, it was a testament to the grand possibilities unleashed by the age of Enlightenment and revolution.


Benjamin Franklin
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During their fabled meeting in Paris, amidst the backdrop of the illustrious Academy of Sciences, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire found themselves at the intersection of two diverging paths of the Enlightenment.

Franklin, having gained immense respect in Europe for his scientific experiments, especially his groundbreaking work with electricity, captured the imagination of the Old World. It was this very achievement that led Voltaire to exclaim, "Behold the man who tamed the lightning."

The topics of their discourse were as varied as they were profound.

They spoke of Franklin's experiments, delving into the nature of electricity and its potential applications.

Voltaire, ever the critic of institutionalized religion and an advocate for freedom of speech, shared his thoughts on the changing socio political landscape of Europe.

They also exchanged views on the role of the individual in society, a subject central to the Enlightenment, with Franklin offering perspectives from the nascent American Republic's experiment with democracy.

The topics of literature, philosophy, and the inherent rights of man were likely touched upon, given Voltaire's prolific output and Franklin's own forays into literary and philosophical realms.

Their conversation, undoubtedly, would have also covered the ongoing American Revolution, where Franklin sought French support against the British.

Throughout, what stands out is not just the depth of their conversation but the mutual respect and shared vision for a world enlightened by reason, science, and the free exchange of ideas.


portrait of Voltaire
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In the vibrant tapestry of the 18th century, the figures of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin loomed large, both illuminated and shadowed by their own respective controversies.

Voltaire, an indomitable voice of the French Enlightenment, was a staunch critic of the prevailing religious orthodoxy. His scathing critiques of the Church, particularly in works like "Candide," not only earned him fame but also the ire of religious and political authorities. Exiled multiple times for his writings and beliefs, Voltaire became the embodiment of the struggle for freedom of speech and expression in an era riddled with censorship.

Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin was carving a niche for himself, not only as a statesman but also as a polymath. His innovative experiments, especially those with electricity, revolutionized scientific understanding. However, they also occasionally raised eyebrows, with some contemporaries viewing them as audacious, if not borderline blasphemous, attempts to meddle with the natural order. Additionally, Franklin's personal life—marked by rumored liaisons and an out-of-wedlock son—was the subject of whispered conversations and scandalous speculations.

For both men, their brilliance and innovations were simultaneously sources of admiration and contention.


Benjamin Franklin as a Freemason
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Both Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire were drawn to this fraternity, which espoused values of enlightenment, individual liberty, and universal brotherhood.

Their Masonic ties not only offered a shared ideological platform but also a clandestine network that nurtured intellectual exchange and mutual support.

It is conceivable that their affiliation with the Freemasons, bound by rituals and a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, fortified the bond of admiration between them. This shared membership symbolized their deeper alignment with the Enlightenment's core tenets, transcending mere national or personal affinities.


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In popular imagination, due perhaps to the resonance of their intellectual pursuits and shared values, many have come to believe that their lives were closely interlinked, characterized by frequent interactions and a deep, enduring friendship.

Paintings, literature, and even casual anecdotes have sometimes perpetuated this image, painting a picture of mutual mentorship and camaraderie.

However, historical records present a more nuanced reality.

While both men held mutual admiration and did indeed meet, their direct interactions were sparse. Their single, most noted encounter was in Paris in 1778, an event that, despite its brevity, has been etched into the annals of history.


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In an age characterized by profound intellectual upheaval, both Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin wielded one of the era's most potent tools: satire.

Their sharp wit, laced with humor, became an instrument for critique, education, and reform.

Voltaire, within the tapestries of his literary works, employed satire as a formidable weapon against established authorities and prevailing dogmas. His "Candide," for instance, is a masterful exploration of societal flaws, from religious hypocrisy to the follies of blind optimism, delivered with biting humor and cunning irony.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Franklin's satirical inclinations manifested in a myriad of pseudonymous writings.

His essay, "A Witch Trial at Mount Holly," cleverly mocked the superstitions of his time, while "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One" was a biting commentary on British colonial mismanagement.

While Voltaire's satire often dissected lofty institutions and philosophical notions, Franklin's humor frequently had a more grounded, practical orientation, targeting societal absurdities and political missteps.

Though their satirical styles and subjects diverged, a common thread was their ability to challenge, provoke, and educate through humor.

This shared love for wit and satire, the capacity to laugh at the world while endeavoring to improve it, likely fostered a sense of kinship between the two thinkers. Their mutual appreciation for the power of humor to convey complex ideas, critique societal norms, and inspire change might well have been a cornerstone of their brief yet memorable interaction, laying the foundation for mutual respect