Central Concepts of the Enlightenment in ‘L’Ingenu’

Voltaire’s work L’Ingenu follows the main character, the Ingenu, across the Atlantic into England and then shortly thereafter chronicles his travels into the province of Brittany in northern France. There are various examples of the spirit of the Enlightenment that show Voltaire’s rejection to the old ideas of society, which at the time were based around deep-rooted traditions and people’s religious faiths, while at the same time promoting the new age idea of using logic and reason to help reform civilization. Voltaire used writing as his tool to encourage the general public to accept these radical new thoughts, as he wrote in a letter in 1767, “I write to act,” and that he did using his gift of writing to promote the Age of Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment was a time of drastic change, as intellectuals were challenging the age-old values that society was then built upon. The ideas were coined from various philosophers such as John Locke, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and of course Voltaire. These wise philosophers promoted the ideas that modern science and reason can help to improve people’s daily lives. Three fundamental ideas stemmed from these thoughts; individualism, relativism, and rationalism. The idea of individualism was obsolete back then, mostly because people were grouped into sects, usually based solely on their religious beliefs. This new influx of individualism promoted the importance of the individual and the rights that each individual is born with, which is what John Locke referenced to in his Second Treatise of Government. The second idea that arose was relativism, which was the notion that each different culture, belief, idea, and value all had equal worth. This was a very radical and dangerous thought to be introduced back then, mainly because of the overwhelming power of the Catholic Church. The last idea of rationalism was the impression that by utilizing the power of reason, people could arrive at the stark reality of civilization and use that to then improve the world. René Descartes is considered the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’ for his thoughts regarding rationalism and is quoted on saying “I think, therefore I am,” which means the simple thought of doubting one’s own existence, therefore means that the “I” in fact exists to do the thinking. That quote epitomizes the Enlightenment era through combining the ideas of individualism, relativism, and rationalism. The Age of Enlightenment brought profound changes to cultures across the world, leading to a decrease in the dependence upon the traditional religious and political sources of authority and an escalation in democracy, human rights, and science.

L’Ingenu speaks directly for the ideas of Enlightenment, as the Ingenu rejects the long-standing beliefs of tradition, while leaning towards the values of thought and reason. The first example of such is when, after reading the Bible, the Ingenu foolishly interprets that to be a Christian he must be circumcised, “I cannot think of one person in that book [the Prior] made me read who wasn’t” (200). Luckily for the Ingenu, the Prior used his reason to overrule the long-standing tradition of circumcision, being as the Ingenu was already a grown man at this point and circumcision would’ve been quite painful to say the least. The second example of Enlightenment occurs shortly thereafter, when it is time for the Ingenu to get baptized, he goes to the river because the Bible states you should be baptized in running water. When the Prior tells him that isn’t how it is done anymore the Ingenu says, “You’re not going to pull the wool over my eyes this time the way you did the last. I’ve gone into things a lot since then, and I am quite certain that there is no other way of being baptized” (202). The Ingenu is rejecting the age-old traditions of Brittany, and insisting on being baptized in running water as his reason tells him to directly interpret the passages in the Bible. Each time the Ingenu believes he is doing something the Bible directly tells him to do, he is told that he is wrong; by doing this Voltaire makes the Church seem very hypocritical. The last example of the Ingenu’s belief in the ideas of Enlightenment stems from while he is locked up in the Bastille; he develops his own ideas through various readings, throwing out all of his previous knowledge. Through these readings he realizes all of the horrors and faults of the world, and using his newfound reasoning, comes to the conclusion that, “It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good” (253). This phrase means that misfortune to one can come to benefit another, while also stating a ‘wind’ bad enough will come to benefit no one. He came to this conclusion using his senses of science and reason, not through following the typical traditions or religion. L’Ingenu is a tragic love story, but its roots are deeply intertwined with the destruction of old ideas and the birth of contemporary morals leading to the Age of Enlightenment.

Voltaire used this story of the Ingenu to not only show people the hypocrisy of the Church, but he also utilized it as an agent to promote the ideas of the Enlightenment movement, showing that science and reason can tear down the ancient pillars of faith and religion. With the help of other philosophers, the Age of Enlightenment was welcomed by the general public, whilst being opposed by leaders of the ever-powerful Catholic Church. The Age of Enlightenment brought the beliefs of democracy, human rights, and science to the forefront of the public’s attention, and without the help of the philosophers of that day and age, the world could be a very different place today.