The French writer and philosopher Voltaire was a powerful voice for reason, rational thinking, and intellectual freedom in an era of dogma. While Voltaire penned his insightful words over 250 years ago, his quotes remain relevant today as tools to help us think more rationally, critically, and open-mindedly. By taking Voltaire’s advice to heart, we can improve our ability to analyze issues, weigh different perspectives, and make thoughtful choices.
Voltaire encouraged skepticism over assumption, imagination over literalism, and openness over rigidity. He criticized sacred cows and “common sense” beliefs that often are wrong when closely examined. Voltaire wanted people to think carefully and logically to reject prejudice and blind faith. As he famously stated, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
Voltaire’s quotes push us to re-examine our thinking habits and adopt practices that lead to greater rationality and objectivity. This article will highlight key Voltaire insights and provide concrete examples of applying Voltaire’s wisdom in daily life to think more rationally.
Judge by Questions, Not Answers
Voltaire advised, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” The quality and thoughtfulness of the questions someone asks reveal more about them than the confidence they exhibit in their answers. A discerning question indicates curiosity and nuanced thinking. A dismissive or superficial question suggests narrow-mindedness.
For example, when interviewing candidates, instead of judging them on slick answers, analyze the depth of their questions about the role, company, culture, and industry. Thoughtful questions aligned to the position demonstrate engaged critical thinking. Formulaic questions or lack of inquiries raise a red flag.
On the other hand, you can apply Voltaire’s quote to your questions. Asking vague, closed-ended questions like “Was it good?” elicits limited responses. Posing sharp, expansive questions like “What specifically appealed to you and why?” sparks more meaningful dialogue. Thoughtful questions drive rational discourse.
Doubt Over Certainty
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd,” Voltaire wrote. Absolute certainty often indicates close-mindedness or blind faith rather than rational analysis. Doubt, on the other hand, allows us to examine our beliefs and improve our understanding critically.
For example, a doctor who feels utterly sure of a diagnosis may anchor themselves to that view and dismiss symptoms or test results that don’t fit. A doctor who maintains doubt will reconsider all factors before finalizing a perspective. The latter mindset supports more accurate analysis.
In your relationships, be wary of absolutist pronouncements like “you always…” or “you never…” which claim certainty. Instead, talk through issues acknowledging you may not have all perspectives. Leaving room for doubt allows everyone’s views to be rationally considered.
Rethink “Common Sense”
Voltaire warned that “Common sense is not so common.” Things that seem like “common sense” are often biases that go unexamined. Scrutinizing so-called common sense with rational analysis can lead to important revelations.
For example, it was once “common sense” that stress caused ulcers. But scientists who doubted this assumption eventually discovered the bacterium H. pylori as a primary cause – leading to new treatments.
In business, be wary of dismissing ideas because they don’t align with “common sense” about a market or process. Rigorously analyze customer data, run controlled tests, and mine ideas widely – even those that initially seem improbable. Maintaining an open, rational perspective yields innovation.
Leave Room for Imagination
“The best way to be boring is to leave nothing to the imagination,” Voltaire noted. Imagination allows us to envision new perspectives, concepts, and possibilities beyond what is in front of us. It sparks creativity and progress. Conversely, refusing to imagine anything beyond face value or “just the facts” leads to rigid, limited thinking.
For example, Walt Disney drew on imagination to envision his fantastical theme parks. He could imagine experiences that didn’t yet exist. Similarly, Pixar movies like Inside Out personified complex inner emotions through imagination.
Rationally develop your imagination. Brainstorm “blue sky ideas” for products and processes without limiting yourself to what currently exists. Mentally step into others’ shoes to envision different motivations and goals. Imagination takes you beyond the obvious into innovative, rational thinking.
Respect Different Perspectives
“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too,” Voltaire counseled. While we should form our opinions and beliefs through careful, rational consideration, we should allow others to do the same, even if we disagree with their conclusions.
For example, in ideologically divided families, it’s easy to see those with opposing political views as irrational. But they deserve respect if they reach their position through thoughtful analysis of their beliefs and values. Listen to their reasoning with an open mindset.
When making business decisions, solicit perspectives from different departments and levels. Differing vantage points each contribute valuable data points. Synthesize these perspectives rationally without giving inherent preference to your own.
Cultivate a Rational Frame of Mind
“The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood,” Voltaire stated. Our moods and emotional states profoundly influence how rationally we think. Anxiety, anger, insecurity, defensiveness—these states warp perspective and judgment. A positive, optimistic mood enables more precise analysis.
For example, critically reviewing your team’s performance after a significant loss can quickly turn into complaining and finger-pointing. By first calming down, acknowledging efforts, and cultivating a “we’re in this together” spirit, you create space for rational problem-solving.
When you need to make an important decision, do activities that make you feel happier and calmer, like exercising, listening to music, or meditating. A clear state of mind leads to optimal rational thinking.
Focus on Actions Over Arguments
“Men argue. Nature acts,” Voltaire observed. Endless debates often yield more discord than progress. Ideas and beliefs are best tested not through arguments but through concrete actions. The results reveal which ideas have merit.
For example, lengthy theoretical debates over ideas in business meetings often go in circles without resolution. Instead, test promising concepts through prototype projects. Rapid action creates evidence for rational, results-driven analysis.
In your own life, avoid overanalyzing decisions endlessly. Thoughtfully examine options and input to determine an intelligent path. But once a choice seems rational, act upon it and learn from experience. As Voltaire noted, nature determines truth through action.
John was struggling to reason in his career and relationships. He based decisions on gut reactions and often justified his choices by dismissing others’ perspectives as irrational. Under stress, he grew angry and defensive. He also struggled to imagine solutions beyond the status quo.
To improve, John posted Voltaire’s quotes on rational thinking around his office. He started asking more expansive questions in meetings, earning praise for his strategic thinking. He caught himself making blanket claims of certainty and acknowledged he might have more to learn.
John brainstormed ten “blue sky” innovations that might delight customers despite seeming impractical. He meditated when facing big choices, helping him think calmly and objectively. The results became apparent.
Colleagues complimented John on his open-mindedness to new ideas. He earned a promotion for launching a customer feedback initiative that led to a popular new product feature. And he strengthened personal relationships by listening actively, asking thoughtful questions, and respecting different views.
Over 250 years later, Voltaire’s quotes are helpful in honing rational thinking skills. By taking Voltaire’s advice, we can become more discerning questioners, balance certainty with doubt, re-examine “common sense,” expand our imagination, respect different perspectives, cultivate objectivity, and focus on results over rhetoric. Applying Voltaire’s principles allows us to think more critically in business, relationships, and daily decision-making.
Voltaire encouraged us to improve our thinking and never become complacent continuously. As the great writer remarked, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” By adopting Voltaire’s mindset, we can break down biases, assumptions, and cognitive ruts that undermine rationality. With consistent practice, Voltaire’s wisdom provides a path to more precise, thoughtful analysis and choices.