1694-1778 Voltaire.

Voltaire's prose online

. (page 1 of 35)
Online Library1694-1778 VoltaireVoltaire's prose → online text (page 1 of 35)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Felix Fltlgel




From a portrait by La Tour

lbcatb'0 flDofccrn language

















IN a general way it may be said that the interest attaching
to the life of a great writer is due almost entirely, in so far
as it is legitimate, to a desire to understand his works as well
as it is possible for them to be understood. How much, for
instance, that is obscure in the Divina Commedia becomes
clear for him who learns well to comprehend the political his-
tory of Italy during the Middle Ages, and the relation of
Dante Alighieri to the public life of the Florentine republic !
Not so with Voltaire. It is with no desire to penetrate the
lltnriade, the Sihle de Louis XIV., or even the Dictionnaire
philosophique, that we undertake the study of his life. The
works just named have no place in the list of literary master-
pieces which are justly to be considered as great masterpieces
of art of those productions of the human mind a full intelli-
gence of which gives us a clearer conception of the possibili-
ties of our kind. This name, Voltaire, does not stand before
the world as that of a great artist. He is not a Shakspere,
a Moliere, a Goethe. And still few names, if any, flash more
vividly than his in the darkness of the past. His place is
among those great prime movers of ideas whose passage
through the world has powerfully modified, for good or for evil,
the facts and relations of life. We would place him among
such men as Luther, Napoleon, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur.

What was achieved by him ? The answer, if we do not
care to go into all the details of a quantitative and qualitative
analysis, can be easily given. But for the French Revolution


there would be in the world to-day even more injustice, more
oppression, more intolerance, more suffering, than we at pres-
ent see around us ; and but for Voltaire we might, perhaps, be
still waiting for the great commotion which shook human so-
ciety to its foundations, and scattered to the winds the broken
remnants of feudalism. To add that the good was not wholly
unmixed with evil is merely to say that Voltaire was a man.

His peculiar position is due to this, that to his contempora-
ries, and perhaps to himself, he was pre-eminently a man of
letters. They thought of him, first of all, as a poet; they threw
themselves upon his works, because from his works they
derived greater intellectual enjoyment than from anything else
that they could read ; and what he said to them, whether in
prose or verse, whether in a novel or a historical work or a
tragedy, became so much a part of their being that they after-
wards looked upon the world with other eyes than before, and
were ready to base their own activity upon different principles.

These works, the rank of which as literary productions is
far inferior to-day to that which was assigned to them by the
men and women of the eighteenth century, are therefore inter-
esting to us because they were the weapons with which he
achieved the labor of his life. We study them as we study the
strategy and military tactics of a Napdleon, as we study
the statesmanship of a Richelieu or a Bismarck, or, better still,
of an Abraham Lincoln. Here, instead of reading the man's
biography in order to understand better his works, we turn to
the works in order to understand better the man.

The main facts of his life are as follows: He was born in
Paris, on November 21, i6^. 1 His father, a notary by the
name of Arouet, was in good pecuniary circumstances, fre-
quented the best society of his time, and was able to have his

1 Many biographers, accepting Voltaire's own statement, give the month ot Feb-
ruary, 1694, and the village of ChStenay, near Paris, as the date and place of his
birth ; but it has been demonstrated by Mr. Gustave Desnoiresterres that the facts
were as we state them in the text above.


sons, of whom Francois Marie, who later assumed the name of
Voltaire, was the younger, given the best education then offered
to young Frenchmen. When seven years of age he lost his
mother, who seems to have been a very much admired woman ;
and from that time on a great share in his education fell to a
very witty, very worldly, and not very puritanical friend of his
mother, the Abbd de Chateauneuf, a member of one of the
best families of the French nobility. Most of his education,
however, he owed to the Jesuit fathers, in whose best college,
the College Louis-le-Grand (now one of the fycies of the
French government), he was placed as a boarding pupil by the
notary Arouet. It need hardly be said that he was the most
brilliant scholar in his class. He was also, not unnaturally, a
great favorite with his teachers, although one of them, at least,
very early predicted that he would not always be true to the
religious teachings he received there.

On leaving the college he was more than ever taken in
charge by the Abbe* de Chateauneuf, who introduced him to
the most polite, brilliant, and licentious circles of a society that
was in its entirety remarkable for politeness, brilliancy, and
licentiousness. The young man was second to none in the first
two of these attributes, and was corrupted by the third deci-
dedly less than one might suppose. What protected him was
not any set of very strong moral principles, but an unconquer-
able need and desire for intellectual labor. Work and debauch-
ery never go hand in hand, and Voltaire all his life was an
indefatigable worker.

His sole ambition at the outset was to be a poet, and he
wrote small pieces, trifles light as air,' 1 in order to delight the
highly aristocratic society in which he moved, and where his
anacreontic rivals were not seldom members of the royal cir-
cles. " Are we all princes here, or all poets ? " he once ex-
claimed in one of the suppers he attended.

It was during this stage of his career that Louis XIV. died
(1715), and that the period known as the Regency (1715-1723)


began, a period noticeable for an incredible liberty of private
talk and morals, and at the same time for frequent displays of
arbitrary power on the part of the authorities. No one then
used freer speech than Frangois Arouet, and he had to pay for
it. After a short stay in Holland, where he had gone as sec-
retary to the Marquis de Chateauneuf, the ambassador of the
late king, and whence he had to be sent back because of a love
affair which might have had very unpleasant consequences,
he had returned to Paris. He spoke as freely as any one,
more wittily than any one, and the result was that he had to
spend nearly a whole year as a prisoner in the Bastille. These
were not his only troubles. He was several times exiled from
Paris, and threatened with more severe punishment.

In one of his " exiles " he met an old public servant, Mon-
sieur de Caumartin, whose conversations set in his mind the
germs of two of his most important works, a poem on
Henri IV. and a history of Louis XIV.

The first production, however, that placed his name before
the public at large was a tragedy, QLdipe, which was received
with the greatest favor, although the young poet was consid-
ered at first very bold, and even disrespectful, for daring to
treat a subject already treated by Corneille in a tragedy
which is now forgotten, but which was then considered a

The plays he afterwards gave to the stage during this period
of his life were not as successful ; but a great deal of interest
vr as created by the publication of a first draught of his poem
on Henri IV., known then as the Poeme de la Ligue. The
ideas of religious toleration which are advocated in the poem
were not then near being adopted by the rulers of the country,
irreligious though they might be at heart ; and the work, in the
absence of any freedom of public utterance, had to be secretly
printed and circulated.

This period of Voltaire's life came abruptly to an end in
1 726. Voltaire (he had taken that name, the origin of which


is still unexplained, 1 a few years before, on coming out of the
Bastille) happened to have a few word encounters with a young
and vain nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, a member of as
high a family as there was in the kingdom. 2 On such an
arena the nobleman was no match for the poet. He took his
revenge in a most brutal fashion. He had him seized by a
few ruffians, and beaten almost to death. At that time, against
such a person as a Rohan, a man who did not even belong to
the nobility had no chance whatever of legal redress. Voltaire
tried to compel his assailant to fight a duel with him, with the
sole result that the poet was again locked up in the Bastille, in
order to prevent a scandal. But the government knew that
his side of the quarrel was the right one, and, after a few days
of imprisonment, he was, at his own request, allowed to go
forth from prison on condition that he would at once leave the
country and retire to England.

Although separated from France by the Channel, Voltaire
at first thought of nothing but the humiliation that had been
inflicted upon him, and the means of avenging it. He even
took secretly a trip to the Continent, hoping to meet at last,
and fight, the Chevalier de Rohan. He did not meet him, and
soon learned that he could not safely remain in the country.
He therefore returned to England, resolved to make the best
of circumstances.

There everything was interesting to him. A country where
the citizen's freedom was protected by the Habeas Corpus act,
where men of letters, like Addison, were allowed to put their
intelligence at the service of the State, and to win promotion to
the highest offices of government ; where the people were rep-

1 Thomas Carlyle states Voltaire to be the anagram of Arouet 1. j., supposed to
mean Arouet le jeune. But as Voltaire never used that way of designating himself,
Carlyle's hypothesis does not seem to be founded.
* The well-known motto of the Rohan family is :
Roi ne puis,
Prince ne daigne,
Rohan suis.


resented in Parliament, and had not to obey the arbitrary will
of the hereditary ruler and his favorites ; where, finally, people
of different religious creeds lived side by side in peace, and
where religious intolerance, although not entirely obliterated,
had at least lost a good deal of its ferocity. He determined
to study the country well, and even for a while thought of
making it his permanent home. He was everywhere admirably
received. His introducer was no less a person than Henry
St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, whom he had known in France
a few years before, and for whose brilliant and penetrating
intellect he professed the deepest admiration. He rapidly
acquired the language of the country, which he soon spoke
and wrote with ease and fluency, and not without elegance.
He saw and conversed with all sorts of people, filled his note-
books with interesting observations, studied English society,
English literature, the manners of the people, their ideas, their
public and private life ; and he became among them such a
conspicuous figure, that when he announced that he was about
to publish for the first time in anything like a complete form
his poem on Henri IV., he obtained permission to dedicate it
to the Queen, had all the royal family and most of the nobility
among his subscribers, and thus made something like a public
event of the publication in England of a French poem which
was not allowed free circulation in France.

Two interesting particulars are to be noted in connection
with this first edition of la Henriade. The first is, that in
order to prepare the English public for what they were to read,
Voltaire composed and published in English two short essays,
one theoretical, on the nature of epic poetry, the other histori-
cal, on the civil wars of France, which were not found un-
worthy to be read by a public familiar with the poetry of
Dryden and Pope, with the prose of Addison, Richard Steele,
and Jonathan Swift. The second shows us what an indomi-
table spirit dwelt within Voltaire's fragile body. In the first
draught of his poem the celebrated Due de Sully, Henri IV.'s


great and trusted minister, played an important part ; in the
KiiLjlish edition, and in all subsequent editions, he figured not
at all. This was the poet's answer to the living Due de Sully,
whose guest Voltaire had been when assailed by the Chevalier
de Rohan, and who, mindful of his caste, and forgetful of his
friendship, had refused to join in his guest's attempt to obtain
redress for the outrage. Notice was served thereby that here
was a man of letters who refused to bend the knee when in-
sulted by the great, and who inflicted chastisement with the pen
when the sword was condemned to hang powerless by his side.
The enormous success of la Henriade made Voltaire the
foremost Frenchman of letters of his time. The French gov-
ernment, which proscribed the book, allowed the author to
return to his country ; and Voltaire left England after a stay
of a little more than two years (1728). He was then thirty-
four years old. He had battled with the world ; he was con-
scious of his strength. The years that followed his return
from England were years of intense productiveness. The per
formance of Brutus (1730), and especially of Zaire (1732),
made him the foremost dramatic poet of his time, whether
in or out of France. The publication of his History of
Charles XII. placed him, as a writer of history, side by side
with the most brilliant among the ancient writers. Sallust's
and Livy's histories contain no narratives more striking than
the French recital of the adventures of the Swedish hero. In
the composition of the Lettres philosophiques, or Letters con-
cerning the English Nation, a short pamphlet consisting of
twenty-four letters, he showed himself a master of social, as
well as of literary criticism, and for the first time openly
preached the gospel of freedom, to which he remained at-
tached all his life. Useless to say that such a work could
not be published in France : it first appeared in an English
translation; and the first French edition, which was issued
without the author's knowledge, was seized, destroyed, and
came near sending Voltaire to the Bastille for the third time.


Paris was decidedly not a safe place for him. He retired
to the Chateau de Cirey, on the boundaries of Champagne and
Lorraine, where he lived for a number of years with the owner
of the chateau, the Marquise du Chatelet, under conditions
which our age would not tolerate, but which were found quite
natural in the eighteenth century. Madame du Chatelet was
endowed with, high mental gifts, so that Voltaire was in no
danger, in her society, of interrupting his intellectual labors.
He developed at Cirey what existed 'in germ in some of the
chapters of the Lettres philosophiques. He undertook to
popularize in France the Newtonian theory of universal attrac-
tion, hardly known there at that time. He continued writing
tragedies, comedies, poems of all kinds. His name was con-
tinuously before the public ; he was the great intellectual pur-
veyor of his time.

The government itself yielded to his ascendancy. He was
employed in diplomatic missions to Frederick II. of Prussia,
who had craved his friendship and proclaimed himself his dis-
ciple ; he was allowed to be elected a member of the French
Academy ; he was appointed a gentleman of the King's bed-
chamber, and historiographer of France; he dedicated his
tragedy of Mahomet to the Pope, Benedict XIV., who warmly
thanked him for the honor ; and if we credit a tradition that
has been thus far neither proved nor wholly disproved, there
was some talk at the Roman court of making him, though not
a priest, a prince of the church, a cardinal !

But the favor of kings is fleeting. Moreover, there was no
love lost between Voltaire and Louis XV. The poet soon
retired from the court, and, with Madame du Chatelet, re-
turned to Cirey, where both resumed their studious and busy
life. In 1749 tne y were separated by death, amid circum-
stances that tried to the utmost the strength of Voltaire's
friendship for the lady, and under the stress of which he
behaved with the highest magnanimity. Stricken with deepest
grief, he had nothing to do but to leave Cirey, and try to live


in Paris. But after twenty years of continuous applause a
natural reaction was beginning to appear in the attitude of the
public towards him. Moreover, he felt keenly the loss of his
friend, and life for a while seemed to him almost devoid of
interest. In addition, it soon became clear that even at the
height which he had reached, and being nearly an old man, he
was not entirely safe in Paris. He therefore determined to
accept the offers of Frederick II., who for years had begged
him to take up his residence in Berlin. The consent of the
French king, which was necessary, was reluctantly given, and
Voltaire became a chamberlain of the king of Prussia. He
was received at Berlin and Potsdam with demonstrations of
admiration that were absolutely sincere, and demonstrations
of friendship that were not wholly insincere, although coming
from one of the craftiest of men. Between the King and
Voltaire there was a kind of honeymoon, during which the
Sihle de Louis XIV. was completed and published. Nothing
can give any idea of the reception of the work. Never be-
fore had history been so presented to the European public.
Everything was found there, clear and brilliant narratives, po-
litical explanations, philosophical ideas, and all with the fullest
knowledge of the facts, and with absolute sincerity. Lessing,
then a young man, was as enthusiastic as Frederick or Madame
du Deffand.

But there were peculiarities in the natures both of Frederick
and of Voltaire that made it impossible that they should long
remain at peace unless apart from each other. It need hardly
be said that neither of the two men was entirely blameless.
A separation became necessary, and Voltaire was the first to
recognize it. He left Berlin on March 26, 1753, after spend-
ing nearly three years at Frederick's court. The king's spite
vented itself on him in a most characteristic fashion. Nothing
happened to him while on Prussian soil ; but after leaving
Frederick's dominions, on a most trifling and ridiculous charge,
he was, at the requests of the king's agent, arrested, and most


ignominiously treated while in the territory of the feeble re-
public of Frankfort. The charge was so absurd that he had
soon to be released ; and all the German courts, filled with
indignation at the treatment the illustrious Frenchman had
received, vied with each other in the courtesies and attentions
shown him until he arrived in Alsace, upon territory belonging
to the king of France.

Strange was then his condition. He was sixty years old ;
he was the foremost literary man of his time ; he was a
gentleman of the king's bedchamber ; he had forced the
barriers that separated him from the privileged nobility; he
was rich, even before he settled at Cirey he had, by lucky
speculations and shrewd investments, acquired a handsome
fortune, which he managed continually to increase as long as
he lived, and yet he had not a place that he could call his
home. The French king did not wish him in Paris ; the Areh-
bishop of Lyons did not wish him in Lyons. He had enough
of kings; he determined to try a republic, and he settled in
Geneva. High honors were shown him, and yet the republic
did not consider him an altogether welcome guest. The magis-
trates of the Calvinistic republic lived in daily fear of the king
of France, and were not sure that Louis XV. would be entirely
pleased to see their city afford a refuge to the man whom he
considered the most dangerous of his subjects. There were
in the questions that divided the inhabitants of the republic
other considerations that made Voltaire's enjoyment of repub-
lican liberty rather precarious. Only one thing was left for
him to do, to create, as it were, the very ground upon which
he was to spend the last years of his life, and to establish
thereon for himself something like a sovereignty. This he did.
He bought or hired for life a few estates, the possession of
which gave him the title of count, with a number of feudal
privileges; and in 1758 he settled in the wilderness of Ferney,
thus *becoming a vassal of the King of France, but so situated
that if his suzerain was in any way disposed to molest him, he


could, with the aid of a pair of fleet horses, be on the foreign
territory of Geneva a long time before the agents of the king
could lay hands upon him. Thus he came, an old man of
sixty-four, to settle upon the place where he was to live contin-
uously for a longer period of time than he had lived anywhere
since reaching man's estate. He took up his residence in
Ferney in 1758, and never left it till February, 1778.

The period that elapsed between Voltaire's departure from
Berlin and his purchase of Ferney had not been a fruitless one.
In addition to numberless small pamphlets, to his poem on the
Lisbon earthquake, to several of his most perfect tales, to his
poem on the Lot naturelle, he had published his deepest his-
torical work, his essay on Universal History, r Essai sur les
mceurs et r esprit des nations, the greater part of which had
been written several years before for Madame du Ch&telet.
Several years before, also, while still in Cirey, he had written a
strange poem, which he for a long time, and for obvious rea-
sons, refused to publish under his name, although to all who
read it then it afforded almost unalloyed delight, a condition
of mind which we cannot easily realize to-day. This was the
altogether too famous poem on Joan of Arc, la Pucelle. We
shall not attempt to deny that Voltaire's staunchest admirers
would prefer that la Pucelle had never been written. Al-
though the whole construction of the work is so fantastic that
Joan of Arc can hardly be said to be present in it save in
name, everybody must wish that the purest heroine of patriot-
ism had never been so much as mentioned in so licentious
a production.

In Ferney we find Voltaire occupied with worthier objects.
The place was a wilderness ; he made it almost a paradise for
human activity. The woods were cleared, workingmen were
attracted, factories erected, a church was built bearing in gilt
letters upon its front, "Deo erexit Voltaire" The patriarch of
Ferney, as the master of the place came soon to be called,
watched over the welfare of the inhabitants with paternal care ;


he commended their work to everybody, and tried to find a mar-
ket for their wares, availing himself for this purpose of the enor-
mous circle of his correspondents, who, from the Empress of
Russia, Catherine II., down, prized a letter from him more, per-
haps, than any other present they could receive. In short, we
see in him in those years one of the best specimens of the prac-
tical philanthropist. His family was not neglected. One of his
nieces, Madame Denis, kept his house ; his other relatives,
a niece, Madame de Fontaine, who afterwards married the
Marquis de Florian, the graceful author of Gonzalve de Cor-
doue and a number of charming trifles ; his nephews, the
Mignot brothers, the Abb and the magistrate, all had rea-
sons to remember him gratefully. In addition, he enlarged his
family by adopting into it a young girl, Marie Corneille, who
was thought to be a direct descendant of Pierre Corneille,
though her ancestor was in reality the poet's uncle. He gave
the closest attention to her education, and, in order to give her
a handsome dowry without exciting in his own kindred any
animosity against her, published with notes and introduction
a superb edition of Pierre Corneille's plays, all the proceeds of
which he assigned to her. He so endeared himself to all those
who approached him, that his last secretary, Wagniere, who
was in his service from 1754 to 1778, could not, more than ten
years after his death, speak of him otherwise than with tears

Online Library1694-1778 VoltaireVoltaire's prose → online text (page 1 of 35)