The Life of Voltaire
Caspar J M Hewett
I am going to introduce you to Voltaire, poet, novelist, playwright, historian, scientist and philosopher. Seen by many as the embodiment of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire was a complex, contradictory character. A tireless campaigner against injustice and advocate of religious and social tolerance, he was also fiercely anti-Semitic, describing the Jews as “an ignorant and barbarous people” and arguing that Africans are a separate species “as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds.” A great polemicist, who persistently denounced the hypocrisy of the ruling class and the Catholic Church, he rarely stood by his own words, choosing instead to claim his works were falsely attributed to him. However, none of these things should be taken out of context. This was a time when the ideas of universal humanity and equality were mere babes in arms and the France that Voltaire grew up in was one in which the monarchy, nobility and clergy ruled with an iron hand, keeping the majority of the people in a state of poverty and virtual slavery. It was an age of burning of books and imprisonment without trial at the whim of the ruling class. No wonder then that Voltaire, especially after some of his early experiences of the injustices of the regime, chose not to acknowledge his own words. Less of an original thinker than many of the Enlightenment thinkers, he is particularly important for challenging the church and promoting the ideas of John Locke and Isaac Newton in France.
Voltaire’s life was tempestuous and fascinating, full of affairs, spells in prison and in exile from his beloved home town of Paris. Born François Marie Arouet in November 1694, he was a sickly child who was not expected to live beyond a few days, so right from the beginning he managed to surprise everyone by surviving. His father, François Arouet, was a minor treasury official of some property, but it was his mother Marie Marguerite D’Aumard who was probably to thank for his introduction to good society, having been a close friend of the abbe de Chateauneuf, who was his sponsor and tutor in his early years. Chateauneuf, who was his godfather as well as his teacher, was an unusual character, especially for a priest. Skeptical and irreligious, he encouraged his pupil to reject the superstition which was rife at the time. Amongst other things he taught the bright young boy deism and literature and there can be no doubt how influential this was on Voltaire.
In 1704, some two years after the death of his mother, Voltaire was packed off to the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he was educated by the Jesuits for seven years. He was an unusual pupil, caring little for games or sport, mixing little with his peers and spending much of his time talking to the teachers. Although he later claimed that he learned nothing but “Latin and the Stupidities” there this period was almost certainly important in the early development of his literary talents. Here he wrote poetry and was introduced to theatre. There was a tradition at Jesuit schools, dating back to the Renaissance, of performing plays in Latin and in the vernacular and the young Voltaire took to the stage with enthusiasm. This left a deep impression on him, so much so that by the time he left the Collège at the age of 17 he had decided that he wanted to become a writer.
On his return from school his father was somewhat dismayed by the young man’s ambitions, having mapped out a career in law for his son. “Literature,” he said, “is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society, and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger.” Voltaire was thus forced to take a job as assistant to a lawyer, but spent as little time as possible working, devoting his energy to writing satirical poetry. However, it was not long before his father found him out and sent him off to the provinces where he studied law for two years. During this time he devoted his time to writing poetry, essays and historical studies and consequently did poorly in his studies. Exasperated, François Arouet tried once again to influence his son’s choice of career, obtaining a job for him as secretary to the French ambassador in Holland.
Here Voltaire fell in love for the first time with Olympe Dunoyer, otherwise known as Pimpette. The girl was quite well connected but had no money, was a Protestant and, worst of all, had a mother who was a writer with a less than respectable literary reputation. The barriers were to prove too great for the young lovers. Pimpette’s mother disapproved of the relationship and Voltaire’s father attempted to intervene by obtaining a lettre de cachet to ban the match. Lettres de cachets were sealed warrants issued by the king, usually used to secure the imprisonment without trial of people who were disliked or distrusted by the crown. In the end the lettre de cachet was not used as Pimpette decided that their future together was too uncertain and she withdrew from the relationship herself.
Heartbroken and miserable, Voltaire turned more seriously than ever to literature, and was never to stop writing until his death at the age of 83. Returning to France he worked for a short time in a lawyer’s office, but got into trouble for writing libellous poetry and his father sent him to the country where he stayed for nearly a year with Louis de Caumartin, the marquis de Saint-Ange. His father’s idea was that he continued to study law, but in true character Voltaire instead directed his energy into writing essays and historical research.
In 1715 Louis XIV died, and around the same time Voltaire returned to Paris once again. The king’s reign had been coloured by misery, tyranny and hunger and news of his death was received with great joy by the majority of the population. His funeral, which Voltaire attended, was treated more like a day of celebration than mourning. Hopes were high that things were going to change for the better. These hopes were to be dashed and it was not until the French revolution nearly 70 years later that things were really going to change, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Voltaire was welcomed into the literary society of Paris as his work and his reputation for audacity were widespread by this time. Falling into the circle of duchess of Maine, he once again got himself into trouble by contributing to a libellous satirical poem ridiculing the prince regent Orleans, with whom the duchess had something of a feud. As a consequence he was exiled from Paris in May 1716, first to Tulle and then to Sully. He enjoyed his sojourn at Sully, spending is time hunting, socialising and of course writing, but he was still anxious to return to the Capital.
Utilising some tactical flattery in his poems and epigrams he managed to bring his exile to a close in less than a year, returning to Paris early in 1717, but his freedom was to be short lived. This time he was not the author of the work that got him into trouble, but his reputation for brilliant satire was such that many works were being falsely attributed to him by this time. He was accused of writing two anonymous libels, the Puero Regnante and J’ai vu and in May 1717 found himself in Paris’s notorious prison, the Bastille, for the first time. He was to spend eleven months there. This was a turning point for Voltaire, for he felt the sting of injustice most keenly, and it surely influenced his later campaigning against the injustices dealt out to others.
Despite it being some time before he could obtain pen and ink, he set to work on a new play from the outset, and the resulting tragedy, Oedipe was to be his first theatrical success. It was also during this stay in the Bastille that he began the Henriade, an epic poem about Henry IV, and decided to adopt the pen name Voltaire, saying “I was very unlucky under my first name. I want to see if this one will succeed any better.” There are various theories as to where the name Voltaire originates, but the most likely is that it is simply an anagram of “Arovet l.i” which is a Latinized, shortened form of “Arouet le jeune” [Arouet the young]. From this time on he was known as Arouet de Voltaire, or simply Voltaire, to all.
On his release from prison in 1718, Oedipe was produced in Paris, playing to packed houses and huge acclaim. The tragedy ran for forty-five nights, establishing Voltaire’s reputation as a great playwright at the early age of 23 and making the young man a considerable amount of money in the process. It also secured him a pension from the regent, but thankfully for posterity, this was not to keep Voltaire quiet. Pensions to artists, as favours from the rich and powerful, all too often stifled criticism but Voltaire refused to allow his sponsorship to hinder his thoughts or writings. He could at this point easily have accepted an easy life of luxury spent in good society, but keeping his mouth shut was just not in Voltaire’s nature and he carried on regardless, criticising the church and state and poking fun at the powerful. It was not long before this landed him in trouble again.
Late in 1725 he had a run in with a powerful young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, who insulted Voltaire and of course consequently found himself at the sharp end of the poet’s tongue. Soon after, Voltaire was called out while dining with the Duke of Sully and was soundly beaten by Rohan’s hirelings. Voltaire found himself isolated with regard to this affair and eventually, some three months later, challenged Rohan to a duel. However Rohan’s family obtained a lettre de cachet and Voltaire was arrested on the morning of the duel and was thrown into the Bastille for the second time.
During his short spell of imprisonment Voltaire had a stream of admiring visitors but this did not mitigate his circumstances: He was confronted with two options; another term in prison or exile. This was to be a turning point in Voltaire’s life as he plumped for exile in England, where he spent most of the next three years, and the ideas he was exposed to there were to prove more influential than any he had encountered before. Voltaire was impressed by a number of things that stood in stark contrast to how things were in France at that time, in particular the respect for freedom of speech and the religious tolerance he found there. He was also quite taken with England’s constitutional monarchy and remained a monarchist for the remainder of his days despite the actions of the kings of France against himself and the people during his lifetime.
Voltaire’s timing was good for a change. George I died soon after his arrival in England and although the new king, George II, was not a fan of literature, Queen Caroline loved poetry and he was welcomed into society. Making the most of this in a characteristically astute move he published an English edition of the Henriade dedicated to the queen and made a small fortune. Mastering the English language in a mere six months, he made friends with a fascinating and stimulating range of people, including the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Bolingbroke, the poet Alexander Pope and the playwright William Congreve. He also came across the Quakers and was struck by their tolerance and simplicity, and even more so by the absence of priests in that religion. Most important of all, though, he came across the work of two of the great thinkers of the 17th century: the greatest natural scientist of them all, Isaac Newton and the philosopher of freedom John Locke. They were to influence him deeply and his later philosophical rationalism and study of the natural sciences stems from this most important of introductions. While in England Voltaire of course kept on writing, producing his Essay Upon Epic Poetry and Essay Upon the Civil Wars in France, published in 1727 and beginning a ground-breaking biography of Charles XII of Sweden published in 1731. In the work on Charles XII Voltaire suggested that humans control their own destiny, rejecting the idea that divine intervention guides history and this marks the beginning of his rejection of religion, a position that was of course very dangerous to hold.
Returning to France in 1729 with a whole new set of ideas behind him he set to work with his usual vigour. His Letters Concerning the English Nation, published first in English in 1733, openly praised the more tolerant society he found in England and characterised England’s constitutional monarchy as a better, more progressive form of government than that of France. Voltaire knew that it was dangerous to publish the book in Paris and held it back for a while, but somehow it got out of his hands and was published in French as Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais in 1734. Predictably this caused a storm: the publisher was sent to the Bastille, and copies of the book were burned publicly in Paris by the hangman, denounced as “scandalously contrary to religion, morals and society.” This time Voltaire managed to avoid prison, but was forced to flee Paris once again, this time moving to the Château de Cirey on the borders of France, Champagne and Lorraine. From this time on, having become acutely aware of the dangers of speaking (and writing) his mind, Voltaire began his habit of disowning his own works. This has been interpreted by some as an act of cowardice, which in some ways it was, but it did provide him with the freedom to continue to criticise without risking his liberty and without finding himself exiled time and again.
The Cirey residence which, apart from a brief period of refuge spent in Holland in 1736-7, was to last until 1740, was the beginning of a new era for Voltaire and has been described as “the first stage of his literary manhood.” A few months earlier, in 1733, Voltaire had met a brilliant young woman, Emilie de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who he quickly realised was on his wavelength and it was at her invitation that he moved to Cirey. Emilie, or ‘Madame du Châtelet’ as she is generally known, was twelve years his junior, married and had three children. Nevertheless they began an affair that was to last over fifteen years until her death in 1749. Her husband was well aware of their affair and tolerated it.
Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet set forth on a voyage of discovery together, studying the natural sciences and performing their own experiments. They also studied history, focusing on people they thought had contributed to civilisation up to that point, and philosophy, in particular metaphysics. Their relationship was stormy, full of arguments and difficulties, but their common intellectual interests ensured that they did not part. Together they collected over 21000 books on a variety of subjects, which they studied and discussed at length. They thought of themselves as ‘Newtonians’ and Madame du Châtelet even invented a verb ‘to newtonise’ to characterise their thinking. She was an able mathematician and scientist, exciting and difficult and a constant stimulation to Voltaire. Some of the work they produced, in particular Madame du Châtelet’s translation of Newton’s Principia and Voltaire’s Elements de la Philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton’s Philosophy), which they worked on together, were extremely important in introducing the new ideas in natural philosophy to the Continent. Voltaire produced a number of other works during the Cirey residence, including Essai sur la poesie epique (Essay on Epic Poetry), which introduced the famous story of Newton recognising the existence of the force of gravity thanks to an apple falling from a tree.
In March 1736 Voltaire received a letter from the crown prince of Prussia, Frederick, which was to mark the beginning of a long and important relationship. They eventually met in September 1740 after a long correspondence in which Frederick had repeatedly tried to get Voltaire to come to live in Prussia. However, it was not until after the death of Madame du Châtelet several years later that he eventually succeeded, at least in part thanks to the fact that he omitted to include Madame du Châtelet in his invitations, earning her hatred in the process.
Between 1740 and 1749 Voltaire moved about quite a bit, dividing his time primarily between Brussels, Cirey and Paris. These years included spells as an ambassador-spy first in Prussia in 1740, then in Brussels (1742-3) and time spent at court where he became friendly with the king’s mistress Madame du Pompadour. He also wrote his most successful play in this period, Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, (Fanaticism, or Mohammed the prophet) which played in Lille first in 1741 and in Paris the following August. The play portrayed Mohammed as a power-hungry intriguer, and there was no doubt in the minds of the Catholic clergy that this was a veiled attack on Christian fanaticism. They promptly pronounced it profane and sacrilegious and had it burned. However, Voltaire was becoming wilier in his advancing years and wrote to the pope asking his permission to dedicate Mahomet to him. The pope agreed, sending Voltaire his blessing and accepting the dedication of “your admirable tragedy.” The cardinals had no choice but to go along with it – Voltaire had won for once.
By this time Voltaire’s genius was recognised far and wide. In France he was hailed by many as the greatest poet and playwright, he had been placed in Germany’s Hall of Fame and had been elected a member of the Royal Society in England, butthe recognition he really wanted had eluded him thus far. The Académie Française had passed him over time and again, considering him too controversial a figure and this frustrated Voltaire greatly. Finally, in 1746, with Madame du Pompadour, the king and the pope behind him, they could no longer refuse and he was admitted to the Académie. Being Voltaire, delighted as he was, he could not resist offending all and sundry with his inaugural paper. It was typically witty, cheeky and sacrilegious and resulted in him having to retreat to Cirey once again.
He did not know at the time of course, but another turning point was on the horizon for Voltaire. In September 1749 Madame du Châtelet died after the birth of a child, and poor Voltaire was devastated. He was fifty five and somewhat lost, not knowing which direction to turn or where he wanted to be. He spent some time in Paris, and even thought of resettling there, but he could never stay out of trouble for long enough to be safe in the French capital and eventually, in 1751, accepted the invitation of Frederick of Prussia, who was king by this time, to move there.
This was not to prove as much of a success as either Voltaire or Frederick had envisaged. Their long correspondence had convinced them both of the wisdom of Voltaire’s move,but actually being in close proximity with each other turned out to be very hard. They fought all the time and Voltaire stirred up lots of trouble in Frederick’s court. He was neither humble nor confident enough for this type of life, and it exaggerated all his worst traits – jealousy, greed and a barely controllable restlessness. After two years both of them had had enough and Voltaire was granted a leave of absence, leaving Potsdam in 1753. All these tensions of course did not stop him writing and it is during his time in Potsdam that he produced an interesting little work that is probably the first piece of science fiction. His Micromégas (1752) features two ambassadors from another planet who visit Earth and witness the folly of the human race.
Finding himself unable to obtain permission to return to France, especially after the publication in January 1754 of Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire bought a country house just outside Geneva, which he called Les Délices. By this time he was a man of considerable wealth, fitting out Les Délices with great style, including the installation of a private theatre, and buying a number of smaller properties around the region in different jurisdictions so that he always had a bolt-hole in times of trouble. He entertained constantly, performing in his own plays and living the sort of life he had always wanted. His work continued to go from strength to strength, writing plays and verses which well reflected his experience and literary skill. There were however a few problems yet to haunt him. Geneva had at the time a law forbidding all theatrical performances and, although Les Délices was outside the city state a resolution was passed by the Consistory of Geneva urging people not to attend plays at Voltaire’s residence. Voltaire was not happy about this, but his past experience at the wrong end of the law guided him on this occasion and he shifted his performances to his house in Lausanne. It is almost certainly as an indirect consequence of this that D’Alembert criticised the theatre ban in his article on Geneva in the Encyclopedie probably at Voltaire’s instigation.
At the end of 1758 Voltaire bought an even more extensive property on the shore of Lake Geneva, a few miles from Geneva itself and on French soil. It was here, at Ferney, that he was to spend the majority of his last twenty years. Ferney was to become the intellectual capital of Europe. There he continued to entertain the great and the good and, more importantly, continued to write, producing some of his best work.
His satirical story Candide, published in 1759, is one of his best loved and most widely read works. Full of his usual wit this ‘philosophical romance’ is an outright attack on the religious and philosophical optimism popular at the time. The protagonist, Candide, is young, innocent and naïve and goes through a bizarre set of adventures plagued by bad luck, preyed on by a rich cast of characters full of hypocrisy, greed and treachery, while throughout he attempts to reconcile his experiences with the philosophy he was taught by his friend and teacher ‘the best philosopher in the world’ Doctor Pangloss. The character of Pangloss, who teaches that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, is widely thought to be a caricature of Gottfried Leibniz the great Prussian engineer, logician, mathematician and rival of Newton, but it is likely that Pangloss is at least in part also based on the French philosopher-scientist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, with whom Voltaire had had a dispute during his time in Prussia and whom Voltaire had previously ridiculed in L’histoire du Docteur Akakia (The story of Dr Akakia) in 1752.
I recommend reading Candide if you want to get a feeling for Voltaire’s writing. It is only a short novel and it is very entertaining. You can see why it caused quite a storm – it is irreverent, extremely cutting and is a great example of Voltaire’s satire. I will quote a few sections from John Butt’s translation to give you an idea of what I mean. At one point he asks his rather brilliant servant Cacambo about the Jesuits of Paraguay, who tells him:
Later, speakingto an old man in the legendary country of Eldorado Candide asks “Do you mean to say you have no monks teaching and disputing, governing and intriguing, and having people burned if they don’t subscribe to their opinions?” To which the old man replies “We should be stupid if we had … we are all of the same opinion here, and we don’t know what you mean by monks.”
When Candide passes through France on his journeys Voltaire takes full advantage to poke fun at his own nation. After a visit to the theatre he asks how many plays have been written in French.
And when they later go to dinner Voltaire describes it as follows:
Five years after
the publication of Candide Voltaire published
his greatest work of philosophy the Dictionnaire
Philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary). The
Before I come to the close of the story of Voltaire’s life I have to make some mention of his tireless campaigning on behalf of the oppressed which took up much of his time and energy in the last years of his life. Voltaire had of course experienced first hand the injustices of the judicial system in France and this was certainly a major factor in cementing his commitment to its reform. The Calas affair is perhaps the best known case that he took up, and I will outline it here for you as an example, although it is just one of many.
Jean Calas was a Protestant and respectable merchant who lived in the town of Toulouse. One of his sons wanted to study law but at this time that was only possible if you were a member of the Catholic Church. The son got very depressed and killed himself, something that was considered a mortal sin at the time. His family, finding the poor man hanging by the neck, decided to conceal the suicide as they did not want to see his body drawn and quartered and fed to dogs as was the common practice for those who took their own lives. However, things were to go horribly wrong as a rumour started that Jean Calas had murdered his son because he wanted to become a Catholic, renouncing the Protestantism of his family. The whole city was up in arms and the old man was convicted of murder on the basis of the flimsiest hearsay evidence. Refusing to confess even after horrendous torture, Calas was tied to a wooden cross, had his arms and legs broken and was strangled publicly by the executioner, after which his body was burned at the stake. The state then confiscated his property, leaving his widow homeless and destitute, and placed his children in Catholic institutions.
Voltaire heard about this terrible affair and decided to investigate the case. He took one of the old man’s sons to Ferney, found out what had happened and set out to clear Calas, writing dozens of letters to important people throughout Europe, including Catherine of Russia and his old friend Frederick the Great, hiring a lawyer, raising money for the family and preparing a case to vindicate Calas. He worked tirelessly for six years, eventually securing a unanimous vote in the parliament of Paris declaring Calas innocent. Calas himself was of course dead, but the reversal of his conviction meant that his estate was returned to his family and the children returned to their mother. Voltaire also gave them an estate to live in once the case was over.
This was to be just one of many such cases taken up by Voltaire in his Ferney years. Many of them, like Calas, were sadly proven innocent after their execution, but there can be little doubt that the lives of many other innocents were saved as a consequence of Voltaire’s campaigns. This Voltaire is the one who should really be remembered, for this was a heroic struggle against oppression forged at no small risk to himself for, in his own words ‘it is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.’ After a lifetime of denying authorship of his own work when it threatened his own safety, this mature Voltaire was a man of principle and bravery who did a great service to the cause of liberty and justice.
In 1778, after nearly twenty years of exile in Ferney, Voltaire had an unbearable longing to return to Paris. He had just completed his latest tragedy Irene and its first performance was to take place at the National Theatre in Paris. Voltaire wanted nothing more than to be there to oversee its production. His niece Madame Denis, who had been his companion for many years, was also very keen to return to the buzz of life in the French capital and encouraged him to go. So, in February they set out on the five day journey to his longed-for home, arriving to a hero’s welcome, the streets lined with cheering fans.
The journey and the excitement were too much for the 83 year old man and he fell seriously ill after a couple of weeks. On 28th February, believing he was about to die, he wrote ‘I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.’ However, this was not to be the end. He recovered and resumed preparations for the opening of Irene. At the end of March he attended a performance of this, his last completed work. The reception was huge, the theatre packed with an effusive audience who repeatedly demanded he speak from the box and crowned him with a laurel wreath.
Voltaire decided to begin a new life in Paris, buying a house, working on another tragedy and attending meetings of the French Academy, but his health would not permit it. In May he became seriously ill again and died at the end of the month. Having refused to sign a general retraction of his works before his death, the church refused to give him a Christian burial, but his body was taken secretly to the abbey of Scellieres in Champagne and buried there. His heart was embalmed and given to Madame Denis.
In 1791, some thirteen years later, the National Assembly ordered that his body be brought back to Paris, and in July of that year his remains were transferred to the Pantheon. However, even this was not to be the end of the story, for in 1814 his remains were stolen by a group of religious zealots and dumped in a pit. It was only fifty years later when it was decided to return his embalmed heart to the other remains that this was discovered.
Thus there was a remarkable end to the history of this remarkable multi-faceted man. Voltaire is the perfect example of an Enlightenment figure whose contribution to the Age of Reason was incredibly important. The sheer volume of work he produced in his 83 years is mind-boggling. Not only was he one of the most renowned playwrights of all time, he was instrumental in propagating the new methods of the natural sciences in Europe and in arguing for freedom of thought and the civil rights.
There is a certain irony related to his legacy, for the French Revolution was to begin eleven years after his death and his writings and his campaigns certainly influenced the turn of events, but Voltaire would have been quite horrified by that knowledge. He was a strong advocate of progress but he distrusted the judgement of the masses, who he considered stupid and uneducated. As a consequence, he was opposed to democracy. Having been highly influenced by his stay in England, he believed rather in an enlightened monarchy in which the king would be advised by philosophers like himself.
Although it has been argued that he contributed little in terms of original thought I think that this is a little unfair when you consider that, amongst other things, he presented history for the first time without the idea of divine intervention (Charles XII, 1731), attempted the first history of the world as a whole (Essai sur l’histoire generale set sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, 1756) and wrote what is possibly the first work of science fiction (Micromégas, 1752). Most of all, though, what I love about him as figure is his disrespect for authority and his genuine wish to see an end to tyranny and oppression.
C J M Hewett, August 2006
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