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OLIVER GOLDSMITH ON VOLTAIRE. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. I (Candide) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. I.
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OLIVER GOLDSMITH ON VOLTAIRE.
[This appeared as Letter XLIII. in the Chinese letters afterwards published under the title of “The Citizen of the World.”]
We have just received accounts here that Voltaire, the poet and philosopher of Europe, is dead. He is now beyond the reach of the thousand enemies who, while living, degraded his writings and branded his character. Scarce a page of his later productions that does not betray the agonies of a heart bleeding under the scourge of unmerited reproach. Happy, therefore, at last in escaping from calumny! happy in leaving a world that was unworthy of him and his writings!
Let others bestrew the hearses of the great with panegyric; but such a loss as the world has now suffered affects me with stronger emotions. When a philosopher dies I consider myself as losing a patron, an instructor, and a friend. I consider the world as losing one who might serve to console her amidst the desolations of war and ambition. Nature every day produces in abundance men capable of filling all the requisite duties of authority; but she is niggard in the birth of an exalted mind, scarcely producing in a century a single genius to bless and enlighten a degenerate age. Prodigal in the production of kings, governors, mandarins, chams, and courtiers, she seems to have forgotten, for more than three thousand years, the manner in which she once formed the brain of a Confucius; and well it is she has forgotten, when a bad world gave him so very bad a reception.
Whence, my friend, this malevolence, which has ever pursued the great, even to the tomb? whence this more than fiendlike disposition of embittering the lives of those who would make us more wise and more happy?
When I cast my eye over the fates of several philosophers, who have at different periods enlightened mankind, I must confess it inspires me with the most degrading reflections on humanity. When I read of the stripes of Mencius, the tortures of Tchin, the bowl of Socrates, and the bath of Seneca; when I hear of the persecutions of Dante, the imprisonment of Galileo, the indignities suffered by Montaigne, the banishment of Descartes, the infamy of Bacon, and that even Locke himself escaped not without reproach; when I think on such subjects, I hesitate whether most of blame the ignorance or the villainy of my fellow-creatures.
Should you look for the character of Voltaire among the journalists and illiterate writers of the age, you will there find him characterized as a monster, with a head turned to wisdom and a heart inclining to vice; the powers of his mind and the baseness of his principles forming a detestable contrast. But seek for his character among writers like himself, and you find him very differently described. You perceive him, in their accounts, possessed of good nature, humanity, greatness of soul, fortitude, and almost every virtue; in this description those who might be supposed best acquainted with his character are unanimous. The royal Prussian, d’Argens, Diderot, d’Alembert, and Fontenelle, conspire in drawing the picture, in describing the friend of man, and the patron of every rising genius.
An inflexible perseverance in what he thought was right and a generous detestation of flattery formed the groundwork of this great man’s character. From these principles many strong virtues and few faults arose; as he was warm in his friendship and severe in his resentment, all that mention him seem possessed of the same qualities, and speak of him with rapture or detestation. A person of his eminence can have few indifferent as to his character; every reader must be an enemy or an admirer.
This poet began the course of glory so early as the age of eighteen, and even then was author of a tragedy which deserves applause. Possessed of a small patrimony, he preserved his independence in an age of venality; and supported the dignity of learning by teaching his contemporary writers to live like him, above the favors of the great. He was banished his native country for a satire upon the royal concubine. He had accepted the place of historian to the French king, but refused to keep it when he found it was presented only in order that he should be the first flatterer of the state.
The great Prussian received him as an ornament to his kingdom, and had sense enough to value his friendship and profit by his instructions. In this court he continued till an intrigue, with which the world seems hitherto unacquainted, obliged him to quit that country. His own happiness, the happiness of the monarch, of his sister, of a part of the court, rendered his departure necessary.
Tired at length of courts and all the follies of the great, he retired to Switzerland, a country of liberty, where he enjoyed tranquillity and the muse. Here, though without any taste for magnificence himself, he usually entertained at his table the learned and polite of Europe, who were attracted by a desire of seeing a person from whom they had received so much satisfaction. The entertainment was conducted with the utmost elegance, and the conversation was that of philosophers. Every country that at once united liberty and science were his peculiar favorites. The being an Englishman was to him a character that claimed admiration and respect.
Between Voltaire and the disciples of Confucius there are many differences; however, being of a different opinion does not in the least diminish my esteem; I am not displeased with my brother because he happens to ask our Father for favors in a different manner from me. Let his errors rest in peace; his excellencies deserve admiration; let me with the wise admire his wisdom; let the envious and the ignorant ridicule his foibles; the folly of others is ever most ridiculous to those who are themselves most foolish.—Adieu.
[Goldsmith began a memoir of Voltaire which he did not live to finish, from which we take this most interesting picture of Voltaire among his friends.]
Some disappointments of this kind served to turn our poet from a passion which only tended to obstruct his advancement in more exalted pursuits. His mind, which at that time was pretty well balanced between pleasure and philosophy, quickly began to incline to the latter. He now thirsted after a more comprehensive knowledge of mankind than either books or his own country could possibly bestow.
England about this time was coming into repute throughout Europe as the land of philosophers. Newton, Locke, and others began to attract the attention of the curious, and drew hither a concourse of learned men from every part of Europe. Not our learning alone, but our politics also began to be regarded with admiration; a government in which subordination and liberty were blended in such just proportions was now generally studied as the finest model of civil society. This was an inducement sufficient to make Voltaire pay a visit to this land of philosophers and of liberty.
Accordingly, in the year 1726, he came over to England. A previous acquaintance with Atterbury, bishop of Rochester, and the Lord Bolingbroke, was sufficient to introduce him among the polite, and his fame as a poet got him the acquaintance of the learned in a country where foreigners generally find but a cool reception. He only wanted introduction; his own merit was enough to procure the rest. As a companion, no man ever exceeded him when he pleased to lead the conversation; which, however, was not always the case. In company which he either disliked or despised, few could be more reserved than he; but when he was warmed in discourse and had got over a hesitating manner which sometimes he was subject to, it was rapture to hear him. His meagre visage seemed insensibly to gather beauty; every muscle in it had meaning, and his eye beamed with unusual brightness. The person who writes this memoir, who had the honor and the pleasure of being his acquaintance, remembers to have seen him in a select company of wits of both sexes at Paris, when the subject happened to turn upon English taste and learning. Fontenelle, who was of the party, and who, being unacquainted with the language or authors of the country he undertook to condemn, with a spirit truly vulgar began to revile both. Diderot, who liked the English and knew something of their literary pretensions, attempted to vindicate their poetry and learning, but with unequal abilities. The company quickly perceived that Fontenelle was superior in the dispute, and were surprised at the silence which Voltaire had preserved all the former part of the night, particularly as the conversation happened to turn upon one of his favorite topics. Fontenelle continued his triumph till about 12 o’clock, when Voltaire appeared at last roused from his reverie. His whole frame seemed animated. He began his defence with the utmost elegance mixed with spirit, and now and then let fall the finest strokes of raillery upon his antagonist; and his harangue lasted till three in the morning. I must confess, that, whether from national partiality, or from the elegant sensibility of his manner, I never was so much charmed, nor did I ever remember so absolute a victory as he gained in this dispute.
[Another biographer, writing early in the nineteenth century, offers a judicial summary of Voltaire’s character, from which we select a few passages.]
This simple recital of the incidents of the life of Voltaire has sufficiently developed his character and his mind; the principal features of which were benevolence, indulgence for human foibles, and a hatred of injustice and oppression. He may be numbered among the very few men in whom the love of humanity was a real passion; which, the noblest of all passions, was known only to modern times, and took rise from the progress of knowledge. Its very existence is sufficient to confound the blind partisans of antiquity, and those who calumniate philosophy.
But the happy qualities of Voltaire were often perverted by his natural restlessness, which the writing of tragedy had but increased. In an instant he would change from anger to affection, from indignation to a jest. Born with violent passions, they often hurried him too far; and his restlessness deprived him of the advantages that usually accompany such minds; particularly of that fortitude to which fear is no obstacle when action becomes a duty, and which is not shaken by the presence of danger foreseen. Often would Voltaire expose himself to the storm with rashness, but rarely did he brave it with constancy; and these intervals of temerity and weakness have frequently afflicted his friends and afforded unworthy cause of triumph to his cowardly foes. In weighing the peccadilloes of any man due consideration must be had for the period in which he lived, and of the nature of the society amidst which he was reared. Voltaire was in his twentieth year when Louis XIV. died, and consequently his very precocious adolescence was spent during the reign of that pompous and celebrated actor of majesty. How that season was characterized as to morals and the tone of Parisian good company, an epitome of the private life of Louis himself will tell. The decorum and air of state with which Louis sinned was rather edifying than scandalous, and his subjects faithfully copied the grand monarch. Gallantry became the order of the day throughout France, with a great abatement of the chivalrous sentiment that attended it under the regency of Anne of Austria, but still exempt from the more gross sensuality that succeeded Louis under the regency of the duke of Orleans.
It has been observed that Voltaire was altogether a Frenchman, and the remark will be found just, whether applied to the character of the man or the genius. By increasing to intensity the national characteristics, social, constitutional and mental, we create a Voltaire. These are gayety, facility, address, a tendency to wit, raillery, and equivoque; light, quick, and spontaneous feelings of humanity, which may be occasionally worked up into enthusiasm; vanity, irascibility, very slipshod morality in respect to points that grave people are apt to deem of the first consequence; social insincerity, and a predominant spirit of intrigue. Such were the generalities of the French character in the days of Voltaire; and multiply them by his capacity and acquirement, and we get at the solid contents of his own. It is, therefore, especially inconsistent to discover such excellence and virtue in the old French régime, and especially in the reign of Louis XIV., and to find so much fault with the tout ensemble of Voltaire; for both his good and his bad qualities were the natural outgrowth of the period.
The most detestable and odious of all political sins is, indisputably, religious persecution; in this is to be traced the source of the early predisposition of Voltaire, and of the honorable enthusiasm that colored nearly the whole of his long life. By accident, carelessness, or indifference, he was very early allowed to imbibe a large portion of philosophical skepticism, which no after education—and he was subsequently educated by Jesuits—could remove. What was more natural for a brilliant, ardent, and vivacious young man, thus ardently vaccinated—if the figure be allowable—against the smallpox of fanaticism and superstition so prevalent in this country, and born during a reign that revoked the Edict of Nantes, and expatriated half a million of peaceful subjects? In what way did his most Christian majesty, the magnificent Louis, signalize that part of his kingly career which immediately preceded the birth of Voltaire? In the famous dragonnades, in which a rude and licentious soldiery were encouraged in every excess of cruelty and outrage, because, to use the language of the minister Louvois, “His majesty was desirous that the heaviest penalties should be put in force against those who are not willing to embrace his religion; and those who have the false glory to remain longest firm in their opinions, must be driven to the last extremities.”
They were so driven. It will therefore suffice to repeat that at length the Edict of Nantes was formally repealed, Protestants refused liberty of conscience, their temples demolished, their children torn from them, and, to crown all, attempts were even made to impede their emigration. They were to be enclosed like wild beasts and hunted down at leisure.
Such were the facts and horrors that must, in the first instance, have encountered and confirmed the incipient skepticism of Voltaire. What calm man, of any or of no religion, can now hear of them without shuddering and execration? and what such feel now it is reasonable to suppose that a mind predisposed like that of Voltaire must have felt then.
Next to fanaticism and superstition, Voltaire appears to have endeavored with the utmost anxiety to rectify the injustice of the public tribunals, especially in the provinces, which were in the habit of committing legal murders with a facility that could only be equalled by the impunity. Against the execrable tyranny of lettres de cachet, by which he himself suffered more than once, he occasionally dated his powerful innuendoes. No matter what the religious opinions of Voltaire were, he uniformly inculcates political moderation, religious tolerance, and general good-will.
Looking, therefore, at the general labors of this premier genius of France for the benefit of his fellow-creatures, he must, at all events, be regarded as a bold, active, and able philanthropist, even by those who in many respects disagree with him.
As a philosopher, he was the first to afford an example of a private citizen who, by his wishes and his endeavors, embraced the general history of man in every country and in every age, opposing error and oppression of every kind, and defending and promulgating every useful truth. The history of whatever has been done in Europe in favor of reason and humanity is the history of his labor and beneficent acts. If the liberty of the press be increased; if the Catholic clergy have lost their dangerous power, and have been deprived of some of their most scandalous wealth; if the love of humanity be now the common language of all governments; if the continent of Europe has been taught that men possess a right to the use of reason; if religious prejudices have been eradicated from the higher classes of society, and in part effaced from the hearts of the common people; if we have beheld the masks stripped from the faces of those religious sectaries who were privileged to impose on the world; and if reason, for the first time, has begun to shed its clear and uniform light over all Europe—we shall everywhere discover, in the history of the changes that have been effected, the name of Voltaire.