The Reading Room
Voltaire: The French Enlightenment Is Born
To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.--Victor Hugo
Well, that simplifies things. If you want to understand the prime century of the Age of Enlightenment, certainly in France, just read the works of François-Marie Arouet (rhymes with “a roué”—“débauché”—one reason, perhaps, he changed his name to “M. de Voltaire”).
Not so fast. If you ask me if I have read Voltaire, my honest answer would be no, not really.
“What, you have not read Candide?”
“Of course, I have read Candide, but Voltaire published twenty-eight novellas.”
“And his famous play, Oedipe?”
“Yes, but Voltaire published sixty plays.”
And so it goes for history, philosophy.
“Well, surely you have read his letter to Rousseau where he asks Rousseau to reply to ‘Voltaire’ ”?
“Yes, I know that letter, but today we have some 20,000 letters of Voltaire’s.”
And you ask: “Have you read his pamphlet on religious tolerance?”
“No, is that one of the 2,000 pamphlets and books that he published?”
One is tempted to quip that no man who has read all of Voltaire can be educated because he would have had no time to read anything else.Fortunately, Voltaire, for all his energetic, brilliant outpouring of publications, relentlessly concentrated on relatively few themes: criticism of Christianity, especially the established Roman Catholic Church in France; freedom of expression; religious toleration; separation of church and state; and slavery. Later in life, with his most popular work, Candide, he turned to searing criticism of eighteenth-century optimism, which rested upon unlimited confidence in natural philosophy (science) and natural theology. On these intellectual crusades he wrote plays, poems, essays, novels, journalism, epic poems, histories, and, of course, letters—seizing every literary tool to make ferocious attacks on the ideas, works, individuals, and causes that infuriated him.
In doing so, he became the intellectual arms dealer of the eighteenth century and later, provided the arguments, information, historical record, and spirit that drove the Age of Enlightenment—both toward deism and, later, away from theoretical speculation entirely toward practical improvement of the human condition. In total, in both phases of his life, his contribution was massive, as Hugo captures in his aphorism.
A problem in Voltaire’s own time was that no one had mastered this galactic corpus of writings. And Voltaire expressed himself with such feral aggression that his opinion was taken as definitive about a whole subject. But in another work he would focus on a different aspect of an issue—and another again in another work. He was wildly indignant at the Roman Catholic Church and other clergy. In one of his many denunciations of priests of every religious sect, Voltaire describes them as those who “rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God.”
You might be justified in concluding (as many did at the time) that he was atheistic and a hater of the whole religious establishment. But he was a deist and wrote that in reason the existence of God, creator of the universe, was indisputable. And he wrote with an admiring, gentle passion about those in the church who sacrificed in service in hospitals and schools and worked with the poor. And over time, his views changed. He excoriated Muhammad and later made favorable comments about Islam.
François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), born in Paris to moderately wealthy parents of some social status, one of five children, two of whom died in infancy, was called, according to a family tradition among the descendants of his sister, le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”) as a child, providing yet another clue to his adult choice of a pen name. While that seems definite enough. Voltaire is known to have used at least 178 pen names. This is not incomprehensible. Voltaire attacked the Roman Catholic Church, contrasted the absolutism of France with the liberalism of Britain, attacked powerful individuals—and spent time in the infamous Bastille prison in a windowless cell with ten-foot walls.
François-Marie was educated by Jesuits, learning Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Later in life he became fluent in the European romance languages. He was determined from the first to become a writer and evaded and avoided his father’s attempts to steer him into law. Instead, in Paris, he began writing. He was very much a young man about town—libertine, witty, and admired for his conversation. He earned in the cafes and salons a reputation that later eased his way into literary circles when he began to publish. He is known to have supported himself well by playing the patronage game. One frequent contact was the famous and influential English Tory Lord Bolingbroke, then in exile in Paris, where he picked up Jacobin ideas fomenting the coming revolution. Voltaire frequented his home and, when forced to leave for England, gave that as his address in Paris.
He was always attacking established authority—a defining theme of the Enlightenment. When in satirical verse he accused the powerful regent of incest with his daughter, he ended up imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months. After his release, the Comédie-Française agreed in 1717 to put on his play Oedipe. It was his first great success, both financially and for his reputation.
It was at this time he changed his name to the more aristocratic-sounding “M. de Voltaire.” An essay could easily be devoted to the derivation of the name “Voltaire,” but move on to his first literary “flop,” his play Artémire, set in ancient Macedonia, which opened in February 1720. He moved on to an epic poem about Henry IV of France. He was refused a license to publish it, however, and left France to find a publisher, taking along his mistress, Marie-Marguerite de Rupelmonde, a young widow.
This behavior became a pattern by necessity and by choice. For much of his life, Voltaire had mistresses; he never married. And often he left France in search of a publisher, in search of freedom. He published outside of France, then had copies of his writings smuggled into Paris.
In time, Voltaire became the first internationally hailed (and profitable) author. It probably began with La Henriade, an epic poem portraying King Henri IV of France as a hero for trying to end Catholic-Protestant bloodshed with the Edict of Nantes, establishing religious toleration. La Henriade, in the style of Virgil, brought his first success and it was huge. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the poem went through sixty-five editions and was translated into other languages. Its most famous line may be: “Quite a heavy weight, a name too quickly famous.”
His first visit to England resulted from a witty riposte to a powerful French aristocrat who mocked Voltaire’s new name. The man responded to Voltaire’s wit by having his lackeys beat him. Voltaire responded by challenging him to a duel. Had the man accepted, we would not have the works of Voltaire. But, instead of a duel, the man had Voltaire arrested. To avoid possible indeterminate incarceration, Voltaire pleaded for and was granted exile to England.
It proved transformative. He was surprised by the culture of religious toleration, freedom of speech, uncensored publication, and secular bourgeois commerce (Voltaire used the stock exchange as his dramatic example) that in Britain set aside sectarian differences among Anglicans, Presbyterians, Jews, Quakers. . . .
At the same time, he met leading British Enlightenment intellectuals: Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the Duchess of Marlborough—among many others. He became enamored, too, of Shakespeare, little known in France. But Voltaire could admire and imitate without reverence. Later, in France, he published new plays even as he denigrated Shakespeare for his barbarities. While in England, he may have been at the funeral of Isaac Newton. In years to come, he would be a leading promulgator of Newton’s ideas in France.
While in England, and after he returned to Paris, Voltaire was writing his Philosophical Letters. Coming ten years after Montesquieu’s explosive Persian Letters, it astounded Parisian readers. It is almost impossible, today, to conceive of the impact of this work on both admiring Parisians and alarmed, incensed royalty, nobility, churchmen, and intellectuals. With imagination, brilliant journalism, compelling logic, wit, and style, Voltaire presented England—tolerant in religion, peaceful, benefiting every economic group with the encouragement of commerce, focused not on strife and conflict but on cooperation to mutual benefit—in contrast to absolutist, rigidly aristocratic, intolerant, repressive France.
He captured readers’ attention in the first four chapters by reporting in depth on the then-exotic Quakers, contrasting their simplicity, tolerance, and faith with the strictures of the established Roman Catholic Church in France. He lauded the empirical, scientific approach of John Locke and warned readers not to prefer René Descartes simply because he was French. Philosophical Letters is sometimes said to have brought the British Enlightenment to France.
Voltaire published his book without leave of the royal censor. It was a sensation. It is not too much to say that it lit the fuse of the French Enlightenment. It also was banned and burned, and, to avoid a comparable fate, Voltaire again fled Paris.
In 1733, he had begun an affair that lasted for sixteen years. Emilie du Châtelet, the Marquise du Châtelet, was a scientist, married, a mother, and twelve years his junior. Now, he found refuge from arrest in her chateau, where the lovers (and at times her husband) collected some 21,000 books—an astounding library, then. Voltaire wrote history, and inspired by Newton, joined his mistress in conducting scientific experiments.
It was all in the script of the Enlightenment: intellectual passions and causes that defied the “Establishment”; productivity in thinking and writing driven by excitement at discovery; experimentation in every field; and defiance of criticism, ostracism, imprisonment, and exile.
Voltaire’s marquise lover, though she translated Newton’s Principia into French, opted for the perspective of Gottfried Leibniz, a rival of Newton’s. Voltaire remained a steadfast Newtonian and wrote Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, which markedly advanced Newton with the French public.