The Reading Room
Voltaire: The First Internationally Celebrated Writer?
With the publication of La Henriade, his epic poem glorifying King Henri IV for issuing the Edict of Nantes, which commanded toleration of Protestants (Huguenots), Voltaire was an open public enemy of intolerance and establishment of religions. With his mistress, the marquise, he probed philosophical aspects of religion, including the metaphysical status of the soul and the existence of God.
There is no disputing that Voltaire was a philosophe—among the first and a prime mover of the Enlightenment. But was he a philosopher? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the ways in which he reshaped the concept of philosophy and how modern philosophy is done. He also became known as a prominent critic of certain philosophers such as Leibniz. At the same time, and equally, he was a literary man, and his works were “vehicles” for philosophy, especially skepticism, opposition to fanaticism and superstition, and advocacy of the methods of the natural sciences.
“Voltaire only began to identify himself with philosophy and the philosophe identity during middle age. His Lettres philosophiques, published in 1734 when he was forty years old, was the key turning point in this transformation. Before this date, Voltaire’s life in no way pointed him toward the philosophical destiny that he was later to assume.”
Perhaps because he was gaining international prominence, Voltaire began to leave Paris and France for extended stays in England, Holland, and elsewhere. Frederick the Great of Prussia, an Enlightenment absolutist, became a patron for a while, bringing Voltaire to live in Prussia, although eventually Voltaire’s almost reflexively critical nature set them at odds. But for the time, he lived in the palace, a member of the Prussia Academy of Science. He so angered Frederick with his satiric attack on the president of the Berlin Academy of Science in Diatribe of Doctor Akakia that Frederick ordered all copies burned. In the end, he even tired of the marquise’s chateau (and her, too) and on a visit to Paris in 1744 became enamored of his niece, Marie Louise Mignot; eventually, they began living together and remained so until Voltaire’s death.
In 1754, Louis XV banned Voltaire from Paris not only for his works on religion but also for his invidious comparison of the French monarchy with the British government. Voltaire settled in Geneva, at this time wealthy enough to purchase, successively, two large estates. But the Calvinist Genevans banned theatrical performances, including Voltaire’s new Maid of Orleans, and he moved to Ferney in France, where he spent most of the remaining two decades of his life (the town adopted his name in 1878).
Now, he turned from the natural sciences to “the defense of philosophie tout court and the defeat of its perceived enemies within the ecclesiastical and aristo-monarchical establishment. In this way, Enlightenment philosophie became associated through Voltaire with the cultural and political program encapsulated in his famous motto . . . ‘Crush the infamy!’ This entanglement of philosophy with social criticism and reformist political action . . . would become his most lasting contribution to the history of philosophy.”
In 1759, Voltaire published the work that brought him international renown and literary immortality, the satire Candide, or Optimism. It should be categorized with Voltaire’s romances and polemics, usually brought out as pamphlets, the journalism of the day. It was almost inevitable that Candide took the form of a satire because Voltaire’s chief weapon against organized religion was laughter. He wrote in a letter: “I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!’ God granted it.”
The famous refrain in Candide is “the best of all possible worlds,” a metaphysical optimism (and implied passivity) arising from the philosophy of Leibniz that the adventures of the protagonist, Candide, a student of the Leibnizian Dr. Pangloss (i.e., “gloss it all over”), render increasingly ludicrous and farcical. Candide is called the hardest writing Voltaire ever did, requiring years of drafting and redrafting. He was exploring a revolution in his own outlook. Europe had been swept with a tidal wave of metaphysical “optimism” based on confidence in understanding God entirely through his creation, nature, and certainty that God had created nature for humans; and, being God, it was therefore the best possible universe, “the best of all possible worlds.” There is no real evil in the world, only the illusion of it because we do not understand God’s ways.
In Candide, Voltaire treated this “optimism” to an ice-cold bath in Candide’s experiences and thoughts as he travels the world, especially his experience of the catastrophic death and suffering caused by the Lisbon earthquake on November 1, 1775. In the end, Candide (and Voltaire) decides there is no cause for optimism in philosophical and theological theorizing. All we can do is use science, experience, and common sense to help humanity to suffer less. Candide, in the end, says: “Let us cultivate our garden.”
Alan Charles Kors, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania professor of intellectual history, characterizes Voltaire’s conclusion: “We must work without theorizing, doing what’s possible without illusion and without the assurance of success. This conclusion [by this point in the century] is speaking for much of the philosophical world and it marks a momentous shift from theological and metaphysical concerns to a redirection of the new philosophy to the human condition. Voltaire represents a transformation of the eighteenth century itself.”
Voltaire’s sixties to his death at eighty-eight saw his most productive period. He became the most famous author of his time. He did almost match the fame of Candide with his best-known work of philosophy, the Philosophical Dictionary, actually a collection of articles on Christian history and dogmas. Voltaire is praised even today for the factual accuracy and logical clarity of his work, but when it came to attacking the record of Christianity, he launched some enduring myths, for example, that fifty gospels existed and were considered before the First Council of Nicaea selected the canonical four we know today.
It became de rigueur for international travelers to pay their respects to the famous witty celebrity at Ferney. He entertained James Boswell, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon, to take but a few examples. The full list is a virtual roster of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire could be a fierce enemy. Initially friendly with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when Rousseau’s Emile and other books were published, Voltaire excoriated and ridiculed them and Rousseau personally. Rousseau responded with fury and invective, but, it seems, when his friends attacked Voltaire, he reproached them. But Voltaire could be an equally fierce advocate and became famous for several crusades on behalf of individuals he viewed as victims of persecution by the church. The most famous was Jean Calas, a Huguenot tortured to death in 1763, allegedly for murdering his eldest son who had decided to convert to Catholicism. After his death, Calas’s widow was stripped of all possessions, and her two daughters were seized and forced into convents. Voltaire viewed this as religious persecution and used his international fame to have the conviction overturned.
When he returned to Paris in 1778, it was for the first time in more than twenty-five years, impelled by the opening of his new tragedy, Irene. The audience received him with applause due a hero. It was a five-day trip, but at eighty-three it so exhausted Voltaire that he became convinced it was the end. He wrote, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”
He did not die. That came a few months later, on May 30, 1778, surrounded as always by controversy—those who said that he repented and accepted last rites from a Catholic priest and those who maintained that he remained firm, even defiant, to the end.
A small mystery is why near the end of his life Voltaire joined the Freemasons—the worldwide secret fraternal organization descended from the Middle Ages with the rites and trappings of a religious order. One explanation given is that Benjamin Franklin, who was a member, urged him to join. But that story seems to have arisen just because Franklin was visiting Voltaire at the time he joined (only a month before his death). He was refused a Christian burial in Paris and instead secretly buried at the Abbey of Sellieres in Champagne, where his niece’s brother was the abbot.
It was not the end of the story. By the French Revolution, Voltaire was viewed as one of its philosophical pillars. Or so the National Assembly of France thought and brought Voltaire’s remains to Paris to the Panthéon. A parade of some million people wended through the streets of Paris to the ceremony, which was accompanied by music composed for the occasion by André Grétry. There Voltaire lies with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, France’s other great philosopher of the eighteenth century.
The giants of the early Enlightenment, like Voltaire, either created or transformed many disciplines. Voltaire did so, for example, with historiography. He brought the rationalistic approach of the sciences to rewriting history and biography, dismissing supernatural causes, and also shifting the focus from chronicling wars and diplomacy to science, culture, commerce, agriculture, and demographics. He made the first serious attempt to write a history of the world. All this made him a natural choice for the article on history in Diderot’s great Encyclopédie.
Returning to our initial theme—the almost unbelievable diversity of topics that Voltaire addressed and the multiplicity of genres he employed—it should not be surprising that what he said (and believed) remains actively controversial today. For example, he attacked Jews (and also Muslims) in the most derogatory language, but his defenders can point to passages that seem to provide a reasonable context. Voltaire’s writing provides text for dozens—or hundreds—of scholarly exchanges on such issues. Nor did Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism escape his criticism.
In an essay on toleration published in 1763, he wrote: “Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?” (Apparently, “brothers” have bitter disagreements and express them in strong language.)
That didn’t impress the Jesuits, enraged at his statements. Nor did it save his reputation with the profoundly Christian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who in a letter to his father the year Voltaire died, snarled: “The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket.”
He indeed attacked organized and established religion, as mentioned earlier, with scathing ridicule directed at priests, but affirmed his own belief in God, writing: “What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason.” To the Enlightenment man, this position of the deist was perfectly consistent with being rational and scientific, although as decades passed atheism sometimes superseded deism and by the French Revolution was not uncommon. It was not the creed of Voltaire, however, defending what he saw as distortions and abuses suffered by true religion.
Catherine the Great, also an Enlightenment absolutist, had been reading Voltaire since a girl of sixteen. She married her Russian cousin, Peter III, and became first the wife of the tsar and then empress of Russia (1762–1792) and an avid correspondent of Voltaire’s. She purchased Voltaire’s library, huge for a private collection at that time, and it traveled to Russia (part way by dogsled), where it remains intact in St. Petersburg at The Hermitage library.