The Intellectual Development of Voltaire
Voltaire was undoubtedly a very great man, and being the outstanding representative of the most widely respected national culture of his time, he dominated the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Europe in a way that is almost unimaginable today. The postwar apotheosis of Winston Churchill, statesman, writer, soldier, aviator, bricklayer, and painter, with a long career of fame and notoriety behind him, can perhaps give some idea of the remarkable prestige of the extraordinary Frenchman. Voltaire was probably the first private individual—that is, someone not a hereditary ruler, politician, or religious leader—ever to become such a social force. His celebrity increased as he grew older until, on his return to Paris in his eighty-fourth year after a long exile, he was given a hysterical welcome such as had never been accorded to anyone before, and has possibly only been equaled since by General de Gaulle’s triumphant reentry after the Liberation.
From his teens he had displayed that ability to be a star that some people possess, and most are without. In this respect, as in many others, he was very different from his later partner in fame, Rousseau, who was middle-aged before he attracted public attention and was moreover never able to cope with the publicity he aroused. Voltaire, at the age of twenty-four, was the most feted young man in Paris and was being hailed as the greatest living dramatist. A few years later, kings and dukes subscribed to the first edition of his epic poem, La Henriade. He was soon in correspondence with most of the notable people in Europe; he was courted by princes and duchesses, writers and mathematicians, ministers and adventurers. He took all knowledge as his province, and he wrote about practically everything from physics to theology and history to philosophy.
In later middle age, without reducing the volume of his other activities, he campaigned passionately against social and religious abuses, at the same time as he was creating a model village on his estate at Ferney. Although he had always been a valetudinarian, with various chronic disabilities which kept him in bed for weeks at a stretch, he continued to be as busy as ever right up until the eve of his death. As a result, his complete works are among the bulkiest in French literature, and indeed in world literature, and it may well be that there are still manuscripts and letters that have never come to light.
Now the paradox of this tremendous career, which would seem to justify the claim that Voltaire was the greatest French literary figure who ever lived, is that nothing remains immediately alive for the average reader except the one little book, Candide. All his works are still read, of course, by scholars and students, and many of them, such as the Lettres philosophiques, Le Dictionnaire philosophique, L’Essai sur les moeurs, and Le Traité de la tolérance, continue to be rewarding, as well as historically significant. But if he had not written Candide just before …
Inside Voltaire’s Skin October 8, 1970