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 he was sixty-five, he would long ago have lost his place in living literature and would have retained only a biographical interest as one of the leading personalities of the French Enlightenment.
However, Candide still bobs merrily along on the stream of time, together with a half dozen or so outstanding French works of the eighteenth century, such as Rousseau’s Confessions or Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. Voltaire, by some extraordinary fluke, produced one classic; this was his single permanent triumph as a literary artist. I am not suggesting that all the rest of his vast output is rightly neglected by the general reader; even the slightest of his prose works is invariably intelligent and witty, and there can be no doubt that his pen helped to shape the modern world. But the uniqueness of this one work differentiates him sharply from his three most famous contemporaries, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau, whose output is much more even in quality. For instance, there is not such an aesthetic and intellectual gap between Rousseau’s Confessions and Le Contrat Social as there is between Candide and, say, Le Dictionnaire philosophique.
This is a fact that Voltaire specialists find very hard to accept, as we can see from these two new books by Mr. Besterman and Professor Wade. They often cannot bring themselves to admit that a man who was praised for over fifty years for his poetry, his plays, and his epics, and who is moreover obviously a great man, was not in any genuine sense a major poet, dramatist, or epic-writer. I sympathize particularly with Mr. Besterman, who is a fascinating case of a critic who fell in love with Voltaire at an early stage and who has devoted years of his life, as well as a private fortune, to rehabilitating Voltaire against his detractors and putting his reputation back on a par with that of Rousseau. Mr. Besterman has established a Voltaire museum in the writer’s one-time residence, Les Délices; he has brought out an immense new edition of the correspondence; he is engaged in a republication of the entire works and he has supervised a long series of “Voltaire Studies” (unfortunately, however, of very unequal merit). His devotion to the master is comparable to Boswell’s worship of Johnson. As he himself says in his Preface:
I have been his life-long admirer this side idolatry. I have spent many years in close and critical study of his life and works; I live in his house, work in his library, sleep in his bedroom. It would be absurd for me to pretend to cold impartiality.
I myself would not claim to be impartial either. I think Voltaire was a splendid person and that all those generations of religiously minded conservatives who repeated the conventional view of him as a grinning, unfeeling skeptic were quite wrong. He was just as passionate as Rousseau, and if he had a much less original and complex brain than that exasperating genius, he had far more decency, generosity, and humor. Above all, he had a clear and honest mind, which made it impossible for him to be taken in by any of the comforting or scarifying illusions about life that the mystically inclined are always inventing.
There is not a trace of flabbiness in his mental processes; it is true that he made some mistakes through an excess of literalness—as when he referred derisively to Canada as “a few acres of snow”—but by and large his unrelenting common sense was marvelously hygienic, and still could be if there were someone like him today. But this is not a reason for praising him indiscriminately or getting the emphases wrong.
If I try to imitate Voltaire’s honesty, I am compelled to say that neither Mr. Besterman’s nor Professor Wade’s study strikes me as being exceptionally good. In telling the picturesque story of Voltaire’s life and tracing his intellectual development, they go over well-trodden ground once again, but they don’t give the impression of getting the various elements firmly into perspective; my two favorite Voltaire books remain Pomeau’s La religion de Voltaire and Delattre’s Voltaire l’impétueux. Although Mr. Besterman is attractive to read because of his peculiar emotional relationship to his subject, I think he is uncertain in his literary judgments. His real admiration is, justifiably, for Voltaire the rationalist and righter of social wrongs, and one senses that he is also identifying to some extent with the combination in Voltaire of the courtly gentleman with aristocratic manners and the ardent critic with a malicious wit.
But he keeps too close to the details to work out a convincing pattern, and his hero worship sometimes becomes a form of self-indulgence, since it leads him to make unfair and dismissive asides about some of Voltaire’s contemporaries, notably Rousseau. As for Professor Wade, he assembles a tremendous amount of information in the manner of the old-fashioned literary historian, but he repeats himself a great deal, and on most crucial matters he has no settled point of view, and indeed almost elevates not having a point of view to a sort of principle. This is surprising in someone who has been reading Voltaire for forty years; it shows that one can be steeped in an author’s works and still not resemble him.
I see no reason to disagree with Paul Valéry’s penetrating remark in his Discours, sur Voltaire that if Voltaire had died at the age of sixty, he would not have become the world celebrity he still is. It was after sixty that he wrote Candide and that he conducted the series of frenzied campaigns which became models for all subsequent reformers. He is a curious instance of a man who was intensely active all his life and whose metabolic rate (if that is the correct term), instead of declining with age, seems actually to have increased between sixty and eighty. This means that one has to make a clear distinction between the Voltaire who achieved celebrity in the early half of the eighteenth century, and who perhaps remained the predominant Voltaire for many of his contemporaries, and the Voltaire of world renown.
The early Voltaire was a bourgeois who received an excellent classical education, and whose style and manners were formed in the aristocratic society of the Regency. He was both a man-about-town and an embodiment of the neo-classical aesthetic. He was also, of course, a man of spirit, as we can tell from his brushes with authority and the admirable tone of his early letters. Through the accident of his being exiled to England, his horizons were enormously widened, and although his attitude toward England, the English, and particularly Shakespeare fluctuated considerably from time to time, he became one of the first great European personalities to react strongly against national insularity.
Frenchmen exiled to England before his time and since have frequently not bothered to learn the language, either through laziness, or contempt for this Northern folk-tongue, or through a desire to defend the purity of their Gallic mentality. Voltaire, who was as French as anyone could wish, was also a modest and conscientious student and he acquired a practical knowledge of English, which stood him in good stead for the rest of his life. After his return to France, he slowly shifted the emphasis of his activities from literary composition to intellectual discussion, and it was from this point onward that he gradually became an agent of the Enlightenment. However, he never abandoned literature; he went on writing poetry and plays to the end of his career.
But it would seem that the best that can be said of him as a writer of “tragedies” is that he was a more vigorous and intelligent fabricator than any of his contemporaries. All during the eighteenth century, tragedy remained the most respected literary form in France. A great many tragedies were written, performed, and published, and the whole output has been charted and docketed by literary historians. What the academic experts—Lion, Lancaster, Lanson, etc.—are reluctant to recognize is that not a single good, neo-classical tragedy was produced between the death of Racine and the final expiry of the genre about 120 years later. Why this should be so is one of those teasing sociological problems such as: why did grand opera flourish for a certain length of time in nineteenth-century Europe, or why is it no longer possible to write symphonies? Voltaire genuinely admired and appreciated Racine, he spent a considerable portion of his life trying to imitate him, and yet even the best attempts, such as Zaïre and Mérope, bear about as much resemblance to Racine as a wooden horse does to a real one.