Voltaire; drawing by David Levine

The eighteenth century was a century of great letter writers, and Voltaire was the greatest of them all. He was also one of the most prolific. As Theodore Besterman reminds us in his Introduction to his selection from Voltaire’s vast correspondence, Voltaire wrote at least twenty thousand letters in his long life, to more than 1200 correspondents. He wrote to everybody, and everybody wrote to him—kings and actresses, government officials and bankers, philosophers and litterateurs, and (most attractive of all) obscure personages who were his friends. “The remarkable thing is,” Besterman notes, and it is remarkable, “that Voltaire corresponded regularly for twenty years or more with about thirty-five friends, and for over thirty years with twenty, outside his family.” Voltaire, contrary to his reputation, was not merely a social climber, or solely concerned for his security or financial advantage. He was a good hater but he also loved widely and generously, if not always wisely, and most of his traits emerge in the letters here brought together.

To call Voltaire the greatest letter writer of the eighteenth century is to make a large claim, especially since Horace Walpole was his contemporary. Theodore Besterman makes this claim in his Introduction, but then one might object that he is after all not a detached observer. (Mr. Besterman has been bringing out the definitive edition of Voltaire’s correspondence for some years, and it is to be expected that he is deeply committed to his subject. He has been working brilliantly and almost alone, adding considerably to our knowledge of Voltaire’s age by correcting misreadings and wrong dates, and by discovering many letters unavailable to earlier collectors.)

But I think the claim to Voltaire’s preeminence can be sustained. Horace Walpole, waspish and observant, a perpetual visitor of life, seems to have lived so that he might write his letters. Voltaire, on the other hand, subordinated letter-writing to the business of living, and what his letters lose in polished artificiality, they gain in immediacy. He was a man of comprehensive interests and admirably lucid intelligence: in the course of his life, frail as he was (he ceaselessly announced himself to be dying), he touched on nearly all aspects of his century. He was a respectable student of Newtonian science, a well-informed reader of philosophy and Biblical criticism, a practicing poet, perceptive literary critic, innovating historian, shrewd businessman, indefatigable observer of the political scene, virulent anti-clerical, and humane reformer. He was also, as I have said, a loyal friend, and in his own slightly pathetic way, a passionate lover. And whatever he experienced, he experienced intensely, and poured into his letters. As Mr. Besterman knows better than anyone else, no selection, no matter how judicious, can give anything but the most rudimentary idea of this intensity: when he was fired up, by his improbable love for his niece, or the French government’s outrageous treatment of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, or the Calas case, he would write three or four letters on the same subject in a single day, with equal passion. This, then—the breadth and intensity of his experience which his letters faithfully reflect—is the first reason for their greatness.

Their style is the second reason, for while he took time to polish only his most delicate letters to his most exalted correspondents, he wrote them all brilliantly. Voltaire was a natural stylist; his perceptions were so quick and his grasp on language so secure, that his most casual note or most hurried scrawl is beautifully composed and distinctively phrased. This is all the more remarkable since Voltaire often consciously addressed a group of readers, and often found it useful to mask his private convictions. Mr. Besterman asserts that Voltaire never learned to “compromise his ideas or to moderate their expression,” but surely some of his most amusing letters are amusing precisely because Voltaire moderates the expression of his ideas. In fact, when he addresses a monarch like Catherine of Russia, his moderation is less amusing than it is depressing—although it must be said in his defense that while Voltaire often made velvet paws, he scratched even kings. Yet candid or calculating, he was so facile that he was a craftsman even when he was in a rush. His feelings may have been spontaneous, but his expression of those feelings was always artful. He was a classicist, obedient to the supreme rule of classicism that feeling must suffuse, but be disciplined by, form; and these are the letters of a classicist. That he was a wit as well makes them all the more delightful.

There is still a third reason for their greatness, and on it Mr. Besterman makes a perceptive comment. The most obvious quality for great letter writing, he says, “is the ability to put oneself into rapport with the person to whom one is writing, to get into his skin. Voltaire had this gift to an almost miraculous degree.” This is true. “It is not so much that he tries to please,” Besterman goes on, “for in innumerable letters he does anything but that.” And this, too, is true. Voltaire’s gift was less the gift of flattery, on which too much criticism has been wasted, but the gift of empathy: the sure, sensitive understanding of what his correspondent needed to know, how he was best approached, who, in a word, his correspondent was. Such sensitivity is far removed from the lavish, automatic, indiscriminate praise of the sycophant: it is, rather, the rare gift of communication. Voltaire’s letters are in supreme degree personal letters, and they are personal in the double sense that they illuminate the person of the recipient as much as that of the writer.


It is the combination of these three qualities—the range and passion of these letters, the purity and wit of their prose, and their genuine intimacy—that makes them great documents. Were they also the documents produced by a great man? If we could agree that a man’s stature depended on the excellence of his work alone, the answer would be easy, but with Voltaire, the question has been answered all too often on political grounds: admirers of Burke or Kierkegaard have rarely been admirers of Voltaire. Even his moral qualities continue to be much debated: Mr. Besterman will doubtless shock or at least surprise, most of his readers when he expresses his conviction that Voltaire was not merely a brilliant writer and doughty libertarian, but also, “by and large, a man of noble and lovable character.” Wits are rarely thought to be noble, ruthless polemicists rarely thought to be lovable, and yet, witty and ruthless though Voltaire was, I for one find Mr. Besterman’s conclusion convincing, and fully borne out by the letter he reprints.

Yet there is one question, really rather more interesting than that of Voltaire’s moral stature, to which this selection offers no answer, because it is, unfortunately, too skimpy. All selections are open to criticism, all anthologies omit certain favorites, and every reviewer can play the game of complaining about the editor’s failure to include this or that gem. Mr. Besterman is remarkably successful in illustrating the spectrum of Voltaire’s concerns and correspondents; he includes letters from every period of Voltaire’s life, many famous, some obscure, all—except of course those that Voltaire wrote in English—competently translated. As a result, this collection impressively underscores Voltaire’s variety. But in selecting only 141 letters, which take up 177 pages, he has given us not so much an appetizer, as the appetizer to an appetizer. And in being so brief, he fails to light up what remains one of the last, probably the most obscure, and certainly the most interesting puzzle about Voltaire: his personal character.

There has been much impressionistic writing about the real Voltaire, much schematic writing about Voltaire the deist, the neo-Classical dramatist, the anticlerical wit. But the real man hides behind these simple labels. He was really far more complicated than he is usually given credit for being (he would make an admirable subject for Erik Erikson). Voltaire was a philosopher at once impudent and devout, a daring political pamphleteer given to fits of panic, a cheerful hypochondriac with numerous psychosomatic symptoms, a sly eroticist with a mind largely free from prurience, a flatterer of royalty who often wrote them harsh truths, a hedonist who worked long hours, a secularist who combated Pascal but (as J.-R. Carré observed long ago) incorporated much of Pascal’s pessimism. When, settled at Ferney, he had reached fame, wealth, and independence, he declared in his letters that he was happy—so happy that he was ashamed of himself. If any man ever strove, almost superstitiously, to deserve the right to be happy, that man was Voltaire. The very sensitivity that made him such a rewarding correspondent points to a tortuous inner history; it suggests, I think, that the pitiless wit, notorious for his grin, craved affection, and communicated so well with others because he needed communication so much. It is trite but true to say that all reflective lives are voyages of self-discovery, and that all writings are the fragment of a great confession. This holds true of good letters as much as of more formal writings, even when they are carefully contrived productions. That is why it would be valuable if Mr. Besterman were to compile a substantially larger selection of Voltaire’s letters than he has brought together here. It would help the public finally to see Voltaire in his complexity, better than he has been seen before. But to lodge such a complaint against this collection of letters, to ask for more, is really to express a tribute to their editor, and ultimately to their author.


This Issue

April 16, 1964