Voltaire; drawing by David Levine

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.

Voltaire was imprisoned in the neoclassical aesthetic, but its poetic force had gone dead on him as on practically everyone else. It is clear that he sensed this; he made lots of apologetic remarks about his plays, he tried in a half-hearted way to introduce new gimmicks into tragedy, and he obviously went on hoping against hope that his tragedies were not as stillborn as he suspected they might be. And indeed, they enjoyed a spurious life for a number of years; because the audience reacted to the external manipulation of a formula and to the incidental mots d’auteur, as audiences still do today with certain types of plays. But the strange fact remains that no great writer ever wrote so many dud dramatic works as Voltaire. Mr. Besterman, who is not a Voltairean for nothing, says so astringently in discussing Voltaire’s very first tragedy, Oedipe:

There is little to be said about Oedipe as literature, and that little may as well be said now once and for all, for it applies to nearly all Voltaire’s plays. The strict rules governing the manufacture of plays, as laid down in the seventeenth century, were regarded by him as immutable, and the use of the alexandrine as very nearly so. Neither in the least suited Voltaire’s literary genius…He laboured incessantly on the development and writing of his tragedies, but it was to little purpose [p. 77].

However, this does not prevent Mr. Besterman from explaining the themes of the tragedies at length, as if they were significant works, as and when they occur in the course of the narrative. More often than not he devotes a page or two to the play in order to damn it heartily. Yet, in his final summing-up, where he lists Voltaire’s qualities, he declares:

Voltaire’s plays, I repeat, occupied the stage with great distinction for many years throughout Europe [p. 537].

In the light of what Mr. Besterman has already said, this would only be acceptable if the expression “with great distinction” were replaced by some other form of words, such as “owing to a collective aberration of taste.”

Professor Wade is still more self-contradictory than Mr. Besterman. He devotes a section ten pages long to Voltaire’s drama and ties himself into some remarkable knots. He says that Voltaire was “justly proud” of his drama, that “it is not easy to formulate an accurate judgment of this theatre,” that “one would hardly want to establish Voltaire’s literary reputation upon his theatre,” that “we can never be sure that we are looking at Voltaire’s drama in the right perspective,” that “it is quite possible to select a half-dozen or so of his plays from his repertory not as excellent, but as good theatre. Our defense would have to be couched in terms of the eighteenth-century audience, however,” and “Usually, we Voltaireans want to settle for nothing less than a bevy of masterpieces.” In short, he is on all sides at once and his chapter is a model of muddle, because he himself has no definite point of view.

This is even more obvious in his discussion of Voltaire the poet, which he keeps returning to, often in identical terms. Here again, the truth of the matter now seems undeniable. Inspite of the extravagant praise lavished by Voltaire’s contemporaries on La Henriade and other works, he was a fluent versifier, but nothing more. The critic and philosopher, Alain, who was an enthusiastic admirer of Voltaire, said he had read all his verse, but that there was not a single line of poetry in it. I am prepared to accept this, and I would point out that Voltaire’s most famous contribution to poetry—

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.

—is such a perfect prose aphorism that most people would never guess that it is an alexandrine, at least technically, and comes from a poem. Even within the neo-classical tradition, Voltaire is worlds removed from Pope or Chénier, who were both real poets with the gift of writing living, organic verse.

Professor Wade commits himself in one place (p. 242) to the view that Voltaire is “lacking a genuine poetic talent,” but elsewhere he sounds his usual note of Panglossian benevolence: “We have to be careful in discussing Voltaire’s poetry that we are seeing it in the right perspective.” He examines at length Voltaire’s debt to Horace and Virgil, as if Voltaire’s poetry were to be taken seriously; he claims that he produced a number of “worthy poems,” and then he concludes with the astonishing assertion:

What is important is not whether Voltaire’s poetry is good or bad or indifferent. We do not have very accurate ways of making these mass evaluations in literature, anyway. The best we can do is to maintain that a certain poem is noteworthy for certain features.

In other words, a professor of literature, when faced, say, with a sonnet, is not called upon to pass any judgment on its quality but he can make a contribution to knowledge by pointing out that it has fourteen lines.

If Voltaire was not a great playwright or poet, what was he? As Mr. Besterman demonstrates, after a number of other biographers, he was a satirical and didactic polygraph who gradually established himself as an independant power in the land by first giving himself an absolutely firm financial basis, and then playing on public opinion with consummate skill. He must have been a genius in practical matters, because he had turned himself into a rich man by middle life, without devoting more than a fraction of his time to business and without drawing any great revenue from his writings, which must in any case have been constantly pirated.

It is a pity that Mr. Besterman, with his immense knowledge of Voltaire’s affairs, does not give a clearer account of the manner in which his hero achieved this extraordinary feat, particularly as some historians have suggested that Voltaire was an unscrupulous speculator and invested in the slave trade. At any rate, he was the endearing type of rich man, who keeps open house, showers benefits on all those around him, and uses money generously to enhance life. His correspondence seems to indicate that he never lost an almost naive delight in spending.

The problem, for any strong-minded individual who wanted to say what he thought under the Old Regime, was that no modern political organisms were available to use as channels of expression, or to protect freedom of speech. The only way to proceed was to try to manipulate the tangle of influences around the Throne. In the flesh, Voltaire appears to have been a poor courtier (much inferior, for instance, to that other practical genius and his great admirer, Beaumarchais), since he failed with both Louis XV and Frederick the Great. But on paper he was wonderfully persuasive, and he continued all his life to write tirelessly to ministers and favorites in order to get them to bring their influence to bear on behalf of himself and his protégés.

However, he gradually came to realize, in a way that his younger contemporaries, Diderot and Rousseau, never fully understood, that the emancipated intellectual could achieve freedom and dignity only if he made himself independent of all patrons by amassing enough money, that liquid form of power, and by putting himself at a strategic distance from the police. As he himself expressed it with characteristic levity, if Socrates had been a rich man, the Athenian authorities would have invited him to dinner instead of making him drink hemlock. Voltaire became a seigneur, because that was a better solution than being a hounded refugee, like Rousseau, and he accepted exile from Paris as the price of his outspokenness.

However, we cannot turn him into a modern democrat. Although he depended on public opinion and worked upon it as no one had done before him, its anonymous pressure did not provide him with any sense of security. Mr. Besterman stresses that he was the kindest of men, except in moments of pique, but he had no confidence in the wisdom of the uneducated masses. He put his trust in la bonne compagnie, the enlightened elite who shared his anti-superstitious, humanitarian views, and the most he expected was that it would gradually increase in numbers.

As for his intellectual development, it is not as interesting as that of Rousseau or Diderot, because he did not have their ability to be original and difficult. He made a genuine contribution to the writing of history but, apart from that, it is fair to say that he was a superb disseminator of ideas that had already, for the most part, been expressed by others.

Not all his attitudes can be logically reconciled with one another, which is hardly surprising when he wrote so much and was interested in so many different things. For instance it was he who helped to create and to publicize the conception of the heyday of Louis XIV’s reign as le grand siècle, because of the literary masterpieces it produced and its general cultural splendor, but he does not properly discuss the social and political cost of that short golden age; he is still too dazzled by the genuine artistic achievements of the seventeenth century to get the society as a whole into perspective and to judge it according to his humanitarian views.

However, we might make a similar remark about Montesquieu, whose brilliantly original essay on the Roman Empire as a sociological phenomenon, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur decadence, is based on the assumption that everything was going well while the Romans were extending their conquests and that the break-up of the Empire was a bad thing. This is simply a Roman view that he has taken over unconsciously, without asking himself whether the ethos of the Empire is consistent with the humanitarian philosophy he had expounded a little earlier in Lettres persanes.

The main difference between the younger Voltaire of the first half of his career and the older Voltaire of the middle and late period is that his gaiety is more serene in youth and more frenzied in age, when suffering has taken its toll. The early refutation, in the Lettres philosophiques, of Pascal’s fanatical pessimism, is an admirable expression of the reasonable view of life and a permanent answer to all forms of romantic apocalypticism.

But there can be no doubt that Voltaire later came to be absolutely obsessed by the problem of evil, and that he was caught in a dilemma which has never ceased to torment post-Enlightenment man. It can be expressed briefly as follows: the universe contains so many intricate patterns that it is difficult to believe that there is no Supreme Intelligence behind it—hence Voltaire was a deist—yet at the same time the patterns operate with such a total indifference to human feelings that it is just as difficult to believe that the Supreme Intelligence is Good. For once I can agree with Professor Wade who, after shilly-shallying again intolerably in discussing Leibniz and Voltaire, manages to make a clear statement in his “Conclusion”:

He [Voltaire] wanted to think of God as being all-good, all-wise, all-powerful, and, above all, friendly to man, but, when he held this conception up to the light of human experience, he had some difficulty in affirming it.

This is precisely what Candide is about, and the uniqueness of that work lies in the fact that it is a beautifully patterned and extraordinarily vital expression of the tragic view of life, couched in the gay and elegant prose of the eighteenth century, which is so much more rhythmical and poetic than most of its poetry. I don’t pretend to know how it was that Voltaire was incapable of tragic feeling when he wrote tragedies. Professor Wade says that it was “simply because he was totally lacking in a tragic sense of life,” but this is clearly wrong, because Candide is lyrically tragic from beginning to end. Nor do I agree with Mr. Besterman, when he declares that Voltaire’s feelings were all subordinated to his reason:

He was indeed the most absolute kind of rationalist. He was not prepared to accept the notion that mankind depends on external forces and influences, and therefore he placed squarely on man’s shoulders the responsibility for his own moral evils. He was convinced that evil, that is, injustice, was the result of bad thinking.

Injustice is only one form of evil. In Candide, Voltaire deals, on the one hand, with the impersonal evil in the universe, God’s evil we might call it, which is represented by the Lisbon earthquake, the shipwreck, and other natural disasters, and on the other hand with moral evil, which includes, as well as injustice, gratuitous cruelty, stupidity, fanaticism, and so on. It is not at all certain that he sees these things as being simply the result of bad thinking. He is passionately in favor of right thinking, and he does his best to achieve it and propagate it, yet at the same time he has, like all serious writers, an almost affectionate sense of the endless contrariness of human nature. In other words, he believes in doing good, but he has no naive conviction that good will necessarily prevail against the dead weight of human misunderstanding and ignorance, which is again a form of God’s evil, if we consider that man in the mass is what God made him.

The real tragedy, from the would-be deist’s point of view, is that God, in the last resort, is as responsible for man as He is for the Lisbon earth-quake. However strong one’s belief in human freedom, it is impossible not to feel, as Voltaire did when he surveyed history and the contemporary scene, that man, in a sense, has been doomed to evil by God. This conclusion, which is at once unbelievable and inescapable, is behind every page of Candide, and accounts for the balance in the story between Deism and Manicheism.

As I have argued elsewhere, Voltaire hit on the form of the conte by accident, used it in a rather haphazard way on many occasions, and apparently never realized that, in Candide, he had carried it to perfection. Yet the allegory is quite clear: Candide is the human soul which, as Simone Weil says, always expects good to be done to it rather than evil. Pangloss is the intelligence, endlessly producing comic verbalizations to explain the inexplicable. Chapter I is a parody of the temptation in the Garden of Eden and the Fall. Cunégonde, after playing the part of Eve, becomes the Ideal, for which the human soul is always looking, and Candide goes in quest of it throughout the known world. All the adventures in his pilgrim’s progress are exemplary in one way or another, and the general lesson to be drawn from them is that one grows older without the essential mystery ever being solved. Finally, in middle age, Candide reconstitutes the domain of his childhood, but in a disillusioned form, on the shores of the Bosphorus, like Voltaire at Ferney.

The original Garden was ruled over by Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, i.e., presumably the thunder-god of the Old Testament, who knew the rules of good and evil. In the middle-aged garden, Candide himself is in charge; he is man, in a secularized world, trying to assume the role of God without conviction, while Pangloss, the intellect, goes on proposing useless explanations. Il faut cultiver son jardin is not at all the simple, bracing statement it is often taken to be, but a profoundly ironical comment on the whole pastoral tradition, biblical and non-biblical, which assumes that God is good and that Nature expresses His goodness. A garden, after all, is a little area that man tries to shield against the vagaries of God and Nature by encouraging some of Their tendencies and not others.

All this symbolism, which fits together so neatly and is so unobtrusively worked out in the narrative, must be the effect of some unexplained inspiration which lifted Voltaire above the level of the gifted polygraph into the ranks of the great writers. It expresses in permanent form the emotion of the agnostic who cannot believe in the senselessness of the universe and yet cannot make sense of it. I am sure that when, in this last phase of his life, Voltaire built a church on his grounds with the wry and mischievous inscription, Deo erexit Voltaire, he was not so much making a straightforward profession of Deism as reminding God that Voltaire was sadly puzzled by Him.

This Issue

June 18, 1970