His enemies said he had the “most hideous” smile in Europe. It was a thin, skull-like smile that sneered at everything sacred: religion, love, patriotism, censorship, and the harmony of the spheres. It was a smile of mockery, cynicism, and lechery. It was the sort of smile, said Coleridge, that you would find on the face of “a French hairdresser.”
It was certainly the most famous smile in eighteenth-century Europe. But reproduced in a thousand paintings, statues, busts, caricatures, miniatures, and medallions, you can now see that it was more of a tight-lipped grin. Voltaire himself, rather tenderly, called it the grin of “a maimed monkey” (“un singe estropié“). And he wrote to his fellow philosophes, “Always march forward along the highway of Truth, my brothers, grinning derisively.” To understand just something of that celebrated monkey grin—which symbolizes both Voltaire’s intelligence and his mischief—is to understand a great deal about the Europe he tried to change.
Nineteen-ninety-four was Voltaire’s tricentenary. Learned foundations celebrated his birthday in Oxford, Geneva, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Paris. He was, especially, the toast of the French intellectuals and media persons and appeared (by proxy) on the influential Bernard Pivot television show, Bouillon de Culture (Culture Soup). A great exhibition of his life and times, Voltaire et l’Europe, ran for two and a half months at the Hôtel de la Monnaie in Paris, organized by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The deputy editor of Le Monde, Edwy Plenel, christened him “the father of investigative journalism.”
The publishers did him proud. New critical studies (Voltaire Le Conquérant, by Pierre Lepape), new anthologies (Le Rire de Voltaire, by Pascal Debailly), new paperbacks (Voltaire: Ecrivains de Toujours, by René Pomeau). Candide appeared as a cartoon strip by Wolinski. The Pléiade library completed the publication of his correspondence in thirteen volumes. The Voltaire Foundation (by a quirk of fate, based at Oxford) continued its monumental edition of the Complete Works in 150 volumes, the Life in five volumes, and Voltaire for the desktop on CD-ROM. The magazine Lire sold terra-cotta busts of his monkey head by mail order, price 3,500 francs plus postage on the eight-kilo package.
Although much of Voltaire’s life was spent in exile (England, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany), he has become a palpable presence in Paris. A street, a lycée, a métro station, a café, a bank note, and even a style of armchair (upright, for hours of reading) have been named after him. His grinning statues can be found everywhere, in unexpected corners of the city, bringing the touch of irony to some grand historic purlieus: gingerly seated in the Comédie-Française; niched like a Bacchus upstairs at his old Quartier Latin haunt in the Café Procope; hovering downstairs in the musty crypt of the Pantheon: genially hosting a reception room (“La Salle des Philosophes”) in the Musée Carnavalet; or peering mockingly out of a little shrubbery outside the Institut de France at the bottom of the rue de Seine.
But there is a paradox in this stately, official spread of his works and influence. Voltaire was, par excellence, the free intellectual spirit. All his life he hated organizations, systems, canonizations, state authorities, and scholarly apparatus. He quarreled continuously with the Church, the Government, the Law, and the intellectual Establishment of his time. He even quarreled with his fellow authors of the great Encyclopédie, that monument to the French eighteenth-century Enlightenment, because he thought the edition was too big and too long for the ordinary reader, whom he championed.
Though Voltaire began his professional life as an author of epic poems (La Henriade, 1723), of vast histories (Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1740–1751), and mighty verse tragedies (Oedipe, 1718; La Mort de César, 1735) his true genius emerged as the master of brief forms. Speed and brevity is the hallmark of his gift and style. His great work is always scored allegro vivace. The short story, the pungent essay, the treatise, the “portable” dictionary, the provoking letter, even the stinging single-sentence epigram: these now appear as the enduring and popular vehicles of his art.
Almost everything he has to say is somewhere touched on in the twenty-six contes philosophiques which he wrote between 1738 (Micromégas) and 1773 (The White Bull). All were the fiery distillations of age, observation, and bitter experience: an eau de vie of literature. They are set over the entire globe, and also out of it; and many of them take the form of fantastic travelers’ tales. They were frequently published anonymously (like Candide), and while delighting in their success Voltaire often continued to deny authorship, and mocked the whole enterprise. His modesty was perverse. He once wrote: “I try to be very brief and slightly spicy: or else the Ministers and Madame de Pompadour and the clerks and the maidservants will all make paper-curlers of my pages.”
His bon mots have traveled more widely than anything else, though their precision is often difficult to translate. They give some measure of the man. “Use a pen, start a war.” (“Qui plume a, guerre a.”) “God is not on the side of the big battalions, but of the best shots.” “In this country [England] it is thought a good idea to kill an admiral, from time to time, to encourage the others.” “The superfluous, that most necessary commodity.” (“Le superflu, chose très nécessaire.”) “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” “We owe respect to the living; but to the dead we owe nothing but the truth.” “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”1 And most famous of all, Candide’s wry philosophic conclusion about the lesson of his terrible adventures: “That is well said, replied Candide, but we must cultivate our garden.” These, and many like them, have remained part of that mysterious European currency of the ironic. They are the verbal equivalents, the linguistic icons, of Voltaire’s mocking grin.
Brevity, irony, and a particular kind of fantastical logic were Voltaire’s chosen weapons. They might appear curiously lightweight for his chosen targets: the great armies of the European night—fanaticism, intolerance, persecution, injustice, cruelty. But Voltaire was a natural-born fighter, an intellectual pugilist. He relished combat, and he committed himself absolutely to the battle of ideas. Like a later master of the ring, he “floated” and danced like a butterfly but stung like a bee. For all his elegance, he could strike with stunning ferocity. A convinced anticleric, he could write of priests of every denomination who “rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God.” He never pulled his punches, and he made enemies all his life, and he made them after it.
His commitment to the freedom of ideas is historically significant. The French rightly celebrate him as the first “engaged” intellectual who attached himself to specific social and political causes. For them, Voltaire laid the foundations—in an almost architectural sense—of a unique European tradition. They see a line that runs straight as the “Grand Axis” in Paris (that great vista from the seven-teenth-century Louvre palace to the twentieth-century Arche de la Défense), from Voltaire via Hugo and Zola to Sartre and Camus. When General de Gaulle was urged to arrest Sartre for subversion during the 1960s, he replied: “one does not put Voltaire in the Bastille.”
For Voltaire, the essence of intellectual freedom was wit. Wit—which means both intelligence and humor—was the primary birthright of man. The free play of wit brings enlightenment and also a certain kind of laughter: the laughter that distinguishes man from the beasts. But it is not a simple kind of laughter; it is also close to tears. Voltaire’s symbolic grin (as we begin to examine it) contains both these elements when he surveys the human condition. Life amuses and delights him; but it also causes him pain and grief. In his Questions sur L’Encyclopédie (1772), he wrote this entry about “Le Rire,” an epitome of both his thought and his style.
Anyone who has ever laughed will hardly doubt that laughter is the sign of joy, as tears are the symptom of grief. But those who seek the metaphysical causes of laughter are not light-hearted people. Those who know precisely why the type of joy which excites laughter should pull the zygomatic muscle (one of the thirteen muscles in the mouth) upwards towards the ears, are simply clever people. Animals have this muscle like us. But animals never laugh with joy, anymore than they weep tears of sadness. It is true that deer excrete fluid from their eyes when they are being hunted to death. So do dogs when they are undergoing vivisection. But they never weep for their mistresses or their friends, as we do. Nor do they burst into laughter at the sight of something comic. Man is the sole animal who cries and laughs.
The simple conclusion is profoundly deceptive. The sentences gather irony, even as they shorten, and the blows strike home. What is this entry really about? Is it human laughter, or human stupidity, or human cruelty? Voltaire’s wit is so often double-edged like this. His tales, his essays, his epigrams cut as we smile. And nothing is sacred. Consider what he wrote about human lovemaking, in one of his letters:
Snails have the good fortune to be both male and female…. They give pleasure and receive it at the same time. Their enjoyment is not just twice as much as ours, it also lasts considerably longer. They are in sexual rapture for three or four hours at a stretch. Admittedly, that is not long compared to Eternity. But it would be a long time for you and me.
This is the intellectual physiognomy, so to speak, of Voltaire’s grin. But what gave it the particular historical twist, which makes it seem like the insignia of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment? Voltaire’s father François Arouet (originally from Poitou) was a successful lawyer to the French aristocracy. His beautiful mother (Voltaire always traveled with her portrait) died when he was only six. The youngest surviving child, he was born in November 1694 in the heart of Paris, on the Ile de la Cité.
The comfortable house stood within sight of the Palais de Justice (also the police headquarters) and the long rows of bookstalls already established along the Seine. There is something symbolic in this position. Voltaire’s literary genius always contained both the lawyer’s delight in argument and the poet’s sense of fantasy. His wit—from childhood, swift, logical, and provocative—somehow combined these two contradictory elements. (Flaubert said long afterward, in Madame Bovary, that “every lawyer carries inside him the wreckage of a poet.”)
Young François-Marie Arouet (le jeune) was hyperactive, almost a child prodigy—clever, mischievous, and barely governable. He started as he meant to go on. He flourished under his Jesuit teachers at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, driving them to distraction with his pranks. There is a famous story of how he got the school fires lit earlier than usual one winter term. The rule was that no heating was permitted until the water froze in the stone holy-water stoop in the school chapel. Arouet accelerated this process by bringing in a large sheet of ice from the schoolyard, and slipping it unnoticed into the stoop. He was flogged when the trick was discovered, but in recompense the fires were also lit. It was a young poet-lawyer’s solution: the letter of the law was observed, because the holy water did indeed freeze; but the spirit of the law was made a mockery, because Arouet had invented the ice. It was, perhaps, his first conte philosophique in action.
After graduation (rhetoric, classics, mathematics, and a first brush with theology), a dangerously handsome young Arouet ran riot as a junior diplomat in Holland. When he proposed to marry his voluptuous Dutch mistress, Pimpette, he was brought home to Paris in disgrace, and promptly moved into a libertine aristocratic set and began publishing satires and political squibs. (He was supposed to be studying law.) He did his first stint in the Bastille prison, having offended the Court, in 1717; and emerged with his verse tragedy Oedipe, which made his name. Already it was allegro vivace.
Having made his name, he promptly changed it. By a swift transposition of letters, Arouet Le J became “Voltaire.” (The sleight of hand is rather puzzling here, but scholars explain that it was done by assuming the “u” to be a “V,” and the “J” to be an “i,” which just about works.) But Arouet had done something strikingly modern: he had repackaged himself under a new brand name, carrying instant associations of speed and daring: voltige (acrobatics on a trapeze or a horse), volte-face (spinning about to face your enemies), volatile (originally, any winged creature). It meant he was a highflyer, and everyone would know it.
For the next decade Voltaire soared to increasingly dizzy heights in France, writing plays, collecting gold medals and mistresses, moving in and out of royal favor with King Louis XV at Versailles. He was the supreme literary dandy about town, dining with the aristocrats as their enfant terrible, and “passing his life from château to château.” His portrait was painted, his witticisms admired, and his arrogance became insupportable. The portrait in the Musée Carnavalet from this period shows him rouged and powdered in an extravagant wig, a bottle-green coat over his pink silk waistcoat, lace frothing at his wrists, and an expression of delicate self-satisfaction on his impudent, unmarked face. Much of what he wrote at this time, except for a few erotic poems (“L’Epître à Uranie”) has since been forgotten. Then in January 1726 came nemesis.
Showing off in front of his mistress Adrienne Lecouvreur, in her box at the Comédie-Française, Voltaire traded insults with a particularly brutish member of the French aristocracy, the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot. The Chevalier queried the writer’s name. (“Arouet? Voltaire?”) The writer queried the Chevalier’s lineage. The mistress—having granted favors to both chevalier and writer—even-handedly and prudently fainted between them. Scandal.
Some nights later Voltaire was wittily dining at the Duc de Sully’s hôtel particulier on the rue Saint Antoine. (This superb baroque building, with decorated courtyard of naked nymphs and barrel-vaulted coach-entrance, is now visitable as the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques.) Called down by an urgent messenger into the cobbled street outside, Voltaire was set upon by a posse of the Chevalier’s hired thugs, and beaten with clubs until he collapsed. The Chevalier, meanwhile, looked on from a closed carriage, and shouted out to his men the one remark by which history remembers him. “Don’t hit his head: something valuable might still come from that!” The beating recalls the one delivered to the British poet John Dryden in Rose Alley, London, by henchmen of the Earl of Rochester. But the consequences were rather different.
Voltaire staggered back up to the Duc de Sully’s dining room, but was mortified to discover that neither the Duc nor his delightful friends were prepared to take his part against a fellow nobleman. Bruised and bitterly humiliated, Voltaire attempted to challenge the Chevalier to a duel with swords, but was promptly put back into the Bastille. He had learned that the intellectual must defend himself with other weapons.
One might say that if the French Enlightenment began anywhere, it was on the cobblestones outside the hôtel de Sully in 1726. A small plaque, beneath the nymphs, might not come amiss. Thenceforth Voltaire’s career—he was thirty-two—followed a wholly different trajectory. He never forgot the beating, and years later Candide was to undergo a similar bâtonnade, in Lisbon, at the hands of the Inquisition. “They walked in procession, and listened to a very moving sermon, followed by a beautiful recital of plainchant. Candide was flogged in time to the singing….”
Voltaire’s travels now began. Despite brief returns to Court favor, he was not to feel really safe in Paris again until the last months of his life, fifty years later. First he fled to London, arriving “without a penny, sick to death of a violent ague, a stranger, alone, helpless” (his own rather racy English). But being Voltaire, he was soon airborne again, and remained for two years, a decisive period of intellectual expansion. He met Pope, Congreve, and Swift, who became crucial influences on his writing. (His letter of introduction to Swift is delightfully dated from “the White Perruke, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden.”) He read the works of Locke and Newton in detail, and judged them superior to Descartes (with his nonsense about “innate ideas”) and Pascal (with his gambler’s view of heaven). He studied the liberal English civil code, which granted large freedom of worship and citizenship. The British right of habeas corpus (as opposed to the arbitrary French lettres de cachet) deeply impressed him. He visited the Court, the Parliament, the lively and outspoken salons and coffeehouses, the bustling Stock Exchange. (Voltaire’s brilliance as a private investor dates from this time, and he never again depended on book sales or aristocratic patrons.) He attended productions of Shakespeare’s plays (then being revived), with their sublime ignorance of the three classical unities. He found “a nation fond of liberty; learned, witty, despising life and death; a nation of philosophers.” It was an exile’s idealization of course; but another conte philosophique as well.
Everything Voltaire saw went into his first distinctive prose work, a hymn to British liberty and eccentricity, Les Lettres philosophiques (1733), also known as his Letters Concerning the English Nation. An anthology of essays and travel sketches, it is a compendium of freethinking specifically designed to provoke established opinions and prejudices in France: the Quakers at worship, the Parliament in debate, Newton doing experimental science, the stockbrokers trading, or Hamlet contemplating suicide. (Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy is exquisitely rendered into classical French alexandrines, a perfect back-handed compliment to the Bard.) Each scene is given Voltaire’s special spin of irony, as in his famous sketch of the British doing business, from the Sixth Letter.
Go into the London Exchange, a place more dignified than many a royal court. There you will find representatives of every nation quietly assembled to promote human welfare. There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same religion. They call no man Infidel unless he be bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quaker’s bond….If there were only one religion in England, there would be a risk of despotism; if there were only two, they would cut each other’s throats; as it is, there are at least thirty, and they live happily and at peace.
Voltaire’s return to France was uneasy. He was no longer the darling of Paris, he was increasingly suspected of liberal and unpatriotic ideas, and his attempt at a sparkling satire of French cultural dullness, Le Temple de Goût (1733)—inspired by Alexander Pope’s Dunciad—produced not dinner invitations but denunciations. He skulked in an aged comtesse’s apartment in the Palais Royal (no plaque), and indulged his lifelong love of amateur theatricals, while preparing for his next debacle with the authorities. When the Lettres philosophiques was published, a warrant was immediately issued for his arrest.
But Voltaire was dancing again. He had met the remarkable woman who was to shape the whole middle period of his career. The Marquise du Châtelet was a handsome, headstrong eccentric of twenty-seven, with a passion for geometry and jewelry. A portrait shows her at her desk, in a tender flutter of blue silk ribbons, one milky elbow on a pile of books, an astrolabe at her shoulder, and a pair of gold dividers held thoughtfully, yet rather erotically, between her fingertips. She was married to a bluff and kindly career soldier, who was always away at some European front. Having born him two children, the Marquise was ready to take a lover of greater finesse, and she already had the mathematician Maupertuis in tow. She met Voltaire at a party in Saint-Germain, and they talked about Newton and fell in love. Voltaire said she had green eyes, and could translate both Euclid and Virgil, and make him grin. It was an Enlightened love match.
When the warrant for his arrest was issued, Voltaire decamped for Madame du Châtelet’s charming château at Cirey, far away in the misty borderlands of Lorraine. Here they made a new life together over the next decade, redecorating the rambling apartments, establishing a garden, writing for ten or twelve hours a day, receiving inquisitive visitors, and occasionally playing host to the Marquis on his return from a dull military campaign. One of the first things they did together was to submit prize essays, without consulting each other’s findings, on the subject of “The Propagation of Fire,” for an award offered by the French Academy of Sciences. They were suitably outraged to find that both had lost.
There are many accounts of their stormy, and highly productive, ménage à trois. Nancy Mitford once wrote a diverting book about it, Voltaire in Love (1957), which she described as less of a biography and more “a Kinsey report on his romps with Mme du Châtelet.” Both sexually and intellectually, it was a time of high stimulation. Encouraged by Madame du Châtelet, Voltaire turned away from pure literature, and began to publish a stream of histories and popular science, most notably his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1737). This contained the famous story of Newton and the falling apple, which “demonstrated” the universal law of gravity. At their long suppers (the only meal their guests could rely on), they argued everything from physics to theology, and Voltaire did ludicrous imitations of their enemies. There were poetry readings, picnics, laboratory experiments, and financial investments. There were letters from all over Europe. And there was endless, enchanting talk, punctuated by the occasional amorous row. André Maurois once described Madame du Châtelet’s main interests as “books, diamonds, algebra, astronomy and underwear.” Voltaire shared them all.
Once, driving back to Cirey one freezing winter’s night, their coach overturned and help had to be sent for. The servants were amazed to find them peacefully curled up together in a pile of rugs and cushions, deep in a snow drift, carefully identifying the outlines of the lesser constellations.
It was with Madame du Châtelet that Voltaire, complaining perpetually of ill-health and middle-age (he was now in his forties), began to concentrate on the problem of happiness. He viewed it not as a domestic matter, but as a profound philosophical conundrum in a world of ignorance, injustice, and fanaticism. His inquiries went into the short stories he began to write: the first of which was Micromégas (“Tiny-Huge”), begun at Cirey about 1738.
His initial target was the philosopher Leibniz, whose sturdy complacence had produced an immensely sophisticated argument to prove that, in accordance with the inevitability of Divine Providence, everyone lived “in the best of all possible worlds.” All local suffering was part of a greater system of good. Curiously, this was a view highly fashionable among Enlightenment intellectuals, and had been popularized by Pope in his Essay on Man:
All discord, harmony not under- stood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
Voltaire attacked this absurdity with what was in effect an “Essay on Space Monsters,” one of the earliest pieces of science fiction. Micromégas is approximately twenty miles high in his stockings, and comes from a deeply civilized planet near Sirius. He surfs through outer space on comets, making notes on everything he sees, because he, too, is a philosopher. Arriving on Earth (with a five-mile dwarf from Saturn as his companion), he believes it is uninhabited until he spots a whale in the Baltic, using his pocket microscope with a two-thousand-foot lens.
At last, Micromégas discovers a scientific expedition sailing back from the Arctic Circle, and questions the “mite-sized philosophers” on the nature of human existence (he uses an improvised hearing trumpet made from a fingernail paring). They wisely quote Aristotle, Descartes, and Leibniz, which cuts no ice with Micromégas at all. Only a follower of Locke, who affirms that “there are more things possible than people think,” makes any sense to the Space Giants.
Finally, a Thomist theologian, in full academic regalia, steps forward. He tells them that everything—the stars, the planets, the sun, and they themselves—is created by God uniquely for man’s benefit. “On hearing this, our two Travellers fell about, choking with that irrepressible laughter which, according to Homer, is the portion of the gods.” The philosophers’ tiny ship is nearly engulfed, but the shaken survivors are sent home to report to the Paris Academy of Sciences.
Voltaire withheld the publication of Micromégas for several years. Meanwhile, on the strength of his growing reputation as an historian, he sought to place himself back at the center of political power in Europe. It was the time of the “Enlightened Despots,” and Voltaire flirted with them. He began a mutually flattering correspondence with Frederick the Great of Prussia, and much to Madame du Châtelet’s consternation (she was not invited), Voltaire visited his court. He was then in turn invited back to Versailles, where he was appointed Royal Historiographer to Louis XV in 1745, and elected to the Académie Française in 1746. Again, Madame du Châtelet was largely excluded from this glory, and doubts and recriminations began on both sides.
Voltaire now wrote his second great conte philosophique, Zadig, or Destiny (1748). This time he used the conventions of the Oriental tale, with its thousand and one twists, to show the absurdities of the supposedly benevolent workings of Providence. The young Zadig, “an affectionate young man who did not always wish to be right,” pursues his fortune (he is briefly prime minister of Babylon) and the beautiful Astarte through a series of wildly improbable adventures, accompanied by talking parrots and other portents. The story is notable for its two, alternative, endings. One is happy: “Zadig glorified heaven.” The other is hopeless: “But where shall I go? In Egypt they’ll make me a slave. In Arabia they’ll probably have me burned to death. In Babylon they’ll strangle me. But somehow I must find out what has become of Astarte. Let us depart, and see what my sorry destiny still has in store for me….”
The second ending was nearer the truth, for Voltaire. In his absence from Cirey, Madame du Châtelet took a lover, became pregnant, and died in childbirth in September 1749. Voltaire was half-mad with grief and regret. At Cirey he fell down the stairs. In Paris he roamed through the streets at night, weeping, and believing his happiness was lost forever. He quarreled with the French king, and unwisely accepted an official post at Frederick’s court in Berlin. (The huge pink-and-blue marble working desk that Frederick gave him, presumably as a form of paperweight, has now somehow found its way to the Café Procope.) Voltaire remained for three unhappy years, finally fleeing in 1753, to be imprisoned briefly on Frederick’s instructions at Frankfurt. The Enlightened Despots of Europe were finished with Voltaire.
But he, as it turned out, was also finished with them. With his amazing powers of resilience, he again chose independence. He moved to Geneva in 1754, rented an estate at Les Délices, and finding the intellectual air (and the banking) to his liking, finally settled just inside the French border (so he could slip easily into exile) at Ferney in 1758. This would be his home until the final months of his life. Immediately, he began to write his masterpiece, Candide, or Optimism, which became the epitome of all his adventures.
Voltaire was not alone at Ferney. He had taken a new lover: a fat, blond, domestically-minded young woman known to history as Madame Denis. It is said that she dressed like a Watteau, but looked like a Rubens. Madame Denis also happened to be Voltaire’s niece, his sister’s daughter. This mildly incestuous arrangement seemed to work admirably. Voltaire’s enemies said she was little more than a coarse housekeeper and crude bed-warmer. But she proved a skilled secretary and administrator, she obviously adored her capricious uncle, and Voltaire’s erotic letters to her (he was now in his late fifties) are hymns of autumnal concupiscence.
He wrote from Germany, while they were still apart, in 1753: “My heart is pierced by everything you do. None of my tragedies contains a heroine like you. How can you say I don’t love you! My child, I shall love you until the grave. I get more jealous as I get older…. I want to be the only man who has the joy of fucking you…. I have an erection as I write this, and I kiss your beautiful nipples and your lovely bottom a thousand times. Now then, tell me that I don’t love you!”
With Madame Denis at Ferney, Voltaire reconstructed the lost happiness of Cirey on a grander basis. His investments had made him rich, and he could create a little enlightened kingdom of his own. He spread himself en grand seigneur, developing a model farm, building a theater and a chapel (“Erected for God by Voltaire” over the lintel), employing some sixty servants, and even starting a silk farm for the manufacture of fine stockings to the gentry. Not only letters but visitors now came from all over Europe, including the young James Boswell, who questioned him on the immortality of the soul (“desirable, but not probable,” thought Voltaire) and excessively admired his buxom Swiss serving girls. Voltaire’s grin seemed genial to Boswell. Voltaire told him: “There is evidently a sun, and there is evidently a God. So let us have a religion too. Then all men will be brothers under the sun.” Voltaire, like Candide, had decided to cultivate his garden.
But Candide is not a treatise on gardening, or even on happiness. It is more like a treatise on misery. From his stronghold at Ferney, Voltaire looked round the world and saw squalor, injustice, disease, ignorance, cruelty, and fanaticism. The figure of Candide, the young man from Westphalia “whose soul was written upon his countenance,” is a sort of brilliant animation or personification of that all-seeing Voltairian gaze. Candide travels the earth—Germany, Portugal, England, Eldorado, Surinam, Constantinople, Italy, France—and witnesses and suffers the absurdities and horrors of existence. It is a catalogue raisonné of historical disasters: the Lisbon earthquake, the Spanish Inquisition, the German wars, the South American Jesuits, even the English executing a heroic admiral on his own quarterdeck.
The clear, glassy fire of the narration is unique. Candide has been described as The Thousand and One Nights, condensed by Swift, and translated by Montaigne. Yet its speed and wit and counterpoint are wholly Voltairian. Journeying on with his faithful companions—Pangloss the Optimist, Martin the Pessimist, Cunégonde the fat Princes—Candide plays out a constant dialogue between hope and despair, innocence and disenchantment.
“But for what purpose was this world created, then?” asked Candide.
“To drive us mad,” replied Martin.
“But don’t you find it absolutely amazing,” continued Candide, “the way those two girls I told you about—the ones who lived in the land of Lobeiros—loved those two monkeys?”
The question is pure Candide; but it is Candide’s reply that is pure Voltaire. Moreover Voltaire’s world of rational absurdities is not safely fixed in the eighteenth century. Again and again, it flashes up toward our own. Fundamentalism, genocide, civil war, ideological persecution, environmental disaster: all are foreseen. Uneasy shadows stir at the edge of each bright page.
After the good Dr. Pangloss has been temporarily mislaid from the narrative in Germany (these sudden disappearances of the faithful companions are a favorite device), he turns up again in Bulgaria: gaunt, racked with coughs, and half his nose rotted away. The cause, he tells the appalled Candide, is love.
You remember Paquette, that pretty lady’s maid to our noble Baroness. Well, in her arms I tasted the delights of paradise, and in turn they have led me to these torments of hell. She had the Disease, and may have died of it by now. Paquette was made a gift of it by a learned Franciscan, who had traced it back to its source. For he had got it from an old Countess, who had contracted it from a Captain in the cavalry, who owed it to a Marchioness, who had it from a page-boy, who caught it from a Jesuit, who—during his novitiate—inherited it in a direct line from one of Christopher Columbus’s shipmates. For my part, I shall bequeath it to nobody, because I’m dying of it.
Needless to say, Dr. Pangloss, being an optimist, survives. But he only lives to insist that his lethal infection was “a necessary ingredient” in the best of all possible worlds. Without it, how could Columbus have discovered America, or the cafés of Europe have served delicious hot chocolate drinks?
Voltaire denied authorship of Candide, and called it “une coiònnerie” (in effect, “a load of old balls”). But it immediately bounced right across Europe, first published in Geneva, and then instantly pirated in Paris, Amsterdam, London, and Brussels. It was the greatest international best seller of its time. In its first year it ran over thirty thousand copies, an astonishing figure for a work of fiction in the mid-eighteenth century, over three times the sales of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) in a similar period.
With Candide—“my diabolical little book”—Voltaire had broken through to a new international, middle-class readership, and created the voice that all Europe recognized. For the remaining nineteen years of his life at Ferney, stories, satires, squibs, and treatises poured from his pen. Largely ignoring the kings, the despots, the courts, and the academies, Voltaire wrote and published directly for a new liberal intelligentsia: a Fourth Estate who began to believe that the world could be changed through the battle of ideas. His first edition of The Portable Philosophic Dictionary was published in 1764, with 118 alphabetical entries, a true “pocket” book. (Subsequent editions enlarged it to 600 entries.) Its compact declarations—some less than a page—on Love, Laughter, Fanaticism, Equality, Liberty, Torture, Tolerance, War, Dogma, Virtue, and Beauty went round the world. Voltaire launched his fighting motto: “Ecrasez l’infame“—a vivid but almost untranslatable rallying cry to the liberal conscience everywhere. One version would be: “Crush bigotry and superstition (the infamous thing).” Another, more spirited version, might run: “Make war on the Fanatics.”
Voltaire now engaged with the authorities in a new and daring way. He began to take up specific causes, particular cases of injustice or malpractice, and fight them through the press. The first and most famous was that of Jean Calas in 1762.
Monsieur Calas was an ordinary, middle-class citizen of Toulouse, in southwest France. He owned a successful cloth shop in the rue des Filatiers, and lived above the premises with his English wife Rose, and their grown-up children. Monsieur Calas and his wife were Protestants, in a city that was overwhelmingly Catholic and had a long history of persecutions dating back to the Albigensian wars. Their eldest son, Marc-Antoine Calas, who was twenty-eight, had converted to Catholicism. One evening in October 1761, Marc-Antoine’s body was found hanging from a rafter in the lower part of the shop. Jean Calas was arrested, tortured, tried for murder, broken on a wheel, and after a two-hour respite for “confession” (which was not obtained), executed by strangulation. The Toulouse law court pronounced that Monsieur Calas’s motive for murdering his son was Marc-Antoine’s conversion to Catholicism.
When news of the case reached Ferney, Voltaire’s lawyer’s instinct was aroused. Candide turned Columbo. After extensive investigations and a long, searching interview with Calas’s younger son, Voltaire took up the case in April 1762. He was convinced that there had been a grave miscarriage of justice, born out of fanatical religious prejudice in Toulouse.
His grounds for appeal rested on two salient points. First, Jean Calas was not in the least anti-Catholic. His family servant of many years was Catholic, and one of his other sons, after also converting to Catholicism, had continuing financial support from Calas. So there was no convincing motive for murder. Second, the twenty-eight-year-old Marc-Antoine had been the one misfit in the family. He had been an endless source of worry to his parents: moody, immature, theatrical. He had failed to marry, failed to become a lawyer, and failed to pay large gambling debts. He had dined with the Calas family on the very evening of his death, and left early, “feeling unwell.” Almost certainly he had committed suicide in a fit of depression. So there had been no murder, anyway.
Voltaire pursued justice on several fronts, with all his customary energy (he was now nearly seventy). He contacted government ministers in Paris, and drew Madame de Pompadour to his cause. He wrote letters to all the contributors to the Encyclopédie. He publicized the case in the English newspapers. Most important of all, he published his classic Treatise on Toleration (1762). It begins with a brilliant (and indeed thrilling) forensic analysis of the Calas case, and ends with a moving declaration of the principle of universal tolerance.
Let all men remember that they are brothers! Let them hold in horror the tyranny that is exercised over men’s souls…. If the curse of war is still inevitable, let us not hasten to destroy each other where we have civil peace. From Siam to California, in a thousand different tongues, let us each use the brief moment of our existence, to bless God’s goodness which has given us this precious gift.
In June 1764 the judgment against Jean Calas was annulled by the Supreme Paris court. Legal compensation for the family was never obtained, but the King was shamed into providing a large grant in aid. Voltaire had achieved a small legal victory, but a great moral one. He took up several similar cases over the next decade, and the authorities trembled whenever he moved. (The most terrible concerned a young man in Abbeville, twenty-year-old La Barre, who was convicted of singing blasphemous songs, urinating on a tomb, and possessing Voltaire’s Dictionary. He had his tongue pulled out, his right arm chopped off, and was executed by burning. For years Voltaire supported his family and friends, seeking compensation. La Barre was a chevalier.)
Voltaire had established what were to become the crucial weapons of the “engaged intellectual” over the next two hundred years: investigation, exposure, dispassionate argument, ridicule, and “the oxygen of publicity.” Above all he had established the fighting power of plain truth, “the facts of the case,” the small stubborn foot soldiers of veracity, which can rout the greatest armies of church or state by using “the best shots.” He had become what Pierre Lepape calls “Voltaire the Conqueror.”
Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration contains one vital exception to the universal principle. Philosophically this has profound implications for those who have inherited it, from the French Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers down to our present governors. Chapter 18 is entitled “The One Case in which Intolerance is a Human Right.” In it, Voltaire grasps the nettle that stings all liberals. How can we tolerate those groups in society who are themselves intolerant, and thereby threaten the principle itself?
Voltaire’s answer is succinct: we cannot. For the individual, toleration is an absolute right and an absolute duty. But for society and its legislators, toleration has a limit. Where intolerance becomes criminal, the laws of the liberal state cannot tolerate it. And the fanatical intolerance of any social group, where it is sufficient to “trouble society” at large, is always to be condemned as criminal. This is Voltaire’s “one case.”
Here is the vital passage. “For any Government to abrogate its right to punish the misdeeds of citizens, it is necessary that these misdeeds should not class as crimes. They only class as crimes when they trouble society at large. And they trouble society at large, the moment that they inspire fanaticism. Consequently, if men are to deserve tolerance, they must begin by not being fanatics.”
As Prince Hamlet says, “Aye, there’s the rub.”2 Voltaire had not shown how the battle could be won. But he had defined the field of combat. For him, “fanaticism” is expressed essentially by religious or racial persecution, the two great curses of civilization. Two hundred years on, one might think he was still right. Wherever there are pogroms, lethal fatwas, book burnings, race riots, ethnic cleansing, apartheids, his spirit looks down grinning with pain. But out of that grin is born the notion of Human Rights, a term he specifically uses.
The British philosopher A.J. Ayer once observed that Voltaire’s concept of toleration was based on one of the most noble dreams of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. All religions and racial codes prepared us for the emergence of one universal, rational morality which would gradually come to be accepted over the entire globe, “Voltaire…wishes to maintain that there is a law of morality that holds universally, like Newton’s law of gravitation.” The good action, the proper decision, the right thing to do, should be as obvious as the fall of an apple.3
Voltaire lived on at his beloved Ferney until he was over eighty. There are many accounts of his kindly, eccentric household; and sheet after sheet of brilliant caricatures made by Jean Huber, a local Swiss artist whom Voltaire allowed to make mocking sketches of his most intimate moments. (When Voltaire got irritated with his intrusions, Huber merely quoted from Voltaire on Toleration.) One of Huber’s best paintings is of Voltaire in his bedroom, standing on one foot, pulling on his knickerbockers, and dictating a letter. Voltaire seems to have lived permanently in a series of brilliantly colored dressing gowns, with silk slippers that were always falling off his feet.
He never stopped writing, and guests record that he was often at his desk for fifteen hours a day. In the 1770s he wrote or dictated over five hundred letters a year. In 1770 he began a series of philosophic essays, Questions on the Encyclopaedia, which eventually extended to nine volumes. He continued to add to his contes philosophiques, still usually published anonymously, slipped into newspapers or surreptitiously circulated in pamphlets purporting to be printed in Brussels or Amsterdam. Notable among these are The Ingenue (1767), a sly attack on Rousseau’s theories of education; The Princess of Babylon (1768), an interesting excursion into sexual politics; and The White Bull (1773).
The White Bull was written when Voltaire was seventy-nine, and has the feeling of a will and testament. As in many of the later stories, it conjures a fantastic world where bigots rule, innocents travel, and animals speak the truth. In this case the beautiful Princess Amasida (who has read Locke’s On Understanding) has fallen tenderly in love with a large white bull (who is really the young King Nebuchadnezzar). She is trying to save both him and herself from execution by the religious authorities, who fanatically disapprove. Amasida succeeds, and the last chapter is entitled, “How the Princess Married her Ox.”
The story is unusual in that it contains a mocking self-portrait of Voltaire as the Princess’s faithful companion, the philosopher Mambres, “a former magus and eunuch to the Pharaohs,” who is “about thirteen hundred years old.” Mambres gives exquisite dinners (“carp’s tongue tart, liver of burbot and pike, chicken with pistachios”) and dispenses wisdom. In his ironic, absent-minded fashion, Mambres succeeds in averting various catastrophes for the Princess and her Bull, and finally sees that the monstrous creature gets changed back into the handsome young king. “This latest metamorphosis astonished everybody, apart from the meditative Mambres… who returned to his Palace to think things over.” To his great satisfaction he hears the people shouting, “Long live our great King, who is no longer dumb!”
It would be too much to expect Voltaire to die quietly and meditatively at Ferney. Instead, he decided on one last assault on Paris. He succeeded in taking his native city by storm, not once, but twice. Once, while he was dying; the second time when he was dead. In 1778, in the spring of his eighty-fourth year, he attended a performance of his last tragedy, Irène, at the Comédie-Française; and sat in on a session of the Académie. Both occasions were a personal triumph. Over three hundred distinguished visitors called on him, where he was staying at the Marquise de Villette’s hôtel, now 27 quai Voltaire (on the corner of the rue de Beaune, with the restaurant Voltaire serving “Candide cocktails” on the ground floor).
But amid this public glory, Voltaire was exhausted, and in the privacy of his bedroom spitting blood. He died in much pain on May 30, 1778. He had received a Jesuit priest in his dying hours, whom he seems to have teased, as in the old days: on being urged to renounce the devil, Voltaire gently replied, “This is no time for making new enemies.” But to the relief of Enlightenment Europe, he refused to renounce any of his works. His body was smuggled out to a secret burying place in the Champagne region.
Thirteen years later, in July 1791, Voltaire came storming back posthumously. He was reburied as a hero of the Revolution in the crypt of the Paris Pantheon; and there (unlike many of his temporary cohabitants) his monument has always remained. The modern inscription—probably written by André Malraux—describes him as one of “the spiritual fathers” of France, and as “the immortal symbol of the Age of Enlightenment.” His marble statue, with a quill in one hand, and a sword beneath his foot, grins at that, too.
Far above him, in the nave of the Pantheon, a curious law of physics is at work. The stonework of the great eighteenth-century vault has become unstable, and chunks of masonry are imploding onto the hallowed floors beneath. Safety nets have been set up, and the public are warned to keep clear. The authorities announce that they are making investigations. But they do not yet know the cause of this disturbance in the great structure. Perhaps it is a conte philosophique.
November 30, 1995
This often-cited dictum of freespeech is actually an attribution, and has no precise French original. It is a paraphrase of Voltaire’s letter to Helvétius (on the burning of Helvétius’s De L’esprit in 1759) first made by S.G. Tallentyre (E. Beatrice Hall) in her book The Friends of Voltaire (1907). ↩
The most abrasive issue raised by Voltaire’s “one exception” to Tolerance is painfully illustrated by his own attitude to the Jews. How exactly do we measure the supposed “fanaticism” of another social or religious group, who may merely hold strong beliefs and separate traditions, without falling into “fanaticism” ourselves? Voltaire’s weird anti-Jewish prejudice runs like a barbed thread throughout his work; over thirty of the entries in the Philosophical Dictionary contain anti-Jewish statements; and the article on Toleration itself refers to the Jews as historically “the most intolerant and cruel of all the peoples of Antiquity.” ↩
The law of gravitation may seem less compelling to us now. Late twentieth-century liberalism, reeling from the impact of totalitarian ideologies, has grown distrustful of all “universal” value systems and “rational” moralities, and has tended to relocate the ideal of toleration within a notion of pluralism and cultural diversity. Isaiah Berlin, in a brilliant chapter from his essay collection The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Vintage, 1992)—the title comes from Kant, “out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built”—suggests an alternative eighteenth-century tradition springing from the German philosopher J.G. Herder (1744–1803) and the Italian Vico (1668–1744). “When Herder attacks Voltaire’s dogmatic assumption that the values of civilised societies—his own—of a few selected cultures in the past—in Athens, Rome, Florence, Paris—are alone true, he uses all his considerable creative gifts to bring to life the aims and outlooks of many cultures, eastern and western, and contrasts them with those of the Enlightenment: not simply as a matter of brute fact—of variety as such—…but as the ways of life which, no matter how different from our own, normal men could find it natural to pursue …even if we do not ourselves accept them.” For an interesting rebuttal of the charge of Enlightenment “dogmatism,” at least in as far as Voltaire’s contes philosophiques are “ever mindful of human suffering” and “warm to the complexity of human life, to its conflicts and paradoxes,” see Roger Pearson’s fine study The Fables of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1993), especially the concluding chapter, pp. 241–250. ↩