In March 1753 Voltaire’s three-year sojourn at the court of Frederick the Great came to an acrimonious end: so ill-tempered that, upon Voltaire’s arrival in Frankfurt on his way home, Frederick had him put under house arrest, for illegal possession of some of his (the King’s) poems. He was joined in Frankfurt by his niece and lover Mme Denis, and she was put under arrest likewise; and it was only through a public outcry that, in July, they were at last released. Whereupon Voltaire, inured to Fortune’s hard knocks and dirty tricks and quite uncowed, spent five luxurious weeks as the guest of two other highly placed friends, the Prince-Bishop of Mainz and the Elector Palatine.

He was fifty-nine years old and extremely rich, as the result of inspired finagling and large-scale speculation; and he had become moneylender to various French dukes and European crowned heads, an arrangement bringing not only profit but diplomatic influence. But our phrase “on his way home” needs correcting. For he had no home to come to, the French king Louis XV having let it be known that he would not be welcome in France. He would thus, for the rest of his life, be an exile: a situation that, so he would discover, suited him admirably. In 1755 he acquired a spacious mansion, renamed by him Les Délices, on the shores of Lake Geneva; and a year or two afterward he bought an extensive property in the village of Ferney, which had the advantage of lying (just) within French territory, enabling him to have a theater—something forbidden under Geneva law—and, in an emergency, to make a hasty retreat into Switzerland.

Ian Davidson has had the idea of writing the history not of Voltaire’s whole life but of its last twenty-five years. In this period, he argues, Voltaire “went through a remarkable process of moral development.” Up to then he had been “almost exclusively preoccupied with his literary career, with his friends, and with his comfort, in that order, and he showed little or no sign of anything resembling a social conscience, let alone for the welfare of the lower orders.” It was not till these later years that as the champion of several victims of appalling miscarriages of justice, resulting from a grotesquely antiquated French legal system, he became a campaigner for human rights. Moreover it was then that he first took up the cause of the propertyless and downtrodden. For this reason, in Davidson’s view, these final twenty-five years of his exile are the ones that really count for us now and that have saved his reputation from oblivion. Davidson may have a point, and his book is appealing, knowledgeable, and extremely readable.

Voltaire, who held that the purpose of life was action, was himself hyperactive; and this had unexpected consequences, for it has made it almost impossible to write his life. Between 1985 and 1994 there came out a huge biography in five volumes (Voltaire et son temps), edited and to a great extent written by René Pomeau. It is an admirable and exceedingly scholarly affair, but for much of the time, because of its length, more like a reference book than a biography (or anyhow, this is how one finds oneself using it). But further, Voltaire was not only a superlative letter writer but an inordinately prolific one. (The letters occupy no fewer than thirteen volumes in the Pléiade edition.) What more precious a treasure trove could there have been for a biographer to draw on, and lavishly? But as Pomeau himself explains, to have done so would have burst the work at its seams.

This puts Ian Davidson at an advantage. For, dealing with only a small stretch of Voltaire’s life, and within that, giving space to relatively few themes, neglecting others, he is able to make rich use of the letters. This pays off notably in at least one of his chapters, where he describes Voltaire setting up a watchmaking industry in Ferney. He had been promoting the idea that a little French fishing village (Versoix) should be made into a substantial town and commercial port, and some workers were eager to move there, but the Genevan authorities, who feared competition, used violence to prevent them. So instead they took refuge in Ferney. Among them were some watchmakers, and it gave Voltaire the idea of setting them up in business, initially at his own expense. In Davidson’s words he became “not just the overall manager, co-ordinator and organiser, but also the financier, the virtual bank manager, the sponsor, the builder of homes and factory space, the buyer of precious metals and other raw materials, as well as the international sales manager.”

This was no small feat for a man in his late seventies suffering from innumerable ailments, and with little or no previous business experience. Moreover the project was a considerable success; and Davidson’s account of it is more informative, as well as funnier, than Pomeau’s. I like Voltaire’s way of signing off a letter to Cardinal Bernis, France’s ambassador to the Vatican, who had been asked, but had signally failed, to help open up the Roman market for watches: “May Your Eminence please accept, if he please, the respect and extreme anger of the hermit of Ferney.”


The extraordinary story of Voltaire’s involvement with Jean Calas, which is central to Davidson’s picture of Voltaire, is well known, also complex and far-reaching in its ramifications, but Davidson summarizes it very lucidly. Calas was a prosperous cloth-merchant in Toulouse. He was a Protestant, as was his wife, and hence deprived of many civil rights; and they had the misfortune to live in a fanatically Catholic city. On October 13, 1761, they, their eldest sons Marc-Antoine and Pierre, and a young friend of Pierre’s, Gaubert Lavaysse, had supper together. The meal being over, the chronically moody Marc-Antoine—he was depressed that as a Huguenot he could have no hope of a professional career—left, saying he was going for a walk. Eventually Lavaysse decided to go home. Pierre accompanied him downstairs; and, to their terror, in the dim moonlight, they made out the outline of Marc-Antoine’s dead body, hanging between a pair of folding doors.

Roused by their screams, the father came down and, before long, alerted the city authorities: upon which a brutally overbearing magistrate arrived and arrested the whole family, including their Catholic servant, Jeanne. Desperate to conceal the evidence of suicide, Calas unwisely told the magistrate they had found the body on the ground, which would have been compatible with his having been murdered (a story he later retracted). Meanwhile a crowd had gathered, and word went round that the family had killed Marc-Antoine, to prevent him from converting to Catholicism.

The Church seized on the incident excitedly. It issued a “monitory” to be read from every parish pulpit, commanding the faithful to testify against the Calas family and to confirm that Marc-Antoine had been on the verge of conversion. This produced no convincing result. Nevertheless, under direction from the magistracy, the young man was declared to have been already a good Catholic Christian, with the right to burial in consecrated ground, and he was given a spectacular funeral, attended by a barefoot procession of White Penitents.

The proceedings against Calas were transferred, on appeal, to the Parlement, which, in compliance with rules of procedure introduced in 1670, practiced a grotesque arithmetical approach to evidence, many light pieces of evidence, when joined together, being said to make a grave one; two grave ones adding up to one violent one, warranting questioning under torture, and so on. On March 9, 1762, by a slender majority, it was ruled that Calas was guilty and should be broken alive on the wheel, exposed for two hours, and then strangled and his body burned, and the sentence was carried out next day, Calas refusing even under torture to confess guilt, and declaring forgiveness to his persecutors.

Voltaire, when he first heard the story, took it as an example of Protestant fanaticism (“We may not be worth much, but the Huguenots are worse”); but within a few days, learning more, changed his attitude totally. “This affair grips my heart,” he wrote to Cardinal Bernis on March 25. “It saddens me during my pleasures, it corrupts them.” It obsessed him for the ensuing two years, as the most appalling travesty of justice and shame to France, writing of it in his Treatise on Tolerance (1763): “And this is today! It is at a time when philosophy has made so much progress!… It seems as if fanaticism, indignant for some time over the successes of Reason, were fighting back more furiously.” He conducted a campaign on behalf of Calas’s good name and the welfare of his family with passion, resourcefulness, and tireless pertinacity—it was as though this was what he had made himself a great position for—and at last he enjoyed complete success. In 1764 the verdict of the Toulouse Parlement was annulled and a retrial ordered, and in the following year it was officially announced that Calas was completely rehabilitated and his family granted substantial sums in compensation from the royal purse.

It was a magnificent triumph. Nevertheless it leads us on to the weaknesses in Davidson’s general thesis. For he wants us to read Voltaire’s life as a conversion narrative, but in truth there was no conversion: Voltaire remained as capable as ever, when he felt like it, of malice, petty foolery, and outrageous hypocrisy. This is in accordance with his own views. For he held that “the character of every man is a chaos.”1 (It was why, unlike classic historians, he did not go in for stately full-length “portraits” in his histories.) In a word, it does not make sense to think of him as a “changed man.”


But secondly, one has to jib at Davidson’s summing-up of the earlier Voltaire. Was not the battle against superstition and obscurantism, already being fought in his Lettres philosophiques, a disinterested undertaking for the public good, not just a bid for praise? Also, Davidson represents Voltaire’s verse tragedies as quite dead. One would indeed hardly gather from him that some of them (and notably Zaire, the most popular) are allegorical renderings of burning social issues. The truth is that Davidson, though properly admiring of Voltaire as a reformer, is not attuned to him as a writer.


When the poet Samuel Rogers described some promising author as “a Voltaire,” Adam Smith banged the table with great vigor, exclaiming “Sir, there is only one Voltaire!” One has to agree. Moreover, I think one can say in what his uniqueness consisted: it was the supremely energetic quality of his pessimism. Pessimists, the famous ones especially, tend on the whole to be turned inward. Senancour, the author of the self-questioning novel-in-letters Obermann (1804), was a pessimist through lack of the energy for action or belief. (“O unstrung will! O broken heart,” Matthew Arnold hails him in his Stanzas in his memory.) For the poet Leopardi, pessimism was tied up with noia, or spleen, a purely internal form of suffering; and Thomas Hardy’s pessimism, in theory anyway, was a gesture of withdrawal, a mutter of complaint at the unfair conditions of human existence. For Voltaire, by contrast, the reasons for pessimism all lay outside oneself. One needed only to put one’s nose outside the door for a perfect deluge of calamities to fall, or threaten to fall, on one’s head. There was evil in the land: that was the Manichaean truth of things. How God came to allow it, even the skeptical Bayle, the wisest of philosophers, could not explain; but to combat the evil called out one’s best energies.

One could scarcely be less utopian than Voltaire. In his story Candide he deliberately makes his kingdom of reason, Eldorado, attractive but quite absurd, so that the reactions of Candide’s servant Cacambo come with all the force of reason. If, says Cacambo, they were to go back, laden with riches, to the corrupt and “fallen” world from which they had come, they would make a great impression. For few things are more enjoyable than to show off before one’s own people, and hence two such “happy” (fortunate) persons as they were at that moment might rationally decide not to be “happy.”

What Voltaire is hinting, evidently, is that a country so perfect that there is nothing further to hope for would be intolerable. For if Voltaire was not a utopian, he was also not a stoic. The stoic aims to extinguish hope, whereas, in Voltaire’s view—ridiculous as hope is in a necessitarian universe—it is the great human standby. Hope, so run the last lines of his “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” (a forerunner of Candide), is the one privilege denied to God.

A personal fact about Voltaire comes in here. For, unusually for a writer, he had no capacity, nor had he any desire, for introspection. He was not interested in his own motives—which is a great strength when it comes to taking action. Gustave Flaubert, a vigorous pessimist himself, perceived the undivided and unselfcritical nature of Voltaire very vividly. “I regard M. de Voltaire,” he wrote to Mme Roger Des Genettes,

as a saint! Why do people persist in trying to see a humorist in a man who was really a fanatic?… His whole intelligence was an instrument of war. And what endears him to me still more is the contempt I feel for the so-called Voltairians who laugh at all the things that are important! Did Voltaire laugh? No—he gnashed his teeth!

Voltaire’s prose style is directly related to his pessimism. He envisaged a dizzying speed-up of the wheel of fortune and devised a prose which, in its velocity, reproduces this worldview in miniature. In a sentence of his, all sorts of vicissitudes may have taken place between the first word and the last. I will give an example from his brilliant History of Charles XII (where his subject, the reckless young king of Sweden, is a man quite as immune to introspection as himself). Charles, an exile in Turkey after his defeat at Pultowa, goes to the grand vizier’s tent in a fury, demanding to know why the Turks have feebly signed a peace treaty with the tsar, when they might have taken him prisoner. The vizier answers him sarcastically, whereupon

Charles responded with an indignant smile; he threw himself on a sofa, and, giving the Vizier a look full of anger and scorn, he stretched his leg out towards him and, deliberately entangling his spur in the Turk’s robe, he tore it, rose immediately to his feet, got back on his horse, and returned to Bender with despair in his heart.2

It is no wonder that another passage in the same work, about the breaking on the wheel of Count Patkul, filled E.M. Forster with admiration and envy. “Each time I read the magnificent passage opposite,” he noted in his commonplace book,

I am struck by the economy of the irony and even of the pathos. Yet the whole passage vibrates with both. There is a sort of religious grandeur—cruelty and cowardice are both noted without contempt. When will there be such writing again, or even the leisure to transcribe it?3

The style of the History of Charles XII we meet with again, or something close to it, in Candide. It is important to grasp the semantics of the name Candide; for “candid” and “candour” in English are words that have almost completely reversed their meaning. In the eighteenth century they, like their French counterparts, referred, not to telling the truth even if painful, but to doing one’s very best to think well of others4 ; and Voltaire’s Candide remains “candid” in this sense almost to the end—which is another way of saying that with all the lessons life offers him, he never learns anything. The contrast with Voltaire’s “Ingenu,” in the story of that name, is absolute. The “Ingenu,” having been brought up among the Huron Indians and in great ignorance, has not had his mind laden with stale secondhand notions and discovers a phenomenal aptitude for self-education. One detects a sort of joke about John Locke over this matter of learning. Voltaire endorses Locke’s theory that (as against the Cartesian view) human beings are born without innate ideas and receive all their knowledge through the senses. But characters in Candide seem never to get beyond the first idea they receive by this method. It is rare for the old woman to speak without reminding her listeners how some Turkish soldiers sliced off one of her buttocks for their dinner.


Two new translations of Candide. Their appearance poses the question, what we should suppose their purpose to be. Do they aim to be the ideal translation for all time? Probably not, and maybe there could never be any such thing. Burton Raffel has evidently wanted to try an experiment, which is to play down the “courtly” accent of Voltaire’s prose, and it was not an absurd idea. Still, there are rules, particularly rules against definite errors, and I am afraid Raffel sins against them. In his “Translator’s Note” he says, oddly, that commère means “godchild of his godmother,” whereas it surely means “fellow godparent.”5 In Chapter 7, where Candide tries to kiss the old woman’s hand, in gratitude, Raffel renders her reply, “Ce n’est pas ma main qu’il faut baiser,” as “Mine isn’t the hand you ought to be kissing.” But in fact she, obsessed by the loss of her buttock, evidently means “It is not my hand [but another part of my body] that you ought to be kissing.” In Chapter 11, where we are told how an ex-mistress of the old woman’s princely fiancé invites him to her lodgings and serves him poisoned chocolate, Raffel’s version has the invitation come from the Prince—which makes no sense. These are bad slips, and there are more; also phrasings and choices of word that are not exactly wrong but seem to have too loose a relation to Voltaire’s wording.

By contrast Peter Constantine’s translation has a lot going for it. It has lightness and concision and, for the most part, it is responsive to Voltaire’s jokes, which so often lie in elusive effects of syntax. One would recommend it very warmly if it were not for its fairly large sprinkling of minor slips and crimes. Constantine, like Davidson, falls into the well-known snare of translating honnête, a word with a complicated baggage of meaning (gentlemanly, decent, civilized, the “right sort of person,” etc.) by the much narrower and blunter English word “honest.” (The divergence in meaning between the two words in the seventeenth century, when honnête first became a vogue word, expressed a major schism between the French and English cultures.)6 Again, in Chapter 25 Constantine makes Pococurante complain of an opera introducing “ridiculous songs intended to exhibit the actress’s gullet.” Voltaire’s word gosier does indeed literally mean “gullet,” but plainly here it is a metaphor for “vocal cords.” In Chapter 23 Candide asks why Admiral Byng has just been executed and is told it is because he attacked a French admiral, but people said “he was not close enough to him.” “But,” objects Candide with naive logic, “the French admiral was just as far from the English admiral as the latter was from the other.” Constantine’s version (“had not drawn close enough to him”) precisely spoils Voltaire’s delicate little joke.

Burton Raffel, in his “Translator’s Note,” writes that the usual rendering of the famous last words of Candide, “That is well said; but we must cultivate our garden,” is (for our time) a mistranslation, since, as he reasonably argues, “in Voltaire’s day the French word jardin meant ‘fields’ or a place where one cultivated either medicinal plants or assorted vegetation from around the world.” He thus wants to reword it as “but we need to work our fields.” But instinct tells one that this is not right, and it is worth trying to sort out why. It is because Voltaire’s sentence depends for its effect upon an ambiguity—not so much in the word “garden” as in the words “our” and “cultivate.” For “our” is to be understood both in the plural—where it refers literally to Candide, Cunégonde, Pangloss, etc., the owners of the garden—and in the singular, where it is addressed metaphorically to any or every man or woman. As a maxim it instantly takes hold of the reader’s imagination, and there are really no other words in which it can be expressed. The all-important doubleness in the sense is quite lost in Raffel’s version.7

This Issue

December 15, 2005