The movement of Voltaire's mind went with that of the general mind of France. During the first half of the century he was primarily a man of letters; from about 1750 onwards he was the aggressive philosopher, the social reformer, using letters as the vehicle of militant ideas.
Born in Paris in 1694, the son of a notary of good family, FRANÇOIS-MARIE AROUET, who assumed the name VOLTAIRE (probably an anagram formed from the letters of Arouet l.j., that is le jeune), was educated by the Jesuits, and became a precocious versifier of little pieces in the taste of the time. At an early age he was introduced to the company of the wits and fine gentlemen who formed the sceptical and licentious Society of the Temple. Old Arouet despaired of his son, who was eager for pleasure, and a reluctant student of the law. A short service in Holland, in the household of the French ambassador, produced no better result than a fruitless love-intrigue.
Again in Paris, where he ill endured the tedium of an attorney's office, Voltaire haunted the theatres and the salons, wrote light verse and indecorous tales, planned his tragedy OEdipe, and, inspired by old M. de Caumartin's enthusiasm for Henri IV., conceived the idea of his Henriade. Suspected of having written defamatory verses against the Regent, he was banished from the capital, and when readmitted was for eleven months, on the suspicion of more atrocious libels, a prisoner in the Bastille. Here he composed—according to his own declaration, in sleep—the second canto of the Henriade, and completed his OEdipe, which was presented with success before the close of 1718. The prisoner of the Bastille became the favourite of society, and repaid his aristocratic hosts by the brilliant sallies of his conversation.
A second tragedy, Artémire, afterwards recast as Mariamne, was ill received in its earlier form. Court pensions, the death of his father, and lucky financial speculations brought Voltaire independence. He travelled in 1722 to Holland, met Jean-Baptiste Rousseau on the way, and read aloud for his new acquaintance Le Pour et le Contre, a poem of faith and unfaith—faith in Deism, disbelief in Christianity. The meeting terminated with untimely wit at Rousseau's expense and mutual hostility. Unable to obtain the approbation for printing his epic, afterwards named La Henriade, Voltaire arranged for a secret impression, under the title La Ligue, at Rouen (1723), whence many copies were smuggled into Paris. The young Queen, Marie Lecszinska, before whom his Mariamne and the comedy L'Indiscret were presented, favoured Voltaire. His prospects were bright, when sudden disaster fell. A quarrel in the theatre with the Chevalier de Rohan, followed by personal violence at the hands of the Chevalier's bullies, ended for Voltaire, not with the justice which he demanded, but with his own lodgment in the Bastille. When released, with orders to quit Paris, he thought of his acquaintance and admirer Bolingbroke, and lost no time in taking refuge on English soil.
Voltaire's residence in England extended over three years (1726-29). Bolingbroke, Peterborough, Chesterfield, Pope, Swift, Gay, Thomson, Young, Samuel Clarke were among his acquaintances. He discovered the genius of that semi-barbarian Shakespeare, but found the only reasonable English tragedy in Addison's "Cato." He admired the epic power of Milton, and scorned Milton's allegory of Sin and Death. He found a master of philosophy in Locke. He effected a partial entrance into the scientific system of Newton. He read with zeal the writings of those pupils of Bayle, the English Deists. He honoured English freedom and the spirit of religious toleration. In 1728 the Henriade was published by subscription in London, and brought the author prodigious praise and not a little pelf. He collected material for his Histoire de Charles XII., and, observing English life and manners, prepared the Lettres Philosophiques, which were to make the mind of England favourably known to his countrymen.
Charles XII., like La Ligue, was printed at Rouen, and smuggled into Paris. The tragedies Brutus and Ériphyle, both of which show the influence of the English drama, were coldly received. Voltaire rose from his fall, and produced Zaïre (1732), a kind of eighteenth-century French "Othello," which proved a triumph; it was held that Corneille and Racine had been surpassed. In 1733 a little work of mingled verse and prose, the Temple du Goût, in which recent and contemporary writers were criticised, gratified the self-esteem of some, and wounded the vanity of a larger number of his fellow-authors. The Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais, which followed, were condemned by the Parliament to be burnt by the public executioner. With other audacities of his pen, the storm increased. Voltaire took shelter (1734) in Champagne, at Cirey, the château of Madame du Châtelet.
Voltaire was forty years of age; Madame, a woman of intellect and varied culture, was twelve years younger. During fifteen years, when he was not wandering abroad, Cirey was the home of Voltaire, and Madame du Châtelet his sympathetic, if sometimes his exacting companion. To this period belong the dramas Alzire, Zulime, L'Enfant Prodigue, Mahomet, Mérope, Nanine. The divine Émilie was devoted to science, and Voltaire interpreted the Newtonian philosophy to France or discussed questions of physics. Many admirable pieces of verse—ethical essays in the manner of Pope, lighter poems of occasion, Le Mondain, which contrasts the golden age of simplicity with the much more agreeable age of luxury, and many besides—were written. Progress was made with the shameless burlesque on Joan of Arc, La Pucelle. In Zadig Voltaire gave the first example of his sparkling tales in prose. Serious historical labours occupied him—afterwards to be published—the Siècle de Louis XIV. and the great Essai sur les Moeurs. In 1746, with the support of Madame de Pompadour, he entered the French Academy. The death of Madame du Châtelet, in 1749, was a cruel blow to Voltaire. He endeavoured in Paris to find consolation in dramatic efforts, entering into rivalry with the aged Crébillon.
Among Voltaire's correspondents, when he dwelt at Cirey, was the Crown Prince of Prussia, a royal philosophe and aspirant French poet. Royal flatteries were not more grateful to Voltaire than philosophic and literary flatteries were to Frederick. Personal acquaintance followed; but Frederick would not receive Madame du Châtelet, and Voltaire would not desert his companion. Now when Madame was dead, when the Pompadour ceased from her favours to the poet, when Louis turned his back in response to a compliment, Frederick was to secure his philosopher. In July 1750 Voltaire was installed at Berlin. For a time that city was "the paradise of philosophes."
The Siècle de Louis XIV. was published next year. Voltaire's insatiable cupidity, his tricks, his tempers, his vindictiveness, shown in the Diatribe du Docteur Akakia (an embittered attack on Maupertuis), alienated the King; when "the orange" of Voltaire's genius "was sucked" he would "throw away the rind." With unwilling delays, and the humiliation of an arrest at Frankfort, Voltaire escaped from the territory of the royal "Solomon" (1753), and attracted to Switzerland by its spirit of toleration, found himself in 1755 tenant of the château which he named Les Délices, near Geneva, his "summer palace," and that of Monrion, his "winter palace," in the neighbourhood of Lausanne. His pen was busy: the tragedy L'Orphelin de la Chine, tales, fugitive verses, the poem on the earthquake at Lisbon, with its doubtful assertion of Providence as a slender counterpoise to the certainty of innumerable evils in the world, pursued one another in varied succession. Still keeping in his hands Les Délices, he purchased in 1758 the château and demesne of Ferney on French soil, and became a kind of prince and patriarch, a territorial lord, wisely benevolent to the little community which he made to flourish around him, and at the same time the intellectual potentate of Europe.
Never had his brain been more alert and indefatigable. The years from 1760 to 1778 were years of incessant activity. Tragedy, comedy, opera, epistles, satires, tales in verse, La Pucelle,1 Le Pauvre Diable (admirable in its malignity), literary criticism, a commentary on Corneille (published for the benefit of the great dramatist's grandniece), brilliant tales in prose, the Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations, the Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand, with other voluminous historical works, innumerable writings in philosophy, in religious polemics, including many articles of the Dictionnaire Philosophique, in politics, in jurisprudence, a vast correspondence which extended his influence over the whole of Europe—these are but a part of the achievement of a sexagenarian progressing to become an octogenarian.
1 First authorised edition, 1762; surreptitiously printed, 1755.
His work was before all else a warfare against intolerance and in favour of free thought. The grand enemy of intellectual liberty Voltaire saw in the superstition of the Church; his word of command was short and uncompromising—Écrasez l'Infâme. Jean Calas, a Protestant of Toulouse, falsely accused of the murder of his son, who was alleged to have been converted to the Roman communion, was tortured and broken on the wheel. Voltaire, with incredible zeal, took up the victim's cause, and finally established the dead man's innocence. Sirven, a Protestant, declared guilty of the murder of his Roman Catholic daughter, was beggared and banished; Voltaire succeeded, after eight years, in effecting the reversal of the sentence. La Barre was tortured and decapitated for alleged impiety. Voltaire was not strong enough to overpower the French magistracy supported now by the French monarch. He turned to Frederick with a request that he would give shelter to a colony of philosophes, who should through the printing-press make a united assault upon l'Infâme.
In the early days of 1778, Voltaire, urged by friends, imprudently consented to visit Paris. His journey was like a regal progress; his reception in the capital was an overwhelming ovation. In March he was ailing, but he rose from his bed, was present at a performance of his Irène, and became the hero and the victim of extravagant popular enthusiasm. In April he eagerly pleaded at the French Academy for a new dictionary, and undertook himself to superintend the letter A. In May he was dangerously ill; on the 26th he had the joy of learning that his efforts to vindicate the memory of the unfortunate Count Lally were crowned with success. It was Voltaire's last triumph; four days later, unshriven and unhouseled, he expired. Seldom had such a coil of electrical energy been lodged within a human brain. His desire for intellectual activity was a consuming passion. His love of influence, his love of glory were boundless. Subject to spasms of intensest rage, capable of malignant trickery to gain his ends, jealous, mean, irreverent, mendacious, he had yet a heart open to charity and pity, a zeal for human welfare, a loyalty to his ruling ideas, and a saving good sense founded upon his swift and clear perception of reality.
Voltaire's mind has been described as "a chaos of clear ideas." It is easy to point out the inconsistencies of his opinions, yet certain dominant thoughts can be distinguished amid the chaos. He believed in a God; the arrangements of the universe require a designer; the idea of God is a benefit to society—if He did not exist, He must be invented. But to suppose that the Deity intervenes in the affairs of the world is superstition; He rules through general laws—His executive; He is represented in the heart of man by His viceroy—conscience. The soul is immortal, and God is just; therefore let wrong-doers beware. In L'Histoire de Jenni the youthful hero is perverted by his atheistic associates, and does not fear to murder his creditor; he is reconverted to theism, and becomes one of the best men in England. As to the evil which darkens the world, we cannot understand it; let us not make it worse by vain perplexities; let us hope that a future life will right the balance of things; and, meanwhile, let us attend to the counsels of moderation and good sense; let the narrow bounds of our knowledge at least teach us the lesson of toleration.
Applied to history, such ideas lead Voltaire, in striking contrast with Bossuet, to ignore the supernatural, to eliminate the Providential order, and to seek the explanation of events in human opinion, in human sentiments, in the influence of great men, even in the influence of petty accident, the caprice of sa Majesté le Hasard. In the epoch of classical antiquity—which Voltaire understood ill—man had advanced from barbarism to a condition of comparative well-being and good sense; in the Christian and mediæval period there was a recoil and retrogression; in modern times has begun a renewed advance. In fixing attention on the esprit et moeurs of nations—their manners, opinions, institutions, sentiments, prejudices—Voltaire was original, and rendered most important service to the study of history. Although his blindness to the significance of religious phenomena is a grave defect, his historical scepticism had its uses. As a writer of historical narrative he is admirably lucid and rapid; nor should the ease of his narration conceal the fact that he worked laboriously and carefully among original sources. With his Charles XII., his Pierre le Grand, his Siècle de Louis XIV., we may class the Henriade as a piece of history; its imaginative power is not that of an epic, but it is an interpretation of a fragment of French history in the light of one generous idea—that of religious toleration.
Filled with destructive passion against the Church, Voltaire, in affairs of the State, was a conservative. His ideal for France was an intelligent despotism. But if a conservative, he was one of a reforming spirit. He pleaded for freedom in the internal trade of province with province, for legal and administrative uniformity throughout the whole country, for a reform of the magistracy, for a milder code of criminal jurisprudence, for attention to public hygiene. His programme was not ambitious, but it was reasonable, and his efforts for the general welfare have been justified by time.
As a literary critic he was again conservative. He belonged to the classical school, and to its least liberal section. He regarded literary forms as imposed from without on the content of poetry, not as growing from within; passion and imagination he would reduce to the strict bounds of uninspired good sense; he placed Virgil above Homer, and preferred French tragedy to that of ancient Greece; from his involuntary admiration of Shakespeare he recoiled in alarm; if he admired Corneille, it was with many reservations. Yet his taste was less narrow than that of some of his contemporaries; he had a true feeling for the genius of the French language; he possessed, after the manner of his nation and his time, le grand goût; he honoured Boileau; he exalted Racine in the highest degree; and, to the praise of his discernment, it may be said that he discovered Athalie.
The spectacular effects of Athalie impressed Voltaire's imagination. In his own tragedies, while continuing the seventeenth-century tradition, he desired to exhibit more striking situations, to develop more rapid action, to enhance the dramatic spectacle, to add local colour. His style and speech in the theatre have the conventional monotonous pomp, the conventional monotonous grace, without poetic charm, imaginative vision, or those flashes which spring from passionate genius. When, as was frequently the case, he wrote for the stage to advocate the cause of an idea, to preach tolerance or pity, he attained a certain height of eloquence. Whatever sensibility there was in Voltaire's heart may be discovered in Zaïre. Mérope has the distinction of being a tragedy from which the passion of love is absent; its interest rests wholly on maternal affection. Tancrède is remarkable as an eighteenth-century treatment of the chivalric life and spirit. The Christian temper of tolerance and humanity is honoured in Alzire.
Voltaire's incomparable gift of satirical wit did not make him a writer of high comedy: he could be grotesque without lightness or brightness. But when a sentimental element mingles with the comic, and almost obscures it, as in Nanine (a dramatised tale derived from Richardson's Pamela), the verse acquires a grace, and certain scenes an amiable charm. Nanine, indeed, though in dramatic form, lies close to those tales in verse in which Voltaire mingled happily his wisdom and his wit. "The philosophy of Horace in the language of La Fontaine, this," writes a critic, "is what we find from time to time in Voltaire." In his lighter verses of occasion, epigram, compliment, light mockery, half-playful, half-serious sentiment, he is often exquisite.
No part of Voltaire's work has suffered so little at the hands of time as his tales in prose. In his contributions to the satire of human-kind he learned something from Rabelais, something from Swift. It is the satire of good sense impatient against folly, and armed with the darts of wit. Voltaire does not esteem highly the wisdom of human creatures: they pretend to knowledge beyond their powers; they kill one another for an hypothesis; they find ingenious reasons for indulging their base or petty passions; their lives are under the rule of sa Majesté le Hasard. But let us not rage in Timon's manner against the human race; if the world is not the best of all possible worlds, it is not wholly evil. Let us be content to mock at the absurdity of the universe, and at the diverting, if irritating, follies of its inhabitants. Above all, let us find support in work, even though we do not see to what it tends; "Il faut cultiver notre jardin"—such is Voltaire's word, and the final word of Candide. With light yet effective irony, Voltaire preaches the lesson of good sense. When bitter, he is still gay; his sad little philosophy of existence is uttered with an accent of mirth; his art in satirical narrative is perfect; he is not resigned; he is not enraged; he is indignant, but at the same time he smiles; there is always the last resource of blindly cultivating our garden.
In Voltaire's myriad-minded correspondence the whole man may be found—his fire, his sense, his universal curiosity, his wit, his malignity, his goodness, his Protean versatility, his ruling ideas; and one may say that the whole of eighteenth-century Europe presses into the pages. He is not only the man of letters, the student of science, the philosopher; he is equally interested in politics, in social reform, in industry, in agriculture, in political economy, in philology, and, together with these, in the thousand incidents of private life.