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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Voltaire (1694–1778)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Adolphe Cohn (1851–1930)
 
VOLTAIRE, whose real name was François Marie Arouet, is certainly the most influential of the numerous writers that have been produced by France. He was born in Paris on November 21st, 1694, and died in the same city on May 30th, 1778. At the time of his birth Louis XIV. was still the absolute ruler of France; no one dared to question his divine right to the crown, or to resist his clearly expressed will. When he died, public opinion had become so irresistible a power that King Louis XVI. had been compelled, much against his desire, to assist the revolted colonies of North America in their struggle against the English King; and that eleven years later the French also determined to begin a revolution, the object of which was to establish free and equal government over the ruins of the old system. Of the transformation which had taken place between the dates of 1694 and 1778, Voltaire had been the chief artisan.  1
  His family, like that of most of the great writers of France, belonged to the ranks of the middle class. His father had, as a notary and as the confidential legal adviser of numerous influential families, amassed a comfortable fortune; and occupied late in life an honorable official position, which connected him with the highest court of law in France,—the Parliament of Paris. His mother, Catherine Daumars, was connected with several families of the nobility. He received the best education which a French bourgeois could then give to his son. His chief educators were the Jesuit Fathers,—in whose best college, the College Louis-le-Grand, he received all his early schooling,—and a certain Abbé de Châteauneuf, a worldly abbé of aristocratic birth, to whose care he had been intrusted by his mother, whom he lost when only seven years of age. The abbé made it his business to introduce his young charge into the most aristocratic and witty, but withal, dissolute circles of French society. The young man’s wit and inborn charm of manners, his ease in composing pleasing and light verses, his close attention whenever older people spoke of whatever important events they had acted in or witnessed, made him at once a very great favorite.  2
  Louis XIV. died in 1715, when young Arouet was just coming of age. He had not published anything yet, but had already determined to make a name for himself as a man of letters, and not simply to increase the family’s fortune as a law practitioner, according to his father’s desire. He already possessed more worldly experience than a great many older men. A journey in Holland, which he had made as secretary to the French ambassador there, Marquis de Châteauneuf,—and which had come abruptly to an end on account of a somewhat pathetic love affair with a Protestant maiden, Mademoiselle Olympe Dunoyer,—had enabled him to acquire a knowledge of what was perhaps most interesting in Europe at that time: the republican government of the Netherlands, and the society of Huguenot refugees who had left France twenty or thirty years before rather than abandon their faith.  3
  He was then ready to present to the public whatever ideas of his he deemed sufficiently matured for publication. But he was soon to discover, at his own expense, what is the meaning of absolute power, and what a disturbing force it becomes in the hands of incompetent rulers. The duties of royalty were then performed by the Duke of Orleans, regent of France during the minority of his child cousin, King Louis XV. Able and witty, but without any principle of morality, the regent laid himself open to criticism of the sharpest kind; and young Arouet was not the most merciful of his judges. Twice the young man, on account of his freedom of utterance, received peremptory orders to leave Paris and reside at some spot designated by the government; a third time, for a Latin inscription which he had written, and some French verses, the authorship of which he was erroneously credited with, he was arrested and sent as a State prisoner to the Bastille, where he remained nearly a year (1717–18). A few months after the end of his imprisonment he suddenly became famous. His tragedy of ‘Œdipus’ had been performed with the greatest success, and he was hailed as the legitimate successor of Corneille and Racine (1718).  4
  Several years followed of intense literary activity, during which he gave a number of plays and composed numerous poems, two of which for the first time presented some of the ideas with which his name has become identified,—the ‘Epistle to Urania,’ which sets forth some of the principles of natural religion, and the epic poem which later, when more developed, became the ‘Henriade.’ The latter work, of which King Henry IV. of France is the hero, is from beginning to end an eloquent plea for religious toleration, and a no less eloquent denunciation of religious fanaticism. Its most celebrated passage is the narrative of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s night, related by Henry of Navarre to Queen Elizabeth.  5
  He was soon sent to the Bastille again (1726), on account of a quarrel with a disreputable young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, who had had Voltaire beaten almost to death by his servants. He was released, however, a few days later, on a promise that he would at once set out for England, where he resided a little over two years (1726–28). These were for him years of study. He managed to acquaint himself with the language, literature, institutions, and social life of England, as few travelers have ever done in so short a time. Before he left the country he succeeded in writing English very creditably; as is shown by two essays that he published while there, one on the civil wars of France, the other on epic poetry. Their object was to prepare the English public for the issuing of a new and enlarged edition of his poem on Henry IV., which was dedicated to the Queen of England.  6
  He carried back to France a small volume, the effect of which on the reading public of continental Europe, but especially of France, cannot be overestimated. It is a collection of twenty-four letters, which were first published in an English translation with the title of ‘Letters concerning the English Nation,’ and afterwards in France under a different title,—‘Philosophical Letters.’ His object in this work was to show to his countrymen that national peace, happiness, and power, were not dependent upon the existence of such a government as they were living under. The main points to which he called their attention were individual liberty, as protected by the habeas corpus act; political liberty, as secured by the Magna Charta; religious toleration, as demonstrated by the existence in the country of numerous Christian denominations, living at peace with each other; respect for men of letters, as shown by the high positions filled in the State by such men as Joseph Addison and Matthew Prior; the existence of an English literature, then all-but unknown in France, which heard from him for the first time the name of Shakespeare; the existence of English philosophy with Locke, and of English science with Sir Isaac Newton, whose theory of universal attraction he popularized through years of untiring efforts; etc. No wonder such a book was not very acceptable to the autocratic government of France. Its publication was not authorized; an unauthorized edition however appeared in 1734, and Voltaire, as the writer had come to call himself since the performance of ‘Œdipus,’ came near being sent to the Bastille for the third time.  7
  He was then a rich man. Influential friends had helped him to invest his share of his father’s estate partly in speculative ventures, partly in military contracts. He lived in a somewhat grand style in the château of Cirey, in Lorraine; which was the property of a great admirer of his, the Marquise du Châtelet, who translated Newton’s ‘Principia’ into French. He composed there a number of plays. He had already had, however, his greatest dramatic triumph with ‘Zaïre’; a play in which, even more than in his ‘Brutus,’ we can discern the influence of Shakespeare. Among the plays that followed, the most remarkable were ‘Mahomet,’ a plea against fanaticism, which he dedicated to Pope Benedict XIV.; and ‘Alzire,’ a new plea for religious toleration, hardly less eloquent than the ‘Henriade.’ He had also published his first historical work, a history of Charles XII. of Sweden; a marvelous piece of narrative, in which the philosophical historian already appears in many a reflection upon the folly of war and the sufferings it entails upon the people. The ideas he stood for were more clearly expressed, however, in such works as his philosophical poems; ‘Discourses upon Man,’ an imitation of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’; and his ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Newton.’ His increasing popularity compelled even the court to grant him recognition. In 1745 he was appointed historiographer of France, in 1746 he was elected a member of the French Academy, and in the same year made by the King a gentleman of his bedchamber. This constituted him a member of the nobility.  8
  His favor at court lasted but a short time, however. He had soon to hide in the residence of his friend, the Duchesse du Maine, where he wrote his first philosophical tales, ‘Zadig’ and ‘Micromégas’; new vehicles for the ideas that had already been expressed in the ‘Henriade,’ the ‘Philosophical Letters,’ the ‘Charles XII.,’ etc.  9
  Madame du Châtelet’s death (1749) brought about a great change in his life. After a short stay in Paris he accepted an invitation from King Frederick II. of Prussia, who had since 1736 been one of his regular correspondents, and who had for years begged him to take up his residence at the Prussian court. Voltaire lived at Berlin and Potsdam about three years, the most important event in which was his publication of the ‘Age of Louis XIV.’; a historical work which he had been perfecting for upwards of twenty years, and which was received by the public as no historical work had ever been. Even to-day it retains its rank as one of the most interesting and one of the broadest books of history ever written. To his contemporaries, who knew only the dreariest compilations of literary hacks and pedants, it was a revelation of what history could be. Voltaire did not simply narrate, he passed judgment; though undoubtedly prejudiced in favor of Louis XIV., he severely censured his love of war and expenditure and his terrible religious fanaticism. His information, which he had collected with the utmost industry, and made use of with the greatest candor, was extensive and remarkably accurate for the time.  10
  Had he done nothing else in Berlin, he and Frederick might have remained good friends. But he mercilessly ridiculed another Frenchman, the learned Maupertuis, whom Frederick had made president of the Berlin Academy; and this, joined to several transactions in which Voltaire showed himself remarkably indiscreet, and also more rapacious than was consistent with self-respect, led to an estrangement between the two men, who had originally met as the warmest of friends. In regard to Maupertuis, however, it must be said that Voltaire was entirely in the right; for his pamphlet against his compatriot, the ‘Diatribe of Doctor Akakia,’ was simply one of the writings in which he defended a young Swiss servant named Koenig against an unjust persecution, of which Maupertuis was the sole author.  11
  He left Berlin in 1753, and returned to France. On his way there he had been arrested in Frankfort, at the request of Frederick, and made to undergo without cause the most humiliating treatment. In France he spent nearly two years a homeless wanderer. King Louis XV. would not allow him in Paris. He saw safety nowhere else than in Switzerland, and finally settled there, near the lake of Geneva. A few years later (1758) he acquired the domains of Ferney and Tournay,—situated in France, but very near Geneva,—which he made a kind of little kingdom of his own, and where he spent the last twenty years of his life (1758–1778).  12
  There he was soon acknowledged the intellectual center of Europe. He was untiring in his activity; and feeling better protected against the blows of autocracy, he displayed more energy than ever in his fight for human freedom. The most important works belonging to the last period of his life are his ‘Essay on Manners,’—a work on Universal History, especially from the death of Charlemagne (814) to the accession of Louis XIV. (1643); and the ‘Philosophical Dictionary,’ a collection of short articles written by him on all sorts of subjects of a philosophical nature. It is in the latter work that are found the passages in which Voltaire, in spite of the opinion held of him by many people who declare him to have been an atheist, most strongly expressed his faith in the existence of a God, Father of all men; and used every argument at his disposal against atheism.  13
  Literary activity did not fill all Voltaire’s time at Ferney. His fight against tyranny and fanaticism often took a different shape. The best-known incident of his life at that time relates to the Calas family. It was a Protestant family, living at Toulouse in the south of France. One of the young men of the family, Marc Antony Calas, was one day found hanging dead from a beam in the ceiling. He had committed suicide. But the fanatical mob at once accused his father of having murdered him to prevent his becoming a Catholic. The whole family was arrested; and the old man was quickly sentenced to death, and executed with the utmost cruelty, while the family property was confiscated to the State, and the daughters put in a convent. The rest took refuge in the Protestant city of Geneva. When Voltaire heard of the case, he first thought, like the whole of France, that old Calas was guilty. The idea that a full bench of judges (there was no jury then in France) had caused an innocent man to be put to death, found no lodgment in his mind. But after he had heard the true story from the lips of young Donald Calas, he determined to spare no effort to have the iniquitous judgment reversed. He set to work at once, placing his large fortune at the disposal of the unfortunate family, engaging lawyers, preparing briefs for them, writing to men of power or influence, stirring public opinion by the publication of pamphlets and broadsides of all forms and descriptions,—such, for instance, as his ‘Treatise on Toleration,’ the most important of his writings on that subject. This campaign of his lasted no less than two years; during which, he said, he never smiled once without blaming himself for it. But success at last rewarded his efforts. Public indignation rose to such a height that the government of Louis XV. had to compel the Toulouse judges to reopen the case; with the result that Calas’s memory was fully exonerated, and his family indemnified for the tortures it had undergone.  14
  In other cases—those of Sieven, of La Barre, of Count de Lally-Tollendal, of Count de Morangier, of the serf peasantry of the Abbey of Saint Claude in the Jura mountains—Voltaire displayed the same energy on behalf of the victims of tyranny, not always but often with the same success. Moreover, he never allowed the public to rest. His short writings, most of them dealing with this great question of human liberty, are numbered during that period by the hundred. It must be added that in his struggle against fanaticism he was often carried too far; and that a great many of the pamphlets he at that time issued under assumed names, assail with unpardonable scurrility all the creeds in which he did not believe. His attacks against the Bible, and most of the dogmas of the Christian faith, nearly all belong to these years. Of Jesus himself he always spoke with sympathy and veneration.  15
  But the people saw in him simply the great antagonist of tyrannical government and unequal privileges. They wanted to be allowed to pay him honor. They wanted him in Paris. The government of Louis XVI. had to allow him to visit the capital. He left Ferney on February 6th, 1778, reaching Paris on the 10th of the same month. His arrival in the city took all the proportions of a triumph. Wherever he went—in the streets, in the theatres, at the opera, at the Academy—he was the recipient of the most enthusiastic ovations. Everybody called on him. Benjamin Franklin brought to him his grandson, asking for the boy the old man’s blessing: “God and Liberty,” Voltaire said, in placing his hand over the head of the great American’s grandson.  16
  All this was too much excitement for a man who was over eighty-three years old. It finally told on him. He had to take to his bed; and he died on the 30th of May, not quite four months after leaving Ferney.  17
  As a writer, it is somewhat difficult to-day to assign to Voltaire his exact rank. He was primarily a man of action. He wrote with a purpose. He wished to effect a transformation of the public mind; and the high value of what he wrote, its adaptation to the end he had in view, is shown by the results which were achieved by him. His greatest gifts were clearness of statement and vividness of illustration. His many-sidedness has never been surpassed. It must be recognized, however, that he succeeded in prose work better than in verse.  18
  His complete works are perhaps more bulky than those of any other writer. This is what made him say, “A man does not ride to immortality with a load of one hundred volumes.” Some of the editions of his works indeed number as many as ninety-two volumes. The most authoritative ones, though,—those of Kehl (1784–89), of Benchot (Paris: 1829–1839), and Moland (Paris: 1875–1884),—number respectively seventy-two, seventy-two, and fifty-two volumes.  19
  Poetry fills many of these. There are first his dramatic works: about twenty tragedies and a dozen comedies. Strange to say, witty as he was, he never wrote an entertaining comedy. But he was highly gifted in tragedy. In ‘Brutus,’ in ‘Zaïre,’ in ‘Alzire,’ in ‘Mahomet,’ in ‘Mérope,’ in ‘Tancrède,’ are to be found pathetic scenes which justify the great applause with which they were received. Voltaire, however, cannot be considered one of the great dramatists of the world. He lacked power of concentration; he lacked the art of forgetting himself and living out, in his mind, the life of his characters: so that his dramas always present to us something artificial. And besides, he did not dare to free himself from the tyranny of the rules of classical tragedy as they had been stated in the preceding century.  20
  His epic poem, the ‘Henriade,’ is a fine piece of narrative, but on the whole somewhat cold. Still, for fully a hundred years it was considered in France a great epic. Every educated Frenchman could recite from memory hundreds of its lines. The people were carried away by the generous sentiments of the work, which appealed a good deal less to posterity after the victory for which Voltaire had fought had been finally secured by the triumph of the French Revolution.  21
  In light verse Voltaire excelled, and his philosophical poems also deserve high esteem. Among the latter must be especially mentioned the ‘Discourses upon Man’; the ‘Poem on the Disaster at Lisbon,’ on the occasion of an earthquake which destroyed thousands of lives; and the ‘Poem on Natural Law,’ a eulogy on Natural Religion.  22
  Once at least, unhappily, Voltaire put his powers of verse composition to a use wholly unworthy of his genius, and even disgraceful. This was in his poem on Joan of Arc,—a scurrilous and decidedly dull production, in which, in trying to ridicule the idea that the pseudo-mystics of his time entertained of the heroic Maid of Orléans, he allowed himself to befoul even the chaste heroine of patriotism herself.  23
  His chief glory as a writer, though, rests upon his prose works, of which this first must be said: that every line in them may be quoted as a model of perfect, clear, lucid, quick French style. His clearness of thought, and, thanks to his knowledge of the exact value of words, his precision of statement, cannot be surpassed.  24
  In historical writing, his three master works—the ‘History of Charles XII., King of Sweden,’ ‘The Age of Louis XIV.,’ and the ‘Essay on Manners’—effected a revolution. They taught readers that other things were worth knowing of our ancestors’ lives besides wars, battles, sieges, diplomatic negotiations, and feuds of royalty. He called their attention to the lives of the common people, and to the philosophical meaning of historical events. He thus made history a vehicle of his ideas relating to the improvement in the condition of mankind.  25
  He did the same thing in his tales, which are delightful reading when they are not too licentious, as is sometimes the case. Of course ‘Candide’ is no fit reading, except for people whose taste and morals have been strengthened against the danger of corruption. Others, like ‘Zadig,’ ‘Micromégas,’ ‘The Man with Forty Coins,’ ‘Jeannot and Colin,’ are little gems that are unsurpassed in their kind.  26
  For his views of philosophy and sociology the reader must turn to the ‘Philosophical Letters’ and the ‘Philosophical Dictionary.’ There, as well as in hundreds of shorter productions, which are collected in his works under the comprehensive title of ‘Miscellanies,’ the real Voltaire appears, more than anywhere else. There we discover the weapons which he so effectively used for the performance of his life work. A great deal of what is found in these collections would no doubt, in an age like ours, have appeared in daily, weekly, or monthly periodicals. But there was no free press, or any press at all deserving of the name, in France in the eighteenth century. There was—Voltaire knew it by his own experience—no freedom of utterance, under penalty of imprisonment in the Bastille. This is why most of these works, whatever their size, were published under assumed names and as separate publications. Combined with Voltaire’s masterly strategy in the Calas and other similar affairs; and with what we know of his wonderful eloquence in conversation, they show that under another system of government Voltaire would have been wonderful as a journalist, parliamentary orator, and political leader. But he might not have achieved such great results for mankind as he did, having to fight for freedom when freedom was not yet in existence.  27
  No one who wishes to know Voltaire should fail to acquaint himself with his correspondence. As a letter-writer he is unsurpassed, and his correspondence covers a period of over sixty years, of the most interesting in the history of mankind. We possess over ten thousand letters, written either by or to him; and this represents, very likely, only a small part of the epistolary activity of this extraordinary man.  28
 
 
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