Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Voltaire to Rousseau
By Voltaire (1694–1778)
From the ‘Correspondence’

I HAVE received, monsieur, your new book against the human race; I thank you for it. You will please men to whom you tell truths which concern them, but you will not correct them. One could not paint in stronger colors the horrors of human society, from which our ignorance and our weakness expect so many consolations. No one has ever employed so much intellect in the attempt to prove us beasts. A desire seizes us to walk on four paws, when we read your work. Nevertheless, as it is more than sixty years since I lost the habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it; and I leave that natural mode of walking to those who are more worthy of it than you and I. Nor can I embark to go among the savages of Canada: first because the maladies with which I am afflicted detain me near the greatest physician in Europe, and I should not find the same succor among the Missouris; secondly because war has broken out in that country, and the example of our nation has rendered the savages almost as wicked as we are. I limit myself to be a peaceful savage in the solitude which I have chosen in your country, where you ought to be.  1
  I agree with you that literature and the sciences have sometimes been the cause of much evil. The enemies of Tasso rendered his life a tissue of misfortunes; those of Galileo made him groan in prison at the age of seventy years for having known the motion of the earth, and what was more shameful, they compelled him to retract. No sooner had your friends begun the ‘Dictionnaire Encyclopédique’ than those who presumed to be their rivals called them deists, atheists, and even Jansenists.  2
  If I dared to reckon myself among those whose labors have been recompensed by persecution alone, I should show you men in a rage to destroy me, from the day that I gave the tragedy of ‘Œdipe’; I should show you a library of ridiculous calumnies printed against me; an ex-Jesuit priest, whom I saved from capital punishment, paying me by defamatory libels for the service which I had rendered him; I should show you a man still more culpable, printing my own work upon the ‘Age of Louis XIV.,’ with notes, in which the most brutal ignorance poured forth the most infamous impostures;… I should show you society infested with this kind of men, unknown to all antiquity, who, not being able to embrace an honest calling, whether that of workman or of lackey, and knowing unfortunately how to read and write, become courtiers of literature, live upon our works, steal manuscripts, disfigure them, and sell them;… I should paint you ingratitude, imposture, and rapine pursuing me for forty years, even to the foot of the Alps, even to the brink of my tomb. But what shall I conclude from all these tribulations? That I ought not to complain; that Pope, Descartes, Bayle, Camões, and a hundred others, have experienced the same injustice and greater; that this destiny is that of almost all those whom the love of letters has too powerfully influenced.  3
  Confess, monsieur, that these are trifling private misfortunes, which the community scarcely perceives. What does it matter to the human race that some hornets pillage the honey of some bees? Men of letters make a great noise about all these little quarrels; the rest of the world does not know them, or laughs at them.  4
  Of all the bitternesses spread over human life, these are the least fatal. The thorns attached to literature and to the reputation which it gives are flowers compared with other evils, which in all times have overwhelmed the earth. Admit that neither Cicero, nor Varro, nor Lucretius, nor Virgil, nor Horace, had the least share in the proscriptions. Marius was an ignorant man; the barbarous Sylla, the debauched Antony, the imbecile Lepidus, read little of Plato and Socrates; and as to that tyrant without courage, Octavius Cepias, surnamed so unworthily Augustus, he was merely a detestable assassin while he was deprived of the society of men of letters.  5
  Confess that Petrarch and Boccaccio did not cause the intestine troubles of Italy; confess that the badinage of Marot did not cause the massacre of St. Bartholomew, nor the tragedy of ‘The Cid’ the troubles of the Fronde. Great crimes have seldom been committed except by celebrated ignoramuses. That which makes, and will always make, of this world a vale of tears, is the insatiable cupidity and the indomitable pride of men, from Thomas Kouli-kan who did not know how to read, to a clerk of the tax office who knows only how to cipher. Literature nourishes the soul, rectifies it, consoles it: it was of service to you, monsieur, at the time when you wrote against it. You are like Achilles who inveighed against glory, and like Father Malebranche whose brilliant imagination wrote against imagination.  6
  If any one ought to complain of literature, it is myself, since at all times and in all places it has served to persecute me: but we must love it, despite the abuse which is made of it, as we must love society, the agreeableness of which is corrupted by so many wicked men; as we must love our country, whatever injustice we suffer in it; as we must love and serve the Supreme Being, notwithstanding the superstitions and fanaticism which so often dishonor his worship.  7
  M. Chappuis informs me that your health is very bad: you should come to re-establish it in your native air, to enjoy liberty, to drink with me the milk of our cows, and browse our herbs. I am very philosophically, and with the most tender esteem, etc.  8

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