The eighteenth-century philosopher wielded his powers of ridicule and witticism against religious fanatics—but always championed free speech and religious toleration. He was also a historian, scientist, poet, playwright, and political activist. Nicholas Cronk, General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire gives a detailed look at the polymathic philosophe.
He was born Francois-Marie Arouet in 1694, but assumed the title “Voltaire” some twenty years later. Who was Voltaire?
Voltaire is the most famous of the Enlightenment thinkers. Not necessarily the most radical or the most extreme philosophe, but certainly the one with the highest profile. In French, we speak of the seventeenth century as the ‘Century of Louis XIV’ (an expression that Voltaire himself put into circulation). But we refer to the eighteenth century as the ‘Century of Voltaire’. He’s remembered nowadays as the author of the short comic novel Candide, but he wrote a vast amount over a very long lifetime. He was born in the last days of the seventeenth century and died at the age of 84, just a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution.
“He’s famous already when he’s quite young, but after the 1760s, Voltaire is more than famous; he’s a superstar”
His first play is accepted by the Comédie-Française at the age of 24—so he becomes an instant star. And what is this first play? It’s about Oedipus killing his father. Now, Voltaire never really liked his own father, François Arouet—he was a lawyer at court. When this play is published, it’s the first time the name “Voltaire” is printed on a title page. So, his first big literary triumph is when he abandons his father’s name and invents a new name for himself. You don’t have to be a Freudian to think there’s something going on there.
There are various theories about the name Voltaire chose for himself. The most obvious is that it is an anagram of “Arouet le jeune” (“Arouet the Younger”). It works like this: AROUET L(e) J(eune). You have to remember that in the 18th-century French alphabet, as in Latin, ‘I’ and ‘J’ along with ‘U’ and ‘V’ were interchangeable. So, replacing those letters, you get “AROVET L I”, or VOLTAIRE.
Now, this is plausible. Other theories say the name evokes a property his parents owned. Personally, I think the name ‘Voltaire’ is hugely evocative: voler means to fly, and volter means to leap about, making him sound like some character out of commedia dell’arte, leaping around the stage.
So, when we talk about ‘Voltaire’, we take for granted a name he invented. You might say it is one of his earliest and most successful fictions. And we are all complicit in his invention. It’s an odd fact, but it seems impossible to imagine writing a book about ‘François-Marie Arouet’. In time, ‘Voltaire’ becomes pretty much a brand name. He’s famous already when he’s quite young, but after the 1760s, he’s more than famous; he’s a superstar. For the last two decades of his life, he’s a huge European celebrity. He’s arguably the first.
I say ‘arguably’ because Rousseau could be a contender. Voltaire and Rousseau are the first real European literary celebrities. They are celebrities in the sense that they sell; their names sell books. Voltaire is a true celebrity in the sense that everyone has heard of him, even if they haven’t read him. That two-syllable name became very powerful. If he had stayed ‘Arouet’, it wouldn’t have had the same punch to it.
You are General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, which spans some 200 volumes. From epic poetry to historical treatises and philosophical tales, the breadth of Voltaire’s literary output is astonishing. Can you give a sense of how widely he wrote?
It’s an extraordinary fact, but there is still no scholarly edition of the totality of Voltaire’s writings. Voltaire himself was rather selective in putting together the so-called collected editions that appeared in his lifetime, and after his death grew an editorial tradition that ignored totally the textual integrity of many of his most important works. To remap comprehensively his writings in their entirety is a huge task—and an expensive one.
The project to produce the ongoing Complete Works of Voltaire began, rather tentatively, in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s it moved to the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford, thanks to a benefaction from the Voltaire scholar Theodore Besterman. We are now steaming full ahead, and the complete edition, the first ever comprehensive printing of everything that Voltaire wrote, will be finished in around 200 volumes by the end of 2020—when we are hoping to present a full set to President Macron!
Voltaire writes in virtually every literary genre. As a very young man, he writes fairly traditional satirical poetry that makes fun of the government and the church. But he revered all the classical models. His first serious literary works are classical tragedies—like his Oedipus—and also an epic poem. This is quite a big deal for a young poet that is starting off. He decides he’s going to write the great French epic. There had been a number of French epics written in France in the seventeenth century, but none of the seventeenth-century poets were on a par with Homer or Virgil. So, Voltaire decides he will be the new Virgil.
It was going to be the epic poem to create the foundational myth of modern France. He writes it about Henry IV. Of course, already it’s a pretty tendentious subject: Henry IV is the protestant king of Navarre at a time in the late sixteenth century when France was torn apart by a bloody civil war. Eventually, Henry IV changes religion; he becomes a Catholic and puts an end to the civil strife, effectively becoming the king of a united France. For Voltaire, this is a great founding myth, because it’s about the king overriding religious fanaticism and bringing peace and tolerance and unity. In its final form, it’s called La Henriade—‘The Poem of Henry’. It was regarded in his lifetime as his most significant achievement, translated into every known European language multiple times. Yet it’s a work that we’ve now almost completely forgotten.
You couldn’t imagine Rousseau or Diderot or Montesquieu starting off in such a classical way. But then, as Voltaire finds his feet and becomes a bit more controversial, he starts to write in different forms. He’s immensely important as a historian: he writes a history of the reign of Louis XIV, a brilliantly written work that is also a key text in establishing the myth of the Sun King and the cultural pre-eminence of the French seventeenth century. This remained in France the standard treatment of Louis XIV until Ernest Lavisse in the early twentieth century (and even Lavisse is heavily influenced by the Voltairean model). Perhaps most important of all, Voltaire writes a universal history, his Essay on Manners—one of the first attempts by a European to write a global history not exclusively focused on Christian Europe. Voltaire is an enormous influence on other Enlightenment historians, like Edward Gibbon and David Hume.
“Voltaire is an enormous influence on other Enlightenment historians, like Edward Gibbon and David Hume”
Voltaire also writes large numbers of plays. Starting with Œdipe, as we said, he continues writing plays all through his life, mainly tragedies, but also comedies, and even opera libretti, two of which were set to music by Rameau for the court in the 1740s. And most of all, he is a brilliant writer of short prose texts (which he variously calls ‘articles’, ‘letters’, or ‘chapters’) that he gathers together more or less coherently in various miscellaneous collections. Some of them are stories, the works we know as ‘philosophical fictions’ (a title that we have invented, it is not Voltaire’s), and these are constantly translated and reprinted. They have become today Voltaire’s best known works.
But for the rest, we hardly know all of his other brief essays and chapters, on science, philosophy, ethics, literary criticism, and so forth. Voltaire is the undisputed genius of the brief text. And he understands that you can write short texts and then reassemble them in ever-changing miscellaneous volumes. That increasingly becomes his characteristic mode of expression in later years.
The only genre that he doesn’t write in is one that was then very fashionable: the new sentimental novel. He particularly loathes Richardson, who was hugely popular. When someone asked him if he had read Clarissa, he replied yes, but that he wouldn’t want to be condemned to have to re-read it. Of course, his short philosophical tales—his contes—often parody Richardson and the techniques of the contemporary novel.
Let’s talk about Voltaire’s intellectual voice. He’s well-known as the master of the witticism, as always imbuing his writing with ridicule, irony, and satire. Is this purely for comedic reasons? Or is it partly an attempt to be elusive, to cover his own tracks about what he actually believes?
All of that, really. He is, of course, a very funny writer. He is brilliantly ironical. But he wasn’t the first writer to use irony to get around awkwardness. Fontenelle, for example, when faced by the dogmatism of the church and asked to state his beliefs about miracles, is hilariously ironical—and he is of the generation before Voltaire.
Of course, Voltaire learns from him. In the article “Miracles” in the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, he explains soberly that miracles are happenings that seem to defy the normal laws of science, before concluding:
It’s dearly to be wished . . . that for a miracle to be properly certified, it should be done in the presence of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, or the Royal Society in London . . .
Similarly, Hume and Gibbon would be ironical on the subject of miracles, for reasons of humour, and also, as you suggest, to slightly cover their traces. Hume cannot afford to upset needlessly the good church people of Edinburgh, any more than Voltaire can afford to create more enemies unnecessarily. It’s quite an Enlightenment trope: you hint at what you think, but don’t go out of your way to offend people.
Irony, of course, defines Voltaire’s voice. The third chapter of Candide is a full-out attack on the barbarity of war, and it opens in typical style: “Never was there anything so fine, so dashing, so glittering, or so well regulated as those two armies” (Roger Pearson’s translation). What follows is equally ironical, although the tone darkens very suddenly:
First the cannon felled about six thousand men on each side. Then the musketry removed from the best of all possible worlds nine or ten thousand ruffians who were poisoning its surface . . .
There is more than one ironical voice at play here. And beyond just irony, what Voltaire does brilliantly is ridicule. It’s his power; he can destroy a person or an idea in a single sentence. In another short tale, “An Adventure in India” (Aventure indienne), there is a hilarious description of Bacchus “walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet”; these details, the narrator notes, are “faithfully recorded in the Orphic oracles.”
“Beyond just irony, what Voltaire does brilliantly is ridicule”
For Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (of course, he was familiar with the current of scholarship that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures), but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. And of course, established authorities—whether it be the government, the church, or whatever—hate that. They cannot bear being ridiculed. That’s why, for example, if you are trying to understand the lines of tension in the Enlightenment—trying, for example, to draw an ideological line between deism and atheism, the Jonathan Israel divide between radical and moderate Enlightenments—you often find that it doesn’t really work unless you take style, humour, irony, ridicule into account.
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If you look at the books that were censored by the Vatican (a handy measure of what upset the Catholic Church), you find that they censor Voltaire more assiduously than out-and-out atheists. This makes sense because from their standpoint, his voice reaches more people, and is therefore more dangerous. What they care about is the subversive voice actually upsetting the largest number of the faithful. So, the nuances of whether you were deist or atheist didn’t really matter so much—it was the people who were causing the biggest waves and the most trouble that mattered. In one sense, Voltaire is more ‘radical’ insofar as he upsets more people. A dry philosophical dismantling of some argument doesn’t upset the church anywhere near as much as someone who ridicules them.
It’s interesting as well that the Vatican is perfectly happy to endorse Voltaire when the object of his ridicule isn’t the Christian religion. Didn’t the Pope endorse Voltaire’s comic play about Mohammed?
Yes. He wrote a play about Mohammed and obtained a letter from Benedict XIV attesting that that he enjoyed the play. Of course, being Voltaire, he printed the letter as the preface to the play. It’s not absolutely clear that he had the pontiff’s permission to do this, however . . .
“The Catholic Church censors Voltaire more assiduously than it censored out-and-out atheists”
Voltaire always believed that you should ridicule and poke fun, but he also believed in the end that you have to accommodate those in authority because you need to persuade them. He’s a monarchist. He doesn’t believe in papal authority, but he does believe in the authority of the king. He has lots of aristocratic friends and allies all through his life, and he tries to keep in with the court, maintaining close relationships with a number of highly placed courtiers. That’s something that some of the younger philosophes like Diderot couldn’t really cope with. They saw it in a way as collusion with the opposing party. But I think Voltaire’s view, which you can defend, is that you need to persuade your opponents from the inside. He never wanted to be seen as being overtly critical of the monarchy. When you’re facing the ancien régime with all its rigidities, that’s not a stupid tactical thought. It doesn’t make him irremediably moderate; it might make him a more cunning opponent.
Let’s turn to the books. Your first choice is Voltaire Almighty: The Pursuit of Freedom by Roger Pearson.
I chose this one because I think it’s by far the best modern life of Voltaire. First of all, because it’s written in an incredibly rhythmic and even jaunty style. It’s also got some good jokes. Roger Pearson is not just a good biographer; he’s also a distinguished Voltaire scholar. It’s not quite written in the style of Voltaire, but he certainly presents Voltaire as though he were the hero of one of his own fictions. Given Voltaire’s self-invention, I think it’s smart not to treat him in an overly pious or serious way.
Roger Pearson gets the underlying facetiousness of his subject and perfectly captures the idea that Voltaire was always performing. Voltaire loved acting, especially in his own plays. This becomes increasingly true in later life as he becomes a celebrity. The name ‘Voltaire’ becomes hugely famous. All celebrities (to some extent) have to inhabit the structures that have been created for them. You wouldn’t say he was a victim of his celebrity—if only because he knows how to handle it. But he responds to celebrity by acting himself even more. Roger Pearson brings this out beautifully. In that sense, it’s the most amusing of the modern biographies, and also the most truthful.
In terms of his life, the chapter on the Calas affair is particularly interesting. Can you tell us about the Calas affair and how it impacted Voltaire’s intellectual formation?
Without being too simplistic, I am tempted to look at Voltaire’s career in two parts: pre-Calas and post-Calas. The Calas affair is something that absolutely rocked France in the early 1760s. Calas was a prosperous merchant in Toulouse, the head of a protestant family in a heavily Catholic city. One of his sons was found dead in his house. The police came in and arrested the father for murdering his son. It was said in court that his son was going to convert to Catholicism and that his father had murdered him to prevent this (et pour encourager les autres, Voltaire would have said).
The evidence was slim, but the judges were trenchant and Calas was sentenced to death. It was a particularly gruesome death. He was torn limb from limb by four horses in a square in Toulouse, in a public spectacle. The death took several hours. From our perspective, the execution seems like some barbaric medieval torture. And, under the ancien régime, if you were condemned in that way, then your family was dispossessed, so his widow and children were left penniless.
Voltaire is asked if he would help. He becomes interested in the case and pretty quickly draws the conclusion that this was an act of religious prejudice—the judges were all Catholic and they hadn’t gone through any formal due process for the accused protestant man. The legal system of the ancien régime is of course very alien to us. The accused wasn’t allowed to know the terms of the accusation in the court; he had no right to question the evidence. From our perspective, it’s a very strange form of justice.
So, Voltaire takes it up. He writes a whole series of pamphlets and letters to people in authority, many of which he publishes. He writes a book called the Treatise on Toleration, which I could also have chosen, specifically addressing the Calas affair. This episode really brings out everything that is most brilliant about Voltaire. He originally trained as a lawyer although he soon gave it up because he didn’t like the law (probably all part of rejecting his father). But he does have a lawyer’s mind. The Calas affair makes him think about the legal system of the ancien régime, which he perhaps hadn’t really done before. And he comes to it with a lawyer’s acuity. When he sees a flaw in an argument, he can use ridicule like no one else.
“The Calas Affair really brings out everything that is most brilliant about Voltaire”
He just dismantles the arguments of the judges in Toulouse, but in an incredibly clever way. He doesn’t just condemn them wholesale; he appeals to the more senior judges in Paris, who see themselves as far superior to the provincial judges in Toulouse. He gets them to revoke the Toulouse judges’ decision. You might say that’s another example of him colluding with those in power. Tactically, it’s incredibly clever because he’s got the senior court revoking the decision of the ‘junior’ court—he’s got the system fighting itself from within.
It takes a couple of years, but Calas is finally pardoned. Though it’s too late for him, it helps his widow and his children. Voltaire learns several things from this episode. He’s now much more critical of how the ancien régime and its legal system works. But if this had happened 50 years earlier, it wouldn’t have had the same resonance. The reason the incident has the impact it does is partly because of his writing’s brilliance, but also partly how quickly it spread once published—not just around France but Europe.
The Calas judgement becomes, in European public opinion, the Calas affair. Newspapers are more fast-moving and frequent than they had been 50 years earlier, and they are beginning to play a role in shaping public opinion. One of the things about the Enlightenment is that it created—and needed—public opinion. Issues of all sorts are now discussed not just by a narrow group of intellectuals or philosophers, but by a broader reading public.
And the Calas affair is perfect for public opinion, because from every possible angle it’s a great human story. Voltaire’s brochures and pamphlets—some of which are brilliantly funny and clever—are not only translated into English, but also printed in the English provincial press. We didn’t really know this until quite recently, since it’s all been digitised. Calas became a current affair.
Out of the Calas affair, Voltaire really learns what you can do with public opinion; he can use his brilliant stylistic abilities and actually move public opinion. All through the 1760s, he grows into this new role as public campaigner. The theme throughout is the use of common sense and basic rationality to look at arguments, avoid prejudice, and, above all, to attack religious fanaticism.
Let’s take a look at Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary. This was published in 1764, shortly after Calas’ name had been cleared. You’ve described this book as “one of the most explosive and controversial works of the European Enlightenment and one of the funniest”.
This book is a series of short squibs on different topics, all, broadly speaking, concerning the Bible and the history of the church, and all designed to make you reflect on what pious Catholics thought were absolute certainties. In the opening article of the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire relates the biblical account of Abraham, making it abundantly clear that the biblical chronology simply defies common sense and reason. In effect, this is a withering attack on the reliability of the Old Testament accounts, but Voltaire maintains a ‘neutral’ voice throughout, and then concludes like this: “The reader is referred to these commentaries, all of them compiled by men subtle and delicate intellect, excellent thinkers, quite devoid of prejudice and not in the least pedantic.” I am quoting here from John Fletcher’s superb translation in the Oxford World Classics series.
An important feature of this translation is that John Fletcher keeps the often conversational tone of Voltaire’s ‘philosophical’ style, and doesn’t try to normalise it. These shifts of linguistic register are key to the shock of Voltaire’s irony. He devotes an entire article to circumcision, recounting drily the breadth of scholarship on the subject in order to make the point that the rite is not unique to the Jewish tradition. There is a serious point here about cultural relativism, but the choice of example, combined with the fake familiar tone of voice, make it quintessentially Voltairean:
When told that the Hottentots remove one testicle from each of their male children a Parisian is quite taken aback. The Hottentots are perhaps surprised that Parisians hang on to both of theirs.
And at other moments, Voltaire seems to be speaking to us directly. Here he is on the all too contemporary topic of fanaticism:
What can you say to a man who tells you that he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he’s certain he’ll go to heaven if he cuts your throat? Normally fanatics are led by scoundrels who supply the weapons . . .
This could have been written in a newspaper today, and it’s crucial that the language feels modern. That modern or colloquial feel is equally devastating in the eighteenth century. The church in particular hated it because of its sheer cheekiness—its rudeness and brashness, along with its refusal to treat churchmen with the pomp and ceremony they thought they deserved.
A key thing about the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary is that it’s very short. You can read the short articles in sequence, or you can dip in and start reading anywhere—either way, this is a very accessible work. It’s important the Oxford World Classics translation of the Philosophical Dictionary keeps the ‘portatif’ of the original title. This is the pocket philosophical dictionary, and at one level, it can be seen as a response to Diderot’s Encyclopédie.
The title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique portatif’ is implicitly a rebuke to that great work; you cannot walk about with seventeen folio volumes, but you can put this in your pocket. Partly what Voltaire is saying is that these huge books with their long articles are not a very effective way of changing public opinion. He writes a very funny letter to a friend saying that the authorities are never afraid of books that cost a lot of money. He says if the Bible had cost seventy sesterces in Ancient Rome, then Christianity would never have got off the ground. [Laughs]. Whereas a very small portable book—a paperback in today’s terms—that can be easily reprinted is a much more effective polemical weapon.
And it’s so very funny. I remember one section where he discusses a claim about a Jesuit priest who was said to have brought nine people back to life, but someone else claims that he only raised four—which, Voltaire concedes, “is still pretty good.”
[Laughs]. And that only works with the colloquial turn of voice. That makes it so much more damaging. I chose this partly because the book is important—it’s hugely important—and partly because I think, of all the translations of Voltaire’s philosophical texts, this one really brings out the feel of the original.
In the book, Voltaire consistently pokes fun at religious doctrines. But unlike, say, the New Atheists, he is incredibly well-read on these topics. He shows an encyclopaedic knowledge of the biblical narratives but also reception history in the early church and ancient Near Eastern mythology. His critique, laced as it is with sardonic wit, is so informed.
In that respect, he’s very unlike Diderot or Rousseau. You could almost say Voltaire is a biblical scholar. He thinks the Old Testament is completely incoherent. Historically, it consists of different texts written by different people in different periods. He anticipates some of the nineteenth-century German historical criticism of the Bible. He’s saying that there are things here that are internally inconsistent; there are things that don’t make sense.
“You could almost say Voltaire is a biblical scholar”
He knows the Old Testament back to front, and there are certain details he keeps referring to. For example, there’s a chapter in Ezekiel where someone cooks something in sand and eats it. But, in some translation, Voltaire finds out that he eats shit. This becomes a running gag, that he eats a “tartine de merde”—which sounds hilarious, a “shit sandwich”—and Voltaire comes back to this something like a dozen times.
In the chapter on Moses in the Dictionary, he expresses his surprise that the Israelites could build a golden calf in the middle of the desert but didn’t have any one who could make shoes . . .
Yes, there’s an absurdist side to Voltaire’s humour that is very modern and completely speaks to us.
This book isn’t wholly facetious and ironic; there are moments of real anger and exasperation. There’s an entry which laments the moral myopia of thinkers who have turned a blind eye to the suffering involved in war.
I think he understands that if you keep indignation going for too many pages then it loses its oomph. If people want to be critical of Voltaire, a standard thing to say is: how can you take him seriously, if he makes fun of everything? But there’s another view, which is that to keep the interest of your readers, you need to keep changing your register; you need to have passion and you need to have humour. That will have more impact. Aesthetically, it’s an arguable point.
Taking him as a philosopher, what would you single out as his most original contribution to Western thought?
He lives a very long life, so you have to say that he evolves as he goes on. After the Calas affair, what Voltaire learns is that his forte is really in publicising affairs, so he gets interested in things like the reform of the judicial system. Much later, he reinvents himself as a political reformer. That’s more the image that has come down to posterity. We’ve largely forgotten the pre-Calas Voltaire.
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As a fairly young man, he comes to England in the 1720s. People always say that’s a key turning point, and it probably is. In England, he’s confronted by empiricism through the thought of Locke and Newton. That has a big impact. He’s learns English very quickly and meets a lot of famous writers, including Swift and Pope. He’s here for two and a half years and goes back to France and writes the book that is known in French as the Lettres philosophiques. It’s his most important early book—his first major masterpiece—and I would have included it if I had space. It came out in English first as Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1733. People forget that he wrote this for the English as well as for the French. He’s a European author who thinks about cultivating a European readership.
In this book, there is a philosophical programme which is essentially about the rise of empiricism. There’s a trajectory that he sketches out: Bacon begins to think of things empirically, then you get Newton, Locke, and the rise of empirical science. This focus on what’s empirically provable sets its face against Descartes who championed the notion of innate ideas. So, Voltaire puts together a sort of package about the heroic rise of empiricism against innate ideas. This is probably his most significant early philosophical contribution.
It’s not exactly an original philosophical position but what is original is the narrative he’s creating. Voltaire gives the Enlightenment group their defining story: their self-narrative. If you then go through the 18th century, if you look at d’Alembert’s ‘Discours préliminaire’ in the Encyclopédie, the underlying narrative of ideas is Voltaire’s: it’s that same template of Bacon, Locke, and Newton.
“Voltaire gives the Enlightenment group their defining story: their self-narrative”
It’s not a new insight, but it’s the narrative that gives cohesion to the party of the philosophes. We underestimate Voltaire because we forget that actually, he created our modern narrative of the Enlightenment. You could have had another narrative: it’s not entirely true that empiricism was only current in England, and that there weren’t empiricists in France. There are French empiricists like Gassendi, but they don’t appear in this narrative. So, Voltaire has had to streamline quite a lot to produce this overarching line. But it was clever and it stuck.
Continuing the theme of empiricism, your next book is The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment by J B Shank. Can you tell me about this one?
I think this is a really important book because it helps us rethink the important early part of Voltaire’s career. The Lettres philosophiques is something of a political catastrophe because the censorship turns out to be far more severe than he had expected—and only on account of one letter. In Letter 13, Voltaire explores very tentatively whether Locke could be used to support a theory of materialism. This idea that the universe is made up of nothing apart from matter is commonly taken in the eighteenth century to be synonymous with atheism. Voltaire believes that he is being sufficiently elusive to slip by the censors, but this turns out to be a miscalculation.
The book is condemned in the strongest possible terms. Voltaire narrowly escapes prison in 1734, and effectively has to leave the capital in unofficial exile. At that point, he goes to the Château de Cirey, staying there for the next 15 years with Madame du Châtelet, who is now his lover and intellectual companion. After this scandal of the Lettres philosophiques, he wonders how he can regain his place in the Republic of Letters. He thinks that one way to do it might be by being more of a scientist. At that point in his career, he does think about being taken seriously as a scientific researcher.
For some years, there had been a major scientific debate about the movement of planets. You could look with a telescope and see that planets move in slightly strange shapes. So, you’ve got to try to explain their movement. Essentially, the Cartesian tradition said that that the atmosphere is filled and that there were vortices—these geometrical corkscrews—that are supposed to explain why planets move as they do. Newton came up with an idea that is totally different: he said that, actually, space is empty once you get out of the earth’s atmosphere. There is a void. But the planets move in the way they do because they are pulled by gravitational force.
What J B Shank shows is that the way in which the fight between the Newtonians and the Cartesians evolved was essentially an institutional war. In the history of ideas, particular theories do not triumph because they’re right or wrong. They triumph because a particular group or sect promoting those ideas is in the ascendant.
So it was with these two competing theories. Fontenelle was the secretary of the Academy of Science—a major position of power—and he espoused the Cartesian cause. There was a younger scientist, Maupertuis, who was much more persuaded by the Newtonian argument. From his correspondence with Maupertuis, Voltaire is quite clearly converted to the Newtonian faith (his term!), both intellectually but also sociologically—he wants to identify with the young turks.
In due course, he writes a book intended to explain Newton to a bigger audience called Elements of the Philosophy of Newton. In many ways, it’s a very un-Voltairean book; it’s a serious exposition of Newtonian thinking. It’s quite a big book too, with diagrams and pictures. It doesn’t have much Voltairean humour in it but he’s still a very good expositor. It’s very clear and forceful. Voltaire is never an obscure writer. It comes out in the early 1740s and has a huge impact across Europe. The reception of Newton in continental Europe is largely on account of Voltaire’s book.
“The reception of Newton in continental Europe is largely on account of Voltaire’s book”
It’s because of this that Voltaire is made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743, whereas he fails twice to get into the French Academy before he’s finally elected only in 1746. So, his first big academy is the Royal Society on the grounds that he had done all this work to promote Newton. At this point in his career, Voltaire tries to be a Newtonian natural philosopher, but this turns out to be a sort of a heroic failure. The summary of Newton’s thought is clearly a success, but his attempts at original scientific work are not. He just hasn’t got that sort of mind.
With the Newton wars, you could just argue that Fontenelle is wrong, Maupertuis was right, and Voltaire just recognises that the Newtonian theory is right. But, at some level, it’s an institutional struggle. At this stage, it’s like the young turks versus the old guard. Voltaire wants to be seen as being in the new wave. He also has an interest at this point in getting back to Paris and being seen as a ‘scientist’. There’s even a moment in the early 1740s when he angles to become the secretary of the Academy of Sciences.
What J B Shank shows brilliantly is that the way that people came down on the side of either Descartes or Newton was much more to do with who their friends were and which network they were in—whether they were inside or outside of the Academy, for example. It’s a conflict of generations and a conflict of institutions. He shows how the history of ideas is not neutral or transparent but is always tied up with lots of other cultural forces and influences.
That is the conventional Kuhnian line, though, isn’t it?
Yes, absolutely, but curiously enough, this approach had not previously been applied to the scientific debates of the early French Enlightenment. I think this approach makes much more sense and gives you a handle on what’s going on, and it also gives you a much better sense of how Voltaire’s career is (or is not) developing. He’s not naturally a gifted scientist, but after the fiasco of the Lettres philosophiques, he wants to be back in Paris. It’s very hard to be a French writer and not be very well-received in the capital. So, he thinks that science will be a route back.
He’s picking a camp—picking a cause—partly intellectually, but it’s also to do with institutions and identities. It doesn’t entirely work, but he does write the book on Newton which, importantly, gets him into the Royal Society. In the end, he will go back to Paris using a different route. He goes back as a courtier in the 1740s. What J B Shank does is to give a much more nuanced understanding of how Voltaire is trying to make his career in that early period. It’s the most important new insight into Voltaire’s intellectual evolution to come out for the last generation.
Before we move on to the next book, I just want to talk about Émilie du Châtelet and her influence on Voltaire’s scientific thinking. She is an exceptional thinker and deserves far more recognition.
She’s a formidable intellectual from a very high-born aristocratic family. She lives with Voltaire publicly as a couple, while her husband lived in another chateau just accepting the whole thing. The English would say it’s a very French arrangement. But in a way, she did something more scandalous. It wasn’t that Mme du Châtelet lived with a man that she wasn’t married to—it was that she did science!
Her love affair with Voltaire was passionate, at least in the early years, before it settled into more of an arrangement. But it’s quite clear that she taught him science. There was a rather patronising view in the previous generation that Voltaire taught her, but it’s clearly the other way around: she had a much more sophisticated scientific mind than he did. She published a very important book called Foundations of Physics trying to reconcile the different modern theories of physics. Her other huge achievement was translating Newton’s Principia from Latin into French. If you now go into a bookshop in Paris and buy the Principia, her French translation is still the only one in existence. It was, and is, an extraordinary scholarly achievement.
She and Voltaire lived together for about 15 years. She later had an affair with a poet called Saint-Lambert, by whom she became pregnant. This was thought at the time to be extraordinary—not that she was carrying a child whose father was neither her husband nor her official companion, but that she was pregnant at all in her early forties. It was regarded as terribly infra dig. Tragically, she died in childbirth. I don’t think Voltaire was particularly fazed by her pregnancy, but he was hugely distressed by her death and so left Cirey definitively. It was obviously a very profound relationship, intellectually as well as emotionally.
Your fourth book choice is Candide. Can you tell me why you’ve recommended this one?
Well, it’s a bit hard not to, really. While it wasn’t his most famous text in his lifetime, it has become the work for which he is best known now. You could say that Voltaire is a global writer because of Candide; it has been translated into every possible language, both Western and Eastern. It has a huge resonance and was a bestseller right from the minute it was published in 1759. And it’s been enormously influential. You have Bernstein’s Candide musical, there are endless illustrated editions, and there have been lots of literary sequels and parodies—of which my favourite is Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, published in 1932 and banned by the Irish Free State.
Candide is a great piece of writing, and it’s the piece of writing that has taken Voltaire’s name absolutely everywhere. We remember him as the writer of these philosophical tales, and it’s with these writings mostly that we teach Voltaire in schools and universities. But it’s true that these contes are some of his most brilliantly funny and accessible texts. It’s a very good way for someone to get into reading Voltaire. I’ve chosen the Roger Pearson translation because I think it’s so lively and sprightly, both for Candide and for the other contes: he knows how to make the text speak to us.
For those that haven’t yet come across Candide, can you give a brief summary of the plot and introduce us to the different interpretations of it?
A young man, Candide, is ejected from a chateau in Germany after seducing the lord’s willing daughter. He staggers from disaster to disaster, confronting the most appalling and implausible events. The disasters he’s confronted with are both man-made (like war) and God-made, like the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. You’ve got both moral and natural evil. Faced by all of these appalling things, he remembers what he was taught by his philosopher-tutor Pangloss: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” So, Candide has become a bit like an automaton. He just repeats this in the face of all this appalling evil. Gradually, you just stop believing it. It’s a very interesting question as to whether Candide also stops believing it. Does Candide actually learn or not?
You could say that a lot of eighteenth-century heroes and heroines follow the pattern of a Bildungsroman. There’s a Lockean empirical structure to a lot of eighteenth-century fictions: you start off young and naïve—like Locke’s tabula rasa—and you go through life and face new experiences. Travel is a key theme, obviously, as in Gulliver’s Travels, and the fiction usually explores the way in which the hero or heroine responds to their various trials and tribulations, and matures (or not). The peculiarity of Candide is that we can never be sure if he really is a Lockean or not. Does he actually learn from his experiences? The question at the end of the novel remains: who has learnt anything from all this human suffering?
“Does Candide actually learn from his experiences? The question at the end of the novel remains: who has learnt anything from all this human suffering?”
It’s a more complicated book than it might seem. At certain points, you really ought to wonder what sort of genre you’re reading. It has a subtitle which is “Candide or Optimism”. Optimism is a philosophical position that aims to be a solution to the problem of evil. The problem of evil is as old as the book of Job, and one extraordinarily popular solution in the eighteenth century, often associated with Leibniz, goes as follows: things that you think of as evil appear to you as evil because you only have a partial view of the universe. If you have a god’s eye view of the whole universe, then it fits into a whole pattern that is broadly good—or as good as God can make it.
It’s sad that the dog gets run over, but what you don’t know is that the dog was going to bite someone and give them rabies—so it’s a merciful release that the dog gets run over. But if you start applying that to major human evil, like war or the Holocaust, you realise pretty quickly that it’s a very thin argument. And Voltaire does think it’s a very thin argument. But it is very current in the eighteenth century, popularised notably by Pope in his Essay on Man. That Leibnizian optimism spreads into mainstream European culture through Pope’s poem.
In the wake of the well-known earthquake in Lisbon, Voltaire is questioning how you could make sense of the problem of evil. Often people read Candide as just being about that, but I think, more broadly, it’s about rational and irrational thought—and about how people argue rationally and irrationally. It’s a book that really explores reason and un-reason. It draws the reader into different sorts of arguments. I don’t think it’s only about the problem of evil.
Even if it were only about the problem of evil, you’d have to say it was a failure because what does the ending mean? Normally speaking, if you have a philosophical explanation of a question, there’s an attempt at a resolution. But the resolution in Candide is famous: “let’s cultivate our garden”. It’s a very good phrase—but what does it mean? Does it mean that in the end there are certain philosophical questions that you don’t bother asking? Or that you just give up? If you look at how Voltaire lived his life, that’s not what he did in practice. I think Candide is also a lesson in the absurd, a demonstration of the difficulties of making sense of life, of all philosophies, of living a meaningful life—and that is why the book goes on speaking to us, and goes on making us laugh.
Finally, you have selected Reinventing Voltaire: The Politics of Commemoration in Nineteenth-Century France by Stephen Bird.
I’ve chosen this book because it’s the first really comprehensive study of the different phases in which Voltaire was reinvented and then celebrated after his death. There’s also a chapter on popular editions of his work and the extent to which Voltaire is read by a broader reading public—a more working class reading public.
There’s Voltaire the writer, who we’ve been talking about, but there’s also Voltairianism. Voltaire has become a shorthand for a certain set of values. Voltaire is absolutely central to the French republican tradition, as he was central to the intellectual construction of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries needed intellectual predecessors and they created Voltaire—with Rousseau, bizarrely—as the great progenitor. It’s Voltaire and Rousseau, far more than Diderot or Montesquieu, who are the two authorities that somehow legitimate the Revolution in the eyes of the revolutionaries themselves.
“There’s Voltaire the writer, but there’s also Voltairianism. Voltaire has become a shorthand for a certain set of values”
There’s no need to make the obvious point that this is not what he would have wanted—Voltaire would clearly have loathed the Revolution. He was a monarchist; he believed in hierarchies and stability . . .
He was anti-fanaticism!
He was fanatically anti-fanaticism. He would have hated the Terror and all of those things. But the fact is that, in the Revolution, Voltaire is reinvented as the intellectual predecessor of the movement. He is the first writer to be interred in the Pantheon in 1791, in one of the great ceremonies of the Revolution. There was a great procession that went through Paris that took two days—the coffin rested on the stones of the ruined Bastille before travelling along the Left Bank of the Seine, in front of the house where he died, and being installed in the Pantheon. Rousseau was also moved to the Pantheon two years later, but Voltaire was the first. He has the aura of the first revolutionary intellectual.
“Voltaire would clearly have loathed the French Revolution”
French politics in the nineteenth century is an incredible rollercoaster of republican and anti-republican sentiment. They try out different republics and then try to go back to the monarchy and then another republic comes along. But at every single political turn, Voltaire is always there as a set of values. Again, it’s not so much what he really said that counts as the way in which contemporaries read him. He wrote so much that, to some extent, you could almost pick from the great corpus the text that most suited your cause. If you want to be anti-church, then you pick the really vicious attacks on Catholicism in the Dictionnaire philosophique. If you want a more comforting Voltaire, you can go to his history of the reign of Louis XIV which is quite pro-monarchy, a paean of praise in favour of the greatness of France.
Voltaire had a position in the culture where, on the one hand, he was seen as the great opponent of Catholicism, but, on the other, he was viewed as the author who gave France its sense of history, even its sense of identity. He explicitly connected the greatness of Louis XIV with the greatness of the writers of that reign. This was also a period of great military conquest, of course—celebrated by Voltaire who, at other times, attacks war. So, there are inconsistencies aplenty, but you can also see how people from different political traditions can find different things in Voltaire to champion. Even if you were a Catholic who didn’t like the religious politics, you probably still saw his plays at the theatre. They remained widely performed up until the end of the nineteenth century, with all the great actresses including Sarah Bernhardt playing the leading roles.
Was Voltaire a type that later literary figures consciously aimed to emulate?
Absolutely! He is the model of the engaged public intellectual for later generations. Victor Hugo is closest thing to a Voltaire of the mid-ninetenth century in terms of his stature, his prolific output, and his campaigning against the death penalty. In 1878, marking the centenary of Voltaire’s death, Hugo makes a remarkable speech reported in all the papers describing the importance of Voltaire. And then, at the end of the 19th century you have the Dreyfus Affair with Émile Zola. In the way that the Dreyfus Affair unfolds, there are clearly echoes of the Calas Affair. Zola sees himself as the successor of Voltaire as the leading public intellectual who is using the press to manipulate public opinion. Nearer our time, Sartre would be another example.
Whether in the nineteenth century or beyond, to what extent is Voltaire a person that people mythologise? I’m just thinking that the most famous quote attributed to Voltaire is found nowhere in his extant writings: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I think it’s a question of the difference between being famous and being a celebrity. Fame is one thing. But once you’re a celebrity, somehow the public have a handle on you, they think they own you, and you have to live up to what the public think you should be. So at that point, it’s fine to invent quotations by Voltaire that he never actually said.
There’s a story that at the end of his life in 1778 when he’s dying of cancer, he goes back to Paris—he’s eighty-four—and attends a performance of his last great tragedy Irène at the Comédie-Française. He sits in a box and is applauded by the audience. At the end of the show, his bust is brought on to the stage and the leading actress of the day crowned the bust with laurel. He would die a few days later. It’s reported that when he left the theatre that night, he got into the cab and someone in the street shouted, “That’s Voltaire!”. So, the people in the street chased the cab as it drives away, shouting “L’homme aux Calas! L’homme aux Calas!”
Now, is this true? Who knows? But it is reported seriously by people at the time—so, even if it’s not true, it should be. As he said of God, if he didn’t exist, we’d have had to invent him. It’s the same with the anecdotes about Voltaire. He had become this living legend. The myth is real, whether it’s true or not, and the people chasing the dying man down the street probably hadn’t read much or any Voltaire. But they knew his name. It was a a symbol for something, which then explains why he became this figure in the Revolution. And that attracts all those quotable quotes. It’s also true that Voltaire was brilliant at creating memorable quips—Candide is full of them—and a whole string of them have become proverbial. So it’s only right that we continue inventing his quips.
We’re now living in a time where there is heightened sensitivity to ideas about speech. We’re more alert than ever to the harms that can be perpetuated by our words, but we have to wrestle with this within a framework of basic commitment to free speech. Would reading Voltaire today amplify or benefit the discussion?
It’s a really good question. At one level, one would say that the values of free speech, the use of robust common sense to attack intolerance, seem all too relevant. The idea of examining people’s reasoning and looking at how prejudice creeps into rational discourse, looking at how people distort arguments, or how people sway others with fake emotions—all of that is really quite relevant to fake news and all the interconnected issues that are worrying us now.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to think about hate speech with Voltaire. He does use harsh words and harsh language. The satire is very aggressive sometimes, which can and should make us uneasy. Maybe the answer is that making you uneasy is what satirists do. I would much rather have a Voltaire that unsettles than a Voltaire who is patronised by Roland Barthes as “the last of the happy writers”.
Voltaire’s concern with intellectual modesty is also timely. The dangers resulting from fanaticism are grounded in holding beliefs dogmatically. And, often, the resulting damage can be so disproportionate to the soundness of the beliefs in question. This call for modesty involves subjecting our own views to common sense and accepting they can be misguided. That seems prescient.
And that doesn’t go out of date. It gets often terrifyingly modern. I completely agree. At the end of the article ‘Sensation’ in the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire finishes like this: “What can we conclude from all that? You who can read and think, you conclude.” As a final word, that hasn’t dated.
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Nicholas Cronk is Professor of French Literature and Director of the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford. He is general editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, the first ever scholarly publication of the totality of Voltaire’s writings, in some 200 volumes. The project was awarded the Hervé Deluen Prize from the Académie française in 2010. He was edited works by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rostand for the Oxford World Classics series.
Nicholas Cronk is Professor of French Literature and Director of the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford. He is general editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, the first ever scholarly publication of the totality of Voltaire’s writings, in some 200 volumes. The project was awarded the Hervé Deluen Prize from the Académie française in 2010. He was edited works by Voltaire, Diderot, and Rostand for the Oxford World Classics series.
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