1902 Encyclopedia > François Marie Arouet de Voltaire
François Marie Arouet de Voltaire
French writer and philosopher
FRANÇOIS MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE (1694-1778), whose real name was FRANÇOIS MARIE AROUET simply, was born on the 21st November 1694 at Paris, and was baptized the next day. His father was François Arouet, a notary; his mother was Marie Marguerite Daumart (sometimes, but less correctly spelt DAumard, apparently because her family was noble). Both father and mother were of Poitevin extraction, but the Arouets had been for two generations established in Paris, the grandfather being a prosperous tradesman, and the father, as has been said, a still more prosperous notary. The Arouet family are heard of in Poitou as far back as the early 16th century, and appear to have always belonged to the yeoman-tradesman class. Their special home was the town of St Loup. Voltaire was the fifth child of his parentsætwin boys (of whom one survived), a girl, Marguerite Catherine, and another boy who died young, having preceded him. Not very much is known of the mother, who died when Voltaire himself was but seven years old. She seems, however, to have had delicate health, and she pretty certainly was the chief cause of Voltaires early introduction to good society, the Abbé de Châteauneuf (his sponsor in more ways than one) having been her friend. The father appears to have been somewhat peremptory in temper, but neither inhospitable nor tyrannical. Marguerite Arouet, of whom her younger brother was very fond, married early; the elder brother Armand was a strong Jansenist, and there never was any kind of sympathy between him and François
(Portrait at 24 years of age. Painted c. 1718 by Nicolas de Largillière.)
François appears to have received no every regular education till he was ten years old; but the Abbé de Châteauneuf instructed him pretty early in belles lettres and deism, and he showed when quite a child the unsurpassed faculty for facile verse-making which always distinguished him, and to which the literary tastes and models of the time lent themselves with especial readiness. But at the age just mentioned he was sent to the Collége Louis-le-Grand, which was under the management of the Jessuits. This was in 1704. He remained there till 1711. It was him whim, as part of his general liberalism, to depreciate the education he received; but it seems to have been a very sound and education, which behind all doubt formed the basis of his extraordinarily wide, though never extraordinary accurate, collection of knowledge subsequently, and (a more important thing still) disciplined and exercised his literary faculty and judgment. Nor can there be much doubt that the great attention bestowed on actingæthe Jesuits kept up the Renaissance practice of turning schools into theatres for the performance of plays both in Latin and in the vernacularæhad much to do with Voltaires lifelong devotion to the stage. It must have been in his very earliest school years that the celebrated presentation of him by his godfather to Ninon de Lenclos took place, for Ninon died in 1705. She left him two thousand livres "to buy books with." Voltaires school experience appears to have been much more like that of English schoolboys than like the dreary imprisonment of which in later days Frenchmen have generally complained. He worked fairly, lived comfortably, made good and lasting friends. Some curious traits are recorded of this lifeæone being that in the terrible famine years Malplaquet a hundred francs a year were added to the usual boarding expenses, and yet the boys had to eat pain bis.
His troubles began when, in August 1711, at the age of 17, he came home, and the usual battle began between a son who desired no profession but literature and a father who, in those days not quite unreasonably, refused to consider literature a profession at all. For a time Voltaire submitted, and read law at least nominally, doing quite other things besides or instead of that study. The Abbé de Châteauneuf died before his godson left school, but he had already introduced him to the famous coterie of the Temple, of which the grand prior Vendôme was the head, and the poets Chaulieu and La Fare the chief literary stars, and which chiefly existed for purposes of sometimes elegant and sometimes by no means elegant dissipation. It does not appear that Voltaire got into any great scrapes, and the anecdotes recorded of his wild oats time of his are harmless enough. But his father naturally prognosticated little good to him from such society, and tried to break him off from it, by sending him first to Caen and then in the suite of the Marquis de Châteauneuf, the abbes brother, to the Hague. Here, however, he got into what, in the paternal eyes at least, was a far worse scrape than staying out at night or wasting his substance on the purchase of coaches and horses. He met a certain Olympe Dunoyer ("Pimpette"), a girl apparently of respectable character and not bad connexions, but a Protestant, penniless, and daughter of a literary lady whose literary reputation was not spotless. The mother discouraged the affair, and, though Voltaire, with an early display of his afterwards famous cunning, tried to avail himself of the mania for proselytizing which then distinguished France, his father would not hear of the match, and stopped the whole affair by procuring a lettre de cachet, which, however, he did not use. Voltaire, who had been sent home, submitted, and for a time pretended to work in a Parisian lawyers office. But the again manifested a faculty for getting into trouble,æthis time in the still more dangerous way of writing libelous poems,æso that his father was glad to send him to stay for nearly a year (1714-1715) with Louis de Caumartin, Marquis de St Ange, in the country. Here he was still supposed to study law, but as usual really devoted himself in part to literary essays, in part to storing up that immense treasure of gossiping history which was afterwards one of hi most unique possessions. Almost exactly at the time of the death of Louis XIV. He returned to Paris, to fall once more into literary and Templar society, and to make the tragedy of dipe, which he had already written, privately known. He was now introduced to a less questionable and even more distinguished coterie than Vendômes, to the famous "court of Sceaux," the circle of the beautiful and ambitious Duchesse du Maine. It seems, though it is not certainly known, that Voltaire lent himself to the duchesss frantic hatred of the regent Orleans, and helped to compose lampoons on that prince. At any rate, in May 1716 he was exiled, first to Tulle, then to Sully. He was allowed to return, but again fell under suspicion of having been concerned in the composition of two violent libels,æone in Latin and one in French,æcalled from their first words the Puero Regnante and the Jai vu, was inveigled by a spy named Beauregard into a real or burlesque confession, and on May 16,1717, was arrested and sent to the Bastille. He remained there for eleven months, recast dipe, began the Henriade, and determined to alter his name. Ever after his exit from the Bastille in April 1718 he was known as Arouet de Voltaire, or simply Voltaire, though legally he never abandoned his patronymic. The origin of the famous name has been much debated, and attempts have been made to show that it actually existed in the Daumart pedigree or in some territorial designation. The balance of opinion has, however, always inclined to the hypothesis of an anagram on the same "Arouet le jeune," or "Arouet l. j.," u being changed to v and j to I according to the ordinary rules of the game. If it be so, the much despised art to the anagrammatist has the triumph of producing one of the dozen or score most famous names in literary history.
A further "exile" at Châtenay and elsewhere succeeded the imprisonment, and thought Voltaire was admitted to an audience by the regent and treated graciously it is clear that he was not trusted, and the inconveniences he had suffered for a time induced even his incorrigibly mischievous nature to keep quiet. dipe was acted at the Théâtre Français on 18th November of the year of release, and was very well received, a not dissimilar rivalry between parties to that which not long before had helped Addisons Cato assisting its success. It had a run of forth-five nights, was acted at court, and brought the author not a little money in profits and presents, besides a gold medal from the regent. Voltaire seems to have begun with these gains his long and (among authors) almost unique series of successful financial speculations. But adversity had by no means done with him. In the spring of next year the production of Lagrange-Chancels libels, entitled the Philippiques, again brought suspicion on him. He was informally exiled, and spent much time with Marshall Villars, again increasing his store of "reminiscences." He returned to Paris in the winter, and his second play, Artémire, was produced in February 1720. it was a failure, and though it was recast with some success Voltaire never published it as a whole, and used parts of it up in other work. He again spent much of his time with Villars, listening to the marshals stories and making harmless love to the duchess. In December 1721 his father died, leaving him property (rather more than four thousand livres a year), which was soon increased by a pension of half the amount from the regent. In return for this, or in hopes of more, he offered himself as a spyæor at any rate as a secret diplomatistæto Dubois. He had, however, an awkward brush with a fellow-servant in this honourable kind of work, for, meeting his old enemy Beauregard in one of the ministers rooms and making an offensive remark, he was waylaid by Beauregard some time after in a less privileged place and soundly beaten. This unpleasant proceeding was only a preliminary to Voltaires second and most important experience of "Black Will with a cudgel," to use Rochesters phrase as to the proper mode of dealing with troublesome men of letters. His visiting espionage, as unkind critics put itæhis secret diplomatic mission, as he would have linked to have it put himselfæbegan in the summer of 1722, and he set out for it en bonne fortune,æin company, that it is to say, with a certain Madame de Rupelmonde, to whom he as usual made love, though it may perhaps be platonic love only (for Voltaire was not fortunate in this way), taught deism, and served as an amusing traveling companion. He stayed at Cambray for some time, where European diplomatists were still in full session, journeyed to Brussels, where he met and quarreled with Jean Baptiste Rousseau, went on to the Hague, and then returned. It does not seem that he did anything diplomatically important, but from that day to this French Governments have had an amiable weakness for paying the traveling expenses of men of letters who fell inclined to see the world. The Henriade had got on considerably during the journey, and, according to his lifelong habit, the poet, with the help of his friend Thiériot and others, had been "working the oracle" of puffery after a fashion not particularly creditable, but perhaps recommended by a knowledge of mankind. During the late autumn and winter of 1722-23 he adobe chiefly in Paris, taking a king of lodging in the town house of M. de Berniéres, a nobleman of Rouen, and endeavouring to procure a "privilege" for his poem. In this he was disappointed, but he had the work printed at Rouen nevertheless, and spent the summer of 1723 revising it. In November he caught smallpox and was very seriously ill, so that the book was not given to the world till the spring of 1724 (and then of course, as it had no privilege, appeared privately). Almost at the same time, March 4, his third tragedy, Mariamne, appeared, at first with great success, but before the curtain fell complete damnation fell on it. The regent had died shortly before, not to Voltaires advantage; for though that rather hardly treated person had little reason to love the poet he had been a generous patron to him. Voltaire had made, however, a useful friend in another grand seigneur, as profligate and nearly as intelligent, the duke of Richelieu, and with him he passed 1724 and the next year chiefly, recasting Mariamne (which was now successful), writing the comedy of LIndiscret, and courting the queen, the ministers, the favourites, and everybody who seemed worth courting. The end of 1725 brought a disastrous close to this period of his life. he was insulted in one way or another by the Chevalier de Rohan, replied with his usual sharpness of tongue, and shortly afterwards, when dining at the Hôtel Sully, was called out and bastinadoed by the chevaliers hirelings, Rohan himself looking on. Nobody would take his part, and at last he challenged Rohan, who accepted the challenge, but on the morning appointed for the duel Voltaire was arrested and sent for the second time to the Bastille. This was nearly three months after the outrage. Voltaire had been ostentatiously taking lessons in fencing meanwhile, and it requires some effort to sympathize with him in all the circumstances. He was only kept in confinement a fortnight, and was then packed off to England in accordance with is won request. In the then state of social matters in France this was probably the best end of the matter, and nobody comes out of it so badly as the duke of Sully, who, by the code of gentlemen of all ages, was clearly bound to take the part of the guest who had been trepanned from his won table, and did not take it. But here also Voltaire took the best means of putting himself in the wrong and his enemies in the right by cutting Maximilien de Béthunes name out of the Henriade.
No competent judges have ever mistaken the importance of Voltaires visit to England, and the influence it exercised on his future career. In the first place, the ridiculous and discreditable incident of the beating had time to blow over; in the second (as a previous experience of J. B. Rousseaus, which a good man of business like Voltaire was not likely to forget, had shown), England was a very favourable place for Frenchmen of note to pick up guineas; in the third, and most important of all, his contact with a people then far more different in every conceivable way from their neighbours than any two people of Europe are different now, acted as a sovereign tonic and stimulant on his intellect and literary faculty. Before the English visit Voltaire had been an elegant trifler, an adept in the forms of literature popular in French society, a sort of superior Dorat or Bouffiers of earlier growth. He returned from that visit one of the foremost literary men in Europe, with views, if not profound or accurate, yet wide and acute on all les grands sujets, and with a solid stock of money to make him independent of those great men of his own country who had taught him how dearly their patronage was to be purchased. The visit lasted about three years from 1726 to 1729; and, as if to make the visitors luck certain, George I. died and George II. succeeded soon after his arrival. The new king was not fond of "boetry," but Queen Caroline was, and the international jealousy (which, though there was no actual war, was never stronger than then) was pleased at the thought of welcoming a distinguished exile from French illiberality. The Walpoles, Bubb Dodington, Bolingbroke especially, Sir Everard Falkener, a merchant and diplomatists, Young, Congreve, Sarah, Marlborough, Pope, were among his English friends. He at least tried to appreciate Shakespeare, and at least attained to the length of now copying and now reviling him. He was much struck (and it would appear not unfrequently hoaxed) by English manners, was deeply penetrated by English toleration for personal freethought and eccentricity, and (though the amount is very variously stated) certainly gained some thousands of pounds from an authorized English edition of the Henriade dedicated to the queen. But he visited Paris now and then, without permission (at other times he obtained permission to go without visiting it), and his mind, like the mind of every exiled Frenchman, was always se thereon. He at last gained full licence to return in the spring of 1729.
He was full of literary projects, and immediately after his return he is said to have increased his fortune immensely by a lucky lottery speculation. The Henriade was at last licensed in France; Brutus, a play which he had printed in England, was accepted for performance, but kept back for a time by the author; and he began the celebrated poem o the Pucelle, the amusement and the torment of great part of his life. But he had great difficulties with two of his chief works which were ready to appear, and did after a fashion appear in 1731,æto wit, Charles XII. and the Lettres sur les Anglais. With both he took all imaginable pains to avoid offending the censorship; for Voltaire had, more than any other man who ever lived, the ability and the willingness to stoop to conquer. At the end of 1730 Brutus did actually get acted with not inconsiderable but gradually decreasing success. Then in the spring of the next year he went to Rouen to get Charles XII. surreptitiously printed, which he accomplished. In all this nomadic life of his, which had now reached more than "the middle of the way," he had never had a house of his own, nor had he now, though for a rather unusually long time he was half-guest half-boarder with the Comtesse de Fontaine-Martel. In 1732 another tragedy, Ériphile, appeared with the same kind of halting success which had distinguished the appearance of its elder sisters since dipe. But at last, on August 13, 1732, he produced Zaïre, the best (with Mérope) of all his plays, and one of the ten or twelve best plays of the whole French classical school. Its motive was borrowed to some extent from Othello, but that matters little. In the following winter the death of his hostess turned him out of a comfortable adobe. He still, however, did not se up housekeeping, but took lodgings with an agent of his, one Demoulin, in an out-of-the-way part of Paris, and was, for some time at least, as much occupied with contracts, speculation, and all sorts of means of gaining money as with literature.
It was in the middle of this period, however, in 1733, that two important books, the Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais and the Temple du Goût appeared. Both were likely to make bad blood, for the latter was, under the mask of easy verse, a satire on contemporary French literature especially on J.B. Rousseau, and former was, in the guise of a criticism or rather panegyric of English ways, an attack on everything established in the church and state of France. It was published with certain "remarks" on Pascal, more offensive to orthodoxy than itself, and no mercy was shown to it. The book was condemned (June 10, 1734), the copies seized and burnt, a warrant issued against the author, and his dwelling searched. He himself, as usual henceforward, took care to be out of the way of danger, and was safe in he independent duchy of Lorraine with Madame du Châtelet, not having taken, but every shortly about to take, up his adobe with that "respectable Emily" at her famous chateau of Cirey.
If the English visit may be regarded as having finished Voltaires education, the Cirey residence may be justly said to be the first stage of his literary manhood. He had written important and characteristic work before; but he had always been in a kind of literary Wanderjahre. He now obtained a settled home for many years, and, taught by his numerous brushed with the authorities, he began and successfully carried but that system of keeping out of personal harms way, and of at once denying any awkward responsibility, which made him for nearly half a century at once the chief and the most prosperous of European heretics in regard to all established ideas. He was in no great or immediate danger on this particular occasion, especially as he was perfectly ready to deny his authorship, and he traveled about for some time, visiting the camp at Philippsburg, where some not very important fighting, notable only for being the last campaign of Eugene, was going on. It was not till the summer of 1734 that Cirey, a half-dismantled country house on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, was fitted up with Voltaires money and became the headquarters of himself, of his hostess, and now and then of her accommodating husband. Many pictures of the life here, some of them not a little malicious, survive. It was not entirely a bed of roses, for the "respectable Emilys" temper was violent, and after a time she sought lovers who were not so much des cérébraux as Voltaire. But it provided him with a safe ad comfortable retreat and with something of the same kind of convenience for literary work which matrimony provides for some commonplace or more scrupulous men of letters. In March 1735 the ban was formally taken off him, and he was at liberty to return to Paris, a liberty of which he availed himself but sparingly now and ever afterwards, finding himself better away from the capital. At Cirey he wrote indefatigably and did not neglect business. The principal literary results of his early years here were the play of Alzire (1736) and a long treatise on the Newtonian system which he and Madame du Châteletæan expert mathematicianæwrote together. But as usual Voltaires extraordinary literary industry was rather shown in a vast amount of fugitive writings than in substantive works, though for the whole space of his Cirey residence he was engaged writing, adding to, and altering the Pucelle. In the very first days of his sojourn he had thus written a pamphlet with the imposing title of "Treatise on Metaphysics." Of metaphysics proper Voltaire neither now nor at any other time understood anything, and the subject, like every other, merely served him as a pretext for laughing at religion with the usual reservation of a tolerably affirmative deism. In March 1736 one of the least creditable events of his life, yet still not wholly discreditable, happened. An avowal of the English Letters was got out of him privately and then used publicly as an engine of extortion. In the same year he received his first letter from Frederick of Prussia, then crown prince only. He was soon again in trouble, this time for the poem of the Mondain, and he at once crossed the frontier and then made for Brussels. He spent about three months in the Low Countries, and in March 1737 returned to Cirey, and continued writing, making experiments in physics (he had at this time a large laboratory), and busying himself not a little with iron-founding, the chief industry of the district. The best known accounts of Cirey life, those of Madame de Grafigny, date from the winter of 1738-39; they are, as has been said, somewhat spiteful but very amusing, depicting the constant quarrels between Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire, his intense suffering under criticism, his constant dread of the surreptitious publication of the Pucelle (which nevertheless he could not keep his hands from writing or his tongue from reciting to his visitors), and so forth. The chief and most galling of his critics at this time was the Abbé Desfontaines, and the chief of Desfontainess attacks was entitled La Voltairomanie, in reply to a libel of Voltaires called Le Préservatif. Both combatants had, according to the absurd habit of the time, to disown their works, Desfontainess disavowal being formal and procured by the exertion of all Voltaires own influence both at home and abroad. For he had as little notion of tolerance towards others as of dignity in himself. In April 1739 a journey was made to Brussels, to Paris, and then again to Brussels, which was the headquarters for a considerable time owing to some law affairs to the Du Châtelets. Frederick, now king of Prussia, made not a few efforts to get Voltaire away from Madame du Châtelet, but unsuccessfully, and the king earned the ladys cordial hatred by persistently refusing or omitting to invite her. At last, in September 1740, master and pupil met for the first time at Cleves, an interview followed three months later by a longer visit at Remusberg. Brussels was again the headquarters in 1741, by which time Voltaire had finished the best and the second or third best of his plays, Mérope and Mahomet. Mahomet was played first in the year and at the place just mentioned; it did not appear in Paris till August next year, and Mérope not till 1743. This last was and deserved to be the most successful of its authors whole theatre. It was in this same year that he received the singular diplomatic mission to Frederick which nobody seems to have taken seriously, and after his return the oscillation between Brussels, Cirey, and Paris was resumed, in a manner rather difficult to record in a short biography. During these years Voltaires production of miscellanies was as constant as usual, but his time allotted to serious work was chiefly given to history and much of the Essai sur les Murs and the Siècle de Louis XIV. was now composed. He also returned, not too well-advisedly, to the business of courtiership, which he had given up since the death of the regent. He was much employed, owing to Richelieus influence, in the fêtes of the dauphins marriage, and was rewarded on New Years day 1745 by the appointment to the post of historiographer-royal, once jointly held by Racine and Boileau. The situation itself and its accompanying privileges were what Voltaire chiefly aimed at, but there was a salary of two thousand livres attached, and he had the year before come in for three times as much by the death of his brother. In the same year he wrote a poem on Fontenoy, he received medals from the pope, and dedicated Mahomet to him, and he wrote court divertissements and other things to admiration. But he was not a thoroughly skilful courtier, and one of the best known of Voltairiana is the contempt or at least silence with which Louis XV.æa sensualist but no foolæreceived the maladroit and almost insolent inquiry Trajan estil content? Addressed in his hearing to Richelieu at the close of a piece in which the emperor had appeared with a transparent reference to the king. All this assentation had at least one effect. He who had been for years admittedly the first writer in France had been repeatedly passed over in elections to the Academy. He was at last elected in the spring of 1746, and received on May 9. Then the tide began to turn. His favour at court had naturally exasperated his enemies; it had not secured him any real friends, and even a gentlemanship of the chamber was no solid benefit, except from the money point of view. He did not indeed hold it very long, but was permitted to sell it for a large sum, retaining the rank and privileges. He had various proofs of the instability of his hold on the king during 1747 and in 1748. he once lay in hiding for two months at Sceaux, and afterwards for a time lived chiefly at Luvéville, where Madame du Châtelet had established herself at the court of King Stanislaus, where she carried on her flirtations with Saint Lambert, and where, in September 1749, she died, not in, but about four days after, childbirth.
The death of Madame du Châtelet is another turning point in the history of Voltaire. He was now not a young manæindeed he was fifty-fiveæbut he had nearly thirty years more to live, and he had learnt much during what may be called is Cirey cohabitation. On the one hand, he had discovered that it was undesirable that a man should not have a household; on the other, he had discovered that it was still more undesirable that a man should put himself under illegitimate petticoat government. For some time, however, after Madame du Châtelets death he was in a state of pitiable unsettlement. At first, after removing his goods from Cirey, he hired the greater part of the Châtelet town house and then the whole. He had some idea of settling down in Paris, and might perhaps have done so it mischief had not been the very breath of his nostrils. He could not bring himself to testify in any open and dangerous manner for what he thought to be the truth; he could not bring himself to refrain from attacking, by every artifice and covert enginery, what he thought to be falsehood. He went on writing tales like Zadig. He engaged in a foolish and undignified struggle with Crébillon pére (not fils), a dramatist who, in part of one play, Rhadamiste et Zénobie, has struck a note of tragedy in the grand Cornelian strain, which Voltaire could never hope to echo, and who, in most of his other efforts, was and is mainly futile. He used the most extraordinary efforts to make himself more popular than he was, but he could not help being uncomfortable in a city where the court all but threatened, and where the city did more than all but laugh.
All this time Frederick of Prussia had been continuing his invitations, and the "respectable Emily" was no longer in the way. It does not appear that, at any rate at first, Frederick made any real difficulty as to money. Indeed he behaved on the whole very generously. Voltaire left Paris on the 15th June 1751, and reached Berlin on the 10th July.
This Berlin visit might itself be treated, without undue extension, at the length of the present article; but its circumstances may be presumed to be already more of less familiar to most English readers from the two great essays of Macaulay and Carlyle as well as from the Frederick of the latter. It is desirable, if not altogether necessary, to say that these two masters English were not perhaps the best qualified to relate the story. Both were unjust to Voltaire, and Macaulay was unjust to Frederick as well. It is quite certain that at first the king behaved altogether like a king to his guest. He pressed him to remain; he gave him (the words are Voltaires own) one of his orders, twenty thousand francs a year, and four thousand additional for his niece, Madame Denis, in case she would come and keep house for her uncle. But Voltaires conduct was from the first Voltarian. He sent a letter, in which Madame Denis pleaded with him to return, to Frederickæan odd way of ingratiating his niece with that monarch. He insisted on the consent of his own kind, which was given without delay and on very liberal terms,æLouis XV., if gossip is to be trusted, pointing out with considerable shrewdness that it was not his fault if Voltaire would put himself constantly in hot water, and still less his fault that there were so few men of letters in Prussia that it suited the king of Prussia to ask them to dinner, and so many in France that it was quite impossible for the king of France to do so. Frenchmen, always touchy on such a point, regarded Voltaire as something of a deserter; and he was not long before he bitterly repented his desertion, though his residence in Prussia actually lasted for nearly three years. It was quite impossible that Voltaire and Frederick should get on together for long. Voltaire was not humble enough to be a mere butt, as many of Fredericks led poets were; he was not enough of a gentleman to hold his own place with dignity and discretion; he was constantly jealous both of his equals in age and reputation, such as Maupertuis, and of his juniors and inferiors, such as Baculard DArnaud. He was greedy, restless, and in a way Bohemian. Frederick, though his love of teasing sake has been exaggerated by Macaulay, was anything but amiable in disposition, was a martinet of the first water, had a sharp though one-sided idea of justice, and had not the slightest intention of allowing Voltaire to insult or to tyrannize over his other guests and servants. If he is to be blamed in this particular matter, the blame must be chiefly confined to his imprudence in inviting Voltaire at the beginning and to the brutality of his conduct at the end. Within Voltaire there was always a mischievous and ill-behaved child; and he was never more mischievous, more ill-behaved, and more childish than in these years. But, knowing as we do what he was, there is much excuse for him. He tried to get DArnaud exiled and succeeded. He got into a quite unnecessary quarrel with Lessing, the most distinguished, or at least the most gifted, German author of the day. He had not been in the country six months before he engaged in discreditable, and in Prussia directly illegal, piece of financial gambling with Hirsh, the Dresden Jew. He had the extreme unwisdom and meanness to quarrel with this agent of his about money, and was at least accused of something like downright forgeryæthat is to say, to altering a paper signed by Hirsch after he had signed it. The kings very well justified disgust at this affair (which came to an open scandal before the tribunals) was so great that he was on the point of ordering Voltaire out of Prussia, and Darget the secretary had no small trouble in arranging the affair (February 1751). Then it was Voltaires turn to be disgusted with an occupation he had undertaken himselfæthe occupation of "buckwashing" the kings French verses. However, he succeeded in finishing and printing the Siécle de Louis XIV., while the Dictionary Philosophique is said to have been devised and begun at Potsdam. But Voltaires restless temper was brewing up for another storm. In the early autumn of 1751 La Mettrie, one of the kings parasites, and a man of much more talent than is generally allowed, horrified Voltaire by telling him that the king had in conversation applied to him, Voltaire, a proverb about "sucking the orange and flinging away its skin;" and about the same time the dispute with Maupertuis, which had more than anything else to do with his exclusion from Prussia, came to a head. No one quite known how it began, though it is probably enough to say that Maupertuis and Voltaire had been of old quasi-rivals in the favour of the "divine Émilie," that as president of the Berlin Academy Maupertuis was in manner Voltaires literary superior, that he was a man of rough and boorish manners, and that he is said at least to have refused his aid in the Hirsch affair. He also seems to have had something at least to do with a tedious and complicated squabble arising from the work of a certain La Beaumelle, a literary hack of the time, not without ability, who chose to visit Berlin and court Voltaire. The final rupture was provoked by Maupertuis himself, though indirectly, by a dispute into which he got with one König. The king took his presidents part; Voltaire (unluckily for him, but with sufficient adroitness to make no open breach) took Königs. but Maupertuis must needs write his Letters, and there upon (1752) appeared one of Voltaires most famous, though perhaps not one of his most read works, the Diatribe du Docteur Akakia. Even Voltaire did not venture to publish this lampoon on a great official of a prine so touchy as the king of Prussia without some permission, and if all tales are true he obtained this by piece of something like forgeryægetting the king to endorse a totally different pamphlet on its last leaf, and affixing that last leaf of Akakia. Of this Frederick was not aware; but the did get some wind of the Diatribe itself, sent for the author, heard it read to his won great amusement and either actually burned the MS. or believed that it was burnt. In a few days printed copies appeared. Now Frederick did not like disobedience, but he still less liked being made a fool of and he put Voltaire under arrest. But again the affair blew over, which is at least a proof that the king was not wanting in long-suffering. He believed that the edition of Akakia confiscated in Prussia was the only one. Alas! Voltaire, according to his usual fashion, had sent copies away; others had been printed abroad; and the thing was irrecoverable. Of course it could not be proved that he had ordered the printing, and all Frederic could do was to have the pamphlet burnt by the hangman. Things were now drawing to a crisis. One day Voltaire sent his orders, &c., back; the next Frederick returned them, but Voltaire had quite made up the hangman. Things were now drawing to a crisis. One day Voltaire sent his orders, &c., back; the next Frederick returned them, but Voltaire had quite made up his mind to fly. A kind of reconciliation occurred in March, and after some days of good-fellowship Voltaire at last obtained by long-sought leave of absence and left Potsdam on the 26th of the month (1753). It was nearly three months afterwards that the famous, ludicrous, and brutal arrest was made at Frankfort, on the persons of himself and his niece, who had met him meanwhile. There was some faint excuse for Fredericks wrath. In the first place, after a plea of business in Paris, of the necessity of the waters of Plombiéres, and so forth, it was a little incongruous that the poet should linger at Leipsic. In the second place, in direct disregard of a promise give to Frederick, a supplement to Akakia appeared, more offensive that the man text, and was followed by a paper war of letters with Maupertuis. But the king cooked his spleen and bided his time. From Leipsic, after a months stay, Voltaire moved to Gotha, and seemed once more in no hurry to go on, his excuse being the compilation of Annals of the Empire, asked of him by the duchess of Saxe-Weimar. Once more, on May 25, he moved on to Frankfort, and here the blow fell. Frankfort, nominally a free city, but with a Prussian resident who did very much what he pleased, was not like Gotha and Leipsic. An excuse was provided in the fact that the poet had a copy of some unpublished poems of Fredericks, and as soon as Voltaire arrived the thing was done, at first with courtesy enough. The resident, Freytag, was not a very wise person (though he probably did not, as Voltaire would have it, spell "poésie" "poéshie"); constant references to Frederick were necessary; and the affair was prolonged so that Madame Denis had time to join her uncle. At last Voltaire did the unwisest thing he could have done by trying to steal away. He was followed, arrested, his niece seized separately, and sent to join him in custody; and the two, with the secretary Collini, were kept close prisoners at an inn called Goat. This situation lasted some time (a time, indeed, since the "uvre de poéshie" was at once recovered, rather unintelligible except on the score of Freytags folly), and was at last put an end to by the city authorities, who probably felt that they were not playing a very creditable part. Voltaire left Frankfort on July 7th, traveled safely to Mainz, and thence to Mannheim, Strasburg, and Colmar. The last-named place he reached (after a leisurely journey and many honours at the little courts just mentioned) at the beginning of October, and here he proposed to stay the winter, finish his Annals of the Empire, and look about him.
Voltaires second stage was now over, and he was about to try what an Englishman would have tried long beforeæcomplete independence of hosts and patrons, mistresses and friends. Even now, however, in his sixtieth year, it required some more external pressure to induce him to take this apparently obvious step. He had been, in the first blush of his Frankfort disaster, refused, or at least not granted, permission even to enter France proper,æa rebuff probably due in about equal parts to a wish not to displease or disoblige Frederick, and a wish to punish Voltaire himself for selecting Prussia as a home. At Colmar he was not safe, especially when in January 1754 a pirated edition of the Essai sur les Murs, written long before, appeared. Permission to establish himself in France was not absolutely refused; and even Madame de Pompadour was powerless, if indeed she cared greatly to exert her power. Nor did an extremely offensive performance of Voltairesæthe solemn partaking of the eucharist at Colmar after due confessionæat all mollify his enemies. His exclusion from France, however, was chiefly metaphorical, and really meant exclusion from Paris and its neighbourhood. In the summer he went to Plombiéres, and after returning to Colmar for some time journeyed in the beginning of winter to Lyons, and after a month there went, as it may almost be said, "home"æto a home which he had never yet visited, but which was, with slight changes of actual domicile, but with no change of neighbourhood, to shelter him for the rest of his life.
His first resting-place, Geneva, was reached in the middle of December; but Voltaire had no purpose of remaining in the city, and almost immediately bought a country house just outside the gates, to which he gave the name Les Délices. This, the first house of his own which he can be said to have possessed, is still standing, though now absorbed in the suburbs. It was pretty, with fine views; but it had advantages of nonæsthetic kind for its owner, of which he made no secret. He was here practically at the meeting-point of four distinct jurisdictionsæGeneva, the canton Vaud, Sardinia, and France, while other cantons were within easy reach. Before finally settling in Ferney he bought other houses dotted about these territories, so as never to be without a refuge close at hand in case of sudden storms. At Les Délices he set up a considerable establishment, which his great wealth (obtained chiefly by speculation in the manner already more than once hinted at) made him able easily to afford. He kept open house for visitors; he had printers close at hand in Geneva; he fitted up a private theatre in which he could enjoy what was perhaps the greatest pleasure of his whole lifeæacting in a play of his own, stage-managed by himself. His residence at Geneva brought him into correspondence (at first quite amicable) with the most famous of her citizens, J. J. Rousseau. His Orphelin de la Chine, performed at Paris in 1755, was very well received; and the earthquake at Lisbon, which appalled other people, gave Voltaire an excellent opportunity for ridiculing the beliefs of the orthodox, first in verse (1756) and later in the (from a literary point of view) unsurpassable tale of Candide (1759). All was, however, not yet quite smooth with him. Geneva had a law expressly forbidding theatrical performances in any circumstances whatever. Voltaire, as had been said, had infringed this law already as far as private performances went, and he had thought of building a regular theatre, not indeed at Geneva but at Lausanne. In July 1755 a very polite and, as far as Voltaire was concerned, indirect resolution of the consistory declared that in consequence of these proceedings of the Sieur de Voltaire the pastors should notify their flocks to abstain, and that the chief syndic should be informed of the consistorys perfect confidence that the edicts would be carried out. Voltaire obeyed this hint as far as Les Délices was concerned, and consoled himself by having the performances in his Laussane house. But he never was the man to take opposition to his wishes either quietly or without retaliation. He undoubtedly instigated DAlembert to include a censure of the prohibition in his Encyclopédie article on "Geneva," a proceeding which provoked Rousseaus celebrated Lettre à DAlembert sur les Spectacles. As for himself, even still restless, he looked about for a place where he could combine the social liberty of France with the political liberty of Geneva, and he found one. At the end of 1758 he bought the considerable property of Ferney, on the shore of the lake, about four miles from Geneva, and on French soil. At Les Délices (which he sold in 1765) he had become a householder on no small scale; at Ferney (which he increased by other purchases and leases) he became a complete country gentleman. He set about establishing himself handsomely in his new abode, and though he did not absolutely abandon his other houses he was henceforward known to all Europe as squire of Ferney, hardly less than as author of the Henriade and the Pucelle of Charles XII. and Akakia.
From this time forward many of the most celebrated men of Europe visited from him there, and large parts of his usual biographies are composed of extracts from their accounts of Ferney. His new occupations by no means quenched his literary activity, but on the contrary stimulated it. He did not make himself a slave to his visitors, but appeared only occasionally and reserved much time for work and for his immense correspondence, which had for a long time once more included Frederick, the two getting on very well when they were not in contact. Above all, he now, being comparatively secure in position, engaged much more strongly in public controversies, and, without wholly abandoning, resorted less to, his old labyrinthine tricks of disavowal, garbled publication, and private libel. The suppression of the Encyclopédie, to which he had been a considerable contributor, and whose conductors were his intimate friends, drew from him a shower of lampoons directed now at "Iinfâme" (see infra) generally, now at literary victims, such as Le Franc de Pompignan (who had written one piece of verse so much better than anything serious of Voltaires that he could not be forgiven), or Palissot (who had boldly gibbeted most of the philosophes in his play of that time, but had not included Voltaire), now at Fréron, an excellent critic and a dangerous writer, who had attacked Voltaire from the conservative side, and at whom the patriarch of Ferney, as he now began to be called, leveled in return the very inferior farce-lampoon of LÉcossaine, of the first night of which Fréron himself did an admirably humorous criticism.
How he built a church and got into trouble in so doing at Ferney, how he put "Deo erexit Voltaire" on it (1760-61) and obtained a relic from the pope for his new building, how entertained a grand-niece of Corneille, and for her benefit wrote his well-known "commentary" on that poet, are matters of interest, but to be passed over briefly. Here, too, he began that series of interference on behalf of the oppressed and the ill-treated which, whatever mixture of motives may have prompted it, is certainly an honour to his memory. Volumes and almost libraries have been written on the Calas affair, and it is impossible her to give nay account of it or of the only less famous cases of Sirven (very similar to that of Calas, though no life was actually lost), Espinasse (who had been sentenced to the galleys for harbouring a Protestant minister), Lally (the son of the unjustly treated but not blameless Irish-French commander in India), DÉtalonde (the companion of La Barre), Montbailli, and others.
In 1768 he entered, it would seem out of pure wantonness, into an indecent controversy with the bishop of the diocese (who, like an honest man, was not particularly well satisfied with his occasional conformity); he had differences with the superior landlord of part of his estate, the president De Brosses; and he engaged in a long and tedious return match with the republic of Geneva, in which the scoring was alternate and rather bewildering, Geneva playing at one time an insult to Voltaires friend and patron Catherine of Russia, and Voltaire replying at another by setting up a rival colony of watchmakers at Ferney. The match went on the whole in favour of Voltaire, for during its course a theatre was authorized in the city, and he himself, a kind of exile from it, was applied to to mediate between different classes of the community. But the general events of this Ferney life are somewhat of that happy kind which are no eventsæthe distractions and employments of a man who has nothing serious to occupy himself about.
In this may things went on for many years, and Voltaire, who had been an old man when he established himself at Ferney, became a very old one almost without noticing it. The death of Louis XV. and the accession of Louis XVI. Excited even in his aged breast the hope of reentering Paris, but he did not at once receive any encouragement, despite the reforming ministry of Turgot. A much more solid gain to his happiness was the adoption, or practical adoption, in 1776 of Reine Philiberte de Varicourt, a young girl of noble but poor family, whom Voltaire rescued from the convent, installed in his house as an adopted daughter, and married to the Marquis de Villette. Her pet name was "Belle et Bonne," and nobody had more to do with the happiness of the last years to the "patriarch" than she had. It is doubtful whether his last and fatal visit to Paris was due to this own wish or to the instigation of his niece, Madame Denis; but it is fair to say that this ladyæa woman of disagreeable temper, especially to her inferiorsæappears to have been rather treated by Voltaires earlier, and sometimes by his later, biographers. The suggestion which has been made that the success of Beaumarchais piqued him has nothing impossible in it. At any rate he had, at the end of 1777 and the beginning of 1778, been carefully finishing a new tragedyæIrèneæfor production in the capital; he started on the 5th of February, and five days later arrived at the city which he had not seen for eight and twenty years.
Abundant as is the information respecting the whole, or almost the whole, of his life, it is nowhere more abundant than in respect to these last months. He was received with immense rejoicings, not indeed directly by the court, but by the Academy, by society, and by all the more important foreign visitors. About a fortnight after his arrival age and fatigue made him seriously ill, and a confessor was sent for. But he recovered, scoffed at himself as usual, and prepared more eagerly than ever for the first performance of Irène, on March 16. At the end of the month he was able to go out and attend a performance of it, which has often been described, and was a kind of apotheosis. He was crowned with laurel in his box, amid the plaudits of the audience, and did not for the moment seem to be the worse for it, enjoying several other triumphs, during one of which he had, in full Academic séance, to embrace Franklin after he French manner. He even began or proceeded with another tragedy,æAgathocle,æand attended several Academic meetings. But such proceedings in the case of a man of eighty-four were impossible. To keep himself up he exceed even his usual excess in coffee, and about the middle of May be became very ill. For about a fortnight he was alternately better and worse; but on May 30 the priests were once more sent for,æto wit, his nephew the Abbé Mignot, the Abbé Gaultier, who had officiated on the former occasion, and the parish priest, the cure of St Sulpice. He was, however, in a state of half insensibility, and petulantly them away. The legends set afloat about his diving in a state of terror and despair are certainly false; but it must be regarded as singular and unfortunate that he who had more than once out of his way to conform ostentatiously and with his tongue in his cheek should have neglected or missed this last opportunity. The result was a difficulty as to burial which was compromised by hurried interment at the abbey of Scelliéres in Champagne, anticipating the interdict of the bishop of the diocese by an hour or two. On July 10, 1791, the body was transferred to the Pantheon, but it was not to rest there, the Hundred Days it was once more, it is said, disentombed, and stowed away in a piece of waste ground. His heart, taken from the body when it was embalmed, and given to Madame Denis and by her to Madame de Villete, was preserved in a silver case, and when it was proposed (in 1864) to restore it to the other remains the sarcophagus at Sainte Geneviève (the Pantheon) was opened and found to be empty.
In person Voltaire was not engaging, even as a young man. His extraordinary thinness is commemorated, among other things, by the very poor but well-known epigram attributed to Young, and identifying him at once with "Satan, Death, and Sin." In old age he was a mere skeleton, with a long nose and eyes of preternatural brilliancy peering out of his wig. He never seems to have been addicted to any manly sport, and took little exercise. He was sober enough (for his day and society) in eating and drinking generally; but drank coffee, as his contemporary, counterpart, and enemy, Johnson, drank tea, in a hardened and inveterate manner. It may be presumed with some certainty that his attentions to women were for the most platonic; indeed, both on the good and the bad side of him, he was all brain. He appears to have had no great sense of natural beauty, in which point he resembled his generation (though one remarkable story is told of his being deeply affected by Alpine scenery); and, except in his passion for the stage, he does not seem to have cared much for any of the arts. Conversation and literature were, again as in Johnsons case, the sole gods of his idolatry. As for his moral character, the wholly intellectual cast of mind just referred to makes it difficult to judge that. His beliefs or absence of beliefs emancipated him from conventional scruples; and it must be admitted that he is not a good subject for those who maintain that a nice morality may exist independently of religion. He was good-natured when now crossed, generous to dependants who made themselves useful to him, and indefatigable in defending the cause of those who were oppressed by the systems with which he was at war. But he was inordinately vain, and totally unscrupulous in gaining money, in attacking an enemy, or in protecting himself when he was threatened with danger. In these three cases he stuck at no lie, found no weapons too foul to use, and regarded no gain as to dirty to pouch. His peculiar fashion of attacking the popular beliefs of his time has also failed to secure the approval of some who have very little sympathy with those beliefs, of not a few even who go so far as to approve of ridicule and indeed of mere ribaldry being used to wean those who hold things sacred from their belief in them. The only excuse made for the alternate cringing and insult, the alternate abuse and lying, which marked hic course in this manner, has been the very weak plea that a man cannot fight with a system,æa plea which is sufficiently answered by the effort that a great many men have so fought and have won. But this comes so closely to the discussion of Voltaires works and intellectual character that it may be dismissed for the present with only one more remark, by no means new, but it would seem constantly requiring repetition. Voltaires works, and especially his private letters, constantly contain the word "Iinfâme" and the expression in full or abbreviated "écreasez Iinfâme." This has been misunderstood in many ways,æthe mistake going so far as in some cases to suppose that Voltaire meant Christ by this opprobrious expression. No careful and competent student of his works, whatever that students sympathies, has ever failed to correct this gross misapprehension. "Iinfâme" is not God; it is not Christ; it is not Christianity; it is not even Catholicism. Its briefest equivalent may be given as "persecuting and privileged orthodoxy" in general, and, more particularly it is the particular system which Voltaire saw around him, of which he had felt the effects in his own exiles and the confiscation of his books, and of which he saw the still worse effects in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre, and in the less hideous but still severe miseries of persons perfectly guiltless, even according to their tormentors, such as the families of Calas and Sirven.
Vast and various as the work of Voltaire is, no article such as the present could be even approximately complete without some attempt to give an outline of its general contents and characteristics, for its vastness and variety are of the essence of its writers peculiar quality. The divisions of it have long been recognized, and may be treated in order.
The first of these divisions in order, no the least in bulk, and, though not the first in merit, inferior to none in the amount of congenial labour spent on it, is the theathre of Voltaire. Between fifty and sixty different pieces (including a few which exist only in fragments or sketches) are included in his writings, and they cover the entire stretch of his literary life. it is at first sight remarkable that Voltaire, whose comic power was undoubtedly far in excess of his tragic, should have written many tragedies of no small excellence in their way but only one fair second-class comedy, Nanine. His other efforts in this latter direction are quite inferior, being either slight and almost insignificant in scope, or, as in the case of the somewhat famous Écossaise, deriving all their interest from being personal libels. His tragedies, on the other hand, though they can never fully satisfy those who have been accustomed to the stronger meat of romantic drama, are works of extraordinary merit in their own way. Although Voltaire had neither the perfect versification of Racine nor the noble poetry of Corneille, he surpassed the latter certainly, and the former in the opinion of some not incompetent judges, in playing the difficult and artificial game of the French tragedy. Zaïre, among those where love is admitted as a principal motive, and Merope, among those where this motive is excluded and kept in subordinance, yield to no plays of their class in such sustaining of interest as is possible on the model, in adaption of that model to stage effect, and in uniform, if never very transporting or extraordinary, literary merit. Voltaire was an enthusiastic lover of the stage; he was intimately acquainted with its laws; he knew that the public opinion of his time reserved its highest prizes for a capable and successful dramatist; and he was determined to win those prizes. He therefore set all his wonderful cleverness to the task, going so far as to adopt a little even of that romantic disobedience to the strict classical theory which he condemned, and no doubt sincerely, in Shakespeare. The consequence is that his work in its kind is unlikely ever to be surpassed.
It is very different with his poems proper, of which there are two long ones, the Henriade and the Pucelle, besides smaller pieces, of which it is enough to say that a bare catalogue of them fills fourteen royal octavo columns. The value of these is very unequal. The Henriade has by universal consent been relegated to the position of a school reading book, and perhaps does not hold even that every securely. Constructed and written in almost slavish imitation of Virgil, employing for medium a very unsuitable vehicleæthe alexandrine couplet (as reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes)æand animated neither by enthusiasm for the subject nor by real understanding thereof, it could not but be an unsatisfactory performance to posterity. The Pucelle, if morally inferior, is from a literary point of view of far more value. It is desultory to a degree; it is a base libel on religion and history; it differs from its model Ariosto in being, not as Ariosto is, a mixture of romance and burlesque, but a sometimes tedious tissue of burlesque pure and simple; and it is exposed to the objectionæoften and justly urgedæthat much of its fun depends simply on the fact that there were and are many people who believe enough in Christianity to make its jokes give pain to them, and to make their disgust at such jokes piquant to others. Nevertheless, with all Pucelles faults, it is amusingæless so indeed than its authors prose tales, but still amusing. The minor pomes are as much love the Pucelle as the Pucelle is above the Henriade. It is true that there is nothing, or hardly anything, that properly deserves the name of poetry in themæno passion, no sense of the beauty of nature, only a narrow "criticism of life," only a conventional and restricted choice of language, a cramped and monotonous prosody, and none of that indefinite suggestion which has been rightly said to be of the poetic essence. But there is immense wit, a wonderful command of such metre and language as the taste of the time allowed to the poet, occasionally a singular if somewhat artificial grace, and a curious felicity of diction and manner on occasions proper to the poets genius.
The third division of Voltaires works in a rational order (though it is usually placed later in the editions) consists of his prose romances or tales. These productionsæincomparably the most remarkable and most absolutely good fruit of his geniusæwere usually, if not always, composed as pamphlets, with a purpose of polemic in religion, politics, or what not. Thus Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism, LHomme aux Quarante Écus certain social and political ways of the time, Zadig and others the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, while some are mere lampoons on the Bible, the unfailing source of Voltaires wit. But (as always happens in the case of literary work where the form exactly suits the authors genius) the purpose in all the best of them disappear almost entirely. It is in these works more than in any others that the peculiar quality of Voltaireæironic style without exaggerationæappears. That he learned it partly from St Evremond, still more from Anthony Hamilton, partly even from his own enemy Le Sage, is perfectly true, but he gave it perfection and completion. There is no room to analyse it here; but, if one especial peculiarity can be singled out, it is the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on his point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them, or exaggerates their form. The famous "pour encourager les autres" (that the shooting of Byng did "encourage the others" very much is not to the point) is a typical example, and indeed the whole of Candide shows the style at its perfection.
The fourth division of Voltaires work, as we shall rank it here, his historical work, is the bulkiest of all except his correspondence, and some parts of it are or have been among the most read, but it is far from being the best, or even among the best. The universally know small treatises on Charles XII. and Peter the Great are indeed models of clear narrative and ingenious is somewhat grasp and arrangement in little of considerable subjects. The so-called Siécle de Louis XIV. and Siécle de Louis XV. (the latter inferior to the former but still valuable) contain a great miscellany of interesting matter, treated by a man of great acuteness and unsurpassed power of writing, who had also had access to much important private information. But even in these books defects are present, which appear much more strongly in the singular olla podrida entitled Essai sur les Murs, in the Annales de l Empire, and in the minor historical works of which there are many. These defects are an almost total absence of any comprehension of what has since been called the philosophy of history, the constant presence of gross prejudice, frequent inaccuracy of detail, and, above all, a complete incapacity to look at anything except from the narrow standpoint of a half pessimist and half selfsatisfied philosophe of the 18th century. Attempts have been made to argue that Voltaires admitted want of catholicity and appreciation was merely the fault of his time; but, while this would be an insufficient plea if granted, it is not the fact. Montesquieu, to name no other of his contemporaries, had if not a perfect yet a distinct sense of the necessity of dealing with other times and other manners so as to take to some extent the point of view of the actors; Voltaire had none. And, though he was very far from being an idle man, he cannot be said to have been extraordinary anxious to secure accuracy of fact.
His work in physics concerns us less than any other here; it is, however, not inconsiderable in bulk, and is aid by experts to give proof of aptitude.
To his own age Voltaire was pre-eminently a poet and a philosopher; the unkindness ages has sometimes questioned whether he had any little to either name and especially to the latter. His largest philosophical work, at least so-called, is the curious medley entitled Dictionnaire Philosophique, which is compounded of the articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopédie and of several minor pieces. No one of Voltaires works shows his anti-religious or at least anti-ecclesiastical animus more strongly. The various title-words of the several article are often the merest stalking horses, under cover of which to shoot at the Bible or the church, the target being now and then shifted to the political institutions of the writers country, his personal foes, &c., and the whole being largely seasoned with that acute, rather superficial, common-sense, but also commonplace, ethical and social criticism which the 28th century called philosophy. The book ranks second only to the novels as showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire; and despite its form it is nearly as readable. The minor philosophical works are of no very different character. In the brief Traité de Mctaphysique the author makes his grand effort, but scarcely succeeds in doing more than show that he had no real conception of what metaphysic is. His Philosophe Ignorant is clever skit on the contradictions of philosophers, his Lettres de Memmius a fair instance of his habit of taking oblique shots at one thing under cover of another and while apparently aiming at a third. And all the minor works commonly called philosophical, though they are voluminous enough, come to little more than the same result.
In general criticism and miscellaneous writing Voltaire is not inferior to himself in any of his other functions. Almost all his more substantive works, whether in verse of prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his own light pungent causeric; and in a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets writings he shows himself a perfect journalist. In literary criticism pure and simple his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, though he wrote a good deal more of the same kindæsometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently, sometimes as part of his Siècles. Nowhere, perhaps, except when he is dealing with religion are Voltaires defects felt more than here. His great acquaintance with stage matters often enabled him to make valuable criticism in that department, and his unrivalled acuteness of course served him in literary as in other matters. But he was quite unacquainted with the history of his own language and literature, and more here than anywhere else he showed the extraordinarily limited and conventional spirit which accompanied the revolt of the French 28th century against limits and conventions in theological, ethical, and political matters.
These remains only the huge division of Voltaires correspondence, which fills some three thousand pages, double-columned, large, and closely printed, in the compactest editions, which is constantly being augmented by fresh discoveries, and which, according to M. Georges Bengesco, the best living authority, has never been fully or correctly printed, even in some of the parts longest known. In this great mass Voltaires personality is of course best shown, and perhaps his literary qualities not worst. His immense energy and versatility, his adroit and unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm when he close to be sarcastic, his rather unscrupulous business faculty, his more than rather unscrupulous resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies,æall these appear throughout the whole mass of letters.
After giving an account of Voltaires personal character, and a sketch of the characteristics of the different sections of his work, his intellectual and literary position can be briefly summed up, though the summary is not one to be lightly undertaken. Most judgments of him have been unduly coloured by sympathy with or dislike of what may be briefly called his polemical side. When sympathy and dislike are both carefully discarded or allowed for, he remains certainly one of the most astonishing, if not exactly one of the most admirable, figures of letters. That he never, as Carlyle complains, gave utterance to one great thought is strictly true. That his characteristic is for the most part an almost superhuman cleverness rather than positive genius is also true. But that he was merely a mocker, which Carlyle and others have also said, is not strictly true or fair. In politics proper he seems indeed to have had few or no constructive ideas, and to have been entirely ignorant or quite reckless of the fact that his attacks were destroying a state of things for which as a whole he neither had nor apparently wished to have any substitute. In religion he protested stoutly, and no doubt sincerely, that his own attitude was not purely negative; but here also he seems to have failed altogether to distinguish between pruning and cutting down. Both here and elsewhere his great fault was an inveterate superficiality. But this superficiality was accompanied by such wonderful acuteness within a certain range, by such an absolutely unsurpassed literary aptitude and sense of style in all the lighter and some of the graver modes of literature, by such untiring energy and versatility in enterprise, that he has no parallel among ready writers anywhere. Not the most elaborate work of Voltaire is of much value for matter; but not the very slightest work Voltaire is devoid of value as form. In literary craftsmanship, at once versatile and accomplished, he has no superior and scarcely a rival.
The bibliography of Voltaire is a very large subject, and it has for years been the special occupation of a Roumanian diplomatist of much erudition and judgment, M. Georges Bengesco, the first volume of whose work was published at Paris in 1882. the latest, and on the whole the best, edition of the works is that completed not long ago by M. Louis Moland in 52 volumes (Paris, Garnier); the handiest and most compact is that issued in 13 volumes royal octavo some fifty years ago by Furne, and kept in print by the house of Didot. Of the earlier editions, though their bulk is an objection, several are interesting and valuable. Especially may be noticed the so-called edition of Kehl, in which Voltaire himself, and later Beaumarchais, were concerned (70 vols., 1785-89); those of Dalibon and Baudouin, each in 97 vols. (from which "the hundred volumes of Voltaire" have become a not infrequent figure of speech); and the excellent edition of Beuchot (1829) in 72 volumes. Editions of separate or selected works are innumerable, and so are books upon Voltaire. There is no really good detailed life of him, with complete examination of his work, in any language as yet, though the works containing materials for such are numerous, and (especially in the case of M. Desnoiresterres) sometimes excellent. In English the essays of Carlyle and Mr John Morley are both in their way invaluable, and to a great extent correct one another. The principal detailed life in our language is that of an American fair accuracy, but with no power of criticism. Fresh correspondence of Voltaire is constantly being discovered, sometimes showing that his published works have been considerably garbled, so that an edition definitive from such manuscripts as exist, and containing all the variants of his own constantly altered issues, is likely to be a matter long delayed. (G. SA.)
The above article was written by George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, M.A.; Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, Edinburgh University, from 1895; author of A Short History of French Literature, The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, A Short History of English Literature, etc.