The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 23 Voltaire: One Poet against Christendom, Part I

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Voltaire: One Poet against Christendom
Part I: The Brilliant, Awful Years

If religion is a single, concentrated expression of authority, humanism is the modest accumulation of a million small acts.  It is the stuff of daily living—of being understanding when you could be righteous, of allowing people to live and love as they are, of seeing cosmic futility everywhere but pressing on anyway.  Small things, personal moments which, aggregated, make civilization function at its steady and forgiving best.

Charming, but hardly the stuff of epics.  At least that was the verdict of a few odd millennia, when humanism spoke through essays and brief tales and hushed epigrams, bursts of reason that dared hope for nothing higher than a couplet, fearfully tendered.  Then, in 1694, it was as if civilization gave birth to a being who would combine verse, vision, cunning, and chutzpah in such forceful unity that, at last, an epic of toleration might be sung.

VoltaireIFor humanists, Voltaire (1694-1778) is the touchstone, the indispensable element of our common ancestry.  Surveying the first half of his life, however, that warm posterity appears anything but assured.  His plays failed more often than they succeeded.  He was jailed twice and exiled for years at a time.  He was given credit for mediocre works he didn’t write, but prevented from claiming credit for those he did.  He was physically beaten on two occasions and received scant to no justice on account of his low social status.  Except for a short stretch in a ramshackle apartment, he had no lodgings of his own and bounced aimlessly from chateau to chateau, buffeted by blind chance, the malice of the Parisian public, and the whims of the ruling elite.

His father was a dutiful and practical notary, his mother a sparkling and educated conversationalist.  Voltaire’s father was very successful in his honorable, and at the time highly respected profession, and expected his children to augment the family name, either as notaries themselves, or perhaps as solicitors.  Seldom have a father’s expectations been so thoroughly trammeled.  Of his two sons, one was a Jansenist bigot who believed in convulsionism and miracles and hair shirts, and the other, Francois-Marie Arouet, our Voltaire, a society wag who depended on the popularity of his bon mots for food and lodging.  Voltaire’s mother died when he was only seven years old, but in that short time she attracted a circle of admirers who placed their stamp upon the young prodigy.  The schoolbooks teach us that the latter half of Louis XIV’s reign was a dreary expanse of expensive wars and religious hyper-orthodoxy, and so it was officially, but beneath the surface was a crackling ocean of free thought, dominated by decidedly earthly abbés who supported monasteries financially in exchange for a title, and who privately wrote scathing attacks on Christianity amidst quite literal orgies.  Voltaire’s mother knew a few of these men, and they brought the young child not only the beloved pagan classics of antiquity, but recent works like La Moïsade, a religious satire of enormous but secret popularity.

To put his son on track to be a proper solicitor, pére Voltaire sent him to the Collège Louis le Grand, a Jesuit school of the highest standing which offered a thorough education in the fripperies of religion, in staging dramatic productions, in Latin and a smidge of Greek, and in nothing useful whatsoever.  During his time there, Voltaire shone for his facility with impromptu verse and his daring intelligence made palatable by his superfluity of easy charm.  The scholars, while Jesuits, were lovers of antiquities cut from much the same cloth as his mother’s abbé friends, and tolerated Voltaire’s occasional impieties for the sake of his sparkling poems and honest love of the works of the Roman past.

Having been lauded and petted for his wit and verse, the young Voltaire was thoroughly unwilling to settle down to the routine of an apprentice solicitor.  His father secured him a number of promising positions which the youth frittered away, choosing to spend his time fashioning poems and attending gatherings of high society vivants rather than sedulously copying legal documents.

The problem with being the wittiest of the wits, of course, is that anytime anything biting and anonymous is said, it’s attributed to you.  And so it came to pass that, when a new set of verses describing an incestuous relationship between the regent of France and his daughter surfaced, they were officially ascribed to Voltaire, and the poet was clapped in the Bastille for eleven months without possibility of defense or release except at the regent’s pleasure.

But before we weep too many tears, you have to realize that the Bastille was not a hole of misery where prisoners fed off rats and darkness.  Voltaire had a fireplace with plenty of wood, three positively sumptuous meals a day, access to visitors, the freedom to eat at the governor’s table, and whatever books and comforts from home he might like—in short, everything he could want save pen and paper, lest he write more wicked poems in his leisure hours. (He wrote anyway, just in his head, mentally composing and memorizing huge sections of the epic L’Henriade.)  In many ways, until he finally came to rest with Madame du Châtelet at Cirey, this time in the Bastille was the most stable and restful that he would know.  When another author stepped forward and admitted to having penned the noxious lines, Voltaire was released, only to find that his time in the Bastille had made him more popular than ever, so popular that he could finally stage his first play: Oedipe, a refashioning of the Sophocles tragedy in the grand French style.

It was a monstrous hit that turned Voltaire’s name into something more than just dining room prattler. He was an author now, and would continue writing under the most trying of conditions for the rest of his life.  As successful as Oedipe was, his next two plays were thundering flops, and it is entirely possible that Voltaire would have drifted back into fashionable obscurity had his mouth not gotten him into trouble again.

It happened that a useless noble of respected family, the Chevalier de Rohan, took it into his head to limply tease Voltaire about having changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire.  Rohan approached the author at the theater one evening and made some comment about not knowing how to address him.  Voltaire, we imagine, raised an eyebrow and let the matter slide, until another performance when Rohan went into Voltaire’s box and made, more or less, the same comment, to which Voltaire responded (according to what version you believe) with either, “I do not trail a great name after me, but at least I know how to honor the name I bear” or “I begin my name, whereas you are the end of yours.”  The Chevalier left in a huff, gathered together some hired thugs, and had them call on Voltaire.  They lured the unsuspecting poet out into the street, and then viciously beat him in the open air, while the Chevalier barked out instructions for the pummeling from the safety of a nearby carriage.

Voltaire demanded justice from the law, but everywhere he turned he was confronted with the fact that the Chevalier was a Chevalier, and he was a playwright, and that therefore no action would be taken.  Voltaire rankled under the indignity and hired a fencing master to teach him the art of the blade so that he could demand satisfaction from the cowardly Chevalier.  As soon as he made an official challenge, however, the police were at his door and he was once more clapped in the Bastille.  It was probably the best thing for him; had the duel proceeded, Rohan would have sliced him to pieces, and the public would have gone on with its business.  But as a prisoner, public opinion swung back round to his favor, and Rohan was reviled.

Sensing the unofficial sympathy to his plight, Voltaire asked to be allowed to exile himself to England, a request readily granted.  And so, a chain that began with a witless noble trying to prove himself a wag ended with Voltaire traveling to the one place in the world that could teach him what he needed to evolve from a promising dramatist to a world-class historian and social commentator.

England was everything that France was not.  Where in France a man could spend eleven months in prison for something he didn’t even write, England’s relative liberty of the press was a revelation.  France’s obsession with titles and rank, which Voltaire had just experienced first-hand, gave way in England to an aristocracy of mind.  When Newton died a year after Voltaire’s arrival, his coffin was carried by noble hands to a grave beside kings, an event inconceivable in Bourbon France.

The towering power of tolerance to construct a society of mutual respect and admiration for actual, rather than inherited, merit was massively instructive, and would form the matter of Voltaire’s social works for the rest of his life.  He had been writing, since his first Bastille imprisonment, an epic poem on the reign of King Henri IV, which lauded the king’s famous tolerance in the face of the religious brutalities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the wars of the Catholic League.  L’Henriade is the Aeneid of humanism, the parallels between the two being quite consciously intended by Voltaire.  It is, in terms of grand sentiment harnessed in the cause of modesty and cultural unity, unsurpassed to this day, the sureness of Voltaire’s poetic sense married perfectly to the scale of his vision.  But after England, Voltaire found yet a new means of expressing his thoughts: prose.

First in the English Letters, and then later in the Philosophical Dictionary and ultimately in his masterwork of late life, Candide, Voltaire dared to make skepticism light and enjoyable.  His histories of Charles XII and Louis XIV blazed the way for an approach that focused on intellectual trends and societal change first, and the foibles of rulers and results of battles a distant second.  His cultural essays showed the French what could be, if they let their racial disdain for all things English lapse long enough to learn something from a society dedicated to freedom of conscience.  His satires of religious zealotry, from his second epic poem, La Pucelle, a bawdy and scurrilous rewriting of the history of Joan of Arc, to his culturally relativist plays, like Zaire and Alzire, showed a most Christian continent what its superstitions looked like outside of their native soil.

Returning to France, he was the author everybody had to read, if secretly.  The court unofficially loved the Henriade.  Every respectable society female simply had to have a hidden copy of the semi-pornographic La Pucelle, and Voltaire’s broadsides aimed at the pretensions of his fellow French intellectuals, such as The Temple of Taste, were greeted with wild enthusiasm.  All was going so well, it was high time for it to all fall apart again, in typical Voltaire fashion.  Copies of his English Letters leaked into France, containing the full measure of the author’s scorn for Catholic absurdity, Pascalean pleasure hatred, and royal pretension.  His lauding of intellectual liberty and religious toleration struck the court as treasonous, and Voltaire was forced to flee France anew.

He fled to the house of his lover, the brilliant Madame du Châtelet, at Cirey in Champagne, then just outside of the French borders.  There he lived in absolute contentment with she and her obliging husband, and their children, a perfect family unit not uncommon for the time.  Châtelet was one of the continent’s greatest mathematicians, a polylingual genius whose commentaries on Newton broke down French resistance to the Englishman’s gravitational theories.  Voltaire was happy, and settled, at last.

Meanwhile, the printer who had been jailed for publishing the English Letters wanted Voltaire to compensate him for his losses.  Voltaire acknowledged authorship in a private response letter, and said he would pay half of the printer’s asking price.  The printer saw his opportunity and, incriminating letter in hand, brought suit against Voltaire.  It was a disgraceful business that Voltaire ended up legally winning, but at the expense of all public esteem.  He was largely seen as a rich bully who made others lie to protect his own reputation, and when he returned to Cirey it was as a man thoroughly rejected by his audience and government, a scoundrel who would never be trusted again.  In the depths of that defeat, he came home and found waiting for him a letter from an enthusiastic young Prince, a letter full of fulsome, almost servile, praise for his work.

The prince’s name was Frederick.

To be concluded in three short weeks: same time, same site!


Further Reading

There is a wealth of material available about Voltaire.  My favorite biography is Parton’s two-volume work from 1886.  The prose is engaging, and the depth of detail immaculate.  More recently, Voltaire by Alfred Noyes (1936) and Voltaire: Genius of Mockery by Victor Thaddeus (1928) are nice one-volume works, with Robert Wagoner’s slim translation of Gustave Lanson’s classic work being a good general purpose introduction.  People talk up Theodore Besterman’s 1969 Voltaire, but it comes down pretty hard on L’Henriade, which I’ve never quite forgiven it for, even if its points are largely just.