The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 24 The People’s Hero: The Life of Voltaire, Part II

View all episodes in the Cartoon History of Humanism series.

The People’s Hero: The Life of Voltaire, Part 2

If the humanism of today is a gallant mixture of knowing effrontery, global consciousness, and over-the-top mockery, it’s because Voltaire made it so, and we have yet to find the role model to displace him.

For three decades, Voltaire and Frederick the Great formed the intellectual-political axis about which Europe spun.  Voltaire’s bon mots and pamphlets created the moral conscience of a generation even as Frederick’s wars and cynical worldview forged its political boundaries.  Their correspondence is an elegant labyrinth shifting between mutual, overtly homoerotic hero worship and bemused disdain.  By Voltaire’s death in 1778, he was the indispensable intellectual leader of the continent and the hero of the people, and Frederick mourned him ironically from atop his lonely throne.

But what remains of Voltaire now?

Voltaire2Today, he is the guy who wrote Candide, that book you read in your undergraduate humanities sequence during Enlightenment Week.  Everything else—the plays that captivated a continent for a century and a half, the histories that changed how historical research was done, the short stories and pamphlets that put the desperate social issues of the day into approachable, comic terms—everything else has all but vanished from civilization’s ready recall.

Partly, it’s a matter of changing tastes.  As revolutionary as Voltaire’s plays were in their injection of Shakespearean strangeness into the ossified classical French drama, their rhyming formalism has been out of favor for a century now, and the elegant art of correspondence, of which Voltaire was the undisputed continental master, is one we couldn’t possibly care less about.  That’s changing under the maxim that everything dead becomes charming again eventually, and the flowering of interest in Baroque opera might well drag the classicism of eighteenth-century drama and belles lettres with it, but I doubt the wildest optimist anticipates the return of The Scotch Woman to the floorboards anytime soon.

Partly, though, the decline is a result of Voltaire’s conscious decision to act through a million bothersome pinpricks rather than via grand declamations.  If the first half of his life was about epic verse, clever table prattle, and gossip-inducing dramas, the second was about locking horns with the titanic social injustices of the day through pamphlets, novels, and letters, educating the common people in terms they could understand and organize themselves around for the reform of the justice system and the ridicule of religious pomposity.

The road to this rebirth was brutal, however, and perhaps needed to be.  Misfortune and disillusion broke down Voltaire’s taste for the stunning world of high society acclaim, and sharpened his wit, allowing him to become a devastatingly effective scourge of privilege.  Embarrassed by the legal fiasco over the English Letters (see part 1!), Voltaire decided to build up his political capital by solidifying his relationship with the fawning crown prince of Prussia, Frederick.  Through flattery no less abject for being mostly sincere, he praised the young prince’s idealism to the firmament, and made sure their correspondence was known.

The French authorities took note and Voltaire’s situation bettered as the government realized it might influence Prussian policy through its errant playwright’s hold upon the mercurial, pro-French royal.   This connection helped smooth the way for the acceptance of Mahomet, a 1741 play that clearly used the cynical religious chicanery of Mohammed as a screen for commenting on the violent and deceptive heart of Christianity, and which he artfully managed to convince the pope to endorse as a very Christian work.  It’s a powerful and disturbing work still, and it will probably not be performed in English within our lifetimes.

For years, he had a stable home and regular routine at the home of Madame du Châtelet and then that astounding woman, who brought Newton’s full significance to France, died in 1749 after giving birth to the child of her tertiary lover, an officer poet who quite harmoniously shared her with the Marquis and Voltaire (France, right?).  After years of productive and occasionally stifling stability, Voltaire had to find a new home, and Frederick the Great was there, throwing money and prestige at him if only he would come and live in Prussia.

Frederick’s court was precisely what Voltaire needed to undertake his late-life metamorphosis into the people’s hero.  Where in Paris one was liable to be thrown into the Bastille for impertinence at a moment’s notice, at Frederick’s table a complete and sparkling intellectual freedom reigned.  Avowed atheists like La Mettrie spoke the full measure of their conviction, with Frederick merrily encouraging each dizzy impropriety.  For three years, Voltaire saw a court where nothing was sacred except the monarch’s duty to improve the lot of his people.

It was here that Voltaire wrote his history of Louis XIV, a work that defined the modern role of research and source skepticism in historical authorship, and which put cultural trends ahead of military ones as the focus of civilization. It was also here, however, that he did a number of foolish things à la Voltaire that were decidedly beneath a person of his wealth and status.  He speculated in a scheme to essentially defraud the Prussian state.  He got caught up in an ugly lawsuit with a Jew he was more or less trying to swindle.  He clumsily attempted to play the role of spy to curry favor with the French government.  He picked an unflattering if hilarious fight out of jealousy with the president of the Berlin Academy, Maupertuis, a man he recommended for the position in the first place.

Who can say what drove Voltaire to these compulsive effronteries?  He was economically cunning, and couldn’t pass up a good deal, which made him the wealthiest literary figure of his (or perhaps any) time, but also got him entangled in shady and lowly schemes.  Frederick was tolerant at first, but as Voltaire’s public attacks on his Academy president grew more ferocious, a line needed to be drawn.  Voltaire left in a huff but took a collection of Frederick’s verse with him, verse that contained enough inflammatory material to set the courts of Europe solidly against Prussia.  Frederick had him stopped and arrested until he gave up the volume, and an over-zealous official kept Voltaire in bureaucratic and penal limbo for weeks before word got to Frederick, and Voltaire was freed.

It was the Rohan beating incident all over again, a stinging reminder of just how little power Voltaire actually had when it came to his own safety and security.  Humbled and homeless, having lived three years in an intellectual climate that backed down before no idol, Voltaire was ready at last to sensibly refashion his life.  He fled to Switzerland and bought an estate of his own and then bought another just across the French border.  These dual households were to be his protection the rest of his life—the French house was where he entertained and put on the plays that were forbidden by the joyless Calvinist authorities of Switzerland, while the Swiss house was the refuge he could retreat to at a moment’s notice when the French authorities threatened him with arrest.  He was, at long last, untouchable, and it freed him to speak the full measure of his mind at last.

This was the Voltaire of the battle-cry Écrasez l’infâme!  The Voltaire who backed the judicial system of France into a corner time and time again, forcing them to repeal their medieval rulings and reinvestigate the role that purely religious offenses ought to play in the legal system.  He used every connection he had, and poured out a steady flood of money, to defend religious minorities persecuted in France.  In the Calas case, a Protestant was accused of murdering his son for wanting to convert to Catholicism.  The evidence clearly showed that the death was a suicide, but the religious bigotry of the courts demanded Calas’s life, and he was broken on the wheel, tortured to death, for the crime of being Protestant In France.  Voltaire, hearing of the case, sprung to action, compelled the French courts to reopen the case, and eventually to clear the father’s name so that his family could have whatever semblance of a normal life was left to them.  Throughout France, Voltaire was known as the hero of Calas, and each subsequent case he championed deepened the people’s love of their distant defender.

He wrote brief pamphlets and short novels needling religion and government for their various pomposities and manifest cruelties, a flotilla of small works that flooded the coping mechanisms of French censorship, and found their way into every corner of an increasingly revolutionary France.  Like the English deists, he reveled in drawing comparisons between Christian and Chinese civilization, using the elegance and antiquity of the latter to throw dust at the pretensions of the former.  He called attention to the arbitrary nature of French law and argued persuasively for reforms in divorce law, a reversal of the wealthy’s privileged legal position, the abolition of torture during the carrying out of a death penalty, and for the complete removal of religious offenses from the legal system.

And along the way, he produced Candide (1759), a masterpiece of constructive mockery that tore to tatters any philosophical system that would appeal to God’s magnificent design to justify the obvious cruelties of existence.  It was uproarious then, and hilarious still.  It unrolls the barbarity of European civilization, sparing no nation or tradition in cataloguing our brilliantly loathsome misuse of each other.  It’s formally a sustained attack on the philosophy of Leibniz, but in reality it is a deliciously wicked romp illustrating the indifference of the universe to our plight, ending in what is perhaps the motto of modern humanism: forget the claims to omnipotence of religion, the vagaries of royal puffery, and all notions of glorious combat, and turn to the community around you, to improving life for those you can directly help.  Cultivate your garden.

Voltaire’s life of exile and disillusionment had a storybook ending after all.  In 1778, at the age of eighty-four, he returned to Paris triumphant.  Beloved by the people, toasted by the intellectual community, the city fell over itself to do him honor.  He died within months of his return, having been given an ovation at the Academie and having watched his most recent play rapturously received.  His was the wit that stung Europe’s most powerful nation into a shambling reformation that would soon accelerate into full revolution, and that dared treat religion’s contradictions and obfuscations in a global context that highlighted Christianity’s triviality and its barbarism.  If the humanism of today is a gallant mixture of knowing effrontery, global consciousness, and over-the-top mockery, it’s because Voltaire made it so, and we have yet to find the role model to displace him.


Further Reading

I have to start by adjusting some of the recommendations from Part I.  In the interim, I revisited the Noyes biography, and find I like it much less than I once did.  It’s unique in that it attempts to draw a Voltaire who was much more traditional than his radical followers have historically painted him, a man who mocked, but within very conservative boundaries.  I don’t think Noyes is correct, but as a very different one-volume account, I thought it worth mentioning.  But in between my first reading of that book and now, I’ve studied the life of Madame du Châtelet in more depth, and Noyes’s account of her is really a grotesque farce perpetuating all manner of brutish chauvinism.  So, forget Noyes and pick up Lanson instead.  It’s a great, powerfully written, and compact account of the many social and intellectual movements where Voltaire’s influence was foundational.  Also, if you want to go into more detail about Voltaire’s late judicial activism, Ian Davidson’s Voltaire in Exile (2004), is a good and readily available place to start.