Story type: Essay
We are intelligent beings; and intelligent beings can not have been formed by a blind, brute, insensible being. There is certainly some difference between a clod and the ideas of Newton. Newton’s intelligence came from some greater Intelligence.
—The Philosophical Dictionary
The man, Francois Marie Arouet, known to us as Voltaire (which name he adopted in his twenty-first year), was born in Paris in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-four. He was the second son in a family of three children. During his babyhood he was very frail; in childhood sickly and weak; and throughout his whole life he suffered much from indigestion and insomnia.
In all the realm of writers no man ever had a fuller and more active career, touching life at so many points, than Voltaire.
The first requisite in a long and useful career would seem to be, have yourself born weak and cultivate dyspepsia, nervousness and insomnia. Whether or not the good die young is still a mooted question, but certainly the athletic often do. All those good men and true, who at grocery, tavern and railroad-station eat hard-boiled eggs on a wager, and lift barrels of flour with one hand, are carried to early graves, and over the grass-grown mounds that cover their dust, consumptive, dyspeptic and neurotic relatives, for twice or thrice a score of years, strew sweet myrtle, thyme and mignonette.
Voltaire died of an accident–too much Four-o’Clock–cut off in his prime, when life for him was at its brightest and best, aged eighty-three.
The only evidence we have that the mind of Voltaire failed at the last came from the Abbe Gaultier and the Cure of Saint Sulpice. These good men arrived with a written retraction, which they desired Voltaire to sign. Waiting in the anteroom of the sick-chamber they sent in word that they wished to enter. “Assure them of my respect,” said the stricken man. But the holy men were not to be thus turned away, so they entered. They approached the bedside, and the Cure of Saint Sulpice said: “M. de Voltaire, your life is about to end. Do you acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ?”
And the dying man stretched out a bony hand, making a gesture that they should depart, and murmured, “Let me die in peace.”
“You see,” said the Cure to the Abbe, as they withdrew, “you see that he is out of his head!”
* * * * *
The father of Voltaire, Francois Arouet, was a notary who looked after various family estates and waxed prosperous on the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.
He was solicitor to the Duc de Richelieu, the Sullys, and also the Duchesse de Saint-Simon, mother of the philosopher, Saint-Simon, who made the mistake of helping Auguste Comte, thus getting himself hotly and positively denounced by the man who formulated the “Positive Philosophy.”
Arouet belonged to the middle class and never knew that he sprang from a noble line until his son announced the fact. It was then too late to deny it.
He was a devout Churchman, upright in all his affairs, respectable, took snuff, walked with a waddle and cultivated a double chin. M. Arouet pater did not marry until his mind was mature, so that he might avoid the danger of a mismating. He was forty, past. The second son, Francois fils, was ten years younger than his brother Armand, so the father was over fifty when our hero was born. Francois fils used to speak of himself as an afterthought–a sort of domestic postscript–“but,” added he musingly, “our afterthoughts are often best.”
One of the most distinguished clients of M. Arouet was Ninon de Lenclos, who had the felicity to be made love to by three generations of Frenchmen. Ninon has been likened for her vivacious ways, her flashing intellect, and her perennial youth, to the divine Sara, who at sixty plays the part of Juliet with a woman of thirty for the old nurse. Ninon had turned her three-score and ten, and swung gracefully into the home-stretch, when the second son was born to M. Arouet. She was of a deeply religious turn of mind, for she had been loved by several priests, and now the Abbe de Chateauneuf was paying his devotions to her.
Ninon was much interested in the new arrival, and going to the house of M. Arouet, took to bed, and sent in haste for the Abbe de Chateauneuf, saying she was in sore trouble. When the good man arrived, he thought it a matter of extreme unction, and was ushered into the room of the alleged invalid. Here he was duly presented with the infant that later was to write the “Philosophical Dictionary.” It was as queer a case of kabojolism as history records.
Doubtless the Abbe was a bit agitated at first, but finally getting his breath, he managed to say, “As there is a vicarious atonement, there must also be, on occasion, vicarious births, and this is one–God be praised.”
The child was then baptized, the good Abbe standing as godfather.
There must be something, after all, in prenatal influences, for as the little Francois grew up he evolved the traits of Ninon de Lenclos and the Abbe much more than those of his father and mother.
When the boy was a little over six years old the mother died. Of her we know absolutely nothing. In her son’s writings he refers to her but once, wherein he has her say that “Boileau was a clever book, but a silly man.”
The education of the youngster seemed largely to have been left to the Abbe, his godfather, who very early taught him to recite the “Mosiad,” a metrical effusion wherein the mistakes of Moses were related in churchly Latin, done first for the divertisement of sundry pious monks in idle hours.
At ten years of age Francois was sent to the College of Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit school where the minds of youth were molded in things sacred and secular.
In only one thing did the boy really excel, and that was in the matter of making rhymes. The Abbe Chateauneuf had taught him the trick before he could speak plainly, and Ninon had been so pleased with the wee poet that she left him two thousand francs in her will for the purchase of books. As Ninon insisted on living to be ninety, Voltaire discounted the legacy and got it cashed on dedicating a sonnet to the divine Ninon. In this sonnet Voltaire suggests that a life of virtue conduces largely to longevity, as witness the incomparable Ninon de Lenclos, to which sentiment Ninon filed no exceptions.
In one of the school debates young Francois presented his argument in rhyme, and evidently ran in some choice passages from the “Mosiad,” for Father le Jay, according to Condorcet, left his official chair, and rushing down the aisle, grabbed the boy by the collar, and shaking him, said, “Unhappy boy! you will one day be the standard-bearer of deism in France!”–a prophecy, possibly, made after its fulfilment.
Young Francois remained at the college until he was seventeen years old. From letters sent by him while there, it is evident that the chief characteristic of his mind was already a contempt for the clergy. Of two of his colleagues who were preparing for the priesthood, he says, “They had reflected on the dangers of a world of the charms of which they were ignorant; and on the pleasures of a religious life of which they knew not the disagreeableness.” Already we see he was getting handy in polishing a sentence with the emery of his wit. Continuing, he says: “In a quarter of an hour they ran over all the Orders, and each seemed so attractive that they could not decide. In which predicament they might have been left like the ass, which died of starvation between two bundles of hay, not knowing which to choose. However, they decided to leave the matter to Providence, and let the dice decide. So one became a Carmelite and the other a Jesuit.”
* * * * *
Arouet, at first intent on having his son become a priest, now fell back on the law as second choice. The young man was therefore duly articled with a firm of advocates and sent to hear lectures on jurisprudence. But his godfather introduced him into the Society of the Temple, a group of wits, of all ages, who could take snuff and throw off an epigram on any subject. The bright young man, flashing, dashing and daring, made friends at once through his skill in writing scurrilous verse upon any one whose name might be mentioned. This habit had been begun in college, where it was much applauded by the underlings, who delighted to see their unpopular teachers done to a turn. The scribbling habit is a variant of that peculiar propensity which finds form in drawing a portrait on the blackboard before the teacher gets around in the morning. If the teacher does not happen to love art for art’s sake, there may be trouble; but verses are safer, for they circulate secretly and are copied and quoted anonymously.
The thing we do best in life is that which we play at most in youth.
Ridicule was this man’s weapon. For the benefit of the Society of the Temple he paid his respects to the sham piety and politics of Versailles. He had been educated by priests, and his father was a politician feeding at the public trough. The young man knew the faults and foibles of both priest and politician, and his keen wit told truths about the court that were so well expressed the wastebasket did not capture them. One of these effusions was printed, anonymously, of course, but a copy coming into the hands of M. Arouet, the old gentleman recognized the literary style and became alarmed. He must get the young man out of Paris–the Bastile yawned for poets like this!
A brother of the Abbe de Chateauneuf was Ambassador at The Hague, and the great man, being importuned, consented to take the youth as clerk.
Life at The Hague afforded the embryo poet an opportunity to meet many distinguished people.
In Francois there was none of the bourgeois–he associated only with nobility–and as he had an aristocracy of the intellect, which served him quite as well as a peerage, he was everywhere received. In his manner there was nothing apologetic–he took everything as his divine right.
In this brilliant little coterie at The Hague was one Madame Dunoyer, a writer of court gossip and a social promoter of ability, separated from her husband for her husband’s good. Francois crossed swords with her in an encounter of wit, was worsted, but got even by making love to her; and later he made love to her daughter, a beautiful girl of about his own age.
The air became surcharged with gossip. There was danger of an explosion any moment. Madame Dunoyer gave it out that the brilliant subaltern was to marry the girl. The Madame was going to capture the youth, either with her own charms or those of her daughter–or combined. Rumblings were heard on the horizon. The Ambassador, fearing entanglement, bundled young Arouet back to Paris, with a testimonial as to his character, quite unnecessary. A denial without an accusation is equal to a plea of guilty; and that the young man had made the mistake of making violent love to the mother and daughter at the same time there is no doubt. The mother had accused him and he said things back; he even had shown the atrocious bad taste of references in rhyme to the mutual interchange of confidences that the mother and daughter might enjoy. The Ambassador had acted none too soon.
The father was frantic with alarm–the boy had disgraced him, and even his own position seemed to be threatened when some wit adroitly accused the parent of writing the doggerel for his son.
M. Arouet denied it with an oath–while the son refused to explain, or to say anything beyond that he loved his father, thus carrying out the idea that the stupid old notary was really a wit in disguise, masking his intellect by a seeming dulness. No more biting irony was ever put out by Voltaire than this, and the pathos of it lies in the fact that the father was quite unable to appreciate the quip.
It was a sample of filial humor much more subtle than that indulged in by Charles Dickens, who pilloried his parents in print, one as Mr. Micawber and the other as Mrs. Nickleby. Dickens told the truth and painted it large, but Francois Arouet dealt in indiscreet fallacy when he endeavored to give his father a reputation for raillery.
A peculiarly offensive poem, appearing about this time, with the Regent and his daughter, the Duchesse de Berri, for a central theme, a rescript was issued which indirectly testified to the poetic skill of young Arouet. He was exiled to a point three hundred miles from Paris and forbidden to come nearer on penalty, like unto the injunction issued by Prince Henry against the blameless Falstaff. Rumor said that the father had something to do with the matter.
But the exile was not for long. The young poet wrote a most adulatory composition to the Regent, setting forth his innocence. The Regent was a mild and amiable man and much desired peace with all his subjects–especially those who dipped their quills in gall. He was melted by the rhyme that made him out such a paragon of virtue, and made haste to issue a pardon.
The elder Arouet now proved that he was not wholly without humor, for he wrote to a friend, “The exile of my dear son distressed me much less than does this precipitate recall.”
In order to protect himself the father now refused a home to the son, and Francois became a lodger at a boarding-house. He wrote plays and acted in them, penned much bad poetry, went in good society and had a very rouge time. Up to this period he knew little Latin and less Greek, but now he had an opportunity to furbish up on both. He found himself an inmate of the Bastile, on the charge of expressing his congratulations to the people of France on the passing of Louis the Fourteenth. In America libel only applies to live men, but the world had not then gotten this far along.
In the prison it was provided that Sieur Arouet fils should not be allowed pens and paper on account of his misuse of these good things when outside. He was given copies of Homer, however, in Greek and Latin, and he set himself at work, with several of the other prisoners, to perfect himself in these languages. We have glimpses of his dining with the governor of the prison, and even organizing theatrical performances, and he was finally allowed writing materials on promise that he would not do anything worse than translate the Bible, so altogether he was very well treated.
In fact, he himself referred to this year spent in prison as “a pious retreat, that I might meditate, and chasten my soul in quiet thought.”
He was only twenty-one, and yet he had set Paris by the ears, and his name was known throughout France. “I am as well known as the Regent and will be remembered longer,” he wrote–a statement and a prophecy that then seemed very egotistical, but which time has fully justified.
It was in prison that he decided to change his name to Voltaire, a fanciful word of his own coining. His pretended reason for the change was that he might begin life anew and escape the disgrace he had undergone of being in prison. There is reason to believe, however, that he was rather proud of being “detained,” it was proof of his power–he was dangerous outside. But his family had practically cast him off–he owed nothing to them–and the change of name fostered a mysterious noble birth, an idea that he allowed to gain currency without contradiction. Moliere had changed his name from Poquolin–and was he not really following in Moliere’s footsteps, even to suffering disgrace and public odium?
* * * * *
The play of “Oedipe” was presented by Voltaire at the Theater Francaise, November Eighteenth, Seventeen Hundred Eighteen. This play was written before the author’s sojourn in prison, but there he had sandpapered its passages, and hand-polished the epigrams.
It was rehearsed at length with the help of the “guests” at the Bastile, and once Voltaire wrote a note of appreciation to the Prefect of Police, thanking him for his thoughtfulness in sending such excellent and pure-minded people to help him in his work.
These things had been managed so they discreetly leaked out, and the cafes echoed with the name of Voltaire.
Very soon after his release the play was presented to a crowded house. It was a success from the start, for into its lines the audience was allowed to read many veiled allusions to Paris public characters. It ran for forty-five nights, and was the furore. On one occasion when interest seemed to lag, Voltaire, on a sudden inspiration, dressed up as a bumpkin page, and attended the Pontiff, carrying his train, playing various and sundry sly pranks in pantomime, a la Francis Wilson.
In one of the boxes sat a famous beauty, the Duchesse de Villars. “Who is this strange person who is intent upon spoiling the play?” she asked. On being told that he was the author of the drama, her censure turned to approbation and she sent for the young man. His appearance in her box was duly noted. The Regent and his daughter, the Duchesse de Berri, could not resist the temptation to attend the play, and see how much they were satirized. Voltaire did his little train-bearing act for their benefit, with a few extra grimaces, which pleased them very much, and seeing his opportunity, wrote a gracious letter of thanks to His Highness for having deigned to visit his play, winding up with thanks for the years in the Bastile where, “God wot, all of my evil inclinations were duly chastened and corrected.”
It had the desired effect–each side feared the other. The Regent wanted the ready writers on his side, and the playwright who was opposed by the party in power could not hope for success. The Regent sent a present of a thousand crowns to Voltaire and also fixed on him a pension of twelve hundred livres a year. At once every passage in the play that could be construed as bearing on royalty was revised into words of adulation, and all went merry as a marriage-bell. Financially the play was a success, and better yet was the pension and the good-will of the young King and his Regent.
Thus at twenty-two did Voltaire have the world at his feet.
* * * * *
When Voltaire was twenty-four, his father died. The will provided that the property should be equally divided between his three children, but it was stipulated that the second son should not come into possession of his share until he was thirty-five, and not then unless he was able to show the Master in Chancery that he was capable of wisely managing his own affairs.
This doubt of the father concerning the son’s financial ability has often been commented upon ironically, in view of the pronounced thrift shown by Voltaire in later life.
But who shall say whether the father by that provision in his will did not drive home a stern lesson in economy? Commodore Vanderbilt had so much distrust of his son William’s capacity for business that he exiled him to a Long Island farm, on an allowance. Years after, when William had shown his ability to outstrip his father, he rebuked a critic who volunteered a suggestion to the effect that the father had erred in the boy problem. Said William, “My father was right in this, as in most other things–I was a fool, and he knew it.”
Voltaire’s vacation of a year in the Bastile had done him much good. Then the will of his father, with its cautious provisions, tended to sober the youth to a point where he was docile enough for society’s needs.
A good deal of ballast in way of trouble was necessary to hold this man down.
Marriage might have tamed him. Bachelors are of two kinds–those who are innocent of women, and those who know women too well. The second class, I am told, outnumbers the first as ten to one.
Voltaire had been a favorite of various women–usually married ladies, and those older than himself. He had plagiarized Franklin, saying, fifty years before the American put out his famous advice, “If you must fall in love, why, fall in love with a woman much older than yourself, or at least a homely one–for only such are grateful.”
In answer to a man who said divorce and marriage were instituted at the same time, Voltaire said: “This is a mistake: there is at least three days’ difference. Men sometimes quarrel with their wives at the end of three days, beat them in a week and divorce them at the end of a month.”
Voltaire was small and slight in stature, but his bubbling wit and graceful presence more than made amends for any deficiency in way of form and feature. Had he desired, he might have taken his pick among the young women of nobility, but we see the caution of his nature in limiting his love-affairs to plain women, securely married. “Gossip isn’t busy with the plain women–that is why I like you,” he once said to Madame de Bernieres. What the Madame’s reply was, we do not know, but probably she was not displeased. If a woman knows she is loved, it matters little what you say to her. Compliments by the right oblique are construed into lavish praise when expressed in the right tone of voice by the right person.
The Regent had allowed Voltaire another pension of two thousand francs, at the same time intimating that he hoped the writer’s income was sufficient so he could now tell the truth. Voltaire took the hint, so subtly veiled, to the effect that if he again affronted royalty by unkind criticisms, his entire pension would be canceled.
From this time on to the end of his life, he was full of lavish praise for royalty. He was needlessly loyal, and dedicated poems and pamphlets to nobility, right and left, in a way that would have caused a smile were not nobility so hopelessly bound in three-quarters pachyderm. He also wrote religious poems, protesting his love for the Church. And here seems a good place to say that Voltaire was a member of the Catholic Church to his death. Many of his worst attacks on the priesthood were put in way of defense for outrageous actions which he enumerated in detail. He kept people guessing as to what he meant and what he would do next.
Immediately after the death of President McKinley there was a fine scramble among the editors of certain saffron sheets–to get in line and shake their ulsters free from all taint of anarchy. Some writers, in order to divert suspicion from themselves, hotly denounced other men as anarchists.
Throughout his life Voltaire had spasms of repentance, prompted by caution, possibly, when he warmly denounced atheists, and swore, i’ faith, that one object of his life was to purify the Church and cleanse it of its secret faults.
In his twenty-sixth year, when he was trying hard to be good, he got into a personal altercation with the Chevalier de Rohan, an insignificant man bearing a proud name. The Chevalier’s wit was no match for the other’s rapier-like tongue, but he had a way of his own in which to get even. He had his servants waylay the luckless poet and chastise him soundly with rattans.
Voltaire was furious; he tried to get the courts to take it up, but the prevailing idea was that he had gotten what he deserved, and the fact that the whole affair occurred after dark and the Chevalier did not do the beating in person, made conviction impossible.
But Voltaire now quit the anapest and dactyl and devoted his best hours to taking fencing lessons. His firm intent was to baptize the soil with Rohan’s blood. Voltaire was of enough importance so the secret police knew of all his doings. Suddenly he found himself taking a post-graduate course in the Bastile. I am not sure that the fiery little man was entirely displeased with the procedure. It proved to the world that he was a dangerous character, and it also gave him a respite from the tyranny of the fencing-master, and allowed him to turn to his first, last and only love–literature. In Voltaire’s cosmos was a good deal of the Bob Acres quality.
There were plenty of reasons for locking him up–heresy and treason have ever been first cousins–and pamphlets lampooning Churchmen high in office were laid at his door. No doubt some of the anonymous literature was not his–“I would have done the thing better or not at all,” he once said in reference to a scurrilous brochure. The real fact was, that that particular pamphlet was done by a disciple, and if Voltaire’s writings were vile, then was his offense doubled in that he vitalized a ravenous brood of scribblers. They played Caliban to his Setebos.
Voltaire’s most offensive contributions were always attributed by him to this bishop or that, and to various dignitaries who had no existence save in the figment of his own fertile pigment.
He once carried on a controversy between the Bishop of Berlin and the Archbishop of Paris, each man thundering against the other with a monthly pamphlet wherein each one gored the other without mercy, and revealed the senselessness of the other’s religion. They flung the literary stinkpot with great accuracy. “The other man’s superstition is always ridiculous to us–our own is sacred,” said Voltaire, and so he allowed his controversialists to fight it out for his own quiet joy, and the edification of the onlookers.
Then his plan of printing an alleged sermon, giving some unknown prelate due credit on the title-page, starting in with a pious text and a page of trite nothings and gradually drifting off into ridicule of the things he had started in to defend–all this gives a comic tinge to his wail that “some evil-minded person is attributing things to me I never wrote,” If an occasional sly Churchman got after him with his own weapon, writing things in his style more hazardous than he dare express, surely he should not have complained.
But this was a fact–the enemy could not follow him long with a literary fusillade–they hadn’t the mental ammunition.
Well has Voltaire been called “the father of all those who wear shovel-hats.”
* * * * *
A few months in the Bastile, and Voltaire’s indeterminate sentence was commuted to exile. He was allowed to leave his country for his country’s good. Early in the year Seventeen Hundred Twenty-six he landed in England, evidently knowing nobody there except one merchant, a man of no special prominence.
Voltaire belonged to the nobility by divine right–as much as did Disraeli. Both had an inward contempt for titles, but they knew the hearts of the owners so well that they simply played a game of chess, and the “men” they moved were live knights, bishops, kings and queens, with rollers under the castles. The pawns they pushed here and there were the literary puppets of the time.
The first thing Voltaire had to master in England was the language, and this he did passably inside of three months. He took Grub Street by storm; dawdled at Dodsley’s; met Dean Swift, and these worthies respected each other’s wit so much that they simply took snuff, grimaced and let it go at that; Pope came in for a visit, and the French poet crossed Twickenham ferry and offered a handmade sonnet in admiration of the “Essay on Man,” which he had probably never read. Gay gave Voltaire “The Beggar’s Opera,” in private, and together they called on Congreve, who interrupted the Frenchman’s flow of flattery long enough to say that he wished to be looked on as a gentleman, not a poet. And Voltaire replied that there were many gentlemen but few poets, and if Congreve had had the misfortune to be simply a gentleman he would not have troubled to call on him at all. Congreve, who really regarded himself as the peer of Shakespeare, was won, and sent Voltaire on his way with letters to Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill. Thomson, who lived at Hammersmith, and wrote his “Seasons” in a “public” next door to Kelmscott, corrected and revised some of Voltaire’s attempts at English poetry. Young evolved some of his “Night Thoughts” while on a visit with Voltaire at Bubb Dodington’s.
A call on the Duchess of Marlborough led to a dinner at Lord Chesterfield’s. Next he met Queen Caroline and assured her that she spoke French like a Parisian. King George the Second quite liked Voltaire, because Voltaire quite liked Lady Sandon, his mistress. Only a Frenchman could have successfully paid court to the King, Queen and Lady Sandon at the same time, as Voltaire did. His great epic poem, “Henriade,” that he had been sandpapering for ten years, was now published, dedicated to the Queen. The King headed the subscription-list with more copies than he needed, at five guineas each, on agreement. Voltaire afterward said that he would not be expected to read the poem. The Queen’s good offices were utilized–she became for the time a royal book-agent, and her signature and the author’s adorned all deluxe copies. A suggestion from the Queen was equal to an order, and the edition was soon worked off.
Voltaire now spent three years in England. He had written his “Life of Charles the Twelfth,” several plays, an “English Note-Book,” and best of all, had gotten together a thousand pounds good money as proceeds of “Henriade,” a stiff and stilted piece of pedantic bombast, written with sweat and lamp-smoke.
The “Letters on the English” were published a few years later in Paris with good results, considering it was only a by-product. It is a deal better-natured than Dickens’ “American Note-Book,” and had more humor than Emerson’s “English Traits.” Among other things quite Voltairesque in the “Letters” is this: “The Anglican Church has retained many of the good old Catholic customs–not the least of which is the collection of tithes with great regularity.”
* * * * *
The priestly habit of Voltaire’s life manifested itself even to the sharp collecting from the world all that the world owed him.
The snug little sum he had secured in England would have shown his ability, but there was something better in store, awaiting his return to France. It seems the Controller of Finance had organized a lottery to help pay the interest on the public debt. A considerable sum of money had been realized, but there was still a large number of tickets unsold, and the drawing was soon to take place. Voltaire knew the officials who had the matter in charge and they knew him. He organized a syndicate that would take all tickets there were left, on guarantee that among the tickets purchased would be the one that called for the principal prize of forty thousand pounds. Just how it was known in advance what ticket would win must be left to those good people who understand these little things in detail. In any event, Voltaire put in every sou he had–and his little fortune was then a matter of about ten thousand dollars. Several of his friends contributed a like sum.
The drawing took place, and the prize of forty thousand pounds was theirs. It is said that Voltaire took twenty-five thousand pounds as his share–the whole scheme was his anyway–and his friends were quite satisfied with having doubled their money in a fortnight.
Immediately on securing this money, Voltaire presented himself at the office of the President of Accounts, and asked for the legacy left him by his father. As proof of his financial ability, and as a guarantee of good faith, he opened a hand-satchel and piled on the President’s table a small mountain of gold and bank-notes. The first question of the astonished official was, “Will M. de Voltaire have the supreme goodness to explain where he stole all this money?”
This was soon followed by an apology, as the visitor explained the reason of his visit.
The father’s legacy amounted to nearly four thousand pounds, and this was at once paid over to Voltaire with a flattering letter expressing perfect faith in his ability to manage his own finances.
There is a popular opinion that Voltaire made considerable money by his pen, but the fact is, that at no period of his life did literature contribute in but a very scanty way to his prosperity.
After the lottery scheme, Voltaire embarked in grain speculations, importing wheat from Barbary for French consumption. In this he made a fair profit, but when war broke out between Italy and France, he entered into an arrangement with Duverney, who had the army commissariat in his hands, to provision the troops. It was not much of a war, but it lasted long enough, as most wars do, for a few contractors to make much moneys. The war spirit is usually fanned by financiers, Kuhn, Loeb and Company giving the ultimatum.
Voltaire cleared about twenty thousand pounds out of his provision contract.
Thus we find this thrifty poet at forty with a fortune equal to a half-million dollars. This money he loaned out in a way of his own–a way as original as his literary style. His knowledge of the upper circles again served him well. Among the proud scions of nobility there were always a few who, through gambling proclivities, and other royal qualities, were much in need of funds. Voltaire picked the men who had only a life interest in their estates, and made them loans, secured by the rentals. The loans were to be paid back in annuities as long as both men lived.
All insurance is a species of gambling–the company offers to make you a bet that your house will burn within a year.
In life-insurance, the company’s expert looks you over, and if your waist measurement is not too great for your height, a bargain is entered into wherein you agree to pay so much now, and so much every year as long as you live, in consideration that the company will pay your heirs so much at your death.
The chief value of life-insurance lies in the fact that it insures a man against his own indiscretion, a thing supposedly under his own control–but which never is. Voltaire’s scheme banked on the man’s weakness, and laid his indiscretion open before the world. It was life-insurance turned wrong side out, and could only have been devised and carried out by a man of courage with an actuary’s bias for mathematics.
Instead of agreeing to pay the man so much at death, Voltaire paid him the whole sum in advance, and the man agreed to pay, say, ten per cent interest until either the lender or the borrower died. No principal was to be paid, and on the death of either party, the whole debt was canceled.
Voltaire picked only men younger than himself. It was a tempting offer to the borrower, for Voltaire looked like a consumptive, and it is said that on occasion he evolved a wheezy cough that helped close the deal. The whole scheme, for Voltaire, was immensely successful. On some of the risks he collected his yearly ten per cent for over forty years, or until his death.
On Voltaire’s loan of sixteen hundred pounds to the Marquis du Chatelet, however, it is known that he collected nothing either in way of principal or interest. This was as strange a piece of financiering as was ever consummated; and the inside history of the matter, with its peculiar psychology, has never been written. The only two persons who could have told that story in its completeness were Voltaire and the Madame du Chatelet, and neither ever did.
* * * * *
Madame du Chatelet–the divine Emilie–was twenty-seven and Voltaire was thirty-nine when they first met.
He was living in obscure lodgings in Paris for prudential reasons, the executioner having just burned, in the public street, all the copies of his last book that could be found.
The Madame called on him to express her sympathy–and congratulations. She had written a book, but it had not been burned–not even read! She was tall, thin, angular, far from handsome, but had beaming eyes and a face that tokened intellect. And best of all, her voice was low, finely modulated, and was not exercised more than was meet.
She leaned her chin upon her hand and looked at him.
She had met Voltaire when she was a child–at least she said so, and he, being a gentleman, remembered perfectly. She read to him a little manuscript she had just dashed off. It was deep, profound and full of reasons–that is the way learned women write–they write like professors of rhetoric. Really great men write lightly, suggestively, and with a certain amount of indifference, dash, froth and foam. When women evolve literary foam, it is the sweet, cloying, fixed foam of the charlotte russe–not the bubbling, effervescent Voltaire article.
Could M. de Voltaire suggest a way in which her manuscript might be lightened up so the public executioner would deign to notice it?
M. de Voltaire responded by reading to her a little thing of his own.
The next day she called again.
Some say that Madame called on Voltaire to secure a loan on her husband’s estate at Civey. No matter–she got the loan.
Doubtless she did not know where she was going–none of us do. We are all sailing under sealed orders.
The Madame had been married eight years. She was versed in Latin and knew Italian literature. She was educated; Voltaire was not. She offered to teach him Italian if he would give her lessons in English.
They read to each other things they had recently written. When men and women read to each other and mingle their emotions, the danger-line is being reached. Literary people of the opposite sex do not really love each other. All they desire is to read their manuscript aloud to a receptive listener.
Thus are the literary germs vitalized–by giving our thoughts to another we really make them our own. Only well-sexed people produce literature–poetry is the pollen of the mind. Meter, rhythm, lilt and style are stamen, pistil and stalk swaying in the warm breeze of springtime.
An order for arrest was out for Voltaire. Pamphlets which he had been refused permission to publish in Paris were printed at Rouen and were setting all Paris by the ears.
With Madame du Chatelet he fled to Civey, where was the tumbledown chateau of the Marquis–the Madame’s complaisant husband. Voltaire advanced the Marquis sixteen hundred pounds to put the place in order, and then on his own account fitted up two sumptuous apartments, one for himself and one for Madame. The Marquis went away with his regiment, and occasionally came back and lounged about the chateau. But Voltaire was the real master of the place.
Voltaire was neither domestic nor rural in his tastes, but the Du Chatelet seemed to fill his cup to the brim, and made him enjoy what otherwise would have been exile. He wrote incessantly–poems, essays, plays–and fired pamphlets at a world of fools.
All that he wrote during the day he read to Madame at night. One of her maids has given us a vivid little picture of how Voltaire, at exactly eleven o’clock each night, would come out of hiding, and entering the Madame’s room, would partake of the dainty supper that was always prepared for him. The divine Emilie had the French habit of receiving her visitors in bed, and as her hours were much more regular than Voltaire’s, she usually enjoyed a nap before he entered. After his supper he would read aloud to her all he had written since they last met. If the piece was dramatic he would act it out with roll of r’s, striding walk, grimace and gesticulations gracefully done, for the man was an actor of rare talent.
Emerson says, “Let a man do a thing incomparably well, and the world will make a path to his door, though he live in a forest.” There was no lack of society at Civey–the writers, poets and philosophers found their way there. Voltaire fitted up a little private theater, where his plays were given, and concerts and lectures held from time to time.
The divine Emilie’s forte was science and mathematics–and on these themes she wrote much, competing for prizes and winning the recognition of various learned societies. It will be seen that the man and the woman were not in competition with each other, which, perhaps, accounts, in degree, for their firm friendship.
Yet they did quarrel, too, as true lovers will, I am told. But their quarreling was all done in English, so the servants and His Inertia, the Marquis, did not know the purpose of it. It is probable that the accounts of their misunderstandings are considerably exaggerated, as the rehearsal of a tragedy by this pair of histrions would be taken by the servants for a sure-enough fight.
And they were always acting–often beginning breakfast with a “stunt.” The Madame sang well, and her little impromptu arias pleased her thin little lover immensely and he would improvise and answer in kind, and then take the part of an audience and applaud, calling loudly, “Bravo! Bravo!”
Mornings they would ride horseback through the winding woods, or else hunt for geological and botanical specimens. About all of Voltaire’s science he got from the lady and this was true of languages as well.
To a nervous, irritable and intense thinker a certain amount of solitude seems necessary. Voltaire occasionally grew weary of the delicious quiet of Civey, and the indictment against him having been quashed, he would go away to Paris or elsewhere. On these trips if he did not take Madame along she would grow furious, then lacrimose and finally submissive–with a weepy protest. If he failed to write her daily she grew hysterical. Two winters they spent together in Paris and another at Brussels.
A lawsuit involving the estate of the Marquis du Chatelet, that had been in the courts for eighty years, was pushed to a successful issue by Voltaire and Madame. Four hundred fifty thousand dollars were secured, but of this Voltaire, strangely enough, took nothing.
That the bond between Emilie and Voltaire was very firm is shown by the fact that, after they had been together ten years, he declined to leave her to accept an invitation to visit Frederick the Great at Berlin. Frederick was a married man, but his was a strictly bachelor court–for prudential reasons. Frederick and Emilie had carried on a spirited correspondence, but this was as close as he cared for her to come to him. All of his communications with females were limited to letters, and Voltaire once said that that was the reason he was called Frederick the Great.
Madame du Chatelet died when she was forty-two; Voltaire was fifty-five. For fifteen years this strange and most romantic friendship had continued, and to a degree it had worn itself out. Toward the last the lady had been exacting and dictatorial, and thinking that Voltaire had slighted her by not taking her more into his confidence, she had accepted another lover, a man ten years her junior. If she had thought to make Voltaire jealous, she had reckoned without her host–he was relieved to find her fierce supervision relaxed.
When she passed away he worked his woe up into a pretty panegyric, closed up his affairs at Civey, and left there forever.
* * * * *
So far as the government was concerned, Voltaire seems to have passed his days in accepting rewards and receiving punishments. Interdict, exile, ostracism were followed by honors, pension and office.
His one lasting love was the drama. About every two years a swirl of excitement was caused at Paris by the announcement of a new play by Voltaire. These plays seemed to appeal mostly to the nobility, the clergy and those in public office. And the object in every instance was to get even with somebody, and place some one in a ridiculous light. Innocent historical dramas were passed by the censor, and afterward it was found that in them some local bigwig was flayed without mercy. Then the play had to be withdrawn, and all printed copies were burned in public, and Voltaire would flee to Brussels or Geneva to escape summary punishment.
However, he never fooled all of the people all of the time. There was always a goodly number of dignitaries who richly enjoyed the drubbing he gave the other fellow, and these would gloat in inward glee over the Voltaire ribaldry until it came their turn. Then the other side would laugh. The fact is, Voltaire always represented a constituency, otherwise his punishment might have been genuine, instead of forty lashes with a feather, well laid on.
About the time Madame du Chatelet passed away, Voltaire seemed to be enjoying a period of kingly favor. He had been made a Knight of the Bedchamber and also Historiographer of France. The chief duty of the first office consisted in signing the monthly voucher for salary, and the other was about the same as Poet Laureate–with salary in inverse ratio to responsibility. It was considered, however, that the holder of these offices was one of the King’s family, and therefore was bound to indulge in no unseemly antics.
On June Twenty-sixth, Seventeen Hundred Fifty, Voltaire applied to the King in person for permission to visit Frederick of Prussia.
Tradition has it that the King replied promptly, “You may go–the sooner the better–and you may remain as long as you choose.”
Voltaire pocketed the veiled acerbity without a word, and bowing himself out, made hot haste to pack up and be on his way before an order rescinding the permission was issued.
Frederick was a freethinker, a scientist, a poet, and a wit well worthy of the companionship of Voltaire. In fact, they were very much alike. Both had the dual qualities of being intensely practical and yet iconoclastic. Both were witty, affable, seemingly indifferent and careless, but yet always with an eye on the main chance. Each was small, thin and bony, but both had the intellect of the lean and hungry Cassius that looked quite through the deeds of man.
Frederick received Voltaire with royal honors. Princes, ministers of state, grandees and generals high in office, knelt on one knee as he passed. Frederick tried to make it appear that France had failed to appreciate her greatest philosopher, and so he had come to Prussia–the home of letters. His pension was fixed at twenty thousand francs a year, he was given the Golden Key of Chamberlain, and the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit. He was a member of the King’s household, and was the nearest and dearest friend of the royal person.
Frederick thought he had bound the great man to him for life.
Personality repels as well as attracts. Voltaire’s viper-like pen was never idle. He wrote little plays for the court, and these were presented with much eclat, the author superintending their presentation, and considerately taking minor parts himself, so as to divide the honors. But amateur theatricals stand for heart-burnings and jealousy. The German poets were scored, other writers ridiculed, and big scientists came in for their share of pen-pricking.
Voltaire corrected the King’s manuscript and taught him the secret of literary style. Then they fell into a controversy, done in Caslon old-style, thundering against each other’s theories in pamphlets across seas of misundertandings. Neither side publicly avowed the authorship, but nobody was deceived. The King and Voltaire met daily at meals, and carefully avoided the topics they were fighting out in print.
Voltaire was rich and all of his wants were supplied, but he entered the financial lists, and taking advantage of his inside knowledge, speculated in scrip and got into a disgraceful lawsuit over the proceeds with a man he should never have known. Frederick was annoyed–then disturbed. He personally chided Voltaire for his folly in mixing with the King’s enemies.
Voltaire had tired of the benevolent assimilation–he craved freedom. A friend who loves you, if he spies upon your every action, will become intolerable. Voltaire intimated to Frederick that he would like to go.
But Frederick had a great admiration for the man–he considered Voltaire the greatest living thinker, and to have such a one in the court would help give the place an atmosphere of learning. He recognized that there were two Voltaires–one covetous, quibbling, spiteful and greedy; and the other the peerless poet and philosopher–the man who hated shams and pretense, and had made a brave fight for liberty; the charming companion, the gracious friend. Frederick was philosopher enough to realize that he could not have the one without the other–if he had the angel he must also tolerate the demon. This he would do–he must have his Voltaire, and so he refused the passports asked for, and sought to interest his literary lion in new projects. Finally, court life became intolerable to Voltaire, as life is to anybody when he realizes that he is being detained against his will. Voltaire packed his effects, secured a four-horse carriage, and with his secretary, departed by night, without leaving orders where his mail should be forwarded.
When Frederick found that his singing bird had flown, he was furious. Fear had much to do with the matter, for Voltaire had taken various manuscripts written by the King, wherein potentates in high places were severely scored. The first thought of Frederick evidently was that Voltaire had really been a spy in the employ of the French government. He sent messengers after him in hot haste–the fugitive was overtaken, and arrested. His luggage was searched, and after being detained at Frankfort for three weeks he was allowed to depart for pastures new.
The news of his flight, arrest and disgrace became the gossip of every court of Christendom. Who was disgraced more by the arrest–Voltaire or Frederick–the world has not yet decided. Carlyle deals with the subject in detail in his “Life of Frederick,” and exonerates the King. But Taine says Carlyle wrote neither history nor poetry, and certainly we do not consider the sage of Cheyne Row an impartial judge.
Voltaire took time to cool, and then wrote a history of the affair which is published in his “My Private Life,” that is one of the most delicious pieces of humor ever written. That he should have looked forward to life at the Prussian Court as the ideal, and then after bravely enduring it for three years, make his escape by night, was only a huge joke. Nothing else could have been expected, he says. Men of fifty should know that environment does not make heaven, and people who expect other people to make paradise for them are forever doomed to wander without the walls.
Voltaire acknowledges that he got better treatment than he deserved, and makes no apology for working the whole affair up into good copy. The final proof that Voltaire was a true philosopher is that he was able to laugh at himself.
* * * * *
When Voltaire left Prussia, it was voluntary exile. Paris was forbidden–all of France was for him unsafe; England he had hopelessly offended. By slow stages he made his way to Switzerland. But on the way there his courage failed him and he wrote back to Frederick, suggesting reconciliation. But Frederick promptly reminded him that he had repeatedly broken promises by writing about Frederick’s personal friends, and “Voltaire and Frederick had better keep apart, that their love for each other might not grow cold”–a subtle bit of sarcasm.
At Geneva, where Calvin had instituted a little tyranny of his own, Voltaire was made welcome. Nominally no Catholics were allowed in Geneva, and when Voltaire wrote to the authorities, explaining that he was a good Catholic, the matter was taken as a great joke. He bought a beautiful little farm a few miles away, on the banks of the river Rhone, overlooking the city of Geneva and the lake. It was an ideal spot, and rightly he called it “Delices.” Here he was going to end his days amid flowers and birds and books and bees, an onlooker and possibly a commentator on the times, but not a doer. His days of work were over. Of the world of strife he had had enough–thus he wrote to Frederick.
Visitors of a literary turn of mind at Geneva began to come his way. He established an inn, and later built a theater out of the ruins of an old church that he had bought and dismantled. “This is what I am going to do with all the churches in France,” he explained with a smile.
His pen was never idle. He wrote plays that were presented at his own little theater, and on such occasions he would send word to his Geneva friends not to come, as they could not be accommodated. Of course they came.
He wrote a history of Peter the Great, and this brought him into communication with Queen Catherine of Russia, with whom he carried on quite an animated correspondence. This worthy widow invited him to Saint Petersburg, and he slyly wrote to Frederick for advice as to whether he should go or not. It is said that Frederick advised him to go, pay court to the Queen, marry her, seize the throne, and get his head cut off for his pains, thus achieving immortality and benefiting the world at one stroke.
Voltaire had no intention of going to Saint Petersburg; he had created a little Court of Letters, of which he himself was the Czar, and for the first time in his life he was experiencing a degree of genuine content. His flowers, bees, manuscripts and theater filled every moment of the day from six in the morning until ten at night. He had arrived in Switzerland broken in health, with mind dazed, his frail body undone. There at the little farm at Delices, overlooking the lake, health came back and youth seemed to return to this man of three-score.
Some of the nobility in Paris, to whom he had loaned money, took advantage of his exile to withhold payments, but Voltaire secured an agent to look after his affairs, so his losses were not great.
He bought the tumbledown chateau of Tournay, near at hand, which carried with it the right to call himself Count Tournay. Frederick, with mock respect, so addressed his letters.
His next financial venture, begun when he was sixty-eight, might well have tested the strength of a much younger man. A few miles from Geneva, at Ferney, just over the border from Switzerland, Voltaire had bought a large tract of waste land, intending to use it for pasturage. Here he built a cottage and lived a part of the time when visitors were too persistent at Delices. Ferney was on French soil, Delices in Switzerland. Voltaire had criticized the Protestants of Geneva, and given it as his opinion that a Calvinistic tyranny was in no wise preferable to one built on Catholicism. Some then said, “This man is really what he professes–a Catholic.” There had also been a demonstration to drive him out of Switzerland, since it was pretty well known that Voltaire’s crowds of visitors were neither Catholic nor Protestant. “Delices is infidelic,” was the cry, and this doubtless had something to do with Voltaire’s establishing himself at Ferney. If Protestant Switzerland drove this Catholic over to France, why, Catholic France would not molest him.
Every country, no matter how tyrannical its government, prides itself on being the home of the exile, just as every man thinks of himself as being sincere and without prejudice.
It is now believed that Voltaire had much to do with inciting the civil riots in Geneva against the Catholics. He had circulated pamphlets purporting to be written by a Catholic, upholding the Pope, and ridiculing most unmercifully the pretenses of Protestantism, declaring it a compromise with the devil, made up of the scum of the Catholic Church. This pamphlet declared Calvin a monster, and arraigned him for burning Servetus, and hinted that all Calvinists would soon be paid back in their own coin. No one else could have penned this vitriolic pamphlet but Voltaire–he knew both sides. But since Geneva regarded Voltaire as an infidel, it never occurred to the authorities that he would take up the cudgel of the Catholic Church that had burned his books. The real fact was, the pamphlet wasn’t a defense of Catholicism–it was only a drubbing of Calvinism, and the wit was too subtle for the Presbyterians to digest.
Very soon another pamphlet appeared, answering the first. It arraigned the Catholics in scathing phrase, suggested that they were getting ready to burn the city–hinted at a repetition of Saint Bartholomew, and declared the order had gone forth from Rome to scourge and kill. It was as choice an A.P.A. document as was ever issued by a relentless joker. The result was that the workers in the watch-factory and silk-mills who were Catholics found themselves ostracized by the Protestant workmen. I do not find that the authorities drove the Catholics out of Geneva, it was simply a species of labor trouble–Protestants would not work with Catholics.
At this juncture Voltaire comes in, and invites all persecuted Catholic watch-workers and silk-weavers to move to Ferney. Here Voltaire laid out a town–erected houses, factories, churches and schools. In two years he had built up a town of twelve hundred people, and had a watch-factory and silk-mill in full and paying operation.
The problem of every manufacturer is to sell his wares–Voltaire knew how to release purse-strings of friends and enemies alike. He sent watches to all of his enemies in Paris, bishops, priests and potentates, explaining that he had quit literature forever, and was now engaged in helping struggling, exiled Catholics to get an honest living–he was doing penance as foreman of a watch-factory–would the Most Reverend not help in this worthy work? Money flowed in on Ferney–Frederick ordered a consignment of watches, Queen Catherine did the same, and the Bishop of Paris sent his blessing and an order for enough silk to keep Voltaire’s factory going for six months.
Voltaire really got the pick of the workmen of Geneva–the goods made were of the best, and while at first Catholics only were employed, yet in five years Ferney was quite as much Protestant as Catholic. Voltaire respected the religious beliefs of his workmen, and there was liberty for all. He paid better wages and treated his workers better than they had ever been treated in Geneva. Voltaire built houses for his people and allowed them to pay him in monthly instalments. And not only did he himself make much money out of his Ferney investment, but he established the town upon such a safe financial basis that its prosperity endures even unto this day.
* * * * *
It was at Ferney, in his old age, that Voltaire first made open war upon “revealed religion.” All religions that professed a miraculous origin were to him baneful in the extreme, the foes of light and progress, the enemies of mankind. He did not perceive, as modern psychology does, that the period of supernaturalism is the childhood of the mind. Myths and fairy-tales are not of themselves base–the injury lies with the men who seek to profit by these things, and build up a tyranny founded on innocence and ignorance–seeking to perpetuate these things, issuing threats against growth, and offers of reward to all who stand still.
Voltaire called superstition “The Infamy,” and he summoned the thinkers of the world to crush it beneath a heel of scorn. Letters, pamphlets, plays, essays, were sent out in various languages, by his own printing-presses. The wit of the man–his scathing mockery–were weapons no one could wield in reply. The priests and preachers did not answer him–they could not–they only grew purple with wrath and hissed.
Says Victor Hugo, “Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled.” To which Bernard Shaw has recently rejoined, “Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled; William Morris worked.”
From the prosperity, peace and security of Ferney, Voltaire pointed a bony finger at every hypocrite in Christendom, and laughed his mocking smile. The man expressed himself, and happiness lies in that and nothing else. Misery comes from lack of full, free self-expression, and from nothing else. The man who fights for freedom fights for the right of self-expression for himself and others–and immortality lies in nothing else.
There is no fight worth making–no struggle worth the while–save the struggle for freedom.
No name is honored among men–no name lives–save the name of the man who worked for liberty and light–who has fought freedom’s fight.
Run the list in your mind of the names that are immortal, and you will recall only those of men who have widened the horizon for other men, and that select number who are remembered in infamy because they linked their names with greatness by doubting, denying, betraying and persecuting it–deathless through disgrace.
Voltaire sided with the weak, the defenseless, the fallen. He demanded that men should not be hounded for their belief, that they should not be arrested without cause and without knowing why, and without letting their friends know why. We realize his faults, we know his imperfections and limitations, yet, through his influence, life throughout the world became safer, liberty dearer, freedom a more sacred thing. His words were a battery that eventually razed the walls of the Bastile, and best of all, freed countless millions from theological superstition, that Bastile of the brain.
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