The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Voltaire, François Marie Arouet de

The American Cyclopædia
Voltaire, François Marie Arouet de by Parke Godwin

Edition of 1879. See also Voltaire on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

VOLTAIRE, François Marie Arouet de, a French author, born in Paris, Nov. 21, 1694, died there, May 30, 1778. His parents were the sieur Arouet, treasurer in the chamber of accounts, and Marie Catharine d'Aumart, of a noble family of Poitou. The name Voltaire is said by some to have been derived from a family estate that belonged to the mother, while others consider it an anagram of Arouet l. i. (le jeune). His godfather, a certain abbé de Châteauneuf, was his first teacher, and indoctrinated him in the lively but skeptical literature of the day. The child was taught to read in the Mosaïde, a poem in which Moses is described as an impostor, ascribed to Jean Baptiste Rousseau. His first verses, written in his 12th year, addressed to the dauphin and soliciting alms for an invalid, attracted the attention of Ninon de l'Enclos, who bequeathed him 2,000 francs for the purchase of books. At the college of Louis-le-Grand the Jesuits soon discovered both his extraordinary talents and the freedom of mind which induced one of them to predict that he would one day become the coryphæus of deism. On his departure from college, the boy was placed in a school of jurisprudence, with a view to the subsequent purchase of a judicial office; but he preferred poetry to law. Besides, the abbé de Châteauneuf had introduced him to the brilliant and licentious society of his mistress Ninon, which already reacted against the asceticism of Mme. de Maintenon, and indulged in railleries against all established institutions, religious, political, and social. His law studies were of course interrupted, and this fact, together with the composition of a poem in 1712 on the decoration of the choir of Notre Dame, led his father to connect him with the embassy of the marquis de Châteauneuf to the United Provinces. At the Hague one Mme. Dunoyer accused him of seducing her daughter, though she was herself suspected of having favored the crime, and from a mercenary motive published their correspondence. This scandal obliged him to return to Paris, and his father pardoned him only on condition that he should resume his studies with a notary. A friend of the family, M. de Caumartin, procured permission for him to pass a few months in his country residence at St. Ange. On his return to Paris he was suddenly and strangely arrested and transferred to the Bastile. Louis XIV. had just died; satirical and witty pamphlets celebrated the event as a happy deliverance; and some of the lampoons or epigrams being ascribed to Voltaire, though he was barely 20 years of age, the regent issued orders for his confinement. During the year he spent in prison he wrote a part of his epic the Henriade, and completed a tragedy, begun some years before, entitled Œdipe. Pleased with these performances, the regent released him, and added to the favor a considerable donation. Œdipe was soon afterward (1718) produced on the stage with brilliant success, and even his father became reconciled to his literary career. The play abounded in impressive scenes, lofty characters, and a most fervid and beautiful declamation; it has since kept possession of the stage, but is rather a series of impassioned and eloquent dialogues than a drama. Voltaire now passed from château to château, to visit illustrious friends; he studied at Amsterdam, passed some time at Brussels, and sought out Jean Baptiste Rousseau in his place of exile. Yet in the midst of these diversions he composed two new tragedies, Artémire and Mariamne, and a comedy, L'indiscret, and completed the Henriade. The tragedies met with indifferent success in the representation, and the comedy was a failure. But his epic, suggested by the reign of Henry IV., having been purloined, altered, and published under the title of La ligue, by a copyist named Desfontaines, became rapidly popular. The sensation it produced, even in the mutilated and factitious form in which it had been given to the public, compelled the author to hasten his own final revisions. Certain bold sentiments of philosophy and tolerance, however, scattered among the poetic beauties, aroused the suspicions of the clergy, and he could not procure the license for printing. Though he offered to dedicate the poem to the king, the obstacles put in the way of its appearance were found nearly insuperable. While he was yet struggling to remove them, an incident occurred which suddenly changed the tenor of his life. At the table of the duke de Sully he took part in a discussion in a manner too free and spirited, and formally contradicted a chevalier Rohan-Chabot, who received the impertinence in high dudgeon. “Who is this,” asked the chevalier, warmly, “that presumes to talk so loud?” “A young man,” replied Voltaire, “who does not bear a high name, but who is capable of honoring that which he bears.” As the name of the chevalier was his principal distinction, he felt the sly reproof, and some days afterward caused his lackeys to call Voltaire from the duke's dinner table and administer a severe chastisement with rods. Voltaire appealed to the duke to resent the indignity, but in vain. He now practised fencing day and night, and when he thought himself sufficiently apt he challenged his assailant. The relatives of the latter procured a royal order for Voltaire's imprisonment in the Bastile. At the end of six months he was set free, but on the condition that he should quit France. He went to England (1726), and resided there three years. Lord Bolingbroke introduced him into that society of freethinkers which was then the reigning school of literature. His first and most novel impressions were derived from the great spectacle presented by the enormous activity and orderly freedom of England. Next to this and his intercourse with the polished freethinkers, he was chiefly interested in the physical philosophy which, under the teachings of Newton, was pushing the antiquarian, scholastic, and moral sciences into the shade, and became an earnest student of mathematics, astronomy, and the experimental branches of knowledge. He saw in these not so much the comprehensive truths as the instrumentalities they furnished for assailing the moral systems of the Jesuits and other religionists. From his youth Voltaire had made war, more or less open, upon the prevailing tenets. The brothers Walpole persuaded George II. and his ministers to head the subscription for a splendid impression of the Henriade, and the whole aristocratic society followed in their wake. Voltaire rose speedily to the summit of renown as an epic poet, and when he returned to France he found himself a national idol. His admiration of the English and their polity he described shortly after his return (1729) in his Lettres sur les Anglais. He made a considerable fortune by investing his literary gains in lotteries, in speculations, and in mercantile adventures to the coast of Africa. He next wrote the tragedy of Brutus, which was not a success that satisfied his ambition or vanity. Fontenelle and La Motte advised him to give up tragedy, and he replied with Zaire (1730), which, though written in 22 days, was his best and most pathetic drama, and was received with unbounded applause. Even in these poetic attempts he could not suppress an occasional inkling of his deistical and liberal principles. His Lettres were consequently ordered to be publicly burned, and he himself escaped lettres de cachet only by a speedy retreat to Cirey, near Vassy in Champagne. This was the château of the marchioness du Châtelet, who was celebrated for her love of mathematics and abstruse sciences, and read Leibnitz and Newton in the original Latin. During his long residence under the same roof with Mme. du Châtelet, a connection which Lord Brougham defends as entirely Platonic, he wrote his Élémens de la philosophie de Newton, and a treatise on fire. Other fruits of his activity at this time were his Alzire (1736), Mahomet (1741), dedicated to the pope, Mérope (1743), and a multitude of lighter pieces, including La pucelle, a disgustingly ribald performance. He also labored upon his most important work, the Essai sur les mœurs et sur l'esprit des nations; collected materials for his Siècle de Louis Quatorze; and amused his leisure in the production of plays for a private theatre, which he built and managed. Voltaire's residence at Cirey was marked by the opening of his correspondence with the prince royal of Prussia, afterward Frederick the Great. It was begun by the prince, who admired both his genius and the audacity with which he had assailed the government and clergy of France. Voltaire expressed the highest admiration of the prince, whom he pronounced a Trajan and Pliny combined. When Frederick succeeded to the throne he asked Voltaire to reside at his court (1740). The poet declined at first, preferring the society of Mme. du Châtelet; but after her death (1749) he was more inclined to accept the invitation. He had lived altogether 13 years at Cirey; yet he did not spend the whole of his time there. Many visits were made by him, generally in company with the marchioness, to different towns. In 1738 the scandal occasioned by his Mondain compelled him to retire to Brussels. Twice he went to Berlin, once in 1740 to see Frederick, and again in 1744, on a political mission for preserving the peace of Europe, with which he had been charged by the French cabinet. For a while also, in 1746, he removed to Paris, where he wrote and brought out other tragedies, trained Le Kain in the dramatic art, was chosen a member of the French academy, and received the appointment of historiographer of France from Louis XV. But his cynicism displeased Mme. de Pompadour, and the Jesuits always worked against him. Crébillon was set up as a rival author; the court adopted the new favorite, and Voltaire quitted Paris for Berlin. Frederick received him with transports of joy (1750). He was lodged in the apartments of Marshal Saxe; the king's cooks, servants, and horses were placed at his disposal; he was granted a pension of 20,000 francs, and he and the king studied together for two hours a day, while he was welcomed to the king's table in the evening. Voltaire completed his Siècle de Louis Quatorze, and Frederick wrote verses and essays which he submitted to the criticism of the poet. But both were imperious, both irritable, both witty, while the one was a king and the other only a poet. Distrusts soon arose, bickerings followed, and in the end there was a violent rupture. Other favorites, Maupertuis, a philosopher, whom Voltaire lampooned under the name of Dr. Akakia, and Lamettre, a physician, widened the breach. At length Voltaire resolved to escape, and, carrying some of the king's poems with him, he was arrested at Frankfort under circumstances of considerable annoyance and disgrace (1758). The indignant poet abused the monarch afterward as freely as he had once flattered him. Yet their correspondence was subsequently renewed, and though they criticised each other severely for the past, they resumed many of their old reciprocal flatteries. In 1755 Voltaire purchased an estate near Geneva, in Switzerland, which he called Les Délices, and there prosecuted once more his literary projects. But he became involved in disputes with his more rigid Swiss neighbors; the publication of La pucelle created many enemies; and forged verses in ridicule of Louis XV. and Mme. de Pompadour ascribed to him started new rumors of lettres de cachet. Throughout his life he was more or less involved in petulant controversies with contemptible writers. With Jean Jacques Rousseau he tried in vain to maintain a friendship. Voltaire had never restrained in private the mockeries and jests for which the personal oddities and speculative absurdities of Rousseau gave occasion; and these, coming to the ear of their object, provoked recrimination and a final rupture. In 1762 he removed to an estate which he had purchased at Ferney, on French territory, but near the Swiss confines, so that he might easily escape from one country to the other in the event of hostilities on the part of either. His books and his speculations in the funds had made him enormously rich, and he delighted in spending his fortune in the improvement of his property, in constructing better habitations for the poor laborers, in befriending indigent literary men, and in entertaining the hosts of visitors attracted by his fame. Nothing gave him greater celebrity than his efforts in behalf of oppressed Protestants. Fugitives from the civil troubles of Geneva and other towns always found an asylum beneath his roof. He even built a church at Ferney, which he dedicated to God, but which the ecclesiastical authority refused to recognize and consecrate. He omitted no exertion to maintain his place and continue the inspiration which he had given to the literature of his age. He had become, in a sense, the founder of a new sect of thinkers and writers, who took the name of the encyclopædists, and who, differing from him in many particulars, were yet glad to be sheltered under the auspices of his fame. The idea of the great work, the Encyclopédie, in which this school embodied its schemes, was a substantial exposition of everything which human genius had conceived or created since the beginning of society. (See Cyclopædia, and Diderot.) Voltaire was a decided theist, and he rebuked the philosophy of his age, which tried to banish God from the universe. In his 84th year he visited Paris, whither he carried a new tragedy, Irène, and was received by all classes with unparalleled demonstrations of honor. His carriage was drawn by the people; his rooms were crowded with the grandees of politics, society, and letters, from morning to night; and his visits to the theatres were ovations, in which he was crowned with laurels and roses, and all the arts conspired to do him homage. Among his latest words were these: “I die worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, but detesting superstition.” Impediments were raised by the French clergy to his decent burial in the parish where he expired, and his remains were carried to the abbey of Scellières, belonging to one of his nephews, where he was interred. On the stone his friends placed the simple inscription: Ci-gít Voltaire. The government ordered the newspapers not to comment upon his death; but Frederick of Prussia caused the Berlin academy to do honor to his memory, and Catharine II. of Russia, with whom he had long corresponded, openly mourned the event. — As for the character of Voltaire, it will be, as it long has been, variously judged. His literary merits admit of less doubt, and posterity has confirmed the sentiment of his contemporaries, that he was the sovereign writer of his century. No other writer controlled so completely the opinions of the world. Yet he was not a great thinker, not a great poet, not a great historian, not a great novelist, and not a great manager or man of action. Of his 28 or 30 dramatic pieces, scarcely one rises to the highest line of dramatic art; his comedies, like his epics, are no longer read; his histories are sprightly and entertaining, but not authentic; and his essays, both in prose and verse, with perhaps the single exception of his historical disquisitions, have ceased to instruct. For the secret of his success we must turn to those satires, tales, vers de société, madrigals, letters, and epigrams, in which the whole spirit of the age saw itself expressed with inimitable vivacity, grace, point, and agreeableness. He was there the master of all styles, save, in his own phrase, of the ennuyeux or dull and wearisome. In delicate derision and irony he never had an equal; his understanding was clear and piercing, and perhaps the most dexterous that ever was created; his judgment, though not profound or solid, was remarkable for good sense; his wit was brilliant, glancing, and keen as a flash, and his fancy lively and inexhaustible. His principal works besides those already mentioned are: Histoire de Charles XII., roi de Suède (1730); Le temple du goût (1733), a critical and satirical production, half prose and half verse; seven Discours sur l'homme, imitated from Pope; Le dictionnaire philosophique; Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand; Histoire du parlement; Philosophie de l'histoire; La Bible commentée; and Histoire de l'etablissement du Christianisme. Of the numerous editions of his works, the best probably are those by Beuchot (70 vols. 8vo, 1829-'34) and Louis Barré (20 vols., 1856-'9). Among the best lives of Voltaire are those of Cordorcet (1787), Mazure (1821), and Longchamps and Wagnière (2 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1825). See also Voltaire, by David Friedrich Strauss (1870; 3d ed., 1872); “Voltaire,” by John Morley (London, 1871); and Voltaire et la société du XVIIIe siècle, by T. G. Desnoiresterres (8 vols., 1855-'76).