(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Voltaire, as Jean Orieux ably demonstrates in this splendid biography, was speaking from experience when he said: “Announcing truths, proving something useful to men is a sure recipe for being persecuted.” It is difficult to recall any writer save Jonathan Swift who was so continuously at odds with so many of his peers, at times being the persecuted and at others, the persecutor. Yet one does come away from reading Orieux not only with a sense of Voltaire’s incredibly complex personal life, but also with a sense of his accomplishments as the Age of Enlightenment’s greatest savant. In the final analysis, Voltaire marks a scholarly contribution par excellence, offering as it does a balanced, deliberative assessment of a complicated man: Voltaire the man of action, Voltaire the social planner, Voltaire the rebel against unjust authority, and Voltaire the hotheaded antagonist of fellow writers.

It was no accident that Voltaire wrote Candide, that study of a young man spurred by the optimistic Dr. Pangloss into seeing this “best of all possible worlds” for himself only to discover how mean and shabby a place it really is, for he, like Candide, learned at an early age how cruel people can be.

Born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 during a time of famine and English assault upon his native France, Voltaire came into a family “typical of a certain breed of Frenchman” in which perseverance combined with hard work had allowed for a steady rise in fortune over a lengthy period. Later in life, Voltaire was to say next to nothing about his family, an indication, as Orieux has it, of his desire to be that “child of genius” which was “sprung full blown” from the Godhead. In actuality, Voltaire had the inestimable advantages of a comfortable bourgeois upbringing as the son of a Parisian notary. Ever the aristocrat, however, Voltaire was to look back upon his upbringing with contempt, finding it simply too middle-class for one such as he.

Throughout his life, Voltaire, as Orieux explains, sought the approval, company, and sponsorship of persons who were famous, honored, and extremely powerful. He was not above playing one nobleman or monarch against another in order to secure privileges or safe harbor. At times, almost shamelessly, he would court Louis of France, Peter the Great of Russia, and Frederick II of Prussia as well as a host of lesser figures, receiving indifference from some and help from others. Nevertheless, Voltaire was never so in awe of royalty that he failed to criticize wrongs done to him or his friends by those in power, a habit which often got him into serious trouble.

The thread that runs true throughout Voltaire’s career as dramatist, essayist, and philosopher is his ability to see through sham, pretense, bigotry, and hypocrisy. For above all else, he believed that to have an authentic existence, one must “battle every day of his life for happiness” in order to be “rescued from the clutches of tyranny and want.” Voltaire lived by this dictum. In any cause involving the rights of others, he was prepared to take a strong stand. For example, in one of his most famous attacks on oppression, he wrote an indignant panegyric about the treatment afforded Jean Calas of Toulouse whose case was to become “a milestone in the history of modern Europe.” When Calas, a Huguenot of a well-to-do family, was convicted on the most flimsy of evidence of murdering his brother by a judge obviously convinced of his guilt from the start, then tortured and killed by being tied to a wheel whereupon his back, arms, and legs were broken by an iron bar, Voltaire set out to publicize what he considered a gross miscarriage of justice. What resulted was his “Histoire d’Elisabeth Canning et Calas” and the “Lettre des frères Calas,” broadsides which reached Europe’s most progressive thinkers and eventually helped bring about the more humane treatment of criminals. Because of Voltaire, the idea that judges are always correct in their assumptions about the defendant’s guilt was also called into question.

Orieux does a commendable job of demonstrating that Voltaire’s seething condemnations of injustice, carried out despite threats of reprisal from those attacked, gave encouragement to other members of Europe’s Enlightenment. Moreover, he demonstrates that Voltaire helped bring Europeans together by doing such things as traveling to France’s foe, England, and meeting with eminent intellectuals. His purpose was not to speak only to Frenchmen but to Englishmen, Germans, and Swiss as well in order to tie together members of his continent’s intelligentsia. Without Voltaire, it is said, there would have been no Enlightenment, and, as Orieux proves, there is much truth to that saying. Surely it is safe to say...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)