(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Voltaire is possibly the best-known figure in the history of Western thought. Although he wrote at a time and a place distinguished by a wealth of literary contributions from such figures as Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the Marquis de Condorcet, Voltaire has far outlasted them all as a writer whose works are still read and enjoyed by a wide academic and lay audience. There are several factors which help to explain this continued popularity. First, Voltaire enjoyed an exceedingly long life, especially for the eighteenth century, and a very productive one. Born in 1694, he lived until 1778, remaining active to the end, and his literary production extended over sixty years, with that which is extant exceeding fifteen million words. Second, he was a man who was appreciated by his contemporaries. In 1778, only months before his death, he returned to Paris in triumph, enjoying the popular adulation accorded him at his coronation at the Comédie Française. Aware of his significance to his time and to posterity, his secretaries, Sébastien Longchamp and Jean-Louis Wagnière, chronicled Voltaire’s life in their Mémoires sur Voltaire (1826). Ultimately he was accorded burial by the French Revolutionaries in the Pantheon, the neoclassical Parisian shrine to France’s illustrious dead. Third, and most important, Voltaire wrote constantly and exceedingly well. He produced a corpus of work in a variety of literary forms, much of which remains meaningful and entertaining more than two centuries after its initial appearance. While such works as Rousseau’s Émile (1762) and Diderot’s collaborative masterpiece, the Encyclopédie (1751-1772), collect dust on library shelves, Voltaire’s works, especially Candide (1759), continue to be published in many editions and, most important, to be read and enjoyed by successive generations. Voltaire, after all, attacked problems circumscribed by neither time nor place and he did this with the caustic but passionate wit of the satirist. His continued popularity is testimony to the timelessness of his writings.

Understandably, Voltaire has been the subject of a plethora of biographies, beginning with that of Longchamp and Wagnière, first published over a century and a half ago. The most comprehensive is the eight-volume account of Gustave Desnoireterres, Voltaire et la société au XVIIIe siècle, published in Paris between 1867 and 1876. At present a team of scholars, under the direction of Professor René Pomeau, is producing an updated ten-volume comprehensive study of the eighteenth century literary giant. The most widely read biography is that of Gustave Lanson, first published in 1910, and several times after, including an English translation. In 1965, the noted historian of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay, published what has become a deservedly popular analysis of Voltaire’s thought, Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist (1959). Unfortunately, with the exception of the study by Lanson and those such as Gay’s which treat only features of Voltaire’s thought, most biographies of Voltaire are too long to command the interest of any but the most dedicated Voltaire scholar. In chronicling Voltaire’s long and productive life in a comprehensive fashion, there is, as the late Voltaire scholar A. Delattre has observed, “’too much to say,’” and the biographer who is to be read must attempt to avoid “’the rut of compiling a true-to-life inventory.’” Lanson escaped this pitfall by approaching Voltaire in a primarily topical and secondarily chronological fashion. Haydn Mason takes a somewhat different, but effective, approach. His objective is to concentrate “on certain periods of the philosophe’s life, when we may hope to find the essence of the man revealed under the pressure of circumstances.” He thus attempts to avoid the trap of compiling still another chronological compendium of all of Voltaire’s activities.

Mason approaches his subject with impressive credentials. Professor of European studies at the University of East Anglia, he is the author of Pierre Bayle and Voltaire (1963) and a critical study of Voltaire’s works. He has also served as editor of the works of Voltaire and Pierre Marivaux and is the general editor of Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (1947). He is thus intimately acquainted with the available sources on Voltaire’s life and works, and he has utilized this background to produce a brief but perceptive analysis of the maturation of Voltaire’s ideas within the context of the times during which he lived.

Mason has divided his book into seven chapters of roughly equal length. In them he analyzes the seven periods of Voltaire’s life which he believes were the most important in molding his attitudes. Since each is relatively isolated in time and place, he has also provided brief transitional passages and a separate Chronology to assist the reader in bridging the movement from one period to another. Thorough documentation is provided by a section of notes following the text which will satisfy the scholar but which, because of their location, will not discourage the general reader.

Mason begins with a brief description of Voltaire’s youth, taking note of the early death of his mother which probably resulted in the emotional deprivation in Voltaire’s makeup which manifested itself later in his life. His relations with his conservative father were volatile and resulted in the young Arouet’s symbolic separation from him when he gave up his family name and adopted the name Voltaire. His relations with his siblings differed dramatically. Those with his sister, Mme Mignot, and his nieces, one of whom, Mme Denis, later became his mistress, were close and demonstrated that although Voltaire revolted against the authoritarian figure of his father, he “never revolted against the family as a whole nor against the notion of a family.”

His relations with his brother, Armand, were vastly different. The latter was an ascetic and fanatical Jansenist who represented the religious closed-mindedness and intolerance that Voltaire always detested and attacked in almost all his writings. The most important formative influence of his youth, however, were his extensive travels. He made two journeys to Holland, where he observed and appreciated the “bourgeois prosperity achieved by hard work not rank;...

(The entire section is 2630 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

America. CXLV, October 17, 1981, p. 225.

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 86.

The Economist. CCLXXX, August 15, 1981, p. 74.

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1410.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, August 15, 1981, p. 37.

Sewanee Review. LXXXIX, July, 1981, p. R90.

Spectator. CCXLVI, June 20, 1981, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1981, p. 1216.