J. H. Brumfitt (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5212

SOURCE: Brumfitt, J. H. “Voltaire Historian and the Royal Mistresses.” In Voltaire, the Enlightenment and the Comic Mode, edited by Maxine G. Cutler, pp. 11-26. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In this essay, Brumfitt examines Voltaire's writings to and about royal mistresses. Brumfitt observes that while Voltaire was skilled at flattery, his overall view of these women appears to be dim, though he cautions against seeing Voltaire's treatment of mistresses as representative of his views about women in general.]

As Jean Sareil has vividly demonstrated,1 Voltaire was a master of the art of the compliment. His flattery, it is true, had little success when directed towards the monarch he would probably most have wished to captivate: Louis XV. With royal mistresses, however, he was more fortunate. Mme de Prie, mistress of the due de Bourbon, was not, strictly speaking, a “royal” mistress, but it is tempting to include her here not only because of the power she wielded during the Duke's premiership, but also because her relations with Voltaire can be described as intimate.2 In later years he was to enjoy the support of Mme de La Tournelle (later duchesse de Châteauroux) who tried her best to achieve his election to the Academy.3 Towards the end of his life he was to receive greetings (and “kisses”) from Mme Du Barry, to which he responded in verse.4 Most important of all was the long relationship with Mme de Pompadour whose protection and encouragement (and sometimes displeasure) he was to enjoy over a long period of his middle life. For a full and perceptive account of this it is once again to Jean Sareil that we are indebted.5

It was a re-reading of this account that prompted the present article. My aim, however, is a much more limited one. It is to examine the ways in which Voltaire, in his major historical writings, treats the royal mistresses of his own and earlier epochs of French history and to see what light this treatment throws both on his conception of what is important in history and on the limitations imposed on him by the society for which he wrote.

Voltaire had many aims as a historian and at times they were far from easy to reconcile. Some were avowed: a desire to avoid chronicles of wars and diplomacy and to produce instead an “histoire de l'esprit humain” which emphasised man's achievements in the arts and sciences; a wish to treat history with the objectivity of natural science; a desire (here already contradictions begin to arise) to give to historical writing an artistic form akin to that of classical tragedy and to introduce an important element of dramatic tension.6 Other aims were more covert, though they emerge clearly at times in Voltaire's correspondence as well as in many details of his actual narrative and the structuring of his works: a wish to “écraser l'infâme,” to denounce tyranny and religious bigotry and proclaim the virtues of liberty, tolerance and humanity.7 Lastly, there were the largely unavowed aims. Voltaire, “historiographe du Roi,” sought to write history which would be agreeable to the King; which would magnify the achievement of the monarchy or at any rate discreetly ignore details which the monarch (or “les grands”) would prefer to remain unmentioned. He hoped, initially, that his historical writings would bring him recognition and even glory at Court. If he had abandoned these hopes in his later years of exile, he would still have wished to see his historical works freely published in France and was prepared to make the compromises necessary to ensure this.

It is with these considerations in mind (with particular emphasis, where contemporary history is concerned, on the last one) that we must examine and evaluate what Voltaire has to say about the royal mistresses. It may seem appropriate, too, to begin with the age with which Voltaire was best acquainted—his own. This involves (leaving aside minor writings) consideration of two works: the Précis du siècle de Louis XV and (in its later chapters) the Histoire du Parlement de Paris. The former first appeared as a separate work in 1768, but much of its material had already been published as “updatings” of the Siècle de Louis XIV and some had formed part of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 which Voltaire had begun during his brief period of favour at Court after 1745. The Histoire du Parlement had been written more hastily and with a more polemical purpose.

The Précis contains the briefest possible description of Mme de Prie: “jeune femme brillante, légère, d'un esprit vif et agréable”; it mentions the salient facts relating to her role in the repudiation of the young King's Spanish marriage and the subsequent choice of the daughter of Stanislas Leczinski, whilst asserting that the man behind the decisions taken was the financier Paris-Duverney. It describes her death after the disgrace of Bourbon: “elle mourut bientôt dans les convulsions du désespoir.”8 All this gives us only marginal insight into the character of one who may have been Voltaire's lover9 and whose role in the elevation of the future Queen of France was considerable. Still she was at least named and as she was long dead and Louis XV had disliked Bourbon anyhow, it was safe to name her. At this point, however, the curtain of silence descends. The three Mailly sisters are not named (not even Mme de Châteauroux). Nor are Mme de Pompadour and Mme du Barry, still less any of the more transient amours of Louis's eventful life. Discretion is clearly, in this field, Voltaire's guiding principle.

He is only marginally less discreet in the Histoire du Parlement. In this work, rapidly written, clandestinely published and appearing five years after Mme de Pompadour's death, Voltaire can not only name the marquise, but gives a short statement describing at least something of her role:

Il y avait alors une femme à la Cour qu'on haïssait et qui ne méritait pas cette haine. Cette dame avait été créée marquise de Pompadour par des lettres patentes dès l'année 1745. Elle passait pour gouverner le royaume, quoiqu'il s'en fallût beaucoup qu'elle fût absolue. La famille royale ne l'aimait pas, et cette aversion augmentait la haine du public en l'autorisant. Le petit peuple lui imputait tout. Les querelles du Parlement portèrent au plus haut degré cette aversion publique.10

Jean Sareil quotes this passage and observes that “Voltaire s'efforce de la juger avec l'impartialité et la sérénité d'un témoin et d'un historien” (134). Perhaps, whilst agreeing with this statement as a whole, one may have a certain doubt as to the appropriateness of the word “historien.” For if one expects measured judgements from a historian, one also expects that he will give us some of the evidence on which these judgements are based. This Voltaire does not do. This is his first mention of Mme de Pompadour, and “une femme à la Cour” does very little to define her status. The reasons why anyone should think that she governed France are not given, nor are those for the hostility of the royal family or the “petit peuple.” Information as to the date of her elevation to the rank of marquise has no obvious importance. The uninformed reader—some French-speaking Micromégas newly arrived from outer space—would find this paragraph almost as uninformative as the blank pages of the book left on earth by Voltaire's own visitors from other planets. The one other direct reference in the Histoire du Parlement, the assertion that “la marquise de Pompadour fit renvoyer de même le garde des sceaux Machault et le comte d'Argenson,” hardly does much to clarify her role, though it suggests that she was more “absolue” than had previously been indicated. One is tempted to conclude that excessive precaution has deprived of almost all value the little that Voltaire has to say about the royal mistresses of his age.

However, two considerations should lead us to avoid adopting such an extreme view. The first is the nature of the readership for which these works were intended. Neither was written for distant lands or a distant posterity. The Histoire de Parlement was an intervention in a current political debate and the final chapters of the Précis (“Des lois” and “Des progrès de l'esprit humain”) show that it had, in part, similar aims. Voltaire was writing for educated contemporaries and educated contemporaries did not need to be told that Mme de Pompadour had been the King's mistress, did not need to be told why the Church and the more devout members of the royal family should have no love for her. Nor did they need any explanation for the hostility of the “petit peuple,” for they were well aware that she was accused of extravagance and of being responsible for the highly unpopular Austrian alliance. Perhaps they had forgotten that Mme de Pompadour had been the first bourgeoise to become an official royal mistress; if so, the reference to the creation of the marquisat would have reminded them.

In the short paragraph on Mme de Pompadour, then, it is possible to see a whole series of what one may describe as coded messages or as trip-wires designed to set off in the mind of the reader a series of explosions of recognition. Moreover, in case the point may escape the reader, surrounding paragraphs draw attention to it. The power of Mme de Pompadour in ensuring the dismissal of Machault and d'Argenson (two ministers of whom, in general, Voltaire approved) has already been noted. But the paragraph before that on Mme de Pompadour contains a comment on the Seven Years War: “Une guerre très-mal conduite contre l'Angleterre et contre le nord de l'Allemagne, l'argent du royaume dissipé dans cette guerre avec une profusion énorme, des fautes continuelles des généraux et des ministres, affligeaient et irritaient les Français.” Voltaire makes no clear connection between the three paragraphs, but the reader who knew that Mme de Pompadour had been partly to blame for the war against Prussia and was largely responsible for the appointment of the incompetent Soubise who had led the French armies to disaster, could easily make his own connections.

Even though no names are named in the Précis, a similar technique is to be observed there. In 1744, in Metz, Louis XV fell ill and appeared near to death. Voltaire comments that:

Les moments de crise où il parut expirant furent ceux qu'on choisit pour l'accabler par les démarches les plus indiscrètes, qu'on disait inspirées par des motifs religieux, mais que la raison reprouvait et que l'humanité condamnait.11

Mme de Châteauroux is not named, but the story of how clerical pressure had forced Louis to dismiss her at the time of his “death-bed” confession was well known. Voltaire's mention of it, however oblique, would evoke in the reader reflections on the monarch-mistress relationship and condemnation of clerical intolerance.

Mme de Pompadour, though likewise unnamed, leaves two sets of traces behind her in the Précis. The first, a comment on the Franco-Austrian alliance which led to the Seven Years' War, notes that “l'animosité de quelques personnes” in France had been aroused by Frederick the Great's “plaisanteries” (P 1483). Mme de Pompadour had, in fact, been the principal victim. The second, relating to the conduct of the war, is more important. Voltaire remarks that “des intrigues de la Cour” had been responsible for the dismissal of d'Estrées as army commander at the very moment of his victory over Cumberland (P 1487). This passage is followed by praise of d'Estrées's generalship and, a few pages later, by a description of the defeat of his successor, Soubise, at Rosbach. Soubise's own military qualities are, one is tempted to say, damned with faint praise and, though Voltaire does not actually say so, he was known to be Mme de Pompadour's nominee (P 1488).

Lastly, Mme du Barry. In a late addition to the Précis, after praising the achievements of Choiseul during his period of office, Voltaire writes: “La récompense que reçut le duc de Choiseul pour tant de choses si grandes et si utiles qu'il avait faites, paraîtrait bien étrange si on ne connaissait les cours. Une femme le fit exiler. …” The woman in question was Mme du Barry, but Voltaire neither names her nor discusses her motives (P 1554).

In the light of this evidence, then, we may modify our conclusion that excessive caution has led Voltaire to impose a total black-out on information regarding the mistresses of Louis XV. He does refer to them (mainly obliquely) in order to condemn their clerical opponents or, somewhat more frequently, to point to the unfortunate results of their influence on political affairs. Yet he does so only rarely. Nowhere, moreover, does he so much as touch on their intimate relations with the King, nowhere does he comment on their appearance or character, nowhere does he offer us any of those revealing anecdotes which lend attractiveness to historians of a different stamp.12

Is this purely precaution? is it that Voltaire thinks such material unworthy of the serious historian? or is it simply that he is uninterested? To answer this question we must turn to an earlier age about which he could write with relative freedom from fear of censure.

Henri IV had been assassinated at the beginning of the previous century. He had become (partly with Voltaire's assistance) probably the best loved of French monarchs. There was no need to be silent about his amorous adventures, for le vert galant was both renowned and admired for them. In the ninth canto of his Henriade, Voltaire does full justice to the most celebrated of Henri's amours—that for Gabrielle d'Estrées—which is described with all the wealth of voluptuous terminology of which the eighteenth century was capable. Voltaire could depict “romantic” and sensual love when he chose to. Yet he chose to do so here in the context of an epic poem—one which was largely modelled on Virgil and which, in consequence, demanded the inclusion of a love-episode comparable with that of Dido and Aeneas. If we turn from the epic poet to the historian we get a very different picture. Not totally, perhaps, for after having briefly dismissed Daniel's account of Henri as pedestrian, Voltaire turns to Bayle's remark about the King: “si on l'eût fait eunuque, il eût pu effacer la gloire des Alexandre et des César.” He proceeds to ridicule this, insisting that there is no opposition between military courage and sexual virility.13 The love affairs themselves, however, are not deemed worthy of mention. Gabrielle d'Estrées is only spoken of as the recipient of a letter Henri wrote just before his conversion (538). When, some pages later, he returns to the theme, Voltaire expresses himself in the most general terms: “Ceux qui reprochent encore à Henri IV ses amours si amèrement ne font pas réflexion que toutes ses faiblesses furent celles du meilleur des hommes, et qu'aucun ne l'empêcha de bien gouverner” (548). Voltaire the historian has no interest in Henri's mistresses as such; such “moral” comments as he makes refer purely to the King himself. He is, moreover, much more interested in Henri's religious than in his sexual motivation. Even in dealing with a period where censure is unlikely and where there is ample material for a detailed portrayal of a royal “love-life,” he avoids a “romantic” approach.

Voltaire called the Siècle de Louis XIV “l'ouvrage de toute ma vie”14 and it is certainly the most intensively researched of all his historical works. As far as the role of royal mistresses was concerned, he could be, indeed had to be, far less reticent than in dealing with his own times. The La Vallière story, calculated to bring tears to the eyes of the sentimental, was too well-known to be ignored. Mme de Montespan might have had less appeal to the reader's emotions, but the mother of one (the duc du Maine) who might very possibly have become king of France could scarcely be omitted. Least of all could Mme de Maintenon be left out of the picture. Her personal history was a fascinating one, her political influence in the last decades of Louis's life could have been decisive. Moreover, aspects of the influence of each of these royal mistresses had been discussed by earlier historians—writers like Larrey or Limiers whom Voltaire scorned, but nevertheless often copied.15 More and more memoirs of the period (La Fare, Dangeau, Torcy, Saint-Simon) were being published or at least becoming known. Yet this increased openness was by no means total. Louis XV cherished his ancestor's reputation and had no desire to see it placed under the scrutiny of journalists or historians.16 His government had already taken offence at the politico-religious stance of the opening chapters of the Siècle published in 1739.17 President Hénault, an old friend of Voltaire's, but one now close to the Queen, could temper his initial enthusiasm for the Siècle with a remark such as: “Il raconte le mariage de madame de Maintenon et en fait l'apologie, matière hardie et délicate sur laquelle il y a à réfléchir.”18 A more hostile critic, the abbé Guyon in his Oracle des nouveaux philosophes of 1759 could still take Voltaire to task for having the effrontery actually to name Louis's mistresses.19

In writing about the seventeenth century, then, Voltaire still faced taboos, even if they were more relaxed than those which applied to the history of his own times. This did not worry Voltaire unduly, for though he included four chapters of “Particularités et anecdotes,” he had no intention of writing a “chronique scandaleuse.” The chapters range widely from descriptions of Court festivities, via the story of the man in the iron mask, to details of Louis's generous subvention of the arts and sciences. There is, nevertheless, a significant emphasis on the galanterie of the Court of the young King and on amorous liaison—not merely famous ones such as that of Lauzun and Mademoiselle, but more unlikely ones such as those of Louvois or Bossuet. Louis's own early flirtations—with Marie Mancini or Henriette d'Angleterre—receive brief mention, but his three most lasting mistresses, each in her own way, are treated more fully.

The story of Mlle de La Vallière contained everything calculated to appeal to an âme sensible. La Beaumelle (not the first to exploit the subject) introduces a long and imaginative account of her love for the King into his Mémoires de Mme de Maintenon.20 Voltaire, seizing on one description of the royal mistress “dans un déshabille léger” dreaming of her lover, protests: “est-il permis d'ecrire ainsi l'histoire?”21 Yet he himself introduces a greater element of galanterie and pathos into his comments on La Vallière than is usual for him. “Il goûta avec elle le bonheur rare d'être aimé uniquement pour lui-même”; “tous les divertissements publics que le roi donnait étaient autant d'hommages à sa maitresse”; “Le Roi, parmi tous les regards attachés sur lui, ne distinguait que ceux de Mlle de La Vallière” (P 904-06). A few pages later, Voltaire devotes a moving paragraph to a description of her withdrawal to a convent when she had lost her place in the King's affections to Mme de Montespan (P 915). We are left with an impression of douceur, tendresse and resignation coupled with reflexions on the vanity of power. There is enough colour and feeling in this portrait to differentiate it from that of other royal mistresses. Yet Mlle de La Vallière had little influence on political events and it perhaps for this reason that Voltaire turns quickly to Mme de Montespan. Her portrait, however, is scarcely more detailed and the reasons for her success only barely explained. We learn that she and her sisters were “les plus belles femmes de leurs temps, et toutes trois joignaient à cet avantage des agréments singuliers dans l'esprit” (P 919). A brief description of the flamboyant progress in the King's campaign in Flanders in 1670 and a suggestion that she may have tried to interfere in the Lauzun affair prepare the way for a reference to her “emportements altiers” when she was losing Louis's favour (P 929). Though these are the only overtly uncomplimentary words Voltaire uses, his narrative more than once implies criticism of her excessive ostentation. As to her power, he is more undecided. Initially she is described as “toute-puissante,” but it is later emphasised that she did not share in “le secret du roi” (P 918, 920).

Mme de Maintenon had played a role in the life of the King and of the nation far greater than that of her predecessors. Though, as we have seen, her story was “modern” enough to require to be treated with caution, it could be told without the restrictions that applied in Mme de Pompadour's case. In the Siècle, Voltaire devotes considerable space to her.

Here he was faced with two problems which had not presented themselves in the other cases we have considered. The first concerned the authenticity of his sources. The most important of these were Mme de Maintenon's own letters. Some of them had been published and Voltaire used them. The majority, however, were in the hands of La Beaumelle, who did not publish them until after the first appearance of the Siècle. Voltaire had tried in vain to consult them and had expressed his fears lest they should contradict his own work. When they did appear, he borrowed from them in later editions and, whilst expressing his doubts about the dating of some of them, accepted their overall authenticity, asserting the they had “un caractère de naturel et de vérité qu'il est presqu'impossible de contrefaire.” Many contemporaries were unconvinced and subsequent editors have discovered many inaccuracies and probable forgeries.22 Voltaire's judgement shows both naivety and lack of critical precision—qualities more fully exempli-fied in his attacks on Richelieu's Testament politique.23 To naivety was soon to be added bitter prejudice. La Beaumelle's Lettres were followed by his biography of Mme de Maintenon and by this time the two men had become mortal enemies. The historian who had accepted the Lettres could scarcely find a word of truth in the Mémoires de Mme de Maintenon and the Siècle was augmented (one is tempted to say disfigured) by many angry footnotes abusing La Beaumelle. To naivety and prejudice one can add at least one case of clear dishonesty.24 Voltaire's discussion of Mme de Maintenon reveals one of the less attractive features of his historical writing.

The other (less serious) problem arises from the way he presents his material in the Siècle. Mme de Maintenon first appears in the chapters dealing with military and political affairs. Only later, among the “Particularités et anecdotes” is her lifestory recounted. Finally, her role in religious affairs finds its place in the closing chapters. The three facets of her activity and personality are thus never united.

Nevertheless, Voltaire's overall presentation, though discreet, is both thorough and balanced. Her early years are briefly described (though Voltaire avoids explaining the religious and political conflicts behind them). Her marriage to Scarron, her role as governess to the duc du Maine are more fully related. Her douceur, esprit and conversational ability, rather than her beauty account for her displacement of Mme de Montespan. Voltaire presents her as modest in her demands for her family and in her submission to the royal will, whilst not hiding her ambition.25

One could add further details from the chapters on “Particularités et anecdotes.” It is perhaps more interesting to note a certain contrast between Voltaire's benign attitude here and that which he has earlier adopted when dealing with political events of the later years of Louis's reign. A footnote on Catinat (whose generalship Voltaire praises) blames his failure at Court on the hostility of Mme de Maintenon: “Il paraît que le peu de connaissance qu'avait cette dame des affaires et des hommes, et les mauvais choix qu'elle fit, contribuèrent depuis aux malheurs de la France” (P 775). Voltaire is equally scathing on her choice of Chamillart as minister: “Mme de Maintenon, avec toutes les qualités estimables qu'elle possédait, n'avait ni la force, ni le courage, ni la grandeur d'esprit nécessaire pour soutenir la gloire d'un Etat” (P 811). Her political role, then, is seen as disastrous. If one turns to the chapters on religious affairs, the tone is far less scathing, but the emphasis is on Mme de Maintenon's weakness: “Ces reliques qu'il (Louis) avait la faibless de porter, lui avaient été données par Mme de Maintenon” (P 949). Again, speaking of Noailles and the Jansenist dispute, Voltaire remarks, à propos of Mme de Maintenon: “Cette seule affaire pourrait faire connaître le caractère de cette dame, qui n'avait guère de sentiments à elle et qui n'était occupée que de se conformer à ceux du roi” (P 1079).

If we turn to the chapter on Calvinism and to the Repeal of the Edict of Nantes for a final judgement based on an issue close to Voltaire's heart, we shall be disappointed. Mme de Maintenon is not even mentioned. Perhaps his most measured judgment in the Siècle (though it was later to be modified)26 is that to be found in the Catalogue des écrivains:

On voit par [les lettres] de Mme de Maintenon qu'elle avait épousé Louis XIV; qu'elle influait sur les affaires d'Etat, mais qu'elle ne les gouvernait pas; qu'elle ne pressa point la révocation de l'Edit de Nantes et ses suites, mais qu'elle ne s'y opposa point; qu'elle prit le parti des molinistes parce que Louis XIV l'avait pris. …

(P 1183)

One may conclude that here, as in the case of Mme de Pompadour, Voltaire is exhibiting impartiality and serenity. Yet given the different sorts of evidence he presents us with, one may also feel that he is sitting on the fence.

What conclusions can we draw about the historian's treatment of royal mistresses? Most of them tend to be negative. Though he has more to say about those of his own times than is immediately apparent, a cautious silence dominates. Silence on certain topics remains characteristic of his treatment of those of the previous century. The author of La Pucelle or Candide was no prude, but the historian thought that the secrets of the bed-chamber should remain secret and only rarely does he introduce a hint of “romantic” love. He has nothing to say, either, apart from one quotation from Mlle de La Vallière27 on the moral position of the royal mistress. In so far as he reflects on the desirability or otherwise of royal extra-marital relationships,28 he does so from the point of view of the King. Only in one or two brief and indirect references does he touch on the Church's opposition to adultery in relation to the royal mistresses, though this is an issue on which one might well have expected him to take some sort of stand.

If more positive conclusions can be drawn, they relate to the political rather than the personal role of the royal mistresses. Mme de Maintenon, Mme de Pompadour, Mme du Barry and (to lesser extent) Mme de Châteauroux have all exercised a degree of political power and in most cases they have abused it, or at least proved incapable of using it wisely. It would perhaps be rash to try to extrapolate from these examples any general anti-feminist conclusion; Voltaire's admiration for Catherine the Great would seem to dispel such a suspicion. Yet Voltaire is coming near to saying that the woman who possesses the qualities of an ideal royal companion is unlikely to possess those of an ideal prime minister. Such may be the only positive sociological conclusion we can draw from this study. If so, we may take some comfort from Voltaire's own well-known suspicion of Montesquieu-like generalisation. If no general thesis can be extracted from his treatment of the royal mistresses, this is perhaps precisely what he himself would have wished.


  1. J. Sareil, Voltaire et les grands (Geneva-Paris, 1978), pp. 135-45.

  2. See R. Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire (Oxford, 1985), pp. 184ff.

  3. See A. de Broglie, Frédéric II et Louis XV (Paris, 1885) II 31ff and Sareil, p. 58.

  4. See Th. Besterman, Voltaire (Oxford, 1976), p. 554.

  5. Besterman, pp. 103-34.

  6. See, inter alia, the Introduction to E. Bourgeois's edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV (Paris, 1914); that to R. Pomeau's edition of Voltaire's Œuvres historiques (Paris, 1957); H. T. Mason, Voltaire (London, 1975), pp. 32ff; or J. H. Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian (Oxford, 1956), pp. 46ff. and 160ff.

  7. J. H. Brumfitt, “History and Propaganda in Voltaire,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (hereafter SVEC), XXIV (Geneva, 1963), pp. 271ff.

  8. Œuvres historiques, éd. Pomeau, pp. 1315-19. Subsequent references to this edition will be designated by ‘P’ and page number(s) both in the footnotes and in the text.

  9. This is affirmed categorically by Besterman, p. 113.

  10. Œuvres complètes, éd. L. Moland (Paris 1877-85), XVI 92.

  11. P 1365. Broglie, II 334ff., gives a full account.

  12. Among these one may single out the highly readable biography of Mme de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford (1954).

  13. Essai sur les mœurs, éd. Pomeau (Paris, 1963), II 529. Subsequent page references to this edition will appear in the text.

  14. Letter to Cideville, 26 June 1735. In Besterman's definitive edition of Voltaire's correspondence which forms part of the Complete Works now in progress (Oxford 1958-) the letter is numbered D885. Subsequent references to the correspondence will take this form.

  15. See P 7 and P 606. A forthcoming article by M.S. Rivière, “Voltaire's use of Larrey and Limiers in Le Siècle de Louis XIV” (Forum for Modern Language Studies) examines the subject fully.

  16. See N. R. Johnson, Louis XIV and the Age of the Enlightenment, SVEC, CLXXII (Oxford, 1978).

  17. P 27. For further details see Bourgeois, pp. xiv-xv.

  18. See Hénault's letter to d'Argenson, 31 Dec 1751 (Best. D4641).

  19. (Berne, 1759) p. 318.

  20. (Geneva, 1757) I 243ff.

  21. Lettre à l'auteur des honnêtetés littéraires, Œuvres, éd. Moland, XXVI 162.

  22. The latest and best-informed study of La Beaumelle's work on Mme de Maintenon and of his quarrel with Voltaire is Claude Lauriol's La Beaumelle (Geneva-Paris, 1976) especially pp. 259-403.

  23. See Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian, pp. 147-60.

  24. P 1080 and see Pomeau's note. Voltaire cites his earlier knowledge of one previously published letter in a manner calculated to imply that he knew them all.

  25. P 933ff. It is noteworthy that La Beaumelle in his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de Mme de Maintenon (Geneva, 1757) lays far greater stress on Mme de Maintenon's love of gloire and on her pride (I 164, 165, and 175).

  26. On his later hesitations, particularly on Mme de Maintenon's role before and after the Repeal of the Edict of Nantes, see G. Gargett, Voltaire and Protestantism SVEC, 188 (Oxford, 1980), pp. 245-46.

  27. “Je dois pleurer sa naissance encore plus que sa mort,” she said in her convent, hearing of her son's death (P 915). However, there is no indication that Voltaire agreed with her sentiments.

  28. Voltaire is careful not to suggest that there was a sexual relationship between the King and Mme de Maintenon before their secret marriage.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2418

Voltaire 1694-1778

(Born Francois-Marie Arouet) French philosopher, essayist, dramatist, historian, poet, critic, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Voltaire's life and works. See also Candide Criticism.

The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Enlightenment, but it is just as often called the Age of Voltaire—in the minds of many intellectual historians, the two are synonymous. Voltaire wrote in many genres, excelling at several, but in the modern era he is best remembered for his connections with the theater, his philosophical works, and his contes—short adventure stories dramatizing philosophical issues. The most famous of these is Candide (1759), a satire of G. W. Leibniz's philosophy of optimism, which examined the reality and absurdity of human suffering. He attracted many admirers as well as many critics; his open anticlerical stance was particularly controversial and led to many of his works being censored. He was a Deist for much of his life, and was skeptical of most established political and religious institutions, though he strove for objectivity in his writings. Although exiled from Paris more than once, by the end of his life he was generally celebrated as one of France's greatest thinkers. The values for which he fought most vigorously—freedom and progress—have become basic assumptions underlying modern Western civilization.

Biographical Information

Voltaire was born Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in or around Paris. His parents were Marguerite Daumard and Francois Arouet, a notary in Paris. He was so weak at birth that he was not expected to live, and was ill and hypochondriacal much of his life. Biographers have suggested that the young Francois-Marie made up for a feeble body by developing a lively mind; even as a student he was known for his brilliance, wit, and impulsive nature. His sister and mother, with whom he was quite close, died when he was young, and he and his brother parted ways over the issue of religious tolerance. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris where he learned to love literature and to distrust religious institutions. His godfather, the abbé Châteauneuf, also oversaw parts of his education. The abbé introduced him to abbé Chaulieu, who in turn introduced him to Deism and the art of writing poetry. Abbé Châteauneuf also introduced his godchild to his lover, the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, who further encouraged his studies in philosophy and literature, and took him to the Société du Temple, a group of hedonistic libertines who rejected Christianity and embraced humanism. Thus, even in his adolescence, Francois-Marie developed a strong foundation for the philosophy he would espouse as Voltaire.

After completing school, Francois-Marie planned to pursue a career as a poet, but his father intervened, sending him to Holland to work for the French ambassador. Holland was the home of exiled Huguenots, victims of religious intolerance; Francois-Marie fell in love with a young Huguenot girl known as “Pimpette” and was swiftly called home. He entered law school to please his father and began his literary career in earnest, using the connections developed in school and at the Société du Temple, and his gift for witty conversation, to move in the highest social circles, but fell nearly as quickly as he rose. After writing a poem lampooning the regent Phillipe d'Orleans, he was exiled from Paris, though he later pleaded successfully for his return. In 1717, Francois-Marie again mocked the regent in verse, but instead of being exiled he was sent to the Bastille for a year. While there, he wrote one of his greatest poems: La ligue; ou Henry le Grand (The League, or Henry the Great), an epic poem on the subject of Henry IV and his advancement of religious freedom. The poem was not published until 1723, and was then printed secretly.

After his release from prison in April 1718 he began his long association with the theater. The production of his Oedipe in November of that year was a tremendous critical and financial success. In February 1719, Francois-Marie changed his name, first to Arouet de Voltaire and then to Voltaire. In 1720, he visited Lord Bolingbroke, an influential English writer, beginning a connection with English intellectuals that served him well throughout his lifetime. As his reputation grew, he became a favorite with royalty, accepting substantial gifts from the kings of England and France, but even this did not protect him from attack. When a love triangle formed between Voltaire, the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, and the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, the chevalier had Voltaire beaten by lackeys while Voltaire was a guest of the duke de Sully. When the duke did nothing to help him, he challenged the chevalier to a duel, but when the chevalier moved to have Voltaire arrested, Voltaire arranged for exile in England instead. He lived there from May 1726 to March 1729, meeting with King George I, Bolingbroke, Jonathan Swift, and other influential members of English society. He learned English and read several works that strongly impacted his thought, including Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. He also discovered Shakespeare, whose “barbaric” but powerful poetry and insights into character inspired and perplexed Voltaire throughout his time in the theater. During this period Voltaire also tried writing in English, publishing the Essay on Civil Wars (1727) and the Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) and releasing a revision of his poem on Henry IV as The Henriade, a tremendous popular success which he dedicated to the English queen. He also started Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suede (History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 1731) during this time, the first of his major histories. He returned to France secretly, remaining in hiding until he could obtain permission to stay in Paris. He also returned to the theater, with successful performances of Brutus (1730) and Zayre (1736).

In his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), the fruits of his time in Enland became apparent; his essays on English writers including Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Locke, and Shakespeare—and on religious differences—celebrated the openness of the English monarchy and English society. In France, the book was burned and the publisher jailed. Voltaire soon opted to leave Paris again, moving in with his friend and lover Mme. Emilie Du Châtelet, at her estate at Cirey. Du Châtelet was a scientist with a strong understanding of Newton, whose writings were of great interest to Voltaire, and of Leibniz, whose philosophy of optimism Voltaire would eventually assail in Candide (1759). Together they studied and wrote for nearly fifteen years: while at Cirey, Voltaire wrote all or part of the plays Mahomet (1741), La mérope francaise (Merope, 1744), and Semiramis (1748); the poem La Pucelle (The Maid, 1755); and the prose works Le siecle de Louis XIV (1751) and Essai sur l'histoire generale, et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, depuis Charlemange jusqu'a nos jours (1756). He also began writing his contes during this period, including Zadig (1749; published as Memnon, 1747) and Micromégas (1753).

Their relationship as lovers waned as Voltaire began a new affair, a scandalous relationship with his young niece, Mme. Denis, but Voltaire and Du Châtelet remained close friends until her death in 1749. Seeking a new home, Voltaire went to the court of Frederick II of Prussia. While there, he labored to see Le siecle du Louis XIV into print, but quickly found himself at odds with king and court. Frustrated by poor treatment, he wrote a satire of one of the king's favorites—and one of Du Châtelet's former lovers—and then attempted to flee the country amidst the outrage. After a brief period of detention, Frederick allowed him to leave, and Voltaire moved on to Switzerland with his niece, where he carried on extensive correspondence with such figures as Russia's Catherine the Great in addition to writing his Poems sur le desastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle (Poems on the disaster in Lisbon and on Natural Law; 1756), his contributions to Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia, his own Philosophical Dictionary (1764), and additional contes. Voltaire took on several legal battles involving religious prejudice, and often secured reversals of imposed sentences. He began writing more strongly against institutional religions and superstitious beliefs and produced his 1764 Traite sur la tolerance (Treatise on Tolerance). After a thirty-year absence he returned to Paris in April 1778, having been invited to a gala performance of his play Irene. Marie Antoinette asked to meet him, and at the gala he also mingled with friends Diderot and d'Alembert and met Benjamin Franklin, who brought his grandson to be blessed by Voltaire. Crowds came to meet his carriage, he was crowned with a laurel wreath, and a bust of Voltaire was placed onstage, crowned, and kissed by the entire cast of his play. Perhaps overwhelmed by his emotional triumph, Voltaire fell ill and died in less than two months. He agreed to sign a statement saying he accepted Catholicism, likely to avoid the ignominious burial of the unsaved. When he refused, in his dying days, to recognize the divinity of Jesus, the church would not accept his statement and attempted to deny his body a Christian burial. His nephew secretly moved Voltaire's body to a monastery in Champagne for burial by setting the body upright in a carriage. In 1791, his remains were exhumed and buried in the Pantheon at Paris. In a document written shortly before his death, Voltaire maintained his Deist position, stating, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.”

Major Works

Voltaire was a master of language, able to write well in several genres, and he produced a massive body of writings. Throughout his life he wrote for the theater, authoring a total of fifty-six plays, the majority of which were tragedies. He was influenced by the neoclassical tradition of Corneille and Racine, but also innovated by bending the classical rules of the “unities” of time, place, and action, and by violating the standards of decorum. As was traditional, he used classical sources for his plots, as with his first tragedy, Oedipe. Voltaire addressed the issue of religious tolerance in Oedipe, Zayra, Alizre; ou Les Americains (1736), and Mahomet. His exposure to Shakespeare and the English stage inspired him to draw from French history as well as classical sources, as he did in Zayra and the earlier Adelaide Du Guesclin (1734). Among his other major tragedies are Brutus, La Mort de César (The Death of Caesar, 1735), Mérope and Irene (1778). Voltaire used his talent for verse offstage as well: his first major achievement was the epic poem The Henriade (1732), and he wrote both philosophic and occasional poetry throughout his career. His Epistle to Urania (1722), Poem on Natural Law (1756), and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (1756) are among the poems that showcased Voltaire's humanism and his opposition to intolerance. He also wrote several satirical poems, mocking the follies of political figures and lampooning the national heroine, Joan of Arc. La Pucelle was a highly unflattering but humorous portrait of the Maid of Orleans, reaching a low point in the young martyr's seduction by a donkey.

In the modern era, however, Voltaire's extensive corpus of plays and poetry is largely secondary to his status as a brilliant and progressive thinker. He is better known for the tenets of his humanist philosophy than for a particular text, although Candide, Letters Concerning the English Nation, and the Philosophical Dictionary have been the most widely read. His adopted motto, “Ecrasez l'infame” (“crush the infamous”), still serves as a pithy summation of the values most important to Voltaire: tolerance, justice, progress, and liberty. While striving to be objective, especially in his histories, Voltaire spoke out strongly against the excesses of both church and state, and fanaticism in any form. In several of his works, he struggled with the mystery of human suffering, a theme that suffuses several of his works and is epitomized in Candide.

Critical Reception

Though Voltaire was widely attacked in his own age as one of the most visible—and most voluble—opponents of absolutist religious and political institutions, he was also acknowledged to be a literary and philosophical genius whose skill with a pen could not be matched. His reputation since then has changed little, though his philosophy has generally been more important to readers than his mastery of language. As critics have observed, however, his choice of genre and style was often an important part of the ideas he wished to convey. In particular, several critics have discussed the freedom that the contes allowed Voltaire. Haydn Mason and Robin Howells have suggested that what may seem like chaos in the contes may represent another level of Voltaire's attack on established forms of order. In two separate studies, Howells notes Voltaire's extensive use of nonsensical naming and the “carnivalesque,” both methods of confronting the status quo. Similarly, Roger Pearson, in his study of the contes, argues that this comparatively modern form of the contes mirrors the modernity of Voltaire's thinking. Multiple studies of Voltaire's correspondence appeared in the 1990s, further emphasizing Voltaire's ability to adapt literary forms to his purpose. Studies by Deirdre Dawson and Thomas M. Carr consider Voltaire's letters as literature which illustrate his talent for infusing new life into familiar forms. A study by Karen O'Brien suggestes that this was one of the merits of Voltaire's histories as well, which addressed historiography as an important form of literature. O'Brien and J. H. Brumfitt both discuss Voltaire's aims for revitalizing the genre of history writing; Brumfitt focuses on Voltaire's depiction of royal mistresses, in which the author was compelled to navigate carefully between the need to be complimentary, his desire to write artistically, and his antiestablishment beliefs. Voltaire was nonetheless very concerned about maintaining traditional genres of writing as well. Recent scholarship has considered his work on epic poetry, occasional verse, and dramatic tragedy as evidence of his interest in both classical influence and modern innovation. As John Iverson suggests in his study of Voltaire's poem on the battle of Fontenoy, Voltaire considered his status as a man of letters and the role of poetry in the public sphere to be important, and he labored to uphold both. At the same time, as Bettina Knapp discusses in her work on Voltaire's theater, he could not ignore the non-traditional works of Shakespeare. Knapp argues that Voltaire's appreciation for both old and new marks him as a transitional figure between neoclassicism and Romanticism, though it also echoes his admiration for both the elegance of elite society and the virtue of progress.

Hadyn Mason (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7569

SOURCE: Mason, Hadyn. “Structure and Form.” In Candide: Optimism Demolished, pp. 93-111. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Mason proposes that, contrary to common critical opinion, Voltaire's Candide has a structure corresponding to the general progress of Candide through the story, and suggests that the seeming incoherence of the conte has purpose in formally expressing Voltaire's attack on old notions of “order.”]

It is commonly said that Candide is a loosely constructed, episodic work. To be sure, Voltaire was much given to composing the brief article, and there are innumerable examples in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) or his polemical works. In other contes, such as Zadig, Micromégas, and L'Ingénu, the chapters are usually quite short. So too in Candide, where at least half the chapters are under 1,000 words or barely exceed that number. Some, like chapters 23 (the Byng episode) and 29 (Candide's discovery of Cunégonde's ugliness), are under 500 words, while yet remaining among the most powerful in the story. Apart from the Paris chapter, which is almost double the length of any other, none exceeds about 2,000 words. Candide runs to under 15,000 words; Voltaire has divided up what is, in terms of length, only a long short story into no fewer than 30 chapters. There would therefore seem to be a case for arguing that the tale is bitty and fragmented.

We shall consider later to what extent there is discontinuity in Candide. Before doing so, however, we should not settle too easily for a belief that the tale, for all its apparent randomness of event, lacks a unifying structure. First of all, it has a geographical shape that matches the progress of the plot. Candide starts out in the Old World, which is revealed to be full of misery and injustice. He flees to the New World, which, Eldorado apart, turns out to be as bad, returns to the Old in a new guise because he is now a man of wealth, and at last settles in a country that is on the margins of Europe. Within this global voyage, Eldorado is given a special place, almost exactly halfway through; it is possible to read Candide as a two-act drama with Eldorado as the entr'acte. One may also argue that the 30 chapters observe a tenary form: the first 10, “Europe I,” see Candide through and out of Europe; chapters 11-20, “America,” deal with America and the two transatlantic voyages (after the Old Woman's tale on board ship, which takes up the first two chapters); and the final 10, “Europe II,” begin with Candide in sight of France and take him and Martin once again through and eventually out of Europe. There is certainly symmetry here. But it is somewhat abstract, depending upon chapter units rather than plot development, and as we noted, it requires the rather artificial inclusion of the Old Woman's tale in the American section. Besides, the average length of chapters increases, generally speaking, in the second 15, so that the blocks “Europe I,” “America,” and “Europe II” are by no means equal in size.

Various other structural patterns have been proposed, some more artificial and less useful than others. Perhaps the most helpful for an understanding of the story relates to Candide's companions. For the latter have their exits and their entrances carefully orchestrated. Only Candide is present in every chapter (albeit occasionally just as an audience to someone else's narrative), and he is only on rare occasions left on his own without someone to talk to. If then we look at the conte in this light, a clear line of development emerges.

The first section belongs to Pangloss, even though he is not present throughout it. He impregnates Candide with his values, which the latter has quickly to reassess in the light of brutal experience once he is kicked out of Eden. In these early chapters he encounters, at first or second hand, the phenomena of war, syphilis, and earthquake, three of the most devastating disasters in human experience. To these are added the gratuitousness of the auto-da-fé, whose horror is equaled only by its absurdity as a means of placating Providence. Candide, for his part, is beaten up twice by the time Cunégonde reappears. Voltaire stresses right away, once out of Westphalia, the various terrible experiences that obtain in the real world, so as to demolish from the start the falsity of Panglossian optimism.

The Inquisition effectively removes Pangloss from the stage until the closing section. His teachings linger on in Candide's mind, but Voltaire has by now begun to show up his ineffectuality. The appearance of the Old Woman at the end of chapter 6 inaugurates a period dominated by Cunégonde's presence in Candide's life. The return of his beloved signifies a momentary pause in the onslaught on Candide, while she tells her tale, followed by the Old Woman's. Here we discover a more specific reality: what man does to woman in a time of anarchy. Physically the weaker sex and an object of sexual desire, she must serve whatever needs her male captors require of her. However, Cunégonde has not only survived the atrocities committed upon her but even achieved a modus vivendi, however fragile. Not all women are so fortunate. The Old Woman must provide her own narrative explicitly to show, as she herself says, that women's sufferings can be much, much worse. Like Cunégonde, she has known what it is to be a sexual chattel, albeit with greater physical humiliations. In addition, she has witnessed the murder of her fiancé at the wedding feast, she has been betrayed by the Italian in whom she had put her trust, and she has suffered to the point of absurdity the horrible excision of a buttock. The awfulness of her tale permits Voltaire to introduce a more profound theme, on the meaningfulness of life. We have seen how her comments on suicide reach to the heart of Candide and its significance.

Cunégonde, with the powerful assistance of the Old Woman, has served her purpose. The arrival in Buenos Aires announces a renewal of Candide's misfortunes, and by the end of chapter 13 he must flee once more. Bereft of his beloved, he has nonetheless acquired a new companion, Cacambo, who will dominate the New World section where he acts as Candide's guide and safekeeper through America. Here at last is a true and loyal mentor of sorts, at least where pragmatic matters are concerned. It is he who, when they have run the gamut of what the New World has to offer, justifiably sums it up for Candide: “You can see … that this hemisphere is no better than the other one” (182). Candide lives dangerously in this unfamiliar environment and twice comes close to death. But in this section the emphasis is much more firmly placed on absurdity than on danger. Voltaire, having comprehensively shown how cruel and heartless human behavior can be, is now intent on demonstrating that it can also be quite bizarre, even comically so. In Paraguay, for instance, the Jesuits wage war upon the kings of Spain and Portugal, while in Europe they act as confessors to these selfsame monarchs. The Baron himself is an exemplary case of such inconsequence, totally refusing to sanction Candide's marriage to Cunégonde despite the fact that his aristocratic snobbery has not the slightest relevance to any of their present situations. Shortly after, we discover from the Oreillons that it is possible for women to take monkeys as lovers, however curious that may seem to the reader, as it does to Candide. But the potential horrors of cannibalism are played down and reduced to the comic phrase that amused Voltaire's contemporaries: “Let us eat Jesuit” (179).

It is therefore fitting that the spectacle of such a topsy-turvy world should lead up to the strangest place of all in Candide: Eldorado. We have already seen that Voltaire uses Eldorado to point to certain values, but that the total meaning of the conte does not reside here. It is a resting place from the world's evils; it contributes to Candide's education; but it is not a place in which to stay. This is, as it were, the true New World, quite different from our corrupt way of life but ultimately unfit for human beings. However, its influence will be felt throughout the rest of the story, partly because Candide now knows of a certainty that Westphalia is not the best possible place in the world, but also because his way of life is assured against constant threats of poverty and starvation by the treasures he has brought out of Eldorado. He will no longer need the quick wits of Cacambo. With the emergence of the pair from Eldorado, Cacambo's special notribution is virtually at an end. A new order is about to begin, requiring a different kind of dialogue. The American experience, too, is virtually complete, save for the treachery of Vanderdendur (which could as easily have happened anywhere else in the world, as Candide has sufficiently made clear) and the episode of the black slave, itself a late interpolation.

Cacambo leaves Candide to rescue Cunégonde. Candide, left on his own, sinks into despair at the foul play of Vanderdendur and the chicanery of the law courts. He now requires a darker kind of temperament than Cacambo's to suit his black mood. Enter Martin, the last of his companions. The stage is set for a new testing of philosophic attitudes in the light of experience; but now the worldview on display is pessimism, which is not so easily disposed of as Pangloss's complacency. The naval battle in which Vanderdendur perishes is accompanied by a commentary from Martin that matches the terrible massacre (whereas the earlier land battle involving Candide had simply been recounted without the addition of observations by any character, Candide included). Martin's Manichean outlook will easily accommodate the frenetic sham world of Paris, the lunacies of the English (who are, he says, suffering from “a different kind of madness” [223]), the secret unhappiness of Paquette and Giroflée, the ennui of Pococuranté. For the space of several chapters Martin holds sway, Candide sometimes falling under his spell when he turns to Martin in his inquiries about the nature of things. But his limitations are decisively shown up when Cacambo reappears, contrary to Martin's confident predictions, and it becomes clear that he is no more in possession of a complete truth about the universe than anyone else.

So Martin's special role is at an end as the story transfers from Venice to Constantinople. Candide sounds him out for the last time on board ship about human unhappiness, to which Martin returns a characteristically gloomy answer. But the inquiry on which Candide had embarked with him is over. With the reemergence of Cunégonde the time has come for action. The structure of the conte is no longer based on a link between Candide and one or two others. He now finds himself liberating and leading a whole little community. Dismayed by Cunégonde, freed of the philosophic illusions purveyed by Pangloss and Martin, he is ready to absorb the advice of the dervish and the Turkish farmer and to put it to practical use. Candide no longer looks to any of his previous mentors. They all take their places around him. Voltaire has by now tried out a whole series of approaches and found them all wanting.

But if one were to talk only of the structural unity of Candide the impression left would be a distorted one. In this tale, it is the incoherence of things that is above all made manifest. Voltaire's attack is directed precisely at a metaphysical system of order in which everything has its place, in which a “great chain of being” accounts for the whole cosmos, in which causality can explain all things, if need be ever since the beginning of the world. The author replaces this vision, at first apparently consoling but ultimately destructive of all human initiative, with a harsher picture. The way the world acts, in particular the way human beings behave, defies rational understanding. Martin's Manichean system, because it too seeks to impose a transcendental pattern, is likewise proved fallible. In Candide teleological meanings are replaced by the aleatory. So far as Candide is concerned, it is chance that presides over the succession of happenings.

Even so, the conte must not be seen as a forerunner of the “absurd” in modern fiction. Candide's world is full of ridiculous and meaningless elements, but human beings are not totally deprived of the ability tomake sense out of it. As we have noted before, the dervish's little parable must be given its full weight. To the mice in the hold of the ship, the journey to Egypt makes no sense, and the Highness who decreed the journey pays them no attention whatsoever. But the ship is going somewhere, as the result of some obscure purpose. A cosmic harmony prevails; Newton's sublime discovery of the law of gravitation was for Voltaire the unshakable demonstration of it. Within that general arrangement, human beings have a function, as the ending of Candide or the lessons of Eldorado show. The good qualities of Jacques and Cacambo are intermingled with the evil Inquisitors or Vanderdendur. As we have seen before, Voltaire's vision is binary.

How then to portray it? Rational argument alone would not have made a masterpiece out of Candide. The Leibnizian system is demolished in its stead by, as René Pomeau puts it, “the obsession with a style.”1 Style alone can convey the dual complexity. The tale must contain horrors. But it must also be resolutely comic; pathos or tragedy must be assiduously avoided. Since Candide is a tale about life and survival, death plays little part in it. Voltaire is totally indifferent to the notion that preparation for death and contemplation of it may bring dignity to a life. The “deaths” of Pangloss, Cunégonde, and the young Baron turn out to be false, permitting farcically miraculous recoveries in each case. When death actually occurs, it is peremptory, leaving no room for the flights of the human spirit. Jacques is dispatched in a trice; a sort of cosmic shrug of total indifference is shown by all save Candide. The death of Admiral Byng, which Voltaire had in reality made unavailing attempts to prevent by interventing in Byng's court-martial, becomes a black joke: “While chatting in this way they [Candide and Martin] arrived in Portsmouth: a crowd was overing the shore, paying close attention to a rather fat man who was kneeling, his eyes blindfolded, on the deck of one of the fleet's vessels; four soldiers, who had taken up their positions opposite this man, each fired three bullets into his skull, in the most peaceful manner imaginable, and the whole assembly went home feeling extremely satisfied” (223-24). Note the use here, as so often in Candide, of plain numbers for effect. An unjust and doubtless bloody death is reduced to an exercise in arithmetic. Each soldier dispatches his three bullets as neatly as if he were putting them into a box to make up a round dozen. Regimental order rules. Hence the paradox that a military execution is carried out “peacefully,” and the further sardonic irony that the mob was “satisfied” by this entertainment. Here is no room for tears. Byng is effectively distanced from us as “a rather fat man”; the mock-pedantic “rather” adds to the horror comedy.

To capture the tone he requires, Voltaire has recourse to parody. No single model serves, but intertextual echoes abound. For instance, Fénelon's didactic novel Télémaque (1699), widely read throughout the eighteenth century, can be discerned behind Candide's adventures. The hero Télémaque, like Candide, is on a quest. But whereas the former enjoys the benefit of his ever-wise guide-mentor, Candide learns fitfully, and often by negative example, from those who proffer him advice. Heroic romances like Prévost's Manon Lescaut also play their part. For Manon conveys precisely that sense of fatal destiny (whether or not the hero, des Grieux, is deemed to be a credible narrator) that Voltaire is eager to disrupt. Manon's beauty, even in death, is proof against all degradation. The contrast with the raddled, sour Cunégonde is all too obvious. A more subtle parallel may, however, be found in earlier passages from both novels. Des Grieux has been separated from Manon and, as he thought, has recovered from his passion for her, when she unexpectedly reenters his life: “Lord! what a surprising apparition! … It was she, but more lovable and brilliant than I had ever seen her. … Her whole face appeared to me an enchantment.”2 The moment when the Old Woman leads Candide to rediscover Cunégonde, whom he thinks dead, bears some resemblances: “What a moment! what a surprise! he believes he is seeing Mademoiselle Cunégonde; he was, indeed, seeing her, it was she herself” (142). What was sublime in Manon has become the stuff of comic banality (“what a surprise!”). The stage is set for Cunégonde to tell Candide that, yes, she was raped and her stomach was split open by a sword; “but one doesn't always die from these two accidents” (142).

Prevost makes eloquent use of the first-person narrative to describe the effect of Manon's reappearance upon des Grieux; we share directly with des Grieux what he feels. Voltaire, by contrast, employs the third-person authorial technique, with equally devastating but totally different results. For he separates reader from character, interposing himself: “He believes he is seeing … he was, indeed, seeing her.” It is as if one were looking through the wrong end of a telescope at the slightly ridiculous reactions of our hero. Des Grieux is struck dumb by an overpowering vision; Candide, on the other hand, is simply bewildered. From beginning to end in Candide, the authorial presence is unremitting. Candide may be onstage the whole time, but behind him ever looms the narrator. From the very first words we are told what to think: “There was in Westphalia, in the castle of the Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, a young boy on whom nature had conferred the sweetest manners. His physiognomy revealed his soul. He had quite a good sense of judgment, along with the simplest of minds; that is why, I believe, he was called Candide” (118). Compare this with the beginning of Voltaire's Zadig: “In the time of King Moabdar there was in Babylon a young man called Zadig, born with a fine natural disposition that had been strengthened by education. Although rich and young, he knew how to temper his passions; he was never affected; he did not wish to be always right, and he knew how to respect men's weaknesses.”3 Though he has much to learn about human malice, Zadig is a conventional hero from the start. But Candide is right away placed at a remove. As with Byng's execution, the word assez (“quite a good sense”) is subversive. Candide may have a promising sweetness of nature, but we are invited immediately to beware of his capacity for judgment and his simple soul.

This comparison with Zadig shows that Voltaire is ready to parody his own works as much as those of others. In Zadigas in Candide the opening sentence contains il y await; the same is also true of Voltaire's Micromégas, like Zadig a forerunner of Candide. In Candide the phrase il y await is give pride of place as the very opening of the conte, the author seeking to exploit full value from the fairy-tale atmosphere of “once upon a time” before rudely shattering it in the very next phrase with the wholly unromantic name of Thunder-ten-tronckh.

Parody permits of a whole range of hyperbolic devices. Voltaire indulges himself in superlatives, for instance, when the occasion warrants it. Once again, the opening chapter will serve well as a case in point. Everything in Thunder-ten-tronckh's garden is lovely, or at least appears to be. The Baron is “one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia” (118). His wife has acquired “very considerable esteem” (119) (but because she is very fat!). The chambermaid is “very pretty and very docile” (120). Cunégonde, after witnessing the sexual encounter between her and Pangloss, is “all agitated, all pensive, all full of the desire to be well informed” (120). Candide kisses her hand with “a quite special graciousness” (120). The reason for these high-flown descriptions is already clear; in the fourth paragraph of the tale Pangloss announces that this is “the best of all possible worlds” (119). This is because the Baron's château “had a door and windows” (118). As we have seen, the dogs running about the yards become a hunting pack when it serves his purpose; the village curate is promoted to the Baron's Grand Almoner. Everything in the château is based on sham except for sexual desire and the brutality of Candide's expulsion. Even the pretty, docile maid turns out later to have infected Pangloss with veneral disease. Reality quickly destroys this façade of pretense and ostentation when Candide is ejected. The word all returns to close out the chapter and give ironic counterpoint to the earlier romantic sentiments: “And all was consternation in the finest and most agreeable of all possible châteaus” (121).

Here is a typical example of mixed registers: a smoothly classical style, full of bland compliments, masks a profoundly satiric intent. Similarly, characters are given enough rope, through their own utterances, to hang themselves. Pangloss, for example, definitively establishes the madness of his philosophy in that first chapter when he argues the finality of all things by pointing out that legs were made for breeches and that noses were made to hang spectacles on. But Pangloss is an easy target. Voltaire's treatment of Candide needs to be more subtle if Candide is to retain any credibility in the denouement. After the atrocities of the auto-da-fé, we witness his total distress: “terrified, dumbfounded, distraught, all bloody, all palpitating” (139). Voltaire goes on to report his anguished soliloquy: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others? … Oh my dear Pangloss, the greatest of philosophers, did I have to see you hanged without knowing why! Oh my dear Anabaptist! the best of men, did you have to be drowned in the harbor! Oh Mademoiselle Cunégonde, a treasure among girls, did you have to have your belly split open!” (139-40). The gentle reader who starts out in sympathetic harmony with Candide during this impassioned speech will find himself betrayed before the end. Pangloss has been hanged and that is awful, though one may reserve judgment on “the greatest of philosophers”; Jacques is drowned and that is worse; but the lament for Cunégonde plummets straight into total bathos. In French it is clearer yet, as the monologue highlights the vulgar word ventre by ending with it. Besides, Candide lapses into sexual innuendo by his unfortunate remark. The change in tone is disconcerting. Until the last phrase, the language and the phraseology have both been of impeccably classical pedigree: the dignity of the invocations, the descriptions in general and the superlative terms, the inversion (faut-il), the purity of language—until we are toppled from the sublime heights into the vulgarity of a slit belly.

The rhetorical effect of the narrative, here as elsewhere, is to deaden sensibility and stimulate the reader's critical awareness. Voltaire is much given to a reductionist technique of false naïveté, where things are voided of their usual connotations and therefore appear as pure phenomena; it had been a favorite weapon in his armory ever since at least the Lettres philosophiques 25 years before. The auto-da-fé is an excellent example. This ceremony, once divested of its sense of spiritual atonement to God for human sin, becomes a pure spectacle of ridiculous horror. The designated victims include two Jews, but Voltaire does not name them as Jews. He uses a periphrastic device. They are presented as “two Portuguese who, while eating a chicken, had torn off the bacon” (138). The reader is forced to reflect on this paradox and to consider the appalling injustice visited upon the pair. Once the associations surrounding Jewishness are reduced to a pedantic detail of harmless dietary habits, their essential innocence of any crime and therefore the awful nonsense of putting them to death become over-whelmingly evident, without the need for the author to make a single explicit comment on their behalf.

Similarly disproportionate to the terrible punishment are the offenses of Pangloss and Candide, “the one for having spoken, the other for having listened with an approving air” (139). But once an auto-da-fé has been ordered, the awful majesty of the Inquisition, with its long tradition of colorful ritual, can be given full play. Voltaire chooses to enhance the appalling cruelty of the whole spectacle by indulging in a pedantic description based on careful documentation. He deems it important to point out that “Candide's mitre and cloak were painted with flames reversed and devils without tails and talons; but Pangloss's devils possessed talons and tails and the flames were upright” (139). So too with the extra detail about Pangloss, that his being hanged was contrary to custom. Once again, the significance and purpose of the auto-da-fé are removed and the ceremony reduced to pure formality. In this way, it is less the horror that is stressed, for Voltaire does not go into any of the ghastly details, than the sheer stupidity of such barbarous, magical thinking. To clinch the point, Voltaire ends the paragraph with a statement of devastating simplicity: “That same day, the earth shook again with a terrible thunder” (139).

This brutal fact is set in counterpoint to the reason given, in the preceding paragraph of the text, for the auto-da-fé. The University of Coimbra had decreed it on the basis of an impeccably rationalist assumption, that “the sight of a few people being slowly burned alive, with great pomp and ceremony, is an infallible secret for preventing earthquakes” (138). Here is causality gone mad. Causation, as we have already had occasion to observe, is a prime target of Voltaire's satire. Consider, for instance, the long series of events or names set up repeatedly by Pangloss to explain this or that. Voltaire makes much ironic play with clauses in Candide. In particular, his use of the little linking word car (for) is frequent and generally insidious. One of the best examples comes, characteristically, from Pangloss offering consolation to the earthquake survivors: “‘For,’ he said, ‘all this is the best that is possible; for if there is a volcano in Lisbon, it could not be somewhere else. For it is impossible that things should not be where they are. For all is well’” (137). It is a circular argument, demonstrating nothing at all, the car series relying ultimately on a blind belief in optimism.

Parody of the conventional novel also extends to the use Voltaire makes of space and time in Candide. Places are described in a skeletal way. What, for instance, does the philosopher make of England, a country much praised in earlier works, such as the Lettres philosophiques, as the home of liberty, tolerance, philosophy, and science? Here it is given scant treatment. It has become simply a country infected by the lunacy of the Seven Years' War. England is now reduced to Portsmouth harbor and the brutal execution of an admiral unlucky enough to have become a notorious example. Holland, apart from Jacques, is the place where a Protestant minister turns away a starving Candide while his wife pours the slops onto our hero's head. Even where greater attention is paid to cities, such as Paris and Venice, the notations mainly relate to exaggerated social conduct. Paris is the home of treachery, playacting (both literal and metaphorical), and social alienation, and Venice is a carnival for pseudomonarchs. As for Buenos Aires, we know nothing at all about it, except that in it resides a governor possessed of disdainful arrogance and an impossibly pretentious name, with lustful designs upon Cunégonde. This is a world of stylized fantasy, where a few details are brilliantly highlighted to stress the nonsensicality of human behavior.

So too with time. The very considerable amount of chronological detail is merely obfuscatory. It is a sort of jocular camouflage, for in reality this story does not evolve in a consistently linear way. The point has often been made that the reader goes directly from the fine weather of chapter 1, such that Pangloss is able to make love to Paquette out of doors, to the heavy snowfall of chapter 2, and it is always possible that Voltaire did not notice this apparent inconsistency. But whether inconsistent or not (and the Westphalian climate must have been quite capable in the eighteenth century, as it is today, of following a day of mild warmth with one of snow at certain seasons), it matters little. The château of Thunderten-tronckh is a “terrestrial paradise” where the sun, at least metaphorically, always shines. The surrounding snowy fields where Candide finds himself after being exiled accord well with the beginning of his personal fall from summer to winter. Thereafter, Voltaire follows Candide's career with many detailed temporal indications. In the period, for instance, leading up to his reunion with Cuné gonde, we know that there is some lapse of time before Candide, now well trained as a soldier, makes up his mind to desert his regiment, since he takes the decision to do so on “a fine spring day” (123). His subsequent punishment takes three weeks to heal, before the battle begins that leads to his flight into Holland. His stay in that country lasts two months, before he leaves for Lisbon. The earthquake and his arrest take just two days; the auto-da-fé occurs a week later; and within a further two days Candide rediscovers Cunégonde. It would seem that something like six months in all has elapsed.

For Cunégonde, however, the time seems to have had other dimensions. Her sufferings at the hands of the Bulgars appear to coincide with Candide's involvement in the battle, for we are told that this military engagement comes at the outbreak of war; the invasion of the château certainly does not precede it. But after that she spends three months with the Bulgar captain, and then at least six months (quite possibly more—there is some indeterminate interval between her being bought by Don Issachar and being spotted “one day” at Mass by the Grand Inquisitor) resisting both her protectors.

How does that square with Candide's two months in Holland and ten days in Lisbon? Not at all, unless one supposes that Candide's wanderings from the battlefield to Holland take him more than six months, an unlikely hypothesis. But this sort of chronological analysis, which might be of some value in, say, a novel by Prévost, is of no relevance here. Time, in the sense of evolution from an irrevocable past into the present, is largely absent from Candide. Death as a destiny does not exist. Where there is progression in the conte, above all in Candide's development, it is fitful and sometimes even contradictory. Cunégonde does not gradually lose her looks in some gentle aging process: in Buenos Aires she is still desirable, in Turkey her beauty has, quite simply, vanished. It is an action presented by the author as brutally as any other event in the story. Nor does the tale lead inevitably up to a closure in some promised land. Indeed, when the characters settle in the Turkish garden, at first they have no inkling that here is the end of their travels. There is no moment of epiphany to tell them, “This is it.” It is up to them to discover, from unpromising surroundings, what can be made of things. The story, it is true, charts Candide's apprenticeship in a general way until he achieves some sort of practical wisdom. To that extent it is a bildungsroman. But the nature of the journey, and the way it is described, make of it more a parody of the genre than an exemplary model of it.

For underneath the overall structure we noted at the outset of this chapter, discontinuity abounds in Candide. Voltaire strives throughout to surprise and often to disconcert. The massacre of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh's family is recounted variously by Pangloss, Cunégonde, and the Baron's son. Pangloss and Cunégonde agree that her mother was cut to pieces and that Cunégonde was stabbed. But Pangloss, with a capacity for exaggeration well in line with his penchant for fantastic explanations, asserts that she was killed by the stabbing, after “being raped as much as it is possible to be” (13). Cunégonde corrects this version to something less melodramatic: one knife wound, and one rape. Pangloss also recounts the rape of the Baron's son, perhaps more plausibly in view of the latter's homosexual propensities (was this perhaps where he first discovered them?); when the young Baron contributes his own version of the past horrors, he mentions that his sister was raped but fails to add that he was too. Once again, the reader will not expend useless energy in trying to decide who is right. Whether Cunégonde was raped once or often, whether the young Baron was raped at all, makes no difference to the essential fact of man's utter animality in such situations of war when all normal inhibitions have been destroyed.

Here is a case of casual inconsistencies undermining once again the conventions of orthodox narration. Voltaire is equally capable of exaggerating those very devices, not only by comic use of tragic discourse, as we have seen, but also by the use of plot. Coincidence, for example, is exploited with abandon. Characters are forever running into one another over and over, as though the world were a global village. One particularly absurd instance is Pangloss and the Baron finding themselves “in exactly the same galley and on the same bench” (250). Just to add to the similarity, they have received exactly the same punishment for their indiscretions. The Baron recounts: “A cadi [judge] had me given a hundred lashes on the soles of my feet and sentenced me to the galleys” (248). Pangloss undergoes a similar experience: “I was taken to the cadi, who had me given a hundred lashes on the soles of my feet and sent me to the galleys” (250). Very minor differences of language serve only to heighten the identicality in all other respects of these two statements. Why should Voltaire seek here to develop this apparently gratuitous parallel? Probably because he wants once again to satirize the belief in neat order and causation. This hypothesis is strengthened when we find Pangloss, at the end of his account, claiming to Candide that “the chain of events of this universe led you to our galley, and … you purchased our ransom” (250). As always for Pangloss, everything has a brighter side.

Variety, too, is a hallmark of Voltaire's style. The rhythm of the narrative never remains constant for long. There are new effects at every turn. Space does not permit a full appraisal of such contrasts in tempo, but one may point to a typical instance in chapter 20. Here Candide and his newfound companion Martin begin to discourse on the problem of evil. Voltaire provides a sample of their debate. It consists of four exchanges. The first two are brief. Candide wishes to know Martin's views; Martin replies that he is a Manichean. Candide registers astonishment; Martin says he cannot “think otherwise.” Candide replies: “You must be possessed by the Devil” (202).

That unleashes a lengthy indictment by Martin of this evil world. It is one of the most trenchant summations in the whole conte. The Devil must be in charge, says Martin, when one sees that almost every town wants to destroy its neighbor, every family some other family; the weak curse the strong as they grovel before them, the strong treat the weak like sheep to be bought or sold. A million licensed murderers in uniform roam across Europe for want of a more decent calling, and even where peace and culture seem to reign, men are eaten up with envy and anxiety. Secret sorrows are even more cruel than public misfortune. All this is developed with rolling periods, in six sentences, building up to a climax in the fourth, which runs to 73 words, before ending on two brief statements: the first, about secret sorrows (11 words), and then the clinching remark, “In a word, I have seen and suffered so much that I am a Manichean” (202).

Voltaire closes the paragraph at that point. The following paragraph is just two lines forming an ironic coda. Candide attempts to reply to this onslaught: “However, there is some good” (202). He is cut down scathingly by Martin: it's possible, he says, but I don't know it. So ends the theoretical discussion. Voltaire immediately illustrates it in the next paragraph, whose brilliance can be appreciated only if we quote it in full:

In the midst of this discussion, the sound of cannon is heard. The noise grows louder at every moment. Everyone picks up his telescope. Two ships are sighted, in combat about three miles away. The wind brings them so close to the French ship that one was able to enjoy watching the fight in comfort. At last, one of the two ships let loose on the other a broadside so low and accurate that it sent it to the bottom. Candide and Martin distinctly perceived a hundred men on the deck of the sinking ship; all of them were raising their hands to the sky and uttering fearful shouts; in an instant everything was swallowed up.


Note the urgency of this description. The passage, of just over 100 words, contains seven sentences. The first six are simple; two of them consist of only one clause. The final sentence is longer. But, unlike the more sophisticated phraseology of Martin's speech, it is made up of three uncomplicated sections, in a ternary structure that is quite commonly found in Voltaire's style. The last of these is devastating.

Here is Voltaire's narration at his most laconic, providing only the barest details of the action. The only luxury permitted is the sardonic comment about the spectators watching “in comfort.” The scene they are witnessing is one of horror; the wretched doomed men are praying and screaming, all to no avail. Again, Voltaire distances them from us. We are not to observe private tragedy or note the thoughts of a dying man. We are instead to look on at awful, collective horror, almost in the abstract, so to speak. (It is sometimes said that Voltaire anticipates cinematic techniques in Candide; here is surely a case in point, prefiguring filmed scenes of naval battle from the Second World War.) Nor is this the end of the episode. The spectacle is to be undercut by the ludicrous “miracle” that one of Candide's red sheep, stolen by Vanderdendur, escapes from the stricken vessel and rejoins him. Candide, despite what he has just seen, rejoices at the recovery of the lost sheep more than he had grieved over losing 100 of them—a clear parody of the New Testament parable about the lost sheep (Matthew 18; Luke 15)—and draws the pious conclusion that since the rascally Vanderdendur went down with the ship, crime is sometimes punished. The dramatic account of the naval battle is but the means to show up, before the episode is over, the abiding folly of human optimism.

To conclude this survey of the formal aspects of Candide, we must look more directly at Voltaire's language. This is best done by taking a passage and considering it in some detail; for even in translation one can gain some understanding of the particular qualities of Voltaire's prose. Let us, then, take the opening paragraph of chapter 3, where Voltaire memorably recounts the battle between the Bulgars and the Abars:

Nothing was as beautiful, as sprightly, as brilliant, as well ordered as the two armies. The trumpets, fifes, oboes, drums, guns composed a harmony such as never was in Hell. The guns first of all knocked over approximately six thousand men on each side; next the musketry removed from the best of worlds around nine to ten thousand rascals who were infecting its surface. The bayonet was also the sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand men. The total could easily come to around thirty thousand souls. Candide, who was quaking like a philosopher, hid himself as best he could during this heroic butchery.


This passage comes from the early chapters, where Voltaire is attacking Panglossian optimism directly. Hence the philosophical terms derived from Leibniz: “the best of worlds,” “sufficient reason.” These are exposed to the trenchant realities of war. Voltaire starts from a realistic account, then heightens it: artillery, infantry, bayonet. Only the cavalry is missing, perhaps because including it would have spoiled the ternary structure of which he was so fond.4 The language is impeccably classical, and often euphemistic. But it is shot through from beginning to end with antithesis and paradox. The first sentence seems to admire the beauty and order of it all. One could just possibly imagine a military historian, say, ignoring the human dimension for the tactical, writing that sentence without irony. But the second sentence makes all clear. It too, at first, paints an attractive picture with all the military music. But the enumeration on this occasion, echoing that in the previous sentence, is subverted by the last detail (a common Voltairean practice, as we have already seen), when the guns are added to the musical instruments and the harmony, which would have fitted well with the Panglossian vision of the world, finds its comparison in Hell, not Heaven. Then comes the use of precise numbers, as if Voltaire were performing (just as with the Byng execution) a careful arithmetical exercise, arriving helpfully at an indication of the total numbers of the killed. Here too the emphasis is on the general scene: no blood or guts (that would have been stooping to vulgarity), no suffering, not even the screams and terror of the naval battle. It is an overview, from a distance. In one sense, it is a cruel depiction; but here as elsewhere, the reader is to infer the scandal of such a massacre. Finally, Voltaire foregrounds Candide. Here too, all is expressed in a mirror-image way. He has been a coward, like a philosopher—a clever play by Voltaire on the word. For philosophers were traditionally supposed to despise fear, as the Stoics and the Epicureans in their different ways had demonstrated. Yet on this abominable battlefield, any sensitive, and sensible, philosopher would have done exactly as Candide did in putting self-preservation ahead of disinterested reflection. So the scene reverts at the end to the collective view once again, and to this “heroic butchery” in parodic-heroic manner.

No single passage will convey the full richness of Voltairean style. This one, for instance, devotes little attention to Candide, so we get only the briefest glimpse of how Voltaire treats his hero in a sort of benevolent but distanced manner. But in terms of ironic undercutting of noble deeds by the application of a wrong word or phrase, it is a masterpiece of concision. The emphasis throughout is on disjunction, as befits a work satirizing a totally fallacious concept of cosmic order. Here is Voltaire at his wittiest. One may say that with some confidence, since Voltaire had, many years before, given an invaluable clue as to what he understood by wit. He put it thus:

What is called wit is sometimes a new comparison, sometimes a subtle allusion; here the misuse of a word that one sets forth in one meaning but hints may have another; there a delicate link between two uncommon ideas; a striking metaphor; the search for what an object does not at first suggest but still effectively contains; the art of linking up two distant things or of dividing two things that seem to be united, or of opposing one to the other; the art of saying only half of what one thinks, so as to let it be guessed at.5

It is this view of art, laying stress upon disproportion, seeking ways to overturn received views of the world, and setting the thought at odds with the language expressing it, that underlies the paragraph describing the battle and, generally, the whole of Candide.


  1. René Pomeau, La Religion de Voltaire (Paris: Nizet, 1969) 369.

  2. Antoine François Prévost d'Exiles, Manon Lescaut, ed. Fréderic Deloffre and Raymond Picard (Paris: Garnier, 1965), 44.

  3. Voltaire, Zadig, Deloffre and Van den Heuvel, 57.

  4. Cf. Pomeau, 126, n. 1; cf. pages 21-22 in this volume for a suggestion that Voltaire may have been influenced by a letter he received describing the battle of Rossbach.

  5. Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, art, “Esprit,” section première (Lettre sur l'esprit, 1744) in Moland 19:3.

Selected Bibliography

Deloffre, Frédéric, and Jacques Van den Heuvel, eds. Voltaire: Romans et contes. Paris: Gallimard, 1979. L'Ingénu, 285-347; Zadig, 55-123.

Moland, Louis, ed. Oeuvres complètes. 52 vols. Paris: Garnier, 1877-85. Dictionnaire philosophique, vols. 17-21; Discours en vers sur l'homme, vol. 9, 378-428; Essai sur les moeurs, vols. 11, 12, and 13, 1-184; La Métaphysique de Newton, in Eléments de Philosophe de Newton, part 1, vol. 22, 403-37; Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, vol. 9, 465-80.

Principal Works

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Oedipe (play) 1718

Epistle to Urania (poetry) 1722

La ligue; ou, Henry le Grand [or, Henriade: An Epic Poem] (poetry) 1723; also published as La henriade, 1728.

Essay on Civil Wars (essay) 1727

Essay on Epic Poetry (essay) 1727

Brutus (play) 1730

Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suede [or, History of Charles XII, King of Sweden] (history) 1732

Letters Concerning the English Nation (prose) 1733; also published as Lettres philosophiques, 1734.

La Mort de César [or, The Death of Caesar] (play) 1735

Zayra [or, The Tragedy of Zara] (play) 1736

Alzire; ou, Les Americains (play) 1736

Oeuvres de M. de Voltaire [or, The Works of Voltaire] (essays, plays, philosophy, history, poetry) 1738-60

Mahomet (play) 1741

La merope francaise, avec quelques petites pieces de litterature [or, Merope] (play, criticism) 1744

Semiramis (play) 1748

Memnon: Histoire orientale [or, Zadig; or, The Book of Fate. An Oriental History; also published as Zadig; ou, La destinee] (philosophical fiction) 1749

Le siecle de Louis XIV [or, The Age of Louis XIV] (history) 1751

Le Micromégas de Mr. de Voltaire, avec une histoire des croisades & un nouveau plan de l'histoire de l'esprit humain [or, Micromégas: A Comic Romance] (philosophical fiction) 1753

La Pucelle d'Orleans [also published as La Pucelle d'Orleans; ou. Jeanne d'Arc] (poetry) 1755

L'orphelin de la Chine [or, The Orphans of China] (play) 1756

Essai sur l'histoire generale, et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, depuis Charlemange jusqu'a nos jours [or, An Essay on Universal History, the Manners and Spirit of Nations, from the Reign of Charlemaign to the Age of Louis XIV] (prose) 1756

Poemes sur le desastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle [or, Poems on the Disaster at Lisbon and on Natural Law] (poetry) 1756

Candide; ou, L'optimisme, traduit de l'Allemand, de Mr. le Docteur Ralph [or, Candide; or, All for the Best] (philosophical fiction) 1759

Tancrede [or, Almida] (play) 1760

Le theatre de M. de Voltaire (plays) 1762-63

Traite sur la tolerance [or, A Treatise on Religious Tolerance] (essay) 1764

Dictionnaire philosophique portatif [or, Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket](prose) 1764; revised as La raison par alphabet, 1765.

L'ingenu: Histoire veritable, tiree des manuscripts de Pere Quesnel [or, The Pupil of Nature] (philosophical fiction) 1767; also published as The Sincere Huron, 1786

Irene (play) 1778

Memoires de M. de Voltaire ecrits par lui-meme [or, Memoirs of M. de Voltaire, Written by Himself] (autobiography) 1784

Roger Pearson (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Pearson, Roger. “Statistics and Symposia: L'Homme aux quarante écus” and “Fallen Fables.” In Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's ‘contes philosophiques’, pp. 20-38. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In these essays, Pearson focuses on the conte L'Homme aux quarante écus as a useful introduction to the contes in general, suggesting that in it, Voltaire outlines the basic themes of the Enlightenment. Pearson argues that the conte form offers Voltaire a great measure of philosophical and rhetorical freedom, and demonstrates Voltaire's writing to be a forerunner of modernity.]


Messieurs, allez souper chez M. André.


Written in 1767, L'Homme aux quarante écus was published anonymously in Geneva by the Cramers in February 1768. It went through at least ten editions within the first year and on 24 September was condemned and ordered to be burned by the Paris Parlement, who also sentenced two booksellers to three days in the pillory and subsequent despatch to the galleys for having had the audacity to purvey it. The Vatican authorities finally placed it on their Index of forbidden works on 29 November 1771. For one of Voltaire's books, therefore, a fairly standard launch. But this initial success and notoriety were soon replaced by comparative oblivion, and the work has come generally to be seen as a septuagenarian's rather rambling and stubbornly repetitious attack on all-too-familiar bugbears. For many readers it is indeed scarcely a conte at all, given its comparative lack of action and the absence of traditionally delineated protagonists.1 By reputation, therefore, L'Homme aux quarante écus is no more than a hastily conceived and rather irritable outburst against the economic theories of the Physiocrats.2

Also known as the ‘économistes’, these pioneers in the study of political economy3 argued against the prevailing orthodoxy of mercantilism, which holds that a nation's wealth depends on a favourable balance of trade with other nations and on the extent of its gold and silver reserves. They advocated that the way forward for France in its economic war with England was to develop its agriculture and reform its tax system. In particular they believed that only land is productive of wealth and hence that an increase in the products of the soil is the only means to an increase in prosperity. Le Mercier de la Rivière developed the political aspects of the Physiocratic doctrine known as ‘despotisme légal’ and contended that it was ‘natural’ for there to be a hereditary ruler who combined executive and legislative functions and who was joint-owner of the land with his subjects. Such despotism was legal because the ruler governed not arbitrarily but according to laws which were empirically manifest in the ‘natural order’. Le Mercier also proposed that France's old, cumbersome system of taxation be replaced by a single tax levied exclusively on income from land.4 The term ‘Physiocratie’, coined by Dupont de Nemours, advocates etymologically that nature should rule: i.e. that ‘market forces’ should prevail. Hence its proponents sought to free competition from restrictive practices and to provide for the free movement of goods both nationally and internationally. Hence, too, their famous motto: ‘laissez faire, laissez passer’. In short, the Physiocrats favoured a single market and looked forward to 1993.

Voltaire was not unsympathetic to these views. He accepted the need for taxes and advocated reform of the existing ones. He was in favour of the removal of restrictions on the movement of agricultural produce (eventually effected by Turgot), and in several previous works he had criticized some of the tenets of mercantilism.5 On the other hand, Le Mercier de la Rivière's ideas seemed to Voltaire quite simply risible. The proposed single tax on land income would exempt industrialists, merchants, and in many cases even the Church. As to royal joint-ownership of the land, the master of Ferney was not at all persuaded. Above all he was suspicious of the Physiocrats' system qua system, especially their axiomatic belief in the ‘naturalness’ of despotism. Instead of being the result of hasty vituperation, therefore, it is quite possible that the apparent disorder of this conte is intended as a riposte to the specious and dangerous tidiness of system-builders.


What Voltaire has done in L'Homme aux quarante écus is to turn a statistic into a human being via the medium of the conte: narrative maketh man. For it is as if Voltaire had read that every family in Britain has 2.4 children and decided to write the biography of that 0.4 of a person. The Homme aux quarante écus is Mr Average. The population of France numbers twenty million; there are 130 million ‘arpents’ (roughly, acres) of which some 80 million are productive; and each ‘arpent’ brings in an annual income of 30 livres, or 10 écus. Mr Average will have four acres and thus an income of 40 écus per annum. By rights—or at least ‘suivant les registres du siècle d'or' (424)—this would have been every person's ‘portion égale’ in a prelapsarian world of evenly distributed wealth, but now—since ‘il faut compter suivant le siècle de fer’ (424)—it simply means poverty, especially if Mr Average has to share half his annual income with ‘la puissance législatrice et exécutrice … née de droit divin copropriétaire’ (417)—i.e. the King.

The hero of Voltaire's conte, therefore, is a figment of the administrative imagination, a ‘fable’ of reason; and his function is twofold. The first, and more obvious, is to show up the impracticability and injustice of the Physiocrats' proposed single tax on land. The financier, or ‘capitaliste’,6 would pay no tax because his capital is all in ‘contrats’ and ‘billets sur la place’ (418). The Carmelite (sect. IV)7 would pay no tax because the monks derive their wealth from donations of money on which tax has already been paid. But the Homme aux quarante écus, ‘seigneur terrien’ (418) that he is with his four broad acres, must pay his dues along with the wealthiest of the landed gentry. The latter, of course, could afford it, even if they did begrudge it, whereas half of forty écus leaves one with rather little to live on. Fortunately, in the end, the Contrôleur Général des Finances reveals that it was all a bad joke (sect. V).

In this first function the Homme aux quarante écus is complemented by the figure of the Géomètre who is, amongst other things, a surveyor with a sense of humour. As a practical man and not a system-builder, he represents the ideal philosophe and is Voltaire's answer to Fénelon's Mentor in Télémaque or the tutor in Rousseau's Emile (just as M. André is a wicker-worker rather than a joiner like Emile). Conscious that ‘la véritable géométrie est l'art de mesurer les choses existantes’ (419) the Géomètre takes a fairly cavalier attitude towards statistical computation. For ease of reckoning he is ready to round the figure for the amount of productive land in France up from 75 to 80 million acres; for ‘on ne saurait trop faire pour sa patrie’ (420). Likewise the average income per acre is rounded up to ‘trente livres’ (i.e. 10 écus) ‘pour ne pas décourager nos concitoyens’ (420-1). This means that the net annual national product is 2,400 million livres, which leaves him with something of a ‘mystère’ since there are only 900 million circulating in the economy (421). The Géomètre's statistical account of the average life-span is no less diverting. Given an average life expectancy in Paris of somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-three years, and having subtracted ten for childhood, and half of the remainder for sleep and boredom, one is left with six and a half in which to experience everything else—which leaves about three years of tolerable existence.

In these ways statistics are presented as being totally at variance with real experience, which leads on to the second function of the Homme aux quarante écus: he is to be the subject of what Voltaire in L'Ingénu (and in a different context in Le Taureau blanc) calls a ‘metamorphose’ (317). The statistical entity is to be fleshed out and given a reality by narrative which the inhumanity of demographic surmise has denied him. At the beginning he is simply the Homme aux quarante écus who exists by virtue of statistical calculation: and within the tale he has substance only in so far as he is its narrator. For the moment, like Candide and the Ingénu, he is a piece of white paper on which experience has yet to write itself. He is passive: he is spoken to by the ‘vieillard’, he is taxed, he is put in prison (‘et on fit la guerre comme on put’: 417), he is patronized by the fat financier. Mentally, however, he is beginning to be active: ‘je commence à réfléchir’ (416). Now he asks questions, of the financier, of the Géomètre, of the Carmelite. In section III he exists as both narrator and interlocutor: at the end of section IV he begins to tell stories to others. In section V he is active enough to petition the Contrôleur Général and achieves financial independence through being pardoned and awarded damages.

With this financial independence he emerges as a person in his own right: he ceases to be the first-person narrator and becomes the centre of other people's attention, at once a model (sect. VI) and a pupil (sects. VI, VIII-XII) and ultimately a much-admired, intimate friend (end of sect. XI, end of sect. XV, and sect. XVI). By the beginning of section VIII he is fully a member of the human race: ‘L'homme aux quarante écus s'étant beaucoup formé, et ayant fait une petite fortune, épousa une jolie fille qui possédait cent écus de rente’ (442: evidently his wife is worth two and a half average women). Moreover this wife is to bear him a child: the sterile statistic is to become a father. Upon achieving parenthood (exactly halfway through the story) ‘il commença à se croire un homme de quelque poids dans l'Etat’ (448). He is now maturely human in his response to events, both laughing with detached scorn at the idea that France should annually pay monetary tribute to the Vatican (453-4) and pleading with emotional involvement for a just and beneficent use of parish priests: ‘ce digne homme s'attendrissait en prononçant ces paroles; il aimait sa patrie et était idolâtre du bien public’ (454). He is reduced to tears of pity and outrage by the sight of an innocent miller being tortured for a confession and is now of one mind with his tutor the Géomètre (who has become the narrator): ‘nous plaignions la nature humaine, l'homme aux quarante écus et moi’ (457).

Once he has read Candide and spoken to a doctor (sect. XII), his education is almost complete: ‘c'est ainsi que l'homme aux quarante écus se formait, comme on dit, “l'esprit et le cœur”’ (464). He is now worthy of three accolades from his creator: description as ‘notre nouveau philosophe’ (465), a visit to Paris, and, above all, the humanity of a name: ‘On l'appelait M. André, c'était son nom de baptême’ (465). In Paris he becomes the ideal philosophe, and this—most importantly—by virtue of being a conteur. The dispute which has arisen as to whether or not Marcus Aurelius was an ‘honnête homme’ and whether he has gone to hell, purgatory, or merely limbo threatens to create ‘un schisme, comme du temps des cent et un contes de ma mère l'oie’ (466). But M. André, ‘excellent citoyen’ (466) that he now is, brings the opposing parties together for supper and achieves a reconciliation through narrative:

Il aurait fait souper gaiement ensemble un Corse et un Génois, un représentant de Genève et un négatif, le muphti et un archevêque. Il fit tomber habilement les premiers coups que les disputants se portaient, en détournant la conversation et en faisant un conte très agréable qui réjouit également les damnants et les damnés.


For the first time in the story he is endowed with a physical feature: ‘une physionomie ronde qui est tout à fait persuasive’ (467). The statistic has a body; the round number has a round face. Not that the power to reconcile should be confused with indiscriminate tolerance: the despatch of the ‘anti-philosophe’ in Section XIV of the story shows that. His judgement is now almost impeccable: ‘On ne peut guère tromper M. André. Plus il était simple et naïf quand il était l'homme aux quarante écus, plus il est devenu avisé quand il a connu les hommes’ (468). This representative of ‘un temps où la raison humaine commence à se perfectionner’ (469) has become ‘au fait de toutes les affaires de l'Europe, et surtout des progrès de l'esprit humain’ (469). He can even treat the Parisian narrator to an allegory of the voyage of reason (469-70) which bears no little resemblance to Voltaire's own Eloge historique de la raison to be written seven years later.

His apotheosis comes in the final section where he presides over a supper-party which is the epitome of civilized living. This illustrates that the reconciliation of opposites should not be taken to mean a return to some presumed uniformity of opinion or experience. When the narrator speaks of a ‘schisme, comme du temps des cent et un contes de ma mère l'oie’, his mock-serious elaboration of the point suggests that this is just another ‘fable’ belonging to the ‘siècle d'or’: ‘C'est une chose bien épouvantable qu'un schisme; cela signifie “division dans les opinions”, et jusqu'à ce moment fatal tous les hommes avaient pensé de même’ (466). How dull such a world must have been. The final supper-party shows that enlightened reconciliation tolerates and even encourages a plurality of opinion and experience. Like the community described at the end of Candide, M. André's guests are a decidedly mixed and international bag. French Catholic, Dutch Protestant, Swiss Calvinist, Portuguese Jew, and Greek Orthodox dine together as amicably as the lion lay down with the lamb.


Contrary to the general view, therefore, there is a strong narrative line in L'Homme aux quarante écus. At the same time the diachronic development from statistic to ideal human being is complemented by a synchronic repetition of the opposition between system and reality. The satire focuses in turn on the systems of statistics, which posit phenomena that do not exist; of militarism, which spreads the pox and promotes a war in which nothing can be gained and much lost; of Christianity, which allows a monk both to withhold alms and to exact tithes; of agricultural theories that ruin; of biological and geological theories that reduce man variously to the level of a baboon or a cornflour eel, and even substantiate the ‘fable’ of the Flood; of metaphysics, with its monads, its plenum, and its materia subtilis; of genetics, which turns children into eggs, women into ambulant glands, and gestation into an ungainly jostle for position; of law, medicine, and theology, each with its own special absurdities.

In place of ‘systems’ we are offered the ethos of the Enlightenment: moderation, scepticism, discernment, and reading. ‘Gardez le milieu en tout. Rien de trop’ (432); ‘il est fort sage de douter’ (447); ‘il faut en user avec eux [i.e. ‘des livres’] comme avec les hommes, choisir les plus raisonnables, les examiner, et ne se rendre jamais qu'à l'évidence’ (453). And we are offered the power of the conte. Where systems put people in prison, and torture them, and bankrupt the state (sect. X), the conte brings peace and harmony to troubled disputants. As the allegorical figure of ‘la philosophie’ points out, France is actually governed by the book, by ‘l'ordonnance civile, le code militaire, et l'Evangile’ (460).8 Yet these are instruments of oppression, words to be accepted without question or challenge. Rather, Philosophy exhorts: ‘que toute la France lise les bons livres’ (459); and the clear implication of L'Homme aux quarante écus is that there is no better book than itself.

Just as the Homme aux quarante écus reaches perfection by becoming a conteur and hosting a supper-party that at once instructs and delights, so L'Homme aux quarante écus achieves perfection as a text of the Enlightenment by telling a story in the manner of a supper-party. It takes a symposium to beat the systems.9 Just as ‘c'est le sort de toutes les conversations de passer d'un sujet à l'autre’ (474), so does this conte; just as the Parisian narrator at the end exclaims: ‘De quoi ne parla-t-on point dans ce repas’, so perhaps do we of the polemical feast which Voltaire has provided. For the fare is certainly copious, and Henri Bénac is not alone in having been reminded of the comic encyclopedism of Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet.10 The reader's reaction may well be that of M. André: ‘il me prend quelque-fois des envies de rire de tout ce qu'on m'a dit’ (447). Every branch of intellectual enquiry, every country of consequence, every class of society, every walk of life is there: from alchemy to sociology, from Mexico to Russia, from king to convict, from theologian to basket-weaver, the Voltairian panorama stretches with comprehensive ease. But whereas Flaubert's two protagonists must complete the syllabus in order that their ultimate decision once more to become copyists should represent an indictment of all human aspiration to knowledge, Voltaire's Everyman must complete his education in order to be thoroughly up-to-date and poised on the very frontiers of knowledge. Only on such a basis can his rejection of academic quibbling in favour of urbanity and wit carry due conviction.

L'Homme aux quarante écus imitates a supper-party not only in its wide-ranging scope, but also in its polyphony. While we are denied the song with which M. and Mme André's evening is said to end, the story nevertheless provides an extraordinary gamut of narrative viewpoints, voices, registers, and intertextual echoes. Whereas the Establishment is said to govern despotically through the univocal texts of the Bible and the ‘code militaire’, Voltaire invites his reader to think independently by liberating his writing from generic affiliation and by devolving his authorial power. Hence the dialogic interplay of textual forms: pseudo-oral narrative, letter, manuscript extract, theatrical script, published ‘discours’, etc. Hence the bevy of narrators: the Homme aux quarante écus (I-V), a fellow-victim of newfangled notions (VI), a caricature of Voltaire himself (VII), a dead-pan, anonymous narrator for the delicate matter of how babies are made (VIII), the Géomètre (IX-XI/?XII), a further anonymous narrator (XII/?XIII-XIV), and lastly a like-minded Parisian (XV-XVI). Mediated through these narrators are the further voices of the reactionary ‘vieillard’ (sect. I), the ‘avocat général de Dauphiné’, the allegorical figure of ‘Philosophie’ (both in sect. XI), and the ‘chirurgien-major’ (sect. XII). Each is watched over by an unpredictable provider of footnotes rather as one might be interrupted by a pedant at the dinner-table.

Haunting the feast are a number of intertextual ghosts, whose words are quoted verbatim or to whom allusion is explicitly or implicitly made: Le Mercier de la Rivière, of course (417), but also Boileau (415) and Horace (431), St Matthew (435) and Candide (461), to name but a very few. As any annotated edition reveals, there is an abundance of such references, and their effect is further to erode Voltaire's privileged position as author and unique provider of sacred writ and to implicate this conte in a universal and eternal dialogue of reason. Moreover this dialogue is seen to take place at—and between—different linguistic registers. The participants contribute variously in Latin or the vernacular, in verse or in prose, in high rhetoric (of the ‘avocat-général’) or low colloquialisms (for example ‘trigaud’ (416), ‘badaud’ (419)), in the technical language of statistical calculation and the biological sciences, or in the easy, conversational manner of the Homme aux quarante écus at the beginning and the Parisian at the end.

Indeed attention is called to the slipperiness of language itself as a medium for dialogue: ‘la “haute science”’ may be as full of charlatanry (419) as the lowest trick; the monk intent on exacting his ‘dîmes’ from the citizens in his parish refers to them feudally as ‘ses paysans’ (434); ‘se sauver’ (450) is all right for a monk but not for a soldier. Yet linguistic accuracy is of the utmost importance, as may be inferred from the humorous theory that the Jesuits were expelled from France because one of their number mistranslated a single verb in Horace (453).


What L'Homme aux quarante écus demonstrates, therefore, is that in modelling the conte on the polyphonic disorder of a supper-party Voltaire was seeking to match his literary form to the Enlightenment values which the tale advocates. One of these values is modernity. Lurking among the many disputes which this conte seeks to contain lies the Querelle des anciens et des modernes. The opening section opposes a ‘vieillard, qui “toujours plaint le présent et vante le passé”’ and the Homme aux quarante écus, who is the man of the moment. The description of the ‘vieillard’ is a quotation from Boileau, and his sentiments are those of Fénelon, author of Télémaque. As has already been seen, the narrative line of L'Homme aux quarante écus leads from M. André's incipient scepticism (‘Le raisonnement de ce vieillard, bon ou mauvais, fit sur moi une impression profonde … Je ne sais s'il avait raison en tout’: 416) to his being sure in his judgement and bang up-to-date (‘Il est aujourd'hui au fait de toutes les affaires de l'Europe, et surtout des progrès de l'esprit humain’: 469). Unlike those of Ovid (439), M. André's is a thoroughly modern metamorphosis; and this coming up-to-date is reflected in the chronology of the story, which emerges at the end from a temporal penumbra and moves briskly from ‘la semaine passée’ (beginning of sect. XIV) to ‘mardi dernier’ (XV) to ‘hier’ (XVI).

At the final supper-party Boileau is mentioned again, and the conversation engages with the past/present opposition in the sphere of literature: ‘On remarqua surtout avec beaucoup de sagacité que la plupart des ouvrages littéraires du siècle présent, ainsi que les conversations, roulent sur l'examen des chefs-d'œuvre du dernier siècle. Notre mérite est de discuter de leur mérite’ (474). There is no little self-irony here on the part of the author of chapter 12 of L'Ingénu (let alone Le Siècle de Louis XIV), but the point is serious and one often made by Voltaire.11 What L'Homme aux quarante écus does, however, is to break free of the literary past, to reject any sense of inferiority, and to assert the virtues of modernity. Just as M. André has no Latin but does have a brain, so this conte flouts the canonical in the cause of truth. The passage just quoted continues: ‘Nous sommes comme des enfants déshérités qui font le compte du bien de leurs pères. On avoua que la philosophie avait fait de très grands progrès, mais que la langue et le style s'étaient un peu corrompus.’ More self-irony, not to mention a possible pun on ‘compte’ (and even on ‘bien’). The conte philosophique is a bastard genre, conceived outside the legitimizing prescriptions of neo-classical poetics and sinful in its disregard for the virtues of ‘good taste’. It favours Tasso against Homer, the conscious absurdities of Rabelais against the revered nonsense of Greek myth, the flaws of Montesquieu against the ‘fatras’ of Grotius (473-4). And, as we have seen, it prefers itself to Plato's Symposium, not to mention the feasts of Atticus and Lucullus (472-3).

There is, of course, the danger that this rejection of the traditional canon leads to mere superficiality. But Voltaire is alive to the impending charge:

les esprits superficiels préfèrent l'héroïsme extravagant aux grandes vues d'un législateur; … la plupart des lecteurs aiment mieux s'amuser que s'instruire. De là vient que cent femmes lisent Les Mille et une Nuits contre une qui lit deux chapitres de Locke.


Superficiality is in the mind of the reader. The aim of the conteur is to instruct as he pleases. The ancestry of the conte is popular and oral, not bookish and academic. Metaphysical, religious, and economic systems take themselves seriously and purport to be true, yet turn out to be pernicious fictions, sinister ‘fables’ of reason. The conte, on the other hand, like the literary figures it champions, flaunts its implausibility and punctures the pompous: it brings laughter, it breeds tolerance, it humanizes.

For all that the conte enjoys considerable structural freedom, however, this particular one (like all of Voltaire's) is held together by a unifying thread: here the story of M. André's education. As if to remind the reader of the distance travelled, the story comes full circle by ending as it began with references both to seventeenth-century literature and to the science of demography. But Boileau has been replaced by the conte, and a theory of population by a living human being. Common to both themes is the question of creation. At the beginning of the extract from the manuscripts ‘d'un vieux solitaire’, Voltaire's alter ego prefaces his onslaught on systems with the following remark:

Je vois que, si de bons citoyens se sont amusés à gouverner les Etats et à se mettre à la place des rois, si d'autres se sont crus des Triptolèmes et des Cérès, il y en a de plus fiers qui se sont mis sans façon à la place de Dieu, et qui ont créé l'univers avec leur plume, comme Dieu le créa autrefois par la parole.


The systems he goes on to deride concern the origins of the earth, and the extract is followed by the section in which M. André and the Géomètre review theories of our human origins. In each case arrogant human minds are presuming to construct grandiose theories about the nature of God's creation. Has perhaps Voltaire, in L'Homme aux quarante écus, substituted for these arrogant rewritings of Genesis his own more humble, less dogmatic account of how to create a happy citizen? Cleaner air, a healthier diet, more exercise, breast-feeding, inoculation (423): it is an agenda that might have been written for the ‘bien-pensants’ of our own day, except that the programme also includes marriage and lots of children as the means to an increase in the male individual's material prosperity. For all that the openness of Voltaire's text may allow the reader to jib at the message of bourgeois liberalism if he or she wishes, it is nevertheless clear that the literary creation of the conte emerges from L'Homme aux quarante écus with rather more credit than the fantastical creations of the fashionable intellectuals whom it ridicules.

For these intellectuals, too, were bang up-to-date; and it is easy to lose sight of the fact from a late-twentieth-century perspective in which the medium of ridicule may seem only slightly less antiquarian than its objects. As the invitation from Catherine of Russia indicates, Le Mercier de la Rivière's ideas, and those of the Physiocrats generally, were potentially very influential: hence the urgent need to throw some cold water on them. In doing so Voltaire finds himself in a difficult polemical position, for he is having to counter the new as opposed to the old. The deist who wanted to ‘écraser l'infâme’ could present himself as a modern believer in progress and an enemy of superstition, tradition, institutions, and fusty scholarship. Even when the enemy was the contemporary, voguish thought of Leibniz and Wolff, he had managed to suggest that it belonged to the past (and anyway its authors were German: look how clever they had been to start the Seven Years War). But how to oppose his fellow philosophes, indeed how to oppose the new generation of philosophes who were in many respects his intellectual heirs?

Voltaire's answer is to send up both his own elderliness and his own impatience with scientific hypothesizing, to offer an oblique reminder of his activities as a champion of human rights (on behalf of Calas and Sirven), and to make the humane, level-headed, practical-minded Géomètre his principal spokesman and narrator. those aspects of the contemporary Voltaire legend that might have made his reader resistant are thus neutralized by being wittily recuperated in the text (the ‘vieillard’ of sect. I, the experimental farmer of sect. VI, the ‘vieux solitaire’ of sect. VII). At the same time the urbane Parisian narrator who befriends M. André at the end is a portrait of Voltaire's ideal reader, a man who would have no more truck with systems than Voltaire himself, a man who shuns the controversy that destroys empires (473) in favour of the conversation that unites ‘la bonne compagnie’ (475). This man is struck by the thought that whereas those great empires ‘d'Occident et d'Orient’ are gone, ‘les ouvrages de Virgile, d'Horace et d'Ovide subsistent’ (473). So, doubtless, is Voltaire. Political regimes may come and go, but literature survives—and survives to invite future generations of readers to its feast. Therein lies the hoped-for modernity of L'Homme aux quarante écus even though it attacks some aspects of the modern. In the event, a work which questions the human consequences of economic theories and the justice of a single tax universally applied may not have dated quite as quickly as one might have imagined. Nor, indeed, has the écu.


Après cela, messieurs les savants, faites des calculs et des systèmes, ils seront aussi faux les uns que les autres.


The lesson of L'Homme aux quarante écus is the lesson of all Voltaire's contes, and indeed for many commentators the principal message of the Enlightenment. In The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, for example, Ernst Cassirer stresses the way in which ‘the thought of the Enlightenment again and again breaks through the rigid barriers of system and tries, especially among its greatest and most original minds, to escape this strict systematic discipline’.12 For Cassirer the real originality of the Enlightenment lies not so much in what it thought as in how it thought; and he offers an account of what the eighteenth century meant by ‘reason’ which is particularly helpful for an understanding of Voltaire's contes:

In the great metaphysical systems of [the seventeenth century]—those of Descartes and Malebranche, of Spinoza and Leibniz—reason is the realm of the ‘eternal verities’, of those truths held in common by the human and the divine mind. What we know through reason, we therefore behold ‘in God’. Every act of reason means participation in the divine nature; it gives access to the intelligible world. The eighteenth century takes reason in a different and more modest sense. It is no longer the sum total of ‘innate ideas’ given prior to all experience, which reveal the absolute essence of things. Reason is now looked upon rather as an acquisition than as a heritage. It is not the treasury of the mind in which the truth like a minted coin lies stored; it is rather the original intellectual force which guides the discovery and determination of truth. This determination is the seed and the indispensable presupposition of all real certainty. The whole eighteenth century understands reason in this sense; not as a sound body of knowledge, principles, and truths, but as a kind of energy, a force which is fully comprehensible only in its agency and effects.13

Reason, then, is a process, the means to a systematic destruction of systems. The Voltairian conte is also a process rather than a ‘treasury … in which the truth like a minted coin lies stored’: his fables teach us not what the reason but how to reason. In L'Homme aux quarante écus this process is one of humanization and education, and its movement from the stupidity of systems to the ‘sagacité’ (474) of the supper-party is paradigmatic of the majority of Voltaire's stories. In this respect, at least, they may legitimately be seen as essentially repetitive in their principal polemical and ideological strategy—as indeed Voltaire makes humorously plain in L'Homme aux quarante écus in the concluding remarks of the ‘vieux solitaire’: ‘Je suis bien vieux; j'aime quelquefois à répéter mes contes, afin de les inculquer mieux dans la tête des petits garçons, pour lesquels je travaille depuis si longtemps’ (442).

Broadly speaking, the typical Voltairian conte begins by introducing a theory, prejudice, or complacent assumption. Through the eyes and experience of an initially innocent observer this ‘system’ is juxtaposed with the facts of life, with the result that the observer's outlook is gradually transformed and he is brought to adopt a provisional modus vivendi based on moderation and discernment and a scepticism which does not prevent useful, practical action. In Voltaire's hands the conte is thus an instrument of demythification, of ‘defabulation’, which inculcates a habit of mind more than it illustrates a series of aphoristic truths. Typically his contes demonstrate that systems are an unwarranted and unsustainable imposition of false order on the facts of life, and they trace a coming to terms: with human ignorance, with the contingencies of living (or is it providence?), with other people. They tend to depict an accommodation with reality, a movement from system to ‘sagesse’, from being ‘philosophique’ in the sense of being abstract and unemotionally logical to being ‘philosophique’ in the sense of being knocked about by life.

Protagonist and reader are, as it were, ejected from a fool's paradise, shown the lessons of experience, and left in a kind of sceptical suspense. Paradoxically Voltaire uses fiction (in the sense of invented stories) to provide the empirical evidence, the facts of life, upon which the initial, illusory system founders, with the result that both protagonist and reader are brought to believe not in a theory or an abstraction but in the evidence of their own eyes (even if, like the ‘crocheteur borgne’, Memnon, or Pangloss, they have only one). They are subjected to what Jean Starobinski calls ‘la riposte du monde à l'euphorie du système’.14

In narrative terms this process is reflected in a movement from ‘fable’, in the sense of what is fantastical, naïve, implausible, to conte, the Voltairian fable of reason which presents a veiled lesson of experience and ends with an invitation to a plural response. Thus, for example, Zadig opens with an assertion of its Oriental affiliations in the ‘Epître dédicatoire’ and proceeds to employ the structure of the Oriental tale as apparently corresponding to some providential order: all will be well in the end, though we cannot yet quite see how. But then the ending (of 1752) undermines this. The two appended chapters bring us, by their close approximation to the style of the Thousand and One Nights, stylistically full circle back to the register of the ‘Epître dédicatoire’; but now the Oriental tale serves as an expression of perplexed uncertainty. The future is no longer full of Eastern promise, merely more of the same: the dirty tricks of destiny. Voltaire's sceptical conte has replaced the starry-eyed fable.

Similarly, in Candide, the marvellous world of chivalric romance is replaced by the sober realism of the garden suburb. The typical sequence of trial by ordeal—uncertain birth, capture, duel, disguise, abduction, chase, storm, shipwreck, piracy, captivity, recognition, release, and reunion—is shown to be no more bizarre than the manifold manifestations of man's (and God's) inhumanity to man and the systems used to justify it. The ‘fables’ of romance and Optimism become the conte of utilitarian survival.

What we see, therefore, in many of Voltaire's contes, is that the main part of the story, the process of disillusion and debunking, is a kind of Fall as protagonist and reader alike eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Such an analogy may not be entirely fanciful. As a genre the fable originated in primitive allegory which presented animals and plants speaking like human beings;15 and this is exactly what one finds in La Princesse de Babylone, where the phoenix belonging to Amazan tells Formosante of this ideal place, the ‘pays des Gangarides’, where men and animals still converse to their mutual educational benefit. Mocking the naïvety of ancient fable, Voltaire here sends it up by taking its allegories as literally true. Thus the phoenix reveals that animals have stopped talking in the rest of the world because ‘les hommes ont pris enfin l'habitude de nous manger, au lieu de converser et de s'instruire avec nous’ (363). If Formosante does not believe him, she has only to read ‘Les fables de votre ancien Locman, traduites en tant de langues’ which provide ‘un témoignage éternellement subsistant de l'heureux commerce que vous avez eu autrefois avec nous. Elles commencent toutes par ces mots: “Du temps que les bêtes parlaient”’ (363-4).

The fable, then, is associated with a mythical realm and a mythical age (‘du temps que les bêtes parlaient’); it represents the fantastical epoch before the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire's own contes are the modern, fallen fables. Locman has given way to the new man, Locke. And this will be the lesson of Le Taureau blanc. Like La Princesse de Babylone it takes fables literally, here the many ‘fables’ contained within the Old Testament. In this ancient Egyptian world the local fauna are positively garrulous, but the heroine belongs to the Age of Enlightenment. Amaside prefers Locke to Locman, and when the Serpent tells her stories, she insists on ‘vraisemblance’ (553-4). Like the Serpent's ensuing tale, the Voltairian conte is an onslaught on taboo. Wielded as an invaluable weapon in Voltaire's long campaign against bigotry and intolerance and in favour of open-minded enquiry and debate, it is a ‘fallen’ fable in the sense that, whereas the fable of old appealed to a childlike credulity and fostered the passive acceptance of incontrovertible moral truths, the conte philosophique is like an apple plucked from the Tree of Knowledge and handed to us by the Serpent himself that we should gorge ourselves and feel the nakedness of our prejudice. We should eat, question, and consider.

In summary, the Voltairian conte mocks and undermines systems, those ‘fables’ of reason concocted by metaphysicians, theologians, economists, and rationalists of every sort. It substitutes the authentic fable of reason, which is the story of how the human mind gathers evidence, weighs it, and reaches conclusions which are acceptable only because they are provisional. It provides not the answer, but the means to an answer. Like Flaubert, Voltaire believed that ‘la bêtise consiste à vouloir conclure’.16 True human ‘esprit’ means an open mind and the wit that comes from an awareness of the surprises, paradoxes, and ironies of the human condition. System-building derives from a nostalgic desire for the unity of a prelapsarian world in which all were of one mind: Enlightenment ‘sagesse’ lies in the recognition that it takes all sorts, and that it is usually better, whatever the issue, to be in two minds. In the cause of humanity the supper-table is altogether more salutary than the drawing-board.

I now propose to trace Voltaire's career as a conteur in chronological order, paying detailed attention to each individual story in turn. Interestingly, a similar pattern will emerge. His earlier stories tend to be more schematic and one-tracked in their presentation: Micromégas is ‘about’ relativity, Zadig is ‘about’ goodness defeated, Le Monde comme il va is ‘about’ mixture. Gradually they fill out with the hurly-burly and muddle of human experience, and Candide and L'Ingénu both conceal considerable complexity beneath their easy-going surfaces. From L'Homme aux quarante écus onwards the moral complexity begins to be matched by an increasing complexity of form such that the Voltairian conte comes to resemble nothing more than that ‘ragoût exquis’ which so delighted Flaubert.17 Moreover, just as each story breaks down a system on the anvil of the facts, so too the Voltairian contes hammer away successively at the hallowed clichés of narrative before proposing a new form of story-telling that is all apparent improvisation, orality, disjointed textual fragments. The conte of ingenious allegory gradually becomes the conte of conversation. In so doing it approximates more and more closely to the eighteenth-century ideal of good manners which the narrator of Tristram Shandy so eloquently describes:

Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is), is but a different name for conversation. As no one who knows what he is about in good company would venture to talk all; so no author who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding would presume to think all. The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.18


  1. See Voltaire, Romans et contes, ed. Henri Bénac (Paris, s.d. [1949]), p. v; Nuçi Kotta, 'L'Homme aux quarante écus. A Study of Voltairian Themes (The Hague and Paris, 1966), 15; Vivienne Mylne, ‘Literary Techniques and Methods’, 1056; and Van den Heuvel, Voltaire dans ses contes, 327.

  2. See Kotta, ‘L'Homme aux quarante écus’, 17; Romans et contes, [RC] ed. René Pomeau (Paris, 1966), 383; and RC, p. lxv. A worthy exception to this dismissive consensus is provided by Robert Ginsberg, ‘The Argument of Voltaire's L'Homme aux quarante écus: A Study in Philosophic Rhetoric’, SVEC 56 (1967).

  3. They included François Quesnay (1694-1774), who was the author of articles for the Encyclopédie (‘Fermiers’ in 1756, and ‘Grains’ in 1757) and a Tableau économique (1758) which became early Physiocrat manifestos; Dupont de Nemours (1739-1817), who gave the school its name by publishing a collection of Quesnay's essays under the title La Physiocratie ou Constitution naturelle du gouvernement le plus avantageux au genre humain (1767), and whose own Origine et progrès d'une science nouvelle appeared in 1768; and Le Mercier de la Rivière (1720-93), author of L'Ordre essentiel et naturel des sociétés politiques (1767), which, thanks to the intervention of an enthusiastic Diderot, brought him an invitation to Russia from Catherine the Great to help her draft a new constitution.

  4. According to Kotta no one ever attempted to put this into practice except for the Margrave of Baden, and with disastrous results: ‘It led to a sharp drop in the value of the land and to the multiplication of bars and taverns’ (‘L'Homme aux quarante écus’, 68).

  5. See Kotta, ‘L'Homme aux quarante écus’, 38-45, 68-83. Kotta finds it puzzling that Voltaire should revert in L'Homme aux quarante écus to antiquated mercantilist views when he had shown himself more progressive (even than Adam Smith) in previous writings, especially in his Dialogue entre un philosophe et un contrôleur général des finances (1751). Broadly Kotta sees Voltaire as being initially impressed by Physiocrat theories, then revolting against the single tax and the idea of joint-ownership, and finally taking refuge in mercantilism but without renouncing the Physiocrats' central view that land alone was productive of wealth.

  6. See RC, 1069, n. 1.

  7. The divisions of the conte may helpfully be numbered as follows: I (‘Un vieillard …’); II (‘Désastre de l'homme aux quarante écus’); III (‘Entretien avec un géomètre’); IV (‘Aventure avec un carme’); V (‘Audience de monsieur le contrôleur général’); VI (‘Lettre à l'homme aux quarante écus’); VII (‘Nouvelles douleurs occasionnées par les nouveaux systèmes’); VIII (‘Mariage de l'homme aux quarante écus’); IX (‘L'Homme aux quarante écus, devenu père, raisonne sur les moines’); X (‘Des impôts payés à l'étranger’); XI (‘Des proportions’); XII (‘De la vérole’); XIII (‘Grande querelle’); XIV (‘Scélérat chassé’); XV (‘Le bons sens de M. André’); XVI (‘D'un bon souper chez M. André’).

  8. Cf. the Homélies prononcées à Londres en 1765 (1767): ‘Les livres gouvernent le monde’ (3e Homélie: ‘Sur l'Interprétation de l'Ancien Testament’, Mélanges, 1144).

  9. Moreover Voltaire envisaged this story as an after-dinner entertainment: ‘Cependant, Monsieur, si vous jugiez qu'il y eût dans cette rapsodie quelque plaisanterie bonne ou mauvaise qui pût le faire digérer gaiement après ses tristes dîners [of the duc de Choiseul], je hasarderai de mettre à ses pieds, comme aux vôtres, l'homme aux quarante écus’ (D14719: 3 Feb. 1768, to Chardon).

  10. Romans et contes, ed. Bénac, p. v.

  11. e.g. in La Princesse de Babylone (RC, 400).

  12. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, tr. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton, NJ, 1931), p. ix.

  13. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, 13. Cf. Peter Gay, Voltaire's Politics. The Poet as Realist, 2nd edn. (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1988), 26-8: ‘The Enlightenment was not an Age of Reason but a Revolt against Rationalism’ (27).

  14. ‘Sur le style philosophique de Candide’, Comparative Literature, 28 (1976), 198; reprinted in Le Remède dans le mal. Critique et légitimation de l'artifice à l'âge des lumières (Paris, 1989), 129.

  15. See Alex Preminger (ed.), Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2nd edn. (London and Basingstoke, 1975), 269.

  16. Letter of 4 Sept. 1850 (to Louis Bouilhet) and passim.

  17. Letter of 7 June 1844 (to Louis de Cormenin).

  18. Bk. 2, ch. 11.

Select Bibliography

The Works of Voltaire

Romans et contes, ed. Henri Bénac (Paris, s.d. [1949]).

Romans et contes, ed. René Pomeau (Paris, 1966).

Romans et contes, ed. Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Van den Heuvel (Paris, 1979).

Mélanges, ed. Jacques Van den Heuvel (Paris, 1961).

Studies on Voltaire

Gay, Peter, Voltaire's Politics. The Poet as Realist, 2nd edn. (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1988).

Ginsberg, R., ‘The Argument of Voltaire's L'Homme aux quarante écus: A Study in Philosophic Rhetoric’, SVEC 56 (1967), 611-57.

Kotta, Nuçi, ‘L'Homme aux quarante écus’. A Study of Voltairian Themes (The Hague and Paris, 1966).

Mylne, Vivienne, ‘Literary Techniques and Methods in Voltaire's contes philosophiques’, SVEC 57 (1967), 1055-80.

Starobinski, Jean, ‘Sur le style philosophique de Candide’, Comparative Literature, 28 (1976), 193-200; reprinted in Le Remède dans le mal. Critique et légitimation de l'artifice à l'âge des lumières (Paris, 1989), 123-33.

Van den Heuvel, Jacques, Voltaire dans ses contes. DeMicromégasàL'Ingénu’, 3rd edn. (Paris, 1967).


Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, tr. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton, NJ, 1951).

Preminger, Alex (ed.), Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 2nd edn. (London and Basingstoke, 1975).

David Williams (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7302

SOURCE: Williams, David. “Voltaire's ‘True Essay’ on Epic Poetry.” Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 46-57.

[In the essay below, Williams presents his history of Voltaire's Essai sur la poésie épique, from the first English essay through the unauthorized translations and Voltaire's corrections. Williams suggests that Voltaire's revisions attempted to make the essay more appealing to French readership, but also had the effect of blunting his arguments.]

For almost one hundred and fifty years after the appearance of the first authorized edition of Voltaire's Essai sur la poésie épique in 1733, described in a letter to Thieriot as ‘my true essay on poetry’ (D336), French readers took this text alone to be Voltaire's definitive statement on the modern European epic.1 The original version of the essay, which he brought out in remarkably elegant English in 1727 as An Essay upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations, from Homer down to Milton,2 was virtually ignored in France until 1915, when an American scholar, Florence D. White, produced the first modern critical edition. The publication of White's edition marked the first separate appearance of Voltaire's English essay since 1760, and paved the way for its recognition and rehabilitation after an astonishingly prolonged period of neglect.3

The Essay upon the Epick Poetry has never been reprinted in France, either during the eighteenth century or subsequently, in any of the collective editions of Voltaire's works, nor has the English text been reprinted with the numerous French editions of the Henriade for which it served as the advertisement and as part of the drive for subscriptions at the time of the launching of Voltaire's poem in London.4 Bengesco's knowledge of it was tentative, and it was unknown to Beuchot. Neither Sainte-Beuve nor Rigault separated the English and French versions, and as late as 1938 Raymond Naves, in spite of the evidence of White's research, still assumed that the two essays were essentially the same text, and that the only difference between them was linguistic.5

If Voltaire's English essay became something of a bibliographical rarity in France, this was entirely in accordance with the author's intentions. In the Advertisement to the Reader he had sought to play down the intrinsic importance of his essay as a critical statement, and had allowed it to stand entirely in the shadow of the Henriade: ‘As to this present Essay, it is intended as a kind of Preface or Introduction to the Henriade, which is almost entirely printed, nothing being wanting but the printing of the Cuts’ (Essay, p. [36]).6 The Essay, together with its companion, An Essay upon the Civil Wars of France, extracted from Curious Manuscripts, was presented simply as part of a strategy for publicizing the Henriade in England and as a device for encouraging English subscriptions. Even so, the New Memoirs of Literature, announcing the essay's publication by Samuel Jallasson on 6 December (old style) 1727, commented that it deserved to be read by ‘all the curious’ (vi. 461), and indeed what Voltaire had to say about the epic, and in particular about Milton, was to enliven critical debate in England for the rest of the century.7 The first edition was followed by three more London editions between 1728 and 1731, and two Dublin editions, graced by a flattering Short Account of the Author by Swift, the last of which appeared in 1760. Public interest in England in Voltaire's Essay was lively, and was to remain so for some considerable time.

Voltaire never gave any indication that he was either aware of, or interested in, the fortunes of his English essay in England. There is no evidence at all of any authorized editorial adjustments, still less of genuine variants, in any of the English or Irish editions.8 If his essay's English fate did not concern him, however, its potential impact in Paris caused him intense anxiety. He was very wary about sending copies of the first edition to France, as his letter of 11 April 1728 to Puchot des Alleurs indicates: ‘I have been tempted to send you an essay of mine which I have been bold to print in english about two months ago, but I dare not send anything of that kind in to France before I have settled my affairs in that country. […] I think I am not to let the french court know that I think and write like a free englishman’ (D330). In connexion with the licence to print the Henriade in France, he told Thieriot a few days later (2 May) that he had no wish to offend Hérault, the lieutenant de police whom he had already crossed at the time of the Rohan-Chabot incident prior to his incarceration in the Bastille in April 1726 (see D265, D266, and D267): ‘J have assur'd him j would never send in to france any thing without the consent of the ministery’ (D333). Within less than one year of the work's first appearance in England, Voltaire was taking steps to forestall its premature appearance in France.

He was all the more dismayed, therefore, to learn that the Abbé Desfontaines was already going ahead with a translation, and he lost no time in asking Thieriot to intervene: ‘j think you should see the interloper and tell him only that you have acquainted me with his design. […] Tell him besides j disaprove intirely his design of translating my english essay, since j have translated it my self; that little pamphlet could not succeed in France without being dressed in quite an other manner. […] The stile besides is after the english fashion, so many similes, so many things which appear but easy and familiar here, would seem to low to yr wits of Paris. In short j know nothing so impertinent as to go about to translate me in spight of my teeth. In fine yr business must be to gain time with him, to terrify him by mr Herauts means, and to obtain of mr Herault that he will hinder not only the man, but every body else from publishing the book’ (D333). It was in this letter that Voltaire, in promising to send Thieriot the plates and sheets of the quarto London edition of the Henriade, also promised ‘the essay on epick poetry in French, and calculated for the French meridian’.

It was too late. Desfontaines had already obtained permission from Lancelot to publish his translation on 23 April, and the privilège, signed by Cognard, was registered on 19 May 1728. Apart from the uncontrolled appearance of his essay, Voltaire was also worried about any premature marketing in France of the Henriade (D333), Desfontaines having already offended in 1724 in the matter of La Ligue.9 The May 1728 edition of the Journal des savants reported that the Desfontaines translation of the Essay was on sale (p. 319), and it was almost certainly issued in late May 1728, published anonymously in Paris by Chaubert.10 Beuchot inferred that Voltaire had authorized Desfontaines to produce a French translation: ‘L'auteur […] le fit imprimer en anglais, et le fit traduire en français par l'abbé Desfontaines.’11 While Voltaire had indeed permitted reluctantly the publication of a hastily and superficially corrected version of Desfontaines's text, there is no evidence to support the view that Desfontaines's project to translate Voltaire's 1727 Essay was initiated either with Voltaire's approval or with his knowledge.12 His quarrel with Desfontaines on the matter was to simmer for many more years, and the latter was still denying authorship ten years later, deflecting responsibility onto Plélo.13

By 14 June 1728 Voltaire had received a copy of the Desfontaines translation, and in a damage limitation exercise instructed Thieriot to announce ‘that the english essay was but the sketch of a very serious work which J have almost finish'd in French with all the care, the liberty, and the impartiality j am capable of. […] J intend […] to give the publick as soon as possible the best edition j can of the Henriade together with my true essay on poetry. The printing of 'em both is a duty j must discharge before j think of other duties less suitable with the life of a man of letters, but becoming a man of honour, and from which you may be sure j shall never depart as long as j breath’ (D336). He asked Thieriot to let him have ‘the sense of the public of the Henriade and the essay’.

Despite Voltaire's complaints and denigrations,14 Desfontaines's 1728 translation is an elegant and, for the most part, accurate rendering of the text of the first English edition of the Essay. It was reasonably well received by contemporaries, though soon forgotten (see Morris, pp. 209-10). Voltaire made only minor adjustments after listing rather diffidently the main errors that he wished to correct in D336: ‘It is but a slight performance in english, but it is a ridiculous one in french. […] Besides abbot des Fontaines has been very far from doing me justice in many passages.’ It was only much later, between 1731 and 1738, that his irritation with Desfontaines grew more acrimonious. The final appearance of this corrected Desfontaines translation appears to have been in 1772, when it was included in the Neuchâtel (Panckoucke, Paris) edition of Voltaire's works (Trapnell, pp. 133-35). Desfontaines's 1728 translation, together with Voltaire's corrected text, remained the only evidence for the existence of the original English version of the Essai sur la poésie épique for French readers, and neither text made much impact. The corrected Desfontaines-Voltaire hybrid appeared in the 1732 Ledet/Desbordes edition of the Henriade, and it was reprinted without change in only three subsequent unauthorized editions of Voltaire's works.15 Neither version represented, however, the text that Voltaire wished to see disseminated in France.

He had already started work on his own ‘translation’ of the English text during the spring and early summer of 1728, although this ‘true essay on poetry’, was not to appear for another five years. After the summary correction and reissuing of Desfontaines's version, Voltaire announced in mid-August of 1728 that his own Essai sur la poésie épique was not going to be simply a translation of the ill-formed English embryo, ‘mais un ouvrage complet et très curieux pour ceux qui quoyque nez en France veulent avoir une idée du goust des autres nations’ (D341). The Essai was in fact to be only intermittently a translation. More precisely, it was to be a carefully reworked text, very different in tone, pruned and shaped to French sensibilities and interests, expanded in parts, and garnished with a modified referential framework.

What had started as a hurriedly conceived project to confound ‘il buggerone abbate’ (D344) gradually assumed the proportions of a much larger and more complex commitment. On 31 July 1731 Cideville encouraged him to take his time: ‘Donnés vous le temps cependant de le refondre en entier, comme vous en avés le projet’ (D420), and Voltaire continued to work on the Essai throughout 1731. He consulted Formont about the concluding chapter on 21 November (D439). Two years later, in June 1733, this ‘true essay’ was duly published with the Jore-Bouche edition of the Henriade. On 15 September of the same year Voltaire sent two copies to the marquis de Caumont with the comment: ‘J'avois d'abord composé cet essai en anglais, et il avoit été traduit par l'abbé Desfontaines, homme fort connu dans la littérature, mais je l'ay depuis retravaillé en français, et je l'ai calculé pour notre méridien’ (D654). On 20 November the completed text was sent to Brossette ‘tel que je l'ay composé en francais et non pas tel que mr l'abbe des Fontaines l'avoit traduit d'après mon Essay anglais. Vous trouverez peut être assez plaisant que je sois un auteur traduit par mes compatriotes et que je me suis retraduit moy même. Mais si vous aviez été deux ans comme moy en Angleterre je suis sûr que vous auriez été si touché de l'énergie de cette langue que vous auriez composé quelque chose en anglais’ (D681).

The text of the Essai was to be revised, expanded, and reworked considerably over the next quarter of a century, the greatest number of changes occurring in the 1750s. In effect, it was to mask successfully the texts of both the unauthorized and the corrected Desfontaines translations, and as a consequence of that it ensured oblivion in France for the 1727 English original.

From the very start of the project to undertake a translation of the work himself, however, Voltaire had been quite aware of the implications of addressing himself to a French audience, as opposed to an English one, on the subject of the epic, and he accepted the consequent need for careful adjustment. The structural shape of the Essay was modified: the three-page Advertisement to the Reader, retained by Desfontaines, disappears in the 1733 Essai, never to be reprinted in any of the authorized French editions. In the 1727 Jallasson edition of the Essay there are no formally numbered chapters. After eleven pages of untitled preliminary commentary, the text simply subdivides into eight sections identified by a heading composed of the name of the poet treated, and in the following sequence: Homer, Virgil, Lucan, Trissino, Camões, Tasso, Don Alonzo d'Ereilla y Cuñiga, and Milton. It concludes with ten pages of further commentary without subheading, but marked by a line-space. The longest commentary was devoted to Milton, closely followed by Tasso, then Ercilla. Of the remaining poets, the chapter on Virgil is the most extensive, exceeding the Homer chapter by almost a third. In terms of length, Virgil is then followed by Camões, Trissino, Homer, and Lucan. The extremities of the range (137 lines for Lucan to 235 lines for Virgil) should be noted.

The 1733 Jore-Bouche edition presents a text divided into nine formally numbered chapters. The free-standing conclusion of the Essay has been subsumed into the last chapter on Milton, with no break in line-spacing. The preliminary comments have been reconstituted and expanded to form a new first chapter, and given the title Des différents goûts des peuples. The sequence of poets treated remains the same, but the disposition of material within each chapter has changed, as have the tone and emphasis. In terms of length, the Tasso chapter now dominates physically, although the impression is slightly misleading, as this chapter contains fifty lines of quotation from the Pharsalia, followed by a further sixty-six lines from Brébeuf's translation.

Nevertheless, the space devoted to Tasso does now exceed that devoted to Milton. In fact, the commentary on Milton has been drastically reduced; it now barely exceeds that of the new first chapter on national tastes, and is followed in terms of length by Homer, Virgil, Ercilla, Camões, Lucan, and Trissino. Space devoted to Homer has been doubled, and Trissino has replaced Lucan as the poet with the briefest commentary. The Camões chapter has also been considerably lengthened, as have the chapters on Virgil (now given almost equal treatment with Homer) and Lucan. With the 1733 ‘true essay’ Voltaire was clearly more concerned with the production for his compatriots of a much more formal, more systematically organized, and more authoritative statement on the epic than had been the case in 1727 (see White, pp. 65-72), with a concentration of commentary on the familiar rather than on the unfamiliar. This is reflected not only in the structural changes to the text but also in the replacement of the racy, spontaneous vivacity and colourfulness of the 1727 Essay with a more sober, reflective tone.

Many of the 173 modifications, excisions, and amplifications introduced into the 1733 Essai reflect a wish to avoid controversy or offence. The Homer chapter is a particularly illuminating example of a ‘political’ change of tack tailored carefully to a French reader's perceived tastes and prejudices. The chapter has been almost entirely rewritten, the English original disappearing beneath a new defence of Homer's poetry and an enthusiasm for the Homeric epic and for the beauties of the Greek language. Flattery in the Essay for Pope's translation of the Iliad is now removed to make way for a paragraph on the qualities of untamed genius, of which Homer is proclaimed an early example. The need to please Pope has gone, and Voltaire now declares against the merits of modern translations. It could be argued that much of the English version of this chapter had been influenced by a wish to accommodate Pope, and this was almost certainly why so few of the original features were deemed worthy of retention for French readers. Criticism of Homer's faults is now muted, although it does survive in scattered subsequent references: in comparisons between Homer and Virgil, or Tasso or Ariosto or Ercilla.16 In the Tasso chapter, for example, Homer continues to be read ‘par une espèce de devoir’, while Ariosto in contrast is read and reread for pleasure.

In the English essay Homer had fulfilled a special role, the Greek poet having been made to bear much of the weight of Voltaire's attack on the putative authority of the ancients over the moderns. Voltaire's hostility to Homer in that essay related closely to his broader attack on the contemporary grip of ancient precepts over modern epic composition. In England Homer had been presented as a representative of the aesthetic tyranny of the ancients over the moderns; in France Homer became a vehicle for the defence of poetry against geometric innovation. His attitude towards Homer in the Essay had thus been central to his approach to the problem of judging art, and of defining the relationship between the art of the ancients and that of the moderns, together with the allied issue of imitation: ‘We should be their Admirers, not their Slaves. […] Our just Respect for the Ancients, proves a meer Superstition, if it betrays us into a rash Contempt of our Neighbours and Countrymen’ (Essay, pp. 45, 46). The point is made at greater length, though in a differently phrased way, in the French version, where facilitating a favourable reception for the Henriade was the urgent pre-requisite: ‘En un mot, admirons les Anciens; mais que notre admiration ne soit pas une superstition aveugle; et ne faisons pas cette injustice à la nature humaine, et à nous-mêmes, de fermer les yeux aux beautés qu'elle répand autour de nous, pour ne regarder et n'aimer que ses anciennes productions, dont nous ne pouvons pas juger avec autant de sûreté’ (Essai, p. 301). After 1733 Voltaire never returned to the broad sweep of his comparativist vision of 1727.

The changes of wording and emphasis in the Homer chapter that took place between 1727 and 1733 are intimately, though not exclusively, bound up with questions of strategy regarding the Henriade. It is worth remembering that when Voltaire had sent a description of the future Henriade to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in 1722 he had claimed that he was composing an epic poem strictly in accordance with the rules (D103). Rousseau rejected that claim two years later.17 It is a matter for speculation how far Voltaire had Rousseau's unfavourable judgement on La Ligue in mind when revising his 1727 essay for French consumption.

On the other hand, the Essai sur la poésie épique does reflect a serious attempt to broaden the French conception of the epic and to liberate French taste from the constraints of classically based legislation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapter on Homer in the French edition, with its emphasis on a theory of beauty based on ‘sentiment’. Homer is certainly presented to French readers in a more positive way, although it should be noted that Voltaire's view of the Iliad is still far from being one of unqualified approval. The critical focus is still narrow; the reader is still given only a partial view of the poem, and a detailed concentration on the ‘pierres brutes’ still tends to obscure any overall appreciation of ‘le grand bâtiment de marbre’. Such an appreciation of the global grandeur of the Iliad would have to await the passing of neo-Classicism in France.

The other chapter that underwent radical ‘political’ surgery is, not surprisingly, the one devoted to Milton. In the Essay Voltaire's reactions to Paradise Lost had been on the whole favourable, and his English commentary reflected a remarkable sensitivity to semantic nuance and, above all, to the power of Miltonian imagery, although Voltaire's announcement of his aversion to the figures of Death and Sin, to their marriage, and to their subsequent snake progeny had been a focus for lively discussion at Bubb Dodington's dinner party at Eastbury in 1727.18 That particular point was pursued further in the Essai sur la poésie épique. What is most immediately evident, however, is the general change of emphasis in the French version of the essay to Milton's defects. On 2 May 1728 Voltaire had written to Thieriot: ‘What j say of Milton cannot be understood by the french unless j give a fuller notion of that author’ (D333). Accordingly, the historical and biographical information offers a much fuller account of Milton's life, ‘des circonstances de sa vie que le public ignore’ (Essai, p. 351), than was available to French readers of Dupré de Saint-Maur's translation of Paradise Lost,19 to whose lacunae Voltaire drew specific attention in the opening paragraph of the Milton chapter (Essai, p. 351; compare pp. 356-57). The outline of Milton's travels in Italy and the reference to the possible influence of Andreini follow that of the English original quite closely, with only a few minor deviations.20 From then onwards very little of the English chapter survives in the French.

Whereas in 1727 Voltaire could not understand how Dryden could rate Milton so highly on one occasion and so low on another, in 1733 Dryden's inconsistency was deemed understandable: ‘Ce n'est pas la première fois, qu'on a porté du même ouvrage des jugements contradictoires. Quand on arrive à Versailles du côté de la cour, on voit un vilain petit bâtiment écrasé, avec sept croisées de face, accompagné de tout ce que l'on a pu imaginer du plus mauvais goût. Quand on le regarde du côté des jardins, on voit un palais immense dont les beautés peuvent racheter les défauts’ (Essai, p. 360). Milton's greatness now depended upon the reader's angle of perception, and the criteria by which epic poetry was to be judged. Dryden's contrasting reactions were the direct consequence of ‘ce grand nombre de fautes grossières’ in the poem. Milton's Paradise Lost, ‘the noblest Work, which human Imagination hath ever attempted’ (Essay, p. 104) now becomes ‘un ouvrage plus singulier que naturel, plus plein d'imagination que de grâces, et de hardiesse que de choix, dont le sujet est tout idéal, et qui semble n'être pas fait pour l'homme’ (Essai, p. 360).

It was in the Milton chapter, and in the concluding comments that follow it as continuous text in the French edition, that Voltaire took the most significant steps to adapt his English essay to ‘the French meridian’ (D333). He was to return to Milton frequently in later years, although he was to insist that the position adopted in the Essai represented his final, consistently held view.21 He was always to remain sensitive to the possible misinterpretations to which his ‘English’ views were prone in France, and which had been preserved intact of course in Desfontaines's translation. As late as 1739 he could admonish Helvétius for having read his views on Milton only in ‘la malheureuse traduction de mon essai anglais’ (D1997). As with the scattered remnants of Voltaire's original position on Homer, traces of his ‘english’ reaction to Milton to survive elsewhere in the text. In the first chapter, for example, Voltaire retains without qualification the observation that the English placed Paradise Lost above the Iliad, and that ‘beaucoup de personnes le préfèrent à Homère, avec quelque apparence de raison’ (Essai, p. 292). Milton, moreover, was still permitted in the French edition to do as much honour to England as ‘le grand Newton’ (Essai, p. 301).

Apart from Homer and Milton, other adjustments for French consumption abound: in the chapter on Virgil all reference to Addison is cut, although many of the points taken from the Spectator remain intact. Instead, it starts with a lengthy account of Virgil's life, raising by implication the problem of patronage. The point that Voltaire had raised in the English essay concerning Virgil's use of Homeric Gods is considerably extended in the French version with a comment on the superiority of Virgil's treatment of the siege of Troy and of the descent of Æneas into Hell, all of which far surpassed Homer's handling of similar material.

Voltaire stressed the sterility of contemporary Virgilian criticism in both versions, but his elaboration of the point is different. In the English essay he had attacked those who claimed that Virgil was a pallid imitator of Homer, noting particularly the contrasting details in the presentation of Dido, Æneas, and Ulysses. Voltaire's English essay offered the view that only occasionally did Virgil fail in his reworking of Homeric sources, rejecting sharply the view that Virgil was a slavish imitator of writers such as Pisander and Apollonius. Neither Pisander nor Apollonius was mentioned in the French essay, where much less was made of the need to defend Virgil's originality as a poet in the face of attacks to the contrary. The whole of the lengthy English argument on this point is compressed into five lines in the French. The tone of Voltaire's commentary on Virgil in the French essay is much less defensive, as can be seen in the rewording of the statement on the inferiority of the last six books of the Æneid to the first six.

In the chapter on Lucan the issue of Corneille's and Addison's debt to the poet does not survive, but on the whole this chapter is the first to follow closely the original English text. There are variations, but they are relatively minor matters of detail. Sarpedon, Diomedes, and Mezentius replace Agamemnon and Æneas. Praise for the beauty of the characterizations of Cato, Caesar, and Pompey disappears, to be replaced by a much more flowery eulogy of Lucan's ‘pensées mâles et hardies’ and a comparison with Corneille, Livy, Tacitus, and Sallust. In the French essay the chapter on Lucan contains much more illustrative material, and the chapter is considerably lengthened by the inclusion of the quotation from Brébeuf's translation of the Pharsalia.22 This is missing in the English essay, where the conclusion to the Lucan chapter contains a much more positive emphasis on the power of Lucan's genius despite his lack of poetic skill, and where the ‘vigorous Thoughts’ of Lucan are preferred to the ‘elegant Narration’ of Virgil.

Voltaire reduced the length of his chapter on Trissino in the French essay. In 1727 he had concentrated largely on linguistic matters, particularly with regard to the use of Italian in poetry. The French chapter has a similar reference to the emergence of Italian and other modern European languages, but more attention is now paid to the evolution of the art of poetry and to the contributions of Dante and Petrarch. The commentary in the English chapter on the moderns' use of Latin sources is omitted in the French chapter. Much of the divergence of the English and French chapters on Trissino is to be found in the form of supplementary digressions, although there is one substantial reworking of the original text at the point where Voltaire comments on the art of the Middle Ages.

In the case of Tasso, the French chapter is longer than the English, but the omissions in the French version include the lines dealing with the inscription on Tasso's tomb, miscellaneous, unfavourable comments on various French writers, and the passages dealing with religious matters. There is more information about Tasso's life and misfortunes. In resuming Tasso's achievements in his English essay Voltaire had referred to the moderns' admiration, though not to their imitation, of Tasso's poetry. In the French version this disappears and is replaced by a simple ranking of Tasso alongside Homer and Virgil, ‘malgré ses fautes, et malgré la critique de Despréaux’ (Essai, p. 334). The comparison of Gerusalemme liberata with the Iliad was retained in the French edition, and the textual examples, the references to Piero and Calcas, Rinaldo and Achilles, Argante and Hector, Godefra and Agamemnon all survive, though in an abbreviated form. In other respects, however, the Fregnch text departs radically from the English. In 1727 Voltaire had expanded on the subject of Tasso's heroic portraits, his handling of events, and his manipulation of dramatic interest and narrative drive. He had praised Tasso's style, and the way in which the Italian language had gained epic grandeur in Tasso's hands, with the exception of some two hundred lines ‘in which he flattens into pitiful Conceits’ (Essay, p. 82). The comments on Tasso's style, and the reservation about the concetti, reappear in the French version but are supplemented with expanded commentary on the iniquity of the Crusades (Essai, p. 336).

The paragraphs dealing with Ismeno and the theft of the image of Mary, the story of Olinda and Sophronia, and that of the ten Christian princes turned into fish are all recast in the French chapter, although the contracted text at this point does parallel intermittently the English original, but never at any point does it bear any sign of being a literal translation. Finally in this chapter, Voltaire replaced Rowe's English translation with the Latin text, together with Bébeuf's translation, ‘qui comme toutes les autres traductions est au-dessous de l'original’ (Essai, p. 339).23 The allusion to ‘Popish religion’ does not survive, nor does the closing comment in the English version on the anachronisms in modern Italian and Flemish representations of biblical scenes.

The chapter on Ercilla coincides more closely with the English original than any other chapter in the French version of the essay. It is the only one that could be technically classified as a translation, although there are textual adjustments. In the English essay the French were ‘utterly defeated’ at the Battle of St Quentin; in the French chapter they are just ‘defeated’. Agamemnon had been called ‘Drunkard, Dog and Stag’ in English, but just ‘ivrogne’ and ‘chien’ in French. ‘The Tenderness with which he softens their Boisterousness’ becomes simply ‘la tendresse majestueuse de ses paroles’; Agamemnon is replaced by Nestor. There are no expansions of the English original, and few deviations. Ercilla held little abiding interest for Voltaire.24

In surveying his gallery of great epic poets for a French public, Voltaire wanted above all to make a stimulating impact on French aesthetic assumptions and to disturb received ideas of what constituted epic poetry in much the same way as in the Lettres philosophiques he sought to disturb stagnant perceptions of French society as a whole. French cultural horizons were to be enlarged, and prejudice assaulted; relativistic dimensions were to be introduced; eyes and ears were to be opened to the riches of other European languages. Thus the commentary in the Essai sur la poésie épique is rather more precisely targeted than in its English predecessor. A more overtly didactic note is introduced, not only in the context of Milton, Ercillo, Tasso, and Lucan but also in that of more familiar figures such as Homer and Virgil.

All this is tempered by concessions to French sensibilities and to the diplomatic imperatives of Voltaire's position in the early 1730s. He wished to illuminate, to make the French think again about the epic—and in so doing he wished also to sell copies of the Henriade. Praise of Pope and Addison is suitably muted; effusive comments on Denham and Waller are excised, disparaging reference being made instead in the Milton chapter to ‘les poésies efféminées, la mollesse de Waller’ (Essai, pp. 354-55). Reference to the court of St James is carefully balanced by judicious reference to Versailles, although two critical comments on the French court in the discussion of Homeric heroes are allowed to stand (Essai, pp. 304-05). Miltonian imagination, much praised in the English text, is pronounced revolting to ‘tout lecteur sensé’, and treated with more caution for the benefit of French readers.

While much has been removed, the degree of topicality has increased, and specifically French preoccupations are mirrored. Reference is now made to the Homer dispute between Perrault and Boileau, to the subsequent quarrel between La Motte and Mme Dacier, and to Boileau's criticism of Tasso. In the chapter on Camões a passage dealing with the death of Iñez de Castro is introduced, its interest enhanced in Voltaire's eyes for French readers by the fact that La Motte's play had been performed successfully in Paris on 6 April 1723, Voltaire having been present at the first performance.

Voltaire's French version of his English essay remains, however, more interesting for what it omits than for what it adds. Remarks that he had made in England on the Church and the government, and also on literary circles in Paris, are obvious examples of areas that he judged too dangerous to include in the Essai sur la poésie épique. For the same reason, unfavourable comparisons between living French writers and those of the age of Louis XIV disappear, as do adverse comments on the ‘insupportable’ rules of French poetry, the ‘Popish’ religion, English displays of irreverence for sacred history, and above all most of the provocative comparisons between life in England and life in France. The striking parallels in his English essay between lack of artistic freedom in France and a corresponding lack of social, religious, and political freedom are certainly not drawn in such striking terms in the French essay. These were to reappear in their full force in the Lettres philosophiques, of which the 1727 English essay on epic poetry is an interesting foretaste. In the Lettres philosophiques, however, he was not concerned with the fate of the Henriade, or with persuading his compatriots to look with sympathy upon his own claims to epic glory. In the French version, with the Henriade in mind, France is not reproached for its inability to produce a great epic poem. Instead, Voltaire confines himself to observing that such an enterprise had simply never been contemplated seriously in France. Contradicting the argument advanced in his English essay, he now takes pains to assure his French readers that the French language was quite capable of rising to the challenging demands of a great epic imagination, should one present itself.

Nor was the necessity for rhyme any longer an insuperable barrier. The only true obstacle to French epic greatness was contemporary indifference to poetry, not fundamental incapacity: ‘Il est certain, que notre langue est plus forte que l'italienne, et plus douce que l'anglaise. Les Anglais et les Italiens ont des poèmes épiques; il est donc clair, que si nous n'en avions pas, ce ne serait pas la faute de la langue française. […] Il faut avouer, qu'il est plus difficile à un Français qu'à un autre, de faire un poème épique; mais ce n'est ni à cause de la rime, ni à cause de la sécheresse de notre langue. Oserai-je le dire? C'est que de toutes les nations polies la nôtre est la moins poétique’ (Essai, p. 363). Thus the ground was now being carefully prepared in the Essai sur la poésie épique for the consolidation of Voltaire's case for a modern French epic and for the acceptance of the Henriade as an authentic example. To these ends the sharpest barbs of the 1727 Essay upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations, from Homer down to Milton have been blunted, with the result that the boldness of the 1727 text has been sanitized by 1733. Although some of this boldness was to return in later editions, it would never quite match the trenchant vigour and rhetorical punch of the original English formulation. The Essai sur la poésie épique remained in all subsequent French editions essentially what it was intended to be: a calculation for the French meridian, distracting French eyes for more than a century and a half from its very different parent essay. Until the end of the nineteenth century the latter was to remain safely insulated on the other side of the English Channel.


  1. La ❙ Henriade ❙ Avec ❙ Des Variantes ❙ Et Des Notes. ❙ Et l'Essai sur le poeme epique. ❙ Nouvelle Edition. ❙ [ornament] ❙ A Londres, ❙ Chez Innis. ❙ [rule] ❙ mdccxxxiii. ❙ 8° [18] 317 pp. Printed by Jore and Bouche at Rouen. The Essai is at pages 233-317. See Mercure de France, 2 (June 1733), 1417-18; La Henriade, ed. by O. R. Taylor, The Complete Works/Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Geneva: Institut et musée Voltaire, 1970), ii, 239; G. Bengesco, Voltaire: bibliographie de ses œuvres, 4 vols (Paris: Perrin, repr. Kraus, Nendeln, 1967, 1882-1890), no. 371. The edition consulted is that held by the Bibliothèque Nationale (Ye 9221). Reference to Voltaire's correspondence is by letter number to the Correspondence and Related Documents, ed. by Theodore Besterman, 2nd edn (Geneva and Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1968-1977), Siglum: D.

  2. An ❙ Essay ❙ Upon The ❙ Civil Wars ❙ Of ❙ France, ❙ Extracted from curious Manuscripts. ❙ And Also Upon The ❙ Epick Poetry ❙ Of The ❙ European Nations ❙ From Homer down to Milton. ❙ [rule] ❙ By Mr. de Voltaire. ❙ [rule] ❙ London: ❙ Printed by Samuel Jallasson, ❙ in Prujean's Court Old Baily, and sold ❙ by the Booksellers of London and West-minster. m dcc xxvii. ❙ 8° [6] 130 pp. See A. M. Rousseau, L'Angleterre et Voltaire, in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 145-47 (1976), 977-1032 (no. 102); H. B. Evans, ‘A Provisional Bibliography of English Editions and Translations of Voltaire’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 8 (1959), 9-121 (no. 201); Bengesco, no. 1551 (note). The copy consulted is the signed copy presented by Voltaire to Sir Hans Sloane held by the British Library (C.60.g.11).

  3. Essay on Epick Poetry: A Study and an Edition (Albany, NY: Brandow, 1915), repr. by Phaeton Press (New York, 1970). The text of the first Jallasson edition has also been reproduced in facsimile by S. Curran, Le Bossu and Voltaire on the Epic, 1695-1727 (Gainsville, FA: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1970). D. Flower printed an extract from the British Library copy in Voltaire's Essay on Milton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954).

  4. La Henriade appeared in London in March 1728, published with the support of 343 subscribers, and for a time it overshadowed the impact of the Essay; see A. M. Rousseau, p. 512.

  5. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, 15 vols (Paris: Garnier, 1851-62), xiii, 132-71; compare H. Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des anciens et des modernes (Paris: Hachette, 1856), pp. 501-06; R. Naves, Le Goût de Voltaire (Paris: Hatier, 1938), pp. 442-45.

  6. Reference is to the first Jallasson edition, see note 2, hereafter Essay. Orthography, capitalization, and punctuation have been retained in the form printed in that edition.

  7. See E. Dowden, ‘Milton in the Eighteenth Century 1701-1750’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 3 (1908), 275-95; A. M. Rousseau, pp. 531-34. Voltaire's Miltonian criticism was still being debated in Henry Todd's edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton (London: J. Johnson, 1801), reprinted in 1809 and again in 1826.

  8. Corrections were made to the orthography and punctuation of the first edition in the 1728 and 1731 editions published by Nicholas Prevost in London, and also in the 1760 Dublin edition issued by William Ross. No true variants occur, however, in any of the five editions published after 1727 that I have examined. Voltaire's gallicisms remain intact, moreover.

  9. Desfontaines had lost no time in pirating an edition of La Ligue; see T. Morris, L'Abbé Desfontaines et son rôle dans la littérature de son temps, in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 19 (1961), 41-42. See also O. R. Taylor, pp. 54-55; D200, D202, D Appendix 13. Thieriot had warned Voltaire about the dangers in D322, but Voltaire had not been unduly alarmed at first: see D303.

  10. Chaubert was the publisher of the Journal des savants and had already collaborated with Desfontaines, who had an editorial role in the production of the journal: see White, p. 31; Morris, pp. 36-37.

  11. Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. by Louis Moland, 52 vols (Paris: Garnier, 1877-85), xiii, 302. Reference to the French version of the Essay is to that printed in the first volume of the last authorized edition of Voltaire's collective works, the forty-volume encadrée, published by Cramer and Bardin in Geneva in 1775. Bengesco, no. 2141; W. Trapnell, Voltaire's Manuscripts and Collective Editions in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 77 (1970), 138. Compare J. Vercruysse, ‘Les éditions encadrées des œuvres de Voltaire de 1775’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 168 (1977), 71-191, hereafter Essai. The passages cited in this article were unrevised and contain no variants to the text printed in the 1733 edition. The text in the Leningrad copy bears no sign of annotation; see S. S. B. Taylor, ‘The Definitive Text of Voltaire's Works: The Leningrad encadrée’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 124 (1974), 128.

  12. Oeuvres ❙ De ❙ M. De Voltaire. ❙ Nouvelle Edition, ❙ Revüe, corrigée, augmentée par l'Auteur; & enrichiede Figures en Taille-douce. ❙ Tome Premier. ❙ [woodcut with inscription L'Esperance Me Guide] ❙ A Amster-dam, ❙ Chez Estienne Ledet. ❙ mdccxxxii. ❙ [lines 1, 3 and 7 in red.] 8° [4] 354. Bengesco, no. 2118; Trapnell, p. 111; O. R. Taylor, pp. 238-39. The title-page of copies issued with the Desbordes imprint has a different woodcut with the inscription ‘Serere Ne Dubites’. The Essai is to be found at pages [213]-299.

  13. La Voltairomanie, ou Lettre d'un jeune avocat en forme de mémoire en réponse au libelle du sieur de Voltaire, intitulé: Le Préservatif, etc: S.L.N.D. [Paris, 12 December 1738], p. 45. Louis Robert Hippolyte de Brehant, comte de Plélo, had been French Ambassador to Denmark in 1729. He died at the siege of Danzig in 1734.

  14. See, for example, D36, D344, D915, D1150. D1192. Compare Le Préservatif in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. by L. Moland (see note 11), xxii, 386-87.

  15. In 1736, 1737, and 1739 (Bengesco, no. 2119; iv, 6 (note); no. 2121; Trapnell, pp. 111-13).

  16. On this point and other issues in connexion with Voltaire's reactions to Homer, see D. H. Jory, ‘Voltaire and the Greeks’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 153 (1976), 1169-87.

  17. See the commentary to D103; compare D188. See also P. Bonnefon, ‘Une inimitié littéraire au xviiie siècle, d'après des documents inédits: Voltaire et Jean-Baptiste Rousseau’, Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 9 (1902), 554-57.

  18. For further details, see A. M. Rousseau, pp. 120-22; R. Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire 1694-1734 (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1985), p. 247. In 1769 Le Tourneur reminded Voltaire of the event (D15651). Edward Young pursued the issue in the second part of Resignation; see The Poetical Works of Edward Young. edited by J. Mitford, 2 vols (London, 1896), ii, 248-49.

  19. Nicolas François-Dupré de Saint-Maur, Le Paradis perdu de Milton (Paris, 1729). The text was revised by Claude-Joseph Chéron de Boismorand, and the degree to which collaboration took place has yet to be precisely established. Chéron de Boismorand published a separate translation of Paradise Lost (also in 1729); see D380. Despite reference to correspondence between Voltaire and Dupré de Saint-Maur in D771, no letters appear to have survived.

  20. Giovanni Battista Andreini's mystery play Adamo was first performed and published in 1613. Voltaire was the first to allude to an Italian source (‘that ridiculous Trifle’ (Essay, p. 104)), and the explosive suggestion of imitation was deeply shocking to English contemporaries, though reluctantly conceded in many later eighteenth-century editions of Milton's poems; see A. M. Rousseau, pp. 531-33. Pope had immediately expressed his reservations; see Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes and Characters of Books and Men, Collected from Conversation, ed. by J. M. Osborn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), p. 198. Spence was not so sure that Voltaire was wrong; see A. M. Rousseau, p. 125, note 105.

  21. In, for example, Les Honnêtetés littéraires, and of course in the section on Milton in the article ‘Epopée’, Dictionnaire philosophique.

  22. Georges de Brébeuf, La Pharsale de Lucain, ou les guerres civiles de César et de Pompée, en vers français (Paris: A. de Sommaville, 1654-55).

  23. Nicholas Rowe, Lucan's Pharsalia, Translated into English Verse (Dublin: Leathley, 1719; first published 1718), with a preface by James Welwood.

  24. Naves comments: ‘Ercilla l'a occupé un moment quand il passait en revue les épopées modernes; il le trouve d'ailleurs très faible, malgré certains passages qui ont grande allure’ (p. 345).

Further Reading

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Beck, Ervin. “Voltaire's Candide.Explicator 57, no. 4 (1999): 203-04.

Discusses the role of Cacambo in Candide as a type of golden mean.

Carlson, Marvin. Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 186 p.

Gives a history of Voltaire's theatrical career (1694-1791), particularly as it illuminates the eighteenth-century theatrical culture in France.

Dawson, Deirdre. Voltaire's Correspondence: An Epistolary Novel. New York: Peter Lang, 1994, 189 p.

Approaches Voltaire's letters as a form of literature, focusing on his correspondence with Mme Denis, the Tronchin family, and d'Alembert.

Howells, Robin. Disabled Powers: A Reading of Voltaire's Contes. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993, 192 p.

Applies Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque to the contes, and describes a paradigm of the conte hero's journey.

———. “Pleasure Principles: Tales, Infantile Naming, and Voltaire.” Modern Language Review 92, no. 2 (1997): 295-307.

Takes a psychoanalytic approach to naming in Voltaire's contes, identifying patterns and suggesting a connection to Freud's oral and anal stages.

———. “Rousseau and Voltaire: A Literary Comparison of Two ‘Professions de Foi.’” French Studies 49, no. 4 (1995): 397-409.

Compares the fictional professions of faith in Rousseau's Émile and Voltaire's Histoire de Jenni.

McKenzie, D. F. “Mea Culpa: Voltaire's Retraction of His Comments Critical of Congreve.” Review of English Studies 49 (1998): 461-65.

Counters the critical assumption that Voltaire maintained a distaste for the work of English playwright William Congreve; demonstrates Voltaire's change of heart.

Schorske, Carl E. “The Idea of the City in European Thought: Voltaire to Spengler.” In Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism, pp. 37-55. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Begins with a discussion of Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Fichte as foundational Enlightenment philosophers who praised the city as a site of progress; also discusses darker visions of the city in the nineteenth century.

Weinbrot, Howard D. “Censoring Johnson in France: Johnson and Suard on Voltaire: A New Document.” Review of English Studies 45 (1994): 230-33.

Addresses Voltaire's views on Shakespeare in the context of French-English literary relations and Samuel Johnson's “Preface to Shakespeare.”

Wokler, Robert. “The Subtextual Reincarnation of Voltaire and Rousseau.” American Scholar 67, no. 2 (1999): 55-64.

Considers the personality and style of Voltaire biographer Theodore Besterman, who also edited Voltaire's correspondence, and their relationship in editing Voltaire's and Rousseau's letters.

Additional coverage of Voltaire's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors : Dramatists Module and Most Studied Authors Module; European Writers, Vol. 4; Guide to French Literature, Vol. Beginnings to 1789; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 14; Novels for Students, Vol. 7; Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 12; World Literature Criticism.

William Doyle (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Doyle, William. “Voltaire and Venality: The Ambiguities of Abuse.” In The Secular City: Studies in the Enlightenment Presented to Haydn Mason, edited by T. D. Hemming, E. Freeman, and D. Meakin, pp. 102-11. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

[In this essay, Doyle considers the context and influence of Voltaire's writings on veniality, or the sale of royal offices. Doyle also traces Voltaire's political alignments and his use of the veniality debate to attack Richelieu and Montesquieu.]

‘Il faut en France,’ wrote La Bruyère in 1688, ‘beaucoup de fermeté et une grande étendue d'esprit pour se passer des charges et des emplois, et consentir ainsi à demeurer chez soi et à ne rien faire.’ Yet the leisure of the sage, he reflected, taken up as it was in tranquil thought, conversation, and reading, was also a form of work.1 Writing certainly was, as the life of Voltaire bore witness. But his family background illustrated a corollary of La Bruyère's observation: it was difficult in France to find respectable employment that was not a charge. Voltaire's father (if indeed Arouet père was his father) was typical enough: he made his fortune as a Parisian notary. Having sold that office two years before the birth of his famous son, two years afterwards he bought the even more lucrative, more expensive, but less burdensome one of receveur des épices à la chambre des comptes.2 Voltaire's maternal grandfather was greffier criminel at the parlement. When he was 15, his sister married a correcteur en la chambre des comptes, which was an ennobling office. Thus Voltaire grew up at the heart of the ‘bourgeoisie parisienne d'offices’,3 in a family mid-way on the classic route from commerce (Arouet grand-père had been a draper) to nobility. It was an ambiance permeated with the values and rewards of venality.

So was that of the school to which he was sent. At Louis-le-Grand Voltaire rubbed shoulders with the sons of far more prestigious office-holders, most of them predestined to follow their fathers or other male relatives into public offices that were at the same time the private property of their families.4 The years of Voltaire's schooling were also ones in which venality reached its widest extent in French history. Originating as a way for the King to borrow money from the ambitious, the sale of royal offices and the further exploitation of their buyers through a range of fiscal expedients had expanded enormously since the early sixteenth century.5 By 1664 it was estimated that there were at least 46,000 judicial and financial offices in the kingdom.6 No area of royal administration and public services was untouched by venality; and although Colbert, for whom the estimate of 1664 was made, had dreamed of eliminating or at least severely curtailing it,7 like so many of his plans this one was aborted by the demands of war. Hostilities against the Dutch in the 1670s brought renewed recourse to the easiest form of borrowing yet devised; and the rapacious traitants and partisans, who were one of the main butts of La Bruyère's disenchanted reflexions on the contemporary scene, proved inexhaustible in devising new means of extracting money from what Charles Loyseau had called in 1610 Frenchmen's archomania—their rage for offices.8 With the quarter-century of almost uninterrupted warfare that began in 1688 these expedients proliferated as never before. Well over 600 traités for the creation or exploitation of venal offices were concluded with partisans betwen 1689 and 1715,9 and by 1710 a capital of over 200 millions had been raised through squeezing office-holders in various ways.10 And although by 1719 the Regency government was claiming that new offices to the value of over 254 millions had been suppressed since 1711,11 the net result of Louis XIV's manipulation of venality was a marked increase on the 1664 total of offices. Half a century later, in the year of Voltaire's death, it was estimated at 51,000, and might well have been higher. It represented a capital debt of almost 585 millions.12

Venality, therefore, remained a central feature of French society and institutions throughout Voltaire's lifetime. It was also one remarkably unchallenged, considering its obvious disadvantages.13 As far back as Plato and Aristotle the sale of public offices had been condemned as setting a higher value on wealth than on virtue. The sale of judicial offices had been bitterly criticized in France throughout the whole period of its expansion, as likely to lead to the sale of justice itself, and to allow moneyed incompetents to sit in judgement over their fellows. But by the eighteenth century such criticism was not much heard. Not a single work appears to have been entirely devoted to the subject; and the handful of writers who did discuss it tended to do so only tangentially. It is true that hardly any of them defended it, but then practices so well-established scarcely needed defending. Above all, was it even worth discussing something that everybody recognized there was no prospect of ever eliminating? The capital invested in offices was equivalent to about a year of the king's gross revenues,14 too much to even dream of paying back. Although it was the source of almost all the disorders in the administration of justice, reflected Chancellor d'Aguesseau in 1727, to abolish venality was impossible.15 It was an abuse, but an ineradicable one.

This was the burden of Voltaire's first public comments on the matter. Since leaving school and renouncing the family name, he had had little to do with the world of venality as he pursued a literary career. He was proud of avoiding it. As he boasted to his friend d'Argenson in 1739:

Comme j'avais peu de bien quand j'entray dans le monde, j'eus l'insolence de penser que j'aurois eü une charge comme un autre, s'il avoit fallu l'acquérir par le travail et par la bonne volonté. Je me jettay du cote des baux arts qui portent toujours avec eux un certain air d'avilissement attendu qu'ils ne donnent point d'exemption, et qu'ils ne font point un homme conseiller du roy en ses conseils. On est maître des requêtes avec de l'argent, mais avec de l'argent on ne fait pas un poème épique; et j'en fis un.16

But when, in the mid 1740s, he began to achieve official recognition, he found that even the rewards of merit had a price. If the patronage of the king's mistress procured for the newly appointed Historiographer Royal the further post of Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the end of 1746, this latter post was a venal one. Voltaire later boasted of being allowed to sell it for 53,000 livres in 1749, but neglected to record what he had had to pay for it in the first place.17 There was no sign of self-disgust over this foray into the venal labyrinth: rather, a certain pride at the profit realized. Thus it is no surprise to find compromise with the world as it is the theme of one of Voltaire's earliest contes, written at precisely this time.

Published in the first collected edition of his works in 1748, Le monde comme il va is the story of Babouc, a stranger in Persepolis—a thinly-veiled Paris. At first he is horrified by the absurd customs he finds there. They include young sons of rich fathers buying the right to dispense justice like some piece of land. It seems obvious to him that the sale of verdicts must follow. Nor is he convinced when a young soldier who has bought a command vaunts the virtues of paying to be shot at. Surely, Babouc tells a man of letters, judges should be recruited from mature and experienced jurisconsults rather than raw youths. If young men can command successful armies, comes the reply, there is no reason why they should not prove to be successful magistrates, too. And later, in court, Babouc observes that while mature and learned advocates haver and equivocate, young judges reach swift and fair conclusions based on reason rather than on book learning. ‘Babouc conclut qu'il y avait souvent de très bonnes choses dans les abus’, for after all, ‘si tout n'est pas bien, tout est passable.’

Tolerant resignation was also the tone of remarks on venality in the Siècle de Louis XIV, published in 1751 after almost twenty years of drafts and polishing. The financial affaires extraordinaires of the great king's last years (and Voltaire's own adolescence) were described less in a spirit of censure on a government that had created so many ridiculous and superfluous offices, than in a spirit of amusement at the vain folly of those who had bought them for the tax-exemptions they conferred. No doubts were left that in principle venality was bad. We smile today at such things, says the historian, but at the time men wept. And Colbert, earlier, comes in for rare criticism for allowing the extension in the 1670s of what he had set out intending to abolish forever, venal expedients which burdened future ages for short term gains. By 1708, however, Colbert's nephew Desmaretz recognized that he ‘ne put guérir un mal que tout rendait incurable.’18

The true error was to have introduced it in the first place. Elsewhere Voltaire blamed François I for that—the usual culprit—and sometimes Louis XII.19 But if circumstances made the evil incurable, there was at least no excuse for claiming it had advantages. Accordingly as he grew older, and his view of the world darkened, Voltaire devoted increasing efforts to attacking those who found saving virtues in the sale of offices. Only two important writers in his time attempted to do so, but he took issue with them both. One of them he also believed to be an impostor.

This was the author of the Testament Politique of Cardinal Richelieu, first published in 1688. Its authenticity was much contested right from the start, but Voltaire only appears to have become interested in the question in the late 1730s, as he began to reflect seriously on the history of the previous century.20 Chapter 4 of the Testament was a sustained defence of the venality and heredity of offices, but Voltaire's first doubts about its authenticity, expressed in Conseils à un Journaliste (1737) made no mention of that. Only in 1739 did it come to seem one more reason for believing that the Testament could not be by a minister who earlier in his career had been a vocal critic of the sale of offices. What concentrated his mind on this aspect was his reading of d'Argenson's manuscript Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, where venality was identified as the central defect of French, government, and one of which Richelieu could never have approved.21 Voltaire thanked his old friend for adding a further reason for doubting the Testament's authenticity, and delighted in his condemnation of a ‘malheureuse invention qui a ôté l'émulation aux citoyens, et qui a privé les rois de la plus belle prérogative du trône.’22 It is true that the defence of venality was not among the reasons given for doubting the Testament's authenticity in the first major piece which he devoted to the subject, in 1749;23 nor is the matter raised in what has since been recognized as the definitive refutation of Voltaire's doubts by Foncemagne, the next year.24 But when in 1764 a new edition of the Testament appeared, together with further observations by Foncemagne, Voltaire returned to the charge with new arguments. ‘Je ne sais,’ he wrote in the Doutes Nouveaux sur le Testament attribué au Cardinal de Richelieu ‘s'il est bien vraisemblable qu'un grand ministre ait conseillé de perpétuer l'abus de la vénalité des charges: la France est le seul pays souillé de cet opprobre.’ Everywhere else in Europe, he noted, magistrates were chosen from the bar: and even in Turkey, Persia and China it was not possible to buy the right to judge men as if it were a meadow or field. No minister could have advised the retention of a ‘trafic honteux contre lequel l'univers entier réclame.’ Even those who had bought judicial offices in France would surely have preferred to have been elected.25 The sharpening of tone is audible: this was the Voltaire of the 1760s, optimistic illusions all gone, anxious to crush the world's infamies; many of which, in that decade, he found to be perpetrated by the venal magistracy of the parlements.

The other defender of venality with whom he took issue was Montesquieu, who, in a few brief lines of Book V of De L'Esprit des Lois, argued that venality was good in monarchies ‘parce qu'elle fait faire, comme un métier de famille, ce qu'on ne voudrait pas entreprendre pour la vertu.’26 If offices were not publicly sold, courtiers would sell them privately; and in any case, industry would be stimulated if advancement came only from wealth. These arguments, which seem to have owed a good deal in their turn to Richelieu's Testament, predictably outraged Voltaire. He had never liked Montesquieu, or his sprawling, unpolished masterpiece; and in the eighth part of Questions sur l'Encyclopédie he expressed incredulity that an expedient born of François I's financial improvidence could ever be thought good.27 If it was so good, why had no other country adopted it? ‘le monstre est né de la prodigalité d'un roi devenu indigent, et de la vanité de quelques bourgeois dont les pères avaient de l'argent. On a toujours attaqué cet infâme abus par des cris impuissans, parce qu'il eût falu rembourser les offices qu'on avait vendu.’ To sell justice, and the right to dispense it, was sacrilegiously vile; and so, ‘Plaignons Montesquieu d'avoir déshonoré son ouvrage par de tels paradoxes. Mais pardonnons-lui. Son oncle avait acheté une charge de président en province, et il la lui laissa. On retrouve l'homme partout. Nul de nous n'est sans faiblesse.’

Montesquieu had been dead sixteen years when these strictures appeared; but his arguments about the nature of monarchy were never more urgent than in 1771, as Chancellor Maupeou launched his attack on the parlements, which Montesquieu had identified as one of the vital intermediary powers which prevented monarchy from degenerating into despotism. In this confrontation Voltaire, alone among the philosophes, unequivocally took the chancellor's side.28 In the causes célèbres which he had espoused in the 1760s—Calas, Sirven, La Barre, Lally—the forces of cruelty, fanaticism and intolerance had always been embodied in the parlements, proud corporations made invulnerable by the tenure derived from venality. These cases occurred during years of deteriorating relations between the king and his sovereign courts, and Voltaire made little secret of his sympathy with the royal side.29 Only action by the king, he believed, could reform the complex of abuses which they stood for. Awareness of his attitude seems to have brought encouragement from the newly-appointed Chancellor Maupeou to write against the parlements and their pretensions.30 The result, in 1769, was the Histoire du Parlement de Paris. Ostensibly (from the title page) by an Abbé de Big …, its authorship was an open secret from the start,31 and its sentiments towards its subject came as no surprise. The parlement was allowed some merit for its long resistance to the claims of the Church, and its support for the king at crucial moments, as in the reign of Henry IV, but its long record of excessive political ambition and judicial savagery was left to speak for itself; and in chapter XVI the basis of its members' tenure was unequivocally condemned. François I's chancellor Duprat had ‘prostituted’ the magistracy when he had auctioned twenty new offices of counsellor, but from this shameful start, which the parlement had at first tried to resist, venality had rapidly spread throughout the judiciary. ‘Un impôt également réparti, et dont les corps de ville et les financiers même auraient avancé les deniers, eût été plus raisonnable et plus utile; mais le ministère comptait sur l'empressement des bourgeois, dont la vanité achèterait à l'envi ces nouvelles charges’. Venality was also condemned as one source of the troubles of the Fronde.32

As first published, the Histoire ended with the savage execution of Damiens, who had stabbed Louis XV, in 1757. Only the dramatic events of the next few years led Voltaire to add two new chapters to later editions.33 But 1769 also saw the publication of a new edition of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, which had grown out of earlier prolongations of Louis XIV. It contained a long chapter on the laws, largely inspired by Voltaire's reading of Beccaria, but ending with a resounding condemnation of the venality so speciously defended in the Testament (which he persisted in believing to be the work of the abbé Bourzeis). ‘En vain d'autres auteurs, plus courtisans que citoyens, et plus inspirés par l'intérêt personnel que par l'amour de la patrie,34 ont ils suivi les traces de l'abbé de Bourzeys; une preuve que cette vente est un abus, c'est qu'elle ne fut produite que par un autre abus, par la dissipation des finances de l'Etat. C'est une simonie beaucoup plus funeste que la vente des bénéfices de l'Eglise: car si un ecclésiastique isolé achète un bénéfice simple, il n'en résulte ni bien ni mal pour la patrie, dans laquelle il n'a nulle juridiction, il n'est comptable à personne; mais la magistrature a l'honneur, la fortune et la vie des hommes entre ses mains. Nous cherchons dans ce siècle à tout perfectionner, cherchons donc à perfectionner les lois.’

The reforms of Maupeou in 1771 seemed to present an ideal opportunity for such improvement. For all the stormy exchanges between the king and his parlements throughout the 1760s, Maupeou's attack on the sovereign courts was not premeditated, and the radical form it eventually took developed out of the crisis itself.35 But from the start of the confrontation Voltaire, as he told d'Alembert and Richelieu on 21 December 1770, was pleased to see the murderers of La Barre humiliated.36 His pleasure grew over the spring of 1771 as Maupeou, unable to conciliate or cow the parlement of Paris, embarked on a radical restructuring of the upper judiciary. Most of the members of the parlement were dismissed, and their offices confiscated, although compensation was promised. They were replaced by salaried nominees, who were forbidden to charge litigants the traditional fees (épices). At the same time the vast jurisdiction of the parlement was broken up and redistributed among a number of superior councils, staffed and operating on the same terms. Maupeou even encouraged hopes of a total recodification of the law. Voltaire was overwhelmed at the promise of it all. ‘Je vous avoue,’ he wrote to Florian on 1 April,37 ‘que je bats des mains, quand je vois que la justice n'est plus vénale, que des citoyens ne sont plus trainés des cachots d'Angoulême aux cachots de la Conciergerie … Je le dis hautement, ce reglement me parait le plus beau qui ait été fait depuis la fondation de la monarchie; et je pense qu'il faut être ennemi de l'Etat et de soi-même pour ne pas sentir ce bienfait.’

It is clear that ending the sale of offices was only one of several reasons why Voltaire supported the chancellor's policies, and perhaps not the most important. It certainlyy did not figure largely in the arguments of the eight pamphlets he wrote in favour of the reforms between March and May 1771. As early as the end of January he had sent Maupeou indirect evidence of his support,38 and the chancellor can only have welcomed his satirizing the constitutional doctrines of the parlements,39 his response to Malesherbes' great remonstrances agains his policies on behalf of the Cour des Aides,40 and a number of other fleeting though anonymous interventions. But the sale of offices was attacked far more specifically in revised editions of earlier works published during the years of Maupeou's ministry, and in ongoing serial publications such as Questions sur l'Encyclopédie. The entry ‘Loix, Esprit des Loix’, of 1771, cited above, was one. The next year, in the ninth part, came an entry specifically on venality. Beginning with yet another attack on the authenticity of Richelieu's Testament Politique, it argued that Maupeou had at last given the lie to the strongest argument there advanced in favour of venality—that the system was simply too expensive to buy out.

Ainsi, non seulement cet abus paraissait à tout le monde irréformable, mais utile; on était si accoûtumé à cet opprobre, qu'on ne le sentait pas; il semblait éternel; un seul homme en peu de mois l'a su anéantir.

Répétons donc qu'on peut tout faire, tout corriger; que le grand défaut de presque tous ceux qui gouvernent, est de n'avoir que des demi-volontés et des demi-moyens.41

This was to attribute too much to Maupeou. Only in the parlements and certain other courts suppressed in his reforms was venality abolished: perhaps 3,500 venal offices out of over 50,000. The salaries of the new nonvenal magistracy, and the free justice that resulted, were paid for by earmarked tax increases. Maupeou's colleague at the finance ministry, indeed, the abbé Terray, introduced a range of measures in 1771 which positively extended venality in some areas and taxed it more ruthlessly at every level. So far from diminishing it, the aim was to make it pay better. As most of the other philosophes saw, in fact, Maupeou's reforms were largely cosmetic.42 What they saw in him was a friend of the Jesuits, Mme Dubarry's sycophant, and a supporter of stricter censorship. His attack on the sovereign courts had swept away the only legal safeguards enjoyed by the king's subjects, and turned that king into a despot. In this perspective, venality, insofar as it reinforced the independence of the judiciary, had been a positive bulwark of liberty: as Diderot put it, an evil, but a necessary one.43

Voltaire never recognized any of this. Even though Maupeou, once his system established itself, showed himself indifferent to a number of causes espoused by Voltaire,44 and forbade the publication of new parts of the Questions sur l'Encyclopédie in France, and even though no official support was received for securing a performance for his last, sycophantic play, Les Lois de Minos, in Paris, much less for the long-coveted permission to return to the city of his birth, Voltaire nevertheless remained a champion of the judicial reforms until they were abrogated by a new king in 1774. This time he took no public stance on the changes, although privately he lamented the restoration of the old parlement of Paris, its swollen jurisdiction, and the fact that it was to be rebarbouillé by venality of offices.45 But when, the next year, he brought out a further edition of the Histoire du Parlement, there was a new final chapter justifying the work of Maupeou by a recital of the ‘étonnante anarchie’ and judicial cruelties that had marked the 1760s, and of the utility of two reforms that the chancellor had introduced. One was the diminution of the ‘ruinous’ size of the parlement's jurisdiction. The other was the ending of venality, ‘honteux et dispendieux à la fois … vénalité qui avait introduit la forte taxation des épices.’ The new parlement ‘serait payé par le roi, sans acheter ses places, et sans rien exiger des plaideurs … l'opprobre de la vénalité, dont François 1er et le chancelier Duprat avaient malheureusement souillé la France, fut lavé par Louis XV et par les soins du chancelier de Maupeou.’ After that, few could doubt the real meaning of the terse praise for Louis XVI's restoration of the old order with which the chapter concluded.

And Voltaire continued to rail against venality until the end. 1777 saw the publication of his Commentaire sur quelques maximes de l'Esprit des Lois, in which, after a little grudging initial praise for Montesquieu, he proceeded to challenge some of his central principles. The passage on venality was inevitably targeted, although most of Voltaire's remarks were nearly word for word the same as those in Questions sur l'Encyclopédie. Montesquieu's contention that a vice like venality could be a virtue in a monarchy was unworthy of him. ‘Pourquoi cet étrange abus ne fut-il introduit qu'au bout de onze cents années?’ And appropriately, he combined these last comments on one of his secular aversions with a jibe at the Church: ‘On a toujours attaqué cet abus par des cris impuissans, parce qu'il eût fallu rembourser les offices qu'on avait vendus. Il eut mieux valu mille fois, dit un sage jurisconsulte, vendre les trésors de tous les couvens et l'argenterie de toutes les églises que de vendre la justice.’

It seemed an implicit suggestion that venality could be bought out with the confiscated wealth of the Church—and that is how it was eventually done. Only eleven years after Voltaire died venality was abolished, and free justice proclaimed, by the National Assembly on the night of 4 August 1789. Office-holders were promised reimbursement of their investment, and this obligation was recognized as part of the national debt. By the end of the year the Assembly had confiscated the lands of the Church as a means of paying off that debt.46

No doubt the writings of Voltaire played their part in sowing the seeds of these developments, but not in any directly demonstrable sense. He was merely the most famous of a myriad of writers who attacked the Church and the ways of the established judicial system, and thereby helped to undermine respect for both. And in the case of venality he was saying nothing new. The arguments he used were as old as venality itself. The first evidence for its existence came from the protests of medieval estates against the sale of judicial offices,47 and they had been much reiterated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The importance of Voltaire's contribution lay not in the novelty of what he said, but in the fact that he was saying it. He scarcely mentioned the matter publicly until he was a writer of international standing. And when he did address it, most often he did so in order to refute authoritative figures who advanced new defences of the indefensible. Richelieu's authority was much more effectively challenged when it was Voltaire who declared that it was not Richelieu's at all; Montesquieu's when his fellow academician claimed his judgement had been warped by self-interest. Here Voltaire lent his prestige to the silent common sense of his compatriots, whose disapproval of venality came out loud and clear when they had the opportunity to voice an opinion in the cahiers of 1789.48

Yet the venality condemned by Voltaire made up only one small part of the system, and until the 1760s he had condemned it with no great vehemence. On the venality amid which he had grown up, and in which he had himself briefly dabbled in the 1740s, he remained silent. His fiercest attacks were concentrated almost entirely on the venal tenure of magistrates who, in the course of the 1760s, he had come to hate and despise for other reasons. It is clear from his private correspondence that he supported Maupeou largely because he had struck down the murderers of La Barre and Lally. The chancellor's other reforms, including the curtailing of venality, merely confirmed how right it was to support such a minister. Fundamentally, however, they were side issues.

They were side issues for Maupeou, too, although the cruelty and obscurantism of the magistracy were of no concern to him. Reform of the judiciary was merely a screen to give respectability to his own political ambition. Once firmly established, he did not pursue it; nothing came of the vaunted law-code which so excited Voltaire, and outside the parlements venality was left untouched, though not untaxed. But meanwhile all restraints on despotism, of which venal tenure was one, had been swept aside. The other philosophes saw this, and found their doyen's support for the chancellor an embarrassment. In his obsession with avenging injustice, the patriarch of Ferney seemed to have forgotten about protecting liberty. Babouc no longer recognized that some abuses could be very good things. Most opinion, however, did so; and until the threat of despotism was banished in 1789, the memory of Maupeou's reforms helped to prop up the very venality which Voltaire had praised them so highly for trying to abolish.


  1. Les Caractères, ‘Du mérite personnel’.

  2. R. Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire 1694-1734 (Oxford, 1985), pp. 16, 28, 30.

  3. Ibid. p. 16.

  4. See F. Bluche, Les Magistrats du Parlement de Paris au XVIIIe siecle 1715-1770 (Besançon, 1960), pp. 245-46; and T. Besterman, Voltaire (London, 1969), pp. 38-39. [Hereafter: Besterman, Voltaire]

  5. The standard account of these early stages is R. Mousnier, La vénalité des offices sous Henri IV et Louis XIII (Paris, 2nd edition, 1971). (Hereafter: La Vénalité]

  6. P. Véron de Forbonnais, Recherches et Considérations sur les finances de France, 2 vols (Basle, 1758), I, p. 329. [Hereafter: Recherches]

  7. P. Clément (ed.), Lettres, Instructions et Mémoires de Colbert, 7 vols (Paris, 1861-82), II, p. 127, VI, pp. 247-48.

  8. C. Loyseau, Cinq Livres du droit des offices (Châteaudun, 1610), p. 290.

  9. Calculated from BN MS Fr. 11103, ‘Mémoire des Affaires Extraordinaires des Finances faites depuis 1687 Jusqu'en 1705’ and MS Fr. 11107, ‘Recueil des Affaires Extraordinaires de Finances depuis et compris l'année 1706 jusqu'au [sic] présente année 1715’.

  10. Forbonnais, Recherches, II, p. 395.

  11. Etat Général des Dettes de l'Etat à la mort du feu Roy Louis XIV … (Paris, 1720), p. 25.

  12. BN MS Fr. 11140, ‘Mémoire sur l'etat actuel des offices, tant casuels qu'à survivance’. Another version, different in detail and dated 1779, in MS Fr. 14084.

  13. See W. Doyle, ‘4 August 1789: the intellectual background to the abolition of venality of offices’. Australian Journal of French Studies (1992), pp. 230-40. [Hereafter: ‘4 August 1789’]

  14. Necker estimated them in 1785 at precisely the same amount, 585 millions: see A Treatise on the Finances of France, in three volumes by Mr. Necker (London, 1785), I, p. 37.

  15. M. Pardessus (ed.), Œuvres complètes du Chancelier d'Aguesseau, 16 vols (Paris, 1819), XIII, p. 224. See too P. Combe, Memoire inédit du Chancelier Daguesseau sur la Réformation de la justice (Valence, 1928), p. 11.

  16. D2035. 21 juin 1739.

  17. Besterman, Voltaire (1969), pp. 278-79; Autobiography, ibid., p. 562.

  18. Le Siècle de Louis XIV, ch. XXX.

  19. Essai sur les Mœurs, ch. CXIV; Histoire du Parlement de Paris, ch. XVI.

  20. See the preface to the standard edition of the Testament by L. André (Paris, 1947), pp. 50-51.

  21. Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France (Amsterdam, 1764), p. 155ff. Manuscript copies had circulated for almost thirty years before this posthumous publication.

  22. Letter cited above, n. 16. See also the Autobiography in Besterman, Voltaire (1969), p. 565.

  23. Des Mensonges imprimés, et du Testament Politique du Cardinal de Richelieu.

  24. Lettre sur le Testament Politique du Cardinal Richelieu (Paris, 1750). See too André, pp. 51-52.

  25. As d'Argenson, whose Considérations were printed at last in that same year, recommended, p. 215.

  26. Ch. XIX.

  27. (1771.) Article ‘Loix, Esprit des Loix’.

  28. See F. Diaz, Filosofia e Politica nel settecento francese (Turin, 1962), ch. VI.

  29. See P. Gay, Voltaire's Politics. The Poet as Realist (Princeton, 1959), ch. VII.

  30. Gay, Voltaire's Politics, p. 317; see too Beuchot's introduction to his edition of the Histoire, 1829.

  31. See Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, IV, 25 juin 1769.

  32. Ch. LV.

  33. See p. 109.

  34. Presumably this meant Montesquieu.

  35. See W. Doyle, ‘The Parlements of France and the breakdown of the Old Regime’. French Historical Studies, VI (1970), pp. 415-58.

  36. D12114 and D12115.

  37. D12333.

  38. D12231 to Marin, 27 jan. 1771. See too D. Echeverria, The Maupeou Revolution. A study in the history of Libertarianism. France, 1770-1774 (Baton Rouge, La, 1985), p. 148. [Hereafter: Maupeou Revolution]

  39. Très humbles et très respectueuses remontrances d'un Grenier à Sel, M.xxviii,401-4. See too David Hudson, ‘In defense of reform: French government propaganda during the Maupeou crisis’, French Historical Studies, VIII, (1973), pp. 67-68.

  40. Réponse aux remontrances de la Cour des Aides par un membre des nouvelles cours souveraines, M.xxviii, 385-88.

  41. Much of this passage was incorporated into later editions of the Dictionnaire philosophique.

  42. See Diaz, Filosofia, pp. 458-65; Echeverria, Maupeou Revolution, chs 8 and 9; and J. Lough, The Philosophes and post-revolutionary France (Oxford, 1982), pp. 20-23.

  43. ‘Observations sur le Nakaz’, no. XVIII, in P. Vernière (ed.), Diderot: Œuvres politiques (Paris, 1963), p. 363.

  44. Echeverria, Maupeou Revolution, pp. 151-52.

  45. D13863, to d'Hornoy, 5 sept. 1774.

  46. The most accessible account currently available of this process is in P. Dawson, Provincial Magistrates and revolutionary politics in France, 1789-1795 (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), ch. VI.

  47. Mousnier, La Vénalité, pp. 13-24.

  48. Doyle, ‘4 August 1789’, pp. 234-36. But Voltaire's influence can be seen in other ways. Among the Eloges de Montesquieu submitted in an essay competition set by the Academy of Bordeaux in the 1780s, several cited Voltaire's criticism to show that even Montesquieu's judgement could sometimes be flawed. Bibliothèque de la Ville de Bordeaux, MS 828 (XCVI and SCVII). One of the authors was Bertrand Barère, the future revolutionary.

Robin Howells (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Howells, Robin. “City, Market-Place, Meal: Some Figures of Totality in Voltaire's Contes.” In The Secular City: Studies in the Enlightenment Presented to Haydn Mason, edited by T. D. Hemming, E. Freeman, and D. Meakin, pp. 71-81. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

[In the essay which follows, Howells reviews the representation of cities in Voltaire's contes, focusing on the “carnivalesque” as described by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Howells suggests that Babylon is the paradigmatic secular city for Voltaire, being the antithesis of a holy city and thus a manifestation of carnivalesque inversion. Howells cites passages from several contes that depict the “body in process”: the human body participating in sex, eating, and violence.]

This will be a ‘carnivalesque’ reading of representations of the city, the market-place and the meal in the Contes. First I shall establish briefly the concept of the carnivalesque, and what it might say about the Enlightenment and Voltaire's tales. Then I shall run through the general significance of my three referents within received culture. Pausing for an excursus on Babylon, I shall look finally at a series of passages treating my three referents in the Contes.1 These take us from civilized order to violent disorder.

The concept of the carnivalesque was established by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). He derives it from the phenomenon of carnival, which he sees as a social event but also as the embodiment of a certain consciousness and as a privileged figure of reality. The carnival is public and collective—everybody participates. It is concrete and dynamic. It is disorderly and often violent, yet strongly ritualized. It is playful, allowing changes of individual identity (masking) and of social hierarchy (the clown as king). It is parodic, mocking and joyous. In all these ways it breaks down the official order. It represents—in both senses—the world in its heterogeneity and perpetual change.

Within the carnivalesque, the central notion is that of the ‘grotesque body’. ‘Body’ signifies materiality; ‘grotesque’ signifies openness and incompletion. Thus the grotesque body represents corporeal process. We can identify it on several levels of reality. One is the human body; another is the collective body of the group or community; a third is the total body of reality or the world. The fourth is that of language, the medium through which we cognize the world and communicate with each other. Language too has a body. Language too is a perpetually unfinished process. This is what Bakhtin means by ‘dialogism’. Language in use is always borrowed, quoted, composed of fragments of different discourses, re-contextualized and re-used. Meaning always remains open. Utterance which claims self-consistency, affirms its authority and seeks to fix meaning aspires to monologism. But it is inevitably broken down, re-opened, re-carnivalized. Literature stylizes dialogism. Truthful literature is the kind which represents the carnivalesque reality on all levels and as fully as possible.2

It is easy to see why Rabelais serves Bakhtin as the richest example of carnivalesque literature. But Rabelais is the fullest reflection of his time, notably the inheritance of medieval popular culture and the condition of the Renaissance—plural, conflictual and changing. French Classicism will impose cultural order and hierarchy. The Enlightenment with its high civilization and abstract rationalism seems still farther from the carnivalesque consciousness.3 But every age expresses the truth in its own forms. In the age of Voltaire the forms of the carnivalesque are, precisely, civilized. The Enlightenment is an oppositional movement within the framework of received high culture. Enlightenment writing is playful and parodic. Its stock-in-trade is wit and open meaning. It uses the concrete and the corporeal, albeit sparingly and often negatively, to debase the pretentions of official discourse. It tends to adapt popular forms (the letter, the tale, the novel) and create hybrid genres. Voltaire's contes philosophiques have all these characteristics. They constitute indeed a joyously aggressive rewriting, a carnivalizing, of official literature and philosophy.

All my three referents—city, market-place and meal—appear quite frequently in the Contes. But we should observe first that all three have long functioned as archetypes within Western culture. They have mythical power as emblems of human community and human communion. This emblematic significance is evident in both the secular and the Christian traditions. First, the city. In the secular tradition we might think of Plato's Republic. In the Christian tradition we have The City of God of St Augustine. Bridging them we have Campanella's City of the Sun. For the market-place, in the secular tradition we have the agora or the forum, the place of collective meeting and debate. We have the fair and the stock-exchange. On the Christian side this is more difficult. Christ drove the money-changers out of the temple (Mark, xi); but He spent much time in public places, with the people. For the meal we have Plato's Banquet, the Symposium. On the other side we might invoke Luther's Table-talk (Tischreden). And of course we have the Last Supper. This was also in some sense the first supper: the shared meal instituting the ritual of Christian communion.

Thus my three referents are powerful, and multivalent, emblems of community. They are germane because the Contes deal in community. They function by offering, for the benefit of the protagonist and ourselves, a review of reality. For Voltaire, as a classical writer, reality is human and social. Primarily it is represented as the city. Most of the Contes are set in cities or involve visits to cities. One city featured prominently is Babylon. Zadig begins and ends there. Le Taureau blanc ends there. La Princesse de Babylone not only begins and ends there, but bestows on Babylon the honour of being the only city to appear in a title. Why Babylon? For Voltaire, and for the culture that we still share with him, Babylon is the secular city. It is the city of pride, luxury and disorder. It is the worldly antithesis—and thus the debasing parody—of Jerusalem, the holy city.

The disorder of the secular city is in the first instance verbal. Here is the opening presentation:

Au temps du roi Moabdar il y avait à Babylone un jeune homme nommé Zadig, né avec un beau naturel fortifié par l'éducation. […] On était étonné de voir qu'avec beaucoup d'esprit il n'insultât jamais par des railleries à ces propos si vagues, si rompus, si tumultueux, à ces médisances téméraires, à ces décisions ignorantes, à ces turlupinades grossières, à ce vain bruit de paroles, qu'on nommait conversation dans Babylone.

(Zadig, i, p. 57)

The Old Testament identifies Babylon with Babel. Here is part of the Biblical account of the fall from Divine order into human disorder:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. …

And they said to one another, Go to, …, let us build us a city and a tower …

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.

(Genesis, xi, 1-9)

The second extract tells us that the Divine language is one. It is monologic. Human language however becomes confounded, dialogic, clashing and unresolved. This is the language of Babylon. Our first extract tells us of its confusion. Zadig the hero seems to be out of sympathy with it. But the text presents it joyously. Indeed the text mimes the verbal carnival in its own style. It accumulates phrases; it defamiliarizes and restores body to language (by foregrounding the code). The procedure is totalizing and ludic. This is a secular text, mocking and celebrating the secular city.

Babylon is the antithesis of the holy city most specifically because it is the place where the Lord's people were enslaved. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and carried the Jews into the Babylonish captivity (II Kings, xxiv and xxv; Daniel, i). The Old Testament prophets are understandably fascinated with Babylon. It is called ‘the golden city’ (Isaiah, xiv, 4), and ‘the glory of kingdoms’ (Isaiah, xiii, 19). Divine vengeance is to come. During a great secular meal—Belshazzar's feast—the Lord inscribes the end of Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty (Daniel, v). Conquered in its turn, ‘Babylon … that made all the earth drunken, … is suddenly fallen and destroyed’. (Jeremiah, li, 7 and 8)

But Babylon will remain, in the Judeo-Christian inheritance, as the type of the sinful city. In the last book of the New Testament it is the Great Whore. ‘I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, … and on her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon the Great’. (Revelations, xvii, 5) St Augustine evokes his sinful youth with the phrase ‘I walked the streets of Babylon, and wallowed in the mire thereof’ (Confessions, II, 3). After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the leading minister Pierre Jurieu addressed the oppressed French Protestants in a series of Lettres pastorales aux fidèles qui gémissent sous la captivité de Babylone (1686-95). The Rastafarian movement for Black Liberation in our century invokes Babylon as a symbol of tyranny. The first Rasta demonstration, in Jamaica in 1958, sang the spiritual ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ (cp. Psalm 137). ‘The name Babylon was linked to all oppressive forces, whether it was the imperialist states, the local black oppressors or the police.’4

In more secular modern discourses too Babylon retains its mythical status. It may be the synecdoche of corruption. Kenneth Anger's exposé of the mores of the American movie industry was entitled Hollywood Babylon (1975). It may still be the emblem of the modern city. Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1926) includes the story of Babel. Narrated by the spiritual leader of the oppressed workers, it functions as the mise en abyme of Metropolis itself, the city without a soul. It may be used more playfully. The opening of the most notorious novel of recent times has two Indians falling towards ‘the great, rotting, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny, Babylon, Alphaville’. The metaphorical and the literal names of this city are later run together in the carnivalesque coinage ‘Babylondon’. This novel is Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988). The title alludes to the improper insertion of unauthorized utterance into the authorized text. This is the dialogic intrusion, the carnivalization of official discourse, that the Contes also practice.

The Contes use other great cities. Their status is clearly analogous to that of Babylon. Persepolis is the city that Babouc is required to review in Le Monde comme il va. The name designates the capital—the polis of the Persian Empire. The tale constitutes a parodic rewriting of the Book of Jonah, in which the Word of the Lord required Jonah to ‘go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it’. Joyously jumbling his oriental metropoli, Voltaire uses Nineveh as the location of Memnon. Other cities appear, like Babylon, in more than one tale. These include Benares (Lettre d'un Turc, Les Lettres d'Amabed); Rome (Scarmentado, La Princesse de Babylone, Éloge de la raison). Paris is featured in over half a dozen tales.

These other favoured cities are evidently emblematic too. Rome is a capital twice over, embracing both the ancient pagan and the modern Christian empires. Venice embraces two other antithetical empires: land and sea. Both these cities had also become bywords for decadence. Sic transit gloria is one of the ironic (and literally secular) meanings conveyed by Voltaire's choice of cities. The odd one out seems to be Benares, the Hindu holy city. But thus it functions as Rome (the holy city) and anti-Rome (the antithesis of the corrupt Christian holy city). Each of these cities indeed is assigned at least two identities. Each is both ‘itself’ and the ‘other’ city which is the capital for Voltaire's readership—Paris. More exactly, each is a radically stylized and internally carnivalized caricature of ‘itself’ (bisexual cardinals; carnival maskers; ridiculous fakirs: spot the cities), and at the same time a satirical version of the ‘other’ which is Paris. The lack of specificity and density in Voltaire's writing (the lack of carnivalesque body) makes the equivalence easier. Paris ‘itself’ is a setting in many of the later and more realist tales. Here the name has a stronger referential function. But even Paris still has massive emblematic weight. Paris is the worldly city. Thus it is Babylon. A contemporary work by Fougeret de Montbron (to which Candide allegedly owes a debt) is called La Capitale des Gaules ou la Nouvelle Babylone.5

Time for a civilized meal.

Zadig […] avait, dans un faubourg de Babylone, une maison ornée avec goût, où il rassemblait tous les arts et tous les plaisirs dignes d'un honnête homme. Le matin, sa bibliothèque était ouverte à tous les savants; le soir, sa table l'était à la bonne compagnie.

(iv, p. 65)

The writing here is very normative. The imperfect tense indicates that these events are not particular but habitual; the ‘tous’, itself repeated, eschews particularity for generality. Cultural norms are equally evident: ‘avec goût’, ‘dignes d'un honnête homme’. On the other hand we do have a totalizing figure. ‘Tous’ is collective, here designating successively three totalities. ‘Il rassemblait’ marks multiplicity being brought together; ‘dans sa maison’ has exteriority housed. Oppositions are yoked together: ‘le matin/le soir’, ‘sa bibliothèque/sa table’, ‘les savants/la bonne compagnie’. These polarities imply the whole—civilized—range between them. We also have, literally, the concept of openness. The collective figure is reversed and doubled as the text continues. ‘Il s'éleva une grande dispute …’. We move into the tense of particularity, as order becomes disorder.

Next a market-place. In another figure of reversal, Zadig the prime minister becomes Zadig the slave. He and his servant are put up for sale:

sa personne fut exposée en vente dans la place publique; ainsi que celle de son compagnon de voyage. Un marchand arabe, nommé Sétoc, y mit l'enchère; mais le valet, plus propre à la fatigue, fut vendu bien plus chèrement que le maître. On ne faisait pas de comparaison entre ces deux hommes. Zadig fut donc esclave subordonné à son valet: on les attacha ensemble. …

(x, pp. 82-83)

Within the passage the figure of order—the hierarchy of master and slave, implying the totality of the social order—is reversed. The slave is much more valuable. Their new hierarchy is the world upside-down, the master subordinated to the slave. But then the two are physically joined together. They are turned into a single, grotesque body.

Our last example from Zadig gives us the city and the market-place and the meal together.

Sétoc, qui ne pouvait se séparer de cet homme en qui habitait la sagesse, le mena à la grande foire de Balzora, où devaient se rendre les plus grands négociants de la terre habitable. Ce fut pour Zadig une consolation sensible de voir tant d'hommes de diverses contrées réunis dans la même place. Il lui paraissait que l'univers était une grande famille qui se rassemblait à Balzora. Il se trouva à table, dès le second jour, avec un Égyptien, un Indien gangaride, un habitant du Cathay, un Grec, un Celte, et plusieurs autres étrangers qui, dans leurs fréquents voyages vers le golfe arabique, avaient appris assez d'arabe pour se fair entendre. L'Égyptien paraissait fort en colère. …

(xii, p. 87)

The first sentence presents the market-place (‘la foire’) within the city (Balzora) which is in turn within the great world. We have three totalities, each successively en abyme or contained by the one following it. The next two sentences repeat this figure in a simpler form. ‘Tant d'hommes’ (multiplicity) ‘de diverses contrées’ (heterogeneity) are to be ‘réunis’ (participle of union) ‘dans la même place’. Again but more dynamically, ‘l'univers’ (totality) ‘[comme] une grande famille’ (a vast kinship) ‘se rassemblait’ (active verb of coming together) ‘à Balzora’. Then we have the meal, and enumeration of the totality who commune. Five heterogeneous representatives are listed; the list is also left open. A modicum of verbal communication is possible. But then the figure is reversed and doubled. Union again becomes disunion. The issue of holiness causes an unholy row. Zadig will restore union, with his monologic (unitarian) wisdom. But what makes the text joyous is the heterogeneous and dynamic figure we have just identified.

Next we take instances from Le Monde comme il va. (The title itself suggests the worldly totality in motion.) Babouc comes to Persepolis.

Il arriva dans cette ville immense […].

Babouc se mêla dans la foule d'un peuple composé de ce qu'il y avait de plus sale et de plus laid dans les deux sexes. Cette foule se précipitait d'un air hébété dans un enclos vaste et sombre.

(ii, p. 42)

The individual enters the city. Within it he is taken into the crowd. (A gross lot: popular heterogeneity and corporality are usually treated negatively in the Contes.) The figure of exteriority taken inside is repeated in the second sentence (the ‘enclos’). Babouc will eventually escape from the mob. He crosses the city to ‘l'autre bout’. On the way he admires its ‘places [publiques]’. He is going to a luncheon. ‘Il entra enfin chez la dame qui l'attendait à dîner avec une compagnie d'honnétes gens.’ Thus Babouc is taken in once more, but this time to a very different collectivity. This second group issues formal invitations; it is not public but quasi-private; it is not gross but highly civilized. The other end of the city is also the other end of the society, thus implying the totalities between.

The orderly ‘compagnie’ however has its own version of disorder, and even of corporality. Voltaire, through his observer Babouc, presents us with a delightful figure.

Cependant il s'aperçut que la dame, qui avait commencé par demander tendrement des nouvelles de son mari, parlait plus tendrement encore, sur la fin du repas, à un jeune mage. Il vit un magistrat qui, en présence de sa femme, pressait avec vivacité une veuve, et cette veuve indulgente avait une main passée autour du cou du magistrat, tandis qu'elle tendait l'autre à un jeune citoyen très beau et très modeste.

(iv, p. 43)

The first sentence marks a temporal polarity centred on the meal (‘commencé/à la fin’), which is paralleled by the affective polarity centred on the lady. Between two men, she desires both: the absent husband (‘tendrement’) and the present cenobite (‘plus tendrement’). In the next sentence the figure of the trio is reversed, to give us a man between two women. But this time both are present. And we are beginning to move from the verbal to the corporeal. ‘Pressait avec vivacité une veuve’ may be only moral pressure. ‘[Avoir] un main passée autour du cou du magistrat’ is clearly physical. It also takes us from unilateral initiatives to a reciprocation. Then the second chain of three becomes a chain of four, as the widow ‘tend … l'autre [main] à un jeune citoyen’. The interweaving of limbs joins the individuals in a grotesque body. The participants are a conspectus of good society. First social ritual, then the meal, then desire, then corporality brings them together.

So far we have failed to recognize the contribution of the natural world. The most famous example of the impact of natural events in the Contes is surely the Lisbon earthquake. It carnivalizes the city. But then man makes his contribution too.

Ils sentent la terre trembler sous leurs pas; la mer s'élève en bouillonnant dans le port, et brise les vaisseaux qui sont à l'ancre. Des tourbillons de flammes et de cendres couvrent les rues et les places publiques; les maisons s'écroulent, les toits sont renversés sur les fondements, et les fondements se dispersent; trente mille habitants de tout âge et de tout sexe sont écrasés sous les ruines. Le matelot disait en sifflant et en jurant: ‘Il y aura quelque chose à gagner ici’.—Quelle peut être la raison suffisante de ce phénomène? disait Pangloss.—Voici le dernier jour du monde! s'écriait Candide. Le matelot court incontinent au milieu des débris, affronte la mort pour trouver de l'argent, s'en empare, s'enivre, et, ayant cuvé son vin, achète les faveurs de la première fille de bonne volonté qu'il rencontre sur les ruines des maisons détruites et au milieu des mourants et des morts.

(Candide, v, p. 156)

At the start of the passage the earth trembles—the static becomes dynamic. That which is low rises up (‘la mer s'élève’). That which is raised comes down (‘les maisons s'écroulent’). High and low become one (‘les toits sont renversés sur les fondements’). The construct is taken back into nature (‘les fondements se dispersent’). To this disaster we then have three responses. They are strongly marked off, in parallel, as a conspectus. First is the sailor. His reaction is that of the lower classes. He whistles and swears (but Voltaire's classical decorum excludes direct representation of this base level of utterance). He looks out for himself. Pangloss the intellectual seeks to explain the event in terms of his theory. Candide the naïf has a more primal reaction (‘s'écria’), invoking apocalypse. The sailor is the first to act. The common man's ‘sagesse du ventre’ is almost literal, as he purchases first drink and then sex. But what is striking in him is surely the phenomenon of vital energy. Promptly and almost blindly (‘incontinent’) he runs into the danger zone. The rapid succession of verbs in the historic present (‘en trouve, s'en empare, s'enivre’) mimics the velocity of his acts. He appropriates and is appropriated, in a series of material exchanges. He shows us appetite pursued amid disaster, life active amid death.

Our penultimate passage is from Les Lettres d'Amabed. It is a very disturbing text. The fictional author of this passage is called Adaté. She is a young, vegetarian Hindu. Unjustly jailed, she has just been raped by the Catholic missionary Father Fa tutto. The letter which should be a pathetic protest contains other meanings of which the writer is supposedly unaware. They are centred on a meal.

Je ne m'étais nourrie depuis un jour que de ma douleur. On ne nous a point apporté à manger à l'heure accoutumée. Déra [la suivante] s'en étonnait et s'en plaignait. Il me paraissait bien honteux de manger après ce qui nous était arrivé. Cependant nous avions un appétit dévorant. Rien ne venait, et, après nous être pâmées de douleur, nous évanouissions de faim.

Enfin, sur le soir, on nous a servi une tourte de pigeonneaux, une poularde et deux perdrix, avec un seul petit pain; et, pour comble d'outrage, une bouteille de vin sans eau. C'est le tour le plus sanglant qu'on puisse jouer à deux femmes comme nous, après tout ce que nous avions souffert, mais que faire? Je me suis mise à genoux: ‘Ô Birmah! ô Visnou! ô Brahma! vous savez que l'âme n'est point souillée de ce qui entre dans le corps. Si vous m'avez donné une âme, pardonnez-lui la nécessité funeste où est mon corps de n'être pas réduit aux légumes; je sais que c'est un péché horrible de manger du poulet; mais on nous y force. Puissent tant de crimes retomber sur la tête du père Fa tutto! Qu'il soit, après sa mort, changé en une jeune malheureuse Indienne; que je sois changée en dominicain; que je lui rende tous les maux qu'il m'a faits, et que je sois plus impitoyable encore pour lui qu'il ne l'a été pour moi.’ Ne sois point scandalisé, pardonne, vertueux Shastasid! Nous nous sommes mises à table. Qu'il est dur d'avoir des plaisirs qu'on se reproche!

(Les Lettres d'Amabed, p. 495)

We are presented with a situation in which innocence has been assaulted by tyranny. Innocence is doubly gentle—female, and vegetarian. Tyranny is a lascivious monk. We might expect from this—and from everything that we know about Voltaire and ‘l'infâme’—to be reading one of his cruder denunciations of the Church. On the surface this is the case. The underlying sense however negates the ethical position. The passage clearly suggests that being raped is equivalent to eating meat, that Adaté actually enjoys both, and that they are part of a perpetual cycle of violation.

The equivalence is indicated in the first paragraph in several ways. Adaté reveals that after the rape she is very hungry. She feels the latter ‘appétit’ while disapproving of it. By implication she may also have had a sexual ‘appétit’—for being raped—while disapproving of it. The link is also suggested by the adjective ‘dévorant’, connoting violence, and the parallel between the two causes of fainting. More exactly, ‘dévorant’ anticipates the meat-eating in the second paragraph. Her condemnation of consuming roasted fowl and wine—‘un péché horrible’—seems quite excessive. If so, perhaps being raped is no great sin either. The equivalence is underlined by the reference to ‘ce qui entre dans le corps’. This phrase is applicable equally to food and to sexual penetration. In both cases indeed ‘on nous y force’. Her real appetite is then shown to us, under the guise of revenge, and through the Hindu doctrine of metempsychosis. She wishes that her role and Fa tutto's could be exchanged, and hopes that this will occur in a future re-incarnation. This not only reverses the figure of violence. It suggests that over time such reversals do occur. The whole passage thus offers a startling carnivalesque account of reality. Eating, as well as sex, constitutes the entry of one body into another. Over time, identities are exchanged and relations are reversed. This is carnal knowledge in the fullest sense. It is also the knowledge of violence, emphasized here in both the alimentary and the sexual transaction. Ethics has nothing to do with it. Corporeal violation is the life cycle.6

The confrontation between ethics and violence is set out in my last passage. This is from Adventure indienne. The setting is—again—significant. A visit to the East was believed to have given the Greek philosopher Pythagoras many of his doctrines, including vegetarianism and metempsychosis. Pythagoras is the protagonist. Re-entering the city, on his way to the market-place, he contemplates the universal meal.

Comme il rêvait profondément à cette aventure en retournant à la ville, il vit des araignées qui mangeaient des mouches, des hirondelles qui mangeaient des araignées, des éperviers qui mangeaient des hirondelles. ‘Tout ces gens-là, dit-il, ne sont pas philosophes.’

Pythagore, en entrant, fut heurté, froissé, renversé par une multitude de gredins et de gredines qui couraient en criant: ‘C'est bien fait, c'est bien fait, ils l'ont bien mérité.—Qui? quoi? dit Pythagore en se relevant; et les gens couraient toujours en disant: ‘Ah! que nous aurons du plaisir à les voir cuire!’

Pythagore crut qu'on parlait de lentilles ou de quelques autres légumes; point du tout, c'était de deux pauvres Indiens. ‘Ah! sans doute, dit Pythagore, ce sont deux grands philosophes qui sont las de la vie; ils sont bien aises de renaître sous une autre forme; il y a du plaisir à changer de maison, quoiqu'on soit toujours mal logé; il ne faut pas disputer des goûts.’

Il avança avec la foule jusqu'à la place publique, et ce fut là qu'il vit un grand bûcher allumé.

(Aventure indienne, p. 282)

In the first paragraph Pythagoras observes the natural world. He sees how one species consumes another, and is consumed in its turn. Accumulation implies totalization. The practice seems to be ubiquitous. It contradicts the values of the ‘philosophes’, which are ethical and progressive. Humankind seems to stand alone in these values, as Pythagoras their proponent is at this moment literally alone. But then Pythagoras enters the city. He is promptly taken into the crowd. The event itself is emblematic (as with Babouc, but much more brutally). Entering the body will teach him the truth. The body of the world educates him by doing violence to his body. The crowd bumps him about and—an emblematic reversal of his own world—knocks him down. They are chanting their joy. The protagonist, a naïf and an intellectual, fails to understand. Learning that the festivity is prompted by the prospect of seeing two men ritually burned alive, he again misunderstands. He assumes that these are ‘deux grands philosophes’—this time the term has a stoical and oriental sense—who have freely chosen this procedure. It will enable them to ‘changer de maison [corporelle]’, to ‘renaître sous une autre forme’. As we might guess, and as the narrative will confirm, the two had no choice at all. The effect however will be the same.

Pythagoras in our final paragraph proceeds to the ‘place publique’. There he encounters the meal in the market-place in the city (as with Zadig). But the meal is human beings. Other human beings rejoice in this appalling event: ‘Ah! que nous aurons du plaisir de les voir cuire!’. Human beings do not stand apart from other species. They actually carnivalize their own species. Uniquely, though, they give collective cultural forms to the event. (The Contes themselves are, on the discursive level, such a form.) These ritual forms constitute a celebration of the universal cycle of ‘changer’ and ‘renaître’, change and rebirth.


  1. All quotations will be from the Pléiade volume: Voltaire, Romans et contes, ed. Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Van den Heuvel (Paris, 1979).

  2. See especially M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World (English translation by Hélène Iswolsky: Cambridge Mass., 1968; Bloomington Indiana, 1984), and ‘Discourse in the novel’ in The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (English translation by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin, Texas, 1981).

  3. See Rabelais and his World, pp. 33-4, 101-20 in both editions.

  4. Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance (London, 1985), p. 101.

  5. Candide, ed. A. Morize (Paris, 1913), p. 156.

  6. For a reading of the whole of Les Lettres d'Amabed in these terms, see my ‘Processing Voltaire's Amabed’, British Journal of Eighteenth Century Studies vol. 10 (1987), pp. 153-62.

Thomas M. Carr, Jr. (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6970

SOURCE: Carr, Thomas M. “Sharing Grief/Initiating Consolation: Voltaire's Letters of Condolence.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 25 (1996): 131-46.

[In the essay below, Carr examines Voltaire's approach to condolences as a social form and a philosophical problem. Carr demonstrates how Voltaire's correspondence reveals the author's facility with recognized social forms of writing, and his efforts to connect himself personally to his correspondent's loss. Voltaire's means of offering consolation, Carr argues, also reflect and illuminate his positions on optimism and the powers and limitations of philosophy.]

The letter of condolence has generally been neglected by students of epistolary discourse1 in spite of being located at the intersection of a number of recent critical concerns. Interest among historians of death is shifting from the ars moriendi that prepared the dying for a holy death to the grief of those who mourn the deceased.2 Second, letters of condolence raise the problem of the representation of grief and the adequacy of language to convey it.3 Finally, a rhetoric of consolation is implicit in the topoi of condolence selected by the letter writer, and while the consolatory discourse of antiquity has been the subject of much study, only recently has consolation in the early modern period attracted attention.4 Voltaire's extensive correspondence not only offers varied examples of letters of condolence, but consolation is a theme to which he repeatedly returned both in his letters and in the contes.5

Of course, while consolation and condolence are related, they are not synonymous. The Dictionnaire de Trévoux defines condoléance as the “témoignage qu'on rend à quelqu'un du déplaisir qu'on a de la perte qu'il a faite” while consolation is a “discours qui sert à adoucir la douleur d'un affligé; soulagement, adoucissement que l'on apporte au déplaisir, à l'affliction de quelqu'un.” Condolences are a first step in the consolatory process. They are an expression of sympathy for the grief someone else experiences due to a loss; they may or may not be followed by an effort to ease the sorrow and relieve the grief. Such consolation itself usually involves offering arguments designed to urge mourners to reframe their loss in a new perspective or to show them how some replacement can compensate for it.

Three areas are under investigation here: condolences as a social and epistolary practice; the problem of representing one's sympathy in such a way that the condolences appear to be more than gestures required by civility; and the consolatory commonplaces Voltaire found most congenial to condolences.


In the Ancien Régime the bienséances dictated clear expectations concerning the expression of condolences. In his recent survey of the manuals of letter writing that codify these conventions, Maurice Daumas notes that such letters are a sign of polite society's increasing concern for civility and points to the growing importance of condolences for a death within the larger category of letters of consolation during the period 1630 to 1725:

Le genre fort ancien de la lettre de consolation représente tout au long de la période étudiée environ 8٪ des lettres. La consolation, qui peut concerner la captivité, l'emprisonnement, la maladie, est centrée de plus en plus sur le décès. Les modèles de lettres familiales se multiplient et se diversifient (jusqu'aux consolations entre frères et soeurs.) Enfin, les lettres d'avis de décès et les réponses prennent peu à peu la plus grande place.6

The manuals offered advice on writing such letters, samples written by epistolary masters like Malherbe, and model letters devised by the authors of these handbooks for all manner of circumstances.7 Voltaire himself avoided the oratorical brand of formal consolation exemplified by Malherbe, and for imitations in his correspondence of the invented model letters furnished by the manuals, one must turn, not to letters he wrote himself, but to two stiffly formal ones written in 1767 by officials of the court of the duchess of Saxe-Gotha informing Voltaire of her death (D14501, D14557).8

Voltaire's correspondence, nonetheless, offers an impressive range of condolences: carefully composed compliments de condoléance when etiquette required the most formal respect; short, rapidly written billets that conveyed Voltaire's immediate reaction to the initial news of a death; longer letters in which Voltaire uses what Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac calls the “art allusif” of transition to pass from the condolences that occupy the first paragraph to a discussion of other matters of the day;9 requests that friends convey his condolences when, for one reason or another, it was not opportune for him to write directly.10

Condolences, of course, are expressed directly when circumstances allow, but when letters are involved an epistolary pact of three steps is established. An initial letter comes from someone near to the deceased announcing the death; the expectation is that a letter of condolence will follow, for which a letter of acknowledgment must be sent.11 In Voltaire's correspondence, it is rare to find all three letters extant. One example might be his announcement of Mme du Châtelet's death to Frederick the Great (D4039), the king's not too gracious condolences (D4047), and Voltaire's response (D4059). So great was the social pressure to write that friends reminded Voltaire of his duty to send a compliment de condoléance when they felt he was neglecting his obligations.12 One suspects in some cases friends like d'Argental feared that Voltaire's failure to write would be taken as a sign that they themselves had failed in their duty to notify him of the death.13 Likewise, given the burden that acknowledging a great number of expressions of sympathy placed on the bereaved, Voltaire at times included a statement in the condolences that no response was expected, as he did when the daughter-in-law of his old friend Fyot de la Marche died in 1765 (D12293).

As the premier poet of his day, Voltaire's obligation went further than a simple letter. After thanking Voltaire for his expression of sympathy on the death of her former lover and long time friend Formont, Mme du Deffand continues, “Mais, monsieur, pourquoi refusez-vous à mon ami un mot d'éloge? … Quatre lignes de vous soit en vers soit en prose honoreraient sa mémoire et seraient pour moi une vraie consolation” (D8032). One hopes she experienced twice the consolation she expected when she received his reply which contained not four but eight lines of verse praising their mutual friend (D8040). However, Frederick was not so easily satisfied. In December 1758 Voltaire replied to the king's thank-you letter to the poet's condolences on the occasion of the death of Frederick's sister Wilhelmina with a thirty-four line poem (D7979). The king rebuked Voltaire testily, “J'ai reçu les vers que vous avez faits; apparemment que je ne me suis pas bien expliqué. Je désire quelque chose de plus éclatant et de public. Il faut que toute l'Europe pleure avec moi une vertu trop peu connue” (D8062). Voltaire obeyed the royal directive by writing an entirely new poem, the “Ode sur la perte que l'Allemagne a faite de Sa Altesse Royale Mme la Margrave de Bareith” that was duly published in spring 1759. However, the poet did not always accede to such requests; for example, Voltaire does not seem to have obliged the marquise d'Argens's suggestion to “faire parler votre douleur, votre muse” in honor of her husband (D17598).

Voltaire, of course, made the letters or poems of condolence required by etiquette and fame serve his larger purposes. Perhaps the most fundamental function of condolences is to reaffirm the tie between the bereaved and the letter writer, and Voltaire uses the occasion provided by the social obligation to send condolences to strengthen this relationship, or even orient it according to his agenda of the moment. For example, the condolences sent upon Formont's death in 1758 allowed Voltaire to reestablish his languishing correspondence with Mme du Deffand whose salon attracted the elite of Parisian society and who counted among her intimates the wife of the de facto prime minister and Voltaire's patron, Choiseul. Similarly, during a period in 1757 when Voltaire and Frederick were only exchanging messages through the king's sister, Voltaire took the occasion of the death of Frederick's mother to write the monarch directly (D7315). His letter to his niece Mme Denis on the death of her husband in April 1744 offers an example of the use of condolences to affirm a more intimate bond. Besterman tells us that uncle and niece had already become occasional lovers by 1744,14 thus transforming Voltaire's otherwise rather conventional use of the topos of the consolation of friendship into an amorous invitation: “Vivez pour vos amis et pour moi qui vous aime tendrement” (D2958).15

Thus, letters of condolence invariably prove most interesting when read as part of an intricate network of on-going personal exchange. Even when a letter seems to be an isolated tribute sent out of regard for the formalities of civility, a subtext almost always accompanies the expression of sympathy.


Voltaire found little need to resort to the well-worn topos of the difficulty of writing such letters; if he had to be reminded to write, it was more likely because of an oversight or disinclination, than for inability to find words. Nonetheless, his letters illustrate the paradox concerning the language of grief. On the one hand, the sorrow over the loss may be beyond language, the mourner's grief so deep that words cannot convey it. One might thus postulate, as does Vincent Kaufmann, that “les grandes condoléances sont muettes, comme les grandes douleurs auxquelles elles s'efforcent de ressembler et de s'associer” (138). On the other hand, social obligation does not allow for silence: not sending condolences is more likely to be taken as a lack of sympathy than as the silence of unspeakable grief. As Roger Duchêne has put it, often “ces lettres ne prenaient d'importance que si on ne les avait pas écrites.”16 Ironically, these two apparent opposites sometimes converge in cliché since conventional formulae can both mask an absence of feeling or be the refuge of profound grief.

The emotional charge of the condolences depends on a tripartite relationship that can be visualized as a triangle, with the deceased at the apex and the angles of the base occupied by the letter writer and the recipient. The intensity of the sympathy that is at the heart of any condolences is a function of the intimacy between the letter writer and the letter's recipient. The bond between the deceased and the recipient determines the intensity of the recipient's grief for which the letter writer is expressing sympathy; finally, the degree of closeness between the deceased and the letter writer determines whether the letter writer experiences a personal grief that overlays sympathy for the recipient's grief.

One might predict that the level of emotional involvement would be the weakest in cases in which the letter writer did not know the deceased, and the recipient was only an acquaintance whose own ties with the deceased were rather weak. At the other extreme, when both letter writer and recipient were closely attached to the deceased as well as strongly bonded to each other, one would predict the most intense condolences.

The difficulty of gauging the intensity of each line of force in this triangular relationship complicates the task of writing (or reading) condolences. In fact, writers of condolences can only be sure of their own feelings toward the deceased and to the bereaved. They may have a fairly reliable impression of the bereaved's own feeling toward them, but measuring the bereaved's grief is much more problematic. As one of the characters in Mlle de Scudéry's Clélie suggests, the bienséances often require that one mourn a spouse one is delighted to be rid of, or display sorrow when one's secret emotion is joy over an inheritance.17 This question is not inconsequential since, in general, one owes a letter of condolence to someone whose grief is greater than one's own. If determining these relations is difficult for the bereaved and consoler, it is all the more troublesome for readers outside the triangle. For example, in Voltaire's own case, after the death of Mme du Châtelet, was he the inconsolable mourner of the letters to d'Argental (“[J]e reviens pleurer entre vos bras le reste de ma malheureuse vie” [D4014]) and to Voisenon (“[J]e viendrai bientôt verser dans votre sein des larmes qui ne tariront jamais” [D4018]), or, as he appears in a letter to Mme Denis, a man whose sorrow was tempered by knowing exactly where he would find his “unique consolation” (D4015), that is, in the arms of his niece.

Furthermore, Ancien Régime etiquette required that the writer's expression of condolences pass through the filter of social rank. Even given an equal intensity of feeling, condolences to superiors, equals, or inferiors would be cast in different registers.

In their purest form, condolences are an acknowledgement of the sufferings of another, a grieving for another's grief. When the attachment between the bereaved and the letter writer is weak, the actual content of the letter can be largely formulaic since, as Maurice Daumas has pointed out (532), the act of sending the condolences itself is its message. However, when the relations are strong, the content itself is thrown into relief, and conventional formulae risk being read as empty clichés. Thus, the rhetorical problem becomes persuading the bereaved that one's obligatory profession of suffering for their suffering is not merely perfunctory. The most effective strategy in this regard is to individualize the condolences with personal details that allude to various aspects of the relationships that form the triangle between the deceased, the bereaved, and the letter writer. A second major strategy is to use stylistic features that draw attention to the intensity of the emotions evoked.

To illustrate how Voltaire handles this problem, I will discuss a series of examples, beginning with ones in which Voltaire's attachment is the least intense, and thus where his condolences might be expected to be the most conventional. An example of rather weak attachment to both the deceased and the bereaved is found in Voltaire's condolences to the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, whom Voltaire had just begun to use as an intermediary for information for his history of Russia. Voltaire seems not to have known either the ambassador or his deceased wife:

Je suis sensiblement touché de votre perte et de votre affliction; je ne savais pas lorsque je vous souhaitais toutes les félicités dont vous êtes si digne que vous eussiez essuyé un si grand malheur; je n'ai l'honneur de vous connaître que de réputation, on m'a dit combien vous êtes aimable, et plus vous avez été aimé de Madame votre femme, plus la sensibilité de votre coeur vous rend à plaindre. … Ce coeur s'intéresse véritablement à tout ce qui vous regarde, et je voudrais pouvoir vous en donner des preuves.


In spite of its protestations of attachment, emphasized by adverbs like sensiblement and véritablement, the letter is most successful in evoking an emotional response on the part of Voltaire only when he mentions his embarrassment for the pain he might have caused the ambassador by sending a previous letter he had written before being informed of the death.18 This apology contains praises (“les félicités dont vous êtes si dignes”) that serve as pretext for more extended ones of the ambassador's character and his wife's love, even if they are somewhat weakened by the fact that their source is hearsay. The letter remains largely formulaic and expresses a polite concern that most likely would not be put to the test, but this is in keeping with the ambassador's rank and Voltaire's previous lack of relations with him.

The death of infants provides another variant of relatively weak emotional involvement. In most cases, Voltaire had no relationship to the dead child to invoke, and in an era when one child in four died before reaching the age of one, such deaths were often accepted, even by parents, with resignation.19 His brief condolences to the journalist and prolific author Samuel Formey upon the death of an infant child seem somewhat callous, the more so since they appear midway in a letter that treats many other topics on a light tone: “Je vous assure que je suis très sensible à la perte que vous avez faite; mais s'il vous reste autant d'enfants que vous avez fait de livres, vous devez avoir une famille de patriarche” (D8245). But since Voltaire is replying to a letter sent by Formey, one can assume that he is merely conforming to the tone set by the father of the lost child. The opening of his condolences in 1755 to Clavel de Brenles, with whom he was on more intimate terms, upon the death of a newborn son devaluate the dead infant similarly by referring to the parents' ability to compensate for their loss: “Je partage votre douleur, après avoir partagé votre joie; mais heureux ceux qui peuvent comme vous réparer leurs pertes au plus vite” (D6350).20 However, in this case, Voltaire does not stop with this implicit tribute to the parents' vigor but goes on express his sympathy and evoke both parents' grief in a more personal vein.

His condolences in 1766 when his secretary Wagnière lost his father offer the case of strong ties between Voltaire and a bereaved person whose grief for the deceased was deep. His letter in this case is as formulaic as the one sent von Keyserlingk; in a sense it is less personal since it does not even contain the praise of the mourner or of the deceased found in the letter to the ambassador. Only the reference to the incompetence of doctors individualizes the condolences: “Mon cher Wagnière, je partage votre douleur. Vous voyez trop combien ce petit livret des médecins est inutile. Nos jours sont comptés et les erreurs des médecins aussi. Il faut se résigner, c'est notre seul partage. Dites, je vous en prie, à toute votre famille combien je m'intéresse à elle. Puisse mon amitié être une de vos consolations” (D13186). However, even though this billet adds commonplaces on the inevitability of death to the conventional formulae found in the letter to the ambassador, its telegraphic style conveys a sense of urgency. The letter to his devoted secretary gains in directness and simplicity by omitting the protestations of respect, the reinforcing adverbs, and the polite transitions due a social superior.

Finally, Voltaire's letters to his niece on the occasion of the death of her father in 1737 and of her husband in 1744 illustrate his condolences in a situation in which the bonds between him and the bereaved are the strongest. Instead of individualizing his condolences by dwelling on either his own or his niece's relation with the deceased, Voltaire chooses to stress his concern for the emotional and practical disarray caused by her loss. In both letters, the inevitable conventional phraseology becomes personalized as it is incorporated into a mise en scène of Voltaire's participation in her sorrow.

According to Voltaire's account, his niece's letter announcing her father's death provoked his tears and desire to be with her. The letter stands as the witness to this desire; ironically, it is simultaneously a substitute for his presence and an apology for his absence: “Votre lettre m'a fait pleurer ma chère nièce. Je reçois en même temps celle de mon neveu. Je partage votre douleur, je voudrais pouvoir sur le champ partir pour venir mêler mes larmes aux vôtres, et vous offrir mes services” (D1379). His second letter repeats much the same scenario, but this time the tears, a physical sign of a grief beyond language, become more tangible since they stain the paper he writes on: “Ma chère nièce je vous écris en mouillant le papier de mes larmes; si ma déplorable santé le permettait, et si je pouvais partir en poste, je viendrais assurément pleurer avec vous” (D2958). Both letters further dramatize his own participation in her affliction by alluding to the consolation she can furnish him. In the first instance, Voltaire finds relief in knowing that her father's death will at least bind the three surviving children together more tightly: “Ce qui me console c'est que vous serez tous unis” (D1379). When her husband dies, Voltaire insists that Mme Denis write concerning her plans, “donnez ce soulagement à votre affliction et à la mienne” (D2958).

In this last letter, an accumulation of exclamations, questions, and imperatives highlights Voltaire's frantic, if not completely disinterested, concern for her future: “[Q]ue je partage toutes vos douleurs, et que je crains pour votre santé! Ecrivez-moi, je vous en conjure, ce que vous devenez, et quel parti vous prenez. Votre beau-frère est-il auprès de vous? Quittez au plutôt Lille. Qu'y feriez-vous que de vous consumer de douleur? Allez vivre à Paris où je compte vous embrasser au mois d'octobre.” In a letter such as this one that is less motivated by the formal requirements of the bienséances than by his intimate feelings such disjointed composition conveys the intensity of his concern.

Voltaire's request that his niece provide him consolations points to the difficulty of giving priority to the intensity of the bereaved's grief while still displaying a personal involvement in the mourning. The risk is that the letter writer's own interests and experiences will intrude into the mourner's grief. Two examples illustrate the difficulty of maintaining this balance.

Voltaire's tendency to use the expression of sympathy for his correspondent's personal tragedy as a springboard to evoke some other loss that preoccupied Voltaire himself at the moment brought him at times close to devaluating the grief of the bereaved. For example, after a paragraph of condolences to d'Alembert on the death of Julie de Lespinasse Voltaire added this reference to the dismissal of Turgot: “Je ne vous parle point dans votre perte particulière de la perte générale que nous avons faite d'un ministre digne de vous aimer, et qui n'était pas assez connu chez les Welches de Paris. Ce sont à la fois deux grands malheurs auxquels j'espère que vous résisterez” (D20162). In this case, only the praeteritio adds an element of tact to his equation of d'Alembert's personal loss with the public one that obsessed Voltaire at that time.

Voltaire's hypochondria represented a constant temptation to substitute his preoccupation with his own health for the grief of the bereaved. Given that his pose of being just one step from the grave is found in the letters of his youth just as in those of le vieux malade de Ferney, it is not surprising that he frequently alludes to his ailments in his condolences.21 This 1775 letter to Lekain upon the death of his wife shows how Voltaire elides two very different kinds of suffering, the actor's grief and his own physical infirmities: “Votre lettre … mon cher ami, m'apprend la perte irréparable que vous avez faite. Je partage votre douleur, elle augmente celles que la nature me fait souffrir dans ma décrépitude. Mon coeur est aussi sensible que mon corps est faible et languissant” (D19709). He succeeds to the extent that his maladies permit him to pose as a fellow sufferer and thus all the more able to empathize with the pain of the bereaved. The risk, however, is that instead of intensifying his identification with his correspondent's sorrow, he will dwell too long on himself.


Since all but the briefest condolences include some effort to console the bereaved, Voltaire's letters offer insight into the consolatory themes he found most powerful. In general, the puzzling aspects of Voltaire's use of the commonplaces of consolation stem from the tension between the need to acknowledge, even to flatter, the bereaved's grief, while coaxing him or her away from it. On the one hand, condolences generally are seen as contributing to the mourner's consolation and thus alleviating the grief; yet a common recommendation found in consolatory literature is to humor the grief of the bereaved, to enter into it, lest it be increased.22 To cite the formulation made popular by La Fontaine's fable “Les Obsèques de la lionne,” which Voltaire cites twice, the condolences should not excite a “surcroît d'affliction” (D8662, D12293). Thus, he avoids some themes in the letters of condolence that elsewhere he invests with considerable consolatory power.

The most prominent is first found in an early essay that Beuchot placed in the correspondence under the title “Lettre de consolation,” but which both Besterman and Pomeau rightly insist is not a letter.23 This brief essay begins by insisting on the impossibility of calming such a violent passion as grief through words alone. In fact, would-be consolers risk reopening the wound: “d'autres veulent consoler, et ne font qu'exciter de nouvelles larmes” (M.33.183). The essay presents time as the paramount consoler: “le temps guérit à la fin” (M.33.183). This theme is echoed in L'Ingénu, where we are told “le temps adoucit tout” (347), and in Les Deux Consolés, which concludes with the dedication of a statue to Time with the inscription, “A CELUI QUI CONSOLE” (144). The usefulness of philosophy is another site of tension. In some letters Voltaire recommends philosophy as a consoler, while in others, he goes to lengths to present it as impotent in the face of grief. These problematic cases become less puzzling when we see that Voltaire is using two groups of topoi that to some extent overlap. A first obligatory series flatters the mourner's “justes larmes” (D4832) with assurances that they are well founded. The second optional series hints that some consolation may eventually be possible.

The first group includes the frequent allusions to the fragility of life, shame at surviving the deceased, and anger at doctors who could not prevent, if they did not cause, the death. “Life is but a dream full of starts of folly” (D303), “Quel songe que la vie” (D4636), “ce fantôme de la vie” (D6891), “Tout finit et finit bien vite” (D9696) all express this first theme. He comments on his surprise and even shame at outliving the deceased from his earliest letters when he mourns the deaths of youthful companions like Maisons (D431 and D432) or his sister (D302), all the way to the deaths of his aged contemporaries like d'Argental's brother Pont de Veyle (D19116). Finally, he more than once expresses frustration, if not anger, with the doctors of his day (D432, D13186). All these topoi serve to validate the bereaved's own grief.

If topoi that suggest that consolation is possible are used in condolences, they should avoid calling into question the legitimacy of the mourner's grief. It is probably for this reason that Voltaire avoids mention of the consolation of time alluded to in the contes and the “Lettre de consolation.” Malherbe's reproach to Du Périer, “Ta douleur, Du Périer, sera donc éternelle” might well be out of place in a letter of condolence written at the beginning of a bereavement. Time may eventually indeed relieve grief, but to remind the mourner of this fact too early calls into question the mourner's present sorrow.

Depending on the circumstances Voltaire recommends the consolatio philosophiae or points to its impotence in the face of grief. Utterly ineffective are the false consolations proposed by the optimists whose slogans Voltaire mocks in condolences written in the years preceding Candide. Their doctrines claimed to offer consolation, but were in fact, in Voltaire's eyes, only an invitation to despair (cp. D6738), and utterly contradicted by the suffering of the Seven Years War. As he wrote to George Keith, “Let the happy madmen who say that all what is, is well, be confounded. T'is not so indeed with twenty provinces exhausted and with three hundred thousand men murdered” (D7931, cp. D6907).

When he wants to stress the legitimacy of the bereaved's grief he suggests that even philosophy of the enlightened sort is useless, or at best only partially consoling. Thus, he writes to d'Argental and Keith upon the deaths of their brothers: “Toutes les réflexions sont vaines, tous les raisonnements sur la nécessité et sur la misère humaine ne sont que des paroles perdues” (D19116). “All your philosophy cannot remove your grief. Philosophy assuages the wound, and leaves the heart wounded” (D7931).

Yet Voltaire does on occasion extol philosophy; he closes his letter to Mme Denis when her husband died with this admonition: “Adieu, du courage, de la philosophie” (D2958). In 1776, writing on the occasion of the death of Julie de Lespinasse, Voltaire suggests that philosophy offered at least some help to d'Alembert: “[L]a philosophie vous a été bien nécessaire … Le courage sert à combattre, mais il ne sert pas toujours à rendre heureux” (D20162).

The link in Voltaire's mind between courage and philosophy becomes clearer in a 1764 letter he wrote to Mme du Deffand summing up how philosophy can aid one to face death: “[L]e courage, la résignation aux lois de la nature, le profond mépris pour toutes les superstitions, le plaisir noble de se sentir d'une autre nature que les sots, l'exercice de la faculté de penser sont des consolations véritables” (D11883). The consoling resignation of philosophy is an acknowledgment that human suffering and death are inevitable parts of Nature's laws, not a passive acquiescence to the human stupidity and vice that compound this pain. This lucidity generates a sense of superiority that allows the philosophe to face death, or by extension grief, with a courage that is compounded when accompanied by an enlightened scorn for the purported consolations offered by the Church (“les superstitions”). Significantly, this invocation of the power of philosophy in the face of death is not found in a letter of condolences to the marquise, but in one of consolation addressed to her more generalized melancholy, her malheur d'être né. Like time, philosophy is not so much completely impotent, as ill placed at the beginning of what has been known since Freud as grief work.

Voltaire often suggests that consolation is close at hand by including some practical advice that serves as a reminder that life can continue. Mme Denis's financial situation is discussed when both her father (D1379) and husband die. “Songez à vos affaires, songez à vivre,” Voltaire tells her (D2958). When the father, to whom he had recommended repairing the loss of a child with another, lost the next infant, he suggests, “I do not know if Mme de Brenles is as good a nurse as she is an honest woman, or if she has enough milk to nourish a Swiss. I advise her to try to find a robust peasant woman for the next infant” (D6907). He advises that d'Alembert leave the lodgings he had shared with Julie de Lespinasse (D20162).

Praise of the bereaved is often linked to such recommendations to bear up in the face of affliction. Praise of the deceased, of course, is a conventional component of letters of consolation that Voltaire does not entirely neglect, but he frequently is even more forthcoming in pointing to admirable qualities of the mourner. The marquise d'Argens is praised for her literary talent (D17581); the duchess of Saxe-Gotha for her sensibility (D7212); Frederick as a warrior, poet, and potential peacemaker (D7772).24 In addition to strengthening his ties to the bereaved, Voltaire suggests by such praise that the mourner has the strength of character and resources to survive the loss.

Friendship is the topos to which he returns the most frequently and attributes the most power. In a sense, the reaffirmation of this bond is the core of the expression of sympathy that underlies all condolences. Thus, when his old classmate Fyot de la Marche died in 1768, Voltaire requests that the ties of friendship be passed from father to son: “je vous demande la continuation des bontés de monsieur votre père” (D15100). In the Voltairean universe, the deity is as remote as the sultan in the last chapter of Candide who is indifferent to the fate of the mice in the vessel he sends to Egypt. Instead of waiting for divine intervention, humans must depend on each other. “Heureuses les machines qui peuvent s'aider mutuellement!” (D11883) he writes in a letter of consolation to Mme du Deffand. The praise he pays to the duchess of Saxe-Gotha in a letter to Juliana Franziska von Buchwald is also a tribute to the consolatory force of friendship: “Mais la plus grande [consolation] que vous puissiez recevoir est dans le coeur et dans les attentions charmantes de l'auguste princesse, auprès de qui vous vivez. Il n'y a point avec elle de douleur qu'on ne supporte. Elle adoucit toutes les amertumes de la vie” (D11794). For all but the most cool-headed, philosophy can offer the mourner little immediate consolation; only with time can the perspective that it provides reframe the bereaved's loss. On the other hand, even if surviving friends can never completely replace the lost loved one, they can at least relieve some of the pain when it is most intense and later compensate in some measure for the absence.

In conclusion, Vincent Kaufmann's designation of Proust as “un spécialiste de la lettre des condoléances” (137) suggests an interesting contrast with Voltaire. According to Kaufmann, Proust liked little better than writing condolences. In fact, Kaufmann proposes that A la recherche du temps perdu be read as a sort of extension of Proust's effort de unite himself to the mourning of others (“s'associer au deuil d'un autre” [139]) that is most visible in his numerous letters of condolence. “Pourquoi en effet ne pas lire toute la Recherche comme une tentative de se représenter ce que les lettres n'arrivent jamais à retenir suffisamment, de se réapproprier une douleur dans ce qu'elle a de fugitif” (147)?

Even if Voltaire did not write letters of condolence with quite the gusto that Kaufmann attributes to Proust, Voltaire seldom found them difficult. By belief and by temperament, an essential component of condolence—sympathy—resonated particularly deeply with him. Like many philosophers of his age, Voltaire saw the capacity to empathize with the sufferings of others as a uniquely human trait, as a form of the bienveillance that makes society possible. In the Traité de métaphysique he points to the impulse to alleviate the suffering of one's fellows as a factor than distinguishes humans from animals (M.22.222). The rhetorical form this empathy takes is Voltaire's ability to project himself into the grief of the bereaved, not in order to make it his own, as is the case with Proust, but to persuade the mourner of his sympathy. The fundamental reassurance conveyed by condolences is that, despite the fact that the mourner is in some sense diminished by loss, the bond between the bereaved and the letter writer remains unshaken. Voltaire's rhetorical achievement is to transform a gesture of civility into a convincing expression of concern that could on occasion serve a larger purpose.

While Voltaire's condolences exemplify his rhetorical skill, I would not suggest that they underlie his entire oeuvre, as Kaufmann does concerning Proust. If anything, I would propose that consolation plays that role for Voltaire. In some sense, the whole corpus of his writings is a consolatory antidote for the suffering caused by evil. Consolation meant resilience, not resignation for him; in fact, Voltaire denounces the tout est bien of Pope as a false consolation that leads to fatalism and submission.25 Rather, Voltairean consolation implies a belief that even if evil is inevitable, it is not overwhelming. As Jean Starobinski put it in his essay, “Le fusil à deux coups de Voltaire:” “Il n'y a pas de bien sans mal, ni de mal sans bien, et cela dans des propositions inégales.”26 By searching out and cultivating the good that coexists with evil, suffering can at least be alleviated. Condolences and consolation are difficult, fragile enterprises, as the hermit in Zadig, Gordon in L'Ingénu, or Mambrès in Le Taureau blanc recognize, but the exhilaration that Voltaire found in struggling against evil made it natural for him to urge others to find courage in philosophy and to seek the compensations of friendship that make losses bearable.


  1. One of the few studies of the genre is the section on Proust's letters in Vincent Kaufmann, L'Equivoque épistolaire (Paris: Minuit, 1990), 137-47.

  2. An excellent example of the latter is Jill Anne Kowalik, “The Demise of the Funeral Sermon in Eighteenth-Century Germany: Disturbed Mourning and the Enlightenment's Flight from the Body,” in Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, ed. W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 407-24.

  3. This theme has particularly attracted the attention of commentators on the elegy. See for example, Richard Stamelman, Lost Beyond Telling: Representations of Death and Absence in Modern French Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

  4. For example, see the series of recent articles by Raymond Baustert on various themes found in a corpus of letters of consolation dating from 1600 to 1650. One of the latest is “Raison et avant-passion dans les lettres de consolation de 1600 à 1650,” Studi francesi 34 (1992): 217-37.

  5. Any number of characters in the tales profess to be agents of consolation: the Hermit in Zadig as well as Zadig himself; both Pangloss and Martin in Candide, and Gordon in L'Ingénu, to cite only the most important. Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques Van den Heuvel in their edition of the Romans et contes (Paris: Gallimard, 1979) grouped the contes written between 1753 and 1763 under the heading “Déchirement et consolations: les contes de l'exil et du jardin” (lvi-lxi), and Roger Pearson's study of the contes, The Fables of Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), includes a chapter entitled “Small Consolations” (102-109). For a study of Voltaire's letters of consolation to Frederick see Christiane Mervaud, Voltaire et Frédéric II: une dramaturgie des lumières 1736-1778, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 232 (1985): 278-84. Quotations from the contes are from the Deloffre edition; quotations from the correspondence are from Theodore Besterman's edition in the Complete Works of Voltaire, 51 vols. (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1968-77); all other quotations from Voltaire's works are from Louis Moland's edition, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, 52 vols. (Paris, 1877-85).

  6. Maurice Daumas, “Manuels épistolaires et identité sociale (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles),” Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 40 (1993): 539.

  7. Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac summarizes the advice found in the manuals concerning letters of consolation and condolence, in Voltaire dans ses lettres de jeunesse 1711-1733 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1992), 108-109.

  8. On Voltaire's correspondence with the duchess, see Deidre Dawson, “In Search of the Real Pangloss: the Correspondence of Voltaire with the duchess of Saxe-Gotha,” Yale French Studies 71 (1986): 93-112.

  9. Haroche-Bouzinac, 199. See her repertory of Voltaire's techniques of transition (199-202).

  10. For example, D1003 which instructs Thieriot to convey his condolences to d'Argental and Pont de Veyle on the occasion of the death of their mother. Other examples include D16844 to Henri Rieu on the death of the wife of Paul Gaussen; D13861 to Gabriel Cramer on the death of a relative of Du Pan, and D10020 on the death of Du Pan's son.

  11. Special mourning paper is sometimes used on these occasions. See, for example, Juliana Franziska von Buchwald's letter thanking Voltaire for his condolences for the duchess of Saxe-Gotha (D14557).

  12. The duchess of Saxe-Gotha repeats her announcement of the death of her daughter's governess when Voltaire doesn't acknowledge with condolences her first mention of the loss (see D7170, D7195, and his excuses and condolences in D7212). Hénault seems to have expected that Voltaire write concerning the death of the comte d'Argenson (D12159).

  13. An example might be d'Argental's request for condolences on the occasion of the death of a sister of their mutual friend Thibouville (D20127), a sister whose existence Voltaire professed to be ignorant of (D20146).

  14. Theodore Besterman, Voltaire (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), 269.

  15. For an analysis of this letter see Hugues Micha, Voltaire d'après sa correspondance avec Madame Denis (Paris: Nizet, 1972), 15-17. Deidre Dawson identifies the verb vivre as the leitmotif of this letter in her study of what she calls Voltaire's epistolary fictions, Voltaire's Correspondence: An Epistolary Novel (New York, Lang: 1994), 68.

  16. Roger Duchêne, Madame de Sévigné et la lettre d'amour (Paris: Klincksieck, 1992), 27.

  17. Madeleine de Scudéry, Clélie, suite de la seconde partie, livre 3 (1662; Geneva: Slatkine, 1973), 4: 1130-31.

  18. Due to Voltaire's absence from Paris and the inevitable delays of the mail, such apologies were often necessary, as in D14613.

  19. François Lebrun, Les Hommes et la mort en Anjou (Paris: Mouton, 1971), 422.

  20. Voltaire treated the death of older children with full sympathy; see for example the touching note he wrote to Jacob Vernes on the death of his five year old daughter (D18369). In fact, elsewhere he uses the theme of parents' other children replacing the deceased one in terms of consolation, as when he writes the duchess of Saxe-Gotha on the death of her twenty-one year old son, “Vous voyez madame votre consolation devant vos yeux en voyant votre perte” (D6905).

  21. See Haroche-Bouzinac's chapter “La stratégie d'un malade” for an extensive analysis of this theme in the correspondence, 299-319.

  22. Haroche-Bouzinac, 108. Roger Chartier also discusses very briefly consolatory topoi in Puget de La Serre's widely used manuel in his article “Des secrétaires pour le peuple?” in La Correspondance, ed. Roger Chartier (Paris: Fayard, 1991), 179-80.

  23. Best.D.app.17; René Pomeau, La Religion de Voltaire (Paris: Nizet, 1969), 123.

  24. Of the three known letters of condolence Voltaire wrote to Frederick, this one, written on the occasion of the death of the king's brother August Wilhelm, is the only one extant.

  25. His objection to Pope's optimism was precisely that it preached resignation in the name of consolation, leading to fatalism and submission instead of action. To Bertrand he wrote, “L'optimisme est désespérant. C'est une philosophie cruelle sous un nom consolant” (D6738).

  26. Jean Starobinski, “Le Fusil à deux coups de Voltaire,” Revue de métaphysique et de morale 71 (1966): 290.

Karen O'Brien (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Karen. “Voltaire's Neoclassical Poetics of History.” In Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon, pp. 21-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, O'Brien surveys Voltaire's histories, culminating in a study of the Essai sur les moers. O'Brien situates Voltaire in the early Enlightenment debates about the value and accuracy of history, suggesting that Voltaire used literary techniques to revive the status of history as a serious genre.]

Before his apotheosis as the personification of the Enlightenment, Voltaire was known to French, British and American readers, perhaps primarily, as a historian of France and the world.1 Before he became demonised, in nineteenth-century eyes, as the prophet of atheism, Voltaire's histories were perused by appreciative and unperturbed readers throughout the continent and its colonies.2 Voltaire's histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution, and the last book-length study of these works is now nearly forty years old.3 Without wishing to make excessive claims for their merit and influence, this chapter will attempt to assess the distinctive and original contribution made by Voltaire's histories to cosmopolitan history in the eighteenth century. Most of these works belong roughly to the middle period of his career during which time he enjoyed a measure of official sanction and approval from Louis XV, who appointed him historiographer royal in 1745, and from Frederick II of Prussia.4 Voltaire's major histories include L'Histoire de Charles XII (1731), Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751 and after) and the Essai sur les mœurs (1754 and after), all of them many times reissued, revised and translated during his lifetime. Together, these works represent a sustained and wide-ranging exploration of the literary, cognitive and thematic potential of historical narrative. As literary works, they make new commitments to form and style which exceed and displace older rhetorical theories of purpose and expression. As meta-historical investigations of the cognitive problems of retelling the past, they contribute something to contemporary French philosophical debate, although their engagement with these rather involved epistemological matters was not the primary source of their appeal in the very dissimilar philosophical and religious environments of Britain and America where such questions were differently framed and differently answered. It was the thematic concerns of Voltaire's histories, which centred upon the evolution and existence of a unique, common European civilisation, that particularly attracted an international readership. Voltaire was the first historian to articulate in detail an Enlightenment narrative of the rise of Europe as it was hastened by the growing wealth and independence of the middle orders of society. He was the first to explain the political utility of this common sense of European identity, and the first to show how this sense of identity had a more solidly political basis than the older Renaissance notion of a shared classical heritage. Despite all this, Voltaire was never entirely at ease with the narrative enterprise of history; in all of his works, the desire to explain competes with besetting scepticism about the possibility of historical explanation, the earnest endeavour to research conflicts with a disingenuous contempt for serious historical scholars, and the cosmopolitan historian of France sometimes gives way to the champion of French cosmopolitanism. The result is a historical writing more complex and contradictory than he may have intended. I intend to discuss, in turn, the cognitive, literary and thematic aspects of Voltaire's histories in the hope of restoring to (sometimes unenvisaged) complexity a historian often dismissed as an unthinking apostle of progress.5


Seventeenth-century French intellectuals regarded history primarily as the site of cognitive questions which ultimately had to do with the nature and value of all factual data. Many sceptics, or ‘pyrrhonists’ of the period, motivated by both scientific and anti-religious (‘libertin’) principles, doubted the reliability and usefulness of historical knowledge. By undermining the epistemological foundations of narrative and scholarly history, they lowered the prestige of this previously buoyant Renaissance discipline.6 Descartes' rationalist solutions to this scepticism had the effect of further disgracing history, along with scholasticism, as outmoded forms of cognition. Towards the end of the century, however, the fortunes of the discipline revived somewhat, and Pierre Bayle's celebrated Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) did a great deal to re-establish history as a discrete field of knowledge capable of delivering truths whose status could not be determined by Cartesian methodology.7 Voltaire grew up intellectually during a period of reconstructive historical thinking during which interest had at last begun to shift from the ontological to the anthropological value of historical knowledge.8 By then the pyrrhonian debate had been channelled into evidentiary questions and away from the problem of the ultimate value of historical inquiry. As a young man, Voltaire would have encountered the famous scholarly debates in the 1720s between scholarly and pyrrhonian members of the French Académie des Inscriptions over the reliability of information about the very earliest history of Rome.9 One academician, Nicholas Fréret, in an essay entitled ‘Réflexions sur l'étude des anciennes histoires’, made an important contribution to the debate by arguing that the problem of historical scepticism sprang from a persistent false analogy between history and the mathematical sciences. He defined history as a separate cognitive field, and laid down the principles for an empirical method in historical inquiry.10

Voltaire's early intellectual endeavours were directed towards similar ends. As well as forging a successful writing career as a poet and playwright, the young Voltaire schooled himself as a metaphysician; he mounted a challenge to the mathematical certainties of French rationalist philosophy in the name of English scientific empiricism (for example, the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738). His collection of essays on English culture, the Lettres philosophiques (1734) did much to publicise the work of Newton and Locke in France. He praised them both for having found reasonable empirical resolutions to the problem of pyrrhonism, even describing Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding as a form of history: ‘Tant de raisonneurs ayant fait le roman de l'âme, un sage est venu qui en a fait modestement l'histoire.’11 Although Voltaire sometimes contrived to make Newton, in particular, sound like the prophet of all kinds of moral and historical inevitabilities, he always tried to preserve this early commitment to reasonable empiricism in the historical domain.12 As he later remarked, ‘Je ne veux ni un pyrrhonisme outré, ni une crédulité ridicule.’13

Despite improvements in the philosophical fortunes of history in the first decades of the eighteenth century, this form of writing still lacked prestige and credibility when Voltaire started to publish his major histories in the 1750s. The subject was little esteemed, for example, by the editors of the Encyclopédie. D'Alembert and Diderot prefaced their work with a table of human knowledge (1751) which arranged ‘history’ (sacred, ecclesiastical and civil) under the taxonomic heading of ‘memory’, along with natural history, the arts and crafts. The table thereby separated history from the more advanced mental category of ‘reason’ under which it grouped philosophy and the mathematical sciences, implicitly downgrading its cognitive function. When Voltaire came to write the ‘Histoire’ entry for the Encyclopédie, along with other ‘H’ articles, he observed, in implicit protest, that natural history is a physical science rather than a subset of history, and devoted most of the piece to refuting the notion that history is an unreliable form of human knowledge.14

Voltaire never resolved to his own satisfaction the problem of historical knowledge in his histories. Even in the last revisions to the Essai sur les mœurs, carried out at the end of his life, he continued to tinker with words and phrases conveying notions of facticity and causality. His pyrrhonian predecessors had tried to detach history from narrative by arguing that the narrative piecing together of the past entailed unwarranted reification of the primary factual data. In most of Voltaire's historical works, the problem hovers in abeyance, and these doubts are suspended in the rhetorical medium of narrative. He settles willingly for a traditional presentation of history as a branch of demonstrative rhetoric, and he apportions praise or blame according to unusually broadly conceived political and cultural imperatives. Even so, when he composed his political and cultural narratives of France and the world, Voltaire had few fully realised French narrative histories upon which to draw. There were some exceptions. History had survived the crise pyrrhonienne as a narrative art in the semi-fictionalised histoires galantes of fashionable authors such as Varillas and Saint-Réal. Voltaire found ‘sublime’ Saint-Réal's Conjuration des Espagnols contre la République de Venise en l'année 1618 (1674), an elegant neo-Machiavellian study of psychological and political motive whose character study set pieces probably influenced the Histoire de Charles XII (and, incidentally, inspired Thomas Otway's tragedy, Venice Preserved).15 Voltaire was impressed by the ability of these historiens galants to give shape to historical data within a single critical perspective. Their work, however, was really an anecdotal outgrowth of humanist history written in the voice of experienced hommes d'état; Voltaire, although he shared this commitment to history as a branch of rhetoric, sought a more representative voice and questioned the value of anecdotes. These histoires galantes, moreover, had few scholarly ambitions. They bear witness to the fact that the crise pyrrhonienne in historical thought had effected a marked dissociation of philosophical historiography from the information-gathering side of history. On the scholarly side, late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France had played host to an extraordinary flowering of historical learning, including the pioneering work of the clerical scholars of the Benedictine Congregation of St Maur in the study and criticism of primary sources, and in new techniques in lexicography, diplomatics and palaeography.16 The leading figure in this enterprise, Jean Mabillon, showed some interest in the narrative presentation of history, including, for example, the role of cultural forces in the shaping of events.17 In general however, these scholars were not concerned to establish additional veracity for their researches on a philosophical basis, and were otherwise annalists dealing only with the seriality of events.

Despite these developments, there was one form of narrative history which had continued untroubled and unabated throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This was the chronological history of France, a compendious and compliant genre whose traditions and royal patronage (as Chantal Grell has shown in her excellent study of eighteenth-century history in France) enabled it to withstand most philosophical and scholarly innovations.18 Two of the most significant histories of France to precede Voltaire's Siècle de Louis XIV, Mézeray's Histoire de France (1643-51), and Daniel's Histoire de France (1713), appeared at the beginning and end of Louis XIV's personal reign.19 Although constantly lambasted by Voltaire, these two works anticipate his histories in their refusal to surrender broad sweeps of developmental narrative to the ravages of Pyrrhonism. However, like most traditional dynastic histories of the nation, Mézeray's work rarely rises above the annalistic, in spite of its stylishness. Daniel's Histoire announces its ambition to avoid scepticism, and to produce ‘un tissu et une suite de faits véritables’, as well as the intention to include, ‘les Coûtumes, les Usages, les Loix, la Jurisprudence, la manière du Gouvernement Civil et Militaire’, although, in practice, it does not keep either of these promises.20

Voltaire's solution to the poverty of national history and to the philosophical depreciation of history was, I shall argue, to effect a closer rapprochement between history and literature. He was, by the time he came to compose his narrative histories, an acknowledged master in the genres of epic and tragedy. He executed and interpreted his plays and poems according to the neoclassical principles of criticism elaborated in the late seventeenth century, and soon conceptualised his histories in similar ways. Boileau, Le Bossu, Bouhours and other neoclassical critics of the preceding century had elaborated a theory of literature which cogently defended its integrity and social utility, and so protected it from devaluation by philosophers and moralists.21 By arranging his histories within identifiable literary structures (not excluding the Essai sur les mœurs), Voltaire hoped to annex similar prestige to history. Voltaire also imported from neoclassical theory the notion of ‘vraisemblance’ which encapsulated the moral and aesthetic requirement that literature should treat only of the natural and probable, and never of the fantastic, trivial or debased. The notion of vraisemblance provided a convenient means of reconciling the narrative and cognitive demands of the medium of history, and acted as a means of arbitrating both oddities in his source material and potential inconsistencies in his narrative. Voltaire also embraced the ethical function performed by neoclassical literature; like poetry, history must assert civilised standards, and harmonise moral, social and aesthetic values. Given the secondary status which neoclassical criticism assigned to mock genres, mock epic (the collapse of epic into satire instigated by a voice comically aware of the gap between the grandeur of the poem's structure and the low stature of its subject) cannot be taken as the paradigm for Voltaire's historical work, let alone Enlightenment history as a whole (as Hayden White has assumed).22 Voltaire constantly struggled to sustain history as a serious genre, and to resist the satirical treatment which much of his material appeared to require.


Before turning to Voltaire's major histories, some understanding of the literary roots of his historical method can be gained from an examination of his earlier engagement with historical epic in poetry and prose. His first historical production was an epic poem about the life of Henri IV, published first as La Ligue (1723), and then recast as La Henriade (1728). These were succeeded in 1731 by Voltaire's first prose history, the highly accomplished Histoire de Charles XII of Sweden. Many features of Voltaire's historical method were worked out in this transition from poetry to prose. This development was also facilitated by Voltaire's meditation on the problems of poetics, national culture and changing standards of taste in the (English) Essay upon the epick poetry of the European nations.23 In all of these can be detected the neoclassical roots of Voltaire's historical practice. The Henriade narrates the story, in Alexandrine couplets, of the religious wars of late sixteenth-century France up to the point when the victorious Henri de Navarre is about to accede to the throne. The poem updates for the eighteenth century the traditional myth of Henry IV as a peace-loving, tolerant philosopher king.24 In structure and tone it conforms to neoclassical rules for epic poetry, beginning in medias res, maintaining a consistently formal register, and blending decorousness and plausibility (‘vraisemblance’). The deeper historical drama in the poem is enacted by abstract types (with names such as ‘Discorde’, ‘Fanatisme’, ‘Politique’, ‘Vérité’). Like his precursor epic and mock-epic poets, such as Chapelain and Boileau, Voltaire situates the substance and meaning of history in suprahistorical types.25 There are, however, some innovations. Voltaire's idealised hero, Henri de Navarre, is a social improver as well as a warrior king. In the Essay upon the epick poetry, Voltaire argues that epic poetry, as well as having universal appeal, must mirror the peculiarities and meet the specific needs of its country of origin. Much of the Essay is an evaluation of epic poets, including Homer, Milton and Camöens, in national context, and it demonstrates that, although all great epic poems are and must be obedient to certain formal principles, their content and mode of formal adaptation are culturally determined. For example, he finds Milton's ‘Idiom … wonderfully heighten'd, by the Nature of the Government, which allows the English to speak in Publick’.26 Thus, in conformity with his own critical principles, Voltaire attempted to adapt the rules of epic poetry in his own epic poem La Henriade to the cultural imperatives of his French audience by reminding them, at a time of heated religious and social debate, of their innate gifts for order and conciliation.27

Voltaire's next foray into the genre of historical epic took the form of a short narrative history of the life of King Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718), a man who thought he was Alexander the Great and set out to conquer Poland, the Baltic states and Russia. The product of the extreme severity of the Swedish climate, Charles believed (at least, according to Voltaire's account) that his self-mastery would lead inevitably to mastery of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but he suffered defeat at the hands of Czar Peter I, was held captive by the Ottomans at Bender, and was eventually killed during the siege of a minor Norwegian fortress. The facts of the case are so patently the stuff of mock epic (Fielding, who translated an account of the life of Charles by G. Adlerfeld, exploited its comic potential in the eponymous protagonist of Jonathan Wild who modelled himself on the Swedish king) that most critics have assumed this to be the generic orientation of Voltaire's work.28 However, the text is, in fact, rather more remarkable for its reluctance to seize the mock epic opportunities presented by the primary material, or to exploit the potentially comic gap between Charles' epic self-image and the defeated or even bizarre circumstances in which he frequently finds himself. When, for example, Charles is dragged away by his legs and arms from the residence in Bender which he had vainly attempted to defend against the overwhelming strength of the sultan's forces, Voltaire barely comments. Similarly, when Charles dies in petty circumstances, hit in the eye by a stray bullet on a minor campaign, Voltaire resists the temptation to dwell upon this apparent piece of poetic justice (‘A petty fortress, and a dubious hand’, in Johnson's poetic retelling of this story).29 Instead, Voltaire follows this episode with a set-piece moralising passage describing how virtues pushed to excess can become destructive vices. The emphasis is placed more strongly upon the inhumane consequences of such vices than upon Charles' comic defeat: ‘homme unique plutôt que grand homme; admirable plutôt qu'à imiter. Sa vie doit apprendre aux rois combien un gouvernement pacifique et heureux est au-dessus de tant de gloire’ (272-3). While it is certainly the case, as one critic has suggested, that the Swedish king ‘personifies the [deluded] view that history is essentially epic in nature’, Voltaire does not expose Charles' epic pretensions by means of a generic descent into mock epic, and the conventions of humanist biography are retained with knowing gravity.30

Voltaire's critique of Charles is thrown into relief by his admiring presentation of the reforming and patriot Czar Peter I of Russia. In the Histoire de Charles XII, the climactic event of the history, a titanic encounter between Charles and Peter at the Battle of Poltava (1709), is dramatically enlarged as the confrontation between two great styles of monarchy: ‘l'un [Charles] glorieux d'avoir donné des Etats, l'autre [Peter] d'avoir civilisé les siens; Charles aimant les dangers et ne combattant que pour la gloire; Alexiowitz ne fuyant point le péril, et ne faisant la guerre que pour ses intérêts’ (161). Peter is the history's displaced centre of seriousness, and subsequent revisions to the book shift the balance of interest further in his direction.31 Peter subsequently featured as the hero of Voltaire's more blatantly hagiographic Histoire de L'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759-63) where he is portrayed as a secular, progressive ruler, and symbol of Russia's potential modernity. The moral centre of L'Histoire de Charles XII is thus to be found at the margin of the plot, in the person of Peter, and does not simply emanate from the disguised moral voice of the mock-epic historian. Unlike Charles' barbaric false heroics, Peter's ruthlessness is excused since, understood properly in national context, it is indispensable to his programme of reform in Russia. L'Histoire de Charles XII retains many of the tonal and structural features of La Henriade. The work demonstrates Voltaire's quest for an authorial point of view which absorbs neoclassical seriousness into the present tense, but which remains committed to the organising, authoritative proficiency of traditional genre. Prose epic is still, for Voltaire, appropriate to the presentation of national history, but only in cases where rulers have enacted their epic history in ways suited to the peculiarities and demands of their nation and time. Peter the Great personifies an epicity properly adapted to modern Russia; Charles XII compels his country to take part in an outdated heroic saga. Voltaire works within a neoclassical aesthetic which places upon literature the demands of universal ethical validity, but which is also amenable to the historical particularities of its subject-matter.

In the years which followed, Voltaire ventured into more ambitious historical territory. The moral complexities of his new material, and its greater intractability to unified narrative exposition soon led to a doubling of voice in Voltaire's histories—one part engaged with events as constituents of an epic or a tragedy, the other providing a moralising commentary from a more distanced perspective. By this manœuvre, Voltaire continued to forestall the collapse of history into mock-epic without abandoning a sense of critical distance. Of the Siècle de Louis XIV, he remarked:

J'envisage encore le siècle de Louis XIV comme celui du génie, et le siècle présent comme celui qui raisonne sur le génie.32

One part of the authorial voice, he claims, is fully engaged with the part epic, part tragic age of Louis XIV (‘le siècle … du génie’), and the other is situated in a distanced present, possessing the rational clarity of the modern critic but not the creativity of genius (‘celui qui raisonne sur le génie’). By comparison with the Siècle de Louis XIV, the Histoire de Charles XII and the Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand (1759-63) suffer artistically from a lack of such a split voice; the modernity of the authorial perspective is too completely identified with Peter and the progress of his national epic adventure. In the Histoire de Charles XII, Voltaire investigated the generic pertinence of epic to recent events, and this had led him to an implicit periodisation of heroic and modern forms of historical behaviour. French historians of his era, as Grell has shown, used only rudimentary schemes of historical periodisation, and Voltaire was more energetic than most in seeking to divide history up into distinct epochs.33 The Siècle de Louis XIV opens with a famous passage singling out the four great ages of the arts in human history: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy and, best of all, the reign of Louis XIV. By clear implication, the authorial commentator is situated in the separate and inferior period of the present. This idea of present-day France is consistent with the commonplace neoclassical notion of declension; as soon as a civilisation reaches its apex, it must inevitably fall into decline. However, Voltaire's first major history also incorporates, in an innovative way, the idea of a distinct critical voice, engendered by this separately periodised modernity, which speaks from the cultural realm to the political sphere of history, tradition and law. The nature of this voice will merit further investigation, but it will first be necessary to say something of the origins of Voltaire's idea of the cultural authority of the historian.

The notion of the emancipation of art from tradition was a paradoxical and persistent feature of French neoclassicism. Since Malherbe early in the seventeenth century, neoclassical theorists had been concerned with the elaboration of artistic rules which might stand independently of their classical origins. The process reached an extreme point when, in 1687, Charles Perrault delivered a famous address in praise of ‘Le Siècle de Louis le Grand’ in which he celebrated the unity of inspiration behind his times and its artistic superiority over the classical past upon which it had hitherto relied.34 With this speech, the age-old quarrel of the ancients and the moderns entered a new phase, as the moderns tried to accelerate the detachment of French classicism from the classics, in the name of a cultural nationalism which the ancients found both presumptuous and historically ignorant. The quarrel was still rumbling on when Voltaire first came to Paris in the late 1710s, and, in some respects, the Siècle de Louis XIV is a retrospective evaluation of the debate. As in England, the French quarrel in the early eighteenth century turned on the merits of Homer and the extent to which art could be said to have progressed since his times.35 The modern camp included those, such as Homer's none-too-faithful verse translator Houdart de la Motte, who thought that the past, and past epic poets, were largely unintelligible and not worth meticulous attention, and those, such as the Abbé Terrasson, who proclaimed, by extravagant analogy with mathematical rules, the liberation of art from tradition.36 As a scientist of art, Terrasson believed that art was reducible to mathematical laws and could therefore be expected to progress as rapidly in the eighteenth century as physics had done in the seventeenth. Voltaire, though he generally preferred to see himself as occupying the middle ground between the two camps, once expressed some enthusiasm for this idea: ‘Peut-être arrivera-t-il bientôt dans la manière d'écrire l'histoire ce qui est arrivé dans la physique.’37 In England, meanwhile, the debate was reversed, as the scholarly side of the argument fell to the moderns, with ancients such as Temple, Swift and Pope, struggling in different media, and with differing degrees of irony, to preserve the pristine authority of the classics. The greater willingness of both sides in the French debate to acknowledge that, for good or ill, Homer was the product of a more primitive period in history, had its origins in their self-confident recognition of the national uniqueness and novelty of French cultural modernity. The French moderns, whatever their scholarly limitations, set a new, irreverent tone in cultural debate. Their extrapolation of aesthetics from tradition licensed a new spirit of critical freedom which coincided with a relaxation in the demands of official ideology towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV and during the Regency which followed. The French modern confidence in the universal validity of certain aesthetic rules—rules which Homer, in his understandable primitive ignorance, did not know how to follow—was not, as Pope scornfully suggested in An Essay on Criticism (1711), merely a mirror-image in the artistic domain of absolutist monarchical law (‘But Critic Learning flourish'd most in France: / The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys’, lines 712-13), but the insistent recognition of cultural norms wider than political structures. Voltaire found liberating this post-classical neoclassicism with its exuberant periodisation of modern civilisation. In the Siècle de Louis XIV, he would also try to situate himself as a writer in this normative modernity from which to scrutinise history, politics and tradition. His critical position, like that of other moderns, would be secured in the aesthetic sphere. Much of the Siècle de Louis XIV is a panegyric of the French state in its great age of absolutism, yet, as Perrault had demonstrated, the artistic assessment of a state can also imply the existence of cultural rules over and above the decisions of an absolute monarch.38


Voltaire's preoccupation with the relationship between history, good kingship and good art led him to produce a history of France which is both highly crafted at the aesthetic level, and engaged, at the discursive level, in a complex appraisal of the role of aesthetics in political life. During composition and revision of the Siècle de Louis XIV, additional complications arose as Voltaire wrestled with the problem of how to achieve form in historical writing while resisting the unwelcome stasis and closure which it seemed to impose. Voltaire became increasingly aware of his own authorial location in a separately periodised critical modernity. He conferred upon his subject-matter, one of the great epochs of human civilisation, the coherence of a work of art whose constituent parts have the quality of universal types. However, the temporal perspective mandated by his self-conscious authorial subjectivity inevitably competes with and contextualises this perfected world of types. The context into which the authorial voice transposes the sealed age of Louis XIV is not primarily an ironic one, and a double authorial perspective is strenuously maintained, identified partly with his age and partly with the less brilliant reign of Louis XV. By avoiding both sustained irony and nostalgia, Voltaire is able to generate a secondary critical account of eighteenth-century French modernity and nationality. The Siècle is directly engaged with eighteenth-century political controversy, and is partly intended to provide a critique of the legal-theoretical foundations of these contemporary debates, particularly as they had been expounded by Montesquieu. Throughout the work, nationality is shown to be more essentially a matter of cultural identity than of legal history or political boundaries. Throughout the Siècle de Louis XIV, Voltaire makes neoclassical history a weapon with which to engage and even disable contemporary political debate about the nature of the French state.

Although a portion of the Siècle de Louis XIV had appeared in 1739, and Voltaire had started the work at least as far back as 1735, the first major text did not come out until 1751, followed by a significantly revised and expanded edition in 1753.39 In 1756 this was incorporated as the final part of the Essai sur les mœurs in the Geneva collected works; further alterations were made in 1761-3, and the last major series of authorial revisions was added in 1768.40 Voltaire drew upon a wide range of secondary source material, including a number of regency histories of Louis XIV's time, but also relied heavily upon the oral recollections which he had meticulously collected in England and in France while still a young man.41 Voltaire insisted throughout that the work was more than a mere annalistic or military history (‘point … une simple relation des campagnes, mais plutôt une histoire des mœurs des hommes’). The work is divided into two separate halves; the first is, in fact, a briskly narrated chronological history of the period, military campaigns and all, and the second contains all the material relating to the ‘mœurs’ of the age. The history begins, appropriately enough, with an artistic event: the founding by Richelieu of the Académie Française (618: 1753, I, 189). The first part of the history moves from an overview of the age of Richelieu to the chaotic mid-century years of the Frondes under the regency of Anne of Austria. Once Louis' personal reign begins in earnest in 1661, Voltaire supplies quite detailed military histories of his conquests in the Netherlands and Germany through to the War of the Spanish Succession. The second part of the Siècle contains a substantial selection of anecdotes relating to Louis' private life and court, and then deals at length with the internal politics of France during his reign, followed by economic, artistic and scientific developments, and the religious controversies surrounding Jansenism, Quietism and Huguenot persecution. All editions have, as an appendix, catalogues of significant artists and other personages of the period. The chronological portion of the work is artistically crafted as a tragic drama, in which the protagonist, Louis XIV, at first rises to the height of success (‘comble de sa grandeur’) in 1688, and then overreaches himself to the point when, after the Battle of Blenheim, his mistress, Mme de Maintenon is at last obliged to tell him that he is no longer invincible (‘qu'il n'était plus invincible’) (759, 834: 1753, I, 254; 1753, I, 377). He eventually dies en philosophe, a little the wiser for his sufferings.42

Louis' heroic tragedy is incorporated into a larger epic tale of France's greatness and defeat in its most glorious era. This era appears to have the coherence of a work of literature, being sealed off from the events which precede and follow it. The period before Louis' reign is rendered wholly in terms of negatives; this is a time of gothic barbarity (‘barbarie gothique’), without regular laws (‘lois … fixes’)—not so much pre-modern as the opposite of modern when a total lack of Enlightenment (‘défaut de lumières’) permeates all aspects of life (619, 634: 1753, I, 7; 1753, I, 43). In the 1739 chapters of the Siècle de Louis XIV, there were originally some references to the existence of men of talent prior to Louis XIV's personal reign, but these are suppressed in 1751 for starker effect. History before Louis XIV is redefined as absence (‘point d'académies, point de théâtres réguliers’, 635: 1753, I, 44). Voltaire evokes, not historical evolution, but positive and negative manifestations of order. Like Perrault before him, Voltaire identifies and celebrates discontinuities between the age of Louis XIV and the chaos which came before. Louis himself is mainly functionally related to the form of the history through his body politic. He is a shadowy figure, more of a principle than a personality, with little private moral presence in the work. This artistic conflation of the king as protagonist and the actions of the state resembles the Histoire de … Pierre le Grand: ‘Enfin Pierre naquit, et la Russie fut formée’ (388).

Voltaire depicts Louis XIV's France as a state self-consciously reinventing itself as an ordered and unified work of art. Economic, military and legal reforms under Louis XIV, as well as improvements in technology and communications, are described as modernisations contributing to the formal unity of the state: ‘l'Etat devient un tout régulier dont chaque ligne aboutit au centre’ (980: 1753, II, 147). Allegiance to this reforming state by its subjects is a matter of good taste, and all those able to perceive the formal harmoniousness of the state (‘un tout régulier’) wish to participate by vying with each other in the service of their sovereign (979: 1753, II, 147). Voltaire praises Louis' administration as an interventionist, mercantilist, centralised government of the talented. He regards developments in manufactures and trade as the most significant factors behind France's economic success, and Louis' chief minister, Colbert, a figure often disparaged in the eighteenth century, is rehabilitated as the pioneer of protectionist economics and promoter of commerce in luxury goods—a judgment Voltaire was not subsequently inclined to revise even after personal contacts with French physiocrats such as Turgot. Meanwhile, artistic life in France flourishes under Louis' personal governance, and the national language acquires purity and stability (‘la langue commençait à s'épurer et à prendre une forme constante’, 1003: 1753, II, 179). The prestige of the nation is enhanced by the growing international influence of French culture; in 1752, Voltaire added a passage underlining this point:

Sa langue [France's] est devenue la langue d'Europe. … L'esprit de société est le partage naturel des Français; c'est un mérite et un plaisir dont les autres peuples ont senti le besoin.

(1017: 1753, II, 205)

Indeed, as this national history evolved over a number of stages of revision, Voltaire showed increasing signs of the cosmopolitan historical sensibility which would develop more fully in the Essai sur les mœurs. For example, in 1757, he added a chapter entitled ‘Des beaux-arts en Europe’ which projects an image of Europe as an increasingly civilised, culturally interdependent system of states.


Voltaire's retelling of the myth of the Sun King, in terms slightly more cosmopolitan but no less ardent than Louis' original propagandists, came as a surprise to contemporary audiences. The myth had been in decline since the Regency when it was dismantled by aristocratic critics of absolutism, and its rehabilitation in the middle of the century appeared to some to insinuate unfavourable comparisons with Louis XV's troubled and lack-lustre monarchy.43 Nevertheless, Louis XV is not, in fact, the concealed satirical target of the Siècle de Louis XIV. Rather, Voltaire, as historiographer royal, aims to approach the ages of Louis XIV and Louis XV by means of a new narrative representation and endorsement of the institution of monarchy. The Siècle de Louis XIV, with its splendid tableaux of war abroad and lavish peace at court, stages a return to the baroque idea of history as spectacle, while inviting its eighteenth-century audience to contemplate the political nature of their own spectatorship. A convinced monarchist, Voltaire reminds his readers that they are formed as nation by the spectacle of the king; monarchy confers upon them a unity of gaze and purpose, but it also assigns to them an active role as arbiters of taste in the theatre of the state. In presenting the age of Louis XIV as a distinctive and separate work of time's art (‘heureux ouvrage’, 619: 1753, I, 7), Voltaire breaks with traditional dynastic representations of monarchy, and suggests that the shared history of France is best approached through cultural rather than through political, legal or religious traditions. Voltaire's approach both reflects and accelerates the general desacralisation of the iconography of the French monarchy during the eighteenth century. The monarchy had not altogether lost its sacred and mystic aura by this time, but naturalistic images of the king had started to prevail over eucharistic models.44 As a defender of strong kingship as a bulwark against both aristocratic power and the constitutional claims of the parlements, Voltaire wanted to do something more than simply revive old notions of the royal mystique du sang. His cultural defence of monarchy entails a polemical rejection of the traditional discourses of French politics, and enables him to postulate the existence within the state of a critical cultural sphere in which monarchy is both appreciated and regulated.

The background to Voltaire's cultural polemic is complex. Since the early sixteenth century, the debate about the French state had separated into two general strands: constitutionalist theories which posited that the king was subject to both the positive and fundamental laws of the kingdom, and absolutist theories in which the king is said not to be legally bound by any law, or only bound by fundamental laws.45 These jurisprudential arguments often entailed a re-evaluation of the long-term impact of the occupation of Roman Gaul by the Franks, and the consequent relationship between France's heritage of Roman law and its Frankish, German legal tradition. All this had some affinities with and some bearing upon the elaboration of a common law interpretation of English history in seventeenth-century England.46 The constitutionalist arguments had persisted throughout the seventeenth century. Louis XIV, however, did not require or encourage a juristic defence of his kingship, and preferred to associate himself with the idea of dynastic blood right (‘mystique du sang’).47 With the resurgence of the influence of the parlements and the aristocracy during the Regency, juristic scholarship enjoyed the faint beginnings of a revival. The debate about the nature of the French constitution was reoriented towards the origins and nature of feudal custom and law. The constitutionalist argument was now largely appropriated by oppositional ‘Germanist’ theorists—proponents of a limited and mixed regime of king, parlements and nobility, in accordance with the best Frankish traditions. In 1727, the Comte de Boulainvilliers stated the Germanist-aristocratic case in its baldest form in his Histoire de l'ancien gouvernement de France; the Franks who had conquered Gaul had imposed an oligarchic constitution which eventually enshrined aristocratic feudalism as its system of government. The contemporary nobility and parlements continued to be, in this interpretation, essential parts of the machinery of the French constitution.

Royalists like Voltaire (who was much influenced by his friend the Marquis D'Argenson who circulated in manuscript the polemical ‘Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France’, c. 1739, but published in 1764), regarded the vestiges of aristocratic feudal jurisdictions in France as oppressive, and saw strong monarchy as the best means of maintaining equality among French subjects.48 That the juristic, as opposed to the mystic case for absolute monarchy, was not ideologically bankrupt by the early eighteenth century is demonstrated by the popularity of Dubos' ‘Romanist’, royalist riposte to Boulainvilliers, the Histoire critique de l'établissement de la monarchie françoise dans les Gaules (1734).49 In Dubos' account, the Franks are said to have acceded peacefully to Roman power in Gaul, taking over at the same time Roman laws, civility and the constitutional principle of allegiance to a single emperor or monarch. Feudalism is, in this version, a later usurpation of power by the nobility whose authority, therefore, has no legal basis in French history.

On the opposing side, it was the nobleman Montesquieu who ultimately gained respectability and currency for the Germanist-aristocratic thesis. His scholarly contribution to the debate was followed by the adoption of a Germanist outlook by the Encyclopédie, and a flourishing eighteenth-century tradition of aristocratic apologetics.50 Montesquieu's analysis of the origins of the French constitution and feudal law in De l'Esprit des lois (books 28, 30, 31) is unusually sophisticated; he describes France as a state from its very origins a monarchy limited by the constitutional power of the nobility and their institutions, although he does concede that the rigours of aristocratic feudal power had, at various points in French history, become excessive. French legal history, in Montesquieu's reading, authorises a limited monarchy in which the nobility functions as an intermediate power (‘pouvoir intermédiaire’), and in which the parlements perform the role of repository of the laws (‘corps dépositaire des lois’).51 Thus, Montesquieu implies, there is a case for strengthening the role of the second estate and the parlements in the name of a wider, historically sanctioned tradition of French national liberty.

Voltaire's response to the Germanist/Romanist historical debate is somewhat contradictory. His accounts of early post-Roman France have a number of Romanist elements.52 Elsewhere, however, he insists that the Frankish barbarians completely destroyed the civilised urban culture which the Gauls had derived from Rome (Essai, I, 338). In 1753, yielding to a request from the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha, Voltaire published a two-volume summary of the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Annales de l'Empire, in which he gave serious attention to the question of the Frankish conquest of Gaul, and the subsequent establishment of the feudal system in France. Here, he explicitly refutes Dubos' ‘peaceful takeover’ thesis; the Franks are said to have overrun Gaul, and not to have been invited in as welcome successors to the Romans (‘non pas en alliés du peuple, comme on [i.e. Dubos] l'a prétendu, mais après avoir pillé les colonies romaines’).53 In all these entanglements it is at least clear that Voltaire thought that the French civil state had improved over its history through the gradual social participation and power of the commons, in alliance with the sovereign against feudal structures and aristocratic privilege. This bourgeois-royalist narrative of history would later be endorsed, in different circumstances, by Voltaire's more scholarly successors in the Scottish Enlightenment. Montesquieu, as Voltaire realised, represented the most intelligent obstacle to this interpretation since he had successfully combined historical jurisprudence with a sociology of checks and balances. For this reason, in the Siècle, the Essai and in other works, Voltaire's objective was not so much to refute the Germanist-aristocratic thesis, as to rob it of all political significance.

In 1769, at the behest of Louis XV's Chancellor Maupeou, who was then engaged in a programme to bring the troublesome parlements to heel (and ultimately, in 1771, to suppress them), Voltaire published a Histoire du Parlement de Paris which, despite its royalist polemical bias, continued to insist on the fact of a Frankish invasion of Gaul.54 Voltaire plundered Boulainvilliers' Histoire de l'ancien gouvernement for this work, as the annotations all over his surviving copies show.55 The result is a surprisingly fair-minded history of the Paris parlement, but one which insists upon the discontinuity between the historical parlement and its modern successor institution. Even the word ‘parlement’ has changed its meaning beyond all recognition: ‘et les noms et les choses ont subi les mêmes vicissitudes’.56 In all of Voltaire's accounts of the period, the constitution of medieval France is said to be nothing more than a licensed form of brigandage. He finds no legitimacy in any historical—juristic thesis whether Romanist or Germanist: ‘La jurisprudence était celle de la férocité et de la superstition’ (Essai, I, 339). In so far as Voltaire expounds a thèse royale in his reading of French history, it is one without juristic content.57 The French sovereign is identified culturally with the urbanised world of the Roman Empire, and monarchy emerges, in Voltaire's reworking of Dubos, as the sign and achievement of civilisation.58 Modernity and monarchy are thus seen as interdependent:

il est vrai que cet esprit philosophique qui a gagné presque toutes les conditions excepté le bas peuple, a beaucoup contribué à faire valoir les droits des souverains.

(Siècle de Louis XIV, 1001: added after 1753)

Voltaire's royalism has often been caricatured as a preference for ‘Enlightened despotism’. This notion erroneously implies that Voltaire naively supposed that good sovereigns are not limited but self-limiting, whereas, although Voltaire recognised no constituted intermediate powers in the French state—such as the nobility or the church—which might set legal limits to the power of the monarch, he did believe that the crown was, in practice, culturally rather than legally limited. Peter Gay sees Voltaire's liking for monarchy as pragmatic, a matter of geographical suitability in some states, though not necessarily in others.59 René Pomeau regards Voltaire's royalism as a matter of doctrine based on a clear set of principles—‘l'antichristianisme, un activisme autoritaire, un humanisme libéral’—and on a conviction that nothing else can control France's factional, sectarian and feudal tendencies.60 Neither interpretation rings entirely true for Voltaire's histories themselves which elaborate no doctrine of monarchy as such, but do articulate an aesthetic preference for monarchy, and a neoclassical vision of the sovereign imposing fixed rules and coherent form upon the state.61 Voltaire regards these rules or ‘positive laws’ as necessary social fictions; their legitimacy is not derived from tradition or nature, but from empirical observation of their tendency to civilise and promote justice.62 A general social ‘esprit philosophique’ and monarchy mutually advance each other. In the Siècle, Voltaire shows that Louis XIV was restrained in his actions by the very aesthetic understanding of politics which he had himself generated, and that it was this, rather than adherence to a constitution, which caused him to observe a regular system of laws. Voltaire thus situates himself within the tradition of state panegyric which Louis himself had fostered, but which had, in turn, strategically celebrated a system in which arbitrariness could have no place. (Voltaire himself wrote a panegyric poem to Louis XV after the French victory at Fontenoy in 1745).63


Voltaire fully appreciated the political dangers of presenting the French monarchy in an aestheticised way without any pleasing illusions about the legal constraints placed upon it. He acknowledged the troubling fact that there was no categorical difference between monarchy and despotism, and he once asked himself, ‘Où est la ligne qui sépare le gouvernement monarchique et le despotique?’; to this question, the only answer which Voltaire could supply was that the difference was largely a matter of style.64 The question appears in Voltaire's Commentaire sur l'Esprit des lois (1777), a compilation of many of his previous comments on Montesquieu, and culmination of years of reflection upon Montesquieu's generic distinctions between republics, monarchies and despotisms. Although direct contacts between the two men were limited, Montesquieu represented for Voltaire both an admired ally in the cause of justice and anti-clericalism, and a persistent imagined intellectual opponent.65 Voltaire derived energy for his historical writing from his urge to refute what he saw as Montesquieu's hopelessly abstract sociology of laws by putting it to the test of history; all of his later histories, whether explicitly or implicitly, represent an engagement with L'Esprit des lois. In his intellectual opposition to Montesquieu, Voltaire would later come to represent an alternative strand of influence in British and American historiography.66

In the Esprit des lois, Montesquieu begins with a taxonomy of the three basic forms of government (despotic, republican—both in its democratic and aristocratic forms—and monarchic); each form has a nature and an animating principle (fear, virtue and honour respectively). Voltaire persistently, even wilfully, misinterpreted this. He misunderstood Montesquieu's analysis of the principles of public behaviour in different types of government, and insisted that this should be replaced with strictly empirical questions (not ‘is virtue the category of political behaviour which enables the functioning of republican government?’ but ‘are people in republics in fact virtuous?’).67 His notes and comments are full of objections to (what he sees as) Montesquieu's abstract and schematic account of political motivation, including a long footnote to the Siècle de Louis XIV (862-3: added after 1753). Voltaire especially disliked the caricature of eastern despotisms which provides the negative pole in Montesquieu's normative discourse of limited government. Voltaire pointed out, in the Essai and elsewhere, that the Ottoman system, in particular, though not conformable to Montesquieu's notion of tempered monarchy (‘gouvernement monarchique tempéré’), is nevertheless culturally limited in ways which he chooses to ignore (Essai, I, 833).68

Book 19 of De l'Esprit des lois examines, in an innovatory way, the complex interrelationship between ‘mœurs’ (a term which includes customs, traditions and manners) and laws. This discussion, as chapter 16 previously explains, is predicated upon a distinction between man's dual role as a citizen (regulated by laws) and as a private individual (influenced by custom). Voltaire points out in La Défense de mon oncle (1767), written as a vindication of La Philosophie de l'Histoire, that such a distinction is artificial, since the effectiveness of the laws of any society depends upon more general patterns of cultural behaviour: ‘Le vrai savant est celui … qui juge d'une nation par ses mœurs plus que par ses lois, parce que les lois peuvent être bonnes et les mœurs mauvaises.’69 Law is a matter of ‘opinion’ (‘l'opinion a fait les lois’), and by ‘opinion’ Voltaire means the sum total of what a society believes about itself (‘Remarques’, Essai, II, 935). This is a relatively participatory view of law-making, and it provides Voltaire with another explanation as to how monarchy can be limited de facto as well as de jure: ‘Il y a partout un frein imposé au pouvoir arbitraire, par la loi, par les usages, ou par les mœurs’ (Essai, II, 809). Voltaire responds to Montesquieu's sociology of laws with his own idea of an ‘esprit du temps’ or ‘esprit général’ which dissolves the boundary, in a way the Esprit des lois does not, between institutional structures and the activities of society at large. Voltaire reckons all institutional arrangements to be customary, facilitated by particular habits (‘usages’), and by the current state of the collective ‘esprit général’. Changes in custom and taste, as the Essai sur les mœurs would later argue at some length, are thus key indicators of historical development.


The Siècle de Louis XIV incorporates a theory of culturally limited monarchy articulated in more detail elsewhere in Voltaire's writings. This theory challenges contemporary legal-historical as well as abstract sociological descriptions of the French constitution in the name of a type of egalitarian royalism. It also embodies an implicit claim for the authority of the historian who addresses political rulers from the very cultural domain in which their power is legitimated. The historian both shapes the national past into an artistic whole, and engages in the second-order creation of a role for aesthetics in politics. In the Siècle de Louis XIV, the national past is subjected to a further tier of evaluation as, with each stage of revision, the author superimposes a more self-consciously international perspective. Although the identification of a cosmopolitan ‘esprit philosophique’ with the age of Louis XIV is a feature of the earlier texts, later revisions suggest a growing tendency to see the seventeenth century as part of a much longer progress of civilisation, especially when the work is eventually appended to the Essai in later editions of the collected works.70 The closure and formal perfection of the age of Louis XIV is, in all texts, slightly compromised by the bathos of the last chapter which treats of acrimonious seventeenth-century disputes about the alleged atheism of the Chinese. This absurdity is cited as an example of the degree to which the public rationality, or an ‘esprit philosophique’ still needed to develop (267: 1753, II, 336).

Further revisions to the text indicate Voltaire's growing interest in religious strife as an obstacle to the period's attempts at modernisation. The chapters on religious affairs dramatise a conflict between an ‘esprit raisonable’, characteristic of the age at its best, and a wilfully anachronistic ‘esprit dogmatique’ bedevilling different groups of sectarians. In this section of the work, Voltaire is often obliged to postpone rather than to celebrate the modernity he wishes to locate in the age of Louis XIV. Jansenism makes an appearance as a backward-looking and fanatical form of sectarianism, and Voltaire finds this variant of Catholicism, not fundamentally incompatible with civil order, but embarrassing to a rational state. In the closing sections of the Siècle (which cover the period shortly after Louis XIV's reign), there is a passage relating how, in 1725, Jansenist enthusiasts disgraced themselves by going into a frenzy over supposed ‘miracles’ at the tomb of a revered Jansenist deacon; Voltaire loftily declares such fanaticism outmoded if harmless:

Ces sottises auraient eu des suites sérieuses dans des temps moins éclairés. Il semblait que ceux qui les protégaient ignorassent à quel siècle ils avaient affaire.

(1087: 1753, II, 310)

The modernity of the age of Louis XIV is more seriously called into question by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which had guaranteed Protestant toleration in France), the repression of the Protestants which preceded it, and the Protestant revolt in the Cévennes which followed. Voltaire is fascinated and appalled by the disastrously inflexible character both of the French Protestants and of the Jesuit-inspired repressive action of the state. Although he carefully distances Louis XIV from personal responsibility for the state oppression, Voltaire finds on both sides a failure of Enlightenment, and a perverse unwillingness to subordinate religious to civil interests. The Huguenots' demand for political autonomy seems to him seditious and unreasonable (their ‘esprit dogmatique’ inevitably engenders an ‘esprit republicain’). He finds the Huguenots anachronistic in their unsocial asceticism: ‘Les fêtes magnifiques d'une cour galante jetaient même de ridicule sur le pédantisme des huguenots’ (1048-9: 1753, II, 246). State oppression, too, is an anachronistic act, aggravated by the ultramontane proselytising of Louis' Jesuit advisers. The ironic consequence of this intolerance is the exodus from the country of a vast pool of expertise in arts and manufacturing, causing still further delays in the country's process of modernisation. The age of reason now appears to be some way off: ‘Cette raison … est un des grands ouvrages du temps, et ce temps n'était pas encore venu’ (1063: added after 1753). Here, for the first time, Voltaire finds a dark correlation (never fully articulated in any of the texts of the Siècle) between the artistic perfections of Louis XIV's state and its cruelty:

On voyait alors des scènes bien différentes: d'un côté, le désespoir et la fuite d'une partie de la nation; de l'autre, de nouvelles fêtes à Versailles; Trianon et Marly bâtis; la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l'art était épuisé.

(930-1: 1753, II, 68)

Voltaire is usually more indulgent towards ceremonial display in the high places of Louis XIV's France, but here he detects culpable shallowness in its oblivious baroque artistry.

For the most part, the Siècle de Louis XIV converts history into a spectacle discontinuous with the natural order. Under the subsequent, less dazzling administrations of Fleury in France and Walpole in Britain, affairs return to their natural order (‘Les affaires politiques rentrèrent insensiblement dans leur ordre naturel’, 886: 1753, I, 471). The sequel to this work, the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV (1769), documents this ‘natural order’ of history in a largely unembellished account of events from the death of Louis XIV to the present.71 Throughout the work, Voltaire applies a detached cosmopolitan perspective to recent events in his country. Once again, French history is analysed within a broad European context, and again French modernity is compromised by anachronistic episodes—in this case, the stabbing of Louis XV by the Jansenist fanatic Damiens, and the romanticised Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.72 Some of the most significant achievements of the period are said to have taken place during the financial revolution of the Regency; even John Law's catastrophic financial system is said to have had beneficial long-term effects upon monetary and commercial behaviour (‘un système tout chimérique enfanta un commerce réel’, 1307). The era of Louis XV is one of relative artistic decline. Voltaire expresses the conventionally neoclassical fear that, once the nation's language and the arts have been perfected in one epoch, they will inevitably be corrupted in the next: ‘La langue fut portée, sous Louis XIV, au plus haut point de perfection dans tous les genres … Il est à craindre aujourd'hui que cette belle langue ne dégénère, par cette malheureuse facilité d'écrire que le siècle passé a donnée aux siècles suivants’ (1570). The rehearsal of neoclassical ideas of declension in the chapter entitled ‘Des Progrès de l'esprit humain dans le siècle de Louis XV’, has led some critics to assume that the work's predecessor, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, should be read as a satirical commentary on the twilight period in which Voltaire was living. However, since both ancients and moderns had recognised a distinction between the arts and other aspects of progress, and, since Voltaire had shown the great epoch of Louis XIV to have been an exceptional case within the normative evolution of the philosophical spirit of mankind, such inferences are not necessary.73


Voltaire's most ambitious historical work, the Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de l'histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu'à Louis XIII (this title was first used in 1769) supplies the wider historical context within which the account of the age of Louis XV is to be understood. The Essai explores the complex, and sometimes contradictory relationship between the arts, the philosophical spirit, and the evolution of civilisation in Europe. Moreover, it attempts to do so in ways which will erode national partialities; local cultural achievements such as the Siècle de Louis XIV, which was appended to this work, appear as (particularly impressive) variations on the theme of international evolution. Despite its declared ambition to supply an overview of the development of civilisation, the Essai is essentially an agglomeration of a number of national histories held together by a (sometimes fragile) narrative thread. At the outset, Voltaire approaches them as he might a collection of national epic poems, identifying a small number of constant formal elements and many national variants. The unity of these national histories, Voltaire explains in the summary ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’ (1756), is to be found, not at the level of master narrative, but in the pre-cognitive drive to civilisation inherent in all men and women:

Au milieu de ces saccagements et de ces destructions que nous observons dans l'espace de neuf cent années, nous voyons un amour de l'ordre qui anime en secret le genre humain, et qui a prévenu sa ruine totale. C'est un des ressorts de la nature, qui reprend toujours sa force: c'est lui qui a formé le code des nations.

(II, 808: 1756, XVI, 149)

Man's creative love of order, which has affinities with the historian's own artistic quest for form in variety, fashions and sustains the delicate and slow process of civilisation: ‘Il est aisé de … conclure … avec quelle lenteur la raison humaine se forme’ (II, 87: 1756, XII, 315). The Essai does not, as is often supposed, sound the drum of the march of reason. When Voltaire speaks of progress, he uses the very unusual unreflexive verb ‘se civiliser’ to signify that the civilising process is voluntary and not mechanical: ‘Avec quelle lenteur, avec quelle difficulté le genre humain se civilise, et la société se perfectionne!’ (II, 724: 1756, XIV, 231). The process is silent, whereas the forces of destruction and regression are associated with noise: ‘Le commerce et l'industrie de ces villes a réparé sourdement le mal que les princes [Edward III and Philippe de Valois] faisaient avec tant de fracas’ (my italics, I, 721: 1756, XII, 125).

Voltaire's complementary task as a creative historian is to piece together remnants of order in an often chaotic past, and to reveal the constant elements in history while revelling in the infinite diversity of peoples and ages. In the ‘Résumé’ (1756) of the Essai, Voltaire explains that this simultaneous search for order and variety springs from the contrasting functions in history of nature and custom:

L'empire de la coûtume est bien plus vaste que celui de la nature; il s'étend sur les mœurs, sur tous les usages; il répand la variété sur la scene de l'univers: la nature y répand l'unité; elle établit partout un petit nombre de principes invariables: ainsi le fonds est partout le même, et la culture produit des fruits divers.

(1756, II, 810)

Voltaire's second major history is, then, in part, an essai in Montaigne's sense of the word: a detached, often sceptical and episodic evaluation of the cultural eccentricities and natural propensities of mankind.74 Yet the Essai also transcends the Renaissance preoccupation with peculiar human customs in its search for a coherent narrative of the development of European civilisation in relation to the rest of the world. This narrative is secured in Voltaire's idea of nature and natural law, although this, in turn, derives from a precarious metaphysic which history puts to the test. With each new revision of the text of the Essai, Voltaire runs increasing epistemological difficulties, and he confesses himself unable to shore up the work against the old, familiar pyrrhonian enemy. Nevertheless, he persists in his original aim of supplying his readers with a normative historical perspective from which to re-evaluate national, and, ultimately, European diversities and prejudices.


Originally a response to his mistress's request for a history which eschewed mere chronology of kings and queens, the Essai eventually grew into a grand summary of world history from the time of Charlemagne to the dawn of the age of Louis XIV. In the 1769 Geneva edition of his works, Voltaire placed at the front of the Essai a preliminary discourse on the natural history of primitive societies entitled La Philosophie de l'histoire. This work, the first ever to use the term ‘the philosophy of history’, makes explicit many of the themes of nature and natural law in the Essai, although its presence also overmagnifies their importance to the Essai as a whole. Voltaire began work on the Essai in the 1740s, publishing portions of the chapters on the crusades in the early 1750s. The first authorised text appeared in 1754, and the work reached its basic form in the edition printed in the 1756 Geneva works under the title Essay sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations. I shall base my interpretation upon this edition, noting the successive revisions of 1761, 1769, 1775, as well as those which appeared in the posthumous ‘Kehl’ edition of 1785.75 Modern critics, basing their readings upon the Kehl edition, have tended to assume that the Essai was conceived as a militantly ironic exposure of human folly and cruelty in history.76 In its 1754-6 incarnations, the Essai is not, as is generally supposed, a Candide-like satire on human depravity writ large, but a developmental narrative which tells calmly of the material and cultural changes which brought about the rise of modern European societies out of the ruins of feudalism. Although Voltaire polemically dissociates the modern world from the medieval, he does not simply consign the Middle Ages to darkness, but shows that they, too, undergo a transformational process set in motion by the growth of towns, the (generally benign) influence of the Church, and the trauma of the Crusades. The rise of a civilised European system of states comes about through the establishment of powerful monarchies, and the eventual decline in the influence of the Church and the nobility. Voltaire's concept of world history is quite generous, embracing the Middle and Far East, though rarely Africa. Nevertheless, the narrative largely follows the trajectory of Europe and the triumph of its norms within an international framework. Although Voltaire describes other civilisations as they develop in ways wholly independent of Europe, his narrative shifts of perspective are usually strategic manœuvres in which Europe remains his main subject. It was this, only sporadically ironic, account of the rise of modern Europe which was read, translated and reviewed throughout Britain and North America, and which shaped international opinion of Voltaire as a historian. Gibbon, Robertson and Hume read and absorbed the early versions of the Essai long before a more bitterly satirical, older Voltaire had reshaped the text into a more blatant contest between reason and unreason.

The Essai provided its readers with the outlines of an Enlightenment narrative of the rise of Europe; many of its essential features would later be elaborated by British and American historians attempting to construct a satisfactory history of their own civilisation. The story of the Essai opens in China and India. The initial perspective is widened before the narrative proper begins with the reign of Charlemagne (not, in Voltaire's view, a golden age), and a backward glance at the destruction of the Roman Empire. Voltaire, like the Gibbon of the notorious chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline and Fall, identifies Christianity as a major cause of the weakening and collapse of the Roman Empire. As the narrative travels through the chaos of the early Middle Ages, Voltaire shows the Church gradually grasping at power. On balance, however, he sees this institution as a force for civilisation (‘on sentait qu'elle … était faite pour donner des leçons aux autres’), and even as a kind of intermediate power in the states where it operates (‘un frein qui retienne les souverains’, I, 492, 529: 1756, XI, 263, 306). The Crusades and the ravages of Genghis Khan form part of a post-classical pattern of barbarian incursions world-wide. In this context, the Crusades are merely the last explosion of barbarian restlessness, temporarily disrupting the underlying tendency of European societies, from the thirteenth century onwards, towards synthesis, civility and urbanisation. The rigours of aristocratic and church-sponsored forms of feudalism are steadily attenuated as chivalry harmonises social relations and monarchy gains ground. By the fourteenth century, in Italy and elsewhere, municipal incorporation has led to advances in the arts and sciences, and to the recovery of natural rights lost during the destruction of the Roman Empire: ‘les hommes ne rentrèrent que par degrés et très difficilement dans leur droit naturel’ (I, 777: 1756, XII, 187). The cultivated civil society of the Ottoman Empire during this period holds out future possibilities for Europe.

By the early sixteenth century, monarchy is on a secure footing throughout the western and eastern worlds, and this, along with the increased wealth and stability brought by burgeoning commercial activity in the towns, leads to greater and more centralised internal order in the states, as well as increases in the technical sophistication and cost of warfare (II, 163-5: 1756, XIII, 36-9). This is accompanied by a cluster of artistic achievements (the word ‘Renaissance’ was not in use in the eighteenth century), reaching a crescendo in François I's France, which are, however, partly overshadowed by religious strife. Religious turmoil, in turn, has its origins in the gap, which had been widening since the early fifteenth century, between the learned and hence powerful clergy, and the intellectually disadvantaged laity (I, 69: 1756, XII, 98). Paradoxically, then, it is when clerical learning and power are at their height, during the papacy of Leo X, that Luther first lifts a corner of the veil which has shrouded the populace in ignorance (II, 217: 1756, XIII, 94). The ‘monument’ of the Church of Rome totters under the weight of this last straw (II, 251: 1756, XIII, 125). The Reformation is the ideological fruition of long gestated passions. Voltaire betrays a mild distaste for the somewhat buffoon-like Luther, and argues that, with hindsight, even legitimate resistance to the tyranny of Rome was not worth all the subsequent years of religious war in Europe. The discoveries and colonial enterprises in the Americas, which would be discussed at greater length in later editions of the Essai, are given brief, ironic presentation as further evidence of this persistent streak of barbarity in the Europe of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. The effect of the Reformation is to loosen the bonds of civil order established earlier in the sixteenth century. The ensuing disorder culminates (at least, to a French way of thinking) in the St Bartholomew Massacre, and again in the assassination of Henri IV of France. Even in the earliest texts of the Essai, Voltaire emphasises that Europe at this time is in the grip of an epidemic of irrational hatred (‘fureur épidémique’), and public life has become a bizarre mixture of polish and fanaticism (‘mélange de galanterie et de fureurs’); none of this can be said to represent an advance on the previous century (II, 541, 494: 1756, XII, 364, 281). The English, who have enriched their country through commerce, and redistributed some of their wealth, belatedly suffer a civil war along the lines of the continental religious wars (II, 466, 661: 1756, XIII, 328; XIV, 156).

By the sixteenth century, Voltaire starts to refer to the ‘esprit’ of the people (at this stage, it is generally one of fanaticism). As the seventeenth century unfolds, an ‘esprit général’ begins to evolve among the European nations. The emergence of this general spirit, however capricious and ill educated it may be, brings with it the prospect of more participatory kinds of societies in which public opinion and cultural priorities play a shaping role. By the later seventeenth century, commerce has enhanced the political role of the ‘esprit’ of the people, and the world seems, quite suddenly, to have outgrown religious wars. For England, this is a period of real cultural achievement: ‘L'esprit de la nation acquit sous la règne de Charles II une réputation immortelle, quoique le gouvernement n'en eût point’ (II, 689: 1756, XIV, 190). Rome, during the Counter-Reformation, and Holland, in its golden age, reach similar cultural heights. The European portion of the Essai ends with France poised to undergo a great expansion of national spirit in the age of Louis XIV. The history closes with the rejection of Christianity by China and Japan, while Persia and the Ottoman empire echo the cultural advances of the age.

Voltaire allocates a considerable amount of textual space to events outside western Europe. These, although they cannot be seen as mere tricks of perspective, function primarily as a referential framework within which the apparently normative character of the rise of the West is both comprehended and rendered problematic. Voltaire's accounts of other, non-western civilisations are appreciative, but not fully developmental. China is a particularly curious case, representing both a utopia and—since it is a society which has advanced as far as it can go—a haunting image of cultural atrophy (I, 216: 1756, XI, 19). What puzzles Voltaire is that Europe, unlike China, seems able to perpetuate its own processes of advancement, yet, with its frantic missionary and colonial activities, it lacks the Chinese genius for self-sufficiency. In praising the great isolationist civilisations, China and Japan (who finally banish Europe from their midst at the very end of the Essai), Voltaire attacks the greed of Europe, and its perverse desire to transmit its culture to other parts of the globe:

Nos peuples occidentaux ont fait éclater dans toutes ces découvertes une grande supériorité d'esprit et de courage sur les notions orientales … Mais la nature leur avait donné sur nous un avantage qui balance tous les nôtres: c'est qu'elles n'avaient nul besoin de nous, et que nous avions besoin d'elles.

(II, 325: 1756, XIII, 207)

Many of Voltaire's non-western chapters (especially those on the Spanish depredations in the Americas) are similarly instrumental to his moral message that the East—a world in which stasis and isolation, rather than furious activity and cultural interaction, are the norms—is essential to the self-understanding of the West.

Voltaire's self-reflexivity also informs the European portions of the narrative where he is, on occasion, suspicious of his own tendency to seek out signs of cultural sophistication and civility, and wary of the imaginative seductions of periods simultaneously glittering and barbaric (for example, II, 494: 1756, XIII, 364). He is enthralled and horrified by the courts of François I and the Emperor Charles V which are at once chivalric, courteous and violently factious. In a final revision, he remarks: ‘Cette politesse brillait même au milieu des crimes: c'était une robe d'or et de soie ensanglantée’ (II, 135). Despite such frissons, Voltaire stops well short of the kind of critique of the moral snares of civilisation which Jean Jacques Rousseau mounted around the same time.77 At bottom, Voltaire sees no actual connivance between aesthetic and inhumane pursuits, and he objected to this strain in the argument of the Discours sur … l'inegalité in a letter to Rousseau himself: ‘Avouez que le badinage de Marot n'a pas produit La St Barthélemi, et que la tragédie du Cid ne causa pas les guerres de la Fronde.’78


With his perception of his own artistic practice sharpened by Rousseau, Voltaire remained acutely aware of the moral difficulties of salvaging an artistically coherent narrative from the past without giving up to irony a sense of progress in European history. There are moments of savage irony—the sections on the Crusades and the New World discoveries, for instance—but these are contained and absorbed within the larger developmental structure. After 1756, the text of the Essai was substantially expanded, with new information and evidence, and also with added remarks and asides, many of these acerbic, satirical, and suggestive of growing doubts about the inherent value of history.79 These revisions reveal a changing Voltaire, more inclined to subordinate history to his moral crusade against ‘l'infâme’, more pessimistic about human nature, and more virulently hostile to the clergy. In the last quarter century of his literary career, Voltaire showed a new preference for shorter textual formats as vehicles for effective propaganda. Accordingly, many of the revisions to the Essai have the effect of reducing long developmental sections to sharp, arresting anecdote, and breaking the evolutionary thrust of the narrative. For example, in the 1756 text, he argues that, throughout the Middle Ages, fundamental changes occurred in Europe which steadily increased the sum of human liberty. However, in a textual revision of 1769, he supplements this with a remark that, even by the late fifteenth century, very little had actually happened to mitigate the barbarousness of the times: ‘Les mœurs ne furent pas meilleurs ni en France, ni en Angleterre, ni en Allemagne, ni dans le Nord. La barbarie, la superstition, l'ignorance couvraient la face du monde, excepté en Italie’ (II, 10). Gradually, Voltaire comes to see the Middle Ages as the opposite, rather than the precursor of modern Europe.

Later texts tend to distil the ironic character of individual episodes in history. Even when discussing the Crusades, already characterised as an absurd, futile act of fanaticism, Voltaire intensifies, in a revision of 1761, the irony of the crusaders' attack on Constantinople: ‘Ainsi les chrétiens dirigèrent leur croisade contre le premier prince de la chrétienté’ (I, 581). The narrative is constantly undercut by these new verbal flounces about the futility of it all; François I's France is suddenly dismissed as barbarous, and humanists such as Pico della Mirandola are now held up for ridicule as examples of the blind ignorance of Renaissance Italy (II, 202 (1769); II, 89 (1761)). With each incremental set of revisions, the satirist steadily gets the better of the historian. The historical narrative of the Essai is subtly remoulded into a contest between the archetypes of reason and fanaticism. In another instance of this process, Voltaire originally attributed the desire of the crusaders to crusade to religious prejudice, avarice and restlessness; in 1761, however, this behaviour is redescribed in archetypal terms: ‘Cette fureur épidémique parut alors pour la première fois, afin qu'il n'y eût aucun fléau possible qui n'eût affligé l'espèce humaine’ (I, 560).

As he retouched the Essai, Voltaire became more preoccupied with the ironies of causality in history, and less interested in its (ultimately relatively civilised) outcome. Narrative connectives are traded for a satirical sense of necessity. The rudimentary causal coherence, which Voltaire originally found in the history of the world, starts to look like a Panglossian fantasy. Voltaire now sees only an unpredictable game of consequences (the word he uses to convey this is ‘enchaînement’). François I's death of the new world disease, syphilis, is presented, in 1761, as an example of this ironically treacherous ‘enchaînement’:

C'est ainsi que les événements sont enchaînés: un pilote génois donne un univers à l'Espagne; la nature a mis dans les îles de ces climats lointains un poison qui infecte les sources de la vie; et il faut qu'un roi de France en périsse.

(II, 201)

The term ‘enchaînement’ conveys an idea of human helplessness in the face of meaningless fatality: ‘il paraît un enchaînement fatal des causes qui entrainent les hommes comme les vents poussent les sables et les flots’ (II, 794: 1756, XIV, 319). The use of the term ‘enchaînement’ also carries with it an indirect attack on Catholic providential history of the kind most famously exemplified by Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle (1681). Bossuet uses the term ‘enchaînement’ to denote the divine order in which God simulates logical cause-effect relationships in order to give man a sense of the moral intelligibility of the world. Or as Bossuet phrases it:

ce mesme Dieu qui a fait l'enchaisnement de l'Univers … a voulu aussi que le cours des choses humaines eust sa suite et ses proportions.80

Voltaire's use of the word ‘enchaînement’ suggests a parodic reworking of theocentric universal history. Bossuet's God, by acting directly upon human passions, produces a historical order identical to the providential order, whereas Voltaire's ‘enchaînement’ reveals a moral sequence discontinuous with or in ironic relation to the historical one.81


With each revised stage of the Essai, the balance of authority shifts away from history and towards the narrator who submits his material to his own rational and moral mediation. In 1756, Voltaire had acknowledged that a selective evaluation of the past would deprive some parts of history of their significance: ‘vous attachant toujours aux événements et aux mœurs, vous franchissez tous ces espaces vides pour venir aux temps marquées par de grandes choses’ (II, 785: 1756, XIV, 308). As later versions of the Essai metamorphose history into moral typology, the past seems to lack content; it oscillates between empty spaces (‘espaces vides’) and moments of moral illumination. The additional moralising and satiric asides bestow only sporadic and contingent value upon the content of history, and Voltaire appears to have reverted to the epistemological preoccupations of his youth. His partial solution to the problem was, in 1769, to prefix to the Essai an anthropological study of early human civilisations, La Philosophie de l'histoire. This innovative pseudo-history of man in the ancient world identifies the natural and constant aspects of human behaviour with regard to language, social interaction and religious belief.82 Originally published separately in 1765, La Philosophie provides, in its new position, a comprehensive statement on the natural determinants of human civilisation as a kind of theoretical underpinning for the history of variations in human custom in the Essai. Nevertheless, La Philosophie and the Essai need to be read separately if Voltaire's ideas of history are not be subordinated to his mechanist sociology of early man. This need for separate reading is, at one level, implicit in the distinction which Voltaire makes in La Philosophie between nascent (or natural) reason and cultivated reason. He evaluates primitive societies according to how far they have realised natural, moral and rational human potentialities. All societies progress from primitive reason (‘raison commencée’) to advanced reason (‘raison cultivée’) through a sequence of religious and political forms: at the religious level, from intuitive monotheism, to superstitious polytheism, and then to sophisticated monotheist belief in a rewarding and punishing god; at the political level, from theocracy to republicanism or monarchy.83 In advancing cultures, cultivated reason brings an unconscious return to the intuitions of primitive reason; this, for example is the essence of the achievement of ancient Greece and Rome.84 By representing reason as a potentiality released through personal and collective development, Voltaire tries to put history back on a semi-empirical footing. Even so, the historical twist which he gives to natural moral law, does not, finally, enable him to extricate this work from the mechanistic and uniform character of his youthful Newtonianism.

The later texts of the Essai continue to preserve a degree of emphasis upon human diversity and unpredictability. Natural impulses are, Voltaire argues, the foundation of ethical behaviour throughout the world (do as you would be done by, do not steal from your neighbour, respect your parents, and so on), but this is not, as he reiterates at the end of La Philosophie, an adequate basis for a historical study of different cultures.85 Even in this theoretical work, he stresses the discontinuity between moral laws which are naturally intuited (‘lois … naturelles, communes à tous’) and political laws which are artificial, arbitrary (‘lois purement civiles, éternellement arbitraires’), and best judged according to their social utility (a pragmatism closer to Hume than to Newton).86 Nature, since it is incapable of modification, is a condition of stability; human variety and identities are culturally generated. Even in La Philosophie de l'histoire, perhaps the most mechanistic of his writings on human history, Voltaire allows room for a cultural history of individual and national variety, and for difference at the level of manners, customs and positive laws. The movement of Voltaire's historical concerns away from the political and cultural towards ethical and metaphysical questions is consistent with a general shift in his public persona during this period. From his years as a courtier and socialite in Paris and Berlin, through a period of crisis, and a recuperation of dignity and moral authority at Ferney, Voltaire's personal preoccupations had changed enormously. His early cosmopolitanism, which reflected both his social aspirations and his affection for modern European civilisation, gave way to a universalism of humanitarian concern. The ethical preoccupations of La Philosophie de l'histoire and the later texts of the two major histories are of a piece with his public campaigns for the Calas family, Sirven and La Barre. More than any other historian in this study, Voltaire projected himself as the final signified of his own works. The authority of this extra-textual self correlates with the defiant stylishness of these histories; his style is offered as evidence of civility, an exemplary act of aesthetic ordering by the autonomous and self-aware ‘esprit philosophique’ of its creator. For this reason, perhaps, Voltaire's personality proved and continues to prove more seductive to his French, British and American readers than the brand of cultural history which he invented.


  1. All citations in the notes from the collected works of Voltaire refer either to Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Moland (52 vols.; Paris, 1877-85) [hereafter Moland] or, where texts are available, to The Complete Works of Voltaire (Institut et Musée Voltaire, Geneva, 1968- in progress) (hereafter Works). All citations which refer to the letters of Voltaire are from Correspondence and Related Documents, ed. Theodore Besterman, Works, LXXXV-CXXXV (1968-77), hereafter Best. D.

    All citations in the text of this chapter from L'Histoire de Charles XII are from Voltaire, Oeuvres historiques, ed. René Pomeau (Paris, 1957). This text is taken from the ‘Kehl’ edition, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire (70 vols.; Kehl, 1774-89), and differences between this and earlier texts are noted. All citations from Le Siècle de Louis XIV, from the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, and from the Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand are also from the Pomeau edition of the Oeuvres historiques. These texts are also based on the ‘Kehl’ edition. Citations from the Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations are taken from the edition of René Pomeau (2 vols.; Paris, 1963). This text is based on the ‘Kehl’ edition. In all cases, textual differences in earlier editions will be noted and discussed. Citations from La Philosophie de l'histoire are from the edition by J. H. Brumfitt in Works, LIX (1969). This is based upon the separately published edition (Amsterdam (Geneva), 1765). Spelling in all of the above twentieth-century editions is given in modern form.

    Bibliographical details are drawn from Georges Bengesco, Voltaire: bibliographie de ses oeuvres (4 vols.; Paris, 1882-90). This must be supplemented by Theodore Besterman, ‘Some Eighteenth-Century Voltaire Editions unknown to Bengesco’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 64 (1968), 7-150. The first three volumes of the new, multi-volume biography of Voltaire are invaluable guides to the ‘historical’ period of his writing life. These are: René Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire, 1694-1734 (Oxford, 1985); René Vaillot, Avec Mme du Châtelet, 1734-1749 (Oxford, 1988); René Pomeau, Christiane Mervaud et al., De la Cour au Jardin, 1750-1759 (Oxford, 1991).

    The journal Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century is here after cited as SVEC.

  2. For an exhaustive study of the popularity of Voltaire's histories and other works in Britain, see A. M. Rousseau, ‘L'Angleterre et Voltaire, SVEC, 145-6 (1976).

  3. J. H. Brumfitt's Voltaire, Historian (Oxford, 1958, revised, 1970) is still the fullest study of his historical works.

  4. Vaillot, Avec Mme du Châtelet, 246-7.

  5. For a very different kind of attempt to rehabilitate Voltaire's histories, see Freidrich Meinecke Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook, trans. J. E. Anderson (New York, 1972).

  6. Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (revised edn, Berkeley, California, 1979); Blandine Barret-Kreigel, La défaite de l'érudition (Paris, 1988).

  7. Haydn Mason, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire (Oxford, 1963).

  8. On this shift, see Günther Pflug, ‘The Development of Historical Method in the Eighteenth Century’, History and Theory, 11 Beiheft (1971), 1-23.

  9. On this debate, see Carlo Borghero, La certezza e la storia: Cartesianesimo, Pirronismo e Conoscenza Storica (Milan, 1993), 357-75.

  10. Nicholas Fréret, ‘Réflexions sur l'étude des anciennes histoires, et sur le degré de leurs preuves’, Histoire de l'Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, VI (Paris, 1717), VI (1729), 146-89. The whole debate is printed in this volume.

  11. ‘Sur M. Locke’, Lettres philosophiques (1734), Moland, XXII, 122.

  12. For example, Le Philosophe ignorant (1766), Works, LXII (1987), 86.

  13. ‘Le Pyrrhonisme de l'histoire’ (1768), Moland, XXVII, 235.

  14. In the article ‘Histoire’, Voltaire mentions ‘l'histoire naturelle, improprement dite histoire, … qui est une partie essentielle de la physique’ (Works, XXXIII, 164).

  15. Voltaire to Pierre Joseph Thoulier d'Olivet (6 January, 1736), Best. D980. See Andrée Mansau, Saint-Réal et l'humanisme cosmopolite (Paris, 1976), 440-2. Voltaire later remarked that, for all his merits, Saint-Réal was not really a historian: Voltaire to Pierre Jean Grosley (22 January, 1758), Best. D7599.

  16. David Knowles, Great Historical Enterprises: Problems in Monastic History (London, 1963); Blandine Barret-Kreigel, Jean Mabillon (Paris, 1988).

  17. Jean Mabillon, Annales Ordinis S. Benedicti Occidentalium Monachorum Patriarchae (6 vols.; Paris, 1703-39). See, in particular, the Praefatii to volume II (1704) and volume III (1706).

  18. Chantal Grell, L'histoire entre érudition et philosophie: étude sur la connaissance historique à l'âge des lumières (Paris, 1993).

  19. On French national history in this period, see Orest Ranum, Artisans of Glory: Writers and Historical Thought in Seventeenth-Century France (Chapel Hill, NC, 1982); Erica Harth, Ideology and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France (Ithaca, 1983), 129-79.

  20. Gabriel Daniel, Histoire de France depuis l'Etablissement de la monarchie Française dans les Gaules (3 vols.; Paris, 1713), I, i; I, xiv. For a different view of Mézeray, see Phyllis K. Leffler, ‘From Humanist to Enlightenment Historiography: A Case Study of François Eudes de Mézeray’, French Historical Studies, 10 (1977-8), 416-38.

  21. N. Boileau-Despréaux, L'Art poétique (1674), R. Le Bossu, Traité du poëme épique (1675), and Dominique Bouhours, La Manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages de l'esprit (Paris, 1687). The classic secondary study is René Bray, La Formation de la doctrine classique en France (Paris, 1927); see also, Gordon Pocock, Boileau and the Nature of Neoclassicism (Cambridge, 1980).

  22. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973), 50-1.

  23. Voltaire, An Essay upon the civil wars of France, extracted from curious Manuscripts, and also upon the epick poetry of the European nations from Homer down to Milton (London, 1727). On this, see also David Williams, ‘Voltaire's “True Essay” on Epic Poetry’, Modern Language Review, 88 (1993), 46-57.

  24. Grell, L'histoire entre érudition et philosophie, 219.

  25. Voltaire, La Henriade, ed. O. R. Taylor, Works, II, (1970). David Maskell, The Historical Epic in France, 1500-1700 (Oxford, 1973).

  26. Essay upon the epick (1727), 122-3.

  27. See also O. R. Taylor, ‘Voltaire's Apprenticeship as a Historian: La Henriade’ in The Age of the Enlightenment: Studies Presented to Theodore Besterman, eds. W. H. Barber, J. H. Brumfitt, R. A. Leigh, R. Shackleton and S. S. B. Taylor (Edinburgh, 1967).

  28. Henry Fielding (trans.), The military history of Charles XII. King of Sweden, written by the express order of his Majesty, by G. Adlerfeld (3 vols.; London, 1740). The view of L'Histoire de Charles XII as mock epic has been expressed in sophisticated ways by Lionel Gossman, ‘Voltaire's Charles XII: History into Art’, SVEC, 25 (1963), 691-720; Hayden White, Metahistory, 62-4; Suzanne Gearhart, The Open Boundary of History and Fiction: A Critical Approach to the French Enlightenment (Princeton, 1984), 57-94.

  29. Samuel Johnson, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, line 220 in Poems, ed. E. L. McAdam and George Milne (New Haven, 1964).

  30. Gearhart, The Open Boundary, 76.

  31. In the 1739 Amsterdam edition of L'Histoire de Charles XII, Voltaire added a section at the end of book I on Peter's reforms in Russia.

  32. Défense de Louis XIV (1769), Oeuvres historiques, 1294.

  33. Grell, L'historie entre érudition et philosophie, 44-9.

  34. Charles Perrault, ‘Le Siècle de Louis le Grand’ (delivered 1687) printed in volume I of Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences (4 vols.; Paris, 1688-97).

  35. The classic account is Hippolyte Rigault, Histoire de la querelle des anciens et des modernes (Paris, 1856). The most important recent account of the debate in England contains a good deal of information about France: Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca, New York, 1991).

  36. Antoine Houdart de la Motte, ‘Discours sur Homère’ (1713), Oeuvres (11 vols.; Paris, 1753-4), I; Jean Terrasson, Dissertation critique sur l'Iliade d'Homère (2 vols.; Paris, 1715).

  37. ‘Nouvelles considérations sur l'histoire’ (1744), Oeuvres historiques, 46-9. Voltaire attacked the modern camp in a satirical poem ‘Le Bourbier’ (1714), Moland, X, 75-7. However, he summarised the debate impartially in an article in Questions sur l'Encyclopédie (1770-2), Moland, XVII, 225-40. See David Williams, ‘Voltaire: Literary Critic’, SVEC, 48 (1966).

  38. A similar argument, from a very different perspective, has been made about the French Enlightenment as a whole by Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Oxford, 1988).

  39. Voltaire started work in earnest in 1735. See Vaillot, Avec Mme du Châtelet, 42. However, he referred to the projected work as early as 1732: Voltaire to Jean Baptiste Nicholas Formont (c. 12 September 1732), Best. D526. He also outlined his plans in a letter to Dubos (30 October, 1738), Best. D1642.

  40. For details of the 1739 portion of Le Siècle de Louis XIV, see Bengesco, Bibliographie, I, 341. I have based my observations throughout upon the George-Conrad Walther edition (2 vols.; Dresden, 1753) (Bengesco, no. 1186). Significant revisions to the first edition (2 vols.; Berlin, 1751) are noted. For ease of access, all quotations are cited in the first instance from Oeuvres historiques and I have given a second reference to the Walther edition immediately after this in my text. On the printing of Le Siècle de Louis XIV, see Pomeau and Mervaud, De la Cour au Jardin, 51, 61, 69, 73.

  41. On Voltaire's sources, see Gustave Lanson, Voltaire, trans. Robert Wagoner (London, New York and Sydney, 1966), 97-8; J. H. Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian, 59-60; Larissa Albina, ‘Voltaire et ses sources historiques’, Le XVIIIè Siècle, 13 (1981), 349-59; M. S. Rivière, ‘Voltaire and the Fronde’, Nottingham French Studies, 26 (1987), 1-18; Rivière, ‘Voltaire's use of Larrey and Limiers in Le Siècle de Louis XIV: History as a Science, an Art and a Philosophy’, Forum for Modern Language Studies, 25 (1989), 34-53; Rivière, ‘Voltaire's use of Dangeau's Mémoires in Le Siegcle de Louis XIV: the paradox of the historian-raconteur’, SVEC, 256 (1989), 97-106; Pomeau and Mervaud, De la Cour au Jardin, 76-7. On Voltaire's oral sources, see Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire, 236; Vaillot, Avec Mme du Châtelet, 72.

  42. For a more systematic reading of Le Siècle as a classical tragedy, see M. S. Rivière, ‘Voltaire's concept of dramatic history in Le Siècle de Louis XIV’, SVEC, 284 (1991), 179-98.

  43. N. R. Johnson, ‘Louis XIV and the Age of the Enlightenment: The Myth of the Sun King from 1715 to 1789’, SVEC, 172 (1978).

  44. Roger Chartier, Les origines culturelles de la Revolution française (Paris, 1990), chapter 6.

  45. Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1980); Donald Kelley, Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship: Language, Law, and History in the French Renaissance (New York, 1970).

  46. J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (revised edn, Cambridge, 1987).

  47. Ranum, Artisans of Glory.

  48. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France, 376-88; J. Q. C. Mackrell, The Attack on Feudalism in Eighteenth-Century France (London, 1973).

  49. Thomas E. Kaiser, ‘The abbé Dubos and the historical defence of monarchy in early eighteenth-century France’, SVEC, 267 (1989), 77-102.

  50. The standard work is Elie Carcassonne, Montesquieu et le problème de la Constitution Française au XVIIIè Siècle (Paris, 1926). See also Iris Cox, ‘Montesquieu and the history of French Laws’, SVEC, 216 (1983).

  51. C. de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des lois (2nd edn, Paris, 1757), Books 20, 22. The concept of a depository body (‘corps dépositaire’) denotes a function within a state and need not necessarily be performed by parlements.

  52. On 30 October, 1738, Voltaire wrote to Dubos to congratulate him on having clarified the question of French origins (Best. D1642).

  53. Annales de l'Empire, depuis Charlemagne (2 vols.; Bâle, 1753), Moland, XIII, 220. See Pomeau and Mervaud, De la Cour au Jardin, 189-90, 207. For Voltaire's own annotations to J. B. Dubos, Histoire critique de l'établissement de la monarchie française dans les Gaules (3 vols.; Amsterdam, 1734), see Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, eds. L. Albina, T. Voronova, S. Manévitch et al. (Berlin, 1979-), II, 161-92.

  54. Histoire du Parlement de Paris par M. l'abbé Bigore (2 vols.; Amsterdam, 1769), Moland, XV, 446. The text was altered and expanded successively in 1769 (Bengesco, Bibliographie, no. 1248), 1770 (Bengesco, no. 1251) and 1775 (Bengesco, no. 1253n.).

  55. Corpus des notes marginales, I, 433-97.

  56. Histoire du Parlement de Paris, Moland, XV, 448.

  57. Peter Gay identifies two broad strains in eighteenth-century French political thought, the ‘thèse nobiliaire’ and the ‘thèse royale’, around which he groups, respectively, the Germanist and Romanist juristic theses. In so far as he de-emphasises the legalistic content of Voltaire's ‘thèse royale’, these broad outlines are helpful, although he has a tendency to place Voltaire in the Dubos camp, and to underestimate the flexibility of Voltaire's historical case for monarchy: Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (2nd edn, New Haven, 1988), 87-116. For a somewhat different critique of Gay's book, see Robert S. Tate, ‘Voltaire and the Question of Law and Order in the Eighteenth Century: Locke against Hobbes' in Studies in Eighteenth-Century French Literature Presented to Robert Niklaus, eds. J. Fox, M. Waddicor and D. Watts (Exeter, 1975).

  58. Voltaire did not succeed in his aim of putting an end to juristic debate about the French constitution. Around this time, his fellow historian, Gabriel Bonnot de Mably set about constructing a legal-historical case for democracy in France. See Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990), chapter 4.

  59. Voltaire's Politics, 101-2.

  60. Pomeau ed., Politique de Voltaire (Paris, 1963), 36.

  61. Pomeau finds Voltaire's preference both doctrinal and aesthetic (Politique de Voltaire, 41).

  62. ‘On a dit dans l'Essai sur les mœurs, qu'il n'y a point en rigeur de loi positive fondamentale; les hommes ne peuvent faire que les lois de convention.’ (‘Remarques pour servir de supplément à l'Essai sur les mœurs’ (1763) in Essai, II, 936.)

  63. Voltaire, ‘Poëme de Fontenoy’, Moland, VIII, 371-95.

  64. Voltaire, ‘Commentaire sur l'Esprit des lois’ (1777), Moland, XXX, 430. See also Pensées sur le gouvernement (1752), Moland, XXIII, 530 (‘Il n‘y a point d'Etat despotique par sa nature’).

  65. There is a generous biographical note on Montesquieu in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1187-8. Voltaire came to Montesquieu's defence during a pamphlet war over De l'Esprit des lois (Remerciement sincère à un homme charitable (1750), Moland, XXIII, 457-61). See also Robert Shackleton, ‘Allies and Enemies: Voltaire and Montesquieu’ in Essays on Montesquieu and the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1988).

  66. Hugh Trevor-Roper identifies a split in the respective influences of Voltaire and Montesquieu, the former politically radical in his legacy, the latter conservative (‘The Historical Philosophy of the Enlightenment’, SVEC, 27 (1963), 1667-87).

  67. For examples of this, see Pensées sur le gouvernement, Moland, XXIII, 531; Idées républicaines (1762), Moland, XXIV, 427; Commentaire sur l'Esprit des lois, Moland, XXX, 426-7.

  68. See also Commentaire, Moland, XXX, 417; Judith N. Shklar, Montesquieu (Oxford, 1987), 114-18.

  69. La Défense de mon oncle (1767), ed. José-Michel Moureaux, Works, LXIV (1984), 229.

  70. In the Collection complète des Oeuvres de M. de Voltaire (17 vols.; Geneva, 1756) it makes up chapters 165-215 of the Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations.

  71. Précis du Siècle de Louis XV (2 vols.; Geneva, 1769). This evolved out of the chapter ‘Tableau de l'Europe depuis la paix d'Utrecht jusqu'en 1750’ which featured in all editions of Le Siècle de Louis XIV. It also incorporates adapted portions of the Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un (1755), ed. J. Maurens (Paris, 1971). The Précis first appeared as an appendix to the 1768 edition of Le Siècle de Louis XIV (4 vols.; Geneva, 1768). The Précis was the indirect result of Voltaire having been made Historiographe de France in 1745, and having undertaken to write about Louis XV's campaigns. See Vaillot, Avec Mme du Châtelet, 209.

  72. Précis, chapter 24. See Laurence Bongie, ‘Voltaire's English High Treason and a Manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charles’, SVEC, 171 (1979), 7-29; F. McClynn, ‘Voltaire and the Jacobite Rising of 1745’, SVEC, 185 (1980), 7-20.

  73. On discontinuities between artistic and political progress, Bernard de Fontenelle, Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), ed. Robert Shackleton (Oxford, 1955), 161-76.

  74. Voltaire greatly admired Montaigne. See his letter to Louis Elisabeth de La Vergne, comte de Tressan (21 August, 1746), Best. D3453.

  75. For a detailed bibliography of the Essai, see Pomeau ed, Essai, pp. lxvii-lxxiii. The Pomeau edition is based upon the ‘Kehl’ posthumous 1785 edition which incorporates Voltaire's final revisions. I have cited in my text the Pomeau edition for ease of access, followed by a second reference to the 1756 text of the Essai to be found in the Cramer Collection complète des oeuvres de M. de Voltaire (17 vols.; Geneva, 1756). The Essai makes up volumes XI to XIV of this edition. See also De la Cour au Jardin, 196-9; 298-300.

  76. This, in a sophisticated way, is the thrust of much of the interpretation in J. H. Brumfitt, Voltaire, Historian (revised edn, Oxford, 1970).

  77. For intimate evidence of Voltaire's hostility to Rousseau, see George R. Havens, Voltaire's Marginalia on the Pages of Rousseau (New York, 1966).

  78. Voltaire to Rousseau (30 August 1755), Best. D6451.

  79. The 1756 text of the Essai is a more straightforwardly expanded version of the 1754 texts (Pomeau, Essai, pp.lxviii-lxxi), with additional information on feudal government, artistic and legal developments in the Middle Ages, and on the East (including Genghis Khan).

  80. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l'histoire universelle à Monseigneur le Dauphin: pour expliquer la suite de la Religion et les changemens des Empires (Paris, 1681), 437. The work gives an overview of the rise and fall of empires before and after Christ up until the reign of Charlemagne.

  81. For a less pessimistic account of ‘enchaînement, however, see Voltaire's article ‘Chaîne des événements’, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764 and after), eds. R. Naves and Julien Benda, (Paris, 1954).

  82. La Philosophie de l'histoire (1765), Works, LIX. This work was added, after some alterations, as a preface to the Essai in the Cramer edition of 1769 as volume VIII of the Collection complète des Oeuvres de M. de Voltaire (45 vols.; Geneva, 1768-96). On Voltaire's contribution to the development of anthropology, see Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières (Paris, 1971). Also, Grell, L'histoire entre érudition et philosophie, 100-5.

  83. The whole discussion of early forms of religious belief owes something to Voltaire's early acquaintance, Bolingbroke; the sections on the Pentateuch echo the sceptical tone of the fourth letter of Bolingbroke's Letters on the Study and Use of History (first published, 1752). The vexed question of Bolingbroke's influence on Voltaire is addressed by Rousseau, ‘L'Angleterre et Voltaire’, SVEC, 147 (1976), 820-23. Voltaire's response to Bolingbroke can also be gauged directly from his Défense de milord Bolingbroke (1752), Moland, XXIII, 547-54, and his Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (1766 and 1767), ed. Roland Mortier, Works, LXII (1987), 127-362, as well as from the numerous references in the Essai. In the Examen, Voltaire, writing as an imagined Bolingbroke, ventriloquises him as a scathing satirist against many tenets of Judaeo-Christianity—a clear indication that, by this time, the balance between former pupil and master had shifted in Voltaire's favour.

  84. Works, LIX, 180.

  85. Works, LIX, 274-5.

  86. Works, LIX, 274.

Daniel Gordon (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13104

SOURCE: Gordon, Daniel. “Introduction: The Paradoxes of Voltaire.” In Candide, pp. 1-30. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In this excerpt, Gordon examines the cultural and philosophical background of Voltaire's work, focusing on Voltaire's complex relationship with aristocracy, his disagreement with Leibniz, and his changing thoughts on religion.]

Eighteenth-century Europe is often called the Age of Voltaire. What is astonishing is that this expression was already common in Voltaire's lifetime.1 He was the first writer to become the symbol of his age—to his age. As a young man, he was hailed by the French literary establishment as the most gifted poet in the nation. In his middle years, he turned against authority and became the first critic of religious extremism, the first defender of human rights, to appeal to a mass audience in several countries. As an elderly man, this impious crusader became the object of a cult with fanatical overtones of its own.

Voltaire died at the age of 83 and was combative to the end. He took part in nearly every major controversy of his time. While engaging the external world, he challenged himself too: he evolved as a human being and underwent profound changes in his philosophy. He was also remarkably prolific. The modern edition of his writings fills more than 135 volumes.2 On account of his productivity and complexity, Voltaire eludes simple textbook classifications. The purpose of this introduction is to avoid easy definitions; to draw attention to Voltaire's unconventional acts and volatile ideas; and even to bring out the contradictions in his thought, which, far from being an embarassment to him, are the true emblems of his brilliance.

An introduction, of course, is just a beginning. In the end readers must forge their own opinions of Voltaire. There is still much debate about Candide, not only about its value as a work of literature and philosophy but also about the very meaning of the text. Interpretation, however, is not an entirely subjective matter. To know about the life of an author, the society in which he or she lived, and the controversies of the time—all of these things help to place a book in proper perspective. And only by viewing a work in this historical manner can we begin to appreciate it fully, or to criticize it responsibly.


Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694. After studying at a boarding school run by Jesuit priests, he rebelled against his father's efforts to turn him into a lawyer and devoted himself to quenching his thirst for sensuality and literary fame. “He slipped like an eel into all the places where pleasure was prized,” noted Gustave Lanson, one of Voltaire's great biographers.3 In 1718 his first play, Oedipus, retold the ancient story of the Theban prince who killed his father and slept with his mother. Composed in poetic verse, the dialogue of this play alluded to outrageous acts in impeccably refined language. Oedipus was an immediate success: it set a record for consecutive performances of a tragic play that was unsurpassed in Paris in the eighteenth century.4 But Voltaire's straight path to glory was blocked by his own impetuous character. While he longed for success, he also had a compulsion to shock the high and mighty. He had already been imprisoned in 1717 for a poem implying that the regent of France5 committed incest with his daughter. In the early 1720s he composed poems attacking Christianity. He kept them secret, but a public explosion of his passion for creating scandal was inevitable.

It occurred in 1726. The chevalier de Rohan, a member of a powerful noble family, poked fun at Voltaire's name as they passed each other in the opera. Voltaire, who was not a noble, boldly replied that the chevalier was a disgrace to his family name, whereas his own name would soon be famous throughout Europe. The next day, the chevalier's servants brutally beat Voltaire with a stick. When Voltaire sought justice from the police, he found that his accuser's noble status placed him beyond reach. When his patrons in high society also showed him no sympathy, Voltaire purchased weapons and began to plan his own revenge. At this point the authorities intervened, imprisoned him, and promised to release him only if he left the country. So began Voltaire's life as exile and social critic. He lived most of his eighty-four years in places far from Paris, places where he was safe from arrest, either in the French provinces or in foreign countries. He still produced literature, but he used it to draw attention to prejudice and to defend its victims: “I write in order to act.”6

This is an important statement. Once he left Paris, Voltaire abandoned the writer's traditional ambition to forge timeless works that would be appreciated forever by posterity. This literary ideal prevented writers from describing in specific terms the conditions and controversies of their own times. Authors aspiring to immortality tried to tell stories that contained universal themes and avoided the passing incidents of the present. But for Voltaire, the only person worthy of being recalled in the future is the one who gives everything to the present. Genuinely touched by the suffering of others, he was willing to descend into journalism and to saturate even his most ambitious literary works with references to the social and political issues of his time. Voltaire called this commitment to the present humanité (humanity).7

To idealize Voltaire as a great humanitarian would be to oversimplify his life, for as we will see, his personality was many-sided. It is nonetheless true that Voltaire pioneered the role of the modern intellectual who mocks tradition, disdains organized religion, and seeks to redeem himself by serving as the conscience of his age—and the response he got from his age was enormous. In 1778, at the request of numerous supporters, the elderly Voltaire returned triumphantly to Paris after many years of exile. In the course of festivities in his honor, the directors of the leading playhouse, the Comédie Française, placed a bust of him inside the theater. In doing so they violated a tradition according to which only deceased authors could be immortalized with a statue in this hallowed building. With the unveiling of this icon, the present suddenly became posterity. Voltaire, already a symbol of his own age, had the pleasure of seeing himself resurrected in advance for the next. The ecstasy of his supporters is evident from a report in one of the newsletters of the period: “The theater at this moment was perfectly transformed into a public place in which one had erected a monument to the glory of genius. … Envy and hatred, fanaticism and intolerance did not dare to cry out except in secret; and for perhaps the first time in France, one saw public opinion enjoy the splendor of its full authority.”8

The story of the statue is an example of how Voltaire gave his admirers the exhilarating sentiment of living in an unprecedented era in history, an era in which one could set aside tradition and forge a new society on new foundations. Voltaire and other writers of his time affirmed that progress was unfolding and that theirs was a century of “reason” and “light.” “The Age of Reason” and “the Enlightenment” are thus two terms we have inherited (along with “the Age of Voltaire”) to describe the creative energy of the eighteenth century. In fact, we have inherited the spirit of the period as well as its self-descriptive terms; for we continue to live in a time that appreciates independence, criticism, and change. Who does not dream of achieving security and fame through one's own efforts, like Voltaire the self-made man of letters? Who does not desire to see the world become a happier place, like Voltaire the humanitarian reformer? And who does not believe that reason is an instrument of progress, like Voltaire the implacable critic of prejudice and superstition?

We are the heirs of Voltaire … yet it is not so simple. We are also strangers to him. He was, after all, a Frenchman of the Old Regime. His impact is incomprehensible without some knowledge of that remote time. To know him better, we will have to make a tour through France in the age of absolute monarchy. But there is more. The real Voltaire was not just the reflection of the Age of Reason. He was an enigmatic individual—calculating and passionate, imperious and vulnerable, self-righteous and self-critical. As a thinker he was more subtle than most of his contemporaries ever noticed. While striving to understand the Enlightenment that Voltaire symbolized, we must also seek to understand what he alone experienced and had to say.

To preserve a sense of Voltaire's complexity, it is useful to keep in mind this double nature of his identity. On the one hand, he was a celebrity: the leader of the Enlightenment and a symbol of the liberation of humankind through reason. In this role he coined the slogan Écrasez l'infâme! (Crush the vile thing!) “The vile thing” meant, above all, the bigotry of the Catholic Church, which Voltaire detested. But it also included anyone who promoted intolerance, torture, and murder. Many of Voltaire's writings are witty and courageous denunciations of the perpetrators of senseless violence.

On the other hand, Voltaire was a skeptic, overwhelmed by long periods of doubt and pessimism. He never entirely believed in the Enlightenment that he symbolized. Candide (first published in 1759) is a perfect expression of Voltaire's double identity. As a weapon of propaganda, it is filled with indignation against religious extremism and political injustice. Yet, as a spiritual meditation, it expresses Voltaire's rejection of the idea that evil can be eliminated from the world. Though the book contains much criticism, it is ultimately a confession in which Voltaire stresses the limits of human intelligence and the dangers of applying abstract ideals to everyday life.

Candide thus sustains a duality, or what might be called a deliberate bifurcation of thought. A closer look at Voltaire in relationship to the French society in which he lived reveals a similar splitting of consciousness. He was rarely for or against something entirely but was usually both for and against. He rebelled against the dominant institutions, but he simultaneously accepted the given structures of society. The greatest critic of his time, he had no utopian expectations. He died more than ten years before the Revolution of 1789; had he lived to see it, he probably would not have supported it. This paradoxical combination of struggle and conservatism, criticism and reconciliation, is the hallmark of Voltaire's posture as an intellectual living in the period of French history known as the Old Regime.


While the phrase “the Century of Voltaire” was used in Voltaire's century, the phrase “the Old Regime” was never used in the Old Regime. The term was first used during the French Revolution to designate the traditional society that the revolutionaries detested and wanted to annihilate. Though historians now refer to the Old Regime in a more neutral way, simply to refer to the two hundred years or so before 1789, the term still denotes a specific form of society based on the principle of hierarchy. The Old Regime was hierarchical in the political sphere because sovereignty was invested in an absolute monarch. It was hierarchical in the social sphere because prestige and economic advantages inhered in the nobility. And it was hierarchical in the religious sphere because Catholicism was the only religion officially permitted in France. This was the world that Voltaire tried to change, but it was also the world that he took for granted.


The French monarchy dated back to the early Middle Ages, but by the time Voltaire was born, this old institution had taken on a new form, that of absolute monarchy. Officially, all power rested in the king. In contrast to England's constitutional monarchy, the French system had no parliamentary elections and no political parties which openly competed for power. Theorists of French absolutism (and Voltaire was sometimes one of them) emphasized that any opposition to the Crown was likely to degenerate into massive and unstoppable violence. This argument was grounded in the experiences of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Following the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century, France had been ravaged for decades by religious war. In the midst of this continuous bloodshed, political philosophers such as Jean Bodin, author of The Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576), claimed that the only way to bring about peace among religious enemies was for everyone to defer to the all-powerful authority of the state. The community, according to Bodin, could achieve stability only by accepting the government's right “to impose laws generally on all subjects regardless of their consent.”9 Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, spokesmen for the Crown repeated this principle. They developed the logic of absolutism even further by stressing the antisocial dimensions of human nature. Nicolas Delamare, the author of A Treatise on Police (1705), affirmed that ordinary people always acted on the basis of “self-love.” He concluded that good laws were never enough to bind the populace. The essential thing was to have a “powerful authority to oversee their enforcement at all times.”10

It followed from these principles that the king was the only “public” person. In other words, the capacity for making decisions about the common good belonged to him alone. Defenders of absolutism stressed that private citizens were capable of representing only their own selfish interests and had no right to gather in the marketplace or in clubs to discuss current events among themselves. Not just political gatherings but voluntary assemblies of any kind were inherently threatening to the Crown, even if they were peaceful. In fact, they were especially threatening if they were peaceful, because sociability implied that the king was superfluous, that human solidarity was possible without his command—and this is exactly what absolutist theorists claimed was impossible.

During the rulership of Louis XIV (1661-1715), the principles of absolute monarchy found their greatest expression in practice. Louis expanded the frontiers of France and carried the centralized system of his predecessors to its logical conclusion. He regarded the state as a cultural force as well as a political one. To destroy provincial differences and impose a uniform civilization was his goal. The center of this civilization was the court of Versailles, a town near Paris where Louis established the government in 1682. The refined etiquette at Versailles—its formal rules for table manners, conversation, and entertainment—shaped the tone of all other courts in Europe.

Many scenes in Candide take place in the New World, so it is worth noting that Louis's policies brought about the strong French presence there. His chief advisor, Colbert, ran the departments of commerce, colonies, and the navy. In 1664 Colbert founded the Company of the West, which monopolized trade with the West Indies, America, and Africa. A four-zone system developed in which slaves taken in West Africa were forced to labor on sugar and tobacco plantations in the West Indies. America provided foodstuffs for the slaves, and all three areas supplied Europe with raw materials for manufacturing.

Readers of Candide will have no trouble seeing that Voltaire regarded slavery as an outrage. That is enough to prove that he never accepted Louis XIV's legacy without question. Although he admired the power and prestige of the government that the Sun King established, he reserved the right to deplore any particular law or policy. As a critic whose works kindled political debate, Voltaire violated the principle that the king is the only public person. Yet, the fact remains: like most Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire believed that monarchy was the only sensible form of government. He despised ignorance wherever he saw it, especially in the masses, and never imagined that the people could govern themselves in a large nation. In short, he was no democrat. He even wrote a laudatory history of the reign of Louis XIV, drawing special attention to the ways in which Louis stimulated literature and culture. While he supported freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, and limits on the slave trade, Voltaire believed that only the king had enough power to implement such reforms effectively. Only a very strong state, he thought, could repress any opposition that might arise against these enlightened policies.

Voltaire's political outlook is a world away from that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau, a democrat, dreamed of transferring absolute authority from the king to the people. Voltaire wished only to temper authority with humane principles. Liberal absolutism (or enlightened absolutism) is the best label for Voltaire's political philosophy.


Imagine a young man of the middle class who hates his prosperous and disapproving father so much that he changes his last name. In selecting the new name he decides to give himself a noble image. That is exactly what Voltaire did at the age of twenty-three: he changed his name from François-Marie Arouet to François-Marie de Voltaire. The “de,” known as the particle, is the sign of noble lineage in France. Eventually, Voltaire acquired a large estate with servants and lived the life of a privileged man. He was never truly a nobleman, but there was growing disagreement in the Old Regime about how to define membership in the nobility. Taking double advantage of the disintegration of feudal society, Voltaire became a part of the elite and then ripped it apart with criticism.

According to feudal tradition, the nobility was a hereditary order whose function was to defend the kingdom in wartime. The tax exemptions that elevated the nobles above the rest of the population were its compensation for protecting the realm. Other privileges included the right to be saluted by commoners, the right to seek satisfaction for an insult by fighting a duel, and the right to go hunting in order to exercise their warrior skills in peacetime.

Writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often asserted that this “nobility of the sword” was a race possessing special virtues:

Nobility is a quality which makes generous whoever possesses it and which inwardly disposes the soul toward the love of worthy things. The virtue of a man's ancestors confers this excellent imprint of nobility. There is in the seed I know not what power or principle which transmits and continues the inclinations of fathers among their descendants.11

Yet in this same period the nobility underwent great change. First, in the sixteenth century, judges in the royal courts called parlements received permission from the King to acquire noble titles. In the seventeenth century, these judges were allowed to pass their titles on to their children. The “nobility of the robe,” as it is called, thus became hereditary.

But the complications did not stop there. Louis XIV did more than any other monarch to undermine the independence of both the old nobility of the sword and the new nobility of the robe. To encourage loyalty to the state, he ennobled many commoners who acted as functionaries in his government. And in moments of financial difficulty, he simply sold titles of nobility to financiers. Louis was not the inventor of these venal practices, but he expanded the system enormously. The sale of offices on a large scale was an insult to the gentilhommes—the great nobles who traced their lineage back many generations. Louis justified it by saying that people who gave money to the state deserved as much respect as people who fought to defend it.12 He considered nobility a creation of the government and a reward for any service that the king deemed useful.

The subordination of the noble class to the interests of the Crown was one of the great historical trends of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Louis XIV accelerated it more than any other ruler, but it continued throughout the Old Regime. Since it raised fundamental questions about the relationship between state and social status, it was a topic of continuous debate in the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, a member of the robe nobility and author of The Persian Letters (1721) and The Spirit of the Laws (1748), believed that France was becoming a despotic country with no checks on royal power. He supported the sale of titles of nobility because it expanded the noble class and infused it with new wealth. But Montesquieu bemoaned the fact that many nobles were abandoning their localities and forgetting their responsibility to protect the liberties of ordinary people. He was disgusted by the many nobles who were taking up residence in the court of Versailles and pandering to the king. Montesquieu regretted the decline of a proud and feisty nobility, which he saw as the protector of the people and the best check on royal despotism.

Voltaire did not share Montesquieu's idealized image of a distinguished and independent nobility. He regarded the provincial nobility as uncouth, ignorant, and absurdly proud of its lineage—as the beginning of Candide caustically shows. He was seized by an intense hatred of the whole concept of hereditary nobility, calling it “a monstrous insult to the human race because it assumes that some men are created with purer blood than the rest.” He also considered the sale of titles to be absurd because it allowed mediocrities to enter the nobility: “In France, anyone can become a marquis who wants to be.”13 Overall, Voltaire detested the nobility. When he changed his name to de Voltaire, it was not an attempt to convince others that he came from a noble family: everyone knew very well that he did not. It was instead a gesture of defiance and flamboyant self-esteem, as if he were saying, “I am as noble as anyone else because I am a genius and because I am going to be the greatest writer in Europe.”

Although Voltaire hated the nobility, something also drew him toward it: he admired greatness and wished to be counted among the great. He could never distance himself entirely from the elite. He was fascinated, for example, by the heroism and intellectual refinement that the grandest nobles exhibited. In 1749 he published a funeral oration commemorating the courageous lords who died on the battlefield during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48).14 It was also in 1749 that Voltaire's beloved mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, died in childbirth. Brilliant in her own right, she introduced Voltaire to the study of metaphysics and natural science. She belonged to the nobility. She was also married. Her aristocratic husband tolerated Voltaire's presence amicably. She even had a third lover, the writer Saint-Lambert, who was responsible for her fatal pregnancy! In certain circles of the French nobility there was an acceptance of sexual freedom and a deep respect for men of letters. Voltaire, who was a free spirit and believed in the nobility of the pen, was most at home among the upper crust.


While Voltaire had a love-hate relationship with the nobility, his attitude toward the Catholic Church was one of uninterrupted hostility. He once informed the English poet Alexander Pope that his Jesuit teachers had sexually used him when he was a schoolboy and that he would never get over it.15 Several of his writings were burned by the Church on account of his audacious criticism of the whole Catholic hierarchy, including even the popes. The animosity between Voltaire and the clergy was so intense that after Voltaire died, some conservatives began to spread the vicious rumour that endured well into the nineteenth century: that Voltaire on his deathbed refused to make confession and that he languished in a state of animality, consuming his own excrement.16

Voltaire's hatred of the Jesuits may have stemmed from his years in a Jesuit school, but his systematic anticlericalism was above all a reaction against the enormous power wielded by the Catholic Church. Under the Old Regime there was no separation of church and state, and no concept of religious equality. The monarchy was sacred, which meant that the king ruled by “divine right” and was obligated to promote Catholicism among his subjects. King Henri IV had granted some toleration to Protestants in the Edict of Nantes (1598). But Louis XIV, at the height of his power in the 1680s, confidently set out to overturn the edict, believing that he could eliminate Protestantism without risking a dangerous civil war. He succeeded. In 1682 he issued edicts closing Protestant churches and schools. Troops appeared in town after town, officially requesting Protestants to convert voluntarily to Catholicism, but actually threatening them with death or separation from their families. Finally, in 1685 came the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. All Protestant ministers were expelled and all Protestant churches ordered to be demolished. Hundreds of thousands of the faithful emigrated along with their pastors. Many of the converts who stayed behind practiced their old religion in secret; but as a public faith, Protestantism was crushed.17

If we turn from the treatment of non-Catholics to the internal structure of the French Catholic Church, it is striking how many privileges and powers it possessed, yet how divided it was at the same time. Like the nobility, the clergy was exempt from most forms of taxation. In fact, it levied its own tax, the tithe, which was essentially a portion of the gross agricultural product—grain, wine, sheep, and so forth—that any peasant produced. The Church also had its own sphere of disciplinary authority. Though the king had the power to appoint bishops, the bishops claimed the right to decide all questions relating to faith and morals and to punish “heresy,” that is, stubborn attachment to an idea or action condemned by the Church. Punishment could be a fine, public penance, confiscation of property, or death. Heretics were also denied Christian burial and thrown in the garbage dump. In Candide the dump is mentioned several times. This persistent image reveals Voltaire's fear that he would end up being buried in disgrace. (The fear was well grounded. When Voltaire died on May 30, 1778, the Archbishop of Paris tried to prevent a Christian burial. But friends of Voltaire smuggled the corpse out of Paris. A priest named Mignot, who was Voltaire's great-nephew, arranged for the body to be buried with proper ceremony in the abbey of Scellières, in Champagne.)

In contrast to the nobility, the clergy was not a hereditary class; the church had to recruit young priests from outside. It was an attractive profession because it provided authority and income. Some members of the clergy joined for profit and had only elementary notions of Catholic theology. They drank heavily, frequented prostitutes, engaged in brawls, and routinely skipped Mass. The inhabitants of certain parishes were so accustomed to the promiscuity of their priests that they had no idea that the clergy was supposed to be celibate.18 Voltaire loved to satirize the hypocrisy of this impious clergy, which exercised religious authority but not religion.

Many, probably most, clergymen, however, were filled with a sense of duty. The Jesuits often stood out in this respect. The Jesuits were an order of monks but they minimized the solitary duties of the cloister and participated actively in the social and political life of the nation. They saw themselves as soldiers using all possible means to fight for the Catholic Church. One of these means was education. Supremely well-educated themselves, the Jesuits established schools across France that provided the best instruction to boys from the upper classes. The oldest and most famous was the Collège de Clermont in Paris, which Voltaire attended from age ten to sixteen. The rigorous Jesuit curriculum emphasized languages and literature—the arts of communication. Ironically, the Jesuits were the first to kindle Voltaire's passion for the writer's craft. They provided him with the literary and philosophical tools that he would eventually sharpen on his own and use to lacerate his teachers.

Thanks to their ambition and superior education, the Jesuits acquired considerable influence in France. Many bishops and royal confessors belonged to their order. But the Jesuits were vulnerable on one point: they swore absolute allegiance to the pope, and after him, to the father general of all the Jesuits in Europe. They were thus open to the charge of disloyalty to the French monarchy, an accusation raised often by their opponents, the Jansenists.

In Candide Voltaire alludes several times to the Jansenists and their rivalry with the Jesuits. The Jansenists were Catholics but their religious beliefs resembled Calvinist Protestantism in important ways. They considered grace to be a pure gift of God, not a reward for good deeds. And they disapproved of the wordly lifestyle of courtiers and rich Jesuit prelates. The struggle between Jansenists and Jesuits raged from the early eighteenth century onward. Obeying a papal order against Jansenism, the Bull Unigenitus (1713), the Jesuits and other Catholic priests aggressively persecuted the Jansenists. In the 1740s and 1750s, the Church required dying persons to sign certificates called “bills of confession” stating that they were not Jansenists. Those who refused could be denied the last rites and proper burial. Voltaire ridicules these bills of confession in Chapter 22 of Candide.

Although the Jesuits were formally bound to support the Pope over the king, Louis XV trusted them and preferred them to the Jansenists. But Jansenism was popular among the judicial elite of France—the members of the parlements. A surge of judicial resistance beginning in the 1750s, along with growing hatred of the Jesuits among the public, pressured Louis XV to suppress the Jesuit order. In 1764 he issued an edict expelling the Jesuits from France. It was a dramatic setback for Europe's most militant religious order. And it was a setback for French absolutism too. While it revealed the supreme authority of the king—his power to expel whomever he wished—it also revealed the king's inability to control public opinion on matters of religion.

Voltaire's writings certainly played a role in discrediting the Jesuits. He understood that humor was the best way to destroy a group's prestige. Readers were delighted by the scene in Candide in which cannibals chant: “It's a Jesuit, it's a Jesuit … here's a good meal; let's eat Jesuit, let's eat Jesuit!”19 Yet, there is more to Voltaire's religious thought than his rabid anticlericalism. While conducting a campaign of satire against Jesuits and religious fanatics of all kinds, Voltaire waged a second war: a war against atheism.

Voltaire firmly believed in God. Like many thinkers of the Enlightenment, he was a “deist.” This means that he accepted the existence of a divine being who created the world, but did not accept the specifically Christian notion of the Trinity. He venerated Jesus but only as a man, a moral example, a teacher—not as the son of God. It was precisely because he admired Jesus that he abhorred the Catholic Church. (He was fond of saying that Jesus never had anyone burned for his religious views.) The essence of religion, as he saw it, was a belief in God and a conviction that God wants humans to be generous to each other. He considered all religions true to the degree that they promoted tolerance and fellowship, and false to the extent that they created hatred and division. “We need a God who speaks to the human race,” he wrote.20

Around mid-century, Voltaire's religion began to look outdated to some of the younger and more radical philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, the author of Man A Machine. La Mettrie was a doctor who insisted that the world, including human beings, is composed of physical matter and nothing else. He refused to accept the notion of a separate world of spirit. He even claimed that virtue did not exist because everything is physical and can thus be explained through mechanical causes. Voltaire found these ideas intolerable but difficult to refute. Sometimes he answered the materialists by arguing that atheism would destroy society if it became widespread. “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him” is his most famous pronouncement on religion.21 In other words, society could not endure without religious belief, which binds people into a moral community.

This argument did not convince Voltaire's atheistic opponents—because it is not a convincing argument. The fact that society would crumble without belief in God does not prove that God exists. It only suggests that religious mythology has a beneficial social function. But Voltaire never defined religion as a false myth that happens to have useful consequences. His sentiment that God existed was genuine. He believed in what he invented. There is no escaping the conclusion that Voltaire, the symbol of the Age of Reason, was a man of passionate faith.

Considered as a whole, Voltaire's relationship to the Old Regime was many-sided and filled with paradoxes. One might say that he was a radical who tended to interpret his own ideas in the most conservative spirit possible. He criticized kings when they promoted injustice, but he defended kingship. He scorned the nobility, while cultivating connections with it. He attacked the Church, and tried to save the moral essence of Christianity. On many points he had to defend himself not only against apologists for the status quo but also against other thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, and La Mettrie. Though they often paid homage to Voltaire as the symbol of independent reason, the philosophers of the Enlightenment disagreed among themselves, precisely because each wished to reason independently. The unity of reason that Voltaire symbolized never became a reality.

Yet that does not mean that Voltaire was a failure. The failure, if there was one, belonged to his admirers who were blind to the forces dividing the Enlightenment. They placed Voltaire on a pedestal as a symbol of their common longing for truth and progress. They avoided dwelling on their disagreements, on everything that threatened to blow their dream of a perfect new age into pieces. Voltaire himself was more lucid than that. As Candide shows, he had no illusions about himself as a savior of the human race.


Candide is about the pursuit of happiness. Enlightenment philosophers often affirmed that human beings have a right to seek happiness in their own way. Voltaire believed this too. But in Candide, he is less concerned about defending the right to pursue happiness than he is about describing what really occurs—the result—when individuals embark on a quest for perfect bliss. The result, he suggests, is disaster.

The main character is a “youth” named Candide. His exact age is not given, but he is clearly in his late teens. In French, candide means naive and simple and thus suggests ignorance; but it also means candid and honest and thus suggests integrity. In the beginning of the story it is Candide's naiveté that stands out. He is utterly untutored in the ways of the world and all the suffering it contains. By the end, however, his candor has allowed him to receive an education. Thanks to his openness to new lessons, he is able to reconcile himself to the pain that he finds in the world, and in his own soul.


Every reader of Candide who has heard of Voltaire only as a leading thinker of the Enlightenment is astonished by the dark aspects of the tale. The inevitability of suffering, however, is one of the great themes of Voltaire's work. “The earth is a vast theater where the same tragedy is playing with different titles,” he wrote in one of his historical works.22 And in his notebooks: “Man is the only animal who knows that he will die. Sad knowledge, but unavoidable because he has ideas. There are thus sorrows necessarily attached to the condition of man.”23

Voltaire could be hilariously gay and witty, but as these remarks show, he had a tendency to brood. Beginning in his late twenties, he became nervous about his health and certain that he would not live long. Voltaire was a tall, extremely thin man. His constitution was strong—he lived into his eighties—but he always imagined himself to be on the verge of death. He consumed vast quantities of drugs and medicines and frequently began his letters by expressing astonishment that he was still alive: “I interrupt my agony to inform you …” “I am rising a little from my grave to tell you …” “I forgot to have myself buried …”

Besides this anxiety over his physical state, Voltaire was no stranger to emotional difficulties. All the fame in the world could not erase his recurrent bouts of gloom. In 1971, the influential literary critic Roland Barthes failed to take this into account when he mistakenly described Voltaire as “the last happy writer.”24 According to Barthes, Voltaire lived comfortably and had the luxury of believing that he was always right in his battles against injustice. Barthes claimed that Voltaire took for granted the existence of absolute “Good” and “Evil” and never worried about the validity of his own moral judgments. In the nineteenth century, Barthes argued, philosophers discovered the relative nature of all systems of thought, and from that time onward, all writers suffered from uncertainty—including uncertainty about the value of their own writing. Describing the Enlightenment as “outdated,” Barthes consigned Voltaire to the trash heap of thinkers who failed to anticipate the problems of living in the modern age.

Barthes has influenced French studies in both France and America, but never has one brilliant writer so thoroughly misunderstood another. Voltaire was no stranger to unhappiness. His mother died when he was ten. At seventeen, when he was working as a secretary in the French embassy in Holland, he fell passionately in love with a Protestant girl named Pimpette. He tried to elope with her but was forced to return to France when Pimpette's mother complained to the embassy and when his own father threatened to deport him to America. Then there was the death in 1749 of Madame du Châtelet. She was his lover, friend, and intellectual partner all at once. Voltaire respected her as an equal and described her to his friends as “a great man.”25 When she died he declared, “I have not lost a mistress, I have lost half of myself.”26 Weeks later, his servants observed him waking up at night and calling for her from room to room.27

Being a humanitarian was not all joy either. In a sharp reply to Barthes, Patrick Henry, an authority on Voltaire, noted that Voltaire's commitment to improving society was a painful struggle. Since he wished to improve the world, he was bound to be distressed when the world refused to improve.28 And in fact Voltaire did lose many of his fights. An example is his unsuccessful effort to save the life of the British Admiral John Byng, who was condemned to death in 1757 for backing away from a naval battle. Voltaire's bitterness is clear in Chapter 23 of Candide when he describes the brutal execution. This is only one of many injustices portrayed in the tale that actually occurred and that touched Voltaire deeply.

Jean Starobinski, one of the great interpreters of eighteenth-century thought, has suggested that Candide presents the first global vision of suffering.29 The tale does in fact give a panoramic view of disasters and atrocities on different continents. Mutilations, castrations, disembowelments, amputations, and rapes are everywhere. Every form of debasement of human life, from slavery to war to unbearable loneliness, is represented. Candide is a catalogue of suffering, comparable to Dante's Inferno in its completeness, except that the suffering takes place in this life, and Voltaire never suggests that things could be better in a world to come.

Voltaire did not just write about suffering; he suffered along with the victims. His extreme, visceral sympathy could even make him physically ill. Every year, on August 24, he became sick and could not rise from his bed. This was the anniversary of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, when French Catholics murdered thousands of French Protestants in a fury of hatred.30 In Candide, Voltaire's evocation of suffering is so intense that it is impossible to imagine him writing it in the spirit of self-satisfaction that Barthes and other anti-Enlightenment critics attribute to him. In Chapter 19, his empathy stretches across the color line as he reveals the pathetic image of an African slave whose limbs have been hacked off as punishment for trying to escape. In Chapter 24, he crosses the gender barrier in a poignant section about the degraded and hopeless life of a prostitute:

Oh! Sir, if only you could imagine what it's like … to be exposed to every kind of insult and outrage; to be frequently reduced to borrowing a skirt so that some disgusting man can have the pleasure of lifting it; to be robbed by one man of what you've earned from another; to be blackmailed by officers of the law; and to have no future in view except an atrocious old age, a hospital, and the public dump …

Voltaire's sympathy is unmistakable here, but so is his sense of futility and sadness.

Nevertheless, a portion of what Barthes said about Voltaire has to be considered more carefully. When Barthes affirmed that Voltaire was “happy,” he meant two things. First, he meant that Voltaire's life was free of anguish, and we have seen that this view is simply uninformed. Second, Barthes meant that Voltaire was lucky because he lived in an age that naively took for granted that the universe had a clear moral structure. This view is also mistaken, but it is a far more complex issue—one that takes us deeply into Voltaire's philosophy.

The complexity of Voltaire's philosophy is often omitted from essays on Candide, especially those designed for students and nonspecialists. Candide, after all, is a story, not a dense philosophical treatise, so it seems that no technical background is necessary. Voltaire, however, wrote stories because he reached a point where it was clear to him that stories were the best way to approach philosophical questions that others had dealt with only in abstract treatises. The questions were: Why is there suffering in the world? And, what attitude should we take toward the imperfections of the universe? Voltaire himself worked on a long Treatise on Metaphysics in the 1730s, but he shifted to storytelling afterward. To understand his move from theory to narrative, from philosophy to literature, we must look into his struggle with one of the great thinkers of modern times.


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was the most universal genius of the era before Voltaire's ascendancy. Born in the German town of Leipzig, he was largely self-taught. He learned Latin on his own as a child and consumed books in law, philosophy, mathematics, and theology. At the age of twenty he wrote De Arte Combinatoria (On the Art of Combination) in which he maintained that all reasoning is reducible to an ordered combination of simple elements. He later constructed a calculating machine and perfected the binary system of numeration (i.e., using two as base). For this work he is seen as one of the forerunners of modern computer science. But that is only a small part of his intellectual achievement. As a mathematician, Leibniz laid the foundations of integral and differential calculus. As an engineer, he developed a water pump run by windmills; he worked on submarines, clocks, and many other devices. He is regarded as one of the creators of geology on account of his theory that the earth was at first molten.

Leibniz, however, was not just a scientist. He was a devout Protestant with a passion for understanding the world as God's creation. This passion took him into metaphysics (literally “beyond physics,” the study of reality as a whole and the principles behind the existence of things). It was Leibniz's great dream to explain why all things are the way they are and, in so doing, to reconcile faith and science. He began with the assumption that God himself is a rational creature. Hence, to imitate God and to comprehend his creation, humans too must exercise their faculty of reason. Leibniz expressed this beautifully by saying that to be pious one must love God, but one cannot love God without knowing him. Religion and intellect are not mutually exclusive. One must enter into the mind of God and appreciate the glorious consistency of the world he created.31

According to Leibniz, if God is rational, then everything he does is grounded in reason. God does nothing by caprice.32 And since God is all-powerful and controls all aspects of the universe, it follows that nothing in the world occurs through mere chance. For every event in the world, there corresponds a cause, and this cause is nothing other than God's reason for bringing this event—and not some other event—into being. Leibniz called this “the principle of sufficient reason.” Voltaire, who rejected this principle, mentions it no fewer than seven times in Candide. Essentially, the principle of sufficient reason means that we do not fully understand something until we perceive why the thing is exactly the way it is—why God created it in its given form as opposed to some other form.

Consider Newtonian science, which Leibniz studied with great interest but did not consider real science. Newton was able to formulate the law of gravity according to which every thing in the universe attracts other things with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton was confident that his theory was sound because experiments verified it. But Leibniz's conception of science was based on a more demanding standard. He criticized Newton for merely describing the manner in which bodies are attracted to each other and not explaining why they are attracted to each other the way they are. For example, why is gravity inversely proportional to the square of the distance, instead of being inversely proportional to the cube of the distance?

Newton modestly admitted that he could not explain why the laws of nature are what they are, and he doubted that any ultimate reason could ever be found. Leibniz, in contrast, insisted that to honor God's intelligence we must search for the ultimate reason for the laws governing the world. We must recognize, in other words, that God selected the blueprint for the world out of a range of possible blueprints. And since God is rational, he must have selected this blueprint because it is best. Hence, it is part of the philosopher's job to show that the world has an optimal structure—that every phenomenon fits into a plan for “the best among all possible worlds.”33

That is exactly what Voltaire refused to do. Throughout most of his life he was suspicious of grand philosophical systems that tried to explain the necessary connections among all things. He was an empiricist, which is to say that he admired scientists such as Newton, who made precise observations through experimentation and who generalized on the basis of these observations. He considered science valuable because it could be put to practical use, not because it answered every question about the essential nature of reality. In Candide, the brilliant sections on Eldorado (Chapters 17-18) portray an imaginary ideal country. There are no theologians and no metaphysicians in Eldorado, but there are many scientists and engineers who build machines that are useful for the people.

As for metaphysics, Voltaire described it as “an immense abyss in which everyone is blind.”34 Yet, Voltaire's position was inconsistent in the 1730s and 1740s, the period in which he was living with Madame du Châtelet, his mistress, who was a great admirer of Leibniz. Under her influence Voltaire sometimes leaned toward Leibniz's belief that everything in the world is arranged as it should be. But two events pushed him away from Leibniz once and for all. The first was Madame du Châtelet's death in 1749, which Voltaire could in no way construe as necessary and beneficial. By dying prematurely and for no evident good, Voltaire's mistress contradicted her own optimism, leaving Voltaire alone to scrutinize the reasons for unnecessary suffering in the world.

The second event was the great Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. This disaster claimed the lives of tens of thousands of victims. Voltaire, overwhelmed by reports of innocent children crushed beneath the rubble, responded with a cry of protest against the assumption that a good God directs everything in the world for the best. In December he wrote a poem about the disaster and boldly questioned the belief that there is a moral purpose inherent in the universe.35 Voltaire still believed in God, but he was now convinced that God had not arranged everything according to an ideal blueprint. He concluded that God is simply not as powerful as most people think—not strong enough to prevent evil.36 This “shattered sense of cosmic security,” as Henry calls it, is precisely what Barthes failed to detect in Voltaire's writings.37 In Candide, written three years after the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire expresses his permanent despondency by devoting a whole section (Chapter 5) to the disaster.

In fact, Voltaire ridicules Leibniz's cosmic optimism throughout Candide. The main vehicle of his satire is Pangloss, one of the most famous characters in modern literature. Pangloss is an expert in “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-boobology.” With this term Voltaire pokes fun at Leibniz's all-encompassing philosophy. Pangloss, whose name means all-tongue, asserts that the world could not be better than it is because “all is for the best.” He is always ready with a long-winded theory to explain that an apparent evil is really a good—even when it is obvious to everyone else that a disaster has occurred with no benefits for anyone. Pangloss is so out of touch, so obsessed with philosophical abstractions, that he is unable to give voice to anybody's pain, including his own. When he contracts a dreaded disease, all he can do is affirm—without really believing it—that his grotesque condition must be part of a system that works for the general good. Through Pangloss, Voltaire shows how stubborn people can be in their blindness to reality.

Scholars have sometimes argued that Pangloss is an unfair caricature of Leibniz, who, after all, was no fool.38 They have suggested that Voltaire had only a superficial knowledge of Leibniz's thought and that his satire is not effective against Leibniz himself but only against the watered-down version of Leibniz's philosophy that one finds in books by his student Christian Wolff and in the poetry of Alexander Pope. In his Essay on Man (1733-34), Pope declared:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

Voltaire was certainly out to refute the simple optimism of Wolff and Pope. But he was also refuting Leibniz, whose philosophy he understood very well.

Voltaire did not respond to all the nuances of Leibniz's metaphysics, but he seized with great clarity its fundamental contradictions. One of the problems Leibniz never fully overcame was how to make sense of contingencies—in other words, how to explain events in the natural or human world that seem to occur by chance or to have no special significance. Consider the fact that an old man named John Doe died at 10:02 a.m. It would appear that the exact time of the death has no necessary relationship to any essential conception of who John Doe was as a person. In other words, we can imagine him dying at 10:03 or 10:01, and it would not change our image of him. But Leibniz maintained that everything that happens must happen, given the nature of the person or thing that it happens to. He affirmed that all apparent contingencies can be deduced logically from our fundamental knowledge of the subject. This means that someone who knew John Doe well when he was alive as a young man should have been able to deduce his precise time of death!39

But this is clearly a very difficult position to sustain, and Leibniz knew it. He modified his theory several times and admitted that it was practically impossible for human beings to explain why every event takes place as it does. He continued to assert, however, that in principle nothing occurs through chance. God has arranged every detail of the world for a purpose. If we fail to detect this purpose, if we are unable to apply the principle of sufficient reason in practice, it is simply because our minds are not powerful enough to view the world from God's perspective.

Voltaire perceived this weakness and used it effectively to criticize Leibniz. In Candide he makes it clear that sometimes unpleasant things happen to people for reasons that are not a consequence of their own being. Misfortunes cannot be deduced logically from the qualities of the person they destroy. They simply result from the chaotic intersection of events. Thus, when a woman is raped and killed by soldiers in Candide, it is not due to her intrinsic nature or to a blueprint for a perfect universe—it is due to the fact that she happens to be caught in the middle of a war.

Leibniz ran into a similar difficulty in defending his view that God created “the best among all possible worlds.” He recognized that misfortunes do occur, but he claimed that God allowed them to happen only as part of a process of creating a greater good.40 But Leibniz admitted that it is sometimes very difficult for us to grasp how a specific evil is connected to a greater good. He affirmed, once again, that only God is in a position to perceive all the redeeming features of the world he created. Our duty is simply to trust that if we fully understood God's supreme wisdom, we would wish the world to be exactly as it is.41

Thus, on two separate points—the issue of contingency and the issue of evil—Leibniz backed into passive religious belief. His assertion that God does everything for a rational purpose begins as the premise of his system and ends as an article of faith which he uses to patch over the system's problems. Voltaire refused to enter this circle of faith—where faith means the idealization of reality. Even though both Leibniz and Voltaire believed in God and both were decent human beings, their temperaments were different. Leibniz loved God more than humankind, while Voltaire loved humankind more than God. Leibniz's whole system is, as he described it, “a vindication of [God's] perfections.”42 Voltaire's thought flowed from his sympathy for those who suffer. His particular brand of faith was that of a reformer who believed that even though God created the world, it might be possible to improve a bit upon His creation.

Voltaire thought Leibniz's ideas were not only logically unsound but also evil when put into practice. Precious time is wasted theorizing about the ultimate causes of things, time that could be better used reacting directly to events around us. When Candide is about to jump into the sea to save a drowning man, he is distracted from doing so by Pangloss, who theorizes on the necessity of the man's death. Voltaire is saying that when we engage in metaphysical philosophy, we ignore the passage of time and miss unique opportunities to intervene in history. While we theorize, we lose sight of reality, until reality makes us notice it by afflicting us with the very same misfortunes that we trivialized when they afflicted others. In Candide, Voltaire expresses this rather heavy insight with a light touch: whenever the characters immerse themselves in theory, they never move forward in their conclusions. Meanwhile, the world around them always changes, whether they notice it or not. For example:

While he was perfecting his logical proof, the ship broke into two and everyone perished …

When one of the characters wisely concludes in the last chapter, “Let us work without theorizing,” it is the last point in Voltaire's denunciation of Leibniz.

Now the reason that Voltaire stopped writing philosophical treatises and began writing stories like Candide should be clear. Philosophers had failed to explain why human beings suffer. Voltaire came to the conclusion that there is in fact no overarching explanation. The point is not to account for evil logically but to narrate it vividly. For Voltaire the purpose of literature (and also history, which he wrote a lot of) is to represent the amazing incidents of the world in the only way they can be represented: as a series of events that did not have to happen but did in fact happen. He does not seek to rationalize reality; he only seeks to tell tales that make us face it.


But there is another reason that Voltaire liked to write stories more than philosophical treatises: he wanted to be funny! Candide is soaked with suffering, yet it is buoyant with humor. It is a tragicomedy in which we laugh our way to a sober understanding of the world. Voltaire knew many ways to make people smile. One of them is ridicule—the act of singling out someone for witty and merciless criticism. Voltaire's ridicule could be indignant, especially against anyone who denied his own greatness. In 1759 when Candide was published, a journalist named Elie Fréron wrote a review of it. Fréron was an enemy of Voltaire and the Enlightenment. He edited a publication called L'Année littéraire (The Literary Year); Voltaire liked to call it L'Âne littéraire (The Literary Ass). In his review, Fréron sarcastically pretended that Candide was a horrible book and that someone as distinguished as Voltaire could not possibly have written it. (Fréron's review appears in the related documents in this volume.) Voltaire answered by modifying Candide for the 1761 edition so as to include Fréron in the story. In this new section, located in Chapter 22, Candide attends a play that he enjoys. In fact, it is one of Voltaire's own plays that Candide sees! A pseudosophisticated art critic informs him that the play is worthless. Afterwards Candide asks his companion, “Who was that fat pig?” and his companion responds that it is a stupid writer “who makes a living by saying nasty things about every play and every book.” And he adds the devastating words, “He hates anyone who becomes popular, just as eunuchs hate anyone who makes love.” A few lines later, the impotent “fat pig” is identified as Fréron.

This example of ridicule shows another aspect of Voltaire's style: his sexual playfulness. Sex is everywhere in the book. It should be no surprise, for many Enlightenment authors, seeking to capture a broad audience and to influence the thinking of ordinary people, infused their works with sexual themes.43 Yet, readers today often assume that people in the eighteenth century must have been more reserved, more prudish than we are today. It might not occur to us that Voltaire was as shocking as anything we encounter in today's culture. We run the risk of not registering his innuendo because, when we run into a passage that sounds like it might be about sex, we say to ourselves, “Oh no, he couldn't mean that!” But innuendo, or the art of suggesting something outrageous without saying it explicitly, is one of Voltaire's great techniques of humor. The book is filled with these understated outrages, and they are very often of a sexual kind. Here is an example.

In Chapter 10, Candide, his lover Cunégonde, and their servant, who is called “the old woman,” are at an inn. They are fleeing from the police because Candide has killed two men. Cunégonde and the female servant share a room. When Cunégonde rises in the morning, she finds that someone has stolen her money and jewels. The old woman suspects that the thief was a Franciscan monk who, she says, “came into our chamber twice” during the night. The reader naturally wonders why the old woman is volunteering this information so late. Why didn't she say anything when she saw the monk enter their room? There is no explicit answer in the chapters, but here is the answer suggested by innuendo. “Came into our chamber twice” is a double-entendre: Voltaire is saying that the old woman copulated with the monk, not just once but twice. That is why she kept quiet. The innuendo is outrageous because monks are supposed to be celibate. Voltaire took delight in showing the hypocrisy of the clergy. But it is even more outrageous because the old woman is so old and because she is horribly ugly: her nose touches her chin, and she is missing one buttock.

A reserved reader might suspect that this interpretation goes too far. But how else to explain the fact that the old woman watched a monk enter her room during the night and did not say anything? Besides, Voltaire often clarifies his innuendo in subsequent chapters. In other words, he drops a hint in one place and confirms the most outrageous implications afterward with a second hint. The same monk is mentioned a few chapters later; this time he is described as “a long-sleeved Franciscan.” It is a fairly natural term to use, because long sleeves were part of the clothing of the Franciscan order. But the word for sleeve in French is manche, and this word also meant shaft, handle, or tube. We are back in the realm of sexual innuendo again, and the lewd overtones confirm our reading of the earlier scene.

The same pattern occurs many times in the tale: a subtle hint of unconventional sexual action is followed by other hints so that we do not miss the allusion. In this way, Voltaire is able to portray certain relationships with a very subtle mockery. But sometimes the mockery is so nuanced that we suspect Voltaire is sympathizing with the victim of his own sarcasm and we are thrown off guard. The complicated theme of homosexuality is a case in point.

In Chapter 2, when Candide is recruited against his will into the army of the “Bulgars,” various details of the scene make it clear that the Bulgars symbolize the Prussians under Frederick II. As many commentators have noted, the word “Bulgar” also sounds like the French word bougre (bugger), which means a sodomite or homosexual. (In fact, bougre is etymologically derived from the Latin bulgarus, a term used in the late Middle Ages to refer to heretics in Eastern Europe who allegedly engaged in homosexuality.) The reader's suspicion that Voltaire is deriding Frederick by implying that he is a homosexual is confirmed by other words in the text. The King of the Bulgars is described as “charming” and the other soldiers encourage Candide to feel a “tender” love for him. In a later chapter, it is mentioned—almost in passing—that Cunégonde's brother was raped by Bulgar soldiers. It seems that Voltaire saw homosexuality as a deviation from normality and that the whole point of portraying Frederick and his soldiers as homosexuals was to condemn them. France was at war with Prussia when Voltaire wrote Candide, so the homosexuality theme appears to be good propaganda against the enemy.

It is not so simple. Voltaire clearly wished to deflate the majestic image of Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great. Portraying Frederick and his subjects as homosexuals helped him to cut the famous Prussian down to size. However, nothing in Voltaire's writings suggests that he was outraged by homosexual behavior. In his Philosophical Dictionary there is an entry entitled “So-Called Socratic Love.” Here Voltaire noted that it was common for men to have a passion for other men and he described this passion as “natural.”44 He did not go so far as to endorse sodomy, but neither did he endorse its legal repression. Several other thinkers of the Enlightenment went so far as to call for the complete decriminalization of homosexuality. Even the religious and political authorities accepted that homosexual relations were widespread. Officially, homosexual activity was a serious offense punishable by death; but in practice, such activity was widely tolerated, especially in the upper classes. Those who were arrested usually got off with light penalties.45

But there is more: Voltaire and Frederick were deeply attached to each other. They began to correspond in 1736. The Prussian prince was then only twenty-four and still under the cruel supervision of his militaristic father, Frederick William I. Frederick eventually emerged as a superb military leader in his own right, but only after his father's death. As a young man he sought to escape the iron discipline. He played the flute and wrote poetry. Frederick William despised his son's “feminine” tastes and regularly humiliated him. When Frederick initiated the correspondence with Voltaire, he was searching for a softer, more refined mentor. This correspondence, consisting of more than seven hundred letters, lasted until 1778, the year of Voltaire's death. Despite periods of mutual hostility, it was an affectionate and enduring bond. Haydn Mason, a very careful scholar, has presented evidence to suggest that Voltaire consummated his love for Frederick during his stay at the Prussian court in 1740.46 Whatever the precise nature of their physical relationship, there is no doubt that Voltaire was strongly attracted to Frederick. In a letter of 1751 to the Duc de Richelieu, Voltaire described how he had been enchanted instantly by Frederick's “large blue eyes and gentle smile.” He found his “head swirling” in the presence of Frederick's “seductive” gestures. “I gave myself to him with passion, with blindness, and without reasoning,” he added.47

Thus, while Voltaire poked fun at other people's homosexual activity, he was aware of his own sexual ambivalence. His jokes, which begin in mockery, end in surprising self-disclosure. In Candide, he brilliantly turns this problem of the unpredictability of desire into a commentary not on homosexuals but on the whole human race. Candide is on a quest to find Cunégonde and marry her. He is like the hero of Homer's Odyssey who longs to return home from war to be with his faithful love. But Candide is sidetracked. He has at least two affairs before he finds Cunégonde, one of them with a man.48 And when he is finally reunited with the woman of his dreams, what he finds bears no resemblance to what he was seeking. Possession of her turns out to be as much a problem as separation had been. Candide is not a Homeric epic but a mockery of what the epic stands for: unswerving loyalty to a manly cause that rewards those who persevere.

In short, Voltaire believed that no one lives life with perfect consistency. That is another reason why he preferred to write stories rather than develop his ideas in philosophical treatises. The assumption underlying philosophy is that ideas and actions should unfold without contradiction. Voltaire's starting point is that humans are inherently contradictory. Since logic cannot represent human nature, a different style of writing is needed. Ridicule and innuendo are part of this style, but the crucial element is irony.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of irony: irony of plot and irony of language. Irony of plot is a series of events that ends in a totally unexpected manner: the “good guy” turns out to be the “bad guy,” the slow person wins the race. Voltaire uses irony in this way, but the extraordinary cleverness of Candide has more to do with the other kind. Irony of language is a paragraph, a sentence, or even a phrase that turns out to have a meaning that is the opposite of the one it seemed to have in the beginning. In Chapter 1, Voltaire begins a paragraph with, “The Baron was one of the most powerful lords …,” but by the end of the paragraph we see that the Baron is a provincial nobody. Examples of irony within a single sentence occur throughout the book. Consider this one:

The beautiful lady had observed two enormous diamonds on the fingers of her young visitor, and she praised them so unselfishly that they passed from Candide's fingers to hers.

Here the irony springs from the word “unselfishly.” By the end of the sentence above, it is clear that the lady wants the rings for herself; she pretends to be kind only to trick the innocent Candide into responding with a kindness of his own.

Voltaire is the master of compressed irony in which words rapidly contradict the meaning of previous words. Often he does not need a full sentence to create the effect of irony. He simply relies on brilliant oxymorons, that is, incongruous or self-contradictory phrases. For example, when he describes a battle as “heroic,” the reader thinks for a second that he admires the fight. But the very next word turns the description into a paradox: it is “heroic butchery.” The surprising pairing of opposites forces the reader to think about the brutal reality that accompanies grand military rhetoric.

For Voltaire, irony is a philosophical antimethod that forces the reader to question the integrity of every character and the consistency of every moral in the story that he tells. Very little gets past Voltaire's implacable negativism. It is understandable why the Romantic novelist Bernardin de Saint-Pierre stated, “Voltaire is concerned with little else than to destroy.”49 But Candide also moves beyond cynicism. By the end, the principal characters have gained some wisdom and they manage to forge a life of honest work. The lesson that emerges in the conclusion of Candide is Il faut cultiver notre jardin: We must cultivate our garden.

The meaning of this famous line is by no means clear-cut. It is one of those immortal sayings that relates nothing in particular but simply conveys a wise reconciliation with the hardships of life. There is room to interpret each word in different ways. But whatever it may mean to “cultivate” a good life, Voltaire makes it clear that it must be different from living like Pangloss, a theorist who builds empty arguments and learns nothing through the passage of time. And whatever it may mean to work in the “garden,” it surely cannot be a return to the Garden of Eden, where people lived in innocence, with all their desires gratified, prior to God's imposition of suffering on humankind. The garden in Candide symbolizes whatever life the individual is able to salvage after a long process of suffering.

With his combination of scathing criticism and modest hope, Voltaire managed to produce a work of great popularity. When it was first published in 1759, a spokesman for the Parlement of Paris, the highest law court in France, denounced it as “contrary to religion and good morals.”50 (The full text is in the related documents section.) An assembly of ministers in Geneva condemned it for “containing dirty things … contrary to good morals and injurious to Providence.”51 But the reading public loved it. Over twenty thousand copies were sold within a year in Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, London, and other major European cities. By the standards of the eighteenth century, it was a best seller. It went on to become a classic. It has been translated into dozens of languages, including Ukrainian, Chinese, and Arabic. Today it is one of the three or four most widely known books by a French author.

Since this Bedford/St. Martin's edition has been prepared especially for university students, it is worth noting that Voltaire, in his sixties, composed a tale well suited for readers younger than himself. The story of a teenage boy and girl who dream of happiness but who must confront a world where even God is not strong enough to prevent misfortune—such a story seems designed for those who are still immersed in doubts rather than those who have settled into dogmatic certainty. After years of examinations, students might find refreshment in a book that is a summary of problems that are not meant to be solved. From Voltaire, the outspoken reformer and philosophical skeptic, one can learn that it is possible to act without pretending to know all the answers. He represents a middle way between the fanatical self-assurance and dazed passivity that increasingly divide the world in which we live.


  1. André Magnan, “Siècle de Voltaire,” in Inventaire Voltaire, ed. Jean Goulemot, André Magnan, Didier Masseau (Paris: Gallimard, 1995), 1252.

  2. The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. Theodore Besterman (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1968-1977).

  3. Gustave Lanson, Voltaire (Paris: Hachette, 1906), 16.

  4. Theodore Besterman, Voltaire (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), 73-74.

  5. Louis XIV died in 1715. Because his successor, Louis XV, was only five years old, a regency, or temporary rulership, was entrusted to Louis XIV's nephew, Philippe d'Orléans.

  6. Letter to Vernes, 15 April 1767; Correspondence and Related Documents, ed. Theodore Besterman (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1968-1977), 116:53.

  7. Voltaire, in fact, claimed to be one of the first persons to use the word humanité; see letter to Palissot, 4 June 1760; Correspondence, 105:350.

  8. Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique … par le baron de Grimm et par Diderot, 30 March 1778, 2nd ed. (Paris: F. Buison, 1812), 4:180.

  9. Jean Bodin, The Six Books of the Commonwealth [first published in 1576], ed. M.J. Tooley (New York, 1955), 32.

  10. Nicolas Delamare, Traité de la police, 2nd ed. (Amsterdam, 1729), 1:246.

  11. Gilles André de la Roque, Traité de la noblesse, Preface to the 1678 edition (Paris: Mémoire et Documents, 1994), 23.

  12. Roland Mousnier, The Institutions of France under the Absolute Monarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 1:127.

  13. A good discussion of Voltaire's attitude toward nobility is Jean Goulemot's “Noblesse,” in Inventaire Voltaire, 970-71. The two quotations, the first from Voltaire's posthumously published notebooks and the second from his Letters from England (1733), are cited in this article.

  14. Éloge funèbre des officiers qui sont morts dans la guerre de 1741.

  15. A.-M. Rousseau, L'Angleterre et Voltaire, published in Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 145 (1976), 113.

  16. André Magnan, “Excrément,” in Inventaire Voltaire, 517.

  17. Beginning in the 1760s, the anti-Protestant edicts were enforced less severely. This was partly due to the influence of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire who advocated religious liberty. In 1787 Louis XVI formally recognized the right of Protestants to live, work, contract marriages, and worship in private on French soil. But they were still excluded from holding administrative and judicial appointments. Only with the Revolution did religious minorities gain civic equality.

  18. Mousnier, 1:339.

  19. According to the Duc de La Vallière, “Let's eat Jesuit” instantly became a popular slogan in Paris. See his letter to Voltaire, Jan./Feb., 1759; Correspondence, 103:365.

  20. Voltaire to Elie Bertrand, 18 Feb., 1756; Correspondence, 101:73.

  21. Voltaire composed this line in 1769. For fuller discussion, see André Magnan, “Si Dieu n'existait pas …,” in Inventaire Voltaire, 1246-47.

  22. Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs, in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1877), 12:430.

  23. Voltaire's Notebooks, ed. Theodore Besterman (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1952), 2:352.

  24. Roland Barthes, “The Last Happy Writer,” in Critical Essays (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1972; first published in French in 1971), 83-90.

  25. Letter to Fawkener, 2 March 1740; Voltaire's Correspondence, 91:118; and to d'Arnaud, 14 Oct. 1749, 95:179 (translated in this volume).

  26. Letter to d'Argental, 23 Sept. 1749, 95:167.

  27. Mason, Voltaire, 45.

  28. Patrick Henry, “Contre Barthes,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (1987), vol. 249, 19-36.

  29. Jean Starobinski, “Voltaire's Double-Barreled Musket,” in Blessings in Disguise: The Morality of Evil (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 85.

  30. René Pomeau, Voltaire (Paris: Seuil, 1955), 39.

  31. G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985), 51, 53. First published in 1710, this book was the only one published in Leibniz's lifetime. Most of his work took the form of journal articles, unpublished memoranda, and letters.

  32. Ibid., 74.

  33. Ibid., 128; see also 138.

  34. Letter to Des Alleurs, 26 Nov. 1738; Correspondence, 89:378.

  35. The full title of the poem is “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or Examination of That Axiom: ‘All is Well.’”

  36. For an interesting discussion of Voltaire's view that God is not all-powerful, see A. J. Ayer, Voltaire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), 118ff.

  37. Patrick Henry, “Contre Barthes,” 29.

  38. John Weightman gives a good summary of this argument, “The Quality of Candide,” in Essays Presented to C. M Girdlestone (Newcastle upon Tyne: Durham University Press, 1960), 336-37.

  39. Here I have attempted to summarize in untechnical language Leibniz's claim that all attributes of a thing are logically internal to it. For fuller discussion, see G. H. R. Parkinson, “Philosophy and Logic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, ed. Nicholas Jolley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 199-223.

  40. Leibniz, Theodicy, 128-29.

  41. Ibid., 55.

  42. Ibid., 61.

  43. Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995).

  44. For fuller discussion see Michel Delon, “The Priest, the Philosopher, and Homosexuality in Enlightenment France,” in 'Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during the Enlightenment, ed. Robert Maccubbin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 124-25.

  45. Delon, 122-23; and Bryant T. Ragan, “The Enlightenment Confronts Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality in Modern France, ed. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 8-29.

  46. Mason, Voltaire, 52-54.

  47. Voltaire, letter of 31 Aug., 1751, in Correspondence, 96:273-74.

  48. No other commentator, I believe, has noted the innuendo with which Voltaire situates Candide in a homosexual relationship with a priest called “the Perigordian Abbé.” My interpretation rests on some technical semantic considerations. See the “Note on Voltaire's Vocabulary and the Present Translation.”

  49. Cited in Raymond Naves, “Voltaire's Wisdom,” Voltaire: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. William F. Bottiglia (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 151.

  50. Omer Joly de Fleury to Henry-Léonard-Jean-Baptiste Bertin, 24 Feb. 1759; Correspondence, 103:426.

  51. See appendix 173, “Candide before the Genevese authorities, February 1759,” in Correspondence, 103:449.

Selected Bibliography

More has been written about Voltaire than about the history of most countries of the world. The works listed here are all readable, scholarly, and insightful. For a more systematic bibliography, a good starting place is Pour encourager les autres: Studies for the Tercentenary of Voltaire’s Birth, 1694-1994, ed. Haydn Mason, vol. 320 of Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994), pp. 163–318.

Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998; first published in 1959 by Princeton University Press).

Goulemot, Jean, et al. (editors), Inventaire Voltaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955). This book is in French.

Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire (Paris: Hachette, 1906); translated into English by Robert A. Wagoner (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1966).

Mason, Haydn. Voltaire: A Biography (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Pomeau, René. Voltaire (Paris: Seuil, 1955). This book is in French.

Starobinski, Jean. “Voltaire’s Double-Barreled Musket,” in Blessings in Disguise; Or, The Morality of Evil,translated from the French (Le Remède dans le mal) by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 84–117.

Waldinger, Renée (editor), Approaches to Teaching Voltaire’s Candide (New York: The Modern Language Asociation of America, 1987).

John R. Iverson (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8629

SOURCE: John R. Iverson. “Voltaire, Fontenoy, and the Crisis of Celebratory Verse.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 28 (1999): 207-26.

[In the essay which follows, Iverson discusses the response of other poets to Voltaire's celebratory poem La Bataille de Fontenoy, suggesting that the many parodies intended merely to mock Voltaire actually worked to destabilize the genre of celebratory occasional verse overall. Iverson maintains that Voltaire found himself unable to strike back without lowering himself to the level of his detractors, but that Voltaire perceived the threat to both poetry and national honor.]

Le plus aimé des rois est aussi le plus grand.

—Voltaire, La Bataille de Fontenoy, poème

Le plus aimé des rois est le plus mal chanté.

La Capilotade, poème ou tout ce qu'on voudra

Voltaire's Bataille de Fontenoy is a perplexing document for the modern reader. In the midst of the philosophe's vast output, it seems to reveal an ambitious minion of the court, a poetizing flatterer who feverishly revised and republished—repeatedly—a somewhat mediocre text as he attempted to gain official favor. From this perspective, the poem poses a number of questions about the poet's desire and ability to manipulate the literary institutions of his time, and part of our concern in the following pages will be to address the issue of his motivations in writing and rewriting this curious, apparently atypical, work. But the interest of La Bataille de Fontenoy also extends far beyond Voltaire's personal machinations. For when the leading writer of the age dedicates himself to the composition of a lengthy épinicion, or chant de victoire, his actions naturally attract great national attention.1 In celebrating the exploits of the king, he performs an important public function; the work becomes a national literary monument, erected to the glory of Louis XV. At the same time, Fontenoy sets off a tremendous outpouring of rival works that challenge the authority of Voltaire's poem and throw into question the very idea of celebratory poetry. As the two lines of our epigraph—one from Voltaire and the other a parody of his text—suggest, the political event also gives rise to a poetic crisis. On the one hand, the philosophe tries to inscribe himself in literary tradition; on the other, the parodist asserts that the poetry of his age is completely inadequate to fulfill this role. From this perspective, the episode provides valuable insight into the peculiar modalities of literary exchange in eighteenth-century France and the breakdown of models from the past.

The triumph of the French army on 11 May 1745 was the most brilliant moment of Louis XV's reign.2 After assuming personal control of the government in 1743, the young king led a successful military campaign in 1744. His recovery from serious illness at the end of that summer brought him the title “le Bien-Aimé.” Thus, he was already at the height of his glory at the time of the battle. Added to this, the actual conditions of the victory at Fontenoy redoubled popular enthusiasm. In an age when open battles were a rather rare occurrence, France defeated its arch-rival England in a prolonged and bloody encounter; and at a time when most kings no longer accompanied their troops to the front, the presence of Louis XV made the affair even more remarkable.3 Voltaire himself declared this “la journée la plus glorieuse depuis la bataille de Bovines” and later devoted a lengthy chapter of his Histoire de la guerre de 1741 to a detailed description of the engagement.4 Of course, from a modern perspective, we know that this enthusiasm did not last long; even before the end of the war, the king's reputation suffered terribly.5 But, at least for a brief moment, Louis appeared willing and able to fulfill the heroic role of a triumphant, clement monarch. The victory at Fontenoy seemed to confirm French dominance on the continent.

Along with the importance of the military event, revival of court life gave Fontenoy even greater significance. As the preeminent poet of the age, Voltaire was particularly aware of the changing ambiance at Versailles and benefited greatly from it. With the d'Argenson brothers receiving ministerial appointments, the duc de Richelieu taking charge of cultural affairs, and madame de Pompadour gaining official favor, his fortunes at the court rose steadily. In 1744, Richelieu called on him to compose a comédie-ballet for the dauphin's wedding in February 1745. Following performances of this work, La Princesse de Navarre, he was named royal historiographer and given the title “gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre.”6 Following the victory at Fontenoy, he received a second commission. Le Temple de la gloire, an allegorical glorification of Louis XV as Trajan, was included at the end of the year in a series of celebratory spectacles. The worldly nature of these activities has led many critics to denounce the ambitious side of Voltaire's character and to lament his willingness to demean himself as a courtier.7 In judging him in these terms, however, such assessments completely ignore the outburst of State-sponsored literary activity at this time. Undoubtedly, Voltaire was attracted by the prospect of official titles and the security they offered; but he also responded to a wide-reaching program that hearkened to the policies of the Sun King. In the new environment at court, he could feel that he really was participating in a rebirth of the cultural brilliance of the seventeenth century. As described by Jean-Louis de Cahusac in a lengthy Encyclopédie article, “Fêtes de la Cour,” the festivities of 1745 are inscribed in a long line of court spectacles in France. Cahusac identifies the early years of Louis XIV's reign, “l'époque de la grandeur de cet état, de la gloire des Arts, & de la splendeur de l'Europe,” as the apogee of this tradition, but he devotes the greatest portion of his article to the period 1745-47, including detailed descriptions.8 The splendor of these events appears with wonderful clarity in the images produced by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, father and son, which depict performances of La Princesse de Navarre.9 Their engravings, embracing the entirety of the theatrical space, both stage and audience, capture the glory of the French nation, substantiated by military victory, transposed and sublimated in the refinement of extravagant artistic creation.

It is within this general context that Voltaire's response to Fontenoy must be situated. The monarchy's renewed support for artistic and literary activity, compounded by popular enthusiasm for the victory, virtually obligated a poet in his position to compose a celebratory work. Commentary from the period indicates that many of his contemporaries found it appropriate that he, the author of La Henriade, should sing the praises of Louis XV. His recent honors at the court reinforced these expectations.10 In fact, just days after the event, he received a long letter from the marquis d'Argenson who described the battle in detail. Given the circumstances in which it was written and the respective position of the two correspondents, this letter seems to present a sort of prescriptive outline for a poem.11 Commenting on the sort of pressure that the victory created for poets, Voltaire's rival, Alexis Piron, later remarked that, “un poëte par état eût alors passé pour un mauvais citoyen, s'il se fût tu. …”12

Already the previous year, Voltaire himself had argued that poetry was an essential element in national glory. In his Discours en vers, sur les événements de l'année 1744, which appeared in the Mercure de France, he expressed the nation's joy over recent victories and the king's miraculous recovery. At the same time, he lamented the low quality of the poetic response:

Paris n'a jamais vu de transports si divers,
Tant de feux d'artifice, et si peu de bons vers.

(M 9: 430)

Rather than resulting in a condemnation of poetic activity, however, this complaint led him to argue for renewed literary effort. In part, this poem was a request for royal patronage. But, beyond the element of self-interest, it defined a coherent cultural politics characterized by the complementarity of royal virtue and poetic encomium. In particular, Voltaire cited the model of the grand siècle, an era when poetry figured at the very center of national vitality. Here, and in many other texts of the period, the legacy of the reign of Louis XIV stood as a challenge to eighteenth-century poets.13 The extraordinary events of 1744-45 created an opportunity for them but also a burden. Their greatest hope was to equal the accomplishments of their illustrious, already-canonized, predecessors. In many ways, they, like the monarchy, felt compelled to try to reconstitute the poetic environment of the previous century. In these conditions, the new celebratory works became the object of intense scrutiny.

This conception of the role of poetry obviously informs the first lines of La Bataille de Fontenoy. In summoning his compatriots to admire the king, Voltaire alludes to the most famous celebratory poem of the previous century, Boileau's fourth epistle:

Quoi! du siècle passé le fameux satirique
Aura fait retentir la trompette héroïque,
Aura chanté du Rhin les bords ensanglantés,
Ses défenseurs mourants, ses flots épouvantés,
Son dieu même en fureur, effrayé du passage,
Cédant à nos aïeux son onde et son rivage:
Et vous, quand votre roi dans des plaines de sang
Voit la mort devant lui voler de rang en rang,
Tandis que, de Tournay foudroyant les murailles,
Il suspend les assauts pour courir aux batailles;
Quand, des bras de l'hymen s'élançant au trépas,
Son fils, son digne fils, suit de si près ses pas;
Vous, heureux par ses lois, et grands par sa vaillance,
Français, vous garderiez un indigne silence!

(M 8: 383)

The opening thus has a dual mission. On the one hand, it conveys a great sense of excitement about the victory. The exclamatory “Quoi!” and the tremendous length of the first sentence are remarkably effective in creating a feeling of breathlessness. The king's noble actions accumulate in an impressive cadence that ends by stridently rebuking the mute French. On the other hand, by accepting the celebratory task, Voltaire casts himself as Boileau's successor, thereby amplifying the significance of his poem. Building on this association, he manages to construe his work as an expression of national sentiment, not simply as a spontaneous song of joy, but also as part of France's most noble poetic tradition. This link to the past is a grandiose rhetorical gesture; it also reflects the seriousness with which Voltaire later pursues revision of the work. Throughout this period his correspondence speaks of his desire to produce a text that will be a “monument” to French glory. In accordance with his ideas about the complementary relationship between power and poetry, he vows to refine his poem until it reaches a state worthy of the event: “Sans doute je corrige mon ouvrage et je le corrigeray. Je voudrois pouvoir le rendre digne, et du Roy qui l'a honoré de son aprobation, et de ma patrie à la gloire de la quelle il est consacré. …”14 He sets himself a goal that far surpasses the limits of courtly flattery; his ambition is to elevate poetry and make it a worthy heroic vehicle.

Written with such high expectations, La Bataille de Fontenoy became what must surely be one of the most intensively revised and edited poetic works ever. Eager to display his zeal and to satisfy public interest in the event, Voltaire first issued his poem within days of the victory. Then, as new information about the battle reached the capital, he corrected and expanded it, working quickly to incorporate further details. On 31 May, in a note to his friend Cideville, he describes his most recent changes, produced during a sleepless night.15 This highly evocative letter conveys a sense of the amazing rapidity, but also the persistence, with which the entire work was written, revised and reprinted. In fact, the poet continued to labor over the text until late that summer. Eventually, more than thirty editions appeared, presenting nearly a dozen different states of the text. Finally, Voltaire garnered considerable official recognition for his Bataille; he was first granted permission to dedicate it to the king and then obtained the honor of having it printed at the Imprimerie Royale.

The poet did not exaggerate, then, when he stated that “ce qui n'était d'abord qu'une pièce de cent vers est devenu un poëme qui en contient plus de trois cent cinquante,” for La Bataille de Fontenoy was completely transformed during the course of his revisions (M 8: 375). It would be impossible to review all of the changes here, but they can be grouped in five categories that reflect their general impact.16 First, in several cases, Voltaire added details that probably reached Paris more slowly than the news of the victory. Thus, for example, the four lines that describe a series of assaults by enemy forces at the beginning of the engagement were not introduced until quite late in the revision process.17 Also, at this same level of detail, Voltaire corrected inaccuracies concerning the conduct of certain individuals. Frequently, he added footnotes to include this type of information. Secondly, he improved the narrative flow of the poem and gave it a more stately quality. In the poem's final version, the fine tableau of the allied army serves as an effective prelude to the action sequences (M 8: 384-85). Absent in the third edition, bits of this passage were inserted in the sixth edition, before the final text appeared in the Imprimerie Royale edition. Thirdly, Voltaire altered his text to make Louis XV's role more prominent. After the exordium (quoted above), early versions quickly shifted focus to the commanding general, Maurice de Saxe, as the poet led his readers directly to the battlefield.18 In the definitive text, he introduced an invocation that articulated the primary goal of the poem, the glorification of the king:

O vous, Gloire, Vertu, déesses de mon roi,
Redoutable Bellone, et Minerve chérie,
Passion des grands coeurs, amour de la patrie,
Pour couronner Louis prêtez moi vos lauriers.

(M 8: 383)

The later versions also expanded the conclusion of the poem to include a call for peace. Only the Bien-Aimé's clement grandeur, the poet claimed, could reestablish European harmony. Fourth, Voltaire responded to specific points of criticism from his contemporaries. In some cases, this entailed replacing a word or finding a new rhyme. In others, this led to explicit rebuttals. In response to protest over a reference to English “férocité,” he cited the testimony of a battle participant in an expanded note: “On m'a écrit que, lorsque la colonne anglaise déborda Fontenoy, plusieurs soldats de ce corps criaient: No quarter, no quarter! Point de quartier!” (M 8: 391). Finally, the poet updated his text to incorporate events that took place after the battle of Fontenoy. The capture of Oostende was such a case (M 8: 393). This process continued even while the work was being printed at the Louvre.19

Considered as a group, these revisions are remarkably comprehensive, and there can be no doubt that the later versions greatly improve on the earlier ones. Although longer, the text has greater coherence; it better conveys a sense of movement in the battle. The enhancement of the king's role gives the work greater political resonance. Changes in wording and rhythm give it a highly polished feel; of the many Fontenoy poems, it is certainly the most readable. But the ongoing process of correction and expansion also became an embarrassment for Voltaire. It revealed that the first editions had been issued long before the poem had reached perfection. Further emphasizing this fact, the title pages of the various editions became increasingly complex as printers sought to publicize the constant improvements. The sixth Parisian edition bore the indication, “Sixième édition, considérablement augmentée, conforme à la septième faite à Lille.” As we will see, this convoluted formula proved to be an easy target for parodists. In addition, as the number of editions mounted steadily, Voltaire was accused of making slight modifications in the text in order to sell more copies. Thus, even as he moved closer to his goal of creating a worthy monument to French glory, his editorial procedures compromised the dignity of the poem.

To counteract this negative effect, Voltaire added other changes to explain why the new editions were necessary. He was forced to admit that the first version was woefully flawed, but he justified himself by claiming that public interest had demanded such hastiness. In the third edition, he remarked that he simply had not had time to gather complete information: “On n'a pû nommer les autres Lieutenans Généraux, dont les noms sont célébrés ailleurs, ou dont on a reçu la liste trop tard. … D'ailleurs, si on avoit pû rendre justice à tous ceux qui le méritent, il eût fallu louer tous les Officiers de l'Armée, & mettre un an à composer un ouvage qu'il a fallu faire en moins de deux jours.”20 Beginning with the sixth Parisian edition, he included a substantial “Discours préliminaire,” in which he responded to several of the most common points in the criticism of his poem. In this more prominent position, he again addressed the question of the multiple printings: “Ce poëme fut composé presque le même jour qu'on apprit à Paris la victoire que le roi avait remportée à Fontenoy; et depuis on ajouta plusieurs traits à la pièce, à mesure qu'on savait quelque circonstance de ce grand événement, et qu'on faisait une nouvelle édition de l'ouvrage” (M 8: 375). The event was, in the poet's opinion, so spectacular and so popular that it required immediate celebration, yet it was also so significant that it merited an accomplished rendering. Caught between these contradictory considerations, Voltaire struggled to establish his Bataille as the definitive Fontenoy account.

As the editions succeeded one another, the progress of the work was also reflected in a series of paratextual reconfigurations. Again, it would be impossible to review all of them here, but the printing at the Louvre provides the most striking example of how the modifications in the poem's appearance strengthened its monumentality. The Imprimerie Royale edition is remarkable for its majestic title page. Eschewing the lengthy indications of edition number common in the earlier versions, this one simply announces its prestigious place of printing, with the words “Imprimerie Royale” dominating the lower portion of the page. A lovely ornament reinforces the connection with the monarchy. The image of the laurel-crowned king and dauphin, who stand proudly in the chariot of victory, replicates the commemorative medallion that was struck for the occasion. In addition, an epigraph taken from the Aeneid offers the poem as a lesson of virtue. Like the medallion, it alludes to the dauphin's presence at the battle and Louis's desire to educate his son in the duties of kingship. Most importantly, this edition gives the work a new title. La Bataille de Fontenoy, poëme is now Le Poëme de Fontenoy, implying that this text supersedes all other Fontenoy poems. Of course, some of these modifications may not have resulted from direct intervention by Voltaire, but his correspondence indicates that he did play an active role in overseeing the printing of the work and made several suggestions in this area.21

The poet's correspondence further reveals the significance he attached to this printing: “On va faire une septième édition à Paris, et peut-être la fera-t-on au Louvre; elle est dédiée au roi; et la bonté qu'il a d'accepter cet hommage, met le sceau à l'authenticité de la pièce.”22 After obtaining authorization for this edition, he negotiated for a larger print run than usual, sent a series of additional corrections and asked that copies be distributed to prominent individuals. Exasperated by these demands, the minister Maurepas eventually exploded: “Vous n'avez pas eu intention, après trente-sept editions, et bientôt trente-neuf, de multiplier uniquement les exemplaires: votre objet est que la beauté de ceux de l'imprimerie royale engage à les conserver et à les déposer dans les bibliothèques” (D3172, 9 July 1745). This exchange reveals that both men were quite aware that the transformation in the appearance of the poem was linked to its survival for posterity. Although Maurepas rejected this particular request, he was, in fact, sympathetic to Voltaire's perspective.23 Indeed, when he first wrote to the king about this edition, he spoke of the advantages of printing the work on the royal presses: “Je ne crois pas qu'il y ait d'inconvénient à lui accorder la grâce qu'il désire, son objet n'étant que de faire des présents dans les pays étrangers du poème sur la bataille de Fontenoy, d'une édition plus belle et plus digne d'être envoyée.”24 By granting the poem official protection, the monarchy thus consecrated a work devoted to its celebration, crystallizing the French victory in literary form. In the end, Voltaire's efforts finally paid off; his Bataille became, in effect, the official version of Fontenoy.

In part, his persistence in revising the text can be explained by his desire to defend his poem against hostile critics.25 As we have seen, he made numerous changes in the text and eventually added the “Discours préliminaire” in order to justify his characterization of the enemy, the work's long lists of names, and its failure to use allegorical figures. But, all in all, these points seem rather insignificant and hardly provide adequate grounds for Voltaire's obsessive revisionary efforts. To understand why he felt it was so important to bring his poème de circonstance to a state of perfection, we must return, rather, to his attachment to the idea of public poetry as a vital element in national glory.

In the remaining portion of this essay, I would like to argue that the tailoring of La Bataille de Fontenoy was informed by the publication of an abundant body of ephemeral literature both before and after the victory.26 As mentioned previously, a deluge of poems greeted Louis XV when he returned to Paris at the end of 1744. Scores of poets felt compelled to express the nation's joy; writers of all ranks glorified the king's accomplishments in numerous odes, idylls and epistles. Commonly these works were short texts, written and printed in haste, issued individually, often on relatively low-quality paper. Many copies were undoubtedly distributed by the poets themselves to patrons and influential members of the court. We have seen that Voltaire counted heavily on this practice to obtain readers. At the same time, however, these works were sold by street vendors and circulated widely in the general reading public. In the case of La Bataille de Fontenoy, one of the Président Bouhier's correspondents, Jean-Bernard Michault, noted that this was the case: “Les colporteurs vendent la cinquième édition. Cela se débite avec le jubilé, les prières des 40 heures, les sentences à mort du Châtelet, le croquet, le muguet, etc. Le poète Roy dit que c'est vendre les muses au litron.”27 Further augmenting the visibility of these works, in at least one case, several poems were gathered to form a regular anthology; the Parisian printer David issued a Recueil de pièces choisies sur les conquêtes & la convalescence du roy, enhanced by a Cochin engraving.28 More frequently, the various pieces of this literary explosion were gathered by individuals and bound together to form recueils factices. Even today, many of these collections of ephemeral materials survive, combining poetic works, battle accounts, engravings of fireworks displays and episcopal decrees.29 The abundance of this celebratory literature and the care with which it was collected confirm the idea that poetry held a particularly important place in the year's glorious events.

Yet this literature was clearly haunted by a sense of failure. In its most banal form, this sentiment dictated poems in which poets despaired of adequately capturing the king's incomparable virtues. This gesture might, of course, be dismissed as simple rhetorical modesty. But other writers confirmed this idea in a number of ways. Critics issued harsh essays condemning some of the more notable works; Fréron, Gresset and Piron were all victims of such attacks. Other commentators reflected on theoretical matters, particularly the technical difficulty of the French ode.30 In some cases, worried patriots summoned the members of the Académie Française to fulfill their official celebratory duties.31 These observers believed that the glory of the moment was tarnished by the profusion of bad poems written by individuals who had no identifiable poetic authority. One writer cursed the “fièvre poétique” that had infected the country, while a self-proclaimed “dénonciateur du mauvais goût” spoke of collective embarrassment: “Quelle prodigeuse quantité de Vers, & d'insipides Vers! Quelle fatalité pour les Lettres! Quelle honte pour le siècle où nous vivons!”32 Thus, Voltaire was not alone in complaining of “si peu de bons vers”; this lament formed a general chorus. Indeed, the compelling need to celebrate national glory created a widely shared feeling of poetic crisis.

Intensified by the extraordinary nature of the victory at Fontenoy, the same dynamic reproduced itself in 1745.33 Again, huge numbers of poems congratulated the king on his successes; and again, critics deplored the low quality of these works. The noise surrounding Voltaire's poem aggravated the situation; because of his fame and the speed with which he composed his poem, his text in particular colored many of the subsequent pieces. In these circumstances, a number of writers chose to compose parodies and satirical texts; rather than glorifying the victory, they instead turned their attention to the farcical insufficiencies of contemporary literary production. In this way, they undermined the process of poetic celebration. Not that their works were subversive in an ideological sense—they typically lauded Louis XV's virtues and praised the victory—but they cast Fontenoy in a humorous light much different from the dignity Voltaire sought to communicate in his poem. These were certainly not works that could be considered “monuments” to national glory.

Even a brief examination of this body of poems reveals that they generated much of their humor by pointing out the short-comings of the more serious poems, most prominently Voltaire's. For example, they poked fun at his editorial strategies, creating endless variations on this theme. In some cases, the gesture remained simple; the Lettre longuette à m. de Voltaire included the comment, “Derniere Edition. Sans corrections, sans augmentation, & parfaitement semblable à la premiere.”34 In other cases, the tone became more biting: “77me édition, revue, corrigée & augmentée de deux syllabes & de trois notes prises sous l'arbre de Cracovie.”35 Likewise, many of these writers included prefatory statements to justify their compositional practices. The “curé de Fontenoy,” for example, directly parodied Voltaire's excuses for his over-hasty work: “Si sa Pièce paroôt trop courte ou trop négligée, c'est parce qu'il n'a été que trois heures à la composer, la revoir, la corriger, & l'écrire.”36 Hostile literary theorists also discussed the multiple editions, but the effect was much different in these entertaining poems.37 Working by allusion rather than denunciation—it was up to the reader to recognize the references to Voltaire's poem—these writers created doubts about the sanctity of the poetic process in general. (This was easy to do given the number of really awful poems produced at the time.) More than simply attacking Voltaire in a personal way, their works seemed to suggest, in a broader sense, that poetry had become an endless repetition of meaningless, metered phrases, written only to produce profits for printers.

The parodists also exploited La Bataille de Fontenoy's opening exclamation, “Quoi!”38 The word in itself provided an ideal starting point for more fun. One “natif de Lille en Flandre” centered his entire “Discours préliminaire” around this “Quoi!” and then used it at the beginning of the first three stanzas of his poem.39 “Le grand Thomas” played on its sonority:

Quoi! restant comme un Iroquoi,
Je ne chanterois pas le ROI,
Tandis que tout le monde piaille!(40)

Others cribbed straight from Voltaire's text, creating humorous pastiches:

Quoi du siècle présent le plus fameux Poète
Aura pris dans ses mains l'héroïque trompette. …(41)

The “maître d'école de Fontenoy” used the interjection to launch a complete review of Voltaire's literary machinations:

Quoy du Siecle present l'Auteur Tragi-comique,
Epique, Politique, & Critique & Lirique,
Anglois pendant trente ans par inclination,
Redevenu François depuis la Pension,
Trouve bon que le ROY remporte une Victoire,
Aux Chefs comme aux Soldats fait leur part de la Gloire;
Ses Vers vendus un jour, refondus l'autre nuit,
Dans sa bourse sept fois ramenent leur produit,
Et je me tais encor!(42)

In returning persistently to this device, the parodists created a circle of interconnected works and drew La Bataille de Fontenoy into a poetic game over which Voltaire had no control.

A second string of associations further complicated the situation. Along with the “maître d'école de Fontenoy,” figures like the “barbier de Fontenoy” and the “fossoyeur de Fontenoy” established a connection between Voltaire's poem, from which they borrowed the exclamatory “Quoi,” and an ever-expanding group of works authored by fictional residents of the battle-torn village. The “curé de Fontenoy” instigated the cycle when he formulated his Requête au Roy, seeking compensation for the services he had performed for the thousands of victims. Written in the characteristic octosyllabic lines of the burlesque genre, this work went through a number of printings. The easy technique subsequently attracted many imitators; assuming the identity of other members of the Fontenoy community, they commented on the poems of their fellow village poets. As the circle expanded, the texts increasingly had less and less to do with the victory; ingeniousness became an end in itself. The goal of these works—much different from the elevated intentions of serious works like La Bataille de Fontenoy—was simply to prolong the dialogue, drawing material from every possible facet of the ongoing celebration of the victory.43

The problem for Voltaire was that he had no means of responding to these works, even though they often mocked him and his poem. Thus, he complained about one of these texts, attributing it to his enemy, the poet Pierre-Charles Roy:

Il a fait une petite satire dans la quelle il dit de moy:

Il a loué depuis Noailles
Jusqu'au moindre petit morveux
Portant talon rouge à Versailles.

On débite cette infamie avec les noms de Mr Dargenson, Castelmoron et Daubeterre en notes.44

Voltaire hoped that his friends would denounce this vile work to the Queen, but he himself could not descend to the level of satire to fend off the attack. He could only argue that a celebratory poem should name prominent individuals and that his text distributed praise equitably. In effect, this was one of the points he made in his “Discours préliminaire.”

But the terms in which Voltaire objected to the mistreatment of his poem suggest, in a more general sense, that he was profoundly disturbed by the levity of Roy and the other hack poets. For the injury they did was not limited to him alone; in lampooning his celebration of national heroes, they attacked French honor itself. In the mind of the poet who tried to promote his own text as a contribution to monarchical glory, these low-style parodies and contentious critiques failed to accord proper respect to public poetry. In response, Voltaire drafted the curious Lettre critique d'une belle dame à un beau monsieur de Paris, in which he ridiculed the comments of his critics.45 Adopting the voice of a frivolous noblewoman, he eagerly showed that the commentaries betrayed an absence of concern for important national matters. The “belle dame” complains that,

L'auteur du poëme prétend que nous avons beaucoup d'obligation au roi de gagner des batailles en personne, et de prendre des villes, afin que nous jouissions tranquillement à Paris du fruit de ses travaux, et des dangers où il s'expose. Quelle sottise! J'aimerais bien savoir si les dames de Londres se réjouissent moins parce que le duc de Cumberland a été bien battu.

The same attitude carries over into her assessment of the contents of the poem: “Que m'importe, à moi, que quatre ou cinq officiers de l'état-major aient été blessés? j'ai bien affaire qu'on me les nomme!” She is interested only in amorous intrigue, performances at the opéra-comique, and gambling. (She closes her letter, “Adieu, monsieur, le cavagnole m'attend.”) As Voltaire makes these charges, he implies that they reflect the frivolity of a considerable sector of the nation. Apparently this was the attitude that spawned the perpetual stream of poetic rubbish littering the literary space of 1745. Of course, he could not publish this text, it would have compromised his role as author of the officially recognized Bataille de Fontenoy. But in its satirical verve, this letter conveys a sense of the importance he attached to his poem and the frustration he felt when others undermined his efforts to celebrate and perpetuate French glory.

The poetic history of Fontenoy thus yields two sorts of lessons. As far as Voltaire is concerned, his initial text and subsequent revisions reflect an extremely important characteristic of his literary practice. Throughout his career he demonstrated a fondness and a talent for reshaping works—to respond to critical commentary, to ward off threats of censorship, or to integrate new material. The intensity with which he modified and improved La Bataille de Fontenoy highlights certain of these mechanisms; in this respect, the text provides an excellent case study. In addition, the Fontenoy episode shows Voltaire attempting to position himself within a complex cultural context. Although it may seem an unusual position for this figurehead of the philosophical movement, the events of 1745 led him to believe, at least for a moment, that a return to the artistic policies of Louis XIV's reign was possible and that he himself might contribute to cooperation between a flourishing literary culture and a reinvigorated monarchy. As it happened, the vision was a fleeting one. When he was asked to celebrate a new French victory, in 1747, he performed a more typical Voltairean pirouette. In his poem on the battle of Laufeldt, he again evoked the memory of Boileau. This time, however, he sought to distinguish himself from his model:

Je dirai tout, car tout est à sa gloire.
Il [Louis XV] fait la mienne, et je me garde bien
De ressembler à ce grand satirique,
De son héros discret historien,
Qui pour écrire un beau panégyrique,
Fut bien payé, mais qui n'écrivit rien.(46)

Disgruntled with his experience as celebratory poet, Voltaire vowed that henceforward he would devote his attentions to historical writing. Although La Bataille de Fontenoy had in many ways been a great success, he would never again attempt such a work. If the symbiosis of power, literary creation and national glory were still to take place, it would not be in the form of celebratory verse.

To understand why this was so, we have moved beyond the scope of Voltaire's individual reaction to Fontenoy and looked at the tremendous outburst of celebratory and parodic literature at the time. This copious body of poetry first responded to the victory and then fed off its own momentum to sustain public interest for several months. It might be said that the literary exchange overtook and subsumed the military event. At some point in the endless cycle of poems, interest shifted definitively from what was said about the battle to how it was said. At its most extreme, this literature became a commentary on itself, almost entirely effacing the battle. In this way, it completely violated a traditional model of celebratory poetry. Voltaire's comments on his ambitions for La Bataille de Fontenoy make it seem as though his task will be achieved if only he can revise his text sufficiently. Based on the example set by Boileau, his idea of the literary “monument” implies a sort of heroic model of literary reception: the brilliance of his corrected text should eventually compel all readers, even in the future, to accept the truth it conveys, the message of French glory. The complex literary field of eighteenth-century France did not, however, permit such a simplistic development. Public reaction and the quick pens of rival poets were less easily controlled than the newly appointed royal historiographer was willing to admit.47 Even as he labored to bring his own text to full perfection, a myriad of other writers busily undermined the notion of poetic dignity and grandeur.


  1. The Encyclopédie contains a short article, “Epinicion,” by the Abbé Mallet: “L'épître de Boileau, le poëme de Corneille sur le passage du Rhin, celui de M. Adisson sur la campagne de 1704, & celui de M. de Voltaire sur la victoire de Fontenoy, sont de ce genre. Le poëme d'Adisson a pour objet la bataille d'Hocstet; c'est un des plus beaux ouvrages de cet illustre auteur; celui de M. de Voltaire ne mérite pas moins d'être lu; la préface que l'auteur y a mise contient des réflexions judicieuses sur ce genre de poëme, & sur l'épître de Despréaux.” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers par une Société de Gens de lettres, ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, 23 vols. (Paris, 1751-73), 5: 808.

  2. For more extensive commentary on the historical conjuncture and the particular significance of these years in Louis XV's reign, see Michel Antoine, Louis XV (Paris: Fayard, 1989), chap. 8.

  3. The most recent account of the battle is Jean-Pierre Bois, Fontenoy, 1745: Louis XV, arbitre de l'Europe (Paris: Economica, 1996). Fontenoy long upheld the glory of French arms. Horace Vernet's monumental painting assumed a prominent position in the Galerie des Batailles at Versailles during the Restoration; see Thomas Gaehtgens, Versailles als Nationaldenkmal (Berlin: Frölich & Kaufmann, 1985). The battle also appeared in a variety of literary settings; it is mentioned, for example, by Diderot in both Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748) and Jacques le fataliste (1771) and by Rousseau in La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Perhaps the most striking reference to the battle and Louis XV's magnanimous conduct occurs in the conclusion of the abbé de Prades's article “Certitude” in volume 2 of the Encyclopédie (1752).

  4. Quotations from Voltaire's works refer to Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Moland, 52 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1877-85). References are abbreviated as (M volume: page). “La journée la plus glorieuse” is found in the “Discours préliminaire” of La Bataille de Fontenoy (M 8: 375); see also chap. 15, “Siège de Tournai. Bataille de Fontenoy,” Histoire de la guerre de 1741, ed. Jacques Maurens (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1971), 131-54. Howard Weinbrot discusses the very different tenor of the English response in “William Collins and the Mid-Century Ode: Poetry, Patriotism, and the Influence of Context,” in Martin Price and Howard Weinbrot, Context, Influence and Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Los Angeles: W. A. Clark Memorial Library, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, 1990), 1-39.

  5. For accounts of Louis XV's precipitous fall from public favor, see Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution, trans. Claudia Miéville (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991); and Thomas E. Kaiser, “The Drama of Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite Propaganda, and French Political Protest, 1745-1750,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 30 (1997): 365-81.

  6. For a full account of these events, see René Vaillot, Avec madame du Châtelet, 1734-1749, vol. 2 of Voltaire en son temps, ed. René Pomeau (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988-94), 193-258.

  7. Much critical interest in Le Temple de la gloire has centered on the anecdote concerning Voltaire's question to the King, “Trajan est-il content?” See, for example, R. S. Ridgway, “Voltaire's Operas,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 189 (1980): 119-51.

  8. Encyclopédie, 6: 580-85. As librettist, Cahusac participated in the creation of many of these spectacles.

  9. Several of the Cochin images are reproduced in the exposition catalogue, Voltaire et l'Europe (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1994), 72-76.

  10. His friend Cideville informed him that, just as Homer immortalized Achilles, it was his task to perpetuate Louis XV's sublime exploits: “Voltaire, pour suffire à peindre sa grande ame, / Il faloit vos talens: Poëte, Historien, / Excitez votre esprit que le sublime enflâme; / Homere trouve Achille, il ne leur manque rien.” A Monsieur de Voltaire, Historiographe de France, par Monsieur de ***. de l'Académie des Sciences, des Belles-Lettres, & des Arts, de Roüen, in Les Voltairiens, 2èmeSérie, Voltaire jugé par les siens, 1719-1749, ed. Jeroom Vercruysse, 7 vols. (Millwood, New York: Kraus International, 1983), 6: 24.

  11. D3118, 15 May 1745. All quotations from Voltaire's correspondence refer to Correspondence and Related Documents, ed. Theodore Besterman, 51 vols. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968-77). Besterman notes that the poet had issued the first version of his poem before this missive reached Paris; it cannot, therefore, be considered the “source” for the work. The letter does, however, suggest that d'Argenson wished to furnish him with ample material. His letter emphasizes the King's conduct: “Le vray, le sûr, le non flatteur, c'est que c'est le Roy qui a gagné luy mêsme la bataille, par sa volonté, par sa fermeté.”

  12. Alexis Piron, “Anecdote comique et littéraire au sujet des deux pièces précédentes,” in Oeuvres complètes illustrées, 10 vols. (Paris: F. Guillot, 1928-31), 8: 217; cited by Sylvain Menant, La Chute d'Icare: La crise de la poésie française, 1700-1750 (Genève: Droz, 1981), 289.

  13. For discussion of expectations surrounding serious poetry, see Menant, La Chute d'Icare, 273-79. Menant particularly emphasizes the importance of Boileau's episitle on the Rhine crossing as a model for eighteenth-century poets.

  14. D3131, 31 May 1745, to Cideville. Voltaire relayed the story of the King's reception of the work to several of his correspondents: “J'avois mandé à M. le maréchal de Noailles que j'ofrois un bien petit tribut, que c'étoit là un petit monument de la gloire du roy. Il m'a fait l'honneur de m'écrire que le roy avoit dit que j'avois tort, que ce n'étoit pas un petit monument” (D3142, 13-15 June 1745, to the président Hénault). See also D3147, D3149, D3168 and D3187.

  15. One morning he urged Cideville to come “chez Prault” where he was to oversee the printing of a new edition: “Après avoir travaillé toute la nuit mon cher amy à mériter vos éloges et votre amitié, par les efforts que je fais, après avoir poussé notre bataille jusqu'à près de 300 Vers, y avoir jetté un peu de poésie, fait un discours préliminaire et ayant surtout proffité de vos avis, il faut prendre du Caffé, et c'est en le prenant que je vous rends compte de tout ce que je fais. Je viens de recevoir du roy la permission de faire imprimer l'Epître dédicatoire dont je luy avois envoyé le Modèle” (D3139, 31 May 1745).

  16. Unfortunately, the volume that will contain the “Bataille de Fontenoy” has not yet appeared in the ongoing critical edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968).

  17. “Dans un ordre effrayant trois attaques formées / Sur trois terrains divers engagent les armées. / Le Français, dont Maurice a gouverné l'ardeur, / A son poste attaché, joint l'art à la valeur” (M 8: 385-86). These lines were still absent from the sixth Parisian edition by Prault pere.

  18. “Aux Champs de Fontenoy, volez, accourez tous; / Voyez ce fier Saxon qu'on croit né parmi nous. …” La Bataille de Fontenoy, Poëme. Troisième edition, plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes (Paris: Prault père, 1745), 4.

  19. Voltaire writes to the printer at the Louvre, Jacques Anisson-Duperron: “Il est bien juste monsieur de ne pas oublier Ostende dans l'énumération des conquêtes du roy, je vous suplie d'ordonner qu'on insère le morceau suivant à la page 27” (D3175, [15 July 1745]).

  20. The comment appeared in a footnote to the third edition, page 5. In later editions, this note disappeared since Voltaire made the same point in the “Discours préliminaire.”

  21. Notably, he wrote to Anisson-Duperron concerning the ornament: “Vous me feriez un sensible plaisir de faire mettre à la tête du poème, le côté de la médaille qui représente Le Roy” (D3204, [?25 August 1745]). The change of title also seems to have originated with Voltaire: “Je vous prie de mettre Le poème de Fontenoy en titre au frontispice, et en titre courant” (D3179, [20 July 1745]).

  22. D3149, 17 juin 1745. This letter was addressed to the comte de Tressan, a participant in the battle who, like Voltaire, wrote a poem to celebrate Fontenoy.

  23. Two weeks after scolding Voltaire, Maurepas notified Anisson-Duperron: “Vous ferés tirer, Monsieur, 800 exemplaires du Poëme de Fontenoy et vous les remettrés à M. de Voltaire; il souhaite que dans ce nombre il y en ait 200 reliés en veau et en maroquin. Comme je suis persuadé que le Roy ne désaprouvera pas cette deppense, vous voudrés bien vous charger de faire faire ces relieures; Je crois que M. de Voltaire sera content et je le désire” (D3181, 25 July 1745).

  24. Lettres de M. de Marville, lieutenant général de police, au ministre Maurepas, 1742-1747, ed. A. de Boislisle (Paris: Champion, 1886-1905), 2: 93; cited by Besterman, D3150, [c. 18 June 1745].

  25. Several of these critical works are reprinted in Les Voltairiens, vol. 6, including Desfontaines's Avis sincères à m. de Voltaire. Au sujet de la sixième édition de son poème sur la victoire de Fontenoi, Dromgold's Réflexions sur un imprimé intituléLa bataille de Fontenoy, poème,” and the anonymous Apologie du poëme de M. de V**** sur la bataille de Fontenoy.

  26. Pierre Conlon registers a substantial jump in the number of works produced in 1744 and 1745 compared with previous years; in later years, the totals again drop considerably. Le Siècle des Lumières. Bibliographie chronologique, 17 vols. to date (Geneva: Droz, 1975), vol. 5.

  27. “NE 2, 2 June 1745,” in Lettres de l'abbé Bonardy (1726-1745) et de Jean-Bernard Michault (1745), ed. Henri Duranton (Saint-Etienne: Université de Saint-Etienne, 1977), 139.

  28. This collection includes Voltaire's poem Sur les événements de 1744 and his Nouvelle épistre au roy, présentée à Sa Majesté au camp devant Fribourg, le premier novembre 1744. The engraving is reproduced in Voltaire, Histoire de la guerre de 1741.

  29. On the interest of such collections, see Albert Labarre, “Sur l'éminente dignité des pièces,Revue française d'histoire du livre 84-85 (1994): 335-40. While discussing in a general way the preservation of ephemeral print materials, Labarre mentions specifically the copious Fontenoy production.

  30. La France consolée, ode. Par monsieur l'abbé Pellegrin. Avec un discours sur l'ode (Paris, 1744); and the Epître au Roy, au retour de sa campagne; avec un discours sur la critique, ou critique des critiques, par monsieur Néel (Paris, 1744).

  31. For example, Plainte à messieurs les auteurs de l'Académie françoise (Metz, 1744).

  32. Epître au public par un méchant poète tant en son nom, que comme portant la parole pour ses confrères, qui sont en très-grand nombre (Paris, 1744), 2; Le Dénonciateur du mauvais goût, et observations critiques sur l'ode de l'abbé Pellegrin (Paris, 1744), 3.

  33. Like David the previous year, the Lillois printer Panckoucke issued a Recueil de pièces choisies sur la bataille de Fontenoy à la louange de Sa Majesté (Lille, 1745), which he claimed was intended to satisfy “l'empressement des François pour conserver les monuments précieux de la victoire et des illustres conquêtes de notre monarque pendant cette année 1745” (verso of the title page). As in many of the recueils factices, Voltaire's text came first, followed by a mixture of other pieces. For general discussion of the poetic response to Fontenoy, see Menant, La Chute d'Icare, 285-96; and Michel Gilot, “Le Souvenir d'une belle bataille,” in L'Histoire au dix-huitième siècle. Colloque d'Aix-en-Provence; 1-3 mai 1975 (Aix-en-Provence: EDISUD, 1980), 307-28.

  34. In Les Voltairiens, 6: 191. For general analysis of imitative modes of writing and particularly of the burlesque genre, see Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes, la littérature au second degré (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 78-88.

  35. [F. Z. Pourroy de L'Auberivière de Quinsonas], La Capilotade, poème ou tout ce qu'on voudra, in Les Volairiens, 6: 265.

  36. [Jean-Martin Marchand], Requête du curé de Fontenoy, au Roy, in Recueil de pièces choisies, item 8: 2.

  37. “C'est-à-dire que vous avez fait votre Poëme en un ou deux jours, & que vous l'avez ensuite grossi de toutes les nouvelles vrayes ou fausses que l'on vous disoit. Mais est-ce là ce qu'on appelle composer un Poëme? N'est-ce pas travailler, comme on dit, au jour la journée?” [P. F. G. Desfontaines], Avis sincères à m. de Voltaire. Au sujet de la sixième édition de son poème sur la victoire de Fontenoi, in Les Voltairiens, 6: 25.

  38. Literary critics, too, attacked Voltaire's first sentence, since it suggested that imitation of Boileau (rather than celebration of the victory) was the poem's primary motivation: “C'est comme si quelque Poëte, sous l'Empire de Titus, eût invité tous les Romains à faire des vers à la louange de cet Empereur, parce qu'Horace avoit célébré Auguste; & cette invitation auroit été sans doute très-conséquent & très-spirituelle. …” Apologie du Poëme de M. de V**** sur la bataille de Fontenoy, in Les Voltairiens, 6: 4.

  39. [A.-J. Panckoucke], La Bataille de Fontenoy, poëme héroïque en vers burlesques, par un Lillois, natif de Lille en Flandre (Lille, 1745).

  40. Le Galamathias, poesies du tems, héroïques, critiques, epiques, lyriques & comiques, in Recueil de pièces choisies, item 9: 50.

  41. Epître au Roi par un Manceau (1745), 3.

  42. [P. H. Robbé de Beauveset], Epitre du sieur Rabot, maître d'école de Fontenoy, sur les victoires du roi, in Les Voltairiens, 6: 15.

  43. The président Bouhier's correspondence registers the vogue of comic Fontenoy poetry: “Je ne vous parlerai point, Monsieur, de toutes les brochures poétiques dont nous sommes inondés sur la bataille de Fontenoy. Le comique a mieux réussi que le sérieux. La requête du curé de Fontenoy a remporté la palme. Elle a été faite par Mr Marchand, avocat, qui est fort de mes amis.” “XXIII. 13 July 1745,” in Lettres de l'abbé Claude-Pierre Goujet (1737-1745), ed. Henri Duranton (Saint-Etienne: Université de Saint-Etienne, 1976), 83.

  44. D3148, 16 June 1745, to Moncrif. Like many of the other parodies, the offending poem employed the opening exclamation to strengthen its ties with Voltaire: “Quoi! je serai silencieux, / Comme une huitre dans son écaille, / Lorsque la fameuse Bataille, / Met en train jusqu'aux vielleux, / Et que chacun rime ou rimaille? / Ai-je donc peur qu'on ne me raille, / D'oser faire une strophe ou deux, / Après ce Chantre si fameux, / Qui célèbre depuis Noailles, / Jusqu'au moindre petit morveux, / Portant talon rouge à Versailles?” Vers sur la bataille de Fontenoy. par P.**, in Recueil de pièces choisies, item 6: 1-2.

  45. Lettre critique d'une belle dame à un beau monsieur de Paris sur le poëme de la bataille de Fontenoy (M 8: 397-400). This text was first published in the Kehl edition in 1785; the manuscript, in Voltaire's hand, is held at the Institut et Musée Voltaire in Geneva. I thank Professor Christopher Todd, who is editing this work for the Complete Works of Voltaire, for this information.

  46. Epître à S.A.S. madame la duchesse du Maine, sur la victoire remportée par le Roi, à Lawfelt (M 10: 341-42). On Voltaire's transition from poetry to history, see J. D. Leigh, “Patriotism and peace: Voltaire's responses to the War of the Austrian Succession,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 347 (1996): 643-45.

  47. Of course, in other situations, Voltaire himself masterfully exploited the techniques that he deplores in the other Fontenoy poets, and with more explicit subversive intention. His adoption and simultaneous destruction of religious modes of speech is just one example of this practice. For a discussion of the monarchy's attempts to channel information and control public response to the events of the War of the Austrian Succession, see Michèle Fogel, Les Cérémonies de l'information dans la France du XVIe au milieu du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1989).

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9462

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “An Innovative Theatre Traditionalist.” In Voltaire Revisited, pp. 80-102. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

[In this excerpt, Knapp gives an overview of Voltaire's theatrical career, focusing on his influences and his tragedies. Knapp notes that Voltaire was predominantly influenced by the French classical tradition of Corneille and Racine, but was also taken with the very unclassical freedom of Shakespeare. Knapp suggests that Voltaire was conflicted about the form and formality of the drama, leading to works that sometimes manifested his confusion. His works also reveal the antidogmatic and antiestablishment themes of his Englightenment philosophy.]

From the outset of his career as playwright (Oedipus, 1718), to his last stage piece (Irene, 1778), Voltaire was considered one of the finest dramatists of his era. Although his talents did not measure up to the genius of Corneille or Racine, the thrust, style, multiplicity of thematics, and, paradoxically, the innovations that this traditionalist brought to theater and to staging are noteworthy.

Voltaire's subtle circumvention of the sacrosanct unities of time, place, and action; his manipulation of the conventions of bienséance (or decorum) and verisimilitude; his attempts to change the longtime French practice of allowing spectators to sit on the stage during performances; and the importance he accorded to costume design and acting techniques—all these, though seemingly paltry in comparison with the advances in the performing arts today, were in his era considered acts of courage.

He militated to abolish the practice of allowing spectators onstage, begun in 1636 with Corneille's Le Cid. Not only did spectators' ongoing conversations throughout the performance prevent them from hearing the lines, but their unruliness impeded the actors' play, to the point of denying them the opportunity of creating realistic interpretations of their roles. By diminishing, almost obliterating, the possibility of audience identification with the characters and the grandiose actions portrayed, performances frequently fell, so to speak, on deaf ears. Among Voltaire's verbal onslaughts is his “Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy” (1748), in which he stated that “one of the greatest obstacles to the presentation of any grand and moving action in our [French] theaters is the crowd of spectators mingled pell-mell on the stage with the actors.”1 It was not, however, until 1759, when Count de Lauraguais paid 60,000 francs to the Comédie-Française to reimburse the company for excluding theatergoers from their high-priced onstage seats, that abstract notions were transformed into concrete terms. His magnanimous act finally cleared the French stage of spectators.

Voltaire was one of the first to base some of his tragedies on French national history, looked upon at the time as too sacred a subject for theater. To heighten a play's emotional appeal, he took great pains to emphasize the spectacle side of performance. To be sure, his heroic tragedies for the most part followed well-worn modes and facile stage techniques: coups de théâtre, recognition scenes, and surprises, as well as borrowings from the Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, and, of course from his seventeenth-century predecessors. Nonetheless, his use of multiple melodramatic elements in his tragedies leads us to consider him an important transitional man of the theater, linking Racine's classical dramas to Hugo's romantic theater. Furthermore, he may be seen as a precursor of the writers of pièces à thèse (Henri Becque, Oscar Méténier), as well as of the adapters of novels by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Émile Zola, and others.

Though a remarkable craftsman, deftly inserting suspense, excitement, and visual stage activity to stir his dramatic unfoldings, Voltaire lacked the imagination and psychological depth to create full-blown characters. Rather than reach into the heart of his protagonists and to extract their uniqueness, he placed emphasis on external situations, attitudes, and objects. The creatures of his fancy were frequently unidimensional and stereotypic. His melodramatic plots were often predictable and derivative. Although vacillating between new trends in theater—the choice of prose for its naturalness, for example—he opted for the 12-syllable alexandrine that had ruled French tragedy as a medium of expression for a hundred years. Pitfalls frequently beset traditionalists, and Voltaire was no exception. Although he prided himself on the high quality of his verses, his poetics were divested of the stark, visceral, and searing images that characterize Corneille's and Racine's peerless dramas. Interlaced as Voltaire's were at times with heavy, redundant, and banal overtones, his tragedies more often than not drew tears from his audiences.

Voltaire, the polemicist and moralist, authored 52 plays. Of these, 27 were tragedies, the rest comedies.2 The former, more or less thesis dramas, waxed in high-wrought sequences, each in its own way attempting to rectify the protagonists' duplicitous relationships, to spiritualize their base intents, to transform their fanaticism into tolerance, and their xenophobia to xenophilic attitudes.

A passionate devotee of drama, as attested to by the theaters he built wherever he lived for any length of time—Cirey, Les Délices, and Ferney—Voltaire not only wrote plays, but, as has been mentioned, directed and performed in them. He involved himself in the creation of their sets and costumes as well and worked closely with his performers, namely, Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730); Marie-Françoise Marchand, called Dumesnil (1713-1802); Claire-Josèphe Leris de la Tude, spoken of as Clairon (1723-1803); and Henri-Louis Cain, referred to as Lekain (1729-1778). He knew exactly how to pry the best out of his artists, illustrating how to communicate emotions via gestures, facial expressions, and props and teaching them to distill the essence of their lines.

Voltaire was grateful to Lecouvreur for having substituted simplicity, naturalness, grace, and nobility for the traditional French custom of exaggerated and affected declamation and chanting. So impressed was he by the authenticity of her speech that after her death he wrote: she had “almost invented the art of speaking to the heart, and of showing feeling and truth where formerly had been shown little but artificiality and declamation.”3

While training Dumesnil in her role for Mérope (Mérope), Voltaire was so insistent that she express greater passion that in desperation she cried out: “Really, one ought to have le diable au corps to strike the note you want.” He responded: “Just so, mademoiselle, le diable au corps in all art, if you want to attain perfection” (Cole and Chinoy, 173).

Always meticulous and conscientious in the preparation of her roles, Clairon was praised by Voltaire for her arresting acting—its polish, its finesse, and the nobility needed to achieve the grandeur required for her portrayals. In Clairon's “Reflections on Dramatic Art,” she wrote of the special emphasis she placed on voice training: “In order that she [the actress] may be enabled to give the necessary shade to the picture she means to represent, her voice must be clear, harmonious, flexible, and susceptible of every possible intonation” (Cole and Chinoy, 170). Arduous work was required in the preparation of such roles as Mérope in the play of the same name, or Aménaïde in Tancred. Clairon referred to the naiveté of some actors who believed

that the author had done all that was necessary; that to learn the parts, and to leave the rest to nature was all the actor had to do. Nature! How many use this word without knowing its meaning. The difference of sex, of age, of situation, of time, of countries, of manners and of customs demand different modes of expression. What infinite pains and study must it not require to make an actor forget his own character; to identify himself with every personage he represents; to acquire the faculty of representing love, hatred, ambition, and every passion of which human nature is susceptible,—every shade, every gradation by which these sentiments are depicted with their full extent of coloring and expression.

(Cole and Chinoy, 171)

A great admirer of Clairon's “natural” acting style, Voltaire was not loath to convey his feelings on the subject:

Who, before Miss Clairon, would have dared to play the scene of the urn in Orestes as she had? Who would have imagined nature portrayed in this manner; of falling in a faint holding the urn in one hand, while letting the other fall down immobile and lifeless?

(Ridgway, 173)

Nor did Lekain, who used his vocal skills and silences to convey the conflictual nature of his characters, deliver the traditional turgid and exaggerated declamatory tirades. Having trained him since youth, Voltaire may have been instrumental in teaching him the art of infusing his lines with tragic power, and of instilling in him the willpower and discipline needed to become a great performer. Commenting on the superb acting techniques of Lekain and Clairon, he compared their stage tableaux to a Michelangelo painting. Voltaire also underscored Lekain's “audacity” as he emerged from Ninus's tomb in Sémiramis with bloodied arms, and he lauded the acting techniques of the “admirable” Clairon as the dying Sémiramis, dragging herself onto the steps of the very same tomb (Ridgway, 173). Had Voltaire not benefited from the genius of the preceding performers, he perhaps might not have enjoyed a lifetime of great theatrical successes.


Voltaire was not only a skilled playwright but a true man of the theater, expert in every branch of this art, be it directing, acting, lighting, decors, or costume design. Judging from his many writings on the theater—prefaces, articles, essays, correspondence—his cardinal rule was to invest each of his tragedies with powerful emotional appeal. Fire, not ice, was the sine qua non of his tragedies. Instinctively he knew that he would reach his audiences through feeling, not didacticism. “Tragedy must speak to the heart,” he stated over and over again. “Whether tragic or comic, theater is a living depiction of human passions.”4

Voltaire's stay in England had opened him up to a remarkable period in the creative arts, sciences, and philosophy. The Restoration (the return of the Stuart dynasty to England in 1660) was marked not only by an overt reaction to Puritan austerity, but also by the introduction of broad-mindedness in matters of religion and mores. The closing of the theaters in 1642 by an act of Parliament, and their reopening 18 years later, had created a void in the arts. Two forms of Restoration drama filled this vacuum: the heroic play, which owed a great deal to Corneille; and the comedy of manners, with its ultraromantic moments and exceedingly complex plots. Some of the best-known playwrights of the period—Dryden, Congreve, Wycherley, Cibber, Farquhar—were instrumental in the development of prose drama.

Voltaire's energy and sense of commitment to the arts, as well as his exposure to Shakespeare and the dramatists already mentioned, served to broaden his understanding and vision of theater. Although lacking Shakespeare's genius, he was stirred by the breadth of the English bard's emotionally explosive stage personalities, and by the loftiness of their epic grandeur. “Shakespeare's brilliant monsters,” he wrote in the 18th of his Philosophical Letters, [hereafter referred to as PL] “are a thousand times more pleasing than modern-day wisdom” (Mélanges, 84). Unable to experience or to understand the profound psychological depths of a Hamlet, a Macbeth, or an Othello, Voltaire wrongly attributed their haunting power to external factors, such as the rapidity with which Shakespeare's scenes unfolded, the shock value of violence and gore in the stage spectacle, the frenzy of supernatural encounters, and so forth. That English national history had been considered food for dramatization, as opposed to the traditional interdict on staging moments in the lives of “sacred” French heroes and heroines, added yet another allure for Voltaire.

Shakespeare remained a source of inspiration for him throughout his life, despite the fact that French taste, taken with manners, courtly ways, and repression of instinct, was frequently jarred by Shakespearean creatures. Voltaire himself referred to Shakespeare as “barbaric,” but he explained his genius as he saw it to the uninformed in France, who had rejected Shakespeare outright for what they considered to be his crudities:5

It is Shakespeare, barbaric as he was, who injected this power and this energy into English; something no one else has been able to heighten since that time, without exaggerating, and consequently weakening, its thrust. What is the origin of this great poetic effect that forms and finally fixes the genius and language of peoples?

(Mélanges, 244)

Voltaire conveyed his admiration for English theater in the following metaphor:

The poetic genius of the English until now has resembled a thick-spreading tree planted by nature, lifting its thousand branches as it pleases, and growing irregularly and with vigor. Prune it against its nature to the shape of a tree in the gardens of Marly,6 and it will die.

(PL, 89)

Upon his return to France, Voltaire, the polemicist with a smattering of hubris, even suggested ways, simplistic to be sure, of enhancing English theater:

In England, tragedy is really an action; and if the authors of this country joined to the activity which enlivens their plays a natural style combining decency and regularity, they would soon surpass both the Greeks and the French.7

Although remaining under the spell of Shakespeare—and herein lies the dichotomy—Voltaire nonetheless saw himself as the continuator of French classical theater. As the protector of Corneille and Racine, he struggled to uphold the alexandrine, considered by him as representing the highest artistic form.

Numerous playwrights, and especially Houdar de La Motte, favored prose over verse for tragedy; Voltaire vacillated, but opted always for verse, convinced that it was crucial to the maintenance of artistic interest. The alexandrine alone had the power to convey the nobility, refinement, and elegance of aristocratic passions.

Voltaire upheld the sacrosanct rule of the three unities (time: the play's plot is to be spun out in 24 hours; place: the play is to be performed in a single location; and action: the play is to have only one central plot). Staunchly chauvinistic in this regard, he refused to allow French classical tragedy to become polluted by anarchical and audacious theater, Elizabethan or otherwise.

Despite his fine resolutions, however, Voltaire was conflicted on the subject of theatrical rules. Although imprisoned in traditional modes, he dreamt of staging spectacular tragedies that would rouse the audience's visual, aural, and emotional universe. When he felt his story line required the circumvention of the strict regulations imposed on French tragedy, he disregarded the unities of time, place, and action—and even those of verisimilitude and decorum.

His misreadings of Shakespeare, certainly not uncommon in the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century in France, led him to believe that he could both broaden and modernize the scope of French theater by simply injecting it with certain Shakespearean techniques. He saw these, as has been mentioned, in terms of shortening the habitually lengthy tirades of French theater and of speeding up its scenic action by having recourse to patheticism and coherency in plot and ideology.

Needless to say, the French classical tradition in eighteenth-century France was in a state of flux. Many playwrights sought a different type of theater to fulfill a changing society's vision of the world. With Corneillian and Racinian tragedy on the decline, the artifices of a refined court reacted favorably to Philippe Quinault's polished but insipid Romanesque tragedies. The paltry theatrical pieces of Jean-Galbert de Campistron, Joseph Lagrange-Chancel, and Longpierre flooded the market. Although attempting to break new ground, these imitators, devoid of psychological depth and imagination, had to resort to clever repartee, surprises, and other minor titillations to foment interest.

Mediocre playwrights filled the rosters. Having grown lax, many disregarded the once stringent seventeenth-century theatrical code. Whether or not a tragedy had five acts, as tradition dictated, depended on the whim of the dramatist. Many considered reality better served by blending genres, such as tragedy and comedy, rather than by rigorously separating them, as during the classical era. Some dramatists even went so far as to disregard the once-sacred rules of verisimilitude and of decorum, not to mention the unities of time, place, and action. Whimsically treated as well was the requirement concerning the subject matter of tragedy: that it must be drawn from antiquity, either classical or biblical. Also dismissed by the derivative dramatists of the period was the classical code regarding characterization: emphasis must not be placed on a protagonist's specific traits, but rather on his or her archetypal nature. To universalize and thereby eternalize human characteristics would enable audiences the world over to better identify with them.

Was Voltaire's advocacy of classical form due perhaps to a love for and dependency on tradition? Or did he unconsciously feel insecure as a playwright, resulting in a fearfulness to venture too far in new directions? Could his writings on the preservation of the unities have been motivated by a need to denigrate the doctrines put forth by such rivals as Houdar de La Motte? Yet he had been touched by the sentiments expressed in La Motte's tragedy Inès de Castro (1723). Perhaps he was jealous of its success. Inès de Castro had been one of the earliest examples of the drame larmoyant (tearful drama), a genre Voltaire was to emulate not in name but in content. La Motte, pointing up the glorious sentiments of conjugal tenderness in his play, championed the cause of modern drama freed from classical restrictive and fixed traditions, including those of the three unities and the conventional alexandrine. But the breaking of rules advocated by La Motte did not add a sense of inexorability and tragedy to his drama, although it did indicate a change in the direction of French tragedy. Voltaire realized that despite La Motte's successes, his rival's talents were far from great.

The abbé Dubos had advocated (Discours, 1730) that tragedy draw tears from its audiences. A dramatist could achieve this, he noted, by increasing the realism of his staged tableaux, thus adding to the intrinsic pathos of the extravaganzas. The underscoring of sentiment and feeling, rather than the emphasizing of self-analysis, heroic grandeur, and character building, as evidenced in Corneille's strong-willed hero types, was to make inroads in Voltaire's theatrical agenda.

Nivelle de La Chaussée's comédies larmoyantes (tearful comedies) brought a new genre of theater to public attention. By combining tragedy with stage pieces in which preeminence was given to tears, pathos, and sentimentality, the playwright had divined the perfect recipe to elicit the audience's sympathy for the misfortunes of others.

Denis Diderot's The Illegitimate Son (1757) and Father of a Family (1758) constituted an even newer vintage: the drame bourgeois, which set aspects of “tearful comedy” in situations mirroring contemporary life in its sorrows and its joys. Recognition of their own problems not only would help viewers cope with their needs in the real world but also would pave the way for social reform, as in the late-nineteenth-century naturalist dramas of Zola, the Goncourts, and Becque.

Despite the rush toward theatrical modernity in eighteenth-century France, Voltaire stood firm in his position against the prose dramas advocated by La Motte, the oversentimental works of La Chaussée, and the bourgeois banalities of Diderot's plays. Adamant in retaining the tried and true forms of “our great masters,” he defended the unities, despite his own frequent nonobservance of them. Although justifying his desire to maintain tradition as a means of instilling into audiences rightful philosophical, moral, and psychological notions, he may also have chosen to adhere to its dicta because it had proven to be an effective way to catalyze their emotions. Voltaire's ground rule for theater reads as follows: “I consulted my heart alone; it alone directs me; it has always inspired my actions and my words” (Moland, 5:295).



Even before his exposure to English drama, Voltaire had injected his Oedipus with a new identity. It deviated markedly in its psychological approach not only from Corneille's ego-centered protagonist but also from the “inexorable brutalities” interwoven in the tragedies of Sophocles.

Although he was an admirer of Corneille's Oedipus, Voltaire maintained that the liberties Corneille had taken with the plot of the Greek myth, coupled with the aridity of his poetry, had depleted the play of its intrinsic energy.8 Nor did Voltaire concur with Corneille's character-building approach to Oedipus, nor with his introduction of the question of free will. Corneille underscored Oedipus's growing awareness of his inability to transcend his destiny, which simply encouraged him to rise up in indignation against the gods—a ploy, Voltaire reasoned, that gave him the possibility of earning both his punishment and the means by which he could test his mettle. Accordingly, an individual would need only to discipline his or her will in order to rise above a sense of excoriating guilt.

Although cognizant of the “contradictions, absurdities, and useless declamations” in Sophocles' Oedipus, Voltaire confessed that without this work he could never have begun to really understand the protagonist's searing hurt, nor would he have undertaken the writing of a play on the same subject. He admired Greek tragedy for its powerful passions and for the starkness of its poetry but criticized some of its technical aspects: its stasis, its lack of suspense, and the raw and coarse situations it dramatized (Pomeau 1969, 87). He also took great umbrage with Sophocles' emphasis on the crimes of incest meted out to both Jocasta and Oedipus, and the latter's additional one of parricide. These, he maintained, predestined them to suffer and sacrifice in order to earn redemption.

Oedipus's deep-seated self-abhorrence in Voltaire's play neither stemmed from an innate sense of culpability nor resulted from punishment of the gods. Since he had disobeyed their dicta unwittingly and in all innocence, he viewed himself as guiltless of any criminal act, and, therefore, disculpated:

O no! I am not; this destructive hand
Hath broke the sacred tie, and deep involved
Thy kingdom in my ruin. O! avoid me,
Fear the vindictive God who still pursues
The wretched Oedipus; I fear myself,
My timid virtue serves but to confound me.(9)

Voltaire's very human Jocasta even more overtly believed in her son's innocence:

Do not accuse, do not condemn thyself;
Thou art unhappy, but thou art not guilty;
Thou didst not know whose blood thy hand had shed.

(Oedipus, 4.3.195)

About to die, she rejected any burden of guilt: “I have lived virtuous, and shall die with pleasure” (5.6.209). And in her last utterance, she again cast out all culpability for her sinful acts: “for heaven alone / Was guilty of the crime, and not Jocasta” (5.6.209).

While according to Jansenist credo mother and son had been predestined to commit crimes of incest and murder, Jesuit doctrine saw them as sinless, their acts having been perpetrated unconsciously and involuntarily. Their faultlessness absolved them of all accountability for their acts (Pomeau 1969, 87).

Voltaire's interpretation of the Oedipus myth was both modern in concept and in keeping with his own Deistic views of God. Not only was Oedipus stainless, but he had never, as in the case of Corneille's hero, suffered from hubris. Voltaire's Oedipus could never conceive that he—or anyone else—might ever triumph over, and thus alter, his destiny:

Heaven led me on to guilt, and sunk a pit
Beneath my sliding feet: I was a slave
Of some unknown, some unrelenting power,
That used me for its instrument of vengeance:
There are my crimes, remorseless cruel gods!
Yours was the guilt, and ye have punished me.
Where am I? what dark shade thus from my eyes
Covers the light of heaven?

(Oedipus, 5.4.205)

In keeping with Voltaire's strong anticlerical stand and his own natural forthrightness, his Jocasta mocked the gods and oracles—all those who claimed to discern the wishes of what was beyond human understanding:

These priests are not what the vile rabble think them,
Their knowledge springs from our credulity.


Mortals entertaining the idea of dominating their fate, or trying to read into the Book of Destiny, would be a theme Voltaire would later probe in such works as Zadig and Candide.

Although Oedipus had brought the 24-year-old Voltaire his first great success, a minority of spectators were understandably scandalized by what they believed to be his outrageous attacks on organized religion.


Voltaire believed that amour galant love motifs were more appropriate to comedy than to tragedy. To avoid simplistic and effete “gallantry” sequences on stage, amorous motifs were to be omitted, or to be melded directly into the inner workings of the drama, or developed into full-fledged passions capable of fomenting jealousies, crimes, or other extremes. Nor was love to be used to hyperemotionalize audiences.

In such tragedies as Zaïre and Alzire, Voltaire claimed to have deleted all traces of sentimental, flaccid, and Romanesque relationships, only retaining great passions, reminiscent of Corneille's Polyeucte and Racine's Phaedra. As theatrical celebrations of blind love, the visceral appetites dramatized in Zaïre and Alzire not only impacted on the protagonists' psyches but were indelibly linked to the situations as well. Nor was love used as an excuse for long analytical discussions on the subject, nor to firm up a plot, which would have detracted from the poetic, philosophical, and psychological vigor and nobility of the tragic form per se. Had Voltaire not respected these principles, critics would have likened his works to the trivia served to audiences by Thomas Corneille, Philippe Quinault, Prosper J. Crébillon, and Alexis Piron.

ZAïRE (1732)

Zaïre, identified as a tragédie tendre, was, Voltaire noted, “the first play which I wrote in which I dared yield to my heart's great sensibility” (Besterman, 517). In the throes of experiencing his own deep love relationship with Mme Du Châtelet, Voltaire knew well how to inject a very special brand of tenderness into his stage relationships. That he wrote Zaïre in 22 days seems to confirm the thought that he had been moved by a flood tide of emotions.

Adhering to the traditional five acts and to the unities as well, Voltaire equipped his Racinian protagonists not with specific character traits, so popular in the theater of his day, but with the required collective qualities demanded by classical drama. That he borrowed neither his subject matter nor his characters from legendary material or from past dramatists was an innovative step on his part. He had not set out to demonstrate, in the manner of a Corneille, the superhuman willpower or emotional strength of the creatures of his fantasy; uppermost in his mind was the depiction of his heroine's tragic universe in a way that would elicit tears from his spectators.

The subject of Zaïre lies in the period of Saint Louis (1214-1270) and the Crusades. While many in Voltaire's day erroneously considered the Crusades to have been great and noble endeavors, he, the historian, emphasized the brutalities, pillagings, persecutions, killings, and violations of human rights that marked these Christian military expeditions. Understandably his foray into national history was deemed a transgression of sacred material.

Historical references in Zaïre, such as the sailing of Saint Louis's fleet on May 30, 1249, for the Holy Land, were few and far between, the bulk of the material being pure invention on Voltaire's part. As in most of his theatrical works, Voltaire had an agenda and a mission. To this end, he highlighted the issue of religious toleration. Making audiences aware of the crimes that had been committed against humanity in the name of religion was to educate believers and bigots as to the deviously persuasive methods used by established religions to indoctrinate their followers. It also served to increase their understanding and compassion for those of other faiths.

Zaïre's complex and tragic plot revolves around the mutual love of Orosman, the sultan of Jerusalem, and Zaïre, a Christian. Much to her joy, Orosman has agreed to give up the custom of polygamy by making her his only wife. Although converted to Islam after having been taken captive as a child by Orosman's followers, Zaïre had, unbeknown to her, been born a Christian. In time she discovers that she is the daughter of the imprisoned Crusader Lusignan and the sister of Nérestan, a Christian zealot, who is aghast to learn that Zaïre has embraced Islam. So great is Lusignan's joy upon learning that his children are alive that his heart gives out and he dies, but not before Zaïre, although hesitant, promises to be again baptized as a Christian. Unaware of Zaïre's secret and unable to fathom her reasons for delaying the marriage ceremony, Orosman wrongly believes Nérestan to be in love with her. Like Shakespeare's Othello, he suffers such jealousy that when he learns that Zaïre and Nérestan are to meet, he stabs his beloved offstage. Once informed of Nérestan's true identity, Orosman not only releases all the Christian prisoners, but suffers such extreme guilt that he commits suicide onstage.

Voltaire's stage techniques are evident. The role of his Orosman is in keeping with Racinian passion as it culminated in the murder of Bajazet, in the play of the same name. Voltaire inserted melodramatic highs and lows, borrowing from Shakespeare's Othello, among other sources. What was strictly Voltairean, however, was his emphasis on religious intolerance. Lusignan and Nérestan, having rejected all conciliatory steps toward understanding Zaïre's terrible dilemma, were to blame for her death and for Orosman's suicide. The latter's genuine love for Zaïre, the guilt experienced after his crime, and his act of clemency at the play's conclusion were reminiscent in their depth and power of Corneille's Polyeucte. In keeping with Voltaire's philosophy as well is the larger picture that comes through in Zaïre. By opposing the Muslim's virtues and the Christian's ignominies, he once again proved his two fundamental truths: morality is both natural and universal, whereas dogma is inculcated in the child via education, as Zaïre iterates.

Our thoughts, our manners, our religion, all
Are formed by custom, and the powerful bent
Of early years: born on the banks of Ganges
Zaïre had worshipped Pagan deities;
At Paris I had been a Christian; here
I am a happy Musulman: we know
But what we learn; the instructing parent's hand
Graves in our feeble hearts those characters
Which time retouches, and examples fix
So deeply in the mind, that naught but God
Can e'er efface: but thou were hither brought
A captive at an age when reason joined
To sage experience had informed thy soul.(10)

Not as all-consuming as the passion of Racine's Hermione, Zaïre's somewhat reasoned and controlled emotions caused critics to liken her to an “Oriental Frenchwoman.” Nonetheless, she touched her audiences by arousing their pity rather than simply exciting their admiration. Because she was weak, submissive, and naive, some considered Zaïre to be the paradigm of the born victim—ready to sacrifice herself for a superior cause. Her idealism and purity of purpose transformed her into a paragon of virtue.

Orosman, a complex stage character, proudly aristocratic yet sensitive, punctilious, broad-minded, and endowed with the authoritative ways of a Saladin, was a fusion of Romanesque passion and the moral elegance of “the gallant man.” His mood swings, ranging through fear, rage, love, and pain, and concluding in his act of self-violence, combined a roster of melodramatic traits. Having decided to adhere to the rules of decorum, Voltaire had Zaïre stabbed in the wings and not onstage.

To diminish the very real possibility of offending his audiences, Voltaire created his own recipe for success: he served them a great passion garnished with all types of artificial seasonings—rapid scenic changes, recognition scenes, coups de théâtre, less talk and more action, and a dialogue filled with exclamations designed to arouse feeling and tears. Most important, Voltaire explained:

I owe it not so much to the merit of the performance, as to the tenderness of the love scenes, which I was wise enough to execute as well as I possibly could: in this I flattered the taste of my audience; and he is generally sure to succeed, who talks more to the passions of men than to their reason.11

He did not, however, stoop to violence. Although his characterizations were shallow and his situations mainly contrived, with pathos/bathos reigning, Zaïre's conflict between love and religion was believable, stirring, and in some ways unforgettable. La Harpe, one of the century's best-known critics, considered Zaïre “the most touching of all existing tragedies.”12 It may also be claimed that Voltaire's Zaïre finely integrated French national history and the stage. Immensely successful, it was performed in France, England, Germany, and Italy. Voltaire's own production and direction of the play at Cirey, and his performance in the role of Orosman, must have been memorable.

ALZIRE (1736)

By transforming passion into a weapon for tolerance and understanding, Alzire's love motif was considered to have ennobled passion. Its Rousseauesque implication was that the simplicity, purity, and integrity of the so-called uncivilized Peruvians made them superior to the hypocrisy, lies, and murderous intents of their patently “civilized” Spanish conquerors.

The action takes place in Lima, Peru, following the Spanish conquest of this land. Alzire, truth and integrity incarnate, is the youngest daughter of an Inca king referred to as an “infidel” by the so-called righteous and God-fearing Christians, one of whom, Guzman, loves the native princess. Alzire's concept of honor, so deeply inculcated in her since birth, keeps her from joining her fiancé, Zamor, a Peruvian chieftain, who has been fighting the Spaniards for the past three years and whom she now believes has been killed. Her passion for Zamor reinforces her inborn sense of righteousness and aversion to deception, betrayal, and duplicity—the former characteristics, Voltaire inferred, virtually unknown to Spanish conquerors. Aware that Guzman has been responsible for her beloved's torture, Alzire resists his advances. Finally, and for reasons of state, she reluctantly agrees to marry him. Her conflict, however, is so acute that she confesses to him her still-passionate love for her Incan chieftain.

Guzman, the odious, intolerant, and brutal colonizer, is placed in opposition to Alvarez, his tolerant and charitable father, who has chosen his son to succeed him as governor of Peru. Whereas Alvarez is a spokesman for idealistic Christianity, Guzman distorts its meaning, as is demonstrated by his following words:

For so our laws require, they must be Christian;
To quit their idols, and embrace our faith,
Alone can save them; we must bend by force
Their stubborn hearts, and drag them to the altar;
One king must be obeyed, one God adored.(13)

Zamor suddenly reappears on the scene and, although imprisoned and sentenced to die, succeeds in mortally wounding Guzman. Believing Alzire to have been guilty of encouraging Zamor's act, Guzman has her sentenced to death. Only after he fathoms the loyalty and love she bears for Zamor does his hatred and fanaticism transform itself into kindness and charity. Before dying, he forgives the lovers, urges them to marry, and asks Zamor to convert to Christianity.

Despite Alzire's great success, the so-called Incas on the French stage gave the impression of being transplanted Europeans. Alzire's ultra-noble character, deep-seated conflict, and plentiful tears were effectively used to sustain emotional highs. As for the stereotypic “noble savage,” Zamor, although diverted from goodness by his obsession for vengeance, turns into a loving individual at the play's conclusion. For some, however, he came across as absurd. That the melodramatic monster of a Guzman, in his predeath conversion to idealistic Christianity, is suddenly transformed into a compassionate and loving being adds yet another artificial note to the drama.

Yes Zamor,
I will do more, thou shalt admire and love me:
Guzman too long hath made Alzire wretched,
I'll make her happy; with my dying hand
I give her to thee, live and hate me not,
Restore your country's ruined walls, and bless
My memory.

(Alzire, 5.7.61)

Finally, Voltaire's use of hackneyed theatrical devices, coup de théâtre, recognition, and other scenes, to increase suspense, as well as his paucity of psychological depth, are ever evident.

OLYMPIA (1763)

Written in six days but reworked several times, as was Voltaire's habit with regard to most of his writings, Olympia dramatizes the shocking manner in which the female lead settles her love dilemma. Daughter of Alexander and Statira, Olympia had been asked by her dying mother to marry Antigonus, rather than Cassander, the king of Macedonia, whom she loves but who has murdered her father. Unable to muster sufficient strength to counter her mother's desire, the love-torn Olympia stabs herself, then throws herself onto her mother's burning pyre as an aghast audience looks on.14


Voltaire sought to instill notions of morality and virtue in his protagonists without having recourse to agonizing scenes of unrequited or impossible love. Rather than relying on pity and terror as the sine qua non of tragedy according to Aristotle's Poetics, he affirmed that terror, compassion, and tears should be aroused for loftier purposes.

In his “Discourse on Tragedy,” published with his Brutus (1730), Voltaire declared:

For love to be worthy of the tragic theater, it must not be used to simply fill a void in English or French tragedies most of which are too long anyway, but rather made the very crux of the drama itself. Passion must be truly tragic, considered a weakness, and struggled against via remorse. Such a love must either lead directly to the misfortunes and crimes of the heroes and heroines, thereby demonstrating how dangerous it truly is, or that virtue be triumphant, thereby dispeling all notion of its invincibility. Otherwise its power is reduced to the love levels implicit in eclogues and comedies.15

The techniques advanced by Voltaire to arouse audience anticipation and participation during polemical thrusts in Brutus, The Death of Caesar, Adelaïde Du Guesclin, and Mérope were relatively straightforward. Tirades were slimmed down so that the situation revolving around the play's politically idealistic arguments would become sufficiently abrasive to further irritate and bloody the spectators' already raw nerves.

BRUTUS (1730)

French audiences were stunned by the power of Brutus's patriotic passion for both the city of Rome and the liberty with which it was associated. Equally invincible was Brutus's profound hatred for the kingship, which, if it had been restored in Rome, would have put an end to the republic.

Rome already knows
How much I prize her safety and her freedom;
The same my spirit, and the same my purpose. …(16)
Stop, and learn with more respect
To treat the citizens of Rome; for know,
It is the senate's glory and her praise
To represent that brave and virtuous people
Whom thou hast thus reviled: for ourselves,
Let us not hear the voice of flattery,
It is the poison of Etrurian courts,
But ne'er has tainted yet a Roman senate.

(Brutus, 1.2.242)

Brutus was Voltaire's “republican” play, imbued with the power and energy that inspires noble freedom of thought, and the ring of authenticity sounded loud and clear each time the hero condemned the kingship in order to defend freedom of speech and a popular government. The very thought of possible repression not only energized Voltaire's moralistic credo but also replicated his own all-too-well-founded fears. Addressing the Senate at the play's outset, Brutus declaims:

At length, my noble friends, Rome's honored senate,
The scourge of tyrants, you who own no kings
But Numa's gods, your virtues, and your laws.


Nor did Voltaire cease his attacks on political despots and the priesthood, guilty of developing and maintaining a slave mentality in the people:

Etruria born to serve,
Hath ever been the slave of kings or priests;
Love to obey, and, happy in her chains,
Would bind them on the necks of all mankind.


Memorable is the concluding scene, spotlighting Brutus standing proudly defiant, embracing his son, Titus, whom he then sends with infinite but controlled sorrow to be executed for having conspired against republican Rome in a moment of weakness. Maintaining the beauty of his noble cause, Brutus speaks out yet again:

Ye know not Brutus who condole with him
At such a time: Rome only is my care;
I feel but for my country: we must guard
Against more danger: they're in arms again:
Away: let Rome in this disastrous hour
Supply the place of him whom I have lost
For her, and let me finish my sad days,
As Titus should have done, in Rome's defence.


Until the early part of the eighteenth century, little attention had been paid to sets, props, costumes, and accessories. With Brutus Voltaire opened up French taste to stage issues, choosing apparel befitting the characters and their times. The brilliance of the full-toned red togas worn by the senators standing starkly outlined against the semicircular altar of Mars was electrifying. Equally memorable was the austere but magnificently proportioned house of the Roman consuls on the Tarpeian cliff, with the temple of the Capitol in the background. Because its doors opened onto an apartment upstage, Voltaire was accused—and rightly so—of violating the classical unity of place.

Brutus's powerful idealism may explain why this play was briefly revived in 1789, at the outset of the French Revolution. The renowned actor Talma performed in the role of Proculus in a costume considered revolutionary for the time: he appeared onstage without powdered hair, with bare arms and legs, a red toga covering his torso.

The least performed of Voltaire's plays, Brutus was nonetheless translated into more languages than all of his other stage dramas. It had been begun as a prose piece during his stay in England, but the traditionalist Voltaire opted for poetry and transformed the play to suit his inclinations. To abandon the alexandrine, he affirmed, would diminish the spectators' pleasure. Nonetheless, his innovative side drove him to begin seeking ways of clearing the stage of spectators, for how, he admonished, could Brutus's genius be effectively experienced amid talkative, and even rowdy, spectators seated right next to him?


Voltaire's The Death of Caesar (La Mort de César), although treating grosso modo the same thematics as Brutus, is unusual for its psychological twist. Unlike Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Voltaire's play focuses on additions by Suetonius and Plutarch, to the effect that Brutus was Caesar's son by Servilia. The heart of the drama, then, no longer revolved around the conflict between the ideal and the real, but between the ideal and the filial. Voltaire reasoned that the affixation of a subjective conflict to the political crisis increased the poignancy of the situation. Caesar's revelation to Brutus that he was his son, born from a secret marriage, broadened the play's motif: parricide was added to the assassination. The more agonizing Brutus's conflict, the more determined he was not to allow his republicanism to be swayed, nor his duty toward his country to be impeded. The pursuit of his cause in no way diminished his efforts to persuade Caesar not to seek the throne, but rather to content himself with the honor of being the first citizen of the Republic. Following Caesar's refusal, Brutus unabashedly revealed his filiation to the senators, declaring his obligation toward Rome unchanged:

O Rome,
My eyes are ever open still for thee;
Reproach me not for chains which I abhor.
Another paper! No: thou art not Brutus:
I am, I will be Brutus; I will perish,
Or set my country free: Rome still, I see,
Has virtuous hearts: she calls for an avenger,
And has her eyes on Brutus; she awakens
My sleeping soul, and shakes my tardy hand:
She calls for blood, and shall be satisfied.(17)

Stoic to the extreme, Brutus placed his country above his family, thereby remaining a man of ideals—in many ways a Voltairean hero.

Attending a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar during his stay in England, Voltaire, it was reported, had gasped at the gory scenes unfolding before him. The sight of Brutus standing on the tribune explaining his act, holding his dagger still dripping with blood in front of his friends, remained indelibly engraved in his mind's eye. Not surprisingly, Voltaire attempted to avail himself of similar shock effects. Following Caesar's murder, while a teary-eyed Antony mounts the tribune to discourse on this great leader's virtue and his will, a curtain is drawn upstage to reveal Caesar's body covered with a bloodied robe. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Voltaire, incapable of digging deeply into a personality, failed to penetrate beyond surfaces; thus he fell short of understanding the profundity and universality of creatures in turmoil. Tragic situations, he erroneously believed, could be evoked onstage by a mere sleight of hand—by accelerating the speed and the horror of the staged scenes. He was sensitive to Shakespeare's shattering visualizations but was unable to imitate the power and energy implicit in the works of this “tasteless genius … this English Barbarian,” as he had referred to him in his “Discourse to the Academy” (Mélanges, 244).


Voltaire's Adelaïde Du Guesclin (1734) not only featured highly prized French historical figures—Guesclin, Vendôme, and Nemours—but violated the sacrosanct rule of decorum as well. Taking his cue from Shakespeare, or perhaps from Crébillon's Atreus and Thyestes (1707) or Rhadamiste and Zenobia (1711)—dramas replete with horrific scenes—Voltaire allowed full sway to the shock factor in Adelaïde Du Guesclin, which focused on war, passion, and jealousy.18 When, for example, Nemours entered the proscenium with bloodied face and a blood-soaked arm in a sling, audiences were aghast. Even more provocatively, instead of beautifully turned phrases to bear evil tidings, a cannon shot resounding offstage announced the death of Nemours's brother, Vendôme. It earned jeers from the spectators, who were equally disgusted by Voltaire's attributions, without support, of criminal acts to Du Guesclin (c. 1315-1380), a prince of the blood and one of the great heroes of the Hundred Years' War. Voltaire yielded to public taste on those issues and offered a new version of Adelaïde Du Guesclin in 1752, entitled Duc de Foix. With Lekain playing Vendôme, Du Guesclin's role clarified, and the blood scenes and cannon shots deleted, his play was well received. By 1765 taste had so altered that another version of Adelaïde Du Guesclin was again performed, this time successfully.

MéROPE (1743)

Voltaire's highly prized Mérope, although not the first play featuring this heroine to reach the French stage (Maffei, Gilbert, La Chapelle, Lagrange-Chancel, etc.), was divested of a traditional love plot. Focusing instead on the heroic love and devotion of a mother, Mérope, for her son, Aegisthus, Voltaire affirmed that the theme of maternal affection in all of its purity was both the core of the drama and the motivation of his protagonist.

Mérope, the widow of Cresphontes, the slain king of Messenia in southern Greece, senses that her son, Aegisthus, who had been reported dead, is still alive. She lives for the day that he will become Messenia's crowned head. Although the faithful Narbas, who had fled with the child following the king's assassination, had written to Mérope during their years of separation, his letters had been intercepted. When Mérope learns that Polyphontes, the present tyrant of Messenia, hopes to win the kingship by marrying her, she is overcome by feelings of revulsion for him. Unknown to her, he has posted soldiers at Messenia's borders with orders to kill any young man attempting to enter the land. Although ignorant of his lineage, Aegisthus is wise for his years. Upon setting foot in Messenia, he confronts the border guards who attack him, kills one, and routs another. But then he is arrested for “murder,” and Polyphontes announces falsely that he has died at the hands of a nameless and now-incarcerated stranger. He promises Mérope that if she marries him, he will allow her to avenge Aegisthus's death by killing the mysterious prisoner. Although Mérope agrees, she plans to kill herself immediately afterward. A memorable moment in French theater now occurs. Just as Mérope raises her hand to carry out her act, Aegisthus's old guardian, Narbas, comes forth and stays it, secretly informing her of the young man's identity and of the fact that Polyphontes had murdered her husband and two of their sons.

Lavish praise was heaped on Dumesnil for her portrayal of Mérope. Most striking was the scene in which she advances toward her son, whom she is about to ax; “her eyes and voice broken with tears, [she] raises her trembling hand,” which, when she learns his identity, remains fixed in midair. Moments later, just as a soldier is about to kill Aegisthus, she cries out “Stay, barbarian, / He is—my son,” crossing the stage to embrace him:

                                                                                                                                                      “Thou art:
And heaven, that snatched thee from this wretched bosom,
Which now too late hath opened my longing eyes,
Restores thee to a weeping mother's arms
But to destroy us both.”(19)

Polyphontes, master of the situation, gives her a final choice: marry him or witness her son's death. Falling to her knees, she agrees to the former. In time, however, we learn from Mérope's confidante, Ismenia, how Aegisthus took hold of a sacred ax and killed the tyrant, after which he was proclaimed king.

The beauty, lyricism, and poetry of the stage sets used in the 1763 production of Mérope were particularly impressive. Act II, for example, featured “a wooded grove outside the city, consecrated as a royal burial ground. It is filled with a number of ancient tombs and different forms, cypress trees, obelisks, pyramids, everything that characterized the pious veneration of the ancients for the dead. Among these tombs can be seen that of Cresphontes, adorned with everything precious that Mérope could provide” (Quoted in Lanson, 90).

The influence of Antony's “Friends, Romans, and countrymen” in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was all too obvious in Mérope's final words to her people:

Priests, warriors, friends, my fellow citizens,
Attend, and hear me in the name of heaven.
Once more I swear, Aegisthus is your king,
The scourge of guilt, the avenger of his father,
And yonder bleeding corpse, a hated monster,
The foe of gods and men, who slew my husband,
My dear Cresphontes, and his helpless children.

(Mérope, 5.7.97)

As the curtain installed downstage opened, Mérope pointed to Polyphontes's bleeding corpse covered with a bloodied robe. Shocked, the audiences looked on, aware that they had once again been exposed to another of Voltaire's transgressions.


  1. Voltaire, “Dissertation on Ancient and Modern Tragedy,” in Moland, 4:499; hereafter cited in text as “Tragedy.”

  2. With some exceptions—The Scotsman, The Prodigal, and Nanine—Voltaire's social comedies, farces, and satires are not sufficiently noteworthy to be mentioned in this book. One of the earliest comedies, however, The Indiscreet (1725), although performed only six times, was produced at Fontainebleau at the marriage of Louis XV and Marie Leszczyńska. Some time later, Voltaire participated in his own light satire, Belebat's Feast, performed at the Castle of Belebat.

    The Scotswoman (1760), a comic satire, was written by Voltaire to avenge himself against the despised Fréron, editor of the infamous defamatory sheet L'Année littéraire. Using all of his art and artfice to persuade the censors to allow his play to be performed, he finally won his case on the grounds that permission had been granted for Palissot's brutal satire Les Philosophes (1760).

    The year 1736 saw the production of The Child Prodigy, a comédie larmoyante. The actress Mlle Quinault, who had happened upon the theme of the prodigal son at the Théâtre de la Foire St. Germain, was about to suggest it to the playwright, Philippe Néricault Destouches, when Voltaire asked her to allow him to use it. After 30 consecutive performances, one was given at court with Mme de Pompadour playing the role of Lise, the virtuous lover of the prodigal son.

    Voltaire's Nanine ou le préjugé vaincu (1749) was his second foray into the sentimental comedy. His defense of this kind of comedy in his preface was made all the more palatable by his inclusion of a cluster of witticisms. Although Voltaire made no mention of the work that had inspired his play's theme, it was seemingly drawn from Richardson's Pamela (1740). In Voltaire's adaptation, however, the emotional outbreaks and freethinking teachings were rendered virtually innocuous to fit the standards of French taste. Rather than allow the play to drag, he used his dramatic skills to create a sense of urgency and excitement, and 10-syllable verse rather than the alexandrines, to accentuate plot and movement.

  3. Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy, Actors on Acting (New York: Crown Publishers, 1949), 148; hereafter cited in text.

  4. Voltaire, “Discourse on Tragedy,” in Moland, 2:323; hereafter cited in text as “Discourse.”

  5. Although a playwright of no consequence, Jean-François Ducis (1733-1816) was one of the earliest to adapt, basing his work on very poor French translations, some of Shakespeare's well-known tragedies. His script of Hamlet (1769) was used for the first production of this play in France.

  6. Voltaire is referring to a castle, 10 kilometers from Versailles, constructed by Mansart for Louis XIV.

  7. Voltaire, “Essay on Epic Poetry,” in Moland, 8:307.

  8. Voltaire, “Letters on Oedipus,” in Moland, 2:26.

  9. Voltaire, Oedipus, in vol. 8, pt. 2 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 4, scene 3, line 195; hereafter cited in text as Oedipus by act, scene, and line numbers.

  10. Voltaire, Zaïre, in vol. 10, pt. 1 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 1, scene 1, line 27; hereafter cited in text as Zaïre by act, scene, and line numbers.

  11. Voltaire, “An Epistle Dedicatory to Mr. Falkener,” in The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), 10:7.

  12. Colbert Searles, ed., Seven French Plays (New York: Henry Holt, 1935), 70.

  13. Voltaire, Alzire, in vol. 9, pt. 1 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 1, scene 1, line 9; hereafter cited in text as Alzire by act, scene, and line numbers.

  14. Henry C. Lancaster, French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XV and Voltaire, 1715-1774, 2 vols. (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950), 2:422; hereafter cited in text.

  15. Virgil W. Topazio, Voltaire: A Critical Study of His Major Works (New York: Random House, 1967), 92.

  16. Voltaire, Brutus, in vol. 8, pt. 1 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 1, scene 1, line 240; hereafter cited in text as Brutus by act, scene, and line numbers.

  17. Voltaire, The Death of Caesar, in vol. 10, pt. 1 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 2, scene 2, line 112.

  18. Crébillon believed that impetuous passions were “capable of driving people to the greatest of crimes and to the most virtuous of actions” (Crébillon, Preface to Oeuvres, quoted in Jacques Morel, La Tragedie, Paris: Armand Colin, 1964, 72).

  19. Voltaire, Mérope, in vol. 8, pt. 1 of The Works of Voltaire, trans. William F. Fleming and others, 22 vols. (New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901; reprint, New York: Howard Fertig, 1988), act 4, scene 2, line 78; hereafter cited in text as Mérope by act, scene, and line numbers.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire. Ed. Louis Moland. 52 vols. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1883. Nendeln/Lichtenstein, Kraus Reprint Limited, 1967.

The Works of Voltaire. Trans. William F. Fleming and others. 22 vols. New York: The St. Hubert Guild, 1901. Reprinted by Howard Fertig, New York: 1988.

Mélanges. Texte établi et annoté par J. Van Den Heuvel. Paris: Pléiade, 1961.

Seven Plays. [Mérope, Olympia, Alzire, Orestes, Oedipus, Zaïre, Caesar]. Trans. William F. Fleming. New York: Howard Fertig, 1988.

Philosophical Letters. Trans. Ernest Dilworth. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Secondary Sources

Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. A thought-provoking volume by one of the foremost Voltaire scholars.

Cole, Toby, and Helen Krich Chinoy. Actors on Acting. New York: Crown, 1949. A wonderful history of performers writing on their art.

Lancaster, Henry C. French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XV and Voltaire. 1715-1774. 2 vols. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1950. The most complete discussion of eighteenth-century French theater to date.

Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. Trans. Robert A. Wagoner. Introduction by Peter Gay. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966. A classic work on Voltaire.

Morel, Jacques. La Tragédie. Paris: Armand Colin, 1964. An outline-type volume on the philosophy, rules, and regulations of French tragedy.

Pomeau, René. La Religion de Voltaire. Paris: Nizet, 1969. Voltaire en son temps. 2 vols. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1985. All of Pomeau's works on Voltaire are first rate and should be consulted.

Ridgway, R. S. Voltaire and Sensibility. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1973. A highly poetic volume.

Searles, Colbert. Seven French Plays. New York: Henry Holt, 1935. A well-done anthology.

Topazio, Virgil W. Voltaire. A Critical Study of His Major Works. New York: Random House, 1967. Especially excellent on Voltaire's theater.

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Voltaire World Literature Analysis