Eminentoes

The Delightful Voltaire

An anti-statist for all time.

By From the July 2010 - August 2010 issue

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Voltaire, that ultimate freethinker and lifelong iconoclast, has never quite lost his audience. His epigrams are among the favorites of speechwriters and his political writings seem almost contemporary. Indeed he would make a suitable patron of today's U.S. Libertarian Party if its elders cared to look back far enough. (They tend to stop at Thomas Jefferson.)

Although Voltaire is absent from the party's materials, his spirit lives on in the libertarian movement, co-founder David Nolan told me recently.

In accidental Voltairean terms, the party rejects any attempt to constrain freedom of speech and calls for tolerance and a free, competitive market. Its platform lines up with Voltaire in its call for a world "where individuals are free to follow their own dreams in their own ways, without interference from government or any authoritarian power."

The similarities are perhaps as much a symptom of eternal human desires as any direct derivation from France of the 1700s. Some trace libertarianism back to Plato. But the overlap with Voltaire is striking. "Maybe it's more a case of great minds thinking alike than any attempt to copy or emulate Voltaire," Nolan says.

Modern readers stand in awe of Voltaire 232 years after his death, and many marvel at how this complex, contradictory writer came to be such an intellectual force. A contemporary called him "Monsieur Multiforme" for his mastery of the written word and his range of views.

Even for a man of his time, however, Voltaire had his blind spots. Like some of his high-minded contemporaries, he had a strain of anti-Semitism and a penchant for offhand cynicism. But his libertarian (libertaire, in French) convictions made him basically a force for good: a fierce advocate of free will, individual liberty, tolerance, open expression, and free trade, none of which France provided in his lifetime.

A revival of interest in the man and his mind is now under way as Voltaire fans celebrate the 250th anniversary of the publication Candide, his most familiar work. In my research for a book on his life and writings, I repeatedly find evidence of his connection with modern times, especially in the United States. He helps explain how we got where we are today.

WHO WAS THIS François Marie Arouet, or "Voltaire" -- a loose anagram of Arouet l.j. (for le jeune, the younger)? He was born in 1694, and rose to become the most durable, if not the deepest, of Europe's 18th-century literary and philosophical thinkers. His prolific outpourings, hostile to church and state, won him two stays in the Bastille prison, plus a life on the run from the French thought police.

The early Americans took easily to his anti-authoritarian views. He is cited in writings of the early American Francophiles Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson, in homage, purchased a bust of him for his Monticello estate in Virginia, where a modern plaster copy of it still stands.

Voltaire has never entirely lost his audience. A swirl of events and commemorations in both the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds has been under way for the past year or so. A signal occasion was the colloquium at Oxford last fall that brought together the world's leading Voltaireans. The French had their own commemorations, and across the sea, the New York Public Library, run by Voltaire enthusiast Paul LeClerc, created a Voltaire exhibition and decorated its columns with a banner celebrating Candide.

Just a few months ago, the dean of English Voltaire experts, Prof. Nicholas Cronk of the University of Oxford, was in New York parsing forgotten Voltaire correspondence in two prominent collections. Other scholars are burrowing into manuscripts in Paris, London, Oxford, Geneva, and St. Petersburg.

All this work will become part of the 200-volume Complete Works of Voltaire now being assembled and edited by the Voltaire Foundation under Cronk's direction, the first academic scholarly edition and by far the largest "complete" Voltaire. Now in the home stretch, Cronk hopes to keep up his pace of about six volumes per year over the next eight years to complete the collection by 2018.

The best account of the state of Voltaire studies today is the new Cambridge Companion to Voltaire, edited by Cronk and including an essay by French Voltairean Christiane Mervaud and 12 other scholars from around the world. "There remain texts, some of them important, which still await their first ever critical edition," says Cronk.

Satirists, cartoonists, novelists, moviemakers, and Broadway have made a good business out of the Candide story line. It does not lack for aggressive humor. I once made a list of the targets at which he takes aim in the book. Among them are Homer, Frederick the Great, philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, the pope, Jews, Jesuits, the Knights of Malta, sailors, the Portuguese University of Coimbra, Westphalia, the German language, the French and especially Parisians, suspicious foreigners, and "Negro pirates."

In the first sentence, he flings anti-German barbs, naming Candide's residence as Thunder-Ten-Tronkh, and a few lines later cites a town in Westphalia as Waldberghoff-Trarbk-Dikdorff, a swipe at German gutturals and reference to the French prejudice of the period that German was a barbaric language.

Voltaire had already expressed his anti-Church views in his "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne" and elsewhere. In Candide he expands his argument, mischievously inserting an auto-da-fé (Portuguese for "act of faith"), the slow roasting alive of three men, as the "infallible formula for preventing the earth from quaking" again. The same day, an aftershock occurs. Voltaire rests his case.

Candide includes a tirade against France, perhaps unfair to all but the most extreme Franco-phobes of today. He called his native country a place "where half the people are crazy, others are overly crafty, still others are rather gentle and rather stupid." Throughout France, he wrote, "the principal occupation is lovemaking, the second is slander and the third is talking nonsense."

He wavers but never quite renounces his belief that he lives in "the best of all possible worlds." He concludes that we must "cultivate our garden," meaning that we must do our part, too, to make the world as good as it can be.

ALTHOUGH IT MAY SEEM the Voltaire legacy is mainly about Candide, a closer look reveals that the great Frenchman left a far more diverse collection of writing on politics and commerce, much of it readable today.

An admirer of England, he spent nearly three years in exile in London and wrote an enthusiastic book about his discoveries there -- by implication indicting the weaknesses of his native France. In a chapter on trade, he made his bias clear: "Commerce, which has enriched English citizens, has helped to make them free, and this freedom in its turn has extended commerce, and that has made the greatness of the nation," he wrote. France, meanwhile, was stagnating under the pressures of the absolute monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Who is more valuable, Voltaire asked in one of his English essays, a "well-powdered noble-man who knows exactly at what minute the king gets up and goes to bed...or a businessman who enriches his country, issues orders from his office to Surat or Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world?"

London received him as the great French poet and playwright that he certainly was, and he managed to meet some of the leading English intellectuals of the era. He is known to have encountered Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay and at least read the works of Isaac Newton, John Locke, and satirist Joseph Addison.

Taking intellectual life in England as the ideal, he wrote that he hoped that in France "the fashion for using one's mind will come back....In England, as a rule, people think, and literature is more honored than in France."

Voltaire came back to this theme in some of his poetry:

Shall Frenchmen never know what they require,
But damn capriciously what they admire?
Must laws with manners jar? Must every mind
In France, be made by superstition blind?
Wherefore should England be the only clime,
Where to think freely is not deemed a crime?

Over his lifetime, no one wrote more or better for the theater than Voltaire, and he did not stop at writing. He was often involved in rehearsals, even playing key roles in his plays. But it is his private correspondence that puts his writing style best on display and reveals most about the man.

Mme. Mervaud, president of the French Société des Etudes Voltairienne, believes his correspondence, which she has studied for years, provides the essential of Voltaire's vision of the world. She finds his personal prose "pleasant, seductive and penetrating -- the best way to get to his real thought processes."

Many scholars have pored over this mountain of letters, about 15,000 of which have been collected for the Foundation project. (About another 15,000 are believed to have been lost.) Frequently on the move-to London, to Lorraine, to Geneva-Voltaire used letter writing to spread his ideas and to maintain contacts.

His correspondence leaves a valuable record of his times. He lived through the Seven Years' War and the regency after the death of Louis XIV. And he corresponded extensively with Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia. These letters, says Mme. Mervaud, reveal an "appetite for life and a desire to communicate." Reading them, "we breathe the very air of the 18th century."

Three years in the court of Frederick in Berlin ended in a bitter break in their relations in 1754. His next stop was in the neutral city-state of Geneva, then known for its tolerance and freethinking ways. He purchased a chateau and called it "Les Délices" (The Delights).

It was here that he experienced a creative burst, writing another tragedy for the theater, a series of poems, and publishing Candide. He said later that Geneva pleased him because "the language is French but the thinking is English." He moved across the border in 1759 after strains with Geneva's administrators, ending his days Ferney, France, now renamed "Ferney Voltaire" in his honor.

To be sure, Voltaire has always had his detractors, but in today's open society his anti-clerical polemics cause less distress. Nevertheless, his ridiculing of French national heroine Joan of Arc has kept a debate going in France about his influence for good or evil. "Voltaire divides, but Joan unites," wrote Jean-Marie Goulemot and Eric Walter in a widely read essay in 1997.

And in the modern Anglo-Saxon world, some right-leaning academics have written recently of Voltaire as the embodiment of the liberal consensus they oppose. Voltaire -- the arch libertarian -- would be amused at the redefinition of labels.

Mme. Mervaud told me she sees Voltaire's thought as eternally relevant. His principal lesson, she says, is "Dare to think for yourself, outside of conformity and orthodoxy." In effect, she added, "Voltaire teaches us we are born with this ability and it would be a shame not to use it."

The libertarians of today would approve.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.