II. THE SCEPTER OF THE PEN

Meanwhile he continued to write, to send forth an incredible quantity, variety, and quality of histories, treatises, dramas, stories, poems, articles, pamphlets, letters, and critical reviews to an international audience that waited eagerly for his every word. In the one year 1768 he wrote L’Homme aux quarante ècus, La Princesse de Baby lone (one of his best tales), Épître à Boileau, Profession de foi d’un théiste, Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire, two comic-opera librettos, and a play. Almost every day he composed some “fugitive verse”—short, light, graceful epigrams in rhyme; in this department he has no equal in all literature, not even in the composite excellence of the Greek Anthology.

His writings on religion and philosophy have occupied us elsewhere. We look only briefly at the plays that he wrote at Ferney— Tancrède, Nanine, L’Écossaise, Socrate, Saul, Irène; they are the least alive of his progeny, though they were the talk of Paris in his day. Tancrède, presented at the Théâtre-Français September 3, 1759, won universal applause, even from Voltaire’s bitter enemy Fréron. Mlle. Clairon as Déborah and Lekain as Tancrède reached in this drama the peak of their art. The stage had been cleared of spectators, and allowed a spacious and striking décor; the medieval and chivalric subject was a welcome deviation from classic themes; indeed, the disciple of Boileau here wrote a romantic play. Nanine revealed that Voltaire, like Diderot, had been influenced by Richardson; Rousseau himself praised it. Socrate contained a treasurable line: “It is the triumph of reason to live well with those who have none.”40

Hailed in his time as the equal of Corneille and Racine, Voltaire studied them endlessly, and long hesitated as to which of the two he preferred; finally he voted for Racine. He boldly placed both above Sophocles and Euripides, and he ranked “Molière, in his best pieces, superior to the pure but cold Terence, and to the buffoon Aristophanes.”41 He was aroused when he learned that Marie Corneille, grand-niece of the dramatist, was living in poverty near Évreux; he offered to adopt her and provide for her education; and when he learned that she was pious he assured her that every opportunity would be given to practice her religion. She came to him in December, 1760; he adopted her, taught her to write good French, corrected her pronunciation, and went to Mass with her. To raise a dowry for her he proposed to the French Academy that it should commission him to edit the works of Corneille. It agreed. He began at once to reread the plays of his predecessor, to supply introductions and notes; and, being a good businessman, he advertised the project and solicited subscriptions. Louis XV, Czarina Elizaveta, Frederick of Prussia each subscribed for two hundred copies, Mme. de Pompadour and Choiseul for fifty, and additional subscriptions came from Chesterfield and other foreign notables. The result was that Marie Corneille had many suitors. She married twice, and became in 1768 the mother of Charlotte Corday.

Voltaire was the greatest historian, as well as the greatest poet and dramatist, of his time. In 1757 the Empress Elizaveta asked him to write a biography of her father, Peter the Great. She invited Voltaire to St. Petersburg, and promised him a world of honors. He replied that he was too old to undertake such travel, but that he would write the history if her minister, Count Shuvalov, would send him documents illustrating Peter’s career and the changes produced by the Czar’s reforms. He had in his youth seen Peter at Paris (1716); he considered him a great man, but still a barbarian; and to avoid going too perilously into his faults he decided to write not a biography but a history of Russia in that memorable reign—a much more difficult task. He undertook considerable researches, labored on the work from 1757 to 1763, and published it in 1759-63 as Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand. It was a creditable performance for its time, and remained the best treatment of the subject before the nineteenth century; but honest Michelet found it “a bore.”42 The Czarina saw parts of it; she sent Voltaire some “big diamonds” on account, but they were stolen en route, and the Czarina died before the book was complete.

On and off, while the Seven Years’ War raged around him, he undertook to bring up to date his Histoire générale, or Essai sur les moeurs, by adding (1755-63) a Précis du siècle de Louis XV. It was a delicate operation, for he was still formally under the ban of the French government; we must forgive him if he glided cautiously over the faults of the reigning King; even so it was an excellent narrative, simple and clear; in telling the story of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) he almost rivaled his ownCharles XII. True to his conception of history as being best when recording the advances of the human mind, he added a concluding discourse “On the Progress of the Understanding in the Age of Louis XV,” and noted what seemed to him to be signs of growth:

A whole order [the Jesuits] abolished by the secular power, the discipline of other orders reformed by this power, the divisions between the [jurisdiction of] magistrates and bishops, plainly reveal how much prejudice has been dissipated, how far the knowledge of government is extended, and to what degree our minds are enlightened. The seeds of this knowledge were sown in the last century; in the present they are everywhere springing, even in the remotest provinces. … Pure science has illuminated the useful arts, and these have already begun to heal the wounds of the state caused by two fatal wars. … The knowledge of nature, and the discrediting of ancient fables once honored as history; sound metaphysics freed from the absurdities of the schools: these are products of this age, and human reason is greatly improved.

Having paid his debt to history, Voltaire returned to philosophy, and to his campaign against the Catholic Church. He issued in rapid succession those little books which we have already examined, as light artillery in the war against l’infâme: The Ignorant Philosopher, Important Examination of Milord Bolingbroke, L’lngénu (or The Huron), Histoire de Jenni, and La Raison par alphabet. Amid all these labors he carried on the most remarkable correspondence ever maintained by one man.

When Casanova visited him in 1760 Voltaire showed him a collection of some fifty thousand letters that he had received to that year; there were to be, thereafter, almost as many more. As the recipient paid the postage, Voltaire sometimes spent a hundred livres for the mail that he received in one day. A thousand admirers, a thousand enemies, a hundred young authors, a hundred amateur philosophers, sent him gifts, bouquets, insults, curses, queries, and manuscripts. It was not unusual for an anxious inquirer to beg him to say, by return post, whether there was a God, or whether man had an immortal soul. Finally he inserted a warning in the Mercure de France: “Several persons having complained of not receiving acknowledgment of packages sent to Ferney, Tourney, or Les Délices, notice is given that, on account of the immense number of those packages, it has become necessary to decline receiving all that do not come from persons with whom the proprietor had the honor to be acquainted.”43

In the definitive edition by Theodore Besterman Voltaire’s correspondence fills ninety-eight volumes. Brunetière thought it “the most living portion of his entire work.”44 And in truth there is not a dull page in the whole immensity, for in these letters we can still hear the most brilliant conversationalist of his time talk with all the intimacy of a friend. Never before or since has a writer caught on his running pen—currente calamo—so much courtesy, vivacity, charm, and grace. It is a feast not only of wit and eloquence but of warm friendship, humane feeling, and incisive thought. Beside them the letters of Mme. de Sévigné, delightful though they are, seem to flutter casually over the surface of trivial and transitory things. Doubtless there was something of convention in the flourishes of Voltaire’s epistolary style, but he seems to mean it when he writes to d’Alembert: “I embrace you with all my strength, and I regret that it must be at so great a distance.” (To which d’Alembert replied: “Farewell, my dear and illustrious friend; I embrace you tenderly, and am more than ever tuus in animo”— yours in spirit.)45 And hear Voltaire to Mme. du Deffand: “Adieu, madame.... Of all the truths that I seek, that which seems to be surest is that you have a soul which is congenial to me, and to which I shall be tenderly attached during the little time that remains to me.”46

His letters to his acquaintances in Paris were prized by the recipients, and were passed from hand to hand as nuggets of news and gems of style. For it was in his letters that Voltaire’s style reached its fullest brilliance. It was not at its best in his histories, where a smooth and flowing narrative is more desirable than eloquence or wit; it ran to pompous declamation in his plays; but in his letters he could let the diamond point of his pen flash into epigram, or illuminate a topic with incomparable precision and brevity. He added the learning of Bayle to the elegance of Fontenelle, and took a touch of irony from the Lettres provinciales of Pascal. He contradicted himself in his seventy years of writing, but he was never obscure; we can hardly believe that he was a philosopher, he is so clear. He goes directly to the point, to the vital spot of an idea. He is sparing of adjectives and similes, lest he complicate the thought, and almost every other sentence is a flash of light. Sometimes there are too many flashes, too many strokes of wit; now and then the reader tires of the sparkle, and loses some darts of Voltaire’s agile mind. He realized that this excess of brilliance was a fault, like gems on a robe. “The French language,” he modestly confessed, “was carried to the highest point of perfection in the age of Louis XIV.”47

Half the notables of the time were among his correspondents—not only all the philosophes, and all the major authors of France and England, but cardinals, popes, kings, and queens. Christian VII apologized to him for not installing all Voltairean reforms at once in Denmark; Stanislas Poniatowski of Poland mourned that he had been precipitated into royalty just as he was on the way to Ferney; Gustavus III of Sweden thanked Voltaire for occasionally casting a glance at the cold North, and prayed that “God may prolong your days, so precious to humanity.”48 Frederick the Great scolded him for cruelty to Maupertuis, and for insolence to kings;49 but a month later he wrote: “Health and prosperity to the most malign and most seductive man of genius who has ever been or ever will be in this world”;50 and on May 12, 1760, he added:

For my part I shall go there [Hades] and tell Virgil that a Frenchman has surpassed him in his own art. I shall say as much to Sophocles and Euripides; I shall speak to Thucydides of your histories, to Quintus Curtius of your Charles XII; and perhaps I shall be stoned by these jealous dead because a single man has united all their different merits in himself.51

On September 19, 1774, Frederick continued his lauds: “After your death there will be no one to replace you; it will be the end of good letters in France.”52 (A mistake, of course; there is never an end of good literature in France.) And finally, on July 24, 1775, Frederick lowered his scepter before Voltaire’s pen: “For my part, I am consoled by having lived in the age of Voltaire; that suffices me.”53

Catherine the Great wrote to Voltaire as one crowned head to another—indeed, as a pupil to a teacher. She had read him with delight for sixteen years before cleaving her way to the throne of Russia; then, in October, 1763, she began their correspondence by replying in the first person to a letter in verse which he had sent to a member of her diplomatic corps.54 Voltaire called her the Semiramis of the North, glided gracefully over her crimes, and became her apologist to France. She begged to be spared his compliments, he extended them. She prized his partisanship, for she knew that it was largely through him—and then through Grimm and Diderot—that she obtained a “good press” in France. French philosophy became a tool of Russian diplomacy. Voltaire recommended Assyrian-style scythe-armed chariots to Catherine for use against the Turks; she had to explain that the unco-operative Turks would not attack in sufficiently close formation to be conveniently mowed down.55 He forgot his hatred of war in his enthusiasm for the possibility that Catherine’s armies would liberate Greece from the Turks; he called upon “Français, Bretons, Italiens” to support this new crusade; and he mourned when Semiramis stopped short of his goal. Byron took up his cause.

Many Frenchmen berated Voltaire for his flirtations with royalty; they felt that he lowered himself in fluttering about thrones and mouthing compliments. And doubtless this fluttering sometimes went to his head. But he too was playing a diplomatic game. He had never pretended to republican sentiments; he repeatedly argued that more progress could be made through “enlightened” kings than by enthroning the unstable, unlettered, superstitious masses. He was warring not against the state but against the Catholic Church, and in that battle the support of rulers was a precious aid. We have seen how precious that support was in his triumphant campaigns for the Calas and the Sirvens. It was of much moment to him that in his fight for religious toleration he had both Frederick and Catherine on his side. Nor did he give up hope of winning Louis XV. He had won Mme. de Pompadour and Choiseul; he wooed Mme. du Barry. He had no scruples in his strategy; and indeed, before the end of the reign, he had the support of half the government of France. The battle for religious toleration was won.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!