What, in politics and economics, did he hope to accomplish? He set his sights both high and low: his great aim was to free men from theological myths and priestly power—a task difficult enough; for the rest he asked for some reforms, but no utopia. He smiled at “those legislators who govern the universe, … and from their garrets give orders to kings.”56 Like nearly all the philosophes, he was opposed to revolution; he would have been shocked by it—perhaps guillotined.* Besides, he was scandalously rich, and doubtless his wealth colored his views.
In 1758 he proposed to invest 500,000 francs ($625,000?) in Lorraine.58 On March 17, 1759, he wrote to Frederick: “I derive sixty thousand livres [$75,000?] of my [annual] income from France.... I admit that I am very rich.” His fortune had been made through “tips” from financier friends like the brothers Paris; through winning lotteries in France and Lorraine; through sharing in his father’s estate; through buying government bonds; through taking shares in commercial ventures; and through lending money to individuals. He was content with a six per cent return, which was moderate considering the risks and losses. He lost a thousand écus ($3,750?) in the bankruptcy of the Gilliart firm in Cadíz (1767).59 In 1768, referring to the eighty thousand francs ($100,000?) that Voltaire had lent to the Duc de Richelieu, Gibbon noted: “The Duke is ruined, the security worth nothing, and the money vanished”;60 at Voltaire’s death a fourth of the loan had been repaid. Pensions brought Voltaire four thousand francs per year. Altogether, in 1777, his income came to 206,000 francs ($257,500?).61 He graced this wealth with commensurate generosity, but he felt called upon to defend it as not necessarily unbecoming a philosopher.
I saw so many men of letters poor and despised that 1 made up my mind that I would not increase their number. In France a man must be anvil or hammer; I was born anvil. A slender patrimony becomes smaller every day, because in the long run everything increases in price, and government often taxes both income and money. … You must be economical in your youth, and you find yourself in your old age in possession of a capital that surprises you; and that is the time when fortune is most necessary to us.62
As far back as 1736, in his poem Le Mondain, he had confessed: “I love luxury, and even a soft life, all the pleasures, all the arts.” He held that the demand of the rich for luxuries brought their money into circulation among artisans; and he suspected that without wealth there would have been no great art.63 When Voltaire published Meslier’s atheistic-communistic Testament he omitted the section against property. He believed that no economic system could succeed without the stimulus of ownership. “The spirit of property doubles a man’s strength.”64 He hoped to see every man a property owner; and while Rousseau sanctioned serfdom in Poland, Voltaire wrote: “Poland would be thrice as populous and wealthy if the peasants were not slaves.”65 However, he was not in favor of peasants’ becoming rich; who, then, would be strong soldiers for the state?66
He did not share Rousseau’s enthusiasm for equality; he knew that all men are created unfree and unequal. He rejected Helvétius’ notion that if equal education and opportunity were given to all, all would soon be equal in education and ability. “What folly to imagine that every man could be a Newton!”67 At all times there will be strong and weak, clever and simple, and therefore rich and poor.
It is impossible in our melancholy world to prevent men who live in a society from being divided into two classes—one of the rich who command, the other of the poor who obey. … Every man has a right to entertain a private opinion of his own equality to other men, but it does not follow that a cardinal’s cook should take it upon him to order his master to prepare his dinner. The cook, however, may say: “I am a man as well as my master; I was born like him in tears, and shall die like him in agony. … We both perform the same animal functions. If the Turks get possession of Rome and I then become a cardinal and my master a cook, I will take him into my service.” This language is perfectly reasonable and just, but, while waiting for the Grand Turk to take Rome, the cook is bound to do his duty, or all human society is subverted.68
As the son of a notary, and only lately become a seigneur, he had mingled views about aristocracy, apparently preferring the English type.69 He accepted monarchy as the natural form of government. “Why is almost the whole earth governed by monarchs? … The honest answer is: Because men are rarely worthy of governing themselves.”70 He laughed at the divine right of kings, and traced them and the state to conquest. “A tribe, for its pillaging expeditions, chooses a chief; it accustoms itself to obey him, he accustoms himself to command; I believe this is the origin of monarchy.”71 Is it natural? Look at a farmyard.
A farmyard exhibits the most perfect representation of a monarchy. There is no king comparable to a cock. If he marches haughtily and fiercely in the midst of his flock it is not out of vanity. If the enemy is advancing he does not content himself with issuing an order to his subjects to go out and get killed for him … ; he goes in person, ranges his troops behind him, and fights to the last gasp. If he conquers, it is himself who sings the Te Deum. … If it be true that bees are governed by a queen to whom all her subjects make love, that is a more perfect government still.72
Living in Berlin and then in Geneva, he could study monarchy and “democracy” in their living operation. Like the other philosophes, he was prejudiced by the fact that several monarchs—Frederick II, Peter III, Catherine II—and some ministers—Choiseul, Aranda, Tanucci, Pombal—had listened to appeals for reforms, or had given pensions to philosophers. In an age when the Russian peasant was so primitive, when the masses everywhere were largely illiterate and too tired to think, it seemed absurd to propose popular rule. Actually the “democracies” in Switzerland and Holland were oligarchies. It was the populace that loved the old myths and ceremonies of religion, and stood as a massive army in the path of intellectual freedom and development. Only one force was strong enough to resist the Catholic Church in France, as it had successfully resisted the Protestant churches in England, Holland, and Germany; and that was the state. Only through the existing monarchical governments in France, Germany, and Russia could thephilosophes hope to win their struggle against superstition, bigotry, persecution, and an infantile theology. They could not expect support from the parlements, for these rivaled the Church and exceeded the King in obscurantism, censorship, and intolerance. On the other hand, consider what Henry the Navigator had done for Portugal, what Henry IV had done for France, or Peter the Great for Russia, or Frederick the Great for Prussia. “Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude.”73 So the philosophes prayed for enlightened kings. “Virtue on the throne,” Voltaire wrote in Mérope, “is the fairest work of heaven.”74*
Voltaire’s politics stemmed partly from a suspicion that many people would be incapable of digesting education even if it were offered them. He referred to “the thinking portion of the human race—i.e., the hundred-thousandth part.”76 He feared the mental immaturity and emotional excitability of the people at large. “Quand le populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (When the populace takes to reasoning, all is lost).77 And so, until his mellower years, he had little sympathy with democracy. When Casanova asked him, “Would you see the people possessed of sovereignty?” he answered, “God forbid!”78 And to Frederick: “When I begged you to be the restorer of the fine arts of Greece, my request did not go so far as to beg you to re-establish the Athenian democracy. I do not like government by the rabble.”79 He agreed with Rousseau that “democracy seems to agree only with small countries,” but he added further limitations: “only with those happily situated, … whose liberty is assured by their situation, and whom it is to the interest of their neighbors to preserve.”80 He admired the Dutch and Swiss republics, but there too he had some doubts.
If you remember that the Dutch ate on a grill the heart of the two brothers De Witt; if you … recall that the republican John Calvin, … after having written that we should persecute no man, even such as deny the Trinity, had a Spaniard, who thought otherwise than he about the Trinity, burned alive by green [slow-burning] fagots; then, in truth, you will conclude that there is no more virtue in republics than in monarchies.81
After all these antidemocratic pronouncements we find him actively supporting the Genevan middle class against the patricians (1763), and the unfranchised natifs of Geneva against both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (1766); let us defer this story to its locale.
Indeed, Voltaire seemed to become more radical as he aged. In 1768 he sent forth his L’Homme aux quarante écus—The Man with Forty Crowns. It went through ten printings in its first year, but was burned by the Parlement of Paris, which sent the printer to the galleys. This severity was due not to the ridicule which the story lavished upon the physiocrats, but to its vivid picture of peasants reduced to destitution by taxation, and of monks living in idleness and luxury on properties tilled by serfs. In another pamphlet in 1768, called L’A, B, C (which Voltaire was at great pains to disavow), he made “Monsieur B” say:
I could adjust quite easily to a democratic government. … All those who have possessions in the same territory have the same right to maintain order in that territory. I like to see free men make the laws under which they live.... It pleases me that my mason, my carpenter, my blacksmith, who have helped me to build my lodging, my neighbor the farmer, my friend the manufacturer, will raise themselves above their trade, and know the public interest better than the most insolent Turkish official. In a democracy no laborer, no artisan, need fear either molestation or contempt. … To be free, to have only equals, is the true, the natural life of man; all other ways of life are unworthy artifices, bad comedies in which one man plays the part of master, the other that of slave, one that of parasite, the other that of procurer.82
In or soon after 1769 (aged seventy-five), in a new edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire gave a bitter description of governmental tyrannies and abuses in France,83 and praised England by comparison:
The English constitution has in fact arrived at that point of excellence whereby all men are restored to those natural rights of which, in nearly all monarchies, they are deprived. These rights are: entire liberty of person and property; freedom of the press; the right of being tried in all criminal cases by a jury of independent men; the right of being tried only according to the strict letter of the law; and the right of every man to profess, unmolested, what religion he chooses while he renounces offices which only the members of the Established Church may hold. These are … invaluable privileges. … To be secure, on lying down, that you will rise in possession of the same property with which you retired to rest; that you will not be torn from the arms of your wife and your children in the dead of night, to be thrown into a dungeon or be buried in exile in a desert; that … you will have the power to publish all your thoughts; … these privileges belong to every one who sets foot on English soil. … We cannot but believe that states not established upon such principles will experience revolutions.84
Like so many observers, he foresaw revolution in France. On April 2, 1764, he wrote to the Marquis de Chauvelin:
Everywhere I see the seeds of an inevitable revolution, which, however, I shall not have the pleasure to witness. The French come late to everything, but finally they do come. Enlightenment has been so widely spread that it will burst out at the first opportunity; and then there will be quite a pretty explosion. The young are fortunate; they will see great things.
And yet, when he recalled that he was living in France by sufferance of a King whom he had offended by taking up residence in Potsdam; when he saw Pompadour and Choiseul and Malesherbes and Turgot turning the French government toward religious toleration and political reform—and perhaps because he longed for permission to return to Paris—he took, generally, a more patriotic tone, and deprecated violent revolution:
When the poor strongly feel their poverty, wars follow such as those of the popular party against the Senate at Rome, and those of the peasantry in Germany, England, and France. All these wars ended sooner or later in the subjection of the people, because the great have money, and money in a state commands everything.85
So, instead of an upheaval from below, where ability to destroy would not be followed by ability to rebuild, and the simple many would soon again be subject to a clever few, Voltaire preferred to work for a nonviolent revolution through enlightenment passing from thinkers to rulers, ministers and magistrates, to merchants and manufacturers, to artisans and peasants. “Reason must first be established in the minds of leaders; then gradually it descends and at length rules the people, who are unaware of its existence, but who, perceiving the moderation of their superiors, learn to imitate them.”86 In the long run, he thought, the only real liberation is education, the only real freedom is intelligence. “Plus les hommes sont éclairés, plus ils seront libres” (The more enlightened men are, the more they will be free) .87 The only real revolutions are those that change the mind and heart, and the only real revolutionists are the sage and the saint.