How shall we sum him up, this most amazing man of the eighteenth century? We need no longer speak of his mind—it has revealed itself in a hundred pages of these volumes. No one has ever challenged him in quickness and clarity of thought, in sharpness and abundance of wit. He defined wit with fond care:
What is called wit is sometimes a startling comparison, sometimes a delicate allusion; or it may be a play upon words—you use a word in one sense, knowing that your interlocutor will [at first] understand it in another. Or it is a sly way of bringing into juxtaposition ideas not usually considered in association.... It is the art of finding a link between two dissimilars, or a difference between two similars. It is the art of saying half of what you mean and leaving the rest to the imagination. And I would tell you much more about it if I had more of it myself.93
No one had more, and perhaps, as we have said, he had too much. His sense of humor sometimes passed out of control; too often it was coarse, and occasionally it verged on buffoonery.
The quickness of his perceptions, correlations, and comparisons left him no pause for consistency, and the swift succession of his ideas did not always allow him to penetrate a subject to its humanly attainable depths. Perhaps he disposed too readily of the masses as “canaille”; we could not expect him to foresee the time when universal education would be necessary to a technologically progressive economy. He had no patience with the geological theories of Buffon, or the biological speculations of Diderot. He recognized his limits, and had his moments of modesty. “You think that I express myself clearly enough,” he told a friend; “I am like the little brooks—they are transparent because they are not deep.”94 He wrote to Daquin in 1766:
Since I was twelve years old I divined the enormous quantity of things for which I have no talent. I know that my organs are not arranged to go very far in mathematics. I have shown that I have no inclination for music. Rely upon the esteem of an old philosopher who has the folly … to think himself a very good farmer, but has not that of thinking that he has all the talents.95
It would be unfair to ask of a man who dealt with so many matters that he should have exhausted all available data on every topic before tossing it on the point of his pen. He was not all scholar; he was a warrior, a man of letters who made letters a form of action, a weapon of transformation. Yet we can see from his library of 6,210 volumes, and their marginal comments, that he studied eagerly and painstakingly an astonishing variety of subjects, and that in politics, history, philosophy, theology, and Biblical criticism he was a very learned man. The range of his curiosity and his interests was immense; so were the wealth of his ideas and the retentiveness of his memory. He took no tradition for granted, but examined everything for himself. He had a proper skepticism which did not hesitate to oppose common sense to the absurdities of science as well as the legends of the popular faith. An unprejudiced scholar called him “a thinker who amassed more accurate information about the world in all its aspects than any man since Aristotle.”96Never elsewhere has one mind transposed into literature and action so extensive a mass of materials from such a diversity of fields.
We have to picture him as the strangest amalgam of emotional instability with mental vision and power. His nerves kept him always on the jump. He could not sit still except when absorbed in literary composition. When the lady with only one buttock asked, “Which is worse—to be ravished a hundred times by Negro pirates, to have one’s rump gashed, … to be cut to pieces, to row in the galleys, … or to sit still and do nothing?,” Candide answered thoughtfully, “That is a great question.”97 Voltaire had days of happiness, but he seldom knew peace of mind or body. He had to be busy, active, buying, selling, planting, writing, acting, reciting. He feared boredom worse than death, and in a bored moment he maligned life as “either ennui or whipped cream.”98
We could draw an ugly picture of him if we described his appearance without noting his eyes, or listed his faults and follies without his virtues and his charm. He was a bourgeois gentilhomme who felt that he had as much right to a title as his dilatory debtors. He rivaled the lordliest seigneur in grace of manners and speech, but he was capable of haggling over small sums, and bombarded Président de Brosses with vituperative missiles over fourteen cords of wood—which he insisted on accepting as a gift and not a sale. He loved money as the root of his security. Mme. Denis accused him of parsimony in no measured terms: “The love of money torments you. … You are, in heart, the lowest of men. I shall hide as well as I pan the vices of your heart”;99 but when she wrote this (1754) she was living extravagantly in Paris on funds that were a serious drain on his purse; and for the rest of her years with him she lived in state at Ferney.
Before and after becoming a millionaire he cultivated the socially or politically powerful with a flattery that sometimes came close to sycophancy. In an Épître au Cardinal Dubois he called that vessel of vices a greater man than Cardinal Richelieu.100 When he was seeking admission to the French Academy and needed ecclesiastical support, he assured the influential Père de La Tour that he wished to live and die in the Holy Catholic Church.101 His printed lies would make a book; many were not printed, some wereunprintable. He held this procedure justifiable in war; he felt that the Seven Years’ War was merely the sport of kings compared with his thirty years’ war against the Church; and a government that could jail a man for telling the truth could not justly complain if he lied. On September 19, 1764, at the top of his war, he wrote to d’Alembert: “As soon as the slightest danger comes up, kindly notify me, so that I may disown my writings in the public press with my habitual candor and innocence.” He denied almost all his works except the Henriade and the poem on the battle of Fontenoy. “One must show the truth to posterity with boldness, and to his contemporaries with circumspection. It is very hard to reconcile these two duties.”102
It goes without saying that he was vain: vanity is the spur of development, and the secret of authorship. Usually Voltaire kept his vanity under control; he frequently revised his writings according to suggestions and criticism offered in good spirit. He was generous in praise of authors who did not compete with him—Marmontel, Laharpe, Beaumarchais. But he could be childishly jealous of competitors, as in his slyly critical Éloge de Crébillon [père]; Diderot thought he had “a grudge against every pedestal.”103His jealousy led him to scurrilous abuse of Rousseau: he called him “the clockmaker’s boy,” “a Judas who betrayed philosophy,” “a mad dog who bites everybody,” “a madman born of a chance mating of Diogenes’ dog with that of Erasistratus.”104 He thought the first half of Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse had been composed in a brothel, and the second in a madhouse. He predicted that Émile would be forgotten after a month’s time.105 He felt that Rousseau had turned his back upon that French civilization which, with all its sins and crimes, was precious to Voltaire as the very wine of history.
Being nerves and bones with little flesh, Voltaire was even more sensitive than Rousseau. And as we must feel our pains more keenly than our pleasures, so he took commendation in his stride but was “reduced to despair” by an adverse critique.106 He was seldom wise enough to restrain his pen; he answered every opponent, however small. Hume described him as one “who never forgives [? ], and never thinks an enemy beneath his notice.”107 Against persistent foes like Desfontaines and Fréron he fought without restraint or truce; he used every device of satire, ridicule, and vituperation, even crafty distortion of the truth.108 His rancor shocked old friends and made new enemies. “I know how to hate,” he said, “because I know how to love.”109 “By my stars [I am] a bit inclined to malice”;110 so he successfully moved all his cohorts to defeat de Brosses’ candidacy for the Academy (1770). He summed up the matter in a mixture of d’Artagnan and Rabelais:
As for my puny self, I make war up to the last moment—Jansenists, Molinists, Frérons, Pompignans to the right and to the left, and preachers, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I receive a hundred thrusts and give back two hundred, and I laugh. … God be praised! I look upon the whole world as a farce which sometimes becomes tragic. All is the same at the end of the day, and all is still the same at the end of days.111
In his anti-Semitism he turned upon an entire people the resentment generated by his encounters with a few individuals. From the standpoint of those memories Voltaire interpreted the history of the Jews, noting their faults meticulously, and seldom giving them the benefit of a doubt. He could not forgive the Jews for having begotten Christianity. “When I see Christians cursing Jews methinks I see children beating their fathers.”112 He saw in the Old Testament hardly anything but a record of murder, lechery, and wholesale assassination. The Book of Proverbs seemed to him “a collection of trivial, sordid, incoherent maxims, without taste, without selection, and without design”; and the Song of Songs was to him “an inept rhapsody.”113 However, he praised the Jews for their ancient disbelief in immortality, for refraining from proselytism, and for relative tolerance; the Sadducees denied the existence of angels, but suffered no persecution for heresy.
Did his virtues outweigh his vices? Yes, and even if we do not place in the scale his intellectual with his moral qualities. Against his parsimony we must place his generosity, against his love of money his cheerful acceptance of losses and his readiness to share his gains. Hear Collini, who as his secretary for many years must have known his faults:
Nothing is more baseless than the reproach of avarice made against him. … Stinginess never had a place in his home. I have never known a man whom his domestics could more easily rob. He was a miser only of his time. … He had, with regard to money, the same principles as for time: it was necessary, he said, to economize in order to be liberal.114
His letters reveal some of the many gifts he distributed, usually without revealing his name, and not only to friends and acquaintances, but even to persons whom he had never seen.115 He allowed the booksellers to keep the profit from his books. We have seen him helping Mlle. Corneille; we shall see him helping Mlle. Varicourt. We have seen him helping Vauvenargues and Marmontel; he did the same to Laharpe, who failed as a dramatist before developing into the most influential critic in France; Voltaire asked that half of his own governmental pension of two thousand francs be given to Laharpe, without letting him know who was the donor.116 “Everyone knows,” wrote Marmontel, “with what kindness he received all young men who showed any talent for poetry.”117
If Voltaire, conscious of his puny size, had little physical courage (allowing himself to be caned by Captain Beauregard in 1722118), he had astonishing moral courage (attacking the most powerful institution in history, the Roman Catholic Church). If he was bitter in controversy, he was quick to forgive opponents who sought reconciliation; “his fury vanished with the first appeal.”119 He lavished affection upon all who asked for it, and was loyal to his friends. When, after twenty-four years of association, he parted from Wagnière, “he cried like a child.”120 As to his sexual morality, it was above the level of his time with Mme. du Châtelet, below that level with his niece. He was tolerant of sexual irregularity, but rose in fine fury against injustice, fanaticism, persecution, hypocrisy, and the cruelties of the penal law. He defined morality as “doing good to mankind”; for the rest he laughed at prohibitions, and enjoyed wine, woman, and song in philosophical moderation. In a little story called “Bababec” he disposed of asceticism with characteristic pungency. Omni asks the Brahmin if there is any chance of his eventually reaching the nineteenth heaven.
“It depends,” replied the Brahmin, “on what kind of life you lead.”
“I try to be a good citizen, a good husband, a good father, a good friend. I sometimes lend money without interest to the rich; I give to the poor; I preserve peace among my neighbors.”
“But,” asked the Brahmin, “do you occasionally stick nails into your behind?”
“Never, reverend father.”
“I am sorry,” the Brahmin replied; “you will certainly never attain to the nineteenth heaven.”121
Voltaire’s crowning and redeeming virtue was his humanity. He stirred the conscience of Europe with his campaigns for the Calas and the Sirvens. He denounced war as “the great illusion”: “The victorious nation never profits from the spoils of the conquered; it pays for everything; it suffers as much when its armies are successful as when they are defeated”;122 whoever wins, humanity loses. He pleaded with men of diverse needs and states to remember that they were brothers; and that plea was heard with gratitude in the depths of Africa.123 Nor was he subject to Rousseau’s charge that those who preached love of mankind spread their love so widely that they had little left for their neighbor; all who knew him remembered his kindness and courtesy to the lowliest persons around him. He respected every ego, knowing its sensitivity from knowing his own.124 His hospitality survived the excessive calls upon it. “How moved I was,” wrote Mme. de Graffigny, “to find you always as perfectly good as you are great, and to see you doing all about you the good that you would have liked to do to all humanity.”125 He could be irascible and break out in a temper, but “you could never imagine,” wrote another visitor, “how lovable this man is in his heart.”126
As the fame of his help to persecuted persons spread through Europe, and reports circulated through France of his private charities and beneficence, a new image of Voltaire took form in the public mind. He was no longer Antichrist, no longer the warrior against a faith beloved by the poor; he was the savior of the Calas, the good seigneur of Ferney, the defender of a hundred victims of intolerant creeds and unjust laws. Genevan clergymen expressed their wonder whether, at the Last Judgment, their faith would balance the works of this impious man.127 Educated men and women forgave his impiety, his quarrels, his vanity, even his malice; they saw him grow out of hostility into benevolence; and they thought of him now as the venerable patriarch of French letters, the glory of France before the literate world. This was the man whom even the populace would acclaim when he came to Paris to die.