He had wondered, in Letter v, why “M. de Voltaire,” whom the Genevan councilors “so often visit,” had not “inspired them with that spirit of tolerance which he preaches without cease, and of which he sometimes has need.” And he put into Voltaire’s mouth an imaginary speech59 favoring freedom of speech for philosophers on the ground that only a negligible few read them. The imitation of Voltaire’s light and graceful manner was excellent. But the sage of Ferney was represented as avowing his authorship of a recently published Sermon des cinquantes (Sermon of the Fifty), whose paternity Voltaire had repeatedly denied—for it was heavy with heresies. We do not know whether Rousseau’s revelation of the secret was deliberate and malicious; Voltaire thought so, and was furious, for it subjected him to the possibility of renewed expulsion from France just as he was settling into Ferney.
“The miscreant!” he exclaimed when he read the telltale letter. “The monster! I must have him cudgeled—yes, I will have him cudgeled in his mountains at the knees of his nurse!”
“Pray calm yourself,” said a bystander, “for I know that Rousseau means to pay you a visit, and will very shortly be at Ferney.”
“Ah, only let him come!” cried Voltaire, apparently meditating mayhem.
“But how will you receive him?”
“I will give him supper, put him into my own bed, and say, ‘There is a good supper; this is the best bed in the house; do me the pleasure to accept one and the other, and to make yourself happy here.’”60
But Rousseau did not come. Voltaire revenged himself by issuing (December 31, 1764) an anonymous pamphlet, Sentiments des citoyens (Feelings of the Citizens), which is one of the blackest marks on his character and career. It must be quoted to be believed.
We take pity on a fool, but when his dementia becomes fury we tie him up. Tolerance, which is a virtue, then becomes a vice. … We pardoned this man’s romances, in which decency and modesty are as damaged as good sense. … When he mixed religion with his fiction, our magistrates were of necessity obliged to imitate those of Paris … and Bern. … Today is not patience exhausted when he publishes a new book wherein he outrages with fury the Christian religion, the Reformation that he professes, all the ministers of the Holy Gospel, and all the agencies of the state? … He says clearly, in his own name, “There are no miracles in the Gospel which we can take literally without abandoning good sense.” . . .
Is he a scholar who debates with scholars? No, … he is a man who still carries the tragic marks of his debauches, and who … drags along with him from town to town, and from mountain to mountain, the unhappy woman whose mother he made die, and whose children he exposed at the door of a hospital, … abjuring all the feelings of nature, as he discards those of honor and religion. . . .
Does he wish to overthrow our constitution by disfiguring it, as he wishes to overthrow the Christianity that he professes? It suffices to warn him that the city which he troubles disavows him.... If he thought that we would draw the sword [make a revolution] because of [the condemnation of] Émile, he can put this idea into the class of his absurdities and his follies. But he should be told that if we punish lightly an impious romance we punish capitally a vile traitor.61
This was a disgraceful performance, hardly to be excused by Voltaire’s anger, ailments, and age. (He was now seventy.) No wonder Rousseau never believed (even today we can hardly believe) that Voltaire wrote it; he ascribed it instead to the Genevan minister Vernes, who protested in vain that he was not the author. Rousseau, in one of his finest moments, published a reply to the Sentiments (January, 1765):
I wish to make with simplicity the declaration that seems required of me by this article. No malady small or great, such as the author speaks of, has ever soiled my body. The malady that affects me has not the slightest resemblance to the one indicated; it was born with me, as those who took care of my childhood, and who still live, know. It is known to MM. Malouin, Morand, Thierry, Daran.... If they find in this [ailment] the least sign of debauchery, I beg them to confound me and shame me. … The wise and world-esteemed woman who takes care of me in my misfortunes … is unhappy only because she shares my misery. Her mother is in fact full of life, and in good health, despite her old age [she lived to be ninety-three]. I have never exposed, nor caused to be exposed, any children at the door of a hospital, nor anywhere else.... I will add nothing more … except to say that, at the hour of death, I would prefer to have done that of which the author accuses me, than to have written a piece like this.62
Though Rousseau’s delivery of his children to a foundling asylum (not quite precisely their “exposure”) had been known to Paris gossip (he had admitted it to the Maréchale de Luxembourg), Voltaire’s pamphlet was the first public disclosure. Jean-Jacques suspected Mme. d’Épinay of having revealed it on her visit to Geneva. Now he was convinced that she and Grimm and Diderot were conspiring to blacken his reputation. Grimm at this time repeatedly attacked Rousseau in the Correspondance littéraire, 63 and in his letter of January 15, 1765, speaking of the Letters from the Mountain, he joined Voltaire in accusing Rousseau of treason: “If there be anywhere on earth such a crime as high treason, it is found surely in attacking the fundamental constitution of a state with the arms that M. Rousseau has employed to overthrow the constitution of his country.”
The long quarrel between Voltaire and Rousseau is one of the sorriest blemishes on the face of the Enlightenment. Their birth and status set them far apart. Voltaire, son of a prosperous notary, received a good education, especially in the classics; Rousseau, born to an impoverished and soon to be broken home, received no formal education, inherited no classical tradition. Voltaire accepted the literary norms laid down by Boileau—“Love reason, let all your writings take from reason their splendor and their worth”;64 to Rousseau (as to Faust seducing Marguerite with Rousseau) “feeling is” all.”65 Voltaire was as sensitive and excitable as Jean-Jacques, but usually he thought it bad manners to let passion discolor his art; he sensed in Rousseau’s appeal to feeling and instinct an individualistic anarchic irrationalism that would begin with revolt and end with religion. He repudiated—Rousseau echoed—Pascal. Voltaire lived like a millionaire, Rousseau copied music to earn his bread. Voltaire was the sum of all the graces in society; Rousseau was ill at ease in social gatherings, and too impatient and irritable to keep a friend. Voltaire was the son of Paris, of its gaiety and luxuries; Rousseau was the child of Geneva, a somber and Puritan bourgeois resentful of class distinctions that cut him, and of luxuries that he could not enjoy. Voltaire defended luxury as putting the money of the rich in circulation by giving work to the poor; Rousseau condemned it as “feeding a hundred poor people in our towns, and causing a hundred thousand to perish in our villages.”66 Voltaire thought that the sins of civilization are outweighed by its comforts and arts; Rousseau was uncomfortable everywhere, and denounced almost everything. Reformers listened to Voltaire; revolutionists heard Rousseau.
When Horace Walpole remarked that “this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel,”67 he unwittingly compressed into a line the lives of the two most influential minds of the eighteenth century.