HE was not yet Voltaire; till his release from the Bastille in 1718 he was François Marie Arouet. He was born in Paris on November 21, 1694, and became its distilled essence till 1778. His presumptive father, François Arouet, was an affluent attorney, acquainted with the poet Boileau and the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, whose wills he wrote, and with the dramatist Pierre Corneille, whom he described as “the most boring mortal” he had ever met.1 The mother, Marie Marguerite Daumard, was of slightly noble lineage, daughter of an official of the Parlement, and sister of the comptroller general of the royal guard; through them she had access to the court of Louis XIV. Her vivacity and sprightly wit made her home a minor salon. Voltaire thought she possessed all the intellect in his parentage, as his father had all the financial skill; the son absorbed both of these gifts into his heritage. She died at the age of forty, when he was seven. Of her five children the eldest was Armand, who adhered zealously to the Jansenist theology and the patrimonial property. François Marie, the youngest child, was so sickly in his first year that no one believed he could survive. He continued till his eighty-fourth year to expect and announce his early death.
Among the friends of the family were several abbés. This title, meaning father, was given to any secular ecclesiastic, whether or not he was an ordained priest. Many abbés, while continuing to wear ecclesiastical dress, became men of the world and shone in society; several were prominently at home in irreverent circles; some lived up to their title literally but clandestinely. The Abbé de Châteauneuf was the last lover of Ninon de Lenclos and the first teacher of Voltaire. He was a man of wide culture and broad views; he passed on to his pupil the paganism of Ninon and the skepticism of Montaigne. According to an old but questioned story, he introduced to the boy a mock epic, La Moïsade, which was circulating in secret manuscripts; its theme was that religion, aside from belief in a Supreme Being, was a device used by rulers to keep the ruled in order and awe.2
Voltaire’s education proceeded when his abbé tutor took him on a visit to Ninon. The famous hetaera was then (1704) eighty-four years old. François found her “dry as a mummy,” but still full of the milk of woman’s kindness. “It pleased her,” he later recalled, “to put me in her will; she left me two thousand francs to buy books with.”3 She died soon afterward.
To balance this diet he was entered, age ten, as a resident student at the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand on the Left Bank of Paris. It was reputed the best school in France. Among its two thousand pupils were such sons of the nobility as could bear an education; in his seven years there Voltaire made many of the aristocratic friends with whom he maintained an easy familiarity throughout his life. He received a good training in the classics, in literature, and especially in drama; he acted in plays presented there, and, aged twelve, wrote a play himself. He did well in his studies, won many prizes, and delighted and alarmed his teachers. He expressed disbelief in hell, and called heaven “the great dormitory of the world.”4 One of his teachers sadly predicted that this young wit would become the standard-bearer of French deism—i.e., a religion that discarded nearly all theology except belief in God. They endured him with their customary patience, and he reciprocated by retaining, through all his heresies, a warm respect and gratitude for the Jesuits who had disciplined his intellect to clarity and order. He wrote, when he was fifty-two:
I was educated for seven years by men who took unrewarded and indefatigable pains to form the minds and morals of youth…. They inspired in me a taste for literature, and sentiments which will be a consolation to me to the end of my life. Nothing will ever efface from my heart the memory of Father Porée, who is equally dear to all who have studied under him. Never did a man make study and virtue so pleasant.... I had the good fortune to be formed by more than one Jesuit of the character of Father Porée. What did I see during the seven years that I was with the Jesuits? The most industrious, frugal, regulated life; all their hours divided between the care they took of us and the exercises of their austere profession. I call to witness the thousands educated by them, as I was; there is not one who would belie my words.5
After graduation François proposed to make literature his profession, but his father, warning him that authorship was an open sesame to destitution, insisted on his studying law. For three years François, as he put it, “studied the laws of Theodosius and Justinian in order to know the practice of Paris.” He resented “the profusion of useless things with which they wished to load my brain; my motto is, TO THE POINT.”6 Instead of absorbing himself in pandects and precedents he cultivated the society of some skeptical epicureans who met in the Temple—the remains of an old monastery of the Knights Templar in Paris. Their chief was Philippe de Vendòme, grand prior of France, who had enormous ecclesiastical revenues and little religious belief. With him were the Abbés Servien, de Bussy, and de Chaulieu, the Marquis de La Fare, the Prince de Conti, and other notables of easy income and gay life. The Abbé de Chaulieu proclaimed that wine and women were the most delectable boons granted to man by a wise and beneficent Nature.7 Voltaire adjusted himself without effort to this regimen, and shocked his father by staying out with such revelers till the then ungodly hour of 10 P.M.
Presumably at the father’s request, Voltaire was appointed page to the French ambassador at The Hague (1713). All the world knows how the excitable youth fell in love with Olympe Dunoyer, pursued her with poetry, and promised her eternal adoration. “Never love equaled mine,” he wrote to her, “for never was there a person better worthy of love than you.”8 The ambassador notified Arouet père that François was not made for diplomacy. The father summoned his son home, disinherited him, and threatened to ship him off to the West Indies. François, from Paris, wrote to “Pimpette” that if she did not come to him he would kill himself. Being wiser by two years and one sex, she answered that he had better make his peace with his father and become a good lawyer. He received paternal pardon on condition that he enter a law office and reside with the lawyer. He agreed. Pimpette married a count. It was apparently Voltaire’s last romance of passion. He was as high-strung as any poet, he was all nerves and sensitivity, but he was not strongly sexed; he was to have a famous liaison, but it would be far less an attraction of bodies than a mating of minds. His energy flowed out through his pen. Already at the age of twenty-five he wrote to the Marquise de Mimeure: “Friendship is a thousand times more precious than love. It seems to me that I am in no degree made for passion. I find something a bit ridiculous in love… I have made up my mind to renounce it forever.”9
On September 1, 1715, Louis XIV died, to the great relief of Protestant Europe and Catholic France. It was the end of a reign and an age: a reign of seventy-two years, an age—le grand siècle—that had begun in the glory of martial triumphs, the brilliance of literary masterpieces, the splendor of baroque art, and had ended in the decay of arts and letters, the exhaustion and impoverishment of the people, the defeat and humiliation of France. Everyone turned with hope and doubt to the government that was to succeed the magnificent and unmourned King.