He was in Potsdam when the first volume of the Encyclopédie was published (1751). He must have read with warm pleasure the lines by which d’Alembert had paid homage to him in the “Discours préliminaire”: “May I not … render to this rare genius the tribute and eulogy that he merits, which he has so frequently received from his compatriots, from foreigners, and from his enemies, and to which posterity will add full measure when he can no longer enjoy the praise?” Voltaire returned the compliment in a letter of September 5, 1752, to d’Alembert: “You and M. Diderot are accomplishing a work which will be the glory of France and the shame of those who persecute you.… Of eloquent philosophers I recognize only you and him.” He pledged his support, and lost no opportunity to call attention to the enterprise as “an immense and immortal work, which accuses the shortness of human life.”20
However busy with his own major compositions—Le Siècle de Louis XIV and Essai sur les moeurs—and embroiled with Hirsch, Maupertuis, and Frederick, Voltaire found time to send to d’Alembert (1753) some brief articles “only as material which you will arrange at your pleasure in the immortal edifice which you are raising. Add, shorten; I give you my pebbles to insert into some corner of the wall.” 21 He invoked the aid of influential friends to protect the editors. In 1755 he wrote to d’Alembert: “As long as I have a breath of life I am at the service of the illustrious authors of the Encylopédie. I consider myself greatly honored to be able to contribute, even feebly, to the greatest and handsomest monument of the nation and of literature.”22 With that letter he enclosed articles on fire, force, fornication, French, genius, and taste (goût). Examining the first five volumes, he found much to praise, something to deplore. He asked the editors to require clearness and brevity of all contributors, and he cautioned d’Alembert (whom he mistakenly supposed to be chief editor): “You are poorly seconded; there are bad soldiers in the army of a great general.… I am sorry to see that the writer of the article “Enfer” declares that hell was a point in the doctrine of Moses; now, by all the devils, that is not true.” 23
Soon he sent in several minor articles, and a major disquisition on history. He persuaded a learned priest of Lausanne, Antoine Noé de Polier, to write for the Encyclopédie the articles “Magi,” “Magic,” “Magician,” and “Messiah,” all quietly heretical. We have seen how Voltaire had some responsibility for d’Alembert’s article on Geneva (1757); he weathered the ensuing storm by inviting the betrayed clergymen to dinner. When disaster threatened the great enterprise (January, 1758) he wrote to Diderot:
Go on, brave Diderot, intrepid d’Alembert; … fall upon the knaves, destroy their empty declamations, their miserable sophistries, their historical lies, their contradictions and absurdities beyond number; do not let men of intelligence become the slaves of those who have none. The new generation will owe to you both reason and liberty.24
Diderot made no answer, d’Alembert insisted on withdrawing; Voltaire himself, losing courage, and offended by Diderot’s silence, decided to abandon ship. On February 6 or 7 he wrote again to Diderot, asking him to restore to him his yet unpublished contributions. Diderot replied that the manuscripts were with d’Alembert; but that if Voltaire should repeat the request for their return he would “never forget the injury.” On February 26 Voltaire wrote to d’Argental: “I love M. Diderot, I respect him, and I am angry.” But to the same on March 12: “If you see this good man Diderot, tell the poor slave that I pardon him with as full a heart as I pity him.”25 In May d’Alembert sent the demanded articles to Voltaire; in June d’Alembert resumed work for theEncyclopédie;Voltaire again submitted the articles, but asked that they be published, if at all, without his name. He proposed that the enterprise be moved to another country, where it would suffer less emasculation by censorship actual or feared; Diderot thought the proposal impracticable. Voltaire lost faith in the value of a massive and expensive encyclopedia as a vehicle of liberal propaganda. On June 26, 1758, he notified Diderot that other preoccupations would make it impossible for him to contribute further material; besides, as matters now stood between the editors, the government, and the Church, “one is obliged to lie, and we are persecuted if we have not lied enough.”26 The furor created by Helvétius’ De l’ Esprit (July) frightened the aging rebel into writing an answer to that book. On November 16 he informed Diderot that he had bought a house at Ferney, and intended henceforth to live quietly as a country gentleman.
Was he deceiving himself, or was he planning to resume the war by other means?