He was now fifty years old. He had for a long time been dying annually; “It is most certain,” he wrote to Thieriot in 1735, “that I have but a few years to live.”65 He had then lived forty-one years; he was to live forty-three more. How did he manage this? When he fell seriously ill at Châlonssur-Marne in 1748, and a physician prescribed some drugs, Voltaire “told me,” his secretary reported, “that he would follow none of these directions, for he knew how to manage himself as well in sickness as in health, and he would continue to be his own doctor, as he had always been.” In such crises he fasted for a while, then ate a little broth, toast, weak tea, barley and water. Secretary Longchamp adds:
Thus it was that M. de Voltaire cured himself of a malady which probably would have had grave consequences if he had delivered himself up to the Aesculapius of Châlons. His principle was that our health depends upon ourselves; that its three pivots are sobriety, temperance in all things, and moderate exercise; that in almost all diseases which are not the result of serious accidents, or of radical vitiation of the internal organs, it suffices to aid nature, which is endeavoring to restore us; that it is necessary to confine ourselves to a diet more or less strict and prolonged, suitable liquid nourishment, and other simple means. In this manner I always saw him regulate his conduct as long as I lived with him.66
He was as skilled as a banker in the management and investment of his funds. He was an importer, a poet, a contractor, a dramatist, a capitalist, a philosopher, a moneylender, pensioner, and heir. His friend d’Argenson helped him to make a fortune in military supplies.67 He had inherited part of his father’s wealth; in 1745 the death of his brother Armand left to him the income of the remainder. He made large loans to the Duc de Richelieu, the Duc de Villars, the Prince de Guise, and others. He had much trouble recapturing the principal, but he compensated himself with interest.68 In 1735 Richelieu owed him 46,417 livres, on which the Duke paid four thousand livres per year.69 In the case of the unreliable M. de Brézé, Voltaire asked ten per cent. Much of his money he invested in bonds of the city of Paris at five or six per cent. He had often to instruct his agent to dun his debtors: “It is necessary, my friend, to ask, to ask again, to press, to see, to importune—but not to persecute—my debtors for my annuities and arrears.”70 His secretary calculated in 1749 that Voltaire’s income was eighty thousand livres per year.71 He was not a moneygrubber or a miser. He repeatedly gave money or other assistance to young students, and lent a helping hand or voice to Vauvenargues, Marmontel, La Harpe; we have seen him surrendering to the actors the proceeds of his plays. When he lost forty thousand livres through the bankruptcy of a farmer general to whom he had lent that sum, he took it calmly, using the wise words taught him in his youth: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
If he had had less money to take care of, and more flesh on his bones, he might have been less sensitive, nervous, and irritable. He was generous and considerate, usually cheerful, good-humored, vivacious; he was capable of warm and steadfast friendship, and quick to forgive an injury that did not hurt his pride; but he could not with patience bear criticism or hostility (“I envy the beasts two things,” he said: “their ignorance of evils to come, and their ignorance of what is said of them”72). His sharp wit aroused many enemies. Fréron, Piron, Desfontaines attacked him or his ideas with a violence far greater than came from the clergy; we shall listen to them by and by. Voltaire returned blow for blow, despite Mme. du Châtelet’s counsel to be silent. He called them hot names, marshaled his friends to war against them; the Marquise was hard put to it to keep him from rushing to Paris to whip or challenge Desfontaines; he even thought of invoking the censorship to suppress the more virulent of his foes. He had all the defects of his qualities, and a few more.
He found in Rameau a man as proud and irritable as himself; their cooperation was a trial for both; but at last the libretto and the music were complete, the players and musicians were rehearsed; La Princesse de Navarre went off well (February 23, 1745). A month later Voltaire was given a room in the palace, near what he described in his very private correspondence as “the most stinking merde-hole in Versailles.” The Marquise du Châtelet resumed at court the place that she had sacrificed for Voltaire; she had now the dizzy privilege of sitting in the presence of the Queen. The rise of Mme. de Pompadour favored Voltaire; he had known her when she was Mme. d’Étioles, had visited her home, had written trivia in her praise. At her urging the King appointed him (April 1) royal historiographer, with a salary of two thousand livres per year.
He was soon required to earn his fee. On May 11, 1745, the French defeated the English at Fontenoy; d’Argenson asked for a commemorative ode; Voltaire in three days turned out 350 lines; they went through five editions in two weeks; for a moment the King liked Voltaire, and Voltaire was a poet of war. To further celebrate the victory Voltaire and Rameau were commissioned to compose a festival opera. Le Temple de la gloire, performed before the court in December, showed Trajan (i.e., Louis XV) returning in triumph from battle. Voltaire was given a seat at the King’s table that evening, and ate ambrosia; but he asked Richelieu, too eagerly, “Trajan est-il content?” (Is Trajan content?); Louis overheard him, thought him a bit forward, spoke no word to him.
Drunk with a mixture of fame and royalty, Voltaire began another campaign for admission to the Academy. He left no stone unturned. On August 17, 1745, he sent a copy of Mahomet to Benedict XIV, asking might he dedicate it to him. The amiable Pope replied (September 19):
This day sevennight I was favored with your excellent tragedy of Mahomet, which I have read with great pleasure.… I have the highest esteem for your merit, which is so universally acknowledged.… I have the highest opinion of your honor and sincerity.
I … here give you my apostolical benediction.73
Voltaire was so delighted with this accolade that he wrote to the Pope a letter of fervent appreciation, ending: “With the utmost respect and gratitude I kiss your sacred feet.”74 He proclaimed to Paris his attachment to the Catholic faith and his admiration for the Jesuits. He multiplied his praises of Pompadour and the King. Pompadour pleaded for him, the King consented, and at last, May 9, 1746, the Academy admitted the leading poet and dramatist of the age. To make his cup run over, he was appointed (December 22)gentilhomme ordinaire de la chambre—“ gentleman in ordinary of the chamber,” privileged to wait upon the King.
Probably it was in these days of success and satisfaction that he composed his tale Babouc, ou le Monde comme il va. Babouc, a gentleman of Scythia, sets out to see the world, and especially how things are in Persia (i.e., France). He is shocked by the wars, the political corruption, the purchase of offices, the farming of taxes, and the wealth of the “Magi” (the clergy). But he is entertained by a lady (Pompadour) whose beauty, culture, and courtesy reconcile him to “civilization.” He notes here and there actions of generosity, instances of honesty. He visits the Prime Minister (a memory of Fleury) and finds him laboring earnestly to save Persia from chaos and defeat. He concludes that matters are as good as they can be in the current condition of human nature and education, and that “the world as it goes” does not yet deserve destruction; reform is better than revolution. As for himself, however, he will imitate the “truly wise,” who “live among themselves in retirement and tranquillity.”75 Was Voltaire already lonesome for Cirey?
In any case he was not fashioned for a courtier. With incredible tactlessness he celebrated the success of the French at Bergen op Zoom with a poem in which he spoke of Louis as flying from the victory to the arms of Pompadour, and charged both of them to keep what they had conquered. The Queen was outraged; so were her children; half the court denounced the poet’s impudence. Meanwhile Mme. du Châtelet had relapsed into gambling; in one evening she lost 84,000 francs. Voltaire, on her shoulder, warned her in English that she was playing with cheats; some of the players understood and protested. News of this scandalous candor ran through the court, leaving the poet scarcely a friend in Versailles or Fontainebleau. Voltaire and Émilie fled to Sceaux (1747) and the still surviving Duchesse du Maine. There he remained for two months in a remote apartment hidden from public view. And there he tried to forget his plight by writing some of those delightful contes or romans which helped to make him the most popular author in all the literature of France. Apparently he read them, of an evening, to the intimate guests who constituted the Duchess’s private court. Hence their brevity, their gay satire and bubbling wit.
The longest of these stories written in the years 1746–50 was Zadig, or The Mystery of Fate. Zadig is an amiable, rich, well-educated young Babylonian, “as wise as it is possible for a man to be.… Instructed in the sciences of the ancient Chaldeans, he understood the principles of natural philosophy, … and knew as much of metaphysics as has ever been known in any age, that is, little or nothing at all.”76 He is about to marry the lovely Semina when he is attacked by brigands, and suffers a wound that develops into an abscess in the left eye. The famous physician Hermes is brought in from Memphis: he examines the wound, and announces that Zadig will lose the eye. “Had it been the right eye, I could easily have cured it, but the wounds of the left eye are incurable.” Semina, declaring that she has an unconquerable aversion to one-eyed men, abandons Zadig and marries his rival. In two days the abscess breaks of its own accord; soon the eye is completely cured; Hermes writes a book to prove that this is impossible. Zadig pleases King Moabdar with his wise counsels, and Queen Astarte with his good looks; she falls in love with him; he flees to a distant city. On the way he sees a man beating a woman; he responds bravely to her cries for help; he interferes, is murderously assailed, and slays the man; the woman rails at him for having killed her lover. Zadig proceeds, and is sold into slavery.… Zadig “then imagined men as in fact they are, insects devouring one another on a drop of mud.”
Memnon the Philosopher told the story of a man who “one day conceived the insane idea of becoming wholly reasonable.” He finds himself in a hopeless and besieged minority, encounters a hundred calamities, and decides that the earth is an insane asylum to which the other planets deport their lunatics.77
The Travels of Scarmentado takes a young Cretan to country after country, opening up ever new vistas of fanaticism, chicanery, cruelty, or ignorance. In France the provinces are devastated by religious wars; in England Queen Mary burns five hundred Protestants, in Spain the people sniff with relish the odor of roasted heretics. In Turkey Scarmentado narrowly escapes circumcision; in Persia he gets involved in the conflict between the Sunna and Shi‘a sects of Islam; in China he is denounced by the Jesuits as a distinguished Dominican. At last he returns to Crete. “As I had now seen all that was rare, good, or beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home. I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt, I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.”78
Micromégas developed the ideas of relativity exploited by Swift in The Travels of Lemuel Gulliver. “Mr. Micromegas,” as befitted an inhabitant of the great star Sirius, is “120,000 royal feet” tall, and fifty thousand around the waist; his nose is 6, 333 feet long from stem to stern. In his 670th year he travels to polish his education. Roaming about space, he alights upon the planet Saturn; he laughs at the pygmy stature—only six thousand feet or so—of its people, and wonders how these underprivileged Saturnians, with only seventy-two senses, can ever know reality. “To what age do you commonly live?” he asks an inhabitant. “Alas,” cries the Saturnian, “few, very few on this globe outlive five hundred revolutions around the sun [these, according to our way of reckoning, amount to about fifteen thousand years]. So, you see, we in a manner begin to die the very moment we are born.… Scarce do we learn a little when death intervenes before we can profit by experience.”79 The Sirian invites the Saturnian to join him in visiting other stars. They stumble upon the planet Earth; the Sirian wets his feet, the Saturnian is nearly drowned, as they walk through the Mediterranean. Reaching soil, they see masses of the tiny inhabitants moving about in great excitement. When the Sirian discovers that a hundred thousand of these earthlings, covered with hats, are slaying or being slain by an equal number covered with turbans, in a dispute [the Crusades] over “a pitiful molehill [Palestine] no longer than his heel,” he cries out indignantly, “Miscreants! … I have a good mind to take two or three steps and trample the whole nest of such ridiculous assassins under my feet.”80
All this was general and genial, and might have passed without a stir. But in 1748 Voltaire troubled the winds of Paris with a little pamphlet called The Voice of the Sage and the People, which attacked the French Church at a very sensitive point—its property. “In France, where reason becomes more developed every day, reason teaches us that the Church ought to contribute to the expenses of the nation in proportion to its revenues, and that the body set apart to teach justice ought to begin by being an example of it.” He claimed that monasteries were wasting the seed of men and the resources of the land in vain idleness. He accused “superstition” of assassinating rulers and shedding streams of blood in persecution and war, and reminded sovereigns that no philosopher had ever raised his hand against his king. If kings would unite with reason and divorce themselves from superstition, how much happier the world would be!81 Rarely has so short an essay roused so long a storm. Fifteen counter-Voices were published to answer the anonymous “Sage.”
During Voltaire’s hibernation at Sceaux, Mme. du Châtelet paid her gambling debts and quieted the resentment of the winners at Voltaire’s description of them. She brought him back to Paris, where he supervised the publication of his novelettes. Uncomfortable nevertheless, he thought it wise to accept the invitation of Stanislas Leszczyński to visit his court at Lunéville—some eighteen miles from Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. After a laborious journey the tired lovers reached Lunéville (1748); but a fortnight later a letter from d’Argental informed Voltaire that the actors of the Comédie-Française were ready to go into rehearsal of his play Sémiramis, and needed him to coach them in the interpretation of his lines. This play meant much to him. Pompadour, in the goodness of her sinful soul, had brought the impoverished Crébillon père back to the stage, and had given a lead to the applause; Marivaux had dared to rank the old man’s dramas above Voltaire’s; the thin-skinned poet had resolved to prove his superiority by writing plays on the same themes that Crébillon had used. So he hurried back to Paris, leaving Émilie in perilous freedom at Lunéville, and on August 29, 1748, Sémiramis had a successful première. After the second performance he hastened in disguise to the Café Procope and listened to the comments of those who had seen his play. There were some favorable judgments, which he accepted as his due, and some unfavorable, which pained him all the more because he had to bear them in silence. He profited from the criticisms to revise the play; it had a good run; and now it ranks among his best.
He hastened back through September storms halfway across France to Lunéville, nearly dying en route at Châlons. When Frederick urged him to continue on to Potsdam he excused himself on the ground that his illnesses had made him lose half his hearing and several teeth, so that he would be merely carrying a corpse to Berlin. Frederick replied: “Come without teeth, without ears, if you cannot come otherwise, so long as that indefinable something which makes you think, and inspires you so beautifully, comes with you.”82 Voltaire chose to stay with Émilie.