Voltaire and the Century of Light

Voltaire and the Century of Light

by Alfred Owen Aldridge


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Taking an approach different from (hat of earlier biographers, A. Owen Aldridge examines Voltaire's literary and intellectual career chronologically, using the methods both of comparative literature and of the history of ideas. The resulting biography portrays a fascinating personality as well as a great writer and thinker. Voltaire is revealed not only through his correspondence, here extensively quoted, but through the statements others made about him in anecdotes, memoirs, and other contemporary documents.

New information is introduced regarding Voltaire's sojourn in England, his later relations with English men of letters, his domestic turmoils at the court of Frederick the Great, and his contact with French contemporaries such as Montesquieu and Diderot. For the first time in any biography, attention is given to Voltaire's extensive knowledge of Spanish literature and its influence on his own work, particularly Candide. Voltaire is portrayed as a conscious participant in the Enlightenment. In his early years he was interested primarily in aesthetics and abstract philosophy; later, he passionately dedicated himself to humanitarian causes with ideological implications. Professor Aldridge brings forward evidence pointing to the contrast between these two periods in Voltaire's life.

Originally published in 1975.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691617602
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1636
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 458
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 3.40(d)

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Voltaire and the Century of Light

By Alfred Owen Aldridge


Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06287-7


A Family and a Name


The true name of the man known throughout the world as Voltaire was Francois-Marie Arouet. Thus he was designated on his baptismal record, which indicates that he was born in Paris on 21 November 1694. It is typical of the character of the man that throughout his life he should have tried to shroud with mystery the circumstances of his birth, and even the exact date. He tried to pass as nine months older than he actually was, perhaps out of perversity, perhaps out of sheer love for deception, or even out of an instinct for self-protection — on the theory that the older he would seem, the less danger of persecution he would face. Voltaire was a histrionic hypochondriac, and he liked to appear as moribund as possible in order to lend color to his constant complaints of physical suffering.

Because of several ambiguous references in Voltaire's writings to the circumstances of his birth, some nineteenth century scholars have suggested that he was illegitimate, and the question is still in doubt. In a short poem written at the age of 50, Voltaire described himself as "the bastard of Rochebrune" [2782]. This Rochebrune was an accomplished lyric poet as well as a family friend, and Voltaire's words could have therefore both their literal sense that one of his parents had transgressed the marriage bed, and the figurative one, that Voltaire had descended from Rochebrune as a poet, but merely in an indirect or a left-handed manner. In another poem Voltaire seems to make a quite compromising reference to his mother:

1694–1713 I am far removed, in faith, From having a virgin for mother. [1393]

These ambiguous lines could have an obvious disrespectful meaning, or one quite innocent, merely alluding to the fact that Voltaire's mother was adequately prolific, having borne four other children before Voltaire. For more than a century, the voice of moderation tended to accept the innocuous meaning over the sensational.

A few years ago, however, a letter came to light that clearly indicates that Voltaire himself believed that he was the son of Rochebrune. This still does not mean that he was illegitimate, merely that he preferred to be considered another man's bastard rather than his legal father's son. There is no warrant for using this circumstance, however, as the key to quirks, aberrations, or eccentricities in Voltaire's behavior and personality. The mere fact of imagining frailties in either his mother or father, whichever he considered the more at fault, would not in his society have given him cause for adopting the pose of a rebel, either in the style of Byron or in that of the révoltés or angry young men of our times.

Voltaire was certainly a man in revolt — in old age much more than in youth — but he protested against social injustice, oppression, and unreason, not against his personal fate. It is as misleading in the twentieth century to consider him defiant and self-pitying out of a sense of personal injury, as it was in the nineteenth century to portray him as cynical and misanthropic.

The subject of our biography posed another mystery for posterity when he adopted the name Voltaire, the origin of which has never been definitely established. As far as records show, he used it first in a letter in 1718, which he signed, shortly before his legal coming of age at 25, Arouet de Voltaire. The most plausible theory to account for the name is that it is an anagram for Arouet I.j the equivalent of Arouet, Jr., in English. This theory is confirmed by the simple circumstance that one of Voltaire's favorite teachers at the Jesuit boys school which he attended had provided him an example of the name game. This teacher, the abbé d'Olivet, an eminent classical scholar, had adopted the title Father Thoulier, an obvious anagram, when he entered the Jesuit order shortly before becoming Voltaire's tutor.

Voltaire never showed any more pride in his family tradition than affection for his parents. He made no attempt to glorify his ancestors, nor did he even evince any curiosity about them. By and large he ignored his forebears and ridiculed his family. Yet neither ancestors nor immediate family was in any sense obscure or undistinguished. The Arouets may be traced back in an uninterrupted line to a tanner who plied his trade in 1525. Voltaire's father, who was also named François, was a member of the legal profession, numbering among his clients such dignitaries as Saint-Simon, Boileau, and the celebrated Ninon de Lenclos, and he had been on drinking terms with the tragedian Corneille. He confided to his son that "this great man was the most boring creature he had ever seen and the man whose conversation was on the lowest level" [9211]. Voltaire's mother made a similar judgment about the poet and critic Boileau, who was their neighbor: he was, as she put it, "a good book, but a foolish man" [9093]. A household with clients and acquaintances such as these could not have been totally deprived of culture. Voltaire's godfather, the abbé de Châteauneuf, was an urbane and indulgent ecclesiastic, brother of the more famous marquis de Châteauneuf, ambassador to Holland and later to Turkey. Another of the free-thinking churchmen who frequented the home was the abbé Gédoyn, a scholar and literary critic of great ability. He passionately espoused the side of the Ancients in the controversy then raging over the relative importance of classical and modern learning, and in conversation made no secret of his preference for the religion of Homer and Cicero to that of the Christian apostles.

Voltaire's rejection of his family name has been interpreted as evidence of an aristocratic superciliousness in his temperament. He has been charged with affectation, pretending to make light of his birth in order to draw attention to the fact that it was not entirely humble. Probably the gesture had no deeper meaning than an assertion of independence — the manifesto of a determination to build a career entirely on his own talents and efforts. One cannot read into it either aristocratic or democratic tendencies. If the adoption of a fabricated name is a denial of bourgeois birth, it is also a rejection of the concept of the transmission of nobility. Throughout his life Voltaire cultivated various representatives of the aristocracy and profited by them, once even making use of the pope for his own ends. But this does not make him a champion of aristocratic titles any more than a defender of the papacy. In his life Voltaire leaped over the bourgeoisie to consort with the nobility, but it was luxury rather than aristocracy that he sought. As far as his own genealogy was concerned, he had, in his own words, "a tremendous indifference for all such insignificant things." The man "who serves his country well has no need of ancestors," he wrote in his tragedy Mérope [Act I, Scene 3].

Voltaire wrote a sketch of his life remarkable for two peculiarities. First, he insisted upon "his dissipation," particularly as a young man, although documentary evidence from his later life indicates that he virtually never overindulged his appetites. Second, he maintained that "nothing is more insipid than the details of infancy and the time spent at school." Here his theory goes completely contrary to that of modern psychology as well as to the practice of his contemporaries, Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in their autobiographies strongly emphasized the period of childhood in forming their mature characters.

At birth Voltaire was so weak that he could not be taken to the church for baptism, and the ceremony had to be performed privately at home. Condorcet, in noticing this circumstance, compared him with Fontenelle, who had also been too puny to be taken to the church, but lived to the age of one hundred. Both were born in "a state of weakness and debility," but developed their intellectual faculties and retained them through long careers. A distant relative, seeing Voltaire three days after his birth, remarked that the infant did not look at all strong, having suffered from a fall of the mother. Voltaire himself put it more succinctly, "I was born dead." Every morning the family nurse ran downstairs to tell the mother that her child did not have another hour to live, and each day the abbé de Châteauneuf, the godfather, went upstairs to discuss ways of keeping the child alive.

Ten years previously, Mme Arouet had given birth to twins, only one of whom survived — a boy, Armand, whom Voltaire later alternately patronized and despised. Before the advent of Voltaire, his mother had also been delivered of another son, who soon died, and a daughter who lived, Marguerite-Catherine, with whom Voltaire maintained amicable relations. This sister eventually had children of her own, one of whom became celebrated in the eighteenth century, under her married name, Mme Denis, as Voltaire's niece and housekeeper. Two centuries later it has been discovered that she was also his mistress.

Sainte-Beuve was the first author to realize the importance in biography of studying the mother to learn about the man, but with Voltaire this method will produce scant results. His mother died during his seventh year, and in his multitudinous writings he devotes to her no more than half a dozen lines, and these are all either flippant or purely anecdotal. All that can be said with assurance about her is that she had greater pretensions to noble birth and connections than Voltaire's father. Without exaggeration one may say that Voltaire had greater affection for his godfather, the abbé de Châteauneuf, and for the latter's octogenarian mistress, Ninon de Lenclos, than for his own father and mother. Voltaire's remoteness from family ties may explain why his writings and personal relations reveal little warmth or tenderness. He was scrupulously loyal to his friends and passionate in encounters with his mistresses and enemies, but practically devoid of sentiment.

Although Voltaire wrote extensively about his father, he said virtually nothing in his favor. The elder Arouet, like his ancestors, was hard working and businesslike, but had little imagination. He recognized a place for literature and the arts, but devoted his own time and energies exclusively to records and accounts, not from avarice or cupidity, but from a regard to his own economic independence and the comfort of his family. Voltaire's father, while not one of the wealthiest men of his time, enjoyed an income sufficient to place him and his family in comfortable circumstances. He was somewhat austere in demeanour, but certainly not cruel or unreasonable. One day during Voltaire's youth Arouet lost patience with his gardener and snapped at him so fiercely that the laborer feared for his life. Voltaire then took his father to see a play entitled The Grumbler, previously asking the actor playing the title role to insert in one of the tirades of the play the identical words with which his father had berated the gardener. Arouet recognized them, took the hint and henceforth reformed his conduct [16522]. Voltaire told this story to prove that his father had an irascible character, but it could show instead that he was fair and amenable to reason — even to that of a precocious son.

In his will the elder Arouet reminded his two sons of an admonition which he had tried to impress upon them and which, he sadly felt, they had not taken to heart — that is, to learn to know one's place in society and to keep it. In his words, "good sense requires that we accommodate ourselves to the level of those over whom we feel that we have a superiority of mind and knowledge and which we should never allow them to perceive." Voltaire had none of his father's accommodating spirit. He aspired to social equality with the highest born of his time, and he seldom tried to conceal his intellectual superiority. He did inherit, however, his father's financial acumen and ability for hard work. Even though on the surface he posed as a fastidious model of elegant taste, in private he labored tirelessly — even heroically — on his literary projects. At the same time he exhibited an uncanny flair for engineering one financial coup after another.

Voltaire's brother, Armand, nine years his senior, was as opposite to him in disposition and temperament as any member of the same family could possibly be. Where Voltaire was pleasure-loving, witty, and irreverent, Armand was austere, sober, and fanatically religious. As children, their natural antagonism was exacerbated by the abbé de Châteauneuf and his friends, who pitted them against each other in the composing of epigrams. Despite the difference in age, Voltaire was sometimes the victor.

The abbé de Châteauneuf began Voltaire's education at the age of three by making him learn by heart a deistical poem about Moses, La Moïsade by Lourdet, one of the first open attacks against religion in France. The poem portrays Moses as an imposter who pretended to have received divine visions as a device to foist his personal rule and political ideas upon a gullible people [given in full by Duvernet, pp. 313-15]. Since this poem is only three pages long, it is quite plausible that Voltaire learned it by heart. He could still recite it when he was 26 years old [1105]. As Voltaire's contemporary biographer remarked, this courageous philosophical poem sowed the seeds of his incredulity and established his opinion that in all countries religious dogmas and solemnities derive from the charlatanism of some false prophet. Perhaps de Châteauneuf selected this irreligious work with a malicious intent to irritate the older brother, but he succeeded in banishing all reverence from the young Voltaire's mind and preventing him from accepting intellectual authority of any kind.

The explanation for Armand's contrary fanaticism is that he was sent at an early age to the seminary of the Oratorian fathers, noted for their learning and sanctity, and that the fathers were overly successful in promoting his piety. Armand's austere and morbid disposition soon led him to affiliate himself with the Jansenists, adherents of a theology which, although Catholic, strongly resembled that of the Protestant Calvinists. They embraced original sin and denied free will; the more fanatical practiced flagellation, worked themselves into convulsions, and convinced themselves that they had witnessed miracles. Arouet despaired of both of his sons: the elder seemed to be wasting his career and fortune on a proscribed religion and its penniless proselytes; the younger seemed to be dissipating his on pleasure and libertinism. Although the two brothers were temperamentally incompatible, and Voltaire ridiculed Armand mercilessly for religious fanaticism and stinginess, he never completely sundered their fraternal bonds. When, in middle age, he thought that Armand was in danger of death, he was deeply affected and expressed a willingness to go to his brother's bedside should his presence be desired [2015].

Probably because of the excessive and annoying piety of Armand, Arouet did not entrust his younger son to the Oratorian fathers, but kept him at home until he attained the advanced age of ten. Then Voltaire was placed in the care of the urbane Jesuits at their elite College Louis-le-Grand, so called because of the praise it had received from the Grand Monarch of France several years previously. The school was the favorite of the high aristocracy, an indication of the social position of Arouet and of the elevated hopes he entertained for his son. The ordinary boarders slept in a dormitory, the most privileged had private rooms with separate quarters for their retainers, and those in between occupied large rooms with four or five others and a pré or tutor. Voltaire's tutor was the abbé d'Olivet, who reminded him many years later how they had shivered together in front of an inadequate fire [12907]. Like all students, Voltaire was required to wear a robe and toque or flat hat, a source of chagrin to the older and more worldly students.

The Jesuits were then, as now, renowned as excellent educators, but the curriculum at Louis-le-Grand suffered from excessive traditionalism. Apart from a little Greek, a smattering of mathematics, and considerable theology, Latin was almost the only subject of study, but it was presented in every imaginable form: grammar, poetry, meditations, sermons, history, and drama — the pagan philosophers alternating in an incongruous mixture with the Christian saints. This is why Voltaire later complained that his studies were not relevant to the issues of his time. "I did not know that Francis I was taken prisoner at Pavia, nor where Pavia was; the very land of my birth was unknown to me. I knew neither the constitution nor the interests of my country; not a word of mathematics, not a word of sound philosophy. I learned Latin and nonsense (sottises) ." Voltaire, nevertheless, remembered with gratitude that he had been reared for seven years "by men who took indefatigable and unrewarded pains to form the manners and minds of youth." He felt that the power struggles of the Jesuits in "remote corners of the earth," which some people held against the order, were not sufficient reason for him to be ungrateful toward those who had inspired him "with the taste for belles-lettres and of the sentiments which would remain until the tomb" as the consolation of his life [3044].


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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Abbreviations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • 1. A Family and a Name, 1694-1713, pg. 1
  • 2. Love and Libertinage, 1713-1721, pg. 18
  • 3. The First Literary War, 1722, pg. 34
  • 4. The Miracle of La Henriade, 1723-1726, pg. 42
  • 5. A Frenchman Who Knows England Well, 1726-1729, pg. 62
  • 6. Further Echoes of England, 1729-1733, pg. 80
  • 7. Continued Persecution, 1733-1736, pg. 91
  • 8. The New Theseus and Ariadne, 1737-1739, pg. 107
  • 9. Face to Face with Frederick, 1739-1740, pg. 119
  • 10. Literature and Espionage, 1741-1743, pg. 132
  • 11. Court Poet and Historian, 1744-1747, pg. 143
  • 12. More Than It Seems To Say, 1748, pg. 155
  • 13. The Death of a Great Man, 1749, pg. 164
  • 14. From Paris to Potsdam, 1750, pg. 172
  • 15. A Voluntary Exile, 1751-1752, pg. 186
  • 16. A Double Book Burning, 1752-1753, pg. 201
  • 17. Poisonous Days, 1754-1755, pg. 219
  • 18. To Live in Tranquility, 1756-1757, pg. 234
  • 19. Toward Open Defiance, 1758-1759, pg. 242
  • 20. Candide: "A Mixture of Ridicule and Horror", pg. 251
  • 21. Laugh and You Will Crush Them, 1760, pg. 261
  • 22. Skirmishes Literary and Otherwise, 1761, pg. 273
  • 23. The Avenging of Humanity, 1762, pg. 288
  • 24. Is This the Century of Enlightenment? 1763, pg. 302
  • 25. Visitors to Ferney, 1762-1765, pg. 311
  • 26. The Philosophical Dictionary, 1764, pg. 319
  • 27. Magistrate of Humanity, 1765-1766, pg. 329
  • 28. Latent Primitivism, 1767-1768, pg. 343
  • 29. Words and Whispers, 1769-1770, pg. 356
  • 30. Don Quixote of the Alps, 1771-1772, pg. 367
  • 31. Eulogies and Discourses, 1773-1774, pg. 376
  • 32. Shakespeare's Rival, 1775-1778, pg. 385
  • 33. Vindication, 1778 398, pg. 398
  • 34. Conclusion, pg. 410
  • Bibliography, pg. 414
  • Index, pg. 427

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