voltaire - a short biography
Kewal Krishan Sethi
All Rights Reserved
C-7, Parijat Parisar
E-5, Arera Colony
Bhopal - 462016 _______________________________
"To name Voltaire", said Victor Hugo, "is to characterize the entire eighteenth century." Italy had its renaissance, and Germany had its Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and the Reformation and half the Revolution. He carried on the antiseptic skepticism of Montaigne, and the healthy earthy humour of Rebelais; he fought superstition and corruption more savagely than either Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Knox or Melanchton; he helped to make the powder with which Mirabeau and Marat, Danton and Robespierre blew up the ancien regime. Louis XVI, seeing in his Temple prison the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, said, "Those two have destroyed France", - meaning his dynasty.
Unprepossessing, ugly vain, flippant, obscene, unscrupulous, even, at times, dishonest - Voltaire was a man with the faults of his time and place, missing hardly one. And yet this same Voltaire turns out to have been tireless, kind, considerate, lavish of his energy and his purse, as sedulous in helping friends as in crushing enemies, able to kill with a stroke of his pen, yet disarmed by the first advance of conciliation; so contradictory was the man.
But all these qualities, good and bad, were secondary, not of the essence of Voltaire; the astounding and basic thing in him was the inexhaustible fertility and brilliance of his mind. His work fills ninety nine volumes, of which every page is sparkling and fruitful, though they range from subject to subject across the world as fitfully and as bravely as in an encyclopedia. Voltaire was a hard worker. "Not to be occupied, and not to exist, amount to the same thing," he said. "All people are good except those who are idle." "Il avait le diable au corps", said Sainte-Beuve and De Maitre called him the man "into whose hands, hell has given all its powers".
Voltaire, that is to say, Francis Marie Arouet was born at Paris in 1694 - 21st November. The birth was premature and the baby was frail And unbelievably tiny. His father, Francis Arouet was an earnest, plodding man whose main occupation was to increase his social standing. To his father, Voltaire owed his shrewdness and irascibility. His mother, Marguerite, was of effervescent nature though she had her share of misfortunes. Two of her children died and she herself did not have good health. She died when Francis-Marie was seven. To her, Voltaire is indebted for his levity and wit.
Francois de Castagner, Abbe de Chauteauneuf was Voltaire's godfather. He was a man who believed in pleasures - a hedonist. From him, Voltaire learned not to believe in anything, simply on faith. "This", said the Abbe, "was the greatest crime against religion." He spotted Voltaire's gift for witty dialogues and quick retorts and often encouraged him by taking him to the parties where Voltaire exhibited his gift. After mother's death, Abbe assumed full control of Voltaire's education.
Voltaire started his studies in Louis le Grand College. At the school, he showed his abilities to compose verses and was systematically encouraged by his teachers, especially Father Parée. Soon he became the school poet and once he was given a task to compose a petition in verse on behalf of a soldier. The petition was addressed to King Louis. Voltaire also displayed his histrionic talents and he was nearly always the first in his studies.
At seventeen, Voltaire left the college. His father wanted him to become a lawyer while Voltaire was bent upon developing his literary activities and to earn his livelihood by writing. Voltaire was too fond of gaiety and pleasure to like the dull routine of law. His visits to 'The Temple' - club of his godfather and an abode of hedonists - made him a lover of night life and the parties. His wit and verse were soon all over Paris and he was being invited to several parties where people wanted to hear his conversation - always joyful and quick. These sorties were painful to his father and he sent Voltaire to Coen believing in the maxim 'out of sight, out of mind'. But he was not quite successful for there was life in Coen also and Voltaire was soon a part of it. But he had his troubles also. A self styled great poetess did not like his blunt nature and Voltaire was soon out of many of the parties, His father, finding that the cure did not work, called him back to Paris, Here he resumed his habits. After imprisonment (in Coen), now as in later life, came exile; his father sent him to The Hague with the French ambassador, requesting strict surveillance of the madcap boy; but Francois at once fell in love with a little lady, Pimpette; held breathless clandestine interviews with her, and wrote to her passionate letters ending always with the refrain, 'I shall certainly love you forever.' The affair was discovered and Voltaire packed off to Paris. He remembered Pimpette for several weeks. Finding that this did not help, he capitulated and accepted a post as a clerk to a Parisian advocate. For a time, he worked diligently but not for long. soon he found himself out once again.
Just at that time, Paris Academy had called for a poem to celebrate Louis's generosity in donating a choir to the 'Notre Dame with the prize for the selected poem. The reward went to the poet who was the favourite at the Court and Voltaire, stung at his rejection, parodied the winner. Whole Paris resounded with laughter but not the Academy and so Voltaire, as a fore runner o such subsequent acts, left Paris. He stayed with Marquise de Saint - Ange and heard from him, the anecdotes from the life of Louis XIII, Henry IV and Henry of Navarre. It was here that he formed the idea of writing an epic poem to celebrate Henry of Navarre. The illness of Louis XIV brought Voltaire back, as it did many others, in the hope of better breaks.
Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by Louis XV, 'too young to govern France, much less Paris'. The question of regency threw France into two hostile factions. One was led by Duke of Orleans who was in control and other by Duke of Maine. During this quasi- interregnum, life ran riot in the capital of the world and young Arouet ran with it. He soon achieved reputation as a brilliant and reckless lad. In course of time, all the bright and naughty things said about the regent were ascribed to Arouet. These included some pungent satires. Arouet had to suffer exile to Scully for six months and an imprisonment for eleven months followed by another exile of six months for the poems he had not written.
The imprisonment in Bastille gave Arouet, who now assumed the pen-name of Voltaire, eleven months of leisure and here he started his epic poem 'The League' and wrote his first drama 'Oedipus'. The drama was presented at 'Comedie' after his return to Paris. The drama was an unqualified success and was applauded alike by friends and foes of the regent created a new record in Paris by running for 45 consecutive nights.
Another bitter poem against the regent again sent Voltaire scurrying out of Paris. He wandered from chateau to chateau, working on his 'The League'. When the author of the nasty poem was discovered, Voltaire was allowed to return to Paris. Here he produced 'Artémire' which was an utter failure. This sent him back to the chateaux.
On 1.1.1721, his father died. At that time, Voltaire was still struggling. His balance sheet had 'Oedipus' on the credit side and 'Artémire' on the debit side leaving no fortune to him. To overcome this, he accepted the post of a spy. In this capacity, he made a trip to The Hague. From here he went to Brussels where he made arrangements to publish his 'The League'. He returned to Paris via the chateaux and solicited subscription for his new book. However, the Paris Censor refused permission to publish 'The League' as it criticized the Catholic religion. Nothing daunted, Voltaire arranged for a secret version of the poem and soon every secret drawer had a copy of it. The book was very popular and Voltaire was hailed as a great poet.
Flushed with success, Voltaire presented his drama 'Mariame'. However, it was a failure and was withdrawn. Soon after Voltaire ran into trouble with one Cavalier du Rohan. The Cavalier hired some ruffians to beat Voltaire. Voltaire, bandaged and limping, challenged the Cavalier to a duel next day. Du Rohan had no such idea and sought the help of his cousin, who was Minister of Police. so Voltaire went back once more to the Bastille. He was almost immediately released on his promise to leave for England.
Voltaire reached England on a bright morning in May 1726. For the first few months, he resided in the countryside trying to master English. Soon he accomplished the task and was able to speak and to write in English. He was introduced to the literati by Lord Bolingbroke and dined with one after another of them, even with elusive and corrosive Dean Swift. What surprised him was the freedom with which Bolingbroke, Pope, Addison and Swift wrote whatever they pleased. Here was a people that had a will of its own, a people that had remade the religion, hanged its King, imported another and had a parliament more powerful than any European ruler. There was no Bastille here and no lettre de cachet. Here were thirty religions and not one priest. It was also the age of Hobbes, Locke. Collins and Newton. At once, Voltaire absorbed everything of England - its literature, its philosophy and its science. He passed it through the French culture and the French spirit and recorded his impressions in 'The letters on the English' which he circulated in manuscript for they were too frank to please the censor.
He also made his own contribution to English literature by publishing the English version of 'The League' renaming it 'Henriade' and working on it with pains. He also wrote about 'civil wars in France' and 'epic poems from Homer to Milton' chiefly as propaganda for his 'Henriade'. He also started a tragedy 'Brutus' on the lines of 'Julius Caesar'. Besides these, Voltaire started studies on the life of Charles XII of Sweden working painfully for the collection of the data. Voltaire main work during the period was his 'letters'. Here was as he saw England, its people, its literature, its customs and ideas. His letters were, by implication, a criticism of French bigotry, fanaticism, inequality, injustice. His was a propaganda of an earnest reformer by contrasting French miseries with English liberties. The 'letters' were dotted with pungent humour, satirical attacks on Church, and straight forward denunciation of social inequality. Here was the beginning of a campaign which was to last through Voltaire's life.
Voltaire's activities soon made him tired and he missed Paris. In March 1729, he crossed over incognito to France and worked through his friends to get his exile cancelled. This was done in April 1729 and Voltaire resumed his life in Paris. But nothing was ever again the same as before. When he left Paris, he was a budding poet and an average dramatist. When he returned he was a philosopher. He was a Frenchman before he went and a cosmopolitan when he came back. He still wrote poetry and drama and still loved court life but he had an aim in life now and it was not gaiety and pleasure making.
Soon after returning to Paris, Voltaire ran into money. On a mathematician's suggestion, Voltaire, with the help of a few rich friends bought all the tickets in a poorly planned lottery and demanded the prizes. Voltaire's share in the spoils was 2,50,000 francs. Voltaire used his study of English businessmen to invest the money and had soon tripled it. With this financial security, Voltaire returned to literature. He presented his tragedy 'Brutus' but it had to be withdrawn as his opponents, chiefly de Rohan, hired persons to hoot his play. On top of this came his first open brush with the Church. The occasion was the death of actress Adrienne Lacouverer. She had declined to renounce formally her profession before death as desired by the Church. Consequently the permission to bury her body was refused and her body was destroyed. Voltaire protested against this hypocrisy remarking that everyone adored her when she was alive but abhorred her when she died. He wrote verses in tribute to her and thereby angered the Church. He also arranged a publication of his 'English Letters' in England. The letters could not be published in Paris. Instead Voltaire asked for permission to publish 'Charles XII'. The permission was refused. As before, Voltaire resorted to secret methods and the book appeared surreptitiously in Paris in October 1731.
Basically 'Charles XII' was history but not the way Voltaire tackled it. The book was a coverage of the whole cultural cyclorama of Europe of Charles XII. The narrative covers the Russian peasant girl as well as Catherine I of Russia. And throughout the book, Voltaire singles out abuses of France, Church and attacks them though never directly. The guns are trained on social, economic and political system of France but the fire is indirect. Russian Orthodox Church is criticized though the main victim is French Church. Voltaire praises Turkish nobility and its lack of hereditary practices. He reminds kings of their uselessness. All this had direct appeal to his middle class readers who were themselves the victims of all the abuses of Church, Nobility and the Bourbons.
After the publication of 'Charles XII', Voltaire sought refuge in the chateau of Countess de Fontaine-Martel. She was a pleasure loving woman and was fond of throwing big parties. Soon Voltaire was directing her parties and her estates. Here he produced 'Eriphile' based on 'Hamlet' but had to withdraw it. About this time a seat fell vacant at the Academy and Voltaire made a trial for it. He would have got it but for the publication of a long forgotten poem of his against the religion. Voltaire promptly disowned the poem but the seat was gone.
Voltaire also produced his romantic tragedy 'Zaire' which after a few alterations became a hit. 'Zaire' was published in book form also and Voltaire dedicated it to his friend Faulkner. This was decried by his rivals for Faulkner was an Englishman, a foreigner and also a merchant. Voltaire faced all these attacks and prepared a reply of his own. This was 'Temple of Taste', a bitter satire against rivals, critics and authors. The story is of Voltaire making a pilgrimage to the Temple of taste where he meets others in the way , all aspiring to reach the Temple. Voltaire picks his men by names and pours, gleefully, burning oil on them. His chief victim was Jeane Bapiste Rosseau.
The work raised a storm and he had to seek refuge in work. Countess de Fontaine-Martel, having died, he quit her chateau and lived in Paris. He turned to his first philosophical work, 'Remarks on the thoughts of Pascal'. Pascal was a well known scientist but after a carriage accident had turned a 'pucca' religious person. He became, in due course, head of Jansecuists. Jansecuists believed in self torture. Man was a wicked thing, they argued, and will continue to be so till he could detach himself from the worldly things and passions. Voltaire attacked all this. He (Voltaire) regarded man as a being just a little removed from animal but highly organized. Man was the only creature who sought his Maker, his beginning and his end. Man must love God but he must also love His creatures. Voltaire attacked Pascal's belief in Christianity and reminded him of Bortholomew's massacres.
Voltaire occasionally accepted young persons as protégés. He encouraged them to write. But he also warned them of their danger. One such pupil was Lefèvre who is more famous for the essay written by Voltaire for him than for himself. In this essay he explains the difficulties facing a new author. He reminds him of the dangers from censor, critics, parody makers and rivals.
One of these pupils was Countess Emily de Chatelet, then (1734) 27 years old. She was a remarkable woman; she had studied Mathematics with the redoubtable Maupertuis, and then with Clairut; she had written a learnedly annotated translation of Newton's Principia; at fifteen she was translating 'Aenoid' in French verse. She remembered 'The League' by heart. She found Voltaire interesting as the old Marquis was so dull. Voltaire returned her love. He called her 'a great man, whose only fault was being a woman'. She was the person who taught Voltaire about intellectual equality of the sexes. Voltaire repaired to the chateau of Duke of Richelieu for whom he arranged his wedding ceremony and here he also spent time with Emily. When the return to Paris became too risky, Voltaire decided to go to Cirey, to the chateau of the Countess and a quiet retired place.
In between all this wooing, Voltaire produced his tragedy 'Adelaide de Géselin'. From the start, the audience was hostile and the play was hooted down. The failure made Voltaire apprehensive. He had made powerful enemies. He at once repaired to Richelieu chateau on the occasion of marriage of the Duke. While he was there, some one published his 'English Letters' and 'Thoughts on Pascal'. The books were considered to be outrageous and were formally denounced, confiscated, burned and hanged. Voltaire could not be arrested as he proceeded to Loraine outside France's jurisdiction. He wandered for a short time and finally accepted the offer of Emily to settle down at Cirey, the ancestral home of the du Chatelets.
Voltaire reached Cirey in August 1734. Immediately he plunged into the task of renovating the chateau. And these activities as architect, gardener, decorator and supervision of building activities, he also found time to write. Emily joined Voltaire in Cirey in November. She was also very active woman and took a leading part in the renovation. In due course, the workers became less and less and Emily and Voltaire evolved a sort of programme. Both Emily and Voltaire were hard workers. Voltaire was interested in science and writing; Emily in science and other things. Up to supper, they remained alone, each absorbed in his or her work. After supper they remained together. learning Italian, English and other things. When guests were present, Voltaire liked to read his works, present his dramas, arrange a puppet show or project slides on the screen. Emily used to dance and sing. The discipline was strict. Nobody was allowed to leave his room till eleven o'clock when coffee was served. Voltaire met people only after supper. Some of the keenest minds traveled to Cirey to meet Voltaire. Among those came were Koenig, Francesco Algoratti, Johann Bernaulli. The things were not always serene in Cirey. Both Voltaire and Emily had quick tempers. and fights would develop over trifles. The accusations, charges and counter charges went on for hours together. In front of the guests, however, the quarrels were done in English.
During this period, Voltaire, as usual, had several works in his hand. Voltaire became interested in Science and had an expensive laboratory equipped for work in natural sciences. Amongst his writings in this period were Lazier, a tragedy; La Puce, a burlesque on the Maid of Orleans which was carefully guarded because of its explosive character. The poem was in light and satirical vein and contains an attack on religion. The poem is obtusely the struggle of France against the English but in reality the struggle of Maid of Orleans against both.
Voltaire's more serious work was in other direction viz. philosophy. He was writing two books, one in verse and one in prose. The 'verse' work was called 'Discourse on Man' - a semi philosophical tract. The subject matter was equality, liberty, happiness, moderation, pleasure, he nature of man and virtue. The poem is not so important in itself. It was more worthy of notice because of its implications and suggestions to the French. The other work was 'Treatise of Metaphysics'. a better title would have been 'What I believe'. Here Voltaire gave his views on such subjects as man, virtue, religion, the soul and God. He put forward the view, 'This universe is governed by laws which nothing can change'. Of religion, he said, "Organized religion was a system of exploitation and oppression'. Religion was not even necessary for the foundation of morality. Virtue was a conduct which benefited humanity and vice was conduct which harmed the community. These works were never intended for publication and were spread through friends and acquaintances.
Besides the above, Voltaire was also engaged in writing dramas and history. He was preparing material for a history of Louis XIV intended to be the cyclorama of culture of the period. In January 1736,he presented his tragedy 'Alzire' in Paris. The story was a sentimental one. The scene was laid in the first days of Spanish America, locality being Lima, capital of Peru. The story consists of the struggle between the Spaniards and Americans, Spanish Governor's love for Indian Princess and the jilted Indian Lover. The tragedy begins when the Governor discovers the love affair and assassinates the princess, He, himself, is stabbed by the Indian prince. The play was warmly applauded. Voltaire now prepared for a comedy 'The Prodigal Son'. It was presented in October 1736, anonymously, and proved to be a big success.
This was interrupted by the news from Paris that Jore, the printer of 'The League' in secrecy was accused of printing 'The English Letters' and was in Bastille. He could be released if Voltaire acknowledged 'The Letters'. This Voltaire did and Jore was promptly released. On his release, Jore demanded 1400 francs to defray the cost of printing. Voltaire refused to do so and Jore started a legal suit. Finally after three months of bickering, Voltaire had to pay five hundred francs. Voltaire, disconsolate, returned to Cirey.
In 1736, began Voltaire's correspondence with Fredrick the Prince, and not yet Great. Fredrick's first letter was just like that of a boy to a king. Its flattery makes us see how famous Voltaire was at the time though he had not produced his good works as yet. Fredrick was a free thinker who looked down upon dogmas. He was interested in modern thought and in poetry. Voltaire replied to the letter with all the grace and beauty at his command. The correspondence became quite regular and voluminous. Fredrick sent his verses for correction and also his book 'Anti- Mechiavali' in which he spoke beautifully of inequity of war. He also asked for Voltaire's new poems especially 'La Pucelle'. Voltaire replied with other verses and a new one 'Le Mondain'.
Meanwhile Voltaire once gain turned his interest to Science. He began the study of Newton's work. He devoted himself to the task with his usual assiduity.
Late in December 1736, the poem 'Le Mondain' produced the reaction in Paris. The poem was light and sparkling, designed to extol life's pleasures and to mock at those who would eliminate them. Voltaire argued that luxuries are not only desirable for pleasure but also for economy. However, the poem was not liked by the authorities and a warrant for Voltaire's arrest was issued. Voltaire left Cirey and went to Brussels. From there he went to Amsterdam. In March, he returned to Cirey after spreading rumors that he was going to England. Here he wrote his 'Defence of the Mondain', a sequel to 'Le Mondain' in which he reasserted his views.
He also completed his book 'Elements of Newton'. The book was a scientific one and did not contain any political propaganda but still it was found objectionable by the censor and the permission to print it was refused. But the Dutch printers, confident that any of Voltaire's works was a variable gold mine, proceeded with the printing without the permission of Voltaire. In early 1738, the book appeared in Amsterdam. The book contained serious mistakes and misprints. Voltaire hastened to denounce the book and disavowed it. The police took no action but there was criticism alround.
Voltaire's work was interrupted by the announcement of a reward by the French Academy for the best essay on the subject 'On the nature of fire'. Voltaire started his research on this essay with his usual zeal. Meanwhile Emily was also preparing an essay of her own on the subject. Both the essays received honourable mention but failed to win the award. The essay written by Marquise was rated better than that of Voltaire.
About this time, Voltaire had to fight a wordy duel with Abbé de Desfontaine. There was no reaction to Voltaire's 'Elements of Newton' from police side but his opponents considered it a good point to fight about. Abbé wrote an essay ridiculing 'Elements of Newton' and bewailed the loss of a poet. Voltaire replied with one explosive denunciation of the Abbé. The poem called 'Le Préservatif' was published in late 1738 and contained forthright attack on Abbé.. It brought out all his faults including his homosexual tendencies. The attack was too pungent to be ignored. Abbé replied with 'Le Voltairemanic' wherein he outdid himself and laid himself open to legal proceedings. Voltaire was not the one to miss the opportunity and after a suit, Abbé was forced to disavow 'Le Voltairemanic' and call it calumnious in all the charges it brought against Voltaire.
Voltaire remained at Cirey for a long time except for short trips outside. He visited Brussels and Paris occasionally but the social activity made him tired and he longed for peace of Cirey before long and always returned to it.
Meanwhile letters for Fredrick continued to pour in. The Prince wrote of the standards he set for the kings and the poet responded with flattering letters. In January 1740, Fredrick became king. He immediately began to implement his ideas. Working indefatigably, he sought to improve the conditions of the public. He established granaries in the provinces; founded new college of commerce and manufacture; laid foundation of new Prussian Academy. But side by side, the army went on expanding enormously.
Fredrick's desire to have Voltaire at Court was never diminished. The king wanted to have brilliant men around him. He had already attracted Maupertuis and Algarothi by giving them sizeable pensions and opportunity to work without molestation. His chief aim, and the most difficult, was Voltaire. Emily was the stumbling block. Try what attraction he would, he could not separate them. Finally he arranged a contrivance. he told Voltaire that he will meet him at Brussels. Voltaire agreed. At the last moment, however, the king pleaded illness and invited Voltaire to Cleves where he was staying. Reluctantly Emily let Voltaire go. Voltaire stayed at Cleves for three days. Both the men were impressed and agreed to meet later at Remusburg.
In October, Emperor Charles VI of Austria died. He had no male heirs and had nominated Maria Theresa as his successor. Most of the powers had guaranteed the arrangements. But on his death, there was a general uncertainty. Maria Theresa was barely out of her teens and the Empire was big. Every nation suspected every other. Most uncertain factor was the attitude of Fredrick with his well trained army. Voltaire arranged with Cardinal de Fleurry, political right hand of Louis XV to go to Remusburg and try to gauge the intentions of Fredrick. Cardinal gladly acquiesced and in November, Voltaire went to Remusburg to meet the king. From there he went to Postdam and thence to Berlin returning to Cirey in December. His one month's sojourn produced no results. He could not guess Fredrick's intentions and wrote to Cardinal about it. He believed, however, that Fredrick would not go to war which he decried so well in his 'Anti- Mechiavali'.
But Voltaire was wrong. Fredrick struck suddenly and without warning and occupied Serbia. This plunged whole of Europe into war. France, Bavaria, Saxon joined Prussia in attacks on Austria. England sided with Austria. The friendship between Voltaire and Fredrick began to cool down though the letters were still exchanged.
Voltaire turned back to his literary work now. In May 1741, he presented a play 'Mohamet' to citizens of Lille, having been refused permission to present it in Paris. The play was an immense success. It told of the fanaticism of 'Mohamet' and his barbarities. In August 1742, the play was allowed to be presented to Parisians but soon after Voltaire was forced to withdraw the piece due to the criticism of the Church. A few months later, Voltaire presented another drama 'Méropé' which told of a simple story with no political or religious implications. The play won great acclamation. The pit, for the first time, called for Voltaire so that it could acclaim him.
On the eve of premier of 'Mérope's, a seat of the Academy fell vacant and Voltaire tried to get it. He was, however, forestalled by his old enemy, Bishop of Mirepoix, who was angered by his satire. Voltaire was disappointed but soon he received an unexpected request. He was asked to go, privately, to Berlin and try to gauge Fredrick's intentions who had signed a peace treaty with Austria leaving France in an embarrassing position. So ,on 31st August 1743, Voltaire reached Berlin.
He stayed in Berlin for two months. Fredrick tried his best to make Berlin glamorous enough for Voltaire to stay there permanently. He even tried to discredit Voltaire in France by giving a private letter of Voltaire to Bishop of Mirepoix. On politics, he refused to confide in Voltaire. Embittered, Voltaire returned to Paris in October.
Here he was given a fresh task better suited to Voltaire's taste viz. preparing the festivities on the occasion of the marriage of Louis XV to Princess Infanta of Spain. Voltaire arranged an extravagant revue which he called 'Princess of Navarre'. Games, clowns, shows, drama, musicals and fireworks - all were provided. The show was a great success and the King was impressed. Soon afterwards, in April 1745, he was given a post - Historiographer. Here he carried out his official duties with meticulous care.
Voltaire now set his heart on something bigger - mark of favour from Pope Benedict XIV. He applied to d'Argenson, foreign minister to use his influence at Rome. when d'Argenson balked, he turned to others. He obtained two gold medals from the Pope. It was not good enough. Soon afterwards, Voltaire wrote a flattering letter to Pope appreciating his writings and expressing his wish to dedicate the drama 'Mohamet' to Pope. The wish was granted and Pope, as his mark of pleasure, granted to Voltaire Apostolic benediction. Armed with this, Voltaire was able to become academician at the age of 52 years.
Only one person was unimpressed by all these honours. From Berlin, the letters of Fredrick still poured in trying to make Voltaire give up his governmental duties and come to Berlin. Yet, despite all the stratagem, Fredrick failed to impress Voltaire. Even so Voltaire was getting tired of his post. To write to order, like a school boy, was not in his nature. He longed for his freedom and, before long, he was out of his post. Two incidents forced Voltaire's hasty departure from the post. One was a rhyme which complemented king's mistress Madame de Pampadour, meant for her eyes only, fell in the hands of the Queen. Other was an inadvertent remark in a gambling game which Emily was playing against some members of royal family about Emily's playing with cheats.
Voltaire sought refuge at Secaux with the Duchess of Maine where he remained in hiding for two months. Here he wrote his philosophical romances Barbanc, Mammon, Micromegas and Zadig. In 'Micromegas' two inhabitants of Saturn and Sirius visit the earth. They are of enormous size and Voltaire sought in them to show the utter insignificance of the human being. 'Barbanc' dealt with the mixture of good and evil that was Paris. 'Zadig' is analysis of the mystery of human happiness, which, according to Voltaire, is something very desirable but pathetically rare and elusive. In 'Memmon' is related the story of a man who wanted to become perfectly wise and to this end refrained from love and wine. The story is one of the long list of difficulties he had to face.
From Sceaux Voltaire, joined by Emily, retired to Cirey where the atmosphere seemed to benefit him. Voltaire was now 53 and began to show the first signs of age. He had ceased to be a lover and became a friend to Emily. In comparison, Emily was still young. A short while afterwards, Voltaire went to the court of King Stanilaus of Poland who was keeping a pretence of a court at Luneville. He also paid a secret hurried visit to Paris. These excursions proved too much and he fell ill. He, however, recovered quickly. Meanwhile Emily had found a lover, Marquis de Saint Lambert. When Voltaire learnt about it, he was furious but soon reconciled himself to the situation by remarking, "I replaced Richelieu; Saint Lambert replaced me, such is life". But the next development was unexpected. At 42, Emily was pregnant. To save the situation, Marquis du Chalét was hurriedly called home and his wife let him have her company. A few weeks later, she confided in him. Marquis was amazed but believed it. Soon afterwards he left for his regiment. Voltaire and Emily went to Paris and thence returned to Luneville.
All this time Voltaire was receiving letters from Fredrick. Fredrick had not given up his idea of having Voltaire at his court. When Voltaire reported pregnancy of Emily, Fredrick was quick to suspect the truth that neither Voltaire nor Marquis was responsible for it. He asked Voltaire to come to Berlin in autumn. Voltaire refused to leave one 'who might be dying very soon'. In September, Emily delivered a daughter who died shortly afterwards. Emily continued her fight with death but succumbed after a week. Voltaire was shocked and stunned. He had lost a friend after fifteen years of intimacy.
Voltaire was under the shadow of Bastille, when Emily took over. She took him past that shadow and gave him, for fifteen years, the sanctuary, the comforts and the peace of Cirey. Her influence on him was substantial though it was not entirely to his advantage. In Cirey, Voltaire went into side tracks. He did not fulfill the promise of fight against 'ancién régime' which had been given in 'English Letters'. He frittered away his energies in metaphysics, science, diplomacy and flattery. He became Academician and received benediction from the Pope. The productive works of this period were 'History of Charles XII'; essays on Metaphysics, in prose and in verse; some dramas; philosophical romances Micromegas, Zadig etc., and other minor works. Yet these fifteen years were very important. Voltaire, when he came to Cirey was a man of talent, a minor author, a good conversationalist; when he left Cirey, he was an international figure, a great philosopher and a great author. At the threshold of sixty, Voltaire was the most famous man in the world.
Emily's death disconcerted Voltaire. He found that he could not stay on in Cirey. He moved to Paris where he stayed in the town house of du Chatlét, rented from Marquis. At first he was down with grief but slowly he recovered. His enemies had taken advantage of his momentary weakness and attacked his dramas. They had even bribed away the actors of Voltaire. In reply, Voltaire turned one of the halls in the house into a private theatre where he himself worked with the help of a few amateurs. One of them was Lekain who was ultimately acclaimed as one of the greatest actors of France. Voltaire's private theatre was a great success.
Soon after Emily's death, Fredrick resumed his invitation to Voltaire and after some delay, Voltaire accepted. He reached Berlin on the 10th of July. His first impressions of Berlin were favourable. He was generously received. A pension of twenty thousand francs was given to him and another four thousand for his niece Madame Denis, should she join her uncle to maintain his house. Voltaire was awarded Prussian Order of Merit.
However, the relations between the King and the Poet were strange. King thought Voltaire to be a scoundrel and malicious but he was interested in French and wanted to create in French. In this, he thought Voltaire will help him. Voltaire viewed the King as a miser and believed that he wanted to keep Voltaire as a well paid menial. Voltaire's purpose in coming to Berlin was to seek tranquility which he could not find in Paris due to jealousy and persecution but he was shortly to be disillusioned. Within Voltaire, there was always a mischievous and ill behaved child but Fredrick had not the slightest intent to let his guests be insulted or humiliated. Still Voltaire managed to get one of them D'Arnaud exiled.
Fredrick had gathered round himself a small group of men, mostly foreigners - who entertained or instructed him according to king's mood. Most of them were brilliant persons and were dissatisfied with their position due to excessive pride of Fredrick. Fredrick could never forget that he was the King of Prussia even though he maintained the fiction that at the supper table, all are equal. Always one or the other of the guests were trying to escape from Berlin. Maupertuis, who was head of Academy of Sciences, was a man of considerable ability though he had no genius. He was over ambitious. The popularity of Voltaire further fanned the flame of jealousy in him.
During this period Voltaire managed to finish and print 'Siecle de Louis XIV'. The 'Philosophical Dictionary' was also added to. A drama 'Orphelin de la Chine' was also written. It was performed in Paris in 1755 and was well received. In the same year the notorious 'La Pucelle' appeared. This poem refers to the deeds of Jeane d'Arc. While the poem ostensibly describes the maid struggle against the British, actually it can be seen as being both against the English and the French church.
The relations between Fredrick and Voltaire were never comfortable. For a time, they kept their feelings to themselves but this could not continue for long. "The monster," said Voltaire, to Madame Denis, "opens all our mail". "The monkey", complained Fredrick to his guests, "shows my private letters to his friends."
It was Voltaire's avarice which brought the quarrel into open. Voltaire tried to indulge in speculation, quarreled with his agent and was led into a law suit. It was alleged that he changed a document after the agent Hirsch had signed it. The King was enraged and asked Voltaire to leave. A change of mind, however, changed the sentence to a stern rebuke.
The rift was patched but soon another point of friction arose. Maupertuis had tried to harm Voltaire's reputation during the law suit, but there was a more immediate cause. Maupertuis had written a book which contained some things which Voltaire did not approve of. When Voltaire pointed them out, Maupertuis flared up. He was blunt in his letter to Voltaire but Voltaire was patient. The matter came to a head in the action against Koenig. It was in the spring of 1752. Maupertuis had discovered, or so he believed, the 'principle of least action'. This was later stated by Liebnitz more precisely and accurately. This fact was pointed out by a scientist Koenig. He quoted a letter of Liebnitz in his support. Maupertuis denounced the letter as a forgery and Koenig as a scoundrel. He had Berlin Academy punish Koenig (with only one dissenting vote). Voltaire was shocked by the procedure. But before he began the attack, he prepared for the consequences. He withdrew his money from Berlin and moved it out of reach of Fredrick. After all Maupertuis was the President of the beloved Academy of Fredrick. Then Voltaire struck.
In 1752, appeared the most famous, though not the best, work 'Die tribe du Docteur Akakia'. It was a thinly veiled reference to Maupertuis. Voltaire did not dare publish such a work without some kind of approval. For this he applied another stratagem. He got the King's approval on another pamphlet and the last page was then attached to 'Die tribe du Docteur Akakia'. Of this Fredrick was not aware but he got a wind of the pamphlet and called the author and had it read. He got the manuscript burned but Voltaire was already prepared. Other manuscripts were in existence and printed copies appeared. Fredrick was furious and he got the books confiscated and burned. But, then again, this was not the only printed version and copies appeared abroad. Fredrick could do no more than hang, symbolically, the book. Fearing the worst, Voltaire sent back the orders etc. back to the King but the King sent them back. Fredrick was preparing his own plan.
Voltaire obtained, after some persuasion, leave of absence from the King. He left Postdam in March 1756. Voltaire travelled to Liepzig where he lingered on for some time, longer than Fredrick desired. From Liepzig Voltaire went to Gotha. In the meantime a supplement to 'Dr. Akakia' appeared, which was even more forthright than the main pamphlet. This added to the wrath of Fredrick.
Voltaire moved from Gotha to Frankfurt, which was, nominally, a free city. Nevertheless Prussia's agent did pretty much as he pleased. Voltaire was detained though with courtesy. The excuse was that Voltaire had some poems of Fredrick on his person without the Royal permission. But further action could not be taken as reference had to be made to Fredrick.
Meanwhile, Voltaire tried to steal away. He was followed and arrested. His niece Madame Denis was also seized separately and sent to join him in custody. They were kept close prisoners at an inn called 'The Goat'. The authorities at Frankfurt felt that they were nor playing a creditable part, came to conclusion that enough was enough and intervened to let Voltaire go. He left Frankfurt in July.
Voltaire travelled leisurely to Mainze, Mannhiem, Strausburg and Colmar. He reached Colmar in October. Here he proposed to stay for sometime and finish his 'Annals of the Empire'.
The next stage was now at hand. Permission to enter France, or rather Paris, was not granted. While he was at Colmar, a pirated edition of the 'Essai sur les Moeurs' was published. It was written long back but permission to publish it in France was absolutely refused. The confessions of Voltaire, the partaking of Euchrist also did not mollify the situation. It was the time to think of alternate arrangements. Voltaire journeyed to Lyons and thence to Geneva. He bought a country house and named it 'Les Delices'. It was at the meeting point of four territories - Geneva, Vaud, Sardina and France. He bought houses near about in case he had to make a sudden move. He fitted a private theatre. He could afford to set up a comfortable house. He kept open house for visitors. The printers were close at hand in Geneva.
The stay at Les Delices brought him into correspondence with J. J. Rousseau which started well but turned bitter later on. The earthquake at Lisbon, which appalled other persons, gave Voltaire an occasion to ridicule the beliefs of the orthodox, first in verse (1756) and then in his best known novel 'Candide' in 1759. 'Candide' attacks religious and philosophical optimism. It is a tale superbly told.
All was, however, not well with Geneva. Geneva had a law which prohibited ant theatrical performances. Voltaire had violated this by having a theatre at his house. He thought of building a regular theatre at Lausanne. An indirect resolution of the Consistory declared that such theatrical performance should be avoided by the public. It was also provided that in case there is reason to believe that this is not observed, matter should be brought to the notice of the authorities. Voltaire took the hint and did not proceed with the theatre at Lausanne though he did not discontinue it at his house.
Meanwhile, he persuaded D'Alembert to include, in his article on Geneva, a censure of the prohibition. This was not liked by Rousseau who wrote his displeasure in celebrated' Lettre D'Alembert sur les spectacles'.
Voltaire now looked for another place where he could combine the social liberty of France with the political liberty of Geneva. At the end of 1758, he bought the considerable property of Ferney about four miles from Geneva but on French soil. At Ferney, he became a complete country gentleman and was known to Europe as the squire of Ferney. He, later, in 1765, sold the property at Les Delcis.
In Ferney, as earlier, he maintained an open house for visitors. He was accompanied in residence by Madame Denis, fat, frivolous, indiscreet; his other niece Mme. de Fontaine sparkling, intelligent but temptuous; an adopted daughter Mlle. Corneille. The stay of various persons at The Ferney were the background for a number of biographies about him. But he did not neglect his creative activities. His correspondence grew in volume. It even included Fredrick, the two getting on well when not face to face. He was now comparatively secure in position and did not have to resort to tricks of disavowal, garbled publication and private libel. He felt at ease in lampooning his contemporaries. One such person was Le Franc de Pompaignan, who had written a piece of verse much better than Voltaire, and Voltaire could not digest it. Another person was Palissof, who had not included Voltaire while gibbeting other authors. Freron had criticised Voltaire for his views from the conservative side and Voltaire replied with a cheap lampoon titled 'L'Ecossaise'. Freron, himself, did a very humourous criticism on the first night of its performance.
In Ferney Voltaire published some of the accomplished works of his old age. The 'Encyclopédic' , which had been suppressed earlier, was published clandestinely in 1764 under the name of 'Portable Philosophical Dictionary', more virulent than the earlier version. It enjoyed a wide, if surreptitious, circulation. Henceforth the struggle against all revealed religion was incessant; anonymous pamphlets, books, advice to his friends followed in unending carefully hidden streams.
But, at Ferney, another side of Voltaire appeared. He took up cudgels on behalf of the oppressed and wronged persons. One such affair was Calas affair. Callas was a protestant who was accused of murdering his son, who was said to be on the verge of conversion to Catholicism. The Toulouse judges adjudged him guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Some lawyers hold that the lies in which Calas was coached by his defending lawyer was responsible for the verdict. Voltaire took up the case accusing the judges of hurried verdict.
Another similar case was of Sirven, who was accused of murdering his child for religious reasons. This was another case of judicial murder though there was no actual murder since Sirven had taken refuge in flight. Other cases were of Epinasse, who had been sentenced to galleys for harbouring a protestant; Lally the son of unjustly treated French commander in India, and others (La Barre included).
La Barre was accused of mutilating a crucifix. The charge was not proved but then he was accused of using impious and obscene words and other scandalous acts. He was condemned to death. He was beheaded and the body was burned. Obviously the sentence was too harsh for the accusation. Even Bishop of Amiens did ask for reprieve. La Barre, in his defence, had said that he had read Voltaire's 'Philosophical Dictionary', a book which was banned. This provided a link to Voltaire. Voltaire responded with all the virulence at his command. He described the case reflecting the intolerance of the Church.
He did have his occasional personal fights also, verbal of course, with bishop of the diocese; the superior landlord of part of his estate; the republic of Geneva but overall the Ferney period is quiet. He was an old man when he came to Ferney and became older without noticing it. In 1776, he adopted, for all practical purposes, a young girl of poor but noble family, Rene Philberte de Varicourt. She was rescued from a convent and stayed at Ferney. She was got married by Voltaire to marquis de Villette. Her pet name was 'Belle el Borne'. As compared to other female inmates of Ferney, she remained a source of happiness in the last years of Voltaire.
The death of Louis XV and the accession of Louis XVI rekindled the hope of reentering Paris but there was not much of encouragement from the court. Nevertheless, Voltaire left for Paris and arrived there on February 10, 1778, to the city which he had not seen for twenty eight years. He was received with immense rejoicing, not by the court, but by the Academy, the society and the foreign visitors. Due to fatigues of travels and also, probably, the excitement of Paris, he fell ill but recovered to see the first performance of his new tragedy, 'Irene', which he had finished just before leaving Ferney. He prepared another tragedy 'Agathocle'. He also attended several meetings of the Academy.
The activities brought back the illness and he finally succumbed on May 30, 1778. Some priests had come to him for confession but he motioned them away. The result was difficulty about burial. He was refused burial at one place but was hurriedly buried at Scelleieres beating the indict of the bishop by an hour or two. In July 1790, his body was transferred to Pantheon. During the 'Hundred Days', it was disentombed and stowed away. His heart was embalmed and given to Madame Denis and she passed it on to Madame de Villette. In 1864, it was preserved in a silver case.
It is difficult to give an assessment of such a multi-faceted person. He dabbled in many things. He had staunch friends and strong enemies. He had his achievements and his shortcomings but these should be seen in the light of the existing situation at the time. The assessment also depends upon the views of the person who is doing so. Most of the judgments of Voltaire have been unduly coloured by sympathy with or dislike of what may be briefly called his polemical side.
When sympathy and dislike are both discarded or allowed for, he remains one of the most astonishing, if not exactly one of the most admirable figures of letters. It can not be said that he propounded some great thoughts. His characteristic is for the most part an almost superhuman cleverness rather than positive genius. But he was not merely a mocker. In politics proper he seems indeed to have had few constructive ideas. His attacks were destroying a state of things but he neither had nor apparently tried to have any substitute for them on the whole. In religion he protested stoutly, and no doubt sincerely. His own attitude was not purely negative; but here also he seems to have failed altogether to distinguish between pruning and cutting down. Both here and elsewhere his great fault was an inveterate superficiality. But this superficiality was accompanied by such wonderful acuteness within a certain range, by such an absolutely unsurpassed literary aptitude band sense of style in all the lighter and some of the graver modes of literature, by such untiring energy and versatility in enterprise, that he has no parallel among ready writers anywhere. The most elaborate work of Voltaire is not of much value for matter; but his slightest work is not devoid of value in form. His literary craftsmanship is, at once versatile and accomplished, and he has no superior and scarcely a rival.
In person Voltaire was not engaging, even as a young man. His extraordinary thinness is commemorated by identifying him at once with "Satan, Death and Sin" by some persons. In old age he was a mere skeleton, with a long nose and eyes of preternatural brilliancy peering out of his wig. He never seems to have been addicted to any manly sport, and took little exercise. He was sober enough (for his day and society) in eating and drinking generally; but drank coffee in a hardened and inveterate manner. It may be presumed with some certainty that his attentions to women were for the most part platonic; indeed, both on the good and the bad side of him, he was all brain. He appears to have had no great sense of natural beauty, and, except in his passion for the stage, he does not seem to have cared much for any of the arts. Conversation and literature were the sole gods of his idolatry. His beliefs or absence of beliefs emancipated him from conventional scruples; and he is not a good subject for those who maintain that a nice morality may exist independently of religion. He was good-natured when not crossed, generous to dependents who made themselves useful to him, and indefatigable in defending the cause of those who were oppressed by the systems with which he was at war. But he was inordinately vain, and totally unscrupulous in gaining money, in attacking an enemy, or in protecting himself when he was threatened with danger. The only excuse made for the alternate cringing and insult, the alternate abuse and lying, which marked his course in this matter, has been the very weak plea that a man can not fight with a system - a plea which is sufficiently answered by the retort that a great many men have so fought and have won.
His fight, mainly, was against the "persecuting and privileged orthodoxy" in general, and, more particularly, it is the particular system which Voltaire saw around him, of which he had felt the effects in his own exiles and the confiscations of his books, and of which he saw the still worse effects in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.
It will be worthwhile to briefly recapitulate about his monumental turn out. Its vastness and variety are of four or five categories which are described below.
Dramas - He started with, and continued throughout, the dramas which were, in the later period, carriers of some philosophical thoughts but initially either in response to a stimulus or just for entertainment. Some of them, written in a hurry or to ridicule an opponent are not very elegant either. The play, Oedipe, was written when Voltaire was only nineteen. Its production five years later gave him almost at once first place among living French dramatists. Voltaire had the supreme dramatic gift of portraying sharp conflict and this is the secret of the success of his best tragedies: "the conflict between patriotism and love in Brutus; between love and religious duty in Zaïre; between love and filial obedience in Alzire and Tancrede.
At various times during his literary career, Voltaire produced about a dozen comedies but his forte lay in tragedy rather than in the lighter touch required by comedy. Essentially Voltaire lacked the understanding and sympathy which are essential to the great dramatist; but he could give theatrical credence to a thrilling story and at the same time preach a sermon.
Poetry - The second division of his creations is poetry. He started writing poetry at a very young age. Some of this activity is outlined above (The League, La Pucelle). Some other poems are Azolan, From Love to Friendship, In Camp Before Philippsburg, On the Death of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a Celebrated Actress, The Origin of Trades, The Padlock, The Temple of Friendship, Thelema and Macareus, To a Lady Very Well Known to the Whole Town, To Her Royal Highness, the Princess of ***, To the Queen of Hungary.
Prose - The third division of Voltaire's works in a rational order consists of his prose romances or tales. These productions - incomparably the most remarkable and most absolutely good fruit of his genius - were usually composed as pamphlets, with a purpose of polemic in religion, politics, or what not. Thus Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism, L'Homme aux quarante ecus certain social and political ways of the time, Zadig and others the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, while some are mere lampoons on the Bible, the unfailing source of Voltaire's wit. But (as always happens in the case of literary work where the form exactly suits the author's genius) the purpose in all the best of them disappears almost entirely. It is in these works more than in any others that the peculiar quality of Voltaire - ironic style without exaggeration - appears. If one especial peculiarity can be singled out, it is the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on a point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them or exaggerates their form. The whole of Candide shows the style at its perfection.
Historical - The fourth division of Voltaire's work - the historical - is the bulkiest of all except his correspondence, and some parts of it have been amongst the most read, but it is far from being even among the best. The small treatises on Charles XII and Peter the Great are indeed models of clear narrative and ingenious if somewhat superficial grasp and arrangement. The so-called Siecle de Louis XIV and Siecle de Louis XV (the latter inferior to the former but still valuable) contain a great miscellany of interesting matter, treated by a man of great acuteness and unsurpassed power of writing, who had also had access to much important private information. But even in these books defects are present, which appear much more strongly in the articles entitled Essai sur les moeurs, in the Annales de Vempire and in the minor historical works. These defects are an almost total absence of any comprehension of what has since been called the philosophy of history, the constant presence of gross prejudice, frequent inaccuracy of detail, and, above all, a complete incapacity to look at anything except from the narrow standpoint of a half-pessimist and half self-satisfied philosopher of the 18th century.
Physics & Metaphysics - His work in Physics concerns us less than any other here; it is, however, not inconsiderable in bulk, and is said by experts to give proof of his aptitude. To his own age Voltaire was pre-eminently a poet and a philosopher; the unkindness of succeeding ages has sometimes questioned whether he had any title to either name, and especially to the latter. His largest philosophical work, at least so called, is the curious Philosophical Dictionary, which consists of the articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopidee and of several minor pieces. None of Voltaire's works shows his anti-religious or at least anti-ecclesiastical animus more strongly. The various title-words of the several articles are often the merest stalking-horses, under cover of which to shoot at the Bible or the church, the target being now and then shifted to the political institutions of the writer's country, his personal foes, &c., and the whole being largely seasoned with that acute, rather superficial, common-sense, but also commonplace, ethical and social criticism which the 18th century called philosophy. The book ranks perhaps second only to the novels as showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire; and despite its form it is nearly as readable. The minor philosophical works are of no very different character. In the brief Traite de metaphysique the author makes his grand effort, but scarcely succeeds in doing more than show that he had no real conception of what metaphysics is.
Miscellaneous - In general criticism and miscellaneous writing Voltaire is not inferior to himself in any of his other functions. Almost all his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his own light pungent causerie; and in a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings he shows himself a perfect journalist. In literary criticism pure and simple his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, though he wrote a good deal more of the same kind - sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Moliere) independently sometimes as part of his Siecles. Nowhere, perhaps, except when he is dealing with religion, are Voltaire's defects felt more than here. He was quite unacquainted with the history of his own language and literature, and more here than anywhere else he showed the extraordinarily limited and conventional spirit which accompanied the revolt of the French 18th century against limits and conventions in theological, ethical and political matters.
Correspondence - There remains only the huge division of his correspondence, which is constantly being augmented by fresh discoveries. In this great mass Voltaire's personality is of course best shown, and his literary qualities not the worst. His immense energy and versatility, his adroit and unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm when he chose to be sarcastic, his rather unscrupulous business faculty, his more than unscrupulous resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies, - all these things appear throughout the whole mass of letters.
On the whole, not a very complementary description of his life and achievements from the literary and scholarly point of view. Yet he remains the towering figure of his times., of France of those days, immensely popular and widely read author. All this can be ascribed to his rapport with his readers to whim his remarks were addressed. They cared not for the scholarly, painstaking research into the beginning of the atrocities of the Church or the Nobility nor were over concerned with a detached dissertation outlining plan to get rid of the system. They easily identified the objects of ridicule and scorn which Voltaire was pouring on them and this coincided with their own experience. While the results may not have been instant or even capable of demolishing the structure, yet they appreciated the efforts which appealed to their instincts and promised to bring about, at some other time, the collapse of the hated 'old order' and lead to a more agreeable life. Even when he mocked the opponents on grounds, other than ideology, it was taken as an attack on the privileged and it rang a chord in his readers. Herein lies the appeal of Voltaire and for his all time greatness.
In 1961, I chanced to read a book on Voltaire. The character is so absorbing that I wanted to know more. Unable to restrain myself, I prepared notes on what I read. This essay is based upon these notes taken from various books at that time, and supplemented on the basis of the excerpts available on the internet.
It is hoped that this short description of a complex character raises interest in the person that Voltaire was.
Kewal Krishan Sethi