VOLTAIRE: Paris: Oedipe

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  


I. Paris: Oedipe

At Paris in 1742 Voltaire was coaching Mlle. Dumesnil, to rise to tragic heights in a rehearsal of his play Mérope. She complained that she would have to have “the very devil” in her to simulate such passion as he required. “That is just it,” answered Voltaire; “you must have the devil in you to succeed in any of the arts.” Even his critics and his enemies admitted that he himself met this requirement perfectly. “Il avait Ie diable au corps—he had the devil in his body,” said Sainte-Beuve; and De Maistre called him the man “into whose hands hell had given all its powers.” 

Voltaire had the devil in his body.

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 tirelessly 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 and yet disarmed by the first advance of conciliation;—so contradictory is man.

But he was also kind and considerate.

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 works fill ninety-nine volumes, of which every page is sparkling and fruitful, though they range from subject to subject across the world as fitfully and bravely as in an encyclopedia. “My trade is to say what I think”: and what he thought was always worth saying, as what he said was always said incomparably well. If we do not read him now (though men like Anatole France have been formed to subtlety and wisdom by poring over his pages), it is because the theological battles which he fought for us no longer interest us intimately; we have passed on perhaps to other battle-fields, and are more absorbed with the economics of this life than with the geography of the next; the very thoroughness of Voltaire’s victory over ecclesiasticism and superstition makes dead those issues which he found alive. Much of his fame, too, came of his inimitable conversation; but scripta manent, verba volant—writtenwords remain, while spoken words fly away, the winged words of Voltaire with the rest. What is left to us is too much the flesh of Voltaire, too little the divine fire of his spirit. And yet, darkly as we see him through the glass of time, what a spirit!—“sheer intelligence transmuting anger into fun, fire into light”; “a creature of air and flame, the most excitable that ever lived, composed of more ethereal and more throbbing atoms than those of other men; there is none whose mental machinery is more delicate, nor whose equilibrium is at the same time more shifting and more exact.” Was he, perhaps, the greatest intellectual energy in all history? 

The astounding and basic thing in Voltaire was the inexhaustible fertility and brilliance of his mind.

Certainly he worked harder, and accomplished more, than any other man of his epoch. “Not to be occupied, and not to exist, amount to the same thing,” he said. “All people are good except those who are idle.” His secretary said that he was a miser only of his time. “One must give one’s self all the occupation one can to make life supportable in this world. … The further I advance in age, the more I find work necessary. It becomes in the long run the greatest of pleasures, and takes the place of the illusions of life.” “If you do not want to commit suicide always have something to do.”  

Votaire worked harder, and accomplished more, than any other man of his epoch.

Suicide must have been forever tempting him, for he was ever at work.” It was because he was so thoroughly alive that he filled the whole era with his life.” Contemporary with one of the greatest of centuries (1694-1778), he was the soul and essence of it. “To name Voltaire,” said Victor Hugo, “is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.” Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He carried on the antiseptic skepticism of Montaigne, and the healthy earthy humor of Rabelais;’he fought superstition and corruption more savagely and effectively than Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Knox or Melanchthon; he helped to make the powder with which Mirabeau and Marat, Danton and Robespierre blew up the Old Regime. “If we judge of men by what they have done,” said Lamartine, “then Voltaire is incontestably the greatest writer of modern Europe. … Destiny gave him eighty-three years of existence, that he might slowly decompose the decayed age; he had the time to combat time; and when he fell he was the conqueror.”

Voltaire was so thoroughly alive that he filled the whole era with his life.

No, never has a writer had in his lifetime such influence. Despite exile, imprisonment, and the suppression of almost everyone of his books by the minions of church and state, he forged fiercely a path for his truth, until at last kings, popes and emperors catered to him, thrones trembled before him, and half the world listened to catch his every word. It was an age in which many things called for a destroyer. “Laughing lions must come,” said Nietzsche; well, Voltaire came, and “annihilated with laughter.” He and Rousseau were.the two voices of a vast process of economic and political transition from feudal aristocracy to the rule of the middle class. When a rising class is inconvenienced by existing law or custom it appeals from custom to reason and from law to nature—just as conflicting desires in the individual sparkle into thought. So the wealthy bourgeoisie supported the rationalism of Voltaire and the naturalism of Rousseau; it was necessary to loosen old habits and customs, to renovate and invigorate feeling and thought, to open the mind to experiment and change, before the great Revolution could come. Not that Voltaire and Rousseau were the causes of the Revolution; perhaps rather they were co-results with it of the forces that seethed and surged beneath the political and social surface of French life; they were the accompanying light and brilliance of the volcanic heat and conflagration. Philosophy is to history as reason is to desire: in either case an unconscious process determines from below the conscious thought above.

Voltaire forged fiercely a path for his truth, until at last kings, popes and emperors catered to him, thrones trembled before him, and half the world listened to catch his every word.

Yet we must not bend back too far in attempting to correct the philosopher’s tendency to exaggerate the influence of philosophy. Louis XVI, seeing in his Temple prison the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, said, “Those two men have destroyed France,’ —meaning his dynasty. “The Bourbons might have preserved themselves,” said Napoleon, “if they had controlled writing materials. The advent of cannon killed the feudal system; ink will kill the modern social organization.” “Books rule the world,” said Voltaire, “or at least those nations in it which have a written language; the others do not count.” “Nothing enfranchises like education”;—and he proceeded to enfranchise France. “When once a nation begins to think, it is impossible to stop it.” But with Voltaire, France began to think. 

With Voltaire, France began to think. 

”Voltaire,” that is to say, Francois Marie Arouet, was born at Paris in 1694, the son of a comfortably successful notary and a somewhat aristocratic mother. He owed to his father, perhaps, his shrewdness and irascibility, and to his mother something of his levity and wit. He came into the world, so to speak, by a narrow margin: his mother did not survive his birth; and he was so puny and sickly an infant that the nurse did not give him more than a day to live. She was slightly in error, as he lived almost to eighty-four; but throughout his life his frail body tormented with illness his unconquerable spirit. 

Voltaire owed to his father, perhaps, his shrewdness and irascibility, and to his mother something of his levity and wit. 

He had for his edification a model elder brother, Armand, a pious lad who fell in love with the Jansenist heresy, and courted martyrdom for his faith. “Well,” said Armand to a friend who advised the better part of valor, “if you do not want to be hanged, at least do not put off other people.” The father said he had two fools for his sons—one in verse and the other in prose. The fact that Francois made verses almost as soon as he could write his name, convinced his very practical father that nothing good would come of him. But the famous hetaira, Ninon de l’Enclos, who lived in the provincial town to which the Arouets had returned after the birth of Francois, saw in the youth signs of greatness; and when she died she left him 2000 francs for the purchase of books. His early education came from these, and from a dissolute abbe (a Jerome Coignard in the flesh) who taught him scepticism along with his prayers. His later educators, the Jesuits, gave him the very instrument of scepticism by teaching him dialectic—the art of proving anything, and therefore at last the habit of believing nothing. Francois became an adept at argument: while the boys played games in the fields, he, aged twelve, stayed behind to discuss theology with the doctors. When the time came for him to earn his living, he scandalized his father by proposing to take up literature as profession. “Literature,” said M. Arouet, “is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger”;—one can see the table trembling under his emphasis. So Francois went in for literature. 

When the time came for Voltaire to earn his living, he scandalized his father by proposing to take up literature as profession. 

Not that he was a quiet and merely studious lad; he burnt the midnight oil—of others. He took to staying out late, frolicking with the wits and roisterers of the town, and experimenting with the commandments; until his exasperated father sent him off to a relative at Caen, with instructions to keep the youth practically in confinement. But his jailer fell in love with his wit, and soon gave him free rein. After imprisonment, now as later, 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 he was sent home. He remembered Pimpette for several weeks. 

Voltaire was wildly impulsive as a lad.

In 1715, proud of his twenty-one years, he went to Paris, just in time to be in at the death of Louis XIV. The succeeding Louis being too young to govern France, much less Paris, the power fell into the hands of a regent; and during this quasi-interregnum life ran riot in the capital of the world, and young Arouet ran with it. He soon achieved a reputation as a brilliant and reckless lad. When the Regent, for economy, sold half the horses that filled the royal stables, Francois remarked how much more sensible it would have been to dismiss half the asses that filled the royal court. At last all the bright and naughty things whispered about Paris were fathered upon him; and it was his ill luck that these included two poems accusing the Regent of desiring to usurp the throne. The Regent raged; and meeting the youth in the park one day, said to him: “M. Arouet, I will wager that I can show you something that you have never seen before.” “What is that?” “The inside of the Bastille.” Arouet saw It the next day, April 16, 1717. 

Because of his wild antics Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille in 1717 at the age of twenty-three.

While in the Bastille he adopted, for some unknown reason, the pen-name of Voltaire,* and became a poet in earnest and at length. Before he had served eleven months he had written a long and not unworthy epic, the Henriade, telling the story of Henry of Navarre. Then the Regent, having discovered, perhaps, that he had imprisoned an innocent man, released him and gave him a pension; whereupon Voltaire wrote thanking him for so taking care of his board, and begging permission hereafter to take care of his lodging himself.

*Carlyle thought it an anagram for A-r-o-u-e-t l. j. (le jejune, the younger). But the name seems to have occurred among the family of Voltaire’s mother.

During this imprisonment Voltaire wrote his epic Henriade.

He passed now almost with a bound from the prison to the stage. His tragedy, Oedipe, was produced in 1718, and broke all the records of Paris by running for forty-five consecutive nights. His old father, come to upbraid him, sat in a box, and covered his joy by grumbling, at every hit, “Oh, the rascal! the rascal!” When the poet Fontenelle met Voltaire after the play and damned it with high praise, saying it was “too brilliant for tragedy,” Voltaire replied, smiling, “I must re-read your pastorals.” The youth was in no mood for caution or for courtesy; had he not put into the play itself these reckless lines?— 

Our priests are not what simple folk suppose;
Their learning is but our credulity. (Act iv, sc. 1); 

and into the mouth of Araspe this epoch-making challenge?—

Let us trust to ourselves, see all with our own eyes;
Let these be our oracles, our tripods and our gods. (ii, 5) 

The play netted Voltaire 4000 francs, which he proceeded to invest with a wisdom unheard of in literary men; through all his tribulations he kept the art not merely of making a spacious income, but of putting it to work; he respected the classic adage that one must live before one can philosophize. In 1719 he bought up all the tickets in a poorly planned government lottery, and made a large sum, much to the anger of the Government. But as he became rich he became ever more generous; and a growing circle of proteges gathered about him as he passed into the afternoon of life. 

Voltaire was a genius not only in play writing but also in investing his money. He was also quite generous with his fortune.

It was well that he added an almost Hebraic subtlety of finance to his Gallic cleverness of pen; for his next play, Artemire, failed. Voltaire felt the failure keenly; every triumph sharpens the sting of later defeats. He was always painfully sensitive to public opinion, and envied the animals because they do not know what people say of them. Fate added to his dramatic failure a bad case of small-pox; he cured himself by drinking 120 pints of lemonade, and somewhat less of physic. When he came out of the shadow of death he found that his Henriade had made him famous; he boasted, with reason, that he had made poetry the fashion. He was received and feted everywhere; the aristocracy caught him up and turned him into a polished man of the world, an unequalled master of conversation, and the inheritor of the finest cultural tradition in Europe. 

Voltaire’s rise was rapid with his successes. He mingled with aristocracy and became very polished.

For eight years he basked in the sunshine of the salons; and then fortune turned away. Some of the aristocracy could not forget that this young man had no other title to place and honor than that of genius, and could not quite forgive him for the distinction. During a dinner at the Duc de Sully’s chateau, after Voltaire had held forth for some minutes with unabashed eloquence and wit, the Chevalier de Rohan asked, not sotto voce, “Who is the young man who talks so loud?” “My Lord,” answered Voltaire quickly, “he is one who does not carry a great name, but wins respect for the name he has.” To answer the Chevalier at all was impertinence·; to answer him unanswerably was treason. The honorable Lord engaged a band of ruffians to assault Voltaire by night, merely cautioning them, “Don’t hit hIs head; something good may come out of that yet.” The next day, at the theatre, Voltaire appeared, bandaged and limping, walked up to Rohan’s box, and challenged him to a duel. Then he went home and spent all day practicing with the foils. But the noble Chevalier had no mind to be precipitated into heaven, or elsewhere, by a mere genius; he appealed to his cousin, who was Minister of Police, to protect him. Voltaire was arrested, and found himself again in his old home, the Bastille, privileged once more to view the world from the inside. He was almost immediately released, on condition that he go into exile in England. He went; but after being escorted to Dover he recrossed the Channel in disguise, burning to avenge himself. Warned that he had been discovered, and was about to be arrested a third time, he took ship again, and reconciled himself to three years in England (1726-29). 

Voltaire got into trouble with aristocracy due to his impertinence and had to leave France for England.


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