VOLTAIRE: Cirey: The Romances

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 3 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.  


III. Cirey: The Romances

Nevertheless the Regent, not knowing of this chanticleer; sent Voltaire permission, in 1729, to return to France. For five years Voltaire enjoyed again that Parisian life whose wine flowed in his veins and whose spirit flowed from his pen. And then some miscreant of a publisher, getting hold of the Letters on the English, turned them without the author’s permission into print, and sold them far and wide, to the horror of all good Frenchmen, including Voltaire. The Parliament of Paris at once ordered the book to be publicly burned as “scandalous, contrary to religion, to morals, and to respect for authority”; and Voltaire learned that he was again on the way to the Bastille. Like a good philosopher, he took to his heels–merely utilizing the occasion to elope with another man’s wife. 

Voltaire was permitted to return to France in 1729; but within five years he was in trouble again and he had to take to his heels.

The Marquise du Chatelet was twenty-eight; Voltaire, alas, was already forty. She was a remarkable woman: she had studied mathematics with the redoubtable Maupertuis, and then with Clairaut; she had written a learnedly annotated translation of Newton’s Principia; she was soon to receive higher rating than Voltaire in a contest for a prize offered by the French Academy for an essay on the physics of fire; in short she was precisely the kind of woman who never elopes. But the Marquis was so dull, and Voltaire was so interesting -“a creature lovable in every way,” she called him; “the finest ornament in France.” He returned her love with fervent admiration; called her “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”; formed from her, and from the large number of highly talented women then in France, his conviction of the native mental equality of the sexes; and decided that her chateau at Cirey was an admirable refuge from the inclement political weather of Paris. The Marquis was away with his regiment, which had long been his avenue of escape from mathematics; and he made no objection to the new arrangements. Because of the mariages de convenances which forced rich old men on young women who had little taste for senility but much hunger for romance, the morals of the day permitted a lady to add a lover to her menage, if it were done with a decent respect for the hypocrisies of mankind; and when she chose not merely a lover but a genius, all the world forgave her. 

Voltaire had moved in with Marquise du Chatelet, who was also a genius in her own right.

In the chateau at Cirey they did not spend their time billing and cooing. All the day was taken up with study and research; Voltaire had an expensive laboratory equipped for work in natural science; and for years the lovers rivaled each other in discovery and disquisition. They had many guests, but it was understood that these should entertain themselves all day long, till supper at nine. After supper, occasionally, there were private theatricals; or Voltaire would read to the guests one of his lively stories. Very soon Cirey became the Paris of the French mind; the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie joined in the pilgrimage to taste Voltaire’s wine and wit, and see him act in his own plays. He was happy to be the centre of this corrupt and brilliant world; he took nothing too seriously, and for a while made “Rire et faire rire” [“To laugh and to make laugh.”] his motto. Catherine of Russia called him “the divinity of gayety.” “If Nature had not made us a little frivolous,” he said, “we should be most wretched. It is because one can be frivolous that the majority do not hang themselves.” There was nothing of the dyspeptic Carlyle about him. “Dulce est desipere in loco.[“It is sweet to be foolish on occasion.”] Woe to philosophers who cannot laugh away their wrinkles. I look upon solemnity as a disease.” [Letter to Frederick the Great, July, 1787.] 

Soon the chateau at Cirey became the Paris of the French mind; the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie joined in the pilgrimage to taste Voltaire’s wine and wit, and see him act in his own plays.

It was now that he began to write those delightful romances—Zadig, Candide, Micromégas, L’Ingenu, Le Monde comme il va [The World as it goes], etc.—which give the Voltairean spirit in purer form than anything else in his ninety-nine volumes. They are not novels, but humoresque-picaresque novelettes; the heroes are not persons but ideas, the villains are superstitions, and the events are thoughts. Some are mere fragments, like L’Ingenu which is Rousseau before Jean Jacques. A Huron Indian comes to France with some returning explorers; the first problem to which he gives rise is that of making him a Christian. An abbe gives him a copy of the New Testament, which the Huron likes so much that he soon offers himself not only for baptism but for circumcision as well. “For,” he says, “I do not find in the book that was put into my hands a single person who was not circumcised. It is therefore evident that I must make a sacrifice to the Hebrew custom, and the sooner the better.” Hardly has this difficulty been smoothed over when he has trouble over confession; he asks where in the Gospel this is commanded, and is directed to a passage in the Epistle of St. James: “Confess your sins to one another.” He confesses; but “when he had done he dragged the abbe from the confessional chair, placed himself in the seat, and bade the abbe confess in turn. “Come, my friend; it is said, ‘We must confess our sins to one another’; I have related my sins to you, and you shall not stir till you recount yours.” He falls in love with Miss St. Yves, but is told that he cannot marry her because she has acted as godmother at his baptism; he is very angry at this little trick of the fates, and threatens to get unbaptized. Having received permission to marry her, he is surprised to find that for marriage “notaries, priests, witnesses, contracts and dispensations are absolutely necessary. … ‘You are then very great rogues, since so many precautions are required.'” And so, as the story passes on from incident to incident, the contradictions between primitive and ecclesiastical Christianity are forced upon the stage; one misses the impartiality of the scholar and the leniency of the philosopher; but Voltaire had begun his war against superstition, and in war we demand impartiality and leniency only of our foes. 

Voltaire’s wrote and acted in plays that highlighted the contradictions between primitive and ecclesiastical Christianity. He had begun his war against superstition.

Micromegas is an imitation of Swift, but perhaps richer than its model in cosmic imagination. The earth is visited by an inhabitant from Sirius; he is some 500,000 feet tall, as befits the citizen of so large a star. On his way through space he has picked up a gentleman from Saturn, who grieves because he is only a few thousand feet in height. As they walk through the Mediterranean the Sirian wets his heels. He asks hls comrade how many senses the Saturnians have and is told: “We have seventy-two, but we are daily complaining of the smaller number.” “To what age do you commonly live?” “Alas, a mere trifle; … very few on our globe survive 15,000 years. So you see that in a manner we begin to die the very moment we are born: our existence is no more than a point, our duration an instant, and our globe an atom. Scarce do we begin to learn a little when death intervenes before we can profit by experience.” As they stand in the sea they take up a ship as one might pick up some animalcule.. and the Sirian poises it on his thumb-nail, causing much commotion among the human passengers. “The chaplains of the ship repeated exorcisms, the sailors swore, and the philosophers formed a system” to explain this disturbance of the laws of gravity. The Sirian bends down like a darkening cloud and addresses them: 

“O ye intelligent atoms, in whom the Supreme Being hath been pleased to manifest his omniscience and power, without doubt your joys on this earth must be pure and exquisite; for being unencumbered with matter, and—to all appearance—little else than soul, you must spend your lives in the delights of pleasure and reflection, which are the true enjoyments of a perfect spirit. True happiness I have nowhere found; but certainly here it dwells.” 

“We have matter enough,” answered one of the philosophers, “to do abundance of mischief. … You must know, for example, that at this very moment, while I am speaking, there are 100,000 animals of our own species, covered with hats, slaying an equal number of their fellow-creatures, who wear turbans; at least they are either slaying or being slain; and this has usually been the case all over the earth from time immemorial.” 

“Miscreants!” cried the indignant Sirian; “I have a good mind to take two or three steps, and trample the whole nest of such ridiculous assassins under my feet.” 

“Don’t give yourself the trouble,” replied the philosopher; “they are industrious enough in securing their own destruction. At the end of ten years the hundredth part of these wretches will not survive. … Besides, the punishment should not be inflicted upon them, but upon those sedentary and slothful barbarians who, from their palaces, give orders for murdering a million of men, and then solemnly thank God for their success.” 

Micromagus is a hilarious play that casts the slothful kings as waging war and killing people from their palaces.

Next to Candide, which belongs to a later period of Voltaire’s life, the best of these tales is Zadig. Zadig was a Babylonian philosopher, “as wise as it is possible for men to be; … he knew as much of metaphysics as hath ever been known in any age,—that is, little or nothing at all.” “Jealousy made him imagine that he was in love with Semira.” In defending her against robbers he was wounded in the left eye.

A messenger was despatched to Memphis for the great Egyptian physician Hermes, who came with a numerous retinue. He visited Zadig, and declared that the patient would lose his eye. He even foretold the day and hour when this fatal event would happen. “Had. it been the right eye,” said he, “I could easily have cured it; but the wounds of the left eye are incurable.” All Babylon lamented the fate of Zadig, and admired the profound knowledge of Hermes. In two days the abscess broke of its own accord, and Zadig was perfectly cured. Hermes wrote a book to prove that it ought not to have healed. Zadig did not read it.

He hurried, instead, to Semira, only to find that upon hearing Hermes’ first report she had betrothed herself to another man, having, she said, “an unconquerable aversion to one-eyed men.” Zadig thereupon married a peasant woman, hoping to find in her the virtues which had been missing in the court lady Semira. To make sure of the fidelity of his wife, he arranged with a friend that he, Zadig, should pretend to die, and that the friend should make love to the wife an hour later. So Zadig had himself pronounced dead, and lay in the coffin while his friend first commiserated and then congratulated the widow, and at last proposed immediate marriage to her. She made a brief resistance; and then, “protesting she would ne’er consent, consented.” Zadig rose from the dead and fled into the woods to console himself with the beauty of nature. 

Having become a very wise man, he was made vizier to the king, to whose realm he brought prosperity, justice, and peace. But the queen fell in love with him; and the king, perceiving it, “began to be troubled. … He particularly remarked that the queen’s shoes were blue, and that Zadig’s shoes were blue; that his wife’s ribbons were yellow, and that Zadig’s bonnet was yellow.” He resolved to poison them both; but the queen discovered the plot, and sent a note to Zadig! “Fly, I conjure thee, by our mutual love and our yellow ribbonsI” Zadig again fled into the woods. 

He then represented to himself the human species, as it really is, as a parcel of insects devouring one another on a little atom of clay. This true image seemed to annihilate his misfortunes, by making him sensible of the nothingness of his own being and that of Babylon. His soul launched into infinity; and detached from the senses, contemplated the immutable order of the universe. But when, afterwards, returning to himself, … he considered that the Queen had perhaps died for him, the universe vanished from sight. 

Passing out of Babylon he saw a man cruelly beating a woman; he responded to her cries for help, fought the man, and at last, to save himself, struck a blow which killed his enemy. Thereupon he turned to the lady and asked, “What further, madam, wouldst thou have me do for thee?” “Die, villain! for thou hast killed my lover. Oh, that I were able to tear out thy heart!” 

Zadig was shortly afterward captured and enslaved; but he taught his master philosophy, and became his trusted counsellor. Through his advice the practice of suttee (by which a widow had herself buried with her husband) was abolished by a law which required that before such martyrdom the widow should spend an hour alone with a handsome man. Sent on a mission to the King of Serendib, Zadig taught him that an honest minister could best be found by choosing the lightest dancer among the applicants: he had the vestibule of the dance hall filled with loose valuables, easily stolen, and arranged that each candidate should pass through the vestibule alone and unwatched; when they had all entered, they were asked to dance. “Never had dancers performed more unwillingly or with less grace. Their heads were down, their backs bent, their hands pressed to their sides.”—And so the story rushes on. We can imagine those evenings at Cirey! 

Zadig is another hilarious story filled with satire on human nature.


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