Durant 1926: Dénouement (Voltaire)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 10 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.

.

X. Dénouement

Meanwhile the old “laughing philosopher” was cultivating his garden at Ferney; this “is the best thing we can do on earth.” He had asked for a long life: “my fear is that I shall die before I have rendered service”; but surely now he had done his share. The records of his generosity are endless. “Everyone, far or near, claimed his good offices; people consulted him, related the wrongs of which they were the victims, and solicited the help of his pen and his credit.” Poor people guilty of some misdemeanor were his especial care; he would secure a pardon for them and then set them up in some honest occupation, meanwhile watching and counseling them. When a young couple who had robbed him went down on their knees to beg his forgiveness, he knelt to raise them, telling them that his pardon was freely theirs, and that they should kneel only for God’s. One of his characteristic undertakings was to bring up, educate, and provide a dowry for the destitute niece of Corneille. “The little good I have done,” he said,·”is my best work. … When I am attacked I fight like a devil; I yield to no one; but at bottom I am a good devil, and I end by laughing.”

The records of Voltaire’s generosity are endless. Poor people guilty of some misdemeanor were his especial care; he would secure a pardon for them and then set them up in some honest occupation, meanwhile watching and counseling them.

In 1770 his friends arranged a subscription to have a bust made of him. The rich had to be forbidden to give more than a mite, for thousands asked the honor of contributing. Frederick inquired how much he should give; he was told, “A crown piece, sire, and your name.” Voltaire congratulated him on adding to his cultivation of the other sciences this encouragement of anatomy by subscribing for the statue of a skeleton. He demurred to the whole undertaking on the ground that he had no face left to be modeled. “You would hardly guess where it ought to be. My eyes have sunk in three inches; my cheeks are like old parchment; … the few teeth I had are gone.” To which d’Alembert replied: “Genius … has always a countenance which genius, its brother, will easily find.” When his pet, Bellet-Bonne, kissed him, he said it was “Life kissing Death.” 

In 1770 his friends arranged a subscription to have a bust made of him. The rich had to be forbidden to give more than a mite, for thousands asked the honor of contributing. 

He was now eighty-three; and a longing came over him to see Paris before he died. The doctors advised him not to undertake so arduous a trip; but “if I want to commit a folly,” he answered, “nothing will prevent me”; he had lived so long, and worked so hard, that perhaps he felt he had a right to die in his own way, and in that electric Paris from which he had been so long exiled. And so he went, weary mile after weary mile, across France; and when his coach entered the capital his bones hardly held together. He went at once to the friend of his youth, d’Argental: “I have left off dying to come and see you,” he said. The next day his room was stormed by three hundred visitors, who welcomed him as a king; Louis XVI fretted with jealousy. Benjamin Franklin was among the callers, arid brought his grandson for Voltaire’s blessing; the old man put his thin hands upon the youth’s head and bade him dedicate himself to “God and Liberty.” 

He was now eighty-three; and a longing came over him to see Paris before he died. And so he went, weary mile after weary mile, across France. After he arrived his room was stormed by three hundred visitors, who welcomed him as a king.

He was so ill now that a priest came to shrive him. “From whom do you come, M. l’Abbé?’, asked Voltaire. “From God Himself,” was the answer. “Well, well, sir,” said Voltaire; “your credentials?” The priest went away without his prey. Later Voltaire sent for another abbé, Gautier, to come and hear his confession; Gautier came, but refused Voltaire absolution until he should sign a profession of full faith in Catholic doctrine. Voltaire rebelled; instead, he drew up a statement which he gave to his secretary, Wagner: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition. (Signed) Voltaire. February 28, 1778.”

Voltaire was so ill now that a priest came to shrive him. But when asked to sign a profession of full faith in Catholic doctrine, Voltaire refused. Instead, he drew up a statement, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”

Though sick and tottering, he was driven to the Academy, through tumultuous crowds that clambered on his carriage and tore into souvenirs the precious pelisse which Catherine of Russia had given him. “It was one of the historic events of the century. No great captain returning from a prolonged campaign of difficulty and hazard crowned by the most glorious victory, ever received a more splendid and far-resounding greeting.” At the Academy he proposed a revision of the French dictionary; he spoke with youthful fire, and offered to undertake all such part of the work as would come under the letter A. At the close of the sitting he said, “Gentlemen, I thank you in the name of the alphabet.” To which the chairman, Chastellux, replied: “And we thank you in the name of letters.” 

Voltaire went to the Academy in Paris, where he proposed a revision of the French dictionary, and spoke with youthful fire.

Meanwhile his play, Irene, was being performed at the theatre; against the advice of the physicians again, he insisted on attending. The play was poor; but people marveled not so much that a man of eighty-three should write a poor play, but that he should write any play at all; and they drowned the speech of the players with repeated demonstrations in honor 

of the author. A stranger, entering, supposed himself to be in a madhouse, and rushed back frightened into the street.

Voltaire attended his play, Irene, which was being performed at the theatre; against the advice of the physicians again.

When the old patriarch of letters went home that evening he was almost reconciled to death. He knew that he was exhausted now; that he had used to the full that wild and marvelous energy which nature had given to him perhaps more than to any man before him. He struggled as he felt life being torn from him; but death could defeat even Voltaire. The end came on May 30, 1778. 

Voltaire’s end finally came on May 30, 1778. 

He was refused Christian burial in Paris; but his friends set him up grimly in a carriage, and got him out of the city by pretending that he was alive. At Scellières they found a priest who understood that rules were not made for geniuses; and the body was buried in holy ground. In 1791 the National Assembly of the triumphant Revolution forced Louis XVI to recall Voltaire’s remains to the Pantheon. The dead ashes of the great flame that had been were escorted through Paris by a procession of 100,000 men and women, while 600,000 flanked the streets. On the funeral car were the words: “He gave the human mind a great impetus; he prepared us for freedom.” On his tombstone only three words were necessary:

HERE LIES VOLTAIRE 

What a wonderful life and end Voltaire had!

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: