Voltaire: A Life

Another look at the life of Voltaire, the 18th-century philosophe whom many would call the greatest, most interesting man of his epoch.

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    Voltaire:
    A Life
    By Ian Davidson
    Pegasus Books
    560 pp., $35
    View Caption

When Voltaire wrote histories and biographies of famous men – Charles XII, Peter the Great – he smiled all the way through, never showing the strain of research. He read everything he could and corresponded with every eyewitness possible, but he composed as if he were lecturing off the top of his witty head. Ian Davidson, on the other hand, has read – he tells and practically shows us in his new biography Voltaire: A Life – all 15,284 extant letters Voltaire wrote.

First, let’s applaud Davidson for the effort (which, to his credit, he says was a pleasure, even as he absurdly insists it is the only real way to understand Voltaire), then let’s shake him by the shoulders and ask him if keeping his nose in the 13 volumes of letters really gives us any perspective as to why Voltaire – who communicated his spirit and ideas through drama, poetry, fiction, history, and essays – was just about the greatest literary figure of the 18th century.

Born in Paris in 1694 as François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire became a writer in spite of his father’s admonitions to the contrary. On his way to becoming the most famous playwright in France, he wrote verses that mocked the French regent’s daughter, which got him exiled to the countryside for half a year. Then he wrote an anonymous poem that tweaked the regent himself, which cost him almost a year in the Bastille and, eventually, banishment from Paris.

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At the height of his early fame as an author, when he faced jail or worse for threatening a duel with a nobleman, Voltaire spent two years in England soaking up the language and the culture. Davidson remarks on the incredible speed with which Voltaire picked up English. Within months, he was writing colloquial, more or less correct letters, and within 2-1/2 years he had used English to write most of the explosive book that became “Lettres Philosophiques.”

Having become a friend of Alexander Pope and an admirer of England’s comparatively enlightened religious toleration, Voltaire even considered becoming an English writer: “[H]e was captivated by the wholly foreign but seductive experience of political liberty and religious pluralism.” Voltaire returned to Paris in his early 30s, wondering how he could survive the next round of censorship or evade the next imprisonment. “I must disguise in Paris,” he noted, “what I could say in London as loud as I liked.”

Voltaire admired King Louis XIV because he had at least tried to establish a more religiously tolerant France: “He did not do everything he could have done, because he was only a man, but he did more than any other, because he was a great man,” he wrote. Davidson, however, was not as generous to Voltaire. He complains that when it comes to dealing with government officials and royalty, Voltaire did more than his share of “cringing,” “snivelling,” “groveling,” and that he frequently displayed “sycophancy” and “obsequiousness.” He puzzles over “Voltaire’s instinct to bow and scrape to despots.”

Davidson would prefer, it seems, that Voltaire had fessed up to the works he wrote that were being burned and banned, that were being used to torture young people for simply having them in their possession – an admission that would certainly have put Voltaire himself in jail or into a coffin. Voltaire was only a great man, but no martyr.

Voltaire dared to criticize and question the ruthlessness of the Catholic Church’s power and its coordination with the oppressive government of Louis XV. Armed with pen and paper, he faced a government and church that wielded the power of life and death. If Voltaire was not an action-hero, he was a hero all the same, and if had to throw a joke-bomb and run, let him run! Mankind is the better for it. Voltaire promoted tolerance as the most important tenet of civilization and mocked fanatics of all stripes. For this, of course, he was hated and reviled by the powers of his time, and even some of our own.

Davidson’s 2004 biography of Voltaire, “Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years 1753-78,” is a couple of hundred pages shorter but is much better and offers interesting perspective on the last 25 years of Voltaire’s life.

This new “complete” biography on the other hand, seems as if it is still in the notes stage. Davidson has found out gossip about people in Voltaire’s youth and middle age, and even if the gossip has no bearing on Voltaire, zut alors!, Davidson found it out, so he’s going to tell us. Davidson gives Voltaire’s remarkable mistress, Emilie du Chatelet, so much ink you would think the biography was about her. Through her letters, we follow her love affairs and her physics experiments and influential books. She is amazing, one of the most important people in Voltaire’s life, but she is not Voltaire.

In 1728, Voltaire and a friend outsmarted the mathematics of a governmental lottery and became rich. The money gave him the advantage of being able to take flight whenever he offended the church or the state. He miscalculated, however, the degree of freedom he would have in the court of Prussia’s Frederick the Great and suffered in Frederick’s power for a few years. (Voltaire’s lesson, which would have been well taken by Soviet writers under Stalin, should have been: “Don’t trust tyrants, even if they have a literary bent.”)

But his time in Frederick’s court lost him the little favor he had in the French court and he was forbidden to enter Paris or its environs for the rest of Louis XV’s life. He set up estates on the outskirts of Geneva and in eastern France, sure that he was lost to the pleasures of cultivated civilization. Instead – and this is the primary and most interesting thesis of Davidson’s two biographies – Voltaire found happiness outside the limelight and discovered, among other things, that he was quite effective at publicizing French judicial crimes. He had a greater career as a champion of human rights for the last 30 years of his life than he had already had – great as it was – to the age of 50.

At the age of 64, he wrote “Candide,” the funniest novella in world literature, about the globe-trotting naif who loses his innocence as he experiences wars and other injustices at the hands of both so-called civilized and primitive peoples. Davidson observes: “It marks a striking departure from his courtly and literary voice, his plays, his poems and his histories, aimed at the restricted audience of the educational establishment. His invention of a popular voice, aimed at public opinion in a broader sense, undoubtedly added to his popular credibility when he came to engage in his later human rights cases.”

I love letters, and I’ve read a fraction of Voltaire’s, but his life is not the letters. The letters are what he wrote to amuse his friends and to vent, to publicize institutional criminality and to beg for favors. They’re fine letters, but what we want is the life, which is what the quite marvelous and far superior biography by Theodore Besterman did. To Besterman, Voltaire was the greatest, most interesting man of the epoch.

With Davidson, we’re tied to the bundles of letters. Besterman, whom Davidson scorns (“because of Besterman’s tendency to bombast and self-importance”), was the great 20th-century scholar in charge of editing all of Voltaire’s work. Besterman admired Voltaire, imperfections and all, and kept him in admirable perspective. While Besterman’s “Voltaire” (revised edition, 1977) is no longer in print, it’s worth a request from your library system or your used-book seller.

Bob Blaisdell edited "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Documents."

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