Chap. XI           Voltaire in France

I. IN PARIS: 1729 – 34

His romantic tragedy Zaire (August 13, 1732):

Zaire is a Christian captured in her infancy by the Moslems during the Crusades. Another Christian captive, Fatima, reproaches her for forgetting that she was once a Christian. In Zaire's reply Voltaire expresses the geographical determination of religious belief:

Our thoughts, our manners, our religion, all Are formed by custom, and the powerful bent
Of early years. Born on the banks of Ganges
Zaire had worshiped pagan deities;
At Paris I had been a Christian; here
I am a happy Mussulman. We know
But what we learn; the instructing parent's hand
Graves in our feeble hearts those characters
Which time retouches, and examples fix
So deeply in the mind, that nought but God
Can e'er efface.

Voltaire depicts Orosmane with evident predilection as a man with all the virtues except patience. The Christians are shocked to see that a Moslem can be as decent as any Christian, and the Sultan is surprised to find that a Christian can be as good. He refuses to keep a harem and pledges himself to monogamy.

a young Voltaire


In 1733 and 1734 Voltaire published his first contribution to the Enlightenment. It took the form of twenty-four letters addressed from England to Thieriot. Issued in London (1733) as Letters concerning the English Nation.

The book began with four letters on the English Quakers. These, Voltaire pointed out, had no ecclesiastical organization, no priests, and no sacraments; yet they practiced the precepts of Christ more faithfully than any other Christians he had ever known. He described or imagined a visit to one of them:

“My dear sir," I said, “have you been baptized?”
"No," replied the Quaker, “nor have my brethren.”
"How now, morbleu!" I cried, “then you are not Christians?”
“My son,” he answered, in a mild and quiet voice, “do not swear.
We are Christians, and try to be good Christians; but we do not think that Christianity consists in throwing cold water, with a little salt, upon the head.”
"Eh, ventrebleu!" I protested, “not to speak of this impiety, have you forgotten that Jesus Christ was baptized by John?''
“My friend, no more oaths. . . . Christ received baptism from John, but he himself never baptized anyone. We are the disciples not of John but of Christ.”
"Alas, my poor man," I said, "how you would be burned in the land of the Inquisition! . . .“
"Are you circumcised?” he asked.
I replied that I had not that honor.
"Very well, then," he said; “you are a Christian without being circumcised, and I am a Christian without being baptized.”

Baptism, like circumcision, said the Quaker, was a pre-Christian custom, superseded by the new Gospel of Christ. And he (or Voltaire) added a word on war:

We shall never go to war; not because we fear death, but because we are not wolves or tigers or bulldogs but men, Christians. Our God, who bade us love our enemies, surely does not want us to cross the sea to cut the throats of our brothers merely because murderers dressed in red, with hats two feet high, recruit citizens while making a noise with two sticks on the stretched skin of an ass. And when, after victory, all London is brilliant with illuminations, and the sky is aflame with fireworks, and the air resounds with thanksgivings, with church bells, organs, and cannon, we mourn in silence over the slaughter that caused such public joy.

France had almost destroyed itself to compel all Frenchmen to one faith; Voltaire dilated on the comparative toleration of religious differences in England. “This is a land of sects. An Englishman, like a free man, goes to heaven by whatever route he chooses." Voltaire contrasted the morals of the English clergy with those of their French compeers, and congratulated the English on having no abbés. "When they learn that in France young men, known for their debauches and raised to the prelacy by intrigues, compose tender songs, give long and exquisite dinners almost every day, . . . and call themselves the successors of the Apostles, they thank God that they are Protestants."

Finally, in a passage that laid down a program for France, Voltaire claimed that

the English constitution has, in fact, arrived at the point of excellence, in consequence of which all men are restored to those natural rights which in nearly all monarchies they are deprived of. These rights are entire liberty of person and property; freedom of the press; the right of being tried in all criminal cases by a jury of independent men; the right of being tried only according to the strict letter of the law; the right of every man to profess, unmolested, what religion he chooses.

He was using England as a whip to stir up revolt in France against oppression by state or Church. The fact that nearly all these rights are now taken for granted in civilized countries illuminates the achievement of the eighteenth century.

To Locke Voltaire devoted nearly all of Letter XIII. He found in him not only a science of the mind instead of a mythology of the soul, but an implicit philosophy that, by tracing all knowledge to sensation, turned European thought from divine revelation to human experience as the exclusive source and basis of truth. And he welcomed Locke's suggestion that conceivably matter might be enabled to think. This sentence especially stuck in the throat of the French censors, and had much to do with their condemnation of the book; they seemed to foresee in it the materialism of La Mettrie and Diderot.

He himself as yet found Newton very difficult, but the assemblage of men prominent in government as well as in science at Newton's funeral had left upon him an impression that determined him to study the Principia and make himself an apostle of Newton to France. Here too he sowed the seed of the Encyclopédie and the Enlightenment.

Finally, he shocked religious thought in France by subjecting the Pensées of Pascal to a hostile critique. He had not intended to include this in the Lettres; it had nothing to do with England, but he had sent it from England to Thieriot in 1728; the piratical publisher appended it as Letter xxv; and the result was that the Jansenists—who worshiped Pascal and controlled the Parlement of Paris—now exceeded the Jesuits (who had no love for Pascal) in denouncing Voltaire. Voltaire was constitutionally incapable of agreeing with Pascal: He was at this stage (except in his plays) a militant rationalist.

He rejected Pascal’s “wager” (that it is wiser to bet on God's existence than against it) as “indecent and childish; . . . the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists." (Pascal had not offered the wager as a proof.)

Rousseau said of these letters that they played a large part in the awakening of his mind; there must have been thousands of young Frenchmen who owed the book a similar debt. Lafayette said it made him a republican at the age of nine. Heine thought "it was not necessary for the censor to condemn this book; it would have been read without that."

Church and state, King and Parlement, felt that they could not bear in silence so many wounds. The printer was sent to the Bastille, and a lettre de cachet was issued for the arrest of Voltaire wherever found. On May 11, 1734, an agent of police appeared at Montjeu with a warrant, but Voltaire, warned probably by Maupertuis and d'Argental, had left five days before, and was already beyond the frontier of France. On June 10, by an order of the Parlement, all discoverable copies of the book were burned by the public hangman in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice as "scandalous, contrary to religion, good morals, and the respect due to authority."

III. IDYL IN CIREY: 1734 — 44

In 1734 Voltaire wrote a long poem La Pucelle d’Orléans (The Maid of Orleans). The fear that the French government would prosecute him—not for the obscenity of the poem but for its incidental satire of monks, Jesuits, prelates, popes, and the Inquisition—became one of the haunting worries of Voltaire's life.

In May, 1739, Voltaire offered two plays, Mahomet and Mérope, to the Comédie-Française. Was Mahomet anti-Christian? Not quite. It was against fanaticism and bigotry, but it portrayed the Prophet in a hostile light that should have pleased all Christians innocent of history. Voltaire pictured Mahomet as a conscious deceiver who foists his new religion upon a credulous people, uses their faith as a spur to war, and conquers Mecca by ordering his fanatical devotee, Séide, to assassinate the resisting sheik Zopir. When Séide hesitates, Mahomet reproves him in terms that seemed to some auditors a reflection on the Christian priesthood:

And dost thou pause? Presumptuous youth, 'tis impious
But to deliberate. Far from Mahomet
Be all who for themselves shall dare to judge. . . .
Those who reason are not oft
Prone to believe. Thy part is to obey.
Have I not told thee what the will of Heaven
Determines? . . .
Knowest thou holy Abram here
Was born, that here his sacred ashes rest—
He who, obedient to the voice of God,
Stifled the cries of nature, and gave up
His darling child? The same all-powerful Being
Requires of thee a sacrifice; to thee
He calls for blood; and darest thou hesitate
When God commands?
Strike, then, and by the blood
Of Zopir merit life eternal.

Séide kills the old man, who, dying, recognizes him as his own son. This, of course, was an attack upon the use of religion to sanction murder and foment war.

IV. The Courtier: 1745 – 48

Memnon the Philosopher (1748) tells the story of a man who "one day conceived the insane idea of becoming wholly reasonable." He finds himself in a hopeless and besieged minority, encounters a hundred calamities, and decides that the earth is an insane asylum to which the other planets deport their lunatics.

Micromégas developed the ideas of relativity exploited by Swift in The Travels of Lemuel Gulliver. "Mr. Micromégas," as befitted an inhabitant of the great star Sirius, is "120,000 royal feet tall” and fifty thousand around the waist; his nose is 6,333 feet long from stem to stern. In his 670th year he travels lo polish his education. Roaming about space, he alights upon the planet Saturn;. he laughs at the pygmy stature—only six thousand feet or so—of its people, and wonders how these underprivileged Saturnians, with only seventy-two senses, can ever know reality. “To what age do you commonly live?" he asks an inhabitant. "Alas," cries the Saturnian, “few, very few on this globe outlive five hundred revolutions around the sun [these, according to our way of reckoning, amount to about fifteen thousand years]. So, you see, we in a manner begin to die the very moment we are born. Scarce do we learn a little when death intervenes before we can profit by experience." The Sirian invites the Saturnian to join him in visiting other stars. They stumble upon the planet Earth; the Sirian wets his feet, the Saturnian is nearly drowned, as they walk through the Mediterranean. Reaching soil, they see masses of the tiny inhabitants moving about in great excitement. When the Sirian discovers that a hundred thousand of these earthlings, covered with hats, are slaying or being slain by an equal number covered with turbans, in a dispute [the Crusades] over “a pitiful molehill [Palestine] no longer than his heel," he cries out indignantly, "Miscreants! . . . I have a good mind to take two or three steps and trample the whole nest of such ridiculous assassins under my feet.”

All this was general and genial, and might have passed without a stir. But in 1748 Voltaire troubled the winds of Paris with a little pamphlet called The Voice of the Sage and the People, which attacked the French Church at a very sensitive point—its property. "In France, where reason becomes more developed every day, reason teaches us that the Church ought to contribute to the expenses of the nation in proportion to its revenues, and that the body set apart to teach justice ought to begin by being an example of it." He claimed that monasteries were wasting the seed of men and the resources of the land in vain idleness. He accused "superstition" of assassinating rulers and shedding streams of blood in persecution and war, and reminded sovereigns that no philosopher had ever raised his hand against his king. If kings would unite with reason and divorce themselves from superstition, how much happier the world would be! Rarely has so short an essay roused so long a storm. Fifteen counter-Voices were published to answer the anonymous "Sage."


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