The visit of Voltaire to England marks a turning-point in the history of civilisation. It was the first step in a long process of interaction — big with momentous consequences — between the French and English cultures. For centuries the combined forces of mutual ignorance and political hostility had kept the two nations apart: Voltaire planted a small seed of friendship which, in spite of a thousand hostile influences, grew and flourished mightily. The seed, no doubt, fell on good ground, and no doubt, if Voltaire had never left his native country, some chance wind would have carried it over the narrow seas, so that history in the main would have been unaltered. But actually his was the hand which did the work.
It is unfortunate that our knowledge of so important a period in Voltaire’s life should be extremely incomplete. Carlyle, who gave a hasty glance at it in his life of Frederick, declared that he could find nothing but ‘mere inanity and darkness visible’; and since Carlyle’s day the progress has been small. A short chapter in Desnoiresterres’ long Biography and an essay by Churton Collins did something to co-ordinate the few known facts. Another step was taken a few years ago with the publication of M. Lanson’s elaborate and exhaustive edition of the Lettres Philosophiques, the work in which Voltaire gave to the world the distilled essence of his English experiences. And now M. Lucien Foulet has brought together all the extant letters concerning the period, which he has collated with scrupulous exactitude and to which he has added a series of valuable appendices upon various obscure and disputed points. M. Lanson’s great attainments are well known, and to say that M. Foulet’s work may fitly rank as a supplementary volume to the edition of the Lettres Philosophiques is simply to say that he is a worthy follower of that noble tradition of profound research and perfect lucidity which has made French scholarship one of the glories of European culture.
Upon the events in particular which led up to Voltaire’s departure for England, M. Foulet has been able to throw considerable light. The story, as revealed by the letters of contemporary observers and the official documents of the police, is an instructive and curious one. In the early days of January 1726 Voltaire, who was thirty-one years of age, occupied a position which, so far as could be seen upon the surface, could hardly have been more fortunate. He was recognised everywhere as the rising poet of the day; he was a successful dramatist; he was a friend of Madame de Prie, who was all-powerful at Court, and his talents had been rewarded by a pension from the royal purse. His brilliance, his gaiety, his extraordinary capacity for being agreeable had made him the pet of the narrow and aristocratic circle which dominated France. Dropping his middle-class antecedents as completely as he had dropped his middle-class name, young Arouet, the notary’s offspring, floated at his ease through the palaces of dukes and princes, with whose sons he drank and jested, and for whose wives — it was de rigueur in those days — he expressed all the ardours of a passionate and polite devotion. Such was his roseate situation when, all at once, the catastrophe came. One night at the Opéra the Chevalier de Rohan–Chabot, of the famous and powerful family of the Rohans, a man of forty-three, quarrelsome, blustering, whose reputation for courage left something to be desired, began to taunt the poet upon his birth —‘Monsieur Arouet, Monsieur Voltaire — what is your name?’ To which the retort came quickly —‘Whatever my name may be, I know how to preserve the honour of it.’ The Chevalier muttered something and went off, but the incident was not ended. Voltaire had let his high spirits and his sharp tongue carry him too far, and he was to pay the penalty. It was not an age in which it was safe to be too witty with lords. ‘Now mind, Dancourt,’ said one of those grands seigneurs to the leading actor of the day, ‘if you’re more amusing than I am at dinner to-night, je te donnerai cent coups de bâtons.’ It was dangerous enough to show one’s wits at all in the company of such privileged persons, but to do so at their expense ——! A few days later Voltaire and the Chevalier met again, at the Comédie, in Adrienne Lecouvreur’s dressing-room. Rohan repeated his sneering question, and ‘the Chevalier has had his answer’ was Voltaire’s reply. Furious, Rohan lifted his stick, but at that moment Adrienne very properly fainted, and the company dispersed. A few days more and Rohan had perfected the arrangements for his revenge. Voltaire, dining at the Duc de Sully’s, where, we are told, he was on the footing of a son of the house, received a message that he was wanted outside in the street. He went out, was seized by a gang of lackeys, and beaten before the eyes of Rohan, who directed operations from a cab. ‘Epargnez la tête,’ he shouted, ‘elle est encore bonne pour faire rire le public’; upon which, according to one account, there were exclamations from the crowd which had gathered round of ‘Ah! le bon seigneur!’ The sequel is known to everyone: how Voltaire rushed back, dishevelled and agonised, into Sully’s dining-room, how he poured out his story in an agitated flood of words, and how that high-born company, with whom he had been living up to that moment on terms of the closest intimacy, now only displayed the signs of a frigid indifference. The caste-feeling had suddenly asserted itself. Poets, no doubt, were all very well in their way, but really, if they began squabbling with noblemen, what could they expect? And then the callous and stupid convention of that still half-barbarous age — the convention which made misfortune the proper object of ridicule — came into play no less powerfully. One might take a poet seriously, perhaps — until he was whipped; then, of course, one could only laugh at him. For the next few days, wherever Voltaire went he was received with icy looks, covert smiles, or exaggerated politeness. The Prince de Conti, who, a month or two before, had written an ode in which he placed the author of Oedipe side by side with the authors of Le Cid and Phèdre, now remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that ‘ces coups de bâtons étaient bien reçus et mal donnés.’ ‘Nous serions bien malheureux,’ said another well-bred personage, as he took a pinch of snuff, ‘si les poètes n’avaient pas des épaules.’ Such friends as remained faithful were helpless. Even Madame de Prie could do nothing. ‘Le pauvre Voltaire me fait grande pitié,’ she said; ‘dans le fond il a raison.’ But the influence of the Rohan family was too much for her, and she could only advise him to disappear for a little into the country, lest worse should befall. Disappear he did, remaining for the next two months concealed in the outskirts of Paris, where he practised swordsmanship against his next meeting with his enemy. The situation was cynically topsy-turvy. As M. Foulet points out, Rohan had legally rendered himself liable, under the edict against duelling, to a long term of imprisonment, if not to the penalty of death. Yet the law did not move, and Voltaire was left to take the only course open in those days to a man of honour in such circumstances — to avenge the insult by a challenge and a fight. But now the law, which had winked at Rohan, began to act against Voltaire. The police were instructed to arrest him so soon as he should show any sign of an intention to break the peace. One day he suddenly appeared at Versailles, evidently on the lookout for Rohan, and then as suddenly vanished. A few weeks later, the police reported that he was in Paris, lodging with a fencing-master, and making no concealment of his desire to ‘insulter incessamment et avec éclat M. le chevalier de Rohan.’ This decided the authorities, and accordingly on the night of the 17th of April, as we learn from the Police Gazette, ‘le sieur Arrouët de Voltaire, fameux poète,’ was arrested, and conducted ‘par ordre du Roi’ to the Bastille.
A letter, written by Voltaire to his friend Madame de Bernières while he was still in hiding, reveals the effect which these events had produced upon his mind. It is the first letter in the series of his collected correspondence which is not all Epicurean elegance and caressing wit. The wit, the elegance, the finely turned phrase, the shifting smile — these things are still visible there no doubt, but they are informed and overmastered by a new, an almost ominous spirit: Voltaire, for the first time in his life, is serious.
J’ai été à l’extrémité; je n’attends que ma convalescence pour abandonner à jamais ce pays-ci. Souvenez-vous de l’amitié tendre que vous avez eue pour moi; au nom de cette amitié informez-moi par un mot de votre main de ce qui se passe, ou parlez à l’homme que je vous envoi, en qui vous pouvez prendre une entière confiance. Présentez mes respects à Madame du Deffand; dites à Thieriot que je veux absolument qu’il m’aime, ou quand je serai mort, ou quand je serai heureux; jusque-là, je lui pardonne son indifférence. Dites à M. le chevalier des Alleurs que je n’oublierai jamais la générosité de ses procédés pour moi. Comptez que tout détrompé que je suis de la vanité des amitiés humaines, la vôtre me sera à jamais précieuse. Je ne souhaite de revenir à Paris que pour vous voir, vous embrasser encore une fois, et vous faire voir ma constance dans mon amitié et dans mes malheurs.
‘Présentez mes respects à Madame du Deffand!’ Strange indeed are the whirligigs of Time! Madame de Bernières was then living in none other than that famous house at the corner of the Rue de Beaune and the Quai des Théatins (now Quai Voltaire) where, more than half a century later, the writer of those lines was to come, bowed down under the weight of an enormous celebrity, to look for the last time upon Paris and the world; where, too, Madame du Deffand herself, decrepit, blind, and bitter with the disillusionments of a strange lifetime, was to listen once more to the mellifluous enchantments of that extraordinary intelligence, which — so it seemed to her as she sat entranced — could never, never grow old.4
Voltaire was not kept long in the Bastille. For some time he had entertained a vague intention of visiting England, and he now begged for permission to leave the country. The authorities, whose one object was to prevent an unpleasant fracas, were ready enough to substitute exile for imprisonment; and thus, after a fortnight’s detention, the ‘fameux poète’ was released on condition that he should depart forthwith, and remain, until further permission, at a distance of at least fifty leagues from Versailles.
It is from this point onwards that our information grows scanty and confused. We know that Voltaire was in Calais early in May, and it is generally agreed that he crossed over to England shortly afterwards. His subsequent movements are uncertain. We find him established at Wandsworth in the middle of October, but it is probable that in the interval he had made a secret journey to Paris with the object — in which he did not succeed — of challenging the Chevalier de Rohan to a duel. Where he lived during these months is unknown, but apparently it was not in London. The date of his final departure from England is equally in doubt; M. Foulet adduces some reasons for supposing that he returned secretly to France in November 1728, and in that case the total length of the English visit was just two and a half years. Churton Collins, however, prolongs it until March 1729. A similar obscurity hangs over all the details of Voltaire’s stay. Not only are his own extant letters during this period unusually few, but allusions to him in contemporary English correspondences are almost entirely absent. We have to depend upon scattered hints, uncertain inferences, and conflicting rumours. We know that he stayed for some time at Wandsworth with a certain Everard Falkener in circumstances which he described to Thieriot in a letter in English — an English quaintly flavoured with the gay impetuosity of another race. ‘At my coming to London,’ he wrote, ‘I found my damned Jew was broken.’ (He had depended upon some bills of exchange drawn upon a Jewish broker.)
I was without a penny, sick to dye of a violent ague, stranger, alone, helpless, in the midst of a city wherein I was known to nobody; my Lord and Lady Bolingbroke were into the country; I could not make bold to see our ambassadour in so wretched a condition. I had never undergone such distress; but I am born to run through all the misfortunes of life. In these circumstances my star, that among all its direful influences pours allways on me some kind refreshment, sent to me an English gentleman unknown to me, who forced me to receive some money that I wanted. Another London citisen that I had seen but once at Paris, carried me to his own country house, wherein I lead an obscure and charming life since that time, without going to London, and quite given over to the pleasures of indolence and friendshipp. The true and generous affection of this man who soothes the bitterness of my life brings me to love you more and more. All the instances of friendshipp indear my friend Tiriot to me. I have seen often mylord and mylady Bolinbroke; I have found their affection still the same, even increased in proportion to my unhappiness; they offered me all, their money, their house; but I have refused all, because they are lords, and I have accepted all from Mr. Faulknear because he is a single gentleman.
We know that the friendship thus begun continued for many years, but as to who or what Everard Falkener was — besides the fact that he was a ‘single gentleman’— we have only just information enough to make us wish for more.
‘I am here,’ he wrote after Voltaire had gone, ‘just as you left me, neither merrier nor sadder, nor richer nor poorer, enjoying perfect health, having everything that makes life agreeable, without love, without avarice, without ambition, and without envy; and as long as all this lasts I shall take the liberty to call myself a very happy man.’ This stoical Englishman was a merchant who eventually so far overcame his distaste both for ambition and for love, as to become first Ambassador at Constantinople and then Postmaster–General — has anyone, before or since, ever held such a singular succession of offices? — and to wind up by marrying, as we are intriguingly told, at the age of sixty-three, ‘the illegitimate daughter of General Churchill.’
We have another glimpse of Voltaire at Wandsworth in a curious document brought to light by M. Lanson. Edward Higginson, an assistant master at a Quaker’s school there, remembered how the excitable Frenchman used to argue with him for hours in Latin on the subject of ‘water-baptism,’ until at last Higginson produced a text from St. Paul which seemed conclusive.
Some time after, Voltaire being at the Earl Temple’s seat in Fulham, with Pope and others such, in their conversation fell on the subject of water-baptism. Voltaire assumed the part of a quaker, and at length came to mention that assertion of Paul. They questioned there being such an assertion in all his writings; on which was a large wager laid, as near as I remember of £500: and Voltaire, not retaining where it was, had one of the Earl’s horses, and came over the ferry from Fulham to Putney. . . . When I came he desired me to give him in writing the place where Paul said, he
was not sent to baptize; which I presently did. Then courteously taking his leave, he mounted and rode back —
and, we must suppose, won his wager.
He seemed so taken with me (adds Higginson) as to offer to buy out the remainder of my time. I told him I expected my master would be very exorbitant in his demand. He said, let his demand be what it might, he would give it on condition I would yield to be his companion, keeping the same company, and I should always, in every respect, fare as he fared, wearing my clothes like his and of equal value: telling me then plainly, he was a Deist; adding, so were most of the noblemen in France and in England; deriding the account given by the four Evangelists concerning the birth of Christ, and his miracles, etc., so far that I desired him to desist: for I could not bear to hear my Saviour so reviled and spoken against. Whereupon he seemed under a disappointment, and left me with some reluctance.
In London itself we catch fleeting visions of the eager gesticulating figure, hurrying out from his lodgings in Billiter Square —‘Belitery Square’ he calls it — or at the sign of the ‘White Whigg’ in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, to go off to the funeral of Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, or to pay a call on Congreve, or to attend a Quaker’s Meeting. One would like to know in which street it was that he found himself surrounded by an insulting crowd, whose jeers at the ‘French dog’ he turned to enthusiasm by jumping upon a milestone, and delivering a harangue beginning —‘Brave Englishmen! Am I not sufficiently unhappy in not having been born among you?’ Then there are one or two stories of him in the great country houses — at Bubb Dodington’s where he met Dr. Young and disputed with him upon the episode of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost with such vigour that at last Young burst out with the couplet:
You are so witty, profligate, and thin,
At once we think you Milton, Death, and Sin;
and at Blenheim, where the old Duchess of Marlborough hoped to lure him into helping her with her decocted memoirs, until she found that he had scruples, when in a fury she snatched the papers out of his hands. ‘I thought,’ she cried, ‘the man had sense; but I find him at bottom either a fool or a philosopher.’
It is peculiarly tantalising that our knowledge should be almost at its scantiest in the very direction in which we should like to know most, and in which there was most reason to hope that our curiosity might have been gratified. Of Voltaire’s relations with the circle of Pope, Swift, and Bolingbroke only the most meagre details have reached us. His correspondence with Bolingbroke, whom he had known in France and whose presence in London was one of his principal inducements in coming to England — a correspondence which must have been considerable — has completely disappeared. Nor, in the numerous published letters which passed about between the members of that distinguished group, is there any reference to Voltaire’s name. Now and then some chance remark raises our expectations, only to make our disappointment more acute. Many years later, for instance, in 1765, a certain Major Broome paid a visit to Ferney, and made the following entry in his diary:
Dined with Mons. Voltaire, who behaved very politely. He is very old, was dressed in a robe-de-chambre of blue sattan and gold spots on it, with a sort of blue sattan cap and tassle of gold. He spoke all the time in English. . . . His house is not very fine, but genteel, and stands upon a mount close to the mountains. He is tall and very thin, has a very piercing eye, and a look singularly vivacious. He told me of his acquaintance with Pope, Swift (with whom he lived for three months at Lord Peterborough’s) and Gay, who first showed him the Beggar’s Opera before it was acted. He says he admires Swift, and loved Gay vastly. He said that Swift had a great deal of the ridiculum acre.
And then Major Broome goes on to describe the ‘handsome new church’ at Ferney, and the ‘very neat water-works’ at Geneva. But what a vision has he opened out for us, and, in that very moment, shut away for ever from our gaze in that brief parenthesis —‘with whom he lived for three months at Lord Peterborough’s’! What would we not give now for no more than one or two of the bright intoxicating drops from that noble river of talk which flowed then with such a careless abundance! — that prodigal stream, swirling away, so swiftly and so happily, into the empty spaces of forgetfulness and the long night of Time!
So complete, indeed, is the lack of precise and well-authenticated information upon this, by far the most obviously interesting side of Voltaire’s life in England, that some writers have been led to adopt a very different theory from that which is usually accepted, and to suppose that his relations with Pope’s circle were in reality of a purely superficial, or even of an actually disreputable, kind. Voltaire himself, no doubt, was anxious to appear as the intimate friend of the great writers of England; but what reason is there to believe that he was not embroidering upon the facts, and that his true position was not that of a mere literary hanger-on, eager simply for money and réclame, with, perhaps, no particular scruples as to his means of getting hold of those desirable ends? The objection to this theory is that there is even less evidence to support it than there is to support Voltaire’s own story. There are a few rumours and anecdotes; but that is all. Voltaire was probably the best-hated man in the eighteenth century, and it is only natural that, out of the enormous mass of mud that was thrown at him, some handfuls should have been particularly aimed at his life in England. Accordingly, we learn that somebody was told by somebody else —‘avec des détails que je ne rapporterai point’— that ‘M. de Voltaire se conduisit très-irrégulièrement en Angleterre: qu’il s’y est fait beaucoup d’ennemis, par des procédés qui n’accordaient pas avec les principes d’une morale exacte.’ And we are told that he left England ‘under a cloud’; that before he went he was ‘cudgelled’ by an infuriated publisher; that he swindled Lord Peterborough out of large sums of money, and that the outraged nobleman drew his sword upon the miscreant, who only escaped with his life by a midnight flight. A more circumstantial story has been given currency by Dr. Johnson. Voltaire, it appears, was a spy in the pay of Walpole, and was in the habit of betraying Bolingbroke’s political secrets to the Government. The tale first appears in a third-rate life of Pope by Owen Ruffhead, who had it from Warburton, who had it from Pope himself. Oddly enough Churton Collins apparently believed it, partly from the evidence afforded by the ‘fulsome flattery’ and ‘exaggerated compliments’ to be found in Voltaire’s correspondence, which, he says, reveal a man in whom ‘falsehood and hypocrisy are of the very essence of his composition. There is nothing, however base, to which he will not stoop: there is no law in the code of social honour which he is not capable of violating.’ Such an extreme and sweeping conclusion, following from such shadowy premises, seems to show that some of the mud thrown in the eighteenth century was still sticking in the twentieth. M. Foulet, however, has examined Ruffhead’s charge in a very different spirit, with conscientious minuteness, and has concluded that it is utterly without foundation.
It is, indeed, certain that Voltaire’s acquaintanceship was not limited to the extremely bitter Opposition circle which centred about the disappointed and restless figure of Bolingbroke. He had come to London with letters of introduction from Horace Walpole, the English Ambassador at Paris, to various eminent persons in the Government. ‘Mr. Voltaire, a poet and a very ingenious one,’ was recommended by Walpole to the favour and protection of the Duke of Newcastle, while Dodington was asked to support the subscription to ‘an excellent poem, called “Henry IV.,” which, on account of some bold strokes in it against persecution and the priests, cannot be printed here.’ These letters had their effect, and Voltaire rapidly made friends at Court. When he brought out his London edition of the Henriade, there was hardly a great name in England which was not on the subscription list. He was allowed to dedicate the poem to Queen Caroline, and he received a royal gift of £240. Now it is also certain that just before this time Bolingbroke and Swift were suspicious of a ‘certain pragmatical spy of quality, well known to act in that capacity by those into whose company he insinuates himself,’ who, they believed, were betraying their plans to the Government. But to conclude that this detected spy was Voltaire, whose favour at Court was known to be the reward of treachery to his friends, is, apart from the inherent improbability of the supposition, rendered almost impossible, owing to the fact that Bolingbroke and Swift were themselves subscribers to the Henriade— Bolingbroke took no fewer than twenty copies — and that Swift was not only instrumental in obtaining a large number of Irish subscriptions, but actually wrote a preface to the Dublin edition of another of Voltaire’s works. What inducement could Bolingbroke have had for such liberality towards a man who had betrayed him? Who can conceive of the redoubtable Dean of St. Patrick, then at the very summit of his fame, dispensing such splendid favours to a wretch whom he knew to be engaged in the shabbiest of all traffics at the expense of himself and his friends?
Voltaire’s literary activities were as insatiable while he was in England as during every other period of his career. Besides the edition of the Henriade, which was considerably altered and enlarged — one of the changes was the silent removal of the name of Sully from its pages — he brought out a volume of two essays, written in English, upon the French Civil Wars and upon Epic Poetry, he began an adaptation of Julius Caesar for the French stage, he wrote the opening acts of his tragedy of Brutus, and he collected a quantity of material for his History of Charles XII. In addition to all this, he was busily engaged with the preparations for his Lettres Philosophiques. The Henriade met with a great success. Every copy of the magnificent quarto edition was sold before publication; three octavo editions were exhausted in as many weeks; and Voltaire made a profit of at least ten thousand francs. M. Foulet thinks that he left England shortly after this highly successful transaction, and that he established himself secretly in some town in Normandy, probably Rouen, where he devoted himself to the completion of the various works which he had in hand. Be this as it may, he was certainly in France early in April 1729; a few days later he applied for permission to return to Paris; this was granted on the 9th of April, and the remarkable incident which had begun at the Opera more than three years before came to a close.
It was not until five years later that the Lettres Philosophiques appeared. This epoch-making book was the lens by means of which Voltaire gathered together the scattered rays of his English impressions into a focus of brilliant and burning intensity. It so happened that the nation into whose midst he had plunged, and whose characteristics he had scrutinised with so avid a curiosity, had just reached one of the culminating moments in its history. The great achievement of the Revolution and the splendid triumphs of Marlborough had brought to England freedom, power, wealth, and that sense of high exhilaration which springs from victory and self-confidence. Her destiny was in the hands of an aristocracy which was not only capable and enlightened, like most successful aristocracies, but which possessed the peculiar attribute of being deep-rooted in popular traditions and popular sympathies and of drawing its life-blood from the popular will. The agitations of the reign of Anne were over; the stagnation of the reign of Walpole had not yet begun. There was a great outburst of intellectual activity and aesthetic energy. The amazing discoveries of Newton seemed to open out boundless possibilities of speculation; and in the meantime the great nobles were building palaces and reviving the magnificence of the Augustan Age, while men of letters filled the offices of State. Never, perhaps, before or since, has England been so thoroughly English; never have the national qualities of solidity and sense, independence of judgment and idiosyncrasy of temperament, received a more forcible and complete expression. It was the England of Walpole and Carteret, of Butler and Berkeley, of Swift and Pope. The two works which, out of the whole range of English literature, contain in a supreme degree those elements of power, breadth, and common sense, which lie at the root of the national genius —‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and the ‘Dunciad’— both appeared during Voltaire’s visit. Nor was it only in the high places of the nation’s consciousness that these signs were manifest; they were visible everywhere, to every stroller through the London streets — in the Royal Exchange, where all the world came crowding to pour its gold into English purses, in the Meeting Houses of the Quakers, where the Holy Spirit rushed forth untrammelled to clothe itself in the sober garb of English idiom, and in the taverns of Cheapside, where the brawny fellow-countrymen of Newton and Shakespeare sat, in an impenetrable silence, over their English beef and English beer.
It was only natural that such a society should act as a powerful stimulus upon the vivid temperament of Voltaire, who had come to it with the bitter knowledge fresh in his mind of the medieval futility, the narrow-minded cynicism of his own country. Yet the book which was the result is in many ways a surprising one. It is almost as remarkable for what it does not say as for what it does. In the first place, Voltaire makes no attempt to give his readers an account of the outward surface, the social and spectacular aspects of English life. It is impossible not to regret this, especially since we know, from a delightful fragment which was not published until after his death, describing his first impressions on arriving in London, in how brilliant and inimitable a fashion he would have accomplished the task. A full-length portrait of Hanoverian England from the personal point of view, by Voltaire, would have been a priceless possession for posterity; but it was never to be painted. The first sketch revealing in its perfection the hand of the master, was lightly drawn, and then thrown aside for ever. And in reality it is better so. Voltaire decided to aim at something higher and more important, something more original and more profound. He determined to write a book which should be, not the sparkling record of an ingenious traveller, but a work of propaganda and a declaration of faith. That new mood, which had come upon him first in Sully’s dining-room and is revealed to us in the quivering phrases of the note to Madame de Bernières, was to grow, in the congenial air of England, into the dominating passion of his life. Henceforth, whatever quips and follies, whatever flouts and mockeries might play upon the surface, he was to be in deadly earnest at heart. He was to live and die a fighter in the ranks of progress, a champion in the mighty struggle which was now beginning against the powers of darkness in France. The first great blow in that struggle had been struck ten years earlier by Montesquieu in his Lettres Persanes; the second was struck by Voltaire in the Lettres Philosophiques. The intellectual freedom, the vigorous precision, the elegant urbanity which characterise the earlier work appear in a yet more perfect form in the later one. Voltaire’s book, as its title indicates, is in effect a series of generalised reflections upon a multitude of important topics, connected together by a common point of view. A description of the institutions and manners of England is only an incidental part of the scheme: it is the fulcrum by means of which the lever of Voltaire’s philosophy is brought into operation. The book is an extremely short one — it fills less than two hundred small octavo pages; and its tone and style have just that light and airy gaiety which befits the ostensible form of it — a set of private letters to a friend. With an extraordinary width of comprehension, an extraordinary pliability of intelligence, Voltaire touches upon a hundred subjects of the most varied interest and importance — from the theory of gravitation to the satires of Lord Rochester, from the effects of inoculation to the immortality of the soul — and every touch tells. It is the spirit of Humanism carried to its furthest, its quintessential point; indeed, at first sight, one is tempted to think that this quality of rarefied universality has been exaggerated into a defect. The matters treated of are so many and so vast, they are disposed of and dismissed so swiftly, so easily, so unemphatically, that one begins to wonder whether, after all, anything of real significance can have been expressed. But, in reality, what, in those few small pages, has been expressed is simply the whole philosophy of Voltaire. He offers one an exquisite dish of whipped cream; one swallows down the unsubstantial trifle, and asks impatiently if that is all? At any rate, it is enough. Into that frothy sweetness his subtle hand has insinuated a single drop of some strange liquor — is it a poison or is it an elixir of life? — whose penetrating influence will spread and spread until the remotest fibres of the system have felt its power. Contemporary French readers, when they had shut the book, found somehow that they were looking out upon a new world; that a process of disintegration had begun among their most intimate beliefs and feelings; that the whole rigid frame-work of society — of life itself — the hard, dark, narrow, antiquated structure of their existence — had suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, become a faded, shadowy thing.
It might have been expected that, among the reforms which such a work would advocate, a prominent place would certainly have been given to those of a political nature. In England a political revolution had been crowned with triumph, and all that was best in English life was founded upon the political institutions which had been then established. The moral was obvious: one had only to compare the state of England under a free government with the state of France, disgraced, bankrupt, and incompetent, under autocratic rule. But the moral is never drawn by Voltaire. His references to political questions are slight and vague; he gives a sketch of English history, which reaches Magna Charta, suddenly mentions Henry VII., and then stops; he has not a word to say upon the responsibility of Ministers, the independence of the judicature, or even the freedom of the press. He approves of the English financial system, whose control by the Commons he mentions, but he fails to indicate the importance of the fact. As to the underlying principles of the constitution, the account which he gives of them conveys hardly more to the reader than the famous lines in the Henriade:
Aux murs de Westminster on voit paraître ensemble
Trois pouvoirs étonnés du noeud qui les rassemble.
Apparently Voltaire was aware of these deficiencies, for in the English edition of the book he caused the following curious excuses to be inserted in the preface:
Some of his English Readers may perhaps be dissatisfied at his not expatiating farther on their Constitution and their Laws, which most of them revere almost to Idolatry; but, this Reservedness is an effect of M. de Voltaire’s Judgment. He contented himself with giving his opinion of them in general Reflexions, the Cast of which is entirely new, and which prove that he had made this Part of the British Polity his particular Study. Besides, how was it possible for a Foreigner to pierce thro’ their Politicks, that gloomy Labyrinth, in which such of the English themselves as are best acquainted with it, confess daily that they are bewilder’d and lost?
Nothing could be more characteristic of the attitude, not only of Voltaire himself, but of the whole host of his followers in the later eighteenth century, towards the actual problems of politics. They turned away in disgust from the ‘gloomy labyrinth’ of practical fact to take refuge in those charming ‘general Reflexions’ so dear to their hearts, ‘the Cast of which was entirely new’— and the conclusion of which was also entirely new, for it was the French Revolution.
It was, indeed, typical of Voltaire and of his age that the Lettres Philosophiques should have been condemned by the authorities, not for any political heterodoxy, but for a few remarks which seemed to call in question the immortality of the soul. His attack upon the ancien régime was, in the main, a theoretical attack; doubtless its immediate effectiveness was thereby diminished, but its ultimate force was increased. And the ancien régime itself was not slow to realise the danger: to touch the ark of metaphysical orthodoxy was in its eyes the unforgiveable sin. Voltaire knew well enough that he must be careful.
Il n’y a qu’une lettre touchant M. Loke [he wrote to a friend]. La seule matière philosophique que j’y traite est la petite bagatelle de l’immortalité de l’âme; mais la chose a trop de conséquence pour la traiter sérieusement. Il a fallu l’égorger pour ne pas heurter de front nos seigneurs les théologiens, gens qui voient si clairement la spiritualité de l’âme qu’ils feraient brûler, s’ils pouvaient, les corps de ceux qui en doutent.
Nor was it only ‘M. Loke’ whom he felt himself obliged to touch so gingerly; the remarkable movement towards Deism, which was then beginning in England, Voltaire only dared to allude to in a hardly perceivable hint. He just mentions, almost in a parenthesis, the names of Shaftesbury, Collins, and Toland, and then quickly passes on. In this connexion, it may be noticed that the influence upon Voltaire of the writers of this group has often been exaggerated. To say, as Lord Morley says, that ‘it was the English onslaught which sowed in him the seed of the idea . . . of a systematic and reasoned attack’ upon Christian theology, is to misjudge the situation. In the first place it is certain both that Voltaire’s opinions upon those matters were fixed, and that his proselytising habits had begun, long before he came to England. There is curious evidence of this in an anonymous letter, preserved among the archives of the Bastille, and addressed to the head of the police at the time of Voltaire’s imprisonment.
Vous venez de mettre à la Bastille [says the writer, who, it is supposed, was an ecclesiastic] un homme que je souhaitais y voir il y a plus de 15 années.
The writer goes on to speak of the
métier que faisait l’homme en question, prêchant le déisme tout à découvert aux toilettes de nos jeunes seigneurs . . . L’Ancien Testament, selon lui, n’est qu’un tissu de contes et de fables, les apôtres étaient de bonnes gens idiots, simples, et crédules, et les pères de l’Eglise, Saint Bernard surtout, auquel il en veut le plus, n’étaient que des charlatans et des suborneurs.
‘Je voudrais être homme d’authorité,’ he adds, ‘pour un jour seulement, afin d’enfermer ce poète entre quatre murailles pour toute sa vie.’ That Voltaire at this early date should have already given rise to such pious ecclesiastical wishes shows clearly enough that he had little to learn from the deists of England. And, in the second place, the deists of England had very little to teach a disciple of Bayle, Fontenelle, and Montesquieu. They were, almost without exception, a group of second-rate and insignificant writers whose ‘onslaught’ upon current beliefs was only to a faint extent ‘systematic and reasoned.’ The feeble and fluctuating rationalism of Toland and Wollaston, the crude and confused rationalism of Collins, the half-crazy rationalism of Woolston, may each and all, no doubt, have furnished Voltaire with arguments and suggestions, but they cannot have seriously influenced his thought. Bolingbroke was a more important figure, and he was in close personal relation with Voltaire; but his controversial writings were clumsy and superficial to an extraordinary degree. As Voltaire himself said, ‘in his works there are many leaves and little fruit; distorted expressions and periods intolerably long.’ Tindal and Middleton were more vigorous; but their work did not appear until a later period. The masterly and far-reaching speculations of Hume belong, of course, to a totally different class.
Apart from politics and metaphysics, there were two directions in which the Lettres Philosophiques did pioneer work of a highly important kind: they introduced both Newton and Shakespeare to the French public. The four letters on Newton show Voltaire at his best — succinct, lucid, persuasive, and bold. The few paragraphs on Shakespeare, on the other hand, show him at his worst. Their principal merit is that they mention his existence — a fact hitherto unknown in France; otherwise they merely afford a striking example of the singular contradiction in Voltaire’s nature which made him a revolutionary in intellect and kept him a high Tory in taste. Never was such speculative audacity combined with such aesthetic timidity; it is as if he had reserved all his superstition for matters of art. From his account of Shakespeare, it is clear that he had never dared to open his eyes and frankly look at what he should see before him. All was ‘barbare, dépourvu de bienséances, d’ordre, de vraisemblance’; in the hurly-burly he was dimly aware of a figured and elevated style, and of some few ‘lueurs étonnantes’; but to the true significance of Shakespeare’s genius he remained utterly blind.
Characteristically enough, Voltaire, at the last moment, did his best to reinforce his tentative metaphysical observations on ‘M. Loke’ by slipping into his book, as it were accidentally, an additional letter, quite disconnected from the rest of the work, containing reflexions upon some of the Pensées of Pascal. He no doubt hoped that these reflexions, into which he had distilled some of his most insidious venom, might, under cover of the rest, pass unobserved. But all his subterfuges were useless. It was in vain that he pulled wires and intrigued with high personages; in vain that he made his way to the aged Minister, Cardinal Fleury, and attempted, by reading him some choice extracts on the Quakers, to obtain permission for the publication of his book. The old Cardinal could not help smiling, though Voltaire had felt that it would be safer to skip the best parts —‘the poor man!’ he said afterwards, ‘he didn’t realise what he had missed’— but the permission never came. Voltaire was obliged to have recourse to an illicit publication; and then the authorities acted with full force. The Lettres Philosophiques were officially condemned; the book was declared to be scandalous and ‘contraire à la religion, aux bonnes moeurs, et au respect dû aux puissances,’ and it was ordered to be publicly burned by the executioner. The result was precisely what might have been expected: the prohibitions and fulminations, so far from putting a stop to the sale of such exciting matter, sent it up by leaps and bounds. England suddenly became the fashion; the theories of M. Loke and Sir Newton began to be discussed; even the plays of ‘ce fou de Shakespeare’ began to be read. And, at the same time, the whispered message of tolerance, of free inquiry, of enlightened curiosity, was carried over the land. The success of Voltaire’s work was complete.
He himself, however, had been obliged to seek refuge from the wrath of the government in the remote seclusion of Madame du Châtelet’s country house at Cirey. In this retirement he pursued his studies of Newton, and a few years later produced an exact and brilliant summary of the work of the great English philosopher. Once more the authorities intervened, and condemned Voltaire’s book. The Newtonian system destroyed that of Descartes, and Descartes still spoke in France with the voice of orthodoxy; therefore, of course, the voice of Newton must not be heard. But, somehow or other, the voice of Newton was heard. The men of science were converted to the new doctrine; and thus it is not too much to say that the wonderful advances in the study of mathematics which took place in France during the later years of the eighteenth century were the result of the illuminating zeal of Voltaire.
With his work on Newton, Voltaire’s direct connexion with English influences came to an end. For the rest of his life, indeed, he never lost his interest in England; he was never tired of reading English books, of being polite to English travellers, and of doing his best, in the intervals of more serious labours, to destroy the reputation of that deplorable English buffoon, whom, unfortunately, he himself had been so foolish as first to introduce to the attention of his countrymen. But it is curious to notice how, as time went on, the force of Voltaire’s nature inevitably carried him further and further away from the central standpoints of the English mind. The stimulus which he had received in England only served to urge him into a path which no Englishman has ever trod. The movement of English thought in the eighteenth century found its perfect expression in the profound, sceptical, and yet essentially conservative, genius of Hume. How different was the attitude of Voltaire! With what a reckless audacity, what a fierce uncompromising passion he charged and fought and charged again! He had no time for the nice discriminations of an elaborate philosophy, and no desire for the careful balance of the judicial mind; his creed was simple and explicit, and it also possessed the supreme merit of brevity: ‘Écrasez l’infâme!’ was enough for him.
3. Correspondance de Voltaire (1726–1729). By Lucien Foulet. Paris: Hachette, 1913.]
4. ‘Il est aussi animé qu’il ait jamais été. Il a quatre-vingt-quatre ans, et en vérité je le crois immortel; il jouit de tous ses sens, aucun même n’est affaibli; c’est un être bien singulier, et en vérité fort supérieur.’ Madame du Deffand to Horace Walpole, 12 Avril 1778.]
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54