by Jim Herrick
excerpted from his 1985 book
Against the Faith
Glover & Blair Ltd., London
e-text conversion and HTML by Cliff Walker
Voltaire (1694-1778) advanced no startlingly original ideas which challenged religious belief. He was a deist rather than a fully-fledged atheist. He was not a philosopher in the common usage of the word and had little patience with metaphysics or system-building -- the 'metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology' of Pangloss in Candide. He was primarily a man of letters and ideas, immersed in the arguments and public affairs of his time and would most have wished to have been remembered as the author of successful tragedies and epic poems. He approved the social usefulness of religion and believed passionately in justice and tolerance; above all he is remembered as the flail of superstition in general and of the Catholic Church in particular.
'Voltaire' was the assumed name of François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694, the son of François Arouet, a notary and town official, and Marie Marguerite Daumoart from a family of the petty provincial nobility. He said that at his birth it was not expected that he could live. In his energetic eighty-four years' life, he was almost never free from the feeling of ill-health and frequently thought death was imminent. His skeletal frame and burning eyes suggest a tubercular constitution, but hypochondria certainly contributed to his incessant concern with his own health. Little of his childhood is known, and the few autobiographical accounts he left show no self-introspection and recount events, not intimate experiences or feelings. He was educated at a Jesuit school in Paris, Louis-le-Grand, which produced a number of freethinkers and brought him 'under the influence of teachers whose beliefs were at least masked by their classical humanism'.  Before leaving school he was experimenting with the writing of verse tragedy.
His father's ambition that he follow a sensible legal career came into conflict with his literary aspirations. Two early odes contain major themes of his life's work: 'Le Vrai Dieu' considers the contradiction of the Christian notion of a god who immolates himself by 'the sacrifice of God to God's own wrath', and 'La Chambre' bristles with indignation at social injustice: 'Hasten, destroy injustice, seize longed-for liberty at the end of the combat.'
Querying religion and the uneven justice of the ancien régime were common pastimes for the freethinking group at the Temple to which Voltaire gravitated in preference to law school. The group, known as the libertins, were led by Chaulieu, a hedonist dubbed the 'Anacreon of the Temple'. Voltaire's father thought he was sinking into a life of dissipation and packed him off to The Hague, where he had his first serious love affair and met refugees escaping religious persecution, who provided him with a vivid example of the consequences of intolerance. Returning in disguise after an unsuccessful attempt at elopement, he briefly pacified his father's furious threats to imprison him by lettre de cachet or exile him to the West Indies by resuming legal training. The lure of literature, a new lover and the Temple circle were irresistible. Voltaire overstepped even the liberal mood of the regency of Philippe d'Orléans in a rhyme insinuating an incestuous relationship between the Regent and his daughter.
Although always anxious to avoid direct conflict with the authorities, Voltaire was never prudent in choosing what to publish. His sense of defiance and mockery always overcame his consciousness of risks. When he was famous, caution over publications was argued by his friends, but it was frustrated by pirated editions and circulated manuscripts as well as his own reluctance to hide his wit under a bushel. There was a flourishing trade in the clandestine circulation of forbidden texts; censorship, which could be very severe, was also arbitrary and inefficient. Evasion of censorship gave to much of the writing of Voltaire and other philosophes a prevailing irony, which added to its appeal, but also (as intended) made it difficult to pin down the author's own views with any exactness. The arbitrariness and uncertainty of the censorship system must have especially infuriated Voltaire -- and all his life he was concerned with justice and penal reform, which is not surprising from a man who spent much of his life in flight or exile or under threat of imprisonment.
His first exile, from Paris to Sully-sur-Loire, caused him little hardship, for he became the guest of the Duc de Sully, a fellow disciple of the Temple. A flattering letter disclaiming responsibility for the offending verses about Philippe d'Orléans enabled him to return to Paris. Thus began a life-long practice of disowning his own writing, a factor which complicated the accurate editing of his numerous works. He soon placed himself in danger again by a satirical piece about the boy king which led to his arrest without trial by lettre de cachet, and his first period in the Bastille. The Bastille became a symbol of a harsh and unjust system, but Voltaire does not seem to have suffered severely during his stay of almost a year in 1717 and 1718. He was able to write and began his epic poem about Henri IV. He changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire, and 'learned to harden myself against adversity, and I found in myself a courage I had not expected from the flightiness and the errors of my youth'.
A few months after release from the Bastille, Voltaire achieved his first resounding stage success with the production of Oedipe by the Comédie Française. It was an immediate success and contains deeply felt expressions of disgust with absolute authority and priests.
During the next half-dozen years Voltaire acquired a reputation as a poet and tragedian and moved in literary and aristocratic circles. He was also gaining notoriety for his deistic views and his criticism of Christianity. A long poem Epître à Uranie, written in 1722 but only published surreptitiously ten years later, contains a thorough-going condemnation of Christianity: 'So, lovely Uranie, you want me to become by your command a new Lucretius, to tear away with a bold hand, before you, the blindfold of superstition; to display before your eyes the dangerous image of the sacred lies with which the world is filled; and to learn from my philosophy to despise the horrors of the tomb and the terrors of the other life.' The writer asks to be shown the God who is hidden from us, not a monster that must be hated; a monster who created men in his own image so that he could abuse them, and gave them evil hearts in order to punish them. The deist complaint, to be reiterated by Thomas Paine and others, was that the Christian God was a travesty of the natural God of the universe.
Voltaire made diverse remarks about God in his numerous works and letters, preferred wit and irony to metaphysics, and often fitted his remarks to particular occasions. This has left much room for arguments about his deism and the nature of the God he believed in. The conclusion of Épître à Uranie written quite early in his life perhaps gives a fair picture of the impersonal but vaguely benign force he believed to underpin the universe:
Consider that the eternal wisdom of the most high has with his hand engraved natural religion in the bottom of your heart; believe that the simple candour of your mind will not be the object of his immortal hatred; believe that before his throne, always, everywhere, the heart of just man is precious; believe that a modest bonze, a charitable dervish, find grace in his eyes rather than a merciless Jansenist or an ambitious pontiff. Ah! but what matter indeed by what name he be implored? Every homage is received, but none does him honour. A god has no need of our assiduous attentions: if he can be offended, it is only by injustice; he judges by our virtues, and not by our sacrifices.
The idea that all religions can contain a germ of deist truth was characteristic of a writer who was fascinated by information from all quarters of the globe and impressed by the relativity of customs. Fanaticism was what Voltaire thought so unworthy of any deity. The appeal of Henri IV as the subject matter for his epic poem La Henriade lay in that French king's ending of the sixteenth-century wars of religion. La Henriade was started during his first spell in the Bastille and published unofficially in 1723. Many regarded it as a masterpiece rivalling Virgil's epic. The description of the massacre of St Bartholomew could only appal a conventional French Catholic; so keenly did Voltaire feel the horror of massacre and religious persecution that he claimed he was invariably ill with a high temperature on St Bartholomew's Day.
In 1726 he quarrelled with the Chevalier Rohan and once again was thrown into the Bastille. Quarrelsomeness and over-reaction to criticism were a constant feature of his life and it cannot be said that the bitter feuds and quarrels upon which he wasted much nervous energy were all the responsibility of his enemies. Like all mortals he was infected with the weakness of his virtues: he detested injustice and unfairness, but he misinterpreted and was oversensitive to some criticism, and the vigour and animus which he showed in the demolition of superstition and restoring the wronged Calas or Sirven families were sprayed indiscriminately on all opponents. After a month in prison he gained release by offering voluntary self-exile and prepared to set sail for England.
His two years in England profoundly influenced his thinking. He was impressed with the religious tolerance, and thought deeply about the ideas of Locke and Newton. He was always torn between shining at the centre of society or seeking peace and quiet to pursue his addiction to work. For much of his stay he was a guest of Sir Everard Fawkener in the village of Wandsworth, but he met some English notables, re-established contact with Bolingbroke and corresponded with Pope and Swift. The fruits of a relatively quiet period in his life were gathered in his Letters concerning the English Nation, first published in 1733, and republished in France as Lettres Philosophiques; they were taken, rightly, as an implicit criticism of French society. The letters range over English government, trade, theatre, science and philosophy and praise English tolerance of different religious sects.
Voltaire's comments on the Pensées of Pascal were not published in the original version of the Lettres but appeared in the French 1734 edition. The contrast between Pascal and Voltaire finely illustrated the antithetical outlook of two quite distinct minds. Voltaire quotes Pascal: 'Let me therefore be no longer reproached for lack of clarity, since I make a point of it, but let the truth of religion be recognized in its very obscurity, in the little understanding we have of it and in our indifference about knowing it.' Voltaire replied: 'What strange marks of truth Pascal advances! What other marks does falsehood possess? What! in order to be believed it would be enough to say: I am obscure, I am unintelligible! It would be much more sensible to offer our eyes only the light of faith instead of these learned twilights.'
The Lettres Philosophiques caused an order to be sent out for Voltaire's arrest and for the book to be burnt by the public executioner, because it was 'the greatest danger for religion and public order'.
By this time Voltaire had been back in France for five years, during which his flow of plays, poems and letters never ceased and his interest in historical writing and research developed. In 1729, on his return from England, he devoted much effort to ensuring his financial security: he focused his intellect and knowledge of public affairs upon exploiting a loophole in a public lottery and acquired a fortune. Many writers will envy the single-mindedness with which he applied his abilities to ensuring sufficient finances for a lifetime's comfort. In 1731 he published a life of Charles XII of Sweden: part of the edition was seized by the police, its attitude to monarchy being less than adulatory. The following year he began work upon Le Siècle de Louis XIV, not to be published until 1751. He was among those eighteenth-century historians, of whom Bayle had been the precursor, who wrested history from the hands of the theologians. Gibbon owed more to him than he cared to admit. A preface to Charles XII opens in a typically epigrammatic fashion: 'Incredulity ... is the basis of all wisdom.' Voltaire had an ambivalent attitude to monarchy; he loathed arbitrary rule, but always hoped for an enlightened despot, a philosopher king. His relationship with Frederick II of Prussia and correspondence with Catherine the Great of Russia are evidence of this attitude. The nineteenth-century radicals who enjoyed his vitriolic condemnation of priestcraft, found in him no scourge of kingcraft.
Voltaire continued to write plays and Zaïre was performed in 1732. It opens with a declaration of the relativity of morals and religious customs. An increasing knowledge of different religions is a major aspect of the move away from belief in the absolute truth of any one religion in the eighteenth century. Zaïre says in the first scene of the play:
Custom, law bent my first years to the religion of the happy Muslims. I see it too clearly: the care taken of our childhood forms our feelings, our habits, our belief. By the Ganges I would have been a slave of the false gods, a Christian in Paris, a Muslim here.
Mahomet, written and performed ten years later, contains similar implications. In demonstrating that the Mahommedan religion was based upon false miracles, personal ambition, and ruthless fanaticism, Voltaire, as his audience knew, was making a comment with relevance to Jesus Christ and Christianity. A dedication of the play to Pope Benedict XIV was written tongue in cheek.
In 1733 Voltaire fell in love with Madame du Châtelet. They were lovers and then close friends until her death during the birth of her child by Saint-Lambert in 1749. She was a woman of formidable intellect who had displayed a precocious knowledge of languages and possessed a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and philosophy: her partnership with Voltaire was intellectual as well as amorous. Voltaire spent much of their seventeen years' friendship at her château at Cirey in Champaigne. A correspondent's portrait of the pair catches a characteristic mood of this phase of his life: 'The two of them are there alone, plunged in gaiety. One writes verse in his comer. The other triangles in hers.'
Voltaire's interest in Newton was reinforced by Mme du Châtelet. He wrote the Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton, first published in 1738 in Amsterdam because refused a licence in France, which was extremely influential in popularizing the physics of Newton. 'God said "Let Newton be" and there was light', but the light was spread across Europe by Voltaire. From a viewpoint of alarm and antagonism, a Jesuit publication commented upon the efficacy of Voltaire's use of the printed word: 'Newton, the great Newton, was, it is said, buried in the abyss, in the shop of the first publisher who dared to print him.... M. Voltaire finally appeared, and at once Newton is understood or in the process of being understood; all Paris resounds with Newton, all Paris stammers Newton, all Paris studies and learns Newton.' Study of Newton made Voltaire realize that the metaphysics of Descartes was untenable. It was no longer possible to believe that God had endowed men with knowledge of basic principles and that logical arguments would give an understanding of scientific laws: 'The only way in which man can reason about objects is by his analysis. To begin straight from first principles belongs to God alone.' Newton left plenty of room for an active deity, whose intervention was necessary to keep the laws of nature functioning. Voltaire thought that atheists had been misled by Cartesian ideas, while 'almost all the Newtonians I have seen, accepting the vacuum and the finite nature of matter, accept as a result the existence of God'.
Court society had its appeal for Voltaire, though he was never at ease among courtiers. He was ambitious for fame and financial support, flattered by the thought that he could influence diplomats and rulers, and above all sought the favour which would give him protection to publish freely. He wrote an entertainment for the marriage of Louis XV's heir, wrote a popular poem praising a French victory at Fontenoy, was appointed official historiographer to the king, and finally elected to the Académie Française. But he complained of being the king's buffoon, and at fifty abandoned the life of a courtier with some relief after his predictable failure to be discreet.
Voltaire never quite abandoned his vain dream of a philosopher-king, whose tolerant and benevolent rule would benefit all his subjects. His relationship with Frederick II of Prussia shows all the characteristics of an intense love-hate relationship. Voltaire received his first letter of admiration from Frederick in 1736, while he was crown prince. The correspondence, which reached nearly a thousand letters, continued until Voltaire's death. Disenchantment with Voltaire's hopes for enlightened rule from Frederick II must have quickly arrived when, on his accession in 1740, Frederick embarked on military conquests ill-befitting a king devoted to benevolence and reason. They discussed philosophy seriously, they were a mutual admiration society, but their motives and interests were quite antithetical. Frederick wanted Voltaire, the most renowned man of letters in all Europe, as a jewel in his court; how far Voltaire was deceived by this autocratic egomaniac and how far he was in his own way attempting to use the situation to his own advantage is not easy to ascertain.
After the death of Mme du Châtelet and more than usually weary of the pursuit of his publications by the French authorities, he acceded to Frederick's wooing and departed for Berlin. He had every comfort and found time for study, writing and a love affair, in between correcting Frederick's execrable verse. Other philosophes at the court included the materialist La Mettrie; and he it was who reported Frederick's overheard comments about Voltaire: 'I shall need him another year at most; you squeeze the orange and you throw away the peel.' Voltaire was not to depart without a retaliatory squeeze, but meanwhile completed and saw through publication Le Siècle de Louis XIV.
The parting quarrel between Frederick and Voltaire was provoked by a scientific argument between König and Maupertuis in which each took sides: it really concerned who was to serve the interest of whom, and spiralled into a furious clash in which Frederick called Voltaire 'the greatest rascal in Europe' and Voltaire deserted the court. Voltaire converted the whole business into a biting and witty satire, Diatribe du docteur Akakia, and Frederick was the laughingstock of Europe when he ordered it to be burnt in a public square in Berlin. Voltaire fled to Frankfurt, but he and his niece, Mme Denis, suffered the indignity of arrest at bayonet point before achieving freedom. Some years later Voltaire resumed correspondence with Frederick, and there can be no doubting the fascination for him of the man he described as 'Mon Patron, mon disciple, mon persécuteur'.
After an unsettled year, Voltaire, perhaps influenced by a printer who offered to publish his work with care, bought a country house outside the city of Geneva in 1755. He named the house Les Délices: 'It is a palace for a philosopher with the gardens of Epicurus: it is a delicious retreat.' His niece, who had been his mistress since 1744, was to be his permanent companion for his remaining years. He sought peace and took an increased interest in gardening and his estate. The Calvinist Genevan authorities at first relaxed their dispensation sufficiently to allow this deist, officially a Catholic, to settle in their republic.
Voltaire's hopes of calm collapsed within a few months as strains developed between himself and the Genevan Calvinists. At first he was compelled to repudiate a pirated edition of parts of his long poem about Joan of Arc, La Pucelle. Then a poem in which he praised the pleasures of his Swiss haven was publicly burnt because of a tactless reference to a former Duke of Savoy. Irritation increased when the public were forbidden to attend theatrical performances at the theatre which he built at Les Délices. A more serious cause of friction was a reference to Calvin in a public letter in which he praised the tolerance of the Genevans: he overestimated this, for he was formally condemned by the civil and religious authorities in Geneva for his phrase, 'Calvin had an atrocious soul as well as an enlightened mind'. The incident which most outraged the Genevan authorities was the publication of the article on Geneva in L'Encyclopédie. D'Alembert had written the piece, but, since he had stayed with Voltaire while working upon it, Voltaire was implicated. The article was extremely complimentary to Geneva, but the inaccurate and over-optimistic view that the Genevan church was essentially Socinian (a European sect which foreshadowed Unitarianism) and had turned Christianity into an ethical doctrine caused a furious assertion of Calvinist dogmatism. Voltaire sought another home and in 1759 bought an estate at Ferney, just within the French border but distant from the French authorities.
Voltaire's period at Les Délices was extremely productive. The pirated edition of La Pucelle appeared. He had begun the poem as early as 1730, but it was only given an authorized publication in 1762. A burlesque epic of twenty-one books, it revolves round the idea that the virginity of Joan of Arc had been an essential ingredient in her role as saviour of France -- an idea which Voltaire thought a huge joke and presented with great ribaldry. A depiction of Hell wherein resided many worthies such as Marcus Aurelius, 'the good Trajan', 'eloquent Cicero' and 'Socrates, child of wisdom', as well as preachers, prelates, monks and nuns, would have offended believers. (In a later letter Voltaire suggested, as a piece of hilarity, that Joan of Arc might one day be canonized.)
Experience was contributing to a darker strand in Voltaire's work; the quarrels in Berlin and friction with the Genevan authorities were bitter experiences and the Seven Years' War and the Lisbon earthquake horrified Europeans. Voltaire was deeply affected by the earthquake, which had caused massive destruction and loss of life, and wrote a poem in response to the event. A letter written while preparing the poem shows his state of mind:
My dear sir, nature is very cruel. One would find it hard to imagine how the laws of movement cause such frightful disasters in the best of possible worlds. A hundred thousand ants, our fellows, crushed all at once in our ant-hill, and half of them perishing, no doubt in unspeakable agony, beneath the wreckage from which they cannot be drawn. Families ruined all over Europe, the fortune of a hundred businessmen, your compatriots, swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a wretched gamble is the game of human life! What will the preachers say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition is still standing? I flatter myself that at least the reverend father inquisitors have been crushed like others. That ought to teach men not to persecute each other, for while a few holy scoundrels burn a few fanatics, the earth swallows up one and all.
He attacks Leibniz, the great German philosopher and deist, whose view of God's creation of the universe as 'the best of all possible worlds' was caricatured: 'Leibniz does not tell me by what invisible twists an eternal disorder, a chaos of misfortunes, mingles real sorrow with our vain pleasures in the best arranged of possible universes, nor why the guilty suffer alike this inevitable evil....' But he did not offer his own solution to the problem of evil.
His best-known treatment of this theme came in his most popular work, Candide. Its wit, sharpness and topicality caused six thousand copies to be sold within weeks of publication in 1759. The sly irony enraged and delighted Europe and Candide and his other contes, especially L'Ingénu, are the most enduring examples of attack on religion by ridicule rather than analysis.
Candide, a naive and innocent young man, is an ideal vehicle for exposing some of the absurdities of philosophy and religion. In South America he escapes death because he is not a Jesuit: 'But after all, there is some good in the pure state of nature, since these people instead of eating me, offered me a thousand civilities as soon as they knew I was not a Jesuit.' Voltaire's belief in the universality of religion and the irrelevance of priests is seen when Candide finds himself in El Dorado:
Candide was curious to see the priests; and asked where they were. The good old man smiled. 'My friends,' said he, 'we are all priests; the King and all the heads of families solemnly stag praises every morning, accompanied by five or six thousand musicians.' 'What! Have you no monks to teach, to dispute, to govern, to intrigue and to burn people who do not agree with them?' 'For that, we should have to become fools,' said the old man; 'here we are of the same opinion and do not understand what you mean with your monks.'
The idea that a deity takes a personal interest in each individual is queried in the words of a Dervish: 'When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry about the comfort or discomfort of the rats in the ship?' Apart from the excuse for gibes in all directions, Candide counters the fatalism of Panglossian belief in 'the best of all possible worlds'. Voltaire wrote in the margin of his copy of Pope's Essay on Man: 'What can I hope when all is right?' The famous conclusion to Candide, 'Il faut cultiver notre jardin', does not endorse a selfish isolated existence, but implies the need for cultivation, action and work. Voltaire was a meliorist and reformist, not a utopian or fatalist.
In his last nineteen years at Ferney, Voltaire lived out a far from serene old age. His writing was more engagé than ever, and his role as a reformer and campaigner developed. Three cases of injustice absorbed much of his energies in the 1760s: the Calas case, the plight of the Sirven family, and the execution of La Barre. All three cases involved religious bigotry. The Calas case was made a cause célèbre by Voltaire's involvement. The son of the Protestant Jean Calas was found dead (probably by suicide), and his family were accused of murdering him to prevent him becoming a Catholic. Religious hysteria in Toulouse led to the torture and execution of Jean Calas. Voltaire, suspicious of the charge that a whole family would combine to murder one of its members, investigated and became convinced of injustice. His campaign to restore the reputation of the family took several years and it has been claimed that he was the first man of letters to marshal public opinion in defence of a cause. His essay Traité sur la tolérance emerged from his involvement with the case; its publication was delayed in order not to prejudice the outcome.
A similar case, that of the Sirven family, took nine years to resolve. The family were accused of causing the death of their daughter to prevent Catholic conversion. The case of La Barre, tortured and executed for blasphemy in 1766, shocked Voltaire deeply. This youth of nineteen refused to doff his hat to a religious procession and mutilated a wooden crucifix. Voltaire was the more haunted by 'this sentence so execrable, and at the same time so absurd, which is an eternal disgrace to France', because possession of his Dictionnaire Philosophique may have contributed to La Barre's punishment.
The Dictionnaire Philosophique was one of the most important of his later works and contained a convenient summation of his ideas in a style which is still extremely readable. The first edition, published in 1764, was immediately condemned by the government and church as an 'alphabetical abomination'. Voltaire, who had written some articles for the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot, was critical of that compendium's caution in the face of the authorities. He also thought a more concise book would have a wider impact: 'Twenty folio volumes will never make a revolution. It is the little portable volumes of thirty sous that are to be feared. Had the gospel cost twelve hundred sesterces the Christian religion would never have been established.'
The Dictionnaire's references to religion and the Bible are lucid and full of irony (biblical knowledge was discouraged by the Catholic church). He described his approach:
I think the best way to fall on the infamous [l'infâme meant the Church for Voltaire] is to seem to have no wish to attack it; to disentangle a little chaos of antiquity; to try to make these things rather interesting: to make ancient history as agreeable as possible; to show how much we have been misled in all things; to demonstrate how much is modern in all things thought to be ancient, and how ridiculous are many things alleged to be respectable; to let the reader draw his own conclusions.
The essence of the Dictionnaire Philosophique lay in exact examination of biblical 'events', satire of selective use of the Bible and comparison of Christianity with an independent ethical code. His humour is seen in an entry on Councils:
It is reported in the supplement of the council of Nicaea that the fathers, being very perplexed to know which were the cryphal or apocryphal books of the Old and New Testaments, put them all pell-mell on an altar, and the books to be rejected fell to the ground. It is a pity that this eloquent procedure has not survived.
A dialogue about a priest's catechism shows the non-theological simple priest whom Voltaire could admire:
I shall always speak of morality and never of controversy. God forbid that I should elaborate on concomitant grace, the efficacious grace we resist, the sufficient grace which does not suffice; or examine whether the angels who ate with Abraham and Lot had bodies or whether they pretended to eat. There are a thousand things my audience would not understand, nor I either. I shall try to make good men and to be good myself, but I shall not create theologians, and I shall be one as little as I can.
This brings the retort:
Oh! what a good priest! I'd like to buy a country house in your parish.
The entry under 'God' concludes with a delightful anecdote warning against preaching any clear anthropomorphic view of God:
Before receiving your instruction, I must tell you what happened to me one day. I had just had a closet built at the end of my garden. I heard a mole arguing with a cockchafer; 'Here's a fine structure,' said the mole, 'it must have been a very powerful mole who did this work.' 'You're joking,' said the cockchafer; 'it's a cockchafer full of genius who is the architect of this building.' From that moment I resolved never to argue.
The substantial entry under Atheism condemns that outlook as did his critical reply to d'Holbach's materialistic Système de la nature in 1770. In the Dictionnaire he refers to Bayle's question whether a society of atheists was possible, and in answering in the affirmative points to the Roman senate at the time of Cicero. He thought fanaticism was infinitely more dangerous than atheism and that the ambitious and voluptuous had better things to do than 'compare Lucretius with Socrates'. Nevertheless he said atheists were misguided and if they existed did so in reaction to the monstrous representatives of religion:
If there are atheists, who is to be blamed if not the mercenary tyrants of souls who, in revolting us against their swindles, compel some feeble spirits to deny the God whom these monsters dishonour?
The Atheist article contains the frequently implied view that religion is a useful tool for maintaining public order: 'It is absolutely necessary for princes to have deeply engraved in their minds the notion of a supreme being, creator, ruler, remunerator, and avenger'. This is a view not entirely consistent with his suffering at the hands of avenging rulers.
At Ferney he was the ruler of his own tiny kingdom. His benevolence caused the growth of a prosperous community, his tolerance drew watchmakers from Switzerland, he fought excessive government taxes and church tithes. He came to loathe his role as a 'sight' for visiting tourists. His building of a church surprised contemporaries, and his attendance at two Easter communion services, on one occasion preaching against drinking and theft, was seen as controversial and provocative. The reasons for his presence are unclear: maybe he genuinely wanted to be an 'ethical priest' and 'encourager les autres' in good behaviour; perhaps, as death approached, he feared denial of a respectable burial; did he enjoy the idea that his actions were provocative and would enrage more orthodox priests? Presumably his motives were mixed.
A stroke at the age of seventy-three did not diminish his powers. In the last decade he continued to pour forth a stream of pamphlets, letters, corrected editions, and articles. Disagreement with atheism and adherence to deism did not cause his assault on l'infâme to diminish. Homélies prononcées à Londres dealt with atheism, superstition and the Old and New Testaments. The conclusion is forceful:
Let us therefore reject all superstition in order to become more human; but in speaking against fanaticism, let us not imitate the fanatics: they are sick men in delirium who want to chastise their doctors. Let us assuage their ills, and never embitter them, and let us pour drop by drop into their souls the divine balm of toleration, which they would reject with horror if it were offered to them all at once.
His enthusiasm for dramatic writing, which had successfully launched his literary career, did not decline. He wrote two plays, Irène and Agathode, in his eighty-fourth year. Mme Denis, with whom his relationship was now less easy, spent time in Paris and persuaded Voltaire, who had long contemplated, feared and dreamed of returning to the capital, to travel there to supervise a production of one of his last plays. He embarked in March 1778 and returned to Paris in triumph. He was met by representatives of the Académie Française and Comédie Française and received hundreds of callers, including Benjamin Franklin. His apotheosis, as it has become known, was to be crowned and cheered at a performance of one of his plays. The whirl of activity was too much for him; his health broke and within three months he died.
Priests eager for a death-bed conversion bombarded him with letters and visits to which he responded with a contradiction of evasive and conciliatory reactions. A declaration in the presence of his loyal secretary, Wagnière, enunciated his position: 'I died worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, detesting superstition.' His biographer, Besterman, has commented that it 'only remained for the church to besmirch his deathbed and to poison his memory'. A plan to prevent a decent burial was foiled, but collected editions of his work were suppressed, and the Archbishop of Vienne told his parishioners that it was a mortal sin to subscribe to a complete edition of his writings. But, though much of his writing was polemical and of his time, he is still read for his wit and perspicuity, and admired for his energy and passionate efforts on behalf of tolerance and justice. He complained that Pascal taught men to hate and proclaimed his own preference: 'I would sooner teach them to love one another.'
Il [Pascal] enseigne aux humains à se haïr eux-mêmes, Je voudrais malgré lui leur apprendre à s'aimer.
1. Theodore Besterman. Voltaire's most thorough and admiring biographer. All translations in this chapter are by him unless otherwise indicated.