Parton's Life of Voltaire

MR. PARTON has given us in these volumes1 another of his interesting and instructive biographies. Not as interesting, indeed, as some others, — for example, as his life of Andrew Jackson; nor as instructive as his lives of Franklin and of Jefferson. The nature of the case made this impossible. The story of Jackson had never been told till Mr. Parton undertook it. It was a history of frontier life, of strange adventures, of desperate courage, of a force of character which conquered all obstacles and achieved extraordinary results. It was such a history as the gentle Desdemona might have willingly listened to, or the delicate Lucy Fountain have heard with attentive ears, so surely do opposites attract each other; a story

“Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth ’scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe.”

No such interest attaches to the Life of Voltaire. His most serious adventure was being shut up in the Bastille for a pasquinade, and being set free again on his solemn protestation, true or false, that he never wrote it. It is an old story, told a thousand times, with all its gloss, if it ever had any, quite worn off. The Life of Franklin, which, on the whole, we think the best of Partou’s biographies, was full of interest and instruction of another kind. It was the life of a builder, — of one who gave his great powers to construction, to building up new institutions and new sciences, to the discovery of knowledge and the creation of national life. Voltaire was a diffuser of knowledge already found, but he had not the patience nor the devotion of a discoverer. His gift was not to construct good institutions, but to destroy bad ones, a work the interest of which is necessarily ephemeral. No wonder, therefore, that Mr. Parton, with all his practiced skill as a biographer, has not been able to give to the story of Voltaire the thrilling interest which he imparted to that of Franklin and of Jackson. But of this more hereafter.

We gladly take the present opportunity to add our recognition of Mr. Parton’s services to those which have come to him from other quarters. A writer of unequal merit, and one whose judgment is often biased by his prejudices, he nevertheless has done much to show how biography should be written. Of all forms of human writing there is none which ought to be at once so instructive and so interesting as this, but in the large majority of instances it is the most vapid and empty. The good biographies, in all languages, are so few that they can almost be counted on the lingers ; but these are among the most precious books in the literature of mankind. The story of Ruth, the Odyssey of Homer, Plutarch’s lives, the Memorabilia of Xenophon, the life of Agricola, the Confessions of Augustine, among the ancients; and in modern times Boswell’s Johnson, the autobiographies of Alfleri, Benvenuto Cellini, Franklin, Goethe, Voltaire’s Charles XII., and Southey’s Life of Wesley are specimens of what may be accomplished in this direction. It has been thought that any man can write a biography, but it requires genius to understand genius. How much intelligence is necessary to collect with discrimination the significant facts of a human life; to penetrate to the law of which they are the expression ; to give the picturesque proportions to every part, to arrange the foreground, the middle distance, and the background of the panorama ; to bring out in proper light and shadow the features and deeds of the hero! Few biographers take this trouble. They content themselves with collecting the letters written by and to their subject; sweeping together the facts of his life, important or otherwise ; arranging them in some kind of chronological order : and then having this printed and bound up in one or two heavy volumes.

To all this many writers of biography add another fault, which is almost a fatal one. They treat their subject de haut en has, preferring to look down upon him rather than to look up to him. They occupy themselves in criticising his faults and pointing out his deficiencies, till they forget to mention what he has accomplished to make him worthy of having his life written at all. We lately saw a life of Pope treated in this style. One unacquainted with Pope, after reading it, would say, “ If he was such a contemptible fellow, and his writings so insignificant, why should we have to read his biography ? ” Thomas Carlyle has the great merit of leading the way in the opposite direction, and of thus initiating a new style of biography. The old method was for the writer to regard himself as a judge on the bench, and the subject of his biography as a prisoner at the bar. Carlyle, in his Life of Schiller, showed himself a loving disciple, sitting: at the feet of his master. We recollect that when this work first appeared there were only a few copies known to be in this country. One was in the possession of an eminent professor in Harvard College, of whom the present writer borrowed it. On returning it, he was asked what he thought of it, and replied that he considered it written with much enthusiasm. “Yes,” responded the professor, “ I myself thought it rather extravagant.” Enthusiasm in a biographer was then considered to be the same as extravagance. But this heroworship, which was the charm in Plutarch, Xenophon, and Boswell, inspired a like interest in Carlyle’s portraits of Schiller, Goethe, Richter, Burns, and the actors in the French Revolution. So true is his own warning : “ Friend, if you wish me to take an interest in what you say, be so kind as to take some interest in it yourself” — a golden maxim, to be kept in mind by all historians, writers of travels, biographers, preachers, and teachers. A social success may sometimes be accomplished by assuming the blasé air of the Roman emperor who said, “ Omnia fui, nihil expedit; ” but this tone is ruinous for one who wishes the ear of the public.

Since the days of Carlyle, others have written in the same spirit, allowing themselves to take more or less interest in the man whose life they were relating. So Macaulay, in his sketches of Clive, Hastings, Chatham, Pym, and Hampden; so Lewes, in his Life of Goethe ; and so Parton, in his various biographies. None of these authors have made themselves liable to the stinging satire of Moore’s lines on the Reminiscences of Byron, by Leigh Hunt, which he compares to a supposed work on the lion in Exeter Change, written by the little dog who lived in his cage : —

“ How that animal looks, how he eats, how he drinks,
Is all duly described by this puppy so small :
And 't is plain, from each sentence, the puppy-dog thinks
That the lion was no such great thing, after all.
“Though he roared pretty well (this the puppy allows),
It was all, ho says, borrowed,—all second-hand roar ;
And he vastly prefers his own little bow-wows
To the loftiest war-note the lion could pour.”

In some respects Mr. Parton’s biography reminds us of Macaulay’s History. Both have been credited with the same qualities, both charged with the same defects. Both are indefatigable in collecting material from all quarters,— from other histories and biographies, memoirs, letters, newspapers, broadsides, and personal communications gathered in many out-of-the-way localities. Both have the power of discarding insignificant details and retaining what is suggestive and picturesque. Both, therefore, have the same supreme merit of being interesting. Both have strong prejudices, take sides earnestly, forget that they are narrators, and begin to plead as attorneys and advocates. Both have been accused, rightly or wrongly, of grave inaccuracies. But their defects will not prevent them from holding their place as teachers of the English-speaking public. The English and American readers will long continue to think of Marlborough as Macaulay represents him; of Jackson and Jefferson as Parton describes them. Such Rembrandtlike portraits fix the attention by their strange chiaro-oscuro. They may not be like nature, but they take the place of nature. The most remarkable instance of this kind is the representation of Tiberius by Tacitus, which has caused mankind, until very recently, to consider him a monster of licentiousness and cruelty, in spite of the almost self-evident absurdity and self-contradiction of this assumption.2 Limners with such a terrible power of portraiture should be very careful how they use it, and not abuse the facility in the interest of their prejudices.

If Mr. Parton resembles Macaulay in some respects, in one point, at least, he is like Carlyle: that is that his last hero is the least interesting. From Schiller and Goethe to Frederic the Great was a fall; and so from Franklin to Voltaire. Carlyle tells us what a weary task he had with his Prussian king, and we think that Mr. Parton’s labors over the patriarch of the eighteenth-century literature must have been equally distressing. At a distance, Voltaire is a striking phenomenon: the most brilliant wit of almost any period ; the most prolific writer ; a successful dramatist, historian, biographer, story-teller, controversialist, lyrical poet, student of science. “ Truly, a universal genius, a mighty power! ” we say. But look more closely, and this genius turns into talent; this encyclopædic knowledge becomes only superficial half knowledge; this royalty is a sham royalty; it does not lead the world, but follows it. The work into which Voltaire put his heart was destruction— the destruction of falsehoods, bigotries, cruelties, and shams. It was an important duty, and some one had to do it. But it was temporary, and one of which the interest is soon over. If Luther and the other reformers had aimed only at destroying the Church ot Rome, their influence would have speedily ceased. But they rebuilt, as they destroyed; the sword in one hand, and the trowel in the other. They destroyed in order to build; they took away the outgrown house, to put another in its place. Voltaire had not got as far as that; he wanted no new church in the place of the old one.

Voltaire and J. J. Rousseau are often spoken of as though they were fellowworkers, and are associated in many minds as sharing the same convictions. Nothing can be more untrue. They were radically opposite in the very structure of their minds, and their followers and admirers are equally different. If all men can be divided into Platonists and Aristotelians, they may be in like manner classified as those who prefer Voltaire to Rousseau, and vice versa. Both were indeed theists, and both opposed to the popular religion of their time. Both were brilliant writers, masters of the French language, listened to by the people, and with a vast popularity. Both were more or less persecuted for their religious heresies. So far they resemble each other. But these are only external resemblances ; radically and inwardly they were polar opposites. What attracted one repelled the other. Voltaire was a man of the world, fond of society and social pleasures; the child of his time, popular, a universal favorite. Rousseau shrank from society, hated its fashions, did not enjoy its pleasures, and belonged to another epoch than the eighteenth century. Rousseau believed in human nature, and thought that if we could return to our natural condition the miseries of life would cease. Voltaire despised human nature ; he forever repeated that the majority of men were knaves and fools. Rousseau distrusted education and culture as commonly understood ; but to Voltaire’s mind they were the only matters of any value, •— all that made life worth living. Rousseau was more like Pascal than like Voltaire ; far below Pascal, no doubt, in fixed moral principles and ascetic virtue. Yet he resembled him in his devotion to ideas, his enthusiasm for some better day to come. Both were out of place iu their own time; both were prophets crying in the wilderness. Put Voltaire between Pascal and Rousseau, and it would be something like the tableau of Goethe between Basedow and Lavater.

“ Prophets reclits, Prophete links,
Das Weltkind in der Mittc.”

The difference between Voltaire and Rousseau was really that between a man of talent and a man of genius. Voltaire, brilliant, adroit, full of resource, quick as a flash, versatile, with immense powers of working, with a life full of literary successes, has not left behind him a single masterpiece. He comes in everywhere second best. As a tragedian be is inferior to Racine ; as a wit and comic writer far below Moliere ; and he is quite surpassed as a historian and biographer by many modern French authors. No germinating ideas are to he found in his writings, no seed corn for future harvests. He thought himself a philosopher, and was so regarded by others; but neither had his philosophy any roots to it. A sufficient proof of this is the fact that he shared the superficial optimism of the English deists, as expressed by Bolingbroke and Pope, until the Lisbon earthquake, by destroying thirty thousand people, changed his whole mental attitude. Till then he could say with Pope, “ Whatever is, is right.” After that, most things which are appeared to him fatally and hopelessly wrong. That thirty thousand persons should perish iu a few minutes, in great suffering, he thought inconsistent with the goodness of God. But take the whole world over, thirty thousand people are continually perishing, in the course of a few hours or days. What difference does it make, in a philosophical point of view, if they die all at once in a particular place, or at longer intervals in many places ? Voltaire asks, “ What crime had those infants committed who lie crushed on their mother’s breasts ? ” What crime, we reply, have the infants committed who have been dying by millions, in suffering, since the world began? “Was Lisbon,” he asks, “ more wicked than Paris?” But had Voltaire never noticed before that wicked people often live on in health and pleasure, while the good suffer and die ? Voltaire did not see, what it requires very little philosophy to discover, that a Lisbon earthquake really presents no more difficulty to the reason than the suffering and death of a single child. In fact, if you can explain the pain inflicted by the sting of a wasp, you have solved the whole problem of evil.

Another fact which shows the shallow nature of Voltaire’s way of thinking was his expectation of destroying Christianity by a combined attack upon it by all the wits and philosophers. Mr. Parton tells us that “ l'Infâme,” which Voltaire expected to crush, “ was not religion, nor the Christian religion, nor the Roman Catholic church. It was,” he says, “religion claiming supernatural authority;and enforcing that claim by painsand penalties” No doubt it was the spirit of intolerance and persecution which excited his indignation. But the object of that indignation was not the abstraction which Mr. Parton presents to us. It was something far more concrete. There is no doubt that lie confounded Christianity with the churches about him, and these with their abuses ; and thus his object was to sweep away all positive religious institutions, and to leave in their place a philosophic deism. Else what meaning in his famous boast that “ it required twelve men to found a belief, which it would need only one man to destroy”? What meaning, otherwise, in his astonishment that Locke, “ having in one book so profoundly traced the development of the understanding, could so degrade his own understanding in another”? — referring, as Mr. Morley believes, to Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity. Voltaire saw around him Christianity represented by cruel bigots, ecclesiastics living in indolent luxury, narrow-minded and hard-hearted priests. That was all the Christianity he saw with his sharp perceptive faculty; and he had no power of penetrating into the deeper life of the soul which these corruptions misrepresented. We do not blame him for this ; he was made so ; but it was a fatal defect in a reformer. The first work of a reformer is to discover the truth and the good latent amid the abuses he wishes to reform, and for the sake of which men endure the evil. A Buddhist proverb says, “ The human mind is like a leech : it never lets go with its tail till it has taken hold somewhere else with its head.” Distinguish the good in a system from the evil ; show how the good can be preserved, though the evil is abandoned, and then you may hope to effect a truly radical reform. Radicalism means going to the roots of anything. Voltaire was incapable of becoming a radical reformer of the Christian church, because he had in himself no

faculty by which he could appreciate the central forces of Christianity. Mr. Morley says that Voltaire “ has said no word, nor even shown an indirect appreciation of any word said by another, which stirs and expands that indefinite exaltation known as the love of God,” “ or of the larger word holiness.” “ Through the affronts which his reason received from certain pretensions, both in the writers and in some of those whose actions they commemorated, this sublime trait in the Bible, in both portions of it, was unhappily lost to Voltaire. He had no ear for the finer vibrations of the spiritual voice.” And so also speaks Carlyle : “ It is a much more serious ground of offense that he intermeddled in religion without being himself, in any measure, religious ; that he entered the temple and continued there with a levity which, in any temple where men worship, can beseem no brother man ; that, in a word, he ardently, and with long-continued effort, warred against Christianity, without understanding beyond the mere superficies of what Christianity was.” In fact, in the organization of Voltaire, the organ of reverence, “ the crown of the whole moral nature,” seems to have been at its minimum. A sense of justice was there, an ardent sympathy with the oppressed, a generous hatred of the oppressor, a ready devotion of time, thought, wealth, to the relief of the down-trodden victim. Therefore, with such qualities, Voltaire, by the additional help of his indefatigable energy, often succeeded in plucking the prey from the jaws of the lion. lie was able to defeat the combined powers of church and state in ins advocacy of some individual sufferer, in Ids battle against some single wrong. But his long war against the Catholic church in France left it just where it was when that war began. Its power to-day in France is greater than it was then, because it is a purer and better institution than it was then. That Sphinx still sits by the roadside propounding its riddle. Voltaire was not the CEdipus who could solve it, and so the life of that mystery remains untouched until now.

The Henriade has often been considered the great epic poem of France. This merely means that France has never had a great epic poem. The Henriade is artificial, prosaic, and has no particle of the glow, the fire, the prolonged enthusiasm, which alone can give an epic poem to mankind. In this sentence all competent critics are agreed.

Voltaire was busy with literature during his whole life. He not only wrote continually himself, but he was a critic of the writings of others, his mind was essentially critical, — formed to analyze, discriminate sharply, compare, and judge by some universal standard of taste. Here, if anywhere, be ought to be at his best; here, if in any department, he should stand at the head of the world’s board of literary censors. But here, again, he is not even second-rate ; here, more than elsewhere, he shows how superficial are his judgments. He tests every writer by the French standard in the eighteenth century. Every word which Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, have said of other writers is full of value and interest to-day. But who would go to Voltaire for light on any book or author ? We have an instinctive but certain conviction that all his views are limited by bis immediate environment, perverted by bis personal prejudices. Thus, he prefers Ariosto to the Odyssey, and Tasso’s Jerusalem to the Iliad.3 His inability to comprehend, or even to suspect, the greatness of Shakespeare is well known. He is tilled with indignation because a French critic had called Shakespeare “ the god of the stage.” “ The blood boils in my old veins,” says he; “and what is frightful to think of, it was I myself who first showed to Frenchmen the few pearls to

be found in the dunghill.”4 Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son he considers “ the best book upon education ever written.” 5 This is the book in which a father teaches his son the art of polite falsehood, of which Dr. Johnson says that “it shows how grace can be united with wickedness,” — the book whose author is called by De Vere the philosopher of flattery and dissimulation. He admitted that there were some good things in Milton, but speaks of his conceptions as “odd and extravagant.”6 He thought Condorcet much superior to Pascal. The verses of Helvetius he believed better than any but those of Racine. The era was what Villemain calls “ the golden age of mediocre writers ; ” and Voltaire habitually praised them all. But these writers mostly belonged to a mutual admiration society. The anatomist Tissot, in one of his physiological works, says that the genius of Diderot came to show to mankind how every variety of talent could be brought to perfection in one man. Diderot, in his turn, went into frantic delight over the novels of Richardson. “ Since I have read these works,” lie says, “ I make them my touch-stone ; those who do not admire them are self-condenmed. O my friends, what majestic dramas are these three, Clarissa, .Sir Charles Grandison, and Pamela! ” Such was the eighteenth century; and Voltaire belonged to it with all the intensity of his ardent nature. He may be said never to have seen or foreseen anything better. Living on the very verge of a great social revolution, he does not appear to have suspected what its nature would be, even if he suspected its approach. The cruelties of the church exasperated him, but the political condition of society, the misery of the peasants, the luxury of the nobles, the despotism of the king, left him unmoved. He was singularly deficient in any conception of the value of political liberty or of free institutions. If he had lived to see the coming of the Revolution, it would have utterly astounded him. His sympathies were with an enlightened aristocracy, not with the people. In this, too, he was the man of his time, and belonged to the middle of his century, not the end of it. He saw and lamented the evils of bad government. He pointed out the miseries produced by war. He abhorred and denounced the military spirit. He called on the clergy, in the name of their religion, to join him in his righteous appeals against this great curse of mankind. “Where,” he asks, “ in the five or six thousand sermons of Massillon, are there two in which anything is said against the scourge of war?” He rebukes the philosophers and moralists, also, for their delinquency in this matter, and replies forcibly to Montesquieu’s argument that self-defense sometimes makes it necessary to begin the attack on a neighboring nation. But be does not go back to trace the evil to its root in the absence of self-government. In a letter to the King of Prussia he says, “ When I asked you to become the deliverer of Greece, I did not mean to have you restore the democracy. I do not love the rule of the rabble ” (ffouvernement de la canaille). Again, writing to the same, in January, 1757, he says, “Your majesty will confer a great benefit by destroying this infamous superstition [Christianity] ; I do not say among the canaille, who do not deserve to be enlightened, and who ought to be kept down under all yokes, but among honest people, people who think. Give white bread to the children, but only black bread to the dogs.” In 1762, writing to the Marquis d’Argens, he says, “ The Turks say that their Koran has sometimes the face of an angel, sometimes the face of a beast. This description suits our time. There are a few philosophers, — they have the face of an angel; all else much resembles that of a beast.” Again, be says to llelvetius, “ Consider no man your neighbor but the man who thinks ; look on all other men as wolves, foxes, and deer.” “ We shall soon see,” lie writes to D’Alembert, “ new heavens and a new earth,— I mean for honest people ; for as to the canaille, the stupidest heaven and earth is all they are lit for.” The real government of nations, according to him, should be administered by absolute kings, in the interest of freethinkers.

It is true that after Rousseau had published his trumpet-call in behalf of democratic rights, Voltaire began to waver. It has been remarked that “ at the very time when he expressed an increasing ill-will against the person of the author of Emile, he was irresistibly attracted to the principal doctrines of Rousseau, He entered, as if in spite of himself, into paths toward which his feet were never before directed. As if to revenge himself for coming under this salutary influence, he pursued Rousseau with blind anger.”7 lie harshly attacked the Social Contract, but accepted the sovereignty of the people; saying that “civil government is the will of all, executed by a single one, or by several, in virtue of the laws which all have enacted.” He, however, speedily restricted this democratic principle by confining the right of making laws to the owners of real estate. He declares that those who have neither house nor land ought not to have any voice in the matter. He now began (in 1764) to look forward to the end of monarchies, and to expect a revolution. Nevertheless, he plainly declares, " The pretended equality of man is a pernicious chimera. If there were not thirty laborers to one master, the earth would not be cultivated.” But in practical and humane reforms Voltaire took the lead, and did good work. lie opposed examination by torture, the punishment of death for theft, the confiscation of the property of the condemned, the penalties against heretics, secret trials ; praised trial by jury, civil marriage, right of divorce, and other reforms in the direction of hygiene and education.

And, above all, whatever fault may be found with Voltaire, let us never cease to appreciate his generous efforts in behalf of the unfortunate victims of the atrocious bigotry which then prevailed in France. It is not necessary to dwell here on the cases of Calas, the Sirvens, La Barre, and the Count de Lully. They are fully told by Mr. Parton, and to his account we refer our readers. In 1762 the Protestant pastor Pochette was hanged, by order of the Parliament of Toulouse, for having exercised his ministry in Languedoc. At the same time three young gentlemen, Protestants, were beheaded, for having taken arms to defend themselves from being slaughtered by the Catholics. In 1762, the Protestant merchant Calas, an aged and worthy citizen of Toulouse, was tortured and broken on the wheel, on a wholly unsupported charge of having killed his son to keep him from turning Catholic. A Protestant girl named Sirven was, about the same time, taken from her parents, and shut up in a convent, to compel her to change her religion. She escaped, and perished by accident during her flight. The parents were accused of having killed her to keep her from becoming a Catholic. They escaped, but the wife died of exposure and want. In 1766 a crucifix was injured by some wanton persons. The Bishop of Amiens called out for vengeance. Two young officers, eighteen years old, were accused. One escaped ; the other, La Barre, was condemned to have his tongue cut out, his right hand cut off, and to be burned alive. The sentence was commuted to death by decapitation. Voltaire, seventy years old, devoted himself with masterly ability and untiring energy to save these victims ; and when he failed in that, to show the falsehood of the charges, and to obtain a revision of the judgments. He used all means: personal appeals to men in power and to female favorites, eloquence, wit, pathos in every form of writing. He called on all his friends to aid him. He poured a flood of light into these dark places of iniquity, llis generous labors were crowned with success. He procured a reversal of these iniquitous decisions ; in some cases a restoration of the confiscated property, and a public recognition of the innocence of those condemned. Without knowing it, he was acting as a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps he may have met in the other world with the great leader of humanity, whom he never understood below, and been surprised to hear him say, 11 Inasmuch as thou didst it to the least of my little ones, thou hast done it unto me.”

Carlyle tells us that the chief quality of Voltaire was adroitness. He denies that he was really a great man, and says that in one essential mark of greatness he was wholly wanting, that is, earnestness. He adds that Voltaire was by birth a mocker ; that this was the irresistible bias of his disposition ; that the first question with him was always not what is true but what is false, not what is to be loved but what is to be contemned. He is shallow without heroism, full of pettiness, full of vanity; a not a great man, but only a great persrfteur.”

But certainly some other qualities than these were essential to produce the immense influence which he exerted in his own time, and since. Beside this extreme adroitness of which Carlyle speaks, he had as exhaustless an energy as was ever granted to any of the sons of men. He was never happy except when he was at work. He worked at home, he worked when visiting, he worked in his carriage, he worked at hotels. Amid annoyances and disturbances which would have paralyzed the thought and pen of others, Voltaire labored on. Upon his sick bed, in extreme debility and in old age, that untiring pen was ever in motion, and whatever came from it interested all mankind. Besides the innumerable books, tracts, and treatises which till the volumes of his collected works, there are said to he in existence fourteen thousand of his letters, half of which have never been printed. But this was only a part of the outcome of his terrible vitality. He was also an enterprising and energetic man of business. lie speculated in the funds, lent money on interest, fitted out ships, bought and sold real estate, solicited and obtained pensions. In this way he changed his patrimony of about two hundred thousand francs to an annual income of the same amount,—equal at least to one hundred thousand dollars a year at the present time. He was determined to be rich, and he became so; not because he loved money for itself, nor because he was covetous. He gave money freely; he used it in large ways, He sought wealth as a means of self-defense, — to protect him against the persecution which his attacks on the church might bring upon him. He also had, like a great writer of the present century, Walter Scott, the desire of being a large landed proprietor and lord of the manor; and like Scott, he became one, reigning at Ferncy as Scott ruled at Abbotsford.

In defending himself against his persecutors he used other means not so legitimate. One of his methods was systematic falsehood. He first concealed, and then denied, the authorship of any works which would expose him to danger. He took the tone of injured innocence. For example, he had worked with delight, during twenty years, on his wretched Pucelle. To write new lines in it, or a new canto, was his refreshment; to read them to his friends gave him the most intense satisfaction. But when the poem found its way into print, with what an outcry he denies the authorship, almost before he is charged with it. He assumes the air of calumniated virtue. The charge, he declares, is one of the infamous inventions of his enemies. He writes to the Journal Encyelopedique, “ The crowning point of their devilish manoeuvres is the edition of a poem called La Pucelle d’Orleans. The editor has the face to attribute this work to the author of the Henriade, the Zaïre, the Mérope, the Alzire, the Siècle do Louis XIV'. He dares to ascribe to this author the flattest, meanest, and most gross work which can come from the press. My pen refuses to copy the tissue of silly and abominable obscenities of this work of darkness.” When the Dictionnaire Philosophique began to appear, he wrote to D’Alembert, “ As soon as any danger arises, I beg you will let me know, that I may disavow the work in all the public papers with my usual candor and innocence.” Mr. Parton tells us that he had a hundred and eight pseudonyms. He signed his pamphlets A Benedictine, The Archbishop of Canterbury, A Quaker, Rev. Josias Roussette, the Abbé Lilladet, the Abbé Bigorre, the Pastor Bourn. He was also ready to tell a downright lie when it suited his convenience.

When Candide was printed, in 1758, he wrote, as Mr. Parton tells us, to a friendly pastor in Geneva, “ I have at length read Candide. People must have lost their senses to attribute to me that pack of nonsense. I have, thank God, better occupation. This optimism [of Pangloss] obviously destroys the foundation of our holy religion.” Our holy religion !

Some may find an excuse for these falsehoods. A writer, it may be said, has a right to his incognito ; if so, he has a right to protect it by denying the authorship of a book when charged with it. This is doubtful morality, but Voltaire went far beyond this. He volunteered his denials. He asserted in every way, with the most solemn asseverations, that he was not the author of a hook which he had written with delight. But this was not the worst. He not only told these author’s lies, but he was a deliberate hypocrite, professing faith in Christianity, receiving its sacraments, asking spiritual help from the Pope, and begging for relics from the Vatican, at the very time that he was hoping by strenuous efforts to destroy both Catholicism and Christianity.

When he was endeavoring to be admitted to a place in the French Academy, he wrote thus to the Bishop of Mirepoix : 8 “ Thanks to Heaven, my religion teaches me to know how to suffer. The God who founded it, as soon as he deigned to become man, was of all men the most persecuted. After such an example, it is almost a crime to complain, ... I can say, before God who hears me. that I am a good citizen and a true Catholic. ... I have written many pages sanctified by religion.” In this Mr. Parton admits that lie went too far.

When at Colmar, as a measure of self-protection, lie resolved to commune at Easter. Mr. Parton says that Voltaire had pensions and rents to the amount of sixty thousand livres annually, of which the king could deprive him by a stroke of the pen. So he determined to prove himself a good Catholic by taking the sacraments. As a necessary preliminary, he confessed to a Capuchin monk. He wrote to D’Argens just before, “If I had a hundred thousand men, I know what I should do ; but as I have them not, I shall commune at Easter ! ” But, writing to Rousseau, he thinks it shameful in Galileo to retract his opinions. Mr. Parton too, who is disposed to excuse some of these hypocrisies in Voltaire, is scandalized because the pastors of Geneva denied the charges of heresy brought against them by Voltaire ; saying that

“ we live, as they lived, in an atmosphere of insincerity.” In the midst of all tins, Voltaire took credit to himself for his frank avowals of the truth : “ I am not wrong to dare to utter what worthy men think. For forty years I have braved the base empire of the despots of the mind.” Mr. Parton elsewhere seems to think it would have been impossible for Voltaire to versify the Psalms; as it was “asked him to give the lie publicly to his whole career.” But if communing at Easter did not do this, how could a versification of a few psalms accomplish it ? Parton quotes Condorcet as saying that Voltaire could not become a hypocrite, even to be a cardinal. Could any one do a more hypocritical action than to partake the sacraments of a church which he despised in order to escape the danger of persecution ?

When building his house at Ferney, the neighboring Catholic cures interfered with him. They prohibited the laborers from working for him. To meet this difficulty he determined to obtain the protection of the Pope himself. So he wrote to the Pope, asking for a relic to put in the church he had built, and received in return a piece of the hair-shirt of St. Francis. He went to mass frequently. Meantime, in his letters to his brother freethinkers, he added his usual postscript, “ Ecrasez l’lnffune;” begging their aid in crushing Catholicism and Christianity. Yet it does not seem that he considered himself a hypocrite in thus conforming outwardly to a religion which he hated. He thinks that others who do so are hypocrites, but not that he is one. In 1764 he writes to Madame du Deffand, “ The worst is that we are surrounded by hypocrites, who worry us to make us think what 'they themselves do not think at all.” So singular are the self-deceptions of the human mind. He writes to Frederic ridiculing the sacrament of extreme unction, and then solemnly partakes of the eucharist. Certainly he did not belong to the noble army of martyrs. He ejected to overturn a great religious system, not by the power of faith, but by ingenious pamphlets, brilliant sarcasms, adroit deceptions. In thus thinking he was eminently superficial.

His theory on this subject is given in an article in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, quoted by Mr. Parton : “ Distinguish honest people who think, from the populace who were not made to think. If usage obliges you to perform a ridiculous ceremony for the sake of the canaille, and on the road you meet some people of understanding, notify them by a sign of the head, or a look, that you think as they do. ... If imbeciles still wish to eat acorns, let them have acorns.”

Mr. Parton describes in full (vol. ii. p. 410) the ceremony of the eucharist of which Voltaire partook in his own church at Ferney. If was Easter Sunday, and Voltaire mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon against theft. Hearing of this, the bishop was scandalized, and forbade all the curates of the diocese from confessing, absolving, or giving the sacrament to Voltaire. Upon this Voltaire writes and signs a formal demand on the curate of Ferney to allow him to confess and commune in the Catholic church, in which he was born, has lived, and wishes to die; offering to make all necessary declarations, all requisite protestations, in public or private, submitting himself absolutely to all the rules of the church, for the edification of Catholics and Protestants. All this was a mere piece of mystification and fun. lie pretended to be too sick to go to the church, and made a Capuchin come and administer the eucharist to him in bed ; Voltaire saying, “ Having my God in my mouth, I declare that I forgive all my enemies.” No wonder that with all his marvelous ability and his long war upon the Catholic church he was unable to make any lasting impression upon it. Infinite talent is not enough to make revolutions of opinion. No serious faith was ever destroyed by a jest.

If we return to Rousseau, and compare his influence with that of Voltaire, we shall find that it went far deeper. Voltaire was a man of immense talent. Talent originates nothing, but formulates into masterly expression what has come to it from the age in which it lives. Not a new idea can be found, we believe, in all Voltaire’s innumerable writings. Blit genius has a vision of ideal truth. It is a prophet of the future. Rousseau, with his many faults, weaknesses, follies, was a man of genius, lie was probably the most eloquent writer of French prose who has ever appeared. He was a man possessed by his ideas. He had none of the adroitness, wit, ingenuity, of Voltaire. Instead of amassing an enormous fortune, he supported himself by copying music. Instead of being surrounded by admirers and flatterers, lie led a solitary life, alone with his ideas. Instead of denying the authorship of his works, and so giving au excuse to the authorities to leave him quiet, he put his name to his writings. He worked for his bread with his hands, and in his Emile he recommended that all boys should be taught some manual craft. Voltaire ridiculed the gentleman carpenter of Rousseau; but before that generation passed away, many a French nobleman had reason to lament that he had not been taught to use the saw and the plane.

If Voltaire belonged to the eighteenth century, and brought to a brilliant focus its scattered rays, Rousseau belonged more to the nineteenth. Amidst the persiflage, the mockery, the light and easy philosophy, of his day, lie stood, “ among them, but not of them, in a crowd of thoughts which were not their thoughts.” This is the true explanation of his weakness and strength, and of the intense dislike felt for him by Voltaire and his school. They belonged to their time, he to a coming time.

The eighteenth century, especially in France, was one in which nature was at its minimum and art at its maximum. All was art. But art separated from nature becomes artificial, not to say artful. Decorum was the law in morals ; the bienséances and convenances ruled in society. The stage was bound by conventional rules. Poetry walked in silk attire, and made its toilette with the elaborate dignity of the levee of the Grand Monarque. Against all this Rousseau led the reaction, — the reaction inevitable as destiny. As art had been pushed to an extreme, so now naturalism was carried to the opposite extreme. Rousseau was the apostle of nature in all things. Children were to be educated by the methods of nature, not according to the routine of old custom. Governments were to go back to their origin in human nature; society was to be reorganized on first principles. This voice crying in the wilderness was like the trumpet of doom to the age, announcing the age to come. It laid the axe at the root of the tree. Its outcome was the French Revolution, that rushing, mighty Hood, which carried away the throne, the aristocracy, the manners, laws, and prejudices of the past.

In his first great work, the work which startled Europe, Rousseau recalled man to himself. He said, “ The true philosophy is to commune with one’s self,” — the greatest saying, thinks Henri Martin, that had been pronounced in that century. Rousseau condemned luxury, and uttered a prophetic cry of woe over the tangled perplexities of the time. “ There is no longer a remedy, unless through some great revolution,almost. as much to be feared as the evil it would cure, —which it is blamable to desire.,impossible to foresee

Man is naturally good,” says Rousseau. Before the frightful words “ mine ” and “thine” were invented, how could there have been, he asks, any vices or crimes ? He denounced all slavery, all inequality, all forms of oppression, llis writings were full of exaggeration, but, says the French historian, “ no sooner had he opened his lips than he restored earnestness to the world.” The same writer, after speaking of the faults of the Nouvelle Héloïse, adds that nevertheless “ a multitude of the letters of his Julie are masterpieces of eloquence, passion, and profundity ; and the last portions are signalized by a moral purity, a wisdom of views, and a religious elevation altogether new in the France of the eighteenth century.” Concerning Emile, he says, “ It is the profoundest study of human nature in our language ; it was an ark of safety, launched by Providence on the waves of skepticism and materialism. If Rousseau had been stricken out of the eighteenth century, whither, we seriously ask, would the human mind have drifted ? ” 9

The Social Contract appeared in 1762. In this work Rousseau swept away by his powerful eloquence the arguments which placed sovereignty elsewhere than in the hands of the people. This fundamental idea was the seed corn which broke from the earth in the first Revolution, and bears its ripe fruit in republican France to-day. D'Alembert, who disliked Rousseau, said of Emile that “it placed him at the head of all writers.” The Social Contract, illogical and unsound in many things, yet tore down the whole frame-work of despotism. Van Latin, a more recent historian, tells us that Rousseau was a man of the people, who knew all their wants; that every vice he attacked was one that they saw really present in their midst; that he “ opened the flood-gates of suppressed desires, which gushed forth, overwhelming a whole artificial world.” Villernain writes that the words of Rousseau, “descending like a flame of fire, moved the souls of his contemporaries;” and that “ his books glow with an eloquence which can never pass away.” Morley, to whom Rousseau is essentially antipathic, says of the Social Contract that its first words, “ Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” thrilled two continents,— that it was the gospel of the Jacobins ; and the action of the convention in 1794 can only be explained by the influence of Rousseau. He taught France to believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Locke had already taught this doctrine in England, where it produced no such violent outbreak, because it encountered no such glaring abuses.

Such is the striking contrast between these two greatest writers in modern French literature. It is singular to observe their instinctive antagonism in every point of belief and character. The merits of one are precisely opposite to those of the other ; their faults are equally opposed.

The events of Voltaire’s life have been so often told that Mr. Par ton has not been able to add much to our knowledge of his biography. He was born in 1694 and died in 1778, at the age of eighty-four, though at his birth lie was so feeble that those who believe that the world’s progress depends on the survival of the fittest would have thought him not fit to be brought up. This was also the case with Goethe and Walter Scott. Ills father was a notary, and the name Arouet had that of Voltaire added to it, it being a name in his mother’s family. This affix was adopted by the lad when in the Bastille, at the age of twenty-four. As a duck takes to water, so Voltaire took to his pen. In his twelfth year he wrote verses addressed to the Dauphin, which so pleased the famous courtesan Ninon tie l’Enelos, then in her ninetieth year, that she left the boy a legacy of two thousand francs. He went to a Jesuits’ school, and always retained a certain liking for the Jesuits. His father wished to make him a notary, but he would “ pen a stanza when he should engross; ” and the usual struggles between the paternal purpose and the filial instinct ended, as usual, in the triumph of the latter. He led a wild career for a time, in the society of dissipated abbes, debauched noblemen, and women to whom pleasure was the only object. Suspected of having written a lampoon on the death of Louis XIV., he was sent to the Bastille, and came forth uot only with a new name, but with literature as his aim for the rest of his life. His first play appeared on the stage in 1718, and from that time he continued to write till his death. He traveled from the chateau of one nobleman to another, pouring out his satires and sarcasms through the press; threatened by the angry rulers and priests who governed France, but always escaping by some adroit manoeuvre. In England he became a deist and a mathematician. His views of Christ and Christianity were summed up in a quatrain which may be thus translated. Speaking of Jesus, he says, —

“ His actions are holy, his ethics divine;
Into hearts which are wounded he pours oil and Avine.
And if, through imposture, those truths are received,
It still is a blessing to he thus deceived.”

He lived many years at Cirey with the Marchioness of Chatelet; the marquis, her husband, accepting the curious relation without any objection. Then followed the still stranger episode of his residence with Frederic the Great, their love quarrels and reconciliations. Aftei this friendship came wholly to an end, Voltaire went to live near Geneva in Switzerland, but soon bought another estate just out of Switzerland, in France, and a third a short distance away, in the territory of another power. Thus, if threatened in one state, lie could easily pass into another. Here he lived and worked till the close of his life, an untiring writer. He was a man of intinite wit, kind-hearted, with little malignity of any sort, wishing in the main to do good. His violent attacks upon Christianity can be explained by the fact of the corruptions of the church which were around him. The church of France in that day, in its higher circles, was a persecuting church, yet without faith; greedy for wealth, living in luxury, careless of the poor, and well deserving the attacks of Voltaire. That he could not look deeper and see the need of religious institutions of a better sort was his misfortune.

Mr. Parton, though not as philosophic a writer as John Morley, lias given us a standard work of great value. If he is disposed to excuse, or defend, or ignore some of the defects of his hero, that failing, as we have intimated before, leans to the side of biographical virtue. In a careful reading, we have met only a few errors.

This work is a store-house of facts for the history of Voltaire and his time. We do not think it will materially alter the judgment pronounced on him by such critics as Carlyle, Morley, and the majority of French writers in our day. He was a shining light iu his age, but that age has gone by, and can never return.

James Freeman Clarke.

  1. 10Life of Voltaire. By JAMES PAUTON. III two vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.
  2. 11 Voltaire himself, with his acute perception, seems to have been one of the first to discover the absurdity of the representation of Tiberius by Tacitus.
  3. 12 Essai sur les Mteurs, chapter cxxi.
  4. 13 Partou, ii. 549.
  5. 14 Ibid., ii. 551.
  6. 15 Ibid., i. 232.
  7. 16 Martin’s History of France.
  8. 17 Parton, i. 461.
  9. 18 Martin’s History of France.