Sorry, long tirade. It’s just about a fella from the 18th century.
François-Marie AROUET was born in 1694 and named after his father, a notary and royal councillor, in Paris. His mother from a Poitou (Ger., Eng.) noble family died when he was ten (or seven) years old. François, highly gifted and precocious, received a good education together with boys of leading French families at the gymnasium Louis le Grand (Ger., Eng.), run by Jesuits. According to the wishes of his father he started to study law at the Sorbonne (Ger., Eng.), with 17, but he spent more time in literary salons of noble ladies and at the “Temple”, a club of libertines and masons. His wit and ability for satire & slander made him welcome there, and feared. Father had sent the nineteen year old as Page (Ger., Eng.) to the French envoy at The Hague, but a love affaire put an end to this and he was brought back to Paris, under guard, only three months later.
When old Louis XIV. (Ger., Eng.) died in 1715 Philipp Duke of Orléans (Ger., Eng.) took over as regent for the still under age Louis XV. Philipp, a son of Liselotte, was a pleasure-loving man, to say the least, the whole air of public life & society changed, it became more liberal. Generally the Regent liked the slandering / Lästereien of M. AROUET, but when things became a bit too intimate & personal he had the blossoming homme des lettres first banned from Paris, and, in 1717, arrested in the Bastille (Ger., Eng.) : no lawsuit, no writing permitted, one year. But AROUET was allowed to read and he noted on the sides of his read verses of his first tragedy, Œedip – on stage in the Comedie Française (Ger., Eng.) half a year after our author came out of the can, 25 evenings. The Regent liked it lots, the theme of son’s love to mother ; let’s not look too close into his relation to his daughter. Nevertheless he threw out an honorarium for AROUET, 1.200 livres annually, the basis for his later not so miniscule wealth.
On the billet for Œedip our author surfaced for the first time under the name he would use for the rest of his life – the 25-year-old AROUET had turned into M. VOLTAIRE (Ger., Eng.).
The next years were pretty good for VOLTAIRE. He had arrived, moved in the highest circles of the French society, his plays came out in the Comedie. He did successful speculations, and wrote his Henriade, about le bon roi Henry IV. (Ger., Eng.), glorifying the kings tolerance for non-catholics. It was printed in The Netherlands, smuggled into Paris, sold under the table, the censors had not approved. An argument with a member of the noble ROHAN-family ended this seemingly easy times. ROHAN had VOLTAIRE battered by his servants, who in turn sought satisfaction by duel. In the end the writer had another stint in the Bastille. He was allowed out but had to emigrate and was banned from France. The commander of the prison brought him to Calais.
The years from 1726 to 1729 were spent in London, he learned English fluently, was impressed when he watched NEWTONs funeral, the philosophy of LOCKE (Ger., Eng.) and Francis BACON (Ger., Eng.) opened new horizons. He was allowed to dedicate his Henriade in English translation to the Queen, George II. signed for the luxury edition – when he finally was allowed back into France in 1729, and later into Paris, he returned as a wealthy man : “Voltaire financier”.
1730 brought a grievous blow, his friend the actress Adrienne LECOUVREUR (Ger., Eng., Fr.) who had taken many leading roles in his plays, died after a severe illness in his arms. She was denied an honourable burial by the church and was hastily buried in the knacker’s yard.
VOLTAIRE was appalled. He wrote a requiem for her, in which he inculpated the “cruel men who denied a burial to her who’d had altars erected in Greece.”
His “Philosophical Letters” and his “Notes to Pascal” were condemned by the parliament to public burning by the hangman. A poem (“Le Mondain”) was badly received, this time the printer had to go to the Bastille. VOLTAIRE evaded the impending arrest by a hasty retreat to Cirey in Lothringen, where his mistress, Marquise Émilie de CHÂTELET (Ger., Eng., SEP), possessed a small manor.
Seemingly good years. They never married, both wrote. She was especially interested in mathematics and physics and translated NEWTONs writings from English – that VOLTAIRE had tought her – into French ; he wrote Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, a text that popularized the new scientific thinking.
Here in Cirey VOLTAIRE received the first letter from a young man in Prussia called Friedrich (still Prince in 1736). Only three months after the latter became king in 1740 both met in Kleve, and the king gave the philosopher a manuscript to correct, his “Antimachiavell” (Ger., Eng.). The invitations to Berlin were friendly denied, VOLTAIRE did not want to leave la Marquise.
The mid-1740s saw a kind of reconciliation between Versailles and VOLTAIRE. His drama “Mahomet” was kindly received – kind of, some understood it well as attack on Rome, he even had to write to the Pope, and Benedict XIV. (Ger., Eng.) answered diplomatically that he “had read the tragedy with great joy”. Anyway, when the Dauphin had his wedding a play by VOLTAIRE (“The Princess of Navarra”) went over the ramp, music by RAMEAU, he was accepted back. He was appointed as the king’s historiographer, became a member of the Academie Française, and yes the Royal Society of London (and Edinburgh) and the Petersburg Academie also invited him.
He knew that all this was standing on shaky grounds.
Mon Henri quartre et ma Zaïre
Et mon americane Alzire
Ne m’ont valu jamais un seul regard du Roi;
J’eus beaucoup d’ennimies avec très peu de gloire;
Les honneurs et les biens pleuvent enfin sur moi,
Pour une farce de la foire.
When Émilie died in 1750 VOLTAIRE finally gave in to Friedrichs kind letters and went to Potsdam. He joined the king’s inner circle, helped to educate the young people at the court (“I’m not the king’s chamberlain, I’m his artigrapher” he wrote to his niece Marie-Luise DENIS, (Eng.) a daughter of his late sister, who, early widowed, cared for his household), and finished a pretty dangerous book, “Le Sermon des Cinquantes“, what he also read to the king and his fellows.
The first time in Berlin was nice, but the two were too similar, both highly gifted, full of esprit & wit, prone to satire, persiflage, sarcasm, & intrigue. VOLTAIRE showed not his best sides, Friedrich was touchy when he felt his royalty ridiculed – 1753 the gig was over. A nasty scene in Frankfurt am Main followed, when the king had the philosopher arrested – he demanded a book back, ha!
Paris was out of reach, Louis XV. did not allow him back, a nice gesture towards Friedrich. VOLTAIRE decided to settle in Geneva, over-pious sure, but it promised a bit more freedom of expression than oh so catholic France. 1754, at sixty, he purchased a manor with a large garden and called it Les Délices. Later, just to be safe, he purchased two baronies on the French side of the lake, Tournay and Ferney. He turned the latter into a kind of Mustergut, model manorial economy. With good success. He never used the title that came with the ground. His niece run the household, he organised the economy – and wrote. Especially articles for the great encyclopedie – they were later edited without his permission, and of course condemned by the French parliament and publicly burned by the Genevian hangman. Kept them busy, eh grouchy ?
VOLTAIRE had become an European institution and people came to see him, his correspondence (20.000 existing letters) was even for the letter-happy 18th century extensive, and he committed himself to cases of injustice, think of the case CALAS, the case of the SIRVEN-family, even shortly before his death he wrote a petition to the king in the interest of farmers of Burgundy. In this time in Ferney falls new contact with ROUSSEAU (Ger., Eng.) – and this imploded totally.
VOLTAIRE abhorred ROUSSEAUs “Back to Nature !” (“Retournons à la Nature!”), for him this was the total opposite of progress by ratio and education, of humanism and enlightenment – and he openly – and scornful – told M. ROUSSEAU. Who in turn denounced VOLTAIRE as author of the above mentioned “Sermon” from 1749/50 ; not very nice, more anger.
The last act began 1778. The 83-year-old man said Adieu to Ferney and went back to Paris, technically still banned, but the authorities looked in another direction. The last 110 days of his live were a triumph, a triumph that cost his last energy. Hie died on the evening of the 30th of May 1778. The priest of Saint Sulpice tried to bring back the nullifidian in the lap of holy mother church, but he refused – finally telling the Jesuit at his bed bluntly “Let me die in peace !”, of course the arch-bishop of Paris denied a Christian burial. Two of his nephews & friends sat the dead body in a coach and brought him to the abbey of Sellières (Fr., Ger.) near Troyes, where he was interred on the area of the abbey.
Eleven years after VOLTAIREs death the Revolution blew away the monarchy, and the church as dominating institution. At his 13th death-day his coffin was brought back to Paris and entombed into the Pantheon.
It’s a false rumour, but a poetic one, that another 23 years or so later, after the victory of the Restoration, ultra-conservative monarchistic & catholic villains broke the sarcophaguses of VOLTAIRE and ROSSEAU and threw the mortal remains of the two philosophical antipodes into a hole somewhere on wasteland near the Seine, not to be found again.
In 1897 they looked, and he was till there.
BICKEL, Otto: Aufklärer, Agnostiker, Atheisten. Zum 75 Geburtstag von Otto BICKEL am 24. September 1982 [FS BICKEL 1982], herausgegeben von Gerhard SZECZESNY. o.O. [München] 1982, S.104-113