Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Voltaire and Rousseau—Spirits of the Age

It was the aim of Frederick the Great to shake down the old political order in Europe, which had been Catholic and unenlightened. To that end he exalted Prussia, which was a Protestant and progressive State, and fought against Austria, an empire clinging to obsolete ideas of feudal military government. He brought upon himself much condemnation for his unjust partition of Poland with Russia. He argued, however, that Poland had hitherto been a barbaric feudal State, and must benefit by association with countries of commercial and intellectual activity. Galicia fell to Maria Theresa at the end of the war, and was likely to remain in religious bondage.

Frederick II dealt many hard blows at the Holy Catholic Church, but he did not intend to wage a religious war in Europe. He insisted on toleration in Prussia though he was not himself a religious man, and invited to his court that enemy of the old faith of France—Francois Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, a title he derived from the name of an estate in the possession of his family.

The French scholar came to Frederick after he had suffered every persecution that inevitably assailed a fearless writer in an age of narrow bigotry. Very soon after his appearance in Paris, Voltaire was accused of writing verses which recounted the evils of a country where magistrates used their power to levy unjust taxes, and loyal subjects were too often put in prison. As a consequence, he was thrown into the Bastille. It was quite useless to protest that he was not the author of Je l'ai vu ("I have seen it"). His opinions were suspected although he was but twenty-one and was under the protection of his godfather, the Abbe Chateauneuf. Voltaire was philosopher enough to use his year in the Bastille very profitably—he finished his first great tragedy, Oedipe, and produced it in 1716, winning the admiration of French critics.

Although Voltaire was now embarked on a brilliant career as a dramatist, he was unjustly treated by his superiors in social rank. He was the son of a notary of some repute, and was too rich to sue for patronage, but nobles were offended by the freedom of the young wit, who declared that a poet might claim equality with princes. "Who is the young man who talks so loud?" the Chevalier Rohan inquired at an intellectual gathering. "My lord," was Voltaire's quick reply, "he is one who does not bear a great name but wins respect for the name he has."

This apt retort did not please the Chevalier, who instructed his lackey to give the poet a beating. Voltaire would have answered the insult with his sword, but his enemy disdained a duel with a man of inferior station. The Rohan family was influential, and preferred to maintain their dignity by putting the despised poet in prison.

Voltaire was ordered to leave Paris and decided to visit England, where he knew that learned Frenchmen found a welcome. He was amazed at the high honour paid to genius and the social and political consequence which could be obtained by writers. Jonathan Swift, the famous Irish satirist, was a dignitary of the State Church and yet never hesitated to heap scorn on State abuses. Addison, the classical scholar, was Secretary of State, and Prior and Gay went on important diplomatic missions. Philosophers, such as Newton and Locke, had wealth as well as much respect, and were entrusted with a share in the administration of their country. With his late experience of French injustice, Voltaire may have been inclined to exaggerate the absolute freedom of an English subject to handle public events and public personages in print. "One must disguise at Paris what I could not say too strongly at London," he wrote, and the hatred quickened in him of all forms of class prejudice and intellectual obstinacy.

His Lettres anglaises, which moved many social writers of his time, were burnt in public by the decree of the Parlement of Paris in 1734. The Parlement, composed of men of the robe (lawyers), was closely allied to the court in narrow-minded bigotry. It was always to the fore to prevent any manifestation of free thought from reaching the people. The old order, clinging to wealth and favour, judged it best that the people—known as the Third Estate—should remain in ignorance of the enormous oppressions put upon them. It had been something of a shock to Voltaire to discover that in England both nobles and clergy paid taxes, while in France the saying of feudal times held good—"The nobles fight, the clergy pray, the people pay."

Sadly wanting in respect to those in high places was that Voltaire who had not long ago been beaten by a noble's lackeys. He did not cease to write, and continued to give offence, though the sun of the court shone on him once through Madame de Pompadour, the King's favourite. She caused him to write a play in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of the Dauphin. The Princesse de Navarre brought him more honour than had been accorded to his finest poems and tragedies. He was admitted to the Academy of Letters which Richelieu had founded, made Gentleman of the Chamber, and Historiographer of France.

It was well in those times to write for royal favour, though the subjects of the drama must be limited to those which would add glory to the Church or State. Yet Voltaire did not need the patronage which was essential for poor men of genius like the playwrights of the famous generation preceding his own. He had private means which he invested profitably, being little anxious to endure the insults commonly directed at poverty and learning. He lived in a quiet chateau at Cirey, industrious and independent, though he looked toward the Marquise du Chatelet for that admiration which a literary man craves. It was the Marquise who shared with Frederick the Great the tribute paid by the witty man of letters, i.e. that there were but two great men in his time and one of them wore petticoats. She differed from the frivolous women of court life in her earnest pursuit of intellectual pleasures. Her whole day was given up to the study of writers such as Leibnitz and Newton, the philosopher. She rarely wasted time, and could certainly claim originality in that her working hours were never broken by social interruptions. She was unamiable, but had no love for slander, though she was herself the object of much spiteful gossip from women who passed as wits in the corrupt court life of Versailles.

Voltaire came and went, moving up and down Europe, often the object of virulent attacks which made flight a necessity, but for fifteen years he returned regularly to the solitary chateau of Cirey, where he could depend upon seclusion for the active prosecution of his studies. He was a man with a wide range of interests, dabbling in science and performing experiments for his own profit. He wrote history, in addition to plays and poetry, and later, in his attacks upon the Church, proved himself a skilful and unscrupulous controversialist.

In 1750, Madame du Chatelet being dead, Voltaire accepted the invitation which had been sent to him from Berlin by the King of Prussia. He was installed sumptuously at Potsdam, where the court of Frederick the Great was situated. There he could live in familiar intercourse with "the king who had won five battles." He loved to take an active part in life, and moved from one place to another, showing a keen interest in novelty, although his movements might also be inspired by fear of the merciless actions of the government.

At Potsdam he found activity, but not activity of intellect. Frederick the Great was drilling soldiers and received him into a stern barracks. There was a commendable toleration for free speech in the country, but there was constant bickering. At court, Voltaire found his life troubled by the intrigues of the envious courtiers, by the unreasonable vanity of the King, and the almost mediaeval state of manners. There were quarrels soon between the King and his guest, which led to exhibitions of paltriness and parsimony common to their characters. The King stopped Voltaire's supply of chocolate and sugar, while Voltaire pocketed candle-ends to show his contempt for this meanness! The saying of Frederick that the Frenchman was only an orange, of which, having squeezed the juice, he should throw away the skin, very naturally rankled in the poet to whom it was repeated.

There was jealousy and tale-bearing at Potsdam which went far to destroy the mutual admiration of those two strong personalities who had thought to dwell so happily together. Voltaire spoke disparagingly of Frederick's literary achievements, and compared the task of correcting his host's French verses with that of washing dirty linen. Politeness had worn very thin when the writer described the monarch as an ape who ought to be flogged for his tricks, and gave him the nickname of Luc, a pet monkey which was noted for a vicious habit of biting!

In March 1753, Voltaire left the court, thoroughly weary of life in a place where there was so little interest in letters. He had a fracas at Frankfort, where he was required to give up the court decorations he had worn with childlike enjoyment, and also a volume of royal verses which Frederick did not wish to be made public. For five weeks he lay in prison with his niece, Madame Denis, complaining of frightful indignities. He boxed the ears of a bookseller to whom he owed money, attempted to shoot a clerk, and in general committed many strange follies which were quite opposed to his claims to philosophy. There was an end of close friendship with Prussia, but he still drew his pension and corresponded with the cynical Frederick, only occasionally referring to their notorious differences. In dispraise of the niece Madame Denis, the King abandoned the toleration he had professedly extended. "Consider all that as done with," he wrote on the subject of the imprisonment, "and never let me hear again of that wearisome niece, who has not as much merit as her uncle with which to cover her defects. People talk of the servant of Moliere, but nobody will ever speak of the niece of Voltaire."

The poet resented this contempt of his niece, for he was indulgently fond of the homely coquette who was without either wit or the good sense to win pardon for the frivolity of her tastes and extravagances. Living in a learned circle, she talked, like a parrot, of literature and wrote plays for the theatre of Ferney. "She wrote a comedy; but the players, out of respect to Voltaire, declined to act in it. She wrote a tragedy; but the one favour, which the repeated entreaties of years could never wring from Voltaire, was that he would read it."

In spite of his quarrels, Voltaire spoke favourably of the German freedom which allowed writings to be published reflecting on the Great Elector. He could not endure the hostile temper of his own land and deserted Paris to settle at Geneva, that free republic which extended hospitality to refugees from all countries. He built two hermitages, one for summer and one for winter, both commanding beautiful scenes, which he enjoyed for twenty years to come, though he was not content with one shelter. He bought a life-interest in Tournay and the lordship of Ferney in 1758, declaring that "philosophers ought to have two or three holes underground against the hounds who chase them." From Ferney he denounced the religion of the time, accusing the Church of hatred of truth and real knowledge, with which was coupled a terrible cruelty and lack of toleration.

To make superstition ridiculous was one of the objects of Voltaire's satire, for, in this way, he hoped to secure due respect for reason. All abuses were to be torn away, and such traditions as made slaves of the people. The shameful struggles between Jesuits and Jansenists were at their height. How could religion exist when one party believing in works denied the creed of a second believing grace better than deeds, and when both sides were eager to devote themselves to persecution?

In Voltaire's day, the condemnation of free writing came chiefly from the clergy. They would shackle the mind and bring it in subjection to the priesthood. Here was a man sneering at the power claimed by members of a holy body. The narrow bigotry of priests demanded that he should be held in bondage. Yet he did not mock at men who held good lives but at the corrupt who shamed their calling. The horrors of the Inquisition were being revived by zealous Jesuits who were losing authority through the increasing strength of another party of the Catholic Church, then known as Jansenists.

The Jansenists followed the doctrines of Calvin in their belief in predestination and the necessity for conversion, but they differed widely from the Protestants on many points, holding that a man's soul was not saved directly he was converted although conversion might be instantaneous. They were firmly convinced that each human soul should have personal relation with its Maker, but held that this was only possible through the Roman Church. Their chief cause of quarrel with the Jesuits was the accusation brought against the priests of that order that they granted absolution for sins much too readily and without being certain of the sinners' real repentance.

Voltaire's blood boiled when he heard that three young Protestants had been killed because they took up arms at the sound of the tocsin, thinking it was the signal for rebellion. He received under his protection at Geneva the widow and children of the Protestant Calas, who had been broken on the wheel in 1762 because he was falsely declared to have killed his son in order to prevent his turning Catholic. A youth, named La Barre, was sentenced, at the instance of a bishop, to have his tongue and right hand cut off because he was suspected of having tampered with a crucifix. He was condemned to death afterwards on the most flimsy evidence.

Voltaire was all aflame at the ignorance of such fanatics. There was laughter in the writings of the unbelievers of the time, but it was laughter inspired by the miserable belief that jesting was the only means of enduring that which might come. "Witty things do not go well with massacres," Voltaire commented. There was force in him to destroy, and he set about destruction.

The clergy had refused in 1750 to bear their share of taxation, though one-fifth of France was in their hands. Superstition inevitably tends to make bad citizens, the philosopher observed, and set forth the evils to society that resulted from the idle lives which were supported by the labour of more industrious subjects. But in his praiseworthy attack upon the spirit of the Catholicism of his day which stooped to basest cruelty, Voltaire appealed always to intelligence rather than to feeling. He wanted to free the understanding and extend knowledge. He set up reason as a goddess, and left it to another man to point the way to a social revolution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau it was who led men to consider the possibility of a State in which all citizens should be free and equal. He suffered banishment and much hardship for the bold schemes he presented. The Parlement of Paris was ruthless when the two books—Emile and the Social Contract—were published in 1762.

Rousseau, a writer of humble origin, had been the close student of Voltaire since his mind had first formed into a definite individuality. He had been poor and almost starving many times, had followed the occupations of engraver and music-copier, and had treated with ingratitude several kindly patrons. Like Voltaire, too, he journeyed over Europe, finding refuge in Geneva, whence came his father's family. He was a man of sordid life and without morality; but he was true to his life's purpose, and toiled at uncongenial tasks rather than write at other bidding than that of his own soul.

Rousseau's play Le Devin du Village had a court success that brought him into favour with gay ladies. Many a beauty found it difficult to tear herself away from the perusal of his strangely romantic novel La Nouvelle Heloise, which preached a return to Nature, so long neglected by the artificial age of Paris. All conventions should be thrown off that man might attain the purity which God had originally intended. Kings there should not be to deprive their subjects of all liberty, nor nobles who claimed the earth, which was the inheritance of God's creatures.

At first, this theory of return to Nature pleased the ruling classes. The young King and Queen were well-meaning and kindly to the people. Louis XVI went among the poor and did something to alleviate the misery that he saw. Marie Antoinette gave up the extravagant career of fashion and spent happy hours in the rustic village of Trianon. Nobles and maids of honour played at rusticity, unconscious of the deadly blows that Jean-Jacques had aimed at them in the writings which appealed so strongly to their sentiment. There was a new belief in humanity which sent the Duchess out early in the morning to give bread to the poor, even if at evening she danced at a court which was supported in luxury by their miseries. The poet might congratulate himself on the sensation caused by ideas which sent him through an edict of Parlement into miserable banishment. He did not aim at destruction of the old order, but he depicted an ideal State and to attain that ideal State men butchered their fellows without mercy. The Social Contract became the textbook of the first revolutionary party, and none admired Rousseau more ardently than the ruthless wielder of tyranny who followed out the theorist's idea that in a republic it was necessary sometimes to have a dictator.

There were rival schools of thought during the lifetime of Voltaire and Rousseau. The latter was King of the Markets, destined in years to come to inspire the Convention and the Commune. Voltaire, companion of kings and eager recipient of the favours of Madame de Pompadour, had little sympathy with the author of a book in which the humble watchmaker's son flouted sovereignty and showed no skill in his handling of religion. The elder man offered the younger shelter when abuse was rained upon him; but Jean-Jacques would have none of it, and thought Geneva should have cast out the unbeliever, for Jean-Jacques was a pious man in theory and shocked by the worship of pure reason. The mad acclamations which greeted the return of Voltaire to Paris after thirty years of banishment must have echoed rather bitterly in the ears of Rousseau, who had despised salons and chosen to live apart from all society.