Sunday, January 30, 2022

Voltaire: A Life IV

When Voltaire's reputation in Geneva declined among the patricians, he moved out permanently from Les Délices. Ferney became his primary residence for the remainder of his life. He continued to write and stage plays in the theaters that he built there, and he gradually became a tourist attraction. In 1760 he took in Marie-Françoise Corneille, an impoverished girl whom he thought was a granddaughter of the playwright. He later learned that she was a more distant relative. He adopted her, educated her, married her off and provided her with a dowry with the returns from a popular book that he wrote on Corneille. He was able to feed and entertain hundreds of visitors at a time and still work for several hours per day on new plays. 

A major change occurred in Voltaire's life when he decided to become an advocate of criminal justice reform. This was prompted by the publicity surrounding the torture and execution in 1762 of Jean Calas, a Toulouse cloth merchant. Calas, a Protestant, was charged with a crime which he did not commit, and for which there was no evidence of his guilt. At the time, the Seven Years' War with England was underway, and French Catholics viewed Protestants with suspicion. Apparently, one of Calas's sons was despondent, in part because of discrimination against Protestants, and committed suicide. Since the church frowned upon suicides, the family initially covered it up. Although Calas had done nothing wrong, a judge found him guilty of murder, and his execution left the family destitute. Voltaire managed to get the verdict reversed, and this was only the first of several cases with which he became involved. There really wasn't much change made to the criminal justice system until after the French Revolution, but these actions made Voltaire, symbolically at least, more of an Enlightenment figure than he would have been otherwise. In fact, most of his life had been devoted to writing uncontroversial plays and historical works, and he generally behaved obsequiously whenever he had cause to believe that he had upset someone in authority.

Another act of generosity to the public occurred in the early 1770's, just after Geneva had undergone a period of political turmoil. Voltaire decided to assist Genevan refugees by setting up a watch manufacturing industry in Ferney and was remarkably successful. He contacted potential watch buyers across Europe and as far off as Constantinople in order to create a market. I think that his skills as an impresario, along with his skills as a money manager, made this possible. Simply because of Voltaire's presence in Ferney, it gradually became a sizeable town.

Although Voltaire was generally happy with Mme Denis as his partner in Ferney, she obviously was not ideal for him. In 1760 he wrote:

Mme Denis is a fat pig, Sir, like most of your Parisiennes; they get up at midday; the day passes, they do not know how; they have no time to write, and when they want to write, they can find neither paper, pen, nor ink, so then they have to come and ask me, but now the desire to write disappears. For every ten women, nine are like this. Forgive, Sir, Mme Denis for her extreme laziness....

It appears to me that he was not at all a romantic figure and simply recognized, in a purely practical sense, that he needed female companionship.

As the 1770's progressed, Voltaire gradually became more ill, though this had little effect on his work output. He made his final trip to Paris in 1778 in order to see a performance of his last play and died there on May 30. Though he was initially buried in Champagne for technical reasons, his body was moved to the Panthéon after the revolution.

My overall assessment of Voltaire is that he was a multitalented person. However, he was not to any extent what one might call a revolutionary or even a thinker. The works that made him popular were most often satirical, and satire is not the best tool for distilling serious ideas. In contemporary terms, he could reasonably be compared to Carl Reiner or Norman Lear, since television has essentially replaced the theater as the dominant public art form, though, as a class-conscious person, Voltaire would wince at the comparison. He liked theatrical hustle and bustle, and the main difference would be that there weren't mass audiences in those days. What impress me the most are his work ethic and financial savvy. I have no desire to read much of his oeuvre, because I'm sure that I would find his plays dated. They were even dated while he was still alive, and he was incensed by the fact that some of Shakespeare's plays became popular in Paris. Although Voltaire was loosely connected with the buildup to the French Revolution, most of his views came from the generation before the philosophes. Certainly, he was outraged by the abuses of the monarchy and the Catholic Church, but he was in fact quite well adapted to them and would have done well even if a revolution hadn't been imminent.

In this vein, it is of some value to compare Voltaire to Rousseau, Diderot and d'Alembert. The three were each quite unlike Voltaire. Rousseau had the disadvantages of abandonment by his father at the age of ten, little formal education and an inability to navigate complex social situations. Being a philosophe was never his ambition, and he fell into that role mainly because it became the only option available to him after he failed to succeed in the opera and the theater. In fact, his accidental entry into the 1750 Dijon essay contest determined the remainder of his career. He wrote an unnecessarily harsh letter to Voltaire in 1760 which alienated one of the few people who might have assisted him. Nevertheless, I think, from reading Confessions, that he was an extremely talented writer. But because of his psychological makeup and background, he was unable to capitalize on the options that presented themselves to him – quite the opposite of Voltaire. Diderot was primarily a man of his times, and he was excited by the dissemination of new ideas, which is what he is best known for, though I don't think that he had many interesting ideas of his own. I am less familiar with d'Alembert, who was a talented mathematician, and he seems to have fallen somewhere between Diderot and Voltaire in his ability to navigate complex social situations. 

While there is much to criticize about Rousseau, as a personal matter I still prefer him to Voltaire and Diderot, because he was a fellow introvert, and we both had unpropitious backgrounds. Neither Voltaire nor Diderot left recollections of their life experiences, and I consider Confessions, though an imperfect account of Rousseau's life, one of the finest works of the eighteenth century. I had considered reading Candide, but, because I don't think that I would like it at all, I'm going to move on to something else.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Voltaire: A Life III

Voltaire stayed with Émilie du Châtelet for several more years, but kept Marie Louise Denis as a backup. The latter was about eighteen years younger than Voltaire and still had other options for male companions. She and Voltaire had a sexual relationship, though it was hardly a strong romance, and not much changed until 1749, when Émilie died. Mme Denis fit Voltaire's lifestyle to some extent, since she enjoyed participating in amateur productions of his plays, but I don't think that she was an ideal partner for him because, besides the fact that she was his niece, which forced them to pretend that they were not sexually involved, she was not an aristocrat. There were some intellectual female aristocrats whom Voltaire may have preferred, but if he made an attempt to seduce them he failed. The opinion that I've formed is that, while Voltaire was quite intelligent, he was essentially a social climber who sought the same social status as the aristocrats, while allowing himself the opportunity to pursue his interest in the theater. Émilie began an affair in about 1747 with Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, a marquis whom she met through aristocratic circles, and she later became pregnant by him; she died from an infection in 1749, a few days after the birth. The baby died later. Coincidentally, the same Saint-Lambert began an affair with Sophie d'Houdetot in 1752; Rousseau was smitten with her in 1757 and she became the subject of his novel, Julie; or The New Heloise, a bestseller, though their relationship didn't last long.

Leading up to this, Voltaire was getting tired of court life in France. He and Émilie had three residences: the Château de Cirey, an apartment in Versailles and an apartment in Paris. He had avoided visiting Frederick in Potsdam, the capital of Prussia, because the French court frowned upon it, but, after Émilie died, he lived there for a time. However, when he was brought to trial for making an illegal investment, Frederick grew irritated with him, and he left Prussia on bad terms in 1753. He was initially uncertain about what to do next, since he was no longer welcome in Paris, and in 1755 he finally settled on moving to a property in Geneva just outside of town, which he renamed Les Délices, and he made extensive improvements to it. He also obtained a country house near Lausanne. As he had done elsewhere, he ingratiated himself with those in power, particularly Théodore Tronchin, the doctor who later became one of Rousseau's enemies. 

Up to this point in his life, Voltaire, who was now in his early sixties, had not been much of an Enlightenment figure, like Denis Diderot or Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, the mathematician, who together had started the Encyclopédie in Paris. Some of the Parisian philosophes were outright atheists, whereas Voltaire was a deist. They solicited written contributions from him, and he befriended d'Alembert, who visited him in Geneva and wrote an essay about the town. However, this essay scandalized d'Alembert because of its religious references, and it was opposed by both the Catholic censors in Paris and the Calvinists in Geneva. Consequently, d'Alembert withdrew from the Encyclopédie, and Diderot took charge. Voltaire also became controversial in Geneva due to his interest in plays, because Calvinists thought that they led to vices. At the time, Geneva was a city-state, and Voltaire elected to buy properties just across the border in France, where he could do as he pleased. Beginning in 1758, he went on another spending spree and purchased two châteaus, Ferney and Tournay, along with surrounding lands, while retaining Les Délices. This time, besides the usual improvements, Voltaire made investments in farming and built up an enormous staff. According to Davidson, Voltaire then acquired, for the first time, a genuine interest in "the common man," which put him in closer alignment with Diderot, d'Alembert and Rousseau.

I am gradually piecing together Voltaire's character from the information provided. He seems to have had an extremely good memory, a talent for languages and an extroverted personality. Intellectually, though he produced many witty one-liners, they were often sophisticated put-downs and did not demonstrate much intellectual depth. He may have been similar to some extroverted people I've known who were impressive in social situations but at heart were a little superficial. There is still some mystery regarding how he remained so wealthy after 1728. Some of his income came from loans to aristocrats and some of it came from foreign investments. He was living during the heyday of exploitative French colonialism, which may have helped. Davidson notes that Voltaire was anti-Semitic, and this makes me think that his enmity may have derived from years of competition with Jewish moneylenders. There is evidence that some of his transactions were not aboveboard, and this inclines me to think that his wealth was not all acquired honestly. In 1759 he published Candide, which became a runaway bestseller and was probably the only truly profitable work of his literary career. I may read that after I finish this book. I am nearing the end and will have one more post before then.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Voltaire: A Life II

I am plugging away slowly, as usual, and am about halfway through the book. Voltaire had such an active public life that it becomes exhausting to follow all of the details. It doesn't help that I have little interest in his poetic, theatrical or historical writings, and that most of his work is not about ideas per se. He became a major philosophe primarily due to the range of his works and his stature in France at the time.

Émilie du Châtelet was married to an aristocrat who worked in the military. She had dutifully produced three children, and was free to pursue an independent life. She was highly intelligent and interested in mathematics and science, whereas her husband was completely unintellectual and didn't mind if she had affairs. Prior to meeting Voltaire, she had moved to Paris and already had two affairs. While seeing Voltaire, she was initially engaged in another affair with her math tutor, but she eventually settled on Voltaire. Davidson thinks that her difficulty in judging people may have been a symptom of autism, and she was certainly promiscuous and occasionally exercised poor judgment.

When Émilie and Voltaire finally settled on each other, they renovated her husband's dilapidated château, called Cirey, which is located in the country about midway between Paris and Basel, Switzerland. At the time, Voltaire was trying to understand science, and they purchased equipment to conduct experiments. Bizarrely, they separately submitted scientific papers in a competition, which neither of them won. They also staged theatrical performances, participating themselves and including the staff. This was an ideal environment for both of them for a time, but Voltaire didn't really care about science and was more interested in writing and advancing his career. He received overtures from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who probably sought him as a trophy for his court. He continued to get himself into trouble with his writings, which were usually condemned by censors, even though they would be considered innocuous today. Sometimes his letters were copied and circulated without his knowledge. On top of this, it was impossible to control the printing and distribution of his works, which often appeared in pirated editions and got him into legal trouble, putting him at risk of being jailed again. As in any period, his financial manager was robbing him blind and had to be replaced.

By 1740, Voltaire was tiring of Émilie, whom he increasingly perceived as too controlling of him. He spent time with Frederick the Great and also attempted to improve his reputation in Paris by being nominated to the Académie Français. His first attempt failed, but later, with the help of Mme de Pompadour, whose friendship he had cultivated, he was elected. This meant that he was in good graces with Louis XV and received a pension. As of 1746, Voltaire's relationship with Émilie is continuing to unravel, and she is running up debts gambling in Fontainebleau. Voltaire has set his sights on a niece, Marie Louise Denis, who is the daughter of his sister, who died earlier, and whose husband has recently died.

There are samples of Voltaire's writing interspersed throughout the text, and I particularly like his witticisms, of which this is an example:

The whole of metaphysics, to my taste, contains just two things: first, what is known by all men of good sense; and second, what they will never know.

This statement not only explains Voltaire's disinterest in philosophy, but may even be correct.

I was pleased to see that Davidson is willing to discuss psychiatric issues. This has been rare in the biographies that I've read, and I would be glad to see more of it. It seems that depression and autism may be common among intellectuals and could be a key to understanding them. Possibly a dysfunction in one aspect of the brain frees up neurons for another aspect. This seems to be what happens with autism, where high competence in rote learning and information processing is accompanied by incompetence in social situations. One might even argue that there is currently an evolutionary pressure favoring autism. Then there are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy and ADHD. There is some evidence that schizophrenia may be associated with mathematical skills in some cases. Since these conditions could be genetically linked, it will be no easy matter sorting them out. 

As for myself, the only disorder that I'll admit to is a mild form of dyslexia. This made it difficult for me to read, write and learn other languages, but there seems to be a benefit in the sense that I form opinions more on the basis of observation than on written words. I'm not really sure that dyslexia is a true disorder, since, in theory, all humans were dyslexic a few thousand years ago, before writing was invented. It is possible that dyslexia is beneficial in some of the sciences: Charles Darwin was a poor student and needed help writing his books, and Richard Feynman, though mathematically talented, was bad at reading and writing.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Voltaire: A Life I

I finally got around to starting this biography by Ian Davidson. Davidson is not a scholar of French intellectual history, and this was written mainly to provide a new English biography of Voltaire, since one had not been written for several years. My interest in the French Enlightenment began with Rousseau, and I followed up with Diderot. From my readings so far, I'm not terribly impressed by the ideas that germinated during this period, and I have become more interested in the biographical details of the people who participated in it. Rousseau wrote on a variety of topics, but, by modern standards, he did not do real research, and what he had to say on practical matters hardly seems relevant today. The primary backdrop for the French Enlightenment was the collapse of the ancien régime, which was unbelievably repressive by our standards, and Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and others simply helped precipitate the downfall. I find it absurd that contemporary writers like David Graeber and David Wengrow write books such as The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity and refer to Rousseau as if his ideas still have to be taken into account. I am often amazed that ludicrous books become popular among so-called educated people. There are plenty of good books out now, some of which I've reviewed, that cover human evolution quite well without mentioning the Enlightenment at all. The Enlightenment occurred about three hundred years ago, and science has moved on considerably since then, even rendering Newtonian physics obsolete.

Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, a few years before Rousseau in Geneva, and died in the same year, 1778. His original name was François Marie Arouet, which he changed as an adult, as was not uncommon in those days. He was educated in a Jesuit school, where he learned Latin, but not Greek. His father was a bourgeois lawyer and pressured him intensely to study law, but Voltaire resisted him and initially pursued a career as a poet and a dramatist instead. He had a brother who was nine years older with whom he was not close, and a sister who was eight years older with whom he was quite close. His mother died when he was approaching seven. Because of his career disagreement with his father, he was cut out of his father's will until he reached the age of thirty-five. This proved to be a significant setback during his early adult life. 

One of the few reliable ways to make money as a writer in Paris at the time was to write tragedies and then stage them at the Comédie Français. Voltaire had a hit, but also a few flops, while trying to establish himself as a poet and a wit. Although he had friends and mistresses, some of whom were aristocrats, he often found himself trapped in Paris trying to earn a living under abject conditions, and he became ill from smallpox, scabies and other diseases, while his aristocratic friends were away at their châteaus in the country. With the severe censorship dominant at the time and the ability of aristocrats to crush commoners for any reason, Voltaire, by 1726, had been imprisoned in the Bastille twice and was exiled to England, almost penniless. 

He spent about two years in England, and the contrast with France became a transformative experience for him. The openness of discussion among intellectuals was startling, and there was no religious oppression. There is much uncertainty about how he spent all his time, and Davidson speculates that he may have suffered from depression. Nevertheless, starting with no knowledge of English, Voltaire remarkably became fluent in written and spoken English within a year and a half and developed friendships with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, along with Lord Bolingbroke, whom he had met previously in France. He was particularly taken by Gulliver's Travels, which he compared favorably to Rabelais. He also attended several Shakespeare plays, and, while he was shocked by the lack of formality, he later used Julius Caesar as a basis for his own play. In addition, Voltaire became aware of Isaac Newton and John Locke, two Enlightenment thinkers who were not widely known in France at the time, and this expanded his intellectual horizons. There is some uncertainty about why he left England, and it is possible that he had engaged in some illicit activity, but, upon his return to France, he had a fresh outlook that enabled him to become a major public figure.

As far as I've read, Voltaire has managed to become extremely wealthy. This occurred in 1728 largely because he and some of his friends noticed a flaw in a state lottery that allowed them to easily win by buying many tickets. They did this several times and split the proceeds. Also, in 1729, he became eligible to receive his inheritance from his father, who had died seven years earlier. From this time onward, Voltaire, with the cash in hand and shrewd investments, never again faced financial hardship. To make matters even better, in 1733, he met "the love of his life," Émilie du Châtelet, who was then twenty-seven, while he was thirty-nine.

In my mind, as I read, I am making comparisons with Rousseau. I like Rousseau, but I prefer Voltaire as a person. The problem with Rousseau, I think, was psychiatric in nature. It is telling how Rousseau's experience of England in 1766 differed from that of Voltaire in 1726. Rousseau left in a panic in order to escape an imagined conspiracy, whereas Voltaire made new friends and absorbed the culture. Rousseau had a history of broken friendships, and his choice of an ascetic lifestyle is puzzling in light of the fact that he could easily have found a sufficient income. He spent most of his life in near-poverty with Thérèse Levasseur, an illiterate peasant, rather than broadening his horizons by circulating among other intellectuals and enjoying the company of an intelligent, aristocratic woman, which he clearly would have preferred. The question then becomes which psychiatric condition might have afflicted Rousseau. It is possible that, since he enjoyed repetitive work such as music-copying and often misunderstood people, he suffered from some form of autism. He also at times seemed ridiculously self-important and condescending, not unlike Wittgenstein or another autistic male I know. More tenuously, one might argue that Rousseau's preference for rules and dislike of commerce and investment, which are generally chaotic, could be indicative of autistic tendencies. Alternatively, his paranoia may have been a symptom of schizophrenia. A close study of Rousseau reveals how the course of his life was probably quite different from what he would have liked. In this respect, Voltaire comparatively seems to have been quite a success. He lived as he chose and found a suitable companion. He loved the theatre, and, by managing the practical aspects of his life effectively, he was able to pursue it. While some of the differences between Rousseau and Voltaire can be explained by Rousseau's introversion and Voltaire's extroversion, I find it difficult not to conclude that Rousseau was more likely to make poor choices. It is true that Voltaire had the advantage of a bourgeois upbringing in Paris, unlike Rousseau and Diderot, and had several lifelong friends there to assist him, but I don't see any of Rousseau's particular pathology in either Voltaire or Diderot.

I'm only up to 1733 and will continue on my next post.