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.

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