The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
March 30, 2006

Understanding Voltaire is increasingly important today, as Voltairean values are increasingly threatened or misunderstood: Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom - Roger Pearson

Posted by David Womersley

Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom
by Roger Pearson
Pp. xxxii + 448. London: Bloomsbury, 2005
Hardback, £18.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Roger Pearson's Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom, and finds that understanding Voltaire is increasingly important today as Voltairean values are either directly threatened or culpably misunderstood.

François-Marie Arouet, later known as Voltaire (though for reasons which have even now not received their final clarification), was born in 1694, and died eighty-four years later in 1778. His long life included the whole of the reign of one monarch (Louis XV) and portions of the reigns of two others (Louis XIV and Louis XVI). He met most of the interesting and important people of his day in the fields of literature and politics. He moved in the highest social circles, and at different times he was an ornament of the French and Prussian courts. He kept up a voluminous correspondence, ran through a fair number of mistresses, and picked up the cudgels in defence of toleration and humanity. At the same time, he pursued his financial interests as a contractor, property owner and money-lender with enviable shrewdness.

Even to tick off the boxes of Voltaire's interests and activities in this way leaves one slightly breathless, and we have not yet even mentioned the primary activity of his life – the profusion of writings, in the form of poetry, drama, tales, polemical tracts, histories, essays, which streamed from his pen in such a complicated torrent that, even now, the world does not possess a complete and reliable edition of his works. He was, beyond question, the central figure in that phase of European intellectual culture we call the Enlightenment. Others possessed more powerful intellects (Locke, Newton, Hume); others were prepared to pursue the implications of their thought with greater fearlessness (La Mettrie, d'Holbach, d'Alembert); others possessed personalities of more absorbing depth and complexity (Rousseau). Nevertheless, the Enlightenment without Voltaire would be even more eviscerated than Hamlet without the prince.

Interest in Voltaire grew to be feverish even in his own lifetime. His final appearance at the Comédie-Française in 1778, when the marquise de Villette crowned him with laurel at a performance of Irène, had ripened by the end of the evening into a kind of popular apotheosis, as Roger Pearson evokes it (p. 379):

At the end of the performance the cheering was even more tumultuous. Voltaire – pale, exhausted, his eyes wet with tears – waved and took his leave. Outside the theatre another crowd awaited: the people of Paris, from fat merchant to bedraggled vagrant, from streetwise stallholder to dust-covered mason, from slender flower-girl to bustling mother-of-five. They called for torches the better to see their new idol, and they shouted their approval: "Long live the defender of Calas".
But Voltaire had in fact only a few months to live. As soon as he was cold, the mill of biography began to turn. In the late 1750s Voltaire had himself composed some brief memoirs, the Mémoires pour servir à la vie de M. de Voltaire. After 1778, it was open season. Lives by the abbé Duvernet and by Condorcet appeared in 1786 and 1790. His secretaries Longchamp, Collini and Wagnière compiled memoirs, which were eventually digested into the eight volumes of Desnoiresterres' late nineteenth-century Voltaire et la société au XVIIIe siècle. The twentieth century saw a proliferation of more modestly-scaled works, published on both sides of the Channel, culminating in its own biographical monument, René Pomeau's five-volume Voltaire en son temps (1985-94).

Roger Pearson, a professor of French literature at Oxford, and a fellow of Queen's College, has joined the throng of Voltairean biographers with a book which manages to be at once learned and sprightly. He is, of course, fully aware of the most recent scholarship on his subject, since he is closely involved with the Voltaire Foundation's ongoing project of a complete edition of the works of Voltaire. But Voltaire Almighty is a book which wears its learning both lightly and stylishly. The labours of Desnoiresterres and Pomeau are formidable, perhaps also at times forbidding, and – most interestingly – rather un-Voltairean in style and intent. Pearson keeps up a lively pace, and paints with swift, acute strokes. The style is engaging and deliberately informal (although towards the end this reader at least felt that the presence of sentences without finite verbs was becoming less an expression of a pleasing lack of constraint than an imprisoning stylistic tic). This will be the biography of Voltaire with which, for the foreseeable future, every reader will begin; and, so well does it cater for the needs of all but the most demanding specialist, it is also the one with which most readers will end.

Towards the end of his life, Voltaire wittily described the labour of his existence as a pious attempt to make good, in at least his own person, the somehow-thwarted intentions of the Almighty:

God created man free, and that is what I have become.
The "pursuit of freedom" is the keynote of Pearson's treatment of Voltaire's life. In the setting of Voltaire's biography, the concept of freedom has many facets. One of these is of course the creation of the necessary conditions of independence, whether that is shown in Voltaire's financial acumen, or his cunning choice of places to live (Ferney, the model estate where he lived during the final phase of his life, was within a short ride of no less than three separate jurisdictions, each of which might have furnished Voltaire with a refuge depending on who was coming after him).

Then there is his physical and emotional mobility, his suspicion of entanglements, his ruthless decisiveness when it came to breaking with those, such as Frederick the Great, who tried to place him in captivity, no matter how gilded the cage happened to be. Turning outwards, we encounter also Voltaire's championing of the causes of freedom (although here it is interesting that Voltaire was much more alert to cases involving individuals, such as the Calas family or the unfortunate chevalier de La Barre, than in more abstract matters such as constitutional design – it seems that injustice or oppression had to be crystallised in a particular case before Voltaire's indignation could be aroused, and in this respect, notwithstanding the manifold re-inventions of the self he underwent during the course of his life, he curiously enough seems to have remained a child of absolutism). Most fundamentally of all, however, we find the imaginative freedom which Voltaire explored and displayed in his literary career.

Pearson's angle of scrutiny yields valuable insights. In the first place, and despite Voltaire's reputation as the driven apostle of Enlightenment, we are given a vivid sense of the very uneven trajectory of Voltaire's career. There seems to have been no large-scale project behind the life, and the fiendishly complex bibliography of many of his works emerges as no less the product of the author's volatile and shifting intentions, than of the ruses and subterfuges to which writers are driven under conditions of censorship.

Secondly, Pearson's study reminds us of a few fundamental truths about the Enlightenment itself. When so many commentators refer in an airy way to something called "the Enlightenment Project", which they commonly construe as a malign, hubristic and secularising programme which led directly (although after the puzzling interval of a century and a half) to the horrors of the work camps, the Gulag, and the Long March, it is good to have the tentative, relativistic and fundamentally tolerating essence of Enlightenment persuasively re-stated. The Enlightenment was, in practice, reactive and critical, not programmatic, and the various incommensurable engagements passionately undertaken by Voltaire in the name of Enlightenment show that well.

Pearson's biography, then, is not only valuable because it gives us a freshly-minted image of a truly great man – his wit, his ingenuity, his subtlety, at bottom the humanity of his heart. It possesses a particular value for us today, when the central Voltairean values are either directly threatened, or culpably misunderstood.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

It sounds well worth reading. However, I don't like the title. Roger Pearson should consider the following quote, attributed to God:

Nietzsche is dead.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 7, 2006 07:02 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement