Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door