Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

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