Vladimir Fritsche 1929
Author: Vladimir Fritsche;
First published: 1929 in Literary Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 292-300, Publishing House of the Communist Academy, Moscow;
Translated: by Anton P.
Marie-Francois Voltaire, 1694-1778 [real name Marie-Francois Arouet] – one of the greatest French Enlighteners of the 18th century, the head of the “philosophers,” pioneers of the new bourgeois society, which was born in France from the ashes of the “ancient regime”; a poet, philosopher, historian. The son of a judicial official, Voltaire studied at the Jesuit college “Latin and all sorts of nonsense,” and his father destined him for the profession of a lawyer, but preferring literature to law, Voltaire his literary activity in the palaces of aristocrats as a court poet; for satirical rhymes addressed to the regent and his daughter he ended up imprisoned in the Bastille (where he was later sent a second time, this time for publishing other authors’ poems); he was beaten by a nobleman whom he laughed at, Voltaire wanted to challenge him to a duel, but as a result of the intrigue of the offender, he again found himself in prison, only being released with the condition of going abroad. He left for England, where he lived for three years [1726-1729], studying its political system, science, philosophy and literature. Returning to France, Voltaire published his English impressions under the title “Philosophical Letters”; the book was confiscated , the publisher imprisoned in the Bastille, and Voltaire fled to Lorraine, where he found shelter with the Marquise du Châtelet (with whom he lived for 15 years). Being accused of mockery of religion (in the poem “Secular Man”), he fled again, this time to Holland. In 1746, he was appointed court poet and historiographer, but, stirring up the discontent of Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour, he broke with the court. Always suspected of political unreliability, feeling insecure in France, Voltaire followed  the invitation of the Prussian king Frederick II (“the Great”), with whom he had been in correspondence for a long time [since 1736], and settled in Berlin (Potsdam), but, having caused the king’s discontent with unseemly monetary speculations, as well as a quarrel with the president of the Academy of Maupertuis (caricatured by Voltaire in “Doctor Akakia”), he was forced to leave Prussia and settled in Switzerland . Here he bought an estate near Geneva, renaming it “Délices,” then acquired two more estates: Tournai and – on the border with France – Ferney , where he lived almost until his death. The man was now rich and completely independent, a capitalist who lent money to aristocrats, a landowner and at the same time the owner of a weaving and watchmaker’s workshops, Voltaire – the “Ferney patriarch” – could now freely and fearlessly represent in his person “public opinion,” an omnipotent opinion, against the old, outgoing socio-political order. Ferney became a place of pilgrimage for the new intelligentsia; The “enlightened” monarchs, like Catherine II (“the Great”) of Russia, like Frederick II, who renewed their correspondence with him, like Gustav of Sweden, were proud of their friendship with Voltaire. In 1778, when Louis XV was succeeded by Louis XVI, Voltaire – an eighty-four-year old man – returned to Paris, where he was arranged – with the hostile indifference of the king – an enthusiastic welcome. The staging of his last play “Irène” became his apotheosis. Appointed director of the Academy, Voltaire began, despite his advanced age, to revise the academic encyclopedia. His strength was waning, and he died, working on words for the first letter. Afraid that he would not be buried as an enemy of the church, a few months before his death he made up with the church, making a public statement of his sins, nevertheless, it was forbidden to bury him in Paris. Voltaire’s remains were transported to the Celler abbey in Champagne, the abbot of which was his nephew, and here Voltaire was interred, despite the prohibition issued by the local bishop, which was belated. In 1791, the Convention decided to transfer his remains to Paris and enshrine them inside the Panthéon. The transfer of Voltaire’s remains to the Panthéon grew into a grandiose revolutionary demonstration. In 1814, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a gang of reactionaries stole his remains from the Panthéon and scattered them at the dump site near the Barrière de la gare.
Leading the “educational intelligentsia” of the 18th century, Voltaire was the spokesman for the ideology of a certain part of the rising bourgeois society, namely its noble-capitalist, bourgeois elite. Focusing on the most advanced bourgeois country in Europe, on England, on its political system, philosophy and literature, Voltaire in his political, philosophical and social views represented the moderate, pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie. A convinced and passionate opponent of autocracy, he remained until the end of his life a monarchist, a supporter of the idea of enlightened absolutism, a monarchy based on the “educated part” of society, on the bourgeois intelligentsia, on “philosophers.” The enlightened monarch is his political ideal, which Voltaire embodied in a number of images: in the person of Henry IV (in the poem “Henriad”).”
Whoever has a different idea of the monarch is guilty before humanity. Being a supporter of the sensationalism of the English bourgeois philosopher Locke, whose teachings he propagated in his philosophical letters, Voltaire. was at the same time an opponent of the materialist philosophy of the French revolutionary bourgeoisie, in particular Baron Holbach, against whom his “Letter to Cicero” is directed; on the question of the spirit Voltaire hesitated between denying and affirming the immortality of the soul, on the question of free will – in indecision he moved from indeterminism to determinism.
Voltaire published his main philosophical articles in the “Encyclopedia” and then published as a separate book, first under the title “Pocket philosophical dictionary” (Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764), then under the title “Problems of the Encyclopedia” (Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1771-1772). A tireless and merciless enemy of the church and the priests, whom he persecuted with arguments of logic and arrows of sarcasm, a writer whose slogan read “écrasez l'infâme” (destroy the vile one) Voltaire attacked both Jewry and Christianity (for example, in Lunch at Citizen Boulenville”), however, expressing his respect for the person of Christ (both in the above work and in the treatise “God and Men”); for the purpose of anti-church propaganda, Voltaire published the Testament of Jean Mellier, a 17th century socialist priest who did not spare words to discredit clergy. Fighting in word and deed (intercession for the victims of religious fanaticism – Kalas and Sirven) against the domination and oppression of religious superstitions and prejudices, against priestly fanaticism, Voltaire tirelessly preached the ideas of religious tolerance both in his publicistic pamphlets (Treatise on Tolerance, 1763) and in his works of art (the image of Henry IV, who put an end to the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants; the image of the emperor in the tragedy “Gebra”). Fighting against the church, priests and religions of “revelation,” Voltaire was at the same time an enemy of atheism; he dedicated a special pamphlet to the campaign against atheism (“Homélie sur l'athéisme”). A deist, in the spirit of the English bourgeois free-thinkers of the 18th century, Voltaire tried with all kinds of arguments to prove the existence of a deity who created the universe, a being, however, that does not interfere in affairs, operating with evidence: “cosmological” (“Against atheism”), “teleological” (“Le philosophe ignorant”) and “moral” (article “God” in the “Encyclopedia”). Of all such arguments, the closest Voltaire was, however, not cited by him, but behind all the cited bashfully concealed – “policeman,” for without the concept of deity “no society can exist,” the exploited bottom will rise up against the “educated” top – it is necessary therefore, to preserve religion as a “bridle” for the people, and “if there were no God, he should have been invented.” Denying medieval church-monastic asceticism in the name of the human right to happiness, which is rooted in rational egoism (“Discours sur l'homme”), for a long time sharing the optimism of the English bourgeoisie of the 18th century, which transformed the world in its own image and likeness and asserted through the mouth of the poet Alexander Pope: “What ever is, is right” (“our world is the best possible world”), Voltaire after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, who destroyed a third part of the city, somewhat lowered his optimism, declaring in a poem about the Lisbon catastrophe: “now not everything is good, but everything will be fine.”
According to his social views, Voltaire was a supporter of inequality. Society should be divided into “educated and rich” and those who, “having nothing,” “are obliged to work for them” or “amuse” them. Therefore, there is no need for the working people to be educated: “if the people begin to reason, everything is lost” (from Voltaire’s letters). Criticizing the “Testament” of Mellier, Voltaire threw out all his sharp criticism of private property, considering it “outrageous.” This explains the negative attitude of Voltaire towards Rousseau, although there was a personal element in their relationship, but to reduce their entire divergence to a personal issues, as some do (for example, Brandes) is completely wrong. Voltaire is a monarchist, Rousseau stands for the people’s rule; Voltaire is the defender of large property, Rousseau the defender of small (peasant) property; Voltaire is a rationalist, Rousseau is a sentimentalist. The ideologues of two different social classes clashed irreconcilably, and not two individual personalities. Voltaire truly sometimes himself was inclined to defend the idea of a “primitive state” in plays such as “Scythians” or “Laws of Minos,” but his “primitive society” (Scythians and Sidonians) has nothing to do with the paradise of small owners-farmers painted by Rousseau, but embodies a society of enemies of political despotism and religious intolerance. Of all the social classes in Hungary, the nobility was the closest. True, in his satirical poem “The Virgin of Orleans” he ridicules the knights and courtiers, but in the poem “The Battle of Fontenoy”  he glorifies the old French nobility, in such plays as “The Right of the Seigneur” and especially “Nanina” – draws with enthusiasm the landowners of the liberal bias, even those who are ready to marry a peasant woman. Voltaire for a long time could not reconcile himself with the invasion of the stage by persons of a non-noble position, “ordinary people” (hommes du commun), for this meant “humiliating the coturn” (avilir le cothurne). Bound by his political, religious, philosophical and social views that were still quite strong with the “old order,” Voltaire’s particular literary sympathies were firmly rooted in the aristocratic XVII century of Louis XIV, to whom he dedicated his best historical work – “Siècle de Louis XIV.” Continuing to cultivate the aristocratic genres of poetry – messages, gallant lyrics, ode, etc., Voltaire in the field of dramatic poetry was the last major representative of classical tragedy – he wrote 28; among them the most important: “Oedipus” , “Brutus” , “Zaire” , “Caesar” , “Alzira” , “Mohammed” , “Merope” [ 1743], “Semiramis” , “Saved Rome” , “Chinese Orphan” , “Tancred” . However, in the midst of the extinction of aristocratic culture, the classical tragedy was inevitably transformed. In its former rationalistic coldness, notes of sensitivity burst in ever greater abundance (“Zaire”), its former sculptural clarity was replaced by Romantic picturesqueness (“Tancred”). The repertoire of antique figures was invaded more and more decisively by all sorts of exotic characters – medieval knights, Chinese, Scythians, Gebras and the like. For a long time not wanting to put up with the rise of a new bourgeois drama – as a form of “hybrid,” Voltaire ended up defending the method of mixing the tragic and the comic himself (in the preface to The Wasteful and Socrates), considering this mixing a legitimate feature of only “high comedy” and rejecting it as a “non-fiction genre” “a tearful drama,” where there are only “tears.” He was not afraid to bring to the stage a gardener, a young girl helping her father in rural work, a simple soldier. Such heroes, who stand closer to nature, speaking in simple language, will make a stronger impression and sooner achieve their goals than princes in love and princesses tormented by passion.
If, as a playwright, Voltaire went from orthodox classical tragedy through its sentimentalization, Romanticization and exoticism to bourgeois drama under the pressure of the growing movement of the “third estate,” then his evolution as an epic writer is analogous. Voltaire began in the style of a classical epic (“Henriada,” 1728; originally “The League or the Great Henry”), but, like the classical tragedy, under his hand was transformed: instead of a fictional hero, a real one was taken, instead of fantastic wars – on in fact, the former, instead of gods – allegorical images – concepts: love, jealousy, fanaticism (from “Essai sur la poésie épique”). Continuing the style of the heroic epic in the “Poem of the Battle of Fontenoy,” glorifying the victory of Louis XV’s general Maurice de Saxe over the English, then in “The Virgin of Orleans” (La Pucelle d'Orléans), caustically and scabrously ridiculing the entire medieval world of feudal-priestly France, reduces the heroic poem to a heroic farce and gradually passes, under the influence of Alexander Pope, from a heroic poem to a didactic poem, to “discourse in verse” (discours en vers), to presentation in the form of a poem his moral and social philosophy (“Letter on Newton’s Philosophy,” “Reasoning in Verse about Man,” “Natural Law,” “Poem about the Lisbon Catastrophe”). From here there was a natural transition to prose, to the philosophical (“The Vision of Babuk,” “Zadig or Fate,” “Micromegas,” “Candide,” “The Tale of the Babylonian Princess,” “Scarmentado” and others, 1740-60s), where, on the core of adventures, travel, and exoticism, Voltaire develops his idea about the social movement known as Voltaireism. The cult of Voltaire reached its apogee in France during the era of the Great Revolution, and in 1792, during the presentation of his tragedy “Death of Caesar,” the Jacobins adorned the head of his bust with a red Phrygian cap. Even if in the 19th century, in general, this cult began to decline, the name and glory of Voltaire were always revived in the era of bourgeois revolutions: at the turn of the 19th century, in Italy, where the troops of the revolutionary General Napoleon Bonaparte brought the principles of the declaration of the rights of man and citizen, and also in England, where the fighter against the Holy Alliance, Byron, glorified Voltaire in the octaves of Childe Harold, then on the eve of the March 1848 revolution in Germany, where Heinrich Heine resurrected his image. At the turn of the 20th century, Voltaire’s tradition in a peculiar refraction flashed again in the “philosophical novels” of Anatole France.