Overrated: Voltaire

The poster-boy of the Enlightenment was an arch-egotist with a fanatical side

Daniel Johnson

Everything about Voltaire was confected, starting with his name — only one of 178 noms de plume that he used. (Admittedly, he would not be the only would-be celebrity to reinvent himself.) Most of the bon mots attributed to him are spurious, including his last words. (Asked on his deathbed to renounce Satan, he supposedly said: “This is no time to make new enemies.” But this joke was first attributed to him two centuries later.) Others, such as “the best is the enemy of the good”, were plagiarised. Or take one of the most commonly quoted: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Not only did Voltaire never say it, but nothing in his life suggests that he would have defended anyone or anything to the death.

For Voltaire was an arch-egotist. He made one fortune, inherited another, and pleased himself. From his cavalier treatment of women — his mistresses included a widow, a married woman and his niece — to his envious treatment of younger rivals such as Rousseau, he demonstrated little of the nobility that posterity conferred on him. On the contrary: he admired and was admired above all by enlightened despots. He was only too happy to correspond with Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great, neither of whom were friends of liberty. Frederick, indeed, lured Voltaire to his court: the first in a long line of French intellectuals to serve as useful idiots. Napoleon “loved” Voltaire, finding him “always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic”.

Yet there was a fanatical side to Voltaire. He liked to depict himself as a scourge of “superstition”, which could mean Catholicism or Judaism, and as a foe of religious persecution; but he himself had no time for religious freedom. He urged his fellow philosophe d’Alembert to annihilate “infamy”, by which he meant the Church: “écrasez l’infame”. To Frederick (a notorious unbeliever) he wrote: “Our [religion] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most sanguinary that has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think . . .” Such words have a sinister resonance today, when Christians are widely persecuted. And Voltaire’s open contempt for the masses gives the lie to the suggestion that he was any kind of liberal, let alone a democrat, or even that he had really learned much about what makes a free country from his time in England.

Yet despite his reputation as a fierce enemy of the Church, he was not above writing to Pope Benedict XIV, recommending his play Mahomet as a work of Catholic propaganda: “Your Holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect.”

Propaganda is the word for almost everything Voltaire wrote — all 200 volumes of it. The only work that has lasted is Candide — ironically, a satire on the Enlightenment of which he is supposedly the supreme representative. His plays, in which he tried to correct the “barbarism” of Shakespeare, are rarely performed. They too are propaganda.

Voltaire’s worst vice, however, is his obsessive anti-Semitism. In the Philosophical Dictionary, he misses no opportunity to repeat every old religious prejudice against the Jewish people — and to add new, secularised ones. This really matters, because the Enlightenment played a key role in the mutation of Christian anti-Judaism into the various forms of modern anti-Semitism. Jews were beneficiaries of the religious and political emancipations that took place after the French Revolution. But they were also targeted by the new nationalist and socialist movements that emerged in its wake. They still are. Voltaire is one of the progenitors of all those, particularly on the Left, who today blame the world’s misfortunes on Israel and the Jews, but justify their prejudices by the kind of rationalisations that he deployed. “I would not be in the least surprised if these people do not some day become deadly to the human race,” he wrote in his Lettre de Memmius à Cicéron. He saw Jews as an “Asiatic” nation, whose only contributions to Europe had been “their superstition, their stubbornness and their usury”.

The mention of usury is a clue to Voltaire’s motive. While at Frederick’s court, he had become embroiled in an ugly legal dispute with a Jewish financier, Abraham Hirschel, who had invested in government bonds on Voltaire’s behalf, using the latter’s market-sensitive information. Hirschel accused the Frenchman of theft and forgery; Frederick, himself an anti-Semite, was probably more irritated by Voltaire’s lies and insider trading. It was this litigation that precipitated Voltaire’s break with the king and his flight from Prussia, only to be overtaken in Frankfurt by royal agents in hot pursuit — one of the most humiliating episodes in his life. Voltaire was later reconciled with his Prussian patron; but he never forgave the Jews.

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