Voltaire Almighty, by Roger Pearson

The bolshiest celeb on the grand tour
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Voltaire is one of those figures around whom a whole society can divide along ideological lines. After the Revolution, he was hailed as a champion of liberty and justice; his remains were transferred to the Pantheon and his deist faith replaced Catholicism as the state religion, in Robespierre's cult of the Supreme Being. Then, with the Restoration of the monarchy, he was reviled as a source of all that had gone wrong, and would remain the bugbear of the Catholic Right - a sort of proto-Bolshevik who, as the priests in the Catholic school where I once taught would say, was "for everything that is against, and against everything that is for".

The good fathers were not entirely wrong. Voltaire was a bolshie old bird and one who got less amenable with age. He loved a scrap, usually because he could see off his opponents with the sharpness of his wit. Most people know the philosopher Leibnitz through Voltaire's satire on him in Candide, where he sums up Leibnitz's ideas in a single, unforgettable phrase - "All is for the best in the best of possible worlds" - and then proceeds to show how bloody awful the world really is. Freron, Abbe Coger, Larcher, Abbe Nonnotte, Lemercier de Saint-Leger and many others dared to attack him and were the target of stinging ripostes.

As Roger Pearson remarks, in this brilliant, very readable biography, most of Voltaire's polemical writings are no longer read, because they are so much dependent on the circumstances of the time. There is still a lot to enjoy in Pearson's retelling. When Rousseau argued that civilisation was a decline from the nobility of primitive man, Voltaire thanked him for a copy of Discourse on Inequality which, he said, "fills one with the desire to walk on all fours". And when the distinguished scientist Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis tried to demonstrate the existence of God in his Essay on Cosmology (1750), Voltaire responded by inventing four distinguished professors who "proved" that the Essay must be a forgery, since it was far too silly to be the work of the great Maupertuis...

On the other hand, the Left was not wrong, either, in its deification of Voltaire as the champion of liberty, tolerance, reason and justice. These were causes for which he was prepared to take great risks and sometimes feared for his life: he was hounded for his ideas, exiled from Paris and often prevented from publishing under his own name, at a time when the Church and the State could respond to opposition with unbelievable savagery. Yet he continued to proclaim his beliefs and used great ingenuity to publicise them. As an old man, living just outside France in Protestant Geneva, he mounted powerful defences of those whom he believed to have been victims of injustice: men like Calas and La Barre. He also proclaimed his belief in reason, progress and human rights - the abolition of torture and the death penalty, for example, and other reforms that amounted, as Pearson says, to being "a whole lot tougher on the causes of crime".

In this and other ways, Voltaire was the prototype of the committed intellectual - and a lot more fun than many of his successors in the genus. He was also one of the first writers to enjoy international celebrity: visitors flocked to his home at Ferney; he even became part of the Grand Tour. "For fourteen years now, I have been the innkeeper of Europe," he complained, having received at least 150 visitors from England alone during the 1860s. If this makes him sound like a modern celebrity, he also took a very modern approach to the literature that was responsible for it: "The most useful books," he once said, "are those where half the work is done by the reader." Voltaire does not want us to agree with him, but to reason and argue with him.

Unfortunately, much of what he wrote is fated to stay gathering dust on the shelves. Pearson does his duty by the work that Voltaire's contemporaries saw as his main contribution to literature, but unless you are an unconditional fan of French classical drama, you will not want to read Oedipe (written when he was 17), Irene (when he was 83) or any of the thousands upon thousands of alexandrines that came between these two extremities of the Voltairean theatrical career. His historical writings, too, have mainly historical interest and, when one has discarded most of the polemical works (for the reason mentioned above), one is left with the contes, particularly Candide, "the best of all possible stories", as Pearson aptly calls it. And then there is the man himself, with his intelligence, his power to amuse, his cutting, cynical wit, his vitality and his underlying humanity, the many-sided figure that Pearson tries with only partial success to sum up in a concluding chapter of his book. Sometimes, a glimpse can tell us more than a lengthy analysis: a certain Madame Cramer recalled a visit to the 75-year-old Voltaire when the pair of them "nearly choked with laughter as we talked about death". But perhaps the immortal Voltaire could afford to laugh.