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Volume introduction — Select Letters of Voltaire


Nearly two centuries after his death Voltaire is as alive as ever: adored by some, hated by others, but impressing himself on all, admired even by those who detest him. His name is recognized in all walks of life in nearly all countries. The bicentenary of Candide (1759) stimulated the production of no fewer than thirty books in a dozen languages: editions, translations, commentaries. Everybody agrees that Candide and Voltaire's other stories are masterpieces; and the world has not yet forgotten his Dictionnaire philosophique, his amazing eagle's flight over the map of history (Essai sur les mœurs), the monument he erected to the glory of an epoch (Le Siècle de Louis XIV), and many other writings of all kinds and on all subjects.

Nevertheless only one part of Voltaire's vast output is admired unreservedly by all, and this part, by the irony of fate, is only a by-product of the great man's unquenchable genius, a by-product moreover that he hated to see published. I am of course referring to his letters.


In his learned Peri epistolimaion charachteros the neoplatonist Proclus defined forty-one categories of letters. It was a noble effort; but after all we are told every day that civilization has taken great strides since the age of innocence. And we should really feel ill at ease today with so small a number of pigeon-holes. Into which could be fitted certain pastoral letters or the comminatory epistles of certain statesmen or the fan-mail of Brigitte Bardot?

Moreover, such a category as that comprising love-letters cannot be said to present more than a highly metaphysical homogeneity. There are as many kinds of love-letters as there are kinds of love: and this opens up possibilities for an ample system of decimal or even duodecimal classification. If I do not make the attempt it is certainly not because of the difficulty of the undertaking. On the contrary, it is because, rather than substitute a more detailed and subtle classification for that of the Constantinopolitan grammarian, I am forced by the facts to choose a far simpler one: there are indeed only two kinds of letters, Voltaire's and all the rest. When writing about this extraordinary man one is often driven to this sort of conclusion, to what would be the crudest rodomontades were they not true.

Cicero, Erasmus, Madame de Sévigné, Voltaire, Horace Walpole, Bernard Shaw: these are the great names in the field of letter-writing. The mere enumeration serves to show to what extent Voltaire stands alone. Cicero's style approaches Voltairean elegance, but the relatively small number of his surviving letters reflects but ill the orator's universality. An entire epoch is painted by Erasmus, but his correspondents are few, and his letters are written in an almost barbarous language. Even if one admires beyond measure the grace, the charm, the purely literary qualities of Madame de Sévigné's letters, it is impossible to be blind to the narrowness of her knowledge and interests. As for Horace Walpole, he was really no more than a miniature of a great man: never has anyone explored more minutely the surface of things. Fortunately no final judgment is yet possible of Bernard Shaw's correspondence, since it is so far known only in fragments—but what a wealth of wit and wisdom it already represents!

These are the greatest in each kind, yet how clearly Voltaire surpasses Cicero in his style, Erasmus in the width if not the depth of his knowledge, Madame de Sévigné in grace and affection, Walpole in the width of his interests and the number and variety of his correspondents!


Some months before his death Renan was questioned by a journalist about the evolution of literature. His answer is staggering: `Literary fashions!' he exclaimed, `how puerile, how childish! Really, this is not a bit interesting.' And he added: `But then, you see, literature itself is a mediocre preoccupation.' Then interrupting himself, he cried out: `Forgive me, forgive me, I withdraw what I have just said, I exaggerated. Racine has written some fine things, and Voltaire! Oh! Voltaire's letters, do you see, are divine. What treasures do they not contain! Marvellous!'1

In fact there is not the slightest doubt that Voltaire's letters constitute the greatest of all biblia abiblia, great literature as it were by accident. The reasons are numerous and complex. Apart from one written as a child and signed Zozo, Voltaire's oldest surviving letters date from 1711, when he was at school. Four dismal years still remained of the reign of Louis XIV, followed by the too brief regency of the Duc d'Orléans, and the all too long reign of Louis XV, well beloved only in name; and Voltaire still had several years of activity before him when Louis XVI ascended the throne. In short, he was born at the apogee of the ancien régime, lived to see the American Revolution, and died only a decade before the French one. Thus his correspondence covers sixty vital years, years during which the modern world was conceived.

Nor is this all. The gifts and brilliant personality of Voltaire won the sympathy of many who were much older than he. Even as a little boy he so impressed Ninon de Lenclos (who was born in 1615, nearly eighty years before him) that she mentioned him in her will. And when the lad was at school he was treated as an equal by Chaulieu, the last of the free-thinking poets, and by such men as Caumartin and Vendôme. In this way Voltaire's roots stretched far into the seventeenth century. And in 1718 the unprecedented success of his first play, Œdipe, made him at the age of twenty-four the head and forefront of French letters. The eighteen months of prison and exile he had behind him were no hindrance. On the contrary. Nor did Voltaire ever learn to compromise his ideas or to moderate their expression.


People were already keeping, buying, stealing, passing round his letters, and even printing them. He had the mortifying experience of seeing his love-letters published by the girl's mother. It would not have been surprising if he had never written another letter. Fortunately he was irrepressible.

Voltaire's publications sparkled so vividly with genius even when they dealt with the most forbidding subjects, that his reputation soon swept the whole of Europe. Although above all a creator, Voltaire was much more: an original historian, a scientific popularizer, a social reformer, an adversary of all religion and superstition, a militant advocate of liberty and toleration. Thus his works, and even more so his letters, have a scope as wide in subject-matter as in time. And this is reflected by the astonishing quality, variety and number of his correspondents. First of all we have of course his own kind, the writers and thinkers: Fontenelle, Alembert, Diderot, Helvétius, Vauvenargues, Rousseau, Buffon, Condorcet, Beaumarchais, Pope, Swift, even Lessing; as well as minor personages, at least compared with the giants: Algarotti, Goldoni, Maffei and Spallanzani; Bernoulli and Haller; George Keate, Boswell and Horace Walpole; Sumarokov; Mayáns y Siscar; Jean Baptiste Rousseau, Maupertuis, Destouches, La Condamine, Moncrif, Voisenon, Prévost d'Exiles, Tressan, Piron, Mairan, Marmontel, Delisle de Salles, Madame de Graffigny, La Harpe, Du Pont de Nemours, Madame d'Epinay, Madame Du Deffand, Ximenès, Suard, Sedaine, Palissot, Chambord, Madame Du Bocage, Florian, Duclos, Dorat.

Without wishing to emphasize too strongly this aspect of Voltaire's correspondence I must underline a little detail that emerges from this enumeration: Fontenelle was born in 1657, Du Pont de Nemours died 160 years later, in 1817. And there is more: writing in 1769 to the Duc d'Aumont, Voltaire tells him: `My first patron was your great-grandfather', and this great-grandfather was born in 1632, a quarter of a century before Fontenelle, who died a centenarian.

Voltaire also corresponded with many of the leading statesmen of Europe, from Dubois, Fleury, the Argensons, Amelot, Bernis, Maurepas, Richelieu, Choiseul and Turgot, to Bolingbroke and Wilkes; the Austrian Kaunitz; the Swede Bernstorff; the Germans Podewils and Cocceji; the Genevese François Tronchin; the Hungarian Fekete de Galánta; the Spanish Miranda; the Russians Shuvalov, Vorontsov and Golitsuin.

He was on friendly, and in several cases on intimate terms with many of the great ladies of the time, including the Marquise de Bernières, the Duchesse d'Aiguillon, Madame Dupin, the Duchesse Du Maine, the Marquise de Pompadour, the Duchesse de Choiseul, Madame Necker, Madame de Saint-Julien, Countess Bentinck, and above all the learned, the scintillating, the well-beloved Émilie Du Châtelet, whose correspondence I have recently had the honour to publish.

As for the crowned heads to whom he wrote as an equal at a time when divinity still hedged a throne, Voltaire was the favourite correspondent of two of the most remarkable monarchs of all time, Frederick II, King of Prussia, and Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias: Frederick, his disciple, his dear friend, or rather his beloved enemy; Catherine, perhaps because they never met, merely his disciple. A complete list of the princes among Voltaire's correspondents would be tiresome; I will mention, in addition to the Kings of England and France and the Queens of Prussia, only Ulrika of Sweden; Christian VII of Denmark; Wilhelmina, Margravine of Bayreuth; the Elector Palatine Charles Theodore; Louisa Dorothea, Duchess of Saxe-Gotha; Carolina Louisa, Margravine of Baden-Durlach; the Prince de Ligne; Stanislas Leszczynsky and Stanislas Poniatowsky, Kings of Poland; Charles Eugene and Louis Eugene, Dukes of Wurttemberg; to say nothing of such princes of the Church as Popes Benedict XIV and Clement XIII, and numerous cardinals and bishops, including Tencin, Passionei and Quirini, as well as such exotic personages as Gabriel Podosky, Prince-Archbishop of Poland and Lithuania, and Biord, Prince-Archbishop of Geneva.

These lists are far from giving an adequate idea of Voltaire's correspondents—naturally enough since they number 1,200. I have said nothing of his letters, including some of the most interesting ones he ever wrote, to actors and actresses; nor of those he wrote to artists, doctors, editors, publishers, financiers, bankers; nor of those he addressed to the numerous academies, in half a dozen countries, of which he was a member; nor of his letters to his family; and I can allude only in passing to the long and profoundly interesting series of his letters to the friends he kept throughout their lives, such men as the Comte d'Argental, Cideville, Thieriot. A striking fact emerges here, one that throws a strong light on Voltaire's character. I have named only three friends, but the remarkable thing is that Voltaire corresponded regularly for twenty years or more with about thirty-five friends, and for over thirty years with twenty, outside his family. This is unique in the annals of letter-writing.

It is worth noting in passing that Voltaire's correspondence, although of course written in the main in French, includes many letters in English and Italian, and even some in Latin, German and Spanish.


All this is by no means banal; it is indeed obvious that such a record is unparalleled. A correspondence of such duration, scope and extent must in itself form an historical monument, without necessarily having much to do with literature. Yet precisely there lies the greatest merit of Voltaire's letters. It is the personality of the author, the quality of what he has to say, and the way he says it, that transforms a document into a piece of literature. Here a distinction must be made. There are those who in general write well, even superlatively, but who have seldom written a good letter. The correspondence of Baudelaire is an outstanding example. On the other hand, many people can write very good letters while perfectly incapable of producing a novel or a story, forms of writing that can be regarded not unreasonably as extensions of the letter. We all know such cases among our own friends. This is not a question of style. Even writers whose style is extremely artificial, such as Henry James, Proust, James Joyce, have written admirable letters; and the same is true of authors, like Flaubert, who take enormous pains to achieve an effect of simplicity and naturalness. The essential point here is, I think, psychological: the author writes for the public, even if that public is likely to be limited; the letter-writer has a specific reader in mind.

It can be seen at once that this calls for very precise qualities, some of them rather unexpected. The most obvious is the ability to put oneself into rapport with the person to whom one is writing, to get into his skin. Voltaire had this gift to an almost miraculous degree. It is a liberal education in itself to see him describe the same event, make the same reflection, to an old friend, an academic colleague, a woman, a young protégé, a neighbour in the country. It is not so much that he tries to please, for in innumerable letters he does anything but that. What he tries to do is to interest each correspondent by presenting what he has to say in the manner most likely to appeal to his interests, knowledge and beliefs. Madame Du Deffand once wrote to Voltaire (1 March 1769): `Accuse me if you wish of an excess of vanity, but I always feel that I have already thought of whatever you tell me.' What a tribute! all the more so in that it was quite unintended, from a woman who had not a hundredth part of Voltaire's knowledge and intellect. Voltaire, who was sometimes ridiculously modest, replied (15 March): `It is easy to get on terms with those to whom one is speaking; this is not so in writing; there it is by chance that one brings it off.' By chance! If it was by chance then the president of the immortals must have modified the calculus of probabilities in Voltaire's favour every time the great man took his pen into his hand.

For a great man to be a good letter-writer calls for great generosity of spirit, and even for plain generosity. The fact that Bernard Shaw received astronomic fees for anything he chose to write, and that his letters had themselves become marketable commodities, did not prevent him from writing often and at great length to many of those who asked for his advice or help. This was not exactly the case with Voltaire, for he always gave away the income from the innumerable performances of his plays and the incessant stream of his editions. On the other hand, he was an enormously busy man, lord of the manor, charged with the execution of high and low justice, farmer, architect and builder, business man, head of a family, and even, in his spare time, the author of hundreds of works ranging from epigrams to books in numerous volumes, and published under 150 pseudonyms. Yet he still had time to write lengthy criticisms of their works to a Chabanon or Helvétius; frequently to urge a Damilaville or Argence to crush the infamous; to Madame Du Deffand to console her for her blindness and her disagreeable character; to King Frederick to dissuade him from suicide; to the Empress Catherine to encourage her to liberate the serfs or to crush the Turks; to all the world to solicit subscriptions for the poor and the unfortunate, or to seek justice for those who had fallen victim to the Church or the government; to his printers to complain of their work, their delays, their numerous misprints, their bad type-faces, their pulpy paper, their too large or too small margins; to say nothing of love-letters, and innumerable letters of mere friendship, neighbourliness or condolence.

It has become a commonplace to say that the epistolary art is a function of distance; that nobody writes what he can say; that rapid communications, above all the telephone, enable us to say everything; and that consequently letter-writing is doomed, if not dead. It seems to me perfectly obvious that this commonplace, like most facile generalisations, is false. I have already mentioned Shaw, Proust and Joyce. Many other examples could be given. What about the Gide-Claudel correspondence? What about the letters of D. H. Lawrence? What about the extraordinary eruptions of Thomas Wolfe? It is not even true that fewer letters are written: very far from it. What is true is that certain kinds of letters are no longer written, or at least much less. It cannot be doubted, for instance, that Voltaire's hundreds of charming notes to his Genevese publisher would have been replaced by even more numerous, but probably much less agreeable telephone-calls. That would have been a pity, but hardly justifies the total pessimism of the historians and anthologists.

Nor should it be supposed that the absence of the telephone and the difficulties of travel led automatically to the production of good letters. In truth, it must be frankly admitted that even in the French eighteenth century, that fine flower of courtesy and elegance, Diderot, Frederick II, Madame Du Deffand, Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, Madame Du Châtelet, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Catherine II are about the only French writers among whose letters there are a few that deserve a place somewhere near the vast mass of Voltaire's—and it is interesting to note that on this short list we find the names of a Genevese, a Prussian, and a German who became a Russian.

It is true that in former times the arrival and departure of the post-bag was a great event; the receipt and despatch of letters was something to be prepared for; and in consequence greater pains were taken in the writing of them, especially as it was usually the recipient who paid the postage, which was high. But what letters have lost in length and elaboration have they not perhaps gained in spontaneity?

The miracle of Voltaire in this respect is that among so many letters it is impossible to find a single boring one. For after all, though a letter can be interesting even if it is badly written, it cannot then survive as literature: and if this is true of a single letter how much truer is it of so vast a correspondence! Voltaire had an instinctive feeling for words and phrases, a feeling refined to such a point by incessant work and discipline that it was impossible for him to write a dull paragraph, or even to dictate one. This is a significant point, for there is indeed little difference between the letters he wrote as a young man and those he sent half-a-century later. The earlier ones are perhaps more poetic, but in general we find the same vocabulary, continuously enriched, but basically the same, a vocabulary in which the Latin of Louis-le-grand and the language of the old French poets and the new English thinkers, are happily intermingled with the technical terms of law, science and technology, and with the local usages of Burgundy and Geneva. At all periods and in all contexts we find the same easy grace, the same passion, the same sincerity, the same earnestness, the same thoughtful sensibility, the same spontaneity, the same love of antithesis, the same wit, in short, the same style. Even his slightest business notes evoke a smile or a sympathetic grimace.

It is true that the very unusual circumstances of Voltaire's life contributed somewhat to the making of the letter-writer. In this respect his life falls into three fairly distinct parts.

There was first the worldly epoch (to 1726). Voltaire lived in Paris and visited his friends as far as Forges and La Rivière Bourdet to the north; Caen to the west; the stately houses of Richelieu, Ussé, La Source and Sully towards the south; as well as such châteaux near Paris as Sceaux, Maisons, Vaux, and many others. This period might well be called that of the bread and butter letter (so much more elegantly named in French the lettre de château): and it is at this time that we find the splendid series of letters in prose and verse to such men as Chaulieu, Ussé, Brancas and Sully.

Next come the years of absence from the capital (1726-53), except for short visits. Voltaire went to England, then to Cirey, to the Netherlands, to Prussia. It is during this period that were written most of the long philosophic and scientific letters addressed to Frederick, Maupertuis, Mairan, and a hundred others. It is the period of the letters of reflection.

Finally we have the long exile (1753-78). Voltaire was entirely absent from Paris for a quarter of a century, and this was naturally the epoch of his most massive correspondence, since letters had become almost the only means of communication with the outside world. Voltaire now became above all the philosophe. It was the period of the letters of action and propaganda.

Obviously, had Voltaire stayed quietly at home in Paris, his correspondence would have been very different, much more limited, and infinitely less interesting.


A word of warning is now necessary. It is by no means easy to judge the value and meaning of Voltaire's letters: this is indeed often a very delicate task. He wrote all kinds of letters: the list of his correspondents is in itself evidence of this. In these circumstances it is obvious that not all express equally the true ideas and feelings of the writer. The emotion that overflows into a letter to an intimate friend at a moment of joy or sorrow undoubtedly reveals the writer, but here it must be remembered that Voltaire was a highly mercurial being, whose reactions varied rapidly and often.

On the other hand, a letter intended to be read not only by the addressee but also by others, and sometimes even to be printed, might be regarded at first sight as subject to caution. But this is not always the case, for in such letters Voltaire often takes great pains to express himself very clearly and accurately. Even there certain subtleties exist. Voltaire knew that some of his correspondents, Madame Du Deffand for instance, notwithstanding their denials, had his letters read out aloud in their drawing-rooms in order to attract and entertain their friends. In such cases Voltaire wrote letters so conceived that although they remained intimate and affectionate they could yet be seen by others without too much indiscretion. This was not easy to do, and the surviving drafts show how much trouble Voltaire took to achieve this end.

And then we have many letters written to close friends in which a sort of secret language is used. It is not easy at first to penetrate this private language, but finally one learns to realize when Voltaire wants one of his publications to be entirely disavowed, or tacitly avowed, or attributed to another, or circulated in manuscript, or printed, with a hundred variations on these constant themes. Most of this escapes the casual reader of the correspondence. The practice of attributing to an author views he puts into the mouth of his characters is recognized as a vulgar error. But he who quotes Voltaire's letters without taking into account the factors to which I have alluded, is committing just as serious a mistake, for Voltaire was himself his own most various personage, which he manipulated like a marionette.


How many letters did Voltaire write? I have about twenty thousand on file. Some periods of his life are fully represented, and a few very sparsely. This does not necessarily mean that many letters have been lost, but only that Voltaire was living in Paris and seeing his friends and acquaintances instead of writing to them from abroad. As for the periods well represented, this similarly does not mean that more letters have survived, but rather that more were written. Indeed, when Voltaire was particularly excited by some incident or activity he would write letter after letter to a prodigious extent. Thus, in October 1748 he was anxious to prevent the performance of a parody of his tragedy Sémiramis. We know the letters he wrote in this connection to the Queen, to the Chief of Police, and to his `angel' Argental; but he tells us himself that he also wrote to Madame de Pompadour, the Duchesse d'Aiguillon, the minister Maurepas, the Duc d'Aumont, the Duchesse de Villars, the Duc de Fleury, the Duc de Gèvres: all these letters appear to be irrevocably lost.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to suppose that Voltaire wrote an absolutely large number of letters. Apart from his childhood, his correspondence extends over 67 years; now 67 years contain 3,484 weeks, and 24,388 days—even without allowing for leap-years. Thus twenty thousand letters do not produce an average even of one letter a day, or two letters a day if we assume that half his letters have failed to survive. This is modest absolutely; it is even modest relatively. Thus, we are told2 that ex-President Hoover wrote 55,952 letters in his eighty-fourth year. This would mean that Mr Hoover wrote 155 letters every day of the year. Even taken with a very large grain of salt this figure makes Voltaire's two a day pale into insignificance. An even more striking contrast leaps to the imagination: about half of all the letters Voltaire ever wrote were kept because they were admired, they have survived for two centuries, and are now being published with loving care. But it would be unkind to pursue the parallel.


Voltaire was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the greatest dramatists and poets of all time; he himself looked on his epic poem, the Henriade, as his greatest achievement. Tastes have changed, but the pendulum has certainly swung too far in the opposite direction, and may well move back. Today Voltaire's reputation is founded above all on his unique record as an active and effective advocate of toleration and liberty. His pioneering work in the field of history, and of scientific and philosophic popularization in the finest sense, stands higher than ever. His style remains incomparable. In addition to all this, I believe that his correspondence shows him to have been, by and large, a man of noble and lovable character.

1 Jules Huret, Enquête sur l'évolution littéraire (Paris 1891), pp. 420-1

2 Time (international edition, 18 August 1958), p. 31

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