Death and the Philosophers



1. Twilight in Ferney

HE was eighty in 1774. He had some fainting spells in these years; we call them little strokes, he called them petites avertissements. He shrugged them off, being long since accustomed to dying; he lived on and savored the adulation of kings and queens. Catherine the Great called him “the most illustrious man of our age.”1 Frederick the Great reported in 1775: “People tear at one another in the struggle for the busts of Voltaire at the manufactory of porcelain” in Berlin, “where they do not turn them out fast enough to meet the demand.”2 Ferney had long since become a goal of pilgrimage for intellectual Europe; now it was almost a religious shrine. Hear Mme. Suard after her visit in 1775: “I have seen M. de Voltaire. The transports of St. Theresa never surpassed those which I experienced on seeing this great man. It seemed to me that I was in the presence of a god, a god cherished and adored, to whom I had at last been able to show all my gratitude and all my respect.”3 When he passed through Geneva in 1776 he was nearly stifled by the enthusiastic crowd that surrounded him.4

He continued, even in his eighties, to take an interest in politics and literature. He celebrated the accession of Louis XVI with an Éloge historique de la raison in which, by the device of prediction, he suggested some reforms that might endear the new ruler to posterity:

The laws will be made uniform. … Pluralities [several benefices held by one ecclesiastic], superfluous expenditure, will be cut away. … To the poor who work hard will be given the immense riches of certain idle men who have taken a vow of poverty. The marriages of a hundred thousand [Protestant] families useful to the state will no longer be regarded as concubinage, nor the children held illegitimate. … Minor offenses will no longer be punished as great crimes. … Torture will no longer be employed. … There will cease to be two powers [state and Church], because there can exist but one—that of the king’s law in a monarchy, that of the nation in a republic. … Lastly, we shall dare to pronounce the word tolerance?5

Louis accomplished many of these reforms, barring the ecclesiastical. Sincerely pious, and convinced that the loyalty of the Church was an indispensable support of his throne, he deplored the influence of Voltaire. In July, 1774, his government instructed the intendant of Burgundy to keep watch on the aged heretic, and to seize all his papers immediately after his death; Marie Antoinette sympathized with Voltaire, wept at a performance of his Tancrède, and said she would like to “embrace the author”;6 he sent her some pretty verses.

He had an optimistic spell when his friend Turgot was made controller general of finance; but when Turgot was dismissed he fell into a dark Pascalian pessimism about human affairs. He recovered happiness by adopting a daughter. Reine Philiberte de Varicourt was introduced to him in 1775 as a girl whose family, too poor to provide her with a dowry, was planning to send her to a nunnery. Her innocent beauty warmed the old man’s bones; he took her into his ménage, called her “Belle et Bonne,” and found a husband for her—the young and moneyed Marquis de Villette. They were married in 1777, and spent their honeymoon at Ferney. “My young lovers are a joy to see,” he wrote; “they are working night and day to make a little philosopher for me.”7 The childless octogenarian rejoiced at the thought of being a father, if only by proxy.

Meanwhile he composed his last drama, Irène, and sent it to the Comédie-Française. Its reception (January, 1778) created a problem. The custom of the company was to stage each play in the order of its acceptance; two other dramas had been received and approved before Voltaire’s—one by Jean-François de Laharpe, one by Nicolas Barthe. Both authors at once waived their prior rights to performance. Barthe wrote to the company:

A new play by Monsieur de Voltaire has been read to you. You were on the point of considering L’Homme personnel. There is only one thing for you to do: do not think of my play any longer. I am aware … of the prescribed procedure. But what writer would dare to call upon the rule in a case like this? Monsieur stands above the law like a king. If I am not to have the honor of making my contribution to the pleasure of the public, the least I can do is not to stand in the way of the public delight that will surely be occasioned by a new drama from the pen that created Zaire and Mérope. I hope you will stage this play as soon as possible. May its author, like Sophocles, continue to write tragedies until he is a hundred years old, and may he die as you, messieurs, live—flooded with applause.8

When news of this reached Voltaire he played lovingly with the idea of going to Paris to direct the staging of his play. After all, there was no official or express prohibition of his coming to Paris. What if the clergy should attack him in their pulpits? He was accustomed to that. What if they persuaded the King to send him to the Bastille? Well, he was accustomed to that too. What a joy it would be to see the great city again, now the capital of the Enlightenment! How it must have changed since his last flight from it twenty-eight years ago! And besides, Mme. Denis, who had long since tired of Ferney, had often begged him to take her back to Paris. The Marquis de Villette offered to put him up in comfort in his hotel on the Rue de Beaune. A dozen messages from Paris cried out: Come!

He decided to go. If the trip killed him it would only advance the inevitable triflingly; it was time to die. The servants of his household, the caretakers of his farm, the peasants on his land, the workers in his industrial colony, protested and mourned; he promised to return in six weeks, but they were sadly sure that they would never see him again; and what successor would treat them as kindly as he had done? When the caravan left Ferney (February 5, 1778) his dependents gathered about him; many of them wept, and he himself could not hold back his tears. Five days later, after a three-hundred-mile trip, he sighted Paris.

2. Apotheosis

At the city gates the officials checked the carriage for contraband. “By my faith, gentlemen,” Voltaire assured them, “I believe there is nothing here contraband except myself.”9 Wagnière, his secretary, assures us that his master “had enjoyed all the way the best of health. I never saw him in a more agreeable humor; his gaiety was delightful.”10

Rooms had been prepared for him in the residence of M. de Villette at the corner of the Rue de Beaune and the Quai des Théatins on the left bank of the Seine. Immediately after alighting from his coach Voltaire walked along the quay to the nearby home of his friend d’Argental, now seventyeight years old. The Count was not at home, but he soon appeared at the Hôtel Villette. “I have left off dying to come and see you,” said Voltaire. Another ancient friend sent a note of welcome; he replied with his usual obituary flourish: “I arrive dead, and I wish to be revived only to throw myself at the knees of Madame la Marquise du Deffand.”11 The Marquis de Jaucourt brought word that Louis XVI was furious at Voltaire’s coming to Paris, but Mme. de Polignac came to assure him that Marie Antoinette would protect him.12 The clergy wished to have him expelled, but no official ban forbidding Voltaire’s visit could be found in the records, and Louis confined himself to rejecting the Queen’s plea that the world-famous writer be allowed to present himself at court.13

When news spread through Paris that the man who had set the intellectual tone of the century had come out of his long exile, the room at the Hôtel Villette was turned into a veritable court and throne. On February 11, it was said, over three hundred persons called, including Gluck, Piccini, Turgot, Talleyrand, Marmontel, and Mesdames Necker, du Barry, and du Deffand. Franklin came with a seventeen-year-old grandson, and asked the blessing of the patriarch for him; Voltaire raised his hands over the boy’s head, and said in English, “My child, God and liberty; remember these two words.”14 When the stream of visitors continued day after day Dr. Tronchin wrote to the Marquis de Villette: “Voltaire is living now on his principal rather than his interest, and his strength will soon be exhausted by such a way of living.” This note was published in the Journal de Paris on February 19, apparently to keep the curious away.15 Voltaire himself, at Ferney, had predicted what this triumph would cost him: “I would be dead in four days if I had to live as a man of the world.”16

Some clergymen thought it would be a good stroke to secure his reconciliation with the Catholic Church. He was half willing, for he knew that only those who had died in the arms of the Church could be buried in consecrated ground; and all the cemeteries in France were consecrated ground. So he welcomed a letter sent him on February 20 by Abbé Gaultier asking for an interview. The abbé came on the twenty-first. They talked for a while, to no known theological result; Mme. Denis begged the abbé to go; Voltaire told him he might come again. On the twenty-fifth Voltaire suffered a severe hemorrhage, spouting blood through mouth and nose when he coughed. He bade his secretary summon Gaultier. Wagnière confesses: “I avoided sending my letter, not wishing to have it said that M. de Voltaire had shown weakness. I assured him that the abbé could not be found.”17 Wagnière knew that the skeptics in Paris were hoping that Voltaire would not surrender to the Church at the last moment; and perhaps he had heard of Frederick the Great’s prediction, “He will dishonor us all.”18

Tronchin came and stopped the hemorrhage, but for the next twenty-two days Voltaire spat blood. On the twenty-sixth he wrote to Gaultier: “I beg you to come as soon as you can.”19 Gaultier came the next morning, found Voltaire sleeping, and went away. On the twenty-eighth Voltaire handed to Wagnière a confession of faith: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting persecution.”20 Gaultier returned on March 2; Voltaire asked to be confessed; the abbé answered that Jean de Tersac, curé of St.-Sulpice, had required him to get a retraction before hearing the confession. Wagnière protested. Voltaire asked for pen and paper, and wrote with his own hand:

I, the undersigned, having been attacked for four months past with vomiting blood, and being, at the age of eighty-four, no longer able to drag myself to church; and the curé of St.-Sulpice, having wished to add to his good works this of having sent M. l’Abbé Gaultier, priest; I have confessed myself to him; and [declare] that if God disposes of me, I die in the Catholic religion in which I was born, hoping in the divine mercy that it will pardon all my faults; and that if I have ever scandalized the Church, I ask pardon of God and her.—Signed, VOLTAIRE, the 2nd of March, 1778, in the home of M. le Marquis de Villette.21

M. de Vielleville and Abbé Mignot (a nephew of Voltaire) signed the statement as witnesses. Gaultier brought it to the Archbishop at Conflans (a suburb) and to the curé of St.-Sulpice, both of whom pronounced it inadequate.22 Nevertheless Gaultier prepared to administer Communion to Voltaire, but Voltaire suggested that this should be deferred, saying, “I am continually coughing blood; we must guard against mingling my blood with that of the good God.”23 We do not know in what spirit—pious or whimsical—this was said.

On March 3 Diderot, d’Alembert, and Marmontel came to see the sick man. When Gaultier called on that day, with instructions from his superior to get a “less equivocal and more detailed” confession, he was told that Voltaire was in no condition to receive him. Gaultier returned several times, but was each time turned away by the Swiss guard at the door. On March 4 Voltaire wrote to the curé of St.-Sulpice, apologizing for having dealt with a subordinate. On March 13 the curé was received, but apparently nothing came of this visit except an exchange of courtesies.24 Meanwhile the hemorrhages had ceased; Voltaire felt his strength returning, and his piety declined.

On March 16 Irène was performed at the Théâtre-Français. Nearly all the court came, including the Queen. The play was not up to Voltaire’s standard, but it was acclaimed nevertheless as a marvelous production for a man of eighty-four. Voltaire, too ill to attend, was kept notified, act by act, of the audience’s reaction; and on the seventeenth a deputation from the French Academy brought him congratulations. By March 21 he felt well enough to go out riding. He visited Suzanne de Livry, Marquise de Gouvernet, who had been his mistress sixty-three years before. On the twentyeighth he visited Turgot.

March 30 was his supreme day. In the afternoon he went to the Louvre for a meeting of the Academy. “As he drove out from his house,” reported Denis von Visin, a Russian writer then in Paris, “the carriage was accompanied as far as the Academy by an endless throng of people who kept on applauding. All the Academicians came out to meet him.”25 D’Alembert welcomed him with a speech that brought tears to the old man’s eyes. Voltaire was placed in the presidential chair, and was elected by acclamation president for the April quarter. The session over, he was escorted to his carriage, which then moved with difficulty to the Théâtre-Français through an immense crowd that repeatedly cried out, “Vive Voltaire!”

When he entered the theater, audience and actors alike rose to greet him. He found his way to the loge where Mme. Denis and the Marquise de Villette were awaiting him. He sat behind them; the audience appealed to him to make himself more visible; he took a seat between the ladies. An actor came to the loge and placed a laurel wreath on Voltaire’s head; he took it off and put it upon the head of the Marquise; she insisted on his accepting it. Voices were heard in the audience: “Hail Voltaire!” “Hail Sophocles!” “Honor to the philosopher who teaches men to think!” “Glory to the defender of Calas!”26 “This enthusiasm,” said eyewitness Grimm, “this general delirium, lasted more than twenty minutes.”27 Then Irène was performed for the sixth time. At the close the audience demanded a few words from the author; Voltaire complied. The curtain rose again; the actors had taken a bust of Voltaire from the foyer and placed it on the stage; now they crowned it with laurels, and Mme. Vestrice, who had played Irène, read to Voltaire some laudatory verses:

Aux yeux de paris enchanté
çois en ce jour un hommage
Que confirmera d’âge en
La s
év ère postérité.
Non, tu n’as pas besoin

d’atteindre au noir rivage

Pour jouir de l’honneur

de l’immortalité.

Voltaire, re çois la couronne
Que l’ on vient de te pr
ll est beau de la mériter
Quand c’est la France qui la donne.28

Before the eyes of enchanted Paris
Receive on this day a homage
Which a severe posterity will
Confirm from age to age.
No, you need not

reach the dark shore

To enjoy the honor

of immortality.

Voltaire, receive the crown
Which has been offered you;
It is beautiful to merit it
When it is France that gives it.

The audience asked that the verses be repeated; they were. During the applause Voltaire left his seat; all made way for him; he was led to his carriage amid an enthusiastic multitude. Torches were brought, the coachman was persuaded to drive slowly, and a crowd accompanied the carriage to the Hôtel de Villette.29 So far as we know, there had never been such a scene in all the history of French literature.

Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, who had witnessed all this, wrote: “The celebrated old man was so thin and frail that I feared such strong emotions would cause him mortal harm.”30 Tronchin advised him to return to Ferney as soon as possible; Mme. Denis begged her uncle to make Paris his home. Intoxicated by the reception given him, he agreed with her. He praised the people of Paris as the gayest, most polite, enlightened, and indulgent in the world, with the finest tastes, amusements, and arts;31 for a moment he forgot the “canaille.” Soon he was driving about Paris looking for a house; on April 27 he bought one. Tronchin raged. “I have seen many fools in my life,” he said, “but never one madder than he. He is reckoning on a hundred years.”32

On April 7 Voltaire was taken to the “Nine Sisters” Lodge of the Freemasons. He was initiated into membership without being required to pass through the usual preliminary stages. A laurel wreath was put upon his head, and the chairman made a speech: “We swear to help our brothers, but you have been the founder of an entire colony which adores you and which overflows with your benefactions. … You, much beloved brother, have been a Freemason before you received the degree, … and you have fulfilled the obligations of a Freemason before you promised to keep them.”33 On the eleventh he returned Mme. du Deffand’s visit by going to see her in her apartment at the Convent of St.-Joseph. She felt his face with her seeing hands, and found only bones, but on the twelfth she wrote to Horace Walpole: “He is as animated as ever. He is eighty-four, and verily I think he will never die. He enjoys all his senses, none is weakened. He is a singular being, and in truth far superior.”34 When the nuns heard of his visit they denounced the Marquise for desecrating their cloister with the presence of a man condemned by both Church and state.35

On April 27 he went again to the Academy. The discussion turned on the Abbé Delille’s version of Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot; Voltaire had read the original, and complimented the abbé on his translation. He took the occasion to suggest that theDictionaryof the Academy be revised to enrich the accredited language with hundreds of new words that had come into respectable usage. On May 7 he returned to the Academy with a plan for the new dictionary. He offered to take charge of all words beginning with A, and proposed that each member undertake a letter. On adjourning he thanked them “in the name of the alphabet”; the Marquis de Chastellux replied, “And we thank you in the name of letters.”36 That evening he attended, incognito, a performance of hisAlzire; at the end of Act IV the audience applauded the actor Larive; Voltaire joined audibly in the acclaim by crying out, “Ah, que c’est bien!” (Ah, that is well done!) The audience recognized him, and for forty-five minutes the frenzy of March 30 was renewed.

Perhaps he did well to enjoy those last weeks of life at the expense of his health, instead of shrinking into privacy to gain a few painful days. He worked so ardently on his plan for a new dictionary, and drank so much coffee—sometimes twenty-five cups in a day—that he could not sleep at night. Meanwhile his stricture worsened; urination became more painful and incomplete; toxic elements that should have been eliminated passed into the blood, producing uremia. The Duc de Richelieu sent him a solution of opium, recommending it as an anodyne. Misunderstanding the directions, Voltaire drank a whole flask of it at once (May 11). He fell into a delirium that lasted forty-eight hours. His face was deformed with suffering. Tronchin was summoned, and gave him some relief, but for several days Voltaire uttered no word and could hold no food. He begged to be taken back to Ferney, but it was too late.

On May 30 Abbé Gaultier and the curé of St.-Sulpice came, prepared to administer the final sacrament of the Church if Voltaire would add, to his previous confession of faith, belief in the divinity of Christ. An uncorroborated story by Condorcet37 described Voltaire as crying out, “In God’s name, do not talk to me of that man!” Laharpe reported Voltaire’s response as “Let me die in peace.” Desnoiresterres accepted the usual account: the priests found Voltaire delirious, and departed without offering him the sacrament.38Tronchin claimed that the last hours of the philosopher were marked by extreme agony and cries of fury.39 Peace came at eleven o’clock that night.

The Abbé Mignot, anticipating that his uncle’s corpse would be refused interment in a Paris cemetery, seated it upright in a carriage, and drove with it no miles out to the Abbey of Scellières in the village of Romilly-sur-Seine. There a local priest gave the body the traditional religious ceremony, sang a High Mass over it, and allowed its burial in the vault of the church.

An order of Louis XVI forebade the press to mention Voltaire’s death.40 The French Academy asked the Franciscan friars to have a Mass said for the dead man; permission could not be obtained. Frederick the Great, as one skeptic for another, arranged to have a Mass said for Voltaire in a Catholic Church at Berlin; and he composed a warm eulogy of his friend and foe, which was read to the Berlin Academy on November 26, 1778. Catherine the Great wrote to Grimm:

I have lost two men whom I never saw, who liked me, and whom I honored—Voltaire and Milord Chatham. Not for a very long time, perhaps never, will they—especially the former—find their equals, and never their superiors. … A few weeks ago Voltaire was publicly honored, and now they do not dare to bury him. What a man! The first of his nation. Why did you not take possession of his body in my name? You should have sent it to me embalmed. He would have the most splendid tomb.... If possible, buy his library and his papers, including his letters. I will pay his heirs a good price.41

Mme. Denis received 135,000 livres for the library, which was transported to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

In July, 1791, by order of the Constituent Assembly of the Revolution, the remains of Voltaire were removed from the Abbey of Scellières, were taken to Paris, were carried through the city in a triumphal procession, and were deposited in the Church of Ste.-Geneviève (soon to be renamed the Panthéon). In the same year the Quai des Théatins was officially rechristened the Quai de Voltaire. In May, 1814, during the Bourbon Restoration, a group of pious ghouls secretly removed the bones of Voltaire and Rousseau from the Panthéon, put them in a Sack, and buried them in a dumping ground on the outskirts of Paris. No trace of them remains.

3. The Influence of Voltaire

It began with the anticlerical moments in Oedipe (1718); it operates almost ecumenically today. We have seen it moving sovereigns: Frederick II, Catherine II, Joseph II, Gustavus III, and in less degree Charles III of Spain through Aranda, and Joseph II of Portugal through Pombal. In the intellectual world of the last two hundred years it has been equaled only by the influence of Rousseau and Darwin.

Whereas Rousseau’s moral influence was toward tenderness, sentiment, and the restoration of family life and marital fidelity, the moral influence of Voltaire was toward humanity and justice, toward the cleansing of French law and custom from legal abuses and barbaric cruelties; he, more than any other individual, spurred on the humanitarian movement that became one of the credits of the nineteenth century. To feel the influence of Voltaire on literature we need only recall Wieland, Kellgren, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Heine, Gautier, Renan, Anatole France. Without Voltaire Gibbon would have been impossible; and historians acknowledge his lead and inspiration in giving less attention to the crimes of men and governments and more to the development of knowledge, morals, manners, literature, and art.

Voltaire shared in begetting the French Revolution by weakening the respect of the intellectual classes for the Church, and the belief of the aristocracy in its feudal rights. But after 1789 Voltaire’s political influence was overwhelmed by Rousseau’s. Voltaire seemed too conservative, too scornful of the masses, too much of the seigneur; Robespierre rejected him; and for two years the Social Contract was the bible of the Revolution. Bonaparte felt the two influences in the usual sequence: “Until I was sixteen,” he recalled, “I would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire; today it is the opposite. … The more I read Voltaire the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic.”42 After the restoration of the Bourbons the writings of Voltaire became an instrument of bourgeois thought against the revived nobility and clergy. Between 1817 and 1829 there were twelve editions of Voltaire’s collected works; in those twelve years over three million volumes by Voltaire were sold.43The Communist crusade under Marx and Engels once more gave the leadership to Rousseau. In general the revolutionary movements since 1848 have followed Rousseau rather than Voltaire in politics, Voltaire rather than Rousseau in religion.

The most profound and lasting influence of Voltaire has been on religious belief. Through him and his associates France bypassed the Reformation, and went directly from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Perhaps that is one reason why the change was so violent; there was no pause at Protestantism. Some enthusiasts felt that the Enlightenment as a whole was a deeper reformation than that which Luther and Calvin had effected, for it challenged not merely the excesses of sacerdotalism and superstition, but the very fundamentals of Christianity, even of all supernatural creeds. Voltaire gathered into one voice all the varieties of anti-Catholic thought; he gave them added force by clarity, repetition, and wit; and for a time it seemed as if he had pulled down the Temple in which he had been reared. The intellectual classes throughout Christendom were moved by the philosophes to a polite deism or a secret atheism. In Germany the youth of Goethe’s generation were profoundly influenced. Goethe thought that “Voltaire will always be regarded as the greatest man in the literature of modern times, and perhaps of all times.”44 In England a brilliant minority—Godwin, Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Byron, Shelley—felt Voltaire’s influence, but by and large English deism had anticipated him and dulled his point; moreover, English gentlemen felt that no cultured mind would attack a religion that gave such calming solace to the weaker classes and the weaker sex. In America the founding fathers were almost all disciples of Voltaire. There and in England the influence of Darwin and modern biology has overlaid that of Voltaire in impairing religious belief; and in our times the Christian theology suffers most of all from the unparalleled barbarity of our wars, and the victorious audacities of sciences that invade the very heavens that once housed deities and saints.

To Voltaire, more than to any other individual, we owe the religious toleration that now precariously prevails in Europe and North America. The people of Paris thought of him not as the author of epochal books but as the defender of the Calas and the Sirvens. After him no tribunal in Europe would have dared to break a man on the wheel on such charges and evidence as had condemned Jean Calas. Books like Émile were still banned and burned, but their ashes helped to disseminate their ideas. Religious censorship declined until it tacitly admitted defeat. If, as seems possible, our children may have to fight all over again the battle for the freedom of the mind, let them seek inspiration and encouragement in the ninety-nine volumes of Voltaire. They will not find there one dull page.

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