In a similar mood Pascal had chosen to submit his logic-ridden intellect to the Catholic Church as an organization that through long experience had found a combination of doctrine and ritual helpful to morality and comforting to wonder and grief. Voltaire did not go so far, but in his seventies he moved confusedly in that direction.

He began by reconciling himself to the general desirability of some religion. When Boswell asked him (December 29, 1764), “Would you have no public worship?” Voltaire answered, “Yes, with all my heart. Let us meet four times a year in a great temple, with music, and thank God for all his gifts. There is one sun, there is one God; let us have one religion; then all mankind will be brethren.”119 The sun offered him, so to speak, a halfway house to God. In May, 1774, aged eighty, he rose before dawn, and climbed with a friend to see the sunrise from a nearby hill; perhaps he had been reading Rousseau. Reaching the top exhausted, and overwhelmed by the glory of the triumphant sun, he knelt and cried, “O mighty God, I believe!” But, the Voltaire in him rebounding, he said as he rose to his feet, “As to Monsieur the Son and Madame his mother, that is another matter!”120

Gradually he went further, and consented to allow a clergy, which would teach morality to the people and offer prayers to God.121 He acknowledged that the bishops in France and England had done some good in organizing social order; but cardinals were too expensive, and should be dispensed with. He had a tender regard for the simple parish priest who kept the village register, helped the poor, and made peace in troubled families; these curés should be more respected, better paid, less exploited by their ecclesiastical superiors.122 In generous moments the old penitent was willing to increase the religious assemblies from four times a year to once a month, even once a week.123 There should be prayers and thanksgiving, acts of adoration, and lessons in morality; but no “sacrifice,” no prayers of petition, and let the sermons be short! If you must have religious pictures or statues, let them commemorate not dubious saints but the heroes of humanity, like Henry IV (saving his mistresses). And no supernatural dogmas except the existence of a just God. The ecclesiastical organization should be subject to the state; the clergy should be trained and paid by the government. Monasteries and convents might remain, but only as refuges for the old or sick. Like so many skeptics, Voltaire had a tender regard for the nuns who came out of their convents to help the sick and the poor. Seeing the Sisters of Charity in the hospitals of Paris, he had written, in the Essai sur les moeurs: “There is not, on all the earth, anything to equal the sacrifice of beauty, youth, and often high birth, which the gentle sex offers gladly in order to solace, in the hospitals, the welter of human suffering.… The nations separated from the Roman faith have but imperfectly copied so noble a charity.”124

As “all the world knows,” Voltaire built near his mansion at Ferney a little church over whose portal he proudly inscribed the words “Deo erexit Voltaire” “This,” he claimed, “is the only church in the world dedicated to God alone; all the others are dedicated to saints.”125 He asked Rome to send him some sacred relics for his chapel; the Pope sent him a haircloth of St. Francis of Assisi. On the altar Voltaire placed a life-size gilded-metal statue of Christ, not as the crucified, but as a sage. There, from 1760 onward, he attended Mass every Sunday; he had himself censered as seigneur of the village; and at Easter, in 1768, he went to Communion.126 He sent his servants to church regularly, and paid to have their children taught the catechism.127

Much of this piety may have been designed to give his villagers a good example, to encourage them in beliefs that might lessen their crimes and safeguard his property. He made sure that the, court at Versailles should hear of his exemplary behavior, and perhaps he hoped that this would facilitate his campaigns for the Calas, the Sirvens, and La Barre, and his own return to Paris; and indeed the King and the Queen were pleased to hear of his reform. The Abbé de La Bletterie approved of Voltaire’s taking the Sacrament, but remarked, on seeing the communicant’s emaciation, that Voltaire had forgotten to have himself buried; to which Voltaire, bowing courteously, replied, “After you, monsieur.”128 On March 31, 1769, he summoned a notary and signed, before several witnesses, an affirmation that he wished to die in the Catholic religion.129 The fréres in Paris laughed at him; he bore their gibes good-humoredly.

After 1768 he adopted the monastic custom of having devotional works read to him at mealtime; for this purpose he preferred the sermons of Massillon; he could appreciate literature even when it came in a cassock. He had shared in the campaign against the Jesuits, but in 1770 he joined a lay association of the Capuchin friars, and received from the head of that order the title père temporal des capucins de Gex—the little county in which he was a feudal lord. He was quite proud of this honor, wrote a dozen letters about it, signed some letters “Frére Voltaire, capucin indigne” Frederick hailed him as a new saint of the Church, but informed him that the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome had in that same year burned some of the “unworthy Capuchin’s” works.130 It is difficult now to discern whether this rapprochement with the Church was sincere, or whether it was a peace offering to Versailles, or whether it was motived by fear lest his corpse be forbidden burial in consecrated ground—which included all the cemeteries in France. Perhaps all three motives played a part in the divine comedy.

In these final years, 1770–78, he devoted his pen rather to repudiating atheism then to attacking Christianity. Into the article “God” in the Dictionnaire philosophique he inserted two sections in refutation of d’Holbach’s Système de la nature. In 1772 he composed a vigorous essay, Il’ faut prendre un Parti (We Must Take Sides), in which he argued for “God and toleration.” He confessed to Mme. Necker, to the Duchesse de Choiseul, to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, his fear that the movement for religious toleration would be defeated by the advocacy of atheism. He regretted that his criticism of d’Holbach was endangering the solidarity of the fréres, but he persisted: “I have no doubt that the author, and three supporters of this book, will become my implacable enemies for having spoken my thoughts; and I have declared to them that I will speak out as long as I breathe, without fearing either the fanatics of atheism or the fanatics of superstition.”131 The holbachiens retorted that the rich seigneur was playing politics with Versailles, and was using God to police his servants and peasants at Ferney.

In the last decade of his life the men whom he had once hailed and spurred on as brothers in the campaign against l’infâme looked upon him as a lost leader. Diderot had never loved him, had never taken to corresponding with him, had resented Voltaire’s evident assumption that d’Alembert was the chief and soul of the Encyclopédie. Diderot applauded the defense of Calas, but he let slip a jealous line: “This man is never more than the second in all genres.”132 Voltaire did not share Diderot’s revolutionary politics, nor his liking for the bourgeois drama of sentiment; the bourgeois become aristocrat could not relish the bourgeois contentedly bourgeois. Neither Diderot nor d’Holbach made the pilgrimage of devotion to Ferney. Grimm commented with undue severity on Voltaire’s criticism of Hobbes and Spinoza: “The ’Ignorant Philosopher’ has with difficulty skimmed the surface of these matters.”133 And now the atheists of Paris, growing in number and pride, turned their backs upon Voltaire. So early as 1765, even amid the battle againstl’infâme, one of them dismissed him with scorn: “Il est un bigot, c’est un déiste.”134

Buffeted from both sides, the frail patriarch began, toward 1770, to lose faith in the prospects of victory. He called himself a “great destroyer” who had built nothing.135 His new religion of “God and tolerance,” he feared, would come only when rulers would accept the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s “project for perpetual peace”—i.e., probably never at all. He had long suspected the frailty of philosophy and the unattractiveness of reason. “No philosopher has influenced the manners of even the street he lived in.”136 He surrendered the masses to “superstition” or mythology. He hoped to win some “forty thousand sages” in France, and the educated strata of the middle class; but even this hope began to fade in the twilight of his years. “To enlighten the young, bit by bit”—this was all the dream that was left to him as he prepared, aged eighty-four, to see Paris and die. Perhaps, in the marvelous welcome that he was destined to receive there, his faith and hope in man would return.

Was he a philosopher? Yes, though he made no system, vacillated on everything, and too often remained on the surface of things. He was not a philosopher if the word means the maker of a system of unified and consistent thought about the world and man. He turned away from systems as the impudent sallies of the minuscle into the infinite. But he was a philosopher if that means a mind seriously occupied with the basic problems of nature, morals, government, life, and destiny. He was not considered profound, but perhaps that was because he was uncertain and clear. His ideas were seldom original, but in philosophy nearly all original ideas are foolish, and lack of originality is a sign of wisdom. Certainly the form that he gave to his ideas was original; Voltaire is without question the most brilliant writer that ever lived. Was he second in every field, as Diderot charged? Second in philosophy to Diderot, yes, and in drama to Corneille and Racine; but he was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

Perhaps he hated too much, but we must remember the provocation; we must imagine ourselves back in an age when men were burned at the stake, or broken on the wheel, for deviating from orthodoxy. We can appreciate Christianity better today than he could then, because he fought with some success to moderate its dogmas and violence. We can feel the power and splendor of the Old Testament, the beauty and elevation of the New, because we are free to think of them as the labor and inspiration of fallible men. We can be grateful for the ethics of Christ, because he no longer threatens us with hell, nor curses the men and cities that will not hear him.137 We can feel the nobility of St. Francis of Assisi, because we are no longer asked to believe that St. Francis Xavier was heard in several languages while he spoke in one. We can feel the poetry and drama of religious ritual now that the transient triumph of toleration leaves us free to worship or abstain. We can accept a hundred legends as profound symbols or illuminating allegories, because we are no longer required to accept their literal truth. We have learned to sympathize with that which we once loved and had to leave, as we retain a tender memory for the loves of our youth. And to whom, more than to any other one man, do we owe this precious and epochal liberation? To Voltaire.

I. Oh, miserable mortals, grieving earth!

Oh, frightful gathering of all mankind!

Eternal host of useless sufferings!

Ye silly sages who cry, “All is well,”

Come, contemplate these ruins horrible,

This wreck, these shreds and ashes of your race;

Women and children heaped in common death,

These scattered members under broken shafts;

A hundred thousand luckless by the earth

Devoured, who, bleeding, torn, and still alive,

Buried beneath their roofs, end without help

Their lamentable days in torment vile!

To their expiring and half-formed cries,

The smoking cinders of this ghoulish scene,

Say you, “This follows from eternal laws

Binding the choice of God both free and good”?

Will you, before this mass of victims, say,

“God is revenged, their death repays their crimes”?

II. This was in an Apologie de Louis XIV(1762), by the Abbé de Caveyrac. Many Catholic clergymen condemned this book.54

III. “The Lutheran and Calvinist preachers would probably be as little inclined to pity, as obdurate and intolerant, as they upbraid their antagonists with being. The barbarous law whereby any Roman Catholic is forbidden to reside more than three days in certain countries is not yet revoked.”—Essay on Free Toleration, in Works, XXIa, 257. Cf. Voltaire’s denunciation of the intolerant Huguenot Jurieu in the article “David” in the Dictionnaire philosophique.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!