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Voltaire in Exile
by Ian Davidson
Grove, 326 pp. $24

If a person of faith troubles to think of Voltaire (1694“1778) at all these days, it is most likely as the village atheist: shoveling scorn in Candide on Leibniz’s sunny theodicy that proclaims this the best of all possible worlds, flinging verbal abuse and perhaps the occasional dead cat at passing clerics, making sport of biblical literalists and indeed of believers in any religion of the revealed word. To many English-speaking readers, the definitive gibe at Voltaire comes from William Blake, who consigns the reasoning wizards of the Enlightenment to everlasting darkness: “Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau: / Mock on, Mock on, ‘tis all in vain! / You throw the sand against the wind, / And the wind blows it back again.”

The wind bloweth where it listeth, of course, and Blake defends the sacred pneuma that Scripture embodies against the assaults of rationalists ancient and modern: “The Atoms of Democritus / And Newton’s Particles of light / Are sands upon the Red Sea shore, / Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.” Now Blake was no orthodox subscriber to any known faith, yet the choice he presents could not be clearer: take biblical teaching seriously or blight your soul. Voltaire’s soul, in Blake’s estimation, is simply rotted through, corrupted by a mind too proud to heed the Divine Word.

Ian Davidson, longtime foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times , never mentions Blake but nevertheless is out to demolish this view in his Voltaire in Exile : “Everyone knows that Voltaire was famous, but not everyone has a clear idea of what he was famous for, and many of the most commonly held ideas about him”for example, that Voltaire was a cynic and an atheist”are simply wrong.” Davidson shows that Voltaire’s fame rested not just on his literary accomplishments, which were remarkable, but on his efforts to defend those suffering savage injustice; far from being a cynic, Voltaire was a man of compassionate and generous heart, at least in later life, and far from being an atheist, he professed an ardent natural piety.

Davidson’s biography covers the final twenty-five years of Voltaire’s life”the years of banishment from the centers of civilization where he had spent much of his previous life. The French poet, playwright, novelist, historian, and philosopher had become the prize acquisition of Prussia’s Frederick the Great in 1750, but by 1753 Voltaire’s defiant quarrelsomeness had moved Frederick to dismiss him from his court. When Voltaire attempted to return to Paris, however, he was informed that he was no longer welcome there: Louis XV never specified the reason for his royal displeasure, but it seemed clear that Voltaire’s interlude with Frederick, no friend to France, had made Voltaire Louis’ enemy as well.

Voltaire, a very wealthy man by dint of his shrewd investments and entrepreneurial energy, settled in the Swiss city of Geneva, a Calvinist stronghold, and for years would divide his time among the three grand houses he purchased in the region. Davidson’s book is principally his admiring account of Voltaire’s moral warfare against kingly and religious authority both Parisian and Genevan. Écrasez l’infâme was Voltaire’s celebrated battle-cry, and he shouted it relentlessly as he fought the “infamous” forces of privileged, persecuting orthodoxy that he believed were out to thwart the rightful intellectual, moral, and material aspirations of mankind.

The Catholic Church”indeed, Christianity at large; indeed, any religion but his own rationalistic deism”was the foremost enemy. For Voltaire’s god revealed himself more fully in Newton’s laws than in the prescriptions of the Church Fathers. The Nicene Creed, the profession of Catholic faith, was a particular object of Voltairean contempt”for him the Trinity was virtual polytheism”and this marked Voltaire as a particular object of churchly disapprobation and, in the eyes of devout Catholics, as an unbeliever. In the entry “Credo” in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), Voltaire professes his own faith, which he considers genuinely catholic as in his view the Catholic Church is not: Voltaire believes in and loves the one god (emphatically in the lower case, to distinguish him from the baneful official version); all people are equally god’s children, and god prefers a virtuous heathen to a Christian clergyman swollen with vanity and wind; moral duty demands that each man acknowledge every other as his brother; the persecutor and the disputatious theologian, who provides the persecutor with his theoretical foundation, are moral abominations; the clergy should be well-paid but not given vast wealth or princely rank; parish priests should be married and have children; monks should be driven from the land.

This credo of Voltaire’s demonstrates both the glories and the deficiencies of his relation to the divine. His is a philosopher’s god, and one should probably be cautiously grateful when a philosopher acknowledges his god, lower-case divinity though it may be, with evident sincerity. This god, Voltaire claims, is the god of all, and he inspires love and laudable moral striving in worshipful men. Yet it is evident to us that this god of standard deist issue does not inspire love and moral striving in all men, as one might expect him to; and to say, as Voltaire does, that only wicked or deluded men fail to worship god and honor his moral imperatives fails to account for virtuous atheists and vicious deists”prominent examples of the latter being Rousseau, who farmed out his five children for adoption and whom Voltaire came to hate quite publicly for that reason and several others, and Thomas Jefferson, who kept a slave as his adulterous mistress for years and never freed her, but who piously cited Voltaire on the malevolence of European society, where a man must be either hammer or anvil. The god of reason, despite the obviousness of his moral law, was no more successful than the god of so-called superstition in keeping his supposed faithful to the straight and narrow.

Voltaire prefers to attribute most human viciousness to disputes over religious doctrine, perfectly ludicrous in his eyes, and to the abuse of clerical privilege. For all Voltaire’s encomia to natural piety, his bread and butter remains his cultivated impiety, sometimes smirking, sometimes acid, toward every form of religion but his own, which he holds to be uniquely reasonable and right. Voltaire’s criticism of religion includes large doses of poisonous loathing for Jews and Judaism as well as much cranky railing against insidious priestcraft. At times it is the rant of a real village atheist. Yet a good deal of his criticism in fact excoriates genuine moral catastrophe brought on by gross hypocrisy on the part of the purportedly holy and by doctrinaire hardness amounting to insanity.

Voltaire’s indignation fires Davidson’s own, rightly so, and Voltaire’s passionate crusading for those broken, sometimes literally broken, by the united and misguided powers of the Catholic Church and the French monarchy inspires Davidson’s admiration; indeed, one gathers that this admiration was the motive force behind the biography. Davidson presents his hero as the prototypical human rights advocate, though he freely grants that this term is an anachronism. “Over a period of twenty years, almost until his death, [Voltaire] embarked on a series of one-man campaigns to combat or reverse flagrant and scandalous miscarriages of justice which were inflicted on complete strangers.”

In seven cases, all of which became notorious thanks to his attention, Voltaire intervened to do right, using his great wealth to hire the best lawyers and his incomparable address book to correspond with persons of rare influence. His efforts succeeded only once in preventing an unjust execution, but he did manage to win posthumous rehabilitation for other victims. Davidson hails Voltaire’s contributions to both the theory and practice of justice as “landmarks in the history of penal reform in France and Europe.”

Davidson treats all these cases in detail, but it was one in particular, the Calas affair, that made Voltaire’s reputation as an activist; and it illustrates just what he was up against. In 1761 the Protestant merchant Jean Calas of Toulouse, his wife, and one of his sons were accused of murdering another son, though evidence strongly indicated the young man had killed himself. The motive for the alleged murder was that the son had intended to convert to Catholicism”a claim never substantiated, though all the Catholics in Toulouse appeared to believe it. French Protestants were a despised and spiritually brutalized minority: in 1724 Louis XV had forbidden Protestant religious services, upon penalty of life imprisonment or galley slavery for laymen, death for ministers; only Catholic marriages were valid, and all newborn children had to be baptized and raised Catholic; numerous professions, including the law, were restricted to practicing Catholics.

Despite this repression, which did bring about conversions and considerable outward conformity, many Protestants continued to practice their faith in secret. The Calas case brought this abscess of pious hatred to a foul head. To obtain a confession, Jean Calas was tortured on the rack, then forced to drink twenty jugs of water; no confession was forthcoming. The authorities, nonplussed by this silence, released the wife and reduced the accused son’s sentence to banishment. The capital sentence for Jean Calas was carried out: his arms and legs were broken on the wheel, and after priestly efforts to wheedle a confession out of him proved unavailing, he was strangled and his body burned.

Upon first hearing of the case, Voltaire mocked the convicted murderer as a violent zealot, but then he became convinced Jean Calas had been wronged. Voltaire extracted the facts of the trial from a secretive and unwilling court, lobbied his eminent friends, and rallied the populace to create a public outcry. Voltaire’s ninety-page pamphlet Treatise on Tolerance condemned Jean Calas’ execution as legal murder, assailed religious intolerance (Voltaire said it was unique to Christianity, a ludicrous charge that Davidson lets go unchallenged), called for greater French tolerance toward Protestants on the model of English tolerance toward Catholics, and declared that all civilizations ultimately worship the same god”a claim that logically implies Christianity is not the one true faith, as Davidson points out. Voltaire’s effort to spread tolerance enjoyed both short- and long-term successes. The Calas verdict was quashed, Calas was posthumously exonerated, and Louis XV paid generous compensation to the surviving family.

To an old friend Voltaire wrote that “it was philosophy alone which carried off this victory.” Today of course the victory of Enlightenment philosophy is effectively official in the West, and tolerance and compassion are the supreme virtues; indeed, they are fast becoming the only approved virtues, and the remaining adherents of the other virtues now eroded are finding their own tolerance stretched to breaking. So the touted benefits of the Voltairean project are increasingly dubious, as multitudes liberated from superstition worship not the one true god of luminous philosophy but rather themselves or nothing at all; in the name of tolerance, reason itself totters, and as a result the very idea of rational morality is riven from top to bottom.

Voltaire failed to foresee the bitter consequences of his sweetest dreams, and that is a terrible failure for a philosopher. And yet one cannot deny the intellectual and moral beauty of Voltaire’s too hopeful undertaking. His time and place was desperately in need of tolerance and compassion; Voltaire not only provided their theoretical foundation but also embodied their force in just action. The reader of Davidson’s excellent biography will come away convinced that there was much that was fine and tender and noble in the soul of this écraseur de l’infâme who doubted whether he had a soul but who was sure that, if he did, no one but he had oversight of it.

Algis Valiunas is a literary journalist and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories (Rowman and Littlefield).