Several true things about Voltaire, and one lie.
Can you spot the lie?
- Victor Hugo once said of him, “Italy had a renaissance, Germany a reformation, France had Voltaire.”
- Voltaire often fled France to avoid politics. For several years, he fetched up as perpetual dinner-guest for Frederick The Great. Frederick invited him with a letter that read:
_p__ à _ci__
That decodes as “Venez sous P” (venez souper – “come have dinner) at “sans sous ci” (sans under ci – Frederick’s chateau at Sanssouci) Voltaire merely replied:
Which decodes as “Ge’ grand – uppercase G, a petit – little a” or “J’ai grand appetit” – I am very hungry.
- Voltaire once talked Chuck Norris into beating himself up. Norris was so confused he later sent Voltaire a gracious “Thank you” note.
- Voltaire’s great love was Émilie Du Chatetelet, the wife of a senior military officer who was constantly away at wars. Madame Du Chatelet was a talented “natural philosopher” and Voltaire assisted her in her canonical French translation of the newly-published “Principia” by Isaac Newton. They held dinner parties at their chateau, Cirey, in which they discussed science with their boggled guests, or Voltaire recited pieces of his plays, or otherwise held court with scintillating wit and weapons grade snark.
- Voltaire wrote over 90 books, and innumerable pamphlets, squibs, broadsides, and blog rants. He also wrote plays – lots of them – including his last play Irene, which was written when he was dying, at the age of 83. His best known play, Candide, was very popular in its day – in spite of it being a philosophical retort to a comment by Liebniz. There is a movie-musical version of Candide by Leonard Bernstein, which still seems fresh and funny and slightly bizzare. There are even versions of Candide set in the nazi era.
- Voltaire made (and spent) several fortunes. He was not born into wealth but leapt into society as a young man when he wrote the very successful play Œdipe. Unlike many philosophers who led humble lives because they had no money, Voltaire was wealthy – and generous to a fault. He did well from his play-writing, but made his main fortune when he realized there was a flaw in the design of the Paris lottery, and managed to buy enough tickets to engineer a win. His consortium netted about $50 million in today’s money.
- When he got older, Catherine The Great gave him a shawl to wear.
- Voltaire was a frequent visitor to La Bastille – the French monarch’s political prison. When he was young in Paris he wrote a sarcastic poem implying that the regent (this was just after the death of Louis XIV) was considering not relinquishing his grasp on power. Encountering the regent at some affair, the regent remarked, “Monsieur Voltaire, I bet I can show you something you’ve never seen before.”
“What is that?” replied Voltaire.
“The inside of The Bastille,” replied the regent. And so it was.
When Voltaire was released a year later, the regent gave him a pension, by way of apology. Voltaire wrote him a thank you note that said, “Thank you for taking care of my board so graciously, in the future please allow me to arrange my own lodging.”
He was to see the inside of The Bastille again, but only briefly, and fled France to England (and again to Germany) to avoid imprisonment.*
- Voltaire got so excited by Diderot’s encyclopedia that he wrote his own dictionary of philosophy. Unlike something like Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” it was a sincere attempt at an encyclopedic work. The entries in the various topics are brilliant, witty, snarky, and thorough. This is not a small work – I have an early edition and it takes up about two feet of shelf-space. That’s something Voltaire just kind of…. threw together. The dictionary was proscribed in many countries, and was often burned – in spite of Voltaire’s not being an atheist, he was insufficiently impressed by the church or the state, and the dictionary did not kowtow enough.
- As Voltaire was dying, a bishop who came to visit him at the end (probably looking for a nice bequest) counselled him, “Reject Satan before it’s too late!”
Voltaire replied: “Now … is not the time to make new enemies.”
*Dedication: This post is for Shiv. Voltaire was, indeed, such a dick that the very finest threw him in prison for snarking.