Vendredi Voltaire: Pas De Héros

“Le Diable s’habille en Voltaire” – Voltaire has the devil inside. [literally “the devil wears Voltaire” like a cloak] [this may be a mis-quote “le diable s’habit en Voltaire” – the devil inhabits Voltaire” sounds almost exactly the same when spoken] Undoubtedly a complex man, and a man of his time, Voltaire also had the flaws of his time. I doubt very much that Voltaire would have accepted “he was a man of his time” as an excuse for someone else’s failings, and neither do I.

No heroes!

Owlmirror [stderr] pointed out a reference to an article about Voltaire’s possible involvement in the slave trade. [aeon] There are others: [blog] I’ve done a bit more digging and there isn’t very much I could find. It seems to me that the people who write biographies of Voltaire are rather more Voltaire-fans than not, and didn’t dwell on it very much.

Voltaire was hardly a paragon of virtue, he was racist, antisemitic, an aristocrat who preferred the preservation of the ancien régime to its destruction, in spite of its massive inequality and anti-republicanism. Unusually for a philosopher, he had started off in a minor estate but made himself very wealthy, by the rather scandalous means of beating a badly structured lottery. And that seems to be one of the fulcrums of our story: he had money to invest and diversified into companies that were involved in the triangle trade.

Per Christopher Miller The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade [amazon]:

The problem of Voltaire’s investments in the slave trade is full of dead ends and false information. It is commonly stated in France that he had investments in the trade, and some historians have repeated that claim with varying degrees of confirmability; numerous statement have been made without any bibliographic reference or proof. Thus Michèle Duchet: Voltaire “a des intérêts dans la commerce des Antilles et des actions dans plusiers compagnies de navigation” [mjr: Voltaire had investments in the Antilles commerce and in several trading companies.”] (“Voltaire et les sauvages,” 95-96) – with no documentation; Liliane Crété writes: “Il semble que Voltaire, malgré ses belles paroles sur les méfaits de l’esclavage, ait pris des parts dans une société négrière” [mjr: “it seems that Voltaire, in spite of his pretty words on the evils of slavery, owned stock in a slave-trading business.”] (c, 258) Crété’s source is Hubert Deschamps who writes “Voltaire lui-même semble bien avoid pris des actions d’une société négrière.” [mjr: Voltaire himself appears to have owned stock in a slave-trading business.”] (Histoire de la traite des Noirs de l’antiquité à Nos Jours [Paris: Fayard, 1971], 167) with no documentation. In turn, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret writes, “Voltaire – dérision – figure au rang des actionnaires du négrier Mantaudoin” [mjr: “Voltaire is one of the shareholders of the Mantaudoin slave operation.”] (La Vie quotidienne des Français sous Louis XV [Paris: Hachette 1979], 198) No proof emerges from any of these sources.

Further in the background, allegations about Voltaire’s investments in the slave trade appear to have emerged in the 19th century as part of a religious attack on the Enlightenment. Thus Eugène de Mirecourt published a letter that he claimed was written by Voltaire – as Seeber points out – “with no indication of its source” (Seeber, Anti-slavery Opinion in France, 65n) – in which “Voltaire” gloats over gains from the slave trade. See Eugène de Mirecourt, Voltaire, Ses hontes, ses crimes, ses oevres [mjr: Voltaire, his shame, his crimes, and his works] (Paris: Bray et Retaux, 1877, 172) This rumor was then repeated but the title of de Mirecourt’s book gives his show away. Clarification of the entire issue comes from Emeka Abanime, “Voltaire, antiescavagiste,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 182 (1979) 237-51. In an authentic letter (D104 in Besterman’s edition, 1:117) dated April 1722, Voltaire states that a good part of his wealth is invested in the Compagnie des Indes, which for a long time had a monopoly on the trade in slaves. His actual investments in the slave trade thus appear to have been through the Compagnie, which traded in many things, including slaves. Voltaire could not have been unaware of this, yet he held on to his shares in the Compagnie for more than fifty years.

The Compagnie did stop trading in slaves in midcentury but continued to be deeply involved in colonial, and thus slave-based commerce. (On the Compagnie des Indes and the slave trade, see Stein, The French Slave Trade 18-21) On Voltaire’s attitudes, Abanime concludes: “Voltaire donne l’impression d’être plus touche par le sort des ‘esclaves’ français que par celui des esclaves noirs” [mjr: Voltaire gives the impression of being more affected by the fate of the French ‘slaves’ than by that of the black slaves.] (Voltaire antiescavagiste, 243) The enslavement of Africans seemed more justifiable to him than the serfdom of peasants in France; he seemed to see slavery as “un mal nécessaire” [mjr: a necessary evil] In 1775 his shares in the Compagnie were still making money for him.

The American “founding fathers” all reeked of slavery, smuggling, and profiteering off the trade in human misery.

Do we step back and say “he was a man of his time” or do we recognize him as another wealthy elite who was a hypocrite (like the American founding fathers) when he spoke of liberty? My inclination is to say both. Voltaire was a genius and a great wit and his obvious flaws don’t change that. It just leaves a lingering stink; it would have been quite easy for him to invest his wealth elsewhere but he chose not to, because he didn’t care that much.

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I was tempted to translate the dictionary’s entry on “Slavery” (there is one) but it seems a bit diversionary.

Why do we call “slaves” those that the Romans called “servi” and the Greeks “douloi.”

He explores the etymology of the term. It seems irrelevant to me now.


  1. polishsalami says

    I’m not sure if the phrase ‘man/woman of his/her time’ makes sense anymore. There were democrats and irreligious folk in the ancient world; Roy Moore was a candidate for the dominant political party of the United States in 2017. With Trump in the Oval Office, could you say that Roy Moore is a ‘man of his time’? In some ways, yes.

  2. says

    I never thought it made much sense – if we have a moral system that allows us to conclude what’s right and wrong, it ought to work backward and forward in time. It was obvious to anyone at any time that slaves suffered – we don’t need to invoke modernism to be against slavery.

    There appears to be a resurgence of political authoritarianism worldwide, which is massively lowering the bar everywhere. I attribute it to US militarism, climate change, the changes in the job and energy markets, and the final eradication of labor advocacy – the authoritarianism is capitalism’s triumph.

  3. bmiller says


    I might add that these factors also lead people to turn to RELIGION, particularly the more toxic, authoritarian, and less rational versions of religion. It’s a vicious circle.

  4. Curious Digressions says

    Hurrah for someone else who can say “both”. Black and white thinking only gets you so far. Black and white is easier.

    “[Person] of [the] time” shouldn’t be an excuse. It provides context for behavior, but doesn’t excuse it. It’s that darned difference between behavior that is right and behavior that is acceptable. Supporting slavery was always morally wrong, especially if you’re advocating a philosophy of liberty. At the time it was accepted. Now it isn’t**. That doesn’t make it morally right, then or now.

    **Except for in prisons and sweat shops…