30 August 1755
[ Tallentyre's commentary: In 1745, when Voltaire was basking in the brief sunshine of the favour of Louis XV, he had first had dealings with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, native of Geneva, then musiccopier and writer of Court divertissements, and, to be, the impassioned sentimentalist of golden eloquence--the author of the Social Contract, The New Eloisa, and of the famous, infamous Confessions.
In 1755 he had written a Prize Essay for the Academy of Dijon called, by himself, The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men andby his friends, The Essay against Civilisation, which elaborated his pet theory of the advantages of savage over civilised life, and which he sent to Voltaire. Voltaire replied in the following letter; which Rousseau presently acknowledged in terms of warm friendship. When, two months later, Voltaire's soul was appalled by the fearful earthquake of Lisbon, Jean-Jacques considered his theories proved, arguing that houses could not have fallen if there had been no houses to fall, and that if men lived like beasts in the open, earthquakes would be robbed of nearly all their terrors: to which absurdityQas to Pope's wiser optimism in The Essay on Man--Voltaire replied by the brilliant and withering mockery of Candide.
"Les Delices"--Les Delices, which still stands, is a house near Geneva, with a fine view of the Jura and the Alps. Voltaire chose it as being under the laws of the Genevan Republic and yet only half an hour's ride into France: and called it Les Delices "because," he said, "nothing is so delightful as to be free and independent. " He had been settled there for five months when this letter was written: and lived there for about three years, until he acquired Ferney.
"The greatest doctor in Enrope"--Dr. Theodore Tronchin, who was Voltaire's doctor from 1754 until Voltaire's death, was a member of a celebrated Genevan family and one of the earliest discoverers of the value of fresh air, soberness, temperance, and chastity. He had the generosity to accept the discovery of inoculation against smallpox at the hands of a woman, and the courage to practise it in the teeth of popular prejudice at his fashionable "cure" at Geneva, where he preached many other unfashionable doctrine--especially to women. He was a convinced and devout Christian, and no more afraid to tell unpalatable truths to Voltaire than to obscurer patients. Voltaire never wrote or spoke of him but in terms of affection, respect, and admiration.
"Close to your country where you yourself should be"--that is, to Geneva: Rousseau was in Paris at the time.
"An ex-Jesuit priest whom I saved from utter disgrace"--the Abbe Desfontaines.
"Of a man yet more contemptible printing my "Century of Louis XIV" with notes"--This was La Beaumelle,--the protégé of Voltaire's Prussian enemy, Maupertuis--who had brought out a pirated edition of Voltaire's Century of Louis XIV which actually ran parallel with the author's own authorised edition. La Beaumelle's Notes contained personal insults to Voltaire and to the Royal Family of France.
"Of a "Universal History," supposed to be by me"--This was a pirated edition of one of Voltaire's greatest and most free-spoken works, The Essay on the Mind and Manners of Nations. It was printed by a publisher at the Hague--just at the wrong moment; that is, just as Voltaire was leaving Prussia: its daring made his return to France most dangerous, and so helped to decide tris residence in Switzerland.
"A gay trifle I wrote thirty years ago (on the same subject which Chapelain was stupid enough to treat seriously)"--The Pucelle--the history of Joan of Arc. Chapelain was a dull, industrious seventeenthcentury writer, who had written Joan's story at immense length. His work was a general subject of ridicule and had been satirised by Boileau. ]
Les DELICES, August 30, 1755.
I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society--from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations--have never been painted in more striking colours: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this naturel habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada, in the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because war is going on in that country, and the exemple of the civilised nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen--close to your country, where you yourself should be.
I agree with you that science and literature have sometimes done a great deal of harm. Tasso's enemies made his life a long series of misfortunes: Galileo's enemies kept him languishing in prison, at seventy years of age, for the crime of understanding the revolution of the earth: and, what is still more shameful, obliged him to forswear his discovery. Since your friends began the Encyclopaedia, their rivals attack them as deists, atheists--even Jansenists.
If I might venture to include myself among those whose works have brought them persecution as their sole recompense, I could tell you of men set on ruining me from the day I produced my tragedy Oedipe: of a perfect library of absurd calumnies which have been written against me: of an ex-Jesuit priest whom I saved from utter disgrace rewarding me by defamatory libels: of a man yet more contemptible printing my Century of Louis XIV with Notes in which crass ignorance gave birth to the most abominable falsehoods: of yet another, who sold to a publisher some chapters of a Universal History supposed to be by me: of the publisher avaricious enough to print this shapeless mass of blunders, wrong dates, mutilated facts and names: and, finally, of men sufficiently base and craven to assign the production of this farago to me. I could show you all society poisoned by this class of person--a class unknown to the ancients--who, not being able to find any honest occupation--be it manuel labour or service--and unluckily knowing how to read and write, become the brokers of literature, live on our works, steal our manuscripts, falsify them, and self them. I could tell of some loose sheets of a gay trifle which I wrote thirty years ago (on the same subject that Chapelain was stupid enough to treat seriously) which are in circulation now through the breach of faith and the cupidity of those who added their own grossness to my badinage and filled in the gaps with a dullness only equalled by their malice; and who, finally, after twenty years, are selling everywhere a manuscript which, in very truth, is theirs and worthy of them only.
I may add, last of all, that someone has stolen part of the material I amassed in the public archives to use in my History of the War of 1741 when I was historiographer of France; that he sold that result of my labours to a bookseller in Paris; and is as set on getting hold of my property as if I were dead and he could turn it into money by putting it up to auction. I could show you ingratitude, imposture, and rapine pursuing me for forty years to the foot of the Alps and the brink of the grave. But what conclusion ought I to draw from all these misfortunes? This only: that I have no right to complain: Pope, Descartes, Bayle, Camoens--a hundred others--have been subjected to the same, or greater, injustice: and my destiny is that of nearly everyone who has loved letters too well.
Confess, sir, that all these things are, after all, but little personal pin-pricks, which society scarcely notices. What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.
They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrans, Octavius Caesar--servilely entitled Augustus--he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.
Confess that Italy owed none of her troubles to Petrarch or to Boccaccio: that Marot's jests were not responsible for the massacre of St.Bartholomew: or the tragedy of the Cid for the wars of the Fronde. Great crimes are always committed by great ignoramuses. What makes, and will always make, this world a vale of tears is the insatiable greediness and the indomitable pride of men, from Thomas Koulikan, who did not know how to read, to a customhouse officer who can just count. Letters support, refine, and comfort the soul: they are serving you, sir, at the very moment you decry them: you are like Achilles declaiming against fame, and Father Malebranche using his brilliant imagination to belittle imagination.
If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused--as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness: as we must love our country, though it treats us unjustly: and as we must love and serve the Supreme Being, despite the superstition and fanaticism which too often dishonour His service.
M. Chappus tells me your health is very unsatisfactory: you must come and recover here in your native place, enjoy its freedom, drink (with me) the milk of its cows, and browse on its grass.
I am yours most philosophically and with sincere esteem.