The much celebrated Voltaire (1694-1778) is illustrious today for a single, superlative book: Candide. Yet not only did he spawn some 2 000 now rather neglected stories, plays, essays, & poems, all while schmoozing his endless roll of powerful friends with over 20 000 letters. He enjoyed a rare & impressive second chance at life, indeed almost a second life.
It began rather late, by age 60, when circumstance landed him in the Republic of Geneva. He found this sanctuary from French & Prussian harassment to his liking. Within four years of further trial & adjustment he evolved the perfect formula. He moved back into France – but only three miles in, to a tiny spot called Ferney, safely adjoining the Swiss border. He then began a powerfully resourceful, rejuvenated existence. All from his mid-sixties, while writing & networking more prolifically than ever.
For those of us who mainly did know Voltaire as writer, or archpope of the Enlightenment, his belated self-reinvention bears many pleasant surprises. Even these two are only a sample:
First, Voltaire – remarkably rich by now, from a life of speculation in a century of international commerce – decided to invest on equal scale in his new environment. This certainly included his private domain: build an enchanting little château, pamper its garden, enhance the farmland. But Voltaire soon went further out of his pocket, modernizing the village & entire surrounding region. Ambitious public works, including over 100 new houses, a school, a hospital, a church, & water facilities. Targeted interest-free loans. Surprisingly effective promotion of new manufacture such as textiles or watch-making. Ferney would swell from a few dozen inhabitants to over 1000 by Voltaire’s death 20 years later. It then lost much of its recent vigour & regressed, temporarily at least, toward agrarian anonymity.
Yet for a brief sunlit autumn this paternalist, this venture capitalist of old & new schools, had resolutely tackled one of the most stubbornly recurring themes in his age of lofty notions: no true, higher-order human “enlightenment” without the simplest & most basic material progress.
A second new enterprise was just as pragmatic – though costlier emotionally & financially. With great initial reluctance, Voltaire found his attention ensnared by a sinister judicial error, the torture & execution of Jean Calas, unlucky member of France’s beleaguered protestants. It appears our industrious patriarch simply was unable to let the matter out of his head. This became the first of half a dozen long cases of crime & miscarriage for which, as things evolved, he ended up cheerfully financing an army of ruinous lawyers – & indefatigably risking even more priceless credit, badgering those same patrons he had spent his earlier life wooing.
Viewed one by one, each of these criminal cases looked unique, personal, almost idiosyncratic. But over the years their enormous cumulated standing & publicity bared the true face of France’s inequitable, archaic judiciary, priming it for revolutionary reform after 1789. This was why unlettered labourers worshiped the living Voltaire, pointing him out on the streets, nicknaming him L’Homme aux Calas: the enigmatic wizard who, out of worse than nothing, had conjured resounding legal victory for the wretched family of Jean Calas.
A modern-day Brussels & Paris correspondent of the Financial Times perhaps fell under a similar spell, enough to transmute it into an enjoyable study (listed below) of Voltaire’s long dazzling epilogue. The story shows exactly why a thinker & doer so close to obscurity today was once venerated as the sovereign, unchallengeable authority of that cosmopolitan spectacle celebrated as Les Lumières. It would seem the mage of Ferney, defying two centuries of historical analysis & objections, still stands guard before the evident yet elusive quintessence of Europe’s bright century.
Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753-1778. London: Atlantic, 2004, 2005. ISBN 978-0802117915.
Oeuvre: Voltaire’s often cited production of 2 000 literary & prose works is attested on this record. As to his correspondence, even the well corroborated figure of 20 000 letters refers only to itemized letters having survived to this day.
Finances: Early at Ferney (letter to F. Tronchin, 21 Jan 1761) Voltaire assessed his income at 70 000 livres tournois (France’s currency) per year, with an extra fortune in cash of 200 000 livres, explicitly excluding the ample non-liquid estate of his two chateaux with dependencies. At one reasonable estimate (but endlessly disputable & anachronistic) of € 8 per livre, this would correspond to a modern income of € 560 000 a year, with the cash chest at € 1 600 000. Knowing Voltaire’s vast investment record at Ferney, this almost certainly is a cautious figure. Although 18th Century purchasing power was low when buying commodities (high prices), it was much higher when buying other people’s labour (low salaries).
(Webfront photo caption & credit: Château de Voltaire, Ferney. K Kasparek.)