French literature

Painting by Jean Huber, a friend of the writer who produced a large number of drawings and watercolors featuring Voltaire.

From 1759, Voltaire lived in Ferney, on the Swiss border. He bought a piece of land and quickly made it fruitful, taking a passion for “the plough and the vine”. He could no longer go to Paris, but all of Europe came to his table: he often had fifty people for lunch.



Injustice and inequality

From the Lettres philosophiques that he published on his return from England to the last fights in favor of Calas, at the age of seventy, Voltaire did not stop working against “the infamous”. It is touching to see how, even at the end of his life, he could not get used to the spectacle of injustice, was indignant and led fierce fights against it.

However, and this is the complexity of the character, he will never militate in favor of the equality of all. He believed that the peasants were made to feed the intellectuals, and that the people should be guided, not educated. This is what separates him radically from Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Voltaire was very virulent towards Jean-Jacques, dare we say it, he did not tolerate him. It is a pity that such a great supporter of tolerance should make an exception to harass a philosopher who was pursued and threatened by the authorities. But Voltaire had understood the extraordinary power of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Behind his shadow, it is the French revolution that is taking shape, and perhaps also the communist revolutions.

Can we understand Voltaire today, who fought against injustice while accepting inequality? It is easier for us today to understand Rousseau who associated property with injustice. In any case, this fundamental opposition between the two philosophers will be found in most of the great political debates of the following centuries – including our own.

Free thinking

Voltaire was imprisoned for being too insolent towards the powerful. He was even beaten for having answered to the provocations of a duke, and imprisoned to prevent him from taking revenge. We can therefore understand his extreme caution in matters of communication. Everyone knows that he wrote Candide, yet he wrote in 1759 to a correspondent:

“Who are the idlers who impute to me I don’t know what Candide, which is a schoolboy’s joke, and which they send me from Paris? I really have other things to do.”

Not only is he forced not to acknowledge his works, and even to lie to those around him about it, but he cannot exchange freely with his friends:

“You want me to send you the works I am occupied with when I am not plowing or sowing. In truth, Madam, there is no way, so bold have I become with age; I can no longer write anything but what I think, and I think so freely that it is impossible to send my ideas by mail.”

This constraint brought out Voltaire’s prodigious juggling skills and love of playfulness. Deceiving censorship, masking one’s identity, adapting one’s speech according to the interlocutors, all this can become a game -and Voltaire will win almost every time.

Anicet Lemonnier, “Reading of Voltaire’s The Orphan of China in the salon of Madame Geoffrin, in 1755”. Castle of Malmaison.

The salon of Madame Geoffrin was one of the main places of ideological influence in Voltaire’s time.

"We need to work our field"

“We must cultivate our garden”/or “we need to work our fields”: this is the last sentence of Candide and apparently the moral of the story. A little short? This is not the opinion of Flaubert who once wrote to his mistress: “the lion’s claw is marked in this quiet conclusion, silly as life.”

All the ambivalence of Voltaire’s personality is here. He is appalled by the stupidity and violence of the world: “men are very stupid and very crazy”, he complains to a correspondent. To the Marquise Du Deffand: “Ah Madame, how stupid the world is! And how sweet it is to be outside!” The first duty is therefore to create a space outside that allows us to exercise our freedom and give ourselves pleasure. This is what Voltaire did himself in Ferney: “I have made a little destiny of my own (…), I have decided to become a completely free man”.

But Voltaire did not only cultivate his garden. In fact, he gave up neither his pleasures nor his freedom of speech. But he had to be prodigiously cunning to continue to cultivate his tomatoes freely while publishing pamplets against the Church.

The classical ideal

Voltaire’s aesthetic ideal is resolutely classical, and yet he opens something new. His admirations go above all to Racine, Corneille, La Fontaine, and, in prose, to Blaise Pascal (especially Les Provinciales). Shakespeare, whom he discovered in England, translated and made known in France, seemed to him a rough genius. Fascinated by the theater all his life, since his high school where the Jesuits encouraged the students to put on plays, Voltaire constantly wrote for the theater, acted, directed, advised the actors, etc. He wanted to be a great tragic poet. But his weakness was not to propose anything really new in this matter.

With his tales and his philosophical works of combat, he brought a new tone, a new style, which has since been called “Voltairean”, and which has basically become the spirit of satirical journalism, so fertile in the 19th century, and represented today in France by the “Canard enchainé”, among others. But could Voltaire have innovated if he had not acquired this virtuosity of writing through the study of the classics?


Voltaire and the Calas affair: inventing public opinion

In 1761, Voltaire was sixty-seven years old. He had already been fighting obscurantism and religious fanaticism for a long time by collaborating with Diderot’s Encyclopedia and by publishing philosophical tales such as Zadig (1748) or Candide (1759). But a strange matter will soon come to his ears, and in which he will commit himself with all his strength.

From his exile in Ferney, at the foot of the Alps, on the border with Switzerland, he will fight to obtain the rehabilitation of a man unjustly condemned. Armed with his pen and his aura in Europe, Voltaire inaugurated a figure of great future in France, that of the committed intellectual, capable of changing the world by taking public opinion as witness.

It is about what will be called “the Calas affair”. Everything starts in Toulouse. In a family of Protestant merchants, a young man committed suicide. Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Protestantism was very poorly tolerated in France. The suspicions of the judges and the population are quickly focused on the father…

October 13, 1761
Suicide of Marc-Antoine Calas
Death of Marc-Antoine Calas and beginning of the investigation

Marc-Antoine Calas, the eldest child of a merchant family, commits suicide by hanging in the family home in Toulouse. The parents hide the suicide marks for fear of the infamous treatment reserved for suicide victims.

The father was suspected of having killed his son because he wanted to convert to Catholicism.


March 9, 1762
Jean Calas is broken on the wheel in Toulouse

Accused of the murder of his son after a botched investigation by judges in a hurry to condemn him, Jean Calas was condemned to be "wheeled" and burned in the public square on March 10, 1762. His two daughters were put in a convent, his goods confiscated, and one of his sons banished from the kingdom.

march 1762
Voltaire's reaction
Voltaire takes note of the conviction

Having learned this tragic story, Voltaire's reaction is not first to defend Calas, but to attack fanaticism: either a father has killed his son to prevent him from converting, or judges have condemned an innocent father out of hatred for Protestantism.

march 1762
Voltaire seeks to know the truth

Voltaire is more and more indignant about the affair and tries to find out more.

april 1762
Voltaire takes sides with the Calas family

Donat Calas, the youngest son of the Calas family, is in Geneva. Voltaire brings him to Ferney and his testimony convinces him completely.

april 1762
Voltaire tries to step in
Voltaire notes the indifference of the powerful people.

Voltaire despairs when he sees his friends indifferent to what makes him furious.

june 1762
Mobilization of the opinion of " honest people ".
The opinion strategy

Voltaire sends hundreds of letters and enjoins his correspondents to "move heaven and earth" in favor of the Calas, to "raise the whole of Europe and let his cries ring in the ears of the judges." He wrote several opuscules on behalf of the Calas and had them published in June 1762.

His friends take over, Elie de Beaumont, Loyseaud de Mauléon write memoirs (picture above) in favor of Calas, which circulate in all France.

august 1762
Order for review of the trial
First victory

The chancellor gave in to the pressure and ordered a review of the trial.

March 7, 1763
Decision of the King's Council
The King's Council orders the Parliament of Toulouse to communicate the reasons for the verdict

Voltaire lets burst his joy: the decision of the Council is an important victory! He succeeded in mobilizing the opinion and in making pressure on the court.

spring 1763
Voltaire publishes the Treaty on Tolerance

The book had been ready since December, but Voltaire waited for the decision of the King's Council so as not to appear to be putting pressure on him.

The Treatise on tolerance starts from the Calas affair and is a plea for tolerance, considered as a virtue and not as a weakness.


Slowing down of the procedure
The Parliament of Toulouse seeks to buy time

The Parliament of Toulouse requires the widow Calas to pay the expenses of copy of all the documents of the lawsuit, requested by the Council of the king.

Sale of a print for the benefit of Calas
Counter-attack: Voltaire launches a subscription

Required to pay the (high) copy fees of the acts of the parliament of Toulouse, the Calas family is in great difficulty because they have been dispossessed of their goods, and live in great poverty. Voltaire has the idea to launch a subscription by selling an engraving (picture above) produced in numerous copies, the profits going to the Calas family: it is a success!

June 4, 1764
Decision of the King's Council
The King's Council overturns the decision of the Parliament of Toulouse

The lawsuit is referred to the maîtres des requêtes de l'Hôtel, the supreme royal jurisdiction.
Voltaire is still cautious.

March 9, 1765
Complete rehabilitation of Jean Calas and his family

The forty "maîtres des requêtes" (masters of the requests) give their decision unanimously : Jean Calas is rehabilitated, his widow, his children and his servant are compensated.


Voltaire weeps when he hears the news.


“Here is an event which would seem to give hope for universal tolerance; however, it will not be obtained soon: men are not yet wise enough. They do not know that all kinds of religion must be separated from all kinds of government; that religion must not be a matter of state any more than the manner of cooking; that it must be permitted to pray to God in one’s own way, as well as to eat according to one’s own taste; and that, as long as one is subject to the laws, one’s stomach and one’s conscience must have complete freedom. That will come one day, but I will die with the pain of not having seen this happy time.

Voltaire, letter to M. Bertrand, March 19, 1765