Published in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 249 (1987). The Voltaire Foundation: Oxford, England.



Roland Barthes's article, "Le dernier des écrivains heureux",1 is a civil piece of writing but an absolute negation of the relevancy of Voltaire to the modern world. While, in fact, much of Voltaire's literary corpus fails to appeal to modern sensibility, Barthes lumps everything together and, in his turn, fails to uncover key works that do indeed prefigure man in the modern world. In addition to Poéme sur le désastre de Lisbonne and the correspondence, which is replete with philosophical reflections that flatly contradict the so-called classical vision of Voltaire, it is precisely the conte philosophique - a new genre not practised by the preceding age and free of the constraints of the classical genres - specifically Histoire d'un bon bramin and Candide, that give the lie to Barthes's limited view of the most prolific writer of the French Enlightenment.

After five years in sanatoria in the Alps, Roland Barthes emerged at the end of World War II a Sartrean and a Marxist.2 Although he would partially disagree with Sartre on the concept of engagement and the importance of formalism,3 the double influence of Sartre and Marx can be readily detected in his criticism of Voltaire, written in 1958, and, as we shall later see, in his attacks on Camus, Sartre's description of the same period in 1947 in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? In both their views, writers of the eighteenth century were the last to find an effective role whereby they articulated a critical vision of the world that was also that of their class.4 Although, by their own admission, the issue does in fact become less clear-cut in France at the end of the eighteenth century, according to Sartre and Barthes, it was not until 1848, when the bourgeoisie had developed an ideology to justify its newly established predominance, that literature became problematic and writers began to view literature as a class institution. As of that moment, writers had to choose between supporting that ideology and living in bad faith, or attacking it and living as outcasts.

It is not surprising then that Barthes's view of Voltaire is a negative one. He begins by asking rhetorically: 'Qu'avons nous de commun, aujourd'hui, avec Voltaire?' (p.9). His philosophy is outmoded; deists no longer exist; dialectics has killed off Manicheism and no-one speaks any more about the ways of Providence. Once more, as regards the evils in today's world, 'l'énormité même des crimes racistes, leur organisation par l'Etat, les justifications idéologiques dont on les couvre, tout cela entra'ne l'écrivain d'aujourd'hui bien au-delà du pamphlet, exige de lui plus une philosophie qu'une ironie, plus une explication qu'un étonnement' (p.10).

In short, Barthes concludes, what separates us from Voltaire, 'c'est qu'il fut un écrivain heureux' (p. 10). He then goes on to enumerate three types of happiness that were Voltaire's but are no longer ours. 'Le premier bonheur de Voltaire fut sans doute celui de son temps' (p.11). No period, according to Barthes, assured a writer more that he was fighting for a just and natural cause - 'C'était déjà un grand bonheur, une grande paix que de combattre un ennemi si uniformément condamnable; [...] C'était en effet un bonheur singulier que d'avoir à combattre dans un monde où force et bêtise étaient continûment du même bord' (p.12). Voltaire was 'du m'me cùté que l'histoire' and blissfully profiting from this 'situation privilégiée pour l'esprit' (p.12).

There is more. 'Le second bonheur de Voltaire fut précisément d'oublier l'histoire, dans le temps même où elle le portait. Pour être heureux, Voltaire a suspendu le temps; s'il a une philosophie, c'est celle de l'immobilité' (p.12). Having forgotten history and immobilised the world, Barthes would have us believe, Voltaire now goes on to dissociate ceaselessly 'intelligence et intellectualité - posant que le monde est ordre si l'on ne cherche pas abusivement à l'ordonner, qu'il est système, à condition que l'on renonce à le systématiser' (p16). That was Voltaire's third happiness and, as Barthes continues, 'c'est là une conduite d'esprit qui a eu une grande fortune par la suite: on l'appelle aujourd'hui anti-intellectualisme' (p.16).

As my title indicates, I believe that Barthes's view of Voltaire is essentially flawed. Whether or not this flaw is primarily due to a Marxist perspective, I am not sure. I am certain, however, that Barthes presents us with a disfigured, even at times grotesque, image of Voltaire that demands rectification. In attempting to repair that image, I will address several issues under three general topics: history, happiness, and philosophy.


1. History


While Barthes is, of course, correct to claim that the philosophy of time was the contribution of nineteenth-century Germany (p.13), this does not mean that all prior historians rejected history, or that they were all cast in the same mould, or can be summarily rejected. Even Lionel Gossman, who, in the main, subscribes to Barthes's thesis about Voltaire, notes, in a very recent and balanced article, that the fact that we refer to the Age of Voltaire reflects not only the objective congruence of his life with the last century of the ancien régime but signifies his success in revising traditional ways of viewing history.5 So, having made his mark as a historian, Voltaire stands between what preceded him and what followed him, unable to be fully identified with either. Brumfitt had already shown conclusively that French Enlightenment historiography, as epitomised by Voltaire, stands midway between that of the seventeenth century and that of modern times. Positing as great a distance between Bossuet and Voltaire as between Voltaire and Michelet or Taine, Brumfitt concludes by claiming that 'Vico's seed would not have prospered had not the ground been prepared for it. Among those who accomplished this task, Voltaire's role is one of the greatest.6 Nor, we might add, is it odd that this point in time be seen as a moment of cleavage between the classical and the modern. Indeed, Michel Foucault sees a 'mutation archéologique' at the end of the eighteenth century when the classical épist'me gives way to the modern and we witness the emergence of man.7

It is precisely this complexity about both the time itself, which ended one age and began another, and Voltaire, who had a foot in both worlds that is conspicuously absent from Barthes's analysis. Voltaire's ambivalence is immediately clear in his range of genres - emulating the values of French neo-classical writers in his epic poetry and tragedies and mocking the heroic in his philosophical tales - and his marginality is geographically symbolised by his residence at Ferney. If Voltaire's 'chronologies' do not constitute modern history, as Barthes maintains, it simply is not accurate to say that 'Voltaire a écrit des livres d'histoire pour dire expressément qu'il ne croyait pas à l'Histoire' (p.13). Barthes's charge that, at the very moment it supported him, Voltaire forgot history and suspended time, thus creating a philosophy of immobility, is unfounded and distorts the meaning of his work. Furthermore, it is no accident that the very works of Voltaire that modern man has found fully relevant - only a handful in an enormous corpus - are precisely those that give the lie to many of Barthes's theses. In the present case, it is a mythological reading of the three centrally located gardens of Candide that shows, at once, that Voltaire rejected myth but embraced history, and that Barthes's Lamartine-like vision of Voltaire suspending time is pure fiction, as unreal as Eldorado.

A close look at this central mythical design of Candide - the symmetrically placed gardens of Westphalia, Eldorado, and Candide's garden in Constantinople - serves to reinforce the modern, secular cosmic view of Voltaire's masterpiece, for it underscores the tension between myth and history that pervades the narrative. The Westphalian garden of chapter one has a two-fold function. It serves, first of all, to describe, on the broadest mythical plane, the perfection of the beginnings of things, the original golden age of the past where one observes a pre-established vertical harmony between men and gods. Here we are in the realm of mythical time or sacred history, or perhaps of no time, for in the Christian tradition from Augustine onward time begins with the Fall. The Westphalian garden follows the traditional topos of a garden as natural locus amoenus and place of eternal summer. On the Christian mythical level, one finds here a parody of the book of Genesis that symbolically represents the paradisiac desire to leave Eldorado. At the end of the tale, after numerous adventures and visits to other gardens, he founds his own collective enterprise. Against the backdrop of Westphalia and Eldorado, Candide's community marks an evolution from stasis to dynamism, from otiosity to work, from the sacred to the profane, and from myth to history. The great mistake of much recent criticism9 has been to assume that Candide's final view can be equated with that of the Turk, when, in reality, they are radically different. The garden of the Turk, who eschews all social commitment and attributes only a negative value to work - 'le travail éloigne de nous trois grands maux, l'ennui, le vice et le besoin' (p.220) - exists at the familial level whereas Candide's garden exists at the social level, stressing positive activity, communal work, the concept of limits, and human solidarity. Here, for the first time, dignity has been granted to work which heretofore had been nothing but slavery and exploitation. The case of Giroflée who, after entering Candide's garden, becomes a carpenter and an honest man, proves that work is now not only an anodyne but a nutriment for the human person.

Candide's garden is not a locus amoenus. It needs to be cultivated, and while work is indeed an anodyne and a nutriment, it is not an antidote or a panacea. At the social level, a harvest is possible; with solidarity and tolerance man can ameliorate his condition. No such hope emanates at the cosmic level. In this respect, the resounding metaphor of the dervish sets a climate of rupture rather than continuity with Eldorado. 'Quand Sa Hautesse envoie un vaisseau en Egypte, s'embarrasse-t-elle si les souris qui sont dans le vaisseau sont à leur aise ou non?' (p.220). In Eldorado, God provided everything for the inhabitants; here the creator is indifferent toward his creatures. Candide's garden marks the end of the pre-established vertical harmony between man and God that characterised both the Westphalian and Eldoradean gardens. The only rapport, if there is one, is that of reciprocal indifference. The indifference of the creator is clear in the above metaphor and that of the inhabitants of the garden is implicit. First of all, there is no chapel in Candide's garden, and whereas two priests might have entered into this final garden, neither one ultimately does so. Cunégonde's brother is denied entrance because of his insufferable pride and Giroflée voluntarily defrocks himself before joining Candide and his comrades. Unlike Westphalia and Eldorado, Candide's garden is a horizontal one dedicated solely to the cultivation of the human sphere.

Whereas modern religious man sees religion as an element in the structure of consciousness, modern profane man, foreshadowed here in Voltaire's tale, views religion as a stage in the history of consciousness. Candide has learned that the meaning of his life can only be created by himself at the purely human level outside the structure of myth. Voltaire demythologises his hero, for, as the tale clearly demonstrates, myth sends man either back to the golden age of the past or forward to the equally mythical golden age of the future. In both cases, man shuns the necessity of commitment to the present. Westphalia and Eldorado excepted, the universe of Candide depicts the desacralised universe of modern man who, having passed the stage of myth, chooses lucidly and stoically to inhabit the profane time of history.

Far from establishing a philosophy of immobility, Voltaire rejects the static nature of myth in favour of the dynamic world of history. It is precisely the rejection of myth and immutability that marks the discontinuity between Eldorado and Candide's garden. As Candide peregrinates from one to the other, he journeys from the realm of being to the world of becoming and from circular, reversible sacred time to irreversible profane time. In Eldorado, the golden age of the future assumes many forms that distinguish it from the paradise of prelapsarian man without, however, placing it in historical or profane time. The absence of historical tensions in this world of 'being' denotes, if not its meta-historical, at least its post-historical nature.10

Voltaire's espousal of history, moreover, can be ascertained and, of course, further elucidated by looking outside his fictional universe. As indicated earlier, critics such as Gossman and Brumfitt have noted the specificity of Voltarean historiography and have related it to preceding and succeeding historians. Whether he is, along with Montesquieu, Gibbon, and Giannone, among the first modern historians,11 his insistence on attested facts, more extensive documentation and natural and social causation certainly differentiated him from his pre-Enlightenment predecessors. Despite the ever-present tension in his histories between the useful and the impartial, propaganda and objectivity, 'sagesse' and 'vérité',12 with Le Siècle de Louis XIV and Essai sur les moeurs he replaced the purely chronological approach to historiography by the analytical and moved the writing of history from the chronicles of battles to the history of society and the progress of mankind.

Peter Gay noted with absolute accuracy that 'Voltaire was the symbol of his age, and it is the fate of symbols to be exploited rather than to be understood.'13 Voltaire wanted the modern historian to be a narrator, a moralist, and an artist concerned with form. Like Bolingbroke, he defined history as philosophy taught by examples, but his preoccupation with modern history (beginning with the end of the fifteenth century) cannot solely be accounted for by the fact that the post-fifteenth-century periods could serve more readily than ancient history as sources of morality for modern man. It was precisely the invention of the printing press at that time that would enable historians of that and later periods to possess more reliable information about a particular historical moment.14 Regardless of the prejudice that this statement unmasks on the part of Voltaire toward ancient cultures and writing systems,15 it does indicate a desire for better documentation in order to decipher the specifics of a particular time in history, a concern for the 'real', the climate, the factual. Once more, Voltaire's belief in the universality of human nature did not preclude his analyses of the specifics of the historical moment in question. He gives, for example, in his constant perusal of natural and social causation, pertinent economic interpretations, such as the accomplishments of Colbert under Louis XIV and a balanced analysis of John Law's system in Histoire de Parlement. This economic penchant prompted Brumfitt to write: 'In the emphasis he places, particularly in his later years, on economic causes, he appears to serve as a link between Machiavellian realism and nineteenth-century theories of economic determinism.'16

Voltaire has no rigid political theory; he sees no unique overall historical pattern; he has no real philosophy of history. No one has better seized Voltaire's political pragmatism than Peter Gay and no one has defended Voltaire better than Gay against the nineteenth-century historians who, like Barthes, dismissed Enlightenment historiography as fundamentally anti-historical. Not oblivious to the faults of Enlightenment historians, Gay, none the less, charges nineteenth-century German historians with being 'more didactic and less historical than they knew', cites Nietzsche's castigation of the 'self-satisfied historicism in the 1880s', and notes with characteristic insight that 'the celebrated remarks made by Hume and Voltaire about unchanging human nature do not do justice to their own work - their sense of history, of change, of the evolution of unique events was far superior to their methodological pronouncements' (Gay, pp.11, 12).

Voltaire's break with providential causality not only, as Brumfitt points out, 'displac[ed] the Christian European from his comfortable seat at the centre of the universe' (Brumfitt, p.165), but dissipated any theoretical predilection for Europe and Christendom and opened up new vistas for European historians who moved on to study other continents and other civilisations. This new material contributed to the creation of two new concepts whose acceptance, according to Trevor-Roper, 'may be said to have created the positive historiographical revolution of the Enlightenment. These new concepts were the concept of the organic nature of society and the idea of progress' (p.1670). The idea of progress alone shows conclusively, against Barthes, that Voltaire did accept history and that his view of history was not a static one. There would be no utopia at the 'end' of history - Voltaire, we noted, rejected myth - but mankind was slowly ameliorating its lot. It is certainly ironic, in our context, that Trevor-Roper should note that Voltaire, like Marx, 'regarded the past as an armoury of weapons by which the continuity of history, so respected by the conservative historians, must be broken and its course changed' (p.1687).

I agree, none the less, with Barthes that were Voltaire alive today, among his enemies would be the Marxists (p.89). Unlike Barthes, however, I believe this to be true, not because Voltaire rejects history and establishes a philosophy of immobility, but precisely because he accepts history and rejects myth, its immobility and, as his portrayal of Eldorado suggests, all concepts of post-'historical' utopias. Although Voltaire's language would unquestionably be different, I believe that he would see Marxism in the same light as Mircea Eliade, which is to say, as a modern myth of the golden age, stripped, of course, of the religious trappings of earlier myths - the return of the dead, immortality - but still positing a more or less classless society, outside history in its traditional sense, a kind of earthly paradise - 'to be introduced by the final triumph of the proletariat' - which, like Eldorado, has plenty of food, little if any work, and machines that enable 'man' to become homo otiosus.17

In this respect, Eliade notes that it is possible to recognise 'several great biblical myths in Marx and Marxism: the redemptive role of the Just Man, the ultimate eschatological struggle between Good (proletariat) and Evil (bourgeoisie) followed by the inauguration of the Golden Age.'18 Perhaps Voltaire wold also have unearthed this political eschatalogy and seen that, at the end of the Marxist philosophy of history, lies the age of gold of the archaic eschatologies. He would have derided the mythical nature of Marxism - 'le nouveau meilleur des mondes possibles' - but he would have attacked with vehemence the justification of 'necessary' evils along the road to final deliverance and the aggravation of evil as 'the premonitory symptom of the approaching victory that will put an end to all historical "evil"'.19

We know quite well what Voltaire thought about the notions of 'particular evil' and 'general good' and the justification of the individual's suffering in the name of that general good. The incident of the 'nègre de Surinam' in Candide, to choose but one example, is not only a vivid condemnation of all societies where economic or political values are esteemed more than human ones, but a brilliant parody of the Leibnizean notions of 'individual evil' and 'general good'. Clearly Voltaire would have seen Marxism in the same light and would have condemned this philosophy of history where the end justifies the means. Once more, we are well aware or Voltaire's antipathy toward Manicheism and one wonders if he would not have unearthed a secular form of cosmic Manicheism in the Marxist struggle between the good proletariat and the evil bourgeoisie.

We can only conclude here, against Barthes, that Voltaire accepts history but rejects myth, immobility and utopia. Like Camus, Voltaire would have rejected prophetic Marxism and Christianity for the same reason - they both justify suffering and death in the present in the name of future salvation. Barthes can only be right in his assertions about Voltaire if the rejection of the Marxist view of history is tantamount to the rejection of history. The tension between present and future, however, is a constant in Voltaire's work and that relationship, as it is incorporated in Candide's garden, incarnates Camus's view found in L'Homme révolté: 'La vraie générosité envers l'avenir consiste à tout donner au présent.'20


2. Happiness

 In Le Neveu de Rameau, writes Lionel Gossman, 'despite its brilliance and high spirits, the much touted bonheur of the eighteenth century already seems to be breaking down' (p.49). Yet Gossman does not associate Voltaire with this new phenomenon. 'With Voltaire', he continues, 'the alienated consciousness still experiences its alienation above all as freedom and happiness' and this, in large measure, because of the 'astonishing security' of Voltaire. One way in which Barthes projects this image of security is by claiming that 'les romans de Voltaire sont moins des enquêtes que des tours de propriétaire' (p.15). It is precisely this image of ownership, of harmony between the traveller and the terrain, that falsifies the reality of travel in Candide and allows Barthes and others to postulate Voltaire's security and happiness.

Barthes wold agree that the theme of travel reached its apogee in eighteenth-century literature and many of his remarks about travel in Voltaire are accurate for Micromégas, Le Monde comme il va, and L'Ingénu. Once again, however, he slights the specificity of Candide and, as a result, ignores its startling innovations. Whereas in Micromégas, Le Monde comme il va, and L'Ingénu, the traveller is a stranger only on the social level, in Candide, homo viator is both a stranger in societies of corrupted conventions and a metaphysical stranger in a universe whose meaning escapes him. The eighteenth century wrestled with the problem of man's place in nature and a dichotomy became apparent between that part of man which belongs to nature and that part of him which transcends nature. Robert Mauzi sums up this question by noting: 'En tant qu'animal, il [l'homme] appartient à l'univers. Mais, en tant que conscience, il devient un être solitaire, presque égaré.'21 Candide incarnates man as an alien, estranged from nature by his rational faculties and lost in an incomprehensible universe that does not correspond to his needs.

In the twentieth century, Albert Camus, writing at length of his own travels to Prague in L'Envers et l'endroit, attributes to the theme of travel profound metaphysical proportions, namely the discovery of the individual's cosmic alienation and the awareness of the absurdity of the human condition. Similarly Candide's journeys are a learning experience, as he himself recognises during his stay in Eldorado: 'il est certain qu'il faut voyager' (p.179). Ironically, travel forces him into himself, and logically, it affords him a naked glance at extramental reality. His travels ultimately teach him what Camus appears to have learned in Prague. In foreign places, out of the domain of habit and routine, far from the familiar and comforting barriers that mask the absurd, the traveller loses the sense of belonging to either society or the cosmos. When the walls of familiarity topple over, the perplexed wayfarer discovers his own alienation. As he peruses the world in all its nakedness, Candide encounters the absurd in the juxtaposition of opposing phenomena. Socially, his desire for brotherhood and justice contrasts with the religious and political institutions that preclude their establishment. Metaphysically, his need for permanence, his quest for the harmonious, and his desire to comprehend by cause and effect are opposed by the discontinuity of human existence, the chaos of the cosmos and the reign of chance, leaving him tottering between 'les convulsions de l'inquietude' and 'la léthargie de l'ennui' (p.219).

Travelling in Candide destroys the interior décor of the hero, and the encounter of self with self, self with other, and self with cosmos affords the hero a new awareness, thus giving the lie to Barthes's claim that the Voltarean journey 'n'est même pas une opération de connaissance, mais seulement d'affirmation' (p.15). Barthes still does not have it right when he maintains that in Voltaire's tales 'l'on discute, non de ce que l'on voit, mais de ce que l'on est' (p.15), for, as in Camus, it is travelling itself in Candide, seeing what one sees, that allows the hero to discover what he is. Finally, inasmuch as Candide is clearly a Bildungsroman, the following assertion by Barthes cannot be accurate: 'S'agrandir pour se confirmer, non pour se transformer, tel est le sens du voyage voltarien' (p.15). Travelling in Candide illuminates and transforms - homo viator there discovers that he is, in fact, homo errans and, as we have made clear, the garden that the hero founds at the end of the tale is the visible harvest of his inner transformation.

Another work that casts doubt upon Barthes's thesis concerning happiness in Voltaire is a brief tale entitled Histoire d'un bon bramin. Although not published until 1761, it was written at about the same time as Candide and portrays the impasse between the bliss of the ignorant and the unsatisfied mind of the sage. Here not only does reason not lead to happiness but it is opposed to felicitousness: 'plus il [the good Brahmin] avait de lumières dans son entendement et de sensibilité dans son coeur, plus il était malheureux' (p.115). Once more, assuming that man could renounce reason to find the happiness of the ignorant, very few persons would be willing to do so. The Brahmin looked high and low but could find no one 'qui voulût accepter le marché de devenir imbécile pour devenir content' (p.116). In this respect, the narrator concludes 'si nous faisons cas du bonheur, nous faisons encore plus de cas de la raison' (p. 116). This brilliantly concise tale gives the lie to the eudemonistic view of the Enlightenment, that happiness is the end of man. One cannot but agree with Lionel Gossman that by 1761, the date of Le Neveu de Rameau and Histoire d'un bon bramin, the 'much-touted bonheur' of the eighteenth century was already breaking down. However, several of Voltaire's tales would suggest that their author was hardly experiencing his alienation as freedom and happiness. Twenty-five years separate the publication of Le Mondain and Histoire d'un bon bramin and, philosophically, Voltaire has come a long way from the earlier work that ended with the line: 'Le paradis terrestre est où je suis.'22

Six years before the publication of Histoire d'un bon bramin, however, Voltaire had already written the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. The earthquake on 1 November 1755 had such a shattering effect on Voltaire - the correspondence for a good year after the catastrophe attests to Voltaire's obsession with it - that he immediately, in December of the same year, wrote a poem in the first person about the disaster and the philosophical conclusions to be drawn from it. Despite the precautionary rhetoric of the preface, the poem questions the ideas of Providence, optimism, and moral order in the universe. A close reading of the text - 'l'homme, étranger à soi, de l'homme est ignoré./Que suis-je, où suis-je, où vais-je, et d'où suis-je tiré?'23 - indicates that Voltaire's world vision has been shaken to its roots and that what he is experiencing is hardly security or 'alienation as happiness'. This shattered sense of cosmic security is explored in greater detail and at greater length in Candide where the hero begins as an example of Hegelian happy consciousness, not because he has overcome duality and discovered a unity beyond separation but because he epitomised the naùve consciousness not yet aware of its misfortune. He ends as the incarnation of the unhappy consciousness, since his self-consciousness and sense of alienation have created a feeling of duality while his rationality precludes transcendence toward unity.

In her otherwise illuminating book on Roland Barthes, Annette Lavers, citing on occasion 'Le dernier des écrivains heureux', makes the following observation: 'Voltaire was "the last happy writer", who could enjoy his humanitarian fight with a clear conscience, without being forced by history, as the post-1848 writers were, to acknowledge that "his happiness left a lot of people at the gate".' 24 There is something very troubling about this image of Voltaire enjoying his humanitarian fight with a clear conscience and without acknowledging that his happiness precluded the happiness of others. It is simply not accurate. Voltaire's humanitarian fight was a constant struggle that one cannot suppose he enjoyed but rather endured because of ideals he believed in. Of course, at moments when reason triumphed over fanaticism, Voltaire exulted, and perhaps nowhere more movingly than on his deathbed in his final letter at the news of the repeal of the condemnation of Lally: 'Le mourant ressuscite en apprenant cette grande nouvelle [...] il mourra content.' 25 More common in his correspondence, however, is the note of despair at the persistence of intolerance and bigotry. At the news of La Barre's execution in July 1766, Voltaire writes to Damilaville: 'Mon cher frère, mon coeur est flétri, je suis atterré [...] Je suis tenté d'aller mourir dans une terre étrangère où les hommes soient moins injustes' (Best.D13394). A month later, he writes to d'Alembert that he will die "détestant le pays des singes et des tigres" where even the 'honnètes gens [...] sont des lâches' (Best.D13485).

Once more, no one was more conscious than Voltaire of the fact that the happiness of those who profited from the status quo negated the happiness of those that did not. Voltaire was never willing to discount the suffering of the individual in the name of the happiness of the group. At the cosmic level too, this is why he rejected any vindication of individual suffering on behalf of the so-called general good. 'Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants / Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?', he writes with passion in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne where he also refers to the victims at Lisbon as his 'brothers'. 26 The only thing that outraged Voltaire's sense of justice and human solidarity more than the Lisbon disaster itself was the theological justification of it. At the social level, one need only reflect on the incident of the nègre de Surinam - 'C'est à ce prix que vous mangez du sucre en Europe' (p.182) - to grasp the author's sense of human brotherhood and solidarity. Finally, that great mirror of his long life, his correspondence, is a living tribute, perhaps the most impressive, to his defence of those individuals who, for different reasons, were crushed and marginalised by the society of his day.

The question of Voltaire's happiness is obviously a very complex issue. Unlike Barthes, I do not find him privy to any unique pre-1848 felicity that we have since been stripped of. Like any sane social thinker, he sought the happiness of the individual in the collectivity. He came to see, as is demonstrated in Histoire d'un bon bramin, a conflict between reason and happiness, and a need in most educated men to follow lucidly the exigencies of their reason. 27 Of all his fictional characters, perhaps la vieille in Candide, who incarnates the obstinate will to live despite the sufferings which life imposes, sums up best Voltaire's attitude. In the tale, no one more than she is aware of the insane character of daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering, yet her choice is overwhelmingly for life - 'je voulus cent fois me tuer, mais j'aimais encore la vie' (p.163). She affirms both the horror and love of human existence, anticipating the Camusian dictum that 'le bonheur et l'absurde sont deux fils de la mème terre'. 28

Most striking of all, however, in this survey of 'happiness' in Voltaire, is the great man's consciousness of the suffering of others and his desire to reduce that suffering. This preoccupation is ubiquitous in his correspondence beginning in late 1758 when, suddenly, the condition of the peasants triggered off what Theodore Besterman refers to as a 'trumpet-call of social protest'. It first appears in a letter dated 18 November 1758 to Antoine Jean Gabriel Le Bault: 'La moitié des habitans périt de misère, et l'autre pourrit dans des cachots. Le coeur est déchiré quant on est témoin de tant de malheurs. Je n'achète la terre de Fernex que pour y faire un peu de bien.' 29 In contrast to the picture drawn by Barthes of a Voltaire blissully waging his humanitarian battles with a clear conscience without acknowledging that his happiness negated that of others, I propose the following image of Voltaire, not only uneasy in his happiness but ashamed of it and having difficulty savouring it because of his knowledge of the suffering of others: 'Quand j'ay parlé en vers des malheurs des humains mes confrères [in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne], c'est par pure générosité, car à la faiblesse de ma santé près, je suis si heureux que j'en ai honte' (Best.D6875). 30


3. Philosophy

 Barthes suggests that Voltaire's way of looking at the world constitutes a form of anti-intellectualism that becomes prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The only way, however, that one can draw a line from Voltaire to M. Homais is to read Voltaire as M. Homais would have done. One has to read Voltaire without any imagination in order to 'prove' that he does not have any. Barthes's statement that in today's world the nature of racist crimes by the State demands 'plus une philosophie qu'une ironie, plus une explication qu'un étonnement' (p.10) unmasks a blindness toward the way in which one has to read the conte philosophique. Lionel Gossman has already noted judiciously that Voltairean discourse 'is made up, like a conversation, of discontinuous witty shafts that erode a position without confronting it directly, and indicate one without defining it' (p.41). Perhaps Candide is scriptible rather than lisible; 31 certainly it demands a reader's response. In any event, the text does contain a 'philosophy' but it is up to the reader to explicate the astonishment, turn around the irony - thus bringing to the surface its positive substratum - and define the indicated position. Once more, to say that Voltaire is outmoded at a time when we have, by Barthes's admission, greater intolerance and fanaticism is to stand logic on its head. Our universe of gas chambers and concentration camps does not render his message of tolerance less relevant but more, and human survival in the current nuclear situation demands a Voltarean solution which is precisely the opposite of Barthes's claim that 'Personne ne peut plus donner de leçon de tolérance à personne' (p.10).

I noted above that Candide contains a 'philosophy' and put that word in quotation marks because I consider Voltaire more of a moralist than a philosopher. 32 He was interested in thought as it could be applied to action and he had no philosophical system. He was anti-theoretical, wedded to the practical, and sought a way of life rather than a body of thought. Yet, while not a creator of systems, he was a systematic thinker and, despite Barthes's claim, a real, committed intellectual. To equate Voltaire's lack of a system with anti-intellectualism, as Barthes does, is a grave error. It is precisely because Voltaire believed in history as a devenir, the end of which could not be ascertained in advance, rather than as an être, that he refused to close himself up in any system. In a special sense, this makes him a greater champion of the intelligence than the system makers, for he would not imprison his mind with slavish adherence to a particular theory or abstraction, believing, as he did, that all systems, theories, and abstractions ultimately contradict factual reality to which he wanted to remain faithful. Perhaps Nietzsche had this in mind when he saluted Voltaire in Ecce homo as 'vor allem ein grandseigneur des Geistes', 33 and when he noted elsewhere that 'la volonté du système est un manque de loyauté'. 34

Once again, in order to underscore Voltaire's anti-intellectualism, Barthes asserts that he dissociated ceaselessly intelligence and intellectuality, 'posant que le monde est ordre si l'on ne cherche pas abusivement à l'ordonner, qu'il est système, à condition que l'on renonce à le systématiser' (p.16). Here we enter a very thorny and much debated aspect of Voltaire's thought dealing with God and evil. Voltaire wrote in his notebooks in English that 'God cannot be proved; nor denied, by the mere force of our reason'35 and inasmuch as his main arguments that favour the existence of God normally revolve around the social need for belief and the perils of atheism, Theodore Besterman not only concludes the Voltaire was 'at most an agnostic' but that 'were any toughminded philosopher to maintain that this type of agnosticism is indistinguishable from atheism, I would not be prepared to argue with him'. 36 At the other end of the critical spectrum we find René Pomeau who repeatedly affirms Voltaire's belief in the existence of a God who is responsible for the order in the universe: 'Ce Dieu des cieux est pur. Il est l'ordre.' 37

The problem arises then with the simultaneous existence of God and evil for the non-Christian Voltaire who cannot see how they can be reconciled. As suggested earlier, however, Le Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Candide, and scores of remarks in the Correspondence either negate the existence of a rational and moral order in the universe, precisely because events contradict it, or indicate that if such an order exists, it remains impervious to the human mind. John Weightman affirms that in Candide 'gradually it becomes clear that the world has no pattern' and, arguing against Pomeau, avers that Candide is 'l'étranger, a fatherless bastard whose cosy sense of belonging to a coherent society and a comprehensible universe is a childhood illusion'. 38 With particular poignancy, Weightman notes elsewhere that Voltaire 'was caught in a dilemma which has never ceased to torment post-Enlightenment man' and that Candide 'expresses in permanent form the emotion of the agnostic who cannot believe in the senselessness of the universe and yet cannot make sense of it. 39

The lesson to be drawn here is not simply that the problem of evil is insoluble nor that, given natural disasters and the nature of man, so is the question of God, but that, like all theorising, these issues must be transcended by meaningful action. This is not only the lesson of Candide but of the activities that constitute the final twenty years of Voltaire's life. He cannot be taxed with anti-intellectualism because he asserts both order and disorder (assuming that he does) unless for Barthes, as it appears once again, not having a system necessarily constitutes anti-intellectualism.

Voltaire's depiction of men at odds with incomprehensible forces should allow us to see that Barthes is equally mistaken when he claims that 'Voltaire n'eut pas l'esprit tragique' (p.11). This may indeed appear true in the greater number of his tragedies for he was not a tragic poet, but it is certainly not the case in all the philosophical tales nor in his correspondence, where he often writes about the human condition, depicting man as an animal lucidly awaiting the inevitable slaughter. 40 But once again it is Candide, that brilliant summa of Enlightenment thinking, at once so modern and yet so clearly a product of its age, that gives the lie to Barthes's assertion. Here Voltaire presents the tragic view of life, painting man's existence, despite his resilience and zest for life, as one of suffering and death in a world where he is unable to establish any transcendent order or meaning. Barthes's view that there is no tragic spirit because 'la grandeur de l'adversaire' (p.11) is absent cannot be accurate, for here we find man adrift 'entre deux éternités qui [l']engloutissent' (Best.D14528) in a universe not only fundamentally incomprehesible but overwhelmingly evil. It is the tragic view of life, as Weightman once remarked, 'couched in the gay and elegant prose of the eighteenth century', lyrically tragic from start to finish.41 Candide found disorder where he had expected order, chaos where he had anticipated justice, discontinuity where he had hoped for permanence. This did not mean that the world had no meaning but that, God either withdrawn or non-existent, it was up to man to give it one. We should recall here that the modern idea of the 'death of God', as Mircea Eliade points out, is not a radical innovation: 'In short, it is a revival of the notion of deus otiosus, the idle god - the god who made the world, then left it to shift for itself.' 42 Once more, as Lester Crocker suggests, whether one was an atheist or a deist was not necessarily crucial: 'Voltaire and Diderot both said that if God were a do-nothing God, if his justice was not ours, then it was the same as if there were no God.' 43 The humanism of Candide is a stoical, tragic humanism, elevating man amidst the forces that will crush him, and recalling at the cosmic level by its lucid modesty Schiller's statement that 'il n'est pas nécessaire d'espérer pour entreprendre'. 44

If Voltaire were alive today, Barthes asserts, 'ses ennemis seraient les doctrinaires de l'Histoire, de la Science [...] ou de l'Existence; marxistes, progressistes, existentialistes, intellectuels de gauche'. 'Voltaire les aurait haùs, couverts de lazzi incessants', he continues, 'comme il a fait, de son temps, pour les jésuites' (p.16). Aside from the fact that, in my judgement, Voltaire would see himself, like Camus, as a partisan of the left - 'I'm for the left,' wrote Camus, 'despite myself and despite it'45 - I believe that Barthes's statement is accurate. Although we differ in that he defines Voltaire's position as a negative one,46 I find Barthes's statement accurate in that it clarifies Voltaire's position as an écrivain engagé, fully committed to representing the world and bearing witness to it. This is what he did in the eighteenth century and there is no reason to believe that, were he alive today, he would cease doing so. Literature for Voltaire had a deep relationship to history and society. The writer's function was no longer simply to amuse his public but to guide humanity. He himself may have had this in mind when he wrote that 'Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] n'écrit que pour écrire et moy j'écris pour agir' (Best.D14117).

Although I do not believe that Barthes is correct in claiming that Voltaire reduced 'les conflits d'idées à une sorte de lutte manichéenne entre la Bêtise et l'Intelligence' (p.16) - this can neither account for physical evils in the universe such as earthquakes or plagues nor for evil tendencies inherent in human nature - his thesis here does indeed capture some of the single-mindedness of Voltaire's crusade against l'infâme. In his littérature engagée, Voltaire denounces the reign of 'isms' - optimism, pessimism, Manicheism, Jesuitism, Jansenism - that crush the individual, negate his importance, and discount his suffering in the name of an abstraction. Candide prefigures our world of 'isms' where abstract systems, dogmas, and ideologies have victimised the individual and reduced him from an end to a means, and where the promise of future justice has become the excuse for a present injustice. It is precisely because Voltaire did not adhere to a particular system, unless that system was the hatred of all systems, that Barthes is certainly wrong to assert that 'Le monde est simple pour qui termine toutes ses lettres [...] par "Ecrasons l'infâme"' (p.17). Ecrasons l'infâme was a general cry implying that evil could spring up anywhere and that wherever it sprung up, under whatever banner, it had to be denounced. The world was not simple for Voltaire who, with difficulty, managed to carve out a middle ground and forge an authentic humanism between the atheists and the fanatics, the optimists and the pessimists. Voltaire had no banner under which he allowed his dogma the privilege of committing atrocities that he denounced in all other camps. He did not believe that the end justifies the means nor that individual man could be sacrificed in the name of Man. In a very Camusian sense, Voltaire's infâme seems synonymous with 'abstraction' and, as Camus writes in his Carnets: 'Que l'abstraction est le mal, elle fait les guerres, les tortures, la violence.' 47

I have referred to Camus throughout this article primarily because, in many respects, I see him as a modern proponent of the Voltarean spirit and an example of a major literary figure since 1848 who does not follow the pattern established by Barthes. I mention him also because his work La Peste was, accordingly, also criticised by Barthes and for reasons not wholly dissimilar from those that we have examined in reference to Voltaire. Barthes makes a few good points in his criticism, most notably the failure of the novel as an allegory of the Occupation where men were not battling a non-human epidemic but other men. This not only made good and evil easily definable but avoided the question of violence. 48 In the name of what he would later term 'matérialisme historique', 49 Barthes, none the less, goes on to make the surprising claim that La Peste founds an anti-historical morality and a politics of solitude. Camus defended himself, on the one hand, by calling his own evolution from L'Etranger to La Peste 'le passage d'une attitude de révolte solitaire à la reconnaissance d'une communauté dont il faut partager les luttes' and, on the other, by affirming his solidarity with 'notre histoire présente'. 50

As regards Voltaire (and Camus), Barthes asks: 'Que peut donc l'homme sur le Bien et le Mal?' (p.13). Not surprisingly, he responds: 'Pas grand-chose.' This is an astonishing misreading of the two great meliorists. Although human solidarity, charity, and the notion of limits will never put a final end to evil, this does not mean that man cannot ameliorate his present social situation nor arithmetically reduce the sum of human misery in the world. Like Camus, Voltaire leans toward cosmic pessimism and his humanism, as we noted above, is a tragic one, for, like Camus's, it stresses the limits of man and the omnipresence of evil. Voltaire's horizontal humanism, however, which, at once, separates him from Pascal and Rousseau and links him to Camus, offers man the opportunity, through lucidity and moral dignity, to eke out that small portion of happiness that may be his own. Camus speaks for himself but Voltaire too when he writes: 'Celui qui espère en la condition humaine est un fou, mais celui qui désesp're des événements est un l‚che.' 51

In 'Le dernier des écrivains heureux', Barthes uses the term 'heureux' in at least two different senses: fortunate and felicitous, but, as I hope to have shown, neither of these seems particularly applicable to Voltaire. I certainly do not want to imply that Voltaire was a brooding neurotic; nor is it my quarrel with Haydn Mason who observes, 'For all his exiles, alarums and disappointments, he [Voltaire] was a happy man: partly because of his marvellously buoyant temperament, but also because in the end circumstances were good to him [...] He was rich and he lived long; in both these respects he was fortunate.' 52 My disagreement is with the notion that happiness is a sign of shallowness, that it is somehow inconsistent with the first-rate intelligence and sensitivity, and that somehow, after 1848, things changed drastically so that Voltaire, for example, has come to seem fortunate in ways no longer possible for intellectuals: saved somehow from the 'real' view of the human condition. Certainly Voltaire believed, like Camus, that happiness is a legitimate and natural goal. He would have applauded Camus's letter to Guy Dumur where Camus derides 'un amour de l'angoisse pour l'angoisse elle même' that he attributes to certain forms of existentialism: 'Elles font de l'angoisse une limite de l'homme, un sommet qu'il ne peut dépasser. Or l'angoisse n'est ni plus ni moins consciente que le bonheur, ou la patience, ou l'intérêt, ou la satisfaction. L'échelle des valeurs qu'on introduit ainsi me paraît basse' (Essais, p.1670). Voltaire obviously believed, as his last twenty years demonstrate, that the absurd was only a starting point and that not only could man construct an ethics upon it, but that a pessimistic cosmological outlook did not preclude an amelioration of man's social condition. To Barthes's view of Voltaire, I oppose Camus's: 'Voltaire a soupçonné presque tout. Il n'a établi que très peu de choses, mais bien' (Carnets II, p.319). As Barthes uses the term, Voltaire was not an 'écrivain heureux'; a very rich segment of his work proves that he is still our contemporary.



1. Roland Barthes, 'Le dernier des écrivains heureux', Romans et contes (Paris 1972), pp.9-17. All references will be to this edition and will be inserted parenthetically in the text. The article appears in English as 'The last happy writer', in Roland Barthes. Critical essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston, Illinois 1972), pp.83-89.

2. Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes, (New York 1983), p.18. passim.

3. In this respect, Dominick La Capra points to 'a facile equation of political radicalism and formal innovation in all guises and under all conditions' and attaches Roland Barthes to it. Dominick La Capra, History and Criticism (Ithaca 1985), p.112.

4. Philip Thody notes that Barthes's lack of sympathy with the intellectual atmosphere of the eighteenth century can also be seen in his essay on Les Planches de L'Encyclopédie, which is 'full of a sense of effortless superiority towards people who entertained such naive concepts as Diderot or d'Alembert held about the importance of clarity, intellectual tolerance and bourgeois democracy' (Philip Thody, Roland Barthes: a conservative estimate, Chicago 1983, p.121).

5. Lionel Gossman. 'Ce beau génie n'a point compris sa sublime mission - an essay on Voltaire', French review 56 (1982). p.40.

6. J.H. Brumfitt, Voltaire historian (Oxford 1958), p.169.

7. Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (Paris 1966), p.323.

9. See, for example, Roy Wolper, 'Candide: gull in the garden?', Eighteenth-century studies 3 (1969), pp.265-77, and Theodore Braun, 'Voltaire and his contes: a review essay on interpretations offered by Roy S. Wolper', Studies on Voltaire 212 (1982), pp312-17.

10. For a more extended analysis of the garden metaphor in Candide, see my 'Sacred and profane gardens in Candide', Studies on Voltaire 176 (1979), pp.133-52.

11. H. Trevor-Roper writes that with these four men 'historiography, as a continuous science, begins' ('The historical philosophy of the Enlightenment', Studies on Voltaire 27 (1963), p.1667).

12. In this respect, see J.H. Brumfitt, 'History and propaganda in Voltaire', Studies on Voltaire', 24 191963), pp.271-87.

13. Peter Gay, Voltaire's politics: the poet as realist (Princeton, New Jersey 1959), p.10.

14. In Voltaire, Oeuvres historiques, ed. René Pomeau (Paris 1972), see both 'Remarques sur l'histoire', p.44, and 'Nouvelles considérations sur l'histoire', pp.48-49.

15. See Suzanne Gearhart, 'Rationality and the text: a study of Voltaire's historiography', Studies on Voltaire 140 (1975), pp.21-43.

16. J.H. Brumfitt, Voltaire historian, p.167.

17. Mircea Eliade, Mephistopheles and the androgyne: studies in religious myth and symbol, trans. J.M. Cohen (New York 1965), p.155.

18. Mircea Eliade, Ordeal by labyrinth: conversations with Claude-Henri Rocquet, trans. Derek Coltman (Chaicago 1982), p.155).

19. Mircea Eliade, The Myth of eternal return or, cosmos and history, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, New Jersey 1954), p.149.

20. Albert Camus, L'Homme révolté, in Essais (Paris 1965), p.707.

21. Robert Mauzi, L'idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée française au dix-huitième siècle (Paris 1960), p.52.

22. Voltaire, Le Mondain, in Mélanges (Paris 1961), p.206.

23. Voltaire, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Mélanges, p.308.

24. Annette Lavers, Roland Barthes: structuralism and after (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1982), p.71.

25. Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, The complete works of Voltaire 85-135, ed. Theodore Besterman (Gen've, Banbury, Oxford 1968-1976), Best.D21213. Henceforth all references to Voltaire's correspondence will be to this definitive edition and will be inserted parenthetically in the text.

26. Voltaire, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Mélanges, p.304.

27. In this respect, I cannot resist citing the following quotation in Camus's Carnets, noted with apparent approbation: 'Cf. Stuart Mill: 'Mieux vaut être Socrate mécontent qu'un cochon satisfait'' (Carnets I, Paris 1962, p.147).

28. Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, in Essais, p.197.

29. Best.D7946. Besterman's comments are on the same page.

30. This image of Voltaire is strikingly similar to that of Rambert, one of Camus's heroes in La Peste, who notes 'il peut y avoir de la honte à être heureux tout seul' (Théâtre, récits, nouvelles, Paris 1962, p.1387).

31. Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris 1970), passim.

32. On this distinction, see, by the present author: 'Voltaire as moralist', Journal of the history of ideas 38 (1977), pp141-46, and 'A critical discussion of Albert Camus, a biography, by Herbert Lottman and Camus: a critical study of his life and work, by Patrick McCarthy', Philosophy and literature 8 (1984), pp.104-18.

33. F.W. Nietzsche, Werke (München 1966), p.1118.

34. Quoted by Camus, Carnets I, p.174.

35. Voltaire, Notebooks, ed. Th. Besterman, The Complete works of Voltaire 81-82 (Banbury 1968), i.88.

36. Th. Besterman, Voltaire (New York 1969), p.223.

37. René Pomeau, La Religion de Voltaire (Paris 1969), p.248, passim.

38. John Weightman, 'The quality of Candide', Candide or optimism, ed. Robert Adams (New York 1966), pp.160, 159-60.

39. John Weightman, 'Cultivating Voltaire', New York review of books (18 June 1970), p.37.

40. 'Nous sommes des moutons à qui jamais le boucher ne dit quand il les tuera' (Best.D1187); 'Nous sommes dans ce monde sous la direction d'une puissance aussi invisible que forte à peu près comme des poulets qu'on a mis en mue pour un certain temps, pour les mettre à la broche ensuite et qui ne comprendront jamais par quel caprice le cuisinier les fais ainsi encager. Je parie que si ces poulets raisonnent et font un syst'me sur leur cage, aucun ne devinera jamais que c'est pour être mangés qu'on les a mis là' (Best.D1558). As late as 1774, Voltaire continues to present the human condition in terms of prison and execution and, when compared with the twenty-fifth letter of the Lettres Philosophiques, we can see, the question of grace aside, how Pascalian his view has become: 'Nous sommes tous dans ce monde, comme des prisonniers dans la petite cour d'une prison; chacun attend son tour d'être pendu, sans en savoir l'heure; et quand cette heure vient, il se trouve qu'on a très inutilement vécu. Toutes les réflexions sont vaines, tous les raisonnements sur la nécessité et sur la misère humaine ne sont que des paroles perdues' (Best.D19116).

41. John Weightman, 'Cultivating Voltaire', p.37.

42. Mircea Eliade, Ordeal by labyrinth, p.151.

43. Lester Crocker, Nature and culture: ethical thought in the French Enlightenment (Baltimore 1963), pp.502-503.

44. This quotation appears in André Malraux, Les Conquérants (Paris 1928), p.241.

45. Herbert Lottman, Albert Camus, a biography (New York 1979), p.658.

46. Annette Lavers points out that Barthes identifies Voltaire 'as an early example of those anti-intellectualist critics with whom he was himself having a running fight' (p.71).

47. Albert Camus, Carnets II (Paris 1964), p.133.

48. Roland Barthes, 'La Peste: annales d'une épidémie ou roman de la solitude', Club (Bulletin du Club du Meilleur Livre) (janvier 1955).

49. Roland Barthes, 'Réponse de Roland Barthes à Albert Camus', Club (avril 1955), p.29.

50. Albert Camus, Théâtre, récits; nouvelles, pp.1965-66.

51. Albert Camus, Essais, pp.1613, 1669.

52. Haydn Mason, Voltaire, a biography (Baltimore 1981), p.156, italics mine.