In terms of the history of ideas, Voltaire’s single most important achievement was to have helped in the 1730s to introduce the thought of Newton and Locke to France (and so to the rest of the Continent). This achievement is, as Jonathan Israel has recently shown, hardly as radical as has sometimes been thought: the English thinkers in question served essentially as a deistic bulwark against the more radical (atheistic) currents of thought in the Spinozist tradition. Voltaire’s deist beliefs, reiterated throughout his life, came to appear increasingly outmoded and defensive as he grew older and as he became more and more exercised by the spread of atheism. Voltaire’s failure to produce an original philosophy was, in a sense, counterbalanced by his deliberate cultivation of a philosophy of action; his ‘common sense’ crusade against superstition and prejudice and in favour of religious toleration was his single greatest contribution to the progress of Enlightenment. ‘Rousseau writes for writing’s sake’, he declared in a letter of 1767, ‘I write to act.’
It was therefore Voltaire’s literary and rhetorical contributions to the Enlightenment which were truly unique. Interested neither in music (like Rousseau) nor in art (like Diderot), Voltaire was fundamentally a man of language. Through force of style, through skilful choice of literary genre, and through the accomplished manipulation of the book market, he found means of popularizing and promulgating ideas which until then had generally been clandestine. The range of his writing is immense, embracing virtually every genre. In verse, he wrote in every form – epic poetry, ode, satire and epistle, and even occasional and light verse; his drama, also written in verse, includes both comedies and tragedies (although the tragedies have not survived in the modern theatre, many live on in the opera, as, for example, Rossini’s Semiramide and Tancredi).
It is above all the prose works with which modern readers are familiar, and again the writings cover a wide spectrum: histories, polemical satires, pamphlets of all types, dialogues, short fictions or contes, and letters both real and fictive. The conspicuous absentee from this list is the novel, a genre which, like the prose drame, Voltaire thought base and trivial. To understand the strength of his dislike for these ‘new’ genres, we need to remember that Voltaire was a product of the late seventeenth century, the moment of the Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns, and this literary debate continued to influence his aesthetic views all through his life. Controversial religious and political views were often expressed in the literary forms (classical tragedy, the verse satire) perfected in the seventeenth century; the ‘conservatism’ of these forms seems, to modern readers at least, to compromise the content, though this apparent traditionalism may in fact have helped Voltaire mask the originality of his enterprise: it is at least arguable that in a work such as Zaïre (1732), the form of the classical tragedy made its ideas of religious toleration more palatable.
Yet this would also be a simplification, for notwithstanding his apparent literary conservatism, Voltaire was in fact a relentless reformer and experimenter with literary genres, innovative almost despite himself, particularly in the domain of prose. Although he never turned his back on verse drama and philosophical poetry, he experimented with different forms of historical writing and tried his hand at different styles of prose fiction. Above all, he seems to have discovered late in his career the satirical and polemical uses of the fragment, notably in his alphabetic works, the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764), containing 73 articles in its first edition, and the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772). The latter work, whose first edition contained 423 articles in nine octavo volumes, is a vast and challenging compendium of his thought and ranks among Voltaire’s unrecognized masterpieces. When he died, Voltaire was working on what would have been his third ‘philosophical’ dictionary, L’Opinion en alphabet.
Voltaire’s ironic, fast-moving, deceptively simple style makes him one of the greatest stylists of the French language. All his life, Voltaire loved to act in his own plays, and this fondness for role-playing carried through into all his writings. He used something like 175 different pseudonyms in the course of his career, and his writing is characterized by a proliferation of different personae and voices. The reader is constantly drawn into dialogue – by a footnote which contradicts the text, or by one voice in the text which argues against another. The use of the mask is so relentless and the presence of humour, irony, and satire so pervasive that the reader has finally no idea of where the ‘real’ Voltaire is. His autobiographical writings are few and entirely unrevealing: as the title of his Commentaire historique sur les Œuvres de l’auteur de la Henriade suggests, it is his writings alone which constitute their author’s identity.
In fact we rarely know with certainty what Voltaire truly thought or believed; what mattered to him was the impact of what he wrote. The great crusades of the 1760s taught him to appreciate the importance of public opinion, and in popularizing the clandestine ideas of the early part of the century he played the role of the journalist. He may have been old-fashioned in his nostalgia for the classicism of the previous century, but he was wholly of his day in his consummate understanding of the medium of publishing. He manipulated the book trade to achieve maximum publicity for his ideas, and he well understood the importance of what he called ‘the portable’. In 1766, Voltaire wrote to d’Alembert: ‘Twenty in-folio volumes will never cause a revolution; it’s the little portable books at thirty sous which are to be feared.’
Voltaire was also modern in the way he invented himself by fashioning a public image out of his adopted name. As the patriarch of Ferney, he turned himself into an institution whose fame reached across Europe. As an engaged and militant intellectual, he stood at the beginning of a French tradition which looked forward to Emile Zola and to Jean-Paul Sartre, and in modern republican France his name stands as a cultural icon, a symbol of rationalism and the defence of tolerance. Voltaire was a man of paradoxes: the bourgeois who as de Voltaire gave himself aristocratic pretensions, but who as plain Voltaire later became a hero of the Revolution; the conservative in aesthetic matters who appeared as a radical in religious and political issues. He was, above all, the master ironist, who, perhaps more than any other writer, gave to the Enlightenment its characteristic and defining tone of voice.
– N. E. Cronk