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Commentaire historique

Voltaire’s legacy under threat

In 1776, Voltaire was ill and dying. His letters from the first half of the 1770s show that he knew his time was nearly up, as complaints of ill health, a melancholy outlook and gallows humour abound in his writing. He was also beset by a different kind of affliction: calumny. In late eighteenth-century France, calumny was akin to the modern tabloid hit piece, involving a distortion or fabrication of the truth intended to cause a scandal and ruin someone's reputation.

For Voltaire, this came in the form of people publishing his letters without his permission, many of which had been doctored or entirely forged. Notable examples were a letter published by Charles Palissot in 1760, a recueil of forged letters that appeared in 1764 and two further recueils in 1766. The latter of these also included an unauthorised and rather unflattering biography of Voltaire.

Voltaire found himself in a bit of an awkward position. He was, in principle, in favour of free speech and the freedom of the press, but his own honour and legacy were under threat by the increasing multitude of libellous publications about him. So, in spring 1776 he wrote the Commentaire Historique as a somewhat frantic final effort to regain control over his legacy before he died. In this work, the philosophe aimed to dispel some myths about him by... creating some myths of his own.

Voltaire learns brand management

The Commentaire historique is an operation in celebrity brand management. We can think of it like a social media profile: rather than depicting Voltaire as he really was, this work presents us with Voltaire as he wished others to perceive him. In this capacity, it is certainly not a transparent truth-telling enterprise. For one thing, Voltaire's antagonistic, militant side is downplayed and there is no mention of the highly controversial Lettres philosophiques. Present-day readers might also be surprised by the absence of the short stories such as Candide for which he is best known today. Instead, Voltaire foregrounds the works he is most proud of, namely his theatre, poetry and above all the Henriade, all works that are not widely read today.

The Commentaire historique plays up to the unverified rumours surrounding the philosophe’s life. It begins, ‘Some say that François de Voltaire was born on the 20 February 1694; others the 20 November of the same year’ (Les uns font naître François de Voltaire le 20 février 1694; les autres le 20 novembre de la même année). As well as playfully refusing to reveal his own birthday, this makes it plain that we are getting Voltaire the celebrity, not François-Marie Arouet the man behind him.

Voltaire’s public image as presented in the Commentaire historique is a complex, multi-faceted entity. This series of introductory articles takes us through some of the profile pictures he uses and gives us a closer look at his various personas in the final major work of his life.

Written by Sam Bailey (currently PhD candidate at Durham) during his internship at the Vf.