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Voltaire’s Louis XV, from bien-aimé to mal-aimé

Tuesday, 7 April, 2020

The French victory at Fontenoy in 1745 provided Voltaire, newly appointed historiographe de France, with a welcome opportunity. Present with the French army on 11 May had been Louis XV himself, at his best on campaign and already nicknamed le bien-aimé. Voltaire had a distinct turn for flattery when it suited him. What could be more fitting than the composition of an account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’?

This is the context for the first half of what became Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29A). After Fontenoy Voltaire looked with the rest of France for a favourable and honourable peace, with French glory personified in the figure of the king. But the war dragged on until 1748, by which point Voltaire’s enthusiasm for reporting it had dwindled: ‘les détails en sont si ennuyeux’, as he said to Frederick II. It was not ideal subject matter for Europe’s most renowned poet and dramatist.

The second volume of the Précis, now published (OCV, vol.29B), completes the text, showing how what began as a celebration of the king’s campaigns transforms itself into a history of Voltaire’s time.

Accordingly, the succession of endless marches and manoeuvres, the clash and clang of victory and defeat, give way to a series of chapters featuring men whose deeds provide heroic highlights beyond the battlefield. What do Admiral George Anson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the naval adventurer Mahé de la Bourdonnais have in common? Not much, except that Voltaire bunches them together to fill out his account of the final years of a war in which he had lost interest. These characters – their literary function is as relevant as the historical examples they provide – are all instances of personal heroism and perseverance in the face of long odds.

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, 1757. (British Museum)

After the war Voltaire may have felt that he had finished with writing about conflict, but although he regarded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) as a truce rather than a lasting peace, he did not anticipate the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, over which he passes with comparative brevity. While the earlier war is spread across twenty-five chapters in the Précis, its sequel is compressed into just five (ch.31-35). The first of these centres on the execution of the British Admiral Byng, ‘pour encourager les autres’, followed by that of the Franco-Irish general Lally, condemned for his military failures in India. The struggle for Canada is reduced to a dispute over a few acres of snow. The struggle in Europe is reduced to a personal contest between Frederick II and the duc de Richelieu. War is no longer a realm of heroism, and it is painted in a harshly negative light. Louis XV is nowhere to be seen. Voltaire, settled into life as seigneur of Ferney, no longer had to try to flatter his king.

Thomas Arthur de Lally

‘Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d'avoir la tête tranchée en place de grève le 8 mai 1766’. (BnF/Gallica)

The later chapters – mostly written in the 1760s, soon after the events they describe – allow Voltaire to move beyond war. They reflect the preoccupations of the philosophe engagé that he was soon to become. Religious questions are ever-present: the problems surrounding the papal bull Unigenitus and the refusal of sacraments; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bourbon Europe. The dangers of religious fanaticism are highlighted through chapters on Damiens’s attack on Louis XV, or the attempt on the life of the king of Portugal. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and tolerance comes to the fore in his strongly argued advocacy of judicial reform.

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

‘Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens, infâme parricide de Louis XV, le bien-aimé’. (BnF/Gallica)

These later chapters demonstrate the melding of Voltaire’s historical and philosophical concerns. The final chapter reviews the progress of l’esprit humain in Voltaire’s own time. His findings are mixed: despite some advances in certain areas, notably science, literature is in decline and can do no more than distract the reader, who would otherwise be ‘trop accablé de la contemplation des misères humaines’. As for the king, Voltaire almost blames him for bringing about his own death by sanctioning France’s failure to adopt the practice of smallpox inoculation. Louis le bien-aimé has by now become le mal-aimé.

Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV tracks its author’s development as a philosophe, but also as a historian, analyst and commentator on his own time, making it both a summary account of the age of Louis XV and a reflection of Voltaire’s concerns over the last thirty-three years of his own career.

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan

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