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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

Voltaire at 24, by Nicolas de Largillière.

Voltaire - extracts

François Marie Arouet de Voltaire 1694-1778
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

Of the life and literary productions of the most remarkable name in the whole history of literature - if at least we regard the extent and variety of his astonishing genius, as well as the immense influence, contemporary and future , of his writings - only a brief outline can be given here. Yet, as the most eminent humanitarian prophet of the eighteenth century, the principal facts of his life deserve somewhat larger notice than within the general scope of this work.

François Marie Arouet - commonly known by his assumed name of Voltaire - on his mother's side of the family of position recently ennobled, was born at Chatenay, near Paris. He was educated at the Jesuits' College of Louis XIV., where, it is said, the fathers already foretold his future eminence. Like many other illustrious writers he was originally destined for the "Law," which was little adapted to his genius, and, like his great prototype, Lucian, and others, he soon abandoned all thought of that profession for for letters and philosophy. He had the good fortune, at an early age, to gain the favour of the celebrated Ninon de Lenclos, who left him a legacy of 2,000 livres for the purchase of a library - an important event which was doubtless the means of confirming his intellectual bias.

Voltaire's first literary conceptions were formed in the Bastile, that infamous representative of despotic caprice, to which some verses of which he was the reputed author, satirising the licentious extravagance of the Court of the late king, Louis XIV., had consigned him at the age of twenty. Soon afterwards appeared the tragedy of Ædipe (founded upon the well-known dramas of Sophocles), the first modern drama in which the universal and traditional love scenes were discarded. This contempt for the conventionalities, however, excited the indignation of the play-goers, and the Ædipe was, at its first representation , hissed off the stage. The author found himself forced to sacrifice to the popular tastes, and his tragedy was received with applause. Two memorable verses indicated the bias of the future antagonist of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, and naturally provoked the hostility of the profession which he had dared so openly to assail :-

"Nos prêtres ne sont pas ce qu'un vain peuple pense :
Notre credulité fait toute leur science."

It was during this imprisonment, too, that he formed the first idea of the Henriade (or The League, as it was originally called), the only epic poem worthy of the name in the French language. A chance quarrel with an insolent courtier was the cause of Voltaire's second incarceration in the Bastile with, at the end of six months, a peremptory order to absent himself from the capital. These experiences of despotic caprice and of sophisticated society he long afterwards embodied in two of his best romances, L'Ingénu and Micro-mégas (the "Little-Big Man"), one of the most exquisite productions of satire.

The youthful victim of these malicious persecutions determined upon seeking refuge in England, whose freer air had already inspired Newton, Locke, Shaftesbury and other eminent leaders of Thought. A flattering welcome awaited him - and subscriptions to the Henriade, better received here than in France, gratified his pride and filled his purse. During his sojourn of three years in this country, he made the most of his time in studying its best literature, and cultivating the acquaintance of its most eminent living writers. His tragedy of Brutus was followed by La Mort de César which, from its taint of liberalism, was not allowed to be printed in France. Upon his return to Paris he published his Zaïre - finished in eighteen days - the first tragedy in which, deserting the footsteps of Corneille and Racine, he ventured to follow the bent of his own genius. The plan of Zaïre has been pronounced to be one of the most perfect ever contrived for the stage.

More important, by its influence upon contemporary thought, was his famous Letters on the English - a work designed to inform his countrymen generally of the literature, thought, and political and theological parties of the rival nation, and, more especially, of the discoveries of Newton and Locke. Descartes, at this moment supreme in France, had succeeded to the vacant throne of the so-called Aristotelian Schoolmen. His system, a great advance upon the old, broached some errors in physics, amongst others the theory of "Vortices" to explain the planetary movements. A much more pernicious and reprehensible error was his absurd denial of conscious feeling and intelligence to the lower races, which was admirably exposed by Voltaire in his Elémens de Newton and elsewhere. In England, Newton's extraordinary discoveries had already made Descartes obsolete, as far as the savans were concerned at least, but the French scientific world still clung, for the most part, to the Cartesian principles. As for Locke, he had overturned the orthodox creed of 'innate ideas' supplying instead sensation and reflection. This advocacy of the new philosophy, added to the success of his tragedies for the theatre,

"Drew [says Voltaire in his Mémoirs] a whole library of pamphlets down upon me, in which they proved I was a bad Poet, an Atheist, and the son of a peasant. A history of my life was printed, in which this genealogy was inserted. An industrious German took care to collect all the tales of that kind, which had been crammed into the libels they had published against me. They imputed adventures to me with persons I never knew, and with others that never existed. I have found while writing this, a letter from the Maréchal de Richelieu, which informed me of an impudent lampoon where it was proved his wife had given me an elegant couch, with something else, at a time when he had no wife. At first I took some pleasure in making collections of these calumnies, but they multiplied to such a degree I was obliged to leave off. Such are the fruits I gathered from my labours. I, however, easily consoled myself, sometimes in my retreat at Cirey, and at other times in mixing with the best society."

Amongst other subjects the Lettres (a masterpiece of criticism and sort of essays, since often imitated but seldom or never, perhaps, equalled in their kind) contains and admirable essay upon the Quakers, to whom he did justice. He introduces one of them in conversation with him, thus apologising for his eccentricities :

"Confess that thou hast had some trouble to prevent thyself from laughing when I answered all thy civilities with my hat upon my head and with thouing and thee-ing thee (en te toujant). Yet thou seemest to me too well informed, to be ignorant that, in the time of Christ, no nation was fell into the ridiculousness of substituting the plural for the singular. They use to say to Cæsar-Augustus : 'I love thee,' 'I pray thee', 'I thank thee.' He would not allow himself to be called 'Monsieur' (domine). It was only a long time after him that men thought of causing themselves to be addressed as you in place of thou, as though they were double, and of usurping impertinent titles of grandeur, of eminence, of holiness,of divinity evan, which earthworms give to other earthworms, while assuring them with a profound respect (and with an infamous falseness), they are their very humble and very obedient servants. It is in order to be upon our guard against this unworthy commerce of lies and flatteries that we 'thee' and 'thou' equally kings and kitchen-maids : that we give the ordinary compliments to no one, having for men only charity, and reserving our respect for the laws. We wear a dress a little different from other men, in order that it may be for us a continual warning not to resemble them. Others wear marks of their dignities, we those of Christian humility. We never use oaths, not even in law courts, we think that the name of the Most High ought not to be pronounced in the miserable debates of men. When we are forced to appear before the magistrates on others' business (for we never have law-suits ourselves) we affirm the truth by a 'yes' or a 'no,' and the judges believe us on our simple word, while so many other Christians perjure themselves upon the Gospel. We never go to war. It is not that we fear death, but it is because we are neither tigers, nor wolves, nor dogs, but men, but Christians. Our God, who has told us to love our enemies and to suffer without a murmur, doubtless would not have us cross the sea to go and cut the throats of our brothers because assassins, clothed in red and in hats two feet high, enrol citizens to the accompaniment of a noise produced with two little sticks upon the dried skin of an ass. And when, after battles won, all London is brilliant with illuminations, when the sky is in flames with musket-shots, when the air re-echoes with sounds of thanksgiving, with bells, with organs, with cannons, we groan in silence over the murders which cause public light-heartedness." (Lettre II.)

About this period, frequenting less fashionable and trifling society of the capital, and contenting himself with the company of a few congenial minds, he formed amongst others a sympathetic friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, a lady of extraordinary talents.

"I was tired [thus he begins his unfinished Mémoirs], I was tired of the lazy and noisy life led at Paris, of the multitude of petit-maîtres, of bad books printed with the approbation of censors, and the privilege of the king, of the cabals and parties among the learned, and of the mean arts of plagiarism, and book-making which dishonour Literature."

The lady was the equal of Madame Dacier in knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, and she was familiar with all the best modern writers. She wrote a commentary on Leibnitz. She also translated the Principia. Her favourite pursuits, however, were mathematics and metaphysics.

"She was none the less fond of the world and those amusements familiar to her age and sex. She determined to leave them all and bury herself in an old ruinous château on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, situated in a barren and unhealthy soil. This old château she ornamented with sufficiently pretty gardens. I built a gallery, and formed a very good collection of natural history, added to which we had a library not badly furnished. We were visited by several of the savans, who came to philosophise in our retreat. . . . I taught English to Madame du Châtelet, who, in about three months understood it as well as I did, and read Newton, and Locke, and Pope, with equal ease. We read all the works of Tasso and Ariosto together, so that when Algerotti came to Cirey, where he finished his Newtonianism for Women, he found her sufficiently skilful in his own language to give him some very excellent information by which he profited."

Voltaire had already (1741) given the world his Elémens de Newton - a work which, in conjunction with other parts of his writings, proves that had he chosen to apply himself wholly to natural philosophy or to mathematics he might have reached the highest fame in those departments of science. It is in the Elémens that Voltaire records his noble protest at the same time against the monstrous hypothesis of Descartes, to which we have already referred, and against the selfish cruelty of our species.

"There is in man a disposition to compassion as generally diffused as his other instincts. Newton had cultivated this sentiment of humanity, and he extended it to the lower animals. With Locke he was strongly convinced that God has given to them a proportion of ideas, and the same feelings which he has to us. He could not believe that God, who has made nothing in vain, would have given to them organs of feeling in order that they might have no feeling.

"He thought it a very frightful inconsistency to believe that animals feel and at the same time to cause them to suffer. On this point his morality was in accord with his philosophy. He yielded but with repugnance to the barbarous custom of supporting ourselves upon the blood and flesh of beings like ourselves, whom we caress, and he never permitted in his own house the putting them to death by slow and exquisite [recherchées] modes of killing for the sake of making the food more delicious. This compassion, which he felt for other animals, culminated in true charity for men. In truth, without humanity, a virtue which comprehends all virtues, the name of philosopher would be little deserved." (1)

At Cirey some of his best tragedies were composed - Alzire, Mérope, and Mehemet; the Discours sur l'Homme, a moral poem in the style of Pope's Essays, pronounced to be one of the finest monuments of French poetry; an Essay on Universal History, (for his friends use, to correct as well as supplement Bossuet's splendid but little philosophic history), the foundation of perhaps his most admirable production the Essai sur les Mœrs et l'Esprit des Nations, and many lesser pieces, including a large correspondence. Besides these literary works, he engaged in mathematical and scientific studies, which resulted in some brochures of considerable value.

About this time (1740) news arrived of the death of Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. Most readers know the extraordinary character of this strange personage, who caned the women in his clergy in the streets of his capital, and who was with difficulty dissuaded from ordering his son's execution. Narrowly escaping with his life the prince had devoted himself to literary pursuits, and had kept up a correspondence with the leading men of letters of France, and above all with the author of Zaïre whom he regarded as little less than divine. The new king set about inspecting his territories, and proceeded incognito to Brussels, where the first interview between the two future most eminent persons in Europe took place. Repairing to his majesty's quarters :-

"One soldier was the only guard I found. The Privy-Counsellor and Minister of State was walking in the court-yard blowing his fingers. He had on a large pair of coarse ruffles, a hat all in holes, and a judge's old wig, one side of which hung into his pocket, and the other scarcely touched his shoulder. They informed me that this man was charged with a state affair of great importance, and so indeed he was. I was conducted into his Majesty's apartments, in which I found nothing but four bare walls. By the light of a taper I perceived a small truckle-bed, two feet and a half wide in a closet, upon which lay a little man, wrapped up in a morning dressing-gown of blue cloth. It was his Majesty who lay perspiring and shaking beneath a miserable coverlet in a violent ague fit. I made my bow, and began my acquaintance by feeling his pulse, as if I had been his first physician. The fit left him, and he rose, dressed himself, and sat down to table with Algerotti, Maupertuis, the Ambassador to the States-general, and myself. At supper he treated most profoundly of the soul, natural liberty, and the Androgynes of Plato. I soon found myself attached to him, for he had wit, an agreeable manner, and was moreover was a King; which is a circumstance of seduction hardly to be vanquished by human weakness. Generally speaking, it is the employment of men of letters to flatter kings, but in this instance, I was praised by a king, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, at the same time that I was libelled, at least once a week, by the Abbé Desfontaines, and other Grub-street poets of Paris."

Voltaire received a pressing invitation to berlin.

"But I had before given him to understand I could not come to stay with him; that I deemed it a duty to prefer friendship to ambition; that I was attached to Madame du Châtelet; and that, between philosophers, I loved a lady better than a king. He approved of the liberty I took, though, for his part he did not love the ladies. I went to pay him a visit in October, and the Cardinal de Fleury [the French premier] wrote me a long letter, full of praises of the Anti-Machiavel, and of the author, which I did not forget to let him see."

The French court wished to secure the alliance of Friedrich. No one seemed a more fitting mediator than his early counsellor, who was induced to accept the mission, and to set out for Berlin, where an enthusiastic welcome awaited him, apartments in the palace being placed at his disposal. Yet, in spite of the success of this and other public services, his enemies in Paris remained in full possession of the field. For the second time Voltaire sought admission into the Académie - an empty honour, the granting or refusal of which could neither add to nor detract from his fame. The prestige of that society, however, he seemed to consider essential to his safety against the increasing violence and formidable array of his enemies, who were bent on crushing him, by whatever means. It was only submitting to the mortification of qualifying some of his opinions that he at length succeeded in his object. Notwithstanding the address with which he manages his language, it were better, as his biographer - the Marquis de Condorcet - justly remarks, he had renounced the Académie than have had the weakness to submit to so evident a farce.

On succeeding to a vacant chair it was customary, besides a eulogy upon the deceased member, to speak in set terms of praise of Richelieu and Louis XIV. This traditional and servile practice of the new Academician was the first to break through. Philosophy and literature were treated of in unaccustomed strains of freedom, and his good example has been influential on after generations.

"I was deemed worthy [writes Voltaire] to be one of the forty useless members of the Académie, was appointed Historiographer of France, and created by the King one of the gentlemen in ordinary of his chamber. From this I concluded it was better, in order to make the most trifling fortune, to speak four words to a King's mistress, than to write a hundred volumes."

A sort of experience he has finely illustrated in his romance of Zadig.

Stanislaus, the ex-king of Poland, was keeping his Court at Luneville, not far from Cirey, where he divided his time between his mistress and his confessor. To this royal retreat the friends of Cirey were invited, and the whole year 1749 was passed there. Meanwhile Madame de Châtelet died, and Voltaire, much affected by his loss, returned to Paris. Friedrich redoubled his solicitation with new hope.

"I was destined to run from king to king, although I loved liberty even to idolatry. . . . . He was well assured that in reality his verse and prose were superior to my verse and prose; as to the former, he thought there was a certain something that I, in quality of academician, might give to his writings, and there was no kind of flattery, no seduction, he did not employ to engage me to come."

The philosopher at length set out for Berlin, and his reception must have reached its highest expectations. We have no intention to repeat the account of this singular episode in his life, which has been so often narrated. Evenings of the most agreeable kind, abundance of wit, unrestrained conversation, the society of some of the most distinguished men of science of the time, the unbounded adoration of a royal host, eager, above all things, to retain so brilliant a guest - such were the pleasures of the palace of Alcina, as he calls it. But the imperious tempers of the two unequal friends soon proved the impossibility of a lasting entente, and rivalries amongst the literary courtiers hastened, if they did not effect, the final rupture.

After his escape from Berlin Voltaire passed a few weeks with the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha, "the best of princesses, full of gentle ness, discretion, and equanimity, and who, God be thanked, did not make verses" (alluding to his late host's proclivities), and some days with the Landgrave of Hesse on his way to Frankfort. Literature had not suffered during the life at Berlin. Finishing touches were put to many of the tragedies - the Âge de Louis XIV. was completed, part of the Essai sur les Mœrs et l'Esprit des Nations written, La Pucelle (the least worthy of all his productions) corrected, and a poem, Sur la Loi Naturelle, composed ( a work of far better inspiration than the poem just mentioned, but which was publicly burned at Paris by the misdirected zeal of the bigots). In a later poem on the destruction of Lisbon, as well as in the romance of Candide, fired with indignation at the hypocrisies and mischiefs of the easy-going creed of Optimism (as generally understood), so welcome to self-complacent orthodoxy, he displayed all his vast powers of sarcasm in exposing fatal absurdities. Leibnitz had been one of its most strenuous apologists. In the person of the wretched Pangloss the theory of "the best of all possible worlds," and of the "eternal fitness of things," is overwhelmed, indeed, with an excess of ridicule. It is to be lamented that the satirist allowed his sœva indignatio to overpower a proper sense of the proprieties of language and expression.

Voltaire was now become a potentate more dreaded than a sovereign-prince on his throne, an object of hatred and terror to political and other oppressors. After some hesitation he had chosen from his retreat the ever-memorable Ferney - a place within the French territory, on the borders of Switzerland - and also a spot near Geneva, where he alternately resided, escaping at pleasure either from Catholic intolerance or from Puritanic rigour, with his niece - Madame Denis, who had anxiously attended him during a recent illness. From these retreats he made himself heard over all Europe in defence of reason and humanity. It was about this time (1756) that he employed his eloquence to save Admiral Byng, a victim to ministerial necessities, who was nevertheless condemned , as his advocate expresses it in Candide, "pour encourager les autres." A like philanthropic effort, equally vain, was made on behalf of the still more unfortunate Comte de Lally.

The year 1757 is memorable in literature as that in which he gave to the world an accurate edition of his already published works, enriched by one of his most meritorious productions, the Essai sur les Mœrs et l'Esprit des Nations, which now appeared in its complete form. History, the author justly complained, had hitherto been but a uniform chronicle of kings, courts, and court intrigues. The history of legislation, arts, sciences, commerce, morals, had been always, or almost always, neglected.

"We imagine [says Condorcet], while we red such histories, that the human race was created only to exhibit the political or military talents of a few individuals, and that the object of society is not the happiness of the Species but the pleasure of the Few."

If the best historical works of the present day are a considerable improvement upon those which were in fashion before Voltaire's critiques, the remarks of Condorcet are not altogether inapplicable to the popular and school manuals still in vogue. At all events this style of composing "history," ridiculed by the wit of Lucian sixteen centuries before, was the universal method down to the appearance of the celebrated Essai.

Beginning with Charlemagne, it presents, in a rapid, concise, and philosophic style, the most important and interesting features, not only of European but of the world's history, adorned with all the grace and ease of which he was always so consummate a master. Many there always are who conceive of philosophy and erudition only as enveloped in verbosity and obscurity. Dulness and learning in the common mind are convertible terms. The very transparency and clearness of his style were reproached to him as a sign of superficiality and want of exactness - the last faults which could be justly imputed to him. However, the influence of Voltaire became apparent in the productions of the English historical school, till then unknown, which soon after wards arose. The Italian Vica, and Beaufort, in France, in the particular branch of Roman antiquity, and Bayle in general, had already contributed in some degree towards the founding of a critical school ; but these attempts were partial only. To Voltaire belongs the honour of having applied the principles of criticism at once universally and popularly.

In reviewing the history and manners of the Hindus he repeatedly expresses his sympathy, more or less directly, with their aversion from the coarser living of the West :-

"The Hindus, in embracing the doctrine of the Metémpsychosis, had one restraint the more. The dread of killing a father or a mother, in killing men and other animals, inspired in them a terror of murder and every other violence, which became with them a second nature. Thus all the peoples of India, whose families are not allied either to the Arabs or to the Tartars, are still at this day the mildest of all men. Their religion and the temperature of their climate made these peoples entirely resemble those peaceful animals whom we bring up in our sheep pens and our dove cotes for the purpose of cutting their throats at our good will and pleasure. . . . .

"The Christian religion, which those primitives [the Quakers] alone follow out to the letter, is as great an enemy to bloodshed as the Pythagorean. But the Christian peoples have never practised their religion, and the ancient Hindu castes have always practised theirs. It is because Pythagoreanism is the only religion in the world which has been able to educe a religious feeling from the horror of murder and slaughter. . . .

"Some have supposed the cradle of our race to be Hindustan, alleging that the feeblest of all animals must have been born in the softest climate, and in a land which produces without culture the most nourishing and most healthful fruits, like dates and cocoa nuts. The latter especially easily affords men the means of existence, of clothing and of housing themselves - and of what besides has the inhabitant of that Peninsula need? . . . Our House of Carnage, which they call Butcher-Shops [boucheries], where they sell so many carcasses to feed our own, would import the plague into the climate of India.

"These peoples need and desire pure and refreshing foods. Nature has lavished upon them the forests of citron trees, orange trees, fig trees, palm trees, cocoa-nut trees, and plains covered with rice. The strongest man can need to spend but one or two sous a day for his subsistence. (2) Our workmen spend more in one day than a Malabar native in a month. . . .

"In general, the men of the South-East have received from Nature gentler manners than the people of our West. Their climate disposes them to abstain from strong liquors and from the flesh of animals - foods which excite the blood and often provoke ferocity - and, although superstition and foreign irruptions have corrupted the goodness of their disposition, nevertheless all travellers agree that the character of these peoples had nothing of that irritability, of that caprice, and of that harshness which it has cost much trouble to keep within the bounds in the countries of the North."

In noticing the comparative progress of the various foreign religions in India, Voltaire observes that :-

"The Mohammedan religion alone has made progress in India, especially amongst the richer classes, because it is the religion of the prince, and because it teaches but the divine unity conformably to the ancient teaching of the first Brahmins. Christianity [he adds, only too truly] has not had the same success, notwithstanding the large establishments of the Portuguese, of the French, of the English, of the Dutch, of the Danes. It is, in fact, the conflict of these nations which has injured the progress of our Faith. As they all hate each other, and as several of them often make war one upon the other in their climates, what they teach is naturally hateful to the peaceful inhabitants. Their customs, besides, revolt the Hindus. Those people are scandalised at seeing us drinking wine and eating flesh, which they themselves abhor. (3)

This - one of the chief obstacles to the spread of Christian civilisation in the East, and especially in India, viz., the eating of flesh and the drinking of alcohol, its legitimate attendant - has been acknowledged by Christian missionaries themselves of late years.

Employed as he was in various literary undertakings he had been watching with great interest, not, perhaps without a secret wish for vengeance, the important political and military complications of Europe. After some brilliant successes the Prussian king had been reduced to the last extremity. At this juncture the former friends agreed to forget as far as possible, their old quarrel, and Voltaire enjoyed the satisfaction of having succeeded in dissuading Friedrich from suicide. The victories of Rosbach and Breslau not long after wards changed the condition of things once again. From time to time the prince and the philosopher resumed the name, if not the cordiality, of friends. A curious accident put the arbitrament of peace and war for some weeks into the hands of Voltaire. The Prussian king, while inactive in his fortified camp, wrote, as his custom was, a quantity of verse and sent the packet to Ferney. Amongst the mass - good, bad, and indifferent - was a satire on Louis and his mistress. The packet had been opened before reaching its destination.

"Had I been inclined to to amuse myself, it depended only on me to set the King of France and the King of Prussia to war in rhyme, which would have been a novel farce on earth. But I enjoyed another pleasure - that of being more prudent than Frederich. I wrote him word that his Ode was beautiful, but that he ought not to publish it. . . . To make the pleasantry complete I thought it possible to lay the foundation of the peace of Europe on these poetical pieces. My correspondence with the Duc de Choiseul [the French premier] gave birth to that idea; and it appeared so ridiculous, so worthy the transactions of the times, that I indulged it, and had myself the satisfaction of proving on what weak and invisible pivots the destinies of nations turn."

Several letters passed between the three before the danger was averted.

The limited space at our disposal will allow us only rapidly to notice some of the remaining chefs-d'œvre of Voltaire. The celebrated Encyclopédie, under the auspices of D'Alembert and Diderot, had been lately commended. To this great work, to which he looked with some hope as promising a severe assault on ignorance and prejudice, Voltaire contributes a few articles. It is not the place here to narrate the history of the fierce was of words to which the Encyclopédie gave birth. It was completed in about fifteen years, in 1775 - a memorable year in literature.

"Several men of letters [thus Voltaire briefly describes the project], most estimable by their learning and character, formed an association to compose an immense Dictionary of whatever could enlighten the human mind, and it became an object of commerce with the booksellers. The Chancellor, the Ministry, all encouraged so noble an enterprise. Seven volumes had already appeared, and were translated into English, German, Dutch and Italian. This treasure, opened by the French to all nations, may be considered as what did us most honour at the time, so much were the excellent articles in the Encyclopédie superior to the bad, which were tolerably numerous. One had little to complain of in the work, except too many puerile declamations unfortunately adopted by the editors, who seized whatever came to hand to swell the work. But all which those authors wrote themselves was good."

The article which was particularly selected by the prosecution was that on the Soul, "one of the worst in the work, written by a poor doctor of the Sorbonne, who killed himself with declaiming, rightly or wrongly, against materialism." The writers, as "encyclopédistes" and "philosophers" were long marked by those titles for the public opprobrium. This general persecution had the effect of uniting that party for common defence. For Voltaire himself an important advantage was secured. Most of the principal men of letters and science, up to this time either avowed enemies or coldly-distant friends, henceforward enrolled themselves under his undisputed friendship.

About the same period he published a number of pieces, prose and verse, directed against his enemies of various kinds, theatrical as well as theological. Amongst the latter, conspicuous by their attacks, but still more so by their punishment, were Fréron and Desfontaines, whose chastisement was such that, according to Macaulay's hyperbolic expression, "scourging, branding, pillorying would have been a trifle to it." It is more pleasing, however, to turn from this fierce war of retaliation, in which neither party was free from blame, to proofs of the real benevolence of his disposition. We can merely note the strenuous efforts he made, unsolicited, on behalf of Admiral Byng and the Comte de Lally, and the still more meritorious labours in the less well-known histories of Calas and Serven. Not by these public acts alone did the man, who has been accused of malignity, discover the humanity of his character: to whose ready assistance in money, as well as in counsel, the unfortunate of the literary tribe and others acknowledged their obligations.

His Philosophie de l'Histoire, the prototype of its successors in name at least, was designed to expose the long-established and prevailing idolatry of Antiquity, which received everything bequeathed by it with astounding credulity. The Philosophie called forth a numerous host of small critics, to which men who knew, or ought to have known better, allied themselves. Their curious way of maintaining the credit of Antiquity afforded, as may be imagined, the author of the Defence of my Uncle, under which title Voltaire chose to defend himself, full scope for the exercise of his unrivalled powers of irony. Warburton, the pedant Bishop of Gloucester, with his odd theories about the £Divine Legation," comes in for a share of this Dunciad sort of immortalisation.

A work of equal merit with the Philosophie are the Questions addressed to the lovers of science, upon the Encyclopœdia, wherein, in the form of a dictionary, he treats, as the Marquis de Condorcet eloquently describes,

"Successively of theology, grammar, natural philosophy, and literature. At one time he discusses subjects of Antiquity; at another questions of policy, legislation, and public economy. His style, always animated and seductive, clothed these various subjects with a charm hitherto known to himself alone, and which spring chiefly from the licence with which, yielding to his successive emotions, adapting his style, less to his subject than to the momentary disposition of his mind, sometimes he spreads ridicule over objects which seem capable of inspiring only horror, and almost instantaneously hurried away by the energy and sensibility of his soul, he vehemently and eloquently exclaims against abuses which he had just before treated with mockery. His anger is excited by false taste; he quickly perceives that his indignation ought to be reserved for interests more important, and he finishes by laughing in his usual way. Sometimes he abruptly leaves a moral or political discussion for a literary criticism, and in the midst of a lesson on taste he pronounces abstract maxims of the profoundest philosophy, or makes a sudden and terrible attack on fanaticism and tyranny."

It is with his romances that we are here chiefly concerned, since it is in these lighter productions of his genius that he has most especially allowed us to see his opinions upon flesh-eating. In the charming tale of The Princess of Babylon, her attendant Phœnix thus accounts to his mistress for the silence of his brethren of the inferior races :-

"It is because men have fell into the practice of eating us in place of holding converse with and being instructed by us. The barbarians ! Ought they not to have convinced themselves that having the same organs as they, the same power of feeling, the same wants, the same desires, we have what they call soul, as well as themselves, that we are their brethren, and that only the wicked deserve to be cooked and eaten?. We are to such a degree your brethren that the Great Being, the Eternal and Creative Being, having made a covenant with men, (4) expressly comprised us in the treaty. He forbad you to feed yourselves upon our blood, and us to suck yours. The fables of your Lokman, translated into so many languages, will be an everlasting witness of the happy commerce which you formerly had with us. It is true that there are many women among you who are always talking to their Dogs, but they have resolved never to make any answer, from the time that they were forced by blows of the whip to go hunting and to be the accomplices in the murder of our old common friends, the Deer and the Hares and the Partridges. You still have some old poems in which Horses talk, and your coachmen address them every day, but with so much grossness and coarseness and with such infamous words, that Horses, who once loved you now detest you. . . . . The shepherds of the Ganges, born all equal, are owners of in numerable flocks who feed in meadows that are perpetually covered with flowers. They are never slaughtered there. It is a horrible crime in the country of the Ganges to kill and eat one fellows [semblables]. Their wool, finer and more brilliant than the most beautiful silk, is the greatest object of commerce in the Orient."

A certain king had the temerity to attack this innocent people :-

"The king was taken prisoner, with more than 600,000 men. They bathed him in the waters of the Ganges; they put him on the salutary regimé of the country, which consists in vegetables, which are lavished by Nature for the support of all human beings. Men, fed upon carnage and drinking strong drinks, have all an empoisoned and acrid blood, which drives them mad in a hundred different ways. Their principle madness, is that of shedding the blood of their brothers, and devastating fertile plains to reign over cemeteries.

Her admirable instructor caused the princess to enter

"A dining-hall, whose walls were covered with orange-wood. The under-shepherds and shepherdesses, in long white dresses, girded with golden bands, served her in a hundred baskets of simple porcelain, with a hundred delicious meats, among which was seen no disguised corpse. The feast was of rice, of sago, of semolina, of vermicelli, of maccaroni, of omelets, of eggs in milk, of cream-cheese, of pastries of every kind, of vegetables, of fruits of perfume and taste of which one has no idea in other climates, and a profusion of refreshing drinks, superior to the best wines."

Having occasion to visit the land par exellence of flesh-eaters, and being entertained at the house of a certain English lord, the hero, the amiable lover of the princess, is questioned by his host

"Whether they ate 'good roast beef' in the country of the people of the Ganges.The Vegetarian traveller replied to him with his accustomed politeness that they did not eat their brethren in that part of the world. He explained to him the system and diet which was that of Pythagoras, of Porphyry, of Iamblichus; whereupon milord went of into a sound slumber." (5)

Amabed, a young Hindu, writes from Europe to his affianced mistress his impressions of the Christian sacred books and, in particular, of early Christian carnivorousness :-

"I pity those unfortunates of Europe who have, at the most, been created only 6,940 years; while our era reckons 115,652 years [the Brahminical computation]. I pity them more for wanting pepper, the sugar-cane, and tea, coffee, silk, cotton, incense, aromatics, and everything that can render life pleasing. But I pity them still more for coming from so great a distance, among so many perils, to ravish from us, arms in hand, our provisions. It is said at Calicut they have committed frightful cruelties only to procure pepper. It makes the Hindu nature, which is in every way different from theirs, shudder; their stomachs are carnivorous, they get drunk on the fermented juices of the vine, which was planted, they say, by their Noah. Father Fa-Tutto [one of the missionaries], polished as he is, has himself cut the throats of two little chickens; he has caused them to be boiled in a cauldron, and has devoured them without pity. This barbarous action has drawn upon him the hatred of all the neighbourhood, whose anger we have appeased only with much difficulty. May God pardon me! I believe this stranger would have eaten our sacred Cows, who give us milk, if he had been allowed to do so. A promise has been extorted from him that he will commit no more murders of Hens, and that he will content himself with fresh eggs, milk, rice, and our excellent fruits and vegetables - pistachio nuts, dates, cocoa nuts, almond cakes, biscuits, bananas, oranges, and with everything which our climate produces, blessed be the eternal!"

In another letter to his old Hindu teacher from Rome, whither he had been induced to go by the missionaries, speaking of the feasts in that "citadel of the faith," he writes :-

"The dining-hall was grand, convenient, and richly ornamented. Gold and silver shone upon the sideboards. Gaiety and wit animated the guests. But, meantime, in the kitchens blood and fat were streaming in one horrible mass; skins of quadrupeds, feathers of birds and their entrails, piled up pell-mell, oppressed the heart, and spread infection of fevers." (6)

That one who hated and denounced injustice of all kinds, and who sympathised with the suffering of all innocent life, should thus characterise the cruelty of the Slaughter-House is what we might naturally look for; as also that he should denounce the kindred and even worse atrocity of the physiological Laboratory. And it is a strange and unaccountable fact that, amongst the humanitarians of his time, he stands apparently alone in condemnation of the secret tortures of the vivisectionists and pathologists - although, perhaps, the almost universal silence may be attributable, in part, to the very secrecy of the experiments which only recent vigilance has fully detected. Exposing the equally absurd and arrogant denial of reason and intelligence to other animals, an instancing the dog, he proceeds :-

"There are barbarians who seize this dog, who so prodigiously surpasses man in friendship, and nail him down to a table, and dissect alive, to shew you the mezeraic veins.You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, Machinist [i.e., supporter of the theory of mere mechanical action], has Nature really arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal, to the end that he might not feel? Has he nerves that he may be incapable of suffering? Do not suppose that impertinent contradiction in Nature." (7)

To the final triumph which in Paris awaited this champion of the weak, at the advanced age of 84, and the unexampled enthusiasm of the people, and the closing act of his eventful life, we can here merely refer. In Berlin, Friedrich ordered a solemn mass in the cathedral church in commemoration of of his genius and virtues. A more enduring monument than any conventional mark of human vanity is the legacy which he left to posterity, which will last as long as the French language, and, still more, the humanity embodied in one of his later verses :-

"J'ai fait un peu bien, c'est mon meilleur ouvrage."

The faults of his character and writings which, for the most part, lie on the surface (one of the most regrettable of which was his sometimes servile flattery of men in power, and the only excuse for which was his eagerness to gain them over to moderation and justice) will be deemed by impartial criticism to have been more than counterbalanced by his real and substantial merits. That he allowed his ardent indignation to overmaster the sense of propriety in too many instances, in dealing with subjects which ought to be dealt with in a judicial and serious manner, is that fault in his writings which must always cause the greatest regret. In his discourse at his reception by the French Academy he remarks that "the art of instruction, when it is perfect, in the long run, succeeds better than the art of sarcasm, because Satire dies with those who are the victims of it; while Reason and Virtue are eternal." It would have been well, in many instances had he practised this principle. But, however objectionably his convictions were sometimes expressed, his ardent love of truth and hatred of injustice have secured for him an imperishable fame; while Göthe's estimate of his intellectual pre-eminence - that he has the greatest name in all Literature - is not likely soon to be disputed by Posterity.



    1. Elémens de la Philosophie de Newton, v. Haller, the founder of modern physiology, assures us that "Newton, while he was engaged upon his Optics, lived almost entirely on bread, and wine, and water" (Newtonus, dum Optica scribebat, solo pœmé et aqua vixit). - Elements of Physiology, vi., 198
    2. A fact which brings out into strong relief the entirely superfluous luxuries of living of the English residents.
    3. Essai sur les Mœrs et l'Esprit des Nations, introduction section xvi., and chap. iii and iv.
    4. See Gen. ix. and Ecclesiastes iii., 18, 19. - Note by Voltaire
    5. See Lettres d'Amabed à Shastasid. See also article Viande in the Dictionaire Philosophique.
    6. La Princesse de Babylone. Cf. Dialogue du Chapon et de la Poularde.
    7. See article Bêtes in the Dict. Phil.


Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index