Voltaire and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.

Voltaire’s three birthdays and a feast day

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b103027821/f1.item.r=église%20saint%20andré%20des%20arts

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source: Gallica.

In November 1694, François-Marie Arouet, later to make his name as Voltaire, was christened at the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts in Paris – and there any certainty surrounding his earliest life ends.[1]

The official version, based on a now lost parish register, is that he was born the day before his christening, in Paris, to Marie-Marguerite and François Arouet. The dates of his birth and christening are usually given as 21 and 22 November 1694.[2] When the young François-Marie was arrested in May 1717 for writing verse against the regent, he stated that he was twenty-two, from Paris, and that his father was ‘payeur de M. de la chambre des comptes’.[3] Voltaire signed at least three official documents between 1749 and 1776 which give his date of birth as 21 November.[4]

An alternative story is that Voltaire was born nine months earlier, on 20 February 1694, at Châtenay outside Paris, the illegitimate son of Marie-Marguerite and a certain Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Voltaire had a clear preference for this less mundane version of events, except that he himself does not ever seem to have claimed to have been born anywhere but Paris. His letters to Antoine Deparcieux of 17 June 1768 or to his very close friend d’Argental of 18 May 1774 refer to Paris as the town where he was born. In his 1769 Epître à Boileau he states that he was born near the Palace of justice.[5] It was Condorcet, in his 1789 biography for the Kehl edition, who first named Châtenay as Voltaire’s place of birth. Voltaire’s earlier biographer, Duvernet, merely stated that he was not born in the parish of Saint-André-des-Arts. Whether or not Voltaire was born in Châtenay, where Arouet senior later bought a house, he certainly lived there in 1718 after leaving the Bastille and being banished from Paris, and it was here that he first signed a letter ‘Arouet de Voltaire’.

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105194234/f1.item

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source: Gallica.

The same building on Google maps. The words words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Source: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@48.7663855,2.2793327,3a,60y,163.07h,84.58t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skRIGFHN1JFI9tqw7n9kq-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

The same building today. The words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Visit Châtenay with Google maps.

Very little is known about Voltaire’s putative father. Rochebrune is described as a ‘chansonnier’ (song-writer), socialising around 1710 with the literati of the day.[6] Voltaire refers to himself as ‘Rochebrune’s bastard’ in a 1744 letter to his old friend the duc de Richelieu.[7] In the summer of 1753, when he was suffering from ‘dropsy’, he told his niece Mme Denis in two separate letters that he could remember Rochebrune in the same state, unable to even write a song, that Rochebrune died of dropsy and that he himself has reason to believe that he took after him.[8] A second-hand report of a conversation between Voltaire and his nieces in front of ‘one or two guests’ in 1756 has him asserting that D’Alembert must be Fontenelle’s son as surely as he himself is Rochebrune’s.[9] When his nieces protest, Voltaire retorts that ‘it did more honour to his mother that she had preferred a man of wit such as Roquebrune, a musketeer, officer and author’, to her husband, ‘who was a very ordinary man’.

Published in 1776, two years before Voltaire’s death, the autobiographical (though written in the third person) Commentaire historique does not touch upon his possible illegitimacy, but does give two possible dates of birth, without settling for either: ‘Some maintain that François de Voltaire was born on 20 February 1694; others that it was on 20 November that same year [i.e. a day earlier than generally assumed]. We have medals of him that bear both dates; he told me several times that when he was born no-one thought he would live; and that having been given a private emergency baptism, the ceremony of his baptism was deferred by several months’. In manuscript notes to various copies of the Commentaire historique, Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière claims to have seen an ‘extrait de baptême’ recording Voltaire’s birth on 20 November and his christening on 21 November.[10]

Waechter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F._M._Voltaire,_France,_1770,_G._C._Waechter_-_National_Museum_of_Finland_-_DSC04062.JPG

Wächter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source: Wikimedia commons.

The medals referred to must be the ones designed by Georg Christoph Wächter in 1769 and 1770. Interestingly, there is no mention in the correspondence of a wrong date of birth on the earlier medal (I am still searching for an example of it). The second version certainly gives Voltaire’s preferred date of 20 February 1694.

However, Voltaire did write at least seven letters between 1765 and 1768 bemoaning a print portrait that gave his date of birth as 20 November 1694. On 20 February 1765 he wrote to his friend Damilaville: ‘Today I am entering my seventy-second year, for I was born in 1694, on 20 February and not on 20 November as ill-informed commentators like to say’. He wrote in similar terms to to his former secretary Collini that same day and to the duc de Richelieu a week later. He repeated this claim to Damilaville on 10 May: ‘There is, they say, an engraving after the bust by Lemoine, that looked fairly like me a few years ago. It can be found at Joulin’s, quai de la Mégisserie; it is true that the print lies a bit; it has me being born on 20 November 1694 and I was born on 20 February’; and again on 20 February 1767. It was the duc de La Vallière’s turn the next day and D’Alembert on 23 March 1768. Unfortunately, as with the Wächter medals, I have been unable to find a version of this engraving giving Voltaire’s date of birth as 20 November 1694. Perhaps a kind reader will point me in the right direction…


‘François, Marie, Arouet, de Voltaire. Né a Paris le 21 Novembre 1694. Gravé par Aug. St Aubin d’après le buste fait par J. B. Lemoyne. Se vend à Paris Chez Joulain Quai de la Megisserie.’ Did an earlier version give the date 20 November?

On 1 January 1777, Voltaire was still railing against his official date of birth, this time to d’Argental: ‘Were it true according to a damned baptismal certificate that I was born in 1694 in November, you would still have to grant me that I am in my eighty-third year’.

Faced with such a profusion of dates, one could do worse than pick a completely different one on which to celebrate Voltaire. Nick Treuherz has already written on this blog about a short poem penned for Voltaire’s feast day, ‘la saint-François’, on 4 October 1767. The Correspondance littéraire described the celebrations: poems, plays, fireworks, dinner and a ball at which the patriarch reportedly danced until two in the morning.

– Alice

[1] This blog post is deeply indebted to the great biography Voltaire en son temps in which anyone interested in this subject can find further information.

[2] This date of birth is frequently accepted without question. See for example the OUP blog post on ‘Voltaire’s love letters’.

[3] See ‘Interrogatoire du sr Harrouet fils prisonnnier à la Bastille 21 may 1717’, published as an appendix to Theodore Besterman’s edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (D.app.5.III).

[4] ‘Voltaire buys annuities on the tobacco monopoly, 1749’ (D.app.94); ‘Voltaire gives a power of attorney, September 1773’ (D.app.385.IV); and ‘Voltaire and Wagnière given certificats de vie, October-November 1776’ (D.app.475).

[5] ‘Dans la cour du palais, je naquis ton voisin’ (OCV, vol.70A, p.210).

[6] In the 1738 Vie de Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Rousseau: ‘Il y avait alors à Paris un café assez fameux, où s’assemblaient plusieurs amateurs des belles-lettres, des philosophes, des musiciens, des peintres, des poètes. M. de Fontenelle y venait quelquefois, M. de La Motte, M. Saurin, fameux géomètre, M. Danchet, poète assez méprisé, mais d’ailleurs homme de lettres et honnête homme, l’abbé Alazy, fils d’un fameux apothicaire, garçon fort savant, M. Boindin, procureur général des Trésoriers de France, M. de La Faye, capitaine aux gardes, de l’Académie des sciences; M. son frère, mort secrétaire du cabinet, homme délié et qui faisait de jolis vers, le sieur Roy, depuis chassé de l’Académie des inscriptions et du Châtelet, où il était conseiller, mais qui avait quelques talents pour les ballets, le sieur de Rochebrune, qui faisait des chansons; enfin plusieurs lettrés s’y rendaient tous les jours. Là, on examinait avec beaucoup de sévérité, et quelquefois avec des railleries fort amères, tous les ouvrages nouveaux. ¶On faisait des épigrammes, des chansons fort jolies. C’était une école d’esprit, dans laquelle il y avait un peu de licence’ (OCV, vol.18A, p.38-39).

[7] ‘Je crains bien qu’en cherchant de l’esprit et des traits, / Le bâtard de Rochebrune / Ne fatigue et n’importune / Le successeur d’Armand et les esprits bien faits’ (Voltaire to the duc de Richelieu, 8 June 1744). Curiously, Richelieu seems also to have thought himself illegitimate. See Voltaire’s letter to Mme de Fontaine of 8 January 1756, and his letters to Richelieu of 10 October and 3 December 1769.

[8] Letters of 15 July 1753 and 11 August 1753. Twenty-five years later, at the end of his life, Voltaire was still describing dropsy as a family illness. See his letter to Théodore Trochin of 27 February 1778.

[9] Letter from Jean Louis Dupan to Suzanne Catherine Freudenreich of 15 August 1756.

[10] To be published in OCV, vol.78B.