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.


Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits des Lumières

Dans le cadre superbe de l’hôtel de Lauzun, l’Institut d’études avancées de Paris a accueilli le 26 mai 2014 une journée d’étude destinée à faire le point sur certaines des découvertes récentes dans la recherche sur les manuscrits du Siècle des Lumières. Depuis quelques années, l’actualité attire l’attention sur certains manuscrits mythiques, comme celui d’Histoire de ma vie de Casanova qui a rejoint les collections publiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France en 2010 grâce à un mécène, ou bien tout récemment, le rouleau des 120 journées de Sodome de Sade enfin de retour à Paris, pour y être exposé à l’automne au Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits.


Le manuscrit des 120 journées de Sodome

Les salles de vente bruissent des papiers des écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: ceux d’Emilie du Châtelet sont passés il y a peu aux enchères ainsi que dernièrement ceux de Portalis, l’un des auteurs du Code civil, dont la Cour de Cassation a réussi à acquérir le dossier génétique complet d’une de ses œuvres, la Consultation sur la validité des mariages protestants de France, qui comprend une copie au net annotée de la main de Voltaire.

Tandis que les manuscrits sortent des coffres et s’exposent derrière des vitrines ou sur des écrans numériques, de leur côté les chercheurs se lancent dans leur patiente analyse. Ce fut le but de cette journée, organisée par Nicholas Cronk, Nathalie Ferrand et Andrew Jainchill en collaboration avec l’équipe Ecritures du XVIIIe siècle de l’Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, de montrer tout l’intérêt, pour la compréhension et l’interprétation des œuvres, de l’étude de leurs états préparatoires et remaniés.

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

Ouvrant la matinée avec une intervention consacrée au marquis d’Argenson, Andrew Jainchill (Queen’s University, IEA) a présenté quatre états manuscrits de ses Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, l’une des critiques les plus vives de la monarchie française au XVIIIe siècle – citée plusieurs fois dans le Contrat Social – dont il put interpréter l’évolution en fonction des additions de l’auteur dans ses différentes versions.

Après la théorie politique, c’est la philosophie naturelle de Mme du Châtelet qui fut l’objet d’une étude menée par Karen Detlefsen (U. of Pennsylvania) et Andrew Janiak (Duke U.), à partir d’une comparaison des manuscrits de ses Institutions de physique conservés à Paris et à Saint-Pétersbourg. Dans l’après-midi, Nicholas Cronk (U. of Oxford, IEA) a présenté les dernières découvertes dans le domaine voltairien, et a montré à quel point la recherche des manuscrits est féconde – y compris pour des auteurs canoniques comme Voltaire dont on croit tout savoir –, puisqu’on continue de découvrir de nouveaux manuscrits qui renouvellent les connaissances établies.

Au plus près du papier et des instruments d’écriture des auteurs, Claire Bustarret (CNRS-EHESS) a ensuite présenté les apports de la codicologie pour déterminer les campagnes d’écriture au sein de corpus manuscrits imposants, comme dans le cas des papiers de Condorcet. La journée s’est achevée par une intervention de Nathalie Ferrand (CNRS-ENS) sur l’importance croissante accordée aux manuscrits d’auteurs au sein des études dix-huitiémistes et sur le rôle qu’ont pu jouer les manuscrits des Lumières dans l’émergence progressive de la critique génétique au cours du XXe siècle, concluant par l’interprétation génétique d’une page de La Nouvelle Héloïse que Rousseau récrit en puisant au lyrisme du Tasse.

– Nathalie Ferrand, Ecole normale supérieure-CNRS

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Pangloss, Guru of Positive Thinking: Candide at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Candide new imageMark Ravenhill is now in his second year as Writer in Residence at the RSC. His latest play, Candide, ‘inspired by Voltaire’, is currently in rehearsal and opens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford on 29 August, where it will run until 26 October. The play is directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the advance publicity warns that the performances will include ‘strong language, violence and reckless optimism’. Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, went to watch an early rehearsal and talk to Mark Ravenhill.

Candide REH-114

Candide in rehearsal

Nicholas Cronk: The RSC invited you to write a new play on any subject: what made you choose Candide?

Mark Ravenhill: Candide is one of those books I read when I was young and that I come back to regularly. It’s a book that makes me laugh and think – it would be very hard to like someone who didn’t enjoy Candide! Also, everyone thinks they know Candide – you hear people described as ‘Panglossian’. So if Candide appears on a poster, it feels familiar.

NC: Candide has often been rewritten as a narrative, for example George Bernard Shaw’s Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (1932), but less often successfully reworked for the stage – with the notable exception of Bernstein’s Candide. What are the challenges of rethinking this work for the stage?

MR: There is a remarkable nimbleness of style, a balancing act of tone, in Voltaire, which is hard to bring off on stage. When you speak the words out loud, the effect is very different from when you read them. So one needs to do something new with a stage performance, not simply ‘tell the story’. When I was asked by the RSC to write a new play, I was already thinking about ideas of happiness and optimism in modern society. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009) [in the USA the book is called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America]. She talks about the happiness industry, the rise of medication to make us happy and of self-help books, and the influence of all this on religion. In many ways religion has become another form of self-help. We all suffer from over-exposure to positive thinking.

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

NC: I like the idea of Voltaire as agony aunt. There is a novel by Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire (2004), in which the ghost of Voltaire turns up to sort out the problems of a modern-day American family living in Geneva…: this is Voltaire as the inventor of the self-help manual.

MR: In the business world, the idea of positive thinking is absolutely entrenched. The financial crisis happened because no-one could actually say out loud how bad things were…

NC: Voltaire’s novel makes fun of Pangloss and the Leibnizian idea that evil doesn’t really exist. And you feel we are living in a culture that can’t face up to the existence of evil? that makes Panglosses of us all?

MR: We are now so far advanced in our denial of evil that we want to rationalise it away. Twenty years ago, when you bumped into someone and asked how they were, they would say, ‘Mustn’t grumble’ or ‘Getting by’: now they feel obliged to say ‘Just great!’. In both cases, the reply is just a social nicety, but the framework has changed, it’s as if it’s become a social duty to express happiness. Optimism and happiness are not the same thing, but they are becoming interchangeable, and it seemed to me that Voltaire’s Candide gave me a way into something important happening in modern-day culture.

NC: Are there other ways in which the text has contemporary echoes for you?

MR: Rereading Candide, I was struck by the link between optimism and the optimal, the idea that we have been placed in this optimal world rather than some other. Voltaire’s novel offers us parallel universes, the possibility of entering into alternative worlds existing side by side, and this is something quite modern. Nested narratives and parallel universes are popular at the moment in many different art forms.

NC: Candide itself is a very self-referential text, full of spoofs of other fictions. When Candide is driven crazy by his love for Cunégonde, he rushes round carving her name on the bark of trees, like a character in a Shakespearean comedy…

MR: Yes, even within single sentences, there are sudden changes of register. And when the travellers go to Venice, they see a play by Voltaire! This is a novel which has narratives within narratives, such as when Cunégonde recounts her story.

NC: And these nested narratives and parallel universes shape your new play?

Candide in rehearsal

Candide in rehearsal

MR: I have not chosen to create a linear story, but a series of different narratives: in the end there are five plays that almost, but don’t quite, add up to one play…  I start with the story of Candide, being performed as a play within a play, to bring the audience up to speed with the story. Each scene exists in a different universe and moves between different genres. The fourth scene invites us to join Candide in Eldorado and explores life as it could ideally be: this is proto sci-fi, rather like what happens in Gulliver’s Travels. And in the fifth and final scene, we move slightly into the future, as Pangloss finds success as the purveyor of optimism.

NC: How easy is it to stage contemporary characters engaging in philosophical debate?

MR: Theatre within theatre, when characters sees themselves on stage, always raises philosophical questions of choice and free will. And then there is the question of language. Although the play is not written in strict verse form, there is an underlying beat of rhyming couplets, with echoes of Pope and the tradition of eighteenth-century philosophical verse.

NC: For members of the audience who would like a refresher course in Candide before the first night, you have produced a special new version of Voltaire’s novel?

MR: Yes, I have adapted the whole book into tweets of 140 characters, and these are being sent out daily, at the rate of eight tweets per day [from 26 June to 29 August: @TweetCandide].

NC: It tells us something remarkable about Voltaire’s style that his novel lends itself so well to this exercise. You have invented a completely new way of translating Candide: I hope one day we can publish it on the website of the Voltaire Foundation!

MR: Yes, translating Candide into tweets has really deepened my appreciation of his writing – it wouldn’t work so well with nineteenth-century authors. Every single sentence in Voltaire seems to advance the story, and yet stand alone as a sound-bite.




Claire Trévien discussed in an earlier post the Candide iPad app which the Voltaire Foundation has produced in association with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and Orange. There have been over 7000 downloads since January, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take a look – it’s beautiful and free!

At the core of the app is René Pomeau’s critical edition of Candide published by the Voltaire Foundation (OCV, volume 48), but lots more has been added. A guiding idea behind the project was to make the text accessible to teenage readers (for example, by supplying a parallel set of annotations aimed specifically at that group), and to judge by the tweeted and blogged responses, it is succeeding. In what is certainly the best (and shortest) review ever given to a VF publication, one French fan has written that the app is “bien foutue”.

But the app is interesting to readers at all stages. You can listen to Candide as well as read it, and the actor Denis Podalydès gives a beautifully clear and cool reading. It’s great to discover the music of Voltaire’s prose: I find that hearing the text read aloud brings out nuances of humour and irony that I’ve missed in silent reading.

Another special feature of the app are the images of the La Vallière manuscript, which dates from 1758, the year before Candide was published. This manuscript has been well known since the 1950s, when it was discovered by Ira Wade, and for this app, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal has made new high-resolution images. It is possible to study in a split screen images of the manuscript alongside the subsequent published version of the text, or to look at the manuscript on a full screen and even to enlarge any part of it.

The quality of the images is amazing: as you enlarge them, you can almost feel the secretary Wagnière writing as Voltaire dictated, and you can experience in close-up the moments when Voltaire in his own hand intervenes or corrects his secretary’s draft. In Chapter 1, we remember how Pangloss is introduced, as a teacher of “la métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie”. In the manuscript, we can see how Voltaire first tried “métaphisico-theolo-cosmolo-méologie”, then changed the last word to “mattologie” – here you can actually catch Voltaire in the process of inventing a new word. In Chapter 4, Candide recalls his love for Cunégonde: “il ne m’a jamais valu qu’un baiser et vingt coups de pied au cul”… When you look at the manuscript, you can see how the words “dans le cu” are added, in Voltaire’s own hand, as an afterthought, squeezed into the right-hand margin. Of course all this information is in the apparatus of the VF edition, but no description, however accurate, quite replaces the experience of looking at the original manucript. Digital images of this quality give us a vivid sense of spying on Voltaire while he is writing.

Nicholas Cronk, Director