We are intelligent beings; and intelligent beings can not have been formed by a blind, brute, insensible being. There is certainly some difference between a clod and the ideas of Newton. Newton’s intelligence came from some greater Intelligence.
—The Philosophical Dictionary
The man, Francois Marie Arouet, known to us as Voltaire (which name he adopted in his twenty-first year), was born in Paris in Sixteen Hundred Ninety-four. He was the second son in a family of three children. During his babyhood he was very frail; in childhood sickly and weak; and throughout his whole life he suffered much from indigestion and insomnia.
In all the realm of writers no man ever had a fuller and more active career, touching life at so many points, than Voltaire.
The first requisite in a long and useful career would seem to be, have yourself born weak and cultivate dyspepsia, nervousness and insomnia. Whether or not the good die young is still a mooted question, but certainly the athletic often do. All those good men and true, who at grocery, tavern and railroad-station eat hard-boiled eggs on a wager, and lift barrels of flour with one hand, are carried to early graves, and over the grass-grown mounds that cover their dust, consumptive, dyspeptic and neurotic relatives, for twice or thrice a score of years, strew sweet myrtle, thyme and mignonette.
Voltaire died of an accident–too much Four-o’Clock–cut off in his prime, when life for him was at its brightest and best, aged eighty-three.
The only evidence we have that the mind of Voltaire failed at the last came from the Abbe Gaultier and the Cure of Saint Sulpice. These good men arrived with a written retraction, which they desired Voltaire to sign. Waiting in the anteroom of the sick-chamber they sent in word that they wished to enter. “Assure them of my respect,” said the stricken man. But the holy men were not to be thus turned away, so they entered. They approached the bedside, and the Cure of Saint Sulpice said: “M. de Voltaire, your life is about to end. Do you acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ?”
And the dying man stretched out a bony hand, making a gesture that they should depart, and murmured, “Let me die in peace.”
“You see,” said the Cure to the Abbe, as they withdrew, “you see that he is out of his head!”
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The father of Voltaire, Francois Arouet, was a notary who looked after various family estates and waxed prosperous on the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.
He was solicitor to the Duc de Richelieu, the Sullys, and also the Duchesse de Saint-Simon, mother of the philosopher, Saint-Simon, who made the mistake of helping Auguste Comte, thus getting himself hotly and positively denounced by the man who formulated the “Positive Philosophy.”
Arouet belonged to the middle class and never knew that he sprang from a noble line until his son announced the fact. It was then too late to deny it.
He was a devout Churchman, upright in all his affairs, respectable, took snuff, walked with a waddle and cultivated a double chin. M. Arouet pater did not marry until his mind was mature, so that he might avoid the danger of a mismating. He was forty, past. The second son, Francois fils, was ten years younger than his brother Armand, so the father was over fifty when our hero was born. Francois fils used to speak of himself as an afterthought–a sort of domestic postscript–“but,” added he musingly, “our afterthoughts are often best.”
One of the most distinguished clients of M. Arouet was Ninon de Lenclos, who had the felicity to be made love to by three generations of Frenchmen. Ninon has been likened for her vivacious ways, her flashing intellect, and her perennial youth, to the divine Sara, who at sixty plays the part of Juliet with a woman of thirty for the old nurse. Ninon had turned her three-score and ten, and swung gracefully into the home-stretch, when the second son was born to M. Arouet. She was of a deeply religious turn of mind, for she had been loved by several priests, and now the Abbe de Chateauneuf was paying his devotions to her.