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Voltaire and the philosophes: 1726-1778

Though born within the 17th century, in 1694, Voltaire becomes - after a long life and a multifaceted career - the characteristic voice of the French 18th century. His early successes reveal an ambition to outdo literary giants of the past. When his tragedy Oedipe is a great success, in 1718, he is hailed as the new Racine. His Henriade of 1723, an epic poem in praise of Henry IV, is a conscious attempt to become France's Virgil. But his lasting fame derives from his attack on the abuses of the present and his vision of a more rational future.

In this respect his exile from France in 1726, after a quarrel with a powerful nobleman, proves something of a turning point.

Voltaire travels to England, where he is struck by a matter-of-fact frame of mind very different from the attitudes of France. In religion this results in Deism, an offshoot of the reasonable philosophy of John Locke; in social and political terms it seems to be expressed in a mercantile economy more open to new ideas and more capable of innovation than the feudal structures surviving in France.

Voltaire is able to return to France in 1728. In 1733 he publishes in English, and in 1734 in French, his Lettres Philosophiques - twenty-four letters praising English religion, institutions and even literature as a means, primarily, of attacking the French equivalents.

The book provokes outrage and a warrant is issued for Voltaire's arrest - which he avoids only by escaping to the countryside. For the rest of his life, filled though it is with immensely varied literary activity, he is engaged in a crusade to reform the abuses of the French establishment (or the system which later becomes known as the ancien régime). Of these abuses he finds the influence of the Roman Catholic church, and in particular of the Jesuits, to be the most infamous. Écrasez l'infame ('crush the infamous') is his battle cry.

In this campaign for reason against superstition, and for justice against privilege, Voltaire is joined by a younger generation. Together they become known as the philosophes.

The greatest achievement of the philosophes is the Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and published in 28 volumes (17 of text, 11 of plates) between 1751 and 1772. This enterprise is originally inspired by Chambers' Cyclopedia, published in two volumes in London in 1728, but it far outdoes its model in scope and ambition.

The Encyclopédie aims to be nothing less than a rational statement of contemporary knowledge and belief. It can be seen as the definitive statement of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Jesuit influence twice halts publication, but the project is successfully completed and acquires great influence - being often pointed to subsequently as an important part of the build-up to the French Revolution.

During the years when the Encyclopédie is being published a powerfully irrational event occurs. In 1755 an earthquake destroys much of Lisbon, killing many thousands. The disaster seems to mock the optimism which characterizes the rational 18th century. It prompts Voltaire to write the short satirical book, Candide (1759), which has proved the most lasting of his many works.

Candide is a pupil of an optimistic philosopher, Dr Pangloss. They undergo the most appalling sufferings in a series of fantastic adventures, but nothing can dent Pangloss's often repeated conviction that 'everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds'. It is not, says Voltaire - but if not best, it could at least be better.

The Enlightenment: 17th - 18th century

The term Enlightenment, applied to ideas which develop during the 17th century and are most clearly expressed by the 18th-century French philosophes, describes a tendency to make reason the guiding principle of life. This is accompanied by a conviction that the application of reason will guarantee progress in all aspects of human existence.

In one sense this is yet another wave of reaction against the Middle Ages, when faith and authority are the prevailing themes. More positively it is an offshoot of 17th-century science (the discoveries of Galileo and Newton being based on rational assessment of material evidence) and philosophy (following the example of thinkers such as Descartes).

The Enlightenment has faith in a natural order. Galileo and Newton have revealed the mechanics of the universe. These marvels of ethereal clockwork are taken by the Deists (the rational Christians of the day) as evidence of the genius of a rational creator.

By the same token it is assumed that there is a natural structure for human society, in which individuals have both freedom and rights. The injustices visible everywhere in the world are seen as the result of corrupt and superstitious institutions, imposed by unenlightened priests and kings. But human resolution can transform the political scene, as is made evident in the confident assertions of the American Declaration of Independence.

It is an article of faith that in a rational society the people will choose what is good for them. The Enlightenment abounds in educational theories to speed up the spread of reason.

But the education of the people must inevitably be a long process. This practical problem is taken as justifying one slightly paradoxical aspect of the Enlightenment - the acceptance of the enlightened despot, the all-powerful ruler who disregards the short-term wishes of his subjects and enacts, for their own good, often unpopular measures of social improvement. There are many such rulers in the last decades of the 18th century, Frederick the Great in Prussia being merely an early and outstanding example.

The passion of the Enlightenment for the improvement and reform of society makes it an important element of the climate of opinion which prevails in the early stages of the French Revolution (and survives today in the ideals of the social services of democratic nations).

But such principles contain their own flaws. The Enlightenment's optimism can be a recipe for disappointment and is easily mocked (as by Voltaire himself in Candide). And too much reason is dry fare. People crave something more emotionally nourishing. This is provided in religious terms by the 18th-century revivalists. And the need to listen to the emotions is forcefully expressed by a child of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Watchmakers' sons: 18th century

A favourite image of God, in the rational 18th century, is that of a divine watchmaker who has fitted together the intricate machinery of the universe. It is a pleasant historical irony that two French authors of great influence in the final decades of this most reasonable century are offspring of the watchmaking trade.

The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (son of a watchmaker of Geneva) is exerted through dreaming of a better society than contemporary privilege-ridden France. That of Beaumarchais (son of a watchmaker of Paris) derives more directly from his brilliant mockery of those privileges.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 1742-1778

Rousseau, unlike Voltaire, is a late starter in terms of literary fame, and he writes his most influential works in a relatively short space of time. He is thirty when he arrives in Paris in 1742, hoping to win fortune and fame with a new system of musical notation. It brings him into the circle of the philosophes, for Diderot invites him to contribute articles on music for the Encyclopédie.

Before these articles are printed, Rousseau wins himself a controversial reputation with his Discours of 1750 - in which he argues, contrary to prevailing fashion, that recent progress in the sciences and arts has had a corrupting effect on public morality.

The Discours is the first of several works which bring Rousseau wide fame and in which he tackles the central themes of the Enlightenment in a manner markedly different from that of the more conventional philosophes.

His two most significant books appear in 1762 and result in an order for Rousseau's arrest, causing him to spend the next few years outside France. Émile is a tract on the ideal education of a boy. It offends the authorities because religion plays only a small part in it, and the Christian religion none at all. (The book's emphasis on the importance of exercise, cold baths and the avoidance of feather beds cannot be seen as grounds for arrest.)

The distinguishing feature of Émile is an insistence on developing the natural and emotional side of the child, in place of the intellectual training which derives from books. In this change of emphasis Rousseau reveals himself as a pivotal figure in the transition from the Enlightenment to the next prevailing intellectual fashion, that of the Romantic movement.

A similar shift underlies the other work of 1762, Du Contrat Social (Of The Social Contract), in which Rousseau exposes the ills of modern society not by directly attacking them, as the philosophes would, but by imagining a different and better kind of community.

Rousseau's utopia is similar to a Greek city-state without the slaves. It has a romantic appeal in class-ridden 18th-century France because its theme is the importance of the individual, without whose consent (in a social contract) no society can function. The magnificent opening sentence encapsulates this appeal ('Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains'). It also betrays the world of the dreamer, for only in the most fanciful sense is the hunter-gatherer in a primitive tribe free.

Rousseau rounds off the image of the early romantic with Les Confessions, an autobiograpy published after his death in which he presents himself in unsparing - and perhaps often exaggerated - psychological detail.

Beaumarchais: 1775-1784

One of the theatre's most engaging characters bursts upon the stage in 1775 in a light comedy which is immediately a great success. Figaro, or Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville), is witty and street-wise in a manner very similar to his creator, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Beaumarchais' life begins with ingenuity and intrigue. At the age of nineteen, in 1751, he invents a new escapement for watches (watch-making being his father's trade). Another watchmaker attempts to steal the new idea. Beaumarchais' skilful conduct in the resulting litigation brings him the attention and patronage of the court.

For the rest of his life, until his death in 1799, Beaumarchais leads a dramatic and often dangerous existence as an entrepreneur and then as a secret agent on behalf of the French government. He is so busy with his schemes that his main love, the theatre, seems almost a sideline. But with the first appearance of Figaro, in 1775, he suddenly becomes France's leading dramatist.

Figaro uses his manipulative skills in The Barber of Seville to help the count Almaviva in his amorous pursuit of Rosine. The comic opportunities derive from the frantic efforts of Rosine's guardian, Bartholo (a crusty old doctor with designs on her himself), to keep the girl away from the attentions of any possible rival.

The success of these characters' first light-hearted appearance before the public prompts Beaumarchais to revisit them in a much darker comedy. By the time of Le Mariage de Figaro the count and Rosine have been married a few years. The count is tired of her and is intent on seducing her maid, Suzanne. But Suzanne is engaged to Figaro, now in the count's employment.

The clash of interest between Figaro and his master is developed on the suface in the traditions of light comedy or even farce, with much use of hasty concealment and mistaken identity. But underlying the fun is a more threatening theme. The count behaves with the arrogance of the old feudal world. Figaro protests with the vigour of something new.

In a long soliloquy in the final act Figaro muses about his rival the count and finds him a Man of little worth, apart from the benefit of the silver spoon in his mouth when he was born. Not surprisingly, when the play is first scheduled for production in 1781, the king bans it. He relents in 1784, when it is performed with great and immediate success - just five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Napoleon later describes the play as 'the revolution in action'.

Beaumarchais is fortunate that his two great comedies are transformed, by Rossini and Mozart, into two superb operas. Figaro would have lived in prose alone. But with such arias to his name, he has proved irrepressible.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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