VOLTAIRE: Letter to Rousseau

August 30, 1755

(English Translation by CEW)

I have received, sir, your new book decrying the human species, and I thank you.(1) You will please men, of whom you speak the truth, but you will not correct them. One cannot paint in stronger colors the horrors of human society, from which our ignorance and our weakness promise so many consolations. One has never taken up so much wit in wishing us all beasts--it gives us a desire to walk on all fours when we read your work. Nevertheless, because it has been more than sixty years since I have lost the habit of doing so, I feel, sadly, that it is impossible for me to take that habit up again, and I leave that natural allure to those more worthy of it(2) than you and I. Neither can I set sail to find the savages of Canada;(3) firstly because the illnesses with which I am overcome keep me close to the finest physician in Europe,(4) and I should not find the same succors among the 'Missouris;' secondly, because the war has been carried to those lands,(5) and the examples of our nations have made the savages almost as wicked as ourselves. I constrain myself to being a peaceable savage in the solitude I have chosen in your country where you should be.

I agree with you that the arts and sciences have sometimes caused a good deal of evil. The enemies of Tasso made his life a web of troubles; those of Galileo made him cry out in the prisons at the age of seventy years, for having observed the movement of the Earth, and what is more disgraceful is that they forced him to retract his arguments.(6) As soon as your friends had begun work on the Dictionnaire encyclopedique, those who dared to be their rivals called them "Deistes," atheists, and even "Jansenistes."

If I dared count myself among those whose works have had only persecution for compensation, I would show you a whole troop of hardscrabble bitterness—aimed at my perdition—from the day that I made the tragedy of "Oedipus" available to the public—a library-full of ridiculous slander published against me; an ex-Jesuit priest whom I had saved from the rack paying me for the service I had rendered him with libelous blasphemies; a more culpable soul who is still printing my personal work on the "Century of Louis XIV"—with his notes, in which the vilest ignorance reels off the most bare-faced charade; another who sells to a publishing house—under my name—a so-called universal history, and the publishing house vapid enough and foolish enough to print this shapeless tissue of blunders, skewed dates and deeds, and altered names; and finally readers lazy enough and rude enough to attribute this rhapsody to me. I would show you a society infested with this new breed of man, unknown throughout antiquity, who cannot take up an honest living whether in service or in labor, and unfortunately knowing how to read and write, become literary brokers(7), steal manuscripts, deface them, and sell them.

I would be able to complain that a pleasantry made by myself thirty years ago, out of the same subject that Chapelain had the idiocy to treat seriously, today courts the world—as a result of the unfaithfulness and despicable avarice of these unhappy souls who have defaced it with as much foolishness as maliciousness, and who at the end of thirty years, sell everywhere this work which certainly is no longer mine, and which has become theirs. I would add in the last place that some have dared to rifle through our most respected archives and steal a portion of the memoirs which I put there as historiographer for France, and that these have sold the fruit of my work to a publishing house in Paris. I would paint for you the ungratefulness, travesty, and rapaciousness pursuing me just up to the feet of the Alps, and just up to the edge of my tomb.

However, of all the bitternesses thrown upon human life, these ones are the least dismal. The thorns attached to literature and to a bit of a reputation are but flowers when compared with the other evils which all the time have flooded the earth. You must admit that neither Cicero, nor Varron, nor Lucretius, nor Virgil, nor Horace took the least part in political assassinations. Marius was an ignorant, the barbarian Sylla, the vile Antoine, the idiot Lepidus read little of Plato or Sophocles; and as for that tyrant without courage, Octavius Cepias, flaccidly surnamed Augustus, he was not a horrible assassin except during the period in which he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

Admit that Petrarch and Boccaccio did not bring forth Italy’s troubles. Admit that Marot's jesting did not bring on the flaying of(8) Saint Bartholomew, and that the tragedy of the "Cid" did not cause the wars of "the Fronde." The great crimes would have not been committed but for infamous ignoramuses. What makes and will always make a valley of tears out of this world is men's indomitable pride, from Thamas Couli Can who did not know how to read, to the custom's agent who did not know how to add.(9) Letters nourish the soul, cure it, and console it. Moreover, they are your splendor as you write against them. You are like Achilles who storms against glory, and like father Malebranche whose scintillating imagination wrote against the imagination.

If anyone should complain of the arts, it is myself, as at all times and in all places these have served to persecute me; but one must love them in spite of the abuse that comes of them, as one must love the society where so many bad people ruin its sweetnesses; as one must love one's country, in spite of a few injustices that one suffers; as one must love and serve the Great Being, in spite of the superstitions and fanaticism which dishonor so often His cult.

M. Chappuis tells me that your health is quite bad; you must come and reestablish it in your native air, rejoice in the liberty, drink with me the milk of our cows, and graze in our grasses.

I remain very philosophically and with the most tender regard, etc.,


VOLTAIRE: "Lettre a Rousseau"

30 août, 1755


J'ai reçu, monsieur, votre nouveau livre contre le genre humain, je vous en remercie. Vous plairez aux hommes, a qui vous dites leurs vérités, mais vous ne les corrigerez pas. On ne peut peindre avec des couleurs plus fortes les horreurs de la société humaine, dont notre ignorance et notre faiblesse se promettent tant de consolations. On n'a jamais employé tant d'esprit a vouloir nous rendre bêtes; il prend envie de marcher a quatre pattes, quand on lit votre ouvrage. Cependant, comme il y a plus de soixante ans que j'en ai perdu l'habitude, je sens malheureusement qu'il m'est impossible de la reprendre, et je laisse cette allure naturelle a ceux qui en sont plus dignes que vous et moi. Je ne peux non plus m'embarquer pour aller trouver les sauvages du Canada;premièrement, parce que les maladies dont je suis accable me retiennent auprès du plus grand médecin de l'Europe, et que je ne trouverais pas les mêmes secours chez les Missouris, secondement, parce que la guerre est portee dans ces pays-la, et que les exemples de nos nations ont rendu les sauvages presques aussi méchants que nous. Je me borne a être un sauvage paisible dans la solitude que j'ai choisi auprès de votre patrie, ou vous devrez être.


Je conviens avec vous que les belles-lettres et les sciences ont cause quelquefois beaucoup de mal. Les ennemis du Tasse firent sa vie un tissu de malheurs; ceux de Galilée le firent gémir dans les prisons, a soixante et dix ans, pour avoir connu le mouvement de la terre, et ce qu'il y a de plus honteux, c'est qu'il l'obligèrent a se rétracter. Des que vos amis eurent commence le Dictionnaire encyclopédique, ceux qui osèrent être leurs rivaux les traitèrent de déistes, d'athées, et même de jansénistes.

Si j'osais me conter parmi ceux dont les travaux n'ont eu que la persécution pour récompense, je vous ferais voir une troupe de misérables acharnés à me perdre du jour que je donnai la tragédie d'"Oedipe", une bibliothèque de calomnies ridicules imprimées contre moi, un prêtre ex-jésuite que j'avais sauvé du dernier supplice me payant par des libelles diffamatoires du service que je lui avais rendu; un homme plus coupable encore faisant imprimer mon propre ouvrage du "Siècle de Louis XIV" avec des notes où la plus crasse ignorance débite les impostures les plus effrontées, un autre qui vend à un libraire une prétendue histoire universelle sous mon nom, et le libraire assez avide et assez sot pour imprimer ce tissu informe de bévues, de fausses dates, de faits, et de noms estropiés; et enfin des hommes assez lâches et assez méchants pour m'imputer cette rapsodie. Je vous ferais voir la société infectée de ce nouveau genre d'homme inconnu à toute l'antiquité qui ne pouvant embrasser une profession honnête soit de laquais, soit de manoeuvre, et sachant malheureusement lire et écrire se font courtiers de la littérature, volent des manuscrits, les défigurent et les vendent. Je pourrais me plaindre qu'une plaisanterie faite il y a plus de trente ans, sur le même sujet que Chapelain eut la bêtise de traiter sérieusement, court aujourd'hui le monde par l'infidélité et l'infâme avarice de ces malheureux qui l'ont défigurée avec autant de sottise que de malice, et qui au bout de trente ans, vendent partout cet ouvrage lequel certainement n'est plus mien, et qui est devenu le leur; j'ajouterais qu'en dernier lieu on a osé fouiller dans les archives les plus respectables et y voler une partie des mémoires que j'y avais mis en dépôt, lorsque j'étais historiographe de France, et qu'on a vendu à un libraire de paris le fruit de mes travaux. Je vous peindrais l'ingratitude, l'imposture et la rapine, me poursuivant jusqu'au pied des Alpes, et jusques au bord de mon tombeau.

Mais, de toutes les amertumes répandues sur la vie humaine, ce sont la les moins funestes. Les épines attachées a la littérature et a un peu de réputation ne sont que des fleurs en comparaison des autres maux qui de tout temps ont inonde la terre. Avouez que ni Cicéron, ni Varron, ni Lucrèce, ni Virgile, ni Horace n'eurent la moindre part aux proscriptions. Marius était un ignorant; le barbare Sylla, le crapuleux Antoine, l'imbécile Lépide lisaient peu Platon et Sophocle; et pour ce tyran sans courage, Octave Cepias, surnomme si lâchement Auguste, il ne fut un détestable assassin que dans le temps ou il fut prive de la société des gens de lettres.

Avouez que le badinage de Marot n'a pas produit la Saint-Barthélémy, et que la tragédie du "Cid" ne causa pas les guerres de la Fronde. Les grands crimes n'ont été commis que par de célèbres ignorants. Ce qui fait et ce qui fera toujours de ce monde une vallée de larmes c'est l'insatiable cupidité et l'indomptable orgueil des hommes, depuis Thamas Couli Can, qui ne savait pas lire, jusqu'à un commis de la douane qui ne sait que chiffrer. Les lettres nourrissent l'âme, la rectifient, la consolent; et elles font même votre gloire dans le temps que vous écrivez contre elles. Vous êtes comme Achille qui s'emporte contre la gloire, et comme le père Malebranche dont l'imagination brillante écrivait contre l'imagination.

Si quelqu'un doit se plaindre des lettres, c'est moi, puisque dans tous les temps et dans tous les lieux elles ont servi a me persécuter; mais il faut les aimer malgré l'abus qu'on en fait, comme il faut aimer la société dont tant d'hommes méchants corrompent les douceurs; comme il faut aimer sa patrie, quelques injustices qu'on y essuie; comme il faut aimer et servir l'Etre suprême, malgré les superstitions et le fanatisme que deshonerent si souvent son culte.

M. Chappuis m'apprend que votre santé est bien mauvaise; il faudrait la venir rétablir dans l'air natal, jouir de la liberté, boire avec moi du lait de nos vaches, et brouter nos herbes,

Je suis très philosophiquement et avec la plus tendre estime, etc.




The translation and French text above actually combine two texts, "Voltaire-Rousseau" (http://www.site-magister.com/volrous.htm#lettrous ) and “La Querelle des Philosophes: Voltaire contre Rousseau” (http://sweet.ua.pt/~fmart/index.html?vorou2).
Rousseau, who had had great difficulties in Switzerland as a result of his writing, in his reply to this letter from Voltaire, thanked Voltaire for the invitation to come to Switzerland, explaining that,
"I am appreciative of your invitation; and if the winter leaves me in a state to come stay in my country in the spring, I will enjoy your goodness there, but I would rather drink the water of your fountain than the milk of your cows, and as for the herbs of your pasture, I fear that I will find there nothing but the Lotus, which is not the pasture for beasts, and the Moly* which prevents men from becoming one [a beast]."
(*The Moly was the herb given by Hermes to Odysseus when Odysseus was stranded on Circe’s island; see http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/moly.html.)
It should be noted that Voltaire's native country was France--where Rouseau was living-- and not Switzerland, where Voltaire was sojourning as an exile (while Rousseau sojourned in Voltaire's native France as an exile).

  1. Rousseau had just sent Voltaire a copy of Rousseau's Discourse on Sciences and Arts (see http://un2sg4.unige.ch/athena/rousseau/jjr_sca.html, for the text, which is in French).
  2. It is not completely clear whether Voltaire means—-by 'those more worthy'—-the beasts and infants who do actually walk on all fours, or the people exploring foreign lands seeking 'savages' for whatever purposes.
  3. '[T]he savages of Canada' are the 'Missouri' Indians, with whom the French had forged some alliances, while the English were allied with other groups.
  4. The name of Voltaire's Geneva-based physician was Tronchin.
  5. The opening guns of the French and Indian War had been fired. (Or really the final rounds of it; the French conflict with the English, into which the Indians were drawn, had been going on almost continuously with only short interludes since the arrival of the French and English in North America.) The war of course is actually as Voltaire correctly notes a continuation of the rivalry on European shores between the two nations.
  6. The astronomer Galileo had observed the Earth's movements; in a similar vein the mathematician Bruno had argued that the Earth moved around the sun and not the sun around Earth as was taught at the time. Bruno was burned. Galileo however had the sense to retract his statements about the earth's movements, but is reputed to have said under his breath as he left the courtroom, "Eppur sic move," 'And still it moves.' (See http://galileo.rice.edu/galileo.html; http://galileo.rice.edu/chr/bruno.html; http://galileo.rice.edu/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei.)
  7. From the French, "courtiers de la littérature."
  8. From French, "la Saint-Barthélémy." I inserted 'flaying of' in my text to make clear the crime that Voltaire was referring to.
  9. I am not sure exactly why Voltaire has chosen to associate the custom's agent's not knowing how to add with men's 'indomitable pride.'

[ The French in America] (Read the Journal of de la Salle's Voyage Down the Mississippi--archived in the Texas State Library and partly transcribed here!)

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