The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 2 of 3


The frontispiece to Voltaire’s book on the philosophy of Isaac Newton, featuring Émilie du Châtelet reflecting Newton’s heavenly insights to Voltaire.

“How I love the English boldness! How I love those who say what they think!”

When we left Voltaire in 1726, he had chosen voluntary exile to England over an indefinite sentence in the Bastille.

Voltaire arrived in England with almost no money and even less English. Yet in less than five months, he could not only converse in English, he could write it fluently. More impressively, he had developed friendships with some of the leading English literary figures of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay (writer of The Beggars Opera) and Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels had just been published.

But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:

 “If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”

Although Voltaire never got to meet the antisocial Newton, the scientist was to have an marked influence on him. It was, in fact, Voltaire, who popularized the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from a tree, a story related to Voltaire by Newton’s niece.

Voltaire was so impressed by England’s constitutional monarchy and its comparative religious tolerance and freedom of speech, that he resolved to write a book about England. But it wasn’t until almost five years after his return to Paris that Voltaire finally did so, in a series of essays titled Philosophical Letters on the English.

Under the repressive laws of France, however, nothing could be published without the approval of the royal censor. The Letters used Locke’s empiricism and Newton’s mathematics to refute the philosophy of René Descartes. To refute Descartes was to criticize the crown itself. When the censor failed to approve the book, Voltaire published it anyway. The book was banned and a warrant issued for Voltaire’s arrest. Voltaire was forced, yet again, to flee.

This time, however, Voltaire’s exile was different. The previous year Voltaire had met the remarkable Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise du Châtelet.  At Madame du Châtelet’s invitation, Voltaire packed himself off to the Château de Cirey in eastern France.

And thus began what was to be a 15-year affair between the 39-year old poet and the 27-year old, married mother of three.

To be continued…


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