Voltaire . . . Cynic, Humanitarian, Esotericist?

By Ida Postma
Moi je rends grace a la nature sage
Qui pour mon bien, m'a fait naitre en cet age
Tant decrie par nos tristes frondeurs:
Ce temps profane est tout fait pour mes moeurs.
[I give thanks to wise Nature
Which, for my own good, caused me to be born in this age
So decried by our gloomy fault-finders:
This profane era is just right for my ways.]

One of the more common traits of human nature is to view other 0 people as stereotypes. Though such images are frequently based merely on casual observation, once they are accepted, however distorted, the mold is cast for all futurity. The stereotype of the French poet and philosopher Voltaire is that of the wit, cynic and unbeliever, the man of cool reason, who would have laughed in God's face had he met him. With all due admiration for the lucidity of his writings and his unmatched erudition in a wide range of fields, few have inquired what was behind the mocking mask of this "infidel," whose pen thrusts made many a crowned head of his era tremble. A grin and an air of mockery often serve to cover the sensitive nerve and pain-racked heart, and the condition of man in the eighteenth century must have caused torture of soul to one with a social conscience and compassion, such as Voltaire.

Jean-Marie Arouet, who later called himself Monsieur de Voltaire, was born in 1694, when the protracted and inglorious sunset of the reign of Louis XIV had two more decades to run. The legacy of the Sun King was a badly impoverished country, whose political position among the European nations was beginning to count for less and less. Neither Louis XV nor Louis XVI did much to restore France to its former stature. It may even be said that their personal foibles, fumbles and inadequacies set the perfect stage for the eventual liquidation of the House of Bourbon. Both continued the stifling absolutism propounded by their illustrious predecessor, and between the iron grip of the monarchy and the equally tight vise of the church, there was no room for freedom of expression or for the rights of man. The social and religious injustices, to which all but a privileged few were subject, were the deadly ingredients of that witches' brew, the French Revolution, that simmered for decades until it came to the boiling point of uncontrollable fury, and scalded the just and the unjust alike.

Against these injustices Voltaire fought during his whole life — not out of sheer intellectual idealism, but because of a genuine concern for humanity. Had he truly been the supercilious wit he was made out to be, intent on building lasting fame for himself, surely a man of his intellectual caliber and esthetic temperament could have found a much easier road to success. On the contrary, his everlasting crusade against the iniquities of the establishment caused him to suffer persecution himself, forcing him into exile again and again. Even in his sixties and seventies, then a savant of European renown, he owned properties on both sides of the Franco-Swiss border, so as to flee at a moment's notice to the one when pressures became too great in the other. But adversity seemed only to steel him, perhaps one experience in particular, at the threshold of his career. For it was the psychological impact of being thrashed and without cause thrown into the Bastille that forged a brilliant but still youthful Jean-Marie Arouet into the mature Monsieur de Voltaire — more inclined to be cautious perhaps, but also more strongly determined to "crush the infamous" with every talent at his disposal.

Voltaire was always willing to pick up the gauntlet on behalf of a wronged individual and, especially in his later years, pleaded the cause of numbers of innocent victims, not hesitating to use his considerable means and international influence. Yet his main target was the quality of contemporary thought life. This he sought to improve in his writings by pointing to ecclesiastic abuses and fanaticism, to the intolerance that prompted acts of inhumanity instead of deeds of brotherhood. Such was his genius, however, that his indignation did not express itself with thunder-and-lightning bombast, but in the deceptive allegro of satire. No ponderous preaching could have shocked his readers more than this seemingly lighthearted tone of ridicule. Few had enough perception to understand that he never railed against Christianity itself but against the institutions that held sway over men's consciences. Thus Voltaire gained the reputation of being an atheist and blasphemist, a reputation still much alive today.

A world so bogged down in dogma as eighteenth-century France was ill-equipped to recognize that Voltaire was actually a profoundly religious man — yet religious with a difference, in that he was a universalist who had no use for an anthropomorphic Jehovah. His God was the great Geometer whom it is as innate for man to worship as breathing, for "The eternal wisdom of the Most High has engraved in our hearts a natural religion." As he wrote in 1739 in a letter to his friend Helvetius:

It seems to me that a man and a woman, a blade of grass and its seed are demonstrations of an intelligent Being who presides over the work. Of these harmonies of design there are an infinite number. -- Voltaire, Alfred Noyes, p. 485

Voltaire, together with Diderot and Rousseau, has been called the progenitor of the French Revolution. His conviction that kings can prove themselves unworthy of their divine rights by an unjust rule of their subjects, struck fire in the hearts of a downtrodden people. In his play "Brutus," Voltaire was the first to introduce the term "citizen" — an echo of the Republic of Rome where there was freedom of speech and a rightful representation in the senate. In 1791, when the revolutionary "Jour de Gloire" (Day of Glory) had come, the nation wanted to pay homage to one who had made such an important contribution to its emergence from bondage. Therefore the National Assembly decreed that Voltaire's remains, secretly buried thirteen years previously, were to be exhumed and interred in the National Pantheon, the shrine of the Revolution. In the smoke-blackened ruins of the Bastille where he had known such bitterness as a young man, his body lay in state for one night. No king could have received greater honor and acclamation from the populace of Paris, come out in their thousands, than the author after his death. However, had he been alive during that episode of French history, he would have been saddened beyond belief at the mass bloodshed that followed the footsteps of liberty. The "cynic" Voltaire never ceased to be shocked at any form of violence and, politically conservative himself, much preferred a peaceful change of government, from the inside out, to an overthrow with wholesale slaughter.

If the reputed infidel was in reality one of the foremost humanitarians of his century, the mocking facade of Voltaire may have hidden a great deal more. In her just published work, The Esoteric Substance of Voltairian Thought (Philosophical Library, Inc., New York, 1974; 633 pages), Denise Bonhomme suggests that Voltaire was an esotericist who used his so-called philosophic tales, or Eastern romances, as the vehicle for his knowledge of the ancient universal wisdom. This is quite a departure from the usual interpretation but, as she claims, "the esoteric or hidden core of the texts surveyed in this study has long been known to a relatively small number of persons."

Although Voltaire was a prodigious writer of plays, histories and philosophical treatises, his novels or stories are by far the best remembered. For two hundred years these strange tales have baffled yet so fascinated the public that they still grace the shelves in the bookstores, now in colorful modern jackets. Some literary critics consider them only the playful creations of Voltaire's imagination, written purely for his diversion; others believe them to be fables conveying political convictions too dangerous to be included in serious literature. A third category thinks they describe events in his own life. As Theodore Besterman wrote:

In short, Voltaire felt a profound need to unburden himself, but was temperamentally incapable of doing so openly. Hence the stories. . . . All these personages are Voltaire, weeping over mankind and his own failure to mould the world to his ideals. And that is why Voltaire, lest he betray himself, never discussed his stories, and did his best to pretend that they did not exist. — Voltaire, pp. 418-19

Indeed, in his entire voluminous correspondence, even with intimate friends, he mentions his tales just once.

If one accepts that his fiction had no other purpose than to amuse the author or express his frustrations over humanity's woes, one still wonders why he wrote some of the more bizarre passages, that might equally well have flowed from the pen of Lewis Carroll. For example, the improbable repast of "soup, containing two parrots, one boiled condor weighing two hundred pounds, two roasted monkeys having an excellent flavor, three hundred hummingbirds in a dish and six colibris in another," can reasonably be attributed only to whimsy gone rampant or to profound symbolism.

The universal wisdom has cast its guiding light over the affairs of man since the fires of self-consciousness were lit in him. At some periods it could shine openly, while at others it must remain in the safekeeping of a few, the majority being too matter-bent to understand it. If Voltaire indeed possessed such archaic knowledge, he had every reason to be silent as the grave, as it would have endangered him far more than his religio-political opinions. Since the ludicrous and the fantastic have always been the most foolproof disguise for the esotericist, it is conceivable that these fanciful stories do contain his occult legacy preserved with the hope that some later generation might be able to recognize them for what they were. Denise Bonhomme points out that he was by no means the only one to do so, and in her study draws parallels between Voltaire's works and those of other authors "whose lives and writings were dedicated to the same "smuggling enterprise," such as Rabelais, Vigny, Shelley, Saint Exupery, Celine and Proust.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many of the ancient teachings were re-presented to the West by H. P. Blavatsky, mainly in her works The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled. Although the founder of the Theosophical Movement, she actually did not promulgate a novel religious system, but re-evaluated the sacred scriptures and testaments of faith that are our immemorial heritage. She showed how one and the same secret doctrine underlay all of them, and gave some of the keys so that they might be more correctly understood and interpreted.

On the premise that Voltaire was versed in the same universal lore, The Esoteric Substance of Voltairian Thought systematically analyzes and explains the contents of some of his best-known stories. The writings of H. P. Blavatsky are profusely quoted to illustrate and substantiate the author's thesis. In the light of this exegesis most passages of these colorful romances turn out to deal with occult facts and archaic knowledge: reincarnation, karma and maya, sunken continents, the shifting of the earth-poles, initiation rites and the descent of monkeys from man — allusions to these and other age-old precepts are woven into the veiled context of the narratives.

The main point, however, of the trilogy Zadig, Candide and L'Ingenu, is that they are the histories of "the fate of Truth in various times and places." In the first, the adventures of Zadig, a young man from Babylon and a follower of Zoroaster, takes us through Chaldea, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and into Arabia. The title character being the pagan traditions personified, we follow their development in those Mediterranean cultures and religions. Though subject to dire onslaughts from various quarters, symbolizing the mutilations and distortions they incurred in a milieu that became more and more decadent, these relatively pure truths never completely lost their original integrity.

In the next part of the sequel, Candide, these universal verities are no more than a shadow of their former splendor. Set in "Westphalia," or the Western world in Voltaire's own day and age, sodden with materiality and ridden with dogma, there is little scope for the spiritualizing influence of occult wisdom. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that its symbol, Candide, is a constant prey to the most gruesome vicissitudes. Unlike Zadig, he does not escape unscathed and finally has to go more or less into hiding. His only avenue of expression is to "cultivate his garden," or to learn his lessons in the world of matter, so that he may, purified in spirit, finally return to the "Garden of Eden."

But Voltaire foresaw brighter conditions. Though the action in the third tale supposedly takes place in eighteenth-century France, it is actually projected to some unspecified point in the future. Primitive paganism (symbolized by Huron, an indigenous American) returns to the West, typified by the bourgeois and provincial family of the Kerkabons, smugly embedded in the fold of the church and greedy for worldly goods. Surprisingly, the confrontation between these different philosophies is eventually of mutual benefit: certain elements in this "family," who are more open-minded than the rest of their clan, find their way into an entirely new spiritual direction, while the unspoiled but untutored pagan "Huron" is enriched by his contact with a civilization more intellectually articulate.

Chronologically, the story of Micromegas comes between Zadig and Candide, and The Esoteric Substance of Voltairian Thought includes it in that order, since it contains Voltaire's comments on contemporary scientific and religious thought, necessary to understand the second and third part of the trilogy. Micromegas is a giant from a planet encircling Sirius, and thinks in cosmic terms and dimensions. On his space travel via the different planets to a "little anthill" called earth, he compares his opinions on religion, philosophy and science with those of the inhabitants of these spheres and, needless to say, is the mouthpiece for Voltaire's esoteric knowledge versus the purely intellectual approach of his age.

The explanation of symbolic literature is a hazardous venture at best. To detect abstract concepts within a given text, it is essential that "hider" and "finder" apply the same key, or they are like two bridge partners bidding for a suit, each using a different system. In antiquity it was well known that myths can be explained on at least seven different levels of understanding, all having equal validity. In addition, the interpreter ideally should be familiar not with just part, but the entire body of esoteric doctrine. H. P. Blavatsky openly declared she could lift only a tip of the veil of Isis. Voltaire's way of "smuggling" being such a uniquely individual one, no elucidation of his works can be expected to constitute the last word on the matter: in the final analysis the reader has to form his own judgment. Although here and there one gets the feeling that the extrapolations have led too far afield, nevertheless, many of the conclusions in Denise Bonhomme's study seem to support her hypothesis.

While Voltaire the humanitarian differs as much from the stereotype of Voltaire the cynic, as a color photograph from a caricature, the idea of Voltaire the esotericist adds a dimension of depth to this picture, paradoxically at the same time making it more enigmatic than before. If he was so careful not to reveal this aspect of himself in his other works and his personal correspondence, did anyone, even his closest associates, know him for what he really was? There is, for instance, his relationship with Emilie du Chatelet, generally thought to have been his mistress, in whose house he worked and lived for fifteen years. The Marquise was a mysterious woman of whom someone remarked with some asperity that she had "worked so hard to appear what she is not that she no longer knows what she really is." Why the masquerade? Herself a brilliant scientist and student of Newton's theories, there was a constant exchange of thought and ideas between the two savants. Did she perhaps know of Voltaire's true beliefs, and was their bond not what it seemed to be on the surface?

Another question that arises: how did Voltaire come by his knowledge? To a certain extent this could have been found in veiled hints included in writings of Greek and Roman authors, dismissed by Christianity as pagan superstition. Then, one should not forget that in the eighteenth century there were many societies — Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, to name but a few — that had at least some esoteric knowledge, based mostly on the Hermetic traditions from the Mediterranean Mystery schools. For the same reason that Voltaire preserved his silence, little is known about those who belonged to these movements, and teachings and rituals were kept strictly secret. But evidence, scant though it is, leads one to surmise there was a network of such societies all over Western Europe. In the two instances where, as H. P. Blavatsky points out, occult messengers had to work more or less openly to fulfill their mission, namely Cagliostro and Count Saint-Germain, they were treated as frauds and criminals.

Whether Voltaire had any direct or indirect contact with such movements or individuals — we have no proof either way. Though he may never have met him, Voltaire was fully aware of Saint-Germain's existence and activities, as is evident from his letter to Frederick of Prussia, in which he informs the King that the Count will "probably have the honor of seeing your Majesty in the course of fifty years. He is a man who never dies, and who knows everything." (Voltaire, Oeuvres, Lettre CXVIII, ed. Beuchot, LVIII, p. 360.)

Like anyone strongly motivated, who strives for the betterment of mankind, Voltaire, by his aspiration, may at times have opened his nature to the inspiriting influence of his own inner mentor, his "daimon" as it was called by Socrates — another midwife of human souls who received his guidance in that manner. And then again, in exceptional cases, certain men of destiny have been known to serve as channels for the inspiring influence from the Helpers of humanity.

Intriguing though such questions may be, the focus of our interest remains Voltaire himself, as being one of those who were instrumental in ushering in the New Age. Every century, in a sense, is the father of the following one. judging from the outer sequence of events, it may appear as if the travails of that crucial period, instead of freedom and equality, merely brought forth terreur; while the ideal of brotherhood ignobly died under the guillotine and later on Napoleon's battlefields. Yet ground was broken for the social and intellectual seeds, that found no fertile soil in Voltaire's days, to germinate in the nineteenth century — in turn to flower in our own. In terms of warfare and sheer destructive potential our era has proved a monstrous progeny, but on the positive side there is a general spiritual awakening, and the ancient wisdom traditions have made a re-entry and are perceptibly impinging on our civilization. Perhaps the message of Voltaire's trilogy has a chance of being understood today, for the trend more and more is to study the principles that underlie the world's religions, and inevitably these point to a common universal origin. Such an insight may well lead us out of our age-long concentration on the fragmented man-made forms, back to the inner unity of that "natural religion" engraved in the heart of each of us.

(From Sunrise magazine, January 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)


Back Issues Menu