Voltaire: He who had the devil in his body

Unprepossessing, ugly, vain, flippant, obscene, unscrupulous, even at times dishonest, Voltaire was a man with the faults of his time and place, missing hardly one. And yet this same Voltaire turns out to have been tirelessly kind, considerate, lavish of his energy and his purse, as sedulous in helping friends as in crushing enemies, able to kill with a stroke of his pen and yet disarmed by the first advance of conciliation; —so contradictory is man.

But all these qualities, good and bad, were secondary, not of the essence of Voltaire; the astounding and basic thing in him was the inexhaustible fertility and brilliance of his mind. His works fill ninety-nine volumes, of which every page is sparkling and fruitful, though they range from subject to subject across the world as fitfully and bravely as in an encyclopedia.

“My trade is to say what I think” and what he thought was always worth saying, as what he said was always said incomparably well. If we do not read him now, it is because the theological battles which he fought for us no longer interest us intimately; we have passed on perhaps to other battle-fields, and are more absorbed with the economics of this life than with the geography of the next; the very thoroughness of Voltaire’s victory over ecclesiasticism and superstition makes dead those issues which he found alive. Much of his fame, too, came of his inimitable conversation; but scripta manent, verba volant—written words remain, while spoken words fly away, the winged words of Voltaire with the rest. What is left to us is too much the flesh of Voltaire, too little the divine fire of his spirit.

And yet, darkly as we see him through the glass of time, what a spirit! —”sheer intelligence transmuting anger into fun, fire into light”; “a creature of air and flame, the most excitable that ever lived, composed of more ethereal and more throbbing atoms than those of other men; there is none whose mental machinery is more delicate, nor whose equilibrium is at the same time more shifting and more exact.”

Was he, perhaps, the greatest intellectual energy in all history?

From Will Durant’s, The story of Philosophy

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