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Voltaire and Rousseau: Irreconcilable Contradiction?

The two main representatives of the Age of Enlightenment – Voltaire and Rousseau, in the opinion of people of succeeding generations, were comrades, the fathers of the French Revolution. However, for contemporaries, they were rivals, almost enemies.

Voltair followed jealously and closely the works of the "Citizen of Geneva". In his library, there have survived more than two dozen volumes of the works of Jean-Jacques: collected writings in eleven volumes and individual works, including the novel Emile, or On Education,
Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, The Social Contract, Letters Written from the Mountain, A Dictionary of Music. The Voltaire Library contains approximately as many works on Rousseau of different authors. For the most part, these are sharply critical reviews, as well as the decision to ban his books, especially Emile.

The “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”, a text that at once attracted and antagonized Voltaire is found several times as part of miscellanies of various publications bound in one volume by Voltaire. Voltaire called such collections on the topics that interested him "potpourris". Some "potpourris" include Rousseau's writings and works about the "Citizen of Geneva".

Many Rousseau's books are covered with Voltaire's remarks, often quite poisonous.

Voltaire and Rousseau got acquainted by correspondence in 1745, they exchanged letters about the alteration of Voltaire's play The Princess of Navarre. Rousseau recalled that time in his Confessions.

In the winter which succeeded the battle of Fontenoy, there were many galas at Versailles, and several operas performed at the theater of the Little Stables. Among the latter was the dramatic piece of Voltaire, entitled ‘La Princesse de Navarre’, the music by Rameau, the name of which has just been changed to that of ‘Fetes de Ramire’. This new subject required several changes to be made in the divertissements, as well in the poetry as in the music.

A person capable of both was now sought after. Voltaire was in Lorraine, and Rameau also; both of whom were employed on the opera of the Temple of Glory, and could not give their attention to this. M. de Richelieu thought of me, and sent to desire I would undertake the alterations; and, that I might the better examine what there was to do, he gave me separately the poem and the music. In the first place, I would not touch the words without the consent of the author, to whom I wrote upon the subject a very polite and respectful letter, such a one as was proper…
(cited from : The Confessions of J. J. Rousseau, translated from the French by David Widger, London, Reeves and Turner. 1861)

Rousseau received from Voltaire а courteous reply.

Rousseau's 1750 famous Discourse on the Arts, in which he gave a negative answer to the question by the Académie de Dijon of "whether the reestablishment of the sciences and the arts contributed to purifying morals", gave rise to a flurry of denials in the press of the time, but did not attract much Voltaire's attention. A copy of this publication is available in the Voltaire Library, but there are no notes or other reading marks.

In 1755, Jean-Jacques published his second famous treatise, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Concerning this book, Voltaire sent him a friendly, but highly ironic letter:

I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it.<…> No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on all fours. However, as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it…

The Discourse on Inequality aroused Voltaire's sincere interest (view the page: Discourse on Inequality. Voltaire's Notes). The Voltaire Library also contains a review of this Rousseau's work (Du Rey de Meynieres. Réflexions d’une provinciale sur le discours de M. Rousseau, citoyen de Genève, touchant l’origine de l’inegalité des conditions parmi les hommes (BV 5– 116)).

On 1 November 1755, a great earthquake destroyed and devastated the capital city of the Kingdom of Portugal. At least, sixty thousand inhabitants of Lisbon were killed. This disaster shocked Voltaire, like many of his contemporaries. A few months later, he released a poem, the full name of which is Poem on the Lisbon Disaster or Optimism. Earlier Voltaire considered evil as a way to the good of mankind, now he decisively rejects such a view. For him, mindless optimism becomes unacceptable. He sympathizes with human suffering and is outraged by its injustice.

Jean-Jacques replied to Voltaire's Poem on the Lisbon Disaster with a letter dated 18 August 1756, later titled the Letter on Providence.

The "Citizen of Geneva" argued that there is no reason to doubt God's kindness, that the people should blame only themselves for their misfortunes, because they, it is at their own choice that they densely settle in cities, whose destruction leads to many victims. Rousseau's letter was widely known in Europe. It was the first of Rousseau's writings to be translated into Russian.

The Letter on Providence aroused Voltaire's great interest. Not by chance, one of his "potpourris" includes a copy of the letter, rewritten by Voltaire's Secretary J.-L. Wagnière (BV 11– 208).

Indirectly, Voltaire replied to Rousseau's letter with his famous novella Candide, in which he refuted the thesis "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds".

The final break between the two writers took place in 1760, after Voltaire had helped to launch a theater in Geneva. Rousseau sharply opposed theatrical performances in the city, thinking that they would lead to a degradation of morals in the republic. In response to the article Geneva published in the Encyclopédie by d'Alembert, he wrote the famous Letter to D’Alamber on Spectacles.

Voltaire very negatively commented on this work of Rousseau and in a letter to d'Alembert, dated 4 May 1759, called him a madman.

Voltaire's severe criticism and the establishment of a theatre in Geneva through his efforts, gave cause for Rousseau to break with the "Ferney recluse".

On 17 June 1760, he wrote him a letter:

I don’t like you, monsieur. To me, your disciple and enthusiast, you have done the most painful injuries. You have ruined Geneva as a reward for the asylum that you received there. You have alienated my fellow citizens from me as a reward for the praises I gave you among them. It is you who make it unbearable for me to live in my own country; you who will compel me to die on foreign soil, deprived of all the consolations of the dying, and thrown dishonored upon some refuse heap, while all the honors that a man can expect will attend you in my native land. In short, I hate you, since you have willed it so; but I hate you with the feelings of one still capable of loving you, if you had desired it. Of all the feelings with which my heart was filled for you, there remains only admiration for your fine genius, and love for your writings. If I honor in you only your talents it is not my fault. I shall never be found wanting in the respect which is due them, nor in the behavior which that respect demands.

After this letter, the relationship between the two philosophers became openly hostile, but Voltaire continued to follow the works of his opponent.

In 1761 Rousseau published the epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise. Voltaire called the book 'silly, philistine, shameless and boring' and issued the pamphlet Letters on the New Heloise, written under the pseudonym Marquis de Ximenez. However, he was exceedingly attentive to the reviews of the novel. Voltaire's library has, in particular, the book Prediction, extracted from Old Manuscripts by Ch.Borde, directed against The New Heloise (Borde Ch. Prédiction tirée d’un vieux manuscrit. [S. l., 1761]).

In 1762, two more famous works of "Citizen of Geneva" came out. These are the novel on education Emile, in which the “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar” occupies a central place, and the political treatise the The Social Contract. Both books are covered with Voltaire's notes. (View The Social Contract. Voltaire's Notes, “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”. Voltaire's Notes).

"I laughed at his Emile who looks, of course, a trivial character", the Ferney recluse wrote to d'Alamber on 15 September 1762. However, he expressed admiration for the section in this book titled “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”, "this book made me bored, but there are fifty good pages, which I wish to bind in morocco".

Emile was condemned in Geneva and Bern, and on 28 August 1762, Paris Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont issued a pastoral mandatory letter condemning the novel. Rousseau answered with the Letter to Christophe de Beaumont. Letter to Christophe de Beaumont and Voltaire's Notes.

In 1763, Rousseau published Letters Written from the Mountain, against the Geneva authorities. Here he exposed the "Ferney patriarch" as the author of the anti-religious and anti-Christian Sermon of the Fifty. Voltaire, who denied authorship of this work, was furious. To take revenge, he published the anonymous pamphlet The Opinion of Citizens, in which he protested against the Letters Written from the Mountainunder the mask of well-intentioned bourgeois speaking for the Genevese, and revealed some details of Jean-Jacques' personal life. Until the end of his life, Rousseau did not believe in the authorship of Voltaire and misattributed the pamphlet to the Geneva pastor Jacob Vernes.

Voltaire continued to persecute Rousseau further. He made him the hero of his satirical poem The Civil War in Geneva, and when Rousseau tried to find refuge in England, Voltaire sought to blacken him in the eyes of the philosopher David Hume.

Voltaire and Rousseau died almost simultaneously in 1778. Despite their antagonism and difference of opinions, in the eyes of posterity, they stand close together. It is no accident that the statues of both Voltaire and Rousseau were installed in the Château de Ferney in the 19th century.

Text: A. Zlatopolskaya, N. Speranskaya;

Rousseau’s Confessions are cited from: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated from the French, London, Reeves and Turner, 1861.

Rousseau’s letter is cited from: Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization. Vol 10. Rousseau and Revolution. P.41

Some details in this presentation are taken from:

Derzhavin K.N., “Voltaire – tchitatel “Emila” Rousseau [Voltaire the reader of Rousseau’s “Emile”]”, Izvestia AN SSSR, 7th series, Otdeleniye obschestvennykh nauk, Leningrad, 1932, no. 4, pp. 317-339;

Radlov E.L., Otnoshenie Voltera k Rousseau [Voltaire’s relations to Rousseau], Voprosy filosofii I psikhologii, 1890, vol. 2, pp. 1-22; vol. 4, pp. 37-64;

Dictionnaire général de Voltaire, Paris, 2003.

Photographs: N. Nikolaev, A. Zlatopolskaya

Emile Lambert. Sculptures of Voltaire and Rousseau in the Castle of Ferney.
We are grateful to the Centre of National Monuments in France
(Centre des Monuments Nationaux, France) for the photograph.
Voltaire's note:
"The unfortunate Jean-Jacques, whose diseases are well known, the poor who has barely escaped from a bad illness, do not you know that the latter came from the savages"
"This is not true, all the arts have come from tropical countries"
"A savage is fierce as much as a hungry wolf"
"Does it not follow from this that the Iroquois are more compassionate than we are?"
"A conclusion of a nasty novel"
"Beauty will arouse love, and the mind will create art"
What! Would those who planted, sowed, fence, not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

What! Would this unjust man, this thief be a benefactor to the human race? That is the philosophy of a ragamuffin who would like for the rich to be robbed by the poor.
"A monkey of Diogenes, you have condemned youself"

"How you exaggerate greatly, how you falsely represent all issuses!"
The genius leads Voltaire and Rousseau to the Temple of Fame and Immortality. Engraving of the period of the French Revolution.
Voltaire's remark: "And to an even greater degree, if it is possible, of a savage"
A copy of the "Letter on Providence" rewritten by Voltaire's Secretary J.-L. Vanière
"Quite the contrary. If it has the good right to regain its liberty, so there was no justification to take it away"
"It is an obscure and unclear passage. This right comes from nature, if nature has made us social beings"
"Therefore,,this right comes from nature"

"But we must admit that this convention results from nature"
"All this, it seems to me, comes out of the mouth of a cunning phrasemaker. It is clear that the war between State and State is a war between man and man. Let's order all our citizens to rush at each otherdiv>
"A funny assertion"
"All of this is wrong. I do not give myself completely to my fellow citizens. I do not give the right to kill me and rob me by the majority. I obey to help my fellow citizens and to get their assistance, to do justice and receive by right. There is no other agreement"
"Poor reasoning. If Jean-Jacques is punished with the rod, whether it means that the Republic would be whipped?"
"A loafer, such predictions are worth you!"
"What does he really care whether you think ill or well of him!"

"Do not you think the sun is more important than you?"
"What a fallacy!"

"Excellent possessions!"
"Does not all this prevent the animal from being as organized as you?"
"What harmony: floods, earthquakes, precipice"
"Liberty is just to do what you want"

"What a conclusion! Is my dog does not do what he wants?"

"How can anything be out of Providence?"
"An apparent contradiction"
"Who said it to you?"
"Children's reasoning"
"All this I say twenty times in verse and prose"
"Jean-Jacques is an unbeliever, libertine, posing as St. Augustine"
"What a strange absurdity! Have you ever seen dying gods, a wretched madman!"