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The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 9, Number 2, April 1971
pp. 257-258 | 10.1353/hph.2008.1723

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BOOK REVIEWS 257 The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. By Ira O. Wade. (Princeton University Press, 1969. Pp. 807. $20.00) For almost uncounted years Professor Ira Wade has been recognized in thib country and in France as one of the foremost Voltairean scholars. His contributions, partic- ularly on the Cirey period, on Candide, Micromdgas, and on clandestine publications in the Eighteenth Century have been many and outstanding. This new, huge book, fruit of an entire life of study and research, brings together all these discoveries, all these new views and adds many others. It is really a Summa in which one has the impression that Professor Wade has gathered all that he knows about his author, but also all that everybody else knows or has known. Profuse and generous references are made in the text itself to a multitude of scholarly works with whom Wade, not at all awcd by highly reputed names (Pomeau or Besterman, for instances), occasionally disagrees. But there are also long considerations on what Wade does not know and there is nothing more refreshing than these repeated candid admissions of his ignorance before some still unsolved problems. All in all, however, this is a superb manifestation of a well-nigh encyclopedic knowledge which extends not only to Voltaire's life, his works, his thought, but also to his time, his immediate surroundings, to all those who might have, in a more or less direct way, influenced his intellectual development. We have here un embarras de richesses which, in the process, causes serious difficulties. When- ever Wade mentions an author with whom Voltaire had any contact, either in his time or in history, he promptly devotes pages and pages to this author's life, works, thoughts. This is particularly baffling in the chapter "Voltaire's Ancestors in Lyric Poetry," which tends, of course, to establish a background, but which expatiates endlessly on Thdophile de Viau, Des Barreaux and . . . La Fontaine. This procedure is repeated throughout the volume creating the impression of much extraneous material with little bearing on the greater intelligence of Voltaire. Wade is justly pleased and proud of having discovered Valdruche, a lawyer who visited Cirey. But why must he tell us that Valdruche lived with his father who was eighty-two years old, and so on? Since this study purports to present the intellectual development of Voltaire, it does not deal with strictly biographical documents as such. Neither does it follow a rigid chronological order since it uses at any given period many references to past events and projections into the future. For all practical purposes Wade's investigation stops with the end of the Cirey period, that is towards 1749, the date of the death of M m', du Chfitelet. Voltaire was then fifty-five years old and presumably in possession of all the elements which would constitute his final philosophical position. Until a few years ago such a statement would have brought prompt denials since it was believed that only in the Ferney period did Voltaire, the litterateur, at last become the philos- opher, the exegete. Wade does not deny that Ferney had been indeed a period of intense production, or publication, but he has amply proven all these works had their origin at Cirey. While respectable Voltairean scholars had asserted that the long years Voltaire spent with M ~ du Chg~telet were spent in mundane endeavors, social divertissements and literary works, Mr. Wade has shown, on the contrary, that Voltaire had devoted himself strenuously and methodically to scientific, philosophical and biblical studies. Thus the traditional periods into which scholars had divided Voltaire's life are dislocated. The English period, for instance, is no longer contained within the three or so years the philosopher spent in England but is prolonged deeply into the Cirey period, that is, until 1738. Those were really decisive years during which Voltaire gathered the full benefit of his English experience by studying the English philosophers and deists, and even, apparently, the French thinkers. Descartes, Locke, 258 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Malebranche, Leibniz, Newton, etc., receive an extensive treatment in relation to their role in the formation of Voltaire's thought. How and through whom did he become acquainted...



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