René Pomeau has argued persuasively that a preoccupation with religion was a key aspect of Voltaire's psyche from an early age. In the years 1719-1722 he was already voicing his opposition to the "Dieu terrible" of the Jansenists and displayed a precocious anti-clericalism "whose origin escapes us"(La Religion de Voltaire, p.34). It is hard not to see the negative influence of Armand: at the time of their father's death in 1722 both brothers were nominally still living together under the same paternal roof. Their quarrels were echoed in the 1721 Epître in which Voltaire maintained that his brother would laugh at his funeral; Voltaire's accompanying note reports that he used to enrage Armand, "an extreme Jansenist", by defending the Jesuits against him.(Epître XXI, A M. le Maréchal de Villars, 1721)
Pomeau concluded that the family background had created two brothers who were both obsessed with religion - Armand, a Jansenist troubled by doubt, and Voltaire, whose passionate hostility to religion was "un fanatisme retourné " (p.36) A stark dichotomy between unbelief and absolute faith characterises the Jansenist mindset of the 1720s - Montgeron's spectacular conversion is a case in point. According to the Jansenist manuscript Notes historiques, Voltaire himself maintained that one must be "either a deist like himself, or a secouriste like his brother (Gazier, p.625). Much later in his life Jacob Vernet made the same point: Voltaire saw no middle ground between libertinism and religious enthusiasm (See Pomeau, p.36-7)
It is difficult to gauge the respective influences on Voltaire of home life, Jesuit education and the libertin milieux he frequented as a young man. But to an older generation, the Jansenist quarrel was a constant backdrop. Voltaire was supposedly asked his opinion of it as a boy by Ninon de Lenclos. The tragedies of Racine and Corneille were commonly interpreted in terms of the playwrights' opposing allegiances. Voltaire insisted that the opinion was current in his youth that Phèdre was "a just who lacked divine Grace" (to Capacelli, 23 December 1760) According to his Commentaries on Corneille the appeal to divine justice in Oedipe Act III, scene v, was was often learned by heart, having acquired "a new value due to the quarrels of the time". Voltaire similar rejected Jansenist predestination .In his own Oedipe, first performed in 1718, he has Oedipus protest: "I am guilty of incest and parricide, yet virtuous / Unpitying gods, my crimes are yours / And you punish me for them." [Act 5, scene 4: Inceste et parricide, et pourtant vertueux [...]/ Impitoyables dieux, mes crimes sont les votres/ Et vous m'en punissez.]
In 1720 Louis Racine (youngest child of the dramatist) published his poem La Grâce, versifying Jansenist theology; Voltaire, who had hitherto been friendly and admiring of Racine, promptly responded - his verses, published on 30th January 1722 in the Jansenist journal Mémoires historiques et critiques, denounced Racine's support for fanatical dogmas which portrayed God as a tyrant. Later in 1722, in the Épître à Uranie, these sentiments become part of a thoroughgoing attack on Christianity: "They make of you a tyrant, but I seek in you my father / I am not a Christian, but it is in order to love you better"
[ix 365: On te fait un tyran, je cherche en toi mon père;/ Je ne suis pas chrétien, mais c'est pour t'aimer mieux] J-B Rousseau discerned in Voltaire's works "a little levain of anti-Jansenism which is somewhat too marked" (letter of 1735)
Surely not. There are a couple of manuscript poems attributed to Voltaire which Auguste Gazier thought he might genuinely have written (p.617-8). The subject matter is to say the least unpromising: in the better known, the Jansénius, a ghostly Jansen appears to Cardinal Fleury to plead the appellant cause; only the Arsenal copy of the manuscript ascribes it to Voltaire. The second, Ode sur les matières du temps is a diatribe against Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits. Since the first poem alludes to Bishop Soanen's imprisonment in the abbaye Chaise-Dieu it cannot date from before 1728, by which time Voltaire was already in England. There is absolutely no evidence that Armand wrote it either.
Voltaire and a Jansenist miracle
| Madame Lafosse|
|The miraculous procession. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84086048|
Every good Frenchman applauds a Jansenist when he speaks out against formularies and excommunications, and makes a little mockery of the infallibility of the Pope; but we despise a fool who has himself crucified, and still more the idiot who is assists at Jansenist "crucifixions in the attic".
René Pomeau, La religion de Voltaire (1974; originally 1954)
______, D'Arouet à Voltaire 1694-1734 (1985)
A. Gazier, "Le frère de Voltaire", Revue des Deux Mondes, vol.32 (1906) 615-
Miguel Benitez, "Voltaire libertin : l’Épître à Uranie".Revue Voltaire 8 (2008), p. 99-135.
"Jansénius, poème héroïque", critical ed. Poemes satiriques du XVIIIe siecle
Letter of Voltaire to Madame de Bernières, dated August 1725
....Don't imagine that I spend all my time in Paris putting on tragedies and comedies. I manage to serve both God and the devil at the same time. Thanks to the miracle of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, I have acquired something of a reputation for devotion in society. The woman in the miracle came to my room this very morning. See what an honour I bring to your house, and what an odour of sanctity surrounds us! M. the cardinal de Noailles issued a fine pastoral letter on the occasion of the miracle and, as the summit of honour or ridiculousness, I am cited in the letter. I have been formally invited to a Te Deum at Notre-Dame in thanks for Madame La Fosse's cure. M. the abbé Couet, His Eminence's Grand-Vicaire today sent me a copy of the letter and I sent him Mariamne in return, with this little verse:
You send me a mandement
Receive a tragedy
That way between us
We give each other a comedy.......
Extract from The Age of Louis XIV. trans. Pollack (Everyman Library) Chapter 37.
At length some fanatics conceived the notion that a deacon, named Paris, brother of a councillor in parliament and buried in the cemetery of Saint Médard, was about to perform miracles. Some votaries of the sect who went to pray upon his tomb were so carried away by their imagination that in their deranged state of mind they suffered slight convulsions. The tomb was immediately surrounded by people; crowds gathered there night and day. Some climbed on to the tomb, giving their bodies strange twitches which they regarded as miraculous signs. The secret instigators of the sect encouraged such frenzies. Prayers were recited in the vulgar tongue around the tomb; the air was full of accounts of deaf people who had hard a few words, of blind who had caught glimpses of something, of cripples who had walked upright for a few moments. The miracles were even attested before the courts by a whole host of witnesses who had almost seen them, since they had come there in the hope of doing so. The government allowed the epidemic to run its course for a whole month. But the crowds grew more numerous, miracles increased and it was necessary at last to close the cemetery and place a guard around it. Thereupon the same fanatics proceeded to work their miracles in their own houses. The tomb of the deacon, Paris, was in very truth the tomb of Jansenism in the minds of all sensible people. In less enlightened times such farcical proceedings would have had serious consequences. Apparently those who provoked them were unaware of the age in which they lived.
Superstition was so rife that Carré, a councillor the parliament, surnamed Montgeron, had the audacity to present to the king in 1736 a list of all these miracles, attested by a large number of witnesses. This madman, the spokesman and dupe of maniacs, said in his memorandum to the king, "that one could not help believing witnesses who died in support of their evidence." Should one day his writings be in existence while all other books are lost, posterity will look upon our age as an age of barbarism.
In France these absurdities were the dying strugglers of a sect which, no longer supported by men like Arnauld, Pascal and Nicole, and upheld only by convulsionaries, became degraced; one would hear little of such disputes which disgrace and harm the name of true religion, were it not for those few turbulent spirits who from time to time endeavour to fan the dying embers of a fire into a new conflagration.....
Religion has still power to sharpen the dagger point. In a nation there are always certain persons who have no intercourse with honest people, who are not of the age in which they live, who are untouched by the advance of reason, and who may still be affected by the scourge of fanaticism like certain plagues which afflict only the lowest classes of society