When Voltaire Lay Dying

By May 1778, Voltaire was dying. The Enlightener received a dignified and modest letter from a priest, the Abbé Gaultier, who was a Jesuit before the suppression. It seemed there was always a Jesuit about Voltaire, a biographer remarked, from his earliest school days to playing chess at Ferney. “When Voltaire heard the word ‘Jesuit’ it stirred some fiber in him: the child who had not known his mother or loved his father or brother had loved his teachers and been loved by them. He had rebelled against them, but he had remained their most sensitive and adroit as well as their proudest pupil.” Gaultier made it clear in his letter that he wanted to help Voltaire save his soul.

Would Voltaire admit the priest Gaultier to his chamber? Would he confess? Voltaire had often posed as a Catholic during his lifetime. Once he had taken Easter Communion at Ferney from a visiting monk who first gave him absolution. The local bishop heard about it and wrote Voltaire a dignified and temperate letter: “Your communion was made without repentance, without the amends made necessary by your past writings and conduct, and you should not approach the holy table without giving pledges of your sincerity, and without due reflection no priest will authorize you to do so.” Voltaire assured the churchman of his good faith and asked for prayers. The bishop wrote back that faith consists in acts, not words. He forbade his priests from hearing Voltaire’s confession or giving him the Eucharist.

Angry, the Enlightener tried to spite the bishop. Just before the fol­lowing Easter, he lured a visiting friar up to his bedroom, where he lay putting on his best deathbed act, one biographer recounted: eyes glazed, hollow voice, skinny hands playing with the lace coverlet. He requested the friar to hear his confession and placed money in his hand. The petrified monk hurried off without yielding to his request. Voltaire persisted in his act, trying to convince everyone he was dying so a priest would come. He promised to make any declaration the Church required. Still the bishop refused to give permission for a priest to hear his confession. Voltaire then threated a lawsuit, because it was illegal at that time in France to deny the sacraments to someone dying.

Finally, the bishop sent two priests. Voltaire recited the Apostles’ Creed and made a verbal profession of deist faith: “I adore God in my own room. I do evil to no one.” The priest had another profession of faith in his pocket and insisted Voltaire needed to sign it. The Enlightener retorted that the Apostles’ Creed was enough and said — slyly — that this other profession of faith might introduce un­orthodox innovations. When the priest kept insisting, Voltaire dropped his pretended illness and demanded absolution, which the priest gave. Voltaire lay back on the pillow, smiling. He felt he had triumphed over the bishop. After the priest left, Voltaire leaped out of bed. “I’ve had a little trouble with that dreary monk,” he said to his secretary, “but it’s all been most amusing and done me good. Let’s take a walk around the garden.”

One biographer remarked that all of Europe talked about Voltaire’s blasphemous pranks, his playacting at religion. But was it simply a prank? One can be sure of nothing with Voltaire, for his ideas were subtle and fluctuating. One can only be sure, one biographer remarked, that he possessed a sincere passion for justice, truth — and drama. Was Voltaire simply acting a part? Could he have made an authentic confession even if he had wanted to? Was he so caught up in drama and pretending to be other than he was, that he could no longer access his real self? What if he really did want to confess?

Voltaire responded to Gaultier’s letter with a brief one of his own: “Your letter, sir, seems to me to be that of an honest man: that is sufficient to determine me to receive the honor of a visit from you on the day and at the hour most convenient to you. I shall say to you exactly what I said when I gave my blessing to the grandson of the wise and famous Franklin,” Voltaire wrote, “the most honored of American citizens:

I spoke only these words, ‘God and liberty.’ ” Voltaire continued: “I am eighty-four years of age: I am about to appear before God, the Creator of all the universe. If you have anything to say to me, it will be my duty and privilege to receive you, despite the sufferings which overwhelm me.” Gaultier came. He was frank with Voltaire, and that pleased the dying man. The priest told him he would give a report of their meeting to his superior. Voltaire’s attendants — his mistress and secretary, as well as a friend — interrupted their meeting. “Pray leave me with my friend the abbé — he does not flatter me,” Voltaire said. The presence of the priest made the others uneasy. The Enlightener’s reputation rested on his not recanting anything. However, his desire for a decent burial rested on reconciling himself at least to some degree with the Church.

Gaultier presented Voltaire with a prepared text, presumably a declara­tion of Christian faith and some kind of recantation of his anti-Christian writings. But the Enlightener brushed them aside and wrote in a shaky hand his own declaration: “I have said my confession to [Gaultier]; and that if God disposes of me, I shall die in the holy Catholic religion into which I was born, hoping that God in His divine mercy will deign to forgive me all my errors; and that if I have offended the Church I beg forgiveness of God and of it.” Two witnesses signed it. Gaultier gave Voltaire absolution. Voltaire declined taking Communion, however, because of his health. Gaultier left.

Gaultier returned. Local church authorities did not consider Voltaire’s earlier recantation enough and still threatened not to permit a Christian burial. The former Jesuit arrived with another priest to see what he could do. Someone shouted into Voltaire’s ear that his confessor had come. “My confessor? Then be sure to give him my compliments,” the dying man said, to everyone’s surprise. The second priest asked Voltaire, “Do you recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ?” The Enlightener reached out and shoved the cleric away. “Let me die in peace,” he said, and turned on his other side away from his visitors.

Voltaire suffered in great pain, so his doctor prescribed a painkiller. “Now that Voltaire is near his end,” the doctor wrote in a letter, some “people are beginning to talk, to evaluate all the damage he has done to society, which even those who are not infinitely severe are comparing to the wars, plagues and famines which for the past several thousand years have desolated the earth.”

Accounts of Voltaire’s death are confusing because rumors circulated and different groups vied to control the narrative of his physical demise. Later Catholic propagandists used the doctor’s letters to claim that Vol­taire had been punished by dying in agony and the fear of Hell. Written by an unsympathetic observer, the doctor’s account must be used with caution. Madame Denis said that though he did suffer, he died quietly.

According to one of Voltaire’s French biographers, however, the man lay dying in a dark cottage removed from the main house, where Madame Denis — Voltaire’s mistress — continued to receive guests. She worried Voltaire might revoke the will that made her his heir; the owner of the house worried about the furor that would accompany Voltaire’s death. Preoccupied with their own concerns, they avoided the unpleasantness of Voltaire’s suffering, a reminder, as it was, of their own mortality. Madame Denis did not stay with him; instead, she chose two women to watch over him. He writhed in pain on his bed; they chatted, laughed, and drank. He insulted them and threw a vase at them when he could muster the strength. Their nursing left much to be desired, it seems, for Voltaire lay in filth, hating those around him. The icon of the Enlightenment, who had based his ideas on independence and self-sufficiency, died as he had lived: an autonomous individual.

Voltaire had once written about “love” in a way that reduced it to sexual intercourse: love’s perfection is cleanliness and care of oneself, thereby rendering the organs of pleasure more sensitive. For the old man, “The externals no longer remain the same. The wrinkles horrify, the white eyebrows shock, the lost teeth disgust, the infirmities estrange. All that one can do is to enjoy the virtue of playing nurse, and of tolerating what one once loved. It is burying a dead man.” Those words came to fulfillment as he lay dying in agony. When told of his condition, Madame Denis, who hoped to possess Voltaire’s vast riches soon, said, “What! Monsieur de Voltaire, the cleanest of men, who changed his linen three times a day rather than tolerate the slightest mark on it — what vile level is he reduced to? What revolutionary change does this represent?” It represented no revolution: only human mortality and her own abandonment of him.

One Catholic commentator on death wrote that no argument can be made for the salvation or damnation of the soul simply from the appearance of the body when passing away, whether calm or disturbed. Oftentimes, agitations of the dying come solely from physical causes. Good men, too, “are subject, by the will of God, to those agitations, in order to purify the soul, and lead the bystanders to the practice of true penance.” Midmorning on May 30, 1778, Voltaire uttered a long and terrible cry that struck terror into his nurses. With that, he died.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an excerpt in Dr. Stuart’s book, Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason, available from Sophia Institute Press.

image: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

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Joseph T. Stuart, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History and Fellow of Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His research and publications concern the life and work of cultural historian Christopher Dawson, the cultural history of the Great War, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. His latest book is Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason.

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