A Satirical Description of Voltaire: An Enlightened Writer

François-Marie Arouet, simply known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a well-known eighteenth century French Enlightenment writer who became famous for his wit and perhaps a bit more famous after a 17-year-old Madame Tussaud made her first wax portrait, using him as her subject. Voltaire was also known for criticizing French institutions, religious dogma, and the Catholic Church. He was frequently thought of as fascinating and therefore “a great prince” wrote a satirical description of him in the eighteenth century that was transmitted to a magazine by an “ingenious Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin.”

Here is that satirical description (almost) verbatim.

M. de Voltaire is below the stature of tall men, or, in other words, he is a little above those of a middling size; he is extremely thin, and of an adult temperament, hot and atrabilious; his visage is meagre, his aspect ardent and penetrating, and there is a malignant quickness in his eye; the same fire that animates his works appears in his actions; which are lively even to absurdity; he is a kind of meteor, perpetually coming and going with a quick motion, and a sparkling light that dazzles our eyes. A man thus constituted cannot fail of being a valetudinarian; the blade eats away the scabbard; gay by complexion, grave by regimen; open without frankness, politick without refinement, sociable without friends: He knows the word and he forgets it; in the morning he is Aristippus, and Diogenes at night; he loves grandeur, and despises the great; with his superiors his carriage is easy, but with his equals constrained; he is first polite, then cold, then disgusting.

Voltaire, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Voltaire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

He loves the court, yet makes himself weary of it; he has sensibility without connections, and is voluptuous without passion. He is attached to nothing but choice, but to everything by inconstancy. As he reasons without principle, his reason has its fits like the folly of others. He has a clear head, and a corrupt heart; he thinks of every thing, and treats every thing with derision. He is a libertine without a constitution for pleasure, and he knows how to moralize with morality. His vanity is excessive, but his avarice is yet greater than his vanity; he therefore writes less for reputation than money, for which he may be said both to hunger and thirst. He is in haste to work, that he may be in haste to live; he was made to enjoy, and he determines only to hoard. Such is the man, and such is the author.

There is no other poet in the world, whose verses cost him so little labour, but this facility of composition hurts him because he abuses it: as there is but little for labour to supply, he is content that little should be wanting, and therefore almost all his pieces are unfinished. But tho’ he is an easy, an ingenious, and elegant writer of poetry, yet his principal excellence would be history, if he made fewer reflections, and drew no parallels, in both of which however, he has sometimes been very happy. In his last work he has imitated the manner of Bayle, of whom, even in his censure of him, he has exhibited a copy. It has been long said, that for a writer to be without passion and without prejudice, he must have neither religion nor country, and in this respect Mr. Voltaire has made great advances towards perfection.

Painting by Théodore Gardelle of Voltaire. Courtesy of British Museum.

He cannot be accused of being a partisan to his nation; he appears on the contrary to be infected with a species of madness somewhat like that of old men, who are always extolling the time past, and bitterly complaining of the present. Voltaire is always dissatisfied with his own country, and lavish in his praise of those that are a thousand leagues off. As to religion, he is in the respect evidently undetermined, and he would certainly be the neutral and impartial being, so much desired for an author, but for a little leven of anti jansenism which appears somewhat too plainly distinguished in his works. Voltaire has much foreign and much French literature, nor is he deficient in that mixed erudition which is now so much in fashion.

He is a politician, a naturalist, a geometrician, or what ever else he pleases, but he is always superficial, because he is not able to be deep. He could not, however, flourish as he does upon these subjects without great ingenuity. His taste is rather delicate than just; he is an ingenious satyrist, a bad critic, and a dabbler in the abstracted sciences. Imagination is his element, and yet, strange as it is, he has no invention. He is reproached with continually passing from one extreme to another; now a Philanthropist, then a cynic; now an excessive encomiast, then an outrageous satyrist. In one word, Voltaire would fain be an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary man he most certainly is!

Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, 1756, p. 297.

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