A Strange Amalgam

‘There was hardly an eminent writer in Paris who was unacquainted with the inside of the Conciergerie or the Bastille. It was only natural, therefore, that the struggle should have become a highly embittered one, and that at times, in the heat of it, the party whose watchword was a hatred of fanaticism should have grown itself fanatical. But it was clear that the powers of reaction were steadily losing ground; they could only assert themselves spasmodically; their hold upon public opinion was slipping away. Thus the efforts of the band of writers in Paris seemed about to be crowned with success. But this result had not been achieved by their efforts alone. In the midst of the conflict they had received the aid of a powerful auxiliary, who had thrown himself with the utmost vigour into the struggle, and, far as he was from the centre of operations, had assumed supreme command.

It was Voltaire. This great man had now entered upon the final, and by far the most important, period of his astonishing career… Voltaire was now sixty years of age. His position was an enviable one. His reputation was very great, and he had amassed a considerable fortune, which not only assured him complete independence, but enabled him to live in his domains on the large and lavish scale of a country magnate. His residence at Ferney, just on the border of French territory, put him beyond the reach of government interference, while he was yet not too far distant to be out of touch with the capital. Thus the opportunity had at last come for the full display of his powers. And those powers were indeed extraordinary. His character was composed of a strange amalgam of all the most contradictory elements in human nature, and it would be difficult to name a single virtue or a single vice which he did not possess. He was the most egotistical of mortals, and the most disinterested; he was graspingly avaricious, and profusely generous; he was treacherous, mischievous, frivolous, and mean, yet he was a firm friend and a true benefactor, yet he was profoundly serious and inspired by the noblest enthusiasms. Nature had carried these contradictions even into his physical constitution. His health was so bad that he seemed to pass his whole life on the brink of the grave; nevertheless his vitality has probably never been surpassed in the history of the world. Here, indeed, was the one characteristic which never deserted him: he was always active with an insatiable activity; it was always safe to say of him that, whatever else he was, he was not at rest. His long, gaunt body, frantically gesticulating, his skull-like face, with its mobile features twisted into an eternal grin, its piercing eyes sparkling and darting — all this suggested the appearance of a corpse galvanized into an incredible animation. But in truth it was no dead ghost that inhabited this strange tenement, but the fierce and powerful spirit of an intensely living man.’

Lytton Strachey, Landmarks in French Literature.


‘In summoning Napoleon Bonaparte to their aid in Brumaire, Sieyes and his fellow-conspirators had hoped, like Barere in Thermidor, to keep the political controls firmly in their hands… But, this time, the man selected for the job was of a different stamp and temperament from any other called upon to fill the role; and far from retaining control of the situation, the Brumairians were soon to find that their would-be auxiliary was fully determined t o impose his own pattern on events: he would, in fact, by an unusual combination of will, intellect and physical vigour, leave his mark for years to come on France and Europe. Yet, in so far as it possible to separate reality from myth in so remarkable a phenomenon, he was a man of strange paradoxes and contradictions: a modern romantic hero cast in the mould of a Cæsar or an Alexander; a man of action and rapid decision, yet a poet and dreamer of world conquest; a supreme political realist, yet a vulgar adventurer who gambled for high stakes; the enemy of privilege who boasted of his “uncle” Louis XVI and aspired to found new dynasties of Kings; an organizer and statesman of genius, and yet as much concerned to feather the nests of the Bonaparte clan as to promote the fortunes or greater glory of France; a product of the Enlightenment who distrusted ideas and despised intellectuals and “systems”; a lucid intellect with a vast thirst and capacity for knowledge, yet strangely impervious to forces that he had himself helped to unleash.  And greatest paradox of all: the upstart “soldier of the Revolution” who carried the “principles of 1789” to half the countries of Europe, and who yet was driven by personal ambition and contempt for his fellow-men to build a new despotism and new aristocracy on the ashes of the old.’

George Rude, Revolutionary Europe, 1783-1815.