Voltaire Almighty is filled with facts yet it feels empty. Pearson writes that Voltaire was a great conversationalist, but there is precious little to convey that. He admits that this biography only "supplemented" the classic Voltaire et son temps by René Pomeau. In his "A Note on Sources and References" Pearson relegates this work to what can only be a second level of biography. The note provides the titles of many biographies which Pearson views as "classic" or "best intellectual biography" or "authoritative accounts" or "epoch-making study." If the author does not have faith in his work, how can we have faith or, indeed, lend credence to the positions he takes?
And, there are little annoyances. Money figures heavily in the story of Voltaire's life. How much was the livre worth? What was the average income in France at the time?
One clear highlight is the discussion of the intellectual - religious conflict between Voltaire and Pascal. The passion is as clearly elucidated as the facts. Voltaire's critique was "the first bomb thrown against the ancien regime." This discussion of Pascal's Penseés contrasted with Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques and captures the essence of Voltaire's argument against religion and absolute monarchy, fights he was to carry beyond the grave.
Voltaire's statement of his devotion is remarkable, a singular statement of love and near intellectual equality.
What she has done for me . . . would make me her slave for ever if
the singular lights of her mind and her superiority over all other
women in this domain had not already bound me in chains . . . .
[She is a woman] in whose company I learn new things every day,
and to whom I owe everything.
Voltaire's enemies continually sought to do him in while they made money by publishing his work illegally. He loved "jousting and dueling with his pen," and he especially liked having his work in print. In fact, Voltaire often showed his work to a printer specifically saying he was not allowed to print, but knowing full well the printer would go ahead and make an illegal copy. Voltaire knew early on the value of "deniability."
Buried barely with Church approbation (Pearson does cover quite adequately the negotiations and subterfuges which Voltaire and his friends employed and which allowed him to be buried in hallowed ground, rather than a potter's grave.), a dozen years later Voltaire was seen as one of the founders of the Revolution. His skeleton was returned to Paris in glory for burial in the soon-to-be Pantheon. An inscription on the catafalque read in part: "Poet, philosopher historian, he made the human mind to soar, and prepared her to be free." Ironically, the monument on which his casket rested was made with rubble from the Bastille, a prison in which Voltaire had spent time in his youth and was never far from returning to.
There is good wheat in this biography, but it is surrounded by too much chaff.