Casanova and Voltaire

One of the most significant individuals in Casanova’s life was Voltaire (see ‘The High Enlightenment: Voltaire’).  Casanova aspired to be recognised as a serious man of letters and it was Voltaire, the Enlightenment’s great Patriarch, who he sought to match himself against.  To get some idea of the magnitude of this aspiration it is worth considering Voltaire’s legacy.  He produced over a hundred volumes of published works across a wide range of topics, genres and forms (literary, historical, political, scientific and philosophical), various of them having been acclaimed as masterpieces, and over a hundred volumes of correspondence.  Almost single-handedly he set the Enlightenment agenda of the eighteenth century and shifted the focus of attention from abstract philosophical debate to practical actions that would benefit mankind (it was because of Voltaire that religious toleration came to be regarded as a virtue rather than a vice).  He played a large part in the popularisation of Newton and the English philosophical empirical traditions on the continent.  He was hugely influential in undermining the credibility of the Old Regime and paving the way for the French Revolution (for which reason his body was exhumed in 1791 and moved to the Pantheon of heroes).  His opinions were actively canvassed by Europe’s most powerful men and women.  On the surface, therefore, it might appear absurd to the point of delusional for Casanova to seek to rival this European colossus.  Yet if he did fail to match Voltaire it was because Voltaire achieved so much not because Casanova achieved so little.  By any other standard he was a considerable intellectual and literary figure.

Like Voltaire, Casanova was an accomplished writer across a wide range of genres, styles and topics including autobiography, poetry, drama, science fiction, parody, essay writing, literary criticism, satire, philosophy, religion, mathematics, technology and history.  Like Voltaire, he was a pamphleteer and avid letter writer.  In his last period of stay in Venice (1774-1783) he also wrote his own monthly journal (Opuscoli miscellanei). He did not match the industrial scale of Voltaire but his output was pretty impressive nonetheless, in terms of both quantity and quality.  He is most famous for his autobiography History of my life (Histoire de ma vie) which is now recognised as one of the great works of European literature.  At almost one and a quarter million words, it is twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, skilfully crafted, and full of intelligence, wit and psychological insight.  It is also a philosophical work: an examination of libertinism.  In this respect it resembles Voltaire’s philosophical tales, such as Candide, which make use of character and narrative to explore profound questions about the nature of reality and the human condition.  Another monumental work (also a philosophical tale) was Casanova’s five-volume science-fiction novel Icosameron (1788): ‘With an imagination comparable to Jules Verne’s, Casanova foresaw the motorcar, the airplane, television and several other inventions that were not realised for more than a century’ (Mattia Begali, Encyclopedia of Italian Literary Studies, 2006).  In addition, he composed philosophical dialogues (Le Philosophe at le théologien)He had his own European blockbuster, History of my escape from the prisons of the Republic of Venice which made him a minor international celebrity and, according to Mattia Begali, was ‘one of the most engaging and suspenseful texts of eighteenth-century literature’.  Like Voltaire, Casanova wrote histories, (notably History of the Polish troubles, 1774) and in terms of the use of original sources and objectivity was closer to the standards of modern historical scholarship than Voltaire, who found it difficult to avoid the urge to convey his own vision of the past.  Polish historian Maciej Forycki (Casanova: Enlightenment philosopher, 2016) describes Casanova as ‘a refined observer of political culture and the daily life of Polish elites in the 1760s … an incontestable erudite and philosopher, going completely against the current of widespread contemporary opinions on the subject of Poland’ and that included the opinions of Voltaire.  He translated much of Homer’s Iliad (although a lack of financing meant he was unable to complete it) and, it would appear, he played a small part in the writing and first production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

As well as their intellectual and literary interests the lives of the two men also overlapped in other ways.  Although Voltaire (1694 to 1778) was considerably older than Casanova (1725 to 1798) they were contemporaries whose lives most fruitful period coincided with the High Enlightenment (1730 to 1780).  They were both exceptionally long-lived by the standards of their day.  They were both very much self-made men.  Both were regularly in trouble with the authorities and spent the majority of their adult lives in exile from their places of birth.  The worlds of both men, Old Regime France and the Republic of Venice, were destroyed as a consequence of the French Revolution.  Both were extraordinarily well travelled and kept the company of the great and the good throughout Europe (including Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great).  Both were jealous of their own reputations as scholars although neither was averse to ingratiating themselves to those in power as it suited their own ends.  Both made fortunes from Paris lotteries: Voltaire through manipulation, Casanova by helping to establish what at that time was the most successful lottery in European history.  Both were businessmen and entrepreneurs (Casanova a far less successful one, for the most part, than Voltaire).  In terms of free-thinking and challenging the social and religious norms of the time both were advocates of libertinism (see ‘God’s Anarchist: Part 1’, ‘Part  2’ and ‘Part 3’), although the Frenchman wasn’t quite such a dedicated practitioner as the Venetian.

So how did Voltaire influence Casanova?  Before attempting an answer, it’s perhaps worth sounding a note of caution.  There is no doubt that Voltaire did have a major impact upon Casanova (he described himself as Voltaire’s ‘pupil’) but we need to bear in mind that they were both children of the Enlightenment and subject to the influence of common trends and sources of ideas available to the educated public. Venice was a centre of the book trade and the works of a wide range of thinkers and scholars, including key Enlightenment philosophes, would have been readily accessible.  Ideas that may have underpinned Casanova’s hedonistic morality were as likely to have sources in the philosophy of Epicurus and Gassendi as the works of Voltaire (Casanova was introduced to Gassendi in his mid-teens while Voltaire commented in his Dictionnaire philosophique on ‘the ever to be revered Gassendi’ – see ‘Enlightenment Roots: Pierre Gassendi’).

Back to the question.  How did Voltaire influence Casanova?  First of all, Casanova can be described as a Voltairean.  By this we mean that he was preoccupied by the themes and ideas pursued by Voltaire, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in bitter opposition.  For example, one of Voltaire’s central interests that engaged Casanova’s attention was the nature of the soul, morality and the existence of God.  For Voltaire, without the prospect of punishment or reward after death there could be no basis for morality.  Morality thus required the existence of God and an immortal soul.  This was an issue that Casanova kept returning to.  He did not question the existence of God (he agreed with Voltaire on that score) but did question the existence of an immortal soul.  Ultimately, he was to reject the idea of a soul and, consequently, the idea that thought was dependent upon its existence. He held to the position, instead, that thought can arise from matter (i.e. the brain).  In his autobiography, he draws attention to the mind’s biological underpinnings:

The history of my life must begin by the earliest circumstance which my memory can evoke; it will therefore commence when I had attained the age of eight years and four months. Before that time, if to think is to live be a true axiom, I did not live, I could only lay claim to a state of vegetation. The mind of a human being is formed only of comparisons made in order to examine analogies, and therefore cannot precede the existence of memory. The mnemonic organ was developed in my head only eight years and four months after my birth; it is then that my soul began to be susceptible of receiving impressions. How is it possible for an immaterial substance, which can neither touch nor be touched to receive impressions? It is a mystery which man cannot unravel.
(Casanova’s memoirs – Author’s Preface)

Similarly, Voltaire’s Enlightenment quest to create a secular morality is echoed in Casanova’s autobiography and works on history which are, in part, meant to be read as studies of human nature.  These are accounts of human psychology, motivation and behaviour from which it is possible to draw conclusions without relying on explanations rooted in the designs of the Almighty.

The second important way in which Voltaire was a major influence upon Casanova was as a role model.  Voltaire was the quintessence of a man of letters and repeatedly we see genres which Voltaire either pioneered or was strongly associated with being taken up by Casanova, most notably the philosophical tale such as Casanova’s Icosameron.  This was intended to be a defining masterwork with which he hoped to establish his name as a serious scholar worthy of public recognition.  We witness a similar pattern with his histories and philosophical dialogues.  On occasion, however, Casanova went beyond mere emulation and would lift material directly from Voltaire’s works to use for his own (that said, Voltaire was equally free and easy with the writings of others).  This was the case for much of Casanova’s philosophical dialogues.  Another similarity to Voltaire can be found in Casanova’s libertine writing style.  Works such as Candide (Voltaire) and Histoire de ma vie (Casanova) are both characterised by a polite, decorous tone frequently employing euphemisms, innuendo and understatement that ironically belie their erotic content and social critique.  During the gruesome execution of Robert Damiens, would-be assassin of Louis XV, Casanova records the behaviour of two guests he had invited to an overlooking apartment to witness the event:

While this victim of the Jesuits was being executed, I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and the fat aunt did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited. The fact was that Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.
(Casanova’s memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter I)

For comparison with Voltaire, here is Professor Pangloss’ account of how he contracted syphilis:

“O my dear Candide, you must remember Daisy, that pretty wench, who waited on our noble Baroness; in her arms I tasted the pleasures of Paradise, which produced these Hellish torments with which you see me devoured. She was infected with an ailment, and perhaps has since died of it; she received this present of a learned Franciscan, who troubled to derive its source and learned that he was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it of a captain of horse, who had it of a marquise, who had it of a page, the page had it of a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus; for my part I shall give it to nobody, I am a dying man.”

At the age of thirty-five, Casanova had the opportunity to meet the great man.  In 1759 (the year, incidentally, that Voltaire had published Candide) Casanova was rich, a consequence of the Paris lottery he had helped to found, subsidies from the Marquise d’Urfé and financial transactions in Holland.  However, an extraordinarily lavish life-style combined with some poor business dealings meant that he was quickly burning through much of this fortune.  His social standing in Paris and Holland had also begun to fall, his position made worse when his powerful protector, Abbé de Bernis, was sacked by Louis XV and packed off to Rome.  Consequently, in 1760, after a failed attempt in Amsterdam to raise a loan for the French government, he decided to leave Paris and try his luck in Germany (or, to be more precise, the territories comprising the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation), from where he visited Voltaire.  He was at this time living at Les Délices, his home in protestant Geneva from 1755 to 1760, beyond the reach of French authorities.  For several years prior, he had resided in Prussia at the invitation of Frederick the Great, but his relationship with Frederick had turned sour and in 1754 he left to return home.  Louis XV, however, banned him from returning to Paris and so he ended up in Geneva.  It doesn’t appear that Casanova had any difficulty in getting access to Voltaire even though at this time Casanova was a young man who had produced very little of scholarly or literary interest.  In his memoirs he comments that, ‘Everybody would give me letters of introduction’.  The precise date of Casanova’s visit is unclear.  Casanova claims it was August 1760 but evidence from Voltaire’s correspondence suggests it was probably May.

“M. de Voltaire,” said I, “this is the happiest moment of my life. I have been your pupil for twenty years, and my heart is full of joy to see my master.”
“Honour me with your attendance on my course for twenty years more and promise me that you will bring me my fees at the end of that time.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

So went the opening salvo between the two men as recorded by Casanova.  Over the following few days he went to dine with Voltaire and Voltaire’s niece and lover, the widow Madame Marie-Louise Denis, along with a range of other guests, while at night cavorting with ‘three nymphs’ thanks to an unnamed ‘amiable friend’.  The picture painted of Voltaire was of an incredibly erudite man who could recite from memory lengthy passages of poetry and who was a witty, generous and hospitable host.   Casanova notes approvingly: ‘He kept up a notable establishment and an excellent table’.  He was astonished at Voltaire’s ability at no notice to recite Casanova’s beloved Ariosto (Ariosto was Casanova’s favourite Italian poet, and literary historian Marie-Francoise Luna has proven that Histoire de ma vie uses Ariosto’s Orlando furioso as its model):

The great man began to recite the two fine passages from the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth cantos, in which the divine poet speaks of the conversation of Astolpho with St. John and he did it without missing a single line or committing the slightest fault against the laws of prosody. He then pointed out the beauties of the passages with his natural insight and with a great man’s genius. I could not have had anything better from the lips of the most skilled commentators in Italy. I listened to him with the greatest attention, hardly daring to breath, and waiting for him to make a mistake, but I had my trouble for nothing.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

Curious about the world and eager to obtain information from his visitors, Voltaire quizzed Casanova about people he knew such as the Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni.  There is also evidence in Casanova’s account of Voltaire’s voluminous letter-writing:

Voltaire opened a door, and I saw a hundred great files full of papers.
“That’s my correspondence,” said he. “You see before you nearly fifty thousand letters, to which I have replied.”

Casanova, however, also depicts a less flattering side to Voltaire, a man who is ‘greedy for praise’, who loves playing to his audience, who can be fault-finding, sarcastic and disingenuous.  At one point, Voltaire, to a couple of English visitors, claims he wishes he were English.  Casanova notes: ‘I thought the compliment false and out of place; for the gentlemen were obliged to reply out of politeness that they wished they had been French, or if they did not care to tell a lie they would be too confused to tell the truth. I believe every man of honour should put his own nation first’.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Casanova’s account is the exchanges between the two men and a sense of incessant point scoring.  He seems to go to great pains to demonstrate to his audience that he was a match for the great man’s wit and learning, at times even correcting him.  He describes them both being equally capable of moving their listeners to tears through their renditions of Ariosto and several times they have lively discussions on the merits of various literary works and forms.  Here’s an example of Casanova putting Voltaire right on a translation into Italian of the work of the Frenchman Claude Crebillon:

“Read it? I always read prefaces, and Martelli proves there that his verses have the same effect in Italian as our Alexandrine verses have in French.”
“Exactly, that’s what’s so amusing. The worthy man is quite mistaken, and I only ask you to listen to what I have to say on the subject. Your masculine verse has only twelve poetic syllables, and the feminine thirteen. All Martelli’s lines have fourteen syllables, except those that finish with a long vowel, which at the end of a line always counts as two syllables. You will observe that the first hemistitch in Martelli always consists of seven syllables, while in French it only has six. Your friend Pierre Jacques was either stone deaf or very hard of hearing.”
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

Overall, you do get the impression that Casanova has tried to give an honest and even-handed description of Voltaire, taking care to illustrate both his vices and virtues.  One of the aims of Histoire de ma vie, after all, was to try to give a truthful insight into human nature.  Unfortunately, Casanova’s final visit ended on a rather tetchy note, with Voltaire being in a bad mood (according to Casanova, because he would be leaving the next day).  In particular, they clashed over what role religion (‘superstition’) and the people should play in the governance of society.  Voltaire was more hostile towards religion and more democratic whereas Casanova, taking a more Hobbesian line and conscious of human failings, argued that ‘the masses’ needed a sovereign buttressed by religion.

Casanova was subsequently to become highly critical of Voltaire and seemingly obsessed by him.  Upon leaving Les Délices for the last time he writes:

I went home well pleased at having compelled the giant of intellect to listen to reason, as I then thought foolishly enough; but there was a rankling feeling left in my heart against him which made me, ten years later, criticise all he had written.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

What caused that rankling feeling?  Perhaps it was jealousy of Voltaire’s towering genius and the world’s recognition of it.  Possibly he felt that Voltaire had been condescending towards him, and his intellectual pride and sensitivity had taken it badly.  Casanova records that in 1762 he returned to Geneva but refused to visit Voltaire, who had now moved to his new estate at Ferney and was apparently hoping to see him. Since their meeting, Casanova had translated Voltaire’s play L’Écossaise (The Scotsman) into Italian and sent it to him.  He hadn’t received a reply but had learned from a friend that Voltaire thought the translation was poor.  Casanova’s public hostility, however, may not all have stemmed from injuries to his self-esteem. It is worth noting that there were genuine philosophical differences between the two men.

Whatever the reason for Casanova’s unhappiness with Voltaire, from 1766 onwards, he attacks the man and his ideas in his letters and writings.  In his Confutazione of 1769, Casanova castigates Voltaire’s arguments in favour of suicide (a hot Enlightenment topic) and seeks to prove that the logical conclusion of Voltaire’s arguments about God was atheism.  In 1779, the year after Voltaire’s death, he orchestrated Scrutinio del libro ‘eloges de M. Voltaire’ par differens auteurs, including more criticisms on Voltaire’s views on religion and suicide.

Ultimately, however, at the end of his life Casanova recognised that he had been unjust to a man who, in reality, he had greatly respected and whose writings and ideas had hugely influenced his own.  He reflects back on his visit to Les Délices:

I am sorry now for having done so [i.e. attacked Voltaire], though on reading my censures over again I find that in many places I was right. I should have done better, however, to have kept silence, to have respected his genius, and to have suspected my own opinions. I should have considered that if it had not been for those quips and cranks which made me hate him on the third day, I should have thought him wholly sublime. This thought alone should have silenced me, but an angry man always thinks himself right. Posterity on reading my attack will rank me among the Zoyluses, and the humble apology I now make to the great man’s shades may not be read.
If we meet in the halls of Pluto, the more peccant parts of our mortal nature purged away, all will be made up; he will receive my heartfelt apologies, and he will be my friend, I his sincere admirer.
(Casanova’s memoirs, ‘The Eternal Quest’, Chapter XV)

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2018)


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