Casanova and Voltaire – part 4

The fourth of four blogs on the relationship between Casanova and Voltaire.

Overall, you do get the impression that in his account of their meeting at Les Délices Casanova had 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)


 ‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 to 9 of ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.

26 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.


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