Voltaire at Court, 1743-1750
The decade of the 1740s in France was in many respects key in the reexamination of traditional ideas about social and political life that characterized the eighteenth century. A new intellectual class of writers and thinkers was appearing, mostly of middle-class background, who took Voltaire Lettres philosophiques as a model for writing and action, seeking new liberty in politics, religion, and thought. They began to designate themselves philosophes. The legitimacy of conventional moral restrictions and codes was called into question by powerful thinkers and writers, such as: Condillac, in his Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines ( 1746) and Traîté des sistèmas ( 1749); La Mettrie, in his materialistic L'Homme machine ( 1747); Montesquieu, in his Esprit des lois ( 1748); Buffon, in his Histoire naturelle, the first volumes of which appeared in 1749; and Diderot, in his Lettre sur les aveugles ( 1749), which among other things, dared to defend atheism. The end of the decade saw the inauguration of the culminating intellectual work of the century, the great Encyclopédie, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert.
Voltaire stood at the center of this new ferment, the emblematic figure of the new philosophe, the idol of young thinkers and anathema to many conservative defenders of the old order. This preeminance was achieved, of course, largely through the power of his writings, but during this decade Voltaire also achieved a dominant position in more traditional ways: being elected to the French Academy; playing a role on the complex international scene in Europe; and moving into a prominent position at court, the intimate of the powerful royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour.
The great success of Mérope, despite its lack of a love interest, spurred the Comédiens to plan a production of La Mort de César, formerly not