The Paris Review

When Diderot Met Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a Voltaire, and Denis Diderot.

In mid-December 1776, the eighty-three-year-old Voltaire pulled out a piece of paper and dashed off a note to Diderot. Having been exiled from Paris for more than twenty-five years, the now wizened and virtually toothless philosophe lamented the fact that the two men had never laid eyes on each other: “I am heartbroken to die without having met you … I would gladly come and spend my last fifteen minutes in Paris in order to have the solace of hearing your voice.”

Fifteen months later, Voltaire rolled into the capital in his blue, star-spangled coach. Quite ill with prostate cancer, the famous humanitarian, essayist, and playwright nonetheless organized a feverish schedule for himself. In addition to finishing work on a five-act tragedy—he lived long enoughon the corner of the rue de Beaune and the quai des Théatins. Here, for hours at a time, Voltaire received visits from a long list of adoring friends and dignitaries, among them Benjamin Franklin and his son. Sometime during Voltaire’s three-month stay, Diderot also came to pay his respects. Journalists who wrote about the meeting hinted that some relationships are best conducted solely by correspondence.

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