VOLTAIRE by A. J. Ayer (Random House: $19.95; 224 pp.). The schoolboy's Voltaire is the Voltaire of "Candide." A. J. Ayer's aim is to present the Voltaire of the largely unread and little-known other works. He achieves this and more.
Ayer, only somewhat less famous as the standard-bearer of 20th-Century Anglo-American positivism than Voltaire was as the champion of the 18th-Century French Enlightenment, brings formidable capacities to a project that (no criticism intended) few would have expected to attract him.
Ayer shows that, however neglected today, Voltaire's vast body of writings--ranging from drama and social satire to philosophy, theology and history-- were significant in their time. Ayer also penetrates behind Voltaire's famous saying--if there were no God, it would be necessary to create one--by exploring the relationship of Voltaire's deism to his determinism. Ayer's insights and his choice of quotations from and summaries of Voltaire's own elegant writings make this an evocative, even charming, introduction.