Roger Pearson at Lapham's Quarterly:
It was once said of Voltaire, by his friend the Marquis d’Argenson, that “our great poet forever has one foot on Mount Parnassus and the other in the rue Quincampoix.” The rue Quincampoix was the Wall Street of eighteenth-century Paris; the country’s most celebrated writer of epic and dramatic verse had a keen eye for investment opportunities. By the time d’Argenson made his remark, in 1751, Voltaire had amassed a fortune. He owed it all to a lottery win. Or, to be more precise, to several wins.
Lotteries were all the rage in eighteenth-century Paris. There had been a financial crisis in 1719, and France had nearly gone bankrupt. The bankers were to blame, having devised financial instruments that magicked debt away, only for it to return multiplied once it was discovered that the collateral wasn’t there. With the ensuing austerity came the lottery and the blandishments ofla bonne chance. Why tax a weary and resistant populace when luck might seduce them?
The lottery craze began in 1694 (the year of Voltaire’s birth) when the English Parliament established a lottery in order to raise one million pounds for the country’s treasury. Once the first winners were announced, the craze started to spread around Europe. “We’d never heard so much talk of lotteries,” wrote Swiss theologian Jean Leclerc in a book on lotteries published in Amsterdam in 1696, “before they created one in England two years ago.”