Voltaire’s Luck: The French philosopher outsmarts the lottery

Roger Pearson in Lapham's Quarterly:

VoltairIt 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 of la bonne chance. Why tax a weary and resistant populace when luck might seduce them?

…In fact, Voltaire made his own luck. One surviving piece of documentary evidence records that Voltaire “acquired all the ticket books on payment of a deposit without filling them in.” Clearly he had an understanding of sorts with the notaries appointed to sell the tickets, and it seems that he did not have to pay the full price of the tickets, so certain were he and his associates—and perhaps the notaries selling the tickets, presumably cut in on the action—of winning. The records for each successive draw up to and including February 1730 still exist. While the draw of January 8 shows a wide disparity in the redeemable value of the winning tickets (as intended by the original terms of the lottery), already in February there is a marked rise in the number of winning tickets redeemable for the minimum bond value of 1,000 livres, several of them registered to the same owner. La Condamine himself is recorded by name as the owner of thirteen winning tickets that had cost him only one livre each but which now entitled him to the sum of 13,000 livres.

More here.