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1694 - 1778

The French poet dramatist, historian, and philosopher Voltaire was an outspoken and aggressive enemy of every injustice but especially of religious intolerance. His works are an outstanding embodiment of the principles of the French Enlightenment.


François Marie Arouet rechristened himself Arouet de Voltaire, probably in 1718. A stay in the Bastille had given him time to reflect on his doubts concerning his parentage, on his need for a noble name to befit his growing reputation, and on the coincidence that Arouet sounded like both a rouer (for beating) and roué (a debauchee). In prison Voltaire had access to a book on anagrams, which may have influenced his name choice thus: arouet, uotare, voltaire (a winged armchair).

Youth and Early Success, 1694-1728

Voltaire was born, perhaps on Nov. 21, 1694, in Paris. He was ostensibly the youngest of the three surviving children of François Arouet and Marie Marguerite Daumand, although Voltaire claimed to be the "bastard of Rochebrune," a minor poet and songwriter. Voltaire's mother died when he was seven years old, and he was then drawn to his sister. She bore a daughter who later became Voltaire's mistress.

A clever child, Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand from 1704 to 1711. He displayed an astonishing talent for poetry, cultivated a love of the theater, and nourished a keen ambition.

When Voltaire was drawn into the circle of the 72-year-old poet the Abbé de Chaulieu, "one of the most complete hedonists of all times," his father packed him off to Caen. Hoping to squelch his son's literary aspirations and to turn his mind to the law, Arouet placed the youth as secretary to the French ambassador at The Hague. Voltaire fell in with a jilted French refugee, Catherine Olympe Dunoyer, pretty but barely literate. Their elopement was thwarted. Under the threat of a lettre de cachet obtained by his father, Voltaire returned to Paris in 1713 and was articled to a lawyer. He continued to write, and he renewed his pleasure-loving acquaintances. In 1717 Voltaire was at first exiled and then imprisoned in the Bastille for verses offensive to powerful personages.

As early as 1711, Voltaire, eager to test himself against Sophocles and Pierre Corneille, had written a first draft of Oedipe . On Nov. 18, 1718, the revised play opened in Paris to a sensational success. The Henriade, begun in the Bastille and published in 1722, was Voltaire's attempt to rival Virgil and to give France an epic poem. This work sounded in ringing phrases Voltaire's condemnation of fanaticism and advanced his reputation as the standard-bearer of French literature. However, his growing literary, financial, and social successes only partially reconciled him to his father, who died in 1722.

In 1726 an altercation with the Chevalier de Rohan, an effete but influential aristocrat, darkened Voltaire's outlook and intensified his sense of injustice. Rohan had mocked Voltaire's bourgeois origin and his change of name and in response to Voltaire's witty retort had hired ruffians to beat the poet, as Voltaire's friend and host, the Duc de Sully, looked on approvingly. When Voltaire demanded satisfaction through a duel, he was thrown into the Bastille through Rohan's influence and was released only on condition that he leave the country.

England willingly embraced Voltaire as a victim of France's injustice and infamy. During his stay there (1726-1728) he was feted; Alexander Pope, William Congreve, Horace Walpole, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, praised him; and his works earned Voltaire £1,000. Voltaire learned English by attending the theater daily, script in hand. He also imbibed English thought, especially that of John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, and he saw the relationship between free government and creative speculation. More importantly, England suggested the relationship of wealth to freedom. The only protection, even for a brilliant poet, was wealth. Henceforth, Voltaire cultivated his Arouet business cunning.

At Cirey and at Court, 1729-1753

Voltaire returned to France in 1729. A tangible product of his English stay was the Lettres anglaises (1734), which have been called "the first bomb dropped on the Old Regime." Their explosive potential included such remarks as, "It has taken centuries to do justice to humanity, to feel it was horrible that the many should sow and the few should reap." Written in the style of letters to a friend in France, the 24 "letters" were a witty and seductive call for political, religious, and philosophic freedom; for the betterment of earthly life; for employing the method of Sir Francis Bacon, Locke, and Newton; and generally for exploiting the intellect toward social progress. After their publication in France in 1734, copies were sized from Voltaire's bookseller, and Voltaire was threatened with arrest. He fled to Lorraine and was not permitted to return to Paris until 1735. The work, with an additional letter on Pascal, was circulated as Letters philosophiques.

Prior to 1753 Voltaire did not have a home; but for 15 years following 1733 he had a refuge at Cirey, in a château owned by his "divine Émilie," Madame du Châtelet. While still living with her patient husband and son, Émilie made generous room for Voltaire. They were lovers; and they worked together intensely on physics and metaphysics. The lovers quarreled in English about trivia and studied the Old and New Testaments. These biblical labors were important as preparation for the antireligious works that Voltaire published in the 1750s and 1760s. At Cirey, Voltaire also wrote his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton.

But joining Émilie in studies in physics did not keep him from drama, poetry, metaphysics, history, and polemics. Similarly, Émilie's affection was not alone enough for Voltaire. From 1739 he required travel and new excitements. Thanks to Émilie's influence, Voltaire was by 1743 less unwelcome at Versailles than in 1733, but still there was great resentment toward the "lowborn intruder" who "noticed things a good courtier must overlook." Honoured by a respectful correspondence with Frederick II of Prussia, Voltaire was then sent on diplomatic missions to Frederick. But Voltaire's new diversion was his incipient affair with his widowed niece, Madame Denis. This affair continued its erotic and stormy course to the last years of his life. Émilie too found solace in other lovers. The idyll of Cirey ended with her death in 1749.

Voltaire then accepted Frederick's repeated invitation to live at court. He arrived at Potsdam with Madame Denis in July 1750. First flattered by Frederick's hospitality, Voltaire then gradually became anxious, quarrelsome, and finally disenchanted. He left, angry, in March 1753, having written in December 1752: "I am going to write for my instruction a little dictionary used by Kings. 'My friend' means 'my slave."' Frederick was embarrassed by Voltaire's vocal lawsuit with a moneylender and angered by his attempts to ridicule P. L. M. de Maupertuis, the imported head of the Berlin Academy. Voltaire's polemic against Maupertuis, the Diatribe du docteur Akakia, angered Frederick. Voltaire's angry response was to return the pension and other honorary trinkets bestowed by the King. Frederick retaliated by delaying permission for Voltaire's return to France, by putting him under a week's house arrest at the German border, and by confiscating his money.

Sage of Ferney, 1753-1778

After leaving Prussia, Voltaire visited Strasbourg, Colmar, and Lorraine, for Paris was again forbidden him. Then he went to Geneva. Even Geneva, however, could not tolerate all of Voltaire's activities of theatre, pen, and press. Therefore, he left his property "Les Delices" and bought an estate at Ferney, where he lived out his days as a kingly patriarch. His own and Madame Denis's great extravagances were supported by the tremendous and growing fortune he amassed through shrewd money handling. A borrower even as a schoolboy, Voltaire became a shrewd lender as he grew older. Generous loans to persons in high places paid off well in favours and influence. At Ferney, he mixed in local politics, cultivated his lands, became through his intelligent benevolence beloved of the townspeople, and in general practiced a self-appointed and satisfying kingship. He became known as the "innkeeper of Europe" and entertained widely and well in his rather small but elegant household.

Voltaire's literary productivity did not slacken, although his concerns shifted as the years passed at Ferney. He was best known as a poet until in 1751 Le Siecle de Louis XIV marked him also as a historian. Other historical works include Histoire de Charles XII; Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand; and the universal history, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, published in 1756 but begun at Cirey. An extremely popular dramatist until 1760, when he began to be eclipsed by competition from the plays of Shakespeare that he had introduced to France, Voltaire wrote - in addition to the early Oedipe - La Mort de César, Ériphyle, Zaïre, Alzire, Mérope, Mahomet, L'Enfant prodigue, Nanine (a parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela), L'Orphelin de la Chine, Sémiramis, and Tancrede.

The philosophic conte was a Voltaire invention. In addition to his famous Candide (1759), others of his stories in this genre include Micromégas, Vision de Babouc, Memnon, Zadig, and Jeannot et Colin . In addition to the Lettres Philosophiques and the work on Newton, others of Voltaire's works considered philosophic are Philosophie de l'histoire, Le Philosophe ignorant, Tout en Dieu, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and Traitédela métaphysique. Voltaire's poetry includes - in addition to the Henriade - the philosophic poems L'Homme, La Loi naturelle, and Le Désastre de Lisbonne, as well as the famous La Pucelle, a delightfully naughty poem about Joan of Arc.

Always the champion of liberty, Voltaire in his later years became actively involved in securing justice for victims of persecution. He became the "conscience of Europe." His activity in the Calas affair was typical. An unsuccessful and despondent young man had hanged himself in his Protestant father's home in Roman Catholic Toulouse. For 200 years Toulouse had celebrated the massacre of 4,000 of its Huguenot inhabitants. When the rumor spread that the deceased had been about to renounce Protestantism, the family was seized and tried for murder. The father was broken on the rack while protesting his innocence. A son was exiled, the daughters were confined in a convent, and the mother was left destitute. Investigation assured Voltaire of their innocence, and from 1762 to 1765 he worked unceasingly in their behalf. He employed "his friends, his purse, his pen, his credit" to move public opinion to the support of the Calas family.

Voltaire's ingenuity and zeal against injustice were not exhausted by the Calas affair. Similar was his activity in behalf of the Sirven family (1771) and of the victims of the Abbeville judges (1774). Nor was Voltaire's influence exhausted by his death in Paris on May 30, 1778, where he had gone in search of Madame Denis and the glory of being crowned with laurel at a performance of his drama Irene.

Assessment of Voltaire

John Morley, English secretary for lreland under William Gladstone, wrote of Voltaire's stature: "When the right sense of historical proportion is more fully developed in men's minds, the name of Voltaire will stand out like the names of the great decisive moments in the European advance, like the Revival of Learning, or the Reformation." Gustave Lanson, in 1906, wrote of Voltaire: "He accustomed public common sense to regard itself as competent in all matters, and he turned public opinion into one of the controlling forces in public affairs." Lanson added: "For the public to become conscious of an idea, the idea must be repeated over and over. But the sauce must be varied to please the public palate. Voltaire was a master chef, a superb saucier."

Voltaire was more than a thinker and activist. Style was nearly always nearly all to him-in his abode, in his dress, and particularly in his writings. As poet and man of letters, he was demanding, innovative, and fastidious within regulated patterns of expression. Even as thinker and activist, he believed that form was all-or at least the best part. As he remarked, "Never will twenty folio volumes bring about a revolution. Little books are the ones to fear, the pocket-size, portable ones that sell for thirty sous. If the Gospels had cost 1200 sesterces, the Christian religion could never have been established."

Voltaire's literary focus moved from that of poet to pamphleteer, and his moral sense had as striking a development. In youth a shameless libertine and in middle years a man notorious throughout the literary world, with more discreet but still eccentric attachments-in his later years Voltaire was renowned, whatever his personal habits, as a public defender and as a champion of human liberty. "Time, which alone makes their reputations of men," he observed," in the end makes their faults respectable." In his last days in Paris, he is said to have taken especially to heart a woman's remark: "Do you not know that he is the preserver of the Calas?"

Voltaire's life nearly spanned the 18th century; his writings fill 70 volumes; and his influence is not yet exhausted. He once wrote: "They wanted to bury me. But I outwitted them."


Voltaire (pseud. of François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778). Held to be one of the three greatest French writers of the 18th c., Voltaire was perhaps its most representative, certainly its most prolific, and emphatically its most combative (he illustrated the virtues of engagement long before Sartre). Most of his life was spent in an increasingly vigorous battle against l'infâme, a concept generally taken to comprehend the evils resulting from religious bigotry and superstition but which is infinitely extensible and probably encompasses all that Voltaire abhorred in benighted human behaviour—particularly Establishment behaviour—and that served to thwart the realization of his resolutely modern vision of a secular, tolerant society.

1. The Tragic Poet

Born in Paris, the youngest child of a notary, a pupil of the Jesuits at Louis-le-Grand, Voltaire was precociously attracted towards poetry. Devoted as he would always be to the aesthetic prejudices of the grand siècle, with its strict code of values, he dreamed of success as his century's greatest tragic writer. To his contemporaries he became first and foremost precisely that: between Œdipe (1718) and Irène (1778) he composed—often to acclaim—28 tragedies on vastly differing subjects. Today the bulk of them are treated as so much literary history, despite the fact that Voltaire had a credible tragic dignity, a good sense of the dramatic possibilities of the stage, and above all ideas (in a period when the tragic theatre was remarkably stagnant) as to what constituted desirable innovations, e.g. an increase in action and spectacle ( Brutus, 1730; La Mort de César, 1731), or themes drawn from different times and places ( Zaïre, 1732; Adélaïde du Guesclin, 1734; Alzire, 1736; L'Orphelin de la Chine, 1755; Don Pèdre, 1761; etc.). His inability to equal Corneille or Racine is partly explicable by his lack of intense psychological insight and by his haste or impatience (although, paradoxically, he expended considerable energy on all his compositions), but it is mostly to be ascribed to his increasing desire to use the theatre—for long an ‘école de mœurs’—as a vehicle also for Enlightenment propaganda.

2. The Philosophe

Voltaire was always to look upon writing from the point of view of a philosophe, even when it did express immutable aesthetic values. Later, magisterially dismissing Rousseau, he was to say: ‘Jean-Jacques n'écrit que pour écrire; moi j'écris pour agir.’ Voltaire's ‘action’ can be detected as early as 1714 and is explicable by his growing dissatisfaction with the status quo (whether socio-political or religious), which had doubtless been fostered by his early frequentation of the Société du Temple. Even so young, Voltaire was already notorious as a frondeur with an insolent tongue and a caustic pen. The latter earned him provincial exile (1716). It was, moreover, in the Bastille (1717-18) that he finished composing Œdipe, which brought him international attention, and began work on his epic poem La Ligue, published in 1723 (re-titled La Henriade in 1728). Both these works—not to overlook his deistic Le Pour et le contre (1722)—betray, with their humanitarian and anticlerical outbursts, a spirit of revolt, even a spirit in revolt. Friendship with Viscount Bolingbroke (1722 onwards) ensured, moreover, Voltaire's interest in the complexities of the modern British state, ultimately setting the seal on his orientation as a philosophe ready to censure, systematically, whatever was contrary to liberty, tolerance, and common sense.

An opportunity to visit England came in 1726. Having, in his increasing self-regard, come to believe that a lionized poetic genius was second to none, Voltaire incautiously treated the chevalier de Rohan with ‘disregard’ (January 1726). Their altercation earned the poet (whose corporeal humiliation, administered by Rohan's lackeys, was largely treated by society with an indifference which Voltaire found incomprehensible and unjust) a further spell in the Bastille. Shortly afterwards he left for London, capital of that ‘pays où on pense librement et noblement sans être retenu par aucune crainte servile’. He remained there for over two years, delving into all aspects of its dynamic ‘republican’ civilization, free to meditate on the iniquities he had seen (or experienced) at home. He returned to France (autumn 1728), rapidly completing Brutus (1730) and the Histoire de Charles XII (1731), which both amply betrayed the more dangerous potential of his preparatory work for the Lettres philosophiques. The latter, Lanson's ‘première bombe lancée contre l'Ancien Régime’, immediately promoted the long-standing nuisance into a full-blown persona non grata.

Fleeing Paris to escape a lettre de cachet, Voltaire sought refuge at Cirey, home of his mistress, Madame du Châtelet (Émilie). The stay there (1734-44) was a period of happiness and of intense activity. Increasingly addicted to the tragic theatre, Voltaire added Alzire, Zulime, Mahomet, and Mérope to his repertoire; but essentially he worked—often alongside Émilie—on science and mathematics, biblical exegesis, history, and philosophical matters, either laying in large stocks of ammunition for his later campaign against revealed religion or using the material to produce that important work of popularization, the Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1736). Émilie approved of this initiative. But stung somewhat by her opinion that history was much less important than natural science, the author of Charles XII also commenced two influential works: the Essai sur les mœurs and Le Siècle de Louis XIV.

3. Historian and Courtier

Voltaire was henceforth to be constantly preoccupied by history, giving much thought to its practice and to its role in society. His works on Louis XIV (1751), Peter the Great (1759-63), the philosophy of history (1765), the Parlement de Paris (1769), and Louis XV (1769) will all accentuate his determined break with the humanist and providentialist stances which he felt were characterized by credulity and prejudice, faulty emphasis and delusive rhetoric. Voltaire's own counterpoised, sceptical method (see Essai sur les mœurs) was to prove excellent. Not so his practice. For, though endowed with all the qualities of the marvellously stylish narrator, he tended quite visibly to fall victim to his own scepticism. When, moreover, it came to describing great men and events, Voltaire the historian performed—on two counts—exactly like Voltaire the tragic writer. Lacking psychological finesse, he had not been born to work that ‘résurrection intégrale’ of the past which Michelet, for example, so brilliantly illustrated. Secondly, being passionately engaged in the struggles of the century, he tended to reduced history to a utilitarian warning of what happens to humanity deprived of Enlightenment.

With the death of Fleury (1743) official hostility to Voltaire slackened. Thanks to powerful advocates (Madame de Pompadour, d'Argenson, the duc de Richelieu), he regained a measure of favour and worked hard to redeem himself; momentarily he became a court poet, producing in particular La Princesse de Navarre (1744) and the eulogistic (officially printed) Poème de Fontenoy (1745). The rewards came despite Voltaire's numerous enemies, who were either hostile to his ideals or jealous of his success and the considerable fortune he had amassed over the previous decades by business deals: Louis XV appointed him historiographer of France (1745), a distinction which doubtless helped his election (after four unsuccessful attempts) to the Académie Française (1746). During this period (1744-50) Voltaire also produced Zadig and—jousting yet again with Crébillon—three more tragedies: Sémiramis (1746), Oreste, and Rome sauvée (1749). ‘Immortalized’ and internationally famous, he now experienced relatively greater contentment. But the death of Émilie and diverse vexations and unpleasantness served to reactivate his restless, dissatisfied spirit. He decided to heed the siren-calls which Frederick II of Prussia, in his admiration for the ‘literary genius of the century’ had for long been sending. So began the (ultimately disastrous) Berlin interlude (1750-3), during which Voltaire, laden with Frederick's honours, completed Micromégas and Le Siècle de Louis XIV, wrote the Poème sur la loi naturelle, continued work on the Essai sur les mœurs, and conceived the idea for what became the Dictionnaire philosophique. Unfortunately, however, the two men's initial euphoria soon turned to mutual disenchantment. The rupture came, inevitably, when Voltaire, espousing König's cause in his famous quarrel with Maupertuis, demolished the latter (the president of Frederick's Academy of Science) with his bitterly satirical Diatribe du docteur Akakia (1753).

4. The Sage of Ferney

Now began the most sombre period in Voltaire's life (1753-7). Disgraced in Berlin, unwelcome in France, generally anathema to right-thinking societies, Voltaire wandered disconsolate, seeking a permanent home. He was now 60. Who and what was he? A celebrated poet and playwright, a controversial historian, a superb letter-writer, a skilful popularizer of scientific ideas, a brilliant nonconformist whose ideas and attitudes constantly irritated authority. This is the Voltaire, however, of whom Valéry once said: ‘S'il fût mort à 60 ans, il serait à peu près oublié aujourd'hui.’ The assessment, if extreme, is understandable: the ‘real’ Voltaire, the Voltaire of legend and posterity, the Voltaire of Candide, the Voltaire who campaigned against injustice, intolerance, and human imbecility, is the Sage of Ferney, the substantial estate just over the border from Geneva which Voltaire bought in 1758 and which he managed actively and profitably. Once there, secure from persecution, financially independent, conscious of his mission, he became less concerned with purely literary pursuits and more devoted to his and his disciples' accelerating crusade against all adversaries of the Enlightenment.

Since, by this time, Voltaire had for long been almost constantly absent from the intellectual milieux in Paris (with which, naturally, he remained in contact), and since, in parallel, he had become an international celebrity (whose letters were highly prized), we should perhaps mention here the outstanding importance of Voltaire's Correspondence (edited by Theodore Besterman). Contained in 45 stout volumes, it enshrines nearly 70 years of vital French history, and covers—with a superb mastery of all conceivable registers—all possible matters, whether social, political, philosophical, or cultural. Here we find, in contact with his 1, 200 different correspondents of various nationalities, professions, opinions, and importance, a complex, everchanging, multi-faceted Voltaire whose pen was superbly suited to all occasions. Lanson has suggested, with some justification, that it is the Correspondence which is his least-contested masterpiece.

This is also, unsurprisingly, the time when Voltaire's already numerous enemies multiplied alarmingly. However, his combination of wit, irony, Rabelaisian humour, and sheer vilification neutralized them all so effectively that their reputations were irreparably distorted (e.g. Fréron, Lefranc de Pompignan, Chaumeix, La Beaumelle, Rousseau, Nonnotte, Coger, etc.). His concerns, as he crossed swords with them, were political, philosophical, and above all religious. His attacks on revealed religion multiplied substantially and alarmingly (Extrait des sentiments de Jean Meslier, 1762; Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764; La Philosophie de l'histoire, 1764; Questions sur les miracles, 1765; Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers, 1767; etc.). In tandem, his more general philosophe concerns found expression in his mock-heroic epic about Jeanne d'Arc, La Pucelle (1755-62), and in countless romans and contes, facéties and dialogues, which were even more accessible to that general public which avidly read his mordant, even scurrilous, productions. It is mainly these polemical pieces which—given their subject-matter—should have been perishable and yet which, paradoxically, proved to be eternal by their exuberance, their wonderful inventiveness. Candide had, for example, shown the propaganda value of the tale; now came Jeannot et Colin (1764), L'Ingénu (1767), L'Homme aux quarante écus (1768), etc.

But that was not all. Having himself experienced the direst vexations, Voltaire was more than normally sensitive to injustice and persecution. He concerned himself, for example, with the problems of political emancipation in Geneva (1765-6). Other activities are, however, better known: brilliantly he fought for the rehabilitation of Calas (1762-5) and Sirven (1765-71), victims of intolerance; or defended the memories of Lally (1766-78), La Barre (1767-75), and Montbailli (1771-3), all unjustly (even callously) executed; or undertook the seemingly hopeless defence (1772-3) of Morangiés, stridently accused of fraud. His most significant contributions in this field—besides his abundant writings which stubbornly justified the above unfortunates—are the Traité sur la tolérance (1762), the Commentaire sur le livre Des délits et des peines (1766), and the Prix de la justice et de l'humanité (1778).

It is the humanitarian Voltaire who, in the last decade of his life, imposed himself on his public. For when, in February 1778, he returned triumphally to Paris after 28 years of officially willed absence, it was ‘l'homme aux Calas’ who received the delirious welcome. When, worn out, he died on 28 May 1778, he was for many the most honoured man in Europe, for many others the most hated in Christendom. Similar mutually exclusive interpretations are common currency today.

Few authors have demonstrated such complexity. A man of extremes who was both mercurial and Protean, Voltaire was that essential man of extremes: the dual personality whose life and activities constantly and kaleidoscopically covered the whole spectrum of human behaviour. Valéry nicely formulated the problem when he called him ‘ce diable d'homme dont la mobilité, les ressources, les contradictions, font un personnage que la musique seule, la plus vive musique, pourrait suivre’.










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