The son of a notary, he was born at Paris and was educated at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand. Because of insults to the regent, Philippe II d'Orléans, wrongly ascribed to him, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille (1717) for 11 months. There he rewrote his first tragedy, Œdipe (1718), and began an epic poem on Henry IV, the Henriade. It was at this time that he began to call himself Voltaire. Œdipe won him fame and a pension from the regent. Voltaire acquired an independent fortune through speculation; he was often noted for his generosity but also displayed a shrewd business acumen throughout his life and became a millionaire.
In 1726 a young nobleman, the chevalier de Rohan, resenting a witticism made at his expense by Voltaire, had Voltaire beaten. Far from obtaining justice, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille through the influence of the powerful Rohan family, and he was released only upon his promise to go to England. The episode left an indelible impression on Voltaire: for the rest of his life he exerted himself to his utmost in struggling against judicial arbitrariness. During his more than two years (1726-28) in England, Voltaire met, through his friend Lord Bolingbroke, the literary men of the period. He was impressed by the greater freedom of thought in England and deeply influenced by Newton and Locke. Voltaire's Letters concerning the English Nation (1733, in English), which appeared (1734) in French as Lettres philosophiques, may be said to have initiated the vogue of English philosophy and science that characterized the literature of the Enlightenment. The book was formally banned in France.Work in England and Cirey
While in England, Voltaire wrote the first of his historical works, a history of Charles XII of Sweden, which remains a classic in biography. Returning to France in 1729, he produced several tragedies, among them Brutus (1730) and Zaïre (1732). In 1733 he met Mme Du Châtelet, whose intellectual interests, especially in science, accorded with his own. They took up residence together at Cirey, in Lorraine, under the Marquis Du Châtelet's tolerant eye. The connection with Émilie Du Châtelet lasted until her death in 1749.
At Cirey, Voltaire worked on physics and chemistry experiments and began his long correspondence with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick II). In addition, he wrote Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1736), which was partially responsible for bringing awareness of Newtonian physics to the Continent; a burlesque treatment of the Joan of Arc legends, La Pucelle (1755); and the dramas Mahomet (1742), Mérope (1743), and Sémiramis (1748). Through the influence of Mme de Pompadour, Voltaire was made royal historiographer, a gentleman of the king's bedchamber, and a member of the French Academy.Berlin and Geneva
Voltaire first visited Berlin in 1743, and after Mme Du Châtelet's death he accepted Frederick II's invitation to live at his court. His relations with Frederick, a man whose unbending nature matched his own, were generally stormy. Voltaire's interference in the quarrel between Maupertuis and König led to renewed coldness on the part of Frederick, and in 1753 Voltaire hastily left Prussia. At a distance, the two men later became reconciled, and their correspondence was resumed. Unwelcome in France, Voltaire settled in Geneva, where he acquired the property "Les Délices"; he also acquired another house near Lausanne. The Genevese authorities soon objected to Voltaire's holding private theatrical performances at his home and still more to the article "Genève" written for Diderot's Encyclopédie, on Voltaire's instigation, by Alembert. The article, which declared that the Calvinist pastors of Geneva had seen the light and ceased to believe in organized religion, stirred up a violent controversy.The Ferney Years and Candide
Voltaire purchased (1758) an estate, Ferney (see Ferney-Voltaire), just over the French border, where he lived until shortly before his death. He conducted an extensive correspondence with most of the outstanding men and women of his time; received hosts of visitors who came to do homage to the "patriarch of Ferney"; employed himself in seeking justice for victims of religious or political persecution and in campaigning against the practice of torture; contributed to the Encyclopédie; and managed his estate, taking an active interest in improving the condition of his tenants.
Voltaire also edited the works of Corneille, wrote commentaries on Racine, and turned out a stream of anonymous novels and pamphlets in which he attacked the established institutions of his time with unremitting virulence. Ironically, it is one of these disavowed works, Candide (1759), that is most widely read today. It is the masterpiece among his "philosophical romances," which also include the inimitable short tale Jeannot et Colin (1764), perhaps the quintessence of Voltaire's style. In Candide Voltaire attacked the philosophical optimism made fashionable by Leibniz. Its conclusion, "Let us cultivate our garden" (instead of speculating on unanswerable problems), expresses succinctly Voltaire's practical philosophy of common sense.The Final Chapter
In 1778, his 84th year, Voltaire attended the first performance of his tragedy Irène, in Paris. His journey and his reception were a triumph and apotheosis, but the emotion was too much for him and he died in Paris soon afterward. In order to obtain Christian burial he had signed a partial retraction of his writings. This was considered insufficient by the church, but he refused to sign a more general retraction. To a friend he gave the following written declaration: "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting persecution." An abbot secretly conveyed Voltaire's corpse to an abbey in Champagne, where he was buried. His remains were brought back to Paris in 1791 and buried in the Panthéon.
Voltaire attained the most subtly comical effects through an imperceptible turn of a phrase; his sentences flow with facility; his expressions are always felicitous and unlabored; his irony is as devastating as its touch is light. Brevity and lucidity characterize all his writings. The Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) is a compendium of Voltaire's thought on the most varied subjects. In his serious poetic works, the perfection of his style is usually combined with a coldness that has robbed them of lasting appeal, although they tower above those of other 18th-century imitators of Racine. Voltaire was significant in helping to introduce to the theater authentic costumes, and he labored successfully for the improvement of the social status of actors.
In his philosophy, based on skepticism and rationalism, he was indebted to Locke as well as to Montaigne and Bayle. Despite Voltaire's passion for clarity and reason, he frequently contradicted himself. Thus he would maintain in one place that man's nature was as unchangeable as that of animals and would express elsewhere his belief in progress and the gradual humanization of society through the action of the arts, sciences, and commerce. In politics he advocated reform but had a horror of the ignorance and potential fanaticism of people and the violence of revolution.
In religion Voltaire felt that Christianity was a good thing for chambermaids and tailors to believe in, but for the use of the elite he advocated a simple deism. He opposed the atheism and materialism of Helvétius and Holbach. His line, "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented," has become proverbial. His celebrated slogan, Écrasez l'infâme! [crush the infamous thing!], has been interpreted as addressed either against the church or against the ancien régime in general.
Voltaire's influence in the popularization of the science and philosophy of his age was incalculably great. Perhaps his most lasting and original intellectual contribution was made in the field of history. His Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) embodies in part the ideas of his historical masterpiece, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mɶurs et l'esprit des nations (7 vol., 1756; tr. 1759), the first attempt at writing a history of the world as a whole; Voltaire laid as much emphasis on culture and commerce as on politics and war, and he avoided national parochialism.
The first "complete" edition of Voltaire's work was the so-called Kehl edition, by Beaumarchais (70 vol. in octavo or 92 vol. in duodecimo, 1784-89); a later edition is that of M. Beuchot (72 vol., 1828-40; rev. and enl., 52 vol., 1883). See his correspondence, ed. by T. Besterman (part of the series Studies on Voltaire and the 18th Century [SVEC], 1955-). There are English translations of Voltaire's most widely read works. Biographies and studies of Voltaire reflect continued controversy as to Voltaire's real thought and beliefs.
See biographies by G. Lanson (1906, in French; tr. by R. A. Wagoner, 1966), A. Mourois (1932), H. N. Brailsford (1935, repr. 1963), S. G. Tallentyre (1972), H. T. Mason (1981), A. J. Ayer (1986), and J. Leigh (2004); studies by P. Gay (1959) and V. W. Topazio (1966); N. Mitford, Voltaire in Love (1954); I. O. Wade, Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet (1941, repr. 1967) and The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (1969); I. Davidson, Voltaire in Exile (2005).
François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher known for his wit, philosophical sport, and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade.
Voltaire was a prolific writer, and produced works in almost every literary form, authoring plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, over 20,000 letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets.
He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Catholic Church dogma and the French institutions of his day.
Voltaire was one of several Enlightenment figures (along with Montesquieu, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) whose works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.
By the time he left college, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer - however, his father wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a lawyer, spent much of his time writing satirical poetry. When his father found him out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in the provinces. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies not always noted for their accuracy. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families he mixed with. Voltaire's father then obtained a job for him as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love with a French refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire's father and he was forced to return to France.
Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his energetic attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. In 1717, in his early twenties, he became involved in the Cellamare conspiracy of Giulio Alberoni against Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the regent for Louis XV of France. He allegedly wrote satirical verses about the aristocracy and one of his writings about the Régent led to him being imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation.
Richard Holmes supports this derivation of the name, but adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended it to also convey its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associations with words such as "voltige" (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), "volte-face" (a spinning about to face one's enemies), and "volatile" (originally, any winged creature). "Arouet" was not a noble name fit for his growing reputation, especially given that name's resonance with "à rouer" ("for thrashing") and "roué" (a "debauchee").
The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes. Voltaire lacked enthusiasm for and understanding of the subject, both of which negatively affected the poem's quality. The Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque work attacking religion and history. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.
In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar works sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siécles.
Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme, or "crush the infamy". The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.
The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire’s attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall's summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Roche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.
Voltaire's largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the Encyclopédie and several minor pieces. It directed criticism at French political institutions, Voltaire's personal enemies, the Bible, and the Roman Catholic Church.
Voltaire's two-year exile in England, 1726-8, greatly influenced him through ideas and experiences. The young man was impressed by Britain's constitutional monarchy, as well as the country's support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was influenced by several of the neoclassical writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially in the works of Shakespeare, still little known in continental Europe at the time. Despite pointing out his deviations from neoclassical standards, Voltaire saw Shakespeare as an example French writers might look up to, since drama in France, despite being more polished, lacked on-stage action. Later, however, as Shakespeare's influence was being increasingly felt in France, Voltaire would endeavour to set a contrary example with his own plays, decrying what he considered Shakespeare's barbarities.
After three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views on British attitudes towards government, literature and religion in a collection of essays in letter form entitled the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical letters on the English). Because he regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where copies of the document were burnt and Voltaire was again forced to leave France.
Voltaire's next destination was the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine. The building was renovated with his money, and here he began a relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (famous in her own right as Émilie du Châtelet). Cirey was owned by the Marquise's husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. The relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, had a significant intellectual element. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the "natural sciences" in his laboratory. Voltaire's experiments included an attempt to determine the properties of fire.
Having learned from his previous brushes with the authorities, Voltaire began his future habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and denying any awkward responsibility. He continued to write, publishing plays such as Mérope and some short stories. Again, a main source of inspiration for Voltaire were the years of his British exile, during which he had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colors in the spectrum led to many experiments at Cirey), and gravity (the story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree is mentioned in Voltaire's Essai sur la poésie épique, or Essay on Epic Poetry). Although both Voltaire and the Marquise were curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, they remained "Newtonians" and based their theories on Newton’s works and ideas. Though it has been stated that the Marquise may have been more "Leibnizian", she did write "je newtonise," which, translated, means "I am 'newtoning'". Voltaire's book, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (The Elements of Newton's Philosophies), was probably co-written with the Marquise, and describes the other branches of Newton's ideas that fascinated him, including optics and the theory of attraction (gravity).
Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history - particularly the people who had contributed to civilization up to that point. Voltaire's second essay in English had been Essay upon the Civil Wars in France. When he returned to France, he wrote a biographical essay of King Charles XII, which marks the beginning of Voltaire's rejection of religion; he wrote that human life is not destined or controlled by greater beings. The essay won him the position of historian in the king's court. Voltaire and the Marquise also worked with philosophy, particularly with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with the distant, and what cannot be directly proven: why and what life is, whether or not there is a God, and so on. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible, trying to find its validity in the world. Voltaire renounced religion; he believed in the separation of church and state and in religious freedom, ideas he formed after his stay in England. Voltaire even claimed that "One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker."
Voltaire, though often thought an atheist, did in fact partake in religious activities and even erected a chapel on his estate at Ferney. The chief source for the misconception is a line from one of his poems (called "Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors") that translates to: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." The full body of the work, however, reveals his criticism was more focused towards the actions of organized religion, rather than with the concept of religion itself.
Like many other key figures during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a Deist. He did not believe that absolute faith, based upon any particular or singular religious text or tradition of revelation, was needed to believe in God. In fact, Voltaire's focus instead on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature reflected the contemporary Pantheism, increasingly popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which continues in a form of deism today known as "Voltairean Pantheism."
He wrote, "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason.
In terms of religious texts, Voltaire was largely of the opinion that the Bible was 1) an outdated legal and/or moral reference, 2) by and large a metaphor, but one that still taught some good lessons, and 3) a work of Man, not a divine gift. These beliefs did not hinder his religious practice, however, though it did gain him somewhat of a bad reputation in the Catholic Church. It may be noted that Voltaire was indeed seen as somewhat of a nuisance to many believers, and was almost universally known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket....
Voltaire was also critical of Muhammad. His play Fanaticism, or Mahomet was “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect”; he also referred to Muhammad as “a false prophet.” However, his views on Islam were more favourable. He called him the founder of "a wise, severe, chaste, and humane religion", and also said "The legislator of the Muslims, a terrible and powerful man, established his dogmas with his valor and arms; yet, his religion became benign and tolerant.
From translated works on Confucianism and Legalism, Voltaire drew on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy - which were based on rational principles, to look critically at European organized religion and hereditary aristocracy.
Voltaire also displayed, as part of his Dictionnaire philosophique, an inclination towards the ideas of Hinduism and the works of Brahmin priests, asking, "Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians?" His attitudes towards religious institutions are further shown in the criticisms he made of Christian missionaries in India.
There is an apocryphal story that his home at Ferney was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and used for printing Bibles, but this appears to be due to a misunderstanding of the 1849 annual report of the American Bible Society. Voltaire's chateau is now owned and administered by the French Ministry of Culture.
Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire, only an enlightened monarch or an enlightened absolutist, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king's rational interest to improve the power and wealth of his subjects and kingdom. Voltaire essentially believed enlightened despotism to be the key to progress and change.
The most enduring of Voltaire's written works is his novella, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which satirized the philosophy of optimism. Candide was also subject to censorship and Voltaire jokingly claimed the actual author was a certain "Demad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.
Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer" ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, The Three Impostors.
Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).
Thomas Carlyle argued that, while Voltaire was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works were of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own.
His views of non-western peoples were ambiguous. While he often used China, Siam and Japan as examples of brilliant non-European civilizations and harshly criticized slavery, he also believed that Africans were a separate species, inferior to the Europeans, and that ancient Jews were "an ignorant and barbarous people.
The town of Ferney, France, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life (though he died in Paris), is now named Ferney-Voltaire in honor of its most famous resident. His château is a museum.
In 1791 Voltaire's remains were entombed at Paris' Panthéon.
The Scots diarist James Boswell befriended Voltaire after meeting him at Ferney in 1764. Boswell recorded their conversations, which are published in Boswell and the Grand Tour and give an interesting insight into Voltaire.