What Is Voltaire Famous For?

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Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet, was one of the most famous of French enlightenment thinkers or philosophers. As an author, Voltaire worked in a variety of different media, including novels, short stories, plays, essays, poetry and pamphlets. His most famous work is likely the scathing satire, “Candide,” subtitled “Optimism.”

Voltaire was born into a bourgeois family in 1694. By his early 20s, his writing was already scandalous enough to first earn him exile to Tulle in 1715 and then imprisonment in the Bastille by 1717. Voltaire was an outspoken opponent of radical religion and wrote extensively on the subject. His “Dictionnaire philosophique,” in particular, was an encyclopedic work espousing enlightenment rationalism over the teachings of the Catholic church. Voltaire also opposed capital punishment and torture in an age when the exercise of each was commonplace.

Voltaire’s philosophical writings often displayed his intense creativity and acerbic wit, along with an ability to analyze society and its entailing hypocrisies. His short story “Micromega,” for example, not only assaults the philosophical, theological and scientific conceits of humankind but offers one of the very first science fiction stories involving travel in outer space. “Candide” also takes on questions of philosophy, depicting the frailties of positivist worldviews through the roaming of a hapless idiot-savant. In addition to his philosophical works, Voltaire also wrote poetry and dramas, the latter including a reworking of the classical Greek tragedy, “Oedipus.”

Although Voltaire encountered persecution in his home country and then exile abroad in England, he eventually made his way home, dying in his sleep in Paris in 1778, about a decade before the onset of the French Revolution, a struggle in which many idealists and thinkers would frequently invoke his thought.