Read The Eloquent Atheist Webzine

Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Voltaire, Francois Arouet De (1694 - 1778)
"Whenever an important event, a revolution, or a calamity turns to the profit of the church, such is always signalised as the Finger of God."

"The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning."

-- Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet, better known by the pen name Voltaire (also called The Dictator of Letters), was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher.

Voltaire is well-known for his sharp wit, philosophical writings, promotion of the rights of man, and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws in France and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Church dogma and the French institutions of his day. Voltaire is considered one of the most influential figures of his time.

Early years
Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, the son of a notary, François Arouet, and his wife, Marie Marguerite D'Aumard. Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris until his exile. He studied for eight years at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, where his education in the arts began. Although he claimed not to have learned anything there other than "Latin and the Stupidities," it allowed for the development of his literary talents, especially in theater.

After graduating, Voltaire set out on a career in literature. His father, however, intended his son to be educated in the law. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as assistant to a lawyer, spent much of his time writing satirical poetry. When his father found him out, he again sent Voltaire to study law, this time in the provinces. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies not always noted for accuracy.

Voltaire's wit made him popular among aristocratic families. One of his writings, about Louis XV's regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, led to his being imprisoned in the Bastille. While there, he wrote his debut play, Oedipe, and adopted the name Voltaire. Oedipe's success began Voltaire's influence and brought him into the French Enlightenment.

Exile to England
Voltaire's repartee continued to bring him trouble, however. After offending a young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, the Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued, a secret warrant that allowed for the punishment of people who had committed no crimes or who possibly posed a risk to the royal family, and used it to exile Voltaire without a trial. The incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempt to ameliorate the French judiciary system.

Voltaire's exile to England greatly influenced him through ideas and experiences. The young man was impressed by England's monarchy, as well as the country's support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was influenced by several people, including such writers as Shakespeare. In his younger years, he saw Shakespeare as an example French writers should look to, though later Voltaire saw himself as the superior writer. Many of his later works were influenced by this stay.

After three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his ideas in a fictional document about the English government entitled the Lettres philosophiques (Philosophical letters on the English). Due to the fact that he regarded the English 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 burned and Voltaire was forced to leave Paris.

The Château de Cirey
Voltaire then set out to the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne, France 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. Their relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, led to much intellectual development. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for their time. Together, Voltaire and the Marquise also studied these books and performed experiments. Both worked on experimenting with the "natural sciences", the term used in that epoch for physics, in his laboratory. Voltaire performed many experiments, including one that attempted to determine the properties of fire.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica comments that, "If the English visit may be regarded as having finished Voltaire's education, the Cirey residence was the first stage of his literary manhood." 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 he spent exiled in England. During his time there, Voltaire had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton, a leading philosopher and scientist of the epoch. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is comprised of all the colors in the spectrum led to many experiments on his and the Marquise's part), and gravity (the story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree is mentioned in his Essai sur la poésie épique (Essay on Epic Poetry)).

Although both Voltaire and the Marquise were also curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, Voltaire and the Marquise 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", which may have caused tension between the two, this is probably exaggeration; the Marquise even wrote "je newtonise," which, translated, means "I am 'newtoning'". Voltaire wrote a book on Newton's philosophies: the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (The Elements of Newton's Philosophies). The Elements was probably written with the Marquise, and describes the other branches of Newton's ideas that fascinated him: it spoke of optics and the theory of attraction (gravity).

Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history - particularly the people who built up civilization to the point it was at the time. Voltaire had worked with history since his time in England; his second essay in English had the title Essay upon the Civil Wars in France. When he returned to France, he wrote a biographical essay over King Charles XII. This essay was 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."

After the death of the Marquise, Voltaire moved to Berlin to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer of his. The king had repeatedly invited him to his palace, and now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first, he began to encounter difficulties. Faced with a lawsuit and an argument with the president of the Berlin Academy of science, Voltaire wrote the Diatribe du docteur Akakia (Diatribe of Doctor Akakia) which derided the president.

This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and arrested Voltaire at an inn where he was staying along his journey home. Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, where he bought a large estate. Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva which banned theatrical performances and the publication of La pucelle d'Orléans against his will led to Voltaire's writing of Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759 and his eventual leave. Candide, a satire on the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known.

From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse, and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two long poems, the Henriade, and the Pucelle, besides many other smaller pieces.

The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes. Voltaire lacked both enthusiasm for and understanding of the subject, which both negatively impacted 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.

Prose and romances
Voltaire's prose and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were often written for the purposes of polemics. Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism, L'Homme aux quarante ecus certain social and political ways of the time, Zadig and others the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, and some were written to deride the Bible.

In these works, Voltaire's ironic style without exaggeration is apparent, particularly the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on this point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them or exaggerates their form. Candide in particular is the best example of his style.

Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony.

History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731)
The Age of Louis XIV (1752)
The Age of Louis XV (1746 - 1752)
Annals of the Empire - Charlemagne, A.D. 742 - Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754)
Annals of the Empire - Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II (1754)
History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol. I 1759; Vol. II 1763)

An investigator of gospels
Voltaire opposed Christian beliefs fiercely, but not consistently. On one hand, he claimed that the Gospels were figmented and Jesus did not exist - that they were produced by those who wanted to create God in their own image and were full of discrepancies. On the other hand, he claimed that this very same community preserved the texts without making any change to adjust those discrepancies. However, the defense of Christian apologetics of his time was usually not very convincing either, as many avoided Voltaire's work.

Voltaire's largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopédie and of several minor pieces. While it directed criticism against French political institutions and Voltaire's personal enemies, the work mostly targeted the Bible and the Catholic Church. While his work is too superficial and common-sense to serve as philosophy in the sense of Kant or Rawles, it draws brilliant and insightful observations on concrete problems. The book ranks perhaps second only to the novels as showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire.

Voltaire also wrote a large amount of private correspondence during his life, totalling over 20,000 letters. His personality shows through in the letters that he wrote: his energy and versatility, his unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm, his unscrupulous business faculty and his resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies.

In general criticism and miscellaneous writing Voltaire's writing was comparable to that in his other works. Almost all 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 principle 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 defects were most apparent both here and in his dealings with religion. He was unacquainted with the history of his own language and literature, and more than anywhere else, here he showed the extraordinarily limited and conventional spirit which accompanied the revolt of the French 18th century against limits and conventions in theological, ethical and political matters.

Voltaire's works, and especially his private letters, constantly contain the word l'infâme and the expression (in full or abbreviated) écrasez l'infâme. This expression has sometimes been misunderstood as meaning Christ, but the real meaning is "persecuting and privileged orthodoxy" in general. Particularly, it is the system which Voltaire saw around him, the effects which he had felt in his own exiles and the confiscations of his books, and which he had seen in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.

Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static force only useful as a counterbalance since its "religious tax", or the tithe, helped to cement a powerbase against the monarchy.

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 France in the world. Voltaire is quoted as saying that he "would rather obey one lion, than 200 rats of (his own) species". Voltaire essentially believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change. He also believed that Africans were a seperate, inferior species to Europeans and that Jews were "an ignorant and barbarous people".

He is best known today for his novel, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (1759), which satirizes the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz. Candide was subject to censorship and Voltaire did not openly claim it as his own work.

Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, like 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.

Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, not to be confused with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sent a copy of his "Ode to Posterity" to Voltaire. Voltaire read it through and said, "I do not think this poem will reach its destination."

Voltaire is remembered and honoured 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.

Some of his critics, like Thomas Carlyle, do argue that while he was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works was of much value for matter, and that he has never uttered any significant idea of his own.

Contemporary Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul lays the blame for the failures of Western, technocratic society with Voltaire in his book Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West.

The town of Ferney (France) where he lived his last 20 years of life, is now named Ferney-Voltaire. His Château is now a museum (L'Auberge de l'Europe). Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the Russian National Library, St Petersburg.


"This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."

"You know that these two nations are at war over a few acres of snow near Canada, and that they are spending on this little war more than all of Canada is worth."

"In this country, from time to time, we like to kill an admiral, to encourage the others" (Referencing the execution of Admiral Byng)(Candide)

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."

"I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."

"Common sense is not so common."

"If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism; if there were two they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."

"I shall finally have to renounce your Optimism? I'm afraid to say that it's a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly." (Candide, renouncing the Leibnizian Optimism)
"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

"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."

"Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." (Essay on Tolerance)
"Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." Translation: "The best is the enemy of the good." (Dictionnaire Philosophique).

"Now now, dear man, this is not the time to be making enemies." (on his death bed when a priest asked him to "renounce satan")

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." (Epistle on the "Three Imposters"). This statement by Voltaire became so familiar that Gustave Flaubert included it in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues ("Dictionary of commonplace ideas"), and it is still among the most frequently quoted of Voltaire's dicta.

"Truth is a fruit that can only be picked when it is very ripe."

"The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease."

"A witty saying proves nothing."

"If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones."

The pen name "Voltaire"
The name "Voltaire", which he adopted in 1718 not only as a pen name but also in daily use, is an anagram of the latinized spelling of his surname "Arouet" and the first letters of the sobriquet "le jeune" ("the younger"): AROVET Le Ieune. The name also echoes in reversed order the syllables of a familial château in the Poitou region: "Airvault". The adoption of this name after his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark a formal separation on the part of Voltaire from his family and his past.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
The Talk Of Lawrence