Arouet, better known by the pen name Voltaire (also called The Dictator
of Letters), was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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".
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the
Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."
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."
this country, from time to time, we like to kill an admiral, to
encourage the others" (Referencing the execution of Admiral
is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."
have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord,
make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."
sense is not so common."
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."
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
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."
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, dear man, this is not the time to be making enemies."
(on his death bed when a priest asked him to "renounce satan")
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
art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures
witty saying proves nothing."
you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones."
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.