Study Guide

Voltaire

Voltaire Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

0111201602-Voltaire.jpgVoltaire (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in Paris. His father had migrated to the capital from Poitou and prospered there. He held a minor post in the treasury. Voltaire was educated at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, and many years later the Jesuits were to be the objects of savage satire in his masterpiece Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). Voltaire was trained in the law, which he abandoned. As a young man, during the first quarter of the century, Voltaire already exhibited strongly two traits which have come to be associated with the Enlightenment: wit and skepticism. Louis XIV ruled France until 1715, and the insouciant Voltaire (not yet known by that name) and his circle of friends delighted in poking fun at the pretentious backwardness of the Sun King’s court.

In 1716, when Voltaire was twenty-two, his political satires prompted the first of his several exiles, in this instance to Sully-sur-Loire. He was, however, unrepentant; in 1717, more satirical verses on the aristocracy caused his imprisonment by lettre de cachet (without trial). During his eleven months in the Bastille, Voltaire, like so many imprisoned writers before him, practiced his craft. He wrote Œdipe (1718; Oedipus, 1761), a tragedy which was a great success upon the stage following his release. A year later, when Oedipus came out in print, the author took the name Voltaire, an approximate anagram of Arouet. Such was his fame, however, that the pseudonym afforded him little chance of anonymity. He came eventually to be known as François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire.

Life’s Work

By the age of thirty, Voltaire was well established as a man of letters. For the next fifty years, he produced an enormous and varied body of work; he wrote tragic plays, satires in prose and verse, histories, philosophical tales, essays, pamphlets, encyclopedia entries, and letters by the thousands. Also by the age of thirty, he was a wealthy man. He speculated in the Compagnie des Indes with great success, and his fortune grew over the years. Voltaire’s personal wealth afforded him an independence of which few writers of the period could boast.

Still, his penchant for religious and political controversy had him in trouble again by 1726. The Chevalier de Rohan caused him to be beaten and incarcerated in the Bastille for a second time. He was subsequently exiled to England, where he spent most of the period from 1726 to 1729. There, he learned the English language, read widely in the literature, and became the companion of Alexander Pope and other Queen Anne wits. La Henriade (1728; Henriad, 1732), his epic of Henry IV, was published during this period, and his sojourn in Britain would eventually produce Lettres philosophiques (1734; published earlier as Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733). Voltaire’s great achievement during the years immediately following his return to France was his Histoire de Charles XII (1731; The History of Charles XII, 1732). This account of the Swedish monarch is often characterized as the first modern history.

Letters Concerning the English Nation implicitly attacked French institutions through its approbation of English institutions. For example, Voltaire wittily suggests therein that, despite the manifest benefits of inoculation against smallpox, the French reject the practice because the English have adopted it first. Again, Voltaire angered powerful enemies. His book was burned, he barely escaped imprisonment, and he was forced to flee Paris for a third time. He settled at Cirey in Lorraine, first as the guest and eventually as the companion of the brilliant Madame du Châtelet. There, for the next fifteen years, he continued to write in all genres, but, having become acquainted with the works of John Locke and David Hume, he turned increasingly to philosophical and scientific subjects. As revealed in his Discours en vers sur l’homme (1738-1752; Discourses in Verse on Man, 1764), Voltaire embraced the philosophy of optimism during these years, believing that reason alone could lead man out of the darkness and into the millennium. Gradually, his reputation was rehabilitated within court circles. He had been given permission to return to Paris in 1735, he was named official historiographer of France in 1743, and he was elected to the French Academy in 1746. In 1748, he published his first philosophical tale, Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, histoire orientale (Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749).

Madame du Châtelet died in 1749. The next year, believing that Louis XV had offered him insufficient patronage, Voltaire...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The son of prosperous bourgeois parents, Voltaire had a first- rate education and developed a satirical wit that gained him early acceptance by aristocratic circles. In 1717, however, a poem he wrote lampooning the recently deceased King Louis XIV earned him nearly a year’s confinement in the Bastille. Shortly after his release he adopted the pen name Voltaire and wrote a play titled Oedipe (1718) whose success established his reputation as a dramatist.

Eight years later Voltaire’s witty reply to a high aristocrat led to his being beaten by the aristocrat’s footmen and another term in the Bastille. By promising to leave the country, Voltaire gained release and went on a significant three- year journey to England. He compiled his laudatory observations of England as a land of liberty and tolerance in Lettres anglaises ou philosophiques (1734). Viewed as a direct and indirect criticism of France, this book was not allowed to be printed in France, where permission of the government’s director of publications was necessary. Even with such permission, decisions could be reversed or bans imposed by local legislative bodies, or by a vote of the theology faculty of the University of Paris.

To avoid censorship complications in France, Voltaire followed a common practice of French writers by publishing Lettres anglaises ou philosophiques in Amsterdam, whence it was smuggled into France. In response the Parlement of Paris condemned...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Voltaire encompasses in his work the extremes of rationalism during the Enlightenment. Until he was middle-aged, he was an Optimist, but in his sixties he rejected this philosophy in disgust and brilliantly argued the limitations of reason. He wrote prolifically in all literary forms during his lifetime, making critical commentary on prevailing social conditions and conventions.

Early Life

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in Paris. His father had migrated to the capital from Poitou and prospered there, holding a minor post in the treasury. Voltaire was educated at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, and many years later the Jesuits were to be the objects of savage satire in his masterpiece Candide. Voltaire was trained in the law, which he abandoned. As a young man, during the first quarter of the century, Voltaire already exhibited two traits that have come to be associated with the Enlightenment: wit and skepticism. Louis XIV ruled France until 1715, and the insouciant Voltaire (not yet known by that name) and his circle of friends delighted in poking fun at the pretentious backwardness of the Sun King’s court.

1716, when Voltaire was twenty-two, his political satires prompted the first of his several exiles, in this instance to Sully-sur-Loire. He was, however, unrepentant; in 1717, more satirical verses on the aristocracy caused his imprisonment by lettre de cachet (without trial). During his eleven months in the Bastille, Voltaire, like so many imprisoned writers before him, practiced his craft. He wrote Œdipe (1718; Oedipus, 1761), a tragedy that was a great success upon the stage following his release. A year later, when Oedipus appeared in print, the author took the name Voltaire, an approximate anagram of Arouet. Such was his fame, however, that the pseudonym afforded him little chance of anonymity. He came eventually to be known as François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire.

Life’s Work

By the age of thirty, Voltaire was well established as a man of letters. For the next fifty years, he produced an enormous and varied body of work: tragic plays, satires in prose and verse, histories, philosophical tales, essays, pamphlets, encyclopedia entries, and letters by the thousands. Also by the age of thirty, he was a wealthy man. He speculated in the Compagnie des Indes with great success, and his fortune grew over the years. Voltaire’s personal wealth afforded him an independence of which few writers of the period could boast.

Still, his penchant for religious and political controversy had him in trouble again by 1726. The chevalier de Rohan caused him to be beaten and incarcerated in the Bastille for a second time. He was subsequently exiled to England, where he spent most of the period from 1726 to 1729. There, he learned the English language, read widely in the literature, and became the companion of Alexander Pope and other Queen Anne wits. La Henriade (1728; Henriade, 1732), his epic of Henry IV, was published during this period, and his sojourn in Britain would eventually produce Philosophical Letters. Voltaire’s great achievement during the years immediately following his return to France was his Histoire de Charles XII (1731; The History of Charles XII, 1732). This account of the Swedish monarch is often characterized as the first modern history.

Philosophical Letters, Voltaire embraced the philosophy of Optimism during these years, believing that reason alone could lead humanity out of the darkness and into the millennium. Gradually, his reputation was rehabilitated within court circles. He had been given permission to return to Paris in 1735, he was named official historiographer of France in 1743, and he was elected to the French Academy in 1746. In 1748, he published his first philosophical tale, Zadig.

Madame du Châtelet died in 1749. The next year, believing that Louis XV had offered him insufficient patronage, Voltaire joined the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia at Potsdam. For three years, Voltaire lived in great comfort and luxury, completing during this period Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752). He and the Prussian king, however, were not well suited temperamentally. They quarreled, and the inevitable breach occurred in 1753. Shortly thereafter, Voltaire purchased Les Délices (the delights), a château in Switzerland, near Geneva. He stayed in the good graces of the Swiss for exactly as long as he had managed in Prussia, three years. There, his encyclopedia entry for Geneva was perceived as having a contemptuous tone. The national pride of his hosts was wounded, and he left the country.

He bought a great estate, Ferney, on French soil but just across the Swiss frontier. Ferney was the...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, the son of a grand bourgeois lawyer. From 1704 to 1711, he attended a Jesuit boarding school, after which he pursued the study of law until his political writings earned for him his first exile from Paris in 1716 and his first imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717. From that time on, he devoted himself to his writing, beginning with plays and poetry and expanding to literature, philosophy, and history. He was socially and intellectually precocious, associating with many aristocratic and libertine men in the Société du Temple (Society of the Temple) by the time he was twelve. Voltaire was brilliant, witty, a talented writer, and in later years, a social...

(The entire section is 378 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

François-Marie Arouet, known to his contemporaries and to posterity as Voltaire, was born on November 21, 1694, very likely in Paris, though there is some evidence for Châtenay. His father, a former notary, was a well-to-do bourgeois. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire grew up without a mother, whom he lost when he was seven years old. From 1704 to 1711, he attended the aristocratic Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he received an excellent classical formation from the Jesuits. Despite his later anticlericalism, Voltaire maintained several attachments to his Jesuit teachers, among them Father Thoulié, who received him into the Académie Française in 1746. Voltaire also formed lasting bonds with his companions, especially Charles...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694. His father was a highly placed official and belonged to the upper middle class. Voltaire received an excellent classical education at the Jesuit school of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he displayed a talent for writing poetry. He also probably acquired his taste for theater there.

The Abbé de Châteauneuf, Voltaire’s godfather, introduced the twelve-year-old boy to the Society of the Temple, which was the domain of worldly libertines. Voltaire’s taste for witty irreverence and for luxurious living was definitely encouraged by this company. In 1711, Voltaire became a law student. As early as 1716, his satiric writing, aimed at the king’s regent and the...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

On November 21, 1694, Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris, the son of François Arouet and Marie-Marguerite Arouet. (“Voltaire” was a pseudonym first used in 1717.) From 1704 until 1711, he studied in Paris at the Jesuit secondary school of Louis-le-Grand, where he developed a keen interest in the classics and an intense distrust of organized religions. During his literary career, which lasted more than six decades, Voltaire remained a freethinker who never hesitated to denounce social injustice. His criticism was acerbic and frequently caused problems for him. In 1726, he offended an influential French nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, and was imprisoned in the Bastille. He obtained his freedom only by promising...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Voltaire, one of France’s greatest writers, distinguished himself as a historian, novelist, dramatist, poet, philosopher, and crusader against religious intolerance. As a rationalist and Deist, he rejected the traditional Christian view of God and belief in the immortality of the soul. He adhered to a natural religion, believing in an impersonal, remote deity whose attributes were beyond human understanding but who inspired a great sense of awe. Voltaire shared the belief of fellow Deists who considered the essence of religion to be morality, a commitment to justice and humanity. He strongly believed that universal ethical principles were inherent in natural law and that the merit of human laws was determined by the extent to which...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although he was born a fragile child on November 21, 1694, in Paris, the capital of France, François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (vohl-TAHR), was destined to have a long and tumultuous literary life. So great was his influence during the eighteenth century that historians speak of the Century of Voltaire. Few deny that he possessed a brilliant mind that both understood and moved the literary and political events of the time.

The young Arouet received little formal education before the age of nine, when he was sent to the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand. He had, however, been taken under the wing of his deist godfather, the Abbé de Châteauneuf, who was the chief cause—much to his father’s chagrin—of...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The man who, under the name of Voltaire (vohl-tayr), was to be remembered as the foremost spokesman of the Age of Enlightenment, was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris on November 21, 1694. The son of a prosperous lawyer who numbered among his friends members of the nobility and the literary aristocracy, young François-Marie grew up in an atmosphere of wit and culture. At the age of eleven, already known in Paris as an unusually clever rhymer of verses, he was invited to the salon of the celebrated Ninon de l’Enclos, thus gaining early entrée into a dazzling world of free morals and free thought. Although from a Jansenist family, François-Marie received his formal education at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Born in Paris, France on November 21, 1694, author Francois-Marie Arouet was known primarily by his pen name, Voltaire. In many ways,...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Voltaire Biography (Novels for Students)

Voltaire Published by Gale Cengage
Voltaire Published by Gale Cengage

Voltaire's mother, Marie Marguerite Daumard, was the daughter of a member of Parliament and sister of the comptroller general of the royal guard. She had access to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Daumard married François Aruoet, an affluent attorney, investor, and friend of the poet Nicolas Boileau, dramatist Pierre Corneille, and the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos. The Arouets had five children; the youngest one, born in Paris on November 21, 1694, was Voltaire.

At the age of 10 Voltaire entered the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand on the Left Bank of Paris. Voltaire graduated in 1711 with every intention of being a writer. His father, however, wanted him to study law.

In 1713, Voltaire was sent to The Hague as page to the French ambassador. Scandalously, he fell in love with Olympe de Noyer (nicknamed "Pimpete") and was summoned home, disinherited, and threatened with exile to the New World. Voltaire surrendered and studied law. His reputation and covert writing, however, caused him to be blamed for two poems critical of the regent, Phillipe d'Orleans, written by Le Brun. As a result, he was imprisoned in the Bastille from 1717 to 1718. There he wrote Oedipe, a tragedy, between the lines of books because he was denied paper. After his release, he began calling himself de Voltaire after a nondescript farm he inherited of that name.

In 1722, his father died and Voltaire was free from his control. In the same year, he met his rival, Rousseau, in Brussels. His growing squadron of enemies, spearheaded by the chevalier de Rohan, managed to have him exiled to England in 1726 where he was delighted to meet Englishmen like Jonathan Swift. In 1729, back in France he regained favor, published Lettres philosophiques in 1734, and became royal historiographer.

Voltaire frequented the court of Frederick the Great from 1750 to 1753. Disillusioned with the powerful Prussian, Voltaire settled permanently in Ferney, near the Swiss border, so that he could easily flee from trouble. There, word of the Lisbon earthquake shook his optimism and he wrote the Lisbon poem of 1756 and Candide in 1759. Over the next decade, he and his comrades—the philosophes—joined together to try and topple a few columns holding up "l'infame."

Voltaire had many hobbies. He single-handedly made his town, Ferney, a prosperous watch-manufacturing center. He was also concerned with injustice—most famously in the case of Jean Calas, whose innocence he helped to restore. With an authorial claim on some 80 total volumes of writings, he died in May 1778 in Paris, months after a successful showing of Irene. His ashes were moved to the Pantheon in 1791.