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.
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...
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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 hisDiscours 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 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 the great estate Ferney, on French soil but just across the Swiss frontier. This was the perfect retreat for a controversialist with Voltaire’s volatile history; if the French authorities decided to act against him again, he could simply slip across the border. For the last twenty years of his life, Voltaire used the Ferney estate as the base from which he tirelessly launched his literary attacks upon superstition, error, and ignorance. He employed a variety of pseudonyms but made no effort to disguise his inimitable style and manner. This transparent device gave the authorities, by then indulgent and weary of attempting to muzzle him, an excuse not to prosecute.
The decade of the 1750’s wrought a change in the middle-aged Voltaire’s attitude far greater than any change he had undergone previously. He was deeply affected by the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755. In this horrendous tragedy, perhaps as many as fifty thousand people died, many while worshiping in packed churches on All Saints’ Day. Voltaire began to reexamine his concept of a rational universe that functioned according to fixed laws which man could apprehend and to which he could adapt himself. He was now repulsed by the optimists’ theory that (to overstate it only slightly) this is the best of all possible worlds, and, therefore, any natural occurrence must be ultimately for the best. His first bitter attack on optimism was Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756; Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, 1764). His rebuttal of this smug philosophy culminated in his masterpiece of dark comedy, Candide.
Voltaire claimed to have written this wildly improbable picaresque novel in three days during 1758. It was published in 1759 and was immensely popular; it averaged two new editions a year for the next twenty years. Pangloss, tutor to the incredibly callow hero, is a caricature of the optimistic philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian von Wolff, although Voltaire’s temperamental archenemy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, fancied himself the model for Pangloss. Candide’s satire is by no means limited to optimism, and the novel reveals the best and worst of its author’s traits of character. Voltaire lashes out at his lifelong enemies: superstition, bigotry, extremism, hypocrisy, and (despite the fact that it accounted for most of his personal wealth) colonialism. Also readily apparent are his anti-Semitism, his anti-Catholicism, and his sexism.
The major work of Voltaire’s later years was Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765). He also involved himself deeply in the day-to-day operations of Ferney, and he maintained his voluminous correspondence with virtually all the eminent persons of Europe. For the first time in almost three decades, Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778. He was afforded a tumultuous hero’s welcome, but he was eighty-three and ill; the celebration was too much for him in his fragile state of health. He died on May 30, within weeks of his triumphal return to the city of his birth.
Despite the Church’s opposition to Voltaire’s burial in sanctified ground, he was secretly—and inappropriately, some have suggested—interred at a convent outside the city. A decade later came the Revolution, and Voltaire’s enemies had ostensibly become the French people’s as well. He was exhumed and made a second grand entrance into Paris. He was reburied in the Panthéon next to Rousseau, an irony he might have enjoyed.
Voltaire’s work is extremely varied, sometimes self-contradictory. His sentiments are often more personal than universal. He had had bad experiences with Jesuit priests, Protestant enthusiasts, and Jewish businessmen; hence, Jesuits, Calvinists, and Jews are mercilessly lampooned in Candide. He apparently had good experiences with Anabaptists, and the generous and selfless Anabaptist Jacques, in his brief appearance, is one of the few admirable characters in the novel. Voltaire had been cured of optimism by the horror of the Lisbon earthquake, the savagery of the Seven Years’ War, and the reversals in his personal life. Yet he did not completely give way to pessimism. His philosophy in his later years seems to have been a qualified meliorism, as characterized by his famous injunction that every man should tend his own garden.
The famous and spurious quotation, “I disagree with everything you say, but I shall fight to the death for your right to say it,” will be forever associated with Voltaire’s memory. Although he probably never uttered these precise words, they are an admirable summation of the way he lived his intellectual life. The surviving pictures of Voltaire, most in old age, represent him as thin, sharp-featured, and sardonic. He is the very embodiment of one aspect of the neoclassical period—skeptical, irreverent, and valuing personal freedom above all other things.
Aldington, Richard. Voltaire. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1925. One of the standard biographical-critical works. Part 1 (chapters 1-10) treats the life of Voltaire. Part 2 (chapters 11-19) examines Voltaire as poet, dramatist, literary critic, historian, biographer, philosopher, pamphleteer, and correspondent. Contains a chronological listing of Voltaire’s works by genre, followed by a list of the English translations (up to that time) and a selected bibliography
Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959. A work of intellectual history which attempts to trace the psychological, social, and intellectual origins of Voltaire’s ideas. The author portrays Voltaire’s politics as realistic and humanely relativistic; he argues that Voltaire’s humane sympathies failed him only in the case of his anti-Semitism.
Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. Translated by Robert A. Wagoner with an introduction by Peter Gay. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966. This brief survey of Voltaire’s life and work by a famous French literary historian was originally published in 1906 but was unavailable in English until sixty years later. It is an excellent introductory volume, which distinguishes between Voltaire’s deeply held convictions and his more casual and whimsical arguments.
Mason, Haydn. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Organized according to seven periods in Voltaire’s life. The author states that he has not attempted a comprehensive treatment of the life, because that would easily require ten volumes. Instead, he has attempted to capture the essence of the man as revealed under the pressure of circumstances. Contains a helpful chronology and a selected bibliography.
Torrey, Norman L. The Spirit of Voltaire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938. Argues for and seeks to document Voltaire’s moral integrity while granting that a certain duplicity was a necessary condition of his life and work. Concludes with a long chapter on Voltaire’s religion, probing whether he was a Deist, a mystic, or a Humanist.