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...
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