Voltaire Additional 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...

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(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...

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(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 activist. Yet he could also be impulsive and hotheaded, which resulted in his arrest on several further occasions. Voltaire lived in various parts of France, England, Holland, Prussia, and Switzerland, moving in and out of these countries as his political sentiments and personal temperament made it unwise or impossible for him to stay where he was. He spent the last years of his life near the Swiss border, between his French homeland and the freer intellectual environment of Geneva, allowing himself an escape route to either country.

Voltaire was as untraditional in his personal life as in his political and philosophical ideas. His freedom from the norms of society, however, seemed to sustain his creative energies. In 1734, Voltaire met Madame Émilie du Châtelet, who would be his mistress and intellectual partner for the next fifteen years. He moved in with her and her husband at their estate at Cirey, where he wrote and studied with the “divine Émilie.” Even after Voltaire’s widowed niece, Madame Denis, had become his new mistress, he maintained an intellectual relationship with Madame du Châtelet which would inspire him until her death in 1749. Her death saddened and depressed Voltaire for many years, contributing to the growing skepticism about the goodness of the world that is evident in his later fictional works, such as Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). Throughout his life, Voltaire had suffered from bouts with ill health and severe hypochondria. He lived to be eighty-three, however, and was one of the most energetic and prolific authors in history.


(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...

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(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...

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(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 to leave France for England, where he would live for almost three years. Following his return to France, he lived with his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, on her country estate at Cirey in northern Champagne.

After her death in 1749, the disconsolate Voltaire accepted an offer from King Frederick the Great of Prussia that he move to the royal court at Potsdam, just outside Berlin. By 1753, Voltaire had tired of Frederick’s benevolent despotism and decided to move to Geneva, where he admired the religious tolerance of this French-speaking city. In 1758, Voltaire purchased a country estate in Ferney, just across the French border from Geneva. Voltaire spent much of the last two decades of his life in Ferney, where he enjoyed his life as a “gentleman farmer” and the companionship of his niece, Mme Denis. During this very creative period, Voltaire wrote several important philosophical tales as well as his influential Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; also known as La Raison par alphabet and Dictionnaire philosophique; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also known as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945, enlarged 1962). In February, 1778, Voltaire made a triumphal return to Paris, where he died on May 30, 1778, at the age of eighty-three.


(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 they reflected such just and humane standards. Even though all religions derived from a universal rational source, the teachings of theologians and priests distorted the common truth, divided humanity, and perpetuated intolerance. Only under the guidance of enlightened thinkers who rose above superstition and prejudice could a rational morality be cultivated that would bring about human brotherhood. In practice, Voltaire promoted a social ethic that was conducive to the harmonious interest of the entire society. In pursuing this goal, he was quite willing to accept socially useful beliefs that he personally rejected. Thus, he held that, even though the deity probably did not concern himself with human affairs, it was good for the people to believe that there are rewards and punishments for human actions. Among his deepest concerns was the happiness of the individual in society. In Candide, he satirized the view that this is the best of all possible worlds, but he nevertheless imagined that in time reason and enlightenment would lessen superstition and fanaticism and bring about a more harmonious social order. To this end, Voltaire remained a passionate advocate of individuals who had been denied justice, especially by the power of the Church, and of judicial reform.


(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...

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(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.)


(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.)


(Novels for Students)

Voltaire's chateau in the town of Ferney, in eastern France. 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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)