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Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Voltaire 1694-1778

(Born Francois-Marie Arouet) French philosopher, essayist, dramatist, historian, poet, critic, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Voltaire's life and works. See also Candide Criticism.

The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Enlightenment, but it is just as often called the Age of Voltaire—in the minds of many intellectual historians, the two are synonymous. Voltaire wrote in many genres, excelling at several, but in the modern era he is best remembered for his connections with the theater, his philosophical works, and his contes—short adventure stories dramatizing philosophical issues. The most famous of these is Candide (1759), a satire of G. W. Leibniz's philosophy of optimism, which examined the reality and absurdity of human suffering. He attracted many admirers as well as many critics; his open anticlerical stance was particularly controversial and led to many of his works being censored. He was a Deist for much of his life, and was skeptical of most established political and religious institutions, though he strove for objectivity in his writings. Although exiled from Paris more than once, by the end of his life he was generally celebrated as one of France's greatest thinkers. The values for which he fought most vigorously—freedom and progress—have become basic assumptions underlying modern Western civilization.

Biographical Information

Voltaire was born Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in or around Paris. His parents were Marguerite Daumard and Francois Arouet, a notary in Paris. He was so weak at birth that he was not expected to live, and was ill and hypochondriacal much of his life. Biographers have suggested that the young Francois-Marie made up for a feeble body by developing a lively mind; even as a student he was known for his brilliance, wit, and impulsive nature. His sister and mother, with whom he was quite close, died when he was young, and he and his brother parted ways over the issue of religious tolerance. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris where he learned to love literature and to distrust religious institutions. His godfather, the abbé Châteauneuf, also oversaw parts of his education. The abbé introduced him to abbé Chaulieu, who in turn introduced him to Deism and the art of writing poetry. Abbé Châteauneuf also introduced his godchild to his lover, the courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, who further encouraged his studies in philosophy and literature, and took him to the Société du Temple, a group of hedonistic libertines who rejected Christianity and embraced humanism. Thus, even in his adolescence, Francois-Marie developed a strong foundation for the philosophy he would espouse as Voltaire.

After completing school, Francois-Marie planned to pursue a career as a poet, but his father intervened, sending him to Holland to work for the French ambassador. Holland was the home of exiled Huguenots, victims of religious intolerance; Francois-Marie fell in love with a young Huguenot girl known as “Pimpette” and was swiftly called home. He entered law school to please his father and began his literary career in earnest, using the connections developed in school and at the Société du Temple, and his gift for witty conversation, to move in the highest social circles, but fell nearly as quickly as he rose. After writing a poem lampooning the regent Phillipe d'Orleans, he was exiled from Paris, though he later pleaded successfully for his return. In 1717, Francois-Marie again mocked the regent in verse, but instead of being exiled he was sent to the Bastille for a year. While there, he wrote one of his greatest poems: La ligue; ou Henry le Grand (The League, or Henry the Great), an epic poem on the subject of Henry IV and his advancement of religious freedom. The poem was not published until 1723, and was then printed secretly.

After his release from prison in April 1718 he began his long association with the...

(The entire section is 96,500 words.)