(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 theater. The production of his Oedipe in November of that year was a tremendous critical and financial success. In February 1719, Francois-Marie changed his name, first to Arouet de Voltaire and then to Voltaire. In 1720, he visited Lord Bolingbroke, an influential English writer, beginning a connection with English intellectuals that served him well throughout his lifetime. As his reputation grew, he became a favorite with royalty, accepting substantial gifts from the kings of England and France, but even this did not protect him from attack. When a love triangle formed between Voltaire, the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, and the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, the chevalier had Voltaire beaten by lackeys while Voltaire was a guest of the duke de Sully. When the duke did nothing to help him, he challenged the chevalier to a duel, but when the chevalier moved to have Voltaire arrested, Voltaire arranged for exile in England instead. He lived there from May 1726 to March 1729, meeting with King George I, Bolingbroke, Jonathan Swift, and other influential members of English society. He learned English and read several works that strongly impacted his thought, including Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. He also discovered Shakespeare, whose “barbaric” but powerful poetry and insights into character inspired and perplexed Voltaire throughout his time in the theater. During this period Voltaire also tried writing in English, publishing the Essay on Civil Wars (1727) and the Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) and releasing a revision of his poem on Henry IV as The Henriade, a tremendous popular success which he dedicated to the English queen. He also started Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suede (History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 1731) during this time, the first of his major histories. He returned to France secretly, remaining in hiding until he could obtain permission to stay in Paris. He also returned to the theater, with successful performances of Brutus (1730) and Zayre (1736).

In his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), the fruits of his time in Enland became apparent; his essays on English writers including Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Locke, and Shakespeare—and on religious differences—celebrated the openness of the English monarchy and English society. In France, the book was burned and the publisher jailed. Voltaire soon opted to leave Paris again, moving in with his friend and lover Mme. Emilie Du Châtelet, at her estate at Cirey. Du Châtelet was a scientist with a strong understanding of Newton, whose writings were of great interest to Voltaire, and of Leibniz, whose philosophy of optimism Voltaire would eventually assail in Candide (1759). Together they studied and wrote for nearly fifteen years: while at Cirey, Voltaire wrote all or part of the plays Mahomet (1741), La mérope francaise (Merope, 1744), and Semiramis (1748); the poem La Pucelle (The Maid, 1755); and the prose works Le siecle de Louis XIV (1751) and Essai sur l'histoire generale, et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, depuis Charlemange jusqu'a nos jours (1756). He also began writing his contes during this period, including Zadig (1749; published as Memnon, 1747) and Micromégas (1753).

Their relationship as lovers waned as Voltaire began a new affair, a scandalous relationship with his young niece, Mme. Denis, but Voltaire and Du Châtelet remained close friends until her death in 1749. Seeking a new home, Voltaire went to the court of Frederick II of Prussia. While there, he labored to see Le siecle du Louis XIV into print, but quickly found himself at odds with king and court. Frustrated by poor treatment, he wrote a satire of one of the king's favorites—and one of Du Châtelet's former lovers—and then attempted to flee the country amidst the outrage. After a brief period of detention, Frederick allowed him to leave, and Voltaire moved on to Switzerland with his niece, where he carried on extensive correspondence with such figures as Russia's Catherine the Great in addition to writing his Poems sur le desastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle (Poems on the disaster in Lisbon and on Natural Law; 1756), his contributions to Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia, his own Philosophical Dictionary (1764), and additional contes. Voltaire took on several legal battles involving religious prejudice, and often secured reversals of imposed sentences. He began writing more strongly against institutional religions and superstitious beliefs and produced his 1764 Traite sur la tolerance (Treatise on Tolerance). After a thirty-year absence he returned to Paris in April 1778, having been invited to a gala performance of his play Irene. Marie Antoinette asked to meet him, and at the gala he also mingled with friends Diderot and d'Alembert and met Benjamin Franklin, who brought his grandson to be blessed by Voltaire. Crowds came to meet his carriage, he was crowned with a laurel wreath, and a bust of Voltaire was placed onstage, crowned, and kissed by the entire cast of his play. Perhaps overwhelmed by his emotional triumph, Voltaire fell ill and died in less than two months. He agreed to sign a statement saying he accepted Catholicism, likely to avoid the ignominious burial of the unsaved. When he refused, in his dying days, to recognize the divinity of Jesus, the church would not accept his statement and attempted to deny his body a Christian burial. His nephew secretly moved Voltaire's body to a monastery in Champagne for burial by setting the body upright in a carriage. In 1791, his remains were exhumed and buried in the Pantheon at Paris. In a document written shortly before his death, Voltaire maintained his Deist position, stating, “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.”

Major Works

Voltaire was a master of language, able to write well in several genres, and he produced a massive body of writings. Throughout his life he wrote for the theater, authoring a total of fifty-six plays, the majority of which were tragedies. He was influenced by the neoclassical tradition of Corneille and Racine, but also innovated by bending the classical rules of the “unities” of time, place, and action, and by violating the standards of decorum. As was traditional, he used classical sources for his plots, as with his first tragedy, Oedipe. Voltaire addressed the issue of religious tolerance in Oedipe, Zayra, Alizre; ou Les Americains (1736), and Mahomet. His exposure to Shakespeare and the English stage inspired him to draw from French history as well as classical sources, as he did in Zayra and the earlier Adelaide Du Guesclin (1734). Among his other major tragedies are Brutus, La Mort de César (The Death of Caesar, 1735), Mérope and Irene (1778). Voltaire used his talent for verse offstage as well: his first major achievement was the epic poem The Henriade (1732), and he wrote both philosophic and occasional poetry throughout his career. His Epistle to Urania (1722), Poem on Natural Law (1756), and Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (1756) are among the poems that showcased Voltaire's humanism and his opposition to intolerance. He also wrote several satirical poems, mocking the follies of political figures and lampooning the national heroine, Joan of Arc. La Pucelle was a highly unflattering but humorous portrait of the Maid of Orleans, reaching a low point in the young martyr's seduction by a donkey.

In the modern era, however, Voltaire's extensive corpus of plays and poetry is largely secondary to his status as a brilliant and progressive thinker. He is better known for the tenets of his humanist philosophy than for a particular text, although Candide, Letters Concerning the English Nation, and the Philosophical Dictionary have been the most widely read. His adopted motto, “Ecrasez l'infame” (“crush the infamous”), still serves as a pithy summation of the values most important to Voltaire: tolerance, justice, progress, and liberty. While striving to be objective, especially in his histories, Voltaire spoke out strongly against the excesses of both church and state, and fanaticism in any form. In several of his works, he struggled with the mystery of human suffering, a theme that suffuses several of his works and is epitomized in Candide.

Critical Reception

Though Voltaire was widely attacked in his own age as one of the most visible—and most voluble—opponents of absolutist religious and political institutions, he was also acknowledged to be a literary and philosophical genius whose skill with a pen could not be matched. His reputation since then has changed little, though his philosophy has generally been more important to readers than his mastery of language. As critics have observed, however, his choice of genre and style was often an important part of the ideas he wished to convey. In particular, several critics have discussed the freedom that the contes allowed Voltaire. Haydn Mason and Robin Howells have suggested that what may seem like chaos in the contes may represent another level of Voltaire's attack on established forms of order. In two separate studies, Howells notes Voltaire's extensive use of nonsensical naming and the “carnivalesque,” both methods of confronting the status quo. Similarly, Roger Pearson, in his study of the contes, argues that this comparatively modern form of the contes mirrors the modernity of Voltaire's thinking. Multiple studies of Voltaire's correspondence appeared in the 1990s, further emphasizing Voltaire's ability to adapt literary forms to his purpose. Studies by Deirdre Dawson and Thomas M. Carr consider Voltaire's letters as literature which illustrate his talent for infusing new life into familiar forms. A study by Karen O'Brien suggestes that this was one of the merits of Voltaire's histories as well, which addressed historiography as an important form of literature. O'Brien and J. H. Brumfitt both discuss Voltaire's aims for revitalizing the genre of history writing; Brumfitt focuses on Voltaire's depiction of royal mistresses, in which the author was compelled to navigate carefully between the need to be complimentary, his desire to write artistically, and his antiestablishment beliefs. Voltaire was nonetheless very concerned about maintaining traditional genres of writing as well. Recent scholarship has considered his work on epic poetry, occasional verse, and dramatic tragedy as evidence of his interest in both classical influence and modern innovation. As John Iverson suggests in his study of Voltaire's poem on the battle of Fontenoy, Voltaire considered his status as a man of letters and the role of poetry in the public sphere to be important, and he labored to uphold both. At the same time, as Bettina Knapp discusses in her work on Voltaire's theater, he could not ignore the non-traditional works of Shakespeare. Knapp argues that Voltaire's appreciation for both old and new marks him as a transitional figure between neoclassicism and Romanticism, though it also echoes his admiration for both the elegance of elite society and the virtue of progress.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Oedipe (play) 1718

Epistle to Urania (poetry) 1722

La ligue; ou, Henry le Grand [or, Henriade: An Epic Poem] (poetry) 1723; also published as La henriade, 1728.

Essay on Civil Wars (essay) 1727

Essay on Epic Poetry (essay) 1727

Brutus (play) 1730

Histoire de Charles XII, Roi de Suede [or, History of Charles XII, King of Sweden] (history) 1732

Letters Concerning the English Nation (prose) 1733; also published as Lettres philosophiques, 1734.

La Mort de César [or, The Death of...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

J. H. Brumfitt (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brumfitt, J. H. “Voltaire Historian and the Royal Mistresses.” In Voltaire, the Enlightenment and the Comic Mode, edited by Maxine G. Cutler, pp. 11-26. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

[In this essay, Brumfitt examines Voltaire's writings to and about royal mistresses. Brumfitt observes that while Voltaire was skilled at flattery, his overall view of these women appears to be dim, though he cautions against seeing Voltaire's treatment of mistresses as representative of his views about women in general.]

As Jean Sareil has vividly demonstrated,1 Voltaire was a master of the art of the compliment. His flattery, it is true, had little success when...

(The entire section is 5212 words.)

Hadyn Mason (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mason, Hadyn. “Structure and Form.” In Candide: Optimism Demolished, pp. 93-111. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Mason proposes that, contrary to common critical opinion, Voltaire's Candide has a structure corresponding to the general progress of Candide through the story, and suggests that the seeming incoherence of the conte has purpose in formally expressing Voltaire's attack on old notions of “order.”]

It is commonly said that Candide is a loosely constructed, episodic work. To be sure, Voltaire was much given to composing the brief article, and there are innumerable examples in his Dictionnaire...

(The entire section is 7569 words.)

Roger Pearson (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pearson, Roger. “Statistics and Symposia: L'Homme aux quarante écus” and “Fallen Fables.” In Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's ‘contes philosophiques’, pp. 20-38. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In these essays, Pearson focuses on the conte L'Homme aux quarante écus as a useful introduction to the contes in general, suggesting that in it, Voltaire outlines the basic themes of the Enlightenment. Pearson argues that the conte form offers Voltaire a great measure of philosophical and rhetorical freedom, and demonstrates Voltaire's writing to be a forerunner of modernity.]


(The entire section is 7683 words.)

David Williams (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Williams, David. “Voltaire's ‘True Essay’ on Epic Poetry.” Modern Language Review 88 (1993): 46-57.

[In the essay below, Williams presents his history of Voltaire's Essai sur la poésie épique, from the first English essay through the unauthorized translations and Voltaire's corrections. Williams suggests that Voltaire's revisions attempted to make the essay more appealing to French readership, but also had the effect of blunting his arguments.]

For almost one hundred and fifty years after the appearance of the first authorized edition of Voltaire's Essai sur la poésie épique in 1733, described in a letter to Thieriot as ‘my true...

(The entire section is 7302 words.)

William Doyle (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Doyle, William. “Voltaire and Venality: The Ambiguities of Abuse.” In The Secular City: Studies in the Enlightenment Presented to Haydn Mason, edited by T. D. Hemming, E. Freeman, and D. Meakin, pp. 102-11. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

[In this essay, Doyle considers the context and influence of Voltaire's writings on veniality, or the sale of royal offices. Doyle also traces Voltaire's political alignments and his use of the veniality debate to attack Richelieu and Montesquieu.]

‘Il faut en France,’ wrote La Bruyère in 1688, ‘beaucoup de fermeté et une grande étendue d'esprit pour se passer des charges et des emplois, et consentir...

(The entire section is 5450 words.)

Robin Howells (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Howells, Robin. “City, Market-Place, Meal: Some Figures of Totality in Voltaire's Contes.” In The Secular City: Studies in the Enlightenment Presented to Haydn Mason, edited by T. D. Hemming, E. Freeman, and D. Meakin, pp. 71-81. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994.

[In the essay which follows, Howells reviews the representation of cities in Voltaire's contes, focusing on the “carnivalesque” as described by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Howells suggests that Babylon is the paradigmatic secular city for Voltaire, being the antithesis of a holy city and thus a manifestation of carnivalesque inversion. Howells cites passages from several contes...

(The entire section is 5072 words.)

Thomas M. Carr, Jr. (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Carr, Thomas M. “Sharing Grief/Initiating Consolation: Voltaire's Letters of Condolence.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 25 (1996): 131-46.

[In the essay below, Carr examines Voltaire's approach to condolences as a social form and a philosophical problem. Carr demonstrates how Voltaire's correspondence reveals the author's facility with recognized social forms of writing, and his efforts to connect himself personally to his correspondent's loss. Voltaire's means of offering consolation, Carr argues, also reflect and illuminate his positions on optimism and the powers and limitations of philosophy.]

The letter of condolence has generally been...

(The entire section is 6970 words.)

Karen O'Brien (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: O'Brien, Karen. “Voltaire's Neoclassical Poetics of History.” In Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon, pp. 21-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, O'Brien surveys Voltaire's histories, culminating in a study of the Essai sur les moers. O'Brien situates Voltaire in the early Enlightenment debates about the value and accuracy of history, suggesting that Voltaire used literary techniques to revive the status of history as a serious genre.]

Before his apotheosis as the personification of the Enlightenment, Voltaire was known to French, British and American readers, perhaps...

(The entire section is 16824 words.)

Daniel Gordon (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gordon, Daniel. “Introduction: The Paradoxes of Voltaire.” In Candide, pp. 1-30. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In this excerpt, Gordon examines the cultural and philosophical background of Voltaire's work, focusing on Voltaire's complex relationship with aristocracy, his disagreement with Leibniz, and his changing thoughts on religion.]

Eighteenth-century Europe is often called the Age of Voltaire. What is astonishing is that this expression was already common in Voltaire's lifetime.1 He was the first writer to become the symbol of his age—to his age. As a young man, he was hailed by the French literary establishment as the most...

(The entire section is 13104 words.)

John R. Iverson (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: John R. Iverson. “Voltaire, Fontenoy, and the Crisis of Celebratory Verse.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 28 (1999): 207-26.

[In the essay which follows, Iverson discusses the response of other poets to Voltaire's celebratory poem La Bataille de Fontenoy, suggesting that the many parodies intended merely to mock Voltaire actually worked to destabilize the genre of celebratory occasional verse overall. Iverson maintains that Voltaire found himself unable to strike back without lowering himself to the level of his detractors, but that Voltaire perceived the threat to both poetry and national honor.]

Le plus aimé des rois est...

(The entire section is 8629 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “An Innovative Theatre Traditionalist.” In Voltaire Revisited, pp. 80-102. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.

[In this excerpt, Knapp gives an overview of Voltaire's theatrical career, focusing on his influences and his tragedies. Knapp notes that Voltaire was predominantly influenced by the French classical tradition of Corneille and Racine, but was also taken with the very unclassical freedom of Shakespeare. Knapp suggests that Voltaire was conflicted about the form and formality of the drama, leading to works that sometimes manifested his confusion. His works also reveal the antidogmatic and antiestablishment themes of his Englightenment philosophy.]...

(The entire section is 9462 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Beck, Ervin. “Voltaire's Candide.Explicator 57, no. 4 (1999): 203-04.

Discusses the role of Cacambo in Candide as a type of golden mean.

Carlson, Marvin. Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 186 p.

Gives a history of Voltaire's theatrical career (1694-1791), particularly as it illuminates the eighteenth-century theatrical culture in France.

Dawson, Deirdre. Voltaire's Correspondence: An Epistolary Novel. New York: Peter Lang, 1994, 189 p.

Approaches Voltaire's letters as a form of...

(The entire section is 436 words.)