(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.
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.”
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.
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.