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Voltaire’s writings are vast, spanning more than one hundred volumes of letters, literature, and scholarship. He wrote in both French and English, publishing his works in several countries, depending on the prevailing political climate.

Voltaire has been remembered most for his incisive short stories, which convey complex philosophical ideas. During...

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Voltaire’s writings are vast, spanning more than one hundred volumes of letters, literature, and scholarship. He wrote in both French and English, publishing his works in several countries, depending on the prevailing political climate.

Voltaire has been remembered most for his incisive short stories, which convey complex philosophical ideas. During his own age, however, he was noted as a political satirist, playwright, and poet. He was a master of the epic poem, and his La Henriade (1728; a revision of La Ligue; Henriade, 1732) revived the popularity of this genre. His plays were renowned throughout France, and dipe (1718; Oedipus, 1761), produced when Voltaire was only twenty-four, received critical acclaim. His major philosophical work, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945), was an ambitious compendium of philosophical ideas and terms. In addition, his historical writings, such as Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752), have earned for him a reputation as one of the first modern historians.

Achievements

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During his lifetime, Voltaire was both revered and rejected. He was alternately honored by kings for his brilliance and exiled or imprisoned for his radical political views. He was welcomed into the courts of George I and Princess Caroline of England, Frederick II of Prussia, and Louis XV of France. Louis XV appointed him as Royal Historiographer and as Ordinary Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber in the 1740’s. In 1746, Voltaire realized one of his greatest ambitions when he was elected to the prestigious Académie Française. In the 1750’s, Frederick II gave him a medal of merit, made him a chamberlain, and considered Voltaire to be his personal tutor and court philosopher until a bitter disagreement caused Voltaire to leave Prussia.

Voltaire’s scathing attacks on intolerance, injustice, and superstition scandalized many of the powerful in the government and the French Roman Catholic Church, but his humor, imagination, and daring in expressing his opinions won for him numerous followers as well. When he was living in Switzerland in his later years, people made pilgrimages to his home and stood outside it hoping to catch a glimpse of him. At the end of his life, Voltaire returned to Paris to the acclaim of crowds of admirers. Yet, even in death, he stirred controversy: His body had to be smuggled out of Paris to allow him the decent burial in consecrated ground that the French Catholic hierarchy denied him.

Voltaire was one of the foremost philosophes of the French Enlightenment, and his influence went far beyond his long and successful lifetime. His ideas on the freedom and dignity of the individual are credited with having had a strong influence on the French Revolution of 1789. His satirical and irreverent wit gradually eroded some of the religious and political intolerance of eighteenth century France. Many who have fought for toleration, justice, and equality have looked back to the spirit of Voltaire’s writings. He summarized his own sense of satisfaction about the successes of his and other philosophes’ writings in a letter to Jean Le Rond D’Alembert dated July 18, 1766, in which he rejoiced thatthe Church of Wisdom is beginning to develop in our neighborhood where, twelve years ago the most somber fanaticism ruled. The provinces are becoming enlightened, the young magistrates are thinking boldly. One is astonished by the progress that human reason has made in so few years.

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his plays, Voltaire wrote many poems, especially odes. Some of his most important longer poems are Poème sur la religion naturelle (1722); La Henriade (1728), an epic poem initially entitled La Ligue (Henriade, 1732); Le Temple du goût (1733; The Temple of Taste, 1734), on literary criticism; Discours en vers sur l’homme (1738-1752; Discourses in Verse on Man, 1764); Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756; Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, 1764); and La Pucelle d’Orléans (1755, 1762; The Maid of Orleans, 1758, also as La Pucelle, 1785-1786).

Voltaire’s main historical works are Histoire de Charles XII (1731; The History of Charles XII, 1732); Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752); and Essai sur les murs (1756, 1763; The General History and State of Europe, 1754, 1759).

Voltaire’s current reputation is based on his contes philosophiques (philosophical tales), of which three of the principal ones are: Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; originally as Memnon: Histoire orientale, 1747; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), and La Princesse de Babylone (1768; The Princess of Babylon, 1769).

Voltaire wrote numerous philosophical treatises, essays, polemics, and brochures, and he left behind a voluminous correspondence, compiled in The Complete Works of Voltaire (1968-1977; 135 volumes, in French).

Achievements

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Voltaire dominated the eighteenth century theater by the number of his plays alone. He wrote fifty-two in all, of which twenty-seven are tragedies. He was the most popular dramatist of his time and the principal author for the Comédie-Française, which now only occasionally performs his plays. In his own time, Voltaire was regarded as one of the masters of French drama. More of his plays were performed than those of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine together. Today, he is best known for his philosophical works, especially his tales, but during his lifetime he believed his immortality would rest on his dramatic accomplishments. Although he wrote most of his plays rapidly, he constantly reworked them and revised the failures, often bringing them to success, as with Mariamne.

Voltaire was the literary and philosophical bridge between the classical theater of the seventeenth century and the Romantic theater of the nineteenth century. It was he who kept the classical theater alive, both in subject matter (one-third of his tragedies are based on classical themes) and in form. He insisted on adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place, and on verse, propriety, and verisimilitude. His style, though sometimes declamatory, is in accurate French alexandrins, elegant and frequently excellent poetry in the style of Corneille. Yet, as dedicated as he was to the values of French classicism in the drama, Voltaire was intrigued, if torn, by contemporary literary theories and foreign dramatic works, and at times he violated his own precepts in introducing into his plays—and into France—dramatic elements of the coming age.

Thus, while Voltaire kept French classical theater alive, he distinctly widened its frontiers. Voltaire’s trip to England from 1726 to 1729 brought him into contact with the English theater, and especially with the plays of William Shakespeare. Critic Admad Gunny maintains that Voltaire also came to know and was influenced by the works of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, John Milton, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Their influence can be seen in many plays, among them Brutus and La Mort de César, based on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600); Ériphyle, Semiramis, Oreste, and Tancrède, all inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601); Zaïre, inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604); and Alzire, inspired by Dryden’s The Indian Emperor: Or, The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards (pr. 1665, pb. 1667). Although Voltaire was most influenced by Shakespeare,and his numerous literary essays on the English dramatist helped to make Shakespeare known on the Continent, Voltaire did not unreservedly accept Shakespearean drama, as is especially evident in his “Lettre à l’Académie Française” (1776). Yet his contributions in incorporating English dramatic theory into the French theater are the most significant of the eighteenth century and prepared the way for the Romantic drama of the nineteenth century as described in Victor Hugo’s preface to Cromwell (1827), particularly in the emphasis on action rather than introspection.

Voltaire did not limit his subjects to classical sources, but widened the geographical boundaries of the tragedy. Zaïre is situated in Jerusalem, Alzire in Peru, Zulime in Africa, Mahomet the Prophet in Mecca, The Orphan of China in China, Les Scythes in Scythia, and Les Guèbres in Syria. There is, however, very little local color in these plays other than the settings and the names. Heralding Romanticism years before it would flourish, Voltaire used French national themes and names for his inspiration. Zaïre recalls the illustrious family of Lusignan; Adélaïde du Guesclin is based on fourteenth century Breton history; and Tancrède, in the style of historical romance, returns to the courtly love theme. The critic Thurston Wheeler Russel maintains that one of Voltaire’s greatest literary innovations was his development of the heroic romance in the manner of Dryden; Voltaire’s plays in this genre, especially Zaïre, Alzire, Tancrède, and Mérope, almost operatic in nature, remain among his most popular.

Less successful in comedy than in tragedy, Voltaire, who greatly admired Molière, declared that comedy exists mainly to provoke laughter among the spectators. He did, however, allow tearful situations in his comedies, and his best comedies are sentimental in the vein of the comédie larmoyante (“weeping comedy”), as in, for example, The Prodigal and The Highland Girl. Voltaire intended comedy to be a faithful portrayal of manners and to rest on mistaken identity, historically two of the most important comic devices. His own plays illustrate these techniques and thus were rather successful in continuing the tradition of Molière and the classical comedy of Plautus and Terence. Critic Raymond Navès sees caricature as Voltaire’s main accomplishment in comedy, and the use of prose in The Highland Girl as more effective than his ten-syllable verses in The Prodigal and Nanine.

Other literary forms

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Voltaire (vohl-TAYR) is probably the most prolific and versatile writer of any age. He wrote in all the literary forms, and he wrote in them concurrently. His numerous plays fill 6 volumes, and his correspondence 102 volumes. He was especially active toward the end of his life; living at Ferney in his eighties, he wrote pamphlets, many plays, and one of his best philosophical poems, Épître à Horace (1772). He went to Paris at the age of eighty-three, shortly before he died, to see a production of his latest classical tragedy, Irène (pr. 1778). At the time of his death, he was at work on a new play and rewriting others.

In many ways, Voltaire wished to be considered as a defender of the classical tradition. His plays are mainly classical, embodying the unities and dealing with highborn heroes. dipe (pr. 1718; Oedipus, 1761) was widely acclaimed in Voltaire’s day, as were Zaïre (pr. 1732; English translation, 1736) and Mérope (1743; English translation, 1744, 1749). He also, however, introduced devices and techniques that ultimately led to the demise of classical theater, including local color, such as red togas for members of the Senate in Brutus (pr. 1730; English translation, 1761) and real cannon fire in Adélaïde du Guesclin (pr. 1734). Voltaire’s later plays include a certain amount of tearful sensibility that was a characteristic of Denis Diderot’s bourgeois dramas.

Voltaire composed many kinds of poetry. As a young man, he achieved much acclaim with his epic poem La Ligue (1723) and La Henriade (1728, a rewriting of La Ligue; Henriade, 1732). Henriade, which narrates Henry IV’s successful struggle against the Catholic League, was reprinted through the beginning of the nineteenth century. Today, these poems have no appeal. Voltaire also wrote satiric and philosophical poetry, including Le Mondain (1736; The Man of the World, 1764). This poem caused a scandal with its suggestion that a pleasurable life on earth is the only positive happiness one can grasp and that one should enjoy it rather than wait for a life after death. This element of audacious irreverence is a quality that spices all of Voltaire’s work and was what his admirers appreciated. Voltaire’s Épître à Horace is one of the best of Voltaire’s philosophical epistles.

Voltaire has some renown as a historian. His Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The Age of Louis XIV, 1752) reveals meticulous research and a journalistic bent. Voltaire praises the reign of Louis XIV in order to criticize the reign of Louis XV. Essai sur les murs (1756, 1763; The General History and State of Europe, 1754, 1759) presents a philosophical review of historic events. Other nonfiction works popularize the accomplishments of Sir Isaac Newton in science and of John Locke in philosophy (Éléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738; The Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, 1738). In Lettres philosophiques (1734; originally published in English as Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733; also known as Philosophical Letters, 1961), Voltaire, with his powerful satire, praises English customs and institutions as a method of criticizing French society of his day. Censorship, which outlawed much of Voltaire’s work, not only added to the satirist’s celebrity but also increased the prices charged for his books. The articles that Voltaire wrote for Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764, enlarged 1769; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also known as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945, enlarged 1962) were also offensive to the establishment, full of his propaganda on the subject of fanaticism, judicial corruption, and social oppression.

Achievements

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Voltaire’s career spanned sixty years, and during that time he achieved great fame and even greater notoriety. Voltaire’s literary ambitions were revealed when he chose dipe as the subject of his first tragedy. His ambition was to rival Pierre Corneille, and at the age of twenty-four he was already hailed as a worthy successor to both Jean Racine and Corneille. In the theater, Voltaire considerably delayed the demise of classical tragedy, and he remained an extremely popular dramatist of the age. Between 1745 and 1803, his plays were staged many more times than those of Corneille and Racine. Today, however, Voltaire’s plays are no longer of interest to audiences.

Voltaire also enjoyed success in the field of poetry. La Ligue was so highly acclaimed that it put epic poetry back in fashion. Voltaire’s love of the classical tradition stemmed, no doubt, from his Jesuit education at Louis-le-Grand. His poetry also brought him prestige at court and financial rewards. After the successful production of La Princesse de Navarre in 1745, performed at the wedding of Louis XV, Voltaire was given the post of royal historiographer and a pension of two thousand francs a year, and later was made a gentleman of the king’s chamber. The following year, 1746, Voltaire achieved another ambition when he was finally elected to the Académie Française. He had been denied this privilege several times before because of the various scandals he had caused. Madame du Châtelet tried to protect him from his own indiscretion; she once locked up his outrageous La Pucelle d’Orléans (1755, 1762; The Maid of Orleans, 1758; also as La Pucelle: Or, The Maid of Orleans, 1785-1786), a scurrilous writing on the subject of Joan of Arc.

Voltaire’s philosophical and satiric writings, such as his tales and pamphlets, not only brought him literary fame but also endangered his liberty. For this reason, Voltaire lived much of his life in exile or on the French-Swiss border.

One of the most astonishing aspects of Voltaire is his schizophrenic outlook. He dearly wished to have access to the noble classes (which accounts for his name change), while at the same time he despised the inequality inherent in the privilege of noble birth. A champion of the classical tradition, Voltaire inadvertently eroded its hold on his century by his innovations in drama and the novel. It is surprising that a champion of French classical tragedy and epic poetry should be the prime mover in introducing the latest developments in English literature, philosophy, and science into France. Voltaire’s efforts to create a climate for liberty of thought and belief did eventually ameliorate conditions in France. The Encyclopedists, with Voltaire at their head, were ultimately responsible for producing a climate of critical thinking and a desire for reform that culminated in the French Revolution. Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters were burned in public because they did not display the respect due “authority.” Voltaire nevertheless would have been horrified to see the revolutionary tide sweep away this authority, even though it was corrupt. He enjoyed the cultivated nobility and the gracious support this class gave to the arts; he would have had no faith in the judgment of unrefined and poorly educated republicans. Still, the new ideas he had promulgated traveled through France and even to North America. Like John Locke, many of whose ideas are to be found in the American Bill of Rights and the Constitution, Voltaire contributed to political philosophy as it was developing in Europe and even in the United States.

It is through his satiric and philosophical writings that Voltaire exercised that influence. Whereas his effect on literature disappeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century, his emphasis on reason and critical thinking still dominates the French mind. The ideals of liberty of thought and justice are his legacy.

Contribution

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Although Voltaire wrote in several different genres, including theater, poetry, and letters, he has remained most famous for the philosophical tales (contes philosophiques) that he composed during the last four decades of his lengthy literary career. In such well-structured works as Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749), Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753), and Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759; also known as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also known as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), Voltaire described the pernicious effects of social injustice and religious intolerance. Yet these philosophical tales also illustrate the power and limits of both logical and intuitive reasoning. Several critics have properly judged Voltaire to be a precursor to later detective novelists. Zadig contains his most significant contribution to the detective genre. In the third chapter, Zadig uses deductive reasoning and explains convincingly that tracings left on the sand reveal the recent passing of a limping spaniel bitch and a galloping horse. According to Theodore Besterman in his book on Voltaire, “Sherlock Holmes must have read attentively” this chapter, which demonstrates the usefulness of deductive reasoning in interpreting physical evidence.

Discussion Topics

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What were the most important things that Voltaire learned in England?

Is the happy ending of Zadig, based on intellectual sluggishness—the failure to pursue answers to metaphysical questions—an ironical one?

What was Voltaire’s purpose in writing The Age of Louis XIV?

How does Voltaire account for Candide’s optimism? Was it primarily a matter of the education he received?

What does Voltaire signify by Candide’s conclusion “that we should cultivate our gardens”?

Why was Voltaire’s thought attacked by followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

Bibliography

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Aldridge, A. Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975. A teacher and student of comparative literature, Aldridge reexamines the life and career of Voltaire within the context of European intellectual and political history, providing many useful insights in a pleasant style equally suited to the specialist as to the general reader. Also offered are stimulating readings of Candide and other selected works, together with a valuable bibliography.

Bird, Stephen. Reinventing Voltaire: The Politics of Commemoration in Nineteenth Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2000. An examination of the critical response to Voltaire, particularly in the nineteenth century. Includes bibliography and indexes.

Carlson, Marvin A. Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An examination of the French theater in the eighteenth century and Voltaire’s role. Includes bibliography and index.

Davidson, Ian. Voltaire in Exile. New York: Grove Press, 2005. A biography focusing on Voltaire’s life after being banished from France. Includes analysis of much of Voltaire’s personal correspondence.

Gray, John. Voltaire. New York: Routledge, 1999. A biography of Voltaire that covers his life and works, while concentrating on his philosophy. Includes bibliography.

Havens, George R. The Age of Ideas. New York: Henry Holt, 1955. Often reprinted and providing a model and inspiration for many writers, Havens’s witty, informed overview of the Enlightenment and its precursors remains authoritative as a guide to trends and thinkers of the period. Contains groups of chapters devoted to Charles de Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The four chapters devoted to Voltaire provide an excellent introduction to the man and his work, with brief but perceptive readings of such texts as Zadig and Candide.

Hearsey, John E. N. Voltaire. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976. Rich in anecdote and incident, Hearsey’s biography sets out to bring Voltaire, his friends, and his enemies back to life for the benefit of the contemporary reader. On balance, Hearsey succeeds in his task, but the result often more closely resembles a novel than a serious study. The select bibliography is quite brief, of use only to the most general of readers.

Howells, Robin. Disabled Powers: A Reading of Voltaire’s Contes. Amsterdam: Éditions Rodopi, 1993. A good examination of the works. Includes a bibliography.

Howells, Robin. “Pleasure Principles: Tales, Infantile Naming, and Voltaire.” The Modern Language Review 92 (April, 1997): 295-307. Suggests that one of the characteristics of the eighteenth century French prose tale is repetition, which includes “infantile naming”—repetitious or “nonsensical” phonetic practices typical of young children. Argues that naming in these tales by Voltaire and others offers various types of regressive satisfaction.

Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz. Voltaire Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. A basic biography of Voltaire that describes his life and works. Includes bibliography and index.

Mason, Haydn Trevor. Candide: Optimism Demolished. New York: Twayne, 1992. Divided into two parts: the literary and historical context (including critical reception); and a reading (the book’s view of history, philosophy, personality, structure, and form). With notes and an annotated bibliography.

Mason, Haydn, ed. Studies for the Tercentenary of Voltaire’s Birth, 1694-1994. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1994. Contains essays on Voltaire’s works and life, including one on the French theater in the 1690’s. Includes bibliography.

Mason, Haydn Trevor. Voltaire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. Not to be confused with the biography published six years later and cited below, Mason’s comprehensive monograph, intended for the interested undergraduate or general reader, steers clear of the traditional chronological approach in order to present Voltaire’s work by genre, treating first his drama and dramatic criticism, proceeding thereafter to deal with historiography, short fiction, poetry, and polemics. Mason’s approach, however unorthodox, proves quite effective, especially when dealing with the short fiction. Supplemented by a useful if brief bibliography.

Mason, Haydn Trevor. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Building on the strengths implicit in his earlier, genre-oriented study of Voltaire’s works, Mason here presents a concise but lively survey of his subject’s life, clearly relating the major works to their context, including inspiration and/or (as is especially pertinent in the case of Voltaire) provocation. Closely documented, useful both as biography and as criticism, this volume is recommended to the student and to the general reader alike; those in search of a bibliography are, however, advised to consult Manson’s earlier study cited above.

Pearson, Roger. Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom. London: Bloomsbury, 2005. A readable, compelling account of Voltaire’s life. Includes bibliography and index.

Vartanian, Aram. “Zadig: Theme and Counter- theme.” In Dilemmas du roman, edited by Catherine Lafarge. Saratoga, Calif.: Anima Libri, 1990. Argues that the philosophic theme of impersonal fate is counterpoised against a background theme which creates a contrapuntal movement of the narrative structure. Asserts the story is told in such a way that its overall meaning emerges from a network of tensions felt among its various elements.

Williams, David. Voltaire: Candide. London: Grant and Cutler, 1997. A thorough study guide to the seminal text. With bibliographical references.

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