Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in Paris. His father had migrated to the capital from Poitou and prospered there. He held 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: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). Voltaire was trained in the law, which he abandoned. As a young man, during the first quarter of the century, Voltaire already exhibited strongly two traits which 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.
In 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 which was a great success upon the stage following his release. A year later, when Oedipus came out 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.
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; he wrote 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; Henriad, 1732), his epic of Henry IV, was published during this period, and his sojourn in Britain would eventually produce Lettres philosophiques (1734; published earlier as Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733). 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.
Letters Concerning the English Nation implicitly attacked French institutions through its approbation of English institutions. For example, Voltaire wittily suggests therein that, despite the manifest benefits of inoculation against smallpox, the French reject the practice because the English have adopted it first. Again, Voltaire angered powerful enemies. His book was burned, he barely escaped imprisonment, and he was forced to flee Paris for a third time. He settled at Cirey in Lorraine, first as the guest and eventually as the companion of the brilliant Madame du Châtelet. There, for the next fifteen years, he continued to write in all genres, but, having become acquainted with the works of John Locke and David Hume, he turned increasingly to philosophical and scientific subjects. As revealed in his Discours en vers sur l’homme (1738-1752; Discourses...
(The entire section is 2,953 words.)