Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de

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Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de (1694-1778): French Philosophe.

François-Marie Arouet, or, as he preferred to be known by his pen name, Voltaire, was a leading playwright, science publicist, historian, and philosopher of the French Enlightenment. Voltaire is known for his satirical forays in literature in which he ridiculed human foibles, especially those connected with religion, war, and political intolerance.

Voltaire was born 21 November 1694 to a wealthy Parisian family. He was considered a child prodigy for his ability to write verses and in 1704 at the age of ten was sent to the prestigious Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand, where he was educated in the classics. Here he also experienced comedy and drama on the stage performed in Latin and French, a taste which he cultivated throughout his career. After seven years of study, Voltaire returned home, where he hoped to devote himself to literature, but ran into conflict with his father’s insistence that instead he study law. Voltaire attempted briefly to overcome his inclinations and fulfill his father’s desires to pursue legal training, but found the subject too dry and uninspiring to sustain his interest. He gave up law and began the life of a young bon vivant, frequenting the theater, carousing with a circle of dissolute friends, and composing poetry and dramatic works. In an effort to curb his son’s excesses, Voltaire’s father sent him to the Netherlands, where he was secretary to the French ambassador, after which Voltaire returned to Paris and worked in an attorney’s office.

Over the next several years, Voltaire developed a reputation for scandal, as he wrote satirical poems about several famous contemporaries, causing his father to send him away to the countryside. In 1716, after accusing the Regent Philippe, Duke of Orléans, of terrible crimes, Voltaire was sentenced to eleven months in the Bastille. While in jail, he completed Oedipe, a tragedy that brought him fame, success and recognition (first performed in 1718). About the same time, he began writing his Henriade, a lyrical poem in praise of religious toleration modeled on the rule of France’s Henry IV. This poem was printed anonymously in Switzerland in 1723, under the title Poem of the League. The French government first prohibited an expanded version of the poem, but later permitted Voltaire to publish it in 1728, which quickly established Voltaire’s literary reputation throughout Europe. In 1726, Voltaire was again confined in the Bastille for two weeks after a dispute with the Chevalier de Rohan and then exiled to England for three years, where he learned English and became familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. Obtaining permission to return to Paris, Voltaire became active in the French theater, writing and producing Zadig in 1732, often judged one of his two most successful dramatic endeavors. In 1734, Voltaire published his Philosophical Letters on England, in which he criticizes French political and religious institutions by contrasting them unfavorably with the British tradition of greater liberalism. After appearance of this work, he was again compelled to leave Paris. He was offered safe haven at the Chateau de Cirey in the independent duchy of Lorraine, where he became the confidant of Du Châtelet, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise, in one of the most productive periods of his life as a man of letters. At this time, Voltaire wrote Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, as well as several novels and numerous stories, satires, plays and poems.

Voltaire’s wit targeted the folly of religious optimism that regards this as the best of all possible worlds. Like many other intellectuals, Voltaire was horrified and disillusioned by the great Lisbon earthquake in 1755, during which tens of thousands perished in a matter of minutes. How, Voltaire and others of his generation asked, could such carnage occur in world governed by an infinitely powerful and infinitely benevolent deity? Voltaire’s cynicism was poured forth in his most famous work, his short novel Candide. In this brilliant satire, the main character confronts an increasing series of personal setbacks, injuries, and catastrophes, and each time dusts himself off with the reassurance that no matter how bad things may appear, he can at least take consolation that reason reveals this to be the best of all possible worlds. Candide’s naïve response to the vicissitudes of the human condition is the result of his indoctrination in the teaching of Dr. Pangloss, who represents the rationalist philosophy of G. W. Leibniz, who, in his Theodicy attempts to explain away the problem of natural evil as an objection to the existence of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly benevolent author of the universe. In challenging Leibniz through the literary foil of Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s Candide takes aim at the rationalist tradition of the seventeenth century, which sought to derive significant metaphysical conclusions from the resources of pure reason alone. In this and other works, Voltaire adroitly uses literature as a medium for philosophical purposes, to cast the rationalism in a questionable light, and to champion the empiricist methodology developed by Isaac Newton in science, or natural philosophy, and later applied to moral philosophical topics by Hume, David, following John Locke.

After this stormy beginning, Voltaire enjoyed an international reputation. He spent much of his later life in exile from France, occasionally fleeing to Holland, working as an ambassador and espionage agent in Prussia, relocating to Brussels in 1742-43, and later to the court of King Stanislas in Lunéville. From 1745-1750, Voltaire became courtier to the French royalty at Versailles, where he charmed the Pompadour, Marquise de, mistress of King Louis XV, through whose influence Voltaire became a favorite at the court. Voltaire was appointed royal historiographer of France, was later made Gentleman of the King’s bedchamber, and finally elected a member of the French Academy. In 1755, Voltaire settled in Ferney, a small city in Switzerland, where he lived for the remainder of his life and produced many historical, political, and anti-religious writings. Voltaire’s 1756 Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, and on the Principal Occurrences in History offers one of the first comparative histories of European and Asian civilizations. Voltaire’s later Philosophical Dictionary (1764), written as a glossary of philosophical concepts arranged in alphabetical order, makes a sustained attack on revealed religion, especially Catholic Christianity. It was banned and burned in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam, and Voltaire was obliged to deny his authorship.

When Voltaire died on 30 May 1778, he had come to represent the Enlightenment internationally for his contributions to science, history, literature, the skeptical appraisal of revealed religion, and ironic commentary on the human comedy.

Further Reading:

Marvin A. Carlson, Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century, 1998.

Peter Gay, Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist, 1965.

John Gray, Voltaire, 1999.

Dale Jacquette