Who Is Voltaire?

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694. He was raised with a Jesuit education (Latin, theology, rhetoric, and so on) but his auspicious upbringing quickly became a thorn in the side of the French establishment. He was a brilliant student who wrote extensively about the lavish corruption of 18th century French society. His blistering satires and critiques were largely directed at the decaying Catholic French monarchy and its rigid censorship laws as well as its self-aggrandizing ecclesiasticism. Today Voltaire is regarded as the essential Enlightenment man. He carried the skepticism of Montaigne as well as the humor Rabelais. He was a more potent enemy of superstition and religious fanaticism than either Erasmus or Hume. Victor Hugo likened Voltaire to the whole of the 18th century -he contained within himself both a Renaissance and a Reformation.

1724 Portrait of Voltaire

Voltaire had a rocky relationship with his father. As a young man Voltaire scandalized his father by wanting to become a writer of poetry and historical studies, but his father insisted that he become a lawyer. Voltaire pretended to work as an assistant to a notary while spending most of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, Voltaire was immediately moved into a new job working for the French Ambassador to the Netherlands. During this time he had an affair with a French Protestant refugee. When the affair was discovered Voltaire was forced to return to France where he spent his time in Paris writing and criticizing the French aristocracy and the church.

Needless to say, his writings were not well received by the French establishment (his own father regularly called him a “rascal”) and Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717 where he wrote his first tragedy, Oedipe (1718), a rationalistic re-telling of Sophocles’s Oedipus. While imprisoned, he took on the nom du plume: Voltaire. Its origins are somewhat mysterious though perhaps it is an anagram of the Latinized spelling of his first name, or else a reference to his childhood nickname le petit volontaire (“determined little thing”). At any rate, Voltaire was imprisoned again in 1726. He was released only on the condition that he leave France. He was exiled in London where he was connected with Alexander Pope, Congreve, and Jonathan Swift. Voltaire became an admirer of English society and culture. He was particularly impressed with the English Constitutional Monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy. During his travels he was also quite taken with Dutch society and its prosperity as well as its tolerant liberal character in contrast to France’s groupthink and widespread superstitious enforcement. After two and a half years abroad he returned to France where he wrote about his preference for England in his Letters Concerning the English Nation in 1729. It caused an uproar for its praise of England (“perfidious albion”) over France and he was again forced to flee Paris. As the letters were publicly burned and censored, they continued to grow in popularity eventually becoming a rallying cry in future years for French revolutionaries.

Voltaire settled at a chateau in Lorraine with an educated woman named Madame Émilie du Châtelet. She encouraged his literary efforts which led to Le Siecle de Louis XIV (1751), several historical tragedies, a history of the French civil wars, a biography of Henri IV of France (the Henriad), and a translation of Newton’s Principia. Together, Voltaire and the Madame conducted numerous Newtonian experiments. In fact, Voltaire was the chief advocate of modern science in France, particularly of Newton contra Descartes. He was also one of the leading proponents of the new style of English theatre that he experienced while exiled in London -he brought Shakespeare with him to mainland Europe where Shakespeare was still a relatively obscure name.

When Madame du Châtelet died in childbirth in 1749 (a child from another lover) Voltaire moved to Brussels and then to Berlin where served as chamberlain to Frederick II of Prussia but he was soon forced to flee after a dispute. In 1753 he moved to a French estate outside Geneva and settled with his niece (apparently he may have had an affair with his niece). Here, he completed his most acrid work, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759, along with a variety of other romantic picaresque novelettes. The book is, in part, an Enlightenment satire of Leibniz’s philosophy of ‘optimistic determinism’ (i.e. “all is best in the best of all possible worlds”). In total, Voltaire’s writings would fill 99 volumes.

Voltaire lived out much of his remaining years at a vast estate in Ferney along the Franco-Swiss border. In 1764 Voltaire’s major philosophical work, Dictionaire Philosophique was published which was an alphabetized dictionary. After many years, he was finally able to return to Paris where he was honored with a laurel wreath of the theatre where his successful play, Irene, was being performed. Voltaire never again left Paris and he died there on May 30, 1778 at the age of 83 -shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution.

In his introductory appreciation of Candide André Maurois writes: “In the eyes of posterity, nearly every great man is stabilized at one age of life. The Byron of legend is the handsome youth of 1812, not the full-grown man, prematurely ageing, with thinning hair, whom Lady Blessington knew. Tolstoy is the shaggy old peasant with a broad girdle circling his rustic blouse. The Voltaire of legend is the thin, mischievous old man of Ferney, as Houdon carved him, sneering, his skeleton form bent under its white marble dressing-gown, but bent as a spring is bent, ready to leap. For twenty years Voltaire, at Ferney, was a dying man: he had been one all his life.”

Voltaire is often mistaken for a French revolutionary -while imprisoned in the “Temple” Louis XVI lamented that the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau had destroyed France (the writers and philosophers are often blamed for social unrest, not unlike Socrates in ancient Athens). Rousseau and Voltaire were the two chief voices in France for a kind of naturalism coupled with rationalism, however they were not the causes of the brewing tensions that exploded in the French Revolution, they were merely vocal symptoms of the need for reform. Despite being honored post-mortem by the revolutionaries, Voltaire would have been horrified by the French Revolution (Voltaire was a Constitutional Monarchist and was a fierce opponent of fanaticism).

He was a theist in name, but a humanist in fact (not unlike many of the founders of the American Republic -in fact Voltaire was friendly with the likes of Benjamin Franklin who persuaded Voltaire to become a Freemason). Voltaire had an unquenchable lust for life despite being cursed with a somewhat frail physical constitution. Per André Maurois, “… he was marvelously alive; and mankind, dreading boredom even more than anxieties, is grateful to those who make life throb with a swifter, stronger beat. In the downpour of pamphlets, epistles, stories, poems, and letters that showered on France for so many years from Cirey and Berlin and Ferney, there were trivialities and excellences. But everything was swift and bright, and Frenchmen felt their wit coming alive to the tune of M. de Voltaire’s fiddling. A graver music some may prefer, but his must have had charm in plenty, for after more than a century France has not yet wearied of what has been so well called the prestissimo of Voltaire.”

As Will Durant notes in his Story of Civilization: “What is left to us is too much the flesh of Voltaire, too little the divine fire of his spirit. And yet, darkly though we see him through the glass of time, what a spirit!”

For this reading I used André Maurois praise of Voltaire in his introduction to Candide, along with Will Durant’s chapter on Voltaire and the Enlightenment in his Story of Civilization.

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