Last reviewed: June 2018
French playwright, historian, philosopher, fabulist, and poet
November 21, 1694
May 30, 1778
The man who, under the name of Voltaire (vohl-tayr), was to be remembered as the foremost spokesman of the Age of Enlightenment, was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris on November 21, 1694. The son of a prosperous lawyer who numbered among his friends members of the nobility and the literary aristocracy, young François-Marie grew up in an atmosphere of wit and culture. At the age of eleven, already known in Paris as an unusually clever rhymer of verses, he was invited to the salon of the celebrated Ninon de l’Enclos, thus gaining early entrée into a dazzling world of free morals and free thought. Although from a Jansenist family, François-Marie received his formal education at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he acquired a solid classical background, familiarity with poetry and drama, and a number of noble and influential friends who were to serve him well throughout his lifetime. Voltaire
While still in his school days, he became a member of the cultivated, freethinking, epicurean, and rather debauched “Society of the Temple.” Resisting his father’s efforts to make him a lawyer, he insisted that he would be a poet. Soon his biting verses mocking those in high places had earned for him several brief exiles from Paris and, in 1717, an eleven-month sojourn in the Bastille. He emerged from prison with a finished draft of Oedipus, the first of the more than fifty plays he was to write during his lifetime. Some of these plays were failures, others were spectacular successes on the contemporary stage, but none has survived the test of time. Although they are interesting in their frequently exotic settings, their use of characters from French history, and their introduction of some of the elements of the less formal English drama upon the rigorously defined classical stage of France, it is for their historic interest rather than their literary or dramatic merit that they are read today.
A few years later, following another brief term in prison, a three-year exile in England brought François-Marie, who by this time had changed his name to Arouet de Voltaire, into the society of such men as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay and into contact with the ideas of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. As a result of this sojourn, much of the intellectual activity of Voltaire’s most productive period was devoted to synthesizing the two streams of rationalistic, freethinking ideas, French and English. Voltaire returned to France with his deism and skepticism strengthened and with a strong desire to cultivate liberal thought in his homeland. One of his first weapons in this cause was the Philosophical Letters, which, in characteristically brief, epigrammatic sentences, described the political liberty, religious tolerance, and commercial enterprise of the British, contrasting them with conditions in France. When this volume was published, its implied criticism of French law, religion, and institutions incurred royal wrath, which forced Voltaire to flee Paris and take up residence with various wealthy sponsors in the provinces.
At the home of one of these sponsors, Voltaire met the Marquise du Châtelet, the brilliant and learned woman who was to be his mistress and intellectual companion for fifteen years (1734–49). The years he spent with her at Cirey were fruitful ones of intellectual development and consolidation. During that time he was appointed royal historiographer, was elected to the French Academy, wrote numerous plays, and worked on several volumes of historical criticism—including the rationalistic, freethinking General History and State of Europe (also known as Essay on Manners), which was not published until 1754. There too he published the tale Zadig in 1747. After the Marquise du Châtelet’s death in 1749, Voltaire spent three years at the court of his great admirer and patron, Frederick the Great of Prussia, years which had been intended for the creation in reality of the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king but which were marked by increasingly bitter quarrels and disillusionment. Upon his return to France, Voltaire, grown rich from writings, pensions, and shrewd business ventures, purchased and settled on a great estate at Ferney, conveniently close to the Swiss border. It was during his life there that he wrote his famed Treatise on Religious Toleration, among some four hundred writings, and published the first volume of the Philosophical Dictionary, a work which epitomized Voltaire’s rationalism and his universal interests. At Ferney he wrote articles for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie and dedicated himself to the extirpation of “L’Infâme,” the intolerance and superstition which he believed to be the inevitable accompaniment of organized religion. In the midst of numerous sustained interests and activities, he spent three days writing Candide, the work for which he is best remembered.
In Candide: Or, The Optimist, the fantastically improbable travels, adventures, and misfortunes of the young Candide, his fiancé Cunegonde, and his tutor Pangloss are recounted in a terse, dry, understated style. Voltaire, never an unqualified optimist, and progressively disillusioned by his mistress’s death, the failure of his schemes for Frederick the Great, the gratuitous horror and suffering of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and his acquaintance with the universal folly and wickedness of humankind derived from his wide reading, makes his exaggerated adventure tale an ironic attack on the optimistic philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Pope, who contended that this was “the best of all possible worlds.” By endowing his characters initially with a good fortune and every prospect for happiness, and then leading them through every conceivable misfortune into resigned old age, Voltaire makes the point that only by taking life as it comes and avoiding theoretical speculation about its meaning can one ward off despair. Richly spiced with a wit and humor which are as fresh today as when they were created, Candide is nevertheless the thoughtful and embittered product of a mind more concerned with communicating an idea than with skillful characterization or pure entertainment.
Early in 1778 Voltaire entered Paris in triumph to oversee the production of his latest play, Irène. There, in his hour of greatest glory, he died on May 30. The man whose clear, direct style made him the greatest spokesman for the anticlerical and rationalistic ideas of the Enlightenment, had died “in a state of sin,” and his body had to be smuggled out of Paris at night to prevent its ignominious burial in a common ditch. Voltaire's nephew buried the body secretly at the abbey of Seillières, and in July 1791, his remains were reinterred with fanfare in the Pantheon.
Over two centuries later, Voltaire's works remain in print, both in French and in English translation. His correspondence filled more than one hundred volumes, published posthumously, as have his complete works.