Authors: Voltaire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French playwright, historian, philosopher, fabulist, and poet

November 21, 1694

Paris, France

May 30, 1778

Paris, France


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. {$I[AN]9810001433} {$I[A]Voltaire} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Voltaire} {$I[tim]1694;Voltaire}


(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Short Fiction: Zadig; ou, La Destinée, 1748 Le Monde comme il va, 1748 (revised as Babouc: Ou, Le Monde comme il va, 1749; Babouc: Or, The World as It Goes, 1754; also known as The World as It Is: Or, Babouc’s Vision, 1929) Memnon; ou, La Sagesse humaine, 1749 (Memnon: Or, Human Wisdom, 1961) La Lettre d’un Turc, 1750 Micromégas, 1752 Le Blanc et le noir, 1764 (The Two Genies, 1895) Jeannot et Colin, 1764 (Jeannot and Colin, 1929) L'Ingénu, 1767 L'Homme aux quarante écus, 1768 La princesse de Babylone, 1768 Le taureau blanc, 1774 L’Histoire de Jenni, 1775 Les Oreilles du Comte de Chesterfield, 1775 (The Ears of Lord Chesterfield and Parson Goodman, 1826) The Complete Tales of Voltaire, 1990 Drama: Œdipe, pr. 1718 (Oedipus, 1761) Artémire, pr. 1720 Mariamne, pr. 1724 (English translation, 1761) L’Indiscret, pr., pb. 1725 (verse play) Brutus, pr. 1730 (English translation, 1761) Ériphyle, pr. 1732 Zaïre, pr. 1732 (English translation, 1736) La Mort de César, pr. 1733 Adélaïade du Guesclin, pr. 1734 L’échange, pr. 1734 Alzire, pr., pb. 1736 (English translation, 1763) L’Enfant prodigue, pr. 1736 (verse play; prose translation as The Prodigal, 1750?) La Prude; ou, La Grandeuse de Cassette, wr. 1740, pr., pb. 1747 (verse play; adaptation of William Wycherley’s play The Plain Dealer) Zulime, pr. 1740 Le Fanatisme; ou Mahomet le prophète, pr., pb. 1742 (Mahomet the Prophet, 1744) Mérope, pr. 1743 (English translation, 1744, 1749) La Princesse de Navarre, pr., pb. 1745 (verse play; music by Jean-Philippe Rameau) Sémiramis, pr. 1748 (Semiramis, 1760) Nanine, pr., pb. 1749 (English translation, 1927) Oreste, pr., pb. 1750 Rome sauvée, pr., pb. 1752 L’Orphelin de la Chine, pr., pb. 1755 (The Orphan of China, 1756) Candide, pb. 1759 Socrate, pb. 1759 (Socrates, 1760) L’Écossaise, pr., pb. 1760 (The Highland Girl, 1760) Tancrède, pr. 1760 Don Pèdre, wr. 1761, pb. 1775 Olympie, pb. 1763 Le Triumvirat, pr. 1764 Les Scythes, pr., pb. 1767 Les Guèbres; ou, La Tolérance, pb. 1769 Sophonisbe, pb. 1770 (revision of Jean Mairet’s play) Les Pélopides; ou, Atrée et Thyeste, pb. 1772 Les Lois de Minos, pb. 1773 Irène, pr. 1778 Agathocle, pr. 1779 Nonfiction: An Essay upon the Civil Wars of France . . . and Also upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations from Homer Down to Milton, 1727 Histoire de Charles XII, 1731 (The History of Charles XII, 1732) Le Temple du goût, 1733 (The Temple of Taste, 1734) Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733 (Lettres philosophiques, 1734; also known as Philosophical Letters, 1961) Discours de métaphysique, 1736 Éléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738 (The Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, 1738) Vie de Molière, 1739 Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1751 (The Age of Louis XIV, 1752) Annales de l'Empire, 1753 Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations, 1756, 1763 (The General History and State of Europe, 1754–57, 1759) Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire, écrits par lui-même, wr. 1759, pb. 1965 (Memoirs of the life of Monsieur de Voltaire written by himself, 2007) Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand, 1759–63 Traité sur la tolérance, 1763 (A Treatise on Religious Toleration, 1764) Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764, enlarged 1769 (as La Raison par alphabet, also known as Dictionnaire philosophique; A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also known as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945, enlarged 1962) Dieu et l'homme, 1769 (God & Human Beings, 2010) Commentaires sur le théâtre de Pierre Corneille, 1764 Avis au public sur les parracides imputés aux calas et aux Sirven, 1775 Correspondence, 1953–65 (102 volumes) Poetry: La Ligue, 1723, revised as La Henriade, 1728 Le Mondain, 1736 Poème de Fontenoy, 1745 Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1756 Miscellaneous: The Works of M. de Voltaire, 1761–65 (35 volumes), 1761–81 (38 volumes) Candide, and Other Writings, 1945 The Portable Voltaire, 1949 Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories, 1961 Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, 1968–77 (115 volumes) Bibliography 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. Braun, Theodore E. D. “Voltaire, Zadig, Candide, and Chaos.” In Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, edited by Anthony Strugnell. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1997. Discusses the importance of social disorder in Zadig, as well as in Candide. Bibliographic references. 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.

Categories: Authors