Voltaire 1694 -1778
François-Marie Arouet known by his nom de plume ‘Voltaire’ was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, famous for his wit, his attacks on the established monarchy and aristocracy of France and the Catholic Church and his demands for religious tolerance and freedom of thought, despite the risks under the strict censorship laws of the time.
Voltaire was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.
François-Marie Arouet, was born in Paris, on 21 November 1694, the youngest of the five children of François and Marie Arouet. His father was lawyer and a minor treasury official and his family was on the lowest rank of the French nobility. Voltaire’s mother died when he was seven and he attached himself to his godfather, the abbé de Châteauneuf, a freethinker and an epicurean. At eight years old he was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand for seven years where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.
By the time he left college at eighteen, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer against the wishes of his father. After desultory work with a Parisian notary, his father sent Voltaire to study law, far away in Caen, Normandy, but the young Voltaire continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he was then mixing. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands, the Marquis de Châteauneuf. At The Hague, Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee nicknamed ‘Pimpette’ and was forced to return to France by the end of the year.
Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris, but from early on, he had trouble with the authorities for his critical attitudes to the government and the monarchy and was sent to the Bastille for libellous poetry. The author adopted the name ‘Voltaire’ in 1718, following his imprisonment in the Bastille. He had been known as ‘le petit volontaire’ –a determined little thing, as a child and he resurrected a variant of the name in his adult life.
After his release, in November 1718, the Comédie-Française staged his debut play, ‘Œdipe’ and its critical and public success immediately made him a writer of note.
In 1722 His second play ‘Artemire’ was a flop so he finished an epic poem in the style of Virgil, about Henri IV of France , the ‘Henriade’, glorifying his attempt to end the Catholic-Protestant massacres with the Edict of Nantes. After a brush with the censors, the epic poem was an instant success.
In early 1726, he fell out with a young French nobleman, whose family arranged for him to be sent to the Bastille to avoid a duel. Instead, he proposed that he should be exiled to England rather than be incarcerated indefinitely.
Voltaire then lived in London and circulated throughout English high society, meeting Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and many other members of the nobility and royalty. He was presented at court and dedicated his ‘Henriade ‘to Queen Caroline.
His exile in Britain greatly influenced Voltaire’s thinking as he was intrigued by Britain’s constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French king’s absolutism and the country’s greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He developed an interest in the works of Shakespeare and after two and a half years in exile, Voltaire returned to France. Through a wise investment in the national French government lottery and a trust inheritance, Voltaire now become rich.
In 1732, his play ‘Zaïre’ was a success in Paris, but in 1734 he published ‘Letters Concerning the English Nation’ which praised the British constitutional monarchy, liberty, commerce and respect for human rights, particularly religious tolerance,in direct comparison with the French. The book was banned and publicly burnt and Voltaire fled Paris again to escape the authorities.
Voltaire took refuge at the chateau of the Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, a married mother of three who was 12 years his junior, at Cirey-sur-Blaise, on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, who became his mistress. The relationship had a significant intellectual element. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books and together they studied and performed experiments in the natural sciences.
Whilst in England, Voltaire had been strongly influenced by the works and theories of Sir Isaac Newton and after an intense study with the Emilie, he wrote ‘Elements of Newton’s Philosophy’ which brought about general acceptance of Newton’s optical and gravitational theories in France.
Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history, particularly those persons who had contributed to civilization. Voltaire’s second essay ‘Essay upon the Civil Wars in France’ followed ‘The Henriade’ and a historical novel on King Charles XII of Sweden. Voltaire and the Marquise analysed the Bible critically reflecting Voltaire’s views on religion being the separation of church and state and religious freedom, ideas that he had formed after his stay in England.
By 1744, Voltaire found life at the château restricting and on a visit to Paris that year, he found a new love—his niece, the widowed daughter of Voltaire’s sister, Catherine. At first, his attraction to Marie, Madame Denis, was clearly sexual, though later, they lived together at Ferney until Voltaire’s death.
After an initial correspondence with his admirer, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Voltaire met him and later visited Frederick on several occasions, later gaining French Royal approval for acting as an agent in the Prussian court during the War of Austrian Accession 1742/3. In 1745, after his poem celebrating the French victory of Fontenoy, he was appointed historiographer, gentleman of the king’s chamber, and academician . However, in 1750, Voltaire moved to Prussia to the court of Frederick and was made a chamberlain in his household, appointed to the Order of Merit, and given a salary of 20,000 French livres a year. He completed ‘Micromégas’ a novel of science fiction involving ambassadors from another planet, but his relationship with Frederick the Great deteriorated after an unjust accusation of forgery and an open argument with the president of the Berlin Academy of Science. Voltaire then resigned his post and left Prussia, though on his long, circuitous journey home he was pestered vindictively by Frederick’s agents.
Louis XV did not like Voltaire and had banned him from Paris, so instead he journeyed to Geneva, near which he bought a large estate named ‘Les Délices’ in early 1755.
In late 1758, he bought an even larger estate at Ferney, on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border and rebuilt the chateau entirely. He landscaped the grounds doing much of the hard labouring work himself. He also industriously transformed the town and church of Ferney.
Voltaire now believed that he had discovered the secret of happiness – which was ‘to cultivate one’s garden’, a practical philosophy of life.
From Ferney, he wrote prolifically, plays and pamphlets and criticisms of government and clerical misdoings, for the next twenty years.
Early in 1759, Voltaire completed and published the work for which he is perhaps best known, ‘Candide, or Optimism’ . ‘Candide’ attacks the passive acceptance of ‘fate’ and in other satirical ‘novels’ he addresses the social and political ways of the time or exposes the received forms of moral and spiritual orthodoxy. Some were written to deride the Bible.
Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence with everyone from heads of state to other writers and philosophers. After lengthy correspondence with Catherine the Great of Russia, upon Voltaire’s death, the Empress purchased his library, which was then transported and placed in The ‘Hermitage’.
He stayed in Ferney for most of the remaining years of his life, frequently entertaining distinguished guests, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon. In 1764, he published one of his best-known philosophical works, the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, a series of articles mainly on Christian history and dogmas.
In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in over 25 years to Paris to see the opening of his latest tragedy, ‘Irene’. The five-day journey exhausted him, but in March he saw a performance of ‘Irene’ and was treated by the audience as a returning hero.
On 4 April 1778 Voltaire accompanied his close friend Benjamin Franklin, became an ‘Entered Apprentice Freemason’.
He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778.
Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris, but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne, where Marie Louise’s brother was abbé.
On 11 July 1791, he was enshrined in the Panthéon, after the National Assembly of France, which regarded him as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris.
The town of Ferney, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life, was officially named Ferney-Voltaire in honour of its most famous resident in 1878. His château there is a museum to his life.