Voltaire Biography

The French writer and philosopher Voltaire is considered one of the central figures of the Age of Enlightenment of the 1700s, a period which emphasized the power of human reason, science, and respect for humanity. Voltaire believed that literature should serve as a vehicle for social change. His biting satires and philosophical writings demonstrated his aversion to Christianity, intolerance, and tyranny. The expression captured in this portrait of Voltaire in 1718 hints at the sharp sense of humor with which he won the favor of 18th-century French society.

Voltaire, assumed name of François Marie Arouet (1694-1778), French writer and philosopher, who was one of the leaders of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire was born in Paris, November 21, 1694, the son of a notary. He was educated by the Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand.


Voltaire quickly chose literature as a career. He began moving in aristocratic circles and soon became known in Paris salons as a brilliant and sarcastic wit. A number of his writings, particularly a lampoon accusing the French regent Philippe II, duc d'Orléans of heinous crimes, resulted in his imprisonment in the Bastille. During his 11-month detention, Voltaire completed his first tragedy, Odipe, which was based upon the Odipus tyrannus of the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles, and commenced an epic poem on Henry IV of France. Odipe was given its initial performance at the Théâtre-Français in 1718 and received with great enthusiasm. The work on Henry IV was printed anonymously in Geneva under the title of Poeme de la ligue (Poem of the League, 1723). In his first philosophical poem, Le pour et le contre (For and Against), Voltaire gave eloquent expression to both his anti-Christian views and his rationalist, deist creed.

A quarrel with a member of an illustrious French family, the chevalier de Rohan, resulted in Voltaire's second incarceration in the Bastille, from which he was released within two weeks on his promise to quit France and proceed to England. Accordingly he spent about two years in London. Voltaire soon mastered the English language, and in order to prepare the British public for an enlarged edition of his Poeme de la ligue, he wrote in English two remarkable essays, one on epic poetry and the other on the history of civil wars in France. For a few years the Catholic, autocratic French government prevented the publication of the enlarged edition of Poeme de la ligue, which was retitled La Henriade (The Henriad). The government finally allowed the poem to be published in 1728. This work, an eloquent defense of religious toleration, achieved an almost unprecedented success, not only in Voltaire's native France but throughout all of the continent of Europe as well.


French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was well known for his portraits in stone. Highly regarded in the United States as well as in Europe, Houdon created the only statue for which George Washington posed. This statue of French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire stands in the Comédie Française theater in Paris, where Voltaire’s plays are still performed.

In 1728 Voltaire returned to France. During the next four years he resided in Paris and devoted most of his time to literary composition. The chief work of this period is the Lettres philosophiques (The Philosophical Letters, 1734). A covert attack upon the political and ecclesiastical institutions of France, this work brought Voltaire into conflict with the authorities, and he was once more forced to quit Paris. He found refuge at the Château de Cirey in the independent duchy of Lorraine. There he formed an intimate relationship with the aristocratic and learned Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who exerted a strong intellectual influence upon him.

Voltaire's sojourn at Cirey in companionship with the marquise du Châtelet was a period of intense literary activity. In addition to an imposing number of plays, he wrote the Élements de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of the Philosophy of Newton), and produced novels, tales, satires, and light verses.

Voltaire's stay at Cirey was not without interruptions. He often traveled to Paris and to Versailles, where, through the influence of the marquise de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV, he became a court favorite. He was first appointed historiographer of France, and then a gentleman of the king's bedchamber; finally, in 1746, he was elected to the French Academy. His Poeme de Fontenoy (1745), describing a battle won by the French over the English during the War of the Austrian Succession, and his Précis du siecle de Louis XV (Epitome of the Age of Louis XV), in addition to his dramas La princesse de Navarre and Le triomphe de Trajan, were the outcome of Voltaire's connection with the court of Louis XV.

Following the death of Madame du Châtelet in 1749, Voltaire finally accepted a long-standing invitation from Frederick II of Prussia to become a permanent resident at the Prussian court. He journeyed to Berlin in 1750 but did not remain there more than two years, because his acidulous wit clashed with the king's autocratic temper and led to frequent disputes. While at Berlin he completed his Siecle de Louis XIV, a historical study of the period of Louis XIV (1638-1715).


For some years Voltaire led a migratory existence, but he finally settled in 1758 at Ferney, where he spent the remaining 20 years of his life. In the interval between his return from Berlin and his establishment at Ferney, he completed his most ambitious work, the Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (Essay on General History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations, 1756). In this work, a study of human progress, Voltaire decries supernaturalism and denounces religion and the power of the clergy, although he makes evident his own belief in the existence of God.

After settling in Ferney, Voltaire wrote several philosophical poems, such as Le désastre de Lisbonne (The Lisbon Disaster, 1756); a number of satirical and philosophical novels, of which the most brilliant is Candide (1759); the tragedy Tancrede (1760); and the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). Feeling secure in his sequestered retreat, he sent forth hundreds of short squibs and broadsides satirizing abuses that he desired to expose. Those who suffered persecution because of their beliefs found in Voltaire an eloquent and powerful defender. The flavor of Voltaire's activities could be summarized in the phrase he often used: écrasons l'infâme (“let us crush the infamous one”). With this phrase, he referred to any form of religion that persecutes nonadherents or that constitutes fanaticism. For Christianity he would substitute deism, a purely rational religion. Candide, in which Voltaire analyzes the problem of evil in the world, depicts the woes heaped upon the world in the name of religion. He died in Paris, May 30, 1778.


Voltaire's contradictions of character are reflected in his writings as well as in the impressions of others. He seemed able to defend either side in any debate, and to some of his contemporaries he appeared distrustful, avaricious and sardonic; others considered him generous, enthusiastic, and sentimental. Essentially, he rejected everything irrational and incomprehensible and called upon his contemporaries to act against intolerance, tyranny, and superstition. His morality was founded on a belief in freedom of thought and respect for all individuals, and he maintained that literature should be useful and concerned with the problems of the day. These views made Voltaire a central figure in the 18th-century philosophical movement typified by the writers of the famous French Encyclopédie. Because he pleaded for a socially involved type of literature, Voltaire is considered a forerunner of such 20th-century writers as Jean-Paul Sartre and other French existentialists.

All of Voltaire's works contain memorable passages distinguished by elegance, perspicuity, and wit. His poetic and dramatic works, however, are marred often by too great a concentration on historical matter and philosophical propaganda. His other writings include the tragedies Brutus (1730), Zaire (1732), Alzire (1736), Mahomet (1741), and Mérope (1743); the philosophical romance Zadig (1747); the philosophical poem Discours sur l'homme (Discourse on Man, 1738); and the historical study Charles XII (1730).

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