an outline biography
François Marie Arouet (who later assumed the name
Voltaire) was born in Paris on November 21st 1694. The
family was wealthy, his father was a notary and his mother
maintained contacts with friends interested in belles-lettres and
From 1704 - 1711 François Marie was educated by the
Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand, his later involvement with
the writing and staging of plays may have been encouraged by the
numerous plays, in Latin as well as French, that were staged at
Despite his father's wishes that he train for a career in Law
François Marie, after a short period of work in a legal
office, chose to attempt to pursue a literary career. He soon
began to fall in with questionable company and to cause offense
through the power and sarcasm of his wit and poetry. Because of
these tendencies his father, on several occasions, arranged for
him to spend time away from Paris.
From about 1715 François Marie increasingly began
moving in aristocratic circles including a famous salon-court
that was maintained by the Duchesse du Maine at Sceaux. He became
recognised in Paris as a brilliant and sarcastic wit - a lampoon
of the French regent the Duc d'Orléans and also his being
accused, (unjustly), of penning two distinctly libelous poems
resulted in his imprisonment in the Bastille. This imprisonment
being imposed following the composition of a lettre de
cachet, an administrative order, issued at the request of
powerful persons. François Marie was most aggrieved at
this unjust sentence to imprisonment being imposed on him.
It was during his subsequent eleven month period of detention
that François Marie Arouet / Voltaire completed his first
dramatic tragedy, Oedipe. This dramatic work was based upon
the play Oedipus Tyrannus attributable to the ancient Greek
dramatist Sophocles. (It was during these times that
François Marie adopted the pen name Voltaire). Voltaire's
Oedipe opened at the Théâtre Français in
1718 and received an enthusiastic response.
During his period of detention in the Bastille he had also
begun to craft a poem centered on the life of Henry IV of France.
An early edition of this work, which features an eloquent appeal
for religious toleration, was printed anonymously in Geneva under
the title of Poème de la ligue (Poem of the League, 1723).
King Henry IV had been an Huguenot (protestant) claimant to the
French throne but was only accepted as King after modifying his
approach to religion.
Voltaire was consigned to the Bastille, again by lettre de
cachet, after he had given offence to the chevalier de Rohan
who was member of one of the most powerful families in France.
This time however he was released within two weeks following his
promise to actually quit France and to begin a period of exile.
Accordingly he spent almost three years in London where he soon
mastered the English language and wrote, in English, two
remarkable works, an "Essay upon Epic Poetry" and an "Essay upon
the Civil Wars in France". Whilst in England he regularly
attended the theatres and playhouses and saw several performances
of Shakespeare's plays.
During his exile in London he made a serious study of the new
philosophical ideas of John Locke that questioned both the Divine
Right of Kings and also the Authority of the State. He was also
impressed by the English Constitutional arrangements:-
"We can well believe that a constitution
that has established the rights of the Crown, the aristocracy and
the people, in which each section finds its own safety, will
last as long as human institutions can last".
The scientific discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton also attracted
his serious attention. For the rest of his long literary and
philosophical career he did a very great deal to popularise the
ideas of Locke and to spread knowledge of the discoveries of
Newton. It can be suggested that Locke's and Newton's ideas
tended to encourage people to have faith in their own physical
senses and in their powers of reason to the detriment, more often
than not, of religious faith.
In 1728 the autocratic French government finally allowed the
Poème de la ligue, (which was now retitled La Henriade) to
be published in France. This work achieved a most remarkable
acclaim, not only in France but throughout all of the continent
of Europe as well.
Voltaire returned to France in 1728 and was to reside in Paris
over the subsequent four years devoting his time to literary
activities. The chief work of this period is the Lettres
anglaises ou philosophiques (English or Philosophical Letters,
1734). This work favourably commented upon the relative ease with
which educated commoners in England might take up occupations and
professions, it also strongly suggested that there was a degree
of press freedom, of equality of taxation, and of respect shown
to the individual, and to the law, in England that should be
emulated elsewhere. His Lettres anglaises ou philosophiques
effectively constituted a covert attack upon the political and
ecclesiastical institutions of France and thus brought him into
conflict with the authorities.
Voltaire was once more forced to quit Paris and found refuge
from the French authorities at the Château de Cirey in
Lorraine, then an independent Duchy. There he formed an intimate
relationship with the learned Marquise du Châtelet, who
exerted a strong intellectual influence upon him. In 1735 he was
given leave to return to Paris by the French authorities but, in
the event, he preferred to continue as he was at Cirey. He did
however make visits to Paris, Versailles, and elsewhere.
Several years thereafter and largely through the influence of
the Marquise de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV,
Voltaire became a court favorite. He was appointed Royal
Historiographer of France, and then a gentleman of the King's
bedchamber. In 1746 he was elected to the French Academy.
Following the death of Madame du Châtelet in 1749, he
finally accepted a long-standing invitation from Frederick II of
Prussia to become resident at the Prussian court. He journeyed to
Berlin in 1750 but did not remain there more than two years due
to a series of misunderstandings and scandals. There was at this
time something of a fashion for European rulers to style
themselves as being enlightened despots. Apart from Frederick II,
King of Prussia, Catherine the Empress of the Russias is perhaps
the most notable example of this. The Empress used also, in fact,
to correspond with him.
Following his departure from Berlin he was not welcome to
return to France and began a series of temporary stays in towns,
such as Colmar and Geneva, along her frontiers. During these
years he completed his most ambitious work, the Essay on General
History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations, 1756.
This work sets itself out to be a study of human progress,
through its pages he denounced the power of the clergy but made
evident his own rationalist-deist belief in the existence of God.
From 1758 he established a more enduring home at Ferney, nearby
to Geneva but within the frontiers of the French kingdom, where
he spent the remaining 20 years of his life. Many European
celebrities subsequently included a visit to Ferney in their
itineraries - a fact which tended to establish Ferney as the
virtual intellectual capital of Europe.
Voltaire is considered to have been a central figure in the
emergence of the Enlightenment movement in Europe where people
were increasingly encouraged to practice toleration in religion
and to look to the practical application of natural laws
discovered by science for the material improvement of human life.
He also tended to effectively persuade people that superstition
After settling in Ferney, he wrote several philosophical
poems, such as Le désastre de Lisbonne (The Lisbon
Disaster, 1756), and a number of satirical and philosophical
novels, of which the most brilliant is Candide (1759).
The publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) met
with condemnation in Paris and other European cities. It was
considered to encourage people to look to reason rather than to
faith. A copy of the Dictionnaire philosophique was actually
burned at the same time as the unfortunate young Chevalier de la
Barre, who had neglected to take of his hat, and kneel, during
the passing of a religious procession. Given the furore over the
Dictionnaire he thought it prudent to deny authorship and to seek
exile for a few weeks in Switzerland.
Voltaire contributed to what proved to be perhaps the greatest
intellectual project of the times, the great ongoing
Encyclopedié edited by the Philosophés Denis
Diderot and Jean d'Alembert. The Encyclopedié was also to
become the subject of controversy as it too was considered to
challenge faith by encouraging people to look to the power of
Voltaire considered that his own earlier life experiences of
imprisonment and exile for exercising his wit at the expense of
the powerful were effectively a result of the abuse of power.
Individuals should not have to live under the threat of such
abuse by the powerful in society. From Ferney his mind and pen
sent forth hundreds of literary utterances in defence of freedom
of thought and of religious tolerance. He was also very apt to
satirise and to expose what he considered to be abuses. Those who
seemed to have suffered persecution because of their beliefs
found in him an eloquent and influential defender.
His championship of freedom of thought and of religious
tolerance in several notable cases brought him into a direct
conflict with the Catholic church authorities. He saw the
Catholic church authorities in France as often behaving in a
repressive manner and particularly so towards Huguenots. He often
used the phrase écrasons l'infâme let us crush
the infamous one by which he seems to have meant
intellectual, religious, and social intolerance generally.
In 1778 Voltaire was given a rapturous welcome on his return
to Paris and died there, in his sleep on May 30th,
possibly over-excited by his recent journey and welcome. Because
of his many unorthodoxies he was refused burial in church ground
but eventually found a resting place in the grounds of the Abbey
of Sellières, near Romilly-sur-Seine.
From 1789 there was a revolution in France which, amongst many
other things, unmistakeably upheld "reason" and "virtue". In
relation to Voltaire some of the leading revolutionaries
considered that the "glorious Revolution has been the fruit of
his works". In July 1791 his remains were dis-interred and,
amidst great ceremony, re-housed in an imposing Sarcophagus in
the Panthéon in Paris. The Panthéon being a
recently completed building that had been begun as a church of
St. Genevieve but which had been finished, by the revolutionary
government, as a monument to those designated by the
revolutionaries as "les Grands Hommes." As Voltaire's remains
were borne toward the Panthéon, in a hearse designed by
the painter David that bore the inscription "He taught us to be
free", they were escorted by the National Guard. Perhaps an
hundred thousand people followed in the cortege with many more
thousands looking on.
At this time Voltaire shared the Panthéon with
René Descartes, regarded by the intellectual heirs of the
Enlightenment as the patron saint of Reason, and also the
revolutionary leader Mirabeau.
In 1814, with the French revolutionary and Napoleonic era
being ended by a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy a group of
persons who tended to hold right-wing, clericalist, political
views clandestinely removed his remains from the Panthéon
- although their absence was not discovered until 1864.
Voltaire's heart and brain, however, had been removed even
before the burial in Champagne - his brain is today preserved in
the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris - his heart was in the care
of a series of private custodianships for more than one hundred
years but eventually disappeared after an auction.