[Voltaire, biography]

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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 Deism.

  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 College Louis-le-Grand.

  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 was ridiculous.

  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 reason.

  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.

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an outline biography