François Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, was a writer, historian, and philosopher, and almost certainly the most important figure of the French Enlightenment. The impact of this French author and philosopher on Western thought was so profound that he is simply known as “Voltaire”—the name he adopted in 1718. With a philosophy based on both skepticism and rationalism, on both tolerance and scientific curiosity, he intellectually straddled the France of his birth—a superstitious, class-bound society under the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV—and the France of his death—a society on the brink of demanding “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” through revolution. His plays lampooning society and his nonfiction works on history, politics, religion, and philosophy made him the best-known intellectual of his day, with such prominent admirers and correspondents as Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. The Enlightenment is sometimes referred to as “The Age of Voltaire” because of his tireless advocacy of religious tolerance and of the application of natural laws discoverable through science to the improvement of men’s lives.
Born into comfortable circumstances, Voltaire studied law before deciding to devote himself entirely to writing, specializing in attacks on government, the church, and social mores. In 1717, as result of satirical verses aimed at the aristocracy, he spent 11 months in the Bastille. His brilliant and irreverent wit made Voltaire a prized presence in the elite intellectual salons of Paris, but led to another threat of imprisonment in 1726, when he insulted a powerful aristocrat. Voltaire avoided a second stay at the Bastille through self-exile in England, where he lived for 3 years, absorbing the best that Britain had to offer, from the classical liberalism of philosopher John Locke to the scientific optimism of mathematician Sir Isaac Newton.
Returning to France, Voltaire produced poetry and plays, most notably La Henriade (1728) and Zaire (1732), as well as historical and scientific treatises. Two nonfiction works have particular significance: His Charles XII (1731)—an acclaimed biography of the King of Sweden—rejected a role for divine intervention in the course of history and had to be printed surreptitiously; and his Philosophical Letters, which appeared in France in 1734, was promptly banned and burned. However, the English edition quickly became a best seller, both in Britain and throughout the Continent. The book contrasted the French system of government unfavorably with that of England. He praised England’s religious tolerance, individual freedom, constitutional monarchy, and comparatively modest barriers to economic advancement. Once more, Voltaire had to flee Paris, arriving at the chateau of Cirey in the independent duchy of Lorraine.
During his lengthy stay, Voltaire studied physics and chemistry, prodigiously writing novels, satires, and verse. The Elements of Newton’s Philosophy (1738), coauthored with the Marquise du Châtelet, brought Newton’s ideas to the attention of the general public in continental Europe. In 1750, Voltaire accepted a longstanding invitation from Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, and this decision led to his journeying to the Prussian court at Berlin. It was there that Voltaire wrote the historical study The Age of Louis XIV (1751), which is widely credited with having established a new approach to historical analysis. Rather than dwell exclusively on political and military accomplishments, Voltaire credited philosophers, writers, artists, inventors, scientists, and other “producers” with having a defining influence on their age. Despite the importance of this work and his international reputation, Voltaire soon clashed with crucial German aristocratic egos and departed the Prussian court. Voltaire was not to know a settled home until he moved to Ferney, near Geneva, in 1758. In the interim, he completed his Essay on General History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations (1756), in which he decried the impact of traditional religion and the clergy on the progress of mankind.
Ferney became not only a magnet for the most celebrated European intellectuals and political figures, but also a haven from which Voltaire produced some of his greatest literary works and political tracts. The most celebrated of these works of literature was the novel, Candide (1759), a satiric response to Leibniz’s solution to the “problem of evil,” against which Voltaire argued for a practical philosophy of common sense and political optimism. His Philosophical Dictionary (1764) included, among others, the articles Voltaire had contributed to Diderot’s famed Encyclopédie—a massive reference work of approximately 72,000 articles on the arts and sciences through which Enlightenment ideas were propagated. The Philosophical Dictionary reflected Voltaire’s vigorous anti-ecclesiastical convictions and cemented his reputation as the most widely read of the philosophes—the name given to those French intellectuals who stressed human progress through reason and respect for natural law.
The elderly Voltaire continued to be persecuted by authorities. Indeed, the Dictionary met such condemnation that at one point he was forced to deny authorship and seek refuge in Switzerland for several weeks. Before his death, however, he was heralded in the streets of Paris as a hero.
Voltaire left a legacy of over 14,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. The brightest light of the French Enlightenment, he became a spark of the French Revolution whose name is ever associated with religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the love of reason.
Aldridge, A. Owen. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Voltaire: A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965.
Gay, Peter. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.
Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz. Voltaire Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000.
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