Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet)

21 November 1694 - 30 May 1778

Bust of Voltaire, Leicester Secular Hall, photo Dave Ray

The young Francois Marie received his education at "Louis-le-Grand," a Jesuit college in Paris where he said he learned nothing but "Latin and the Stupidities." He left school at 17 and soon made friends among the Parisian aristocrats. His humorous verses made him a favorite in society circles. In 1717, his sharp wit got him into trouble with the authorities. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months for writing a scathing satire of the French government. During his time in prison he wrote Oedipe which was to become his first theatrical success, and also adopted his pen name 'Voltaire'.

In 1726, Voltaire insulted the powerful young nobleman, Chevalier De Rohan, and was given two options: imprisonment or exile. He chose exile and from 1726 to 1729 lived in England. Isaac Newton died in 1727 and Voltaire was very impressed that a country would revere a mere Mathematician so highly as to bury him with great ceremony in the national mausoleum, Westminster Abbey. He helped to popularise Newton's ideas on the continent.

He studied England's Constitutional Monarchy and its religious tolerance. Voltaire was particularly interested in the philosophical rationalism of the time. He wrote a book praising English customs and institutions. It was interpreted as criticism of the French government, and in 1734 Voltaire was forced to leave Paris again.

At the invitation of Gabrielle Emilie, Marquise du Chatelet-Lomont (1706-1749), whom he had met in 1733, Voltaire moved into her Chateau de Cirey near Luneville in eastern France. They studied the natural sciences together for several years. In 1746, Voltaire was voted into the Academie Francaise.

In 1749, after the death of the Marquise and at the invitation of the King of Prussia, Frederick II (known as 'the Great' 1712-1786), he moved to Potsdam (near Berlin in Germany), but in 1753 returned to France.

In 1759, Voltaire purchased an estate called Ferney near the French-Swiss border where he lived until just before of his death. Ferney soon became the intellectual capital of Europe. Voltaire worked continuously throughout the years, producing a constant flow of books, plays and other publications. He wrote hundreds of letters to his circle of friends. He was always a voice of reason. His novella Candide, featuring Professor Pangloss who believed that "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds" despite all the disasters that befell them, is a satire on the ideas of Leibniz, prompted by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Voltaire was often an outspoken critic of religious intolerance and persecution. He led a campaign to open up a trial, in which the Huguenot merchant Jean Calas had been found guilty of murdering his eldest son and executed. The parliament at Paris declared afterwards in 1765 that Calas and all his family were innocent.

Voltaire returned to a hero's welcome in Paris at age 83. The excitement of the trip however was too much for him and he died in Paris. He was buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791, his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris. (Claims that in 1814, a right-wing religious group stole his remains are apparently a false rumour.) His heart had been removed from his body, and now lies in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. His brain was also removed, but after a series of passings-on over 100 years, disappeared after an auction.

Compared to the rebelliousness and idealism of Rousseau (1712-1778), Voltaire's world view was more sceptical, but both of them deeply influenced the French Revolution. Voltaire wrote to Rousseau in 1761: "One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work"!

Voltaire is a source of many aphoristic quotations.
"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."
"Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them."
"In this country [England] it is thought well to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others."
"We must cultivate our garden." [Conclusion to Candide]
"The best is the enemy of the good."
"If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."
"It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue."
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Further Notes

The following notes are based on Voltaire, The Universal Man by Derek Parker (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2005).

A complete list of his books, plays and poems would consist of well over 350 separate items, not counting his innumerable pamphlets and the thousands of letters written to correspondents all over Europe. Apart from all that he found time to involve himself in major campaigns on behalf of particular oppressed families, to busy himself in the theatre, and to socialise - he was by all accounts the best conversationalist of his day (though, alas, no one properly recorded his table talk). [p.xii]

Voltaire, towards the end of his life, set down a prescription for reform based on his observation of the society in which he had lived. For the individual, he proposed liberty of the person, the abolition of slavery, and freedom of speech and of writing, liberty of conscience, security of property, and the fredom to sell one's labour to the highest bidder. In respect of the social order, he believed, the Church should be subject to the State. Taxation should be in proportion to wealth, and churchmen should pay taxes at the same rate as anyone else: the receipts should not go to the aggrandisement of the nobility, but be used to provide proper water supplies, roads, canals, hospitals, orphanages. Begging should not be allowed, but proper alms-houses should be provided for the old and infirm. [xi-xii]

To address what Voltaire believed to be the prevailing profound injustices, he advocated that the police should not be allowed to open private letters placed in the post, and anyone accused of a crime should be considered innocent until proved guilty. No one should be imprisoned without there existing some valid reason to believe they had committed a crime. They should not be tortured or tried in secret. Witnesses should appear in public and be subject to questioning on the defendant's behalf. Local laws should be abolished and a national civil and criminal code established. Civil marriage should be legal, and the law should not concern itself with such matters of personal belief, taste and habit as sacrilege, heresy, superstition, suicide and sodomy. [xii]

All this sounds very reasonable and proper to a reader in the twenty-first century. Indeed, failure to implement some of Voltaire's proposals now attracts international condemnation ... and most civilised democratic countries observe most of them as a matter of course. / But in 1770 Voltaire's propositions were little short of revolutionary; and it was to take a revolution to put even the least of them into action. [xii]

Throughout his lifetime most of the citizens of Europe were subject to restrictions and punishments which would seem to us unbearable ... the Church ... exacted extreme penalties for atheism or unorthodoxy where it was voiced. Men's tongues were torn out for blasphemy; they could be executed for presiding over non-Catholic religious services; ... Booksellers could be executed for possessing - much less selling - books which had been banned by the censor. Heterodoxy could bring both men and women to the torture chamber or send them to hard labour in the galleys; at worst they died on the scaffold or the pyre in carefully contrived agony. [xi]

He occasionaly equivocated, for the good of his health; he was never entirely confident that he was sufficiently established to escape the torture chamber and the fire ... As he pointed out in a letter to his old friend d'Alembert, 'I am very fond of the truth, but not at all of martyrdom'. [xiv]

'He taught us to be free'. The words were inscribed on the catafalque which elevated Voltaire at his apotheosis at the Pantheon in Paris in 1790. And indeed the phrase was justified. [xi]

Some Links

Wikipedia biography
Lucid Cafe on Voltaire
Kirjasto on Voltaire
Clarence Darrow on Voltaire
A Treatise on Toleration by Voltaire (1763), extracts
Leicester Secular Society
Candide and other works French text.
Candide English text
Candide English text
Candide English text
Candide English text
Voltaire Foundation, Oxford