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Voltaire at 24 by Nicolas de Largillière.
Born 21 November 1694
Paris, France
Died 30 May 1778
Paris, France
Occupation Writer and philosopher
Parents François Arouet and Marie Marguerite d'Aumart

François-Marie Arouet ( 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher.

Voltaire was known for his sharp wit, philosophical writings, and defence of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws in France and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Church dogma and the French institutions of his day. Voltaire is considered one of the most influential figures of his time.


Early years

Bust of Voltaire by the artist Antoine Houdon, 1781.
Bust of Voltaire by the artist Antoine Houdon, 1781.

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, the son of François Arouet, a notary who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite d'Aumart, from a noble family of the Poitou. Voltaire was educated by Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-11), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English. From 1711 to 1713 he studied law. Before devoting himself entirely to writing, Voltaire worked as a secretary to the French ambassador in Holland. Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris until his exile. From the beginning Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his energetic attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. In his early twenties he spent eleven months in the Bastille for writing satirical verses about the aristocracy.

After graduating, Voltaire set out on a career in literature. His father, however, intended his son to be educated in the law. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as assistant to a lawyer, spent much of his time writing satirical poetry. When his father found him out, he again sent Voltaire to study law, this time in the provinces. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies not always noted for their accuracy. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families. One of his writings, about Louis XV's regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, led to his being imprisoned in the Bastille. While there, he wrote his debut play, Oedipe, and adopted the name Voltaire. Oedipe's success began Voltaire's influence and brought him into the French Enlightenment.

Exile to England

Voltaire's repartee continued to bring him trouble, however. After he offended a young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, the Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued, a secret warrant that allowed for the punishment of people who had committed no crimes or who possibly posed a risk to the royal family, and used it to exile Voltaire without a trial. The incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempt to improve the French judiciary system.

Voltaire's exile to England greatly influenced him through ideas and experiences. The young man was impressed by England's constitutional monarchy, as well as the country's support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was influenced by several people, including such writers as Shakespeare. In his younger years, he saw Shakespeare as an example French writers should look to, though later Voltaire saw himself as the superior writer. Many of his later works were influenced by this stay. After three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his ideas in a fictional document about the English government entitled the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical letters on the English). Because he regarded England's constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where copies of the document were burnt and Voltaire was forced to leave Paris.

The Château de Cirey

Voltaire at 70 years old, an engraving from an 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary
Voltaire at 70 years old, an engraving from an 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary

Voltaire then set out to the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne, France and Lorraine. The building was renovated with his money, and here he began a relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil. The Chateau de Cirey was owned by the Marquise's husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. Their relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, led to much intellectual development. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for their time. Together, Voltaire and the Marquise also studied these books and performed experiments. Both worked on experimenting with the " natural sciences," the term used in that epoch for physics, in his laboratory. Voltaire performed many experiments including one that attempted to determine the properties of fire.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica comments that "If the English visit may be regarded as having finished Voltaire's education, the Cirey residence was the first stage of his literary manhood." Having learned from his previous brushes with the authorities, Voltaire began his future habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and denying any awkward responsibility. He continued to write, publishing plays such as Mérope and some short stories. Again, a main source of inspiration for Voltaire were the years he spent exiled in England. During his time there, Voltaire had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton, a leading philosopher and scientist of the epoch. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colors in the spectrum led to many experiments by him and the Marquise), and gravity (the story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree is mentioned in his Essai sur la poésie épique, or Essay on Epic Poetry). Although both Voltaire and the Marquise were also curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, the pair remained "Newtonians" and based their theories on Newton’s works and ideas. Though it has been stated that the Marquise may have been more "Leibnizian", which may have caused tension between the two, this is probably an exaggeration; the Marquise even wrote "je newtonise," which, translated, means "I am 'newtoning'". Voltaire wrote a book on Newton's philosophies: the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (The Elements of Newton's Philosophies). The Elements was probably written with the Marquise, and describes the other branches of Newton's ideas that fascinated him: it spoke of optics and the theory of attraction (gravity).

Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history - particularly the people who had contributed to civilization up to that point. Voltaire had worked with history since his time in England; his second essay in English had the title Essay upon the Civil Wars in France. When he returned to France, he wrote a biographical essay of King Charles XII. This essay was the beginning of Voltaire's rejection of religion; he wrote that human life is not destined or controlled by greater beings. The essay won him the position of historian in the king's court. Voltaire and the Marquise also worked with philosophy, particularly with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with the distant, and what cannot be directly proven: why and what life is, whether or not there is a God, and so on. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible, trying to find its validity in the world. Voltaire renounced religion; he believed in the separation of church and state and in religious freedom, ideas he formed after his stay in England. Voltaire even claimed that "One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker."

After the death of the Marquise, Voltaire moved to Berlin to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer of his. The king had repeatedly invited him to his palace, and now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first, he began to encounter difficulties. Faced with a lawsuit and an argument with the president of the Berlin Academy of science, Voltaire wrote the Diatribe du docteur Akakia (Diatribe of Doctor Akakia) which derided the president. This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and arrested Voltaire at an inn where he was staying along his journey home. Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, where he bought a large estate. Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva which banned theatrical performances and the publication of La pucelle d'Orléans against his will led to Voltaire's writing of Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759 and his eventual departure. Candide, a satire on the philosophy of Leibniz, remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known.


Voltaire was a prolific writer, and produced works in almost every literary form, authoring plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, over 20,000 letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets. In addition to his novels listed below, some of his most significant works include these:

  • Oedipe (1718)
  • Zaire ( 1732)
  • Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (1733), revised as Letters on the English (circa 1778)
  • Le Mondain (1736)
  • Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738)
  • Micromégas (1752)
  • Dictionnaire philosophique (1764)
  • Épître à l'Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs ( Letter to the author of The Three Impostors) (1770)

Novels and Novellas

  • Zadig (1747)
  • Micromégas (1752)
  • Candide (1759)
  • L'Ingénu (1767)


Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays, including a few unfinished ones. Among them are these:

  • Oedipe (1718)
  • Eriphile (1732)
  • Mahomet
  • Mérope
  • Nanine
  • Zaïre (1732)


  • History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731)
  • The Age of Louis XIV (1752)
  • The Age of Louis XV (1746 - 1752)
  • Annals of the Empire - Charlemagne, A.D. 742 - Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754)
  • Annals of the Empire - Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II (1754)
  • History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol. I 1759; Vol. II 1763)


From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse, and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two long poems, the Henriade, and the Pucelle, besides many other smaller pieces.

The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes. Voltaire lacked both enthusiasm for and understanding of the subject, which both negatively impacted the poem's quality. The Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque work attacking religion and history. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.

Prose and romances

Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism, L'Homme aux quarante ecus certain social and political ways of the time, Zadig and others the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, and some were written to deride the Bible. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style without exaggeration is apparent, particularly the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on a point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them or exaggerates their form. Candide in particular is the best example of his style.

Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromegas.

Voltaire's Deism

Voltaire, like many key figures of the European Enlightenment, was a Deist. He did not believe that faith was needed to believe in God. He wrote, "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."

Because he believed in God based on reason and not on any of the religious books of any of the various revealed religions, Voltaire rejected the teachings of Christianity.

Views on Christianity

Voltaire opposed Christian beliefs fiercely but not consistently. On one hand, he claimed that the Gospels were fabricated and Jesus did not exist - that they were produced by those who wanted to create God in their own image and were full of discrepancies. On the other hand, he claimed that this very same community preserved the texts without making any change to adjust those discrepancies.

Voltaire is reputed to have proclaimed about the Bible, "In 100 years this book will be forgotten and eliminated...", although there is no direct evidence that he made such a statement. In his later years (1759) Voltaire purchased an estate called "Ferney" on the French-Swiss border. As the property stradled the border, Voltaire joked that when the French Catholics were against him, he lived on the Swiss (Protestant) half, and vice versa. There is an apocryphal story that this house was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and used for printing Bibles, but this appears to be due to a misunderstanding of the 1849 annual report of the American Bible Society . Voltaire's chateau is now owned and administered by the French Ministry of Culture.

Views on race

Voltaire expressed his views on race, mostly in his work Essai sur les mœurs, holding that black people, whom he called "animals", were a peculiar species of human because of what he perceived as great differences from other humans, both physically and mentally. He also wrote of the culture of indigenous peoples. Voltaire expressed much the same views in his personal correspondence. Voltaire's viewpoint on Jews reveals anti-Semitism on his part.


Voltaire's largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the Encyclopédie and of several minor pieces. It directed criticism against French political institutions, Voltaire's personal enemies, the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church, showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire.

Views on New France

Voltaire was a critic of France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as " a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige") that produced little more than furs and required constant - and expensive - military protection from the mother country against Great Britain's 13 Colonies to the south.


Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totalling over 21,000 letters. His personality shows through in the letters that he wrote: his energy and versatility, his unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm, his unscrupulous business faculty and his resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies.


Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static force useful only as a counterbalance since its "religious tax" or the tithe helped to create a strong backing for revolutionaries.

Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire, only an enlightened monarch or an Enlightened absolutist, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king's rational interest to improve the power and wealth of his subjects and kingdom. Voltaire is quoted as saying that he "would rather obey one lion, than 200 rats of [his own] species." Voltaire essentially believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change.

He supported "bringing order" through military means in his letters to Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia where he strongly praised the Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was, however, deeply opposed to the use of war and violence as means for the resolution of controversies, as he repeatedly and forcefully stated in many of his works, including the "Philosophical Dictionary," where he described war as a "hellish enterprise" and those who resort to it "ridiculous murderers."

He is best known today for his novel, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which satirized the philosophy of Leibniz. Candide was also subject to censorship and Voltaire jokingly claimed that the actual author was a certain "Dr DeMad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text. .

Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer" ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, The Three Impostors.

Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, not to be confused with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sent a copy of his "Ode to Posterity" to Voltaire. Voltaire read it through and said, "I do not think this poem will reach its destination."

Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights — the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion — and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and everyone else (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).

Thomas Carlyle argued that while he was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of Voltaire's works was of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own.

Voltaire did not let his ideals interfere with the acquisition of his fortune. He was a millionaire by the time he was forty after cultivating the friendship of the Paris brothers who had a contract to supply the French army with food and munitions and being invited to participate with them in this extremely profitable enterprise. According to a review in the March 7, 2005 issue of The New Yorker of Voltaire's Garden, a mathematician friend of his realized in 1728 that the French government had authorized a lottery in which the prize was much greater than the collective cost of the tickets. He and Voltaire formed a syndicate, collected all the money, and became moneylenders to the great houses of Europe. Voltaire complained that lotteries exploited the poor.

The town of Ferney, France, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life (though he died in Paris), is now named Ferney-Voltaire. His château is now a museum (L'Auberge de l'Europe). Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the Russian National Library, St Petersburg.

The pen name "Voltaire"

The name "Voltaire," which he adopted in 1718 not only as a pen name but also in daily use, is an anagram of the latinized spelling of his surname "Arovet" and the first letters of the sobriquet "le jeune" ("the younger"): AROVET Le Ieune. The name also echoes in reversed order the syllables of a familial château in the Poitou region: "Airvault". The adoption of this name after his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark a formal separation on the part of Voltaire from his family and his past.

Richard Holmes in "Voltaire's Grin" also believes that the name "Voltaire" arose from the transposition of letters. But he adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended the name to carry its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associated words such as: "voltige" (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), "volte-face" (spinning about to face your enemies), and "volatile" (originally any winged creature).

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