1694-1778, French Philosopher, playwright and author

(Francois Marie Arouet) He was a leading figure of the Enlightenment. Twice unjustly imprisoned 1717-18, 1726 and then banished to England 1726-29. He wrote many tragedies, among them:

His great historical works-The Age of Louis XIV 1751 and the Essay on Manners 1756 -pioneered a new approach, emphasizing culture and commerce as much as politics and war.

Most widely read today is his masterpiece of satire, Candide 1759. How Candide Was Brought Up in a Magnificent Castle and How He Was Driven Thence

He was inducted into the french institution known as Neuf Soeurs.

Related Nodes:

Source: http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/95nov/voltaire.html Last Updated 06.16.03

FPB is correct about the name: Although Francois Marie Arouet is better known by his nom de plume "Voltaire", it is nonetheless not his real name. "Voltaire" is an anagram for "Arouet, l. j." (le jeune). (You have to think Roman letters and use an "i" for the "j" and a "v" for the "u").

Regarding: "I do not approve of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it": Voltaire didn't say it. (follow the link)

Voltaire is also a musician on the Projekt Records label. His discography includes:

Voltaire is what can be considered Gothic Satire. Largly consisting of very curt tongue in cheek lyrics set to airy, trance-like, deep and disturbing rythms from a spooky goth/Gypsy string quartet.

Also an accomplished cartoonist and animator, he has several jobs doing animation for cable networks such as the USA Network, The Sci-fi Channel, and MTV.

Most relevant non E2 URLs:

  • http://www.voltaire.net
  • http://www.projekt.com/projekt/artist.asp?id=1015

Who Was Voltaire?

Voltaire was the nom de plume of Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778) was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris; although, some say that his birth was kept secret for he was quoted as saying many times that he had been born on February 20 of that same year. Because of Voltaire's wit, intelligence, style, and prudent sense of justice, many consider him one of France's greatest writers and philosophers.

What is His Heritage?

Voltaire's background was 18th century French middle class. He did not believe that he was the son of his supposed father, François Arouet, a notary and later an auditor for the French government, but rather he believed himself a bastard of a French officer named Rochebrune, who had found moderate success as a songwriter. He had no love for his father François or his elder brother Armand. Nearly nothing is known about his mother— not even her name—of whom he hardly mentioned a thing. She is believed to have died when Volitare was only seven. The only strong parental figure in his life was that of Abbé de Châteauneuf, Volitare's godfather and noted freethinker and epicurean.

He went to school at Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where it is presumed that he found his love for literature, theatre, and the social life. The school may have given him a taste for the classics, but the religious instruction he received from the fathers served only to arouse his skepticism of organized religion. After leaving school at the age of 16, he decided agaist his original intent of practicing law and instead went to work for the French court as a secretary for the French embassy in The Hague.

He work at the embassy was short lived. Young Volitare became involved with a girl he should not have been and fearing scandal, the French ambassador sent him back to Paris. Upon his return to Paris and against the wishes of his father, he devoted himself completely to literature.

What of his Literary Career?

In 1717 he was arrested for writing a series of satirical verses which ridiculed the French government and was sent off to be imprisoned in the Bastille. It was during his eleven months in prison he wrote his first major play, "Oedipe," modeled after the Greek tragedies, which achieved great success in 1718. He wanted to be the modern Virgil, and some would say his pen-name is derived from this name, Volitare, which he also adopted in 1718.

Volitare was self-descibed as a "Philosophe," an eighteenth century term which described a group of people devoted to using logical reason above all else. In speaking engagements, he often spoke of Deism, which scandalized and disgusted the established religion. He received harsh critisim in his own country and often he had thought of England for its relatively high tolerance of such, "freethinkers." After a quarrel over a joke made of his adopted name by a French nobleman, he was beaten and thrown in the Bastille. He was given a choice: further imprisionment or exile. He chose exhile and continued his literary and philsophical careers in England.

He learned and became proficient in English fairly swiftly and mingled with writers and thinkers such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and William Congreve, the philosopher George Berkeley, and Samuel Clarke, the theologian. While in England Voltaire was attracted to the the English philosophy of John Locke and scientific ideas of the Sir Isaac Newton. His exhile lasted from 1726 to 1729, but shortly after his return to Paris he wrote a book critical of the French way of thinking and praising English intellectual institutions. Many believe this lead him to leave France once again.

In 1759 Voltaire purchased an estate called "Ferney" near the French-Swiss border that he held as his primary residence until just before of he died. Shortly after his purchase of Ferney, it became the intellectual capitol of Europe. Throughout his years in exile Voltaire produced a constant stream of books, plays, pamphlets, and letters. His was the voice of reason and all throughtout he was an outspoken critic of religious intolerance and persecution.

Voltaire returned to Paris with a hero's welcome at the age 83. The excitement of the trip prooved to be too much for the old man and he died soon after his return. Because of his criticism of the church Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. He was buried finally at an abbey in Champagne, but in 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

If I Should Only Know One Thing About Volitare What Should it Be?

Know this quote:

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.1"

Here is a bonus quote:

The more I read, the more I meditate; and the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.


1: Zeolite correctly brings to my attention that this quote was not actually made by Voltaire himself but by Beatrice Hall in her book Friends of Voltaire under the pseudonym S.G. as something Voltaire would have said, not that he actually did. It still is my best impression of the man, so I'm leaving it in my write-up.

Voltaire the Activist

The writings of the philosopher Voltaire vary wildly between pertaining to the universal and to the specific. While his general comments on social ills such as fanaticism, intolerance, optimism and Christianity may appear to be among the more timeless portions of his oeuvre, his specific writings, which publicized and sought to correct certain contemporary injustices, provide a particularly useful insight into his character. In order to more fully understand this character it is necessary to compare the moral philosopher's prescriptions for living with the man's own modus operandi. If the latter falls short or oversteps the philosopher's description of a virtuous life then it must be attributed to some source other than that of Voltaire's own reasonable intellect.

Throughout his later life, especially during the period of 1769 until his death in 1778, Voltaire was immersed in a series of causes, some less celebrated than others. The unfortunate pattern was for an acquaintance to inform him of an injustice that had been committed, for example, of an innocent, persecuted man who had been cruelly executed, and for Voltaire to subsequently advocate for at least a partial redress, usually in the form of a posthumous repeal of the guilty sentence, or a reinstatement of the civil rights of the family of the executed party. On those occasions when Voltaire became involved in a case early enough to be in a position to seek to prevent an execution, he rarely succeeded. The affairs in which Voltaire was involved include those of: Voltaire also intervened for individuals who had been egregiously wronged financially, and advocated for the emancipation of France's serfs and for the repeal of an oppressive gabelle, or salt tax. In addition to public advocacy in the form of pamphleteering, Voltaire unceasingly dispatched petitions and letters to the many powerful figures with whom he was familiar. In fact, the overall impression of his life is of one spent first in accumulating influence and later in spending it. It is tempting to wonder whether Voltaire was of the opinion that his activist projects were required of him, whether as a philosopher or merely as a person. To proceed from the general to the specific, let us examen Voltaire's conception of the virtuous behavior incumbent on all men, as formulated on the one hand in some of his most populist philosophical works, and on the other hands, in his personal letters.

The Dictionnaire Philosophique, that work which was deemed responsible for corrupting the Chevalier de la Barre, defines “Virtue” as a purely interpersonal phenomenon. The dictionary entry, mostly in the form of a charming and illustrative dialog between a theologian and an honest man, explains why spiritual attributes such as faith or hygienic attributes such as temperance are in no way virtuous, however beneficial they may be for their bearers. Here Voltaire propounds the almost simple-minded dictum that virtues equals “doing good by those who depend on thee”. He further develops this altruistic principal in his letters, circumventing the question of a morality dependent on theism via his conclusion that virtue is required because it is necessary for the continuance of civilization, itself necessary for the survival of physically frail and individually helpless human beings. While this opinion notably opposes that of Rousseau, it nonetheless reduces to an appeal to Nature, which has created human beings to be sociable, that is to say, civilized.

The obvious but unstated correlate of the relationship stated in the Dictionnaire entry under “Virtue”, namely that as a category it includes only interpersonal actions, is the category of Philosophy, which is to say that a thinker who has discovered a useful truth has not done his duty until he has disseminated that truth. In fact, Voltaire's written use of the very word “philosophy” tends to freely substitute that term for the more accurate “my philosophy,” insofar as when he states that a philosopher will or must behave a certain way, what he means is that a philosopher, if he is reasonable and not prejudiced, will arrive at Voltaire's own conclusions and will therefore behave as Voltaire describes. Of course post-Enlightenment readers may find absurd the thesis that reason is a universal tool, which can only produce one, correct conclusion in any given situation, but that being said, Voltaire does hold that a philosopher will inevitably operate for the betterment of mankind, preaching the truths that Voltaire held to be such. The Dictionnaire entry under “Philosopher” sets up a hierarchy in which a philosopher is either engaged in uncovering natural truths, which are irrelevant as well as difficult to discover, or is engaged in uncovering moral truths, which are highly relevant and simple to discover. The entry purports that it is in their writings that philosophers can ameliorate the human condition, by instructing people in the ways of tolerance. And yet, when Voltaire's letters are examined he is seen to take a much more liberal view of what is required of a philosopher. In one passage he describes the highly quotidian activities of the “real philosopher”, who
clears uncultivated ground, adds to the number of ploughs, and, so, to the number of inhabitants: employs and enriches the poor: encourages marriages and fins a home for the orphan: does not grumble at necessary taxes, and puts the agriculturist in a position to pay them promptly. He expects nothing from others, and does them all the good he can.
The passage is not metaphorical in any way, and it lends itself to being interpreted as a statement to the effect of: a real philosopher will engage himself in non-philosophical activities, because those are the activities to which his reason, which is to say his philosophy, will recommend him. This paradoxical result is compatible with Voltaire's actual efforts, which were invariably far more practical than the far reaching improvement he believed the human race to be capable of, at least in the distant future.

Additionally, Voltaire is thorough enough to understand that a person cannot depend on his own observations and interpretations all of the time; that such a person's perceptual weaknessess quickly disable any accurate self-assessment. As a result, in the “Virtue” entry previously cited, he proposes, after Racine, an assay whereby a virtuous man can recognize his own virtue in the fact that the public overwhelmingly loves and does not fear him. While the shade of meaning of the passage most specifically puts forward the fact of this love as an example of the capacity of virtue to be rewarded in this life, it is nonetheless telling that Voltaire was explicitly thinking about popular acclaim, a thought which he immediately connects to his actual definition, “What is virtue? Beneficence towards your neighbor.” In Voltaire's warm-hearted and patronizing old age it is likely that, for all the effort his public involvement cost him, he savored his eventual reward of very real acclaim, as well as his title of the "savior of Calas”. Voltaire would probably not see any hypocrisy in this convenient synergy of inclination and obligation. The fact of human beings basely lusting after acclaim and therefore behaving virtuously, though not a crime that Voltaire would admit to, would only enhance his thesis concerning innate morality, driving people to do good for each other, if they are only liberated from their fractious ideologies.

  • Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966.
  • Tallentyre, S.G. Voltaire in His Letters. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1919.
  • Voltaire. The Philosophical Dictionary. 1924. Project Unicorn. 12 December 2003 .

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