Voltaire, or Francois-Marie Arouet comes down to us as an icon of The Enlightenment, a
great sarcastic wit, a poet, a crusader for tolerance and freedom, but rarely as a historian. That he
was a successful historian cannot be doubted, having served as royal historiographer under Louis
XV, and the publication of 3 major works assures him that distinction. His place as a great
historian derives not from his success, however, but from the nature and quality of his work. He
pursued history in the same way Gibbon and Tacitus had, as a narrative that went beyond kings
and battles, to act as an explanation of the present, with moral and philosophical meanings.
Circumstances in his life were naturally intertwined with the nature of the work he produced, and
so must be examined.
Voltaire was born into the early years of The Enlightenment, in 1694. He was raised by
neither his biological mother or father, and was in early conflict with his guardian, developing
his rebellious attitude from an early age. Had he not been born into favorable circumstances,
his great intelligence may have never developed fully, but as it was, his family was well to do
enough to secure him a formal education from a Jesuit school. It was here that Voltaire
developed his love of letters, art and science. In spite of the religious curriculum
he was immersed in, he became skeptical of church dogma and acquired his deist philosophy,
and belief in religious tolerance.
His 1723, La Henriade tells the history of the beloved Henri
IV's ending of France's civil wars, and extols his policy of religious tolerance as not only morally
superior, but politically pragmatic. Although its format is that of the classical epic poem,
and is hence not strictly history, La Henriade showed Voltaire to be a person who interpreted
past events through a distinct moral lens.
Voltaire's life and career underwent a dramatic change shortly thereafter, when in 1726 he was first imprisoned and then exiled to England following one of his many bouts with
authority. During his stay, he became enamored with the English, quickly mastering the language
and becoming a member of the nation’s intellectual life. Despite having not produced any major
works while in England, Voltaire returned to France in 1728 eager to promote and glorify all he
had absorbed from England. His most productive period as a historian followed this return to France.
Voltaire's first authentic historical work, Historie de Charles XII was published in 1731,
and displayed refined arguments for the advantages of enlightened despotism and religious
tolerance which had marked his earlier poem, Henri IV. The Swedish warrior king of the Thirty
Years War is portrayed as a tyrant and a brute, who brought disaster upon his nation. He is
contrasted throughout with Russia's Peter the Great, who, according to Voltaire, forged a
civilized empire through religious tolerance and military restraint.
Congruent with this line of thought was Voltaire's next work, and among his greatest,
Lettres Philosophiques, known today in the English speaking world as 'Letters on England'. Once
again the work was not strictly history, as the narrative was often based in the present, but as it
was to be a description of England for readers in France, it was composed in large part, of
historical information on various facets of England. The range of subjects is immense for so
small a work, with only Voltaire's great wit allowing the compression of so much information into such a small
space. The theme follows that of earlier works in its advancement of tolerance and freedom,
especially religious. Examples of the benefits of religious tolerance according to Voltaire include
a chapter on inoculation against smallpox, which was instituted in England thanks to religious
tolerance and enlightened despotism. The procedure of inoculation was banned by the church,
due to its Islamic origins, but in England the princess of Wales decreed it lawful and used her
own children as an example. Elsewhere in the book, Voltaire attributed the past and current
province of England in commerce and science to enlightened English laws.
One product of this scientific prowess, Isaac Newton, is used as a platform for a brief
history of science and ideas. The Newtonian philosophy is shown as a natural evolution from
Cartesian thought, which Voltaire believed to be obsolete. Voltaire's sense of dialectical
change is maintained throughout as an allegorical contrast between a progressive, prosperous
England, and a backward, stagnant France. A half-history, half-journalism section on the
Quakers once more displayed how progressive English policies allowed groups like the Quakers
to flourish. Short histories were also included on English government, parliament, commerce,
and biographical sketches of current and recent leaders in intellectual life.
Thesis remained; Enlightened rulers lead to freedom and tolerance, which in turn lead to
prosperity and progress.
The following decade saw Voltaire focusing on the sciences, and seeking the ideal
enlightened ruler. He was a member of Frederick the Great's court briefly, and upon returning to
France he served his brief tenure as court historian. Influenced by his official appointment to
court historian, he devoted considerable effort to his historical studies, working on
two historical works, The first being Le Siecle de Louis XIV, published in 1751. The work,
reflective of Voltaire's broad interests, was, in the 18th century one of the few histories to be
made up of large amounts of social, cultural and intellectual history in addition to the standard
content of kings and battles. His research was exhaustive, undertaken over the course of 20
years, during which time he pursued any person still living who had lived during the 17th
century, gathered a wealth of documents, and subjected all his sources to intensive verification.
He proposed to show that the arts and sciences had flourished during this time on account of the
enlightened rulers of Louis XIII, Richelieu and Louis XIV. Both direct patronage of the arts and
acts of tolerance such as the Edict of Nantes are given large credit for the thriving French culture
of the period.
He rounded out his earlier work on Charles VII with a history of Russia under Peter
the Great, Histoire de l'empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand, in 1763. The work focuses
directly on Peter, rather than using him as a positive contrast to the despicable Charles VII as he had in
Finally, Voltaire secured his position as a pioneer of non political-military
history in his 1765, Philosophie de l'histoire, in which he traced human customs and manners
from biblical to present times, in a proto Hegelian exposition of mankind's evolution from animal
barbarism to its present state on the path to perfection and decency.
For the remainder of his life, Voltaire played the role of activist against oppression, and
continued to spread and popularize the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers. Voltaire's reputation
could not be overestimated by the time of his death, his actions and non historical works had
made him the icon of progressive thought around Europe. He was and is however, considered a mere
messenger and explicator, a great wit and skilled writer, but not a source of new ideas or an
original thinker. Voltaire is also seldom thought of as a historian, but when he is seen as a
historian, it is clear that he was indeed an original thinker, though not in the fields he most
renowned for. His original ideas were in the writing of history. His approach was direct and
pragmatic; first find why things are good in some places and times by studying how they became
that way, second, apply similar policies to the present.
Looking for answers to social and cultural
issues required a study of social and cultural history, and this is Voltaire's great contribution to
history, and his oft neglected original idea, history must embrace more than rulers and conflicts
in order to be accurate, and Voltaire, wrote history with a curiosity about all parts of human
life, be they past, present or fiction.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD; Voltaire
Webster’s Biographical Dictionary; Voltaire
Encyclopaedia Americana; Voltaire
Encyclopaedia of The Enlightenment; Voltaire
Collier’s Encyclopedia; Voltaire
Voltaire. Letters on England. Translated by Leonard Tancock. Penguin Books, 2005, London.