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.