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For more than thirty years, scholars have been working to establish a definitive edition of Voltaire’s works. Because of the vastness and variety of Voltaire’s creative output as well as the seeming contradictions in his character and behavior, the story of his life is challenging and, at times, even perplexing. Voltaire wrote across genres as a poet-essayist-philosopher; he was known stylistically for his wit and thematically for his defense of civil liberties. An avid supporter of social reform in the face of strict censorship laws, he frequently used satire to criticize Catholic dogma and French institutions. The ideas Voltaire promoted in his work influenced important thinkers of both the American and French revolutions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Forged by Class and Religion
Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, to an upper-middle-class Parisian family. At birth he was a weak child whose parents held little hope for his survival. But, under the care of a nurse, he gained his strength and within two years became a healthy and mischievous boy. Voltaire’s father was a successful notary whose clients were generally rich and aristocratic. Young Voltaire grew up surrounded by wealthy, influential people who were of a higher social class than his own. Still, he had no trouble impressing everyone with his brightness and comic antics.
Even at a very early age, he loved being the center of attention. When Voltaire was ten, he was sent to an exclusive Jesuit school for boys, where he quickly gained a reputation as a class clown. Although he loved learning, he was very resentful of authority and constantly argued with his teachers over religion. During his seven years at the school, Voltaire became increasingly anti-Catholic. He strongly believed in God and in moral responsibility but denied religious authority and divine revelation.
In addition to his startling views on religion, Voltaire had a fondness for writing scandalous poems and stories. Upon his graduation, he announced to his father that he intended to be a writer. His father thought that literary pursuits were useless and encouraged him to become a lawyer instead. Voltaire reluctantly agreed but spent the next couple of years mostly jobless, and writing in his spare time. In 1713, when Voltaire was nineteen, his godfather’s brother was named the French ambassador to The Hague, in Holland. Complying with his father’s wishes, Voltaire went along as the ambassador’s page, a nonpaying job. In The Hague, he fell in love and planned to elope, but the ambassador discovered the scheme and sent Voltaire back home in disgrace.
In 1715, King Louis XIV died. His successor, Louis XV, was only five years old at the time, so for a while France was ruled by a regent, the Duke of Orleans. The duke was a man of questionable morals, and rumors about him soon began to circulate around Paris. When an anonymous poem surfaced in 1717 accusing the duke of committing incest with his daughter, there was little doubt about the identity of its author. The duke imprisoned Voltaire in the Bastille for a year. He was released in the spring of 1718, under the condition that he would not live in Paris. This was Voltaire’s first taste of exile, a form of punishment he would receive several times throughout his life. He went to England and stayed at his father’s country house in Chatenay but longed to return to Paris. Meanwhile, a theater company accepted his first play, Oedipus, and by the time it opened in Paris, he had officially changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire. Oedipus was a tremendous success and by the age of twenty-four, the notorious Voltaire had become a literary sensation.
For the rest of his life, Voltaire worked tirelessly, writing plays, poems, novels, history books, philosophy texts, encyclopedia articles, and an endless list of pamphlets and letters. Through his works, he became known as the chief advocate of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement rooted in the powers of human reason. Voltaire did not invent the Enlightenment; most of the views he preached had already been expressed by others. But Voltaire is regarded as a key Enlightenment thinker because—more than anyone else in his time—he helped to popularize the new philosophy in France and abroad. By exploiting every medium that existed in his day, Voltaire bombarded European culture with endless assaults against the status quo: Christianity and government practices were his primary targets. Voltaire’s writings were distinctive and easily recognizable. Still, most were published anonymously, due to the constant threat of imprisonment their author faced.
Heavily influenced by the writings of the English philosopher John Locke, Voltaire approached the study of history with an Enlightenment theme. He viewed the evolution of history as the gradual victory of rationalism over ignorance and superstition. This theme also provided the basis for many of his fictional works, most notably Candide. This novel stands as an all-out attack on the philosophy of optimism, which states that everything that happens—no matter how horrible—is for the best. In its place, Voltaire offers a simple, practical solution to the world’s problems: cooperation.
Ferney and Later Years
In the mid-1700s Voltaire served as a royal historiographer for Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, in Berlin. After quarreling with the king in 1751, he distanced himself from the monarchy and lived off and on at Ferney on the shores of Lake Geneva. Having accumulated considerable wealth through wise investment, Voltaire added to his money by building a watch making industry in competition with the Swiss manufacturers. While living at Ferney, Voltaire also adopted a noble but poor girl whom he called Belle et Bonne (”beautiful and good”). She later became the Marquise de Villete. During her time with Voltaire, she served as an important source of encouragement and helped to make the last twenty years of his life the most productive ever. Much of his writing from that time championed the rights of individuals who had been mistreated.
In 1778, after a lifetime of exile, Voltaire finally returned to Paris to see the production of his last play, Irene. He was given a hero’s welcome and spent his final days receiving guests from around the world, including
Benjamin Franklin. He died (of what was probably prostate cancer) on May 30 of that year, having lived long enough to see the first political outcome of the Enlightenment— the American Revolution. On his deathbed, he asked for paper and ink, with which he wrote: ”I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” Following Voltaire’s death, the Church refused to grant permission for a burial in holy ground; however, thanks to the intervention of his nephew, Voltaire’s mortal remains were finally laid to rest in a monastery in Champagne.
Works in Literary Context
Philosophical Writings: Truth and Fiction
Voltaire expressed his revolutionary views about political and religious freedoms through a myriad of genres. From the epistolary style of English Letters (1734)—in which he framed his opinions as a series of letters addressed to a friend in France—and the fictional Candide to his poetry and historical studies, Voltaire presented his Enlightenment philosophies in both direct and indirect ways. Voltaire is credited for inventing the philosophical conte, or story, a genre that expresses intellect through fantastical or absurd happenings. Stylistically speaking, he was as conscious about the fashion with which to best present his ideas as he was about fashion itself; he felt form was the key to expression. Interestingly enough, despite Voltaire’s experimentation with many different genres, he had an affinity for the theater and his critical social commentary is reflected throughout a canon of more than twenty tragedies.
Inside and outside his texts, Voltaire championed the fight against intolerance. This activism is best illustrated by his involvement in an event in which a man named Calas, a Protestant, had been unjustly condemned by the Parliament of Toulouse for having murdered his son because he decided to follow Catholicism. Voltaire described the case in Treaty on Tolerance (1763). Later, he wrote in Commentary on Crime and Punishment (1766) that punishment should fit the offense. He denounced the provincial parliaments for abusing power as well as particular laws in their jurisdictions. In this way, he inspired a multitude of social and civil improvements. Voltaire may rightly be called the father of the rationalism of the nineteenth century and even of the twentieth. The successive waves of anticlericalism that swept first through the French bourgeoisie and then through the masses, and the harsh measures taken against the Church, may possibly be traced to his influence.
A survey of Voltaire’s work demonstrates his changeable opinions. For example, though he could be considered an optimist by his writing in The World (1736), as well as in Discourse on Man (1738), Voltaire uses cynicism to show his pessimistic side in Poem about the Lisbon Disaster(1756). Furthermore, while Voltaire presented himself as a defender of free will in Treaty on Metaphysics, he plays the role of ”apologist of determinism” in both The Ignorant Philosophy (1755) and in his Philosophical Dictionary.
Works in Critical Context
”The spirit of Voltaire”—to use the title of the classic work by Norman Torrey—remains vital and alive through his textual wit, the ironic verve of his commitments, and his sincere dedication to humanity in all of its global extent and variety. ”Voltaire is a good vaccine against stupidity,” writes Emmanuel Berl in an introduction to Voltaire’s works, and that kind of protection is as crucial today as it was in Voltaire’s day.
Candide is the most famous and widely read work by Voltaire. Candide was written in 1758, when Voltaire was exiled in Geneva, and published anonymously the following year. Voltaire consistently denied that he was the book’s author and even called it a ”schoolboy’s joke.” Although Candide was banned in Geneva and ordered destroyed, it was immensely popular and contributed to the demise of optimism as a serious philosophy. Not all agreed with Voltaire’s criticisms, however; an unnamed reviewer writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Quarterly in 1759, took Voltaire to task for, ”like other ignorant persons,” either failing to understand the essence of the Optimists’ argument or deliberately distorting it in order to prove it ludicrous. Still, James Boswell, writing in The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791, noted that Voltaire had refuted Optimism ”with brilliant success.” It is perhaps an indication of Voltaire’s success in this regard that scholars in the decades that followed spent a great deal of time analyzing not Candide but Voltaire’s numerous other works. It has also been argued that because the work is ultimately a philosophical critique—albeit an effective one—it is not worthy of study as literature. More recent scholars have focused on the specifics of Voltaire’s writing, such as the structure of his sentences (as in a 1959 Ira O. Wade essay), or on the political and philosophical context in which it was written.
According to Andree Maurois,
Voltaire’s contemporaries … attached little importance to frivolous stories in which what struck them most forcibly were numerous allusions to the author’s personal enemies. ‘It is easy to recognize Voltaire under the disguise of the sagacious Zadig. The calumnies and spite of courtiers … the disgrace of the hero are so many allegories to be interpreted easily enough. It is thus that he takes revenge upon his enemies.’ The abbe; Boyer, who was the Dauphin’s tutor and a powerful ecclesiastic, took in very bad part the attacks on one whose identity was but thinly concealed behind the anagram Reyob. ‘It would please me mightily if all this to-do about Zadig could be ended,’ wrote Madame du Chatelet, and it was not long before
Voltaire disowned a book ‘which some there are who accuse of containing audacious attacks upon our holy religion.’
- Barr, Mary-Margaret H. A Century of Voltaire Study: A References: of Writings on Voltaire, 1825-1925. New York: Institute of French Studies, 1929.
- Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. 3rd ed. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1976.
- Brooks, Richard A. Voltaire and Leibniz. Geneva: Droz, 1964.
- Brumfitt, John Henry. Voltaire, Historian. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
- Desnoiresterres, Gustave. Voltaire et la société française au dix-huitiieme siiecle. 8 Vols. 2nd ed. Paris: Didier, 1871-1876.
- Hertzberg, Arthur. The French Enlightenment and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
- Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. Paris: Hachette, 1960.
- Mason, Haydn. Voltaire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
- Pomeau, Rene. D’Arouet a Voltaire, 1694—1734. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1985.
- Torrey, Norman L. The Spirit of Voltaire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.
- ”Voltaire (1694-1778).” In Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, vol. 14, edited by James P. Draper and James E. Person Jr., 318-21. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
- Wade, Ira O. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
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