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The last of Voltaire's statues by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1781).
The last of Voltaire's statues by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1781).

François-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694May 30, 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire (also called The Dictator of Letters), was a French Enlightenment writer, deist and philosopher.

Voltaire is well-known for his sharp wit, philosophical writings, and defense 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 polemist, 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

Voltaire was born in Paris as François Marie Arouet, to François Arouet and Marie-Marguerite Daumart or D'Aumard. Although he was the son of a notary and belonged to a middle-class family, later in life Voltaire sometimes implied that he came from a noble background.

Voltaire's mother died when he was seven years old. At age nine, he was sent to the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, and remained there until 1711. Though he derided the education he had received, it formed the basis of his considerable knowledge and probably kindled his lifelong devotion to theater.

When he graduated and returned home at the age of seventeen, Voltaire planned to start a career in writing, but his father opposed. He studied law, at least nominally, and later pretended to work in a Parisian lawyer's office but in fact began writing libelous poems. As a result, in 1714 his father sent him to stay for nearly a year in the country. Here he was still supposed to study law, but he instead devoted himself to literary essays and historical gossip.

Voltaire returned to Paris around the time of the death of Louis XIV. Again he became involved in high society, and showed Oedipe, his first play, to his acquaintances. Catering to the duchesse du Maine's frantic hatred of the regent, Philippe II of Orléans, Voltaire composed satire about him. A spy coaxed Voltaire into making a confession, and for insulting the regent, he was sent to the Bastille on May 16, 1717. Here he recast Oedipe, began the Henriade and decided to change his name.

He was released 11 months later when it was found out that he had been wrongly accused. Oedipe was performed at the Théâtre Français on November 18 and was well received. It had a run of forty-five nights and brought him both fame and wealth, with which Voltaire seems to have begun his long series of successful financial speculations.

After his release from the Bastille in April 1718, he was known as Arouet de Voltaire, or simply Voltaire, though legally he never abandoned his patronymic. The origin of the name has been much debated, and some suggest that it was an abbreviation of a childish nickname, "le petit volontaire". The most commonly accepted hypothesis, however, is that it is an anagram of the name "Arouet le jeune" or "Arouet l.j.", 'u' being changed to 'v' and 'j' to 'i' according to the ordinary convention.

Voltaire continued to write plays, completing Artemire in Feburary 1720. The play was a failure, and Voltaire never published it in whole, although it was later recast with some success and parts of it were reused in other works. Other works published during this period include the tragedy Marianne and the comedy L'Indiscret.

Exile to England

In late 1725 Voltaire was insulted by a young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, and replied with his usual sharpness of tongue. In revenge, Rohan later had several of his men give Voltaire a beating while he looked on.

Voltaire planned to challenge the young nobleman to a duel, but the Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued to avoid any problems. During this period, when a person of influence wanted an enemy arrested but no crime had been committed, they could obtain a secret warrant called a lettre de cachet. The person named in the letter had to go into prison or exile, either abroad or in France. Because there was no trial, the accused could not clear himself of wrongdoing. On the morning appointed for the duel, Voltaire was arrested and sent for the second time to the Bastille. He chose exile in England instead of imprisonment. The incident left an indelible impression on Voltaire, and from that day onward he became an advocate for judicial reform.

While in England Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke and ideas of Sir Isaac Newton. He studied England's constitutional monarchy, its religious tolerance, its philosophical rationalism and most importantly the natural sciences. Voltaire also greatly admired English religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and saw these as necessary prerequisites for social and political progress. He saw England as a useful model for what he considered to be a backward France, but nevertheless he was quoted as saying "It is to Scotland that we look for our civilisation."

Return to Paris

Voltaire returned to France after three years in exile, and continued his literary career. During this period he published poems (Henriade), plays (Brutus), and tragedies (Zaire, Eriphile). He criticized war in the historical work The History of Charles XII (1731).

In 1733, he published the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais ("Philosophic Letters", also known as the "English Letters"), praising the religious and political freedom in England. This was interpreted as criticism of the French political system and an attack on the Church. The book was condemned (June 10, 1734), copies were seized and burned, a warrant issued against the author, and his residence searched. Voltaire himself was safe in the independent duchy of Lorraine with Émilie de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet. He began an intimate relationship with her in 1733, and took up his abode with her at the château of Cirey, on the borders of Champagne, France and Lorraine.


The 1911 Encyclopaedia 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 learnt 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.

Cirey was a half-dismantled country house on the borders of Champagne, France and Lorraine, but by the summer of 1734 it had been repaired and furnished with Voltaire's money. The place became the headquarters of himself, his hostess, and occasionally, her accommodating husband. Cirey provided him with a safe and comfortable retreat, and with every opportunity for literary work. The principal literary results of his early years here were the Discours en vers sur l'Homme, the play of Aizire and L'Enfant prodigue (1736), and a long treatise on the Newtonian system which he and Madame du Châtelet wrote together.

In March 1735, Voltaire was permitted to return to Paris, but he did so rarely. a year later he received his first letter from Frederick II of Prussia, then crown prince. He was soon in trouble again, this time for the poem, Le Mondain, and he at once crossed the frontier and made for Brussels. He spent about three months in the Low Countries, but in March 1737 returned to Cirey and continued writing, making experiments in physics (he had a large laboratory by this time), and busying himself with iron-founding, the chief industry of the district.

The best-known accounts of Cirey life, those of Madame de Graffigny, date from the winter of 1738-39, depicting the frequent quarrels between Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire, his intense suffering under criticism, his constant dread of the surreptitious publication of the Pucelle (which Émilie actually hid from him to prevent him from publishing it and losing his life, but which he kept reciting to visitors), and so forth.

In April 1739, a journey was made to Brussels, to Paris, and then again to Brussels, which was the headquarters for a considerable time, owing to some law affairs, of the Du Chatelets. Frederick, now King of Prussia, made not a few efforts to get Voltaire away from Madame du Chatelet, but unsuccessfully, and the king earned the lady's cordial hatred by persistently refusing or omitting to invite her.

At last, in September 1740, master and pupil met for the first time at Cleves, an interview followed three months later by a longer visit. Brussels was again the headquarters in 1741, by which time Voltaire had finished two of his best plays, Mérope and Mahomet.

Mahomet was first performed at Lille in that year; it did not appear in Paris till August next year, and Mérope not till 1743. This last was, and deserved to be, the most successful of its author's whole theatre. It was in this same year that he received the singular diplomatic mission to Frederick which nobody seems to have taken seriously, and after his return the oscillation between Brussels, Cirey and Paris was resumed.

During these years much of the Essai sur les moeurs and the Siècle de Louis XIV was composed. He also returned, not too well advisedly, to the business of courtiership, which he had given up since the death of the regent. He was much employed, owing to Richelieu's influence, in the fetes of the dauphin (Louis, dauphin de France)'s marriage, and was rewarded through the influence of Madame de Pompadour on New Year's Day 1745 by the appointment to the post of historiographer-royal, temporarily achieving a secure social and financial position.

In the same year he wrote a poem on Fontenoy, he received medals from the pope and dedicated Mahomet to him, and he wrote court divertissements and other things to admiration. But he was not a thoroughly skilful courtier, and one of the best known of Voltairians is the contempt or at least silence with which Louis XV received the maladroit and almost insolent inquiry Trajan est-il content? addressed in his hearing to Richelieu at the close of a piece in which the emperor had appeared with a transparent reference to the king.

All this assentation had at least one effect. He, who had been for years admittedly the first writer in France, was at last elected to the Académie française in the spring of 1746.

His favour at court had naturally exasperated his enemies; it had not secured him any real friends, and even a gentlemanship of the chamber was no solid benefit, excepting money. He did not indeed hold it very long, but was permitted to sell it for a large sum, retaining the rank and privileges. He had various proofs of the instability of his hold on the king during 1747 and in 1748. He once lay in hiding for two months with the duchesse du Maine at Sceaux, where were produced the comedietta of La Prude and the Tragedie de Rome sauvée, and afterwards for a time lived chiefly at Lunéville; here Madame du Chatelet had established herself at the court of King Stanislaus I of Poland, and carried on a liaison with the soldier-poet, Jean François de Saint-Lambert, an officer in the king's guard. In September 1749, she died after the birth of a child.

Madame du Chatelet's death is another turning-point in Voltaire's life. He was deeply disturbed for a time, and considered settling down in Paris. He went on writing satires like Zadig, and engaged in a literary rivalry with Crébillon père, a rival set up against him by Madame de Pompadour.

Frederick the Great

In 1751, Voltaire accepted Frederick of Prussia's invitations and moved to Berlin.

At first the king behaved altogether like a king to his guest. He pressed him to remain; he gave him (the words are Voltaire's own) one of his orders, twenty thousand francs a year, and four thousand additional for his niece, Madame Jenis, in case she would come and keep house for her uncle. Voltaire insisted for the consent of his own king, which was given without delay. But Frenchmen regarded Voltaire as something of a deserter; and it was not long before he bitterly repented his desertion, though his residence in Prussia lasted nearly three years. It was quite impossible that Voltaire and Frederick should get on together for long. Voltaire was not humble enough to be a mere butt, as many of Frederick's lead poets were; he was not enough of a gentleman to hold his own place with dignity and discretion; he was constantly jealous both of his equals in age and reputation, such as Maupertuis, and of his juniors and inferiors, such as Baculard D'Arnaud. He was restless, and in a way Bohemian. Frederick, though his love of teasing for teasing's sake has been exaggerated by Macaulay, was a martinet of the first water, had a sharp though one-sided idea of justice, and had not the slightest intention of allowing Voltaire to insult or to tyrannize over his other guests and servants.


Voltaire had not been in the country six months before he engaged in a discreditable piece of financial gambling with Hirsch, the Dresden Jew. He was accused of forgery -- of altering a paper signed by Hirsch after he had signed it. The king's disgust at this affair (which came to an open scandal before the tribunals) was so great that he was on the point of ordering Voltaire out of Prussia, and Darget the secretary had trouble resolving the matter (February 1751). However, he succeeded in finishing and printing the Siècle de Louis XIV, while the Dictionnaire philosophique is said to have been devised and begun at Potsdam.

In the early autumn of 1751 one of the king's parasites, and a man of much more talent than is generally allowed, horrified Voltaire by telling him that Frederick had in conversation applied to him (Voltaire) a proverb about "sucking the orange and flinging away its skin", and about the same time the dispute with Pierre de Maupertuis, which had more than anything else to do with his exclusion from Prussia, came to a head. Maupertuis got into a dispute with one Konig. The king took his president's part; Voltaire took Konig's. But Maupertuis must needs write his Letters, and thereupon (1752) appeared one of Voltaire's most famous, though perhaps not one of his most read works, the Histoire du docteur Akakia et du natif de Saint-Malo. Even Voltaire did not venture to publish this lampoon on a great official of a prince so touchy as the king of Prussia without some permission, and if all tales are true, he obtained this by another piece of something like forgery—getting the king to endorse a totally different pamphlet on its last leaf, and affixing that last leaf to Akakia. Of this Frederick was not aware; but he did get some wind of the diatribe itself, sent for the author, heard it read to his own great amusement, and either actually burned the manuscript or believed that it was burnt. In a few days printed copies appeared.

Frederick did not like disobedience, but he still less liked being made a fool of, and he put Voltaire under arrest. But again the affair blew over, the king believing that the edition of Akakia confiscated in Prussia was the only one. Alas! Voltaire had sent copies away; others had been printed abroad; and the thing was irrecoverable. It could not be proved that he had ordered the printing, and all Frederick could do was to have the pamphlet burnt by the hangman. Things were now drawing to a crisis.

One day Voltaire sent his orders back; the next Frederick returned them, but Voltaire had quite made up his mind to fly. A kind of reconciliation occurred in March, and after some days of good-fellowship Voltaire at last obtained the long-sought leave of absence and left Potsdam on the 26th of the month (1753). It was nearly three months afterwards that the famous, ludicrous and brutal arrest was made at Frankfurt, on the persons of himself and his niece, who had met him meanwhile.

There was a rather distinct excuse for Frederick's wrath. In the first place, the poet chose to linger at Leipzig. In the second place, in direct disregard of a promise given to Frederick, a supplement to Akakia appeared, more offensive than the main text. From Leipzig, after a month's stay, Voltaire moved to Gotha. Once more, on the 25th of May, he moved on to Frankfurt. Frankfurt, nominally a free city, but with a Prussian resident who did very much what he pleased, was not like Gotha and Leipzig. An excuse was provided in the fact that the poet had a copy of some unpublished poems of Frederick's, which would have implicated Frederick's homosexuality were they to be published, and as soon as Voltaire arrived hands were laid on him, at first with courtesy enough. The resident, Freytag, was not a very wise person (though he probably did not, as Voltaire would have it, spell "poésie" (poetry) "poéshie"); constant references to Frederick were necessary; and the affair was prolonged so that Madame Denis had time to join her uncle. At last Voltaire tried to steal away. He was followed, arrested, his niece seized separately, and sent to join him in custody; and the two, with the secretary Collini, were kept close prisoners at an inn called the Goat.

This situation was at last put an end to by the city authorities, who probably felt that they were not playing a very creditable part. Voltaire left Frankfurt on the 7th of July, travelled safely to Mainz, and thence to Mannheim, Strasbourg and Colmar. The last-named place he reached (after a leisurely journey and many honours at the little courts just mentioned) at the beginning of October, and here he proposed to stay the winter, finish his Annals of the Empire and look about him.

Voltaire's second stage was now over. Even now, however, in his sixtieth year, it required some more external pressure to induce him to make himself independent. He had been, in the first blush of his Frankfort disaster, refused, or at least not granted, permission even to enter France proper. At Colmar he was not safe, especially when in January 1754 a pirated edition of the Essai sur les moeurs, written long before, appeared. Permission to establish himself in France was now absolutely refused. Nor did an extremely offensive performance of Voltaire's—the solemn partaking of the Eucharist at Colmar after due confession—at all mollify his enemies. His exclusion from France, however, was chiefly metaphorical, and really meant exclusion from Paris and its neighbourhood. In the summer he went to Plombières, and after returning to Colmar for some time, journeyed in the beginning of winter to Lyons, and thence in the middle of December to Geneva.

Voltaire had no plans to remain in the city, and immediately bought a country house just outside the gates, which he named Les Délices. He was here practically at the meeting-point of four distinct jurisdictions—Geneva, the canton Vaud, Sardinia, and France, while other cantons were within easy reach; and he bought other houses dotted about these territories, so as never to be without a refuge close at hand in case of sudden storms. At Les Délices he set up a considerable establishment, which his great wealth made him able easily to afford. He kept open house for visitors; he had printers close at hand in Geneva; he fitted up a private theatre in which he could enjoy what was perhaps the greatest pleasure of his whole life—acting in a play of his own, stage-managed by himself. His residence at Geneva brought him into correspondence (at first quite amicable) with the most famous of her citizens, Rousseau. His Orphelin de Chine, performed at Paris in 1755, was very well received; the notorious La Pucelle appeared in the same year. The earthquake at Lisbon, which appalled other people, gave Voltaire an excellent opportunity for ridiculing the beliefs of the orthodox, first in verse (1756) and later in the unsurpassable tale of Candide (1759).

All was, however, not yet quite smooth with him. Geneva had a law expressly forbidding theatrical performances in any circumstances whatever. Voltaire had infringed this law already as far as private performances went, and he had thought of building a regular theatre, not indeed at Geneva but at Lausanne. In July 1755 a very polite and, as far as Voltaire was concerned, indirect resolution of the Consistory declared that in consequence of these proceedings of the Sieur de Voltaire the pastors should notify their flocks to abstain, and that the chief syndic should be informed of the Consistory's perfect confidence that the edicts would be carried out. Voltaire obeyed this hint as far as Les Délices was concerned, and consoled himself by having the performances in his Lausanne house. But he never was the man to take opposition to his wishes either quietly or without retaliation. He undoubtedly instigated d'Alembert to include a censure of the prohibition in his Encyclopédie article on "Geneva," a proceeding which provoked Rousseau's celebrated Lettre à D'Alembert sur les spectacles. As for himself, he looked about for a place where he could combine the social liberty of France with the political liberty of Geneva, and he found one.


At the end of 1758 he bought the considerable property of Ferney, about four miles from Geneva, and on French soil. At Les Délices (which he sold in 1765) he had become a householder on no small scale; at Ferney (which he increased by other purchases and leases) he became a complete country gentleman, and was henceforward known to all Europe as squire of Ferney. Many of the most celebrated men of Europe visited him there, and large parts of his usual biographies are composed of extracts from their accounts of Ferney. His new occupations by no means quenched his literary activity - he reserved much time for work and for his immense correspondence, which had for a long time once more included Frederick, the two getting on very well when they were not in contact.

Above all, he now being comparatively secure in position, engaged much more strongly in public controversies, and resorted less to his old labyrinthine tricks of disavowal, garbled publication and private libel. The suppression of the Encyclopédie, to which he had been a considerable contributor, and whose conductors were his intimate friends, drew from him a shower of lampoons directed now at l'infâme. These were directed at literary victims such as Lefranc de Pompignan or Palissot. Further lampoons were directed at Fréron, an excellent critic and a dangerous writer, who had attacked Voltaire from the conservative side, and at whom the patriarch of Ferney, as he now began to be called, levelled in return the very inferior farce-lampoon of L'Ecossaise, of the first night of which Fréron himself did an admirably humorous criticism.

How he built a church and got into trouble in so doing at Ferney, how he put "Deo erexit Voltaire" on it (1760-1761) and obtained a relic from the pope for his new building, how he entertained a grand-niece of Corneille, and for her benefit wrote his well-known "commentary" on that poet, are matters of interest, indeed.

Here, too, he began that series of interferences on behalf of the oppressed and the ill-treated which is an honour to his memory. Volumes and almost libraries have been written on the Calas affair, and we can but refer here to the only less famous cases of Sirven (very similar to that of Calas, though no judicial murder was actually committed), Espinasse (who had been sentenced to the galleys for harbouring a Protestant minister), Lally (the son of the unjustly treated but not blameless Irish-French commander in India), D'Etalonde (the companion of La Barre), Montbailli and others.

In 1768 he entered into controversy with the bishop of the diocese; he had differences with the superior landlord of part of his estate, the president De Brosses; and he engaged in a long and tedious return match with the republic of Geneva. But the general events of this Ferney life are somewhat of that happy kind which are no events.

Voltaire's Death Mask
Voltaire's Death Mask

In this way Voltaire, who had been an old man when he established himself at Ferney (now Ferney-Voltaire), became a very old one almost without noticing it. The death of Louis XV and the accession of Louis XVI excited even in his aged breast the hope of re-entering Paris, but he did not at once receive any encouragement, despite the reforming ministry of Turgot. A much more solid gain to his happiness was the adoption, or practical adoption, in 1776 of Reine Philiberte de Varicourt, a young girl of noble but poor family, whom Voltaire rescued from the convent, installed in his house as an adopted daughter, and married to the marquis de Villette.

Voltaire returned to a hero's welcome in Paris at age 83 in time to see his last play, Irene, produced. The excitement of the trip was too much for him and he died in Paris on May 30, 1778. Because of his criticism of the church Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at The Panthéon in Paris. In 1814, after the first fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Voltaire's bones were removed from the Pantheon and destroyed. His heart is preserved at La Comedie Francaise.


Voltaire was a prolific writer and produced works in almost every literary form, authoring plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, pamphlets, and over 20,000 letters.

Major works


Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays (including a few unfinished ones). Ironically, despite Voltaire's comic talent, he wrote only one good comedy, Nanine, but many good tragedies -- two of them, Zaire and Mérope, are ranked among the ten or twelve best plays of the whole French classical school.


From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse, and his first published work was poetry.

Voltaire wrote two long poems, the Henriade, and the Pucelle, besides many other smaller pieces. The Henriade has by wide consent been relegated to the position of a school reading book. Constructed and written in almost slavish imitation of Virgil, employing for medium a very unsuitable vehicle—the Alexandrine couplet (as reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes)—and animated neither by enthusiasm for the subject nor by real understanding thereof, it could not but be an unsatisfactory performance.

The Pucelle, if morally inferior, is from a literary point of view of far more value, it is desultory to a degree; it is a base libel on religion and history; it differs from its model Lodovico Ariosto in being, not, as Ariosto is, a mixture of romance and burlesque, but a sometimes tedious tissue of burlesque pure and simple. Nevertheless, with all the Pucelle 's faults, it is amusing. The minor poems are as much above the Pucelle as the Pucelle is above the Henriade.

Prose and romances

These productions—incomparably the most remarkable and most absolutely good fruit of his genius—were usually composed as pamphlets, with a purpose of polemic in religion, politics, or what not. Thus 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, while some are mere lampoons on the Bible, the unfailing source of Voltaire's wit. But (as always happens in the case of literary work where the form exactly suits the author's genius) the purpose in all the best of them disappears almost entirely.

It is in these works more than in any others that the peculiar quality of Voltaire—ironic style without exaggeration—appears. If one especial peculiarity can be singled out, it is the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on this point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them or exaggerates their form. The famous "pour encourager les autres" (that the shooting of Byng did "encourage the others" very much is not to the point) is a typical example, and indeed the whole of Candide shows the style at its perfection. Voltaire has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony. See especially Micromegas.


Voltaire wrote several major historical works, including:

  • History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (2 volumes 1731 age:37)
  • The Age of Louis XIV (3 volumes 1752 age 58)
  • The Age of Louis XV (3 Volumes 1746 age 52 to 1752 age 58)
  • Annals of the Empire - Charlemagne, A.D. 742 - Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754 age: 60)
  • Annals of the Empire - Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol.II (1754 age: 60)
  • History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol I, 1759 age: 65; Vol. II 1763 - age 69)

An Investigator of Gospels

Voltaire opposed Christian beliefs fiercely, but not consistently. On one hand, he claimed that the Gospels were figmented 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. However, the defense of Christian apologetics of his time was usually not very convincing either, as many avoided Voltaire's work.


Voltaire wrote philisophical works as well as fiction and poetry. His largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopédie and of several minor pieces. While it directed criticism against French political institutions and Voltaire's personal enemies, the work mostly targeted the Bible and the Catholic Church. While his work is too superficial and common-sense to serve as philosophy in the sense of Kant or Rawles, it draws brilliant and insightful observations on concrete problems. The book ranks perhaps second only to the novels as showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire; and despite its form it is nearly as readable.


In general criticism and miscellaneous writing Voltaire is not inferior to himself in any of his other functions. Almost all his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his own light pungent causerie; and in a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings he shows himself a perfect journalist. In literary criticism pure and simple his principle work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, though he wrote a good deal more of the same kind—sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently sometimes as part of his Siécles. Nowhere, perhaps, except when he is dealing with religion, are Voltaire's defects felt more than here. He was quite unacquainted with the history of his own language and literature, and more here than anywhere else he showed the extraordinarily limited and conventional spirit which accompanied the revolt of the French 18th century against limits and conventions in theological, ethical and political matters.


There remains only the huge division of his correspondence, which is constantly being augmented by fresh discoveries, and which, according to Georges Bengesco, has never been fully or correctly printed, even in some of the parts longest known. In this great mass Voltaire's personality is of course best shown, and perhaps his literary qualities not worst. His immense energy and versatility, his adroit and unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm when he chose to be sarcastic, his rather unscrupulous business faculty, his more than rather unscrupulous resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies—all these things appear throughout the whole mass of letters.

Voltaire's works, and especially his private letters, constantly contain the word l'infâme and the expression (in full or abbreviated) écrasez l'infâme. This has been misunderstood in many ways - the mistake going so far as in some cases to suppose that Voltaire meant Christ by this opprobrious expression. No careful and competent student of his works has ever failed to correct this gross misapprehension. L'infâme is not God; it is not Christ; it is not Christianity; it is not even Catholicism. Its briefest equivalent may be given as "persecuting and privileged orthodoxy" in general, and, more particularly, it is the particular system which Voltaire saw around him, of which he had felt the effects in his own exiles and the confiscations of his books, and of which he saw the still worse effects in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.


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 only useful as a counterbalance since its "religious tax", or the tithe, helped to cement a powerbase against the monarchy.

Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire only an enlightened monarch, 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 France in the world. 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 is best known in this day and age for his novel, Candide ou l'Optimisme (1759), which satirizes the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz. Candide was subject to censorship and Voltaire did not openly claim it as his own work [1].

Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, like 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."

Today, Voltaire is remembered and honoured 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.

But some of his critics, like Thomas Carlyle, do argue that while he was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works was of much value for matter, and that he has never uttered any significant idea of his own.

The town of Ferney (France) where he lived his last 20 years of life, 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.


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  • "This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."
  • "You know that these two nations are at war over a few acres of snow near Canada, and that they are spending on this little war more than all of Canada is worth."
  • "In this country, from time to time, we like to kill an admiral, to encourage the others" (Referencing the execution of Admiral Byng)(Candide)
  • "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."
  • "If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism; if there were two they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness."
  • "I shall finally have to renounce your Optimism? I'm afraid to say that it's a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly." (Candide, renouncing the Leibnizian Optimism)
  • "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." (1776)
  • "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." (Essay on Tolerance)
  • "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." Translation: "The best is the enemy of the good." (Dictionnaire Philosophique).
  • "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." (Epistle on the "Three Imposters"). This statement by Voltaire became so familiar that Gustave Flaubert included it in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues ("Dictionary of commonplace ideas"), and it is still among the most frequently quoted of Voltaire's dicta [2].


The following quote is commonly misattributed to Voltaire:

I do not agree with a word you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.

It was actually first used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of Stephen G. Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), as a summation of Voltaire's attitude, based on statements in Essay on Tolerance where he asserts: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privelege to do so too".

See also

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Preceded by:
Jean Bouhier
Seat 33
Académie française
Succeeded by:
Jean-François Ducis
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