The Life and Work of Voltaire, French Enlightenment Writer

Engraving of Voltaire
Engraving of Voltaire by J. Mollison, circa 1850s.

 Kean Collection / Getty Images

Born François-Marie Arouet, Voltaire (November 21, 1694 – May 30, 1778) was a writer and philosopher of the French Enlightenment period. He was an incredibly prolific writer, advocating for civil freedoms and criticizing major institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Fast Facts: Voltaire

  • Full Name: François-Marie Arouet
  • Occupation: Writer, poet, and philosopher
  • Born: November 21, 1694 in Paris, France
  • Died: May 30, 1778 in Paris, France
  • Parents: François Arouet and Marie Marguerite Daumard
  • Key Accomplishments: Voltaire published significant criticism of the French monarchy. His commentary on religious tolerance, historiographies, and civil liberties became a key component of Enlightenment thinking.

Early Life

Voltaire was the fifth child and fourth son of François Arouet and his wife Marie Marguerite Daumard. The Arouet family had already lost two sons, Armand-François and Robert, in infancy, and Voltaire (then François-Marie) was nine years younger than his surviving brother, Armand, and seven years younger than his sole sister, Marguerite-Catherine. François Arouet was a lawyer and a treasury official; their family was part of the French nobility, but at the lowest possible rank. Later in life, Voltaire claimed to be the illegitimate son of a higher-ranked nobleman by the name of Guérin de Rochebrune.

His early education came from the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand. From the age of ten until seventeen, Voltaire received classical instruction in Latin, rhetoric, and theology. Once he left school, he decided he wanted to become a writer, much to the dismay of his father, who wanted Voltaire to follow him into the law. Voltaire also continued learning outside the confines of formal education. He developed his writing talents and also became multilingual, attaining fluency in English, Italian, and Spanish in addition to his native French.

First Career and Early Romance

After leaving school, Voltaire moved to Paris. He pretended to be working as an assistant to a notary, theoretically as a stepping stone into the legal profession. In reality, though, he was actually spending most of his time writing poetry. After a time, his father found out the truth and sent him away from Paris to study law in Caen, Normandy.

Voltaire, portrait
Di Nicolas de Largillière - Scan by User:Manfred Heyde, Pubblico dominio, Collegamento

Even this did not deter Voltaire from continuing to write. He merely switched over from poetry to writing studies on history and essays. During this period, the witty style of writing and speaking that made Voltaire so popular first appeared in his work, and it endeared him to many of the higher-ranking nobles he spent time around.

In 1713, with his father’s assistance, Voltaire began working at the Hague in the Netherlands as a secretary to the French ambassador, the marquis de Châteauneuf. While there, Voltaire had his earliest known romantic entanglement, falling in love with a Huguenot refugee, Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Unfortunately, their connection was considered unsuitable and caused something of a scandal, so the marquis forced Voltaire to break it off and return to France. By this point, his political and legal career had all but been given up.

Playwright and Government Critic

Upon returning to Paris, Voltaire launched his writing career. Since his favorite topics were critiques of the government and satires of political figures, he landed in hot water pretty quickly. One early satire, which accused the Duke of Orleans of incest, even landed him in prison in the Bastille for nearly a year. Upon his release, however, his debut play (a take on the Oedipus myth) was produced, and it was a critical and commercial success. The Duke whom he had previously offended even presented him with a medal in recognition of the achievement.

It was around this time that François-Marie Arouet began going by the pseudonym Voltaire, under which he would publish most of his works. To this day, there’s much debate as to how he came up with the name. It may have its roots as an anagram or pun on his family name or several different nicknames. Voltaire reportedly adopted the name in 1718, after being released from the Bastille. After his release, he also struck up a new romance with a young widow, Marie-Marguerite de Rupelmonde.

Unfortunately, Voltaire’s next works did not have nearly the same success as his first. His play Artémire flopped so badly that even the text itself only survives in a few fragments, and when he tried to publish an epic poem about King Henry IV (the first Bourbon dynasty monarch), he couldn’t find a publisher in France. Instead, he and Rupelmonde journeyed to the Netherlands, where he secured a publisher in The Hague. Eventually, Voltaire convinced a French publisher to publish the poem, La Henriade, secretly. The poem was a success, as was his next play, which was performed at the wedding of Louis XV.

Chateau de Cirey
Chateau de Cirey where Voltaire lived. ©MDT52

In 1726, Voltaire became involved in a quarrel with a young nobleman who reportedly insulted Voltaire’s change of name. Voltaire challenged him to a duel, but the nobleman instead had Voltaire beaten, then arrested without a trial. He was, however, able to negotiate with authorities to be exiled to England rather than imprisoned at the Bastille again.

English Exile

As it turns out, Voltaire’s exile to England would change his entire outlook. He moved in the same circles as some of the leading figures of English society, thought, and culture, including Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and more. In particular, he became fascinated by the government of England in comparison with France: England was a constitutional monarchy, whereas France still lived under an absolute monarchy. The country also had greater freedoms of speech and religion, which would become a key component of Voltaire’s criticisms and writings.

Voltaire was able to return to France after a little more than two years, though still banned from the court at Versailles. Thanks to participation in a plan to literally purchase the French lottery, along with an inheritance from his father, he quickly became incredibly rich. In the early 1730s, he began publishing work that showed his clear English influences. His play Zaïre was dedicated to his English friend Everard Fawkener and included praise of English culture and freedoms. He also published a collection of essays that praised British politics, attitudes towards religion and science, and arts and literature, called the Letters Concerning the English Nation, in 1733 in London. The next year, it was published in French, landing Voltaire in hot water again. Because he did not get the approval of the official royal censor before publishing, and because the essays praised British religious freedom and human rights, the book was banned and Voltaire had to quickly flee from Paris.

In 1733, Voltaire also met the most significant romantic partner of his life: Émilie, the Marquise du Châtelet, a mathematician who was married to the Marquis du Châtelet. Despite being 12 years younger than Voltaire (and married, and a mother), Émilie was very much an intellectual peer to Voltaire. They amassed a shared collection of over 20,000 books and spent time studying and performing experiments together, many of which were inspired by Voltaire’s admiration of Sir Isaac Newton. After the Letters scandal, Voltaire fled to the estate belonging to her husband. Voltaire paid to renovate the building, and her husband did not raise any fuss about the affair, which would continue for 16 years.

Somewhat abashed by his multiple conflicts with the government, Voltaire began keeping a lower profile, although he continued his writing, now focused on history and science. The Marquise du Châtelet contributed considerably alongside him, producing a definitive French translation of Newton’s Principia and writing reviews of Voltaire’s Newton-based work. Together, they were instrumental in introducing Newton’s work in France. They also developed some critical views on religion, with Voltaire publishing several texts that sharply criticized the establishment of state religions, religious intolerance, and even organized religion as a whole. Similarly, he railed against the style of histories and biographies of the past, suggesting they were filled with falsehoods and supernatural explanations and needed a fresh, more scientific and evidence-based approach to research.

Connections in Prussia

Frederick the Great, while he was still just the crown prince of Prussia, began a correspondence with Voltaire around 1736, but they did not meet in person until 1740. Despite their friendship, Voltaire still went to Frederick’s court in 1743 as a French spy to report back on Frederick’s intentions and capabilities with regards to the ongoing War of Austrian Succession.

By the mid-1740s, Voltaire’s romance with the Marquise du Châtelet had begun to wind down. He grew tired of spending nearly all his time at her estate, and both found new companionship. In Voltaire’s case, it was even more scandalous than their affair had been: he was attracted to, and later lived with, his own niece, Marie Louise Mignot. In 1749, the Marquise died in childbirth, and Voltaire moved to Prussia the following year.

Voltaire in Prussia in 1750
Circa 1751, Voltaire travelled to Prussia in 1750, on the invitation of Friedrich II and was a permanent resident of court for two years. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

During the 1750s, Voltaire’s relationships in Prussia began to deteriorate. He was accused of theft and forgery relating to some bond investments, then had a feud with the president of the Berlin Academy of Sciences that ended with Voltaire writing a satire that angered Frederick the Great and resulted in the temporary destruction of their friendship. They would, however, reconcile in the 1760s.

Geneva, Paris, and Final Years

Forbidden by King Louis XV to return to Paris, Voltaire instead arrived in Geneva in 1755. He continued publishing, with major philosophical writings such as Candide, or Optimism, a satire of Leibniz's philosophy of optimistic determinism which would become Voltaire’s most famous work.

Candide by VOLTAIRE
Candide by VOLTAIRE, Francois-Marie Arouet - French philosopher, playwright and novelist. Title-page of 'Candide' or 'Optimism'. Culture Club / Getty Images

Starting in 1762, Voltaire took up the causes of unjustly persecuted people, particularly those who were victims of religious persecution. Among his most notable causes was the case of Jean Calas, a Huguenot who was convicted of murdering his son for wanting to convert to Catholicism and tortured to death; his property was confiscated and his daughters forced into Catholic convents. Voltaire, along with others, strongly doubted his guilt and suspected a case of religious persecution. The conviction was overturned in 1765.

Voltaire’s last year was still full of activity. In early 1778, he was initiated into Freemasonry, and historians dispute as to whether he did so at the urging of Benjamin Franklin or not. He also returned to Paris for the first time in a quarter century to see his latest play, Irene, open. He fell ill on the journey and believed himself to be on death’s doorstep, but recovered. Two months later, however, he became ill again and died on May 30, 1778. Accounts of his deathbed vary wildly, depending on the sources and their own opinions of Voltaire. His famous deathbed quote—in which a priest asked him to renounce Satan and he replied “Now is not the time for making new enemies!”—is likely apocryphal and actually traced to a 19th-century joke that was attributed to Voltaire in the 20th century.

Voltaire was formally denied a Christian burial because of his criticism of the Church, but his friends and family managed to secretly arrange a burial at the abbey of Scellières in Champagne. He left behind a complicated legacy. For instance, while he argued for religious tolerance, he also was one of the origins of Enlightenment-era anti-Semitism. He endorsed anti-slavery and anti-monarchical views, but disdained the idea of democracy as well. In the end, Voltaire’s texts became a key component of Enlightenment thinking, which has allowed his philosophy and writing to endure for centuries.

Sources

  • Pearson, Roger. Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom. Bloomsbury, 2005.
  • Pomeau, René Henry. “Voltaire: French Philosopher and Author.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Voltaire.
  • “Voltaire.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/voltaire/