Francois Voltaire Biography


A Voltairean, as defined by Ernest Benot, philosophical writer and one-time director of the Ecole normale superior, in his Etudes et pensées (1884) is:

"a man who prefers to see clearly in all matters; in religion and in philosophy, he believes willingly only what he understands, and he admits that there are things he does not know; he values application above speculation, simplifies ethics as well as doctrine, and tries to direct it toward useful virtues; he likes a moderate political system that preserves natural liberty, the liberty of conscience, of speech and of the individual, reduces evil as much as possible, procures the greatest good, and places justice among the highest benefits; in the arts, he admires above all moderation and truth; he has a deadly hatred for hypocrisy, fanaticism and bad taste; he does not limit himself to detesting them, he fights them to death."

The man who inspired these words, often called the Father of the French Revolution, may indeed have had limitations as regards his personal life, but he did emerge as the leading apostle of tolerance and freedom in the eighteenth century, which has been called the "century of Voltaire."

Voltaire is the name he adopted in his maturity; his real one was Francois Marie Arouet. He was born on November 21, 1694, in Paris, the fifth child of his middle-class parents, who were natives of Poitou. Voltaire's father was a rather prosperous lawyer and notary who became treasurer to the Chambres des Comptes. A sickly child, Francois was not expected to live. And it must be admitted that, like Alexander Pope, whom he was to meet and with whom he corresponded, his life could be described as "one long disease." Yet he was to live that life energetically and to survive until May 30, 1778.

The Abbé de Châteauneuf, Voltaire's godfather, took special interest in the boy. Among other things, he introduced him to deism. The Abbé, noted for his skepticism and wit, also taught him to recite lines from the satirical and shocking poem Moïsade.

Voltaire's father was determined that his son should study law, and the lad was enrolled in the Jesuit College of Louis-le-grande in 1704. He remained there until his seventeenth year, winning many academic prizes. Evidence of his precocity is also found in the fact that the gifted Ninon de Leclos, one of his father's clients, was sufficiently impressed by the young man to will him 2,000 francs for the specific purpose of buying books. At the Jesuit college, Voltaire received a sound liberal education, developed his ability as a writer, and trained his critical sense. Of significance also is the fact that he gained considerable theatrical training, for the Jesuits continued the Renaissance tradition of having plays in Latin and the vernacular performed by their charges.

Voltaire had already demonstrated his ability to write verse and was determined to become a great poet. But his father had little faith in literature as a means of earning a good living, and he insisted that his son continue to study law. The young man complied, but only in a perfunctory way.

All his life Voltaire was to demonstrate his ability to make friends among the influential, and he knew that the right circle in pre-Revolutionary France was the aristocratic one. Therefore he was elated when his godfather, the sophisticated Abbé de Châteauneuf, introduced him into the daringly liberal society of the Temple, where he was welcomed by such freethinking aristocrats as the Duke de Sully, the Duke de Vendôme, the Prince de Carti, and other persons of high rank as well as by men of letters. To Voltaire, the Temple was a society of "princes and poets." Determined to distinguish himself among the latter, he wrote satirical verse and, since the surest way to fame in literature at that time was to become a tragic poet, began planning a tragedy in verse. It may be added that Voltaire exercised that charm of which he was always capable and became quite a gallant and favorite of the ladies.

At this point, Voltaire's father, alarmed not only because his son was neglecting his legal studies but because the society the young man now kept was notoriously libertine, forced him to leave Paris. This was the first of the many "exiles" he was to experience. He was sent to Holland as a page to the French ambassador. The result, however, was an unfortunate love affair with a respectable young lady whose Protestantism was not acceptable to Voltaire's father. The young man found himself back in Paris again. The year was 1713.

By this time, Voltaire had won quite a reputation for his satirical verse and prose. But his gift was to get him into trouble from time to time throughout his life. When he was publicly accused of writing libelous poems, his father again sent him away from Paris, this time into the country, where for nearly a year he was the guest of the Marquis de Saint-Ange. He spent his time writing essays and working on his first tragedy, certainly not in studying law.

Mention has been made of Voltaire's ability to make friends, but it should be noted that he was something of a past master at making enemies, largely because of his sensitivity and the fact that he took almost malicious pleasure in using his sardonic wit to attack those with whom he did not agree. He demonstrated both capacities when he was allowed to return to Paris. He was introduced to the Court de Seaux, a famous literary and political salon, over which the attractive Duchess du Maine presided. It was apparently the duchess who got Voltaire to write lampoons against her enemy, The Regent, Orleans. So, in May 1716, Voltaire once more was forced to leave Paris for a time, going first to Tulle and later to Sully. He was not back in Paris very long when he faced more trouble. Two specially offensive libels appeared, Puerto Regnanto and J'ai vu. And this time Voltaire, suspected of being the author, was sent to the Bastille on May 16, 1717. He was to remain there for eleven months and then to be exiled to Châtenay and elsewhere. While occupying the room that came to be known by his name in the famous prison, Voltaire revised his tragedy, which was entitled Œdipe, and began work on his epic poem L' Henriade, which celebrated the deeds of Henry IV of France. It is notable that these two earliest works reveal Voltaire as a man dedicated to freedom and justice as he understood those concepts. A dominant theme in the play is the tyranny of the priesthood; the epic poem is memorable for the plea or tolerance.

It was on his release from prison that Voltaire adopted the name by which he is now known universally, Aurot de Voltaire. The aristocratic particle de is of special interest since he belonged to a bourgeois family. This indeed points to the fact that he was determined to rise in the world. The most common explanation of the name is that it is an imperfect anagram of Arouet, l.j. (le jeune), but other explanations have been advanced. Some have believed that it was an older name on his mother's side of the family; still others argue that it was derived from his schoolboy sobriquet, le volontaire.

The tragedy Œdipe, first acted in November 1718, was an immediate success, enjoying a run of forty-five days. Now Voltaire was welcomed back to Paris as a gifted tragic poet. But his reputation for writing lampoons and other satiric verse directed against public figures was too great for him to avoid new difficulties. He was falsely accused of being the author of the La Grange-Chancel libels, the Philippiques, which were virulent satires directed against the Duc d' Orleans. This time he was guest of the Duc de Villars, maréchal of France and famous war hero. While living with the maréchal and harmlessly making love to the duchess, Voltaire commenced gathering material for his historical works.

By the end of 1725, Voltaire was flourishing, enjoying as he did the patronage and friendship of the Duke of Richelieu. Then his fortunes turned again. The arrogant Chevalier du Rohan, obviously jealous of Voltaire's popularity, taunted him about his adopted name. There followed a harsh exchange between the two, and the Chevalier subsequently had his lackeys attack his foe. When the latter challenged him to a duel, the Chevalier had his opponent sent to the Bastille. Voltaire was imprisoned only for a fortnight, but when released he again faced exile.

Voltaire had met Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke in the early 1720s when the Englishman was himself in exile. The two became firm friends, and Voltaire, always a great letter writer, corresponded with him regularly. It was perhaps this relationship that led the Frenchman to spend most of the next three years in England. The consensus is that this period in Voltaire's life was of the greatest importance to him. John Morley, one of his better known English biographers, went so far as to say that the English Deists formed Voltaire's mind. This, no doubt, is an exaggeration, in view of the Frenchman's apprenticeship to the Abbé de Châteauneuf, his admiration of Henri Bayle, and the evidence found in his growing list of publications. But certainly Saintsbury did not exaggerate when he wrote as follows (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition):

Before the English visit, Voltaire had been an elegant trifler, an adept in the forms of literature popular in French society, a sort of superior Dorat or Boufflers of earlier growth. He returned from that visit one of the foremost literary men in Europe.

The cultural and intellectual climate of England at this time (1726 to 1729) delighted the young Voltaire. He was welcomed in Tory and Whig circles alike. Among his friends and acquaintances were the leading literary figures of the day, among them Pope, Swift, Gay, Young, and Thomson. He was to record his respect and admiration for the author of A Tale of a Tub and the newly published Gulliver's Travels, a work that was not without its influence on Candide. But especially he revered Alexander Pope, with whom he had so much in common — the satiric gift, wit, great facility at versifying, the critical temperament and, yes, the vindictiveness, the inability to suffer a fool gladly.

While in England, Voltaire learned to read and write the language fluently. He read avidly the works of Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton (whose allegory of Death and Sin he found unacceptable), Newton, and Locke (whose views on tolerance particularly were acceptable to him). His newfound interest in Shakespeare was to lead him to begin writing his own Roman play, Brutus. Later he was to establish himself as a dedicated Newtonian and to write a treatise on Newton's system. Voltaire also collected materials for his Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais, in which he interpreted most favorably English culture for his countrymen and contrasted it with that of France. Gustave Lanson, the noted French literary historian, called these English Letters the first bomb thrown at the ancien régime. It is clear that Voltaire had only admiration for England and Englishmen. In contrast to the France he had known, he found freedom and tolerance in his temporary home. This was the man who declared that he might disapprove of what an individual said but that he would defend to his own death the individual's right to say it. Little wonder that he so admired the island kingdom. As regards the exile in England, one more thing may be reported. He brought out an English edition of L'Henriade, dedicating it to the English queen. It was a great success, the author realizing some 1000 pounds from subscriptions alone.

Voltaire, however, remained a Frenchman and a Parisian. However much he enjoyed the sojourn in England, he yearned to return home. In the spring of 1729, he secured permission to do so. But not too much time passed before Voltaire again experienced difficulties. In 1733, the publication of the English letters and the satirical poem Temple du Goût enraged many people of influence. The first, while lauding the English, attacked the French government and the Church; the second satirized contemporary writers, especially J. B. Rousseau, the man who had once predicted that Voltaire was to make a great name for himself. The government issued a warrant for Voltaire's arrest, and his house was searched. By that time, however, the author of the two offensive works was at Cirey in Lorraine, an independent duchy, the guest of Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, with whom he had been intimate during the previous year. The relationship between her and Voltaire was to last for some sixteen years and marks the next important stage in his long career.

Mme. du Châtelet, twelve years Voltaire's junior, was in many ways a remarkable woman. Short of temper, often difficult, persona non grata in fashionable society, she nevertheless had her attractions. A woman of keen intellect, she was devoted to mathematics, science, and philosophy. Particularly was she dedicated to the optimistic philosophy of Leibnitz; assisted by Voltaire, she spent much of her time writing an exposition of the German's conclusions. She shared Voltaire's enthusiasm for Newton, and while her companion worked on an exposition of the Newtonian system, she translated the Principia into French, adding a commentary.

These were indeed productive years for Voltaire. Among other works, he completed a treatise on metaphysics, wrote six plays, completed two poems — Le Mondain, a satire against the Jansenists, whose doctrine had much in common with Calvinism, and the philosophical Discours sur l'homme. He also labored on the Siècle de Louis XIV and his universal history, Essai sur moeurs.

Once the Regent had died, Paris again beckoned to him. After 1743, he found himself in favor at Court, thanks largely to Richelieu and Madame de Pompadour, who admired the dramatist Voltaire. When a new work, Poème de Fontenay (1745), proved to be a success, he was rewarded by being made the royal historiographer and received a substantial pension. The post had been held earlier by Racine and Corneille. It was about this time that he turned to another type of writing, the philosophical tales, among which Candide was to become best known. He also continued to write plays, now in competition with Crébillon, with whom he was to engage in a bitter quarrel. In 1746, finally, Voltaire was elected to the French Academy; most certainly he had attained maturity as a literary artist and philosophe.

Nothing could stop the audacities of Voltaire's pen. In his bitingly satirical Trajan est-il content? there were obvious references to Louis XV himself. In 1748, he found it expedient to find refuge with the Duchess de Sceaux, and somewhat later he joined Mme. de Châtelet at Lunéville. In September 1749, his close friend Mme. de Châtelet, died while giving birth to a child, the father of whom was neither her husband nor Voltaire. Again he had reached the crossroads in his eventful life. What to do now? He could not return to Paris, especially because of the continuing feud with Crébillon.

Frederick the Great, whom Voltaire had once met and with whom he had been corresponding regularly for some time, had been urging the Frenchman to come to Potsdam, where the Prussian king had established his academy and was anxious to add another star to his galaxie of philosophes, the intellectuals of Europe. So Voltaire took up his residence at Potsdam in 1750. There, the recipient of a generous pension, he completed his most ambitious historical work, the Siècle de Louis XIV; wrote a new philosophical tale, Micromégas, which illustrates the influence of Swift's Gulliver's Travels upon his own fiction; and worked on his universal history.

Unfortunately, the friendship of Frederick and Voltaire did not flourish; both could be difficult individuals in their respective ways. Voltaire was offended by elements in the king's personal life and found him to be particularly arrogant. What ultimately led to the break in their relationship, however, was Voltaire's attack upon the president of Frederick's cherished Academy of Science. Entitled the Diatribe du Doctor Akakia, it was published without permission, and despite his assurance that all copies would be destroyed, Voltaire took malicious pleasure in seeing to it that the work circulated. As a result, he suffered the indignity of being arrested at Frankfort and having his baggage searched. No longer could he stay in Germany under the patronage of the man whom he had once eulogized as a Horace, a Catullus, a Maecenas, a Socrates, as Augustus and as the Solomon of the North.

Aware that he would not be welcome back in Paris, especially because his sojourn in Germany was looked upon as an insult to his fellow countrymen, Voltaire took up residence in Geneva, where in most respects the air of freedom was purer. He was now a wealthy man. He had inherited sums of money from his father and brother, he had been given pensions by the French and Prussian kings, and he had gained more money from many of his works (particularly his plays). Early in young manhood, he had demonstrated his skill in speculation. Indeed, had he chosen to concentrate on finance rather than literature, he very well could have emerged as a Rothschild. He purchased a chateau near Geneva and called it Les Délices, his "summer palace." He bought another residence at Monrion, Lausanne, which he called his "winter palace." As busy as ever as a writer, he nevertheless found time to encourage the local manufacturers, particularly the watchmakers. It was here that he wrote Candide, as well as a tragedy and much verse. Polemical works also came from his pen, for he continued the attack upon religion with his war cry "Écrasez l'Infame."

Although Voltaire did find greater tolerance in Switzerland, his relations with the Calvinists were not harmonious. Specifically, they were shocked to learn that he had built a private theater at Les Délices and frequently staged plays. So, retaining possession of that chateau, he bought the chateau and demesne of Ferney, in France, quite close to the Swiss border; he moved there in 1760 and lived with his niece, Mme. Denis. Here indeed he flourished as a manorial lord, served by as many as sixty persons. He was extremely hospitable and welcomed the many distinguished visitors from all parts of Europe who came to see and talk with the now widely famous man. He remained in residence at Ferney for twenty years.

Although he continued to the end to write on literary subjects, they received less attention. All his life he had been convinced that all literature should teach, and he had used drama and tales for that very purpose. His works demonstrate his sustained interest in religious, political, social, and philosophical questions. But now he was not content merely to use belletristic literature as his medium. He became the active champion of tolerance and justice, emerging as an eighteenth-century Zola. Most notable is his Traité sur la tolerance (1763), which he wrote in defense of Jean Calais, who had been tortured and executed as a result of a religious controversy. This was effective enough so that Calais was recognized as the victim of judicial murder. The death of the young Chevalier de la Barre for alleged sacrilege led Voltaire to write another powerful tract that was effective in clearing the Chevalier's name. To note just one other example, he came to the rescue of one Sirven, a French Protestant declared guilty of the murder of his Roman Catholic daughter and who had been banished as a then penniless criminal. Voltaire succeeded in having the sentence reversed. Little wonder that he was hailed as the apostle of freedom, as well as intellectual potentate of Europe.

Voltaire began his literary career as a tragic poet, if one excepts minor verse; he was to end it as one — and to end it triumphantly. In the spring of 1778, his last play, the tragedy Irene, was accepted for performance in Paris, and the old man was determined to be present at the premiere. His return to the city from which he had been exiled time and again created a sensation. He was honored by the French Academy as its most distinguished member. But his rapidly failing health made it impossible for him to witness the great success of his tragedy on the opening night. He was able, however, to attend the sixth performance and to receive the acclaim of an enthusiastic audience.

Voltaire, the longtime valetudinarian who now was eighty-four years of age, died on May 30, 1778. Typically, the man who had erected a Catholic Church on one of his estates (having the inscription "Deo erexit Voltaire" placed upon it), and who in his last years played chess regularly with a Jesuit, refused Extreme Unction and absolution. There was thus difficulty relating to his burial, and his body was hastily interred at the abbey of Scellières in Champagne barely before the interdict of the bishop. But thirteen years later the body was brought back to Paris for repose in the Pantheon, the famous church that is the French equivalent of Westminster Abbey.

It is clear that Voltaire was a brilliant, complex individual. He manifested great charm that won him many friends among influential members of both sexes; he also possessed almost a genius for making enemies. He was a man who liked to oppose. Witness his quarrel with J. B. Rousseau and the completely uncalled-for one with Crébillon. And surely it was not all Frederick the Great's fault that Voltaire did not flourish at Potsdam. There is a comparable contrast with reference to his reputation. Goethe praised him in superlatives, speaking of his genius, his "eagle's sweep of vision," his "vast understanding"; for the great German, the Frenchman was "perfection indeed." One dissenter was the writer Joseph Joubert, who believed that Voltaire lacked compassion — a curious judgment on the man who came to the defense of such victims of intolerance as Calais, Sirven, and the Chevalier de la Barre. We shall find that the critical estimates of Candide also vary markedly, but the consensus is that, of its kind, the tale is unsurpassed.

Reference has been made to various works by Voltaire, giving an indication of his breadth. Indeed one must turn to a Lope de Vega or a Daniel Defoe to find as prolific a writer. It is now desirable to provide a short survey of the works. They are properly described as "vast and various" by Saintsbury and may be easily classified as to type.

First are the tragedies and comedies, some fifty to sixty in all. As has been indicated Voltaire was a dramatist early and late, beginning his literary career with a tragedy and ending it with one. Nanine has been called his best comedy although, curiously enough, this man with such a superior wit was not too well at home in this genre. Zaïre (1732) and Mérope (1741) have been placed among the superior plays of the entire Classical School in France.

The second grouping is that of the non-dramatic poems. He was an indefatigable writer in this area. It will suffice to note three here. First is the heroic epic L'Henriade, an ambitious work modeled after Virgil's Aeneid and written in alexandrine couplets. Next is the scandalous but often amusing La Pucelle (surreptitiously printed in 1755; first authorized edition, 1755); this is actually a burlesque attacking the reputation of Joan of Arc. It was one of the several works (including Candide) the authorship of which Voltaire for a time denied. The third poem that deserves notice, particularly because of its close relationship to Candide, is Désastre de Lisbon, published in 1756, the year following the terrifying earthquake. It is true that Voltaire lacked what may be called the true passion, but his verse is memorable for technical virtuosity and superior diction — and quite often for superior wit.

A third classification is that of the historical works, which, excepting Voltaire's correspondence, are most voluminous. Mention has been made of the Siècle de Louis XIV and to Essai sur les moeurs, chiefly remarkable for the amount of private, personal information Voltaire was able to include in them. His short monographs on Charles XII and on Peter the Great, as well as the Annales de l'empire, deserve mention. In this field Voltaire was competent enough, but there is no danger of anyone confusing him with an Edward Gibbon.

Voltaire wrote a great deal on the subject of physics in which he demonstrated considerable knowledge, but it is to the philosophical works that we now turn, to two in particular: the Dictionnaire philosophique, which is largely made up of material that he had prepared for the Encyclopédie, of which Diderot may be considered the guiding spirit; and the ambitious Traité de Metaphysique. The first is a prime source for Voltaire's religious and political views; the second, which did not really succeed, merely proves that Voltaire, however intellectual he may have been, was not a philosopher in the sense that Locke or Leibnitz was.

Still another division is that of critical and miscellaneous writing. In pamphlet after pamphlet, he demonstrated superior ability as a journalist. The ones in defence of Calais and others are prime examples. The best of his several critical works is his Commentaire sur Corneille.

Logically the prose tales should have been discussed after the plays and the poems, but it is desirable to conclude this introduction with a discussion of them, since Candide is the best known philosophic tale, one that has been called "the most remarkable fruit of Voltaire's genius." The author, who believed that all literature should teach, used the tale as a vehicle for his profoundest views on politics, religion, and philosophy. Besides Candide, memorable among them are Zadig (1747), first published under the title of Memnon, in which the young hero, like Candide, travels far and wide, and experiences great dangers. The special interest of this tale is that Voltaire concluded it on a completely optimistic note. L'Homme aux quarante écus (1768) attacks certain political and social practices of eighteenth-century France. A few are out-and-out lampoons on the Bible. Histoires des voyages de Scarmentado (1756) has been described by Gustave Lanson as a kind of preliminary sketch of Candide.

Apparently aware that Candide would shock and offend many readers, Voltaire did not acknowledge authorship of the tale at first. He gave the work the fictitious subtitle: "Translated from the German of Dr. Ralph, with the additions found in the doctor's pocket when he died at Minden, in the year of grace 1759." Its immediate and sustained popularity is indicated by the fact that forty-three editions appeared between 1759 and 1789. A second part, or sequel, was published with the original first in an English edition and erroneously attributed to Voltaire. Further evidence of the popularity of the work is found in the attention given to it by critics from the very start.

In a letter to Voltaire dated February 23, 1759, Nicholas-Claude Theirot praised him as the "most excellent author and inventor of quips and jests" and said that his "book is snatched from hand to hand." Theirot went so far as to predict that Voltaire's work would live for a century and considered it "more like Lucian, Rabelais, and Swift than all three put together." In the same year, Friedrich M. Grimm expressed his views in a letter. He too appreciated the wit and gaiety in Candide but deplored what he considered the author's bad taste, referring to the "vulgarity, indecent talk, and filth without disguise to make them bearable." For him, Candide was no more than a plaisanterie. But for many others, like Mme. de Staël, it was the serious work of a scoffing philosopher.

The same division in critical estimates of the tale is to be found abroad. We have Boswell's word for it that Samuel Johnson, literary dictator of his age, never tired of expressing his admiration for Candide, which in its "plan and conduct" is so much like his own philosophical tale, Rasselas. But to the poet Edward Young, whom Voltaire had met in England, Candide was no more than "bold trash." So with the romanticist William Wordsworth, who referred to it as

     this dull product of a scoffer's pen,

     Impure conceits discharging from a heart

     Hardened by impious pride.

     (The Excursion, II, 484-486)

Carlyle's name may be added to those who either dismissed the tale as a kind of joke or deplored Voltaire's cynicism. Carlyle denied that the Frenchman had one great thought and described the work as "mere logical pleasantry."

The pendulum has, however, swung far in Voltaire's favor as the years have advanced. William Hazlitt, refuting Wordsworth, flatly declared that "Candide is a masterpiece of wit"; Henry Brougham (in Lives of Men of Letters, 1856) praised it as "most extraordinary"; John Morley, perhaps best known among the many biographers of Voltaire, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, admired its "fresh and unflagging spontaneity." G. Lytton-Strachey and Aldous Huxley are among the many who have hailed Candide as a masterpiece. Ira O. Wade has provided the correct explanation of why there should have been such widely divergent views of the tale: "Candide is . . . in its inner substance not wholly optimistic, or pessimistic, or skeptical or cynical; it is all these things at the same time" (Voltaire and Candide, 1959, 319). Whether viewed favorably or unfavorably, Candide remains a classic. Theirot wrote that it would live a hundred years; it has already survived for well over two hundred and will continue to live as long as there is an intelligent reading public.