The French poet dramatist, historian, and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) was an outspoken and aggressive enemy of every injustice but especially of religious intolerance. His works are an outstanding embodiment of the principles of the French Enlightenment.
François Marie Arouet rechristened himself Arouet de Voltaire, probably in 1718. A stay in the Bastille had given him time to reflect on his doubts concerning his parentage, on his need for a noble name to befit his growing reputation, and on the coincidence that Arouet sounded like both a rouer (for beating) and roué (a debauchee). In prison Voltaire had access to a book on anagrams, which may have influenced his name choice thus: arouet, uotare, voltaire (a winged armchair).
Youth and Early Success, 1694-1728
Voltaire was born, perhaps on Nov. 21, 1694, in Paris. He was ostensibly the youngest of the three surviving children of François Arouet and Marie Marguerite Daumand, although Voltaire claimed to be the "bastard of Rochebrune," a minor poet and songwriter. Voltaire's mother died when he was seven years old, and he was then drawn to his sister. She bore a daughter who later became Voltaire's mistress.
A clever child, Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Colle‧ge Louis-le-Grand from 1704 to 1711. He displayed an astonishing talent for poetry, cultivated a love of the theater, and nourished a keen ambition.
When Voltaire was drawn into the circle of the 72-year-old poet the Abbé de Chaulieu, "one of the most complete hedonists of all times," his father packed him off to Caen. Hoping to squelch his son's literary aspirations and to turn his mind to the law, Arouet placed the youth as secretary to the French ambassador at The Hague. Voltaire fell in with a jilted French refugee, Catherine Olympe Dunoyer, pretty but barely literate. Their elopement was thwarted. Under the threat of a lettre de cachet obtained by his father, Voltaire returned to Paris in 1713 and was articled to a lawyer. He continued to write, and he renewed his pleasure-loving acquaintances. In 1717 Voltaire was at first exiled and then imprisoned in the Bastille for verses offensive to powerful personages.
As early as 1711, Voltaire, eager to test himself against Sophocles and Pierre Corneille, had written a first draft of Oedipe . On Nov. 18, 1718, the revised play opened in Paris to a sensational success. The Henriade, begun in the Bastille and published in 1722, was Voltaire's attempt to rival Virgil and to give France an epic poem. This work sounded in ringing phrases Voltaire's condemnation of fanaticism and advanced his reputation as the standard-bearer of French literature. However, his growing literary, financial, and social successes only partially reconciled him to his father, who died in 1722.
In 1726 an altercation with the Chevalier de Rohan, an effete but influential aristocrat, darkened Voltaire's outlook and intensified his sense of injustice. Rohan had mocked Voltaire's bourgeois origin and his change of name and in response to Voltaire's witty retort had hired ruffians to beat the poet, as Voltaire's friend and host, the Duc de Sully, looked on approvingly. When Voltaire demanded satisfaction through a duel, he was thrown into the Bastille through Rohan's influence and was released only on condition that he leave the country.
England willingly embraced Voltaire as a victim of France's injustice and infamy. During his stay there (1726-1728) he was feted; Alexander Pope, William Congreve, Horace Walpole, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, praised him; and his works earned Voltaire £1,000. Voltaire learned English by attending the theater daily, script in hand. He also imbibed English thought, especially that of John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, and he saw the relationship between free government and creative speculation. More importantly, England suggested the relationship of wealth to freedom. The only protection, even for a brilliant poet, was wealth. Henceforth, Voltaire cultivated his Arouet business cunning.
At Cirey and at Court, 1729-1753
Voltaire returned to France in 1729. A tangible product of his English stay was the Lettres anglaises (1734), which have been called "the first bomb dropped on the Old Regime." Their explosive potential included such remarks as, "It has taken centuries to do justice to humanity, to feel it was horrible that the many should sow and the few should reap." Written in the style of letters to a friend in France, the 24 "letters" were a witty and seductive call for political, religious, and philosophic freedom; for the betterment of earthly life; for employing the method of Sir Francis Bacon, Locke, and Newton; and generally for exploiting the intellect toward social progress. After their publication in France in 1734, copies were sized from Voltaire's bookseller, and Voltaire was threatened with arrest. He fled to Lorraine and was not permitted to return to Paris until 1735. The work, with an additional letter on Pascal, was circulated as Letters philosophiques.
Prior to 1753 Voltaire did not have a home; but for 15 years following 1733 he had a refuge at Cirey, in a château owned by his "divine Émilie," Madame du Châtelet. While still living with her patient husband and son, Émilie made generous room for Voltaire. They were lovers; and they worked together intensely on physics and metaphysics. The lovers quarreled in English about trivia and studied the Old and New Testaments. These biblical labors were important as preparation for the antireligious works that Voltaire published in the 1750s and 1760s. At Cirey, Voltaire also wrote his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton.
But joining Émilie in studies in physics did not keep him from drama, poetry, metaphysics, history, and polemics. Similarly, Émilie's affection was not alone enough for Voltaire. From 1739 he required travel and new excitements. Thanks to Émilie's influence, Voltaire was by 1743 less unwelcome at Versailles than in 1733, but still there was great resentment toward the "lowborn intruder" who "noticed things a good courtier must overlook." Honored by a respectful correspondence with Frederick II of Prussia, Voltaire was then sent on diplomatic missions to Frederick. But Voltaire's new diversion was his incipient affair with his widowed niece, Madame Denis. This affair continued its erotic and stormy course to the last years of his life. Émilie too found solace in other lovers. The idyll of Cirey ended with her death in 1749.
Voltaire then accepted Frederick's repeated invitation to live at court. He arrived at Potsdam with Madame Denis in July 1750. First flattered by Frederick's hospitality, Voltaire then gradually became anxious, quarrelsome, and finally disenchanted. He left, angry, in March 1753, having written in December 1752: "I am going to write for my instruction a little dictionary used by Kings. 'My friend' means 'my slave."' Frederick was embarrassed by Voltaire's vocal lawsuit with a moneylender and angered by his attempts to ridicule P. L. M. de Maupertuis, the imported head of the Berlin Academy. Voltaire's polemic against Maupertuis, the Diatribe du docteur Akakia, angered Frederick. Voltaire's angry response was to return the pension and other honorary trinkets bestowed by the King. Frederick retaliated by delaying permission for Voltaire's return to France, by putting him under a week's house arrest at the German border, and by confiscating his money.
Sage of Ferney, 1753-1778
After leaving Prussia, Voltaire visited Strasbourg, Colmar, and Lorraine, for Paris was again forbidden him. Then he went to Geneva. Even Geneva, however, could not tolerate all of Voltaire's activities of theater, pen, and press. Therefore, he left his property "Les Delices" and bought an estate at Ferney, where he lived out his days as a kingly patriarch. His own and Madame Denis's great extravagances were supported by the tremendous and growing fortune he amassed through shrewd money handling. A borrower even as a schoolboy, Voltaire became a shrewd lender as he grew older. Generous loans to persons in high places paid off well in favors and influence. At Ferney, he mixed in local politics, cultivated his lands, became through his intelligent benevolence beloved of the townspeople, and in general practiced a self-appointed and satisfying kingship. He became known as the "innkeeper of Europe" and entertained widely and well in his rather small but elegant household.
Voltaire's literary productivity did not slacken, although his concerns shifted as the years passed at Ferney. He was best known as a poet until in 1751 Le Sie‧cle de Louis XIV marked him also as a historian. Other historical works include Histoire de Charles XII; Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand; and the universal history, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, published in 1756 but begun at Cirey. An extremely popular dramatist until 1760, when he began to be eclipsed by competition from the plays of Shakespeare that he had introduced to France, Voltaire wrote—in addition to the early Oedipe—La Mort de César, Ériphyle, Zaïre, Alzire, Mérope, Mahomet, L'Enfant prodigue, Nanine (a parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela), L'Orphelin de la Chine, Sémiramis, and Tancre‧de.
The philosophic conte was a Voltaire invention. In addition to his famous Candide (1759), others of his stories in this genre include Micromégas, Vision de Babouc, Memnon, Zadig, and Jeannot et Colin . In addition to the Lettres Philosophiques and the work on Newton, others of Voltaire's works considered philosophic are Philosophie de l'histoire, Le Philosophe ignorant, Tout en Dieu, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and Traitédela métaphysique. Voltaire's poetry includes—in addition to the Henriade—the philosophic poems L'Homme, La Loi naturelle, and Le Désastre de Lisbonne, as well as the famous La Pucelle, a delightfully naughty poem about Joan of Arc.
Always the champion of liberty, Voltaire in his later years became actively involved in securing justice for victims of persecution. He became the "conscience of Europe." His activity in the Calas affair was typical. An unsuccessful and despondent young man had hanged himself in his Protestant father's home in Roman Catholic Toulouse. For 200 years Toulouse had celebrated the massacre of 4,000 of its Huguenot inhabitants. When the rumor spread that the deceased had been about to renounce Protestantism, the family was seized and tried for murder. The father was broken on the rack while protesting his innocence. A son was exiled, the daughters were confined in a convent, and the mother was left destitute. Investigation assured Voltaire of their innocence, and from 1762 to 1765 he worked unceasingly in their behalf. He employed "his friends, his purse, his pen, his credit" to move public opinion to the support of the Calas family.
Voltaire's ingenuity and zeal against injustice were not exhausted by the Calas affair. Similar was his activity in behalf of the Sirven family (1771) and of the victims of the Abbeville judges (1774). Nor was Voltaire's influence exhausted by his death in Paris on May 30, 1778, where he had gone in search of Madame Denis and the glory of being crowned with laurel at a performance of his drama Ire‧ne.
Assessment of Voltaire
John Morley, English secretary for lreland under William Gladstone, wrote of Voltaire's stature: "When the right sense of historical proportion is more fully developed in men's minds, the name of Voltaire will stand out like the names of the great decisive moments in the European advance, like the Revival of Learning, or the Reformation." Gustave Lanson, in 1906, wrote of Voltaire: "He accustomed public common sense to regard itself as competent in all matters, and he turned public opinion into one of the controlling forces in public affairs." Lanson added: "For the public to become conscious of an idea, the idea must be repeated over and over. But the sauce must be varied to please the public palate. Voltaire was a master chef, a superb saucier."
Voltaire was more than a thinker and activist. Style was nearly always nearly all to him-in his abode, in his dress, and particularly in his writings. As poet and man of letters, he was demanding, innovative, and fastidious within regulated patterns of expression. Even as thinker and activist, he believed that form was all-or at least the best part. As he remarked, "Never will twenty folio volumes bring about a revolution. Little books are the ones to fear, the pocket-size, portable ones that sell for thirty sous. If the Gospels had cost 1200 sesterces, the Christian religion could never have been established."
Voltaire's literary focus moved from that of poet to pamphleteer, and his moral sense had as striking a development. In youth a shameless libertine and in middle years a man notorious throughout the literary world, with more discreet but still eccentric attachments-in his later years Voltaire was renowned, whatever his personal habits, as a public defender and as a champion of human liberty. "Time, which alone makes their reputations of men," he observed," in the end makes their faults respectable." In his last days in Paris, he is said to have taken especially to heart a woman's remark: "Do you not know that he is the preserver of the Calas?"
Voltaire's life nearly spanned the 18th century; his writings fill 70 volumes; and his influence is not yet exhausted. He once wrote: "They wanted to bury me. But I outwitted them."
The best introduction in English to Voltaire's life is Gustave Lanson, Voltaire (1906; trans. 1966). John Morley's Voltaire (1903) also remains a readable and stimulating appreciation. A detailed and scholarly biography, by one of the world's leading authorities on Voltaire, is Theodore Besterman, Voltaire (1969). Ira O. Wade, The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (1969), in attempting to synthesize the many facets of Voltaire's mind for a unified view of his life, is often more encyclopedic than stimulating, but it provides a full and judicious treatment. Other useful studies include George Brandes. Voltaire (trans., 2 vols., 1930), and Henry Noel Brailsford, Voltaire (1935).
Interesting works that deal with various aspects of Voltaire's life include Ira O. Wade, Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet (1941); Edna Nixon, Voltaire and the Calas Case (1961); John N. Pappas, Voltaire and D'Alembert (1962); and H. T. Mason, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire (1963). Other specialized works worth consulting are Constance Rowe, Voltaire and the State (1955); J. H. Brumfitt, Voltaire: Historian (1958); Peter J. Gay, Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (1959); Virgil W. Topazio, Voltaire: A Critical Study of His Major Works (1967); and, for an excellent anthology of various critical opinions, William F. Bottiglia, ed., Voltaire: A Collection of Critical Essays (1968). □
"Voltaire." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire
"Voltaire." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire
François Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known since his youthful literary beginnings solely by his pen name, Voltaire, was the most conspicuous figure of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and remains a culture hero for the spiritual heirs of that movement all over the world. His writings cover an enormous range, from light verse, epic and dramatic poetry, and prose fiction to history and many-sided pamphleteering. His correspondence alone, recently edited in 107 volumes by Theodore Besterman, provides material for a synopsis of the ideas, attitudes, and tactics of the philosophes of the Enlightenment (see Correspondence).
Voltaire was briefly imprisoned in the Bastille on two occasions—in 1717 and in 1726—and his whole life was a series of verbal battles with what nowadays would be called the Establishment and, most vehemently, with the Roman Catholic church. But he was not quite the always-endangered rebel he has sometimes been made out to be, for the French government of the eighteenth century was an inefficient and self-distrustful one, its leaders themselves often inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Voltaire had friends in high places quite as powerful as his enemies. He came from a Parisian legal family and never knew economic want, or indeed serious economic difficulties, for his business talents were as great as his literary ones. In 1778, the year of his death, he made a triumphal progress from his estate at Ferney, near Geneva, to Paris, where he was given the kind of reception we associate with modern mass societies. This “apotheosis” is seen by many historians, not implausibly, as one of the major signs of the coming French Revolution.
Voltaire’s direct influence on the social sciences is greatest in the field of historical writing. He did indeed toss off a number of witty and often quoted remarks that were hardly befitting a serious historian. But when he said that “history is but a chronicle of crimes and misfortunes” he was casually expressing the view of a moralist outraged by naive optimism, and when he called history a fable convenue (a remark adapted from Fontenelle) he was referring specifically to histoires anciennes and implying that modern historians can do better. Both remarks are reflections of the fact that his “hundred volumes” (the duodecimo form of the eighteenth-century Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works is in 92 volumes) were not the work of a systematic social scientist but of a brilliant, excitable, and inconsistent reformer and a close observer of human behavior.
Voltaire’s major historical works—Le siècle de Louis XIV (see 1751) and Essai sur les moeurs (1756)—are still read, not only for their literary virtues but also for their contributions to cultural history. Voltaire had strong, unconcealed, and unsupported convictions of the kind historians are now not supposed to have—or if they do have them, must attempt to conceal or suppress. He hated organized Christianity for its basic belief in the supernatural and for what he held to be its support of social injustice. He therefore endorsed and intensified the eighteenth-century view that the Middle Ages were a period of barbarous misery. He disliked the Jews, not because of racial prejudice but because they seemed to him responsible for Christianity. He had an implicit belief—"theory” is too strong a word—in historical cycles and thought there had been four peaks of high cultural achievement: Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, and the France—indeed the Europe—of Louis xiv. He had, however, no real explanation for cyclical change and certainly no theory of systematic progress. His great ages are marked by the classic virtues of good taste and good manners and, above all, by the rule of reason; but he had no explanation of why the great ages gave way to disorder, barbarity, and the rule of superstition and fanaticism.
Yet judged even by today’s professional standards, Voltaire’s virtues as a historian far outweigh his weaknesses. His use of sources and his critical apparatus could not satisfy the first generation of “scientific” historians in the late nineteenth century, but their successors have been kinder to him. For he did apply to his sources the common-sense, skeptical rationalism that helped to make him the representative of the Enlightenment that he was; even more important, although he by no means neglected war, diplomacy, and politics, he also paid close attention to what we now call economic, social, intellectual, and cultural history—the record, insofar as he could reconstitute it, of the lives of ordinary men and women; and, finally, he had a real sense for comparative history, although in some cases—for example, when he dealt with Far Eastern subjects—a somewhat uncritical one.
Voltaire must also figure in the history of economic thought, if only because his poem Le mondain (written in 1736; see Morize 1908) and his prose expansions of its thesis were, after Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714), the most widely read of the whole series of eighteenth-century apologies for “luxury.” Its paradox, le superflu, chose tres ne-cessaire, is Voltairean indeed. Moreover, many of his tales and his pamphlets touch on such matters as free trade, currency, and the like, always a bit unprofessionally and journalistically but with a firm, pragmatic common sense and a determination to reject “evidence” based on the transcendental, the ineffable, and the marvelous, above all when such evidence was supported by convention. In sum, Voltaire’s work is a major part of the great eighteenth-century matrix—part propaganda, part moralizing, part science, and, save for economics and jurisprudence, still relatively undifferentiated—out of which have emerged our present specialized social sciences. Voltaire’s own central attitude is nicely summarized in what today is certainly his most widely read work, Candide (1759)—II faut cultiver notre jardin, or, man must and can make himself and his society.
The whole of Voltaire’s writings, save for some light verse and prose badinage, was devoted to the cause of the Enlightenment. This is true even of his tragedies, which are full of lines like:
Nos prêtres ne sont pas ce qu’un vain peuple pense; Notre crédulité fait toute leur science.
(Oedipe, Act iv, scene i)
He was a tireless defender of civil liberties, especially in cases involving religious prejudices; in the Calas case, the De la Barre case, and many others he brought all his talents to bear in defense of victims of the church, which he called I’infâme.
Voltaire’s methods as a propagandist make a still useful case study of the spread of the Enlightenment. He poured out anonymous or pseudonymous pamphlets, essays, and tales, often with a false place of publication, such as Amsterdam. (Generations of scholars have labored on these, so that today it is fairly well known just what he did and what he did not write.) His vast correspondence, some of which is written in adequate, often picturesque English, contributed almost as much as his other writings to the diffusion of the Enlightenment. Networks of correspondents played a role in the early development of the social sciences comparable to their role in the somewhat earlier development of the natural sciences. In the end, the acclaim accorded him along the road from Ferney (now officially Ferney-Voltaire) to Paris in 1778 shows that his reputation, his legend, and, no doubt in a vulgarized version, his ideas, had penetrated, at least in France, far beyond the intelligentsia or even the bourgeoisie, deep into the hearts and minds of the many.
The legend of Voltaire (or rather legends, for he is villain in some, hero in others) is not the least important aspect of his existence for the social scientist. The range of judgments about him, well displayed in Peter Gay’s Prologue to his Voltaire’s Politics (1959, pp. 3-32) is remarkable. To the Christian apologist, like Joseph de Maistre, or to the conventional romanticist, like Wordsworth, who dared to call Candide“that dull product of a scoffer’s pen,” Voltaire is, of course, anathema. To the freethinker, the anticlerical of any sect, he is just as naturally a hero and a leader. But several generations of scholars and critics, professionally trained in objectivity, have made quite as varied and contradictory judgments of what Voltaire really meant. It is true that the taxonomist of ideas has an especially difficult task with the brilliant, witty, and verbally facile rebel, such as Voltaire—or Nietzsche, or Bernard Shaw—whose rebellion is to an important degree directed against all systems become conventions. The “real” Voltaire can hardly be given a Linnaean label.
For the historian of ideas, the most interesting aspect of Voltaire’s thought is the place he attributed to reason in human nature. Had Voltaire read German (which in his day few Frenchmen did), he would probably have concluded that the distinction in that language between Vernunft and Verstand is nonsense. What Voltaire meant by la raison, a word he constantly used, was what it meant to ordinary, reasonably bright Frenchmen: practical, empirical thinking of the kind done by the bookkeeper and, duly refined, by the scientist. But he by no means held, as some lesser philosophes, such as Helvetius, seem to have done, that given the right education and the right social environment, all men can use the gift of reason perfectly; nor did he hold that even the full gift of reason can unlock for those who have it all the mysteries, or solve all the problems, with which the universe confronts men. He summed up his position nicely in a letter written to Le Cati in 1741: ’That which our eyes and mathematics demonstrate to us, we must hold to be true. In all the rest we must say only: I do not know” (see Gay 1959, p. 26).
Voltaire’s political ideas were consonant with his appraisal of ordinary human capacities. He was not a defender of “enlightened despotism” on the other hand, he was not a very good democrat, if such a democrat must really believe that the many can be trusted to make policy, to guide the state by referenda. In the balance, he leaned toward an almost Fabian hope or trust that an intelligent minority will act as guide—but never as tyrant— and would leave ordinary men reasonably free to behave reasonably well.
Voltaire, then, was in a sense a skeptic, at least in not accepting conventional Christianity or indeed any formal theology or metaphysics; but he was also in a sense a believer, and from his work, along with that of many others, has been built up a world view, a faith that has no church but many followers. All these followers have in common a rejection of traditional sacramental Christianity and its immanent God; many of them are also optimistic, rationalistic, egalitarian, and democratic in a way that Voltaire, whom they almost always revere, was not. Yet one suspects that even today he would not altogether repudiate his children.
Although in his style, and in much of his substance, Voltaire conforms to the stereotype of the French national character current among French and foreigners alike, he has never quite been accepted in France as that essential figure in modern nationalism, the one great writer who is both supremely national and supremely universal. France has no Shakespeare, no Dante, no Cervantes, no Goethe. For so many of his countrymen Voltaire’s écrasez I’infdme is still so partisan and so bitter a memory as to deprive him of such a place in the hearts of all his countrymen.
(1733) 1961 Philosophical Letters. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill. → First published as Letters Concerning the English Nation. The French edition was published in 1734.
(1751) 1962 The Age of Louis XIV. New York: Dutton. → First published as Le siecle de Louis XIV.
(1756) 1963 Essai sur les moeurs et I’esprit des nations et sur les principaux faits de I’histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu’a Louis XIII. 2 vols. Paris: Gamier.
(1759) 1966 Candide: Or, Optimism. Translated and edited by Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton. → First published as Candide: Ou Voptimisme.
Correspondence. Edited by Theodore Besterman. 107 vols. Geneva: Institut et Musee Voltaire, 1953-1965. → Includes letters dated 1704-1778 in 98 volumes, and 9 volumes of appendixes, bibliographies, and indexes.
Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. 92 vols. in duodecimo. Kehl (Germany): Imprimerie de la Societe Litteraire-typo-graphique, 1785-1789. → Edited by Beaumarchais, Condorcet, and Decroix. The Societe also published a 70-volume edition in octavo.
Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. 52 vols. Edited by Louis Moland. Paris: Gamier, 1877-1885. → Includes the 2-volume Table ginerale et analytique, by Charles Pierrot.
The Portable Voltaire. Edited with an introduction by Ben Ray Redman. New York: Viking, 1949.
The Romances of Voltaire. New York: Dial, 1928. → Contains Candide, Zadig, Princess of Babylon, The Child of Nature, Micromegas, Cosi-sancta, Memnon, and The One-eyed Porter. First published in French.
Bengescu, George 1882-1890 Voltaire: Bibliographic de ses oeuvres. 4 vols. Paris: Perrin. → An index to the Bibliographic was published in 1953 by the Institut et Musee Voltaire in Geneva.
Brumfitt, J. H. 1958 Voltaire: Historian. Oxford Univ. Press.
Gay, Peter 1959 Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as a Realist. Princeton Univ. Press. → See especially the Prologue and the “Bibliographical Essay,” pages 355-395.
Lanson, Gustave (1906) 1966 Voltaire. Translated by Robert A. Wagoner, with an introduction by Peter Gay. New York: Wiley. → First published in French.
Mandeville, Bernard (1714) 1957 The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Putnam.
Morize, Andre (1908) 1909 L’apologie du luxe au XVIII” siecle, et Le mondain de Voltaire: Etude critique sur Le mondain et ses sources. Paris: Didier.
Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century.→ Published by the Institut et Musee Voltaire in Geneva since 1955. The 44 volumes issued to date (1966) were edited by Theodore Besterman.
"Voltaire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/voltaire-0
"Voltaire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/voltaire-0
Voltaire, François Marie Arouet De
VOLTAIRE, FRANçOIS MARIE AROUET DE
(b. Paris, France, 21 November 1694; d. Paris, 30 May 1778), literature.
Voltaire’s importance for the history of science lies particularly in his having composed a famous popularization of Newton. Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738), while also collaborating with his companion and mistress, Émilie, marquise du Châtelet, on her translation of the Principia into French, and more generally in his having referred, with the lightness of touch that made him a serious critic of the human condition, his moral philosophy to what he took to be the Newtonian, and hence the correct, account of physical reality.
Born François Arouet, his father having been a lawyer of the middling bourgeoisie and a notary, he took the pen name Voltaire when setting up as a young poet and playwright prior to 1725, one who soon had a certain success in the world of letters and fashion with his Oedipe and Henriade. The footing there proved slippery when Voltaire exchanged man-about-town insults in January 1726 with a young nobleman whom he had unrealistically thought to be a friend, the chevalier de Rohan. Instead of being accorded the satisfaction of a duel, Voltaire was beaten in the street by lackeys and was then incarcerated as a nuisance in the Bastille. He was released on condition that he exile himself until the embarrassment that his temerity had caused a great and noble family should be forgotten.
It was thus in the wake of shocking injustice and humiliation that Voltaire was in London between 1726 and 1729. He was present for Newton’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1727. The first mention of scientific matters in his published work occurs in the Lettres philosophiques, or Letters sur les Anglais, which he drafted during his English period, although it did not appear until 1734. Among the many merits of life in England that it celebrates, to the disadvantage by comparison of life in France, was the dignity that Voltaire there found accorded in society to men of science and letters. A wellknown passage contrasts the physical picture of Paris, where the world is full of Cartesian vortices, to that of London, where it is empty of all but Newtonian attraction. Voltaire discussed Bacon, Locke, Newton, and inoculation against smallpox approvingly in letters 11 through 17, after praising religious pluralism, commercial enterprise, and representative government, and before turning to the theater and literature.
Voltaire had thus already adopted Newtonianism in principle, and had read in and about science, before his association with Mme du Châtelet, which began in 1733. Both were also friendly with Maupertuis, who had verified what he said about Newton in the Lettres philosophiques, and with Clairaut. Fearful of arrest agian, Voltaire took up residence at Mme du Châtelet’s château at Cirey near the border of Champagne and Lorraine in 1734. They lived there until her death in 1749, and it was there that he undertook intensive study and correspondence with experts preparatory to writing the Éléments, in which (he wrote to a friend) he proposed “to reduce this gaint to the measure of the dwarfs who are my contemporaries.” A frequent visitor to Cirey was Francesco Algarotti, the success of whose 11 Newtonianismo per le dame (1737) is often said to have inspired Voltaire to write a more serious work.
Voltaire’s title is accurate, whether designedly or no, in that the book is about the philosophy that he read out of (or into) Newton and is not a technical guide to the science, whether mathematics, mechanics, or optics. Part I handles the metaphysical and theological issues of the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, part II the theory of light and colors, and part III gravity and cosmology. Even in the optical part, only four out of fourteen chapters discuss Newton’s actual work. The rest of it consists of an overview of seventeenth-century optics in general, so presented as to make it appear that color perception supports the associationist psychology. It is not perfectly clear from the chapters on the Opticks itself that Voltaire had grasped the distinction in Newton’s mind between the phenomena of refraction, which established the composite character of white light, and the production of colors in thin transparent media, which exhibited the interaction of light and matter and which were later called interference effects. In any case, it was the latter aspect that Voltaire emphasized, probably for the reason that it could more easily be discussed in connection with his favorite among Newton’s principles, the principle of attraction.
The transition that Voltaire made from color to gravity would lead the reader to suppose that Newton had extended this cardinal principle from optics to cosmology and had thus come to explain the system of the world. Discussing the Principia, Voltaire did give a qualitative sketch of that last topic, which occupies its third book. Newton had himself advised readers that, in addition to Book III , the minimum requisites for comprehending the Principia consisted in a command of the definitions and laws of motion and the first three sections of Book I (motion in conic sections under the influence of central forces). Of that Voltaire gave his readers only a verbal summary of proposition 1. There is no discussion of physical quantities and no statement of the laws of motion. In general, the technical level is indicated by a remark apropos of the Opticks which informs the reader that there is a constant proportion between the sines of the angles of incidence and refraction but dispenses him from an explanation of what a sine is, since that would surpass the mathematical demands to be placed on him.
Evidently Voltaire’s book may be taken as an index to what a clever writer thought could be expected scientifically of the literate public. It cannot be supposed to have told technically proficient readers anything substantive about Newton’s work. The point needs emphasis since something more positive is often attributed to Voltaire’s transmission of Newtonian physics in works of general history, which usually credit him with having converted French opinion—whatever that may mean—from Cartesianism to Newtonianism, and also since Voltaire himself does seem to have entertained briefly the desire to make some small contribution to science. He and Mme du Châtelet installed a laboratory a Cirey and made experiments. In 1736 the Académie des Sciences set the problem of the nature of fire for the prize it proposed to award in 1738. Both partners entered memoirs in the competition, which was won by Euler. Voltaire also wrote a piece defending the Newtonian measure of force in the vis viva controversy (on which issue he disagreed with Mme du Châtelet), composed several essays of natural history, and published clarifications and corrections of the cosmological discussion in the Éléments; Errors had found their way into the first edition, he explained, because the Dutch printer had made changes in the text without his knowledge.
None of that made any significant difference, however, either to science or probably to Voltaire, who did not persist in these researches. What really mattered to him about science was the vantage point he thought it offered to intelligence in the battle that did count, that of fact against dogma and illusion, which he waged throughout his life. Scholarship has established that it was almost certainly in 1739 that he composed Micromégas (not published until 1752 in London). It was his first fully successful venture in the genre of the contephilosophique, the form that he brought to its highest state of perfection. The observations of the extraplanetary visitor from Sirius light-heartedly reduce man to his true proportions in the scheme of things. Voltaire wrote it when his head was full of the information he had assembled for the Éléments. As for his masterpiece, Candide, there is nothing of science in that famous tale. But we need to appreciate the reason for Voltaire’s admiration of Newton in order to take the full thrust of his scorn for Leibniz in the caricature of Dr. Pangloss. For Pangloss is the personification of mealy-mouthed dogma, denaturing every fact and justifying every illusion, however absurd, in the name of principles— “All is for the best in the best of possible words” —that will leave untroubled the beneficiaries of the systematic deceptions that rule in society.
Throughout part I of the Éléments, Leibniz is the obstacle to enlightenment in metaphysics, as Descartes had been in physics, and for similar reasons; both had presumed to project their doctrines upon God or nature in the guise of necessities. Not so Newton, who had generalized his laws from phenomena, confirmed them by experience, and restricted them within the scope of mathematical formulation. Nothing pleased Volatire more than repeating how Newton had made no pretense of stating the cause of attraction and had confined himself to demonstrating its quantity. The modern reader who expects to encounter eighteenth-century skepticism in Voltaire may be surprised to find that the Éléments opens with the argument that Newton gave in the General Scholium of the Principia for the existence and dominion of God. In further chapters Voltaire developed Newton’s view that space and time are attributes of God, who, all unconstrained by Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason, had been perfectly free to constitute things as he saw fit. Thus the Newtonian philosophy, in consequence of which it followed that God had accorded a portion of his infinite liberty to man in the form of free will. Now then, all this about God may very well have been tongue-in-cheek on Voltaire’s part, but not the part about liberty. For what he really cared about was improving the possibility that an informed man may have to make reasoned choices in a world of events that are largely indifferent to his wishes. The enemy of such a liberty was dogma and never fact. “Droit au fait” was a favorite among his sayings, fortified by what he understood of science; and as for dogma, reinforced by prejudice and tradition a nd armed by authority, that was the infamy to scotched in the injunction “Écrasez l’infâme!” yet more regularly repeated in his later, more political, more moral, and (in the highest sense) more journalistic years.
I. Original Works. Éléments de la philosophie de Newton mis à la portée de tout le monde (Amsterdam, 1738) was published in a revision in 1741 and in a 2nd ed. in 1745. The latter is the version included in vol. XXXI of the Kehl ed. of his works (1784–1789) and in most later collections. Other writings on “Physique” include (1) the letters and a “Défense” of Newtonianism (1739): (2) the “Essai sur la nature du feu et sur sa propagation” and “Doutes sur la mesure des forces mortices et sur leur nature” (1741); (3) and abstract of Mme du Châtelet’s memoir on fire, “Mémoire sur un ouvrage de physique de Madame la Marquise du Châtelet” (1739), and a lengthy commentary on her book about Leibniz, “Exposition du livre des Institutions Physiques” (1740): and (4) writings on natural history: “Relation touchant un Maure blanc amené d’Afrique à Paris en 1744,” “Dissertation …sur les changements arrivés dans notre globe, et sur les pétrifactions qu’on prétend en être les témoignages” (it was in this essay, sent to the Academy in Bologna in 1746, that Voltaire advanced the opinion that it was more probable that fossils found in the Alps had been dropped by travelers than that revolutionary changes have occurred in the order of nature), “Des singularités de la nature” (1768), and “Les colimaçons du Révérend Père l’Escarbotier …” (1768). Voltaire reprinted much of ch. 9, pt. III , of the Éléments in the article “Figure de la terre,” in his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770), taking the occasion to make several corrections. Three further fragments appear in the Mélanges littéraires of the Kehl ed., “A.M.***” (1739) and “Courte réponse aux longs discours d’un docteur allemand” (1740), both about Newtonianism, and finally, “Lettre sur la prétendue cométe” (1773), the appearance of which was vulgarly supposed to herald the end of the world. The 1827 ed. of Oeuvres complétes includes these fugitive pieces in its second Physique volume (XLII). Theodore Besterman has edited Voltaire’s Correspondence, 107 vols., Institut et Musée Voltaire (Geneva, 1953–1965). A convenient modern ed. of the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence is that by H.G. Alexander (Manchester, 1956).
II. Secondary Literature. The important work on Newtonianism in France, Pierre Brunet. L’introduction des théories de Newton en France au XVIIIe siécle avant 1738 (Paris, 1931), was never completed Ira O. Wade, The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (Princeton, 1969), draws on the author’s earlier, more specialized studies with scientific themes in Voltaire’s work. See, especially. Wade’s ed. of Micromégas (Princeton, 1950), where the 1739 date of composition is convincingly argued. There is a valuable discussion of Candide in Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 1 (New York, 1966), 197–203. Robert Walters, “Voltaire and the Newtonian Universe,” an unpublished dissertation (1954) in the Princeton Univ. library, is a study of the Éléments. See also Martin S. Staum, “New ton and Voltaire: Constructive Skeptics,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 62 (1968), 29–56; and two articles by Henry Guerlac, “Three 18th-Century Social Philosophers: Scientific Influences on Their Thought,” in Daedalus, 88 (1958), 12–18; and “Where the Statue Stood: Divergent Loyalties to Newton in the 18th Century,” in Earl Wasserman, ed., Aspects of the 18th Century (Baltimore, 1965), 317–334. The interpretation of the present article is developed more fully in an essay by the undersigned, “Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe,” in David Daiches and A. K. Thorlby. eds., Literature of the Western World, IV (London, 1975), 167–194.
Charles C. Gillispie
"Voltaire, François Marie Arouet De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-de
"Voltaire, François Marie Arouet De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-de
François Marie Arouet was born in Paris in fall 1694 and died there in spring 1778. “Voltaire,” the name by which he is most widely known today, was a pen name that François invented for himself, most likely in 1718. It is believed to be an anagram of the Latinized form—“Arovet le leune”— of his name “Arouet le jeune” (“Arouet the younger,” because Voltaire’s father, a notary, was also named François). Voltaire is the best known of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, and there is an industry of modern scholarship on his life and thought, including hundreds of monographs, as well as the multiple-volume series Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century and the Complete Works of Voltaire, both published in Oxford by the Voltaire Foundation. A champion of religious tolerance and human reason, a “philosophical historian” and popularizer of social history, Voltaire was clearly one of the Age of Enlightenment’s most influential contributors to what would become known as the social sciences.
Like many eighteenth-century men of letters, Voltaire wrote in several genres, in both prose and verse. When measured against the literary output of his enlightened contemporaries, Voltaire’s staggering productivity—amounting to some 15 million words—stands out. Historians typically divide his life into five periods, or phases, based on his literary projects and his place of residence.
The first period of Voltaire’s life is defined by his youth, his education at the hands of the Jesuits of the College of Louis-le-Grand, and the publication of his early poems and plays, including his first important publication, the tragic play Œdipe (1715). It was also a period that saw the young Voltaire imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months for writing libelous verse insulting to the king. In his youth, and throughout his long life, Voltaire was plagued by poor health, and he complained so frequently to his correspondents that modern scholars have identified hypochondria as one of his conditions.
The second stage of Voltaire’s life was determined by his fleeing to England in spring 1726. His “exile” was occasioned by his having traded insults with the chevalier de Rohan. In England he mixed with Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), whose literary talents he admired and who introduced Voltaire to other writers, including Alexander Pope (1688–1744) and Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). Voltaire also read the works of the fathers of the English Enlightenment—Francis Bacon (1561–1626), John Locke (1632–1704), and Isaac Newton (1642–1727), whose burial at Westminster Abbey he attended. Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais [Letters concerning the English nation] (1733) came out of this period, and he would long admire the English for what he perceived as their religious toleration, their defense of liberty, and their support of men of letters, such as Newton. It was also while in exile in England that Voltaire began to give serious attention to historical writings. While in England he published Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (1727) and, more importantly, was probably working on the manuscripts that would become his Histoire de Charles XII [History of Charles XII] (1731) and Le Siècle de Louis XIV [The Century of Louis XIV] (1752), and also thinking about the history of the English constitution. Those activities continued after he returned to France in 1729.
The third period of Voltaire’s life was the time of his residence at Cireyen-Champagne, the château of the marquise du Châtelet (1706–1749), Voltaire’s learned and witty mistress. Living there from 1733, Voltaire wrote poetry and plays, biblical criticism, popularizations of science such as Eléments de la philosophie de Newton [Elements of Newton’s philosophy] (1738), and fiction, including Zadig (1747). These were also years in which he was working on Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations [Essay on the manners and spirit of nations] (1756), and frequently traveling throughout France, but also to Brussels. Voltaire’s career was on the rise. In 1745 he was appointed historiographe du roi (historian to the king), largely owing to the support of Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), and in 1746 he was elected to the French Academy.
With Madame du Châtelet’s death in 1749, Voltaire accepted an invitation to take up residence at the court of Frederick II (1712–1786), the Great of Prussia, with whom Voltaire had corresponded from the mid-1730s. Frederick once claimed of Voltaire, “this great man alone was worth an entire Academy” (quoted in Aldridge 1975, p. 411). This fourth phase of Voltaire’s life saw the publication of Voltaire’s Le Siècle de Louis XIV [The Century of Louis XIV], (1752), an account that praised the French king for his support of literature and art, and also work on his Dictionnaire philosophique [Philosophical Dictionary] (1764). Voltaire also was involved in shady business deals, arousing Frederick’s anger and helping to bring his stay in Prussia to an end only three years after it had begun. This was not the first of Voltaire’s financial schemes, nor would it be the last. As Ben Ray Redman puts it in his introduction to The Portable Voltaire, Voltaire’s “fingers began to itch whenever he thought there were sous to be made” (1949, p. 19).
The final stage of Voltaire’s literary career was spent in Geneva, where Voltaire moved in 1755, and at Ferney, an estate he purchased in France near the French-Swiss border, in 1758. During these years he wrote The Lisbon Earthquake (1755) and contributed to the greatest of the French Enlightenment publications, the Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783). Voltaire also published his Essai sur les moeurs (1756), worked on his History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (1759, 1763), and published Candide (1759), which is perhaps the best known of his works. It was during his years at Ferney that Voltaire penned his famous cry “écrasez l’infâme!” (“crush the infamy!”), the precise meaning of which historians continue to debate. It was also during this period that Voltaire became more vocal in his deism and more involved in several public events, including the Calas affair, in which he used his pen to defend the reputation of Jean Calas, a Huguenot who was tortured and executed in 1762. In 1764 Voltaire published Dictionnaire philosophique. His literary reputation was growing in the 1760s and 1770s, and the aging Voltaire was often visited by guests from around the world. In winter 1778, when Voltaire was eighty-four, his play Irène (1776) was celebrated in Paris. He died soon afterwards, the most famous man of letters of the Age of Enlightenment.
Voltaire’s social and political thought is found throughout his satires, pamphlets, and voluminous correspondence, but it is his historical writings that contain some of his most important contributions to the social sciences. As an historian, Voltaire was forward looking, and he saw himself to be presenting history in a new way. Writing with a critical spirit similar to those of Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), François Fénelon (1651–1715), Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757), and Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658–1722), Voltaire was less credulous than the humanist historians of the seventeenth century, and it is largely for that reason that he is considered by some to be the forerunner of modern historiography. He aimed to incorporate more sources and a greater variety of sources than did most of his contemporaries, even though some, such as Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), thought Voltaire did not go far enough in this regard. In his efforts to expand the subject matter of history in the direction of social and cultural history, Voltaire shared a common concern with other great Enlightenment historians, such as David Hume (1711–1776). In his “An Essay on Universal History” (1756), for example, Voltaire dispensed with Christian structure to tell the story of the rise and fall of civilizations, beginning with the ancient Chinese and also including America. In that grand narrative and in other historical works Voltaire showed little concern with military events and the rule of princes, but he found a primary role for economics. As J. H. Brumfitt summarizes in Voltaire: Historian, “more than his predecessors, and more than many of his contemporaries, who are often involved in abstract political theorizing, he succeeds in giving to economic developments a place in the narrative of history not too far removed from that which they occupy today”(1958, p. 70). Again in a notably modern way, Voltaire aimed to go beyond history as the recital of disparate and unconnected events. In the Siècle, for example, he attempted to integrate economics, politics, and the arts and sciences, and to present all of that in a unified whole. Part of Voltaire’s appeal as an historian, then and now, was his realist’s approach to change over time. As the historian Peter Gay put it in Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist, Voltaire was “a practical hard-headed political man” (1959, p. xi). Near the core of Voltaire’s historical thought, as with his philosophical writing, was an unrelenting attempt to appeal to reason at the expense of fable, myth, superstition, and religion. That tendency, more than anything else, explains why Voltaire was, as Theodore Besterman summed up in Voltaire, “the most famous, the best loved and the most fanatically hated man in Europe” (1969, p. 528).
SEE ALSO Civilization; Constitutions; Enlightenment; Hume, David; Locke, John; Realism
Voltaire.  1984. Philosophical Dictionary. Trans. and ed. Theodore Besterman. London: Penguin.
Voltaire. 1949. The Portable Voltaire, ed. Ben Ray Redman. New York: Penguin.
Voltaire. 1968–. Complete Works of Voltaire. Vol. 30 of a planned 85. Ed. Theodore Besterman et al. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.
Aldridge, A. Owen. 1975. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Besterman, Theodore. 1969. Voltaire. London and Harlow, U.K.: Longmans, Green.
Brumfitt, J. H. 1958. Voltaire: Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gay, Peter. 1959. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Schlereth, Thomas J. 1977. The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694–1790. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Wade, Ira O. 1969. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mark G. Spencer
"Voltaire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/voltaire
"Voltaire." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/voltaire
Voltaire, François Marie Arouet de
François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (fräNswä´ märē´ ärwā´ də vôltĕr´), 1694–1778, French philosopher and author, whose original name was Arouet. One of the towering geniuses in literary and intellectual history, Voltaire personifies the Enlightenment.
Voltaire's Life and Works
The son of a notary, he was born at Paris and was educated at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand. Because of insults to the regent, Philippe II d'Orléans, wrongly ascribed to him, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille (1717) for 11 months. There he rewrote his first tragedy, Œdipe (1718), and began an epic poem on Henry IV, the Henriade. It was at this time that he began to call himself Voltaire. Œdipe won him fame and a pension from the regent. Voltaire acquired an independent fortune through speculation; he was often noted for his generosity but also displayed a shrewd business acumen throughout his life and became a millionaire.
In 1726 a young nobleman, the chevalier de Rohan, resenting a witticism made at his expense by Voltaire, had Voltaire beaten. Far from obtaining justice, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille through the influence of the powerful Rohan family, and he was released only upon his promise to go to England. The episode left an indelible impression on Voltaire: for the rest of his life he exerted himself to his utmost in struggling against judicial arbitrariness. During his more than two years (1726–28) in England, Voltaire met, through his friend Lord Bolingbroke, the literary men of the period. He was impressed by the greater freedom of thought in England and deeply influenced by Newton and Locke. Voltaire's Letters concerning the English Nation (1733, in English), which appeared (1734) in French as Lettres philosophiques, may be said to have initiated the vogue of English philosophy and science that characterized the literature of the Enlightenment. The book was formally banned in France.
Work in England and Cirey
While in England, Voltaire wrote the first of his historical works, a history of Charles XII of Sweden, which remains a classic in biography. Returning to France in 1729, he produced several tragedies, among them Brutus (1730) and Zaïre (1732). In 1733 he met Mme Du Châtelet, whose intellectual interests, especially in science, accorded with his own. They took up residence together at Cirey, in Lorraine, under the Marquis Du Châtelet's tolerant eye. The connection with Émilie Du Châtelet lasted until her death in 1749.
At Cirey, Voltaire worked on physics and chemistry experiments and began his long correspondence with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick II). In addition, he wrote Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1736), which was partially responsible for bringing awareness of Newtonian physics to the Continent; a burlesque treatment of the Joan of Arc legends, La Pucelle (1755); and the dramas Mahomet (1742), Mérope (1743), and Sémiramis (1748). Through the influence of Mme de Pompadour, Voltaire was made royal historiographer, a gentleman of the king's bedchamber, and a member of the French Academy.
Berlin and Geneva
Voltaire first visited Berlin in 1743, and after Mme Du Châtelet's death he accepted Frederick II's invitation to live at his court. His relations with Frederick, a man whose unbending nature matched his own, were generally stormy. Voltaire's interference in the quarrel between Maupertuis and König led to renewed coldness on the part of Frederick, and in 1753 Voltaire hastily left Prussia. At a distance, the two men later became reconciled, and their correspondence was resumed. Unwelcome in France, Voltaire settled in Geneva, where he acquired the property "Les Délices" ; he also acquired another house near Lausanne. The Genevese authorities soon objected to Voltaire's holding private theatrical performances at his home and still more to the article "Genève" written for Diderot's Encyclopédie, on Voltaire's instigation, by Alembert. The article, which declared that the Calvinist pastors of Geneva had seen the light and ceased to believe in organized religion, stirred up a violent controversy.
The Ferney Years and Candide
Voltaire purchased (1758) an estate, Ferney (see Ferney-Voltaire), just over the French border, where he lived until shortly before his death. He conducted an extensive correspondence with most of the outstanding men and women of his time; received hosts of visitors who came to do homage to the "patriarch of Ferney" ; employed himself in seeking justice for victims of religious or political persecution and in campaigning against the practice of torture; contributed to the Encyclopédie; and managed his estate, taking an active interest in improving the condition of his tenants.
Voltaire also edited the works of Corneille, wrote commentaries on Racine, and turned out a stream of anonymous novels and pamphlets in which he attacked the established institutions of his time with unremitting virulence. Ironically, it is one of these disavowed works, Candide (1759), that is most widely read today. It is the masterpiece among his "philosophical romances," which also include the inimitable short tale Jeannot et Colin (1764), perhaps the quintessence of Voltaire's style. In Candide Voltaire attacked the philosophical optimism made fashionable by Leibniz. Its conclusion, "Let us cultivate our garden" (instead of speculating on unanswerable problems), expresses succinctly Voltaire's practical philosophy of common sense.
The Final Chapter
In 1778, his 84th year, Voltaire attended the first performance of his tragedy Irène, in Paris. His journey and his reception were a triumph and apotheosis, but the emotion was too much for him and he died in Paris soon afterward. In order to obtain Christian burial he had signed a partial retraction of his writings. This was considered insufficient by the church, but he refused to sign a more general retraction. To a friend he gave the following written declaration: "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting persecution." An abbot secretly conveyed Voltaire's corpse to an abbey in Champagne, where he was buried. His remains were brought back to Paris in 1791 and buried in the Panthéon.
Voltaire attained the most subtly comical effects through an imperceptible turn of a phrase; his sentences flow with facility; his expressions are always felicitous and unlabored; his irony is as devastating as its touch is light. Brevity and lucidity characterize all his writings. The Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) is a compendium of Voltaire's thought on the most varied subjects. In his serious poetic works, the perfection of his style is usually combined with a coldness that has robbed them of lasting appeal, although they tower above those of other 18th-century imitators of Racine. Voltaire was significant in helping to introduce to the theater authentic costumes, and he labored successfully for the improvement of the social status of actors.
In his philosophy, based on skepticism and rationalism, he was indebted to Locke as well as to Montaigne and Bayle. Despite Voltaire's passion for clarity and reason, he frequently contradicted himself. Thus he would maintain in one place that man's nature was as unchangeable as that of animals and would express elsewhere his belief in progress and the gradual humanization of society through the action of the arts, sciences, and commerce. In politics he advocated reform but had a horror of the ignorance and potential fanaticism of people and the violence of revolution.
In religion Voltaire felt that Christianity was a good thing for chambermaids and tailors to believe in, but for the use of the elite he advocated a simple deism. He opposed the atheism and materialism of Helvétius and Holbach. His line, "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented," has become proverbial. His celebrated slogan, Écrasez l'infâme! [crush the infamous thing!], has been interpreted as addressed either against the church or against the ancien régime in general.
Voltaire's influence in the popularization of the science and philosophy of his age was incalculably great. Perhaps his most lasting and original intellectual contribution was made in the field of history. His Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) embodies in part the ideas of his historical masterpiece, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations (7 vol., 1756; tr. 1759), the first attempt at writing a history of the world as a whole; Voltaire laid as much emphasis on culture and commerce as on politics and war, and he avoided national parochialism.
The first "complete" edition of Voltaire's work was the so-called Kehl edition, by Beaumarchais (70 vol. in octavo or 92 vol. in duodecimo, 1784–89); a later edition is that of M. Beuchot (72 vol., 1828–40; rev. and enl., 52 vol., 1883). See his correspondence, ed. by T. Besterman (part of the series Studies on Voltaire and the 18th Century [SVEC], 1955–). There are English translations of Voltaire's most widely read works. Biographies and studies of Voltaire reflect continued controversy as to Voltaire's real thought and beliefs.
See biographies by G. Lanson (1906, in French; tr. by R. A. Wagoner, 1966), A. Mourois (1932), H. N. Brailsford (1935, repr. 1963), S. G. Tallentyre (1972), H. T. Mason (1981), A. J. Ayer (1986), and J. Leigh (2004); studies by P. Gay (1959) and V. W. Topazio (1966); N. Mitford, Voltaire in Love (1954); I. O. Wade, Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet (1941, repr. 1967) and The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (1969); I. Davidson, Voltaire in Exile (2005).
"Voltaire, François Marie Arouet de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-de
"Voltaire, François Marie Arouet de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-de
The French poet, dramatist, historian, and philosopher Voltaire was an outspoken and aggressive enemy of every injustice but especially of religious intolerance (the refusal to accept or respect any differences).
Voltaire was born as François Marie Arouet, perhaps on November 21, 1694, in Paris, France. He was the youngest of the three surviving children of François Arouet and Marie Marguerite Daumand, although Voltaire claimed to be the "bastard [born out of wedlock] of Rochebrune," a minor poet and songwriter. Voltaire's mother died when he was seven years old, and he developed a close relationship with his godfather, a free-thinker. His family belonged to the upper-middle-class, and young Voltaire was able to receive an excellent education. A clever child, Voltaire studied under the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand from 1704 to 1711. He displayed an astonishing talent for poetry and developed a love of the theater and literature.
When Voltaire was drawn into the circle of the seventy-two-year-old poet Abbé de Chaulieu, his father packed him off to Caen, France. Hoping to stop his son's literary ambitions and to turn his mind to pursuing law, Arouet placed the youth as secretary to the French ambassador at The Hague, the seat of government in the Netherlands. Voltaire fell in love with a French refugee, Catherine Olympe Dunoyer, who was pretty but barely educated. Their marriage was stopped. Under the threat of a lettre de cachet (an official letter from a government calling for the arrest of a person) obtained by his father, Voltaire returned to Paris in 1713 and was contracted to a lawyer. He continued to write and he renewed his pleasure-loving acquaintances. In 1717 Voltaire was at first exiled (forced to leave) and then imprisoned in the Bastille, an enormous French prison, for writings that were offensive to powerful people.
As early as 1711, Voltaire, eager to test himself against Sophocles (c. 496–406 b.c.e.) and Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), had written a first draft of Oedipe. On November 18, 1718, the revised (changed for improvement) play opened in Paris to a sensational success. The Henriade, begun in the Bastille and published in 1722, was Voltaire's attempt to compete against Virgil (70–19 b.c.e.) and to give France an epic poem (a long poem centered around a legendary hero).
While Voltaire stayed in England (1726–1728) he was greatly honored; Alexander Pope (1688–1744), William Congreve (1670–1729), Horace Walpole (1717–1797), and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1658–1751), praised him; and his works earned Voltaire one thousand pounds. Voltaire learned English by attending the theater daily, script in hand. He also absorbed English thought, especially that of John Locke (1632–1704) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and he saw the relationship between free government and creative business developments. More importantly, England suggested the relationship of wealth to freedom. The only protection, even for a brilliant poet, was wealth.
At Cirey and at court, 1729–1753
Voltaire returned to France in 1729. One product of his English stay was the Lettres anglaises (1734), which have been called "the first bomb dropped on the Old Regime." Their explosive potential (something that shows future promise) included such remarks as, "It has taken centuries to do justice to humanity, to feel it was horrible that the many should sow and the few should reap." Written in the style of letters to a friend in France, the twenty-four "letters" were a clever and seductive (desirable) call for political, religious, and philosophic (having to do with knowledge) freedom; for the betterment of earthly life; for employing the method of Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Locke, and Newton; and generally for striving toward social progress.
Prior to 1753 Voltaire did not have a home; but for fifteen years following 1733 he had stayed in Cirey, France, in a château (country house) owned by Madame du Châtelet. While still living with her patient husband and son, Émilie made generous room for Voltaire. They were lovers; and they worked together intensely on physics and metaphysics, a philosophy which investigates the nature of reality.
Honored by a respectful correspondence with Frederick II of Prussia (1712–1786), Voltaire was then sent on diplomatic (having to do with international affairs) missions to Prussia. But Voltaire's new interest was his affair with his widowed niece, Madame Denis. This affair continued its passionate and stormy course to the last years of his life. Émilie, too, found solace in other lovers. The simple and peaceful time of Cirey ended with her death in 1749.
Voltaire then accepted Frederick's repeated invitation to live at court. He arrived at Potsdam (now in Germany) with Madame Denis in July 1750. First flattered by Frederick's hospitality, Voltaire then gradually became anxious, quarrelsome, and finally bored. He left, angry, in March 1753, having written in December 1752: "I am going to write for my instruction a little dictionary used by Kings. 'My friend' means 'my slave.'" Frederick took revenge by delaying permission for Voltaire's return to France, by putting him under a week's house arrest at the German border, and by seizing all his money.
Sage of Ferney, 1753–1778
Voltaire's literary productivity did not slow down, although his concerns shifted as the years passed while at his estate in Ferney, France. He was best known as a poet until in 1751 Le Siècle de Louis XIV marked him also as a historian. Other historical works include Histoire de Charles XII; Histoire de la Russie sous Pierre le Grand; and the universal history, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, published in 1756 but begun at Cirey. An extremely popular dramatist until 1760, he began to be outdone by competition from the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) that he had introduced to France.
The philosophic conte (a short story about adventure) was a Voltaire invention. In addition to his famous Candide (1759), others of his stories in this style include Micromégas, Vision de Babouc, Memnon, Zadig, and Jeannot et Colin. In addition to the Lettres Philosophiques and the work on Newton (1642–1727), others of Voltaire's works considered philosophic are Philosophie de l'histoire, Le Philosophe ignorant, Tout en Dieu, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and Traité de la métaphysique. Voltaire's poetry includes—in addition to the Henriade —the philosophic poems L'Homme, La Loi naturelle, and Le Désastre de Lisbonne, as well as the famous La Pucelle, a delightfully naughty poem about Joan of Arc (1412–1431).
Always the champion of liberty, Voltaire in his later years became actively involved in securing justice for victims of persecution, or intense harassment. He became the "conscience of Europe." His activity in the Calas affair was typical. An unsuccessful and depressed young man had hanged himself in his Protestant father's home in Roman Catholic city of Toulouse, France. For two hundred years Toulouse had celebrated the massacre (cruel killings) of four thousand of its Huguenot inhabitants (French Protestants). When the rumor spread that the dead man had been about to abandon Protestantism, the family was seized and tried for murder. The father was tortured; a son was exiled (forced to leave); and the daughters were forcefully held in a convent (a house for nuns). Investigation assured Voltaire of their innocence, and from 1762 to 1765 he worked in their behalf. He employed "his friends, his purse, his pen, his credit" to move public opinion to the support of the Calas family. In 1765, Parliament declared the Calas family innocent.
Voltaire's influence continued to be felt after his death in Paris on May 30, 1778.
For More Information
Carlson, Marvin. Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Mason, Haydn. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
"Voltaire." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-0
"Voltaire." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-0
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778)
VOLTAIRE (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778)
VOLTAIRE (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778), French philosopher, historian, dramatist, and poet. Voltaire was born in Paris 21 November 1694, the son of a successful notary. A prolific philosopher, historian, and writer in numerous genres and a tireless champion of freedom of thought and expression, no figure better represents the spirit of the French Enlightenment than Voltaire.
Three years after the death of his mother (née Marguerite Daumard), Voltaire entered the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, in 1704, where he spent the next seven years. Following his studies, Voltaire frequented the libertine society of the Temple and began to exercise his literary talents by composing satirical light verse as well as his first play, Oedipe, completed in manuscript in 1715. In 1716 Voltaire was exiled from Paris because of an epigram against the regent, and in May 1717 was sent to the Bastille, accused of further inflammatory writings. Shortly after his release, Oedipe was staged in November 1718, its brilliant success making him an overnight celebrity, considered France's preeminent poet. It was at this point that he adopted the name Monsieur de Voltaire, not only a nom de plume but also an index of his lifelong aristocratic aspirations.
The self-styled nobleman received a harsh but transformative lesson in 1726, when following a quarrel with the chevalier de Rohan, Voltaire once again found himself imprisoned in the Bastille and then was exiled to England for two years. Rightly or wrongly, Voltaire saw in England a model of political freedom and, above all, religious tolerance, which was to result in his hugely popular and influential English Letters (published first in England in 1733, in English and French versions, then in France in 1734). During his British sojourn, Voltaire, having acquired reasonable competence in English, read numerous English writers and thinkers, but it was above all the works of John Locke and Isaac Newton that earned his enduring admiration.
While a number of biographers and critics have overstated the intellectual impact England was to have on Voltaire—his deism and skepticism certainly predated his exile—it is clear that England had the effect of consolidating his militant opposition to intolerance and dogma in politics and religion, and just as importantly, made him a partisan of British sensualism (in Locke), and the "new philosophy" of scientific method (in Newton and his precursor, Francis Bacon). In France Voltaire became the greatest popularizer of Newtonian physics (publishing Elements of Newton's Philosophy in 1738) and a driving force behind the Enlightenment's anti-metaphysical, positivistic, and scientific bent in which the Cartesian rationalism of the French classical age gave way to the influence of English empiricism.
The English exile set the stage not only for Voltaire's abiding philosophical concerns but also for a life spent mostly outside Paris. From 1734 he lived at Cirey with his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, until her death in 1749. For a number of years prior to her death, Frederick the Great of Prussia (ruled 1740–1786) had sought to bring Voltaire to Potsdam and Berlin, and in 1750 Voltaire took up the offer; but the nearly three years he spent with Frederick ended in bitter disillusionment for both parties. After five years moving from one side of the Franco-Swiss border to the other, in 1759 he purchased the chateau of Ferney, just outside Geneva, which over the years he built into a sprawling estate, home to various cottage industries that added to his already considerable fortune, and a cultural crossroads where Voltaire hosted innumerable guests. He lived and worked there until the last year of his life. In February 1778, he returned to Paris to produce his last play, Irène, and his triumphant return to the capital was a legendary moment in French cultural history, so overwhelming that the eightyfour-year-old Voltaire remarked that he was being "killed with glory." After a long life of notorious ill health and hypochondria, he died during the night of 30 May.
Today Voltaire is read above all as a philosopher—in the restricted sense that word had in the French eighteenth century—and as an acerbic social critic who railed against injustice, metaphysical absurdity of every ilk, clerical abuse, prejudice, and superstition. Those threads came together brilliantly in his 1759 philosophical tale, Candide, in which he lambasted the idealist doctrine of preestablished harmony and the "best of all possible worlds" promulgated by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his followers Alexander Pope and Christian Wolff. Candide was written largely in response to the death of thirty thousand victims of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and as an exposition of the problems raised in his hastily drafted 1755 Poem on the Lisbon Disaster. In response to the question of evil, Voltaire abandoned any claim on a metaphysical explanation of human affairs, proposing instead that we "cultivate our garden," that is, that we focus on local and practical concerns, faced with an order of experience that may in some sense be providential but whose mechanism escapes our reason. Voltaire had explored the problem of theodicy and providence in his earlier tale, Zadig (1747), which along with Micromégas (1752) and more than twenty other philosophical tales, made Voltaire the master of one of the French Enlightenment's most fecund and innovative literary forms.
Yet Voltaire thought of himself perhaps more as a poet, playwright, and historian than as the mordant satirist acknowledged today. His career began and ended with the theater; in between, he produced a dozen or so plays, with varying degrees of success. Today they are rarely read or staged. From the light verse of his youth to the epic Henriad and the bawdy Maid of Orleans, the epicurean Mondain, and his Poem on Natural Law, among many others, poetry also held a central place in his oeuvre. In the domain of history, Voltaire (who was appointed royal historiographer in 1745 and elected to the French Academy in 1746) composed works on Charles XII, Louis XIV, and Louis XV. As with his plays and poetry, these books are today little read. Other works of nonfiction have fared better: the Essay on Manners (1754), the Treatise on Tolerance (1763, written after Voltaire had intervened in the Calas affair, in which a Protestant man was wrongfully executed on the charge of killing his son who wished to convert to Catholicism), and the Philosophical Dictionary (first volume published 1764) remain enduring classics.
Voltaire's overwhelming importance and influence in the eighteenth century lie in his promotion of the force of reason and justice, his ironic wit, and his unparalleled skills as a propagandist of the ideals of the Enlightenment. In a career ranging from the end of the reign of Louis XIV to the reign of the last king of the ancien régime, Voltaire was France's clearest, most prolific, and most enduring voice of dissent.
See also Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; French Literature and Language ; Philosophes .
Voltaire. The Complete Tales of Voltaire. Translated by William Walton. New York, 1990.
——. Correspondance. Edited by Theodore Besterman. 13 vols. Paris, 1977–.
——. Les oeuvres complètes de Voltaire. Edited by Theodore Besterman and W. H. Barber. 64 vols. Geneva and Toronto, 1968–1984.
——. Political Writings. Edited and translated by David Williams. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.
——. The Portable Voltaire. Edited by Ben Ray Redman. New York, 1977.
——. The Selected Letters of Voltaire. Edited by Richard A. Brooks. New York, 1973.
——. The Works of Voltaire. Translated by William F. Fleming, et al. 22 vols. Reprint. New York, 1988.
Knapp, Bettina L. Voltaire Revisited. New York, 2000.
Mason, Haydn Trevor. Voltaire: A Biography. Baltimore, 1981.
Pearson, Roger. The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire's "Contes philosophiques." Oxford, 1993.
Pomeau, René. D'Arouet à Voltaire, 1694–1734. Oxford, 1985.
Patrick Riley, Jr.
"Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-1694-1778
"Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire-francois-marie-arouet-1694-1778
"Voltaire." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire
"Voltaire." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/voltaire
"Voltaire." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/voltaire
"Voltaire." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/voltaire