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 .
——. 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.
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
French writer and philosopher; b. François Marie Arouet, Paris, Nov. 21, 1691; d. there, May 30, 1778. He received a classical education at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, directed by the Jesuits, but he was initiated into the immorality prevalent during the Regency in the libertine milieu of the Société du Temple. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for the first time (1717–18) for an epigram against the Regent Duke of Orléans, and for the second time (1726) after a dispute with the Duke of Rohan. When sentenced to a period of exile, he chose to go to England where he spent three fruitful years (1726–29). In 1734, Voltaire was once more forced to flee Paris after condemnation of his Lettres Philosophiques. He accepted the hospitality of Mme. du Châtelet in her castle of Cirey, near Lorraine, where he resided off and on until 1749. This was a period of intense literary and scientific activity: Voltaire studied physics and chemistry and wrote Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738). After the death of Mme. du Châtelet, Voltaire went to Berlin at the urging of Frederick II, King of Prussia, with whom he had corresponded since 1734.
The sojourn in Prussia, however, was embittered by Voltaire's rivalry with Maupertuis, whom Frederick had appointed president of his Academy of Sciences, and by difficulties with the King himself. Voltaire, disillusioned, left Berlin in 1753 and spent two years wandering in Alsace (1753–55). Finally, in 1755, he bought a property near Geneva, "Les Délices," where he lived until he moved to Ferney in 1760. There, amid a large household directed by his niece, Mme. Denis, Voltaire played munificently the role of lord of the village. His influence was felt all over Europe, through his innumerable writings, mainly brochures on philosophical subjects, and an enormous correspondence, amounting to more than 6,000 letters for that period alone, with kings, statesmen, philosophers, and disciples.
Through his gift of remarkable business sense, Voltaire transformed Ferney into a prosperous village of 1,200 people, with a watch factory and a silk-stocking mill. In 1778, he returned to Paris, where he was received in triumph. He died shortly thereafter without renouncing any of his ideas. He was buried secretly near Troyes in the Abbey of Scellières, of which his nephew was abbot. In 1791, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon next to those of his bitter enemy, Jean Jacques rousseau.
Dramatic and Historical Work. Voltaire's name is commonly associated with a philosophy of revolt against tradition and authority, but his fertile genius was employed in many fields. His first and greatest love, which reveals the lasting influence of his classical formation, was for the theater. From Oedipe (1718) to Irène (1778), he wrote more than 20 plays. His discovery of Shakespeare led him to widen the narrow field from which the classic authors chose their subjects. Voltaire's literary criticism, as expressed in Le Temple du Goût (1733), in his Commentaire sur Corneille (1764), and in numerous prefaces to his tragedies, reflect the same classical taste and principles.
Voltaire was original, and even an innovator, in historiography. Up to his time, history had been concerned mainly with kings, wars, and treaties. Voltaire extended it to include the history of the people, of customs, religion, commerce, literature, and the arts. His theory of history, inspired in part by fÉnelon's Lettre à l'Académie, called for exact and exhaustive documentation, critical analysis of the information thus uncovered, and absolute impartiality.
Wide Historical Vision. In Voltaire's first history, Histoire de Charles XII (1731), the center is still the epic character of the King of Sweden, but in the Siècle de Louis XIV (1751), his scope widens. Louis XIV is still, of course, the dominant figure and his actions are minutely recorded, but Voltaire writes in this book the history of a nation in its manifold manifestations. Many chapters are devoted to the laws, the administration of justice, the army, the navy, finances, religious life, great men of letters, and artists. Both works are based on extensive and careful oral and written documentation. Voltaire was able to consult important personages, ministers, ambassadors, and generals, who had played a role in the still recent events of the reigns of Louis XIV and Charles XII.
Antireligious Slant. The admirable presentation of the Siècle de Louis XIV is often marred, however, by Voltaire's antireligious bias, expressed in snide remarks against those who indulged in religious practices. Voltaire failed to recognize the prominent role of the Church in the 17th century, and the impartiality in writing history that he advocated is glaringly absent. This defect is still more evident in L'Essai sur les Moeurs (1756), a work as much philosophy as history, which Voltaire intended to be a refutation of bossuet's Discours sur l'Histoire universelle. The Essai proper begins where Bossuet's Discours ends—that is, with the reign of Charlemagne—but it is preceded by an extended introduction that summarizes the history of the world before Charlemagne. It takes issue specifically with the theory of Providence at work in history, the basic principle of Bossuet's philosophy.
Rejection of the Supernatural. Voltaire rejects any supernatural influences on the development of history and attributes all events solely to chance or to necessary causes that determine the course of men and empires. He paints a dark tableau of the entire period before the enlightenment, seeing "superstition" and "intolerance" as the harsh masters of credulous people. He attacks the teaching of the Church and traditional apologetics. Although these defects are serious, the Essai is nevertheless a grandiose survey of the slow progress of civilization. Nations, such as China, unknown to previous historians, in it assume their rightful place in world history, owing in great part to the impressive documentation Voltaire amassed concerning them.
Philosophical Work. Philosophy in the 18th century, especially in connection with Voltaire, must be understood in a very general sense. Voltaire is not an original and systematic philosopher. His philosophy does embody a set of ideas, even if they are often repetitious and contradictory; but it consists much more in an attitude of general skepticism, of disrespect, of rebellion against received ideas, particularly religious dogmas. His rationalism, more practical than metaphysical, is directed against the very notion of the supernatural, against miracles, against "superstition," by which he means any and all revelation. At the same time, he detested equally as much atheists such as Paul d'Holbach, whose Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761) roused Voltaire's indignation.
Deistic Stance. Like Rousseau, Voltaire is a deist, but while Rousseau reaches God through his heart, Voltaire asserts His existence through reason (see deism). He believes in God as creator of the universe, in a Providence that has established the eternal and immutable laws of the physical world. But Voltaire's God has no relation to the world He has created; He can receive no glory from men, and no prayer can move Him. Strictly speaking, man has no duty toward such a remote God. To maintain fear among the common people, and hence social stability, Voltaire preaches also a revengeful God as remunerator, a teaching quite inconsistent with his denial of an immortal soul.
Inconsistency of His Thought. Voltaire's philosophical ideas are spread throughout his works, in the form of rapid attacks, clever insinuations, or lengthy exposés. The Lettres Philosophiques (1734), which exploded on the French scene like a bombshell, are mainly an account of Voltaire's experience in England (the original title was Lettres sur les Anglais ). The 24 letters deal with many subjects: the variety of religions in England, Parliament, political institutions, Newton, Shakespeare, Addison, Pope, Swift, and Locke. In an extraneous 25th letter, Voltaire vented his animosity against pascal, an attack to which he returned in Remarques sur les Pensées de Pascal (1742) and in Dernières Remarques (1777). The Traité de métaphysique (1734) contains Voltaire's speculative philosophy, based on an experimental observation on the nature of man, expressed in simple terms, which the layman can comprehend.
The Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764), which in its final form included 614 articles, is the summary of Voltaire's entire philosophy presented in alphabetical order. He was influenced by many thinkers—Montaigne, Bayle, Condillac, Locke, Collins, and the English deists—and his thought is gravely inconsistent on fundamental points. Voltaire, an optimist in the Cirey period (e.g., Le Mondain, 1736, and Discours en vers sur l'homme, 1738), turned into a bitter cynic and pessimist in the Poème sur le désastre de la Ville de Lisbonne (1756) and in Candide (1759). In a similar volte-face, the defender of free will in the Traité de métaphysique and in a correspondence with Frederick beginning in 1734, became the apologist of determinism in Le Philosophe ignorant (1755) and in the Dictionnaire philosophique (s.v. "Liberté").
Voltaire's Contes de Guillaume Vadé (1764), masterpieces of satire, cynicism, irony, and wit, are practical and amusing demonstrations of philosophical themes. Zadig (1747), showing the vagaries of human destiny and the trials of a just man, is, in spite of the conclusion, an attack against Providence. Candide (1759) is a more overt denunciation of the optimism of pope and of leibniz and again of Providence. Candide pursues his beloved Cunégonde throughout Europe and parts of America, but meets only with disappointments, cruelty, injustice, and stupidity in a long series of unbelievable adventures. In a genre imitative of Swift, his Micromégas (1752) introduces two travelers from the planet Sirius who, judging the affairs of men from the point of view of giants, find everything ridiculously small and unimportant. L'Ingénu (1764) shows the difficulties a good Huron Indian encounters in adapting himself to civilized society; under this guise Voltaire ridiculed religion and denounced social abuses.
Overt Attacks on the Church. Fearful of the civil authority that had condemned many of his works, Voltaire waited until he enjoyed a relative security in Ferney to launch his open attacks against the Church and her dogmas. In dozens of brochures, starting with the Sermon des Cinquante (1755), he mocked the inspiration of the Bible, the notion of a chosen people, the Sacraments, and the institution of the Church. (Some 39 of his works were placed on the Index.) Even in Voltaire's time learned exegetes, such as the Abbé Guénée, had refuted his assertions, but they were no match for him in popular style, and their scholarly vindication of the truth never reached large audiences.
Influence on Social Problems. Voltaire's fight against intolerance was carried into the field of legislation when he became the champion of calas and Sirven. Calas and Sirven, both Protestants, had been unjustly, it was thought, condemned by the Parliament of Toulouse for having murdered a son and a daughter, respectively, because they had embraced Catholicism. Voltaire obtained the rehabilitation of both and described Calas's case in his Traité sur la Tolérance (1763). In Commentaire sur les délits et les peines (1766) he advocated the principle that punishment should be commensurate with the offense. He berated the various provincial parliaments for their abuses of power and denounced the varieties of laws in different jurisdictions. He demanded an equitable assessment of taxes and the suppression of many imposts that paralyzed commerce. In this field of social and legal reform, Voltaire's ideas are sound; they paved the way for many improvements.
Voltaire may rightly be called the father of rationalism in the 19th century and even in the 20th. The successive waves of anticlericalism that swept first through the French bourgeoisie and then through the masses, and the harsh measures taken against the Church may possibly be traced to his influence. The weakness and the incoherence of his philosophy have been established by modern critics, but none has denied him his place as an inimitable master of style and one of the greatest writers in French literature.
Bibliography: g. l. desnoiresterres, Voltaire et la société française au XVIII e siècle, 8 v. (Paris 1867–76). g. lanson, Voltaire (2d ed. Paris 1910). r. naves, Voltaire: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris 1942). a. noyes, Voltaire (New York 1936). n. l. torrey, The Spirit of Voltaire (New York 1938). f. vial, Voltaire: Sa vie, son oeuvre (Paris 1953). f. m. a. voltaire, Oeuvres complètes, ed. l. moland, 52 v. (rev. ed. Paris 1877–85); The Works of Voltaire, with critique and biog. by j. morley, notes by t. smollett, new tr. w. f. fleming and introd. by o. h. g. leigh, 42 v. (New York 1901–03). m. m. barr, A Century of Voltaire Study: A Bibliography of Writings on Voltaire, 1825–1925 (New York 1929). d. c. cabeen, ed., A Critical Bibliography of French Literature, v. 4 The Eighteenth Century, ed., g. r. havens and d. f. bond (Syracuse 1951).
BORN: 1694, Paris
DIED: 1778, Paris
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
For more than thirty years, scholars have been working to establish a definitive edition of Voltaire's works. Because of the vastness and variety of Voltaire's creative output as well as the seeming contradictions in his character and behavior, the story of his life is challenging and, at times, even perplexing. Voltaire wrote across genres as a poet-essayist-philosopher; he was known stylistically for his wit and thematically for his defense of civil liberties. An avid supporter of social reform in the face of strict censorship laws, he frequently used satire to criticize Catholic dogma and French institutions. The ideas Voltaire promoted in his work influenced important thinkers of both the American and French revolutions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Forged by Class and Religion Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, to an upper-middle-class Parisian family. At birth he was a weak child whose parents held little hope for his survival. But, under the care of a nurse, he gained his strength and within two years became a healthy and mischievous boy. Voltaire's father was a successful notary whose clients were generally rich and aristocratic. Young Voltaire grew up surrounded by wealthy, influential people who were of a higher social class than his own. Still, he had no trouble impressing everyone with his brightness and comic antics. Even at a very early age, he loved being the center of attention. When Voltaire was ten, he was sent to an exclusive Jesuit school for boys, where he quickly gained a reputation as a class clown. Although he loved learning, he was very resentful of authority and constantly argued with his teachers over religion. During his seven years at the school, Voltaire became increasingly anti-Catholic. He strongly believed in God and in moral responsibility but denied religious authority and divine revelation.
Youthful Folly In addition to his startling views on religion, Voltaire had a fondness for writing scandalous poems and stories. Upon his graduation, he announced to his father that he intended to be a writer. His father thought that literary pursuits were useless and encouraged him to become a lawyer instead. Voltaire reluctantly agreed but spent the next couple of years mostly jobless, and writing in his spare time. In 1713, when Voltaire was nineteen, his godfather's brother was named the French ambassador to The Hague, in Holland. Complying with his father's wishes, Voltaire went along as the ambassador's page, a nonpaying job. In The Hague, he fell in love and planned to elope, but the ambassador discovered the scheme and sent Voltaire back home in disgrace.
In 1715, King Louis XIV died. His successor, Louis XV, was only five years old at the time, so for a while France was ruled by a regent, the Duke of Orléans. The duke was a man of questionable morals, and rumors about him soon began to circulate around Paris. When an anonymous poem surfaced in 1717 accusing the duke of committing incest with his daughter, there was little doubt about the identity of its author. The duke imprisoned Voltaire in the Bastille for a year. He was released in the spring of 1718, under the condition that he would not live in Paris. This was Voltaire's first taste of exile, a form of punishment he would receive several times throughout his life. He went to England and stayed at his father's country house in Chatenay but longed to return to Paris. Meanwhile, a theater company accepted his first play, Oedipus, and by the time it opened in Paris, he had officially changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire. Oedipus was a tremendous success and by the age of twenty-four, the notorious Voltaire had become a literary sensation.
Enlightenment For the rest of his life, Voltaire worked tirelessly, writing plays, poems, novels, history Books, philosophy texts, encyclopedia articles, and an endless list of pamphlets and letters. Through his works, he became known as the chief advocate of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement rooted in the powers of human reason. Voltaire did not invent the Enlightenment; most of the views he preached had already been expressed by others. But Voltaire is regarded as a key Enlightenment thinker because—more than anyone else in his time—he helped to popularize the new philosophy in France and abroad. By exploiting every medium that existed in his day, Voltaire bombarded European culture with endless assaults against the status quo: Christianity and government practices were his primary targets. Voltaire's writings were distinctive and easily recognizable. Still, most were published anonymously, due to the constant threat of imprisonment their author faced.
Heavily influenced by the writings of the English philosopher John Locke, Voltaire approached the study of history with an Enlightenment theme. He viewed the evolution of history as the gradual victory of rationalism over ignorance and superstition. This theme also provided the basis for many of his fictional works, most notably Candide. This novel stands as an all-out attack on the philosophy of optimism, which states that everything that happens—no matter how horrible—is for the best. In its place, Voltaire offers a simple, practical solution to the world's problems: cooperation.
Ferney and Later Years In the mid-1700s Voltaire served as a royal historiographer for Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, in Berlin. After quarreling with the king in 1751, he distanced himself from the monarchy and lived off and on at Ferney on the shores of Lake Geneva. Having accumulated considerable wealth through wise investment, Voltaire added to his money by building a watchmaking industry in competition with the Swiss manufacturers. While living at Ferney, Voltaire also adopted a noble but poor girl whom he called Belle et Bonne (“beautiful and good”). She later became the Marquise de Villete. During her time with Voltaire, she served as an important source of encouragement and helped to make the last twenty years of his life the most productive ever. Much of his writing from that time championed the rights of individuals who had been mistreated.
In 1778, after a lifetime of exile, Voltaire finally returned to Paris to see the production of his last play, Irene. He was given a hero's welcome and spent his final days receiving guests from around the world, including Benjamin Franklin. He died (of what was probably prostate cancer) on May 30 of that year, having lived long enough to see the first political outcome of the Enlightenment—the American Revolution. On his deathbed, he asked for paper and ink, with which he wrote: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” Following Voltaire's death, the Church refused to grant permission for a burial in holy ground; however, thanks to the intervention of his nephew, Voltaire's mortal remains were finally laid to rest in a monastery in Champagne.
Works in Literary Context
Philosophical Writings: Truth and Fiction Voltaire expressed his revolutionary views about political and religious freedoms through a myriad of genres. From the epistolary style of English Letters (1734)—in which he framed his opinions as a series of letters addressed to a friend in France—and the fictional Candide to his poetry and historical studies, Voltaire presented his Enlightenment philosophies in both direct and indirect ways. Voltaire is credited for inventing the philosophical conte, or story, a genre that expresses intellect through fantastical or absurd happenings. Stylistically speaking, he was as conscious about the fashion with which to best present his ideas as he was about fashion itself; he felt form was the key to expression. Interestingly enough, despite Voltaire's experimentation with many different genres, he had an affinity for the theater and his critical social commentary is reflected throughout a canon of more than twenty tragedies.
Social Influence Inside and outside his texts, Voltaire championed the fight against intolerance. This activism is best illustrated by his involvement in an event in which a man named Calas, a Protestant, had been unjustly condemned by the Parliament of Toulouse for having murdered his son because he decided to follow Catholicism. Voltaire described the case in Treaty on Tolerance (1763). Later, he wrote in Commentary on Crime and Punishment (1766) that punishment should fit the offense. He denounced the provincial parliaments for abusing power as well as particular laws in their jurisdictions. In this way, he inspired a multitude of social and civil improvements. Voltaire may rightly be called the father of the rationalism of the nineteenth century and even of the twentieth. The successive waves of anticlericalism that swept first through the French bourgeoisie and then through the masses, and the harsh measures taken against the Church, may possibly be traced to his influence.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Voltaire's famous contemporaries include:
John Locke (1632–1704): Leading British empiricist and major figure of the Enlightenment.
King Louis XIV (1638–1715): Also called the Sun King, because France supposedly revolved around him, he made France more powerful in Europe.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727): English mathematician and physicist most famous for his theories of universal gravity.
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745): Irish writer responsible for Gulliver's Travels and the famous satire “A Modest Proposal.”
Voltaire's Self-Contradictions A survey of Voltaire's work demonstrates his changeable opinions. For example, though he could be considered an optimist by his writing in The World (1736), as well as in Discourse on Man (1738), Voltaire uses cynicism to show his pessimistic side in Poem about the Lisbon Disaster (1756). Furthermore, while Voltaire presented himself as a defender of free will in Treaty on Metaphysics, he plays the role of “apologist of determinism” in both The Ignorant Philosophy (1755) and in his Philosophical Dictionary.
Works in Critical Context
“The spirit of Voltaire”—to use the title of the classic work by Norman Torrey—remains vital and alive through his textual wit, the ironic verve of his commitments, and his sincere dedication to humanity in all of its global extent and variety. “Voltaire is a good vaccine against stupidity,” writes Emmanuel Berl in an introduction to Voltaire's works, and that kind of protection is as crucial today as it was in Voltaire's day.
Candide Candide is the most famous and widely read work by Voltaire. Candide was written in 1758, when Voltaire was exiled in Geneva, and published anonymously the following year. Voltaire consistently denied that he was the book's author and even called it a “schoolboy's joke.” Although Candide was banned in Geneva and ordered destroyed, it was immensely popular and contributed to the demise of optimism as a serious philosophy. Not all agreed with Voltaire's criticisms, however; an unnamed reviewer writing for the Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Quarterly in 1759, took Voltaire to task for, “like other ignorant persons,” either failing to understand the essence of the Optimists' argument or deliberately distorting it in order to prove it ludicrous. Still, James Boswell, writing in The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791, noted that Voltaire had refuted Optimism “with brilliant success.” It is perhaps an indication of Voltaire's success in this regard that scholars in the decades that followed spent a great deal of time analyzing not Candide but Voltaire's numerous other works. It has also been argued that because the work is ultimately a philosophical critique—albeit an effective one—it is not worthy of study as literature. More recent scholars have focused on the specifics of Voltaire's writing, such as the structure of his sentences (as in a 1959 Ira O. Wade essay), or on the political and philosophical context in which it was written.
Zadig According to Andrée Maurois,
Voltaire's contemporaries … attached little importance to frivolous stories in which what struck them most forcibly were numerous allusions to the author's personal enemies. ‘It is easy to recognize Voltaire under the disguise of the sagacious Zadig. The calumnies and spite of courtiers … the disgrace of the hero are so many allegories to be interpreted easily enough. It is thus that he takes revenge upon his enemies.’ The abbé Boyer, who was the Dauphin's tutor and a powerful ecclesiastic, took in very bad part the attacks on one whose identity was but thinly concealed behind the anagram Reyob. ‘It would please me mightily if all this to-do about Zadig could be ended,’ wrote Madame du Chatelet, and it was not long before Voltaire disowned a book ‘which some there are who accuse of containing audacious attacks upon our holy religion.’
Responses to Literature
- Write a paragraph in which you describe the balanced religion of Eldorado as described in Candide.
- Use resources from your library or the Internet to research the difference between Optimism and Enlightenment. Then, create an electronic or poster presentation in which you compare and contrast the two movements.
- Read Candide and Gulliver's Travels. Make a chart in which you compare and contrast Gulliver and Candide.
- Write an essay in which you explore whether you think Candide is an interesting character, or whether he is just important because of his travels and discoveries.
- After reading selections from Voltaire's work, write an essay on how his fictional writing demonstrates influences from his historical writing.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Voltaire's works are inherently philosophical and oftentimes political. Even his novels have an agenda and a slant. Here are some other works that offer severe critiques of society under the guise of fantastical fiction.
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. In this parodic and satirical novel, the title character comes across fantastic beings, many of which are morally and intellectually superior to our own race.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), a novel by H. G. Wells. In this novel, an evil scientist inhumanely breeds animal hybrids and raises questions of whether humans have the right to play God.
Atlas Shrugged (1957), a novel by Ayn Rand. This book, in part about the apparent disappearance of many of the world's most significant minds, offers a fictionalized argument in favor of Rand's own philosophy, known as Objectivism.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. Considered “feminist science fiction,” Le Guin's novel centers around a race of cyclically hermaphroditic beings.
Barr, Mary-Margaret H. A Century of Voltaire Study: A Bibliography of Writings on Voltaire, 1825–1925. New York: Institute of French Studies, 1929.
Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. 3rd ed. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1976.
Brooks, Richard A. Voltaire and Leibniz. Geneva: Droz, 1964.
Desnoiresterres, Gustave. Voltaire et la société française au dix-huitième siècle. 8 Vols. 2nd ed. Paris: Didier, 1871–1876.
Lanson, Gustave. Voltaire. Paris: Hachette, 1960.
Mason, Haydn. Voltaire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
Pomeau, René. D'Arouet à Voltaire, 1694–1734. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1985.
Torrey, Norman L. The Spirit of Voltaire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1938.
“Voltaire (1694–1778).” In Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, vol. 14, edited by James P. Draper and James E. Person Jr., 318–421. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Wade, Ira O. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Nationality: French. Born: Francois-Marie Arquet in Paris, 21 November 1694. Education: College of Louis-le-Grand, Paris, 1704-11 (associated with the Temple set, a group of political thinkers and artists, including Chaulieu, La Fare, and Servien). Career: Writer; inheritance from mother; spent time in jail, including the Bastille (1717); exiled from France at various times throughout his career; gentilhomme ordinaire du roi, 1746-49; many love affairs, including Olympe du Noyer (with whom he tried to elope in 1713), Mme de Bernières, Mme de Rupelmonde, 1772, Mme. Du Châtelet, and the duchess de Saint-Pierre. Died: 30 May 1778.
Oeuvres complétes. 1775.
Memnon. Historie orientale. 1747.
Zadig; ou, La Destinée. Historie orientale. 1748.
Micromégas. 1752; as Micromegas, 1753.
Candide; ou L'Otimisme. 1759; as Candide, 1759.
Le Monde comme il va. Vision de Babouc. 1759.
Jeannot et Colin. 1764.
L'Ingénu. 1767; as The Pupil of Nature, 1771; as The Sincere Huron, 1786.
La Princesse de Babylone. 1768; as the Princess of Babylon, 1927.
L'Homme aux quarante écus. 1768; as The Man of Forty Crowns, 1768.
Les Lettres d'Amabed. 1769.
Le Taureau blanc, traduit du syriaque. 1774, as The White Bull, 1774.
Historie de Jenni; ou, Le Sage et l'athée. 1775.
Romans et contes. 1978.
Hérode et Mariamne. 1725.
Les Originaux. 1732.
Les échanges, ou quand est-ce qu' on me marie? comédie en deux actes. 1734.
Adélaïde du Guesclin. 1734.
La Mort de César. 1735.
Alzire; ou, Les Américains. 1736; as Alzira, Or Spanish insult repented: a tragedy, 1775.
L'Enfant prodigue, comédie en vers. 1736.
Mahomet. 1742; as Mohamet, the Imposter, 1744.
La Princesse de Navarre, comédie-ballet. 1745.
Le Temple de la gloire. 1745.
La Prude; ou, La Gardeuse de cassette, comédie en vers en cinq actes. 1747.
Nanine, comédie en trois actes en vers. 1749.
Samson, tragédie lyrique. 1750.
Le Duc de Foix. 1752; as Matilda, 1811.
L'Orphelin de la Chine. 1756; as The Orphan of China, 1756.
Saül. 1755; as Saul, 1820.
La femme qui a raison, comédie en trois actes, en vers. 1759.
Catalina; ou Rome sauvée. 1760; as Rome Preserved, 1760.
Le caffé, ou, L'Ecossaise, comédie par M. Hume traduite en francois. 1760; as The Coffee House, 1760.
Le Droit de Seigneur, comédie en vers. 1764.
Octave et le jeune Pompée, ou, Le Triumvirat. 1767.
Les Scythes. 1767.
Charlot; ou, la Tolérance. 1769.
Le baron d'Otrante, opéra bouffe. 1768.
Tancréde, tragédie in vers en cinq actes. 1771.
Les Guèbres; ou, Atrée et Thieste. 1772.
Le Dépositaire, comédie en vers et en cinq actes. 1772.
Les Lois de Minos; ou, Astérie. 1773.
Don Pèdre, roi de Castille. 1775.
Le Duc d'Alencon; ou, Les Frères ennemis. 1821.
L'Envieux, comédie en trois actes et en vers. 1834.
La Ligue; ou, Henri le Grand: Poème épique. 1732; as Henriade, 1732.
La Temple du Goût. 1733; as The Temple of Taste, 1734.
Le Mondain. 1736.
La Pucelle d'Orléans. 1755; as The Maid of Orleans, 1785-6.
Poème sur désastre de Lisbonne. 1756.
Poème sur la loi naturelle. 1756.
Précis de l'Ecclésiaste en vers. 1759.
La Cantique des cantiques en vers. 1759.
Contes de Guillaume Vadé. 1764.
La Guerre civile de Genève. 1764; as The Civil War of Geneva, 1769.
Epîtres, satires, contes, odes, et pièces fugitives. 1771.
Poèmes, épîtres, et autres poésies. 1777.
Essai sur les guerres civiles de France. 1729; as Essay upon the Civil Wars in France, 1727.
Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais. 1734.
Elèmens de la philosophie de Newton, mis à la portée de tout le monde. 1738.
Annales de l'Empire, depuis Charlamagne. 1753.
Historie de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un. 1756; as The History of the War of Seventeen Hundred and Forty-one, 1756.
Essai sur l'historie générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations. 1756; as The General History and State of Europe, 1754; as An Essay on Universal History, 1759.
Appel à toutes les nations de l'Europe. 1761.
Traite sur la tolérance. 1764; as A Treatise of Religious Tolerance, 1764.
Dictionairre philosophique, portatif. 1764; as The Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765.
La Philosophie de l'historie. 1765.
Collection des letters sur le miracles. 1765.
Le philosophe ignorant. 1766; as The Ignorant Philosopher, 1767.
Les Honnêtetés littéraires. 1767.
Examen important de milord Bolinbroke. 1767.
Lettres sur Rabelais. 1767.
Homélies prononcées à Londres en. 1765.
Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers. 1767.
Les Singularitiés de la nature. 1768.
Historie du parlement de Paris. 1769.
Collections d'anciens évangiles; ou Monument du premier siècle du christianisme. 1769.
Dieu et les hommes: oeuvre théologique, mais raisonnable. 1769.
Tout en Dieu. 1769.
Les Adorateurs. 1769.
Fragments sur l'Inde. 1773.
Commentaire historique sur les oeuvres de l'auteur de la Henriade. 1776.
La Bible enfin expliquée. 1776.
Lettre à l'Académie francaise. 1776.
Dialogue d'Evhémère. 1777.
Commentaire sur l'Esprit des Lois de Montesquieu. 1778.
Prix de la justice et de l'humanité. 1778.
Traité de métaphysique. 1937.
Editor, Extraits des sentiments de Jean Meslier. 1762.
Translator, Socrate by James Thomson. 1759.
Translator, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare. 1764.
Translator, L'Hèraclius espagnol; ou, Dans cette vie tout est vérité et tout mensonge. 1764.*
A Bibliography of Writings on Voltaire by Mary Margaret Barr, 1929; Voltaire. Bibliographie des ses oeuvres by Georges Bengesco, 1953.
Oration on Voltaire, Paris, 1878 by Victor Hugo, 1899; Les Lettres philosophiques by Gustave Lanson, 1909; Voltaire, Pascal and the Human Destiny by Mina Waterman, 1942; Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford, 1957; Candide by William Barber, 1960 ; La Propagande philosophique dans les tragédies de Voltaire by Ronald Ridgway, 1961; Philosophy in Literature: Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tolstoy, and Proust by Morris Weitz, 1963;Voltaire by Theodore Besterman, 1969; The Intellectual Development of Voltaire by Ira Wade, 1969; L'Angleterre et Voltaire by André-Michel Rouseeau, 1976; Voltaire by Haydn Mason, 1981; Disabled Powers: A Reading of Voltaire's Contes by R. J. Howells, 1993.* * *
Poet, historian, satirist, playwright, philosopher, pamphleteer, and storyteller, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) was one of the greatest eighteenth-century French writers, and he remains a dominating figure. Unlike many literary men, however, he was also an adept businessman whose financial dealings enabled him to live on a grand estate employing 60 servants. The estate was near the Swiss border, a location thoughtfully chosen should he need to leave France quickly in case the government took offense at his frequently "subversive" works. He was twice imprisoned in the Bastille, and he spent two years in self-exile in England as a result of a beating by toughs on the order of a powerful nobleman whom he had annoyed with his mockery. He was, like Jean-Paul Sartre in a later age, what the French call engagé, committed to ideas that he expressed through the medium of his writing. All his life he fought against injustice and tyranny, in particular the bigoted and fanatical excesses of established religion. In their place he championed common sense, liberty, and tolerance. While his verse dramas, which enthralled theater audiences at the time, are now largely unperformed and unread, his other works still sparkle with a topical wit, for the human stupidity and cruelty he satirized so mordantly continues.
Alongside the epic poems, dramas, and histories the prolific Voltaire poured out, he also wrote stories designed to illustrate his opinions on various topics. As in all of his writing, the style of the stories is simple, succinct, and typically French in its crystal clarity. He wrote 26 of these stories, which range from the anticlerical "Zadig" to "L'Ingénu" ("The Simple One"), a veiled attack on authoritarian government, and from "Le Taureau blanc" ("The White Bull"), a mockery of biblical tales, to the wry philosophy of Candide. In the stories it is not Voltaire's intention to explore the psychology of his heroes or to depict the interplay of character or even, like Maupassant and O. Henry, to surprise the reader with unexpected twists or endings. His aim is to attack the abuses he saw around him, whether they were religious or political. While he courageously took up, among others, the famous case of Jean Calas, who was unjustly condemned to torture and death by the fanatical religious authorities of the time, in his stories he generalized his assault on the prejudices that brought about such appalling cruelty.
Voltaire believed in God but not in the worldly institutions that claimed to represent him. Ecrasons l'infâme! ("Let us crush the infamous thing!") was his verdict on the organized Catholicism of the age, mired as it was in bigotry and callousness. (Even so, it was a typically mischievous Voltairean touch that whenever he passed a church he was said to raise his hat as a sign of prudent respect for God.) As time went on, the term l'infâme came to stand for all of the evils against which he campaigned. He believed that man should be content to draw his conclusions from what is known and comprehensible to human understanding. Everything else, including first causes, is idle speculation. Such is the theme, for example, of "Zadig" (1747), which takes its title from the name of its young hero. Subtitled "Destiny," it tells how the gifted Zadig wins great success in life. Yet no sooner has he achieved the heights of good fortune than a series of grueling misadventures casts him down to the depths of misery. Why, he demands, should he experience such bad luck? An angel in the person of a hermit explains to him that good can come of evil and that human existence is shaped by an unfathomable Providence. Zadig is restored to prosperity and marries the beautiful queen whom he loves, yet his reaction to the angel's explanation remains. "But… ?" he queries, and his question hangs in the air unresolved.
The device of featuring an unsophisticated young hero and of subjecting him to various misfortunes in order to prove a point was a favorite with Voltaire. He also used it in "L'Ingénu" (1767), in which the central character, born and brought up in Canada by the Hurons, comes to France and is surprised at the apparently paradoxical and contradictory ways of society and of religion. Clapped into the Bastille for supporting the Huguenot victims of religious persecution, he argues the case for tolerance. In order to secure his release, the woman he loves is forced to grant her favors to an influential government minister and later dies of remorse. Thus Voltaire, mingling comedy and tragedy, has an excuse for tilting at both religion and the abuse of political power. An equally guileless hero gives his name to Voltaire's most famous story, Candide (1759), in which the author satirizes contemporary philosophers who preached optimism ("All is for the best in the best possible of worlds"). After surviving many disasters and horrors, Candide eventually finds tranquillity in the country as a small farmer. Everything that happened was, after all, for the best, remarks his complacent tutor and friend Pangloss. "That's well said," replies Candide in one of France's most famous literary epigrams, "but we must cultivate our garden." The implication is that philosophizing is vain and that man should occupy himself with the practical demands of life.
Like Goldsmith's The Citizen of the World (1762), Voltaire's "L'Ingénu" highlights the inconsistencies of society as seen through the eyes of a visiting foreigner. In "Micromégas" (1752) Voltaire combined this approach with an echo of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Micromégas is a being 120, 000 feet tall who hails from the planet Sirius. He visits Earth and is surprised to find how petty minded are its insect-sized inhabitants with their senseless wars and stupid squabbles. While he is impressed by their scientific achievements, he is scornful of their claims about the supremacy of man. Humanity is seen as trifling and pretentious and, once its relation to the rest of the universe is taken into account, its ambition as laughable.
The vanity of human wishes, a favorite theme with Voltaire's near contemporary Samuel Johnson, is the subject of "Memnon" (1749). The central character resolves to attain ultimate wisdom by leading a pure existence, renouncing the sinful lures of women, disciplining himself to resist overindulgence in food and wine, living within his income, and envying no man so that he can enjoy ideal relations with his friends. Almost immediately, however, he falls into the arms of a designing female. Her uncle, who is armed to the teeth, surprises them together and is only dissuaded from killing them when Memnon placates him by yielding up all of his wealth. In the attempt to forget the unhappiness he has incurred, Memnon accepts an invitation to dinner with close friends. They drink heavily and disagree over a gamble, whereupon one of them throws a dice box that knocks out Memnon's eye. Stripped of his wealth and now with only one eye, Memnon retires to lick his wounds. Hoping to restore something of his fortune, he relies on a debtor to repay money owed him, but the man goes bankrupt. All of his worthy aspirations have come to naught. In the depths of his distress a heavenly spirit, his "good genius," appears and explains that on the distant planet where the spirit lives people are never deceived by women because they have none, they never overindulge at table because they do not eat, they never have bankruptcies because there is neither gold nor silver, and they never lose an eye because they do not have bodies. In a passing shot at the same target he hit in Candide, Voltaire has Memnon reflect how wrong philosophers are when they conclude that "everything is for the best." He now realizes the impossibility of his pious ambition and sees that he must be content to live as happily as he can with all of his imperfections.
This, generally speaking, is the message delivered by Voltaire's short stories, along with warnings to avoid fanaticism and extremes either of religion or of politics. The philosophies and institutions he satirized may have long since faded into history, but the moral he draws can never lose its topicality. Yes, he says, God exists, and in "L'Histoire de Jenni" ("The Story of Jenni, or the Atheist and the Wise Man"; 1775) he puts forward a powerful argument in God's favor. There is, however, no justification for perpetuating cruelty in God's name or for erecting a system of sterile dogma that persecutes and represses mankind. Neither should governments have the right to stifle the free expression of reasoned opinion with torture and murder. Varying in length from a few pages to the extent of a novella, all of the stories have in common great wit and humor and a graceful style that flows like a stream of pure clear water in which everything is revealed in sharp relief. To this must be added irony, a quality Voltaire handles as if it were a rapier, fleet and quicksilver in use and deadly in effect. His is French prose at its classical best.
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). □
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.
(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, 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
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.