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Voltaire

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Voltaire

Do you believe people have the right to criticize or even make fun of their leaders? Do you believe in religious toleration? If so, you are probably a fan of French philosopher and writer Voltaire, even if you don't know it! He was a pioneer of freedom of speech during the Enlightenment.

But who was Voltaire? How did his life experience make him an outspoken critic of his native France's aristocracy and lack of religious toleration? Learn about Voltaire's biography, Voltaire's ideas and beliefs, and Voltaire's books in this article on the Enlightenment's most influential, witty, and popular philosopher.

Voltaire Biography

Voltaire became one the most famous and popular intellectuals in Europe during the Enlightenment. He was influenced by events in his early adult life, when he was exiled and became an outspoken critic of French society. Let's trace Voltaire's biography to understand just who this philosopher was.

Voltaire's Early Life

Voltaire was born Francois-Marie Arouet in 1694. There isn't a lot of historical information available on Voltaire's early life, but we know he came from a middle class background. We also know his mother died when he was just 7, and he considered his father a cruel man.

He was close to his godfather, who had a reputation for being open minded. From a young age, Voltaire was already a rebel against the authority of his father. He also was skeptical of the religious instruction he received attending a Jesuit school. His rebelliousness and willingness to criticize authority would only grow as he came of age.

Voltaire Biography Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Voltaire, Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Early Fame, Imprisonment, and Exile

Voltaire decided to devote himself to literature, and he quickly became well known and celebrated in France for his wit. However, his rebelliousness soon got him into trouble. He mocked the regent of France at the time for supposed incest, and was sentenced to an 11 month imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717-18.

In this period, he adopted his pen name Voltaire. There is some speculation as to why he adopted this name, but historians believe it was an anagram of the Latin version of his surname and may have also been an attempt to give the impression he was a member of the nobility.

A nobleman mocked him for this name change, leading Voltaire to tell him that the name Voltaire would become known around the world while the noble's would be ruined due to his stupidity. The nobleman hired a group of men to beat Voltaire. When Voltaire challenged him to a duel for revenge, he was imprisoned in the Bastille a second time. Rather than remain in prison, he chose to go into exile in England.

Influence of English Society on Voltaire

His time in England is perhaps the most important time in the Voltaire biography. By this time, England had adopted a constitutional monarchy and had a much more open and tolerant society than France.

This openness had a marked impact on Voltaire. He is believed to have attended the burial of Sir Isaac Newton and was impressed that this great man of science but non noble birth was buried alongside the kings and queens of England at Westminster Abbey. He could never imagine the same happening in France.

Voltaire was also impressed by the religious toleration in England. He became an outspoken supporter of freedom of religion and critic of the institutionalized church and religious intolerance.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace."1

Romance with Émilie du Châtelet

Voltaire became even more famous during his time in England and eventually negotiated his return to France.

However, his publication in 1733 of a series of essays praising the English system of government and religious toleration in contrast to France in his Letters On the English, caused much controversy. The book was banned and burned, and Voltaire was forced to flee Paris.

He decided to stay with his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, who was a married noble woman. Her husband was aware of their affair and did not disapprove, and he even befriended Voltaire. Émilie was an intellectual herself, and she and Voltaire would study and write together. She is often portrayed as Voltaire's muse, but Voltaire himself remarked that she was smarter and more scientifically minded than he was.

In 1749, after Émilie died in childbirth. Voltaire began a period of traveling around Europe to fanfare, a testament to his widespread fame.

Voltaire Biography Emilie du Chatelet StudySmarterPortrait of Émilie du Châtelet, Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

A great man whose only fault was being a woman." -Voltaire about Émilie2

Travels and Later Life

First Voltaire traveled to Prussia, where he was a guest at the court of Frederick the Great. One of the interesting and contradictory twists in Voltaire's biography is that while he was highly critical of the aristocracy, he spent much of his life rubbing shoulders with them and living on their tabs.

He eventually came into conflict with Frederick and other Prussian officials, opting to leave Prussia in 1752. He made a long trip back to Paris, stopping in other German cities. When King Louis XV banned him from Paris in 1754, he went to Geneva. After upsetting the Calvinist religious authorities there, he bought an estate in Ferney, near the French and Swiss border in 1758.

He spent the majority of the rest of his life here. In February 1778, an a trip to Paris, he became ill and nearly died. He recovered temporarily but soon fell sick again and died on May 30, 1778.

Voltaire Biography Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Voltaire later in life. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Voltaire and the Enlightenment

Voltaire is considered one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is the term used to refer to the period from the end of the 1600s to the start of the 1800s when there was a lively discourse on philosophy, politics, and human nature. The period is also called the Age of Reason, and the philosophers of the era were influenced by the recent Scientific Revolution and attempted to explain human society, behavior, and politics according to natural laws.

Some of the most well known Enlightenment philosophers besides Voltaire include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Immanuel Kant, who coined the term Enlightenment. The ideas of these philosophers were heavily influential in coming political changes, inspiring United States Independence, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and independence movements in Spanish Latin America. Many of the ideas remain important foundations of democratic government today.

Voltaire Enlightenment Salon Meeting Painting StudySmarterVoltaire speaking at a meeting of intellectuals and members of high society, meetings that were common during the Enlightenment. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire's Ideas

Voltaire's ideas centered around his belief in religious toleration and a society that allowed open criticism of its leaders and established institutions. It was these ideas of Voltaire that brought him into so much conflict with authorities.

It's clear he believed strongly in freedom of thought and fair and just rulers. Unlike some other Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, he did not offer much in the way of solutions or proposals for better government structure or organization. He was much more focused on offering criticisms.

While he expressed a belief in natural laws and natural rights like Locke, he also seems to not have been a supporter of democracy or republican government. He instead advocated for a strong ruler, but one who ruled fairly and protected the natural rights of his subjects. In this sense, he seems to have been a supporter of Enlightened Absolutism, even if his criticisms often brought him into conflict with absolutist rulers.

Enlightened Absolutism

A governing philosophy exercised by some European monarchs during the Enlightenment where they ruled as absolutist monarchs, or "enlightened despots," where they had final say on all matters of government, while also implementing ideas of the Enlightenment in a supposedly more benevolent rule.

We also know that Voltaire's beliefs included a strong support for science. His Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, written with Émilie, attempted to explain and popularize the scientific ideas of Sir Isaac Newton for a larger audience.

Voltaire Books Portrait StudySmarterPortrait of Voltaire, Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire's Beliefs on Religion

Voltaire is well known for his heavy criticism for the institutionalized Catholic Church in France and his advocacy for religious toleration. It had been the flourishing and toleration of multiple religious sects that had heavily influenced him during his time in England.

However, Voltaire's beliefs were not atheist. Voltaire's religious beliefs were based on Deism. Voltaire believed in the idea of a "natural" religion based on day to day life, reason, and the laws of nature rather than the "revelatory" religion of a set of beliefs and commands that come from a god.

He was highly critical of ideas about divine intervention. He viciously criticized church officials who argued that a devastating earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 was a form of punishment from God. He also frequently criticized what he saw as the hypocrisy of the church and organized religion.

Deism

A religious belief of Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers that believes in a creator god that created the laws of nature but does not divinely interfere and interact with people in day to day life.

Voltaire's Books

Voltaire was a prolific writer, and published a variety of texts. In the table below you can see examples of some of the most famous Voltaire books and texts.

PlaysFictionEssaysOther Writings
  • Adaptation of Oedipus (1718)
  • Mariamne (1724)
  • Zaïre (1732)
  • Candide (1759)
  • Micromégas (1752)
  • Plato's Dream (1756)
  • Letters on the English (1733)
  • Essays on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756)
  • Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
  • Henriade (1723)
  • The Maid of Orleans (1730)
  • History of Charles XII (1731)
  • Elements of the Philosophy of Newton (1738)
  • Age of Louis XIV (1751)

Today, the Voltaire book most well known is undoubtedly Candide. It is an excellent example of satire, showing off Voltaire's wit and penchant for criticizing all manners of institutions.

Satire

Using humor, often including exaggeration and irony, to expose and criticize human vices, foolishness, and hypocrisy, often used in relation to politics and contemporary events.

Voltaire's Legacy

Voltaire remains one of the most widely read and best known Enlightenment philosophers. During his own time, he was a true celebrity, loved by some and hated by others. He maintained correspondence with two monarchs, Frederick and Catherine the Great of Russia. His ideas and criticism of the social order were a key inspiration for the French Revolution beginning in 1789. Voltaire's beliefs in the importance of freedom of expression and religious toleration heavily influence ideas of freedom of speech and religion in most Western democracies today.

Voltaire - Key takeaways

  • Voltaire was a French born philosopher and writer.
  • His wit and willingness to criticize the institutions of France made him famous but also brought him into conflict with the authorities.
  • He believed strongly in freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and religious toleration.

1. Voltaire, "On the Church of England," Letters on England, 1733.

Voltaire, Letter to Frederick of Prussia.

Frequently Asked Questions about Voltaire

Voltaire was a French Enlightenment thinker and writer. He was well known for his witty criticism of society and ideas in favor of freedom of thought and religious toleration.

Voltaire believed strongly in the need for religious toleration and freedom of expression.

Voltaire is most famous for being an outspoken critic of France's established institutions such as the Catholic Church and aristocracy, advocating instead for a more open society. His best known writing today is the book Candide.

Voltaire contributed to the Enlightenment by advocating for freedom of expression and religious toleration, frequently criticizing authority and established institutions.

Voltaire's impact on society included influencing the French Revolution as well as influencing our ideas of freedom of speech and religion today.

Final Voltaire Quiz

Question

Where was Voltaire from?

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Answer

France

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What characterized Voltaire from a young age?

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Answer

Rebelliousness and criticism of authority

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Why was Voltaire imprisoned in the Bastille?

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Answer

He mocked the regent of France and later had conflict with a nobleman.

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Where did Voltaire go into exile after his second imprisonment?

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Answer

England

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What impressed Voltaire so much about England?

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Answer

Its religious toleration and generally more open society than France.

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Who was Voltaire's longtime mistress and fellow writer and intellectual?

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Answer

Émilie du Châtelet

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At which Enlightened Despot's court did Voltaire spend time living?


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Answer

Frederick the Great

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What kind of society did Voltaire propose?

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Answer

Voltaire offered more criticisms than firm proposals for changes. He did advocate for toleration and freedom of expression.

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Did Voltaire believe in democracy?

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Voltaire voiced support for a strong ruler but one that was fair, meaning he supported Enlightened Absolutism over democracy.

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What is Voltaire's best known work today?

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Answer

Candide is his most well read work today.

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