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French writer, satirist, the embodiment of the 18th-century Enlightenment, remembered as a crusader against tyranny and bigotry, a friend of Frederick II of Prussia and Catherina the Great of Russia. Voltaire represented anti-romanticism, wise skepticism, sober classicism; he did not believe in the solution of the great metaphysical problems and his religiosity was anticlerical. But compared to Rousseau's (1712-1778) rebelliousness, Voltaire was deeply rooted in the middle-class values. Voltaire disliked his great competing figure of literature and philosophy, but their ideas influenced deeply the French Revolution. In 1761 he wrote to Rousseau: "One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work."
"Liberty of thought is the life of the soul." (from Essay on Epic Poetry, 1727)
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in Paris into a middle-class family. His father was a minor treasury official. Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-11). From 1711 to 1713 he studied law and then worked as a secretary to the French ambassador in Holland before devoting himself entirely to writing. Voltaire suffered from poor health, his essays did not gain the approval of authorities, but he energetically attacked the government and the Catholic church, which caused him numerous imprisonments and exiles.
In 1716 Voltaire was arrested and exiled from Paris for five months. From 1717 to 1718 he was imprisoned in the Bastille for lampoons of the Regency. During this time he wrote the tragedy ŒDIPE, and started to use the name Voltaire. The play brought him fame but also more enemies at court. With lucky speculation in the Compagnie des Indes he gained wealth in 1726.
At his 1726 stay at the Bastille Voltaire was visited by a flow of admirers. Between 1726 and 1729 he lived in exile mainly in England. There he avoided trouble for three years and wrote in English his first essays, ESSAY UPON EPIC POETRY and ESSAY UPON THE CIVIL WARS IN FRANCE, which were published in 1727. After his return to France Voltaire wrote plays, poetry, historical and scientific treatises and became royal historiographer. HISTOIRE DE CHARLES XII (1731) used novelistic technique and rejected the idea that divine intervention guides history. In 1734 appeared his Philosophical Letters in which he compared the French system of government with the system he had seen in England. Voltaire stated that he had perceived fewer barriers between occupations in England than in his own country. The book was banned, and Voltaire was forced to flee Paris, but the English edition became a British bestseller.
"In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other." (from Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764)
Voltare lived at the Château de Cirey with madame du Châtelet in 1734-36 and 1737-40. Between the years he took a refuge in Holland (1736-37). In 1740 he was an ambassador-spy in Prussia, then in Brussels (1742-43) and in 1748 he was at the court of King Stanislas in Lunéville. From 1745 to 1750 he was a historiographer to Louis XV and in 1746 he was elected to the French Academy. In 1750 Voltaire moved to Berlin, where he was invited by Fredrick the Great.
In 1755 Voltaire settled in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, apart from trips to France. He had his own château, Les Delices, outside Geneva, and later at nearby Ferney, in France. Anybody of note, from Boswell to Casanova, wanted to visit the place; Voltaire's conversations with visitors were recorded and published and he was flattered by kings and nobility. In his late years Voltaire produced several anti-religious writing and led campaign to open up a trial, in which the Huguenot merchant Jean Calas was found guilty of murdering his eldest son and executed. The parliament at Paris declared afterwards in 1765 Calas and all his family innocent. - (SEE ALSO writer Emile Zola who defended falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus in his open letter J'accuse in 1898.)
"If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others." (from Candide)
Voltaire died in Paris on May 30, 1778, at eighty-four, as the undisputed leader of the Age of Enlightenment. He left behind him over fourteen thousand known letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets. Among his best-known works is the satirical short story CANDIDE (1759), in which the young and innocent hero goes through a long series of misfortunes and disastrous adventures. He is kicked out of the castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh for making love to the baron's daughter, Cunégonde, in the army he is beaten nearly to death, in Lisbon he experiences an earthquake, he is hunted by the Inquisition and Jesuits, threatened with imprisonment in Paris and marries Cunégonde, who has become ugly. Finally Candide finds the pleasures of cultivating one's garden - "Il faut cultiver notre jardin."
Candide's world is full of liars, traitors, ingrates, thieves, misers, killers, fanatics, hypocrits, fools and so on. But Voltaire's outrage is not based on social criticism but on his ironic view of human nature. When Candide asks his friend Martin, does he believe that men have always massacred one another, Martin points out that hawks eat pigeons. "-Well, said Martin, if hawks have always had the same character, why do you supposed that men have changed?" Candide rejects the philosophy of his tutor, the unsuccessfully hanged Doctor Pangloss, who claims that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds" (see Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz). Candide was partly inspired by the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Dr. Pangloss was a caricature of Leibniz, and the work reflected the nihilism of Jonathan Swift. Its narrative frame, the education of a young man, was again utilized in Stendhal's The Red and the Black and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, among many later examples.
As an essayist Voltaire defended freedom of thoughts and religious tolerance. His DICTIONNAIRE PHILOSPHIQUE (1764) was condemned in Paris, Geneva and Amsterdam, and for safety reasons Voltaire denied his authorship. The book was burned with the young Chevalier de la Barre, who had neglected to take of his hat while passing a bridge where a sacred statue was exposed. "Common sense is not so common." (from Dictionnaire Philosophique)
Later Voltaire introduced his Dictionary as a dialogical book: its short, polemical articles were 'more useful' when 'the readers produce the other half'. In Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations Voltaire presented the first modern comparative history of civilizations, including Asia. An innovative aspect of Voltaire's history is that the chivalric hero is rejected for the 'good administrator', who protects liberties in order for society to prosper.
For further reading: Voltaire: Bibliographie de ses oeuvres by Georges Bengesco (1953); Voltaire by Gustave Lanson (1966); Quarante Années d'études voltairiennes by Mary Margaret H. Barr (1968); Voltaire by Theodore Besterman (1969); The Intellectual Development of Voltaire by Ira O. Wade (1969); Voltaire ou la royauté de l'espirit by Jean Orieux (1978); Voltaire by Peyton Richter (1980); Voltaire en sons temps, ed. by René Pomeau (1985-94, 5 vols.) - SEE ALSO: Cyrano de Bergerac
Film Voltaire (1933), dir. by John G. Adolfi, screenplay by Paul Green, Maude T. Howell, from the novel by George Gibbs and E. Lawrence Dudley, starring George Arliss, Doris Kenyon, Margaret Lindsay, Alan Mowbray. "One man dared to speak out for the rights of an oppressed people... He educated the masses to think and act... This man - a hundred years ahead of his time - was Voltaire... The great humanitarian of the 18th century." (from the introductory title) - The story focused on the Calas case - a wealthy merchant was wrongly executed by Louis XV. Voltaire is portrayed as a royalist, he has access to the King through his friendship with Mme de Pompadour. Louis himself is a bubmling individual, behind the execution is Count de Sarnac who is in league with Frederick the Great.