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  • 11/15/2003


 (21Nov.1694-30 May 1778)

""Liberty of thought is the life of the soul." (FromEssay on Epic Poetry, 1727)

French writer, satirist, the embodiment of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Voltaire is remembered as a crusader against tyranny and bigotry. Compared to Rousseau's (1712-1778) rebelliousness and idealism, Voltaire was skeptical about the solution of the great philosophical problems. Voltaire disliked his great contemporary thinker, 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."
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born inParis 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's 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 his early twenties he spent eleven months in the Bastille for writing satiric verses about the aristocracy.
Voltaire did not support the dogmatic theology of institutional religions, his religiosity was anticlerical. The doctrines about the Trinity or the Incarnation he dismissed as nonsense.
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 hisPhilosophical Lettersin 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." (FromDictionnaire Philosophique, 1764)

In 1740 he was an ambassador-spy inPrussia, 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, a more enlightened ruler in theory than in practice.
Voltaire settled in 1755 in 1755 in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, apart from trips to France. He had his own château, Les Delices, outsideGeneva, 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. Voltaire's official publishers were Gabriel and Philibert Cramer from Geneve. They operated fromStockholm to Naples and from Venice to Lisbon and Paris, spreading the ideas of Enlightenment. In Ferney he built a chapel with the inscription 'Deo Erexit Voltaire' inscibed on the lintel. He also 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.Voltaire died inParis on May 30, 1778, as the undisputed leader of the Age of Enlightenment. He had suffered throughout his life from poor health, but at the time of his death he was eighty-four. Voltaire 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).
Candide's world is full of liars, traitors, ingrates, thieves, misers, killers, fanatics, hypocrites, 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 claimsthat "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds".Candide was partly inspired by the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Dr. Pangloss was a caricature of Leibniz, and the work reflected the nihilism ofJonathan Swift. Its narrative frame, the education of a young man, was again utilized inStendhal'sThe Red and the Black andThomas Mann'sThe Magic Mountain, among many later examples. Leonard Bernstein madeCandide a musical comedy in 1857.
In addition toCandide, Voltaire treated the problem of evil among others in his classic tale ZADIG (1747), set in the ancient Babylon, and in 'Poem of the Lisbon' Earthquake'. MICROMةGAS (1752) was an early science-fiction story, in which two ambassadors from the outer space visit Earth, and witness follies of human thought and behavior. Voltaire possibly wrote theconte already in 1738-39. It has similarities with 'Voyage du Baron Gangan', which he sent to Fredrick the Great.
As an essayist Voltaire defended freedom of thoughts and religious tolerance. In his DICTIONNAIRE PHILOSPHIQUE (1764) he defined the ideal religion - it would teach very little dogma but much morality. The work was condemned in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam. 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," Voltaire wrote inDictionnaire Philosophique. Later Voltaire introduced hisDictionary as a dialogical book: its short, polemical articles were 'more useful' when 'the readers produce the other half'. InEssay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, Voltaire presented the first modern comparative history of civilizations, includingAsia. Later he returned to the Chinese philosophy is hisDictionary, praising the teachings of Confucius: "What more beautiful rule of conduct has ever been given man since the world began? Let us admit that there has been no legislator more useful to the human race."

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