Voltaire

| deathplace = Paris, France | occupation = Essayist | nationality = French | influences = John Locke, Isaac Newton | influenced = Victor Hugo, Thomas Paine, Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, A.J. Ayer | signature = | website = }}

François-Marie Arouet (21 November, 1694 – 30 May, 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher known for his wit, philosophical sport, and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Catholic Church dogma and the French institutions of his day

Voltaire was one of several Enlightenment figures (along with John Locke and Thomas Hobbes) whose works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.

Biography

The French author François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, was born November 21, 1694, in Paris, the last of five children of François Arouet (1650–January 1, 1722), a notary who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite d'Aumart (ca. 1660–July 13, 1701), from a noble family of Poitou province. Voltaire was educated by Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-11), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English. From 1711 to 1713 he studied law. Before devoting himself entirely to writing, Voltaire worked as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where he fell in love with a French refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire's father and he was forced to return to France. Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris until his exile. From the beginning Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his energetic attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. In his early twenties he spent eleven months in the Bastille for allegedly writing satirical verses about the aristocracy.

After graduating, Voltaire set out on a career in literature. His father, however, intended his son to be educated in the law. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a lawyer, spent much of his time writing satirical poetry. When his father found him out, he again sent Voltaire to study law, this time in the provinces. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies not always noted for their accuracy. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families. In 1719, he became involved in the Cellamare conspiracy of Giulio Alberoni against Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the regent for Louis XV of France. One of his writings about the Régent led to his being imprisoned in the Bastille, which was previously mentioned. While there, he wrote his debut play, ?dipe, and adopted the name Voltaire which came from his hometown in southern France . ''?dipe's'' success began Voltaire's influence and brought him into the French Enlightenment. Voltaire was a prolific writer, and produced works in almost every literary form, authoring plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, over 20,000 letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets.

He died on May 30, 1778 and his last words are said to have been, "For God's sake, let me die in peace."

Poetry

From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse, and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two long poems, the Henriade, and ''La Pucelle d'Orléans'', besides many other smaller pieces.

The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes. Voltaire lacked enthusiasm for and understanding of the subject, both of which negatively affected the poem's quality. The Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque work attacking religion and history. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.

Prose

Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism; ''L'Homme aux quarante ecus, certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others, the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy; and some were written to deride the Bible''. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style, free of exaggeration, is apparent, particularly the restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Candide in particular is the best example of his style.

Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromegas.

In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar works - sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siécles.

Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "''l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme'', or "crush the infamy". The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.

The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with the quote "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." These were not his words but instead were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre), in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book ''De l'esprit'', but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire' attitude towards Helvetius ; it had been said that this was inspired by a quote found in a 1770 letter to M. le Roche, in which he says "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." , nevertheless, French scholars feel there must have been some misinterpretation, as the letter doesn't seem to contain any such quote . Voltaire's largest philosophical work is the Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the Encyclopédie and several minor pieces. It directed criticism at French political institutions, Voltaire's personal enemies, the Bible, and the Roman Catholic Church.

New France

Voltaire was a critic of France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as "a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige").

Letters

Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totaling over 21,000 letters. His personality shows through in the letters that he wrote: his energy and versatility, his unhesitating flattery, his ruthless sarcasm, his unscrupulous business faculty, and his resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies.

Religion

Voltaire, though often thought an atheist, did in fact partake in religious activities and even erected a chapel on his estate at Ferney. The chief source for the misconception is a line from one of his poems (called "Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors") that translates to: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." The full body of the work, however, reveals his criticism was more focused towards the actions of organized religion, rather than with the concept of religion itself.

Like many other key figures during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a Deist. He did not believe that absolute faith, based upon any particular or singular religious text or tradition of revelation, was needed to believe in God. In fact, Voltaire's focus instead on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature reflected the contemporary Pantheism, increasingly popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which continues in a form of deism today known as "Voltairean Pantheism."

He wrote, "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."

In terms of religious texts, Voltaire was largely of the opinion that the Bible was 1) an outdated legal and/or moral reference, 2) by and large a metaphor, but one that still taught some good lessons, and 3) a work of Man, not a divine gift. These beliefs did not hinder his religious practice, however, though it did gain him somewhat of a bad reputation in the Catholic Church. It may be noted that Voltaire was indeed seen as somewhat of a nuisance to many believers, and was almost universally known; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...."

Voltaire was also critical of Muhammad. His play Fanaticism, or Mahomet was "written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect"; he also referred to Muhammad as "a false prophet." However, his views on Islam were more favourable. He called him the founder of "a wise, severe, chaste, and humane religion", and also said "The legislator of the Muslims, a terrible and powerful man, established his dogmas with his valor and arms; yet, his religion became benign and tolerant."

From translated works on Confucianism and Legalism, Voltaire drew on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy - which were based on rational principles, to look critically at European organized religion and hereditary aristocracy.

Voltaire also displayed, as part of his Dictionnaire philosophique, an inclination towards the ideas of Hinduism and the works of Brahmin priests, asking, "Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians?" His attitudes towards religious institutions are further shown in the criticisms he made of Christian missionaries in India.

There is an apocryphal story that his home at Ferney was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and used for printing Bibles, but this appears to be due to a misunderstanding of the 1849 annual report of the American Bible Society . Voltaire's chateau is now owned and administered by the French Ministry of Culture.

Freemasonry

Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry shortly before his death. On April 7, 1778 Voltaire accompanied Benjamin Franklin into Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, France and became an Entered Apprentice Freemason.

Legacy

Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static force useful only as a counterbalance since its "religious tax" or the tithe helped to create a strong backing for revolutionaries.

Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses . To Voltaire, only an enlightened monarch or an enlightened absolutist, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king's rational interest to improve the power and wealth of his subjects and kingdom. Voltaire essentially believed enlightened despotism to be the key to progress and change.

He is best known today for his novel, ''Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which satirized the philosophy of optimism. Candide'' was also subject to censorship and Voltaire jokingly claimed that the actual author was a certain "Dr DeMad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.

Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "''Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer" ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, The Three Impostors''.

Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights — the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion — and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).

Thomas Carlyle argued that, while Voltaire was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works were of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own.

According to a review in the March 7, 2005 issue of The New Yorker of Voltaire's Garden, a mathematician friend of his realized in 1728 that the French government had authorized a lottery in which the prize was much greater than the collective cost of the tickets. He and Voltaire formed a syndicate, collected all the money, and became moneylenders to the great houses of Europe.

The town of Ferney, France, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life (though he died in Paris), is now named Ferney-Voltaire in honor of its most famous resident. His château is a museum; as of July 2007, it was closed for restoration, with no date available for its reopening to the public.

Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the Russian National Library at St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1791 Voltaire's remains were interred at Paris' Panthéon.

According to poet Richard Armour, Voltaire's friendship with Frederick William existed because "Frederick considered Voltaire to be immensely clever and so did Voltaire."

The name "Voltaire"

The name "Voltaire," which he adopted in 1718 not only as a pen name but also in daily use, is an anagram of AROVET LI, the Latinised spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of the sobriquet "le jeune" ("the younger"). The name also echoes in reversed order the syllables of a familial château in the Poitou region: "Airvault". The adoption of this name after his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark a formal separation on the part of Voltaire from his family and his past.

Richard Holmes, in ''Voltaire's Grin'', also believes that the name "Voltaire" arose from the transposition of letters. But he adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended the name to carry its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associated words such as: "voltige" (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), "volte-face" (spinning about to face your enemies), and "volatile" (originally any winged creature). Arouet was not a noble name to suit his growing reputation, especially due to the fact of its similarities with "rouer" (for beating) and "roué" (a debauchee).

Bibliography

Major works

Plays

Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays, including a few unfinished ones. Among them are these:

Historical

See also

References

External links