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Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire

Updated on August 20, 2009

Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire was a French poet, philosopher, historian, and dramatist. Born Paris, France, Nov. 21, 1694. Died Paris, May 30, 1778.

Voltaire was the most important writer of 18th-century French literature. A great wit and satirist, he ridiculed the hypocrisy and intolerance existing in such organized institutions as the Church and the government. Throughout his life he fought superstition, ignorance, and bigotry, proposing that man should be guided by the principles of reason and common sense. Many of his ideas were later adopted by leaders of the French Revolution.

A remarkably prolific author, Voltaire wrote in almost every literary form. His style is marked by its brilliance, clarity, and conciseness. Although in his own time he was known primarily as a dramatist and poet, he is best remembered for his philosophical tales and novels. Among the most outstanding of these works are Zadig (1747) and his masterpiece, Candide (1759), a satire on the complacency and blind optimism that marked much of the philosophical thought of the period. Another of Voltaire's important works is The Philosophical Dictionary (1764), a collection of his views on such subjects as war and religion.

Despite his strong preference for the arts, Voltaire was persuaded by his father, a lawyer, to enter the legal profession. As a student, however, he neglected his studies to join a group of bohemian aristocrats who called themselves the Society of the Temple. Voltaire soon gained considerable notoriety for his witty and often malicious poems about important public figures. In 1717 he was imprisoned in the Bastille for writing insulting verses about the regent of France. He was released after 11 months and soon enjoyed a great triumph with the performance of his first tragedy, Oedipus (1718). At this time he added the name de Voltaire to his family name of Arouet.

In 1726, Voltaire was publicly insulted by the Chevalier de Rohan, a powerful nobleman, who ridiculed the young author's adoption of an aristocratic name. Although Voltaire was not the offender, he was imprisoned in the Bastille and released only on the condition that he leave Paris. He went to England, where he remained for more than two years. While there he learned the language, and became impressed with the English way of life, government, customs, and literature. His celebrated Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) reflects his admiration for English society and culture. The book's criticism of French institutions, however, was viewed with disfavor by the French government. Threatened with arrest in 1734, Voltaire took refuge in Lorraine at the home of his good friend Madame du Chatelet. He remained there off and on for more than ten years. During this period, Voltaire was actively interested in the experimental sciences. In addition, he became interested in and wrote a treatise on the principles of Newtonian physics, as well as several tragedies, including Merope (1743) and a satirical poem, The Man of the World (1736).

During the 1740's, Voltaire was briefly restored to public favor. He was appointed royal historiographer to Louis XV in 1745, and in the following year he became a member of the French Academy. In 1750 he went to Germany at the invitation of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. He lived at Frederick's court until 1753, completing his famous history The Age of Louis XIV (1751) and Micromegas (1752), a satire on the insignificance of man in relation to the universe.

His long stay in Germany had made Voltaire unwelcome in France. He went instead to Switzerland, where he bought several estates with part of the large fortune that he had acquired years earlier in successful business enterprises. In 1758, Voltaire finally settled in Ferney, France, near the Swiss border, where he was able to continue writing with little fear
of persecution from the French government. During this last stage of his career he published many of his finest philosophical works, including Candide, the Treatise on Tolerance (1763), The Philosophical Dictionary, and The Ignorant Philosopher (1766). He also engaged in extensive correspondence with a host of intellectual and public figures throughout Europe. His letters bear witness to the amazing diversity of his interests and to the resilience of his wit.

Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire died in Paris, May 30, 1778.


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