Biography

  • Francois Marie Arouet was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris.
  • He was born into a middle-class family.
  • His father was a minor treasury official in Paris.
  • He is better known by his pen name; Voltaire.
  • Voltaire was educated at the Jesuit College Louis-Le-Grande in Paris from (1704-11).
  • He studied law from (1711-13) and then worked for a French Ambassador in Holland.
  • Soon after he devoted himself to his writing.
  • His essays did not gain approval from authorities because they attacked the government and Catholic church which caused him numerous imprisonments and exiles.
  • In his early twenties he spent 11 months in the Bastille for writing satiric verses about the aristocracy.
  • Voltaire did not support the arrogant theology of institutional religions, his religiosity was anticlerical.
  • He dismissed the doctrines about the Trinity and Incarnation as nonsense.
  • As a humanist, he advocated religious and social tolerance.
  • At the age of thirty-nine, Voltraire started his famous sixteen-year liaison with Mme du Châtelet.
  • Voltaire died in Paris 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 84!
  • Voltaire left behind him over fourteen thousand known letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets. Among the most best-known was a satirical short story CANDIDE (1759)

Voltaire vs. Rousseau

  • Voltaire believed that the purpose of an individual is to refine the society in which he lives, while Rousseau believed that civilization corrupts while nature refines.
  • In 1761 Voltaire wrote to Rousseau, “One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work”.

Voltaire’s Impact on the Enlightenment

  • As an essayist, Voltaire defended freedom of speech and religious tolerance. He was often thought an atheist, a misconception derived from a line of one of his poems, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him”. The work in full however shows rather that his criticisms were focused more towards the actions of organized and institutional religion, rather than with the concept of religion itself.
  • Like many other key figures of the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a Deist- that God must exist to create our complex world and control morals, but he did not believe in the God of the Bible. Voltaire was also keen to express his thoughts on faith and reason, “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.”
  • He believed on the whole that instead of looking for a perfect society (which he did not believe existed) citizens should spend their time and energy trying to perfect the society in which they have been placed. This is what he did, Voltaire admired the personal and religious freedom he noted in England whilst in exile and he sought to mould the French government in the same pattern. He contrasted what he saw as an idealized portrait of prosperous, free and tolerant England with the aristocracy, intolerance and traditionalism of France.

Voltaire’s Famous Work: Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759)

  • The novella begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with optimism by his tutor, Pangloss.
  • It is known for its sarcastic tone and its erratic, fantastical, and fast-moving plot.
  • Some major themes in this book are: Optimism, Free Will, and Evil.

Famous Quotes

  • “…the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death.”
  • “All murderers are punished unless they kill in
  • large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
  • “Common sense is not so common.”
  • “A witty saying proves nothing.”
  • “An ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”
  • “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”
  • “History is only the register of crimes and misfortunes.”

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