Biography of Voltaire

Fran?ois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in 1694 into a Parisian middle-class family, the son of a low-level treasury official. Educated by the Jesuits at the Coll?ge Louis-le-Grand (1704-11) on the outskirts of Paris, Voltaire went to law school from 1711 to 1713 before working as a secretary to the French ambassador in Holland. Soon thereafter, he devoted himself full-time to the vocation of writing. At the time, all official publications needed the stamp of approval of royal authorities. Given his tendency to engage in polemical attacks on the government and the Catholic church, Voltaire more than once found himself in a thorny legal position and forced into various exiles and imprisonments.

In 1716 Voltaire was arrested and exiled from Paris for five months. From 1717 to 1718, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for lampooning the Regency. During this time he wrote the tragedy ?dipe, and started to use the name Voltaire. The play brought him fame in addition to enemies at court.

During his 1726 term at the Bastille Voltaire was visited by a steady stream of admirers. Between 1726 and 1729 he lived in exile primarily in England. Upon returning 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 Lettres Philosophiques in which he compared the French system of government with the system he had witnessed in England, where there appeared to be fewer barriers to occupations than in his native country. The book was banned, and Voltaire forced to flee Paris, while the English edition became a British bestseller.

Voltaire lived at the Ch?teau de Cirey with Madame du Ch?telet in 1734-36 and 1737-40. Between the years he took refuge in Holland (1736-37). In 1746 he was elected to the prestigious Acad?mie fran?aise. Four years later, at the invitation of Frederic the Great, Voltaire moved to Berlin.

In 1755, Voltaire settled in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, apart from sporadic trips to France. In his later years Voltaire produced several anti-religious writing and led campaign to open 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. Out of the affaire Calas emerged Treatise on Tolerance, a passionate manifesto that goes beyond a discussion of the bloody religious conflict in France between Protestants and Catholics to argue for a "universal tolerance" of all peoples and religions. As an essayist, Voltaire defended religious freedom and tolerance. His ideas influenced deeply the French Revolution.

Accomplished playwright, man of letters, politician, metaphysician, Voltaire was a Renaissance man who, born two centuries after the height of the Renaissance, would come to embody the age of Enlightenment, the eighteenth century philosophical movement that put faith in science and rationality above religion and divinity. Voltaire died in Paris on May 30, 1778, at eighty-four, bequeathing to future generations a voluminous oeuvre of fourteen thousand known letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets.


Study Guides on Works by Voltaire

Dismissed as a piece of light satirical fluff at the time of its publication, Candide has only recently been elevated to a canonical status and included on the list of the "world's greatest books." Originally presented in January...