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||Voltaire (1694-1778) - pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet|
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's world view was more skeptical, but both of their ideas influenced deeply the French Revolution. Voltaire disliked Rousseau and wrote to him in 1761: "One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work."
"Liberty of thought is the life of the soul." (from Essay on Epic Poetry, 1727)
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in Paris 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). He learned Latin and Greek and 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 Holland. From the beginning, Voltaire had troubles with the authorities, but he energetically attacked the government and the Catholic church. These activities led to 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. With his brother Armand, who was a fundamentalist Catholic, Voltaire did not get on as well as with his sister. Atheism Voltaire considered not as baleful as fanaticism, but nearly always fatal to virtue. The doctrines about the Trinity or the Incarnation he dismissed as nonsense. As a humanist, Voltaire advocated religious and social tolerance, but not necessarily in a direct way. Well known is Voltaire's hostility toward the Jews. His play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophéte (1741), which portrayed the founder of Islam as an intriguer and greedy for power, was denounced by Catholic clergymen. They had no doubts that the true target was Christian fanaticism. However, Pope Benedict XIV, whom Voltaire dedicated the work, replied by saying that he read it with great pleasure.
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 which did not lessen the number of his enemies at court.
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, Esssay upon Epic Poetry and Essay upon the Civil Wars in France, which were published in 1727. After returning to France Voltaire wrote plays, poetry, historical and scientific treatises and became royal historiographer. L'Histoire de Charles XII (1731) used novelistic technique and rejected the idea that divine intervention guides history. In 1734 appeared Voltaire's Philosophical Letters in 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. The English edition became a bestseller outside France.
"In general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other." (from Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764)
Voltaire's economic situation improved substantially, when he joined a syndicate, which made a large profit with the state lottery. In addition, with lucky speculation in the Compagnie des Indes he became so wealthy, that he lent money to dukes and princes.
At the age of thirty-nine, Voltraire started his famous sixteen-year liaison with Émilie du Châtelet. She was twenty-seven, married, and the mother of three children. "I found, in 1733, a young woman who thought as I did," Voltaire wrote in his memoirs, "and who decided to spend several years in the country, cultivating her mind." Voltaire's rival was the philosophe scientist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Malpertuis. Moreover, he suffered from digestive problems and attacks of diarrhea, and was often stopped from having sex with her.
The Marquis du Châtelet was well aware of the affair, and sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the Château de Cirey, where the couple lived in 1734-36 and 1737-40. Between the years Voltaire took a refuge in Holland (1736-37). Under the tutelage of Mme du Châtelet, a mathematician and scientist, Voltaire assimilated the principles of physics and was able to write Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, which was dedicated to her. Voltaire nicknamed madame du Châtelet "Mme Neuton Pompom." She died in September 1749, a few days after giving birth to a baby girl. The infant died a few days later. Mme du Châtelet's translation and commentary on Newton's Principia Mathematica, which was her last great work, came out in 1759.
In 1740 Voltaire was an ambassador-spy in Prussia, 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 Paris, Voltaire had a new mistress, Marie-Louise Denis, his eldest niece. At the invitation of Fredrick the Great, Voltaire moved in 1750 to Berlin, realizing eventually that the ruler was more enlightened in theory than in practice. Frederick cut down his allowance of sugar and chocolate and Voltaire said that the king never showed gratitude to any creature other than the horse on which he fled from the Battle of Mollwitz.
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, outside Geneva, 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. "Common sense is not so common," Voltaire wrote.
Voltaire's official publishers were Gabriel and Philibert Cramer from Geneve. They operated from Stockholm to Naples, and from Venice to Lisbon and Paris, spreading the ideas of Enlightenment. As an essayist Voltaire defended freedom of speech and religious tolerance. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) he defined the ideal religion – it would teach very little dogma but much morality. Voltaire's thoughts were condemned in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam. For safety reasons Voltaire denied his authorship.
In his late years Voltaire produced several anti-religious writing. In Ferney he built a chapel with the inscription 'Deo Erexit Voltaire' inscribed 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. (See also the writer Emile Zola, who defended falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus in his open letter J'accuse in 1898.)
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 eighty-four. Because he was
excommunicated at the time, he had risked becoming a a vampire by the
rules of folklore. During the Frech Revolution, his coffin was
installed in the Panthéon in Paris. In the 1830s, when the Panthéon
served as a church again, it was rumored that his remains had been
dumped in a sewer. When the tomb was opened in 1897, it was reported
that "A viscous matter, apparently coagulated sawdust" coated
Voltaire's remains. His skull had been sawed in half when his brain was
removed soon after his death. Voltaire's sardonic smirk was still
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), which reflected the nihilism of Jonathan Swift. In the story the young and innocent hero, Candide, experiences a long series of misfortunes and disastrous adventures. He is kicked out of the castle of Thunder-Ten-Tronckh for making love to the baron's daughter, Cunégonde, in the army he is beaten nearly to death, in Lisbon he experiences the famous earthquake, he is hunted by the Inquisition and Jesuits, and threatened with imprisonment in Paris. Meanwhile Cunégonde's father, mother and brother are hacked to pieces by invaders, and she is raped repeatedly. Eventually Candide marries Cunégonde, who has become an ugly gummy-eyed, flat-chested washerwoman, with wrinkled cheeks."If this is the best of possible worlds," Voltaire wrote, "what then are the others." Finally Candide finds the pleasures of cultivating one's garden – "Il faut cultiver notre jardin."
Candide's world is full of liars, traitors, ingrates, thieves,
misers, killers, fanatics, hypocrites, fools and so on. However, 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 suppose that
men have changed?" Candide rejects the philosophy of his tutor, the
unsuccessfully hanged Doctor Pangloss, who claims that "all is for the
best in this best of all possible
worlds" (see Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz).
Candide was partly inspired by the devastating Lisbon earthquake
of 1755, Dr. Pangloss was allegedly a caricature of Leibniz, but it is
possible that the real model was Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759),
a French philosopher and scientist. The prolific writer produced a number of studies
from the physics of Venus to the proof of the existence of God.
Voltaire's Histoire du docteur Akakia et du natif de Saint-Malo (1753)
openly ridiculed Maupertuis' ideas. In 1821, Voltaire's novel was among
the works which Eteinne Antoine, bishop of Troyne, condemned as godless
and sacrilegius Pope Pius VII place Candide on the list of prohibited
books. The United States Customs seized a shipment of the imported
edition of the novel in 1928 and declared it obscene. Candide's narrative frame, the education of a young man, was again
utilized among others in Stendhal's The Red and the
Black and Thomas Mann's The Magic
Mountain. Leonard Bernstein
a musical comedy which opened in Boston in 1956 with mixed reviews.
Lillian Hellman, who wrote the libretto, who had never before worked on
a musical. Hellman drew a parallel between Candide's blind faith in Dr.
Palgloss and the paranoia of the McCarthy era of the 1950s. "Three of
the most talented people of our Theater possesses– Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein and Tyrone Guthrie – have joined hands transforming Voltaire's Candide into a really spectacular disaster," said Walter Kerr in his Herald Tribune review.
In addition to Candide, Voltaire treated the problem of evil in his classic tale Zadig (1747), set in the ancient Babylon, and in 'Poem of the Lisbon' Earthquake'. "But how conceive a God supremely good," Voltaire asked in the poem, "Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves, / Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?" Micromégas (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 the conte already in 1738-39. It has similarities with 'Voyage du Baron Gangan', which he sent to Fredrick the Great.
Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique 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. Later Voltaire
introduced his Dictionary as a dialogical book: its
short, polemical articles were more useful when "the readers produce the
other half". In Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, Voltaire
presented the first modern comparative history of civilizations, including
Asia. Later he returned to the Chinese philosophy is his Dictionary,
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."
Voltaire regarded China as a "most tolerant and receptive nation" and
also asserted that the organization of Chinese empire is in truth the
best that the world has ever seen.
For further reading: Voltaire by R. Aldington (1934); Voltaire: Bibliographie de ses oeuvres by Georges Bengesco (1953); Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford (1957); Voltaire by Gustave Lanson (1966); Quarante Années d'études voltairiennes by Mary Margaret H. Barr (1968); Voltaire by Theodore Besterman (1969); The Intellectual Development of Voltaire by Ira O. Wade (1969); Voltaire ou la royauté de l'espirit by Jean Orieux (1978); Voltaire by Peyton Richter (1980); Voltaire en sons temps, 5 vols., ed. by René Pomeau (1985-94); Voltaire Revisited by Bettina Liebowitz Knapp (2000) Voltaire in Exile by Ian Davidson (2005) - See: Cyrano de Bergerac. Film Voltaire (1933), dir. by John G. Adolfi, screenplay by Paul Green, Maude T. Howell, from the novel by George Gibbs and E. Lawrence Dudley, starring George Arliss, Doris Kenyon, Margaret Lindsay, Alan Mowbray. "One man dared to speak out for the rights of an oppressed people... He educated the masses to think and act... This man – a hundred years ahead of his time – was Voltaire... The great humanitarian of the 18th century." (from the introductory title) The story focused on the Calas case - a wealthy merchant was wrongly executed by Louis XV. Voltaire is portrayed as a royalist, he has access to the King through his friendship with Mme de Pompadour. Louis himself is a bumbling individual, behind the execution is Count de Sarnac who is in league with Frederick the Great. See also Davis Marans: eLogic Gallery, Complete and Open-Access