François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known as Voltaire, was a writer, philosopher, poet, dramatist, historian and polemicist of the French Enlightenment. The diversity of his literary output is rivalled only by its abundance: the edition of his complete works currently nearing completion will comprise over 200 volumes.
‘The age of Voltaire’ has become synonymous with ‘the Enlightenment’, but although Voltaire’s eminence as a philosophe is self-evident, the precise originality of his thought and writings is less easily defined.
Read about his life and legacy below, or watch this short animated video, School of Life: Voltaire, created by philosopher Alain de Botton and scripted by Nicholas Cronk:
Born in Paris into a wealthy bourgeois family, he was a brilliant pupil of the Jesuits. His rejection of his father’s attempts to guide him into a career in the law was sealed in 1718, when he invented a new name for himself: ‘de Voltaire’. Voltaire is an anagram of ‘Arouet l(e) j(eune)’ (in the 18th century, i and j, and u and v, were typographically interchangeable). The addition of the aristocratic preposition ‘de’ may be an early sign of his social ambition, but the play on the verb volter, to turn abruptly, evokes a playful or ‘volatile’ quality which foretells the quick style, pervasive humour and irony that make Voltaire such an important figure in the history of the Enlightenment.
In the same year that he coined his new name, Voltaire enjoyed his first major literary success when his tragedy Œdipe was staged by the Comédie Française. Meanwhile he was working on an epic poem which had as its protagonist Henri IV, the much-loved French monarch who brought France’s civil wars to a close, and who, in Voltaire’s treatment, becomes a forerunner of religious toleration: La Ligue (later enlarged to become La Henriade) was first published in 1723.
Voltaire in England
His reputation as a poet and dramatist was now comfortably established, and he decided to travel to England to oversee the publishing of the definitive edition of La Henriade. His departure for London was precipitated when he unwisely became involved in a humiliating argument with an aristocrat, who had him briefly interned in the Bastille.
Voltaire arrived in London in the autumn of 1726, and what had begun partly as self-imposed exile became a crucially formative period for him. He learned English and mixed with a number of figures prominent in England’s political and cultural life. An old saw has it that Voltaire ‘came to England a poet and left it a philosopher’. In truth, he was a philosopher before coming to England, and it would be more accurate to say that Voltaire came to England a poet and left it a prose writer. Voltaire thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, and during his long life he would never abandon the writing of verse, for which he had a remarkable facility (many of his letters are sprinkled with seemingly spontaneous passages of verse). In England, however, he came into contact with models of prose unlike those to which he was accustomed in France: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example, which Voltaire read on first publication, or Addison’s Spectator, a periodical he used in order to learn to read English. It is hardly coincidental, therefore, that before returning to France in 1728, Voltaire began writing his first two major essays in prose: a history, the Histoire de Charles XII, and a book about the English, which is now best known under the title Lettres philosophiques, but was first published in English translation (London 1733) as the Letters Concerning the English Nation.
Cirey and Berlin
The furore created by the publication in France in 1734 of the Lettres philosophiques led Voltaire to leave Paris and take refuge in the château of his mistress, Mme du Châtelet, at Cirey-en-Champagne. From 1734 until Mme du Châtelet’s death in 1749, this was his haven from the world. During this period, he studied and wrote intensively in a wide variety of areas, including science (Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), poetry (Le Mondain, 1736), drama (Mahomet, 1741), and fiction (Zadig, 1747). In the 1740s, Voltaire was briefly on better terms with the court: he was made royal historiographer in 1745, and the following year, after several failed attempts, he was finally elected to the Académie Française. He had turned fifty and was now the leading poet and dramatist of his day; perhaps even Voltaire did not imagine that the works which would make him even more celebrated still lay in the future.
An initially idyllic interlude was provided by Voltaire’s stay at the court of Potsdam (1750-1753), and in 1752 he published both Le Siècle de Louis XIV and Micromégas. Throughout his career, however, Voltaire was prone to involvement in literary quarrels, and his time in Berlin was no exception; his attack on Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, president of the Berlin Academy, caused Frederick II to lose patience with him. Voltaire left Berlin in a flurry of mutual recriminations, and although these were later forgotten, Voltaire’s dream of having found the ideal enlightened monarch were definitively shattered. His correspondence with Frederick, which had begun in 1736 when the latter was still crown prince, survived, and, after a hiatus, it continued until Voltaire’s death. They corresponded on literary and philosophical matters, and Voltaire sent Frederick many of his works in manuscript. Their exchange of more than seven hundred letters remains as an extraordinary literary achievement in its own right.
Geneva and Ferney
In January 1755, after a period of wandering, Voltaire acquired a property in Geneva which he called ‘Les Délices’. A new and more settled phase now began as, at the age of sixty-one, he became master of his own house for the first time: in a letter of March that year, he wrote that ‘I am finally leading the life of a patriarch’. The Lisbon earthquake of November 1755 may have disturbed his philosophical certainties and caused him to doubt the Leibnizian Optimism which Alexander Pope had helped to popularize, but it did not disturb his new-found personal happiness. His Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne appeared within weeks of the earthquake, and it is revealing that his instant literary response should have been in verse. His prose response to the catastrophe, in Candide, took longer to mature and was published in 1759. In the meantime, he had written articles for the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, and in 1756 he published his universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs.
In 1757, d’Alembert’s critical article ‘Genève’ in the Encyclopédie had provoked a scandal in that city. Geneva turned out not to be the model republic that Voltaire had imagined or hoped it was, and after a number of tussles with clerical authority, he resolved to leave the city. A return to Paris would not have been welcomed by the government, so he purchased a house and estate at Ferney, where he installed himself in 1760 – on French soil now, but within striking distance of the border. It was in this symbolically marginal position that Voltaire was to live for the rest of his life. Henceforth he would play the part of the seigneur, caring for his estate and even building a church for the villagers: it bears the deist (and immodest) inscription Deo erexit Voltaire (‘Voltaire erected [this] to God’). But this new-found role did not mean that, like Candide, Voltaire had found happiness in cultivating his garden and in ignoring the world beyond. On the contrary, it was in 1760 that Voltaire first issued the rallying cry with which he would henceforth sign many of his letters: Ecrasons l’Infâme (‘Let’s crush the despicable’). The stability of his base at Ferney seems to have given Voltaire the opportunity over the following years to launch and encourage the campaigns which soon made him the most famous writer in Europe.
The Calas affair was a defining moment in this crusade for tolerance. The Huguenot Jean Calas was tortured and broken on the wheel in 1762 after being found guilty, on the basis of dubious evidence, of murdering his son. Voltaire successfully led a determined campaign to clear Calas’s name, writing many letters and publishing a number of works, including Traité sur la tolérance (1763). Other campaigns followed – a successful one to obtain the rehabilitation of another Huguenot family, the Sirvens, accused of having murdered a daughter recently converted to Catholicism, and an unsuccessful one to achieve a pardon for a nineteen-year-old man, La Barre, condemned to be burned at the stake for having committed certain trivial acts of sacrilege (and for having in his possession a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique). These struggles brought Voltaire to even greater public prominence, and it in no way diminishes his undoubted determination and courage to say that he obviously relished his new role: in a letter of 1766, he wrote to a friend ‘Oh how I love this philosophy of action and goodwill’.
Although many of Voltaire’s later writings concerned his crusade for tolerance and justice, he continued, to write in a wide variety of forms, from tragedy to biblical criticism, and from satire to short fiction (L’Ingénu, 1767; Le Taureau blanc, 1773). In February 1778, Voltaire was persuaded by his friends to make a symbolic return to Paris, ostensibly to oversee preparations to stage his latest tragedy, Irène. It was the first time he had set foot in the capital since 1750, and he was received in triumph. A succession of friends called on him, and despite his deteriorating health, he attended a performance of his new play at the Comédie Française, in the course of which his bust was crowned on stage with a laurel wreath. His health did not permit his return to Ferney, and he died in Paris two months later. Even in death, Voltaire, a celebrated amateur actor, seemed to have stage-managed his departure from the scene so as to gain maximum publicity.
Voltaire and Enlightenment
In terms of the history of ideas, Voltaire’s single most important achievement was to have helped in the 1730s to introduce the thought of Newton and Locke to France (and so to the rest of the Continent). This achievement is, as Jonathan Israel has shown, hardly as radical as has sometimes been thought: the English thinkers in question served essentially as a deistic bulwark against the more radical (atheistic) currents of thought in the Spinozist tradition. Voltaire’s deist beliefs, reiterated throughout his life, came to appear increasingly outmoded and defensive as he grew older and as he became more and more exercised by the spread of atheism. Voltaire’s failure to produce an original philosophy was, in a sense, counterbalanced by his deliberate cultivation of a philosophy of action; his ‘common sense’ crusade against superstition and prejudice and in favour of religious toleration was his single greatest contribution to the progress of Enlightenment. ‘Rousseau writes for writing’s sake’, he declared in a letter of 1767, ‘I write to act.’
It was therefore Voltaire’s literary and rhetorical contributions to the Enlightenment which were truly unique. Interested neither in music (like Rousseau) nor in art (like Diderot), Voltaire was fundamentally a man of language. Through force of style, through skilful choice of literary genre, and through the accomplished manipulation of the book market, he found means of popularizing and promulgating ideas which until then had generally been clandestine. The range of his writing is immense, embracing virtually every genre. In verse, he wrote in every form – epic poetry, ode, satire and epistle, and even occasional and light verse; his drama, also written in verse, includes both comedies and tragedies (although the tragedies have not survived in the modern theatre, many live on in the opera, as, for example, Rossini’s Semiramide and Tancredi).
It is above all the prose works with which modern readers are familiar, and again the writings cover a wide spectrum: histories, polemical satires, pamphlets of all types, dialogues, short fictions or contes, and letters both real and fictive. The conspicuous absentee from this list is the novel, a genre which, like the prose drame, Voltaire thought base and trivial. To understand the strength of his dislike for these ‘new’ genres, we need to remember that Voltaire was a product of the late seventeenth century, the moment of the Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns, and this literary debate continued to influence his aesthetic views all through his life. Controversial religious and political views were often expressed in the literary forms (classical tragedy, the verse satire) perfected in the seventeenth century; the ‘conservatism’ of these forms seems, to modern readers at least, to compromise the content, though this apparent traditionalism may in fact have helped Voltaire mask the originality of his enterprise: it is at least arguable that in a work such as Zaïre (1732), the form of the classical tragedy made its ideas of religious toleration more palatable.
Yet this would also be a simplification, for notwithstanding his apparent literary conservatism, Voltaire was in fact a relentless reformer and experimenter with literary genres, innovative almost despite himself, particularly in the domain of prose. Although he never turned his back on verse drama and philosophical poetry, he experimented with different forms of historical writing and tried his hand at different styles of prose fiction. Above all, he seems to have discovered late in his career the satirical and polemical uses of the fragment, notably in his alphabetic works, the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764), containing 73 articles in its first edition, and the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772). The latter work, whose first edition contained 423 articles in nine octavo volumes, is a vast and challenging compendium of his thought and ranks among Voltaire’s unrecognized masterpieces.
He used something like 175 different pseudonyms in the course of his career
Voltaire’s ironic, fast-moving, deceptively simple style makes him one of the greatest stylists of the French language. All his life, Voltaire loved to act in his own plays, and this fondness for role-playing carried through into all his writings. He used something like 175 different pseudonyms in the course of his career, and his writing is characterized by a proliferation of different personae and voices. The reader is constantly drawn into dialogue – by a footnote which contradicts the text, or by one voice in the text which argues against another. The use of the mask is so relentless and the presence of humour, irony, and satire so pervasive that the reader has finally no idea of where the ‘real’ Voltaire is. His autobiographical writings are few and entirely unrevealing: as the title of his Commentaire historique sur les Œuvres de l’auteur de la Henriade suggests, it is his writings alone which constitute their author’s identity.
In fact we rarely know with certainty what Voltaire truly thought or believed; what mattered to him was the impact of what he wrote. The great crusades of the 1760s taught him to appreciate the importance of public opinion, and in popularizing the clandestine ideas of the early part of the century he played the role of the journalist. He may have been old-fashioned in his nostalgia for the classicism of the previous century, but he was wholly of his day in his consummate understanding of the medium of publishing. He manipulated the book trade to achieve maximum publicity for his ideas, and he well understood the importance of what he called ‘the portable’. In 1766, Voltaire wrote to d’Alembert: ‘Twenty in-folio volumes will never cause a revolution; it’s the little portable books at thirty sous which are to be feared.’
Voltaire was also modern in the way he invented himself by fashioning a public image out of his adopted name. As the patriarch of Ferney, he turned himself into an institution whose fame reached across Europe. As an engaged and militant intellectual, he stood at the beginning of a French tradition which looked forward to Emile Zola and to Jean-Paul Sartre, and in modern republican France his name stands as a cultural icon, a symbol of rationalism and the defence of tolerance. Voltaire was a man of paradoxes: the bourgeois who as de Voltaire gave himself aristocratic pretensions, but who as plain Voltaire later became a hero of the Revolution; the conservative in aesthetic matters who appeared as a radical in religious and political issues. He was, above all, the master ironist, who, perhaps more than any other writer, gave to the Enlightenment its characteristic and defining tone of voice.
– N. E. Cronk