French philosopher and author, whose original name was Arouet. One of the towering geniuses in literary and intellectual history, Voltaire personifies the Enlightenment.
The son of a notary, he was born at Paris and was educated at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand. Because of insults to the regent, Philippe II d'Orléans, wrongly ascribed to him, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille (1717) for 11 months. There he rewrote his first tragedy, OEdipe (1718), and began an epic poem on Henry IV, the Henriade. It was at this time that he began to call himself Voltaire. OEdipe won him fame and a pension from the regent. Voltaire acquired an independent fortune through speculation; he was often noted for his generosity but also displayed a shrewd business acumen throughout his life and became a millionaire.
In 1726 a young nobleman, the chevalier de Rohan, resenting a witticism made at his expense by Voltaire, had Voltaire beaten. Far from obtaining justice, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille through the influence of the powerful Rohan family, and he was released only upon his promise to go to England. The episode left an indelible impression on Voltaire: for the rest of his life he exerted himself to his utmost in struggling against judicial arbitrariness. During his more than two years in England, Voltaire met, through his friend Lord Bolingbroke, the literary men of the period. He was impressed by the greater freedom of thought in England and was deeply influenced by Newton and Locke. Voltaire's Letters concerning the English Nation (1733, in English), which appeared (1734) in French as Lettres philosophiques, may be said to have initiated the vogue of English philosophy and science that characterized the literature of the Enlightenment. The book was formally banned in France.
While in England, Voltaire wrote the first of his historical works, a history of Charles XII of Sweden, which remains a classic in biography. Returning to France in 1729, he produced several tragedies, among them Brutus (1730) and Zaïre (1732). In 1733 he met Mme Du Châtelet, whose intellectual interests, especially in science, accorded with his own. They took up residence together at Cirey, in Lorraine, under the Marquis Du Châtelet's tolerant eye. The connection with Émilie Du Châtelet lasted until her death in 1749.
At Cirey, Voltaire worked on physics and chemistry experiments and began his long correspondence with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick II). In addition, he wrote Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1736); a burlesque treatment of the Joan of Arc legends, La Pucelle (1755); and the dramas Mahomet (1742), Mérope (1743,) and Sémiramis (1748). Through the influence of Mme de Pompadour, Voltaire was made royal historiographer, a gentleman of the king's bedchamber, and a member of the French Academy.
Voltaire first visited Berlin in 1743, and after Mme Du Châtelet's death he accepted Frederick II's invitation to live at his court. His relations with Frederick, a man whose unbending nature matched his own, were generally stormy. Voltaire's interference in the quarrel between Maupertuis and König led to renewed coldness on the part of Frederick, and in 1753 Voltaire hastily left Prussia. At a distance, the two men later became reconciled, and their correspondence was resumed. Unwelcome in France, Voltaire settled in Geneva, where he acquired the property “Les Délices”; he also acquired another house near Lausanne. The Genevese authorities soon objected to Voltaire's holding private theatrical performances at his home and still more to the article “Genève” written for Diderot's Encyclopédie, on Voltaire's instigation, by Alembert. The article, which declared that the Calvinist pastors of Geneva had seen the light and ceased to believe in organized religion, stirred up a violent controversy.
Voltaire purchased (1758) an estate, Ferney (see Ferney-Voltaire), just over the French border, where he lived until shortly before his death. He conducted an extensive correspondence with most of the outstanding men and women of his time; received hosts of visitors who came to do homage to the “patriarch of Ferney”; employed himself in seeking justice for victims of religious or political persecution; contributed to the Encyclopédie; and managed his estate, taking an active interest in improving the condition of his tenants.
Voltaire also edited the works of Corneille, wrote commentaries on Racine, and turned out a stream of anonymous novels and pamphlets in which he attacked the established institutions of his time with unremitting virulence. Ironically, it is one of these disavowed works, Candide (1759), that is most widely read today. It is the masterpiece among his “philosophical romances,” which also include the inimitable short tale Jeannot et Colin (1764), perhaps the quintessence of Voltaire's style. In Candide Voltaire attacked the philosophical optimism made fashionable by Leibniz. Its conclusion, “Let us cultivate our garden” (instead of speculating on unanswerable problems), expresses succinctly Voltaire's practical philosophy of common sense.
In 1778, his 84th year, Voltaire attended the first performance of his tragedy Irène, in Paris. His journey and his reception were a triumph and apotheosis, but the emotion was too much for him and he died in Paris soon afterward. In order to obtain Christian burial he had signed a partial retraction of his writings. This was considered insufficient by the church, but he refused to sign a more general retraction. To a friend he gave the following written declaration: “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting persecution.” An abbot secretly conveyed Voltaire's corpse to an abbey in Champagne, where he was buried. His remains were brought back to Paris in 1791 and buried in the Panthéon.
Voltaire attained the most subtly comical effects through an imperceptible turn of a phrase; his sentences flow with facility; his expressions are always felicitous and unlabored; his irony is as devastating as its touch is light. Brevity and lucidity characterize all his writings. The Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) is a compendium of Voltaire's thought on the most varied subjects. In his serious poetic works, the perfection of his style is usually combined with a coldness that has robbed them of lasting appeal, although they tower above those of other 18th-century imitators of Racine. Voltaire was significant in helping to introduce to the theater authentic costumes, and he labored successfully for the improvement of the social status of actors.
In his philosophy, based on skepticism and rationalism, he was indebted to Locke as well as to Montaigne and Bayle. Despite Voltaire's passion for clarity and reason, he frequently contradicted himself. Thus he would maintain in one place that man's nature was as unchangeable as that of animals and would express elsewhere his belief in progress and the gradual humanization of society through the action of the arts, sciences, and commerce. In politics he advocated reform but had a horror of the ignorance and potential fanaticism of people and the violence of revolution.
In religion Voltaire felt that Christianity was a good thing for chambermaids and tailors to believe in, but for the use of the elite he advocated a simple deism. He opposed the atheism and materialism of Helvétius and Holbach. His line, “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented,” has become proverbial. His celebrated slogan, Écrasez l'infâme! [crush the infamous thing!], has been interpreted as addressed either against the church or against the ancien régime in general.
Voltaire's influence in the popularization of the science and philosophy of his age was incalculably great. Perhaps his most lasting and original intellectual contribution was made in the field of history. His Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) embodies in part the ideas of his historical masterpiece, Essai sur l'histoire générale et sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (7 vol., 1756; tr. 1759), the first attempt at writing a history of the world as a whole; Voltaire laid as much emphasis on culture and commerce as on politics and war, and he avoided national parochialism.
The first “complete” edition of Voltaire's work was the so-called Kehl edition, by Beaumarchais (70 vol. in octavo or 92 vol. in duodecimo, 1784–89); a later edition is that of M. Beuchot (72 vol., 1828–40; rev. and enl., 52 vol., 1883). Publication of a complete collection of Voltaire's huge correspondence was started in 1953 under the editorship of Theodore Besterman and is continuing. There are English translations of Voltaire's most widely read works. Biographies and studies of Voltaire reflect continued controversy as to Voltaire's real thought and beliefs.
See biographies by Gustave Lanson (1906, in French; tr. by Robert A. Wagoner, 1966) and H. N. Brailsford (1935, repr. 1963); studies by Peter Gay (1959) and V. W. Topazio (1966); Ira O. Wade, Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet (1941, repr. 1967) and The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (1969).
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