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, Œdipe (1718), and began an epic poem on Henry IV, the Henriade. It was at this time that he began to call himself Voltaire. Œdipe 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 (1726–28) 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 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), which was partially responsible for bringing awareness of Newtonian physics to the Continent; 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 and in campaigning against the practice of torture; 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.