Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire
Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694-1778), French Enlightenment author, critic, essayist, historian, and philosopher wrote Candide (1759);
"Human grandeur," said Pangloss, "is very dangerous, if we believe the testimonies of almost all philosophers; . . . . "
As his best-known work, Candide is a satirical examination on numerous themes like religion, philosophy, and government, written in the mordant wit and skepticism that Voltaire employs in so many of his works. Translated to numerous languages and adapted to the stage and screen, Voltaire's opus continues to be widely read over two centuries later. Voltaire certainly gained enough real life experience to garner a cynical attitude towards established dogmatic institutions that repressed the individual during his lifetime. Why does so much evil exist, seeing that everything is formed by a God whom all theists are agreed in naming "good?" ("Why?", Philosophical Dictionary (1764). In his later years Voltaire championed the rights of victims of religious, cultural, and political persecution, sharing many of the same views as Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He wrote extensively on matters scientific, historical, political, and theological in essays and pamphlets, sometimes published anonymously, including his poem "La Pucelle d'Orléans" (1755) based on legends of Joan of Arc. As an outspoken critic of the aristocracy, government, and Catholic Church Voltaire was at-times imprisoned for his views and would spend much time in exile outside of his native country. What is tolerance? it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly-that is the first law of nature." ("Tolerance", ibid)
Francois Marie Arouet was born in Paris, France, on 21 November 1694, the youngest son born to notary François Arouet (1650-1722). As was his father's wishes to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession via a classical education, he entered the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand in 1704. For the next seven years, while under the guidance of Jesuit priests, Voltaire's rebellious and questioning spirit evolved. He developed a love of theatre and started writing satirical poems despite strict censorship laws of the time, some of which landed him in the infamous Bastille in 1717. While in prison he started to use his pen name "Voltaire", wrote his epic poem celebrating the life of Henry IV "Henriade" (pub. 1723), and worked on his successful tragedy Oedipe (first performed in 1719).
In 1726, when a young nobleman of the Rohan family took offence to Voltaires' writing, he had him beaten then imprisoned in the Bastille, to be released only if he promised to leave France. So Voltaire took up residence in England for three years where he was welcomed by many literary figures of the day and attended many of the plays of William Shakespeare. He also continued his prodigious output of essays, and wrote a biography of Sweden's Charles XII. Upon his return to France he wrote a number of plays, dramas, and tragedies including Brutus (1730), Zaïre (1732), Eriphile (1732), Mahomet (1742), Mérope (1743), Sémiramis (1748).
While it was initially banned in France due to its criticism of church and state in France, Voltaire's Letters Concerning The English Nation (1733) is said to be one of the defining literary works of the Enlightenment period. It later appeared in French as Lettres Philosophiques (1734). Due to the controversy of Letters Voltaire fled Paris and met Mme Du Châtelet [Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706-1749)] and her husband the Marquis Du Châtelet [Florent Claude Chastelet]. He took up residence with them at their chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise in the Lorraine region of France. Far from the bustling intellectual realm of Parisian society, his and Mme Du Châtelet's passion for scientific theory including that of Sir Issac Newton's (1643-1727) and Rene Descartes' (1595-1650) led Voltaire to work on his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1736). It was an intense period of writing and research for Voltaire; works he wrote during this time include "Le Mondain" (1736); Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738), "The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."; and Zadig (1748), "....'tis much more Prudence to acquit two Persons, tho' actually guilty, than to pass Sentence of Condemnation in one that is virtuous and innocent." (Ch. 6) He also gained the notice of Mme de Pompadour (1721-1764) through whose influence he gained position as Royal Historiographer and membership in the esteemed L'Académie Française in 1746. After the death of Mme Du Châtelet Voltaire travelled to Berlin where he was invited to live at the court of Frederick II. For the rest of his life Voltaire spent little time in France, often living just on her borders. "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?" (Candide, Ch. 6) Further published works include The Age of Louis XIV (1752), Micromegas (1752), Candide (1759), Treatise on Tolerance (1763), L'Ingénu (1767), and La Princesse de Babylone (1768).
Although the last few days of his life were spent in Paris where he was welcomed back as a hero, he died not long after. Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire died on 30 May 1778 at the age of eighty-three. He now rests among other such notable literary figures as Victor Hugo and Emile Zola in The Pantheon in Paris, France, a life-size marble statue accompanying his ornately carved tomb.
It needs twenty years to lead man from the plant state in which he is within his mother's womb, and the pure animal state which is the lot of his early childhood, to the state when the maturity of the reason begins to appear. It has needed thirty centuries to learn a little about his structure. It would need eternity to learn something about his soul. It takes an instant to kill him. ("Man", Philosophical Dictionary)
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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