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Who is Voltaire?

Niki Foster
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Voltaire is the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, a French writer of the Enlightenment. He was a prolific writer and philosopher, penning essays, plays, poems, novels, and nonfiction works. He was also known for his wit and outspoken political views. Voltaire criticized most of the institutions of his day, including the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, and fought for reforms such as freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial.

Born in Paris on 21 November 1694, he was the last of five children of a notary. Voltaire's mother was from a noble family. He attended Lycee Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit school, for seven years beginning at the age of ten. Though his father wanted him to pursue a career in law, Voltaire was more interested in literature. He worked briefly for a lawyer in Paris, but soon became known for his witty poetry and aphorisms.

Voltaire began moving in the aristocratic circles of Paris in his early twenties. When the Duc D'Orleans became the target of his satire, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his first play, Oedipe, successfully staged in 1718. He also began using his pen name during this period.

The writer was arrested a second time in 1726, again after insulting a nobleman. He spent two weeks in the Bastille, but was released on the condition that he leave France. He spent an exile of nearly three years in London, where he was impressed by the English Constitution and the writings of political philosopher John Locke and scientist Sir Isaac Newton.

Voltaire returned to Paris in 1728. Inspired by the knowledge he had gained abroad, he soon developed his own political philosophy. He was in favor of extending civil rights, though he did not trust the majority of people to make responsible decisions. Therefore, Voltaire held that an enlightened absolute ruler was the ideal form of government. In his 1734 work, English or Philosophical Letters, the writer outlined his political beliefs, heavily criticizing the major institutions of France in the process. Once again, he faced exile, this time in the Duchy of Lorraine.

His fortune began to change in 1735. Voltaire became friends with Madame du Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, and was a frequent visitor to Versailles. He was appointed Royal Historiographer of France and elected to the French Academy. In 1750, he spent time in the court of another "enlightened monarch," Frederick II of Prussia. The writer was no longer welcome in France two years later, when he was ready to leave Berlin, so he traveled throughout Europe and continued to write.

Voltaire settled down in the town of Ferney, France in 1758. During the 20 years he lived there, he wrote many of his most famous and important works, including Candide in 1758. He developed his philosophies, including that of Deism, the belief in God based on a rational observation of the natural world rather than on blind faith. The writer's Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), dealing with his Deist beliefs, was extremely controversial for its rejection of organized religion.

When Voltaire returned to Paris shortly before his death on 30 May 1778, he was welcomed as a national hero. His writings were influential in the French Revolution of the following year, which rejected both the aristocracy and the clergy and fought for increased personal freedoms. The writer is still revered as one of France's and the world's greatest thinkers. Ferney has been renamed Ferney-Voltaire, and the writer's home there has become a museum. Voltaire was interred in the Pantheon, though his brain is in the Bibliotheque National in Paris.

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Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

By panda2006 — On Feb 22, 2011

While I find Voltaire's ideas interesting, they don't work for the same reason that the other, later response to the class system and the sufferings of the proletariat- communism- suffered.

Communism works in theory, but fails because in a society where everyone is "equal", there is a power vacuum that someone will eventually try to fill.

The problem with the concept of an enlightened, but absolute, ruler won't work for the same reason. Any ruler with absolute power will take liberties with his or her subjects, just like any society will develop some sort of leader.

By watson42 — On Feb 21, 2011

Even to this day, I think that Voltaire's Candide is one of the best examples of satire in classical literature. In it, Voltaire takes the problems of the day and exaggerates them while still writing a protagonist with whom readers could relate.

By Proxy414 — On Feb 19, 2011

The philosophes like Voltaire suffered a lot of persecution by the church. This persecution only caused them to grow in influence, to the point where the suppression of new ideas caused the cap to explode, in a great bloodbath known as the French revolution. Both sides, aristocrats and peasants, were responsible for this tragedy and many others like it in French history.

By BioNerd — On Feb 17, 2011

Voltaire encountered a lot of difficulty in his Jesuit upbringing, and came to think of God as a cold hard and authoritarian figure. He recognized that societal change was necessary, and that people needed to fundamentally shift their beliefs about society and all of life. His work was seminal in new thinking throughout Europe.

By BostonIrish — On Feb 16, 2011

France is a prime example of the difficulties of a Catholic society. There is a lot of tension between those of the clergy and nobility and those of the large "lower class." A large middle class is simply quite uncommon in Roman Catholic societies, which can have dangerous results. The rich and powerful abuse their prestige, while the poor are made to suffer. Eventually, the proletariat snaps, and a violent and bloody revolution occurs, like what finally happened in France in the storming of the Bastille.

Niki Foster

Niki Foster


In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics...

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