He was a writer, thinker, scientist, philosopher, historian, and exile. Beloved in France today for his criticism of the Catholic Church and advocacy of modern-day beliefs in the freedom of religious, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech, he was often reviled and even imprisoned for his beliefs during his lifetime. Known today as one of the greatest thinkers ever produced in his native country, the birth of François-Marie Arouet to a minor treasury official and his wife on Nov. 21, 1694 didn’t seem noteworthy at the time. Within time, the writer would give himself a new name, a new date of birth, and a new backstory.
Voltaire is one of the most prolific writers known to date. In addition to producing plays, poems, novels, essays, histories, and scientific papers, his works include some 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets he wrote during his lifetime. It is the amount of literature he produced as well as the outspokenness of what he wrote that made him one of the most censored writers in pre-Revolution France and one of the fathers of modern day satire and civil liberties. Of course, Voltaire was more than just one of the most important philosophers of the day: Voltaire was also the greatest character Voltaire ever invented. From scamming the French lottery system to engaging in duels with noblemen to his 16-year-affair of love and science with a marquise to his acting career, Voltaire was larger than life.
François-Marie Arouet was the youngest of the five children born to lawyer and minor treasury official François Arouet and his wife Marie Marguerite Daumard. His family was technically of the lowest rank of the French nobility, putting them in the bourgeois class. However the family was more of what we might consider upper middle class today. Voltaire would later claim he was actually born on Feb. 20, 1694 - several months earlier than officially recorded - and was the product of an affair his mother had with nobleman Guérin de Rochebrune. Nicknamed “Zozo” by his family, he was one of only three of the Arouet children to make it to adulthood.
When he was seven years old, his mother died leaving his father to raise him and his borther Armand, 16, and sister Marguerite-Catherine, 14. At ten years old, Arouet was sent to be educated by the Jesuits at Lycée Louis-le-Grand where he would be taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. By the time he left the school at the age of 17, he decided he wanted to be a professional writer despite his father’s wishes. The older Arouet wanted his son to follow in his footsteps as a lawyer and got the young man a job as an assistant to a Parisian notary. However, the younger Arouet spent most of his time on the job writing poetry.
When his father found out, he sent the young writer to study in Caen, but this only encouraged Arouet’s writing of essays and historical studies. His wit also made him very popular among the locals. In 1713, his father found him another job as a secretary to the French ambassadors in the Netherlands, the brother of Arouet’s godfather. This would not only ignite his love of international travel but also lead to one of his first love affairs. He fell in love with French Huguenot refugee Catherine Olympe Dunoyer who he called “Pimpette.” The affair was a scandal and Voltaire was sent back home to Paris to end it.
His rebellious streak would not end there. He began to experience literary success when he returned to Paris with his poems and a forthcoming play called Oedpie. However, around this time a satire he had written about Philippe, the Duke of Orleans and brother of the king resurfaced during this time. The work had never been officially published but even rumor about its existence would have been enough to land its writer in jail. In the satire, he had implied incest between the duke and the duke’s daughter. At the time, the duke was serving as the regent while his brother was off and war and punished the young writer by sending him to the Bastille for eleven months in 1711. The experience would change his life.
Name Change and Early Works
After his imprisonment from the Bastille, the young Arouet began calling himself by a new name: Voltaire. Some believe this was an anagram of the Latinized version of his surname, Arvote Li, while others believe it is an anagram of his surname and the French term le jeune meaning “the young.” A family story holds that it came from a childhood nickname le petit volontaire meaning “determined little thing” and was just made more adult by the writer.
Other theories hold it is the reversal of the spelling of his family’s country home at Airvault. In the French language, the name has connotations of quickness and acrobatics, far from the name Arouet that would conjure up images of French terms that meant “the beaten up” or “a debauche.” Voltaire himself told his friend Rousseau in a 1719 letter that he changed his name because he was unhappy with his surname and felt it made him confused with another popular writer, Adenes le Roi.
The Comédie-Française had agreed to stage Oedpie before Voltaire was imprisoned in 1717, but the play wouldn’t open until November 1718, nine months after Voltaire’s release. The play was an immediate critical and popular hit, cementing his reputation as a writer. However, his next play, Artémire, was a total flop when it debuted in 1720. Only fragments of the work survive and, devastated by the failure, Voltaire returned to working on the epic poem about the life of Henry IV of France he had begun back in 1717. When he went to publish the poem in 1722, the French government denied him a publishing license. He then took his mistress, a widow named Marie-Marguerite de Rupelmonde, with him to Brussels and finally the Netherlands to publish the work there.
His return to the Hague reminded Voltaire how open and tolerant Dutch society was, and he decided to publish his work in France without a license. A publisher in Rouen agreed to print Le Henriade secretly. After a brief bout with smallpox, Voltaire smuggled the illegally printed copies into Paris and distributed them. While the poem was a success, Voltaire would find his third play, Mariamne, was also a flop when it opened. He reworked it and reopened the play to better reviews. During this time, Voltaire also worked on a one-act comedy, L’indiscret, a one-act farce called La Fete de Belebat, and the poem Pros and Cons, in which Voltaire began to lay out his own religious and political beliefs. In the poem, Voltaire is critical of the Christian religion and the hypocrisy he finds within it.
Riding high on success and even having his play staged before the new, young king, Voltaire seemed to be poised for success in 1725. However, the following year would change his fortunes completely. In 1726, Guy Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, known as the Chevalier de Rohan, taunted Voltaire about his name change. Voltaire replied that he would honor his new name while Rohan would only sully his families. As a result, Rohan paid some thugs to beat Voltaire up. Insulted, Voltaire challenged Rohan to a duel saying that Rohan could fight him face-to-face. However, Rohan’s powerful aristocratic family instead used bribery to have Voltaire arrested and again thrown in the Bastille. This time, Voltaire had no trial or chance to defend himself.
Knowing how the French courts of law favored the aristocrats and knowing that, if they wanted, the Rohan family was powerful enough to keep him in the jail for the rest of his life, Voltaire used his wit and cunning to convince the French authorities they would be much better off to exile him out of the country rather than keep him in prison. They agreed and, after half a month in jail, they escorted Voltaire to Calais and put him on a ship to Britain. The exile would change his life and also bring him to the court of another king, George I.
During his time in England, Voltaire first settled in Wandsworth, which is now a neighborhood in South London. It was the location of one of the wharves on the River Thames and, around the time Voltaire would have lived there, it was home to a large number of French refugees, mostly Huguenots. The village itself was then part of Surrey rather than the city of London proper and had not yet been connected to the city via the famed Wandsworth Bridge. He would live the second year of his exile on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden to be closer to his British publishing house.
Voltaire met numerous British luminaries of the age during his three-year exile in Great Britain including writers like Alexander Pope, John gay, Jonathan Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the Duchess of Marlborough who had been the longtime friend and confidante of the late Queen Anne. He may have also been present at the funeral of Isaac Newton and is known to have met Newton’s niece. In addition to famed contemporary writers, the visit introduced him to the works of Shakespeare who was still relatively unknown in languages other than English.
Upon his return to Paris, he fell in with French mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine who had found a way to rig up the new lottery the French government had established to help pay off the country’s massive debts. Voltaire and the other members of the scheme earned as much as a million livres a piece. Rather than spend the money, the writer invested it and was then able to convince the Court of Finances to finally release the inheritance his father had put in trust for him until he was in good conduct. Voltaire was now rich from his winnings and his inheritance.
The triumph continued with his epic poem Le Henriade being officially published in France in 1728 followed by Brutus in 1730, which caused a storm of plays emulating Shakespeare. He published a three-act tragedy about the death of Caesar called La Mort de Cesar in 1731 as well as a history of Charles XIII. In 1732, he would publish his most successful play, Zaire, a five-act tragedy about a Christian slave who is trapped between the jealousy of her Muslim lover and the intolerance of other Christians. Sarah Bernhardt would later revive the lead role to much success. That same year, he also published the libretto Samson, as well as two less successful plays - Eriphyle which was badly reviewed and Les Originaux, which wasn’t staged until the next year.
Of course, it wouldn’t be long until the new ideas Voltaire acquired in England found him in trouble again with French censors. In 1733, Voltaire published Letters Concerning the English Nation in London, which detailed his views on British attitudes toward government, literature, religion, science, and other issues - largely comparing them to the more closed-off attitudes in France. The publication was a hit in England. However, he failed to get a publishing license in France for the work. In 1734, he had another publisher in Rouen illegally publish the work as Lettres philosophiques without the permission of the censorship officials. The book caused a huge scandal with government officials encouraging the copies of the book to be burnt publicly and effigies of Voltaire burned as well. The book was officially banned and Voltaire was once again forced to flee Paris, first hiding in Rouen and then in Brussels.
Second Exile and Travels
Voltaire’s flight from Paris for a second time would also cement what was probably the greatest love affair of his life. Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, known as Emilie, was a French noblewoman who had been educated in astronomy, Latin, Italian, German, Greek, fencing, riding, mathematics, literature, and science as well as music and dance before being married at the age of 18 to a man 16 years her senior. The couple produced three children and then largely began living apart. At the age of 26 in 1733, du Châtelet decided to go back to her studies and it was around this time her friendship with Voltaire was born. Voltaire, who was 12 years older, had possibly known her father and met her as early as 1729. However, their friendship didn’t begin until 1733 when she emerged on the social scene after the birth of her third child.
When Voltaire found himself fleeing France for Brussels, du Châtelet invited him to stay with her at her country house in Cirey-sur-Blaise, which was on the border between Champagne and Normandy. The two became lovers soon after Voltaire took her up on her offer. du Châtelet’s husband largely looked the other way - even staying in the house with the couple at certain points despite knowing they were having an affair. This was possibly because Voltaire financed the complete renovation of the house. The partnership between Voltaire and du Châtelet developed around the mutual love of learning and investigation, becoming one of the greatest scientific partnerships of the era. The couple collected some 21,000 books that they studied and also performed numerous scientific experiments they would then publish reports on.
Voltaire translated Isaac Newton's works in French with du Châtelet and another into Italian, both of which made Newton's findings more understandable for the greater public. The couple did historical research and explored philosophical ideas including metaphysics. In addition to his scientific works with his new mistress, Voltaire continued to write and publish plays such as Merope as well as more controversial works, like Précis du siècle de Louis XV, which was suppressed widely in France for its discussion of the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment.
Even if the French nobility shunned much of Voltaire’s scientific work and his philosophies on the separation of church and state, other monarchs elsewhere found his ideas intriguing. In August 1736 the Crown Prince of Prussia - the future Frederick the Great - began a correspondence with Voltaire. The writer also briefly moved to Holland that year to meet scientists Herman Boerhaave and Willem Jacobs Gravesande before spending much of 1739 and 1940 in Brussels with du Châtelet and then to meet Frederick in the Hague. Now the king of Prussia, Frederick invited Voltaire to stay at his palace in Berlin for two weeks. The French asked Voltaire to serve as a spy and report back the king’s plans during the War of the Austrian Succession.
As a result, Voltaire was briefly detained in Prussia for treason in 1742 and then sent back to Paris. In 1744, the love affair with du Châtelet was winding down. She had taken another lover and Voltaire found himself in love with Marie Louise Mignot - who just happened to be his sister Catherine’s daughter and therefor his niece. Twice widowed, Voltaire took her in to serve as his housekeeper in 1744 and his mistress. Letters he wrote that resurfaced in the 1950s show he had a definite sexual lust for her. When du Châtelet died in childbirth in 1749, he returned to Paris briefly. The next year, Frederick the Great again invited him to Prussia and made Voltaire a chamberlain of his household with the permission of Louis XV. Mignot would not follow him there.
Just like he had in France, Voltaire found himself again in trouble with the monarchy in Prussia. Jealous courtiers accused Voltaire of theft and forgery during a sensitive diplomatic mission with Saxony. He satirized Maupertuis, a former romantic rival and current head of Frederick the Great's Prussian Academy of Science, in a paper about Maupertuis’ scientific theories and how he persecuted those who didn’t agree with him. Frederick earned all the copies of the satire burned and Voltaire then resigned his post, giving back his Prussian award for merit. Frederick, however, refused to accept them for two months. Finally, he permitted Voltaire to return to France, but the return trip didn't end up going as smoothly as Voltaire might have hoped.
Naturally, Voltaire took a leisurely pace back to France, staying a month each in Leipzig, Gotha, and then two weeks in Kassel. When he arrived in Frankfurt in May he found himself under arrest by the king’s agents until he returned a book of satirical poetry the king had lent him. His luggage was also ransacked and his valuables taken. Despite this falling out, Voltaire and Frederick the Great continued to correspond and even reconciled following the end of the Seven Years War. Still unready to return to Paris, Voltaire visited Mainz, Mannheim, Strasbourg, and Colmar. His long progress through Europe had to change course when Louis XV banned him from Paris. As a result, Voltaire sought a new home in Geneva.
In 1755, Voltaire bough an estate he named Les Delices and settled there. Geneva was an odd choice for the well-known writer as it had banned theatre and his epic poem The Maid of Orleans, drew criticism from the Protestants living in the area. Within three years, he had bought an even larger estate in Ferney across the French border from Switzerland where he would write his most famous work, Candide ou l’Optimisme. The philosophical satire would go on to be listed as one of the best books ever written and would influence writers like Joseph Heller, JOhn Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and the Theatre of the Absurd.
For much of the remaining 20 years of his life, Voltaire would live in Ferney were he would entertain distinguished guests and continue publishing his philosophy and plays. He began championing the persecuted including the religious persecution of Huguenots in France. He also became a freemason, possibly at the urging of visitor Benjamin Franklin. Finally, after 26 years in exile, Voltaire was permitted to return to Paris in 1778 to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. At the age of 83, it was a hard five-day journey to the capitol but he was created as a returning hero when he arrived.
On May 30, 1778, Voltaire died in Paris, the city of his birth, but what actually happened as the writer lay dying is a mystery. His enemies reported both that he converted to Catholicism at the last and that he was tortured until he died because of his anti-Catholic sentiments. Those who supported him claimed he remained defiant, even claiming he told the priest “Now is not the time for making new enemies” when he was asked if he renounced Satan.
However he reacted on his deathbed, Voltaire was denied a Catholic burial within the city of Paris because of his outspoken beliefs against the church. His body was instead secretly buried at the Abbey of Scellieres in Champagne where his nephew was an abbot. Of course, this would not be the final chapter for Voltaire. His words had already begun to influence the movement that became the French Revolution during his life. In 1791, the National Assembly of France had his remains returned to Paris and buried in the Pantheon amid a large procession that was allegedly attended by millions. Considered a forerunner of the revolution, Voltaire was regarded as somewhat of a saint in the new France that had worked to rid itself of the monarchy and clergy.
His influence would continue on after his death. Victor Hugo, Napoleon, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Catherine the Great, Jeremy Bentham, Dean Diderot, van Goethe, Christopher Hitchens, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and numerous others would site his works as being influential on their own lives. The town of Ferney were he spent the last 20 years of his life was renamed Ferney-Voltaire in his honor and his chateau there turned into a literary museum. In 1870, the Boulevard du Prince-Eugene in Paris was renamed Boulevard Voltaire. The street joins the historical squares where the Place de la Republique and the Place de La Nation are and served as a major thoroughfare for demonstrations during the French Revolution.
The Dada art scene of the 1920s would find influence in his works and in the 1950s, the Voltaire Institute and Museum in Geneva was founded. It then became the Voltaire Foundation within the University of Oxford that continues to publish his complete works as well as studies on his work. His aphorisms, numerous publications, and letters still continue to influence and inspire today. Often exiled for views considered controversial, Voltaire's legacy is that of one of the most prolific and beloved writers in French history.