Voltaire - Biography
François-Marie Arouet, or Voltaire, was born in 1694 in Paris, France and died 83 years later in the same city. Throughout his 83 years of life, Voltaire wrote numerous philosophical works, works in history, plays, and is considered as, next to Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau and others, one of the greatest name of the French Enlightenment. He is known as a defender of religious freedom, free trade, civil liberties, social reform. He was also fighting against the limitiations of censorship, religious dogma, intolerance, and the institutions of his time. His works, and the works of fellow Enlightenment writers, influenced both the French and the American revolutions.
Voltaire was the youngest of five children and, after having studied at he Collège Louis-le-Grand, decided to become a writer, against the will of his father that rather wanted to see him as a notary. This disagreement with his father was a conflict that was very present in Voltaire's early adulthood. He pretended to be working as a notary assistant in Paris, while he in fact was writing, and when his father found out, he was sent to study law. Later on, his father found him employment as the secretary of the French ambassador in the Netherlands where Voltaire fell in love with a French protestant refugee and was once more forced by his father to return to Paris. Voltaire also developed a tense relation with the authorities of the time through his critical views on religious intolerance and the governmental practices in general, views that costed him several imprisonments and exiles. In one of such imprisonments, at the Bastille, he wrote his first play entitled dipe, a success that sealed his reputation. It was also after the time spent at la Bastille that François-Marie Arouet adopted the pen name Voltaire, a mixture of a latinized anagram of his name and the initial letters of "the younger" (le jeune). The adoption of the name Voltaire is seen as a break from his past, specially from his family.
In 1725, following an insult exchange with the French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, Voltaire was imprisoned and, uncertain as to the duration of the sentence, suggested his own exile to Britain. In Britain, where Voltaire spent his next three years, he was curious about the country's relative freedom of speech and religion, about Shakespeare, as well as its constitutional monarchy, as opposed to the absolute monarchy of the French. His three years in Britain resulted in a collection of essays called Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical Letters on the English), released in his return to Paris which caused outrage for his defense of the British system instead of the French one and Voltaire was yet again forced to flee. This time he went to the Château de Cirey, not far from Paris, where he started a relationship with a married woman, Émilie du Châtelet, which was to last for 15 years. The Marquise and Voltaire owed a big collection of books ans studied them together experimenting with natural science, reading physics, history, and philosophy. Voltaire's essay Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton's Philosophy), which was most likely written in partnership with the Marquise, is seen as the work that made accessible Newton's gravitational theory. It was also still at the Châteu de Cirey that Voltaire wrote his Essay upon the Civil Wars in France which is one of his first works to attack what he saw as the intolerance of the religious establishments, as well as to propose the separation of the church and the state.
Bored at the life at the château and in love with his niece, Voltaire decided to return to Paris. The king Frederick the Great, and admirer of Voltaire's work, invited him to Potsdam and offered him a substantial salary. In Potsdam Voltaire wrote perhaps one of the first science-fiction novels involving representatives from other planets looking at humans on earth. But his tranquility wasn't to last. Following a controversy with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science, Voltaire was banned by Frederick the Great and left to Paris where he was once again banned, this time by king Louis XV. He finally landed in Geneva where he purchased a big estate, called Les Délices. In Geneva he didn't last long as the local law forbid theater performances and by the end of 1758 he moved to Ferney, just across the French border, where he wrote Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism), a satirical work on the philosophy of Leibniz which is known to be one of his greatest works. In 1764, still in Ferney, he published Dictionnaire Philosophique, his most important philosophical work. At the same time Voltaire became more and more involved in the defense of people unjustly persecuted by the church.
After 20 years away from Paris, Voltaire finally resolved to return and see the premiere of his latest tragedy Irene. But a five day trip was a too tortuous venture for an aging man and Voltaire, expected to die soon, wrote the farewell words "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." He nevertheless survived and succeeded in attending the performance of Irene, only to die two months later, on the 30th of May 1778. In his second farewell he said "For God's sake, let me die in peace." He was denied a proper burial by the church but his friends managed to bury him at the abbey of Scellières. In 1791 the National Assembly, which saw him as one of the forerunners of the French revolution, had his body transported to the Panthéon in Paris, in a procession that attracted an estimate one million people.
Voltaire's writings in history challenged the common conception at the time that historiography dealt with big political, military, and diplomatic events. He instead emphasized in the cultural history, the arts, the sciences, the customs. He is known to be the first thinker to try to write a history of the world based on cultural, political and economic facts rejecting any kind of theological framework. Voltaire's works on history, most notably The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756) helped to deviate historiography from the narration of great deeds performed by great man, of wars, and of Eurocentrism.
Voltaire was also a fierce critique of religious traditions but that is not to say that he was averse to the idea of a supreme being. His understanding of God was deist, he reasoned that the existence of God was a question of reason and observation rather than of faith. In his words "It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason." He therefore favored an understanding of God beyond institutionalized religion and defended, in A Treatise on Toleration (1763), that all men are brothers, regardless of religion, as they are the same creature created by the same God.
As for slavery, Voltaire in one hand harshly criticized it and in the other hand, together with fellow philosophers Guillaume Thomas Raynal, Denis Diderot, and Buffon, he speculated and tried to explain that the different races had separate origins and at times seemed to doubt that black people possessed the same intelligence as white people. He has also been charged as an anti-semite although most of his critiques are actually directed towards religion as such and the bible, rather than Judaism in specific.
Voltaire also wrote plays, prose, and poetry. His most famous play is dipe, an adaptation of Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, where he tried to rationalize the motivations of the characters of the original work. His major poetic works are Henriade and The Maid of Orleans, although critics point out that his minor pieces are of superior quality. In Candide, his most famous work of prose, Voltaire develops a critique of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's philosophy of metaphysical optimism through the naive main character Candide, that after a misfortune start rejecting metaphysical optimism.