French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) was born 21 November 1694 in Paris. He was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen, Normandy. But the young man continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. In 1713, his father obtained a job for him as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands, the marquis de Châteauneuf, the brother of Voltaire’s godfather At The Hague, Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer Their affair, considered scandalous, was discovered by de Châteauneuf and Voltaire was forced to return to France.
Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government. As a result, he was twice sentenced to prison and once to temporary exile to England. One satirical verse, in which Voltaire accused the Régent of incest with his daughter, resulted in an eleven-month imprisonment in the Bastille. The Comédie-Française had agreed in January 1717 to stage his debut play, Œdipe, and it opened in mid-November 1718, seven months after his release. Its immediate critical and financial success established his reputation. Both the Régent and King George I of Great Britain presented Voltaire with medals as a mark of their appreciation. He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy that protects people’s rights.
Voltaire’s next play, Artémire, was published 1720 and set in ancient Macedonia. He next wrote an epic poem about Henry IV of France that he had begun in early 1717. This was eventually published in The Hague In the Netherlands, where Voltaire was struck and impressed by the openness and tolerance of Dutch society. On returning to France, he secured a second publisher in Rouen, who agreed to publish La Henriade clandestinely. After Voltaire’s recovery from a month-long smallpox infection in November 1723, the first copies were smuggled into Paris and distributed. While the poem was an instant success, after heavy revision Voltaire’s next play, Mariamne,opened at the Comédie-Française in April 1725 to a much-improved reception. It was among the entertainments provided at the wedding of Louis XV and Marie Leszczyńska in September 1725.
In 1726, a young French nobleman, the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, taunted Voltaire about his change of name, and Voltaire retorted that his name would be honored while de Rohan would dishonor his. Infuriated, de Rohan arranged for Voltaire to be beaten up by thugs a few days later. Seeking compensation, redress, or revenge, Voltaire challenged de Rohan to a duel, but the aristocratic de Rohan family arranged for Voltaire to be arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille on 17 April 1726 without a trial or an opportunity to defend himself. Voltaire suggested he be exiled instead so On 2 May, 1726 he was escorted from the Bastille to Calais, where he was to embark for Britain.
After moving to England, Voltaire lived in Wandsworth, with acquaintances including Everard Fawkener. From December 1727 to June 1728 he lodged at Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Voltaire circulated throughout English high society, meeting Alexander Pope, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and many other members of the nobility and royalty. Voltaire’s exile in Great Britain greatly influenced his thinking. He was intrigued by Britain’s constitutional monarchy in contrast to French absolutism, and by the country’s greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was influenced by the writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, whom he saw as an example that French writers might emulate, since French drama, despite being more polished, lacked on-stage action. Later, however, as Shakespeare’s influence began growing in France, Voltaire tried to set a contrary example with his own plays, decrying what he considered Shakespeare’s barbarities. Voltaire may have been present at the funeral of Isaac Newton, and met Newton’s niece, Catherine Conduit. In 1727, he published two essays in English, Upon the Civil Wars of France, Extracted from Curious Manuscripts and Upon Epic Poetry of the European Nations, from Homer Down to Milton.
In 1730 Voltaire returned to France, and after a few months living in Dieppe, the authorities permitted him to return to Paris At a dinner, French mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine proposed buying up the lottery that was organized by the French government to pay off its debts, and Voltaire joined the consortium, earning perhaps a million livre themanaged to convince the Court of Finances that he was of good conduct and so was able to take control of a capital inheritance from his father that had hitherto been tied up in trust. His next play Zaïre, published in 1733 carried a dedication to Fawkener praising English liberty and commerce. He also published his views on British attitudes toward government, literature, religion and science in a collection of essays in letter form entitled Letters Concerning the English Nation. However Because the publisher released the book without the approval of the royal censor and Voltaire regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, the French publication of Letters caused a huge scandal; the book was publicly burnt and banned, and Voltaire was forced to flee Paris again.
In 1733, Voltaire met Émilie du Châtelet, a married mother of three who was 12 years his junior and with whom he was to have an affair for 16 yearss. To avoid arrest after the publication of Letters, Voltaire took refuge at her husband’s château at Cirey-sur-Blaise, on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine. Voltaire paid for the building’s renovation, and Émilie’s husband, the Marquis du Châtelet, sometimes stayed at the château with his wife and her lover. Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet also collected around 21,000 books. Voltaire continued to write plays, such as Mérope (or La Mérope française) and began his long research into science and history having been influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton’s theories; he performed experiments in optics at Cirey, and was one of the sources for the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree. In 1735, Voltaire was visited by Francesco Algarotti, who was preparing a book about Newton in Italian. The Marquise translated Newton’s Latin Principia into French in full, and it remained the definitive French translation into the 21st century.
Voltaire was also curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, although Voltaire remained a firm Newtonian. Voltaire published his own book Elements of Newton’s Philosophy which made Newton accessible and understandable to a far greater public, and the Marquise wrote a celebratory review in the Journal des savants. Voltaire’s book was instrumental in bringing about general acceptance of Newton’s optical and gravitational theories in France.
Voltaire and the Marquise studied history, particularly those persons who had contributed to civilization. Voltaire’s second essay in English had been “Essay upon the Civil Wars in France”. It was followed by La Henriade, an epic poem on the French King Henri IV, glorifying his attempt to end the Catholic-Protestant massacres with the Edict of Nantes, and by a historical novel on King Charles XII of Sweden. Voltaire and the Marquise also explored philosophy, particularly metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with being and with what lies beyond the material realm, such as whether or not there is a God and whether people have souls. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible Voltaire concluded that church and state and religious freedom should be separate
In 1736, Frederick the Great, then Crown Prince of Prussia began corresponding with Voltaire. Voltaire also moved to Holland for two months and met the scientists Herman Boerhaave and Gravesande. Between 1739 and 1740 Voltaire lived in Brussels, before travelling to the Hague on behalf of Frederick in an attempt to dissuade a dubious publisher, van Duren, from printing without permission Frederick’s Anti-Machiavel. Voltaire and Frederick (now King) met for the first time in Moyland Castle near Cleves and in November Voltaire was Frederick’s guest in Berlin for two weeks. In 1742 they met in Aix-la-Chapelle. Voltaire was sent to Frederick’s court in 1743 by the French government as an envoy and spy to gauge Frederick’s military intentions in the War of the Austrian Succession. Though deeply committed to the Marquise, Voltaire by 1744 found life at the château confining. On a visit to Paris that year, he found a new love—his niece Marie Louise Mignot !? And they lived together, and remained together until Voltaire’s death. Meanwhile, the Marquise also took a lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert.
The Marquise tragically died in childbirth in September 1749, Voltaire briefly returned to Paris and in mid-1750 moved to Prussia at the invitation of Frederick the Great. The Prussian king (with the permission of Louis XV) made him a chamberlain in his household, appointed him to the Order of Merit, and gave him a salary of 20,000 French livres a year” He had rooms at Sanssouci and Charlottenburg Palace and in 1751 he completed Micromégas, a piece of science fiction involving ambassadors from another planet witnessing the follies of humankind. However, his relationship with Frederick the Great began to deteriorate after he was accused of theft and forgery by a Jewish financier, Abraham Hirschel, who had invested in Saxon government bonds on behalf of Voltaire at a time when Frederick was involved in sensitive diplomatic negotiations with Saxony.
He also encountered other difficulties: an argument with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science and a former rival for Émilie’s affections, provoked Voltaire’s Diatribe du docteur Akakia (“Diatribe of Doctor Akakia”), which satirized some of Maupertuis’s theories and his abuse of power in his persecutions of a mutual acquaintance, Johann Samuel König. This greatly angered Frederick. So in 1752, Voltaire offered to resign as chamberlain and return his insignia of the Order of Merit; at first, Frederick refused until eventually permitting Voltaire to leave.
While returning to France, Voltaire stayed at Leipzig and Gotha for a month each, and Kassel for two weeks, before arriving at Frankfurt wherhe was detained by Frederick’s agents, for over three weeks while they, Voltaire and Frederick argued over the return of a satirical book of poetry Frederick had lent to Voltaire. Marie Louise joined him in June but left in July after some unwanted advances from of one of Frederick’s agents and Voltaire’s luggage was ransacked.
Voltaire attempted to vilify Frederick for his agents’ actions at Frankfurt Then composed Mémoires pour Servir à la Vie de M. de Voltaire, that paints a largely negative picture of his time spent with Frederick. Voltaire’s slow progress toward Paris continued through Mainz, Mannheim, Strasbourg, and Colmar, however in 1754 Louis XV banned him from Paris so instead he turned for Geneva, and bought a large estate (Les Délices) in 1755. However the law in Geneva, banning theatrical performances, and the publication of The Maid of Orleans against his will soured his relationship with Calvinist Genevans. So in 1758, he bought an estate at Ferney, on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. In 1759, Voltaire published Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) which satirizes Leibniz’s philosophy of optimistic determinism. Voltaire frequently entertained distinguished guests, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon. In 1764, he published the Dictionnaire philosophique, a series of articles mainly on Christian history and dogmas.
From 1762, he began to champion unjustly persecuted people, such as Huguenot merchant Jean Calas Who had been tortured to death in 1763, supposedly because he had murdered his eldest son for wanting to convert to Catholicism, His possessions were confiscated and his two daughters were taken from his widow and were forced into Catholic convents. Voltaire, seeing this as a clear case of religious persecution, managed to overturn the conviction in 1765. Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry in 1778 And attended la Loge des Neuf Sœurs in Paris, where he became an Entered Apprentice Freemason. He also returned to Paris, however The arduous five-day journey took it’s toll on the 83-year-old, and he died on 30 May 1778. However Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris,but friends and relations managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne, where Marie Louise’s brother was abbé. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.