VOLTAIRE (FRANÇOIS-MARIE AROUET) 1694 - 1778  (W3, AN, G1, G2, G3a)

xxxxxThe French satirist Voltaire was the leading writer of the Enlightenment and, as such, was a major contributor to Diderot's Encylcopédie. His works, including drama and poetry, covered a vast range of subjects, the majority aimed at criticising the political and social evils of his day - like religious intolerance, censorship, and the privileges enjoyed by the nobility and clergy. His Philosophical Letters on the English, published in 1734 after a visit to England, was an attack upon the French political system, and his famous satire Candide, an entertaining tale, was, in fact, a scathing condemnation of man's inhumanity to man. Among his major tragedies were Brutus, Merope and Mahomet, and two of his outstanding historical works were The Age of Louis XIV and Charles XII (of Sweden). Learned treatises included Elements of the Philosophy of Newton and his Philosophical Dictionary, published in 1764. He gained the favour of the court, and the friendship of Madame de Pompadour, by such works as La Poème de Fontenoy (celebrating the French victory over the British), and Summary of the Age of Louis XV. But he was not without enemies, and spent much of his life in virtual exile. He lived with the Marquise du Châtelet at the Château de Cirey for fifteen years, resided at the court of Frederick the Great for two years (until they fell out), and spent the last twenty years of his life on his estate at Ferney. His works had some bearing on the outbreak of the French Revolution, an event he clearly predicted.

xxxxxThe French man of letters François-Marie Arouet, universally known as Voltaire, was the most outstanding writer of the 18th century period of Enlightenment. His works - plays, novels, poetry, histories and learned treatises - covered a vast range of subjects, including science and literature, politics and philosophy. A powerful critic of the contemporary political and social scene, his outspoken, caustic comment made him a large number of enemies and landed him in prison on two occasions. His most important works were his Philosophical Letters on the English, published in 1734, his Le Siècle de Louis XIV, of 1751, his satirical tale Candide, produced in 1759, and his Philosophical Dictionary, completed in 1764. (The portrait is by the brilliant French artist Maurice Quentin de la Tour.)

xxxxxHe was born in Paris and educated at the Jesuit college of Louis le Grand, where his genius was quickly recognised. His father, a solicitor, wanted him to study law, but Voltaire rebelled and chose a writing career. His vitriolic pen soon got him into a lot of trouble with the aristocracy, including the Regent, the Duke of Orleans, and he was obliged to spend much of his early life on the move. In 1726, following two periods of imprisonment in the Bastille, he was banished to England where he was impressed with the country's political system, and the comparative freedom enjoyed by its people. On his return to France in 1729 his Philosophical Letters on the English, an oblique attack upon the institutions of his own native land, again put him at odds with the establishment, and in 1734 he was obliged to take refuge at the Château de Cirey in Champagne. Here he lived with the Marquise du Châtelet (illustrated) - a learned woman who had a strong influence on his work - and over the next fifteen years he turned out an immense number of plays, novels and pieces of verse, together with his impressive Elements of the Philosophy of Newton.

xxxxxDuring his time at Cirey, he paid visits to Paris and won favour at court, largely due to the support of the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and the writing of a number of works aimed to please, such as the La Poème de Fontenoy, celebrating the victory of the French over the British in 1745, a Summary of the Age of Louis XV, and the drama, La princess de Navarre. Such right royal pieces earned him the position of the court historiographer, and election to the French Academy in 1746. Three years later the Marquise du Châtelet died, causing him much grief, and it was soon after this that he spent two years at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia. The stay was not a success. Voltaire was soon quarrelling with his host, and the visit ended abruptly in March 1753. He then lived for a time near Geneva, but spent the last twenty years of his life on his estate at Ferney on the Swiss border. Some of his best work was produced there, but he also immersed himself in local politics and championed some high-profile cases of injustice. When he returned to Paris in February 1778, he was received with great honour and hailed as the friend of mankind, but by then he was an old, frail man, and he died three months later. He was buried in the abbey of the Bernardins, near Troyes, but, in 1791, by order of the National Assembly, his remains were removed and laid to rest in the Panthéon in Paris.

xxxxxVoltaire's output was phenomenal and, after his death, was made up into 70 volumes. Much of his work was propaganda in nature, a fact which, unfortunately, tended to detract from his excellent historical works, such as The Age of Louis XIV , History of Charles XII (of Sweden), and his Essay on Manners, a survey of world history from the end of the Roman Empire. A brilliant satirist with an elegant command of the written word, he was a prominent member of the reform group known as the Philosophes, and, as one would expect, a leading contributor to Diderot's Encyclopédie. His catchword was "Crush the infamous", and his formidable and various assortment of barbed attacks were directed not only against religious intolerance and the privileges enjoyed by clergy and nobles, but also against taxation, censorship of the press, and all forms of injustice. In matters of religion, he accepted the idea of a God, if only as providing a moral force in the world, but regarded God as a supreme power which, having established certain natural laws, had left man to his own devices. Politically speaking, he was an admirer of the constitutional monarchy being developed in Britain, but, for his own country he favoured an enlightened despotism, doubtless seeing it as the only workable form of government given the circumstances obtaining in France at that time.

xxxxxHe started of his career as a dramatist with his play Oedipus, first performed in 1718, and followed this dazzling success with a string of other outstanding tragedies, including Brutus, Zara, Merope, Alzira and Mahomet. His philosophical works - like his poems, tracts and tales - were also aimed at reform, calling for freedom of thought and a respect for all individuals, - the hallmarks of the Age of Enlightenment or Reason. Not surprisingly, his Philosophical Letters were burnt by order of the state and he was forced to leave Paris. Likewise his satirical masterpiece Candide - an entertaining tale - was in fact a savage attack upon man's inhumanity to man. Only in the make-believe land of Eldorado did the young optimist find freedom from cruelty and oppression. And Voltaire left behind, too, thousands of letters, and these provide a fascinating insight into the nature of the man, and his life and times. Indeed, he entertained so many prominent people that he became known as the "innkeeper of Europe". While in England, for example, he met, among others, the writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, the dramatist William Congreve, the politician Robert Walpole, and the philosopher George Berkeley. In Paris he became acquainted with the American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin.

xxxxxA fearless champion of the oppressed and a formidable fighter for the rights of man, Voltaire's views doubtless had some bearing on the outbreak of the French Revolution, an event he clearly foresaw. As early as 1764 he wrote: "Everything I see is scattering the seeds of a revolution, which will come inevitably". It came just eleven years after his death.

xxxxxIncidentally, while in the Bastille, Voltaire spent much of his time composing an epic poem entitled Henriade. Having no paper on which to write it, he was obliged to scribble out the words between the lines of a book. Centred around the life of the popular French king, Henry IV - who had put an end to the wars of religion - it was, in fact, a powerful defence of religious toleration. He completed the work during his visit to England and dedicated it to Queen Caroline, wife of George II. ......

xxxxx…… And it was while he was in the Bastille, it would seem, that Voltaire adopted his pen-name. Having access to a book on anagrams, he combined an anagram of the Latinized spelling of his name (Arovet) with LI, the first two letters of the nickname for “le jeune” (the younger), and came up with the word “Voltaire”. In French, the word actually means a winged armchair (le Voltaire fauteuil). ……

xxxxx...... Thexrealistic nude sculpture of the aged Voltaire - illustrated above - the work of the French artist Jean Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785), caused a scandal when it was first shown in 1776. Pigalle’s other portraits included a life-like one of the French philosopher Denis Diderot, but he is particularly famous for his Mercury Fastening his Sandals, a life-size marble version of which was commissioned by Louis XV and presented to Frederick II of Prussia in 1749. He enjoyed the patronage of Madame de Pompadour during the 1750s. ……

xxxxx…… The Frenchman Jean-Antoine Houdon, considered the greatest sculptor of his day, produced no less than four busts of Voltaire in addition to his famous seated figure of the philosopher (illustrated here). He produced a life-size figure of President George Washington in 1781, and it is at that time (1789 G3b) that his work is discussed.


Voltaire: detail, after the French painter Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), c1736 – Château de Ferney, Pays de Gex, Rhône-Alpes, Ain, France. Émilie du Châtelet: after the French painter Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788) – private collection. Ferney: detail, hand-coloured engraving of 1780, artist unknown, from Topographical Pictures of Switzerland by the Swiss historian Beat Fidel Zurlauben (1720-1799). Nude figure: by the French sculptor Jean Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785), 1776 – The Louvre, Paris. Seated figure: by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), 1781 – Library of the Comédie Française, Paris.