A Cornerstone European Enlightenment Writer and the Forerunner of the French Revolution
Francois-Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694. He then attended the best school in the capital. Beginning in 1704, he was educated by the Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand. There the eager polymath was taught theology, rhetoric, and Latin. Then, later in life, the polyglot became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English. Eventually, by the time he left school, the young man had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer. His father did, however, introduce him to the literary culture of the period both in Paris and at the royal court of Versailles.
Arouet aspired to emulate his idols Moliere, Racine, and Corneille in order to become a playwright. He vowed to make his name as a writer, or rather to remake his name, at all costs. Arouet came to be known by the nom de plume “Voltaire”, upon completing his first play in 1718. Voltaire was known as “le petit volontaire” (determined little thing) as a child, and he resurrected a variant of the name as an adult. The name also reverses the syllables of his family’s hometown of Airvault, in the Poitou region. Plus, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau from March of 1719, Voltaire concluded by asking that, if Rousseau wished to send him a return letter, he should do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A postscript explained:
“I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.”
This referred to Adenes le Roi. At the time, the ‘oi’ diphthong was pronounced like modern ‘ouai’, so the similarity to Arouet is quite clear.
Being a writer meant everything to Voltaire. In total, he penned more than fifty plays, as well as dozens of treatises on science, politics, and philosophy. Granted, he directed many of his critical writings against the specific academic pretensions of recognized philosophers such as Leibniz and Descartes. Along with this, Voltaire wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. Voltaire even wrote two book-long epic poems, including the first-ever written in French, the Henriade. To do all of that, Voltaire spent up to 18 hours a day writing or dictating to secretaries, often while still in bed. As such, the prolific polemicist drank dozens of cups of coffee a day for years on end.
Voltaire was totally devoted to his craft and willing to do anything and everything he had to in order to master it. As part of this, Voltaire absolutely loathed censorship of any kind. Of course, this got the daring wordsmith into quite a bit of trouble on more than one occasion. He had his first run-in with the authorities in 1716, when he was briefly exiled from Paris for composing poems mocking the French regent’s family. He eventually served eleven months behind bars in the Bastille before winning a release. Voltaire then retreated into the libertine sociability of Paris, in the 1720s, during the culturally vibrant period of the Regency government between the reigns of Louis XIV and XV.
Then, in early 1726, a 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. So, de Rohan arranged for Voltaire to be beaten up by thugs a few days later. Seeking revenge, Voltaire then challenged de Rohan to a duel, but the aristocratic de Rohan family arranged for Voltaire to be arrested and imprisoned without a trial or an opportunity to defend himself. Finally, to escape further jail time, Voltaire voluntarily exiled himself to England, where he remained for nearly three years.
In 1727, at Sir Isaac Newton’s funeral, Voltaire met Newton’s niece, Catherine Conduitt. There, she told Voltaire a silly story about her uncle discovering gravity when an apple fell on his head. The great Enlightenment thinker immediately understood the power that folktale had to popularize science. As such, Voltaire wrote that Newton “had the first thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.” Thus, his account was instrumental in making the apocryphal apple a fabled part of Newton’s biography and legacy.
In 1729, Voltaire teamed up with a few fellow geniuses to help him exploit a lucrative loophole in the French national lottery in order to strike it rich. The government shelled out massive prizes for the contest each month, but an error in calculation meant that the payouts were larger than the value of all the tickets in circulation. With this in mind, the gambling syndicate was able to repeatedly corner the market and rake in massive winnings. The highly lucrative scheme earned Voltaire nearly half a million francs, setting him up for life and allowing him to devote himself solely to his literary career, once and for all.
Since Voltaire’s writing denigrated almost everything in Parisian high society, he ran up against frequent censorship from the French government. As such, much of his work was suppressed, and the authorities ordered certain books of his to be burned. So, Voltaire had much of his work printed abroad, and he published under several different pseudonyms. Voltaire used more than 175 separate pen names during his lifetime. However, despite his best attempts to remain anonymous, Voltaire lived in near-constant fear of arrest.
In 1733, he published the Letters Concerning the English Nation. It was first published in France in 1734, as Lettres philosophiques. The new text, which included letters on Bacon, Locke, and Newton along with an account of the English practice of inoculation for smallpox, also required the new title. Voltaire had attempted to get official permission for the book from the royal censors, which was a requirement in France at the time. However, his publisher, ultimately released the manuscript without those approvals and without Voltaire’s permission. This made the first edition of the Lettres philosophiques illicit, which contributed to the scandal that it triggered. In the end, just as he had feared, Voltaire was forced to flee France. The book was then publicly burnt and banned.
Sadly, this turned Voltaire into a widely known intellectual outlaw, and this would have far-reaching consequences for the history of Western philosophy. This was because the world-renowned author went on to spend the majority of his life as a rogue scholar in unofficial exile in and around Switzerland. The centerpiece of his campaign was Elements de la Philosophie de Newton, which was first published in 1738. This was re-released in 1745 in a new and definitive edition that included a new section, first published in 1740, devoted to Newton’s metaphysics. Of course, this is just one of the many great works that Voltaire put forward.
In fact, in 1745, Voltaire was named the Royal Historiographer of France. His novel way of looking at the past is the very thing that legitimized the field of historiography in the first place. Thus, the position finally legitimated Voltaire as an officially sanctioned savant. This royal office also triggered the writing of Voltaire’s most widely read and influential book in the 18th century. Essais sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations was a pioneering work of universal history that came out in 1751. Based on all of this, and so much more, Voltaire was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of all time. His classics are full of famous quotes, like this great line:
“If God had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.”
This is pretty cool even in English, but it’s much better in French where it’s far more memorable because it’s a classical alexandrine line in 12 syllables:
“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.”
Then again, this is probably my all-time favorite Voltaire quote:
“Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them.”
Regardless, during his extensive writing career, Voltaire published his greatest masterpiece, Candide, in 1759 and it became an instant bestseller. The powerful piece has since been translated into every possible language and remains the most widely read work of the European Enlightenment to this very day. The timeless classic is a brilliant satire of the human condition. Voltaire concludes the novella with, if not rejecting Leibnizian optimism outright, advocating a practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden”, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds”.
Unfortunately, no matter what, all good things must come to an end, even the illustrious life and work of Voltaire. In 1778, he returned to Paris for the first time in over 25 years, in part, to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. However, the five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old to deal with, and believing he was about to die on February 28th, he wrote:
“I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”
Then, he made a full recovery, and in March was able to see a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero. Then, in early April, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry, under the watchful eye of the Grand Architect. In contrast to this, in late May, over the last few days of his life, numerous Catholic Church officials repeatedly visited Voltaire in the hope of persuading him to retract his outspoken deistic opinions about God. They urged him to make a full deathbed confession, knowing that his refusal meant that Voltaire would be officially denied a Christian burial in Paris. This became all the more tragic once he finally died on May 30th of 1778, leaving behind no children. He did, however, know a few people who managed to bury his body in secret at an abbey in Champagne.
Thankfully, Voltaire left behind a much greater legacy than that of a family heir, in the form of a vast literary body of work, like no other. It’s almost inconceivable that one man could have written so much, so well. That’s why, in honor of the famous French keynote Enlightenment writer, on July 11th of 1791, the National Assembly of France had Voltaire’s remains brought to Paris and enshrined in the Pantheon. They rightly regarded him as the forerunner of the French Revolution. The model he offered as a critical public citizen, and as a systematic thinker whenever necessary, was essential to the subsequent development of European thought. As such, a million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout the City of Lights. More importantly, to this very day, and hopefully long into the future, anyone can honor Voltaire anytime they want simply by reading anything he wrote. Such was his gift.