French literature
Voltaire

Voltaire

Write to act

Write to act

The life of Voltaire

A cheeky youngster

François-Marie Arouet was born in November 1694 in Paris. His father, a commoner and notary, had amassed a small fortune which allowed him to send his son François-Marie to the best school in the capital, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, run by the Jesuits. His classmates often came from the most important families of the kingdom. A brilliant mind, full of repartee and aptness, Voltaire felt at ease in the company of the elite. After his studies, and to the despair of his father who sends him his curses every week, Voltaire spends all his time in the most prominent salons and has no intention of returning to his father’s profession. After the death of Louis XIV and with the advent of the Regent, the atmosphere is relaxed. The young François-Marie is perhaps a little too confident and starts to publish insolent stories. The authorities were irritated but let him do it. The child prodigy publishes a satirical work claiming that the Regent sleeps with his daughter. No more laughter: Arouet the young is arrested by “lettre de cachet” and imprisoned at the age of 23. While waiting for his fate to be decided, he wrote a tragedy in prison and worked hard. He takes the name of Voltaire. He was released after eleven months. He plays his tragedy: a triumph! Voltaire writes a lot, he even writes the first French epic, the Henriade. In this atmosphere of success, an incident will decide his future life.

Exile

In 1726, he crossed paths several times with a small mind from a famous family, the Duke of Rohan-Chabot, who provoked the young Voltaire about his recent name change. “I start mine, you finish yours” would have replied the ebullient young man. Outraged, the young duke sets a trap for Voltaire and has him beaten up in the street. For Voltaire, it is a humiliation. He asks his noble friends, at whose house he dines every night, to support his legal action. They make him understand that nobody will support him. Voltaire fulminates, takes fencing lessons, shouts vengeance in the streets of Paris. To protect the duke, Voltaire ends up being imprisoned: it is the world upside down!

The government grants him exile. He left for England, learned the language and became enthusiastic about a country that he considered much more advanced than France in terms of morals and government. He eventually returned to France and met Madame du Châtelet, a woman of science and strong character who was to be the love of his life. Together, at the castle of Cirey, they studied, wrote, and acted. She taught him a rigorous way of thinking that he sometimes lacked. At war with the Church -and all revealed religions-, he operated cautiously and disavowed most of his polemical writings as he published them. Madame du Châtelet dies in childbirth in 1749. A terrible grief for Voltaire.

At Frederick II's house

Actively participating in the encycopedist movement, he is famous throughout Europe as a playwright and promoter of new ideas. Frederick II of Prussia, a sovereign sensitive to the spirit of the Enlightenment in a very Francophile court, asked him to become his special adviser. Voltaire accepts and makes the trip. But their relationship deteriorates, and soon it is a mutual disillusionment. Frederick finds Voltaire dishonest and Voltaire finds Frederick manipulative. Angry at having become the king’s puppet, he left Prussia after three years, in 1753. After some time in Geneva, he settled in Ferney, not far from the Swiss border.

European glory

Having built up a considerable fortune in business, he bought a castle on this land and soon made the township prosper by an intelligent administration. Far from being isolated at the foot of the mountains, Voltaire, now in his sixties, overflowed with activity, published his Contes philosophiques and threw his weight behind the injustices produced by fanaticism. He becomes so famous in Europe that he receives an average of fifty people at lunch every day. The government finally allowed him to return to Paris. He returned to Paris at the age of 84 to great acclaim and died a few months later in full glory.

« I am born to run through all the misfortunes of life. »

 

Lettre à M. Thieriot, 26 octobre 1726

"Life is either boredom or whipped cream."

 

Letter to Mme de Champbonin, November 17, 1764

Voltaire and his time

Voltaire is a man of the 18th century and of the Enlightenment, it is true, but he was born in the 17th century. Very attached to the freedom of trade and expression, he is also very conservative in political matters.

"Ecrasez l'infâme !" (Crush the horror !)

Through the episode of the caning, Voltaire understands that he will not be treated by the nobles as an equal. However, he will never become a revolutionary like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He will try to become as powerful as possible, in his own way: by earning a lot of money, by advising princes, by influencing public opinion. But Voltaire’s indifference towards the structural injustices of the society of his time, gives way to an unquenchable anger when it comes to the Church and more generally to the fanaticism caused by the revealed religions. At the end of his letters, he often added “Ecr. l’inf. : Crush the horror, that is to say the religious fanaticism, the power of the Catholic Church. He remained convinced that to write is to act, and that he and his encyclopedist friends could destroy what twelve apostles had begun to build.

His place in the history of literature

Voltaire would have been very angry that his most read works today are his tales. Even if his tragedies were among the most performed by the French comedy until the 1930s, they have now completely disappeared from the repertoire. His ambition to become a great classical poet failed. His activity as a historiographer, with Le Siècle de Louis XIV in particular, even if it is outdated today, had a significant importance: Voltaire had understood in these works that the writing of history could not be limited to the recension of wars and diplomatic treaties, but that it was necessary to analyze the economic exchanges and the evolution of the customs to give an account of an era. But what touches us today, and for which he left an ineffaceable imprint in literature, are his Contes philosophiques and his polemical writings, models of verve, humor and intelligence that have long passed for the condensation of the French spirit, with all its endearing and irritating qualities.

"We can say that he is immortal. As soon as we need him, we find him in his entirety."

 

Flaubert, letter to Edma Roger des Genettes, May 27, 1878

Why Voltaire is an extraordinary writer

Enemy of all that is heavy and pretentious, Voltaire made shine a witty, ironic, light, brilliant tone, far from the serious and pathetic. When reading his Tales or his Dictionnaire philosophique, the reader remains enthusiastic about his ability to dissolve stupidity and fanaticism in ridicule. One feels the same kind of satisfaction in front of a resounding slap given to someone who has deserved it.
But let us not reduce him to his irony, to his malice. As Flaubert says, Voltaire does not laugh, he grinds. His lively correspondence shows it: in truth, the misery, the violence and the fanaticism make his blood boil. Learning the rehabilitation of Calas after three years of furious fights, he weeps with joy while clasping the child of the condemned in his arms.
Voltaire is extraordinary by his tireless activity, by his fights and by his style, by his life and by his work, indissolubly linked.

Extracts

Tales

Philosophical dictionnary

  • War

    Philosophical dictionnary- 1764