Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was born in Paris on November 21, 1694. With his penetrating observations of society and his incisive wit, Voltaire would become one of the stars of the French Enlightenment, generally considered to be the beginning of the age of modern thought. Along with others like Denis Diderot, Voltaire changed the face of intellectual life forever.

Although he spent his life poking fun at what he considered the absurdities of organized religion, Voltaire received his education at the Collège Louis Le Grand, an educational institution founded by the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus.

While named after Louis Le Grand, Louis XIV, in honor of his visiting there and offering royal patronage, the college was established by the Jesuits in 1563. Even though it was named a college during Voltaire’s time, it is actually a lycée, roughly equivalent to an American high school. Victor Hugo, another of France’s great men of letters, was educated at Louis Le Grand.

Born into the French middle class, or bourgeoisie, Voltaire’s knack for satire gained him aristocratic enemies early in his life. In 1717 he was imprisoned in the infamous Bastille in Paris for writing about the regency government of Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, who served as regent for the young Louis XV after the death of Louis XIV in 1715.

Life in the Bastille, which was by then no longer the forbidding prison of the Middle Ages, did not dampen Voltaire’s creativity. While incarcerated there, he wrote the play Oedipe, and adopted the pen name Voltaire. Oedipe would become his first success, and set him on his career as a writer.

Ten years later, in 1726, Voltaire ran afoul of another French aristocrat, known to history as the chevalier de Rohan. By now, his fame had gained him a certain immunity from imprisonment. Those sent to the Bastille were often never tried, merely sentenced by the king or regent with a secret document. This time, Voltaire was given the choice of either the Bastille or exile.

Wisely, he chose England, then the most intellectually free of European countries. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had ended the despotic rule of King James II, writers like John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government laid out a plan for representative government that would affect the rest of Voltaire’s career. His Letters on the English were published in Rouen, France, in 1731.

Nowhere else is there a better statement of his political philosophy than in his Letter VIII: On the Parliament, where he writes, “The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings by resisting them; and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all-powerful to do good, and, at the same time, is restrained from committing evil; where the nobles are great without insolence, though there are no vassals; and where the people share in the Government without confusion.”

Such views hardly endeared him to the court of King Louis XV, who was intent on carrying on the tradition of absolute monarchy that had been perfected by King Louis XIV, the Sun King. The closest approximation to the British parliament was the French Estates General, an assembly of the bourgeoisie, clergy, and nobility. Its last meeting had been in 1614, after the assassination of King Henry IV in 1610. It did not meet again until 1789, and its convocation then by an unwilling Louis XVI would begin the French Revolution.

By 1734 Louis XV had heard enough of Voltaire’s views on government. At about that time, Voltaire began his liaison with Madame de Châtelet, whose husband was well aware of the affair. Voltaire apparently felt it prudent to take up residence at the Châtelet’s chateau at Cirey. However, from then on, Voltaire’s life became both more confusing and more intriguing.

Voltaire remained an astute critic of French government and society, especially the official Roman Catholic Church. While he is often portrayed as being an atheist, in one passage he declared his personal belief in Jesus Christ as his God. His satire on St. Joan of Arc, La Pucelle, showed as much humor as scandal to the organized church.

The political satire of Voltaire remains a treasure to readers and writers alike. Voltaire’s best-known satire, Candide, was published in 1759, at the height of the Seven Years’ War and most likely was influenced by the carnage of the worst conflict that Europe would witness between the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. Although he lampoons the search for “the best of all possible worlds,” he nevertheless still reveals his faith in the indomitable spirit of mankind, a creed that never left him.

While Voltaire is best known for his works in political satire and political theory, he also has claim to be one of the first serious historians of the modern era. His biographies of Louis XIV of France and the warrior-king Charles XII of Sweden still stand as models of the historian’s art today. Both combine an appreciation for the times that the two monarchs lived in and an understanding of the personal impact that individuals could have on their eras.

In 1755 Voltaire settled in Switzerland and purchased his own chateau at Ferney. The great and the humble came to visit him. However, his ideals of tolerance and just government gained him another bout with the authorities.

Although he had moved from France, Voltaire remained French in his heart until his death. Fittingly, he died in Paris on May 30, 1778, only a little more than a decade before the old French monarchy, whose absolutist policies he so despised, collapsed of its own weight in the French Revolution of 1789.