If we say the name of François-Marie Arouet, it is possible that few know who we are referring to, but if we mention the pseudonym that he used most of his life, no doubt that most He will come to mind the figure of one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment: Voltaire.
Of plebeian origin but rich, Voltaire was critical of the real estate company of his time, of the Catholic Church and of injustice. He was a defender of religious freedom and tolerance and decreed that all men are equal.
Below, we will dive into the life of this French intellectual through a biography of Voltaire, in which we will talk about his philosophy and his literary work, all protagonists of a life marked by constant exiles and quarrels with the authority figures of his time.
Brief biography of Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was a French writer, historian, philosopher and lawyer belonging to Freemasonry. He is considered one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, a period in Western history that emphasized the power of human reason and science to the detriment of superstition and religion.
Throughout his life, Voltaire wrote numerous works, engaged in the public and political life of enlightened European society, and expressed a very critical outlook on the real estate company of his time, which brought to tread the Bastille more than once.
The first years
François-Marie Arouet was born on November 21, 1694 in Châtenay-Malabry. He was the son of the notary François Arouet, adviser to the king and treasurer of the Paris Chamber of Accounts, and of Marie Marguerite d’Aumard, who died when little Arouet was only seven years old. We know that Voltaire had four brothers and sisters, but only two others reached adulthood: Armand Arouet, lawyer at the Parliament of Paris, and his sister Marie Arouet.
The young François-Marie studied Greek and Latin at the Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand between 1704 and 1711, coinciding with the last years of the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. It would be in this school where the young Voltaire will work in friendship with the brothers René-Louis and Marc-Pierre Anderson, future ministers of King Luis XV. In 1706, at the age of twelve, Voltaire wrote the tragedy “Amulius and Numitor”, some fragments of which were published in the 19th century.
Between 1711 and 1713, he studied law, but did not end his career because, according to his father, he preferred to be a man of letters. and no longer just a real civil servant. Around this time, his godfather, the abbot of Châteauneuf, introduced him to the Société du Temple, a libertine group, coinciding with the fact that he received at that time an important inheritance from the old courtesan Ninon de Lenclos. The old woman had left him this inheritance for the purpose, it seems, that young Voltaire would buy books.
In 1713, François-Marie Arouet became secretary of the French embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands, where he composed his “Ode aux malheurs du temps”. His stay was short-lived, as the ambassador returned to Paris the same year when he learned that Arouet had been in contact with a young French Huguenot refugee by the name of Catherine Olympe Dunoyer, “Pimpette”. During this same period, he began to write his tragedy “Odipe”, although it was not published until 1718, then began to write his cult epic poem entitled “La Henriada”.
From 1714 he worked as a clerk for a notary. Although a commoner, he became a frequent guest at Parisian salons and parties with the Duchess of Maine at the Chateau de Sceaux.. There, he would have the opportunity to meet the celebrities of the time and to dine gallantly with the most notable libertine nobles. At that time, he composed two extremely scandalous poems: “Le Bourbier” and “L’Anti-Giton”, similar to the erotic tales in verse of La Fontaine.
François-Marie is imprisoned and Voltaire is released
On the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the Duke of Orleans assumed the regency and the young François-Marie Arouet dares to write a satire against the incestuous love affair between him and his daughter, the Duchess of BerrI. Because of his audacity, the young Arouet was imprisoned in the famous Bastille prison, serving his sentence between May 1717 and April 1718. On his release from prison, he was banished from his home in Châtenay-Malabry, being from this moment when he adopts the name by which he will be known for the rest of his life and after his death: Voltaire.
The last years of the 1710s and the beginning of the 1720s were a very prolific period for Voltaire. In 1718, he created his tragedy “Odipe”, with great success. In 1720 he presented “Artemira” and in 1721 he offered the manuscript of his epic “La henriade” to the regent, publishing it under the title “Poème de la Ligue” in 1723 dedicated to King Henry IV of France, glory and acts of which they are the intrigue of the work. This work was a great success and, motivated, Voltaire decided to embark on the drafting of his “Essay on civil wars”.
In 1722 his father died, leaving him a great fortune that Voltaire take the opportunity to make a new trip to Holland, accompanied by the widow Countess of Rupelmonde, although this will not prevent him from having other loves a year later, this time with the Marquise de Bernières. In 1724, he created “Mariana”, when he began to suffer from serious health problems but which did not prevent him from continuing his literary production, leaving the following year “L’Indiscret”.
Distrustful of the real estate company
In 1725, he received the honor of being invited to the wedding of King Louis XV, which made Voltaire a recurring figure in the Court of France.. However, in 1726, due to an argument with the noble knight De Rohan and a few words that did not suit him, he caused a sensation in the capital.
De Rohan sent his lackeys to beat Voltaire, but later refused to clear up the case in the manner of the time, in the form of a sword or a pistol. The nobleman did not deign, seeing in Voltaire a commoner and understanding that those in his condition were not completely honored.
Voltaire, dissatisfied with the situation, scoured Paris in search of the gentleman and asked him for a satisfaction, that is to say a duel. While Voltaire’s demands are legitimate, the fact that a commoner persecutes an aristocrat for compensation is not suitable for high society. This is why Voltaire ended up being captured again in the Bastille, this time for only two weeks. The imprisonment did not intimidate him, as he was still in prison demanding his satisfaction. At the end Voltaire was released, but only in exchange for an oath of exile.
Exile in Great Britain
Once again free, Voltaire decides to go into exile in Great Britain where he will stay two and a half years (1726-1729). Events in Paris taught Voltaire that, although he was received at first with taste and curiosity by the nobility, to them he would never cease to be a commoner, a person of lower status and who did not deserve the same rights. As the law is not the same for everyone, he has therefore become a staunch defender of the right to universal justice.
In his exile the first thing he did was settle in London, being greeted by Lord Henry St. John, Viscount of Bolingbroke. Voltaire had no money, being so desperate that he even asked for financial help from his brother Armand Arouet, whom he hated for being a Jansenist but needed him more than ever. He didn’t even get a response from her.
The time he spent in England was decisive for the formation of his thought. Voltaire discovered Newtonian science, empiricist philosophy and English political institutions. He learned English and became an Anglophile, perceiving the English as the wisest and freest people of the time. He had a keen interest in Sir Isaac Newton’s work, although he did not have time to get to know it in depth, but he attended his funeral in 1727 at Westminster Abbey.
During his stay in London, Voltaire was surprised at the tolerance and religious variety of the English and the great veneration they feel for Shakespeare, of which he translates Hamlet’s monologue. For that he will publish his first two major texts in English: “Essay on the Civil War” and “Essay on Epic Poetry”. Voltaire was fortunate to be associated with other great British figures of the time, such as the deist Samuel Clarke, the poet philosopher Alexander Pope and the satirist Jonathan Swift. He will also meet John Locke, whose liberal work he admires.
Return to France
In 1729 Voltaire returned to France for three basic purposes. The first is to get rich as soon as possible so as not to die in the most absolute misery, as happened to many men of letters. The second is to encourage tolerance and fight bigotry. The third, disseminate the scientific thought of Sir Isaac Newton and the liberal political ideas of the philosopher John Locke, publishing in French his “Philosophical or English Letters”, a text which makes French society retrograde and intolerant.
Voltaire wanted to get rich and saw a golden opportunity in the project of the mathematician Charles Marie de la Condamine, who had discovered a flaw in the lottery system imagined by the French Minister of Finance Michel Robert Le Pelletier-Desforts. De la Condamine discovered that the system could be exploited by purchasing inexpensive coupons that awarded the right to accumulate almost any lottery number.
Surprisingly, the lottery trick worked for both of them and, despite the lawsuit brought by the minister, since they had done nothing illegal, they won a large sum of money.. But this was only a trifle compared to the other riches the philosopher would add, as Voltaire further increased his fortune by acquiring a remittance of American money in Cadiz and speculating in various financial transactions, becoming one of the greatest rentiers from France.
In 1731, Voltaire published his “History of Charles XII” in which he put forward some problems and subjects which he exposed in more detail in his “Philosophical Letters” (1734). I would like a fierce defense of religious tolerance and ideological freedom, taking as a model the permissiveness and secularism of Anglo-Saxon society. He will also take the opportunity to accuse Christianity of being the root of all dogmatic fanaticism. The “History of Charles XII” is withdrawn at the request of the government, but this does not prevent it from continuing to circulate clandestinely.
Escape to Cirey-Sur-Blaise
In 1732, he had his greatest theatrical success with “Zaire”, a tragedy he wrote in just three weeks. In 1733, he published “Le Temple du Goût”, which coincided with the beginning of a deep relationship with mathematics and physics Madame Émilie du Châtelet. In 1734, he published his controversial and explosive “Philosophical Letters”, almost immediately condemned to be thrown at the stake, and Voltaire was condemned to be arrested.
The writer had already foreseen the possibility of being arrested, so he left Paris before his hands were laid on him. and takes refuge in the castle of the Marquise du Châtelet in Cirey-Sur-Blaise (Champagne). It was from this time that he formed a long love affair with the Marquise, which lasted sixteen years and with which he worked on his book “Newton’s Philosophy”, where he summarized in French the new physics of English genius. .
He will live in this retreat for ten years, devoted to letters. He also took the opportunity to settle some financial questions, concluded his lawsuits and proposed to restore the castle, to add a gallery and to equip it with a large cabinet for the physics experiments of the Marquise. He would also build a library of 21,000 personally selected volumes. These were calm years for Voltaire, having the time to document and write his works, and to devote himself to reading and science with the Marchioness..
At the same time, Voltaire resumed his dramatic career by writing “Adélaïde du Guesclin” (1734), the first classicist play which moved away from Greco-Latin themes to address the history of France. He later wrote “The Death of Caesar” (1735), “Alzira or the Americans” (1736) and “Fanaticism or Mahomet” (1741). In 1741, he met Philip Stanhope of Chesterfield in Belgium, an encounter which prompted him to write the novel “The Ears of the Earl of Chesterfield and Chaplain Gudman”. In 1742, his “Fanaticism or Mahomet” was banned.
End of relationship with the Marquise
Voltaire travels to Berlin, where he is appointed scholar, historian and knight of the Royal Chamber. After a sixteen-year relationship with Voltaire, the Marquise du Châtelet fell madly in love with the young poet Jean-François de Saint-Lambert. Voltaire discovers them and, after a fit of rage, ends up agreeing to the situation.
The Marquise fell pregnant, but died in 1749 from complications related to childbirth, which made Voltaire seriously broken and depressed, deciding to flee by accepting the new invitation of Frederick II of Prussia to Berlin, to the great anger of King Louis XV.
In 1751, he published the first complete version of “Siècle de Louis XIV” and continued with “Micromegas” in 1752. Maupertuis, Voltaire fled Prussia in 1753. To his dismay, he was arrested in Frankfurt by an agent of the king and he must undergo several harassments before returning to France. He was not welcomed by King Louis XV, which is why he had to take refuge in Switzerland, in a manor and rural estate, Les Délices, which he bought near Geneva.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 greatly impressed Voltaire, making him reflect on the absurdity of history and the meaning of evil, by publishing “Poem on the Lisbon disaster” on it. It was around this year that he began his collaborations with the Encyclopédie Diderot and D’Alembert, publishing seven volumes of “Essays on General History and on Customs and the Spirit of Nations” (1756 ) and “History of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great” (1759), focusing not only on the history of men but also on the manifestations of the human spirit in an artistic way, customs, social institutions and religions.
In 1758, he bought a property in Ferney, France, just on the Swiss border. because if you encounter a problem again in your home country, you can get out of it quickly. He will live there for 18 years and will be the place where he will receive many members of the intellectual elite of Europe. From there he sent and received a multitude of letters, some 40,000 of which ended with his phrase “Crush the Infamous” (“Crush the Infamous”).
In 1763 he wrote his “Treatise on Tolerance” and in 1764 his “Philosophical Dictionary”. That same year anonymously published a severe defamation against Jean-Jacques Rousseau entitled “Sentiment of the citizens”. Since then, being a famous and influential figure in public life, Voltaire has intervened in several legal cases, including the Jean Calas case, which would lead to the abolition of judicial torture in France and other European countries, posing also the foundations of modern human rights.
In 1773, Voltaire, now very old, fell seriously ill. However, in 1775 he published his “History of Jenni” and in 1776, seeing that the end was drawing near, he wrote a will. In 1778, he returned to Paris where he was warmly welcomed and decided to create his “Irene” in the midst of a real fascination.. After receiving numerous visits to discuss all kinds of philosophical and intellectual matters in general, his condition worsened and he finally died on May 30, 1778, at the age of 83, and was buried in the Benedictine monastery. de Scellières near Troyes. In 1791, his remains will be transferred to the Pantheon.
His philosophical thought
Voltaire made himself known by his literary works and, above all, by his philosophical writings, where he was truly critical. Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire sees no opposition between an alienating society and an oppressed individual., and believes in a universal and innate sense of justice which should be reflected in the laws of all countries.
For him, the law should be the same for everyone. There must be a justice convention, a social pact to preserve the interest of each individual. He believes that instinct and reason of each lead him to respect and promote this pact.
His philosophy does not take into account God, although this does not mean that Voltaire is an atheist, but rather a deist.. However, he does not believe in divine intervention in human affairs and in fact denounces Providentialism in his philosophical tale “Candide or Optimism” (1759). He turned out to be a staunch opponent of the Catholic Church, which he said was a representation of intolerance and injustice. This is why Voltaire ended up becoming the model of the liberal and anticlerical bourgeoisie and the enemy of the religious less critical of the doctrine.
Although he criticizes the Catholic Church, Voltaire has gone down in history for inventing the concept of religious tolerance. He fought against intolerance and superstition, but always advocated peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths and religions. It is for this reason that he is credited with the following maxim, which, although he never uttered it, sums up very well what his position was:
“I do not share what you say, but I will defend your right to say it until death.”
John Locke’s philosophy is for Voltaire a doctrine which fits perfectly with his positive and utilitarian ideal.. Locke is an advocate of liberalism and argues that the social pact should not suppress the natural rights of the individual. As individuals we learn from experience, anything that transcends it is hypothesis.
Voltaire draws his morale from Locke’s doctrine. He believes that the goal of men is to take their own destiny, to improve their condition, to make their lives easier by promoting science, industry, the arts and by governing with good politics. Life will not be possible without a convention where everyone finds their part, their place in the world. The justice of each country, although variable in law, must be ensured by this universal convention.
The pseudonym “Voltaire”
There are many theories about Voltaire’s pseudonym. François-Marie Arouet used this very identifying name, much more popular than his first name. One of the most accepted versions is that it derives from the nickname of Petit Volontaire (Petit Volontaire) that his loved ones affectionately called him when he was little. However, of the hypotheses which seem the most plausible we have the one which says that Voltaire is an anagram of “AROVET L (E) I (EUNE)”, which would be nothing more than the stylized version in Roman typography of the expression Arouet , the Younger ”(Arouet, el Jove).
But for those who are not convinced by this hypothesis, we have others. It could be the name of a small fiefdom his mother owned, while others say it could be the Old French verb phrase that meant he “Vol-ter”) due to his innovative thinking for it. ‘era. Another theory is that it is the word “revoltair”, changing the order of the syllables.
Either way, the point is in 1717 the young Arouet took the name of Voltaire after an arrest, probably the explanation behind the name being a combination of most of the ones we’ve seen.
- Martí Domínguez, “Chronology” by Voltaire, Philosophical Letters. Philosophical dictionary. Memoirs at the service of Voltaire’s life written by himself. Madrid: Gredos, 2014, p. xcix-cii.
- Fernández, T. and Tamaro, E. (2004). Biography of Voltaire ”. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona, Spain.
- Voltaire (2010). Complete work. Introductory study: Martí Domínguez, presentation: Fernando Savater. Cardboard. Library of great thinkers. Madrid: Editorial Gredos. ISBN 978-84-249-1756-2.
- Pujol, Carles (1999). Voltaire (1st edition). Madrid: Paraula Publishing. ISBN 9788482393513.