Voltaire: A Brief Life
Portrait of Voltaire, engraved by François-Joseph-Etienne Beisson after the portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour. The New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection. Digital ID psnypl_prn_1067.
The French philosopher, poet, playwright, and novelist François-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) — pen name, Voltaire — was foremost among the 18th-century philosophes and a passionate crusader for humanism, justice, and free thought. One of the towering figures of the European Enlightenment, and the first writer to achieve, in his lifetime, what today we would call the status of a celebrity, he enjoyed a readership that spanned Europe and the British Isles, and extended to the New World. Through the 2,000 works he published, he exerted a heretofore unmatched level of influence on public opinion.
Born of a middle-class Parisian family, Voltaire was educated at a Jesuit school and gave up his legal studies for writing. Early literary creations, including the tragic dramas Oedipe (1718) and Zaïre (1732) and the epic poem La Henriade (1728), earned him a reputation among contemporaries as the premier poet and playwright of his century. Both admired and condemned for his liberal views and attacks on the church, nobility, and the ancien régime, he was imprisoned and exiled on several occasions. Banished to England from 1726 to 1729, Voltaire was drawn to the political ideas of John Locke, Isaac Newton, and others, about which he wrote in Letters Concerning the English Nation [Lettres philosophiques, 1734]. The book was banned in France, and Voltaire took refuge at the estates of wealthy admirers. His place in history rests chiefly on his essays and letters in defense of reason and tolerance, and on such “philosophical tales” as Zadig (1747) and Candide (1759).
By the 1750s, disenchantment with his situation in France led him to accept an invitation to take up residence in Potsdam at the court of the Prussian King Frederick the Great. Becoming disenchanted with Frederick as well, Voltaire took his leave of Potsdam, settling first in Geneva and then, in 1758, on an estate he created in the village of Ferney, just over the Swiss border. It was there, when Voltaire was 65 years old, that he wrote Candide. He remained at Ferney until returning to Paris in triumph in February 1778, when he was 83. In the months that followed, Voltaire met Benjamin Franklin, had a new play produced at the Comédie-Française, and was feted throughout the French capital. Voltaire died in a house on what is now called the Quai Voltaire on May 30, 1778. During the French Revolution, his remains were interred in the Panthéon in Paris amidst a vast public spectacle, stage managed by the great painter Jacques-Louis David. Other major works include Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations [Essai sur les moeurs et l’ésprit des nations, 1756–69], a seven-volume world history, and Philosophical Dictionary [Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764], a compendium of ideas.