Portrait of Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778)

François-Marie Arouet, who later took the name of Voltaire, was the son of a notary and educated at a Jesuit school in Paris. His father wanted him to study the law, but the young man was determined on a literary career. He gained an introduction to the intellectual life of Paris, and soon won a reputation as a writer of satires and odes —a not altogether enviable reputation, for the suspicion of having written a satire on the Regent procured him a term of six months' imprisonment in the Bastille (1717-1718). On his release, his first tragedy, Oedipe, was performed (1718) in Paris with great success; and soon after he published the poem he had written in prison, a national epic, La Henriade (1724) which placed him with Homer and Virgil in the eyes of his contemporaries. After a second term of imprisonment in the Bastille, Voltaire spent three years (1726-1729) in England, and returned to France full of enthusiasm for the intellectual activity and the more tolerant form of government he found in this country. His enthusiasm and his indictment of the French system of government are expressed in his Letters on England (1733), whose sale was absolutely forbidden in France. This was followed by and Lettres philosophiques (1734).

He regained favour at court, becoming royal historiographer, then moved to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick the Great (1750-1753). In 1755 he settled near Geneva, where he wrote the satirical short story, Candide (1759). From 1762 he produced a range of anti-religious writings and the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). Always concerned over cases of injustice, he took a particular interest in the affair of Jean Calas, whose innocence he helped to establish. In 1778 he returned as a celebrity to Paris. His ideas were an important influence on the intellectual climate leading to the French Revolution.