Voltaire / François-Marie Arouet
Who was he: Voltaire was a French historian, philosopher and Enlightenment writer in the 18th Century. He was renowned for his wit and advocacy of civil liberties, which included the freedom of religion and free trade.
Voltaire was a candid supporter of social reform, even in the face of strict censorship laws and the harsh punishments that came with violating them. He was a satirical polemicist and as such, his writings generally criticized the French institutions of his time, religious dogma and intolerance.
Voltaire was an abundant writer in nearly all forms of literature: plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works. He wrote over 2,000 pamphlets and books and over 20,000 letters. He was one of a handful of Enlightenment writers who greatly influenced the French and American Revolutions.
Background: Voltaire's given name was François-Marie Arouet and he was born on November 21st, 1694 in Paris, France. From 1704-1711, he attended the Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he was educated by the Jesuits and learned both Latin and Greek. His father had wanted Voltaire to become a notary, like himself, but by the time he'd finished school, Voltaire had decided that he wanted to be a writer.
While in Paris, Voltaire took a job as an apprentice notary but spent the majority of his time writing poetry. His father sent him to Caen, in Normandy, to study law when Voltaire's secret vocation was discovered. He continued to write essays and historical studies and his wit made him popular amongst the aristocratic families he mixed with. After law school, Voltaire's father secured him the position of secretary to the French ambassador of the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love and attempted to elope with a French protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. His father foiled the elopement and brought Voltaire back home.
Voltaire spent most of his early life back in Paris where he constantly ran into trouble with the law because of his mild critiques of government and religious intolerance. Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months due to a satirical verse about the Regent, until the real author stepped forward.
In 1718, after his incarceration, Francois's pen name, Voltaire, was created. It is an anagram of his Latinized surname AROVET LI. In the latter half of 1725 Voltaire had responded to an insult by a French nobleman named Chevalier de Rohan. This resulted in the Rohan family obtaining a royal lettre de cachet, a penal decree signed by the king against undesirables disliked by the aristocracy.
Voltaire was then thrown into the Bastille with no trial and no opportunity for self-defense. Voltaire feared indefinite imprisonment so he made a plea to the authorities, asking to be exiled instead. His offer was accepted and Voltaire fled to England. This marked the beginning of Voltaire's fight to improve the French judicial system.
Voltaire's nearly three-year exile in England greatly influenced his ideas. He was interested in England's constitutional monarchy in comparison to France's absolute monarchy, as well as England's relative support of the freedoms of religion and speech. The neoclassical writers of the age were a great inspiration to him as was early English literature, especially that of William Shakespeare. Voltaire believed that French literature could learn from Shakespeare, despite his deviations from the neoclassical; French plays may have been more polished but they lacked on-stage action, unlike Shakespeare.
Later, when Shakespeare was increasingly popular in France, Voltaire wrote plays directly the opposite, decrying Shakespeare as too barbaric. When he returned to Paris from exile, Voltaire wrote the Philosophical Letters on the English, a collection of essays on his views of British government, literature and religion.
These letters maintained that the British monarchy was more developed and more respectful of human rights, especially religious rights, than was France. The controversy resulted in the book being burned and Voltaire fleeing once again.
François-Marie Arouet fled to the Château de Cirey, where he learned to keep out of harm's way by denying any awkward responsibility for his works. He wrote many essays on science and history there until the Château became too confining. In 1759, he wrote his most famous work, Candide, or Optimism. On May 30, 1778, Voltaire died.