Voltaire was born in Paris to François Arouet and Marie-Marguerite Daumart or D'Aumard. Both parents were of Poitevin extraction, but the Arouets were long established in Paris, the grandfather being a prosperous tradesman.
He was the fifth child of his parents, preceded by twin boys (one of whom survived), a girl, Marguerite-Catherine, and another boy who died young. Voltaire's mother died when he was seven years old. His father appears to have been strict, but neither inhospitable nor tyrannical. Marguerite Arouet, of whom her younger brother was very fond, married early; the elder brother, Armand, was a strong Jansenist and had a poor relationship with François.
The Abbé de Châteauneuf , a friend of François' mother, instructed him in les belles lettres and deism, and the child showed a faculty for facile verse-making. Aged ten he was sent to the Jesuitic Collège Louis-le-Grand, and remained there till 1711. Though he deprecated the education he had received, it formed the basis of his considerable knowledge, and probably kindled his lifelong devotion to the stage.
In his earliest school years the abbé presented him to the famous author Ninon de Lenclos. When she died, in 1705, she left him money so he could buy books. In August 1711, at the age of seventeen, he came home and the usual battle followed between a son who desired no profession but literature and a father who refused to consider literature a profession at all. So Voltaire studied law, at least nominally. The Abbé de Châteauneuf died before his godson left school, but he had already introduced him to the famous and dissipated coterie of the Temple, of which the grand prior Vendôme was the head, and the poets Chaulieu and La Fare were the chief literary stars. Voltaire's father tried to remove him from such society by sending him first to Caen and then, in the suite of the marquis de Châteauneuf, the abbé's brother, to The Hague. Here he met Olympe Dunoyer, a Protestant girl from a poor family, but his father stopped the affair by procuring a lettre de cachet, though he never used it.
Voltaire was sent home and, for a time, pretended to work in a Parisian lawyer's office but he again manifested a faculty for getting into trouble — this time in the still more dangerous way of writing libelous poems — so that his father was glad to send him to stay for nearly a year (1714-15) with Louis de Caumartin , marquis de Saint-Ange , in the country. Here he was still supposed to study law but devoted himself in part to literary essays and in part to storing up his immense treasure of gossiping history. Almost exactly at the time of the death of Louis XIV he returned to Paris, to fall once more into literary and Templar society and to make the tragedy of Oedipe, which he had already written, privately known. He was introduced to the famous "court of Sceaux", the circle of the beautiful and ambitious duchesse du Maine. It seems that Voltaire lent himself to the duchess' frantic hatred of the regent, Philippe II of Orléans, and helped compose lampoon s on him. In May 1716 he was exiled, first to Tulle, then to Sully, later, having been allowed to return, he was suspected of having been concerned in the composition of two violent libels. Inveigled by a spy named Beauregard into a real or burlesque confession he was sent to the Bastille on May 16, 1717, here he recast Oedipe, began the Henriade and decided to change his name.
Ever after his exit from the Bastille in April 1718 he was known as Arouet de Voltaire, or simply Voltaire, though legally he never abandoned his patronymic. The origin of the name has been much debated and attempts have been made to show that it existed in the Daumart pedigree or in some territorial designation. Some maintain that it was an abbreviation of a childish nickname, "le petit volontaire". The balance of opinion has, however, always inclined to the hypothesis of an anagram on the name "Arouet le jeune" or "Arouet l.j.", 'u' being changed to 'v' and 'j' to 'i' according to the ordinary rules of the game.
A further "exile" at Châtenay and elsewhere followed the imprisonment however, though Voltaire was admitted to an audience by the regent and treated graciously, he was not trusted. Oedipe was performed at the Théâtre Français on November 18 and was well received, though a rivalry grew between parties assisting its success. It had a run of forty-five nights and brought the author not a little profit, with these gains Voltaire seems to have begun his long series of successful financial speculations.
In the spring of the next year the production of Lagrange-Chancel's libels, entitled the Philippiques, again brought suspicion on Voltaire. He was informally exiled, and spent much time with Marshal Villars, again increasing his store of "reminiscences". He returned to Paris in the winter and his second play, Artemire, was produced in February 1720. It was a failure, and though it was recast with some success, Voltaire never published it as a whole and used parts of it in other work. He again spent much of his time with Villars, listening to the marshal's stories and making harmless love to the duchess.
In December 1721 his father died leaving him property, rather more than four thousand livres a year, which was soon increased by a pension of half the amount from the regent. In return for this, or in hopes of more, he offered himself as a spy — or at any rate as a secret diplomatist — to Dubois, but meeting his old enemy Beauregard in one of the minister's rooms and making an offensive remark, he was waylaid by Beauregard some time after in a less privileged place and soundly beaten.
His visiting espionage, or secret diplomatic mission, began in the summer of 1722 and he set out for it in company with a certain Madame de Rupelmonde, to whom he, as usual, made love, taught deism and served as an amusing travelling companion. He stayed at Cambrai for some time, where European diplomatists were still in full session, journeyed to Brussels, where he met and quarrelled with Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, went on to the Hague and then returned. The Henriade had got on considerably during the journey and, according to his lifelong habit, the poet, with the help of his friend Thiériot and others, had been "working the oracle" of puffery.
During the late autumn and winter of 1722-1723 he lived chiefly in Paris, taking a kind of lodging in the town house of M. de Berniêres, a nobleman of Rouen and endeavouring to procure a "privilege" for his poem. In this he was disappointed but he had the work printed at Rouen nevertheless and spent the summer of 1723 revising it. In November he caught smallpox and was seriously ill, so that the book was not given to the world till the spring of 1724 (and then of course, as it had no privilege, appeared privately). Almost at the same time, on the 4th of March, his third tragedy, Marianne, appeared and was well received at first but underwent complete damnation before the curtain fell. The regent had died shortly before, not to Voltaire's advantage; for he had been a generous patron. Voltaire had made, however, a useful friend in another grand seigneur, as profligate and nearly as intelligent, the duke of Richelieu, and with him he passed 1724 and the next year chiefly recasting the now successful Marianne, but also writing the comedy of L'Indiscret and courting the queen.
Exile to England
The end of 1725 brought a disastrous close to this period of his life. He was insulted by the chevalier de Rohan, replied with his usual sharpness of tongue, and shortly afterwards, when dining with the duke of Sully, was called out and beaten by the chevalier's hirelings, while Rohan watched.
On the morning appointed for the duel Voltaire was arrested and sent for the second time to the Bastille. He was kept in confinement a fortnight, and was then packed off to England in accordance with his own request.
Soon after his arrival, George I died and George II succeeded. The new king was not fond of poetry, but Queen Caroline was, and international jealousy was pleased at the thought of welcoming a distinguished exile from French illiberality.
While in England Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke and ideas of Sir Isaac Newton. He studied England's constitutional monarchy, its religious tolerance, its philosophical rationalism and most importantly the "natural sciences". Voltaire also greatly admired English religious toleration and freedom of speech, and saw these as necessary prerequisites for social and political progress. He saw England as a useful model for what he considered to be a backward France.
Return to Paris
He was full of literary projects, and immediately after his return is said to have increased his fortune immensely by a lucky lottery speculation. The Henriade was at last licensed in France; Brutus, a play which he had printed in England, was accepted for performance, but kept back for a time by the author; and he began the celebrated poem of the Pucelle, the amusement and the torment of great part of his life. But he had great difficulties with two of his chief works which were ready to appear, Charles XII and the Lettres sur les Anglais. With both he took all imaginable pains to avoid offending the censorship.
At the end of 1730 Brutus was actually staged. In the spring of the next year, Voltaire went to Rouen to get Charles XII surreptitiously printed. In 1732 two more tragedies appeared with great success: Eriphile and Zaire. In the following winter the death of the comtesse de Fontaine-Martel, whose guest and supposed lover he had been, turned him out of a comfortable abode. He then took lodgings with an agent of his, one Demoulin, in an out-of-the-way part of Paris, and was, for some time at least, as much occupied with contracts, speculation and all sorts of means of gaining money as with literature.
In the middle of this period, in 1733, two important books, the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais and the Temple du gout appeared. Both were likely to make bad blood, for the latter was, under the mask of easy verse, a satire on contemporary French literature, especially on Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, and the former was, in the guise of a criticism or rather panegyric of English ways, an attack on everything established in the church and state of France. It was published with certain "remarks" on Blaise Pascal, more offensive to orthodoxy than itself, and no mercy was shown to it. The book was condemned (June 10, 1734), the copies seized and burned, a warrant issued against the author, and his dwelling searched. He himself was safe in the independent duchy of Lorraine with Emilie de Breteuil, marquise du Chatelet, with whom he began to be intimate in 1733; he had now taken up his abode with her at the château of Cirey .
If the English visit may be regarded as having finished Voltaire's education, the Cirey residence was the first stage of his literary manhood. He had written important and characteristic work before, but had not decided a direction. He now obtained a settled home for many years and, taught by his numerous brushes with the authorities, he began his future habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and of at once denying any awkward responsibility, which made him for nearly half a century at once the leader of European heretics in regard to all established ideas. It was not till the summer of 1734 that Cirey, a half-dismantled country house on the borders of Champagne, France and Lorraine, was fitted up with Voltaire's money and became the headquarters of himself, of his hostess, and now and then of her accommodating husband.
Emilie's temper was violent, and after a time she sought lovers who were not so much des cérébraux as Voltaire. Nevertheless, it provided him with a safe and comfortable retreat, and with every opportunity for literary work. In March 1735 the hat was formally taken off him, and he was at liberty to return to Paris, a liberty of which he availed himself sparingly. At Cirey he wrote indefatigably and did not neglect business. The principal literary results of his early years here were the Discours en vers sur l'Homme, the play of Aizire and L'Enfant prodigue (1736), and a long treatise on the Newtonian system which he and Madame du Chatelet wrote together.
In the very first days at Cirey he had written a pamphlet with the title of Treatise on Metaphysics. In March 1736 he received his first letter from Frederick II of Prussia, then crown prince. He was soon again in trouble, this time for the poem, Le Mondain, and he at once crossed the frontier and made for Brussels. He spent about three months in the Low Countries, but in March 1737 returned to Cirey and continued writing, making experiments in physics (he had at this time a large laboratory), and busying himself with iron-founding, the chief industry of the district.
The best-known accounts of Cirey life, those of Madame de Grafigny, date from the winter of 1738-39; they are very amusing, depicting the frequent quarrels between Madame du Chatelet and Voltaire, his intense suffering under criticism, his constant dread of the surreptitious publication of the Pucelle (which nevertheless he could not keep his hands from writing or his tongue from reciting to his visitors), and so forth.
In April 1739 a journey was made to Brussels, to Paris, and then again to Brussels, which was the headquarters for a considerable time, owing to some law affairs, of the Du Chatelets. Frederick, now king of Prussia, made not a few efforts to get Voltaire away from Madame du Chatelet, but unsuccessfully, and the king earned the lady's cordial hatred by persistently refusing or omitting to invite her.
At last, in September 1740, master and pupil met for the first time at Cleves, an interview followed three months later by a longer visit. Brussels was again the headquarters in 1741, by which time Voltaire had finished two of his best plays, Mérope and Mahomet.
Mahomet was first performed at Lille in that year; it did not appear in Paris till August next year, and Mérope not till 1743. This last was, and deserved to be, the most successful of its author's whole theatre. It was in this same year that he received the singular diplomatic mission to Frederick which nobody seems to have taken seriously, and after his return the oscillation between Brussels, Cirey and Paris was resumed.
During these years much of the Essai sur les moeurs and the Siècle de Louis XIV was composed. He also returned, not too well advisedly, to the business of courtiership, which he had given up since the death of the regent. He was much employed, owing to Richelieu's influence, in the fetes of the dauphin's marriage, and was rewarded through the influence of Madame de Pompadour on New Year's Day 1745 by the appointment to the post of historiographer-royal, temporarily achieving a secure social and financial position.
In the same year he wrote a poem on Fontenoy, he received medals from the pope and dedicated Mahomet to him, and he wrote court divertissements and other things to admiration. But he was not a thoroughly skilful courtier, and one of the best known of Voltairians is the contempt or at least silence with which Louis XV received the maladroit and almost insolent inquiry Trajan est-il content? addressed in his hearing to Richelieu at the close of a piece in which the emperor had appeared with a transparent reference to the king.
Then the tide began to turn. His favour at court had naturally exasperated his enemies; it had not secured him any real friends, and even a gentlemanship of the chamber was no solid benefit, except from the money point of view. He did not indeed hold it very long, but was permitted to sell it for a large sum, retaining the rank and privileges. He had various proofs of the instability of his hold on the king during 1747 and in 1748. He once lay in hiding for two months with the duchesse du Maine at Sceaux , where were produced the comedietta of La Prude and the Tragedie de Rome sauvée, and afterwards for a time lived chiefly at Lunéville; here Madame du Chatelet had established herself at the court of King Stanislaus I of Poland, and carried on a liaison with the soldier-poet, Jean François de Saint-Lambert, an officer in the king's guard. In September 1749 she died after the birth of a child.
Madame du Chatelet's death is another turning-point in Voltaire's life. He was deeply disturbed for a time, and considered settling down in Paris. He went on writing satires like Zadig, and engaged in a literary rivalry with Crébillon père, a rival set up against him by Madame de Pompadour.
Frederick the Great
At first the king behaved altogether like a king to his guest. He pressed him to remain; he gave him (the words are Voltaire's own) one of his orders, twenty thousand francs a year, and four thousand additional for his niece, Madame Jenis, in case she would come and keep house for her uncle. Voltaire insisted for the consent of his own king, which was given without delay. But Frenchmen regarded Voltaire as something of a deserter; and it was not long before he bitterly repented his desertion, though his residence in Prussia lasted nearly three years. It was quite impossible that Voltaire and Frederick should get on together for long. Voltaire was not humble enough to be a mere butt, as many of Frederick's led poets were; he was not enough of a gentleman to hold his own place with dignity and discretion; he was constantly jealous both of his equals in age and reputation, such as Maupertuis, and of his juniors and inferiors, such as Baculard D'Arnaud. He was restless, and in a way Bohemian. Frederick, though his love of teasing for teasing's sake has been exaggerated by Macaulay, was a martinet of the first water, had a sharp though one-sided idea of justice, and had not the slightest intention of allowing Voltaire to insult or to tyrannize over his other guests and servants.
Voltaire had not been in the country six months before he engaged in a discreditable piece of financial gambling with Hirsch, the Dresden Jew. He was accused of forgery -- of altering a paper signed by Hirsch after he had signed it. The king's disgust at this affair (which came to an open scandal before the tribunals) was so great that he was on the point of ordering Voltaire out of Prussia, and Darget the secretary had trouble resolving the matter (February 1751). However, he succeeded in finishing and printing the Siècle de Louis XIV, while the Dictionnaire philosophique is said to have been devised and begun at Potsdam.
In the early autumn of 1751 one of the king's parasites, and a man of much more talent than is generally allowed, horrified Voltaire by telling him that Frederick had in conversation applied to him (Voltaire) a proverb about "sucking the orange and flinging away its skin", and about the same time the dispute with Pierre de Maupertuis, which had more than anything else to do with his exclusion from Prussia, came to a head. Maupertuis got into a dispute with one Konig. The king took his president's part; Voltaire took Konig's. But Maupertuis must needs write his Letters, and thereupon (1752) appeared one of Voltaire's most famous, though perhaps not one of his most read works, the Histoire du docteur Akakia et du natif de Saint-Malo. Even Voltaire did not venture to publish this lampoon on a great official of a prince so touchy as the king of Prussia without some permission, and if all tales are true, he obtained this by another piece of something like forgery—getting the king to endorse a totally different pamphlet on its last leaf, and affixing that last leaf to Akakia. Of this Frederick was not aware; but he did get some wind of the diatribe itself, sent for the author, heard it read to his own great amusement, and either actually burned the manuscript or believed that it was burnt. In a few days printed copies appeared.
Frederick did not like disobedience, but he still less liked being made a fool of, and he put Voltaire under arrest. But again the affair blew over, the king believing that the edition of Akakia confiscated in Prussia was the only one. Alas! Voltaire had sent copies away; others had been printed abroad; and the thing was irrecoverable. It could not be proved that he had ordered the printing, and all Frederick could do was to have the pamphlet burnt by the hangman. Things were now drawing to a crisis.
One day Voltaire sent his orders back; the next Frederick returned them, but Voltaire had quite made up his mind to fly. A kind of reconciliation occurred in March, and after some days of good-fellowship Voltaire at last obtained the long-sought leave of absence and left Potsdam on the 26th of the month (1753). It was nearly three months afterwards that the famous, ludicrous and brutal arrest was made at Frankfurt, on the persons of himself and his niece, who had met him meanwhile.
There was a rather distinct excuse for Frederick's wrath. In the first place, the poet chose to linger at Leipzig. In the second place, in direct disregard of a promise given to Frederick, a supplement to Akakia appeared, more offensive than the main text. From Leipzig, after a month's stay, Voltaire moved to Gotha. Once more, on the 25th of May, he moved on to Frankfurt. Frankfurt, nominally a free city, but with a Prussian resident who did very much what he pleased, was not like Gotha and Leipzig. An excuse was provided in the fact that the poet had a copy of some unpublished poems of Frederick's, which would have implicated Frederick's homosexuality were they to be published, and as soon as Voltaire arrived hands were laid on him, at first with courtesy enough. The resident, Freytag, was not a very wise person (though he probably did not, as Voltaire would have it, spell "poésie" (poetry) "poéshie"); constant references to Frederick were necessary; and the affair was prolonged so that Madame Denis had time to join her uncle. At last Voltaire tried to steal away. He was followed, arrested, his niece seized separately, and sent to join him in custody; and the two, with the secretary Collini, were kept close prisoners at an inn called the Goat.
This situation was at last put an end to by the city authorities, who probably felt that they were not playing a very creditable part. Voltaire left Frankfurt on the 7th of July, travelled safely to Mainz, and thence to Mannheim, Strassburg and Colmar. The last-named place he reached (after a leisurely journey and many honours at the little courts just mentioned) at the beginning of October, and here he proposed to stay the winter, finish his Annals of the Empire and look about him.
Voltaire's second stage was now over. Even now, however, in his sixtieth year, it required some more external pressure to induce him to make himself independent. He had been, in the first blush of his Frankfort disaster, refused, or at least not granted, permission even to enter France proper. At Colmar he was not safe, especially when in January 1754 a pirated edition of the Essai sur les moeurs, written long before, appeared. Permission to establish himself in France was now absolutely refused. Nor did an extremely offensive performance of Voltaire's—the solemn partaking of the Eucharist at Colmar after due confession—at all mollify his enemies. His exclusion from France, however, was chiefly metaphorical, and really meant exclusion from Paris and its neighbourhood. In the summer he went to Plombières, and after returning to Colmar for some time, journeyed in the beginning of winter to Lyons, and thence in the middle of December to Geneva.
Voltaire had no plans to remain in the city, and immediately bought a country house just outside the gates, which he named Les Délices. He was here practically at the meeting-point of four distinct jurisdictions—Geneva, the canton Vaud, Sardinia, and France, while other cantons were within easy reach; and he bought other houses dotted about these territories, so as never to be without a refuge close at hand in case of sudden storms. At Les Délices he set up a considerable establishment, which his great wealth made him able easily to afford. He kept open house for visitors; he had printers close at hand in Geneva; he fitted up a private theatre in which he could enjoy what was perhaps the greatest pleasure of his whole life—acting in a play of his own, stage-managed by himself. His residence at Geneva brought him into correspondence (at first quite amicable) with the most famous of her citizens, Rousseau. His Orphelin de Chine, performed at Paris in 1755, was very well received; the notorious La Pucelle appeared in the same year. The earthquake at Lisbon, which appalled other people, gave Voltaire an excellent opportunity for ridiculing the beliefs of the orthodox, first in verse (1756) and later in the unsurpassable tale of Candide (1759).
All was, however, not yet quite smooth with him. Geneva had a law expressly forbidding theatrical performances in any circumstances whatever. Voltaire had infringed this law already as far as private performances went, and he had thought of building a regular theatre, not indeed at Geneva but at Lausanne. In July 1755 a very polite and, as far as Voltaire was concerned, indirect resolution of the Consistory declared that in consequence of these proceedings of the Sieur de Voltaire the pastors should notify their flocks to abstain, and that the chief syndic should be informed of the Consistory's perfect confidence that the edicts would be carried out. Voltaire obeyed this hint as far as Les Délices was concerned, and consoled himself by having the performances in his Lausanne house. But he never was the man to take opposition to his wishes either quietly or without retaliation. He undoubtedly instigated d'Alembert to include a censure of the prohibition in his Encyclopédie article on "Geneva," a proceeding which provoked Rousseau's celebrated Lettre à D'Alembert sur les spectacles. As for himself, he looked about for a place where he could combine the social liberty of France with the political liberty of Geneva, and he found one.
At the end of 1758 he bought the considerable property of Ferney, on the shore of the lake, about four miles from Geneva, and on French soil. At Les Délices (which he sold in 1765) he had become a householder on no small scale; at Ferney (which he increased by other purchases and leases) he became a complete country gentleman, and was henceforward known to all Europe as squire of Ferney. Many of the most celebrated men of Europe visited him there, and large parts of his usual biographies are composed of extracts from their accounts of Ferney. His new occupations by no means quenched his literary activity - he reserved much time for work and for his immense correspondence, which had for a long time once more included Frederick, the two getting on very well when they were not in contact.
Above all, he now being comparatively secure in position, engaged much more strongly in public controversies, and resorted less to his old labyrinthine tricks of disavowal, garbled publication and private libel. The suppression of the Encyclopédie, to which he had been a considerable contributor, and whose conductors were his intimate friends, drew from him a shower of lampoons directed now at l'infâme. These were directed at literary victims such as Lefranc de Pompignan or Palissot. Further lampoons were directed at Fréron, an excellent critic and a dangerous writer, who had attacked Voltaire from the conservative side, and at whom the patriarch of Ferney, as he now began to be called, levelled in return the very inferior farce-lampoon of L'Ecossaise, of the first night of which Fréron himself did an admirably humorous criticism.
How he built a church and got into trouble in so doing at Ferney, how he put "Deo erexit Voltaire" on it (1760-1761) and obtained a relic from the pope for his new building, how he entertained a grand-niece of Corneille, and for her benefit wrote his well-known "commentary" on that poet, are matters of interest, indeed.
Here, too, he began that series of interferences on behalf of the oppressed and the ill-treated which is an honour to his memory. Volumes and almost libraries have been written on the Calas affair, and we can but refer here to the only less famous cases of Sirven (very similar to that of Calas, though no judicial murder was actually committed), Espinasse (who had been sentenced to the galleys for harbouring a Protestant minister), Lally (the son of the unjustly treated but not blameless Irish-French commander in India), D'Etalonde (the companion of La Barre), Montbailli and others.
In 1768 he entered into controversy with the bishop of the diocese; he had differences with the superior landlord of part of his estate, the president De Brosses; and he engaged in a long and tedious return match with the republic of Geneva. But the general events of this Ferney life are somewhat of that happy kind which are no events.
In this way Voltaire, who had been an old man when he established himself at Ferney (now Ferney-Voltaire), became a very old one almost without noticing it. The death of Louis XV and the accession of Louis XVI excited even in his aged breast the hope of re-entering Paris, but he did not at once receive any encouragement, despite the reforming ministry of Turgot. A much more solid gain to his happiness was the adoption, or practical adoption, in 1776 of Reine Philiberte de Varicourt, a young girl of noble but poor family, whom Voltaire rescued from the convent, installed in his house as an adopted daughter, and married to the marquis de Villette.
Voltaire returned to a hero's welcome in Paris at age 83 in time to see his last play, Irene, produced. The excitement of the trip was too much for him and he died in Paris on May 30, 1778. Stories about his death in a state of terror and despair are false. Because of his criticism of the church Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were moved to a resting place at The Panthéon in Paris.
Vast and various as the work of Voltaire is, its vastness and variety are of the essence of its writer's peculiar quality. The divisions of it have long been recognized, and may be treated regularly.
- Oedipe (1718)
- Zaire, (play) (1732) -- play
- Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (1733), revised as Letters on the English (c. 1778)
- Le Mondain (1736)
- Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738)
- Zadig (1747)
- Micromegas (1752)
- Candide (1759)
- Dictionnaire philosophique (1764)
- Épître à l'Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs (Letter to the author of The Three Impostors ) (1770)
He wrote between fifty and sixty plays (including a few unfinished ones). Ironically, despite Voltaire's comic talent, he wrote only one good comedy, Nanine, but many good tragedies - two of them, Zaire and Mérope, are ranked among the ten or twelve best plays of the whole French classical school.
As regards his poems proper, of which there are two long ones, the Henriade, and the Pucelle, besides smaller pieces, of which a bare catalogue fills fourteen royal octavo columns, their value is very unequal. The Henriade has by wide consent been relegated to the position of a school reading book. Constructed and written in almost slavish imitation of Virgil, employing for medium a very unsuitable vehicle—the Alexandrine couplet (as reformed and rendered monotonous for dramatic purposes)—and animated neither by enthusiasm for the subject nor by real understanding thereof, it could not but be an unsatisfactory performance.
The Pucelle, if morally inferior, is from a literary point of view of far more value, it is desultory to a degree; it is a base libel on religion and history; it differs from its model Lodovico Ariosto in being, not, as Ariosto is, a mixture of romance and burlesque, but a sometimes tedious tissue of burlesque pure and simple. Nevertheless, with all the Pucelle 's faults, it is amusing. The minor poems are as much above the Pucelle as the Pucelle is above the Henriade.
Prose romances or tales
These productions—incomparably the most remarkable and most absolutely good fruit of his genius—were usually composed as pamphlets, with a purpose of polemic in religion, politics, or what not. Thus Candide attacks religious and philosophical optimism, L'Homme aux quarante ecus certain social and political ways of the time, Zadig and others the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy, while some are mere lampoons on the Bible, the unfailing source of Voltaire's wit. But (as always happens in the case of literary work where the form exactly suits the author's genius) the purpose in all the best of them disappears almost entirely.
It is in these works more than in any others that the peculiar quality of Voltaire—ironic style without exaggeration—appears. If one especial peculiarity can be singled out, it is the extreme restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Voltaire never dwells too long on this point, stays to laugh at what he has said, elucidates or comments on his own jokes, guffaws over them or exaggerates their form. The famous "pour encourager les autres" (that the shooting of Byng did "encourage the others" very much is not to the point) is a typical example, and indeed the whole of Candide shows the style at its perfection. Voltaire has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony. See especially Micromegas.
This division of Voltaire's work is the bulkiest of all except his correspondence, and some parts of it are or have been among the most read, but it is far from being even among the best. The small treatises on Charles XII and Peter the Great are indeed models of clear narrative and ingenious if somewhat superficial grasp and arrangement. The so-called Siècle de Louis XIV of France and Siecle de Louis XV. (the latter inferior to the former but still valuable) contain a great miscellany of interesting matter, treated by a man of great acuteness and unsurpassed power of writing, who had also had access to much important private information. But even in these books defects are present, which appear much more strongly in the singular olla podrida entitled Essai sur les moeurs, in the Annales de Vempire and in the minor historical works.
His work in physics is not inconsiderable in size, and it is said by experts to give proof of aptitude.
To his own age Voltaire was pre-eminently a poet and a philosopher; the unkindness of succeeding ages has sometimes questioned whether he had any title to either name, and especially to the latter. His largest philosophical work, at least so called, is the curious medley entitled Dictionnaire philosophique, comprising articles contributed by him to the great Encyclopédie and of several minor pieces. No one of Voltaire's works shows his anti-religious or at least anti-ecclesiastical animus more strongly. The various title-words of the several articles are often the merest stalking horses, under cover of which to shoot at the Bible or the church, the target being now and then shifted to the political institutions of the writer's country. his personal foes, etc., and the whole being largely seasoned with that acute, rather superficial, common-sense, but also commonplace, ethical and social criticism which the 18th century called philosophy. The book ranks perhaps second only to the novels as showing the character, literary and personal, of Voltaire; and despite its form it is nearly as readable.
In general criticism and miscellaneous writing Voltaire is not inferior to himself in any of his other functions. Almost all his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his own light pungent causerie; and in a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings he shows himself a perfect journalist. In literary criticism pure and simple his principle work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, though he wrote a good deal more of the same kind—sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently sometimes as part of his Siécles. Nowhere, perhaps, except when he is dealing with religion, are Voltaire's defects felt more than here. He was quite unacquainted with the history of his own language and literature, and more here than anywhere else he showed the extraordinarily limited and conventional spirit which accompanied the revolt of the French 18th century against limits and conventions in theological, ethical and political matters.
There remains only the huge division of his correspondence, which is constantly being augmented by fresh discoveries, and which, according to Georges Bengesco, has never been fully or correctly printed, even in some of the parts longest known. In this great mass Voltaire's personality is of course best shown, and perhaps his literary qualities not worst. His immense energy and versatility, his adroit and unhesitating flattery when he chose to flatter, his ruthless sarcasm when he chose to be sarcastic, his rather unscrupulous business faculty, his more than rather unscrupulous resolve to double and twist in any fashion so as to escape his enemies—all these things appear throughout the whole mass of letters.
Voltaire's works, and especially his private letters, constantly contain the word l'infâme and the expression (in full or abbreviated) écrasez l'infâme. This has been misunderstood in many ways - the mistake going so far as in some cases to suppose that Voltaire meant Christ by this opprobrious expression. No careful and competent student of his works has ever failed to correct this gross misapprehension. L'infâme is not God; it is not Christ; it is not Christianity; it is not even Catholicism. Its briefest equivalent may be given as "persecuting and privileged orthodoxy" in general, and, more particularly, it is the particular system which Voltaire saw around him, of which he had felt the effects in his own exiles and the confiscations of his books, and of which he saw the still worse effects in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre.
Most judgments of Voltaire have been unduly coloured by sympathy with or dislike of what may be briefly called his polemical side. When sympathy and dislike are discarded or allowed for, he remains one of the most astonishing, if not exactly one of the most admirable, figures of letters. That he never, as Carlyle complains, gave utterance to one great thought is strictly true. That his characteristic is for the most part an almost superhuman cleverness rather than positive genius is also true. But that he was merely a mocker, which Carlyle and others have also said, is not strictly true or fair. In politics proper he seems indeed to have had few or no constructive ideas, and to have been entirely ignorant or quite reckless of the fact that his attacks were destroying a state of things for which as a whole he neither had nor apparently wished to have any substitute. In religion he protested stoutly, and no doubt sincerely, that his own attitude was not purely negative; but here also he seems to have failed altogether to distinguish between pruning and cutting down. Both here and elsewhere his great fault was an inveterate superficiality. But this superficiality was accompanied by such wonderful acuteness within a certain range, by such an absolutely unsurpassed literary aptitude band sense of style in all the lighter and some of the graver modes of literature, by such untiring energy and versatility in enterprise, that he has no parallel among ready writers anywhere. Not the most elaborate work of Voltaire is of much value for matter; but not the very slightest work of Voltaire is devoid of value in form. In literary craftsmanship, at once versatile and accomplished, he has no superior and scarcely a rival.
Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static force only useful as a counterbalance since its "religious tax", or the tithe, helped to cement a powerbase against the monarchy.
Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. To Voltaire only an enlightened monarch, advised by philosophers like himself, could bring about change as it was in the king's rational interest to improve the power and wealth of France in the world. Voltaire is quoted as saying that he "would rather obey one lion, than 200 rats of (his own) species". Voltaire essentially believed monarchy to be the key to progress and change.
He is best known in this day and age for his novel, Candide ou l'Optimisme (1759), which satirizes the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz. Candide was subject to censorship and Voltaire did not openly claim it as his own work  .
Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, like Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, The Three Impostors.
Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, not to be confused with the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sent a copy of his "Ode to Posterity" to Voltaire. Voltaire read it through and said, "I do not think this poem will reach its destination."
- "Since 1746, I have been under the greatest obligations to you. Before that period I read nothing but romances ... I have ... no desire for books less well written than yours." (Catherine II to Voltaire -- Spielvogel).
- "You know that these two nations are at war over a few acres of snow near Canada, and that they are spending on this little war more than all of Canada is worth." (Candide)
- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is commonly attributed to Voltaire, but was written instead by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre , in her biography The Friends of Voltaire (1906).
- Exhorted in his last illness to renounce the Devil, Voltaire replied, "This is no time to be making new enemies."
- "Common sense is not so common."
- "History is fables agreed upon."
- "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."
- "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities"
- "Ecrasez l'infame!"
- Said of a traveller, who made too long a stay with him at Ferney, "Don Quixote took inns for castles, but Mr.—— takes castles for inns."
- eTexts of Voltaire's works, at Project Gutenberg
- more on Emilie du Chatelet (biography and portraits , and more )
- Voltaire Society of America
Institut et Musée Voltaire, Geneva, Switzerland
- Letter to the author of The Three Impostors
- selected letters
- A complete bibliography
- Biography and quotes of Voltaire
- e-texts of works by Voltaire
- HTML at bartleby.com
- extracts from Dictionnaire philosophique
- Original French - Le Blanc et le Noir
- This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Spielvogel -- (5th Edition -- 2003)