Voltaire (1694–1778) was the pseudonym of Francois-Marie Arouet, a French scholar and satirist. Voltaire was born to a family of some standing, as his father was in government service and his mother came from a line of aristocrats. The Jesuit order guided his early education, with teachings that included the requisite elements of classical language and history. While Voltaire’s father had planned a future for him as a lawyer, the rebelliousness that came to characterize Voltaire’s writings against government and orthodox religion echoed the same attitude that led him away from the career of his father’s choosing.
Voltaire was employed as an aide to a French ambassador for a short time before returning to Paris and actively pursuing his career as a writer. Although he became a popular party guest among the aristocracy, his wit became too biting in several cases, and he was imprisoned in the Bastille and then exiled to England for embarrassing the wrong nobles. This incarceration and treatment was undoubtedly formative in his political thinking and the urgency he felt toward prison and legal reforms. While residing in Britain, Voltaire gained admiration for the English system of government, and he eventually produced Philosophical Letters on the English (1733).
The next period of Voltaire’s life was the most productive in terms of literary and other scholarly works. Of particular note were several short stories he penned that are often considered some of the first works of science fiction, such as “Micromegas” (1752) and “Plato’s Dream” (1756). The former features a stranger from another planet who attempts to understand odd human customs; the latter has a protagonist who designs the planet Earth and its creatures.
Voltaire also developed his interest in the natural world through his study of English physicist and natural philosopher Isaac Newton’s ideas. Voltaire sided with Newton’s empirical views over those of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz on the grounds that Liebniz’s optimism—that the existing world was the best one possible because it was designed by an omniscient and benevolent deity—was unwarranted. Voltaire’s criticism of Leibniz was further explored in Candide, or Optimism (1759). Candide has been canonized and is still considered a great book of the Enlightenment period for its satirical pillaring of philosophical optimism and religious orthodoxy. Voltaire remains known for his witticisms, including his most famous, from his 1770 “Epistle (To the Author of the Three Imposters)”: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
Many critics, both contemporaries of Voltaire and present-day scholars, have stated that his work was largely synthetic and simply a patchwork of reiteration of other more innovative thinkers’ ideas. Even if this line of attack were true, it is difficult to plausibly deny Voltaire’s influence on advancing the causes of freedom and justice as essential elements of the modern liberal democratic state. Further, his writing remains a crucial exemplar of the importance, as well as the costs, of being willing to speak truth to power.
- Cronk, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Voltaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Trousson, Raymond. Voltaire. Paris: Tallandier, 2008.
- “Epistle (To the Author of The Three Impostors).” Old Poetry. http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/29767-Voltaire-Epistle-to-the-author-ofThe-Three-Impostors.
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