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Arouet, Francois Marie

Born: 1694 AD
Died: 1778 AD
Nationality: French
Categories: Authors, Philosophers, Rationalist, Satirists

1964 – Voltaire was born in Paris on November 21, 1694.

1704-1711 – Voltaire was educated by Jesuits at the College Louis-le-Grand, where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.

1711-1713 – Voltaire studied law. Before devoting himself entirely to writing, Voltaire worked as a secretary to the French ambassador in Holland. Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris until his exile. From the beginning Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his energetic attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. In his early twenties he spent eleven months in the Bastille for writing satirical verses about the aristocracy. After graduating, Voltaire set out on a career in literature. His father, however, intended his son to be educated in the law. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as assistant to a lawyer, spent much of his time writing satirical poetry. When his father found him out, he again sent Voltaire to study law, this time in the provinces. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies not always noted for their accuracy. Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families. One of his writings, about Louis XV’s regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, led to his being imprisoned in the Bastille. While there, he wrote his debut play, Oedipe, and adopted the name Voltaire. Oedipe’s success began Voltaire’s influence and brought him into the French Enlightenment. Voltaire’s repartee continued to bring him trouble, however. After he offended a young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, the Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued, a secret warrant that allowed for the punishment of people who had committed no crimes or who possibly posed a risk to the royal family, and used it to exile Voltaire without a trial. The incident marked the beginning of Voltaire’s attempt to improve the French judiciary system. Voltaire’s exile to England greatly influenced him through ideas and experiences. The young man was impressed by England’s constitutional monarchy, as well as the country’s support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was influenced by several people, including such writers as Shakespeare. In his younger years, he saw Shakespeare as an example French writers should look to, though later Voltaire saw himself as the superior writer. Because he regarded England’s constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where copies of the document were burnt and Voltaire was forced to leave Paris. Voltaire then set out to the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne, France and Lorraine. The building was renovated with his money, and here he began a relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil. The Chateau de Cirey was owned by the Marquise’s husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. Their relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, led to much intellectual development. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for their time. Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history – particularly the people who had contributed to civilization up to that point. Voltaire had worked with history since his time in England; his second essay in English had the title Essay upon the Civil Wars in France. When he returned to France, he wrote a biographical essay of King Charles XII. This essay was the beginning of Voltaire’s rejection of religion; he wrote that human life is not destined or controlled by greater beings. The essay won him the position of historian in the king’s court. Voltaire and the Marquise also worked with philosophy, particularly with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy dealing with the distant, and what cannot be directly proven: why and what life is, whether or not there is a God, and so on. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible, trying to find its validity in the world. Voltaire renounced religion; he believed in the separation of church and state and in religious freedom, ideas he formed after his stay in England.

1759 – After the death of the Marquise, Voltaire moved to Berlin to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer of his. The king had repeatedly invited him to his palace, and now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first, he began to encounter difficulties. Faced with a lawsuit and an argument with the president of the Berlin Academy of science, Voltaire wrote the Diatribe of Doctor Akakia which derided the president. This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and arrested Voltaire at an inn where he was staying along his journey home. Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, where he bought a large estate. Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva which banned theatrical performances and the publication of La pucelle d’Orléans against his will led to Voltaire’s writing of Candide or Optimism and his eventual departure. Candide, a satire on the philosophy of Leibniz, remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known.

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