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Atelier de Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire, détail (musée Carnavalet) -002.jpg
Voltaire at 24, by Catherine Lusurier after Nicolas de Largillière's painting
Born François-Marie Arouet
21 November 1694
Paris, France
Died 30 May 1778(1778-05-30) (aged 83)
Paris, France
Pen name Voltaire
Occupation Writer, philosopher, playwright
Nationality French

François-Marie Arouet (French:  [fʁɑ̃.swa ma.ʁi aʁ.wɛ]; 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire (pronounced:  [vɔl.tɛːʁ]), was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state. Voltaire was a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken advocate, despite strict censorship laws with harsh penalties for those who broke them. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.


François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children (only three of whom survived) of François Arouet (1650 – 1 January 1722), a lawyer who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite d'Aumart (ca. 1660 – 13 July 1701), from a noble family of the province of Poitou. Some speculation surrounds his date of birth, which Voltaire always claimed to be 20 February 1694. Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.

By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen, Normandy. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. His father then obtained a job for him as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire's father and he was forced to return to France.

Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for even mild critiques of the government and religious intolerance. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Régent led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation.

The name "Voltaire"

The name "Voltaire", which the author adopted in 1718, is an anagram of "AROVET LI," the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of "le jeune" ("the young"). The name also echoes in reverse order the syllables of the name of a family château in the Poitou region: " Airvault". The adoption of the name "Voltaire" following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire's formal separation from his family and his past.

Richard Holmes supports this derivation of the name, but adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended it to also convey its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associations with words such as " voltige" (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), " volte-face" (a spinning about to face one's enemies), and "volatile" (originally, any winged creature). "Arouet" was not a noble name fit for his growing reputation, especially given that name's resonance with "à rouer" ("to be broken on the wheel" - a form of torture then still prevalent) and "roué" (a "débauché").

In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that, if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A post-scriptum explains: "J'ai été si malheureux sous le nom d'Arouet que j'en ai pris un autre surtout pour n'être plus confondu avec le poète Roi", which translates as, "I was so unhappy under the name d'Arouet that I took another, primarily so that I would cease to be confused with the poet Roi." This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the 'oi' diphthong was then pronounced as modern French pronounces 'ai', so the similarity to 'Arouet' is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Indeed, Voltaire is additionally known to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime.

Great Britain

In 1726, Voltaire responded to an insult from the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan, whose servants beat him a few days later. Since Voltaire was seeking compensation, and was even willing to fight in a duel, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King ( Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. This warrant caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial and without an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, which the French authorities accepted. This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempts to reform the French judicial system.

From 1726 to 1728 he lodged in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, now commemorated by a plaque at 10 Maiden Lane. Voltaire's exile in Great Britain lasted nearly three years, and his experiences there greatly influenced his thinking. He was intrigued by Britain's constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, and by the country's greater support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was also influenced by several neoclassical writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, still relatively unknown in continental Europe. Despite pointing out his deviations from neoclassical standards, Voltaire saw Shakespeare as an example that French writers might emulate, since French drama, despite being more polished, lacked on-stage action. Later, however, as Shakespeare's influence began growing in France, Voltaire tried to set a contrary example with his own plays, decrying what he considered Shakespeare's barbarities.

After almost three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views on British attitudes toward government, literature, and religion in a collection of essays in letter form entitled Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733). In 1734, they were published in French as Lettres philosophiques in Rouen. A revised edition appeared in English in 1778 as Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical Letters on the English). Most modern English editions are based on the one from 1734 and typically use the title Philosophical Letters, a direct translation of that version's title.

Because Voltaire regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, the French publication of Letters caused controversy; the book was burnt and Voltaire was forced again to flee.

Château de Cirey

In the frontispiece to her translation of Newton, Émilie du Châtelet appears as Voltaire's muse, reflecting Newton's heavenly insights down to Voltaire.

Voltaire's next destination was the Château de Cirey, on the borders of Champagne 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 (famous in her own right as Émilie du Châtelet). Cirey was owned by the Marquise's husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. The relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, had a significant intellectual element. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the " natural sciences" in his laboratory. Voltaire's experiments included an attempt to determine the elements of fire.

Having learned from his previous brushes with the authorities, Voltaire began his habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and denying any awkward responsibility. He continued to write plays, such as Mérope (or La Mérope française) and began his long research into science and history. Again, a main source of inspiration for Voltaire were the years of his British exile, during which he had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colours in the spectrum led to many experiments at Cirey), and gravity (Voltaire is the source of the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree, which he had learned from Newton's niece in London and first mentioned in his "Essai sur la poésie épique", or "Essay on Epic Poetry").

Although both Voltaire and the Marquise were curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, they remained essentially "Newtonians", despite the Marquise's adoption of certain aspects of Leibniz's arguments against Newton. She translated Newton's Latin Principia in full, adjusting a few errors along the way, and hers remained the definitive French translation well into the 20th century. Voltaire's book Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton's Philosophy), which was probably co-written with the Marquise, made Newton accessible to a far greater public. It is often considered the work that finally brought about general acceptance of Newton's optical and gravitational theories.

Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history—particularly those persons who had contributed to civilization. Voltaire's second essay in English had been "Essay upon the Civil Wars in France". It was followed by La Henriade, an epic poem on the French King Henri IV, glorifying his attempt to end the Catholic-Protestant massacres with the Edict of Nantes, and by a historical novel on King Charles XII of Sweden. These, along with his Letters on the English mark the beginning of Voltaire's open criticism of intolerance and established religions. Voltaire and the Marquise also explored philosophy, particularly metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with being and with what lies beyond the material realm such as whether or not there is a God or souls, etc. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible, trying to discover its validity for their time. Voltaire's critical views on religion are reflected in his belief in separation of church and state and religious freedom, ideas that he had formed after his stay in England.

Though deeply committed to the Marquise, Voltaire by 1744 found life at the château confining. On a visit to Paris that year, he found a new love–his niece. At first, his attraction to Marie Louise Mignot was clearly sexual, as evidenced by his letters to her (only discovered in 1937). Much later, they lived together, perhaps platonically, and remained together until Voltaire's death. Meanwhile, the Marquise also took a lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert.


Die Tafelrunde by Adolph von Menzel. Guests of Frederick the Great, in Marble Hall at Sanssouci, include members of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and Voltaire (seated, third from left).

After the death of the Marquise in childbirth in September 1749, Voltaire briefly returned to Paris and in 1750 moved to Potsdam to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer. 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—in 1752 he wrote Micromégas, perhaps the first piece of science fiction involving ambassadors from another planet witnessing the follies of humankind—his relationship with Frederick the Great began to deteriorate and he encountered other difficulties. An argument with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science, provoked Voltaire's " Diatribe du docteur Akakia" ("Diatribe of Doctor Akakia"), which satirized some of Maupertuis' theories and his abuse of power in his persecutions of a mutual acquaintance, Samuel Koënig. This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and Voltaire arrested at an inn where he was staying along his journey home.

Geneva and Ferney

Voltaire's château, Ferney, France

Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, near which he bought a large estate (Les Délices). Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva, which banned theatrical performances, and the publication of The Maid of Orleans against his will made him move at the end of 1758 across the French border to Ferney, where he had bought an even larger estate, and led to Voltaire's writing of Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759. This satire on Leibniz's philosophy of optimistic determinism remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known. He would stay in Ferney for most of the remaining 20 years of his life, frequently entertaining distinguished guests, such as James Boswell, Adam Smith, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon. In 1764, he published one of his best-known philosophical works, the Dictionnaire Philosophique, a series of articles mainly on Christian history and dogmas, a few of which were originally written in Berlin.

From 1762, he began to champion unjustly persecuted people, the case of Jean Calas being the most celebrated. This Huguenot merchant had been tortured to death in 1763, supposedly because he had murdered his son for wanting to convert to Catholicism. His possessions were confiscated and his remaining children were taken from his widow and were forced to become members of a monastery. Voltaire, seeing this as a clear case of religious persecution, managed to overturn the conviction in 1765.

Death and burial

Paris house where Voltaire died
Voltaire's tomb in Paris' Pantheon

In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in 20 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero.

He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath. According to one story, his last words were, "Now is not the time for making new enemies." It was his response to a priest at the side of his deathbed, asking Voltaire to renounce Satan.

Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial, but friends managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne before this prohibition had been announced. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.

On 11 July 1791, the National Assembly of France, which regarded him as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris to enshrine him in the Panthéon. It is estimated that a million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, complete with an orchestra, and the music included a piece that André Grétry had composed specially for the event, which included a part for the "tuba curva" (an instrument that originated in Roman times as the cornu but had recently been revived under a new name).

A widely repeated story, that the remains of Voltaire were stolen by religious fanatics in 1814 or 1821 during the Pantheon restoration and thrown into a garbage heap, is false. Such rumours resulted in the coffin being opened in 1897, which confirmed that his remains were still present.



Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1751), and "Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations" (1756). He broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history and achievements in the arts and sciences. The "Essay on Customs" traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet's Discourse on the Universal History (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Arab civilization, but otherwise was weak on the Middle Ages. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to expose the intolerance and frauds of the church over the ages. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed. Although he found evil in the historical record, he fervently believed reason and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.

Voltaire explains his view of historiography in his article on "History" in Diderot's Encyclopédie:

"One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population."

Voltaire's histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past, but he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, religious intolerance and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.

Yale professor Peter Gay says Voltaire wrote "very good history," citing his "scrupulous concern for truths," "careful sifting of evidence," "intelligent selection of what is important," "keen sense of drama," and "grasp of the fact that a whole civilization is a unit of study."


From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two book-long epic poems, including the first ever written in French, the Henriade, and later, The Maid of Orleans, besides many other smaller pieces.

The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for modern readers but it was a huge success in the 18th and early 19th century, with sixty-five editions and translations into several languages. The epic poem transformed French King Henry IV into a national hero for his attempts at instituting tolerance with his Edict of Nantes. La Pucelle [The Virgin], on the other hand, is a burlesque on the legend of Joan of Arc. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.


Frontispiece and first page of chapter one of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al. of Voltaire's Candide, printed by J. Newbery, 1762

Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz's philosophy of optimism; L'Homme aux quarante ecus ( The Man of Forty Pieces of Silver), certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others, the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy; and some were written to deride the Bible. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style, free of exaggeration, is apparent, particularly the restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Candide in particular is the best example of his style. Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromégas and the vignette Plato's Dream (1756).

Voltaire at Frederick the Great's Sanssouci. Engraving by Pierre Charles Baquoy.

In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar works – sometimes (as in his Life and Notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siècles.

Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme", or "crush the infamous". The phrase refers to abuses of the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, the burnings of his books and those of many others, and in the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre. He stated in one of his most famous quotes that "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them."

The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire's attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall's summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Roche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.

Voltaire's first major philosophical work in his battle against "l'infâme" was the Traité sur la tolérance ("Treatise on Tolerance"), exposing the Calas affair, along with the tolerance exercised by other faiths and in other eras (for example, by the Jews, the Romans, the Greeks and the Chinese). Then, in his Dictionnaire philosophique, containing such articles as "Abraham", "Genesis", "Church Council", he wrote about what he perceived as the human origins of dogmas and beliefs, as well as inhuman behaviour of religious and political institutions in shedding blood over the quarrels of competing sects.

Amongst other targets, Voltaire criticized France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as " a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige").


Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totaling over 20,000 letters. Theodore Besterman's collected edition of these letters, completed only in 1964, fills 102 volumes. One historian called the letters "a feast not only of wit and eloquence but of warm friendship, humane feeling, and incisive thought."



Voltaire at 70. Engraving from 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary.

Voltaire did not believe that any single religious text or tradition of revelation was needed to believe in God. Voltaire's focus was rather on the idea of universal laws, demonstrable, and in the main, still waiting to be discovered in the physical world as well as those of the moral world, underlying every religious system, along with respect for nature reflecting the contemporary pantheism.

Like other key thinkers during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a deist, expressing the idea: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."

As for religious texts, Voltaire's opinion of the Bible was mixed. Although influenced by Socinian works such as the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, Voltaire's skeptical attitude to the Bible separated him from Unitarian theologians like Fausto Sozzini or even Biblical-political writers like John Locke.

This did not hinder his religious practice, though it did win for him a bad reputation in certain religious circles. The deeply Catholic Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...".

Evolving views of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, can be found in Voltaire's writings. In a 1740 letter to Frederick II of Prussia, Voltaire ascribes to Muhammad a brutality that "is assuredly nothing any man can excuse" and suggests that his following stemmed from superstition and lack of enlightenment. In a 1745 letter recommending his play Fanaticism, or Mahomet to Pope Benedict XIV, Voltaire described the founder of Islam as "the founder of a false and barbarous sect" and "a false prophet."

In the Scottish Enlightenment the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation".

In a letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767 he wrote about Catholic Christianity of the time:

La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.
(Ours [religion] is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most blood-thirsty ever to infect the world.)

Religious tolerance

In a 1763 essay, Voltaire supported the toleration of other religions and ethnicities: "It does not require great art, or magnificently trained eloquence, to prove that Christians should tolerate each other. I, however, am going further: I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?"

Race and slavery

Voltaire rejected the Christian Adam and Eve story and was a polygenist who speculated that each race had separate origins. Like other philosophes, such as Buffon, he divided humanity into varieties or races and attempted to explain the differences between these races. He wondered if blacks fully shared in the common humanity or intelligence of whites due to their participation in the slave trade.

His most famous remark on slavery is found in "Candide", where the hero is horrified to learn 'at what price we eat sugar in Europe'. Elsewhere, he wrote caustically about "whites and Christians [who] proceed to purchase negroes cheaply, in order to sell them dear in America".


According to the rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the most significant of Enlightenment hostility against Judaism was found in Voltaire, although claims to the contrary have been made that his remarks were, in fact, anti-Biblical, not anti-semitic. Thirty of the 118 articles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique dealt with Jews and described them in consistently negative ways, although this analysis overlooks the fact that he had already defended the Jews as more tolerant than the Christians in his Traité sur la tolérance the previous year and issued "Le Sermon du rabbin Akib", a text attacking anti-semitism, three years before that.

Peter Gay, a contemporary authority on the Enlightenment, also points to Voltaire's remarks in the Traité sur la tolérance and surmises that "Voltaire struck at the Jews to strike at Christianity". Whatever anti-semitism Voltaire may have felt, Gay suggests, derived from negative personal experience. However, Bertram Schwarzbach's far more detailed studies of Voltaire's dealings with Jewish people throughout his life concluded that he was anti-biblical, not anti-semitic. His remarks on the Jews and their "superstitions" were essentially no different from his remarks on Christians. Telushkin states that Voltaire did not limit his attack on aspects of Judaism that Christianity used as a foundation, repeatedly making it clear that he despised Jews. Arthur Hertzberg claims that Gay's second suggestion is also untenable, as Voltaire himself denied its validity when he remarked that he had "forgotten about much larger bankruptcies through Christians".


Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry the month before his death. On 4 April 1778 Voltaire accompanied his close friend Benjamin Franklin into Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, France and became an Entered Apprentice Freemason.


Voltaire, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1778. National Gallery of Art

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 and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, even more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Voltaire long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king's rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy somewhat, and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which ends with a new conclusion: "It is up to us to cultivate our garden". His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Candide was also burned and Voltaire jokingly claimed the actual author was a certain "Demad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.

Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "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". But far from being the cynical remark it is often taken for, it was meant as a retort to the atheistic clique of d'Holbach, Grimm, and others. Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights—the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion—and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).

Voltaire has had his detractors among his later colleagues. The Scottish Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle argued that, while Voltaire was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works were of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own. Nietzsche, however, called Carlyle a muddlehead who had not even understood the Enlightenment values he thought he was promoting.

He often used China, Siam and Japan as examples of brilliant non-European civilizations and harshly criticized slavery. He particularly had admiration for the ethics and government as exemplified by Confucius.

The town of Ferney, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life, is now named Ferney-Voltaire in honour of its most famous resident. His château is a museum.

Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the National Library of Russia at St. Petersburg, Russia.

In Zurich 1916, the theatre and performance group who would become the early avant-garde movement Dada named their theatre The Cabaret Voltaire. A late-20th-century industrial music group then named themselves after the theatre.

Astronomers have bestowed his name to the Voltaire crater on Deimos and the asteroid 5676 Voltaire.

Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was purported to have drunk it at least 30 times per day. It has been suggested that high amounts of caffeine acted as a mental stimulant to his creativity.

His great grand-niece was the mother of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a famous philosopher and Jesuit priest.


Philosophical works

  • Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733) (French version entitled Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais, Rouen, 1734), revised as Letters on the English (circa 1778)
  • Le Mondain (1736)
  • Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738)
  • Zadig (1747)
  • Micromégas (1752)
  • Candide (1759)
  • Traité sur la tolérance (1763)
  • Ce qui plaît aux dames (1764)
  • Dictionnaire philosophique (1764)
  • L'Ingénu (1767)
  • La Princesse de Babylone (1768)


Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays, including a few unfinished ones. Among them are these:

  • Œdipe (1718)
  • Mariamne (1724)
  • Zaïre (1732)
  • Eriphile (1732)
  • Irène
  • Socrates
  • Mahomet
  • Mérope
  • Nanine
  • L'Orphelin de la Chine (1755)


  • History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731)
  • The Age of Louis XIV (1751)
  • The Age of Louis XV (1746–1752)
  • Annals of the Empire – Charlemagne, A.D. 742 – Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754)
  • Annals of the Empire – Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II (1754)
  • Essay on the Manners of Nations (or 'Universal History') (1756)
  • History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol. I 1759; Vol. II 1763)
  • History of the Parliament of Paris (1769)


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