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Francois Marie Arouet was born in Paris in fall 1694 and died there in spring 1778. “Voltaire,” the name by which he is most widely known today, was a pen name that Francois invented for himself, most likely in 1718. It is believed to be an anagram of the Latinized form—”Arovet le leune”— of his name “Arouet le jeune” (“Arouet the younger,” because Voltaire’s father, a notary, was also named Francois). Voltaire is the best known of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, and there is an industry of modern scholarship on his life and thought, including hundreds of monographs, as well as the multiple-volume series Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century and the Complete Works of Voltaire, both published in Oxford by the Voltaire Foundation. A champion of religious tolerance and human reason, a “philosophical historian” and popularizer of social history, Voltaire was clearly one of the Age of Enlightenment’s most influential contributors to what would become known as the social sciences.
Like many eighteenth-century men of letters, Voltaire wrote in several genres, in both prose and verse. When measured against the literary output of his enlightened contemporaries, Voltaire’s staggering productivity—amounting to some 15 million words—stands out. Historians typically divide his life into five periods, or phases, based on his literary projects and his place of residence.
The first period of Voltaire’s life is defined by his youth, his education at the hands of the Jesuits of the College of Louis-le-Grand, and the publication of his early poems and plays, including his first important publication, the tragic play C.dipe (1715). It was also a period that saw the young Voltaire imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months for writing libelous verse insulting to the king. In his youth, and throughout his long life, Voltaire was plagued by poor health, and he complained so frequently to his correspondents that modern scholars have identified hypochondria as one of his conditions.
The second stage of Voltaire’s life was determined by his fleeing to England in spring 1726. His “exile” was occasioned by his having traded insults with the chevalier de Rohan. In England he mixed with Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), whose literary talents he admired and who introduced Voltaire to other writers, including Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Voltaire also read the works of the fathers of the English Enlightenment—Francis Bacon (1561-1626), John Locke (1632-1704), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whose burial at Westminster Abbey he attended. Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais [Letters concerning the English nation] (1733) came out of this period, and he would long admire the English for what he perceived as their religious toleration, their defense of liberty, and their support of men of letters, such as Newton. It was also while in exile in England that Voltaire began to give serious attention to historical writings. While in England he published Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (1727) and, more importantly, was probably working on the manuscripts that would become his Histoire de Charles XII [History of Charles XII] (1731) and Le Siecle de Louis XIV [The Century of Louis XIV] (1752), and also thinking about the history of the English constitution. Those activities continued after he returned to France in 1729.
The third period of Voltaire’s life was the time of his residence at Cirey-en-Champagne, the chateau of the marquise du Chatelet (1706-1749), Voltaire’s learned and witty mistress. Living there from 1733, Voltaire wrote poetry and plays, biblical criticism, popularizations of science such as Elements de la philosophie de Newton [Elements of Newton’s philosophy] (1738), and fiction, including Zadig (1747). These were also years in which he was working on Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations [Essay on the manners and spirit of nations] (1756), and frequently traveling throughout France, but also to Brussels. Voltaire’s career was on the rise. In 1745 he was appointed historiographe du roi (historian to the king), largely owing to the support of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), and in 1746 he was elected to the French Academy.
With Madame du Chatelet’s death in 1749, Voltaire accepted an invitation to take up residence at the court of Frederick II (1712-1786), the Great of Prussia, with whom Voltaire had corresponded from the mid-1730s. Frederick once claimed of Voltaire, “this great man alone was worth an entire Academy” (quoted in Aldridge 1975, p. 411). This fourth phase of Voltaire’s life saw the publication of Voltaire’s Le Siecle de Louis XIV [The Century of Louis XIV], (1752), an account that praised the French king for his support of literature and art, and also work on his Dictionnaire philosophique [Philosophical Dictionary] (1764). Voltaire also was involved in shady business deals, arousing Frederick’s anger and helping to bring his stay in Prussia to an end only three years after it had begun. This was not the first of Voltaire’s financial schemes, nor would it be the last. As Ben Ray Redman puts it in his introduction to The Portable Voltaire, Voltaire’s “fingers began to itch whenever he thought there were sous to be made” (1949, p. 19).
The final stage of Voltaire’s literary career was spent in Geneva, where Voltaire moved in 1755, and at Ferney, an estate he purchased in France near the French-Swiss border, in 1758. During these years he wrote The Lisbon Earthquake (1755) and contributed to the greatest of the French Enlightenment publications, the Encyclopedie edited by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). Voltaire also published his Essai sur les moeurs (1756), worked on his History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (1759, 1763), and published Candide (1759), which is perhaps the best known of his works. It was during his years at Ferney that Voltaire penned his famous cry “ecrasez I’inftime!” (“crush the infamy!”), the precise meaning of which historians continue to debate. It was also during this period that Voltaire became more vocal in his deism and more involved in several public events, including the Calas affair, in which he used his pen to defend the reputation of Jean Calas, a Huguenot who was tortured and executed in 1762. In 1764 Voltaire published Dictionnaire philosophique. His literary reputation was growing in the 1760s and 1770s, and the aging Voltaire was often visited by guests from around the world. In winter 1778, when Voltaire was eighty-four, his play Irene (1776) was celebrated in Paris. He died soon afterwards, the most famous man of letters of the Age of Enlightenment.
Voltaire’s social and political thought is found throughout his satires, pamphlets, and voluminous correspondence, but it is his historical writings that contain some of his most important contributions to the social sciences. As an historian, Voltaire was forward looking, and he saw himself to be presenting history in a new way. Writing with a critical spirit similar to those of Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), Francois Fenelon (1651-1715), Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), and Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658-1722), Voltaire was less credulous than the humanist historians of the seventeenth century, and it is largely for that reason that he is considered by some to be the forerunner of modern historiography. He aimed to incorporate more sources and a greater variety of sources than did most of his contemporaries, even though some, such as Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), thought Voltaire did not go far enough in this regard. In his efforts to expand the subject matter of history in the direction of social and cultural history, Voltaire shared a common concern with other great Enlightenment historians, such as David Hume (17111776). In his “An Essay on Universal History” (1756), for example, Voltaire dispensed with Christian structure to tell the story of the rise and fall of civilizations, beginning with the ancient Chinese and also including America. In that grand narrative and in other historical works Voltaire showed little concern with military events and the rule of princes, but he found a primary role for economics. As J. H. Brumfitt summarizes in Voltaire: Historian, “more than his predecessors, and more than many of his contemporaries, who are often involved in abstract political theorizing, he succeeds in giving to economic developments a place in the narrative of history not too far removed from that which they occupy today”(1958, p. 70). Again in a notably modern way, Voltaire aimed to go beyond history as the recital of disparate and unconnected events. In the Siecle, for example, he attempted to integrate economics, politics, and the arts and sciences, and to present all of that in a unified whole. Part of Voltaire’s appeal as an historian, then and now, was his realist’s approach to change over time. As the historian Peter Gay put it in Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist, Voltaire was “a practical hard-headed political man” (1959, p. xi). Near the core of Voltaire’s historical thought, as with his philosophical writing, was an unrelenting attempt to appeal to reason at the expense of fable, myth, superstition, and religion. That tendency, more than anything else, explains why Voltaire was, as Theodore Besterman summed up in Voltaire, “the most famous, the best loved and the most fanatically hated man in Europe” (1969, p. 528).
-  1984. Philosophical Dictionary. Trans. and ed. Theodore Besterman. London: Penguin.
- 1949. The Portable Voltaire, ed. Ben Ray Redman. New York: Penguin.
- 1968–. Complete Works of Voltaire. Vol. 30 of a planned 85. Ed. Theodore Besterman et al. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.
- Aldridge, A. Owen. 1975. Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Besterman, Theodore. 1969. Voltaire. London and Harlow, U.K.: Longmans, Green.
- Brumfitt, J. H. 1958. Voltaire: Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Gay, Peter. 1959. Voltaire’s Politics: The Poet as Realist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Schlereth, Thomas J. 1977. The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694–1790. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Wade, Ira O. 1969. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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