Francois-Marie Arouet was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children (three of whom survived) of Francois 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 College 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 critiques of the government and religious intolerance. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Regent, in which Voltaire accused the Regent of incest with his own daughter, led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation.
He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy that protects people's rights.
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 chateau 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 "a rouer" ("to be broken on the wheel" – a form of torture then still prevalent) and "roue" (a "debauche").
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 postscript explains: "J'ai ete si malheureux sous le nom d'Arouet que j'en ai pris un autre surtout pour n'etre plus confondu avec le poete Roi", (I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.) This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the 'oi' diphthong was then pronounced like modern 'ouai', so the similarity to 'Arouet' is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Indeed, Voltaire is known also to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime.
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, a decree signed by French King Louis XV, which was routinely used to dispose of troublemakers of many kinds (drunkards, violent people, unequal marriages, and so on). 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. Madame de Pompadour was a close confidante of Voltaire and his first friend at court. Speaking of her, he said that in the bottom of her heart she belonged to the philosophers, and did as much as she could to protect them. She had known him before she was the maitresse-en-titre, and charged him with the composition of a court-piece (1745) to celebrate the marriage of the dauphin.
From 1726 to 1728 Voltaire lodged at 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, now commemorated by a plaque. Voltaire's exile in Great Britain 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. Voltaire may have been present at the funeral of Isaac Newton. In 1727 he published An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France, Extracted from Curious Manuscripts, and Essay Upon Epic Poetry of the European Nations, from Homer Down to Milton, his only works written in English.
After almost three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris. At a dinner, French mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine proposed buying up the lottery that was organized by the French government to pay off its debts, and Voltaire joined the consortium, earning perhaps a million livres. He invested the money cleverly and on this basis managed to convince the court that he was of good conduct and so was able to receive an inheritance from his father that had earlier been refused. He was now indisputably rich.
In 1733 Voltaire met Emilie du Chatelet, who was 12 years his junior and with whom he was to have an affair for 16 years, as described in the work Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford. At this time he 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 the publisher released the book without the approval of the royal censor and 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 a huge scandal; the book was burnt. After the book was banned, Voltaire was forced again to flee.
Voltaire's next destination was the Chateau 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 Chatelet, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (famous in her own right as Emilie du Chatelet). 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 Merope (or La Merope francaise) 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 poesie epique", 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 it remained the definitive French translation well into the 20th century. Voltaire's book Elements 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. The Marquise also wrote a celebratory review in the Journal des Savants. 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.
In the fall of 1735, Voltaire was visited by Francesco Algarotti, preparing a book about Newton. In 1736 Frederick the Great started to write letters to Voltaire. Two years later Voltaire lived in Holland and became acquainted with Herman Boerhaave and 's Gravesande. In first half of 1740 Voltaire lived in Brussels and met with Lord Chesterfield. He went to see a dubious publisher Jan van Duuren in the Hague, because of the Anti-Machiavel, written by the crown prince, and ordered it back. Voltaire lived in Huis Honselaarsdijk belonging to his admirer, Frederick. In September they met for the first time in Moyland Castle near Cleve; in November Voltaire went to Rheinsberg Castle for two weeks; in August 1742 Voltaire and Frederick met in Aix-la-Chapelle. Voltaire was sent to Sanssouci by the French government, as an ambassador/spy and find out more about Frederick plan's after the First Silesian War.
Though deeply committed to the Marquise, Voltaire by 1744 found life at the chateau 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 1957). 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.
After the death of the Marquise in childbirth in September 1749, Voltaire briefly returned to Paris and in 1750 moved to Potsdam to meet Frederick the Great for the fifth time. The king now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first—in 1752 he wrote Micromegas, 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, Johann Samuel Konig. 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.
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 Delices) in 1755. 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.
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. "Benjamin Franklin … urged Voltaire to become a freemason; and Voltaire agreed, perhaps only to please Franklin."
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. However, this is also disputed as originating from a joke first published in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1856, as only later being attributed to Voltaire by Robert E. Lucas in 1955 upon giving his banquet speech for receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics.
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 Scellieres 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 Pantheon. 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 Andre Gretry 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).
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 his 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 Middle Eastern 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 Encyclopedie: "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 at the same time 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, 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.
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 Micromegas and the vignette Plato's Dream (1756).
In general, his criticism and miscellaneous writing show a similar style to Voltaire's 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 Moliere) independently and sometimes as part of his Siecles.
Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infame" and the expression "ecrasez l'infame", 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 Jean Calas and Francois-Jean de 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 Helvetius 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 Riche, 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'infame" was the Traite sur la tolerance (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 behavior 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, totalling 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."
Like other key Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire was 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." Voltaire held mixed views of the Abrahamic religions but had a favourable view of Hinduism.
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?"
In one of his many denunciations of priests of every religious sect, Voltaire describes them as those who "rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God."
In a letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767, he wrote about Christianity:
La notre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecte le monde.
"[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. … My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.."
In La bible enfin expliquee, he expressed the following attitude to lay reading of the Bible:
It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise.
Voltaire's opinion of the Christian 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. His statements on religion also brought down on him the fury of the Jesuits and in particular Claude-Adrien Nonnotte. This did not hinder his religious practice, though it did win for him a bad reputation in certain religious circles. The deeply Christian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket ...". Voltaire was later deemed to influence Edward Gibbon in claiming that Christianity was a contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire, in his book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
As Christianity advances, disasters befall the [Roman] empire —arts, science, literature, decay —barbarism and all its revolting concomitants are made to seem the consequences of its decisive triumph —and the unwary reader is conducted, with matchless dexterity, to the desired conclusion —the abominable Manicheism of Candide, and, in fact, of all the productions of Voltaire's historic school —viz., "that instead of being a merciful, ameliorating, and benignant visitation, the religion of Christians would rather seem to be a scourge sent on man by the author of all evil."
However, Voltaire also acknowledged the self-sacrifice of Christians. He wrote: "Perhaps there is nothing greater on earth than the sacrifice of youth and beauty, often of high birth, made by the gentle sex in order to work in hospitals for the relief of human misery, the sight of which is so revolting to our delicacy. Peoples separated from the Roman religion have imitated but imperfectly so generous a charity." Yet "His hatred of religion increased with the passage of years. The attack, launched at first against clericalism and theocracy, ended in a furious assault upon Holy Scripture, the dogmas of the Church, and even upon the person of Jesus Christ Himself, who was depicted now as a degenerate". The reasoning of which may be summed up in his well known quote, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".
According to the rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the most significant of Enlightenment hostility against Judaism was found in Voltaire; thirty of the 118 articles in his Dictionnaire philosophique dealt with Jews and described them in consistently negative ways.
On the other hand, Peter Gay, a contemporary authority on the Enlightenment, also points to Voltaire's remarks (for instance, that the Jews were more tolerant than the Christians) in the Traite sur la tolerance 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. 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 to 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".
Some authors link Voltaire's anti-Judaism to his polygenism. According to Joxe Azurmendi this anti-Judaism has a relative importance in Voltaire's philosophy of history. However, Voltaire's anti-Judaism influences later authors like Ernest Renan.Will Durant's clarification
According to the historian Will Durant, Voltaire had initially condemned the persecution of Jews on several occasions including in his work Henriade. As stated by Durant, Voltaire had praised the simplicity, sobriety, regularity, and industry of Jews.However, subsequently, Voltaire had become strongly anti-Semitic after some regrettable personal financial transactions and quarrels with Jewish financiers. In his Essai sur les moeurs Voltaire had denounced the ancient Hebrews using strong language; a Catholic priest had protested against this censure. The anti-Semitic passages in Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique were criticized by Issac Pinto in 1762. Subsequently, Voltaire agreed with the criticism of his anti-Semitic views and stated that he had been "wrong to attribute to a whole nation the vices of some individuals"; he also promised to revise the objectionable passages for forthcoming editions of the Dictionnaire philosophique, but later forgot to do so.
According to Ahmad Gunny, Voltaire's views about Islam remained negative, and he considered Quran to be ignoring the laws of physics. Thus, there are a number of representations of Mohammed by Voltaire, separated, generally, into two categories: a religious one, according to which Mohammed is a prophet like the others, who exploits people's naivety and spreads superstition and fanaticism; and a political one, according to which Mohammed was a legislator who brought his contemporaries out of idolatry. According to Diego Venturino, the figure of Mohammed is uncertain or negative in Voltaire's view, as Voltaire applauds the legislator but hates the conqueror and the pontiff, who established his religion through violence.
According to Malise Ruthven, Voltaire developed a more favorable opinion of Islam with greater knowledge of the religion. Ruthven notes that after his harrowing adventures in Europe and Latin America, Candide finds tranquility in Muslim Turkey to "cultivate his garden"
Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations (French: Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations) is a work of Voltaire, published for the first time in its entirety in 1756. In this work, Voltaire deals with the history of Europe before Charlemagne to the dawn of the age of Louis XIV, also evoking that of the colonies and the East. As a historian he devoted several chapters to Islam, Voltaire highlighted the Arabian, Turkish courts, and conducts. Here he called Mohammed a "poet", and furthermore he was not an illiterate. as a "legislator" who "changed the face of part of Europe, one half of Asia", In the chapter VI, Voltaire finds similarities Arabs and ancient Hebrews, that they both kept running to battle in the name of god, and sharing the passion for booty and spoils. He thus compares "the genius of the Arab people" with "the genius of the ancient Romans".
The tragedy Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet (French: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete) was written in 1736 by Voltaire. The play is a study of religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation. In the play, the character Mahomet orders the murder of his critics.
When Voltaire wrote in 1742 to Cesar de Missy, he described Mohammed as a "deceitful character." On January 20, 1742, Voltaire wrote to Frederick the Great stating that he had decided to write a play on Mohammed so as to combat religious fraud. He wrote that Mohammed was "whatever trickery can invent that is most atrocious and whatever fanaticism can accomplish that is most horrifying. Mahomet here is nothing other than Tartuffe with armies at his command."
In 1751, Voltaire performed his play Mohamet once again, with great success.Satire
According to Will Durant, when Mahomet was performed for the first time in August, 1742, a section of the Christian clergy had complained that it was "a bloody satire against the Christian religion." Others who agreed with this assessment were Desfontaines and Freron. After the fourth performance of the play, it was withdrawn by Voltaire after Cardinal Fleury advised him to do so. According to some commentators, when Mahomet's fanatical disciple Seide hesitates to carry out Mahomet's instruction to kill sheik Zopir, the wording in Mahomet's rebuke was reminiscent of language used by the Christian priesthood. In Durant's assessment, the play was an attack on any religion's endorsement of violence, and to illustrate the point Durant refers to a letter written by Voltaire to Frederick the Great in which Voltaire mentions the assassinations of William of Orange, and Henry III and Henry IV of France as examples of crimes originating from piety. Commenting on Voltaire's Mahomet, Malise Ruthven has observed:
Discerning critics saw it as a coded attack on the Catholic Church, cleverly disguised as a polemic against its principle religious enemy.
In a letter to Frederick the Great, Voltaire clarified that the historical Mohammad was not guilty of the treachery that formed the basis of his play Mahomet.
Despite the criticism of Abrahamic religions, Voltaire had a positive view of Hinduism; the sacred text Vedas was remarked on by him as follows:
The Veda was the most precious gift for which the West had ever been indebted to the East.
He regarded Hindus as "[a] peaceful and innocent people, equally incapable of hurting others or of defending themselves". Voltaire was himself a supporter of animal rights and was a vegetarian. He used the ancient times of Hinduism to land a devastating blow to the Bible's claims and acknowledged that the Hindus' treatment of animals shown a shaming alternative to the immorality of European imperialists.
Voltaire was highly critical of religious superstitions, and deployed the Hindu practice of Sati in his novel Zadig to condemn self-immolation when it is done "to gratify vanity and in deference to religious prejudice". Voltaire, however, held that suicide can be just and reasonable when an individual suffered from incurable disease or expects to experience great pain.
Voltaire rejected the biblical Adam and Eve story and was a polygenist who speculated that each race had entirely separate origins. According to William Cohen, like most other polygenists, Voltaire believed that because of their different origins blacks did not entirely share the natural humanity of whites. According to David Allen Harvey, Voltaire was often invoking racial differences as a means to attack religious orthodoxy, and the Biblical account of creation.
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" after coming across a slave in French Guinea who has been mutilated for escaping, who opines that, if all human beings have common origins as the Bible taught, it makes them cousins, concluding that "no one could treat their relatives more horribly". Elsewhere, he wrote caustically about "whites and Christians [who] proceed to purchase negroes cheaply, in order to sell them dear in America". Voltaire has been accused of supporting the slave trade as per a letter attributed to him. In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire endorses Montesquieu's criticism of the slave trade:
Montesquieu was almost always in error with the learned, because he was not learned, but he was almost always right against the fanatics and the promoters of slavery.
According to Victor Hugo: "To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century." Goethe regarded Voltaire to be the greatest literary figure in modern times, and possibly of all times. According to Diderot, Voltaire's influence on posterity would continue far into the future.
Napoleon commented that till he was sixteen he "would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire, today it is the opposite...The more I read Voltaire the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic." Frederick the Great commented on his good fortune for having lived in the age of Voltaire. Catherine the Great had been reading Voltaire for sixteen years prior to becoming Empress of Russia in 1762. In October 1763, she began a correspondence with him which continued till his death.The content of these letters has been described as being akin to a student writing to a teacher. Upon Voltaire's death, the Empress purchased his library which was then transported and placed in The Hermitage.
In England, Voltaire's influence affected Godwin, Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Byron, and Shelly. Macaulay made note of the fear that Voltaire's very name incited in tyrants and fanatics.
In his native Paris, Voltaire was viewed as the defender of Jean Calas and Pierre Sirven. Although he failed in securing the annulment of the execution of La Barre for "blasphemies" against Christianity despite a protracted campaign, the criminal code that sanctioned the execution was revised during Voltaire's lifetime. In 1764, Voltaire successfully intervened and secured the release of Claude Chamont for the crime of attending Protestant services. When Comte de Lally was executed for treason in 1766, Voltaire wrote a 300-page document absolving de Lally. Subsequently, in 1778, the judgement against de Lally was expunged just before Voltaire's death. The Genevan Protestant minister Pomaret once said to Voltaire: "You seem to attack Christianity, and yet you do the work of a Christian." And Frederick the Great would note the significance of a philosopher capable of getting judges to change their unjust decisions through his influence commenting that this alone is sufficient to ensure the prominence of Voltaire as a humanitarian.
Most of the architects of modern America were adherents of Voltaire's views. According to Will Durant:
Voltaire's junior contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau commented on how Voltaire's book Letters on the English played a great role in his intellectual development. Having written some literary works and also some music, in December 1745 Rousseau wrote a letter introducing himself to Voltaire, who was by then the most prominent literary figure in France, to which Voltaire replied with a polite response. Subsequently, when Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his book Discourse on Inequality, Voltaire replied, noting his disagreement with the views expressed in the book:
No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on four paws [marcher a quatre pattes]. However, as it is more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it.
Subsequently, commenting on Rousseau's romantic novel Julie, or the New Heloise, Voltaire stated:
No more about Jean-Jacques' romance if you please. I have read it, to my sorrow,and it would be to his if I had time to say what i think of this silly book.
Voltaire speculated that the first half of Julie had been written in a whorehouse and the second half in a lunatic asylum. In his Lettres sur La Nouvelle Heloise, written under a pseudonym, Voltaire offered criticism highlighting grammatical mistakes in the book.
Paris recognized Voltaire's hand and judged the patriarch to be bitten by jealousy.
In reviewing Rousseau's book Emile after its publication, Voltaire dismissed it as "a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes, with forty pages against Christianity, among the boldest ever known."However, he expressed admiration for the section in this book titled Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar calling it "fifty good pages...it is regrettable that they should have been written by...such a knave." He went on to predict that Emile would be forgotten after a month.
In 1764, Rousseau published Lettres de la montagne, containing nine letters on religion and politics. In the fifth letter he wondered why Voltaire had not been able to imbue the Genevan councilors, who frequently met him, "with that spirit of tolerance which he preaches without cease, and of which he sometimes has need". The letter continued with an imaginary speech delivered by Voltaire, imitating his literary style, in which he accepts authorship for the book Sermon of the Fifty—a book whose authorship Voltaire had repeatedly denied because it contained many heresies.
In 1772, when a priest sent Rousseau a pamphlet denouncing Voltaire, Rousseau responded with a defense of Voltaire:
He has said and done so many good things that we should draw the curtain over his irregularities.
In 1778, when Voltaire was given unprecedented honors at the Theatre-Francais, an acquaintance of Rousseau ridiculed the event.This was met by a sharp retort from Rousseau:
How dare you mock the honors rendered to Voltaire in the temple of which he is the god, and by the priests who for fifty years have been living off his masterpieces?
On July 2, 1778, Rousseau died one month after Voltaire's death. In October 1794, Rousseau's remains were moved to the Pantheon, where they were placed near the remains of Voltaire. In May 1814, during the Bourbon Restoration, the remains of Rousseau and Voltaire were secretly retrieved from the Pantheon by some religious fanatics, and buried in a dumping ground near Paris; the remains are now untraceable.
Louis XVI, while incarcerated in the Temple, had remarked that Rousseau and Voltaire had "destroyed France", by which he meant his dynasty.
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.
He is remembered and honoured in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights (as the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion) and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Regime. The Ancien Regime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the three Estates: clergy and nobles on one side, the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes, on the other. He particularly had admiration for the ethics and government as exemplified by Confucius.
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 on The Three Impostors. But far from being the cynical remark it is often taken for, it was meant as a retort to atheistic opponents such as d'Holbach, Grimm, and others. He has had his detractors among his later colleagues. The Scottish Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle argued that "Voltaire read history, not with the eye of devout seer or even critic, but through a pair of mere anti-catholic spectacles."
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 chateau is a museum. Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the National Library of Russia at Saint Petersburg, Russia. In the Zurich of 1916, the theatre and performance group who would become the early avant-garde movement Dada named their theater The Cabaret Voltaire. A late-20th-century industrial music group then named themselves after the theater. Astronomers have bestowed his name to the Voltaire crater on Deimos and the asteroid 5676 Voltaire.
Besides, Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was reported to have drunk it 50–72 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 catholic philosopher and Jesuit priest. His book Candide was listed as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, by Martin Seymour-Smith.
In January 2015, it was reported that a 250-year-old book of Voltaire on religious tolerance,Treatise on Tolerance, had become a bestseller in France after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.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) French Wikisource has original text related to this article: Elements de la philosophie de Newton (1745)Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738)Zadig (1747)Micromegas (1752)Candide (1759)Traite sur la tolerance (1763)Ce qui plait aux dames (1764)Dictionnaire philosophique (1764)L'Ingenu (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)Eryphile (1732)Zaire (1732)Mahomet (1741)Merope (1743)La princesse de Navarre (1745)Nanine (1749)L'Orphelin de la Chine (1755)Socrate (published 1759)La Femme Qui a Raison (1759)Irene (1778)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)