He was born Francois-Marie Arouet in Paris in 1694. His parents were well-to-do members of the upper middle classes. Young Arouet attended a fashionable Jesuit academy where he received a thorough grounding in the Latin and Greek classics. He completed a play, dipus, performed in 1718 with great success, and in the dedication the author first signed his name "Voltaire." In his early career it was primarily as a playwright that Voltaire made his reputation among his contemporaries.
At this time too the young writer was to suffer his first experience of the arbitrary whim of an autocratic government. For eleven months, from 1717 to 1718, he languished in the Bastille in consequence of satiric poetry directed against the Regent, the Duke of Orleans. On his release he plunged into literary activity and soon cut a brilliant figure in polite society. His career was interrupted in 1725 by an open quarrel with an arrogant aristocrat, who subsequently had Voltaire beaten. To forestall a duel, the authorities imprisoned Voltaire, and released him only when he offered to leave at once for England.
Voltaire's English exile lasted from 1726 to 1729. He made the most of his opportunity, learning English well, and meeting the leading literary figures of the day Swift, Pope, Congreve, Bolingbroke, and many others. He acquired an insight unusual for a foreigner into English traditions and institutions, and was astonished by the contrast they provided with the French. Implicitly, Voltaire's Philosophical Letters are a powerful indictment of the ancien régime; for in praising English law, English tolerance, English philosophy, science and art, he exposed the weaknesses of his own society in the light of a superior standard of value. No wonder that soon after its publication in 1734 the book was condemned by the French parliament and burned by the hangman in the public square. Yet the Philosophical Letters is not only a work of combat; Voltaire was genuine in his praise of Bacon, Newton and Locke, and the impact of British empiricism is writ large in his philosophical and scientific speculations of the ensuing years. Like most of the thinkers of his day, Voltaire was filled with admiration for Newton as that philosopher who reduced Nature to law by discovering the universally operative causes of natural phenomena. The method of experimental science, well established by the middle years of the eighteenth century, played an ever-increasing role in Voltaire's re-examination of the principles of social morality and his rejection of the most cherished prejudices of his time. It may well be that in his Philosophical Letters Voltaire exaggerated the superiority of the English to his countrymen, but his attitudes and underlying standards of judgment were in many instances to remain with him for the rest of his life: from the Philosophical Letters to the Philosophical Dictionary is but a short step.
In 1733 Voltaire met and fell in love with Madame du Châtelet, a spirited and intelligent woman twelve years his junior. They worked together at scientific and philosophical investigations, and it was to her chateau at Cirey, in Lorraine, that Voltaire fled in 1734 after the condemnation of the Philosophical Letters. It was here that he did much of the wide reading that was to serve him so well in later years. Drama, satiric poetry, popular science, metaphysics, history, all belong to the decade of the 1730's, spent largely at Cirey, and culminating in 1739 with the seizure of the first chapters of Voltaire's history, The Age of Louis XIV, upon their publication in Paris.
If Voltaire may be considered the father of modern history, it is because he was the first to conceive of history as the total interpretation of the customs and manners of past civilizations. His history was evaluative as well as descriptive; in his judgment of ancient times his highest praise was for China and India, and in the west, for Greece and Rome. In modern times he held that the apogee of civilization was reached in the age of Louis XIV. It is important to recognize that in taste and temperament, the balanced rationality and polish of French society in the later seventeenth century represented an ideal for Voltaire, a glorious epoch whose perfection was embodied in poetry in the plays of Racine, in literary criticism in the rules of Boileau, in manners in the court at Versailles, and in government in the benevolent autocracy of Louis XIV. Voltaire's history is in large part propaganda for a way of life, an attempt to educate his reader to the ways of the most refined and cultivated of modern civilizations, seen not in its political and military triumphs, but in the achievement of its arts and institutions. Voltaire's concern with institutional and historical forces is altogether unusual in the history of his day, but it is also noteworthy that he wrote history with a passion for accuracy, refusing to omit any labor that might help him to obtain and verify his facts. Particularly after 1745, when Voltaire became Royal Historiographer, he had access to innumerable private documents and state papers that made possible a degree of authenticity virtually unknown in histories of the past. Yet he selected with discrimination and arranged his material so as to compel the reader's attention by the liveliness of his narrative and the precision of his language. Voltaire is one of the masters of historical style, an artist and a social philosopher in the same instant that he is recorder and interpreter of facts and their consequences.
By 1745 Voltaire was a famous man in the eyes of his con- temporaries. The following year he was elected to the French Academy, and he did not scruple to insure his success by dedicating a play to the Pope. Duplicity with Voltaire was an important element of literary strategy. If at times he seems to contradict himself, to lie, conceal, or play a double game, it is because Voltaire the public man was often a very different writer from Voltaire the intimate correspondent. His newly won favor at court, under the sponsorship of Madame de Pompadour, was important; almost at once he received royal titles and commissions, and honors on all hands. In retrospect, we can see that the years of fame lay ahead of him. If Voltaire had died in his early fifties, it is not likely that we should consider him today as more than a minor literary figure of the early eighteenth century. Voltaire would no doubt be astounded to learn that it is primarily by his fiction that he survives in literature. The publication of his short stories and nouvelles, beginning with Zadig in 1747, belongs to the latter part of his career.
Zadig and Candide are by common consent the best of Voltaire's tales, yet it is sometimes forgotten that he wrote over twenty-five fictional compositions; many of these are waiting to be rediscovered. Voltaire's contes belong to a narrative form characteristic of the eighteenth century, the philosophical tale, best represented in English literature by Samuel Johnson's moral fable, Rasselas, or William Beckford's extravaganza, Vathek, first written in French and remarkably close in style to the manner of Voltaire. From Montesquieu and from imitators of the recently translated Arabian Nights, from Swift and other writers of voyages imaginaires, Voltaire learned the art of exposing and satirizing contemporary abuses through allegory, parody, or burlesque. A recurrent figure in the contes philosophiques is the wise, objective, and impartial commentator, usually an oriental sage, whose experiences and reflections serve to unmask the follies and vices of the times. Voltaire's tales are intensely topical, far more than most present-day readers can realize, for the mask and the disguise are implicit within the very structure of the story. Yet what in other writers was merely low gossip or pornography or flat travel narrative became in the hands of Voltaire an incisive weapon for the analysis of philosophical argument. Zadig (from the Arabic Saadiq, meaning "the truthful one") is essentially an examination of the impact of destiny on human affairs, of the conflict and confluence of fate and chance, the ordained and the fortuitous, the constrained and the free. The hero is a philosopher in quest of happiness, yet he is made to endure cruel persecutions at the hands of vicious men. Each chapter of Voltaire's tale provides yet one more example of human pettiness and meanness or stupidity. The climax of the narrative comes in the hermit's demonstration of human insufficiency: the inevitability of evil and suffering in a world of crime and misfortune. Yet Zadig does not end by submitting to the bleak fatalism the hermit would impose in accordance with the immutable decrees of Providence. Zadig's final and unanswered "But" carries with it a protest in the name of suffering humanity against the injustice of man's lot, and the eventual good fortune of Voltaire's hero is to some degree an optimistic qualification of the hermit's harsh assertion of the littleness of man amid the immensity of the universe.
Candide, Voltaire's masterpiece, appeared in 1759, twelve years after Zadig. It is unquestionably darker in implication, more ferocious in its satire and irony than the earlier work. Voltaire maintains the same variety of incident and rapidity of pace, but the setting is the Western world which we know, given extension by Voltaire's bold manipulation of the picaresque pattern. Candide himself is no rogue but a naive and good-hearted fellow, uneducated in the ways of the world. Those he meets are virtually without exception knaves or dupes: his education is our education; his achieved wisdom becomes that of the reader, to serve as a practical means of enduring a life that is at best painful and difficult. The shallow optimism Voltaire attributes to Leibnitz is an easy target and in the grotesque caricature of Doctor Pangloss, an amusing one as well; but it is with the man-made causes of human evil that is, that part of evil which man can ameliorate that Voltaire is primarily concerned. Lisbon may be reduced to dust by earthquake, but this is an event wholly beyond man's control and to be borne as best we can. Most human ills are derived from institutions and from the ways of man himself: hereditary privilege, war, the aristocracy, the church, the Jesuits, slavery, savage self-interest, all provide the most desperate evidence in support of Martin's view that God has abandoned this globe or globule to some evil creature. Candide ends without embracing this black pessimism, but he agrees completely with Martin's insistence on work without theorizing as the only way to make life endurable. To cultivate our garden, we must direct our attention to that which it is in our power to improve. Voltaire's conclusion should not be taken as a defense of quiescence or of indifference to the plight of humanity. All the world, he asserts, is our garden; let us work to make it better than it is.
As he approached the age of sixty, a fundamental change began to take place within Voltaire; more and more he felt impelled to enter into the battle between enlightenment and oppression that he saw waged daily around him. It was in 1752, during the unfortunate period of attachment to his friend and fellow-philosopher, Frederick the Great, that Voltaire conceived the plan of his Philosophical Dictionary. This project was to occupy him intermittently for the ensuing twenty years. Firmly established in an environment where he could work unhampered by persecution from church or state, first in 1755 at "Les Délices" near Geneva, and then, more securely, after 1759, at Ferney, in French territory but just outside the Swiss frontier, Voltaire set out more boldly than ever to crusade on behalf of humanity and justice. Such events of the 1760's as the torture of Calas, the condemnation of Sirven, and the execution of La Barre aroused in him an almost pathological indignation. In the last decades of his life Voltaire's irritability literally goaded him into action against the intolerance and persecuting spirit of his countrymen. He responded with a fanaticism of his own that drove him to inundate France and the rest of Europe with tracts, sermons, pamphlets, satires, diatribes and denunciations of every description. Much of this writing is propaganda of a local and immediate character, far more journalistic than literary. Yet even in calmer years, the journalist and the man of letters were never far apart in Voltaire's activity. His scientific and philosophical writings are essentially essays in popularization; and if he discovered few facts, he knew how to assimilate the discoveries of others and to make them accessible to the ordinary reader. He designed the Philosophical Dictionary as a little book, to be carried in the pocket as a work of ready reference, in sharp contrast with the massive effort of Diderot's Encyclopedia, an enterprise which Voltaire admired and supported, but which he felt was paid for at too great a price in the absorption of Diderot's energies. Yet he did not spare himself when he came to the same task of enlightening his countrymen, of proclaiming the necessity of freedom of thought and of expression at a time when intolerance and censorship seemed to be gaining renewed strength. It is to Voltaire's credit that no external pressure or private interest obliged him to take up the defense of Jean Calas. That so barbarous a deed as the torture of Calas on the wheel by the religious fanatics of Toulouse could occur in a supposedly civilized nation outraged and infuriated Voltaire and incited him to action. His Treatise on Tolerance, written in the heat of his attempts to rehabilitate Calas, served to alert all Europe to the dangers of bigotry and fanaticism. So long as these dangers persist, Voltaire's eloquent essay will command our attention. His "Prayer to God" transmutes his angry prose into impassioned poetry, for it offers not simply a denunciation of intolerance and religious hatred, but a positive assertion of human brotherhood and the essential dignity of all men.
In his hatred of cruelty and his essential love of mankind, Voltaire is in the forefront of a spiritual revolution that is yet far from won. Men still cry out for enlightenment, and the "infamous" are always with us. The Nazis melted down Voltaire's statue in Paris during the occupation. Others, more subtle in their efforts to enslave men's minds, are forever challenging the premises of individual liberty and human dignity which are our heritage as free men. Voltaire knew that the struggle against barbarism and inhumanity is the enduring price of civilization.