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The Life and Work of Voltaire

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Voltaire was born on November 21, 1694, to Francois Arouet and Marie Marguerite d’ Aumart. Voltaire was the fifth child of his middle-class parents. His father was a lawyer and notary and later became treasurer to the Chambres des Comptes. Voltaire was a sickly child and not expected to live, his mother passed away when he was just seven years old. After she died Voltaire grew closer to his godfather, the Abbe de Chateauneuf. The Abbe was known for his skepticism and wit, and he introduced Voltaire to deism and also taught him to recite lines from the satirical poem Moisade. Francois Arouet, Voltaire’s father, decided that his son should study law, and in 1704, enrolled him in the Jesuit college of Louis-le-grande. Voltaire attended until he was seventeen years old and he prospered immensely, earning quite a few academic prizes.

The gifted Ninon de Leelos, one of his father’s clients was so impressed by Voltaire that he gave him 2000 francs for the specific purpose of buying books. At the college, Voltaire received a sound, liberal education, while also training his critical sense. He also received considerable theatrical training, because the Jesuits continued the Renaissance tradition of having played in Latin, and the vernacular performed by their charges. Voltaire had already shown his ability to write verse and was determined to become a great poet. But his father who didn’t think the writing was an efficient way of earning a good living, insisted that his son continue to study law.

Voltaire obeyed but not really. Voltaire was able to demonstrate his ability to make friends among the influential (plenty of enemies too which we’ll touch on later) and knew the right circle in pre-Revolutionary France was the aristocratic one. So he was elated when his godfather, the Abbe, introduced him into the daringly liberal society of the Temple. He was welcomed by freethinking aristocrats, such as the Duke De Sully, the Dulce de Vendome, the Prince de Canti, and other people of high ranks as well as by men of Letheri. Determined to distinguish himself among the Temple, he wrote satirical verse and since the surest way to fame was to become a tragic poet, he began planning tragedy in verse. At this point, his father became alarmed because he was neglecting his legal studies, but also because the society he now kept was notoriously libertine. So he forced him to leave Paris. This was only the first of the many exiles he would experience. He was sent to Holland as a page to the French Ambassador. However, there was an unfortunate love affair, which there would be numerous of, with a respectable young lady whose Protestantism was not acceptable to Voltaire’s father. He was back in Paris again in 1713.

By now Voltaire had acquired quite a reputation for his satirical verse and prose. But his gift was to get him in trouble from time to time throughout his life. When he was publicly accused of writing libelous poems, his father sent him away into the country, away from Paris. For almost a year he was the guest of Marquis de Saint Ange. He spent his time writing essays and working on his first tragedy, but definitely not studying law. Mention has been made of Voltaire’s ability to make friends, but he was something of a past master, at making enemies, mostly because of his sensitivity and the fact that he took almost malicious pleasure in using sardonic wit to attack those, he did not agree with. When he was allowed to return to Paris, he was introduced to the Court de Seaux, a famous literary and political salon, over which the attractive Duchess du Maine presided. It was the Duchess du Maine who got Voltaire to write lampoons against her enemy; The Regent, Orleans.

In 1716 he was exiled to Tulle and later to Sully for mocking the Duc d’Orleans. He was not back in Paris for a long time after. When two especially offensive libels appeared, Puerto Regnant and J’aivu, he was suspected of being the author and was arrested and sent to Bastille (a famous prison) on May 6, 1717. He was to remain there for eleven months and then be exiled to Chatenay and elsewhere. While occupying the room, that came to be known by his name in the famous prison, he revised his tragedy, which was called OEdipe, and began to work on his epic poem L’Henriade, which celebrated the deeds of Henry IV of France. These two earliest works reveal Voltaire as a man dedicated to freedom and justice, as he understood those concepts. A dominant theme in OEdipe is the tyranny of the priesthood, the poem is memorable for the plea of tolerance. It was actually on his release from prison that Voltaire adopted the name by which he is now known universally, Aurot de Voltaire.

The tragedy of OEdipe first acted in November 1718 and was an immediate success enjoying a run of 45 days. Now Voltaire was welcomed back to Paris as a gifted tragic poet. But his reputation for writing lampoons, and another satirical verse directed against public figures was too great for him to avoid new difficulties. He was falsely accused of being the author of the La Grange-Chancel libels, the Philippines, which were virulent satires directed against the Duc d’ Orleans. He was exiled again and this time he was the guest of the Duc de Villars, Marechal of France and famous war hero. While living with the Marechal, and having a harmless love affair with the duchess, he commenced gathering material for his historical works. By the end of 1725, Voltaire was flourishing while enjoying the patronage and friendship of the Duke of Richelieu. The arrogant Chevalier du Rohan, obviously jealous of Voltaire’s popularity, taunted him about his adopted name. There followed a harsh exchange between the two, and the Chevalier subsequently had his lackeys attack his foe.
When Voltaire challenged him to a duel, the Chevalier had him sent to Bastille for the second time, in 1726. Voltaire was imprisoned only for a fortnight, but when released he, once again, faced exile. Voltaire met Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke in the early 1720’s when the Englishman himself was in exile. The two bad became firm friends, and Voltaire, always a good letter writer, corresponded with him regularly. It was perhaps this relationship that led the Frenchman to spend most of the next three years in England. It is said that this period in Voltaire’s life was of the greatest importance to him. In Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition Saintsbury says, “Before the English visit, Voltaire had been an elegant trifler, an adept in the forms of literature popular in French society, a sort of superior Dorat or Boufflers of earlier growth. He returned from that visit one of the foremost literary men in Europe.”

The cultural and intellectual climate of England at this time (1726 to 1729) delighted the young Voltaire. He was welcomed in Tory and Whig circles alike. Among his friends and acquaintances were the leading literary figures of the day, among them Pope, Swift, Gay, Yahg, and Thomson. He especially revered Alexander Pope, with whom he had so much in common- the satiric gift, wit, great facility at versifying, the critical temperature and, yes, the vindictiveness, and the inability to suffer a fool gladly. In England, Voltaire learned to read and write the language fluently. He avidly read the works of Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, whose allegory of Death and Sin he found unacceptable, Newton, and Locke, whose views on tolerance were particularly acceptable to him. His newfound interest in Shakespeare was to lead him to begin writing his own Roman play, Brutus. Later he was to establish himself as a dedicated Newtonian and to write a treatise on Newton’s systems.

Voltaire also collected materials for his Lettres philosophiques sure Les Anglais, in which he interpreted most favorably English culture for his countrymen and contrasted it with that of France. It is clear that Voltaire had only admiration for England and Englishmen. In contrast to the France he had known, he found freedom and tolerance in his temporary home. This was the man who declared he might disapprove of what an individual said, but that he would defend to his own death the individual’s right to say it. During his exile in England, he brought out an English edition of L’Henriade dedicating it to the English Queen. It was a great success and he gained some 1000 pounds from subscriptions alone. Voltaire remained a Frenchman and Parisian. Though he enjoyed his sojourn in England, he yearned to return home. In the spring of 1729, he sealed permission to do so. In 1733 the publication of the English letters and the satirical poem, Temple du Gout, enraged many people of influence.

The letters while lauding the English, attacked the French government and church. The poem satirized contemporary writers, especially J.B. Rosseau, the man who had once predicted that Voltaire was to make a great name for himself. The government issued a warrant for Voltaire’s arrest and his house was searched. By that time, however, the author of the two offensive works was at Liray in Lorraine and spent the next 15 years with Emile du Chatelet, with whom he had been intimate during the last year, at her husband’s home in Grey-sur-Blaise. The relationship between her and Voltaire was to last some sixteen years and marks the next important stage in his long career. Mme. du Chatelet was twelve years younger than Voltaire and in many ways a remarkable woman. She was short of temper, often difficult, and persona non grata in fashionable society, she nevertheless had her attractions. A woman of keen intellect, she spent much of her time writing an exposition of the German’s conclusions. She also shared Voltaire’s enthusiasm for Newton, and while her companion worked on an exposition of the Newtonian system, she translated the Principia into French adding a commentary. These were very productive years for Voltaire. Among other works, he completed two poems- Le Mondain, a satire against the Jansenists, and the philosophical Discours Jur l’ home. He also labored on the Siecle de Louis XIV and his universal history, Essai sur moeurs. Once the Regent had died Paris again beckoned to him.

After 1743 he found himself in favor at court, thanks largely to Richelieu and Madame de Pompadour, who admired him. Poeme de Fontenay (1745) was a success, he was rewarded by being made the royal historiographer and received a substantial pension. Around this time he turned to another type of writing, the philosophical tales, among which Candide (1759) was to become best known. He continued to write plays and was now in competition with Crebellion, who he was to have a bitter quarrel with. In 1746 Voltaire was elected to the French Academy, he had attained maturity as a literary artist and philosophe. But Voltaire was a risk-taker and nothing could stop the audacities of his pen. In his bitingly satirical Trajan est-il content? there were obvious references to Louis XV. In 1748 he found it expedient to find refuge with the Duchess de Sceaux, and somewhat later joined Mme. de Chatelet at Luneville. In September 1749 Madame de Chatelet died while giving birth to a child, and the father was neither her husband or Voltaire. Now he had nowhere to go, and couldn’t return to Paris, especially because of the ongoing feud with Crebellion.

Fortunately Voltaire was a communicator, and Frederick the Great, whom Voltaire had once met and with whom he had been corresponding regularly for some time, had been urging him to come to Potsdam, where the Prussian king had established his academy and was anxious to add another star to his galaxies of philosophes, the intellectuals of Europe. So Voltaire took up his residence in Potsdam in 1750 as a member of Frederick the Great’s court. There the recipient of a generous pension, he completed his most ambitious historical work, the Siecle de Louis XIV (1751), he wrote a new philosophical tale, Micromegas (1752), which illustrates the influence of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels upon his own fiction and worked on his universal history. Unfortunately, the friendship of Frederick and Voltaire did not flourish, both could be difficult individuals in their respective ways.

Voltaire was offended by elements in the king’s’ personal life and found him to be particularly arrogant. What ultimately led to the break in their relationship was Voltaire’s attack on the president of Frederick’s cherished Academy of Science. Titled Diatribe du Doctor Akakia, it was published without permission and despite his assurance, all copies would be destroyed, Voltaire took malicious pleasure in seeing to it that the work circulated.

As a result, he suffered the indignity of being arrested at Frankton and had his baggage searched. He could no longer stay in Germany under the patronage of the man who he had once eulogized as a Horace, a Catalius, a Maecenas, a Socrates, an Augustus, and a Solomon of the North. Aware he would not be welcome back in Paris, because of his sojourn in Germany which was looked upon as an insult to his fellow countrymen. So Voltaire moved to Geneva, where the air of freedom was purer. Voltaire was now a very wealthy man. He had inherited sums of money from his father and brother, he’d been given pensions by the French and Prussian kings, and he had gained more money from his works, particularly plays. He purchased a Chateau near Geneva and called it Les Delices, his, “summer palace”. He bought another residence at Monrion, Lausanne, which he called his, “winter palace”. As busy as ever as a writer, he nevertheless found time to encourage the local manufacturers, particularly the watchmakers. It was in Lausanne where he wrote Candide (1759), as well as a tragedy and much verse. Polemical works also came from his pen, he continued the attack upon religion with a war cry, “Ecrasez I’ Infame”. Voltaire did find greater tolerance in Switzerland, his relations with the Calvinists were not harmonious.

Specifically, they were shocked to learn that he had built a private theater at Les Delices and frequently staged plays. So retaining possession of that Chateau and demense of Ferneg, in France quite close to the Swiss border. He moved there in 1760 and lived with his niece Mme. Denis. Here he flourished as a manorial lord, served by as many as sixty people. He was extremely hospitable and welcomed the many distinguished visitors from all parts of Europe who came to see and talk with the now widely famous man. He remained at Ferney for twenty years. Although he continued to write on literary subjects they received less attention. His works demonstrate his sustained interest in religious, political, social, and philosophical questions. But now he was not content merely to use belletristic literature as a medium. He was a very caring man and became the active champion of tolerance and justice, emerging as an eighteenth-century Zola. In his Traite sur la tolerance (1763) he wrote in defense of Jean Caluis, who had been tortured and executed as a result of the religious controversy. This was effective enough so that Caluis was recognized as the victim of judicial murder.

The death of the young Chevalier de la Barre for alleged sacrilege led Voltaire another powerful tract that was effective in clearing the Chevalier’s name. Another example is when he came to the rescue of one sirven, a French Protestant declared guilty of the murder of his Roman Catholic daughter and had been banished as a then penniless criminal. Voltaire succeeded in having the sentence reversed. He was hailed as the apostle of freedom as well as intellectual potentate of Europe. In the spring of 1778, his last play, the tragedy Irene, was accepted for performance in Paris, and the old man was determined to be present at the premiere. His return to the city from which he had been exiled time and time again created a sensation, and he was recognized as an icon of the Enlightenment’s progressive ideals and given a hero’s welcome upon his return. He was honored by the French Academy as its most distinguished member. But his rapidly failing health made it impossible for him to witness the great success of his tragedy on the opening night. He was able to attend the sixth performance and to receive the acclaim of an enthusiastic audience. Voltaire the longtime valetudinarian who was now 84 years old died on May 30, 1778. Typically, the man who erected a Catholic church on one of his estates (having the inscriptions “Deo erexit Voltaire” placed upon it), and who in his last years played chess regularly with a Jesuit, refused Extreme Unction and absolution.

There was difficulty relating to his burial and his body was hastily interred at the abbey of Scellieres in Champagne barely before the interdict of the bishop. But 13 years later the body was brought back to Paris for repose in the Pantheon, the famous church that is the French equivalent of Westminster Abbey. In 1952, researcher and writer Theodore Besterman established a museum devoted to Voltaire in Geneva. He later decided to write a biography of his favorite subject, and following his death in 1976, the Voltaire Foundation was vested permanently at the University of Oxford. The foundation continued to work toward making the Enlightenment writer’s prolific output available to the public. It was later announced that The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire, the first exhaustive annotated edition of Voltaire’s novels, plays, and letters, would expand to 220 volumes by 2020.
Aware that Candide would shock and offend many readers, Voltaire did not acknowledge authorship of the tale at first giving it the fictitious subtitle, “Translated from the German of Dr.Ralph, with the additions found in the doctor’s pocket when he died at Minden in the year of 1756. Most well-known poetry includes The Henriade (1723) and Maid of Orleans which he started writing in 1730 but never fully completed among earliest of best-known plays is his adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus – 1st performed in 1718Zaire (1732) written in verse was something of a departure from his other works until Zaire his dramatic tragedies had centered on fatal flaw in the protagonists in the Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of Nations (1756), he took a unique approach to trace the progression of world civilization by focusing on social history and the arts is popular philosophical works took the form of short stories 1764 he published Dictionnaire philosophique which was an encyclopedia dictionary that embraced the concepts of Enlightenment and rejected the release of Roman Catholic Church “Candide.”

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