Voltaire Biography

François-Marie Arouet, later known by his pen name, Voltaire, was born in 1694 to a middle-class Parisian family. At that time, Louis XIV was king of France, and the vast majority of his subjects lived in crushing poverty. When François-Marie came of age, the French aristocracy ruled with an iron fist. At the same time, however, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment was spreading ideas about the equality and basic rights of man as well as the importance of reason and scientific objectivity.

François-Marie received a Jesuit education at the college of Louis-le-Grand. Even as a child, his witty intelligence struck and sometimes outraged his teachers, setting the stage for his controversial writing career. François-Marie briefly worked as a secretary for the French Ambassador to Holland, but abandoned the position to devote himself to writing. As a writer, François-Marie soon became legendary throughout France for his sharp epigrams. His quick wit brought him fame, and with fame came a good deal of trouble. As a result of expressing his bitter, satirical wit at the expense of the French Regent, he was exiled from Paris to Sully, but through flattery he soon managed to have his exile rescinded. Shortly after returning to Paris, however, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for satirizing the government. While in prison, François-Marie assumed the pen name “Voltaire.” Not long after his release in 1718, Voltaire’s first play, Oedipe, was produced in Paris. At this point Voltaire was only twenty-four years old.

Voltaire moved in the circles of the rich and powerful. With his pen he alternately flattered and lambasted those around him, and this talent for biting satire earned him another stint in the Bastille in 1726. He was soon released on the condition that he move to England. Voltaire’s exile in England was far from unpleasant, however, as a crowd of English literati received him with open arms. Within a matter of months, Voltaire became fluent in English, and English philosophy and society continued to fascinate him throughout his life. After three years he was allowed to return to France.

Voltaire’s words attacked the church and the state with equal fervor, and earned him widespread repute. During his lifetime, trenchant writings attacking church or government were often attributed to him whether he had written them or not. A lifelong champion of the poor and downtrodden, he wrote against tyranny and religious persecution with unmatched audacity. Despite his relentless criticism of powerful individuals and institutions, Voltaire became good friends with King Frederick of Prussia. They often quarreled, as Voltaire inevitably quarreled with anyone in power, but the ties of their friendship were lasting.

In the 1750s, Voltaire grew increasingly appalled by the specters of injustice and inexplicable disaster that he saw around him. Many terrible events influenced his composition of Candide: a disastrous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, about which he wrote a poem; the outbreak of the horrific Seven Years’ War in the German states in 1756; and the unjust execution of the English Admiral John Byng in 1757, against which Voltaire spoke out. In 1759, Voltaire purchased Ferney, an estate near the border between France and Switzerland, so that he might easily flee across the border to escape French authorities. Ferney quickly became a retreat for important European intellectuals.

Published in 1759, Candide is considered Voltaire’s signature work, and it is here that he levels his sharpest criticism against nobility, philosophy, the church, and cruelty. Though often considered a representative text of the Enlightenment, the novel actually savagely satires a number of Enlightenment philosophies and demonstrates that the Enlightenment was a far from monolithic movement.

In his later life Voltaire was involved in a wide variety of campaigns for social and political justice. When he returned to Paris at the age of eighty-three the populace hailed him with a hero’s welcome. The strain of the trip was more than his failing health could support, however, and he died in May of 1778. Voltaire was buried in consecrated ground at Romilly-on-Seine, but in 1791 the National Assembly ordered his body entombed alongside René Descartes and other great French thinkers at the Panthéon in Paris. In 1814, religious fundamentalists stole the remains of Voltaire, as well as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and dumped them in a pit full of quicklime, a “burial” reserved for individuals condemned and hated by the church. Voltaire would have appreciated the irony of this act, as he and Rousseau were bitter rivals during their lifetimes.

Voltaire Study Guides



Voltaire Quotes

Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them.

Man is free at the instant he wants to be.

The adjective is the enemy of the substantive.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

I do not have to agree with what you believe and what you say, but I will make sure that you are allowed to say what you want.

The superfluous, a very necessary thing.

It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong.

Voltaire Novels

Letters concerning the English nation

Published 1733

Le Mondain

Published 1736

Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme

Published 1738

Elements of the Philosophy of Newton

Published 1745


Published 1747


Published 1752


Published 1759

Traité sur la tolérance

Published 1763

Ce qui plaît aux dames

Published 1764

Dictionnaire philosophique

Published 1764

Questions sur les Miracles

Published 1765

Idées républicaines

Published 1765


Published 1767

La Princesse de Babylone

Published 1768

Des singularités de la nature

Published 1768

Voltaire Plays


Published 1718


Published 1724


Published 1732


Published 1732


Published 1741


Published 1743

La princesse de Navarre

Published 1745


Published 1749

L'Orphelin de la Chine

Published 1755


Published 1759

La Femme Qui a Raison

Published 1759


Published 1778

Voltaire Fiction

History of Charles XII, King of Sweden

Published 1731

The Age of Louis XIV

Published 1751

The Age of Louis XV

Published 1746

Annals of the Empire – Charlemagne, A.D. 742 – Henry VII 1313, Vol. I

Published 1754

Annals of the Empire – Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II

Published 1754

Essay on the Manners of Nations (or Universal History)

Published 1756

History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great

Published 1763