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expense of the French Regent, he was exiled from Paris to Sully, but through flattery he soon managed to have his exile rescinded.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.