Biography of Voltaire


VOLTAIRE (FRANCOIS MARIE AROUET, his true name) - one of the most famous of French writers - was born, according to his own account as given in later life, on the 20th of February, 1694, at Chatenay, near Sceaux. The register of his baptism, however, assigns Paris as the place of his birth, and dates it November 21st of that year. His father was Francois Arouet, a notary of the Chatelet, ultimately Treasurer of the chamber of Accounts. He received his education at the college of Louis le Grand, in Paris, and on its completion, he was set to study law by his father. But he found this pursuit too disgusting, and speedily quitted it for the career of a man of letters. By his godfather, the Abbe de Chateauneuf, who was very intimate with her, he was introduced to the celebrated Ninon de l'Enclos, and through her, to the best French society of the period. In these wicked and witty circles, being himself deficient in neither wickedness nor wit, the young man prospered extremely. On suspicion of his being the author of some satirical verses, reflecting on the government of Louis XIV, then just dead, he was seized and sent to the Bastile (May 17th 1717), where he remained upwards of a year. This time of imprisonment he improved by sketching his famous poem, afterwards published as the Henriade, and by finishing his tragedy, Cedipe, which was produced on the 18th of November 1718, and had so great a success with the public. In the summer of 1725, he became involved in a quarrel with the Chevalier de Rohan, and sent him a challenge, and as a result was consigned once more to the Bastile. His imprisonment was not, on this occasion, a long one; but it was only under a sentence of exile that he was permitted to issue from durance; and on doing so, he betook himself to England. Some little time previous, the young Arouet had assumed the name of Voltaire, destined to become so famous.

Arriving in England in 1726, Voltaire remained there upwards of two years. Whilst resident there, he published in a revised form his epic poem, the Henriade, a surreptitious edition of which had already appeared in France. From the time of his return to Paris in 1728, he had always on hand some money speculation: investments in corn, bacon, or whatever a pretty penny could be turned by, with now and then a fat army-contract, which a friend might have interest to secure for him; and so shrewd in his finance was he, that, owing but little to his books, which, despite of their immense popularity, were never a source of great profit to him, his income at his death is ascertained to have netted some 7,000 per annum, a revenue then to be styled princely. Of his literary labors, from this time forward unremitting, the sum of which remains in something like ninety volumes, no detailed account can here be attempted. His was truly a universal genius; he wrote literally everything - histories, dramas, poems, disquisitions, literary, philosophical and scientific novels, for the most part with some doctrinal purpose, of which his famous Candide, or the Optimist, may stand as the type. His literary correspondence was on an unexampled scale, and he was seldom without some fierce polemic on hand, in which his adversaries had to writhe for the amusement of the public, under the scourge of his envenomed wit.

In 1750, Voltaire visited Berlin, on the invitation of the young King of Prussia, Frederick, since known as "the Great." For a time the sovereign and the poet were on the most friendly terms, but in 1753 they quarreled bitterly and parted.

After some years of a somewhat unsettled kind, Voltaire in 1758 established himself along with his neice, Madame Denis, at Ferney in Switzerland, where, with little exception, the last twenty years of his life were passed. With the doubtful exception of Rousseau, (Jean Jacques), who in his character of Vates and enthusiast, was perhaps even more deeply influential, Voltaire is by far the most memorable of the band of celebrated writers whose crusade against established opinions was preparing the outbreak of the French Revolution. As every one knows, it was mainly in the field of relgious polemic that his destructive energies were exerted. It is common to stigmatize him as an atheist, but this is simply to exhibit ignorance. Discarding revelation, he steadily upheld the truths of natural religion, and was, in fact, a Deist. His favorite weapon was ridicule, and there was never, perhaps, a greater master of it. In a particular form of polished mockery, Voltaire remains almost without a rival. His prose is the perfection of French style; it is admirable in grace, clearness, vivacity, and alive, like a sparkling wine, with the particular quality of esprit, peculiar to the people and the language. As a dramatist, Voltaire takes rank as a worthy third with his two great predecessors, Corneille and Racine. His most famous poems are the Henriade, before mentioned, the one epic of the language, and La Pucelle, which is, perhaps, more properly to be styled infamous, such is the profanity and indecency with which the writer has wilfully defaced the heroic story of the Maid of Orleans.